Nebula Project: Man Plus

What follows is a spoiler laden discussion of the book Man Plus by Frederik Pohl. Beware if you’re worried about such things.

Man Plus book cover

Facing mutual self-destruction, the major governmental powers on Earth race into space. One solution: to create a cyborg capable of living and working on Mars without a suit. When the first test subject dies, Roger Torraway becomes the man of the hour. Or the man plus of the hour. As his body is gradually converted into a “Martian”, his mind has to cope with no longer being human while he angsts about his love for his cheating wife.

J: So.. Man Plus wasn’t a promising title. I didn’t know what to expect going into it. Except that you started it first and said it was horrible. And you were right. And not only did it not get better, it GOT WORSE. But, at least it was short.

K: Man Plus is a very ambiguous title, though it becomes clear enough as soon as you begin reading: Man+, new and improved man, etc. It’s certainly not double-plus good. I can’t, however, agree with you that it got worse: the first part of the book was definitely the lowest point for me. It didn’t improve, really, but the parts where Pohl abandoned his efforts at characterization and concentrated just on his science fiction were considerably better.

J: The first chapter was a straight infodump. So it’s true that it improved on hitting the second chapter, with actual action and dialog. And yes, it did get more interesting. But the treatment of the female characters got increasingly worse. With a little rise and sharp dip at the end. So it was just painful all the way through.

K: Maybe I just got numb to it. I don’t know. So, let’s first take a look at the basic premise: Earth is an environmental and political disaster area, and rather than figure out a way to fix this, instead, based on opinion polling, the Americans have decided to adapt a human so that he can live on Mars without a space suit. Which is sadly, totally believable.

J: Except I didn’t quite understand the point of it. Because it turns out they were going to send astronauts in suits along as well. And they haven’t built in any way for this man+ to reproduce once he’s on Mars. So if Earth continues to go to crap, there aren’t going to be any more Man Martians.

K: Exactly. It made no sense at all. But no doubt it made everyone feel good, even if it solved nothing at all and left them with pretty much the exact same problems as they had before, just less time to solve them in.

K: Considering they obviously had a way to create livable areas on the surface (the traditional ‘domes’), and the Man+ required considerable computer support and was able to be felled just by not buttoning closed a flap, it didn’t seem to me like this was a viable or reasonable long term OR short term solution.

J: Add to that that at least one other astronaut was there almost solely as tech support for him and you’ve wasted two slots you could’ve used for engineers or Mars experts. Or was it three? What was the priest there for?

K: He was an ‘aerologist’ or something like that. I wasn’t entirely sure what that was. It sounded like he was hoping to be an exobiologist if any exobioorganisms could be found. And then they needed an actual pilot who seemingly needed no additional skills, since he wasn’t going to be able to land regardless. But the strangest part was that the addition of ‘Brad’ to the team was apparently as last minute decision made practically on a whim! Considering how very many issues they had with Man+ just lauching into space what would they have done if they hadn’t sent him along?

J: He wasn’t the only whim they had either. But let me back up to explain the plot a bit more. However well I might manage it. Our main character is Roger Torraway and he’s an astronaut, though it’s been years since he was in space. He now works on a project to produce this Mars-adapted man. A friend and former colleague is the guinea pig. But things go horribly wrong and he dies. As guinea pigs are wont to do. And Torraway’s the new man for the job. And so we get to go through all these procedures and surgeries and tests with him, while he angsts about his wife having an affair. And, spoilers, they eventually do get to Mars.

K: It does seem to me to be the worst sort of stupidity to have put all your eggs in one basket. Why on Earth would they only have one prototype Marsman? Even though they act like it’s not a big deal that they must essentially start from scratch building Roger, it surely has to have delayed everything at least a bit!

J: And neither of them seems very keen on doing it either. Which has to make me wonder why they agreed! Surely ‘duty’ only goes so far. When they signed up to be astronauts, they didn’t sign up to be surgical modification guinea pigs. It’s not something I would want to do, or most people would want to do, but surely someone out there would be willing and eager. Since even the prior astronaut training seemed to be not essential. And yea, why wouldn’t you test these individual things on other people before slapping them into your one prototype? And to have your head eye guy NOT THERE when you’re installing the key piece of eye thing seems reckless. I have to say the humans in this story don’t come off looking good at all. Any of them.

K: The decisionmaking process of all of these people seemed extremely random and without any thought to potential consequences. Or at least, if they were aware of consequences, they didn’t take any steps to minimize risk. BUT it’s not just the humans who come off as idiots in the end, in my opinion.

J: I cannot disagree with that. And this is a major spoiler, I suppose. But we do warn about spoilers! Was the ‘twist’ ending any sort of surprise to you? I have to say I noticed the ‘we’ pretty early on and that was one of my guesses as to who ‘we’ was. Very high on the list.

K: It wasn’t a surprise exactly. I didn’t get the impression that the ‘we’ was intended to be subtle or easily missed, and it was very clear that the ‘we’ weren’t humans. I can’t say I guessed what the ‘we’ would be but then I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it either.

J: To me it read like a shift from third person omniscient to first person plural that was supposed to start out subtle. I don’t think you were supposed to notice right away. But it was easy to doubt it was an AI because the computers were so big and clunky and seemingly stupid. You know, early 1970s computers. I think punch cards are even referenced. At times, aliens seemed more likely.

K: I don’t remember the reference to punch cards. But it was interesting to me to see what Pohl felt would be the limitations of the computer intelligence. I’m not sure it was well thought out. For instance: the computers have been manipulating the US Government into doing this Mars mission and, more importantly, putting a big computer into orbit around Mars with a nice generator. But they simultaneously concluded that it would be impossible for them to get someone to build an end-of-the-world bunker on some isolated island somewhere. To me, these seem like they require similar levels of manipulation. Surely the computers could easily pretend to be a corporation and trick some humans into doing the work for them. It doesn’t seem especially far-fetched given the set of parameters we have.

J: Or send robots to Mars rather than a cyborg. Just seems so much easier. Or a number of other scenarios. I mean, they don’t even need to be on Mars. Just a bunch of computerized spaceships would be good for a start. What bothered me was the machine intelligence was sexist too! Why are they all ‘brothers’? They don’t have a sex, why should they need a gender? What was so wrong with the word ‘sibling’ or ‘cousin’ or something? Siiigh.

K: Yeah, that was odd. I guess on that note we may as well talk about the issues with the female characters in this book. Of which there were many — issues, not female characters. Starting with Roger’s wife, Dorrie. Who apparently has her own thoughts and needs (good), and works because she wants to (good), but is running a store with no actual effort made to be profitable (bad), because her husband wants to support her ‘hobby’ (bad). And she’s kind of a bitch (neutral).

J: The first time we see a female character, she’s being patronized by the President of the United States. How the pretty little things had to put up with having their nails soaked to remove poisons, lest they scratch him. Actually reading those security measures was interesting, because they weren’t much more, to see the President, than they would be today to, go to Ohio.

K: And his interaction is given as evidence of how personable he is. It struck me more as something straight out of Mad Men, and certainly not something for the mid-70s, when feminism as a movement was really quite far underway. Except Pohl then later proceeds to treat us to a weird scene where Dorrie, now famous as Roger’s spouse, is interviewed by a feminist magazine. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to make the feminists look ridiculous by portraying them as fringe, or being inclusive and just kind of clueless about how to do it.

J: Yea, the feminist character was even worse than his portrayal of the other women. She resents having to do the interview at all, because the magazine isn’t interested in Dorrie for Dorrie’s sake, but just because she’s this famous astronaut’s wife. So right from the start she has this bad rapport with the person she’s supposed to be interviewing. Not that she cares. And says some pretty horrible things to her that aren’t feminist at all. ‘What sort of example are you going to set young womanhood? Turning yourself into a dried-up old maid?’ Calling marriage a ‘ridiculous farce’. Though I liked that her interview crew seemed to be all women. Though I don’t know whether the ‘prop boys’ were or not. It was interesting he said ‘lightperson’, ‘soundperson’, ‘cameraperson’, because those terms were so fine I didn’t even notice they were gender neutral. Until he surprised me by making them women. Up to now the only women had been wives and nurses. So I was definitely assuming anyone else was a man.

