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: The Dispossessed

What follows is a spoiler laden discussion of the book The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. Beware if you’re worried about such things.

The Dispossessed coverPhysicist Shevek leaves his homeworld to join physicist colleagues on the planet his people abandoned generations ago. The Urrastian’s aggressively capitalistic and gender-segregated society is quite a change from the anarchism/non-authoritarian communism practiced on Annares, his home. At home, no one owns anything, people live in dorms, and share in either prosperity or lack. Though some are starting to wonder if they really are as free as they believe. Shevek is determined to share his breakthroughs with the known universe, and he’s not sure either Annares or Urras will permit him to do it.

K: This time our Nebula winner is The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin, who by 1974 had won the Nebula for best novel twice — and was the only woman to have yet won it at all.

J: Don’t worry. The book is still about a guy. It’s not full of girl cooties.

K: At least there are women. Well, sort of. But we’ll get to that in a bit. The Dispossessed takes place in the same universe as Left Hand of Darkness, though it tells a story from an earlier time period and from a different planet.

J: Sort of the same theme though. We learn about two different societies. One of them from an outsider’s point of view, though the other from an insider’s point of view.

K: Right. Quite a lot of these early Nebula winners have been more what I would deem ‘thought experiments’ than books with a real plot. The author has an idea and works up some characters in order to better describe their idea. Sometimes the characters suck (Ringworld) sometimes they’re bland (Rendezvous with Rama) and sometimes they’re okay. I found that The Dispossessed‘s characters fell into the realm of okay.

J: This is at least my third time reading the book. It was popular in my college classes for some reason. I wouldn’t say a lot of the details.. well, any of the details really stuck with me. Or the characters. I had a vague memory of the main character and that’s it. I like this book okay, but I wouldn’t put it in my top five favorite Le Guin books. Sometimes I found it interesting and sometimes I found it dull. Never a hard slog, but I wasn’t breathless waiting to read more of it.

K: I definitely preferred it to Left Hand which is the only other LeGuin I have to compare to. Maybe because the situation was just slightly more believable? It was still stretching the bounds of my suspension of disbelief, but it worked better for me than the whole develop a gender thing.

J: I’ve already forgotten his name.. was it Shevek? Did you feel his society, his world, and all was kind of.. blah? Sort of like, there was no tension, no drama. It didn’t feel real or human.

K: I didn’t feel like there was no tension exactly. I felt like they were all fooling themselves (something which they came to realize themselves, at least Shevek and his compatriots). But it was all too polite. It was like they were brainwashed. I just can’t imagine a society where uniformly there seems to be -no- one who flips out that their significant other is sent away from them on pretty flimsy context. But I guess that was kind of the point, to imagine a society where somehow that was true. But it doesn’t make it particularly realistic to me.

J: Maybe it just seemed like all their emotions were muted, yea. People got.. annoyed, or depressed. But not much else.

K: Yeah. They never seemed to get mad. How is that even possible? People get angry. All the time! It’s like Vulcans except they aren’t particularly logical.

J: And I wonder if they’re supposed to care about the children at all. That scene when Shevek was a toddler, he and the other kid both had full diapers. Like they’d been neglected, even though there was someone watching them. Was that supposed to show that society doesn’t care about individuals, just itself?

K: I’m not sure. Obviously part of the… indoctrination… is to remove the children from their parents to weaken the attachment there. And then to make everyone think it’s their own idea and for the best. I don’t think there was any intent to suggest they were physically neglected. It might have just been a detail.

J: I dunno. It just struck me that it was both of them and not just one. There was much to the society to recommend it. I’d love to work on whatever I wanted. Even if it meant doing some of the grunt work sometimes. Although I wonder if I would’ve turned into one of the hermits. Dunno if I could take living in a dorm all the time.

K: It certainly struck me as a society that on its surface seems like a haven for introverts, in reality would probably suck for them a lot. To not really be able to have a space to call your -own-… ugh. Nightmare.

