Science Fiction

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Read: Lord of Light

Speaks the king to the priest: “You keep them ignorant, I keep them poor.”

Take some technologically advanced settlers; give them a means to reincarnate, i. e. transfer their mind, memories and skills to a fresh body once their old one becomes too frail, thus give them relative immortality; make them the rulers of their world. What will they do?

Roger Zelazny explores one possibility. In the Lord of Light the original colonists establish themselves as the gods of a Hindu society. By improving upon their own abilities in a hostile environment and obtaining a fresh body every once in a while they become the gods of their own descendants. Their descendants, however, do not share the god’s technological sophistication. There is neither a printing press nor indoor plumbing. In brief, they are kept ignorant. Hence, the more absolute is the power of the gods, the more complete is their domination of their world and people.

If it were not for the protagonist, Sam, a renegade First who wishes to bring a time of enlightenment, to accelerate development and free man from the shackles of their gods Light of Light would be a rather dystopian novel. Though he, too, tricks his fellow man. By introducing Buddhism as a rival religion to weaken the power of the false gods he employs the same shoddy tactics. Keep man ignorant about their fate.

I cannot help but wonder: Is this the true purpose of religion?

Read: Replay

Even though science fiction is one of my favorite genres I seem to have read rather few SF novels recently. High time for another classic.

Grimwood’s Replay is such a classic.

Some science fiction novels or series just do not let their protagonists die, the protagonists enjoy or suffer from relative immortality and the story spans several thousand years telling the tale of changing society and technology. Other achieve basically the same by reincarnations or regeneration. Time goes on and on. The characters stay the same.

Grimwood does the opposite. Time repeats itself, again and again. It’s the protagonist that changes with each replay of his own life. Always dying at the same time, the same day in 1988, and then regaining consciousnesses in his own younger body to live his life again with the full knowledge of all his earlier experiences. Doing things differently, taking other paths than before he first seeks riches, then meaning, then happiness.

Grimwood achieves the perfect balance between detail and advancing the story. There is no razzle-dazzle, everything seems rather credible. Replay is thus an almost modest account of this afflicted man’s journey through life.

By withholding an explanation for the repeated replays Grimwood leaves the reader with one question: Why? Not getting an answer to this question may be disappointing for some. I think, however, it is a good choice.

Read: Gates of Creation

Farmer’s second World of Tiers novel, The gates of Creation, is a bit of a disappointment. Its brevity and, admittedly, its innovative ideas for a number of artificial universes / planets that do not adhere to the common understanding of what planets are or should be speak in its favor. The novel’s characters are, however, underdeveloped, without personality and easily exchangeable. Without the first World of Tiers novel this novel’s protagonist would remain a total enigma.

This is quite a pity. There are a some good ideas that could be hammered out in more detail. However, whenever there is an opportunity for adventure and character development Farmer skips ahead advancing the rather weak plot. The few twist and turns do not help to make this whole sad and sorry little book more interesting. Instead, they feel like a last effort in showing some story telling skills. Famer’s Riverworld series is definitely his better work.

Read: The Maker of Universes

After the imaginative Riverworld series it was only a matter of time for me picking up another Farmer novel. The World of Tiers series seems to be rather closely related as, again, there is an artificial world, some alien überlords playing gods and a bunch of underlings gifted (?) with relative immortality. They can get killed, though they will not die of old age or illness.

Considering when Maker of Universes was written, Farmer sure shows some imagination and original ideas – at least others who came later (like Stargate) seem to have borrowed from him. Compared to more modern works Maker of Universes is short. Too short actually, part of the story advances so fast that you wonder what happened in between, when the protagonist learned something that he should not yet know, that the reader did not know so far. Despite this discrepancy between length of the novel and progress of the story this first novel in the World of tiers series will certainly not be the last one that I read.

Read: Anathem

Here is another instance of my last December’s book buying spree: Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. I loved this guy’s Cryptonomicon.

While being compelling Stephenson’s books also have a big downside, they are huge tomes. It takes ages to finish one – or rather you are so captivated that everything else is afflicted. I do not think that I will start his Baroque Cycle any time soon for that reason.

Yet, Anathem made it on my reading list. In contrast to Cryptonomicon it’s more obviously science fiction even though both novels won the Locus Award for the best science fiction novel. Anathem’s story does not even take place on Earth. Also in contrast to some of his other works it does not relate to (the advancement of and effects of) technology, its focus is much more philosophical. Thus, as a side effect you’ll learn something about Philosophy.

I’d like to point to a similarity and contrast to a completely unrelated work. As Tolkien did, so does Stephenson. Both invented a new language that is spoken in their fictional worlds. Both authors like to sidetrack from the actual plot and include lengthy elaborations. Granted, Stephenson did not go to the same length as Tolkien when inventing a new language, his diversions are, however, certainly not shorter. Yet, they do not feel like diversions at all. They are integral for the story. And this is something that many (me not included, though) do not seem to feel about Tolkien’s detailed elaborations on Middle-earth’s landscape. I think this clearly speaks in favor of Stephenson.

Read: Gods of Riverworld

This is it: The final Riverworld novel. Though the novel ends with the proclamation of a new adventure, providing every possibility for a sequel, there will not be any Riverworld sequels by Philip José Farmer. He died earlier this year.

Yet, already Gods of Riverworld is not really a Riverworld novel any more. The story does not take place on the River. The whole plot proceeds within the Tower at the headwaters. Here, the new occupants have almost god-like powers provided by the vastly advanced technology. And they us their powers to build their own private little worlds and raise their favorite companions from the temporarily without-a-living-body.

This gives ample room for a deeper look into the psyche of Farmer’s protagonists instead of the cursorily glance at their characters he provided in the immediate prequel. There is plenty of action and a few surprises.

At the end, Farmer even frees himself from the esoteric / mystic / religious connotations of his earlier Riverworld novels. Or does he? Nevertheless, this results in an interesting development of the whole series on several levels: The technological (from stone age, steam punk like technology to advanced futuristic technology including FTL), the societal and religious, and, of course, his literary characters. I liked the creative use of historical figures. At least I liked it most of the time… Let’s see how much I will like Farmer’s other series, The World of Tiers.

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