K: It was wiser to make that assumption, though we did find that one of the ‘nurses’ was actually a psychologist in disguise, and there did seem to be a woman involved in the testing phase of Roger’s abilities who didn’t seem to be a nurse? I don’t quite remember what her actual position was, though.

J: It wasn’t clear if he was trying to realistically portray a feminist and doing it badly, or making fun of them. But yea, not only is she a psychologist, but a major and an astronaut. At least by training even if she hadn’t gotten into space before. But even she doesn’t get off lightly. Because for some reason it’s thought if she pretends to be a nurse and looks like his wife, that this’ll help him adapt to his wife not being there for him. Or something? So she’s a surrogate love interest first, and psychologist only second.

K: Yeah, I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on there. Certainly Roger’s stalkery obsession with his wife should have caused him to fail some kind of psychological tests required to become an astronaut, let alone their prize cyborg?

J: You’d think. What was even more strange was that they apparently had an open marriage anyway. So it wasn’t that she was having sex with this other guy, or even that it was another guy he knew, but that it was happening while they were living together, rather than in different parts of the world? Or something? She wasn’t doing it in the right way, basically. Oh and they built in his fail-safe warning procedure to hallucinate her. Whose brilliant idea was that?

K: The priest even admits later he realizes now that was a huge mistake. But apparently the 12-year-old boy ethos continues to reign supreme even at future NASA. I bet they digitally enhanced her boobs too.

J: *laugh* Yea, I don’t know why they didn’t change it when they realized it would be a problem. Women are definitely sex objects in this book. As in, objects to have sex with. The psychologist astronaut? She goes up in space in a different ship, with one guy. And they have sex. Even though the all-male crew of the other ship seemed to be fine with spending months not getting any. The wife of the first guinea pig, she comes down to have a look at what he looks like now. Then she expresses concern that he’s not getting any, and offers. Only to be told he doesn’t have the equipment. So.. she leaves. Without talking to him or seeing him, or kissing him or touching him or anything. Like, well, if I can’t have sex, then my role as wife is moot. Even the nun the priest is dating could have sex if they filled out the right paperwork!

K: The part with the first man’s wife was very odd. The whole book was definitely written from a male perspective, and was weirdly progressive in certain places and weirdly regressive in others. In that sense, it made me think of Forever War and its odd treatment of the female soldiers.

J: A male perspective is extra odd considering the narrator is this machine intelligence. Oh, and seemingly out of nowhere, near the end of the book, the psychologist/astronaut is called a ‘girl’. Just, for no reason, and it wasn’t something I’d seen used earlier. Though it might’ve been and I just didn’t notice then.

K: I don’t know. The reference didn’t spring out at me, so it must not have been that egregious. The male characters (aside from Roger, who as I mentioned before I felt was rather unstable) seemed all right. No super deep characterizations, but they were all types that have shown up in other books and didn’t really strain credulity there.

J: Yea, they were okay. I didn’t like any of them particularly, but they didn’t make me want to throw the book across the room.

K: And the cyborg idea was pretty interesting. I just wish it felt more logical in the end to have even done it. The whole musing on how it would be necessary to cut down on the inputs because his brain just couldn’t handle the information overload struck me as a fresh idea.

J: Although the example that young adults who’d been blind all their lives and were given sight then killed themselves because their brains couldn’t adapt? Was that a real thing that happened?

K: Extensive research in wikipedia suggests… sort of. Though I didn’t get the impression that in the book he was talking about real cases, but about the use of artificial eyes a la Geordi La Forge.

J: I got the impression he was referring to a real thing, or what seemed to be a real thing. But maybe, yea. Anyway, the whole cyborg thing. Well, it’s odd to even think of him as a cyborg, because it.. well, maybe it’s just what I’ve seen in sf/f lately. Steampunk often delves into biomedical stuff. All Men of Genius with surgeries and Westerfeld’s Leviathan series with genetic manipulation. So it was just I guess hard for me to think of it as a cyborg, even though yea, it was all machine and electronic bits and not organic bits. So even though it was a cyborg and I can’t argue with that, it still felt to me like ‘old-school’ steampunk or Cold War surgeries. Like, hey, let’s give him two heads. Even though that wasn’t it. And apparently cyborgs are awesome guitar players. That was random.

K: That was very random. I wasn’t sure if it was trying to restore his manliness after he was castrated or what. But anyway, not being a connoisseur of steampunk or clockwork or anything, what it reminded me of the most was the Borg (the original Borg, not how they ended up). Except the Borg started their adaptations as babies — perhaps to overcome the sensory overload issues. And of course this predates almost all of that.

J: Does it predate cybermen?

K: Inasmuch as the Cybermen appeared in 1966, no.

J: But they didn’t have wings.

J: One other thing I wanted to be sure to mention is his term ‘sinonaut’. Presumably this is referring to the Asian astronauts. Asia seems to be this large.. faction, coalition? It seemed an odd term, so I Googled it. It literally means something like ‘traveler to China’. So it makes absolutely no sense to use it, and is possibly not very PC either. Since astro- and cosmo- refer to you know, space. And cosmonaut is just an Englished-up version of the Russian word. Wikipedia is helpful again here. The proper term to use for Chinese astronauts, if you’re not going to just call them astronauts, and aren’t very good with Chinese, is taikonauts. Which is taking part of a term used in Chinese and referring to, you know, space, and not traveling to China, and then slapping the -naut on there. Although it seems some people do use ‘sinonaut’. I wonder if Pohl invented it, or if other science fiction writers did. I’m not sure when the Chinese space program really started.Or if people sort of re-invent it. And it’s just wrong every time.

K: Interesting. But yes, it does seem a bit odd — like Frenchonaut or something. The only other thing which I felt I must mention is how much it weirded me out to have a Dorrie in this book. I wasn’t expecting it, and it just took me by surprise.

J: It was odd to me too. Though I’m sure odder for you. I was hoping she wouldn’t do anything too cringe-worthy! Like, I didn’t want to hate the character. Fortunately she came off fairly well.

K: I suspect only because she had so little screentime, but yeah, she didn’t do anything very objectionable at all.

J: So that’s Man Plus. I hope he didn’t do a sequel Man++ that we have to read later. Although we do have to read another Pohl next, because he won two years in a row. Lesigh.

K: There is a sequel, but it was apparently written with someone else, 20 years later, and it has very bad reviews on amazon. I think I’ll pass.


Nebula Project: Forever War, part 2

In this part, we’ll look at a revised version published more recently, as well as the short story/novella “A Separate War” which tells the last portion of the book from the perspective of a different character.

What follows is a spoiler laden discussion of the book Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Beware if you’re worried about such things.

This is part two of our discussion on the Nebula Award winner Forever War, by Joe Haldeman. In the first part, we took a look at the version of the book which was published in the 70s and went on to win the Nebula Award. In this part, we’ll look at a revised version published more recently, as well as the short story/novella “A Separate War” which tells the last portion of the book from the perspective of a different character.

K: So let’s go back to Forever War. As we mentioned in our first discussion, there are several versions of this book around, and initially we sought out the version which had actually been presented to the Nebula voters. More recent editions have included a significantly different ‘middle’ section, which was apparently the original (or a revision of the original) intention, but were altered before it was first published as a novel.

K: The ‘middle’ section in question is the portion of the novel taking place just after the first battle with the Taurans, up to and including the time when our main character, William Mandella, returns to Earth after being released from the military.

J: At first I noticed just little changes. Like suddenly he wasn’t getting ‘soya’ from the machine, but ‘coffee’. And I also thought his birthdate had changed, but no, it was always March 1975. Which was not the year I was born, like I said in our last discussion. I think I must’ve done the math from another date in the book and come up with 1974. But once they get to the orientation before going back to Earth, and then Earth, it’s all a lot different.

