Sunday, December 14, 2014

Book Review: The Alien Effect by Cary Neeper

The easiest way to write a Science-Fiction novel is to do away with Old Earth.  Let the action take place on some planet in a distant galaxy, long ago, or even better, lets just destroy Earth completely and let man explore the stars in their ragged looking spaceships, like some nomadic band of camel riders in the foreign desert.  I guess it's Romantic that way, to push the future away, for the goals that mankind has reached and surpassed are so far away from us now, we could never reach them.  Or at least, that's what we realistically think.

But of course, the Science-Fiction writer's most fervent wish is to bring the message of a better Earth back to his or her reader.  Than mankind can be better than what he is now, knock down the obstacles that hold him back, find his way through the unknown and progress to a Utopia that must be reachable.  There are frontiers out there, if only we could get past our own failings and reach them. However, the challenge for the writer is to portray an Earth that has changed sometimes beyond what we could even imagine it being, for the better or, more often, for the worse.  A world of biological or nuclear wastelands, of endless pollution, of environmental catastrophes, or of a population that has to live in a world like The Fifth Element or Corsucant from the Star Wars series.
It's hard, really it is, because a story taking place on Earth has to contend with the myriad of issues that plague our homeland. It's possible to become overwhelmed by them.  And more likely than not, if you bring the hope of progress to the reader, they will find cynicism and discouragement, as it's something that, given the condition of the world currently, it would be impossible to achieve.

I say all this as a preface to a review of Cary Neeper's third book in the Chronicles of Varok series, The Alien Effect.  You can read the first two reviews here (A Place Beyond Man) and here (The Webs of Varok), and you must read the first two books first before this one (unlike the second book, which is easily read without the first).  It's the first criticism of the book, that a prologue might be in order, to catch a reader, even if they have read the other two, back into the groove of the novels themselves. The third book continues Neeper's quest of bringing a palatable model of steady-state economics to the attention of the world. And unlike most other scholars on the subject, she's trying to do it through the application of the system in a fictional world.  And unlike most other Science-Fiction writers, she accomplishes her goal with remarkable, robust characters with a similarly developed culture.  The Varoks, Ellls, and Ahlorks (Nidok's dialogue is excellent!) are great alien races, who are developed by dialogue, which is the best way to write a Science-Fiction novel.  I cannot praise enough the characters that Neeper has made.  As a writer, she has this aspect completely mastered.

Unlike the first two books, the plot suffers from being on Earth, with all of the complexities that must be taken into consideration when dealing with the world we live on. I found some parts, especially on the boats out in the Pacific, to be gold mines of interaction between Alien and Human, places where the general plot can be fleshed out.  I would have loved to have heard the conversations between Orticon and the Captains, or Nidok and the humans aboard ship.  The plot twists, the sudden storms, the traps laid by fishing vessels, they tend to just appear, in a couple of sentences.  The difference between this book and the other two is that the plot in The Alien Effect is progressed by external events and directions, whereas the first book took place within a small moon-base, and The Webs of Varok took place on a small, hidden moon of Jupiter.  The crises in both novels were internal, happening within the minds of the characters.  In The Alien Effect, Neeper has to bring that conflict to Earth, to handle the problems and complexities of bringing the Steady-State system of Varok to our own planet.

In most Science-Fiction stories, like Neal Stephenson's Anathem, for instance, this problem of plot isn't a big deal.  I love Anathem, and as long as I don't have to worry about the plot, I can read that book forever, with its philosophical conversations filling pages upon pages.  But again, bringing the setting to Earth makes doing this much more complicated.  The scenes with Shawne at the Economic School on Earth tends to become a background issue, one that is mentioned only as a backdrop for Shawne's moods and her attraction to visitors later in the book.  The idea of population control, one that is essential for Steady-State to work, is whisked away by objections by devout religious students, who suddenly disappear, taking their argument with them.  The futility of Shawne's efforts with mankind becomes evident, and I'm not so sure that we don't need more of that hope here. This combines with the diary or textbook sections that talk about the actual "Alien Effect," which show that the actualization of Shawne's dream doesn't happen for millennia, and only because of extraterrestrial influences on human evolution (without the black monolith and the usage of "Thus Spoke Zarathustra").  This part also needed some fleshing out, with maybe some of the students becoming actual characters, which would have been great, as Neeper's ability to make outstanding characters would have added to this section.  Shawne and the Varoks and Ellls could have had a Plato-like discussion which would have been essential in bringing the ideas of Varok to the fictional Earth and to our own world as well.

