Jeremy Frantz (jfrantz) joined WWEnd at the beginning of Febuary and has quickly caught up on the Grand Master Reading Challenge. Jeremy reviews SF/F books on his blog The Hugo Endurance Project where he has given himself just 64 weeks to read every Hugo Award winner.
A few centuries from now, espers (Peepers, telepaths) have integrated into every level of society, making premeditated murder a thing of the past. How could someone harbor that kind of hatred when someone is liable to read your thoughts at any second? Enter Ben Reich, immensely wealthy and immensely disturbed but a “normal”. Reich plans to murder his business rival and take over his company and the galaxy, destroying the Esper Guild in the process.
Police Prefect Lincoln Powell is an esper and an insanely smart and adroit detective. Very early in his investigation he realizes that Reich is the criminal he’s after and sets about finding enough evidence for a conviction and sentence of “demolition”.
Sure, Freudian themes are all over the place in this book, and while that likely will float a lot of boats, I was drawn to the eugenics program devised by the Esper Guild. This is also what made me want to see Reich succeed, despite the fact that I was clearly supposed to hate him. In this world, Espers are seen as the pinnacle of human ability and the Esper Guild only allows espers to marry other espers in order to cultivate their unique skills. Moreover, even a world in which humanity has evolved to have integrated telepaths into every level of society and nearly transcended violence, it is a computer (Old Man Mose – good computer name right?) that must administer justice and “normals” are treated as nearly second-class citizens by the Espers. To me there is something deeply unsettling about what this society had to give up for their peace.
Reich’s crime though is an opportunity for “normals.” If Reich gets away with murder, and a normal is able to circumvent the infallible esper safety net, then a huge hole will have been punched in the fabric of this unfair system. The fact that Reich’s crime will likely make him the most powerful human in the galaxy would also mean an elevation of normal status. If Reich were unsuccessful and the good guys won, it could very possibly mean something dreadful for humanity and the title “The Demolished Man” takes on a wholly new meaning.
Indeed there were so many deeply layered themes in this book that I would think it would have had wider appeal over the years.
Most of the time, when you hear about melodrama it’s always in reference to theater or film but if there ever was a book exhibiting the same themes, it was The Demolished Man. When the book starts Ben Reich is clearly a monster, an insane, sad and absolute Mad Man. And not in a cool way. He is just sick and out of control and on the loose! As he is planning and committing D’Courtney’s murder, one cannot help but root for his failure. And yet, he is a truly captivating individual. It’s like watching a car wreck, you just can’t look away.
Powell is a 1st class esper and as such can delve into the deepest corners of the subconscious. He is an equally unstoppable force and the collision of these two gigantic personalities is really something to behold. He is an exceptionally skilled and exceptionally passionate police prefect and whenever Reich seems to (always) stay one step ahead, Powell is under tremendous pressure to devise some new scheme to trap Reich.
After the crime is committed, once Reich and Powell are desperately trying to locate the only witness, I found myself enjoying the competition so much that I literally could not take my eyes off the page (“Where is that damn girl!”). But this owes as much to the outrageous personalities of the two central figures as it does to the unique character of Bester’s prose.
A Graphic Novel
The narrative in The Demolished Man is primarily driven by Alfred Bester’s dialog, the pace and strength of which is both propelled to a fever pitch and readable by his superb use of space and symbols.
When espers stick to telepathic messages, they can communicate at lightning speed (I really like this idea and it reminded me of BrainPal communication from Old Man’s War by John Scalzi). If an esper conversation is at first disorienting, it is also immediately natural and his use of visual stimuli makes perfect sense in light of the fact that espers prefer to communicate by telepathic messages and symbols. I even questioned if Bester had taken this far enough. Why would espers limit themselves to sending images of text? In the end, I was happy to realize that with each conversation between a new pair of espers, or in new circumstances, the method of conversation would change. This seemed completely logical to me so I was okay with allowing myself to believe espers did things this way.
However, if at first an esper conversation is disorienting though, an esper party is nearly incomprehensible. Conversations become word art and combine with other conversations to create a web of thought patterns that is at once cool and psychosis inducing. The espers then play a game in which phrases and conversations take on multiple meanings; the literal meaning of the words, and also the meaning of the pictures those words create in the minds of the other espers. I believed it and liked it. A lot.
Throughout the book, visual embellishments of names and phrases like @tkins and ¼Maine, enhance the frenetic pace of the dialog, in my opinion. I found it an extraordinary tool for creating the experience of telepathic communication and throwing the reader into the mad dash that never ends. Though I was caught off-guard at first, once I realized you could read it like a txt message, it made complete sense and just felt right. If espers can communicate as fast as thought, why would they communicate with pictures as often as words? I actually started wondering if Bester had really gone far enough with it, considering how much communication has changed as a result of texts which are still much slower than the speed espers could communicate.