K: Yes, it is. Since it’s a bit confusing which was ‘original’, I’m going to refer to the first version we read as the Nebula version and the other one as the modern version. The Nebula version was more vague, definitely. William and Marygay arrive back on Earth, William meets his mom and his brother, he and Marygay go on a vacation, and then — spoilers — William’s mom randomly dies because she was not considered important enough to be guaranteed healthcare past the age of 70. Somehow all of this is so awful they leave the planet in disgust and re-enlist. Compared to the modern version, which I’ll let you describe, I have to say I liked this dystopic Earth better. It was more reasonable. The lack of detail and the seeming smallness of the changes made it far more believable to me. If I squint hard enough I could maybe see how we could end up like that. The modern version, on the other hand, had too many details; too many huge changes. It was over the top and didn’t work for me. But it was certainly worse which made their decision to quit Earth a lot less confusing.

J: I agree on the details front. I don’t know if I’d say it was too many, but it was definitely better thought-out. There is, for instance, a thriving black market, which you in particular bemoaned the lack of in the Nebula version. So in this modern version, they go back to Earth and it really sucks. Everyone goes outside armed or with a bodyguard. Money is in kilocalories, which are kinda sorta confusingly tied with food rationing. Marygay’s parents fled prison to work on a farm commune. His mother has a subcontracted black market job. He visits her, then he and Marygay go on a tour of the world, starting with London, via dirigible. They have a violent encounter when he breaks up a gangrape and they cut the trip short. He goes home, his Mom is apparently a lesbian now. Which freaks him out enough to go live with Marygay’s family on the commune. Which goes well for a few days, until they’re killed in a big gunfight or something. Then back to his Mom dying because she’s sick and old and so they re-enlist.

K: So which version did you like better? Since you say it’s ‘better thought-out’, I’m going to guess the modern? As I said, for me, it was just too much. There were lots of details, but since we didn’t really get to see much more than this bullet list of facts (oh hai we changed all world currency to one currency and named it kilocalories because that wasn’t at all confusing and I don’t quite understand it myself but yeah.) I think I needed either more background on the Earth changes, or less revolution to try and get my head around. And– yes, I was very pleased to see some sort of black market. But it still didn’t go far enough. It seems strictly confined to jobs? I was pretty confused about that. There was no medical black market mentioned, was there? We did see a grey-ish market for food.

J: There was blackmarket antibiotics mentioned. But that was actually in both versions, now that I look. I think I prefer the Nebula version, for two reasons. One, I think the modern version felt grafted in. We were rather abruptly jolted back to the part that was identical in the Nebula version. That he has a brother shows up out of nowhere. His mother was mentioned as being 60 (Rhonda said so) and then is 84 the next time he’s home. And they did not go farm for 20 years. And currency is suddenly in dollars again. And my second reason is the modern version has more drugs, more violence, more sex, and more rape! It was just too much. I can see how an editor told him it was all a downer. It definitely was that. Oh, and I guess I had a third reason. All 3 parents dying in the short span of time the two of them are home? When they managed to survive quite fine for 20+ years before that? Fft.

K: The timeline issues were something I caught, too. Perhaps you knew I would, because those are one of my pet peeves. (Not to venture off too far, but later in the book someone mentions the last time he was on earth was ‘2007’ and he agrees! Except it totally was not 2007. I could almost buy it as him just brushing off an error in his records if Marygay hadn’t said exactly the same thing in the short story that was written from her perspective.) But I think you’ve put your finger on something else that was bugging me, even though I couldn’t quite figure it out — the parents all dying in such short succession was silly. Especially since we spent so much relative time building up to and foreshadowing the death of the Potters, Ma Mandella’s death was way too abrupt.

J: The short story is “A Separate War”. I caught it too! It’s like he looked back at the novel, saw the date on the section, and.. forgot he should’ve been looking at the second date. I didn’t catch it in the book itself. Oh, and where did Rhonda go?! Her roommate and sometime lover is dying, and then is dead, and she’s not in that chapter at all. She disappeared, the brother showed up. Very bad graft, I have to say.

K: Yes, it could have used some better editing. Rhonda is mentioned as being visiting her kids, but surely someone ought to have called her! Instead all they call is his brother, which is exactly the same as the Nebula version, except that in the modern version his brother has not been mentioned at all prior to his abrupt appearance on the phone.

J: Actually, I think the reference is that Rhonda is the disease vector, having picked up the bug from a previous visit to her kids and passed it to Mandella’s mom. *checks* Yea, no mention of where she actually is now. And yes, exactly. So all in all, I have to say I’m glad we read the Nebula version. This one would’ve confused me too much! And also annoyed the heck out of me with all the violence and random deaths. Oh, yea, one thing I noted down. Well, two things. This guy comes to brief them all on the changes before they go to Earth. He’s wearing makeup and fancy nails and everything, and he uses weird pronouns instead of ‘he’. I say weird, because they’re not third gender or gender neutral pronouns I’m used to — tha, ther, thim. Haldeman uses it exactly once. It never appears again. In fact there’s a glaring case in the phone call to the hospital where it would’ve been appropriate, but instead it’s ‘he’. And it’s a ‘he’ that stands out to modern readers because it should’ve been ‘they’ or ‘he or she’. “[…] how important a person is and what level of treatment he’s allowed”. And the other thing is the makeup. I didn’t see one other reference to anyone wearing makeup. It was supposed to be in fashion, so.. where did it go?

K: Very good points, all, and I have no answers for you. So not only was the flow interrupted by the herky jerky plot, there were a whole bunch of points raised and then randomly discarded (apparently) with no further exploration. I confess I’m pretty baffled as to why this section was (re)inserted with no better effort made to better integrate it and also make sure it was at least internally consistent to itself, let alone the rest of the story.

J: Beta readers! Beta readers! If we caught these things, a couple beta readers would’ve! I understand maybe the author and his editor(s) were too close to the story to look at it with fresh eyes (maybe?). But still.. So I had another question. Which is just to wonder how a third of the population is now gay after only 20-25 years. Because I believe this is before they had the technology to switch people’s orientations around. Just.. one generation? Most of the population that was straight when he left should’ve been just older and straight when he came back. Which means the younger people are like 3/4ths gay or something so the average of the entire population evens out to 1/3rd? (The book erases bisexuality by never mentioning it.) So did his Mom discover she was a lesbian? Take it up because that’s just what you do now? I just.. I don’t know.

K: Well… both this book and “A Separate War” treat women (assuming we can have Marygay and apparently Ma Mandella stand in for all women) as more open to experimentation and/or more fluid in who they’re sexually attracted to. This may be a stereotype, it may be a result of socialization, or it may be something inherent, but I’m sort of inclined to give the idea a pass. I do wonder at the idea that everyone becoming homosexual would solve the population problem, because clearly that is ridiculous, as we mentioned before. I guess I kind of feel like — if you were going to go all George Lucas on the book and restore your ‘original vision’, it might have been wise to also clean it up a bit. But maybe that would have been too hard, since the homosexual thing was such a big thread through the second half of the book.

J: He could’ve at least made part of it in 3D.

K: Hahahaha.

K: This new section did mention slightly more about the ‘Elite Conscription Act’ which is the draft law which basically requires all smart people to enter the service. I still don’t quite understand the logic of the law, especially since I felt like the modern version was hinting that it was a deliberate conspiracy to remove all these clever people from the world. To what end? To hold back the human race?

J: Yea, I don’t get it. First of all, all the smart people aren’t going to be physically and psychologically fit for the job of soldier. Was the military using them for desk jobs, R&D, stuff like that? And with the technological advances to fight the war, some of that is going to bleed into advances at home. Like how NASA has helped everyone in all sorts of ways, not the least of which is a pen that writes upside down. And if you can breed for gay-ness, you can breed for smartness. They should have all the brains they want.

K: I certainly don’t think Forever War is alone in that it starts to look like a flimsy premise if you pick at it enough. Lord knows almost every book has that sort of flaw(s). But I do think the modern version almost… highlights them, by drawing our attention too sharply by half to the mess on Earth.

