Thursday, March 7, 2013

Book Reviews: Two X Sci-fi

As much as Science Fiction told of mankind leaving Earth and exploring the universe, most authors spend as much time exploring the inner workings of the soul and consciousness.  The "science" in Sci-fi can relate as much to Psychology as to Physics and Astronomy.  To look at the unknown, the impossible as possible, takes not only a solid science education, but the mind and heart of a poet, the creativeness of the muses along with the empirical senses of the scientist.

For the many readers I have encountered that say, "I don't read science fiction, I can't stand all that "alien" stuff," I would rebuke them, saying that the unknown has always been a part of human literature, from Grendel in Beowulf to the White Whale in Melville's classic tale.  I would argue that science fiction has a direct line from the works of the greatest authors to the exploits of Luke Skywalker.  The same themes prevail throughout, the motifs echo through each work, whether the weapon be a sword or a lightsaber.  It is not beyond argument to say that David standing up to Goliath, with but the faith of God and some rocks, is not the same figure as Luke Skywalker standing up to Vader in Cloud City.

So it is that, needing books to read, and trying to stay away from the mindless babble of talking heads on Television, the dribble of escapist nothingness that espouses Truth but is not but useless trash flowing into the minds of today's people, I find myself drawn to the books filling my library.  I glance through the paperbacks, yellow with time, with sparse drawings of other-worldly beings and scantily clad women on the fronts, those with the "Bethany, Oklahoma Library" stamped on the sides, where my dad brought them home and somehow never took them back.  The science fiction of decades past, where the future times that men were flying to the stars has actually already happened (according to the book I finished, Man should already have a shopping mall on Mars, and a base on Mercury.), has an incredible draw to me now.  For I find that while the setting is futuristic and utopian, the themes are as classic as the works I have bound in leather atop my bookshelves.

I wish to review two books: The Dream Master by Roger Zelazny, and A Place Beyond Man written by Cary Neeper.

The Dream Master is the second full length novel written by Zelazny in 1966.  The title page informs the reader that it had been a serialized short story in a magazine.  Unfortunately, it reads like a fleshed out, stretched short story.  It becomes disjointed, a series of scenes seemingly unconnected and written at different times, so much so you can tell which parts are original, and which parts are added.

The main story deals with Render, a psychologist who has become known as a pioneer in the new technology of "Dream Therapy," in which he uses a holodeck type machine to enter people's dreams and control them, constructing and deconstructing (in every sense of the philosophical term) until the underlying causes, as Freudian as they may be, are exposed and can be dealt with outside of the sleep state.  Stepping outside of the boundaries his craft sets, he decides to help a blind woman, a professional psychiatrist in her own right, to "see" using dreams.  But, as things go when man tries to play "God," things rarely turn out well.  This is a book that would go along side Le Guin's Lathe of Heaven, Frank Bonham's The Forever Formula,  or Chayefsky's Altered States.  The latter most definitely, since they both deal with the idea of the collective subconsciousness, the idea that there are certain things we see and know that come from the primal state of our being, as a coding of our "form," embedded into our DNA.

Movie based on The Dream Master

Zelazny writes in spurts, in images, in hallucinatory frames, and I would imagine that, like so many other artists in the 60's (18 and 19), that some sort of stimulation was used to create the muse for these writings.  It would remind someone of Coleridge's 'In Xanadu, did Kubla Khan..." or T.S. Eliot's "Wasteland" (April is the cruelest month).  This is not to denigrate the story at all, rather, it rescues it from being unreadable.  In fact, Zelazny's usage of myths, whether we know them or not, of poetic fits in between sections of plot, is what makes this an actually good book to ruminate upon.  Masterful writing style, deep, thoughtful nuggets that you have to mine from the rocky wording, phrases that are pure gold, it makes the once award winning short story well worth reading, despite its obvious flaws. 