The quality of this book is evident by the fact that not only have the themes but also Bester’s unique style have remained relevant after almost 60 years. I think his fast pace owes to the fact that pop culture was really exploding at the time and is also what keeps this book relevant today. Being part science fiction, part detective/psychological thriller, this book also probably has appeal outside the genre, which is a dimension that few of the other Hugo Winners from the 1905’s can also claim. People, this is a good one.
Guest Blogger, Allie McCarn, reviews science fiction and fantasy books on her blog Tethyan Books which we featured in a previous post: Five SF/F Book Blogs Worth Reading. She has contributed many great book reviews to WWEnd and has generously volunteered to write some periodic reviews for our blog. This is Allie’s first GMRC review.
“Lew Nichols is in the business of stochastic prediction. A mixture of sophisticated analysis and inspired guesswork, it is the nearest man can get to predicting the future. And Nichols is very good at it. So good that he is soon indispensable to Paul Quinn, the ambitious and charismatic mayor of New York whose sights are firmly set on the presidency.
There is nothing paranormal about stochastic prediction: Nichols can’t actually see the future. However, Martin Carvajal apparently can, and he offers to help Nichols do so, too. It’s an offer Nichols can’t resist, even though he can clearly see the devastating impact that knowing in advance every act of his life has on Carvajal. For Carvajal has even seen his own death.” ~WWend.com
At long last, here’s my first review for WWEnd’s Grand Master Reading Challenge, a challenge to read a novel by twelve different Grand Master authors during 2012. I picked up The Stochastic Man at a library discard sale, back when I was around ten years old. For some reason, 10-year-old me had a hard time getting into all the political and statistical talk, and it languished on my bookshelf unread for about two decades. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally get around to reading it.
In the beginning, The Stochastic Man was mostly about politics, and the use of predictive powers—either using stochastic methods or clairvoyance—to succeed in politics. As a result, there was a lot of discussion of campaigning tactics, often involving local New York City politics. I’m not a native New Yorker, so most of the references to major political figures in NYC’s history were little more than vaguely familiar names to me. Aside from the political discussions, the actual environment of NYC felt very lightly sketched, which made me feel even more distanced from the story. In broad terms, Silverberg’s ‘future’ NYC—which is set in the period of 1997-2000—was a dangerous place populated primarily by the sexually permissive, ‘bone smoking’ ultra-rich and violent, gang-dominated poor communities. I don’t think it was a particularly accurate vision of turn-of-the-century NYC, but I admit that I have only a tourist’s view of the city.
The Stochastic Man is not a particularly character-driven novel, and there is very little focus on characterization outside of the major charactrs, Lew Nichols and Martin Carvajal. I appreciated the ethnic diversity of the secondary characters, but, in the absence of significant characterization, they tended to be defined almost exclusively by their ethnicity and associated stereotypes. For instance, Lew’s wife Sundara, who grew up in California, was of Indian descent. The fact that she is Indian is explicitly referenced with respect to just about every character trait the reader is given for her—her beauty, her high libido, her mastery of the Kama Sutra, and even her supposed ‘natural affinity’ for religion, which led her to join a cult. The same goes for the Jewish financier Lombroso, whose elegant office contains a large display of historical Jewish artifacts. I’m not sure to what degree this kind of characterization might be annoying to other readers, but for me it was more of a minor irritation.
For me, the strongest part of The Stochastic Man, was its exploration of ideas relating to free will and determinism. The characters, world-building, and plot all seem to be essentially a structure within which to examine these central ideas. This theme becomes more prominent in later parts of the book, as Lew learns more about Carvajal’s clairvoyance and Sundara becomes involved with a cult known as Transit. His obsession with Carvajal’s supernatural certainty begins to take precedence over both his career as an expert at stochastic prediction and Paul Quinn’s developing presidential campaign. I liked how Silverberg used Transit and Carvajal’s clairvoyance to show two extreme views of the world, which are ultimately very similar.
One the one hand, Carvajal represents absolute certainty, but that same certainty removes his own ability to control his life. He knows exactly how his life will play out, and he is powerless to change even the smallest aspect of it. As a result, he moves through his life like a puppet, slowly approaching his inevitable death. The Transit cult, on the other hand, glorifies randomness and uncertainty. Its followers attempt to set their ‘selves’ at a remove from the world, and let their lives become a series of causeless actions. Their future cannot be set in stone, because it has no pattern and no human intent. Though these two views are completely at odds, they both seem to feature the destruction of the decision-making self. Carvajal is living with a script from which he can never deviate, and the Transit followers discard their own agency in order to live without any kind of script. Therefore, neither side truly has free will—Carvajal lacks freedom, and Transit lacks will. Lew is attracted by Carvajal’s certainty, but he also wants to shape the future with his own hands. I think the story of Lew’s struggle to understand his own desires in relation to Carvajal’s power was ultimately more important, and more compelling, than the story of Paul Quinn’s political career.