And while I criticize the book, I would easily rate it (on the Amazon scale) as 4 stars, because I've read the other two novels, am familiar with the ideas of Steady-State Economics, and love the interactions with the characters.  This is never a problem at all with any of the stories, and is usually the main criticism I have of other idea-based Science Fiction novels.  To see what I mean, without taking too long to wade through an entire book made by, say, Robert Silverberg or Clifford D. Simak (both have written amazing books, by the way, so I'm not saying don't read them, but just to throw out a quick example) go watch the first Science-Fiction feature film to hit theatres, Rocketship XM, which was covered by Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the 90's.  This demonstrates how characters should not be created.

So to end the review part of this, go read the first two books, then read this one, and anticipate future novels, and you'll have no problem with the shortcomings of the third book.  I don't either, actually, but as a reviewer I have to maintain an honest opinion of the book as written, separate from the rest of the books in the series.

Now, to the ideas presented in The Alien Effect.  All you have to do is walk into a Wal-Mart to appreciate the idea of runaway materialism that is plaguing our society.  Mounds upon mounds of crap.  It's all it is.  I've presented many times the idea of material inflation.  In fact, a great example happened to me just yesterday.  I broke a coffee cup.  I cleaned my office at work, and, finding an old coffee cup (with Brookhaven College on it, which is where I work), I decided to take it home and wash it.  Well, I dropped the bag it was in, and broke it.  Instead of weeping and ruing the loss of a cup which could have easily been the only one I owned, had I lived a century ago, I just shrugged, threw it away, and looked at the dozens of other ceramic coffee cups I have sitting on my counter. We have no problem with planned obsolescence, or of the casual ruin of the things we own, as we can always go out and get more, at substantially cheaper costs.  It's is amazing how many brand name, high quality clothes I find at Goodwill for a fraction of the costs of getting something new.  But walk into a Walmart, and you'll see mountains of product just waiting to be bought, used, set aside, and find its way to our growing landfills.  And all for the boost of dopamine that Neeper talks about in The Alien Effect.  It's so true.  I've seen children scream and cry "I want a TOY!!!!" and, just to get the child to shut up, they buy him or her whatever trinket they want.  More than likely, the object will either be thrust back into the parent's hand as the child runs off to gaze into the Vending Machines (you know, those little rings and rubber things in mysterious bubbles, just waiting to be bought, lottery style. That's Dopamine X 2!).  The child didn't want the toy, they wanted the dopamine boost, as well as the feeling of attention and love that they got when their parent bought them something.  Materialism and Love are the same thing.  And that's something that has changed dramatically from even a century ago, when possessions were so much more valued, coming out of world-wide depressions.

It's easy to see, then, where the dopamine boost comes into play, with materialism at the store, with collecting of action figures and other worthless objects (and I know, I still collect the State and National Park Quarters), with the episodes of Hoarders, where throwing away anything will cause temper tantrums to erupt.  Entire economies are based upon the buying of trinkets that cause that momentary dopamine boost, and there are whole factories of children in China hoping to make that boost happen.  How much of that same boost, then, happens when people have yet another child?  Can material inflation be extended to People Inflation?  Why should we care if someone on the south side of Chicago gets into a gang war and is shot dead? There's always more people where that came from.  The body count on the news rarely becomes news anymore, unless the death can be used by political parties or other organizations to increase negative emotions, and therefore, donations to their coalitions.  But I digress.  Why should we care about people at all if there are so many of them?  And this attitude is in addition to the resources that those people use day to day.  In essence, most of the issues of this world, from the Environment to Crime to Disease to Politics, come down to Population Control.  This, too, is a result, especially in modern times, of a desire for brain chemical boosting.  In other words, the erotic pleasures of sex.  And as everyone knows, Pregnancy is a by-product of sex.  As long as we have a system where continued child bearing is rewarded, and self-discipline is unnecessary, we will continue to see parents of 8 children walking around Walmart trying to keep their kids from screaming by buying them whatever they think they want at the time.

