Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Roundup: They'd Rather Be Right (1955), Gateway (1978), The Fountains of Paradise (1980), and The Snow Queen (1981)

Special, extra-glib edition of The Hugo Project!

They'd Rather Be Right has not aged well, and I think the culprit is bad philosophy. The writing is certainly not blameless, but the only co-written Hugo winner would have managed to trudge along with a certain retro flair if it hadn't been for the silliness of its central conceit: scientists have built a machine that can psychoanalyze everyone's physical problems away by replacing their prejudices with scientifically-approved fact. The almost complete disappearance of "psychoanalysis" as a buzzword and the stubborn refusal of scientific facts to be immutable come together to make They'd Rather Be Right look not only quaint, but wrong; the "therapy" comes off as complete brainwashing. Science fiction can overcome bad science, but They'd Rather Be Right doesn't - it's a serviceable 50s pulp scifi novel, complete with sex and psychics, but sadly no aliens. C-

Gateway is an interesting contrast, as it, too, features a computerized therapist, but one far more in line with our current ideas about what therapy can and can't do. Frederick Pohl's novel is told primarily in flashback, as Bob remembers his prospecting missions to the well-programmed Sigfrid. In the world of Gateway, humankind has found remnants of an older culture, including their spaceships - they can start the ships, but have no way of controlling when, where, or if they stop; exploration becomes a very lethal process of trial and error. This is a brilliant setup for an adventure story, but Pohl stays close to home for the most part, focusing on the death-is-cheap society built up by the prospectors. I really wish Gateway had been longer - between the wonderful setting and the cowardly, unreliable narrator it could have been great, but as written it feels like an extended short story. B+

The Fountains of Paradise is Arthur C. Clarke's novel about the building of a "space elevator." If you've read Rendezvous with Rama, some of the structure will feel familiar to you, especially the way the book can sometimes feel like a series of problems and solutions rather than a real narrative. This worked brilliantly for Rama, where the slow unraveling of these puzzles captures the mystery and frustration of first contact with aliens, but it doesn't help this slightly more grounded story. Clarke's book must have been groundbreaking in 1979, but I feel it's been overshadowed by other skyhook stories - some of my favorite parts of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy are focused on a space elevator on Mars. B

The Snow Queen is in an interesting place between fantasy and science fiction, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale of the same name, but stocked with a good dose of genetic manipulation, cloning, and space travel. Joan Vinge's story follows separated childhood sweethearts who are pulled from a peasant-like existence and thrust into two different aspects of the broader technological universe. I don't know how much of the plot is poached from Andersen, but the world of Tiamat stands on its own, as its legends and fantasy are discovered to be science in disguise. As you could guess, The Snow Queen uses one of those great tools for exposition - ignorant main characters - but extends it to their whole society. This has been done in other books, both more (Dreamsnake) and less (Old Man's War) skillfully, but never with quite as interesting a focus on the injustice of keeping a population ignorant. B+

No comments:

Post a Comment