J: And nobody complained about the food! The whole point of a cafeteria is to complain about the food! Actually I was a little surprised they had art in any form. Considering Rite of Passage, where they couldn’t make art anymore. The establishment had a stranglehold on what type of art, and you couldn’t do a lot of personal, individual type art, but art still existed and was still being made. By that I include plays, music, etc, of course.

K: It did sound like art for art’s sake was discouraged – not ‘functional’ exactly, even if it did feed an emotional need. Part of the problem was the subsistence nature of life on Anarres. Would they have been able to keep up the facade of their communist living if there was more time for leisure and less hardship? I’m thinking the cracks would have shown sooner — LeGuin did give the society a great deal of thought, really. She probably came closest to the circumstances in which anything like that could actually work.

J: She definitely does seem to fit the environment to the society. Like in Left Hand. Or rather fit the society to the environment. What I was rather surprised by was how much physics was in the book. I hadn’t remembered that at all.

K: Except there was no physics in the book, of course. I did like the idea that this other society came at physics from such a completely different mindset that they discovered and described the universe in a way totally unrecognizable to Terrans — and yet equally valid.

J: Well, to someone who never studied physics, it sounded like physics. Even if it was technically more a.. philosophy of physics? With a little Terran history of physics thrown in. I did find it interesting that this book is the creation of the ansible. I didn’t remember that.

K: I didn’t know LeGuin had coined the term, but we all know how lacking my background in classic sf is, so it’s hardly surprising. I did like that we saw the creation of such an important device — and that it really wasn’t telegraphed at the beginning that that’s what was going to happen.

J: Yea. I just assumed it already existed, if it was going to be mentioned at all.

K: It does help to place this book in the timeline of the other Hainish series. Since LeGuin hasn’t done anything as helpful (at least from my perspective) as include a timeline or stardates or anything to otherwise indicate the internal chronology. It does help justify the book — certainly in a way that Left Hand was not justified — as important to the series as a whole rather than just another standaloneish book in the same universe.

J: I think trying to turn it into a ‘series’ or construct a timeline would drive you crazy. Since it wasn’t designed that way and I don’t even know if there’s much or any character crossover. Which at least reassures me, because it means I don’t have to worry about reading them in any sort of order. I just checked and she doesn’t have any more Hainish books on the Nebula list, so my next point about not having to read everything when we get to that is kind of nonexistent. But in /theory/ it would’ve been nice not to have to read the whole series to read her next winning book. Too bad her next winning book is Earthsea like 4 or 5 and those are in order, afaik.

K: Well, if a series is good, then it shouldn’t be a problem to read it all, right? But as I think we’ve already discovered, the Nebula does not necessarily reward ‘good’ as in ‘readable’ (supposedly that’s the Hugo but I have my doubts about THAT too). It rewards some other quality. In some cases that seems to have been imagination/vision/forward-thinkingness, but not universally. Which may make for award-winning science fiction of the sort you can easily pick apart in an academic setting, but isn’t always fun to read. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course.

K: Anyway, my opinion is the Hainish books are a series, since they take place in the same universe. But no, the fact that I read this one after Left Hand didn’t really affect things, because what I learned from that book did not inform me of anything in particular (beyond the mere existence of this loose alliance) that allowed me to have a deeper/better understanding of this book.

J: My reading of the Hainish books is scattershot. I’ve read a couple others, I think. And a bunch of short stories/novellas. I like them best when they’re dealing with gender stuff and family structures other than traditional American nuclear family. Which this one only sort of does. And not in a unique way. I feel like kids raised in dorms is seen in other places. Brave New World maybe? And others.

K: Kids raised in dorms isn’t especially unique at all, no. Rite of Passage has kids that move in and out of dorms, and parents that don’t necessarily live together for long stretches of time. In fact, the gender and family issues in this book were just barely formed to the point where they weren’t much more than stereotypes and assertions. There was no insight provided. The closest we came was the very very brief scene toward the end of the book (chronologically the middle of the story) where Shevek encounters his mother and some of the other characters realize that a good part of her antagonism toward them is rooted in her guilt for essentially abandoning him and his father when he was a toddler. She’s uneasy with her decision and must therefore defend the customs that allowed/required her to make the choice, or else it makes her confront the consequences of her actions.