My Rating: 3/5
The Stochastic Man was a story about a particular man’s political campaign, but I think its main intent was to address interesting ideas of concerning free will and determinism. I found the story to be much more interesting as it moved away from the day-to-day details of Paul Quinn’s political career and began to discuss the implications of the Transit belief system and Carvajal’s devastating supernatural clairvoyance. Aside from Lew and Carvajal, the characters weren’t particularly deeply developed, and most minor characters were primarily characterized by their ethnicity. Silverberg’s ‘future’ NYC may have little in common with actual turn-of-the-century NYC, but the location never felt much more than sketched out. I’m glad to have read The Stochastic Man, in the end, but I have a suspicion that this is not the best of Silverberg’s novels.
Harlan Ellison is one of those writers I not only love to hate but hate to love, one of those irascible writers who will permit no criticism of his work to sink in to any depth of his soul. He is also one of those wildly creative writers who is inexplicably able to form fictional worlds entirely different from one another both in setting (hard enough) and tone (nearly impossible). His progressivist politics and often blasphemous hatred of religion infuriates me, but in a seven page tour of a dying earth he can reduce me nearly to tears. Ellison has developed a powerful level of artistic talent, and he is not someone to be taken lightly. Many of the videos of the man one finds online too often depict him simplistically as an old crank—which, to be sure, he is—but this can scarcely explain the stories that could only come from a soul which feels deeply.
Too often Ellison’s wrath gets the better of him. “Knox,” the first story in this collection, depicts a liberal’s wet dream of a conservative racist party turning violent and creating a police state. Does Charlie Knox hate every person who is not wholly like himself, or is it truly himself that he hates?, Ellison asks, rather uninterestingly. The way in which Knox memorizes and recites his list of racial slurs might be revelatory in subtler hands, but with Ellison it comes off as a paranoid delusion. The great irony, though, is that Knox is revealed in the end to be telepathically manipulated by alien invaders who wish to destroy our civilization. And the worst irony is that Ellison probably didn’t understand the irony at all.
Other times Ellison’s penchant for wallowing in the bizarre and perverse gets the better of him, as in “Catman.” This is a story—if an incoherent narrative set in a incohesive future world can be called a story—which would be better left on the cutting floor, but which (I must suspect) Ellison furiously refused to trash simply because a friend recommended that course of action. Alternatively, one wonders if he wrote this story about freakishly Oedipal, immortal, machine-humping characters on a dare. There are discrete elements of creativity within the story which would be the envy of science fiction masters, but which are smashed together with such violence as to nullify any spark of humanity. The less said about it the better.
Even so, there are stories here which are worth tracking down at any cost. “Paulie Charmed the Sleeping Woman” is astoundingly different from Ellison’s usual approach, being the story of a saxophone player grieving for a dead lover, and his attempt to reach her from beyond the grave. “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty” is a nostalgic look back at the influences that make us what we are as adults, and is haunting enough that I can forgive the time-travel conceit (well, mostly). “Hindsight: 480 Seconds” is a wistful look back at the Earth humanity is leaving behind, wondering what we could have done better, and what we still might. These are the stories which make one suspect Ellison of a hidden lycanthropic condition: the moon is new, and darkness consumes his soul; it is full, and he beholds the beauty of the night; it wanes, and he sleeps.
I don’t know what to make of this collection. It is distinctively bi-polar, and one must use discretion in approaching its individual parts. I suppose I must recommend it, but with all the cautions listed above intact. Ellison is a wild beast, but now and then you may find him in a sanguine, or at least tolerable, mood.
Jeremy Frantz (jfrantz) joined WWEnd at the beginning of Febuary and has quickly caught up on the Grand Master Reading Challenge. Jeremy reviews SF/F books on his blog The Hugo Endurance Project where he has given himself just 64 weeks to read every Hugo Award winner.
Try as I might, I was not able to keep my reflections from spoiling some parts of the ending so I apologize in advance.
Earlier this week I wrote on my blog, The Hugo Endurance Project, that the one of biggest obstacles to the popularity of Science Fiction literature is that, I think, people focus on what is right on the surface and miss everything that is actually interesting about science fiction. The Big Time is a great example of how this can happen.
This short and fast-paced novel begins in the middle of the “Change War,” in which two opposing factions, the Spiders and the Snakes have been at war throughout space and time. The Big Time is a lot like a locked-door mystery and is set in “The Place,” a kind of entertainment and rest area for soldiers who travel throughout billions of years of history (they call this being a part of The Big Time) on the “change winds.”
