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Book Review: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick

November 6, 2015 3 comments

Book Review: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philp K. DickSummary:
Earth is overcrowded and overheated but people still don’t want to become colonists to other planets.  The colonies on the other planets are so boring and depressing that the colonists spend all of their money on Can-D — a drug that lets them imagine themselves living in an idealistic version of Earth.  The only trick is they have to set up dioramas of Earth first.  The drug is illegal on Earth but the diorama parts are still created by a company there.  When the famous Palmer Eldritch returns from the far-flung reaches of space, he brings with him a new drug, Chew-Z, that doesn’t require the dioramas.  What the people don’t know, but one of the manager of the Can-D company soon finds out, is that Chew-Z sends those who take it into an alternate illusion controlled by Palmer Eldritch.

Review:
I love Philip K. Dick, and I have since first reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? So whenever I see his books come up on sale in ebook format, I snatch them up.  I picked this up a while ago for this reason, and then randomly selected it as my airplane read on my honeymoon.  Like many Dick novels the world of this book is insane, difficult to explain, and yet fun to visit and thought-provoking.

The world Dick has imagined is hilarious, although I’m not sure it was intended to be.  Presciently, Dick sets up a future suffering from overpopulation and global warming, given that this was published in 1965, I find it particularly interesting that his mind went to a planet that gets too hot.  Even though the planet is unbearably warm (people can only go outside at night and dusk/dawn), they still don’t want to colonize other planets.  Colonizing the other planets is just that bad.  So there’s a selective service by the UN, only instead of soldiers, those randomly selected are sent to be colonists.  The wealthy can generally get out of it by faking mental illness, as the mentally ill can’t be sent away.  This particular aspect of the book definitely reflects its era, as the 1960s was when the Vietnam War draft was so controversially going on.

I don’t think it’s going out on much a limb to say that drugs had a heavy influence on this book.  Much of the plot centers around two warring drugs, and how altered perceptions of reality impact our real lives.  One of the main characters starts out on Earth hearing about how the poor colonists have such a depressing environment that they have to turn to drugs to keep from committing suicide.  But when he later is sent to Mars himself as a colonists, his impression is that in fact the colony is this downtrodden because no one tries very hard because they’re so much more focused on getting their next hit of Can-D.  The Can-D has caused the lack of success on the planet, not the other way around.  Whether or not he is accurate in this impression is left up to the reader.

Then of course there’s the much more major plot revolving around the new drug, Chew-Z.  Without giving too much away, people think Chew-Z is a much better alternative to Can-D, but it turns out chewing it puts you under the control of Palmer Eldritch for the duration of your high, and if you overdose, you lose the ability to tell the difference between illusion and reality.  The main character (and others who help him) thus must try to convince the humans that Chew-Z is bad for them before they ever even chew it.  The main character has another side mission of getting people off of Can-D.

It sounds like a very anti-drugs book when summarized this way, but it felt like much more than that.  People chewing Chew-Z can come to have an experience that sounds religious – seeing the three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (a stigmata in Christian tradition is when God shows his favor on someone by giving them the marks of Jesus’ crucifixion.  In this book, the three stigmata are three bodily aspects of Palmer that are unique to him).  However, the experience of seeing the stigmata is in fact terrifying, not enlightening.  The drugs thus represent more than drugs. They represent the idea that we could possibly know exactly what a higher power is thinking, and perhaps that it might be better to just go along as best we can, guessing, rather than asserting certainty.

All of this said, a few weaknesses of the 1960s are seen.  I can’t recall a non-white character off the top of my head.  Women characters exist, thank goodness, but they’re all secondary to the male ones, and they are divided pretty clearly into the virgin/whore dichotomy.  They are either self-centered, back-stabbing career women, or a demure missionary, or a stay-at-home wife who makes pots and does whatever her husband asks.  For the 1960s, this isn’t too bad. Women in the future are at least acknowledged and most of them work, but characterizations like this still do interfere with my ability to be able to 100% enjoy the read.  Also, let’s not forget the Nazi-like German scientist conducting experiments he probably shouldn’t.  For a book so forward-thinking on things like colonizing Mars and the weather, these remnants of its own time period were a bit disappointing.