J: Wow. That’s deep. I didn’t get that at all. I think I just read it as her being annoyed he wouldn’t let her reconnect with him as an adult. I did notice, and it bugged me, that for all Shevek said men and women could and would do any job, though might have a better affinity for something over another, both midwives mentioned were women. And Shevek is a ‘hard’ scientist while his non-wife is a ‘soft’ scientist. While Le Guin managed to put women in some positions of authority, the equality didn’t seem to permeate everywhere.

K: Getting back to your first point, I think that’s exactly what happened back when she visited him in the infirmary while he was sick. It was after that that she kind of needed this elaborate justification in her head.

K: I also totally agree with you on the women in science issue. I felt like even LeGuin noticed what she was doing and as a result threw in randomly that old lady physicist/mentor for Shevek. G-something. But then she undermined even that by having her be kind of useless and almost Alzheimer-y.

J: Yea. I mean in general it’s miles ahead of most of the other books we’ve been reading. But it just didn’t seem like it went far enough.

K: It didn’t, but I guess I’m feeling like it may be a case of a book can’t be all things at once. Unlike with Left Hand, the construction of gender did not seem to be a main theme in this book, so its poor showing could just be a result of her focus being elsewhere. Except. Except for the fact that pretty much the lone female Urrasti was so clearly meant as a contrast to the women on Anarres.

J: I’d forgotten her. She has this one line where she says if the Anarres women would just come on over and have a spa day, they’d love it. And when she mentioned shaving, I didn’t think about it until afterwards that she meant everywhere, since they shave their heads.

K: Yeah. I wasn’t quite sure what we were supposed to take away from the shaving. Or from her. We weren’t really given any other female Urrasti to compare her to — except, I guess, for Odo, whose rise as a political activist seems all the more surprising given how little visibility women seemed to have in their society. Unfortunately for LeGuin, as soon as we found out the women were bald, I started mentally trying to compare the Urrasti with the Centauri and since it was actually not a bad fit overall, I now don’t have a very clear view of them as presented in the book.

J: *laugh* You’ve been watching too much Babylon 5. As for me, I still have not gotten over the name Odo. I can’t blame Le Guin for it, but it was difficult to remember it was a woman. Not that I didn’t have that trouble with some of the other names, but those were because it was intentionally ambiguous.

J: But as for Shevek and that woman, I still don’t know what that attempted rape was all about. Yes, he was drunk. Yes, there was a culture clash. Yes, she was exuding sex and flirting with him. But, she said no. Several times. Women never said no to him before?

K: That baffled me too. In a culture where individual autonomy is supposed to be the last and only word, what was his confusion? She. Said. No. You can’t get any more clear than that. Are we supposed to take away from this that women on Anarres never say no? Just because sex is free and open doesn’t mean everyone wants to have it all the time and with anyone who asks!

J: Yea, exactly. And I hate to tell you, Shevek, but just because you prefer women doesn’t make you a confirmed heterosexual when you’ll hook up with guys just to reconfirm a friendship, or whatever! And I do get sick of gay characters who only get to have sex with the self-identified straight guys, but that’s another topic altogether.

K: Another section that baffled me! Shevek… didn’t really want to have sex with him, but he let him have a pity lay? How is that good for anyone?! But it’s clear that LeGuin was still working out some views on sexuality. We know that she later realized her statement in Left Hand that rape was impossible in that society was completely ridiculous. I have no evidence, but it could be that these would be things to ‘fix’ if the book were written now.

J: Maybe.. maybe. I wonder if she ever returned to these particular worlds. I’ll have to look that up.