The main character, Greta (“29 and a party girl”), was one of a number of entertainers at The Place and she begins the story exuberant, playful and confident. Entertainers were, in my mind, somewhere between Geisha and nurse and they served to occupy the time of the change warriors in whatever way necessary. I immediately liked her casual and care free tone. Also she was 29 and a party girl. What’s not to like about that?
Many reviews (recent reviews anyway) get stuck on discussing whether this book was written more like a novel or a play, whether there was any character development or how Leiber’s notion of time travel was so different than most. While those are worthwhile discussions, I think the absurdist elements mentioned in Ted Gioia’s review are what made this book great, even when they’re rather heavy-handed.
The Conservation of Reality
The book really starts to come together with the Law of the Conservation of Reality. In the Change War, soldiers travelling on the change winds fight in real-time (The Small Time) wars for whatever cause is deemed important enough to influence, or else parallel to those wars, against other time travelers. Sometimes events are changed and people might die in their own time.
The effect of the Law of the Conservation of Reality is that history will make as few adjustments as possible to maintain equilibrium, and historical events rarely notice the death of single person or the alteration of some previously significant event. Though history resists change, if a person whose life or experiences are changed in Small Time, is eventually “resurrected” into The Big Time, their memories of their Small Time life or their attitudes will imperceptibly change. I was instantly hooked when Greta mused,
But sometimes I wonder if our memories are as good as we think they are and if the whole past wasn’t once entirely different from anything we remember, and we’ve forgotten that we forgot. – Chapter 3
Because Greta was an entertainer, permanently stationed in The Place, she was not aware of the events in the Change War and experiences these changes completely unguarded. What could be more devastating than to constantly feel that the events in your life were meaningless, not only to the ebb and flow of history, but to your own continued existence? For anyone trying to argue that there was no character development, you might notice that this marked the beginning of a rapid spiral into near perpetual existential crisis that dominated nearly the rest of the book.
“Voulez-vous vivre mademoiselle?”
At a younger age, I came to similar conclusions about existentialism and absurdism on my own without knowing it, completely by chance and without guidance, and it was terribly difficult. Once I started studying philosophy in college, I began to understand that this could be a position of power and as Camus believed, of freedom, instead of the crushing depression I experienced. I don’t believe The Big Time is this optimistic and if you can’t tell by now, I absolutely love a plot that deals in debilitating misery.
After the door to the Void was sealed shut and the maintainer of the Place (the devise that allowed them to stay connected to the outside world) was introverted, another inhabitant of the Place tells a long-winded (for this book anyway) story about how when she passed from Small Time to The Big Time, she did not want to go on living. After meeting her sweetheart in The Big Time though, she realized that her life had new meaning and encouraged the rest of the group to see things her way. She was almost categorically dismissed. Not even given a second thought. If you like sentimental love stories, this book will ruin you.
The collective mood of the group was declining and everyone was trying to make sense of what they’d been though. Greta was hoping for an easy answer, but knew it wasn’t there when she said,
It would be a wonderful philosophy to stand against the change winds. Also damn silly. I wondered if Mark really believed it. I wished I could. – Chapter 16
Greta knows that it is difficult “to love through it,” but she has no other alternative. I really felt her frustration. The idea of finding a way to cope with the proposition that the world does not love you can be soul crushing. I’ve been there. Near the end of the book, I was really worried that Greta wouldn’t be able to stand up to it for long and I imagined that she was on her way to debilitating depression. She’d lost faith in the leadership of both sides, didn’t understand the reason for the Change War any longer, began to think The Place was hell and felt her life was gradually losing meaning. And then it ends. It was a bit like the ending of the Sopranos. I Loved it.
You may not find Leiber’s answer satisfying, but you have to appreciate it when a story is crafted such that you really experience that misery as your own.
This book is much heavier than other reviews would have you believe. Indeed, I’m glad I finished early this week so that I could take a couple days to keeping running through this one. I have to say, its holding up to the scrutiny of time. This is what makes science fiction great. It’s excruciating and horrifying and fabulous.
As much as I enjoyed the spiraling misery, I don’t think I would really recommend this book to anyone who doesn’t have more than a passing interest in religion or philosophy. Needless to say, this book resonated with me, but it doesn’t have much mass appeal so approach this one with caution. While the style is very different, if you are the kind of person who enjoys Sartre and Camus, you probably will like this one.
It looks like we’re not the only ones to try to class up this roughneck joint. Rebecca Ariel Porte has written an article on io9 about the best science fiction-oriented poetry:
I’ve really done it now. I’ve invoked a forbidden word: poetry. Purveyors of poetry are inherently suspect in most circles. We are seen as a cross between broccoli-pushers (“Try it, you’ll like it!”) and emissaries from the imperial courts of high culture come to impose our foreign customs on the subjugated masses….