J: I agree. It drew attention away from the main point of the story, which is that things changed while the war was going on. Say that, show that, and get out. Before you start listing all these details that don’t hold up to scrutiny.

K: Exactly. I did, however, find it interesting that the revolution on Earth appears to have been fomented by a feeling of severe economic inequality. (In this case shown by people appearing well-fed versus not.) Look out, one-percenters!

J: Heh. I read it as look out, fat people. But fair enough!

K: Yeah, it could definitely be read that way too.

J: So the short story takes place after this section, and after they’ve had limbs severed and regrown, etc. It’s from Marygay’s POV and she tells what happened to her while her and Mandella were separated. And, to me, if I were reading that by itself, I’d be like.. why does she love this guy, because he doesn’t even get a line, I don’t think. He’s very much at a distance and just a prop. But probably the reader is supposed to have read FW and already know him as a character. Anyway, she gets into one of those acceleration shell things again, and I find it odd that there was no mention at all of her previous experience in one. You ask me she should’ve had some PTSD or at least been a little squeamish about getting into this thing that very nearly killed her once.

K: I was about to say he’s not even in the story as a character, but it does briefly cover their R&R time on Heaven so that’s not true. So yeah — this story is definitely not meant to stand on its own in the least, but it does make an interesting counterpoint.

K: I’d assume she had some kind of therapy, though we’re never told about it. But maybe she doesn’t have PTSD because you can’t remember really being in the shell? At least, she can’t remember being injured in it beyond having been told that it happened?

J: I dunno.. she was conscious while they were working on her. Kept asking for water. But even if it didn’t bother her, I think it still deserved a mention. If for no other reason than why it didn’t bother her. The other thing about the short story was, it named the uh.. prototype for Man, all those cloned gestalt whatever. Was he named before? Because the name really struck me this time! Khan! Or rather, Khaaaaaaan!

K: Yeah, he was named before. Because he specifically mentions he had a relative in Mandella’s strike force and I had to go back and look at the list and make sure he really was there. (He was.)

J: Well, I have to say after reading this revised, or unrevised, section that I feel less good about this book as a whole. And not looking forward to reading any more Forever X by Haldeman. But the short story made me feel a little better about it. So I’ll probably be ready for Forever Peace when we get to it.

K: It clearly demonstrates how valuable a practiced editorial eye can be to a story! The Nebula version is much more coherent in spite of the possible weaknesses of the toned-down Earth section.

J: So, yay, done with this book finally! Next up is Man Plus by Frederik Pohl, I believe. A book which I know nothing about.


Nebula Project: Forever War

It’s the dawn of a new century and the human race has begun exploring space in earnest after the discovery of ‘collapsars’ which permit instantaneous travel between two distant points in space. Unfortunately, humanity has also discovered it’s not alone in the universe and is now embroiled in a war with a race they call the Taurans.

What follows is a spoiler laden discussion of the book Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Beware if you’re worried about such things.

It’s the dawn of a new century and the human race has begun exploring space in earnest after the discovery of ‘collapsars’ which permit instantaneous travel between two distant points in space. Unfortunately, humanity has also discovered it’s not alone in the universe and is now embroiled in a war with a race they call the Taurans. William Mandella has been drafted to serve in this war, and as a result of travel at relativistic speeds, his service will span hundreds of years. Or maybe forever.

For the purposes of this discussion, we acquired Forever War as published in book form in 1974, the version which won the Nebula. More recent publications of the novel have been updated by the author to include a different version of the middle episode of the book, which had originally been rewritten at the time of initial publication. Though this new version is better reflective of the author’s original vision, it isn’t actually the version that won. We’ll be discussing our thoughts on the changes in a followup.

J: So we’re up to 1975 and Joe Haldeman’s Forever War. I didn’t know much about it going into it, except that there were some sequels and the series still seems moderately successful. And it was, presumably, a military sf novel. And I actually like quite a bit of military sf, so if I had any feelings about the book going into it, they were probably.. optimistic of an enjoyable experience.

K: That’s a fair description of my feelings going into it as well, though I perhaps knew even less than you did — even though our spreadsheet indicates the sequels, somehow I didn’t even notice it. In any case, I had no reason to be pre-disposed in either direction except that I generally do enjoy military sf as long as the military so described is interesting.

J: What I like about military sf tends to be the military school or the training, the tension in relationships between ranks, the moral and ethical questions of when to disobey orders, and then cool sneaky tricks, like Kirk or Hornblower as just two examples. So when I started this book, it started out interesting for me, because it started out in training. And there were female soldiers!

K: Yes. I was pleased to see them, especially in a book written in the early or mid-70s. I can’t say my like of military sf is quite as quantifiable as yours (and Hornblower isn’t really sf at all — Napoleanic military fiction is pretty large enough to be a genre all on its own), I do like all of those things. And I like ships, water ships or air ships or space ships, it’s all good. But I also like the technology and all of the interesting bits that need to be taken into account to survive and handle restricted environments. And there was a good amount of that here, well-thought out.

J: Oh, no, I wasn’t saying Hornblower was sf. He’s just.. the archetype. In some ways I feel like I want to discuss this book chronologically, as my feelings changed as I read it. But maybe we should mention before we get too far that we read the “original” published version. The version that actually won the Nebula. This book’s publication history is complicated.

K: Right. Now, the book begins right around the turn of the century/millenium. A war is on with an alien race, the only alien race the humans have yet encountered. And for some reason that’s not really adequately explained, the military has specifically drafted a bunch of over-educated college kids to be footsoldiers.

J: The main character was actually born the same year as me. That’s a little trippy. So yea, they’ve recruited these smart college kids, I think the IQ limit was over 140 or something like that? Basically MENSA material college kids, and they’re training them to fight an enemy they know nothing about. Like, hey, we’ve trained you how to kill humans a billion different ways, but none of them may actually work against the aliens. Even the whole idea of having foot soldiers in a fight against aliens is kind of crazy. I’d spend my money on building better ships, but whatever.

K: That did puzzle me quite a bit, actually. The book was very progressive in many ways — spaceflight, the issues with that, the various changes in society and so forth. And yet the -war- was waged — for a thousand years no less — in an manner almost identical to Vietnam. Which was just bizarre, especially since they did not seem to need any of these planets and planetoids they were claiming? It wasn’t clear to me why drones and airstrikes were not being used. Except, of course, it wouldn’t have been the same book.

J: And I couldn’t understand why they thought it was worth the cost of heavy casualties. Heavy casualties /in training/. What a waste of money and resources to have all these people die before ever doing anything useful in the war.

K: Yeah. It all did seem dreadfully inefficient. To send out such a small number of people that even minimal casualties (which were expected!) would totally undermine their ability to actually accomplish the goals of the mission? It’s possible the ludicrous (ludocrisy?) was intentional, since he was probably trying to draw parallels with Vietnam. To the point where most of the training officers are gung-ho Vietnam vets.

J: I wouldn’t have thought Vietnam at all, except that he did mention it in his intro, which I read afterwards. You know I did wonder why he thought there hadn’t been any wars after Vietnam until the 90s! Um.. apparently anywhere on the planet. This isn’t an American-only strike force, is it? Certainly he made some attempt with the names to be multi-cultural.

K: No, it’s not an American only strike-force. The history is a bit sketchy to me, but this is what I worked out. Some assumptions may be incorrect. History is normal up until the ‘present day’ ie, when the book was written. After that though, the space program appears to remain better funded than it did. No fuel crisis? In 1985, collapsars, jump points, wormholes, whatever, are discovered, which presumably injects more excitement and urgency and funding into the space program. At some point, Earth’s space programs are taken over or overseen by the United Nations, who creates UNIT UNEF. By 1997, they’ve had very brief alien contact and declared war on the other species. The “Exploratory Force” is converted to a military one and people start getting drafted. That’s the beginning of the story.

K: Histories of the future are always a bit dubious, though this one seems especially so given the rabid xenophobia that dominates the U.S. political landscape today. I can’t imagine the reaction to the United Nations trying to take over anything.