K: So the one thing we haven’t really talked about is the structure of the book. The way it’s published is in alternating chapters — Chapter 2 chronologically begins the story, while Chapter 1 sort of picks up at a point in the middle (after the events of chapter 12). Once I realized that, I admit I -was- tempted to read it in the timeline order, but I resisted. I wonder if she wrote it the way it’s read, or if she wrote it straight through and then reorganized it. Do you have any idea?

J: Huh. No idea. It didn’t occur to me to even really think about it as a broken up timeline. I saw it clearly as odd chapters were one planet (well, or moon) and even chapters were the other. So that I guess I was reading the opposing chapters as all flashbacks from ‘now’.

K: I thought at first it was just a flashback, but when it continued and it was clear that chapter 4 followed chapter 2 and chapter 6 came after 4 — the typical flashback situation isn’t chronological, because it’s more like memory, meaning that something reminds you of when you were ten, and then later something reminds you of when you were eight, and then still later you remember college, etc. It was too organized, in other words.

J: For a novel, maybe. But if you take an episode of Highlander, for example, each flashback is telling a story of its own. So it’s not jumping around in time, well, at least not backwards. But in a way I was also reading it as alternating points of view, I think. They were both still Shevek.. well, except it was more omniscient at times.. but one was Shevek at home and one was Shevek out of his element.

K: Well, that’s true too, but clearly the Even Chapters were developing ‘Why Shevek Went to Urras’ and the Odd Chapters were showing ‘What Happened to Shevek on Urras’, so if you did read the Evens first and then the Odd, you’d get the whole story in order.

J: I wasn’t arguing against that. That’s just not how I saw it.

K: That’s fine.

J: So, no more Le Guin for another 15 years. I am glad we’re finally into years where I was actually alive though. It no longer feels so much like ancient history.

K: Speak for yourself! I’m still not born yet. Almost there, though.


Nebula Project: Rendezvous with Rama

In the 22nd century, humans have spread out all over the Solar System, colonizing everywhere from Mercury to the moons of the gas giants. But in spite of their expansion, the fabled ‘space drive’ has still eluded scientists and many believe it’s not even possible to construct.

The Nebula Project returns from hiatus with a guest panelist (K’s husband Bob, able to, among other things, provide a male perspective) and a discussion of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.

In the 22nd century, humans have spread out all over the Solar System, colonizing everywhere from Mercury to the moons of the gas giants. But in spite of their expansion, the fabled ‘space drive’ has still eluded scientists and many believe it’s not even possible to construct. All is thrown into question by the appearance of a strange object which enters the Solar System on a course to swing around the sun. The object is clearly artificial — the work of another race. The spaceship Endeavour is the only ship within range of its projected path and thus its crew is given the task of making contact with the object, now named “Rama”, and attempting to collect as much information as possible before its path goes too close to the sun for humans to follow. Though the collective governments of the various human settlements are excited by this unprecedented arrival, they are also quite nervous: is Rama a threat? The Endeavour crew will need to try and discover that as well.

J: I’d read some Arthur C. Clarke when I was a teenager. I thought Rendezvous with Rama would be easy to read and interesting. But.. not so much. My overall impression after having read it is that it would’ve made a far more interesting short story.

B: I could certainly see this being adapted to a short story form, although it would mean cutting some things out. And you could probably cut out things like the lengthy explanations of the politics of the situation, or some of the background technologies that could have just been left for granted. But I actually kind of appreciate having them there, even it means the story progresses at a glacial pace.

K: It definitely does progress at a glacial pace. But I actually did like that: I agree with J that the story could easily have been shortened, but it would have ended up a much different story in that case. It was clear that Clarke had given a lot of thought to what technologies might be found in this environment and why and he wanted to get across very clearly the issues that humans were going to encounter when attempting to understand a completely alien species with nothing but a single (very large) artifact from which to draw conclusions. So I felt like the pace was justified, and I didn’t find it too boring. Slow, but not boring. Though I also had a hard time shaking a feeling of forboding; it really really read in parts like a horror novel, and I couldn’t help but keep waiting for something inexplicably awful to happen.