Of course there are scifi readers who already really like poetry—and poetry readers who really like scifi—but we tend to exist (however passionate we are about our sestinas and our ray-guns) in the fringes of both communities.
She makes a good argument for reading poetry before going on to make recommendations, and I have to admit that I’d heard of none of them before reading this article. After breezing past classic genre poets like Lucretius and Tolkien, she moves on to more modern verse. I did rather enjoy this excerpt from A. Van Jordan’s “The Superposition of the Atom” in Quantum Lyrics that Porte included in her piece, if only because of the superhero references:
the cat is forever dead
and alive. My phantom has existed for years
in limbo, believing life would be more
pastel if he were paying the bills,
sweating through rejection,
or figuring out what tie to wear
as Ray Palmer. I never know
if he’s there or not, until jealousy
gets the better of him and he comes
out of paradox into a scene,
for which, there is no future.
I’ve got more books to add to my reading list, now.
Guest Blogger and WWEnd Member, Charles Dee Mitchell, has contributed a great many book reviews to WWEnd and we’ve invited him to contribute to our blog. This is the latest in Dee’s series of Philip K. Dick reviews that he started on his blog www.potatoweather.blogspot.com. We’ll keep posting them until he runs out of reviews or gets tired of Philip K. Dick books.
Regular readers of Philip K Dick would not expect him to write a novel exploring social issues, but in this case that is what he seems to think he is doing. The result is a muddle of ideas that try to stay topical while medium level PKD weirdness circles around them.
The setting for The Crack in Space is the late 21st century, and overpopulation, combined with a shortage of jobs, has become the major problem facing the human race. The solution has been to warehouse those who request it in suspended animation with the promise of awakening them when social conditions change. This is also a racial issue. "Cols" are now the majority population, and also the least employable. "Caucs" maintain the systems of government while millions of Cols become "bibs," — the name given to those warehoused sleepers. (I never quite figured out the "bib" allusion. Also in the book are "Jerries," the older generation that can still remember the way things used to be.)
It is a presidential election year, and the Republican Liberal Party candidate for the first time is a Col. Jim Briskin wants to be president and in his brilliant speeches is willing to say what he thinks the people, and the Col majority, want to here. He promises to close the warehouses and find a way to resolve the bib situation. He proposes pursuing some outdated technology called planet wetting to create habitable colonies. He will also close down Thisbe Olt’s pleasure satellite The Golden Door, an orbiting brothel with thousands of working women and an enormous clientele. Thisbe’s operation has been legalized as a means of keeping the population down. (Question mark. Exclamation point. WTF) None of Briskin’s ideas are really feasible.
Then there are the Jerry Scuttlers, devices that are intended to transport their owners anywhere they want to go. Unfortunately they have design flaws. One owner complains that his always delivers him to Portland, Oregon. A repairman, however, discovers that the machine has a rent in its fabric that delivers one to a verdant, apparently virgin land that could solve the immigration problem.
So PKD has his usual half dozen plots in play, but much centers on that flawed Jerry Scuttler and the fact that Briskin may be able to come through with his promise of closing the bib warehouses, But when the new land is discovered to be a version on Terra itself that has followed a different evolutionary path than our own planet, new racial problems arise with how to treat the inhabitants there. They are not homo sapiens but intellectually capable offspring of hominid strains removed from our history.
The Crack in Space has subplots that go nowhere and either resolve themselves almost as soon as they are introduced or need quick sentence summaries toward the end of the novel. Nothing about it addresses in any coherent way the social issues it raises. It is at its best when played as farce, with characters traveling the planet in their Jet Hoppers and scrambling to put together a winning presidential campaign, But it remains a muddle and, unusual for a PKD novel, manages to become somewhat dull. This despite that fact that one character is the unicephalic twin George Walt — one head, two bodies, two personalities. He is the proprietor of the Golden Door and is briefly worshipped as a god by the inhabitants of the parallel universe opened by the defected Jerry Scuttler.
So far I’ve liked the John Carter trailers but the news surrounding this movie does not seem to be very positive. It has dampened my enthusiasm quite a bit. This extended scene trailer has brought me hope again. I desperately want this movie to be good. What do you think? Am I asking too much?
Now THIS is a proper trailer! Can’t wait for the new season.
Rhonda Knight is an Associate Professor of English at Coker College in Hartsville, SC. She teaches Medieval and Renaissance literature as well as composition courses. When she looked over last year’s reading list, she was shocked to see that only 17% of the authors she read were women. This blog will record her attempts to read authors that are generally considered out of the science fiction norm: women, persons of color, and non-U.S. and non-U.K. authors.
