Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Green Mars (Book)

Revolution meant shattering one structure and creating another one, but shattering was easier than creating, and so the two parts of the act were not necessarily fated to be equally successful. In that sense, building a revolution was like building an arch; until both columns were there, and the keystone in place, practically any disruption could bring the whole thing crashing down.
Green Mars, the winner of the 1994 Hugo and Locus Science Fiction awards, continues where Red Mars left off. In the beginning of the story, the major characters are dealing with the aftermath of their failed revolution against the Transnats and Earth’s control. The characters are hiding in the underground and trying to live meaningful lives. Slowly, they attempt to live above ground and have an influence on the future shape of Mars, both physically and socially. At the end of the book, they are again engaged in a revolution. Throughout the book, Mars is being terraformed by both biological and artificial means.

In Green Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson continues to tell the story of the first 100 colonists, who thanks to the longevity treatments are now in their hundreds. He also adds some new characters: the natives, who were born on Mars and are the biological children of some of the original colonists; and some people from Praxis, a sympathetic transnational company.

I am having problems putting the Mars Series down, despite my best intentions to pace myself. Like Red Mars, Green Mars felt very real to me, almost like watching a PBS special. Robinson does an excellent job of describing the terraforming. His descriptions of the biology, geology, ecology, and engineering seem very plausible to me. He includes issues related to psychology, religion, economics, and politics. His description of the Transnats taking over whole countries on Earth gave me pause because it seems like such a logical next step. The characters are multi-dimensional and, for the most part, sympathetic. Robinson includes enough action to prevent the story from getting bogged down. Blue Mars, which I am about to start reading, completes the Mars Series.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Red Mars (Book)

I confess that I was one of those little girls who dreamed about going to other planets. So I was awestruck by the opening chapters of Red Mars, the 1993 Nebula Award and 1992 British Science Fiction Association Award winning novel by Kim Stanley Robinson. I wanted to digitize myself and live in those pages. Alas, like the Old West, in the book Mars quickly becomes dominated by politics and corporations, but the story continued to be enjoyable.

The first chapters of Red Mars describe how the first 100 colonists travel to Mars and begin to create a life for themselves. As in any group, there are power struggles and alliances. But, there is also a sense of destiny, like anything is possible. As the story progresses, the original colonists’ success gives the government on earth the confidence to send more colonists. Within decades, Mars is no longer just a place to explore, but another place to exploit for resources and another unpleasant place to work. Transnational corporations have more power than the original United Nations groups. In the last chapters of the novel, there is a revolution and it literally changes the face of Mars. The chapters are written from the perspective of the original colonists. A life extension drug discovered early in the book makes it possible for the colonists to remain vital despite the passing of decades.

As they ate they looked up at the surface of Mars, swirled like a gas giant. Suddenly, it looked to John like a great orange cell, or embryo, or egg. Chromosomes whipping about under a mottled orange shell. A new creature waiting to be born, genetically engineered for sure; and they were engineers, still working on what kind of creature it would be. They were all trying to clip the genes they wanted (their own) into plasmids and insert them into the plant’s DNA spirals, to get the expressions they wanted from the new chimerical beast.
From the very beginning, even within the first 100 colonists, there is a difference of opinion on what Mars should be. For some, Mars is a great scientific discovery to be explored. For others, it is a world that should be terraformed for human use. For some it is a place to set up new forms of government, religion, and social structure. For others, it is a place for their culture to evolve.—In one scene dervishes in space suits whirl in the middle of a sand storm—As the story evolves, we see those that think of Mars only as a source of raw minerals or a place to dump excess population.

For me, the descriptions of the landscape and geology were the most fascinating parts of the book. In the beginning, Robinson goes into detail as he describes the virgin Mars and the effects of the first 100 setting up a livable colony. Similarly, near the end of the story, he goes into detail describing the havoc that is played on the environment by the rebels and by those who want to stop the rebels.