J: If the characters had been.. actual characters, I wouldn’t have minded so much. I guess I’m just not into the ‘explore this strange thing’ as the main driving point of a novel.

B: The characters were fairly generic, I will give you that. They did not go far beyond the archetypes they were modeled after, other than little personal touches like the captain’s multiple families, that engineer guy’s religious background, and so forth. But expanding on K’s point, not only did Clarke go to great lengths to write about the challenges of exploring an alien environment, he also spent a lot of time on the background challenges as well — getting the approval of governments, getting funding, maintaining public support… I cannot think of many examples of stories that go that far into the depth of the situation. It comes at the expense of interesting characters, certainly, but if you can get past that, there is a lot there that is still interesting.

K: Yes, the characters were absolutely generic. Even though there were some passing efforts made at establishing a backstory for them, they didn’t add much, if anything, to the story. Things were just stated about them – such as the random existence of plural marriage – without explanation or context. I didn’t exactly want an infodump on the socioeconomic status of the Solar System, but if you’re going to bring up interesting social points, you shouldn’t just lob them out there and let them thunk on the ground without further attention. It was distracting. I spent a good amount of time trying to figure out things about the various planetary/colonial societies when that was neither the focus nor the purpose of the book.

J: I was definitely hoping to see these wives of the captain. Why they married him, since he’s such a jerk about it, writing them generic letters. And that, yea, I think it’s _one_ mention of these other two guys who are together and have a wife/girlfriend back home. Instead the guy who seems to get the most attention and screentime is the guy who flies around.

B: Well, Jimmy (of course his name was Jimmy) was just about the only character who saw any actual action. Everyone else mostly climbed up and down stairs, looked through telescopes, or cut into things. (Alright, I’m oversimplifying a little — there was a lot of background activity — but almost none of it was anything I would call action.) Also, until the very end, he is the only one who actually discovered anything concrete about Rama. It was his trip that really provided the most clues, by a large margin, about what Rama was actually doing out in space.Getting back to the sociopolitical info-dump for a second though, I think that was Arthur C. Clarke, Futurist, seeping through into the story. I read a bunch of other essays of his with much of the same kind of thing — in the future, there will be fewer social restrictions, buildings will be way sturdier, people will stop wearing clothing, etc. As far as what goes on in the story, though, you can pretty much ignore all of it.

K: That is interesting. I’ve not really read a great deal of his writing, so I just had this to go on, and I found it very difficult to pin down his views from here. (On social issues, that is.) On the one hand, societies which allow a man to have more than one wife are typically regressive and patriarchal. But here we also have the suggestion that women can have more than one husband — though he then sort of negates that by suggesting the guys may have come up with the idea and that they’re also bi. (Progressive in and of itself, but it doesn’t speak toward the status of women.) So there was progressiveness, but it wasn’t pervasive in all aspects of life. Judging just from this book alone, I can’t say I’m impressed with his future thoughts on the place of women in society. Yes, they are there on the ship – there’s even more than one – but their authority is either low or outside the general command structure. And there appears to be only one female scientist on the big Alien Encounter Council they convene (though for a few minutes I thought there would be zero, so at least we avoided that scenario.)

J: Yup. And his wives are both at (separate) homes taking care of the kids. Just a very typical arrangement, especially for a ship captain. He just happens to have two of them. Along with women, the society or societies if you want to call all the other planets/colonies that seemed also very white American/European. Despite calling it Rama, which we can discuss by itself, I only saw like one or two character names that could’ve been Indian or Asian. Even though it would’ve been dead simple to throw in names from all over. And for character descriptions, I don’t think he ever bothered to specify what race people were. At least for the most part.. my memory may be iffy here.

