kw: book reviews, omnibus review, science fiction, fantasy
I was away four days, and spent seven hours each way on airplanes, plus at least two hours each way in airports. Little to do but read. Not only did I finish the Joe Haldeman book I'd begun when I reviewed the first half of Hoffmann's Katen Murr, but two other books:
A Separate War and Other Stories by Joe Haldeman
the chains that you refuse by Elizabeth Bear
Glasshouse by Charles Stross
To demur a little; I didn't quite read every word of all three. Each writer put way too much explicit sex into at least some of the stories or scenes, so I did some skipping. Although the fact of sex between various characters may advance a story, the sweaty, detailed, stroke-by-gasp narrative only detracts. Writers, take note: if you leave nothing to the imagination, imaginative readers will read someone else's work.
Joe Haldeman's title story gives us the denouement of The Forever War from Marygay Potter's perspective. In the classic novel, William Mandella and Marygay are lovers, as committed as any married couple. Early on, morale in troop starships is "balanced" by a sleeping rotation that puts every man and woman together over time. What a particular pair will do with/to one another overnight is up to them, but it is meant to keep couple attachment from leading to morale problems. Sort of enforced "open marriage" for those who aren't relentlessly unattached.
Thirty years ago, when it first appeared, Forever War thus explored the limits of separating love from sex that was being heralded as the natural result of widespread use of "the pill" that began a decade or so earlier.
After William and Marygay have gone through several interstellar trips, though still in their twenties, they have arrived at a time several centuries later than they began. The human race has changed, heterosexuality is either illegal or considered a barely legal perversion, depending where you are. The couple must separate, but finally, when the war ends, they find a creative way to re-unite. By this time, heterosexuality is at least tolerated. Marygay's story, written in 1998, fills gaps that Haldeman probably didn't realize he'd left open in 1974.
In the context of an interstellar war story, Haldeman has pushed the limits of what it means to be human, to be a sexual person, to love someone, and to live in a society.
The rest of the stories reveal that war, sex, and society only scratch the surface of his curiosity and creativity. To mention just a few: "Foreclosure" is a completely new take on the 'aliens who initially terraformed Earth now want it back' theme; "For White Hill", Haldeman's favorite, stretches one's heart strings beyond endurance, with a story of beauty, love, and sacrifice in a post-Earth, perhaps post-humanity universe; and "Memento Mori" explores some implications of a somatic/psychological/spiritual process that may be required to restore the aged and just-dead to youth and health.
I find Elizabeth Bear wholly enigmatic. I suspect that's exactly what she wants. Though her writing can be as relentlessly sexual as Haldeman's or Stross's, this is much less the point for her. Apparently not satisfied with the current breadth of the genres of fantasy, she has invented a few new ones. A few of the stories might give a taste.
"The Devil You Don't" mixes the old folk tale—told in many versions of songs titled "Stagolee" or "Stagger Lee"—of the murder of Bill Lyons, with the classic Liberty Valance revenge tale, but here Stagolee has become an unkillable bearer of vengeance against a man who killed his wife but framed Stagolee. The short poem "ee 'doc' cummings" renders an E.E. "Doc" Smith battle scene in ee cummings style. "One-eyed Jack and the Suicide King" engulfs the reader in an archetypical battle between the spirits that rule L.A. and those over Las Vegas, focused on Hoover Dam. And in "Stella Nova", Tycho Brahe's dying days are the backdrop for the torch's passing from him to Kepler, and thus from Aristotle to Copernicus. It contains a most cogent statement of the place of God in a scientific worldview, where the author has Tycho say (I haven't been able to determine if these are Tycho's own words):
God in His grace ensures serendipity. He gives us what we need to discover what we must. Do you understand? God shows us what He wants us to learn. Vocatus atque non vocatus, deus aderit. [called or uncalled, God is present.]
I have often said, upon hearing some Luddite comment or other, "Just why do you think God had no hand in that? To Whom did the discoverer of Penicillin [or whatever] give credit?"
Charles Stross, formerly in Accelerando, and now in Glasshouse, plays on the meaning of identity and the problems of authentication that underlay the first great science fiction series, Doc Smith's "Lensman" novels. Smith's Aphorism, "What science can create, science can duplicate", repeatedly reminded the reader that being able to prove who you are can become an arms race.
The story hinges on the technology of T-gates and A-gates; T for transfer, A for assembler. The one moves anything from one point to another to which it is linked, through some kind of wormhole. The other can disassemble and assemble objects including living persons, and can be programmed to edit their body plan (including changing the DNA to maintain the new shape) and memories. Producing a living human from scratch (and presumably 50-100 kg of raw material) takes about a quarter hour.
I'll avoid rehashing the story, and muse instead on some implications of an Assembler. Its reading function requires extracting information on the location of ~1024 subatomic particles per gram of matter, with an accuracy in the picometer range. Just to determine whether there is a proton or neutron within a particular picometer-cubed volume of space requires expenditure of about 4Mev of energy. One must also determine the velocity of the particle, for a similar expenditure of energy. Per gram, it comes to about 1014 Joules (25+ million kwh), sufficient to raise the temperature of that gram of matter to several trillion degrees. Thus, "reading" an object rather forcibly disassembles it!
It's the assembly that presents the conundrum: it takes at least that much energy to push a particular particle into place, so you are left with the problem of quickly cooling a newly-assembled human body (or hammer, or ray gun) from trillions of degrees to "room temperature"...quickly, like a trillion-trillionth of a second, before everything flash-evaporates into a plasma much hotter than an H-bomb.
Then there's the editing conundrum. I suppose somatic editing isn't so extreme by comparison, but editing memories? One must find them first! It is well known by now that every brain has a unique code. Of course, the brain cells that participate in recognizing "come here" in the brain of a human or a dog may be similarly located, but the detailed pattern in my temporal lobe for "come here" just might mean "violet perfume" to you, or more likely, be among the trillions of trillions of trillions of patterns your brain hasn't assigned yet. This is why there is no telepathy. Oh, well, one must suspend disbelief to enjoy any SF story, and this one is more plausible than many!