When I started thinking about authors I would read for this series, Nnedi Okorafor was at the top of my list. I started with two of her young adult novels, Zahrah the Windseeker and The Shadow Speaker because they were available in my college library. Both of these novels feature female protagonists who are about fourteen years old. Each girl has a special magical power and learns to use her power when she embarks upon a quest. As such, these are coming-of-age narratives that show how the girl, who is different, who is teased for being different, comes into her own and learns of her own strength and self-worth. This seems to me to be what many YA novels do; however, I did not really read YA novels when I was a “YA” (except that I had a great obsession with The Hardy Boys mysteries), so I am far from an expert.
What amazes me is the variety of plots that YA authors devise to illustrate this common theme. As proof of this, the young heroes Zahrah Tsami and Ejii Ugabe (who is the protagonist of The Shadow Speaker) demonstrate different strengths and weaknesses as they experiment with their powers; the goals of their quests are nothing alike; and the plots are not formulaic and are paced quite differently from each other. Both Ejii and Zahrah are metahumans (or in the older lingo, dada). Ejii’s skills are apparent from the beginning of the novel, while Zahrah learns what her talents are during the course of her narrative. Zahrah is born with dadalocks, which seem to be dreadlocks that have vines incorporated in them. Here’s what Zahrah says about being born dada:
“To many, to be dada meant you were born with strange powers. That you could walk into a room and a mysterious wind would knock things over or clocks would automatically stop; that your mere presence would cause flowers to grow underneath the soil instead of above. That you caused things to rebel or that you would grow up to be rebellious yourself! And what made things even worse was that I was a girl, and only boys and men were supposed to be rebellious. Girls were supposed to be soft, quiet, and pleasant.” (Zahrah the Windseeker viii).
One great thing that these books have in common is a complex magical world that engenders these metahumans, which is what I want to discuss in this blog. According to Okorafor’s website, Who Fears Death and her other YA novel, Akata Witch are set in the same world.
Okorafor’s literary setting contains several parallel worlds, Earth, Lif, Ginen, Ngiza, and Agonia (The Shadow Speaker 301). Zahrah the Windseeker is set in the village of Kirki in the Ooni Kingdom, which is in Ginen. In this novel, few characters know that there are parallel worlds. For Zahrah and her friend, Dari, Earth is only a myth, until they meet Nsibidi who claims her mother is from Earth. The Shadow Speaker occurs later in the timeline because, in Ejii’s Earth, people are able to move between parallel worlds. Ejii’s quest requires her to leave her Nigerien village of Kwàmfà and to travel to the Ooni Kingdom in Ginen. The shadows who whisper to her have told her that only her presence at the multi-world meeting of the Golden Dawn can stop the other parallel worlds from declaring war against Earth.
The year of Ejii’s adventure is 2070. She lives after the Great Change, a series of events that engendered both magic and mutants on Earth. The Great Change is the “result of nuclear and Peace Bombs being dropped all over the earth. The Peace Bomb was the tool of an enviro-militant group called the Grand Bois, headed by a Haitian man named Dieuri [who], himself, was responsible for crossing science and magic and creating the Peace Bomb, a weapon consisting of airborne biological agents meant to counteract the effects of nuclear missiles” (55). Besides shadow speakers, who can listen to the shadows, interpret the thoughts and feelings of other sentient beings, and communicate with some of animals and non-humans, there are windseekers, like Zahrah, who can fly. Other metahumans that receive less attention in Okorafor’s books are shape-shifters, faders, firemolders, rainmakers and metalseekers. Many animals in her worlds can speak, such as Onion, Ejii’s camel:
“Onion was not like other camels. He was one of the few who could speak; one did not have to be a shadow speaker or any other type of metahuman to understand him. After the Great Change, Onion had realized that he had a bulge near the top of his long neck—a large, developed voice box. He’d been hearing human beings speak all his short life, for he was just a calf. It was not hard for him to do the same.” (The Shadow Speaker 74).
Like Ejii, Zahrah is able to converse with some other animals because of her dada powers.
In both cultures, metahumans are the minority and are feared by many people who say they bring bad luck or are evil creatures. The acceptance of metahumans seems more “progressive” in The Shadow Speaker, perhaps because the Great Change causes more of them. Ejii has two friends who are shadow speakers and together they train with an adult shadow speaker. On the other hand, Zahrah’s fear of her emerging abilities to levitate and fly and her desire to hide these abilities create the tragedy that brings about her quest into Ooni’s Forbidden Greeny Jungle.
