Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
I watched the film adaptation with George Clooney a few years ago, but wasn’t overly impressed. I probably would have skipped the book, but Luke at the Science Fiction Book Review Podcast recently convinced me it was worth reading (listening to), and I’m glad I did.
Forget the movie -- the original novel has more dimensions and more subtlety. It’s a work of science fiction at its most cerebral, full of challenging questions about the nature of higher order beings, mind, consciousness, morality, and meaning.
Compared to Lem’s vision, most novels about contact with aliens are downright pedestrian. Here, the “living ocean” that covers the world called Solaris is entirely incomprehensible, despite years of study by scientists. All anyone really knows about it is that it’s beyond human understanding, and defies all human expectations of how an advanced being might behave. Is it a conscious creature? A physical process too complex to understand? Something godlike?
Lem leads us into these questions through the planet’s interactions with a scientist who travels to a research station there. Not long after arrival, he finds himself haunted by an apparition of his dead wife, who seems to have been generated from his own memories, and understands little about herself (the gender dynamics are a bit dated, but whatever). Is she human? Alien? A conscious attempt at contact by Solaris, or an unconscious projection of the scientist’s own psyche?
The plot has a sparsity that puts the primary focus on the protagonist’s inner voice. There are other characters on the station, but they spend a lot of time withdrawn into dealing with their own apparitions, and are present in the story only enough to suggest actions and add a layer of madness (and/or clarity) to Kelvin's psychological drama. In fact, we learn more about the physics of the weird structures that form out of the ocean than we do about these companions (though I found that part strangely fascinating).
I can see why this book has remained so influential -- it explores some profound questions at a depth few other science fiction writers have come close to, even fifty years later. Lem leaves his answers tantalizingly ambiguous, allowing readers to find their own subtexts. Depending on how you read it, this could be a work about the idea of contact with aliens, or it could be about contact with others, period. It could be about guilt and regret. It could be about existential loneliness, man’s search for God, or the limitations of our ability to understand the universe, or even ourselves. There are many intertwining themes.
Obviously, a novel this philosophical isn’t for everyone, but if you appreciate science fiction that gets you to ponder, it’s not a long read, and I think it’s worth your time.
The “definitive” audiobook production is excellent. The actor Alessandro Juliani, who played Lt. Gaeta in the most recent Battlestar Galactica series, has a soft-spoken but firm voice that suits the text very well.
The last time I read this book was when it was assigned to my English class in eighth grade, and it was a pleasure to come back to as an adult and re-experience the same emotions I did back then. This is science fiction about the wonder and awe of discovery, the bittersweetness of letting go of the primitive past, and the ultimate destiny of the human race. It's not a dystopian or cautionary tale, as so much science fiction, but a book about what it means for our species to reach adulthood -- and a sacrifice that that may one day demand of us.
The story begins, in classic form, with the visitation of beings from the stars. The Overlords arrive on Cold War-era Earth in immense, silver starships, and immediately establish themselves as vastly superior, but benevolent masters. Yet, they refuse to reveal themselves in person (at least not right away) or explain their ultimate purposes. Here, one might guess, as some characters do, at sinister intentions.
But, nothing so crude comes to pass, and Clarke proceeds to a new generation of characters, as the Overlords usher in a new era of peace and worldwide prosperity for the human race. Not to mention a certain amount of ennui and loss of purpose, as mankind finds that most of its traditional problems are solved. Yet, a few people continue to puzzle over the mysteries about the Overlords and chafe against the restrictions they still impose. What are the reasons? Several intrepid explorers begin to find out.
The writing is simple and unadorned, and the characters not particularly complex in their construction (not to mention a bit 1950s), but there's a subtle eloquence to the way the story unfolds, each stage in the human race's progress revealing a little more about the fate that must eventually come. And Clarke's writing is still a pleasure to read for its vision, its thoughtful ideas about the forms that different alien races might take, the capabilities of advanced technology, and how human society might continue to function when the primary need is that of avoiding boredom. Though a few assumptions are showing their age (newspapers, radio), much of this 1953 story still speaks to the 21st century. Clarke continues to remind us of how little we know about what's out there in the universe, or how limited our evolution has been compared to what's possible.