Red Mars is the first book in the Mars trilogy. The next books, Green Mars and Blue Mars, won Hugo awards.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Speaker for the Dead (Book)

Understanding the Other...Uncovering the Whole Story…Redeeming the Past. The 1987 Hugo Award, 1987 Locus Science Fiction Award and 1986 Nebula Award winning novel, Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card is one of the most deeply philosophical and fascinating science fiction novels I have ever read. Based on all the many awards that it received, I gather that I am not the only one that felt changed by reading the book.

The concept of the speaker of the dead is an interesting one, easily applicable to my life. In the book, the speakers of the dead tell the story of people’s lives, both the good and the bad. The speakers tell not only what the deceased did, but also what they intended to do and why they did what they did. The speakers are a combination of researcher/detective, storyteller, and an almost religious figure. In the book, the speaker may only do the speaking on the request of the decedent or someone close to the decedent. The First Speaker was Ender—of Ender’s Game—who anonymously wrote a book about the victims of his xenocide. As I grow up, I find myself talking more honestly—and compassionately—about people who have passed away.

The second interesting concept is based on the writing of Ender’s sister, Valentine, who writes as Demosthenes. From what I can figure out these ideas come partially from Nordic language and partially from Card. Strangers are described on a continuum, using four terms: Utlanning, the human of our world; Framling, the human of another world; Raman, the human of another species; Varelse, those with whom no conversation is possible. The implication and extrapolations of these concepts could easily fill several weeks’ worth of blogs. I encounter this idea of stranger almost every day in the news. Recently when I was watching a local politician, I realized that he didn’t see those who disagreed with him as fully human; they were very other to him. In the United States some people don’t recognize gays, Hispanics, Union members, Democrats/Republicans as Utlanning. [I just read that Card was against gay marriage, so I am not sure he would agree with all my thoughts about his book.] One could surmise that more people in the US recognize the Japanese as Utlanning than they do people in the Middle East. In Speaker of the Dead, Card introduces the reader to a very revealing concept that permeates out lives.

Ah yes, I suppose I need to give a quick overview of the plot. Ender is now biologically 35, but chronologically over 3000 years old due to the relativity of time travel. Traveling from planet to planet with his sister Valentine, Ender speaks for the dead; no one knows that he is the First Speaker and the person who committed xenocide. Ender receives a request from a young woman whose mentor has been murdered on an experimental colony by the piggies, only the second alien species to be encountered. By the time that Ender arrives—22 years chronologically but only weeks for Ender biologically—the woman has withdrawn her request, but two more requests have been made for a speaker based on the deaths of two other individuals. One of the new deaths is again attributed to the piggies. Ender works as part detective and part confessor. His presence and his uncovering of the truth radically change the lives of everyone on the planet.

While the book is primarily about people, the science and politics are also interesting. Card describes how a single event shapes the lives of a whole family. Card also shows how Ender changes those he meets. The very otherness of the biology that shapes the planet is fascinating. The questioning of basic premises behind scientific and political decisions is eye opening.

Ender’s Game and Speaker of the Dead have a tremendous potential to truly change reader’s lives, because they cause many people to question the way they think and their basic assumptions. Now, I am off to reading more Hugo Award winning novels and having my thinking changed even more.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ender’s Game (Book)

And it came down to this: In the moment when I [Ender] truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them….I destroy them. I make it impossible for them to ever hurt me again.
The 1986 Hugo Award and 1985 Nebula Award winning novel by Orson Scott Card is about a little boy named Ender. It begins when he is six and ends when he is still a preteen. If Ender were a teenager or a young adult the book would have a very different impact on the reader.

Briefly, the government has been looking for someone to lead the war against the buggers, aliens who once attacked earth. While Ender’s older siblings were considered promising, his brother was deemed too violent and his sister too passive; so the government asks the family to have a third child. Ender spends his early childhood attached to a device that monitors his every move. When Ender is six, the government removes the device and takes him away to a battle school on a space station, allowing no contact with his family. There the children, mostly boys, play various games. Some of the games are used to analyze the children in different areas. Others are used to gauge the children’s ability to perform and lead in battle. But, Ender realizes from the beginning that the games aren’t fair. First, the school purposely tries to isolate him from his fellow students and even any adult who might care. Then, the school continues to put Ender in situations where he is at a disadvantage from the other students. The ending of the book is the ultimate, an atrocious, betrayal of anyone, especially a little kid.