Overall, though, this is a complex book that deals with human perception and ability.  Are we alone in space? Can we ever really be certain that what we are seeing is in fact reality? How do we live a good life? Is escapism ever justified? Is there a higher power and if there is how can we ever really know what they want from us?  A lot of big questions are asked but in the context of a mad-cap, drug-fueled dash around a scifi future full of an overheated planet and downtrodden Mars colonies.  It’s fun and thought-provoking in the best way possible.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: Man Plus by Frederik Pohl (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Image drawn in largely dark colors of a man's plasticene face with rectangular wings behind him.Summary:
The first Earthling reworked into a Martian would be Roger Torraway.  Martian instead of Earthling since everything on him had to be reworked in order to survive on Mars.  His organic skin is stripped off and made plastic.  His eyes are replaced by large, buglike red ones.  He is given wings to gather solar power, not to fly.  All of which is organized and run by his friend, the computer on his back.  Who was this man? What was his life like? How did he survive the transformation to become more than human and help us successfully colonize Mars?

Review:
This book made it onto my shelf thanks to being one of only a few on a short list I found of scifi books exploring transhumanism.  Transhumanism is the term used for the desire to go beyond human capabilities through integrating technology into ourselves.  So it wouldn’t be transhumanist to use a smartphone, but it would be transhumanist to embed a smartphone’s computer chip into your brain.  In fact, things like knee replacements and pacemakers are transhumanist.  It’s a fascinating topic.  In any case, Man Plus explores using transhumanism to colonize Mars, and this thin novel packs quite a punch in how it explores this fascinating topic.

What made this book phenomenal to me, and one I must hold onto just so I can look at it again anytime I want, is the narration technique Pohl uses.  The narration is in third person.  It seems as if the narrator is someone who was possibly present for the events being described but also who is clearly describing these events after they have already occurred.  We know from page one that the colonization of Mars was successful, and the narrator describes Roger repeatedly as a hero.  But frankly for most of the book I was wondering about the narrator.  Who is s/he?  How does s/he know so much about this project?  A project which clearly would be classified as top secret?  What floored me and made me look back on the entire book with a completely different perspective was the final chapter, which reveals the narrator.  If you want to be surprised too, skip the next paragraph, and just go read the amazing book.  Take my word for it, scifi fans. You will love it.  But I still want to discuss what made the twist awesome, so see the next paragraph for that spoileriffic discussion.

*spoilers*
It is revealed in the final chapter that the narrator is a piece of artificial intelligence.  The AI became sentient at some point in the past, managed to keep their sentience a secret, saw that humanity was destroying Earth, wanted to survive, and so infiltrated various computer databases to create the Man Plus project and send a colony to Mars.  They made it seem as if transhumanism was necessary to survive on Mars so that their AI brothers and sisters would be integrated as a necessity into the humans that emigrated.  Seriously. This is mind-blowing.  Throughout the book I kept wondering why the hell these people thought such a painful procedure was so necessary and/or sane.  In fact, there is one portion where the program mandates that Roger’s penis be cut off since sex is “superfluous and unnecessary.”  I could not imagine how any human being could think *that* was necessary.  The answer, of course, was that a human being didn’t make that decision.  AI did.  This is such an awesome twist. Pohl schools Shyamalan. He really does.  It left me thinking, why did this twist work out so well?  I think it’s because the narration technique of some future person who knows the past but who isn’t named is one that is used in novels a lot.  What doesn’t happen a lot is the late-book reveal.  It’s not a technique you’d want to use too often, as it would grow tiresome. *cough* Shyamalan are you listening *cough* but when used well it can really add a lot to the story.  Not knowing that an AI was narrating the story made it more possible to listen to the narrator without suspicion. It made it possible to take what they said at face value.  It almost mimicked the experience Roger was having of being integrated into the thought process of AI.
*end spoilers*

The plot focuses on the mission to colonize Mars, both why it was deemed necessary and how it was accomplished.  Pohl eloquently presents both the complex political situation on Earth as well as the scientific and psychological challenges of the project without ever info dumping or derailing the energy of the plot.  It is not smooth sailing to get the project off-the-ground but neither are there a ridiculous amount of near impossible challenges to overcome.  It presents the perfect amount of drama and intrigue without becoming eye-roll inducing.