B: This book certainly does not come off as a shining example of progressive thinking, but it’s definitely farther than it could have been. If it were rewritten now, the captain would probably have been a woman with multiple husbands, and there would have been a greater diversity of ethnicities, genders and ages. Then again, he leaves so much to the imagination as far as the characters go, they really could have been any ethnicity, if not for their names. (Come to think of it, Jimmy’s last name, according to my five minutes of internet research to refresh my memory, is “Pak” — so his ethnicity could be debatable.) On the other hand, we are talking about a book from almost 40 years ago, so the progressive movement wasn’t as far along as it is now, so I’ll give him at least some credit there.

K: I definitely read Jimmy as of Asian ancestry of some sort. Perhaps because of the last name, or maybe it was even stated, I’m not sure. In any case, I think it’s true that most of the characters have so little information provided that there’s no reason they had to be white, though one might get the impression Clarke imagined them to be so. But I don’t think there’s any real proof either way. He was definitely far more interested in the thought experiment of the aliens.

J: Clarke had been living in Sri Lanka for more than 10 years by that point. Which makes me think he could’ve done a better job of making things appear global. From what little I know/remember of his other work, he is big on aliens. And on aliens that are more advanced than us. And the way those machines were eating things, it’s very easy to visualize this as an anime.

B: I definitely agree there: this is a story about humanity exploring an alien landscape. The actual representatives of humanity in the story are generic and forgettable — you can basically replace any of them with someone else and not affect the story in any significant way, as long as their actions are the same. But it’s all about human curiosity and the drive to investigate and understand everything trumping all of the forces that hold us back, like fear of the unknown, or fear of investing resources into pure science with no guarantee of a practical return. Really, the explorers in the story got nothing actually useful out of Rama — they didn’t bring back any new technologies, didn’t gain any really useful scientific knowledge — but the overall feeling from the story was that the trip was worth taking anyway.

K: Didn’t gain any immediate insights or scientific knowledge. I think it’s important to keep in mind that they didn’t expect to make any big breakthroughs while they were there; they weren’t equipped for it or trained. They were just collecting samples and data. And they did collect quite a bit of that. Of course, the book ends with the setup for the sequel, so I don’t know whether or not we get to see there scentific progress based on the fact that scientists now -know- this space drive is possible; that three legged creatures are a viable evolutionary branch; that organic machines are a way to achieve long-term space flight etc. etc.

J: It was surprising to me that the.. I think it was a xenoanthropologist? He just decided in the middle of the exploration that there wasn’t going to be anything of interest and wandered off to do whatever he usually did. Teach grad students or whatever. It wasn’t worth his time to sit and watch the exploration recordings and talk to his colleagues! Dude, just because there doesn’t appear to be any living sentient creatures doesn’t mean there isn’t things to study once it was clear it wasn’t a natural object. But anyway, at least some of the people thought they should be investigating it as a potential threat. And we humans love to investigate potential threats. We’ll commit all sorts of resources to that. Especially if it’s a potential imminent threat, and Rama was moving pretty quick.

B: Or assume that it is a threat, and try to blow it up — the good old 1% doctrine. Anyway, yeah, I guess I wasn’t thinking through all of the potential scientific benefits of the investigation, including the not-to-be-underestimated boost in support for science when people see what it is capable of when it is allowed to advance. That kind of goes along with other things I remember from the essays I read — how, for example, many inventions and technologies people use in their everyday lives came directly from technologies developed by NASA for the space program. The implication in the story was that if humanity had not been as active in space as it had been, there was no way we could have made it to Rama.

K: Or even been able to get a very good look at it from afar.

K: I did find it interesting that he spent a good bit of time during the first portion of the book talking about near-space collisions with asteroids and kind of attempting to justify why they might be looking for objects like Rama. Because scientists do that all the time nowadays, don’t they? It’s always in the news that some comet might have hit Earth but its trajectory will take it past without any issue. Was that started up after this book? Was it started because of this book?