What I have been consistently impressed with by Cary Neeper's ideas (and by extension, the ideas of other Steady-State Economic thinkers), is that these ideas exist outside of current political modes of thought.  While ideas like Carbon-Capping and Environmental Regulations sound like ideas right out of the Democrat's playbook to extend power over businesses, the ideas themselves are neutral in political ambition.  The idea is to make the world a better place to live, and to sustain the world as a healthy place to live for all the inhabitants of the world.  In other words, for mankind to live in a symbiotic relationship with the world that they value.  I have said many times that, while I have no desire to join modern environmentalists and go hug trees (and you can start here for some ideas I have on the subject), I am earnestly a proponent of taking care of the world we live on.  The ideas that Shawne had in her classes were ones that Conservative thinkers could agree on.  I especially liked the idea of regulation and oversight by local, non-centralized governments.  In Neeper's America, the Nation-state is decreased to geographical regions, such as the Pacific Northwest, or Southern California.  The idea of Nationalism has waned as problems on Earth became too complex and too impossible for large governments (such as our own) to provide for people's safety.  A great example of that is the recent Ebola outbreak.  When the Federal Government refused to block travel from West Africa to different airports in the US, individual states enacted regulations.  This sort of thing is the best way to maintain optimum living quality in any given area.  This is also something that every Conservative should agree with.   That Conservatives (of which I happen to be one) and Liberals can work, compromise, and achieve real solutions to major problems, is something that should be very exciting for anyone working to solve the world's problems.  However, this dream fall short when it is blocked by politicians hoping to keep themselves in power and comfortable by the contributions of lobbyists.  In today's world, nothing will get done at all on any subject as long as the political atmosphere of Washington DC continues to fester.

Lastly, I want to address the issue of technology.  In this case, I disagree with the descriptions of The Alien Effect when they find technology to be an unneeded part of establishing a proper steady-state system.  There are very few ways that you can fundamentally change the ways of thinking by any culture.  Religion is one way.  It takes a long time, to change the religious beliefs of any one culture, especially the entire Western World.  The other one is Technology.  And while technology can be used to further manipulate and entrench current thinking patterns into any given culture (see Neil Postman's Techonopoly), there are examples of fundamental changes brought about by technology that are immediate and obvious.  The food replicators in Star Trek, for instance, or the wormhole creators in Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter's The Light of Other Days.  Both these innovations would ultimately forever change the way we think. And I think there are technological breakthroughs which are quite within our reach that would do the same.  Take Clifford D. Simak's Ring Around the Sun. In it, aliens (or a further evolution of mankind) start to mysteriously create light bulbs that would last forever.  In getting rid of planned obsolescence, the economy of the world is changed in an instant.  Razors, cars, houses, all that never break or wear down, and all made so that anyone can afford them.  It breaks down the consumer society, and leaves us with no wants in the material sense.  The dopamine push is gone, and then we have to find our chemical boosts in other ways, perhaps from exercise of the development of our own minds, the progress of mankind itself.  This is what Roddenberry envisioned for Earth of the 24th century.

In the end, it comes down to those Millennium that Neeper talks about at the end of .  It would, in that world, take countless generations before a Steady-State world would stabilize Earth, and in our finite mode of thinking, that's too long.  Heck, in our world, something that takes more than a week is too long.  If we can immediately change something to make it better (from Obamacare to a struggling Football team firing their coach...etc...) then that is something that must be done quickly.  It might even be a band-aid, something to cover up the underlying problem, but that's better than actually solving the problem, because it's something that can be done quickly.  When the solution would take more than an election cycle, or a football season, then why bother.  We want pleasure and satisfaction now, not later... that doesn't give us bliss.  

Noel Paul Stookey (and I'm going to mention this for the umpteenth time) said that there's two ways for us to miss things.  One is if the world goes by too fast.  The other is if we go by too fast.  Some people look up one day and see a tree, fully grown, and they had never noticed, while other, more fortunate people, can simply watch the rings form.  It might take half our lives to see a tree grow from seed to mature towering being, but the tree will be more worth it if we do.  Same thing for our own world.  It might take us countless lifetimes to make our world a paradise, but it will be infinitely more worth it when we do.  

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