J: The United Nations turning into a world government of some sort is fairly common in sf, at least historically. So that part makes me just roll my eyes and say ‘Whatever’ and move on. Rather like all the pot-smoking in this book. Whatever. And, at some point, I start having to say ‘Whatever’ to all the rampant orgies in 60s and 70s sf. Like, really, this is the future of the human race? Drugs and orgies?

K: But doesn’t that sound like fun? Doesn’t it?! The drugs thing is still a very common trope today. And not entirely far-fetched, I must say. But even as a social super liberal, I cannot see the orgy thing taking hold, at least not in the near term future.

J: Let me mention the line that really ticked me off, just to get it over with. I was reading the book at lunch and just had to stop. And wish I’d brought a second book to lunch with me. Here’s the quote:

The orgy that night was amusing, but it was like trying to sleep in the middle of a raucous beach party. The only area big enough to sleep all of us was the dining hall; they draped a few bedsheets here and there for privacy, then unleashed Stargate’s eighteen sex-starved men on our women, compliant and promiscuous by military custom (and law), but desiring nothing so much as sleep on solid ground.

J: There’s just so many things wrong with that. I just got so mad, because up until that point he’d been treating the male and female soldiers pretty much equally. They had this sex rotation where they’d sleep around, which I didn’t object to too much. Only to wonder why they were all apparently straight and none of them had the desire to be celibate. No partners back home? No religious feeling? No.. just.. low sex drive? Out of, what was it, 100 people? But then this line hit and it was like he’d undone everything he’d set up before it in turns of gender equality.

K: When you mentioned there was a line that made you want to smack him, and I came to that line, I knew it was the one you meant. Because it jarred me in the exact same fashion. He included women. They appeared to be equal to men. There was no griping about women being weak or not allowed in combat or any other nonsense of that nature. And then, suddenly — what?! It made me question everything. Did they include women in these roles out of a realization that women were equal and should be treated as such? Or did they just find a convenient way to include sex workers and oh hey, we can also get extra work out of them! Except it was even worse than the latter, because apparently the women are not only sex workers, they apparently have no legal right to say no, even if they don’t want to. I’m surprised no one in the present day has hit upon this way to solve the issue of military rape. Just declare it legal! Problem solved!

J: I don’t like to say anything about the book while we’re both reading it, but I just had to at least say something! And jeez, don’t let the GOP get hold of this book. ‘Hey, we have this great proposition for you. I know you’re studying to be a nuclear physicist, or whatever, but we’re going to make you join the military. You might die in training, you’ll almost certainly die before your term is up, and oh yea, you have to have sex whenever the male soldiers want. And they’re randy devils who’ll want it ALL THE TIME. Because that’s how college-age guys are. But it’s okay, because they’ve all had vasectomies. Sounds good, right? Now go shoot some aliens!’

K: It did make me wonder, considering it’s also established at the same time that the government has technology that allows them to modify your behavior and the way you think. Did they modify the women to make them okay with this? And if so, why not just modify all the soldiers and make them asexual for the duration? It seems like that would have been better for ‘unit cohesion’ if you get down to it.

J: Yea, you don’t want your soldiers wasting time and energy on something essentially useless, do you? Especially as they’re apparently very closely monitoring their caloric intake and exercise. Less energy spent on sex = less food you need to ship up into space with them. Actually I think they did say they gave the officers, who were required to be celibate, hypnosis or whatever to make that easier. So might as well do that for everyone.

K: Except the officers were boffing people too, so I’m not sure why that particular hypnosis didn’t work even though everything else did.

K: Anyway. Aside from that jarring bit, which lent absolutely nothing to the plot and could easily have been removed without anyone noticing, the book resumed course and we started to get into the ‘forever’ part of the Forever War.

J: Yup. Basically they go fight, then they come back to a base of one sort of another, years have passed, the world has changed. I think the time jumps get greater as we go along, but that’s because the main character is going on further-out missions. And with this time effect, when they encounter the aliens they’re fighting, the aliens might’ve had decades to advance in tech, while they didn’t. And then vice versa. So it’s usually a rout in one direction or the other. Which seems a really bad way to fight a war, but y’know, space, what can you do.

K: It does seem like an increasingly silly situation, especially from the perspective of the soldiers, which I’m sure again is some sort of Vietnam parallel exaggerated hugely – the completely out of touch commanders, planning things far away in space AND time. And, it seems, with the people at home completely removed from the war aside from occasionally being drafted. Because it has no bearing on them one way or another; they don’t seem to be in danger of being invaded, ever. It’s an abstract concept to them, especially given what must be years and months between every individual engagement.

J: Which leads me to a question I had at the end, which was how did they know it was the last ship that needed to come back? Given that earlier it said a bunch were ‘missing’ and possibly taking essentially the long road home. Because these guys aren’t operating with an ansible. Which Le Guin had already invented, so they could’ve been!

K: All right, we can skip to the end, though I thought we were going to go through this chronologically! Anyhow, I was a bit mystified by this declaration as well. It didn’t seem like there was any reason to know for sure that they were ‘last’, unless everyone else had been confirmed dead or returned (and we’re not given that information.) Also, it’s mentioned when they come in that there are lots of ships all around this base. Then it seems like the base is mostly abandoned and will be destroyed when they leave — it was just being maintained until they got back. So what are all those other ships? I was confused.

J: Yea, that confused me too! And if you knew they were last, and you knew their route, why not go and meet them? And presumably be able to fly them back faster or at least more comfortably, with your advanced technology. But yea, we should probably go back, to the first time the main character comes ‘home’ and sees what the future has wrought.

K: Right. But this first visit is after only a few years — 25 or 26 — so he’s still at a period of time when he’d be alive, and his relatives are alive, though greatly aged. We get a little bit of information about recent events and the current political situation on the planet. It’s sort of a dystopian situation, except that we experience it so very briefly that it’s hard to have much of a reaction to it beyond ‘ugh’.

J: Except my reaction wasn’t even ‘ugh’. Most people are unemployed, but the government makes sure they have enough to live on. And they’re free to pursue whatever interests them. I could see how it could lead to depression. If you’re not doing meaningful work, then it’s not good for your well-being or the society’s well-being. But it depends on what they’re allowed to do. It seems like no matter how well-run your economy is, you can always use more art of all kinds. Or people out there tinkering with this and that, inventing things. So I failed to see what was so horrible about not having a job. And of 1/3 of your neighbors being gay.

K: Yeah. That part seemed more or less okay, though it’s unclear how it’s being paid for — and then we basically find out that it’s being paid for by sharply rationing healthcare to the point where many people are not allowed to have any. They’re provided food and shelter, but not much more. This whole section seemed very abbreviated to me, like things were being thrown at us and we were clearly supposed to find them bad, but I’m not sure there was enough information to make that determination in all cases.

K: Even the healthcare thing was weird, because you know as soon as the government limits something like that, a black market appears to fill the vacancy. So where were the back alley doctors? We don’t get a sense of any of that. Everyone’s completely isolated from one another, apparently.

J: I thought everyone got healthcare until they turned 70 and then some people didn’t merit it. It seemed a little extreme in that they didn’t give them any care, when it wouldn’t really cost much to give out a few pills for an acute ailment. And you’re absolutely right. Where are all the unemployed people with enough education to be doctors? Certainly the two main characters at this point don’t seem to give the place much of a chance before they run back to the military and sign up again.

K: Yeah. I’m sure there was some underground rebels or… something. But they spend a week there, throw up their hands and leave again in disgust. Was it really worse than almost certain death in the military?

J: The wild amount of money they’d earned from their decades of service amused me. By how pitiful it actually looked. :)

K: Yeah, it was pretty sad, though after a few hundred years it was a lot better.

K: Which brings me to another bit, as we’re sort of up to the interlude where they ended up on ‘Heaven’, a hospital and recreation planet. Which is, these humans never did invent the ansible, so they have no instantaneous communication. In fact, communication between Earth and distant humans seems practically nil. So what is keeping them in line? Heaven seems like a pretty nice place, so what has prevented them from just declaring independence and going on their merry way as an entity separate from Earth’s political system?