Technology plays an important role in both stories. The way that Okorafor constructs technology in each parallel world is true to her overall portrayal of each. Ejii carries an e-legba, which seems to be like an iPad. The internet became immortal after the Great Change, continuing to work without either “power or maintenance” (The Shadow Speaker 93). Zahrah’s Ginen is a plant-based world. Zahrah has a floral computer:
“My father had given me the CPU seed when I was seven years old, and I had planted and taken care of it all by myself…. Its light green pod body was slightly yielding, and the large traceboard leaf fit on my lap like a part of my own body…. The computer would pull energy from my body heat, and I’d link a vine around my ear so that it could read my brain waves. It would grow in size and complexity, as I grew.” (Zahrah the Windseeker 37-38)
Many of the buildings are also engineered from plants. For example, the library in Zahrah’s village is a five-story building grown from a glassva, a transparent plant. At this library, Zahrah and her friend Dari checkout a digi-book, The Forbidden Greeny Jungle Field Guide, that accompanies her upon her quest. Okorafor has written a short story about a set of adventurers who contribute to this book and are looking for a rare wild CPU plant. (You can find “From the Lost Diary of Treefrog7” here.)
These novels are fun and exciting reads. As I read, I wished that I knew more about West African culture, mythology, and folklore. I felt as if I was missing out on some interesting nuances. For example, what am I missing when I read Ejii’s mother is New Tuareg and her father was Wodaabe? I learned a lot about these tribes from the links and was able to see how Okorafor used tribal traits of the Tuareg for characterization and plot. However, I feel that the stories of their stormy relationship is intended to be a metaphor of Niger, but I’m not well informed enough in Nigerien or West African history to understand.
If I have any criticism of the books, it is that the conclusions leave you wanting more. I feel the ending of The Shadow Speaker was too abrupt. Ejji’s return home leaves open some questions about what happened in Kwàmfà while she was away. Zahrah the Windseeker has a much more extended ending, but Zahrah and Dari’s encounter with Nsibidi, a mysterious windseeker from Earth leaves the ending open. Both endings almost seem as if they are setting up sequels. However, Okorafor’s publishing history does not seem to indicate that she will revisit these characters even though she is revisiting this world in her more recent books, which I am now even more anxious to read. The conference that Ejii attends in Ginen gives us a glimpse of the peoples who live in the some of the other parallel worlds. I hope Okorafor decides to explore Lif, Ngiza, and Agonia as well.
I think some readers will not like Okorafor’s world as much as I do. She does not always explain things, and I’m sure if I looked I could find contradictions in the ways that the magic functions. However, I can very willingly suspend all sorts of disbelief when a setting is intriguing, the plot is good, and the characters are relatable. And they are.
Scott Lazerus came to Worlds Without End looking for a good list of books. He found David Pringle’s Best 100 Science Fiction Novels list to his liking and is currently working his way through the list. He has posted a bunch of reviews for WWEnd including this latest review for the GMRC.
Of the Grand Master authors, Alfred Bester may be the one with the shortest science fiction bibliography, encompassing only part of his writing career, which also included non-genre writing, radio and TV scripting (Tom Corbett: Space Cadet), comics (most notably Golden Age Green Lantern), magazine editing and book reviewing. He published a few stories between 1939 and 1942, made a semi-successful return to the field in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but is remembered today almost entirely for two novels and not much more than a dozen stories published during the 1950s, comprising one of the most influential and well-regarded oeuvres in the field. His ‘50s writings have been seen as the bridge between the ‘40s Campbellian Golden Age and the more literate, experimental and socially conscious New Wave of the ‘60s, as well as a precursor of the ‘80s cyberpunk movement. The stories have been collected in Virtual Unrealities, while the novels are The Stars My Destination (1957) and The Demolished Man (1953, first serialized in Galaxy in 1952), which won the first Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1953.
Has any other author made such a large impact with so few stories? In the context of the time, it’s easy to see why The Demolished Man made such a strong impression. By the early ‘50s, newer writers (and some older ones) were looking to break with the traditions established by John W. Campbell’s Astounding during the ‘40s. Bester was among the authors who took advantage of the rise of F&SF and Galaxy, with their commitment to a more expansive view of what SF could be, to begin publishing stories that looked more towards psychology and sociology for inspiration, while Campbell continued to stress “hard science” and engineering. Along with this shift came an emphasis on more adult characterization within science fiction, openness to more “literary” approaches to the writing of SF, and an increasing appearance of social criticism and satire. These new trends crystallized in The Demolished Man, paving the way for writers like Dick, Sheckley, and eventually Delany and Gibson.