J: I wouldn’t be surprised if Clarke was behind that somehow, if not this book in particular. It’s nice to think we’ll have the capability of blowing stuff up if we need to. Which I don’t think we currently do at the moment. So we’re watching for stuff, but we can’t do anything about it except shout ‘Duck!’.

B: I actually think I may have read something about near-earth objects in one of those essays as well, or I may just be imagining it, but I also wouldn’t surprised at all if Clarke was influential in getting that program going, at least by drawing attention to the need to have it. And of course, if you listen to scientists, they will tell you it is not a question of *if* we will one day have to contend with an actual planet-killing asteroid headed our way, but when. Not that listening to scientists is fashionable these days. But that is one of the reasons stories like this are good to have — because it’s one thing to say, “Science says we should be doing this,” but it’s another to create an interesting narrative that actually gives reasons why.

K: I suspect if you talked to the average person about planet-killing asteroids, they’d have more to say about Bruce Willis or Elijah Woods than Arthur C. Clarke.

K: It’s always interesting to me what sorts of bees authors get in their bonnets. Clarke obviously had several here: objects approaching Earth; a realistic scenario for an alien encounter (ie, one without any actual aliens); the way in which humanity may respond to perceived threats. But he also visited another trope none too dear to my heart. Yes, I’m afraid Rendezvous with Rama saw the return of the Perky Space Boobs. What the hell is the fascination with this idea?

J: It’s mandatory for any science fiction novel that takes place partly in space or low gravity. Though curiously you never see it mentioned on coverage of actual space missions. ‘Bill, please tell us what the astronauts are wearing.’ ‘Who cares? Look how perky those boobs are!’

K: It’s ridiculous! First, I sincerely doubt the ‘lift’ would be all that noticeable, and in practical terms most women wear something to keep them in one spot anyway. Seems to me men are far more likely to have something unrestrained to float around. But that never seems to be mentioned.

B: I’m going to refrain from analyzing this one, except to say that personally, I don’t care if this trope lives or dies.

J: I’ll bring it back to the name Rama then. All the Roman and Greek Gods were used up, so they moved to Indian ones. But that’s a living religion. Unless it’s not in the future of this book? I just can’t see people saying ‘Hey, here’s this weird thing coming. We’re up to J on the rotation. Shall we go for Judas or Jesus?’

K: Well, yes. Who do you think named it Jupiter? It wasn’t the Pope! It was the Romans trying to honor their god. So I don’t find the use of Rama incongruous at all.

J: Well, Jupiter is a big planet, which is hanging around. This is more on the order of an asteroid or comet that wandered by. I just think it’d make more sense to me if it was named after someone more minor. Or if it was Hindus doing the naming.

B: Well, since Christianity only has the one god, you wouldn’t want to go naming it Jehovah unless you want the name to have world-ending implications, so the nearest equivalent would be to pick from the names of angels, which would have seemed appropriate enough. But I honestly can’t say I know enough about Indian religions to judge just how appropriate Rama is as a name. My traditional five minutes of internet research when I do not know something has not brought me any closer to figuring it out, so I’m going to have to defer to people who know more about it.

K: I don’t think we’re given any indication that Indian astronomers were not part of the international body that decided on how to start naming these things. Though the Roman names won out for most of the planets, we still use many of the Arabic names for stars; the Chinese and the Indians had their own traditional names for the planets and stars and other visible objects, many of which were, surprise, the names of gods. I just really don’t find it to be disrespectful or outlandish. Maybe a Hindu person would disagree, but I really cannot make that call.

J: So there is a movie planned, right? I guess I’d be interested in seeing it. Though I hope it’s not as dull as 2001! I think I might have to wait for the DVD though. In case it is very dull. I can do something else while I watch it.

K: It might be more impactful on a big screen. Or 3D IMAX. It seems like the kind of movie that would be improved by increasing the sense of size.

B: It definitely has all of the components needed for a good movie. I’m sure it’d get the Hollywood treatment — lots of CGI, romantic subplots, more perky zero-G boobage — but I’d probably still be willing to give it a chance.