Given the plot, why did I still find this an enjoyable book? Ender is a very sympathetic and interesting character. He has a good conscious. Despite the manipulation of the adults, he manages to form some loyal friendships. Despite having the odds against him, Ender continues to find ways to win in the games, school, and his life. Also, the zero-gravity war games the students engage in as part of the school are fascinating—this from a woman who normally doesn’t like battle scenes in books. I enjoyed the strategy; it vaguely reminded me of basketball. In general, I enjoyed reading how Ender’s mind sized up situations and created strategies.

Ender’s Game is the prequel to Speaker for the Dead, another Hugo Award winning novel, which takes place when Ender is a middle-aged man who is trying to deal with the aftermath of the final game.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Why We Read Fiction (Quote)

This quote about why we read fiction spoke to me. Orson Scott Card wrote it for the introduction of the 1991 version of his book Ender’s Game.

Why else do we read fiction, anyway? .... I think most of us…read these stories that we know are not “true” because we’re hungry for another kind of truth: The mythic truth about human nature in general, the particular truth about those life-communities that define our own identity, and the most specific truth of all: our own self-story. Fiction, because it is not about somebody who actually lived in the real world, always has the possibility of being about ourself.

Later on in the introduction, Card writes about the “true” story:

The “true” story is not the one that exists in my [Card’s] mind; it is certainly not the written words on the bound paper that you hold in your hand….The story itself, the true story, is the one that the audience members create in their minds, guided and shaped by my text, but then transformed, elucidated, expanded, edited, and clarified by their own experience, their own desires, their own hopes and fears.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Swamplandia! (Book)

Heaven, Kiwi thought, would be the reading room of a great library. But it would be private. Cozy….Heaven would be a comfy armchair….You’d get a great, private phonograph, and all of eternity to listen to your life’s melody. You could isolate your one life out of the cacophonous galaxy—the a cappella version—or you could play it back with its accompaniment, embedded in the brass and strings of mothers, fathers, sisters, windfalls and failures, percussion cities of strangers. You could play it forward or backward, back and back, and listen to the future of your past. You could lift the needle at whim, defeating Time.
Reading Swamplandia! reminded me of the times when my family returned home after a vacation and one of us would turn over a bag filled with the souvenirs we had collected. Postcards, matchbooks, key chains, brochures and assorted other mementos would tumble out. What makes the recently released Swamplandia! by Karen Russell such a memorable story are the vivid scenes.

The basic plot is a common one. The mother and wife, the gravitational center of the family of five, passes away and the family starts to drift apart. In this case, the family consists of the Bigtrees, who have been running an amusement park called Swamplandia! on an island in the swamp lands of Florida. Since birth, all the children have been actively involved in the running of the amusement park. The mom, the featured act, would dive into a pool filled with seths, alligators. After her death, the amusement park rapidly loses its ability to attract tourists.

As the story unfolds, the oldest daughter drifts away, obsessed with a book called the Spiritist’s Telegraph, sneaking away at night to rendezvous with ghost lovers. The son is the first to physically leave the family, convinced that the future lies in the everyday world. He takes a job at a competing amusement park, The World of Darkness, where his home-schooled naiveté is worn away. In order to deal with mounting debt, the father goes away for a few weeks “on a business trip,” leaving the two daughters alone with the seths on the island. The oldest daughter leaves the island to marry a ghost lover, and the younger daughter tries to find her with the assistance of a stranger.