J: Oh, didn’t they say the entire economy was based on rich soldiers spending all their wealth? That didn’t seem like it’d work, somehow. Maybe communications is part of it. Are they really going to get all that money from Earth when they turn in their bills, or whatever? And just how long will it take?

K: It does seem like there’d need to be incredible redundency in bank and personnel and health care records to sustain a multiplanetary nation without the ability to communicate at a reasonable rate of speed.

J: I don’t really remember much about what Heaven was like, except they toured around and climbed mountains or something. And I also forget what came right after that.

K: At the end of it, William and Marygay were assigned to different companies and sent off to different missions. He headed back somewhere. Stargate? and got reoriented in time, because by the time he got there it was about 100+ years later. Then he got his assignment out to the back of beyond.

J: Ah okay. That’s when he got all the brain training in how to fight with all sorts of random weapons and learned tactics and strategy. And then they give him a squad or whatever it was of his own. Full of fresh-faced young kids about 5 years younger than him.

K: Right. And all homosexual.

J: Which was neat, in a way. When gay people started showing up, it sort of went some way to making amends for that egregious line from early on. (Not that including gay people makes it okay to be horrible to the entire female population of your book, but that you could maybe feel he was trying to show a contrast in gender and sexual relations across time periods and had maybe exaggerated the first bit for effect.) The main char’s troops call him Old Queer and see him that way, and that was an interesting take on it. But by the time I finished the book and could look at the role of homosexuality in the book as a whole.. it didn’t work well. It only shows up and is only encouraged to keep down the population. Which is a really stupid reason.

K: Exactly. I do think, for the time, it was probably a pretty progressive book. There were women, the women were fellow soldiers, not nurses. They were competent. There were gay people — in the military! — and homosexuality was shown as an accepted norm. On the other hand, the idea of turning people homosexual for population control is a bit strange. Just because you’re homosexual doesn’t mean you lose your desire to reproduce. Just the ability to do so naturally while still having sex with your preferred gender. Again, here’s a situation where asexuality would work far better if you’re looking to divert people from any sort of sexual reproduction.

J: There was even a female doctor. But yea, asexuality comes to mind. Or any number of methods of birth control. Free vasectomies for all! Or just start breeding for infertility. And this is a major spoiler, oh no, but the only gay character we care anything about at the end of the book… is turned straight. So he can marry and presumably have babies and live happily ever after.

K: Heh. Yeah. I wasn’t too sure about the tone exactly — I mean, why not just be a gay guy on this new planet? What was the harm in that? I do think human sexuality is more of a spectrum than a binary, but exploring that idea was definitely not part of this book’s goal, nor was it really presented that way.

J: I would be interested to know if and how it’s explored more in the sequels. But interested enough to actually read them, I don’t know.

K: I’m not sure either. So what was your opinion of the book overall, now that you’ve actually read it?

J: Well, I dunno. I definitely saw it as a forerunner of some of the ideas in Ender’s Game and the Shadow books. And parts of it reminded me of Old Man’s War. So it was interesting. I just don’t think I really liked it as a cohesive whole of a book.

K: Ha. You should definitely read the intro Scalzi wrote then, before we return the books. And yes, I can see how other books picked up on the ideas here — Ender definitely seems almost like this book from a different perspective, though they clearly have instantaneous communication as well. I ended up enjoying it a lot more than I expected after that gang-bang scene, and had that not been included, I would feel pretty good about the book as a whole. But it makes me very uncomfortable to approve of it.

J: Ender’s Game has an ansible. OSC was stealing more than we realized when we first read it. :) Also the part where some of the militarily-trained people come back to Earth and try to start a revolution. Because they are heroes, and they are trained. (Which I find a little confusing because I thought it was like a 99.somethingcrazy% death rate.) But yes, I certainly can’t heartily endorse the book by any means. There’s also another line that really ticked me off. The main char encounters someone he can’t tell the gender of. He mentally flips a coin and ‘comes up tails’ and decides she’s a woman. I don’t know if that was an intentional play on words, but I was not inclined to be generous with him at that point.

J: Though if that had appeared in any other book, I would’ve brushed it off and forgotten it. It was only because he’d done such a good job mostly of including women equally.

K: I don’t really remember that scene, so I guess it didn’t have much of an impact on me.

J: One other thing, because I think we’re about done and I wanted to mention it. The first encounter with the aliens, there are these animals that like.. brain-kill everyone with a high ESP rating. And then.. the ESP thing is never, ever mentioned again.

K: Yes! I had totally forgotten about it, but yes. It was really a strange encounter. You’d think over the 1000 years, they’d attempt to develop this ESP more, especially once they start straight out breeding people rather than relying on random chance for reproduction.

J: I suppose that clone being thing, they’re all connected telepathically, or.. by something. It’s not clear. I don’t know if the ESP was dropped because this novel started life as a series of stories or just because sometimes you throw in some psi powers just because.. they’re pretty ubiquitous in sf at this point in time.

K: Should we mention the ending? I will say that it was painfully obvious to me that the war was going to turn out the way it did, but I was still sad to be proven correct. Was the ending considered shocking back in the day?

J: No idea. I was actually thinking at one point that maybe it would turn out they were fighting some form of humanity from the future. Alas, not that interesting. Though after I thought it, I would’ve been disappointed to have been proven correct.

K: Any last thoughts? There appears to have been an absolutely enormous nominated field for the Nebula in 1975. Have you read any of the others? Did it deserve to win?

J: Dhalgren and The Female Man get mentioned a lot in feminist circles, but I don’t believe I’ve read either. I have not read Heritage of Hastur, I don’t think, though I do mean to read more MZB. I may have read The Mote in God’s Eye in high school. All of the others, I haven’t heard of. So why Forever War? I was wondering if it wasn’t a reaction to the relative passivity and pacificity of The Dispossed. They needed a good war story with lots of gory dead bodies. Or it could just be that a lot of the votes got split, I dunno.

K: I’m not sure. Probably at the time, the war motif, especially the parallels to Vietnam, were far more at the forefront of everyone’s mind. I can’t say that I’ve read any of the other nominees, though I have heard of several. Based on the influence it obviously had on later books, I’m not going to say its win was undeserved. And it was a very readable book.

J: And Niven and Delany at least had already won before. I’m sure some voters considered that as a factor. Ha. It just occurred to me we do have to read at least one sequel, because Forever Peace occurs later on the list.

K: From what I can tell, Forever Peace is not a sequel. It didn’t look like it even takes place in the same universe.

J: Er… okay. *puzzled*


Nebula Project: A Time of Changes

When a man from Earth introduces prince-in-exile Kinnal Darival a telepathic drug from Kinnal’s own planet, he has a revolutionary epiphany. He takes the subversive and obscene step of writing his autobiography — in the first person, as part of a crusade to share this drug and this worldview with others.

What follows is a spoiler laden discussion of the book A Time of Changes. Beware if you’re worried about such things.

When a man from Earth introduces prince-in-exile Kinnal Darival a telepathic drug from Kinnal’s own planet, he has a revolutionary epiphany. He takes the subversive and obscene step of writing his autobiography — in the first person, as part of a crusade to share this drug and this worldview with others.

J: I’d never heard of A Time of Changes before. And though Robert Silverberg is really prolific, I’d never read one of his novels before either. So I had no idea at all what to expect. Yet somehow I still managed to be disappointed.

K: I also went into this with what I must describe as complete ignorance of the author and the title. I had only just heard of him coincidentally a month or two prior to us coming to this book in the list. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to agree that this book was a disappointment on several levels.

J: I felt it was very similar to Left Hand of Darkness in a lot of ways, but with nothing at all in it to make it interesting. And a few things to actively dislike.

K: I’m again going to have to agree — the parallels to Left Hand sprang to mind almost immediately, with the surprising result of making Left Hand appear retrospectively way more progressive and daring than it felt at the time. There’s also a fairly unflattering (to A Time of Changes) comparison to Dune to be made here.