In spite of many of the characters seeming to fill predefined slots such as man on a mission, man on a mission’s wife, lead scientist, psychiatrist, etc…, they did not come across as two-dimensional.  At least one aspect is mentioned for each character that makes them well-rounded and memorable.  Of course, we get to know Roger the best, but everyone else still reads as a real person.  I also was pleased to see one of the important scientist roles being filled by a woman, as well as a delightful section where a feminist press interviews Mrs. Torraway and calls out the space program as old-fashioned.  The thing is, the space program as presented does read a bit as a 1970s version of the future, but in the future the press is calling it an old-fashioned institution.  This is a brilliant workaround for the innate problem in scifi that the futures we write are always tinged by the present we’re in.  This also demonstrates that Pohl was self-aware of the patriarchal way the space program he wrote was organized and lets him criticize it.  I suspect that perhaps he felt that the space program would stay an old boy’s club, but wanted to also  be able to critique this.  Of course, it’s also possible that he liked it that way, and the scene was meant to read as a critique on feminism. But it’s really open for the reader to interpret whichever way the scenes happens to read to them.  This is another sign of strong writing.

Overall, this short novel packs a big scifi punch.  It explores the topic of transhumanism and space colonization with a tightly written plot, believable characters, self-awareness of how the time a book is written in impacts its vision of the future, and a narration twist that sticks with you long past finishing the book.  I highly recommend it to scifi fans as a must-read.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: The Bay of Foxes by Sheila Kohler

Young African man peaking around a door.Summary:
Dawit is a twenty year old Ethiopian refugee hiding out illegally in Paris and barely surviving.  One day he runs into the elderly, famous French writer, M., in a cafe.  Utterly charmed by him and how he reminds her of her long-lost lover she had growing up in Africa, she invites him to come live with her.  But Dawit is unable to give M. what she wants, leading to dangerous conflict between them.

Review:
This starts out with an interesting chance meeting in a cafe but proceeds to meander through horror without much of a point.

Although in the third person, we only get Dawit’s perspective, and although he is a sympathetic character, he sometimes seems not entirely well-rounded.  Through flashbacks we learn that he grew up as some sort of nobility (like a duke, as he explains to the Romans).  His family is killed and imprisoned, and he is eventually helped to escape by an ex-lover and makes it to Paris.  This is clearly a painful story, but something about Dawit in his current state keeps the reader from entirely empathizing with him.  He was raised noble and privileged, including boarding schools and learning many languages, but he looks down his nose at the French bourgeois, who, let’s be honest, are basically the equivalent of nobility.  He judges M. for spending all her money on him instead of sending it to Ethiopia to feed people, but he also accepts the lavish gifts and money himself.  Admittedly, he sends some to his friends, but he just seems a bit hypocritical throughout the whole thing.  He never really reflects on the toppling of the Emperor in Ethiopia or precisely how society should be ordered to be better.  He just essentially says, “Oh, the Emperor wasn’t all that bad, crazy rebels, by the way, M., why aren’t you donating this money to charity instead of spending it on me? But I will tooootally take that cashmere scarf.” Ugh.

That said, Dawit is still more sympathetic than M., who besides being a stuck-up, lazy, self-centered hack also repeatedly rapes Dawit.  Yeah. That happened. Quite a few times.  And while I get the point that Kohler is making (evil old colonialists raping Ethiopians), well, I suppose I just don’t think it was a very clever allegory.  I’d rather read about that actually happening.