I found the book surreal and poignant. I thought Russell’s writing was skillful. In one chapter Russell describes the youngest daughter searching for the entrance to the underworld in order to find the oldest sister. In the next chapter Russell describes the son taking a class in order to receive his GED and go to college. I serendipitously found out about Swamplandia!—our library system mistakenly listed it as a new science fiction release—and I am glad I was able to read such a memorable story.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mirror Dance (Book)

“It’s important that someone celebrate our existence,” she [Cordelia] objected amiably. “People are the only mirror we have to see ourselves in. The domain of all meaning. All virtue, all evil, are contained only in people.”
The first time we meet Mark, in Brothers in Arms, Miles thinks that he is seeing himself in a mirror. In Mirror Dance—the ninth book in the Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold and winner of the 1995 Hugo and Locus Science Fiction awards—we see Mark as more than just a clone created to replace Miles.

In the beginning of the story Mark, masquerading as Admiral Naismith, attempts to use the Dendarii Mercenaries to rescue a group of clones who are slated to become body transplants for aging, wealthy patrons. Miles finds out about the deception, much too late, and tries to intervene. The rescue goes terribly, terribly wrong. The rest of the book deals with the aftermath.

Mirror Dance is a story about identity. Bujold expertly weaves a story in which multiple characters attempt to answer the question Who am I? Mark is the focus of the story, exploring his identities as a clone to the charismatic Miles, the son of Cordelia and Aral, the victim of Galen, and much more. Elena Bothari-Jesek finally faces the part of her identity which is the daughter of a man who raped her mother. Clones slated to be used as body transplants attempt to look at themselves as independent individuals. Individuals from a family of cloned medical professions try to see themselves separate from the group. Finally, we see Miles as Admiral Naismith, Lord Vorkosigan, and nobody at all.

I found Mirror Dance both disturbing and heartwarming. At times I felt that I couldn’t read anymore because the scenes were so troubling, but Bujold expertly switched the scene to something else just in time. I enjoyed seeing Cordelia again in her full power. While Brothers in Arms seemed somewhat shallow, Mirror Dance plunges deep below the surface. The writing was masterful. For me the book is the culmination of the series so far.

While the Vorkosigan series continues on, I need to quit reading it so I can focus on reading other Hugo award winning novels and some of their series-mates. I admired Bujold’s courage to deal with difficult topics. I enjoyed Miles as a man with a disability, especially because for many years I was friends with a woman whose son has brittle bone syndrome. After reading ten books in the series, I feel like I am leaving a city where I have had an enjoyable stay. I will miss it. Hopefully I will be back again.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ninth Tai Chi Class of the Season

A sticky note with the words Our Imperfections Make Us Unique was on the mirror of the ladies’ restroom when I arrived at the school where I take Tai Chi. At first, I found it inspirational and affirming. Later I found it slightly negative. Would it be more affirming to say that Our Uniqueness Makes Us Valuable or Out Of Our Imperfections Can Come Our Greatest Gifts?

A fitness boot camp was in the gym before our class. It was loud and all the lights were on, making the chi a bit too stimulating for Tai Chi. One of my classmates turned off most of the lights before our class, allowing only the natural light from outside. The gym is very old and evidently one of the switches did not take kindly to being flipped. Besides turning off the lights, we lost power to half the outlets, including the ones our Tai Chi instructor, Bob, planned to use to plug in his CD player. So, he used the outlet on the opposite side of the gym, causing us to have to face opposite from how we have faced for over a decade. Fun ensued. When we got around to doing the form, some people were extremely disoriented. Others were periodically disoriented. Many were occasionally thrown off because they saw the people who were disoriented. I was only thrown off a couple of times, so I was thrilled.

Bob actually began the class with breathing Chi Gong. Bless him; I really needed that. The exercises help a person breathe slower and deeper. The deeper breathes makes a person calmer, more in tune with life, and potentially healthier.