J: In what way? Other than being a colonized planet? And there really must be a term for that subgenre, but I don’t know it.

K: A colonized planet with a strange ‘native’ religion, people using drugs to achieve telepathy/communion with others, a person who comes in from the outside and begins imposing new ideas on the locals. It’s far more similar to Left Hand in plot shape, but I think the similarities to Dune are there.

J: I forgot about the drugs in Dune. And yea, again with the telepathy!! It’s like.. it’s not science fiction if someone’s not reading someone else’s mind.

K: That is getting pretty old. As are the long-lost/out of touch/vaguely medieval colonies from Earth. TIP: Just because you threw in a spaceman and set your story on a colony doesn’t make it seem like any less of a fantasy as compared to science fiction.

J: Agreed! Even the whole ‘can’t use I’ thing was sort of done in Babel-17, so there’s not much new here at all. But I do have to say that out of all the ones we’ve read so far, this one seems the most obviously dated to a time and place. Even moreso than Flowers for Algernon, which was pretty much set on contemporary Earth. Because it just screamed ’60s-70s drug culture’ and ‘let’s open our minds’ ‘let’s all love one another’.

K: It’s very dated. Very very dated. Though Silverberg admits in the preface that he discovered other languages already had constructs that avoided using the concept of ‘I’, it’s clear this was written very much from a position of western male privilege.

J: Oh, don’t even get me started on the gender stuff! I disliked the main character pretty quickly, right about the time he was all ‘I have a big penis’ and the backhanded insult he gave to himself about ‘women all over the place will attest I have no stamina’. I was ready to be sympathetic to him again when he was recounting his childhood, but that didn’t last long. And then it had utter fail right near the end with his bondsister. Spare me. She’s all pure and innocent and beautiful and youthful just because she never married or had a kid.

K: Well, of course. Because women aren’t actually people with interests and passions and thoughts of their own. They’re sperm receptacles. That was made completely clear when our main character Kinnal takes his telepathy drug with a woman — and instead of learning about her hopes and dreams and character, the only thing he learns about is her anatomy. Because apparently that’s all women can think about. Which means it makes complete sense that Silverberg rounds out our character by giving him the massive massive character flaw of premature ejaculation.

J: Like he wasn’t flawed enough by being a big old arrogant jerk! Which I have trouble thinking was entirely intentional. We never learned enough for me to be convinced there was anything particularly wrong with their society that ‘I’ was going to fix. Although the whole bondsister/bondbrother and drainer thing seems like a copout. If you’re going to keep yourself to yourself and not even have a self, well.. you need to do it all the way.

K: The whole society made very little sense to me, but I suspect most of the confusion resulted from Kinnal’s maunderings about how you can’t truly love anyone unless you love yourself. Which is incredibly trite and Oprah-ish to be the central point of any novel, let alone something which managed to win the Nebula Award. Especially when it’s not particularly well-explained how this so-called Covenant prevents people from loving themselves. Just because they don’t go around telling people their innermost thoughts? There were several parts where the philosophy was explained which I had to read over more than once and I still couldn’t follow some of the logic. Apparently, having a firm grasp of your inner self can lead you to make other people do things for you instead of standing on your own two feet? I swear that’s what it said at one point.

J: Some things I felt he hadn’t thought through very well. If you’re bonded to a bondsister and a bondbrother at or near birth, then it’s unlikely everyone’s going to be linked that way in a vast chain encompassing everyone. More likely you’ll get a closed loop of people about the same age, with maybe a few people lacking one or the other especially in geographically remote areas. And for all the main character says his relationships with his bondsister and brother are mutual, it just always feels one way.

K: Exactly. The bond-sibling thing was definitely not really thought through as well as it could have been — he mentions that high ranking children were often bonded to other high ranking children to try and create alliances. Okay, fine. But then to foster this ‘bond’, they all have to grow up together, so if they’re from far-flung locations, two of the bond-siblings have to come live with/near the other one. Okay, fine. Except -their- other bond-sibling presumably also needs to grow up near them, and that person’s other bond-sibling would need to grow up near them — even if eventually this turns into a closed chain, as you said, it really doesn’t make sense that suddenly the parent of child Y is responsible for some number n children where n>5 just due to all these bond-relationships.

J: Yea! And what happens if your bondsister and bondbrother both die, especially as children? Oh well, too bad for you.

K: Right. It really just didn’t make sense. Especially since Silverberg seems to go back and forth about how close the bond-siblings really are. Is there constraint between them or not? At times it’s suggested that these function as intimate friends and there is no such thing as self-baring between bond-siblings. But that’s clearly not true; the only set we see are incredibly formal with one another and for all they’re supposedly so close they keep secrets and completely flip out as a result of the ‘selfbaring’.

J: And it doesn’t seem to me he knows his bondsister any more than he knows his wife or that particular woman he was keeping on the side. But while I’m talking about her again, let me just say I’m sick of random suicides! Meant to like.. teach the main character something? Or something? Though it doesn’t seem to have worked in this case. He’s still ready to share some dope with whoever he can coerce into it.

K: Yes, he pretty much writes it off as a character weakness in her. He feels bad about it, but he seems pretty able to rationalize it in his head with ‘if only he’d known she was so fragile, he could have saved her’. Except, uh, you should have known that dude. You’ve known her for years and you were just inside her head.

J: Seriously. Maybe ‘I’ is exactly right. It was always only about him, and the drug isn’t so much about sharing with other people, it’s about making sure he shoves his worldview down everyone’s throat. Like, you think I’m only a younger son of a septarch, but I’ll make myself the most important person on the planet.

K: He definitely has that attitude. And not in a humble, messiah sort of way, even though it seems like he’s being cast in that role. Or rather, he’s making quite an effort to put himself in that role. But I’m sorry, dude, you can’t make yourself a martyr just because you think you’d be an awesome one.

J: *laugh* Yea. Exactly.

K: Getting back to things that didn’t seem particularly well thought out. I started to wonder very early on if this concept would work in a language which has a wider variety of personal pronouns. English has a very limited set, which is why people are constantly trying to invent new ones. But a language like Japanese, where I can think of 7 words for ‘I’ off the top of my head, all with their own nuances — how the heck would you even really translate this?

J: ‘One’ is a particularly interesting pronoun. I was reading a nonfiction book right after this and the author used ‘one’ and then in the same sentence used ‘my’ meaning.. yea, he was really the ‘one’ he was talking about. I wonder what languages it was translated into. I don’t know an easy way to check that. Wikipedia and ISFDB didn’t tell me, except that it seems to have been published in French. Mais le francais a ‘on’, alors c’est facil. In fact I think the French use ‘on’ more often than we use ‘one’, so maybe it didn’t even seem so weird.

K: It would probably have been more striking if Silverberg had omitted the whole ‘one’ business and gone with what showed up very briefly during Kinnal’s abortive visit to Glin — which is to speak without even mentioning yourself at all. Not even the copout ‘one’.

J: Yea, ‘one’ is definitely a copout. There are ways to use it where it isn’t a direct substitute for ‘I’, but mostly he didn’t do that.

K: Not at all. So in the end it didn’t really matter that they weren’t using one particular word, they were still referring to themselves directly.

J: It was actually jarring to me when they had no problem with ‘you’. It seemed to say.. hey, there’s a self, right there in front of me.

K: Yes! I noticed that too. More evidence of poor followthrough in the concept, or was it meant to be some kind of commentary on how an individual could acknowledge the existence of other people, just not themselves?

J: I don’t have faith it was meant like that. I feel like he thought ‘Let’s not use I’ and then stuck to that as he built up this society around it, without really thinking through the ‘we’ and ‘you’ at all.

K: I’m inclined to agree.

J: In the end, I think it’s a pretty forgettable book. And the title doesn’t help either. Unless I start thinking of it as the Menopause Book, I’m not going to remember it.