Amongst the flat characters are soliloquies of how technology has so placed us in a state of security, of peace, that we become bored, even to the state of having nothing, verily, to live for. He deals with the usage of stories, of myths, to recreate the heart-rendering sorrows that mankind has lost, and the sub-culture of role-playing that has surfaced so that man can actually face that danger, instead of being lost to banality.  This is a theme also taken on by Simak in A Ring Around the Sun, which was a masterful work. I doubtless will use some of Zelazny's thoughts in some of my future blog postings (giving credit, obviously), as they were truly amazing.    Having never read Zelazny's work before, I will certainly find others in my Dad's sci-fi collection pilfered from the Bethany, OK library so many years ago, and read them as well.

Having read Cary Neeper's second book, The Webs of Vorak prior to the first, it allowed me to first see the more mature creation before the beginning.  Tolkien, in his essay "On Fairy Stories" talks about the creation of mankind, the constant need for making something, in emulation of God.  Imagine taking a ball of play-doh, and, realizing that you could make anything you wanted, you set out to create a world.  This, as Tolkien calls it, is Faerie. In The Neverending Story, it is Fantasia, and in the PS3 game LittleBigPlanet, it is the Orb of Dreams.  But whatever the name, it is the molding by which we create our dreams, our novels, our gods (if you look at many of the myths from Greece, Rome, and elsewhere).  So Cary Neeper took the mold of her world and created Ellason and Vorak, and on them, she placed the diametrically opposite Vorakians and Ellls.  In 1975, she wrote A Place Beyond Man, which is the account of the first contact between the two alien species and human beings. You can tell that, in the beginning, the mold is forming, becoming the deep and solid world that Neeper wants us to explore.  Get there, she does, and it becomes a magnificent lesson in the humility man will have to have of himself to save the world he lives in and to venture forth into the universe, as so many sci-fi writers will want to have us do.

The fascinating part of the story is the character studies that each of the three main people present to us.  Conn, the Elll, is the personification of Dionysus, pleasure, enjoyment incarnate.  Orram, the Varok, is the antithesis, the voice of Reason, Apollo, standing firm with stolid emotions, using reason and logic to perceive the world.  (I reject the idea of other reviewers that Orram is simply a Vulcan rehash, even though there are similarities.) Thus, to follow Hagel's philosophy, Tandra, the human, is the Synthesis, the balance of emotion and reason.  But this is only one way to look at it. Another perception to each of the characters lies in the "widening gyre" of William Butler Yates.  Control of Orram's emotional states is only possible when the spiral is tight, compacted, governed by cultural and physical boundaries that are strictly enforced.  The same, remarkably, is the case for the Dionysian character Conn, who must stay grounded within the "school" of his amphibious culture.  Even Tandra, who must handle the first contact situation with a balance of emotion and reason, must keep herself in control of her faculties.   In all cases, the sprial unravels, and they must each help one another to return to the sanity which is inherent in their own species. In the strengths of their own characters, they can survive.

In the end, it is Tandra, and us as well, who must see that the first contact situation calls into question everything that we assume about ourselves as human beings, about our position in the universe, about the superior stance we take in the world, and in our own minds.  Tandra becomes much as Jodie Foster's character was in the movie based on Carl Sagan's Contact. There are few humans, as was seen in the movie, and as was rightly guessed by the Ell-Varokian team, that would have successfully reacted and adapted to finding other sentient species in the world, especially ones without the bi-pedal look of current Earth sentient beings (supposedly).

The original 1975 book, published by Dell (now Random House), is out of print, but was reprinted in 2011 by iUniverse.  Neeper is working on a revised edition of this book, which is scheduled for release in a couple of years.  I do recommend reading this book (before or after The Webs of Varok) instead of waiting, as it was a thoroughly enjoyable read, thought provoking, and great addition to the Science-Fiction cannon.  I only hope that more of the classic sci-fi books can be rescued from the shelves of obscurity and reissued to a public that needs to be reminded of just how amazing mankind is, what his potential is, and how fragile our world is, how dangerous it will be if the "centre cannot hold." 

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