Other than facing backward, we didn’t experience anything particularly exciting. I missed last week, and evidently Bob had talked about making sure everything was stacked on one another: for example, head, neck, shoulders, spine; or thigh, knee, ankle, foot. He also had talked about working with gravity. This week focused on moving from our center, the lower dantian. This is always a good idea to remember.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Brothers in Arms (Book)

Damn, damn, damn. Miles had walked into this trap, knowing it was a trap, in the hopes of gaining just the sort of information he now possessed. But he hadn’t meant to stay trapped.
In the beginning of Brothers in Arms, the 8th Book of the Vorkosigan Series by Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles is trying to juggle his identities as Lieutenant Vorkosigan and Admiral Naismith of the Dendariis Free Mercenary Fleet. In order to keep his dual identity a secret, he tells a reporter that he has a clone. Oh, be careful what you wish for Miles! Soon we discover that Miles really has a clone. Even more trouble follows.

This is a fun, adventuresome book. There isn’t a lot of deep meaning to it. There are a few touching scenes and twists, which is what we would expect from a Bujold novel. This book sets the foundation for Mirror Dance, a Hugo Award winning novel.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Borders of Infinity (Book)

Impressive Stories. Sides of Miles Vorkosigan we have not seen in other books. The book Borders of Infinity by Lois McMaster Bujold consists of four stories: three novellas and an overarching story that ties them all together. Besides being worthwhile independently, the stories also help to fill in some gaps in the Vorkosigan Series.

Connecting the novellas are segments of a story in which Simon Illyan, head of Imperial Security on Barrayar, interviews a hospitalized Miles about financial overages in his various missions. We then find out about these missions in the novellas.

Mountains of Morning is probably the best novella I have ever read. The story will stay with me a long time. It deservingly won the 1990 Hugo Award for best novella. Miles, just out of the military academy, is asked by his father to investigate the death, possible murder, of a baby born with a cleft pallet in a rural area under the jurisdiction of Miles’ father. Miles has been commissioned to “find the killer and extract justice.” In some ways Miles believes that his father is testing him with this experience. We see a side of Miles that is both wise and touching. The story touched me even more because I had a family member who was born, in a rural area, with a very mild form of the same disorder. Even a person who is not familiar with the Vorkosigan Saga could appreciate the story.

Labyrinth, the 1989 Analog reader’s poll winner for best novella, has some of the fun we expect from Miles. The Dendarii Mercenaries are supposed to extract a brilliant geneticist from Jackson’s Whole. The supposedly easy mission goes wrong when the geneticist won’t go along with them until they retrieve some biological samples stored in the leg of a “monster” that they must find. The story shows Miles embracing different types of people’s humanity and valuing them for who they are. We see Miles with his brittle bones; Nicole, who is a harp playing Quaddie (a genetically engineered woman with four arms and no legs); Bel, who is a genetically engineered hermaphrodite; and Nine, who was engineered with both human and animal DNA.

Borders of Infinity, the novella which is the namesake of the book, is by far the most somber story I have read of Bujold’s. While well written, most of it is just downright depressing. It also shows a cold side of Miles that I don’t remember in the other novels. Most of the story takes place in a Cetagandian Prisoner of War camp. We don’t find out why Miles is there until late in the story.

I am glad that I found Bujold’s writing. Reading Borders of Infinity is yet another experience that has made my voyage in reading all the Hugo Award winning novels worthwhile.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Ethan of Athos (Book)

 A fascinating story about a man seeing the larger galaxy outside his isolated world. Ethan of Athos, although usually listed as the seventh book in the Vorkosigan Series by Lois McMaster Bujold, only briefly alludes to Miles Vorkosigan. It is really a story about Ethan, a young doctor responsible for reproduction on Athos, a very isolated world which is composed solely of men. The vast majority of men there have never even seen a picture of a woman, let alone had any contact with one. In some ways, the plot reminds me of a young Amish man undergoing Rumspringa, the time the youth are encouraged to live outside their community before they make their adulthood commitment. The book is written in the style of a Science Fiction Mystery.

Briefly, the Athosians use uterine replicators to reproduce. The ovum stock they have been using is over two hundred years old—from when the planet was originally settled—and is beginning to fail. Ethan sends for new stock off world, but instead receives miscellaneous waste tissue. Another Athos off world contact is not scheduled to take place for another year. Ethan is forced to leave Athos in search of ova to use to replenish their stock. In his quest, Ethan is befriended by Elli Quinn, a member of the Dendarri Mercenaries founded by Miles Vorkosigan. He also gets mixed up in the life of Terrence Cee, a man seeking refuge.