K: Ha ha ha. Yes, the title is pretty poor. There really didn’t seem to be much changing going on. No matter how many times we were told that Kinnal was shocked by the use of ‘I’ or was being a daring rebel, I never felt convinced he was any different than he always was. And in any case, I can feel the plot of this one already slipping into the plot of Left Hand, so little does it stand out in my mind on its own merits.


Nebula Project: The Sixties in Review

J: So from 1965 to 1970 is a short decade, but there was a tie in there, so it was actually 7 books. And the first thing I notice about them right off is that they’re all science fiction. Various kinds of sf, but not a single fantasy in there.

K: Mmm. Yes, you’re right. I hadn’t really thought about it, but they are all science fiction — that is, fiction based around some kind of scientific idea. With the possible exception of Dune, which takes place so far in the future that in spite of the fact that they have advanced technology, it’s almost a fantasy.

J: Well, to me the one that felt the most like fantasy was The Einstein Intersection. That was just bizarre.

K: Okay, that one was pretty weird also, and had very little obvious science in it. But the argument can definitely be made without much trouble that these were all science fiction.

J: I just had to look up if SFWA maybe started out as just science fiction. But while the name only had Science Fiction in it and not Fantasy, it does say on their site that it was understood to cover both. They just.. didn’t reflect that when they were handing out Nebulas to novels.

K: And I don’t know enough about what was published at that time to know if there was any fantasy coming out that I would find more deserving. Though it wouldn’t take much to be more deserving than one or two of these books.

J: World Fantasy Awards didn’t start until 1975, so there’s no easy way to find out that way. The Hugo Awards have some nominees in there that look like they might be fantasy. I couldn’t point to one and say for sure though. I don’t think it’s because fantasy was nonexistent. I don’t even know that it was really being written by a different set of writers. SF/F writers have always crossed from one to the other as a general rule. If not in their novels, then in their short fiction.

K: Then we’d have to examine the short fiction lists to see if the exclusion was complete, and that’s a bit beyond the scope of this project. I think we just have to take it as an interesting fact and see if the trend continues as we move forward.

J: Well, one obvious trend is towards male writers! We’ve only got Le Guin so far.

K: I can’t say I’m surprised, though. One expects it to be this bad in the 60s. What was more surprising was the relatively diverse casts of the books. Certainly nothing approaching realistic, but we had far more racial diversity than I would have predicted. And even a few female main characters.

J: Yea, that was really surprising to me every time I encountered it.

K: I have to say that’s why Ringworld stuck out like such a sore thumb. Not all of the plots treated their female characters very progressively, but I can’t think of another that actively disrespected them to such an extent.

J: Yea, it was horrible. And it didn’t do well on race either! Just treated Earth like one giant melting pot so Louis Wu isn’t really anything. I don’t know what people saw in that. I really don’t.

K: Well, I will say that Niven wasn’t the first person to speculate that increased contact between parts of the world would lead pretty much to a pale brown colored human race without too many defining ethnic characteristics.

J: It’s an idea that sunk into my head at an early age.. and I wonder it didn’t just get into other people’s heads and reused without them stopping to think about it much. One other trend I noticed, which did not surprise me was psi powers. Mostly telepathy, even seemingly randomly in Left Hand of Darkness. But also prescience. I expected it to such an extent that one passage in Flowers for Algernon actually confused me because I thought he was getting into someone else’s head. But instead it was just him dissociating as Charly. That book and Rite of Passage are the only ones lacking that as an element.

K: They are a common plot element, and I agree they seemed pretty randomly tacked on to Left Hand of Darkness, though perhaps there was some symbolic reason for them there I was just beyond attempting to fathom. Any thoughts on why that is? They’re certainly something I find intriguing to think about, and they can be used in a lot of different ways.

J: I don’t know.. maybe it’s like vampires. People are drawn to the idea and I guess there’s a lot of things to explore around them. I think they were particularly big in the 60s and 70s. Maybe all those drugs and meditation in the culture at the time? Cold War ESP experiments? Men staring at goats and the like. Not that they don’t pop up in places now, Twilight, Harry Potter, but it doesn’t seem quite so pervasive. Not in 5 out of every 7 sf/f books, surely.

K: Things do become cliched and played out after a while. Not that that’s stopped the vampire/werewolf crowd in any way. It would be interesting to see the prevalence of certain tropes over time. Like the social security name popularity index. Psi powers are the Madison of the 60s.

J: *snicker*

J: I think, despite the flaws I can see in it now, and how much I can see how it could be better and wish it were better, Left Hand of Darkness is still my favorite of the 7 of them. Followed by Rite of Passage. And the rest.. don’t even come close. Which one’s your favorite?

K: Hmm. Favorite, I think I’d have to say Rite of Passage barely manages to edge out Dune. I think we’re both in agreement over which one was the worst of the lot, so I’ll just come out and say it: Ringworld, by far.

J: Oh yes, no question. Which is good news for The Einstein Intersection.

K: Yeah, that would be second worst, though not by the sort of distance Ringworld managed to achieve. Now, moving on from the novels as a whole, who was your favorite character? Can you pick one?

J: Mmmm. Estraven from Left Hand or Mia from Rite of Passage. Depending on my mood, I think. I can swing either way.

K: I guess I shouldn’t find your choices surprising, but I do. I have a hard time picking out any of the characters from these books as ‘favorite’, but if I had to, I would probably land on Lady Jessica or Princess Irulan (who wasn’t even really a -character- in the first book).

J: Well, your choices don’t surprise me much. Why did mine surprise you?

K: Just… I don’t know. They’re obviously very much your type of character, Estraven moreso than Mia, though neither is a wildly uncharacteristic choice. Maybe it’s just that I disliked Left Hand so much, and mainly because I did not engage with the characters.

J: Well, Estraven’s definitely not an easy character to get to know. It’s all filtered through Genly, for one thing. There’s definitely a distancing there. Maybe it’s more that I found “him” intriguing. And at least “he” was intelligent! Unlike a lot of the characters in these books. Oi. (Or should I say Ai?)

K: He was certainly more intelligent than Genly – and perhaps Genly’s superiors, who dispatched such a fool on an important mission. Maybe they just didn’t have any other volunteers.

J: I bet I can guess your least favorite character! It probably would’ve been Genly, until we got to Louis Wu. :)

K: Ha. So is your guess Louis Wu?

J: Yes, with or without his Motley Crew.

K: Hmm. I guess in one way you’re right — he’s the character whose behavior and attitude I liked least, though Genly was definitely up there. But the crappiest character as a character was definitely Teela Brown. She was pointless and useless. If she had been omitted from the book it would have been far less offensive.

J: I had trouble even seeing her as an entity, I guess.

K: Exactly. So who would you pick as the worst character?

J: Louis Wu ticked me off and is fresh in my mind. But the most offensive one was that bad guy from Dune.

K: He was pretty bad, I agree, though he was obviously designed to be offensive.

J: I don’t think he was designed to be offensive in the way he was offensive to me. He was fat, which was a sign of.. depravity I guess. And he was.. I think supposed to be a gay pedophile or something. Which was also a reason you were supposed to dislike him.

K: Well… yes, it was obvious the gay thing was supposed to count against him, but pedophile is still nasty regardless of whether it’s little boys or little girls.

J: I didn’t get the impression they were little boys. Maybe 15-16? Or were they younger? Because if it was a teenage girls, that just wouldn’t get the point across that he was evil quite so well.

K: It’s been a while. In any case, it was obviously non-consensual.

J: I’m not saying it would’ve been /better/, but I do think he was using gay as a shortcut for ‘a guy you should detest’. But anyway.. which story do you think had the best, most interesting idea behind it? If science fiction is at least partly, if not entirely, about big ideas.

K: That’s a good question. And looking at all 7 of our books this time, I’d have to say the one that seems most original and interesting to me from that perspective would have to be Babel-17.

J: Me, I have to go with Left Hand of Darkness. That’s a world and a biology I want to know more about. That I could see myself writing fanfic in.

K: I’ll be interested to see how these first books stack up against the coming decade — next up is the 70s.