Read it, if you haven't yet. Or read it again. Childhood's End is one of the works that sets the template for great science fiction, and will likely still contain meaning for new readers in fifty years.
Though I have my issues with Heinlein’s views, I found this book to be a classic example of science fiction's potential to explore political ideas, to challenge readers' assumptions about the how world should work. While showing its age in places, this 1966 novel deals with a lot of themes that still remain as fresh as ever: machine consciousness as an unplanned phenomena, how to overthrow an unjust system, what kind of laws and rights a society should provide, family and living arrangements that fit a society's needs, and how to find the weak spots of a much more powerful but clumsier opponent. And, of course, there's Heinlein's ability to create a polyglot culture, and his signature wit, taking the form of memorable catch-phrases and quips.
The story imagines the moon as a 2075 penal colony, a dumping ground for Earth's undesirables. Inhabitants live a tough life, growing crops to export to Earth at artificially low prices, but have evolved their own informal customs for managing their affairs, including polyamorous marriage arrangements to deal with the 2-1 male-female ratio. Enter Mannie, a lowly engineer who maintains the Lunar Authority's main computer, named Mike. Somehow, Mike has achieved self-awareness without anyone but Mannie noticing. Heinlein has a lot of fun developing Mike as a character, including his naive efforts to understand humor, his existential loneliness, and his ability to adopt different personas, some of which come to influence his own behavior.
Meanwhile, discontent on Luna begins to boil, and Mannie finds himself drawn into a revolutionary independence movement. With him, naturally, comes Mike, whose ability to disguise communications and perform complex calculations give the movement chances it wouldn’t have had otherwise. But can Mike be trusted? Can a war of independence succeed against the far better-armed nations of Earth? It was fun to watch the plotting unfold.
Heinlein, of course, is a controversial author and I didn’t love everything about this novel. For one thing, I there are his attitudes towards women. While I admire that he wrote capable, independent heroines before it was in vogue, he doesn't entirely break away from traditional ideas about gender and has male characters mansplaining things to female ones.
However, my main issue with this book is that Heinlein seems so intent on demonstrating the merits of his libertarian-anarchist ideals that he does a lot to stack the deck in favor of his heroes, which I find a weakness of both the story and his argument. Between Mike's unique ability to wreak Anonymous-like mischief, engineer new weapons, and make long-term predictions, and the Professor's brilliance as a tactician and political strategist, there's never much doubt what the outcome of the revolution will be. In addition, he makes the opposing side so abusive, distant, corrupt, and incompetent that no one seriously defends its merits. Also, I found Heinlein's apparent approval of murder, as deemed necessary by the enlightened, a little repugnant. (Where, oh where have we seen problems with THAT sort of thinking before?)
Yet, in the last chapters, Heinlein seems to step back and recognize that ideals and pragmatism can reconcile only so much, when the benevolent dictatorship that ran the revolution sees that it can't hold the reigns forever. And therein lies the inherent contradiction of libertarianism: that giving people perfect freedom to choose will inevitably lead to more laws and government. This is what makes the book's signature phrase, "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch", so wonderful -- in the end, the multiple meanings becoming clear. I also enjoyed how beautifully the bittersweet conclusion to Mike's story fit in, though I won't spoil it.
In sum, definitely a book worth adding to a tour of sci-fi history. The audiobook narration is decent, but I really liked the producers' decision to give Mannie a Russian accent. It just works. Mike also has a nice "machine" personality, but not an overly mechanical one.
I think this might be Asimov's best novel. It's a very different approach to time travel stories. He uses many paradoxes that twist it's way into the perfect ending. Only Asimov can write a story like this and keep in believable.
The story consists of Eternals live outside of time as we know it. They can travel up and down through a created time tunnel in lifts called kettles. Technicians calculate changes needed throughout various centuries to minimize human suffering and war and keep humanity balanced.
One of these Eternals makes contact with someone from the unreachable centuries who doesn’t want Eternity to be invented, and this person wants to help end Eternity instead of creating it.
There is a monstrous choice to be made - Asimov asks what would you do in their place? The story, in my opinion, is a foreign but credible dive into the effects of time travel, changing time and the social ramifications of doing so. Should we really interfere?