Bujold wrote Ethan of Athos before she began to publish the books that would later become the Vorkosigan Series. While Elli has much of the same spunk of Miles and his mother Cordelia, the book has a much more philosophical tone than some of the others in the series. It explores homosexuality and looks at motherhood in some less common ways. Even if I had never read another book before from the Vorkosigan Series, I would have enjoyed this one. It makes my respect for Bujold even stronger.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Cetaganda (Book)

Wisdom from Miles:
“No rules at all?”
“Well, one rule, maybe. Deliver success or pay with your ass.”
Genetic Engineering. Gender Roles. Haut. Mystery. Cetaganda, the sixth book in the Vorkosigan Series by Lois McMaster Bujold, is essentially a science fiction mystery. Despite not winning any major awards, the book was remarkable.

Briefly, Miles and his cousin Ivan are sent as representative of Barrayar to attend the State Funeral of the Dowager Empress of Cetaganda. Before they even dock their shuttle, they are attacked and acquire a mysterious wand. The attacker is later found dead. The wand could possibly be the Great Key of Cetaganda. Who murdered the attacker? Who stole the Great Key and why did they give it to Miles and Ivan? Is someone on Cetaganda trying to create an incident with Barrayar? Who is trying to harm Miles and Ivan?

My reaction to the world of Cetaganda is one of both fascination and horror. The Haut, upper class, women of Cetaganda travel everywhere totally encased in bubbles, which are opaque and soundproof to those outside of them. Many times the women are on floating chairs inside their bubbles, making them even more beautiful. Despite being written in 1996, the bubbles seem to allude to the burquas worn by Islamic women. In addition, Cetaganda is permeated with the results of its genetic engineering. At one point one of the characters says that they use living tissue as an artistic medium. Ivan has an unfortunate encounter with a kitten tree, a tree used to gestate cat embryos. The Ba, the servants of the Haut Lords and Ladies, are living trials of genetic changes that may be incorporated into later Haut generations.

Those who are fans of Miles will see him less hyperactive and more intense in his role as an operative, albeit rule breaking one. We also see more of his friendship/rivalry with his cousin Ivan. This is an enjoyable book and a nice change of pace from some of the previous ones.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Vor Game (Book)

“It’s going to get real crazy soon.”
“With Mad Miles back in charge, how could it be otherwise?”

Miles in all his glory. A fun adventure. The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold is the winner of the 1991 Hugo Award for best novel and the fifth book (internal chronology) in the Vorkosigan Saga. In the novel, we see Miles in multiple roles: Ensign Vorkosigan, Admiral Naismith leader of the Dendarii Mercenaries, Victor Rotha arms dealer, childhood friend of Emperor Gregor, son of Count Vorkosigan, and loyal Lord Vorkosigan. As always, Miles isn’t so good at following orders but is excellent at fulfilling the mission.

Briefly, after graduating from the military academy Miles is sent as a weatherman to a remote Arctic camp with the hopes that he will cool his heels and learn to follow orders. Alas, when his superior is in the process of committing a criminal act, Miles intervenes and has yet another mark of insubordination added to his record. Later, he has more opportunities to disobey orders when he is sent out as part of a military fact finding mission. While dodging trouble, he encounters Emperor Gregor, who after a half hearted suicide attempt decides to run away from home. Using his natural ability to improvise and all available resources, including the Dendarii Mercenaries, Miles works to save Gregor and prevent a major war.

While for the most part The Vor Game is a fun adventure, it has a few touching moments. Bujold weaves Miles disability into the story. We come face to face with the affects of war. We also learn why Gregor wanted to jump off the balcony to end his life. Sometimes Miles is a crazy, hyper young man, but sometimes he is truly admirable as a human being.  Now I understand why other readers like the Vorkosigan series so much.