Monday, July 13, 2009

Book Review: Strangers from the Sky and Spock's World

Strangers from the Sky by Margaret Wander Bonanno and Spock’s World by Diane Duane

As a general rule of thumb, I try to avoid reading Star Trek novels, not because they’re all terrible, quite a few of the ones I’ve read have been very good (though the lack of effect on the cannon is upsetting) but rather because of my aims as a writer. Essentially, I want to write science fiction, and my exposure to science fiction has already been so steeped in the world of Star Trek that I want my science fiction resources to be expanded (I also generally apply the same principle to Star Wars books). However, I was recently down in Mexico for my sister’s wedding, and despite spending a lot of time exploring Peubla I still had a great deal of downtime in which to do reading. Because of this, I finished the two books I’d brought with me and turned to reading two Star Trek books my mom had brought with her. So, I read and enjoyed them and it seems appropriate to do a review of them.

The first book was called Strangers from the Sky, and detailed a Vulcan crash landing on Earth prior to the official first contact with the alien race, as well as an adventure of Kirk and Spock that happened early in their careers. The book is an older one, and fills in a lot of details regarding the early space exploration of Earth that have afterward been filled in differently by the show. The second was called Spock’s World and dealt with Vulcan considering succeeding from the Federation, as well as chapters on the history of Vulcan.

Both are actually quite interesting reads, and for the most part their conception of things are better than what the shows eventually demonstrated. For one thing, Earth is not a boring monoculture, but still has a plethora of languages and belief systems. Of the two novels, Strangers is the better, mostly because of its portrayal of the Vulcans. Spock’s World attempts to give the Vulcans a greater cultural range than we usually see, and has some interesting ideas about the Vulcan conception of God, but unfortunately the author goes a bit too far with Vulcan’s having emotions to the point where they don’t really feel like Vulcans anymore. On the other hand, Strangers is brilliant in its portrayal of Vulcans, making them into a regal and admirable race. Strangers also gets the dialogue of the familiar Star Trek characters Bones, Spock and Kirk, to the point where I could hear the actors voices as I read, while the characters in Spock’s World don’t sound quite right, especially Bones. I do not want to disparage Spock’s World too much, however, it’s an extremely interesting read and many of the concepts put forth in it are fascinating. I especially enjoy the ideas about the difficulties of universal translators and the portrayal of the events that led up to the Romulan exodus.

These are certainly not great works of literature, but they’re fun, and are even better than some of the award-winners I’ve read so far (*cough* The Moon and the Sun *cough*). If you like Star Trek, these two are probably worth a read for you.

Book Review: The Foundation Trilogy

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

Hugo Award for Best All-Time Series

For someone who loves the genre of science fiction as much as I do, it’s really surprising how little of the work of the big three I’ve read. Indeed, I’ve read almost none of their work. If you don’t know who I’m talking about, the big three were Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. In the eyes of many, they are the pillars upon which all of modern science fiction stands. When I was younger, my mom read me an Asimov short story about a woman tasked with being a caretaker for a Neanderthal who was brought forward in time, and it was a delightful little story, but when I read The Gods Themselves around Christmas last year I was highly disappointed. Still, Asimov is one of the greats, and one of his most praised pieces of work is The Foundation Trilogy, and my sister gave it to me for Christmas, so I finally got around to reading it.

The basic premise of the story is that almost the entire galaxy is settled by humans, who are all under the reign of a vast interstellar empire, but a scientist named Hari Seldon has figured out by the use of mathematical sociology that the empire is going to fall and that this will lead to thousands upon thousands of years of a galactic dark age. Seldon develops a plan, however, to shorten this dark age by founding two colonies of scientists, called Foundations, at opposite ends of the galaxy. From these Foundations, a second empire will arise much sooner than it otherwise would have. That’s just the background, however, and the book follows the thousands of years of the Foundations development.

The book is far from perfect, but it’s an extremely fascinating world and an exciting story. Sometimes the writing can be awkward, the fact that it was originally published serially means we get a summary of what the story is about at the beginning of every section of the book and it sometimes falls into the trap of expositional dialogue. Ultimately, however, the book is about ideas and in this arena it succeeds. By far the best part of the book is that which centers on the Mule, but I can’t say anything more about that without spoiling what makes it great.

I definitely enjoyed this trilogy, and if you’re someone with an interest in science fiction you should pick it up. If nothing else, you see where a lot of people got their inspiration. Trantor is a proto-Corruscant, and the Imperium of Man from Warhammer 40k borrows heavily from the ideas in the trilogy.

Note: I do, however, think it’s entirely absurd that this trilogy won the one time Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series” over The Lord of the Rings. That, is a travesty.

Book Review: Deep Economy

Deep Economy by Bill McKibben

It doesn’t take a genius to see that the world economy is headed for trouble. No, I’m not talking about the current downturn in the American economy, or even a depression, but something far worse. I’m talking about the kind of economic trouble that leads to war and famine. The simple fact is, the world is a closed system, within it are a limited number of resources with a limited rate of renewability. We are consuming things at a greater rate than they can renew. This has had some good effects, such as technological innovation, but it has also led to such horrors as the growth of illegal slavery. Worst of all, the situation seems hopeless. The West is locked into its pattern of mass consumption, and is dependent for its very survival on a system of agriculture that uses unprecedented amounts of water and petrol. To make matters worse, the East is rapidly catching up, and who can blame them? For people at the level of poverty experienced in that part of the world, the wealth that industrialization creates brings a marked improvement in quality of life. Frankly, the situation scares me, and it is for this reason, that I am deeply grateful for Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy.

The book starts out with the prognoses described above. McKibben talks about the overconsumption of resources and the deterioration of our environment. He then goes on to discuss how the continued pursuit of more economic growth has failed to bring us more happiness. After stating the problem, he goes on to present a multitude of solutions, all centered around the idea of smaller, localized economies that are not growth based, but instead sustainable. McKibben makes a powerful case for such an economy, and what is more he shows how it could work by highlighting places in the world where it has already started to come into being.
His suggestions aren’t without their problems (the proposal of localized currency is downright stupid), and it’s hard to see most modern Americans changing their lives in the ways he suggests. Still, his plan is for the most part realistic, it doesn’t ask that we all become radical liberals living in some socialist utopia, it simply asks that we restructure our economy in a way that will benefit both humans and the world around us. This book provides a concrete plan, and a definite hope. Oh, and it's also extremely well written and is a pleasure to read. I heartily recommend it this book to anyone concerned about the condition of our world.