The Demolished Man is set at the beginning of the 24th century. Space flight is routine, and people live on several planets and moons throughout the solar system. Unlike his Golden Age forbears, Bester is uninterested in the nuts and bolts of how this is accomplished. There are no expositional pauses interrupting the breakneck pace of the novel. People travel between worlds as casually as we might catch a flight between cities. Instead of explaining this world, Bester immerses us in it. Within that framework, it would make no more sense to describe aspects not directly relevant to the story than for a writer mentioning a character’s trip downtown to describe how a car works, or how and when the transportation system was built. Instead, we get flashes of description, and the characters’ impressions, allowing us to slowly build the world in our minds:
“He passed through the steel portals of headquarters and stood for a moment on the steps gazing at the rain-swept streets… at the amusement center across the square, block after block blazing under a single mutual transparent dome… at the open shops lining the upper footways, all bustle and brilliance as the city’s night shopping began… the towering office buildings in the background great two-hundred story cubes… the lace tracery of skyways linking them together… the twinkling running lights of Jumpers bobbing up and down like a plague of crimson-eyed grasshoppers in a field…”
The story is fairly simple on the surface, and can be described as a science fiction murder mystery, in a future where crime is almost unheard of since the police are able to employ mind-reading “peepers” to prevent crimes before they happen, or ferret out actual criminals. Ben Reich, one of the most powerful industrialists in the solar system, determines to murder a rival who threatens his economic ascension, arrogantly plotting the crime (with the help of his Esper psychoanalyst) in a way that, even if the police can discover his role, they will be unable to prove. The amoral Reich is able to take advantage of the Esper Guild’s ethical code, which they have adopted in order to police themselves, while helping the rest of humanity in various capacities (for instance, as counselors and investigators), only intruding onto the thoughts of others under clearly specified circumstances, or with permission. Their goal is to train ever more people to become Espers, with the belief that humanity will eventually reach a new stage of harmonious coexistence once everyone achieves Esper powers. From their point of view, a person like Reich is especially dangerous to their cause, as they recognize that he is someone who has the potential to derail their plans through his own individual will to power. Despite being witnessed by the victim’s daughter, the murder plan is carried out, and Esper Detective Lincoln Powell quickly realizes that Reich is the murderer. The suspense, then, is not related to figuring out who the killer is, but rather derives from the cat-and-mouse game between Reich and Powell, as each tries to stay a step ahead of the other as Powell pieces together Reich’s plan in a search for evidence, and Reich looks for ways to throw him off the track or destroy the evidence before Powell can get to it. And, while we know who the murderer is from the start, it turns out that there is an aspect to the crime that is hidden even from Reich himself…
Without giving away the ending, this last mystery is related to Reich’s subconscious motivations. If there is an aspect to The Demolished Man that seems dated, it is the importance of Freudian psychology within the story. The rise of psychology as a science seemed to lead many SF writers of the ‘50s and ‘60s to extrapolate a future in which psychological science becomes similar to physical science in its ability to precisely understand, predict, and manipulate the human mind. The psychological experts in these stories can often understand individual motivations for people’s actions in a way that seems overly simplistic to modern readers. Much more interesting is Bester’s use of ESP in the story, and the way it is incorporated into the society portrayed in the novel. Some of the best passages are those that describe the thought processes of the “peepers.” In these sections, Bester experiments with typographical layout in order to better represent the difference between telepathic and verbal communication, and uses language that evokes the hyper-intensity of the mind-reading process:
“Here were the somatic messages that fed the cauldron; cell reactions by the incredible billion, organic cries, the muted drone of muscletone, sensory sub-currents, blood-flow, the wavering superheterodyne of blood pH… all whirling and churning in the balancing pattern that formed the girl’s psyche. The never-ending make-and-break of synapses contributed to a crackling hail of complex rhythms. Packed in the changing interstices were broken images, half-symbols, partial references… The ionized nuclei of thought.”
This and the previous quote are good examples of Bester’s prose, which has been well-described as “crystalline” or “sharp.” The novel is characterized by very short, often fragmentary sentences or clauses. The effect is created of a relentless pace, with no wasted words. The reader is propelled forward obsessively, similarly to the characters of Reich and Powell, who cannot stop moving until they reach a resolution… To consider how this style might have seemed liberating or revelatory to readers at the time, read a chapter of The Demolished Man after a Heinlein or Asimov story from the ‘40s. It’s not that subsequent writers would imitate Bester’s hard-boiled style (though you might see Neuromancer in a new light after reading this novel), but rather that its success helped open up possibilities for SF writers to develop writing styles and tackle themes and types of stories that may not have seemed possible before.
I’ve tried to make a case in this review for Bester’s importance in the history of SF, but a review is supposed to help people decide whether they want to read a book. Even if you’re not interested in the historical context at all, The Demolished Man remains a startlingly modern, entertaining novel. It won’t seem as original to modern readers as it did sixty (!) years ago, of course, because its influence has been incorporated into countless subsequent works of science fiction, but Bester’s wonderful prose and skillful plotting still shines through, despite the outdated psychological aspects (admittedly used in an ingenious way) and some casual ‘50s sexism (why did mid-20th century male writers predict future societies that would be increasingly liberal in regard to sexuality, but pretty much completely miss out on the occupational and social gains that women would make?). For younger readers or those who haven’t read much older SF, I would think that the works of Alfred Bester would be an excellent place to start…