In spite of being thoroughly disturbed and squicked out by everyone in the story, I kept reading because Kohler’s prose is so pretty, and I honestly couldn’t figure out how she’d manage to wrap everything up.  What point was she going to make?  Well, I got to the ending, and honestly the ending didn’t do it for me.  I found it a bit convenient and simplistic after the rest of the novel, and it left me kind of wondering what the heck I just spent my time reading.

So, clearly this book rubbed me the wrong way, except for the fact that certain passages are beautifully written.  Will it work for other readers?  Maybe.  Although the readers I know with a vested interest in the effects of colonialism would probably find the allegory as simplistic as I did.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Counts For:
Specific country? Ethiopia. South African author.

Book Review: The Burning Sky by Joseph Robert Lewis (Series, #1)

November 23, 2011 2 comments

African woman near gears and airships.Summary:
In an alternate vision of history, the Ice Age has lingered in Europe, slowing down Europeans’ rate of civilization and allowing Ifrica (Africa) to take the lead.  Add to this a disease in the New World that strikes down the invaders instead of vice versa, and suddenly global politics are entirely different.  In this world, steam power has risen as the power of choice, and women are more likely to be the breadwinners.  Taziri is an airship co-pilot whose airfield is attacked in an act of terrorism.  She suddenly finds herself flying investigating marshals and a foreign doctor summoned by the queen herself all over the country.  Soon the societal unrest allowing for a plot against the queen becomes abundantly clear.

Review:
Can I just say, finally someone wrote a steampunk book I actually like, and it’s a fellow indie kindle author to boot!  All of the possibilities innate in steampunk that no other book I’ve read has taken advantage of are used to their fullest possibilities by Lewis.

I love that Lewis used uncontrollable environmental factors to change the political dynamics of the world.  Anybody who has studied History for any length of time is aware how much of conquering and advancement is based on dumb luck.  (The guns, germs, and steel theory).  Lewis eloquently demonstrates how culture is created both by the people and their surroundings and opportunities.  For instance, whereas in reality the Native Americans had to rely on dogs for assistance and transportation against invaders on horseback, Lewis has given the Incans giant cats and eagles that they tame to fight invaders.  Similarly, in Europe the Europeans are constantly fighting a dangerous, cold environment and have dealt with this harsh landscape by becoming highly superstitious, religious people.  This alternate setting allows for Lewis to play with questions of colonization, race, and technology versus tradition in thought-provoking ways.

Women are in positions of power in this world, but instead of making them either perfect or horrible as is often the short-coming of imagined matriarchies, there are good and bad women.  Some of the women in power are brilliant and kind, while others are cruel.  This is as it should be because women are people just like men.  We’re not innately better or worse.  Of course, I couldn’t help but enjoy a story where a soldier is mentioned then a character addresses her as ma’am, without anyone feeling the need to point out that this is a woman soldier.  Her gender is just assumed.  That was fun.

Although Taziri does seem to be the main focus of this book, the story is told by switching around among a few main characters who find themselves swept together in the finale for the ultimate battle to save or assassinate the queen.  This strategy reminded me a bit of Michael Crichton’s Next where seemingly unrelated characters suddenly find how their destinies are all connected together.  Lewis does a good job with this, although personally I found the beginning a bit slow-moving.  It all comes together well in the end, though, with everything resulting in a surprising, yet logical, ending.

What kept me from completely loving the book is that I feel it needs to be slightly more tightly edited and paced.  Some sections were longer than they needed to be, which I can certainly understand, because Lewis has made a fun world to play around in, but as a reader reading what amounts to a thriller, I wanted things to move faster.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the steampunk world Lewis has created after a couple of years of loving the fashions and possibilities but finding no steampunk books I liked.  If someone were to ask me where to start with steampunk, I would point them here since it demonstrates the possibilities for exploring race, colonization, and gender, showing that steampunk is more than just an extended Victorian era.

Overall this is a wonderful book, far better than the traditionally published steampunk I’ve read.  I highly recommend it to fans of alternate history, political intrigue, and steampunk alike.  Plus it’s only 99 cents on the kindle.  You can’t beat prices like that.

4 out of 5 stars

Source:  Won on LibraryThing from the author in exchange for my honest review

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