Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
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.
Gateway is a book I’ve read several times since I was a kid, and an old favorite. At eleven, I was more interested in the science fiction aspects (somehow, most of the sex and drug use went over my head), but with repeated readings, I’ve come to appreciate the human elements of the story a lot more.
To be fair, the setup is one of the coolest in science fiction. Humanity has discovered an ancient alien space station near Venus, called Gateway, which is filled with small starships. Nobody knows what happened to the Heechee or why they abandoned their base, but many of the ships are in working order and will travel by autopilot to other star systems and the planets orbiting them.
Too bad there's a catch. Not all of the ships still work perfectly after half a million years, and some of the destinations are lethal. A once temperate star might have supernova-d since the time of Heechee civilization. Nobody has a clue how Heechee technology works. So, the Gateway Corporation recruits "prospectors" willing to risk a fairly high chance of death to take images of different parts of the galaxy and bring back artifacts that the Corporation might study.
People volunteer for this mission because life on an overcrowded Earth has become pretty miserable for most, with quality medical care available only to the wealthy few (sound familiar?). One such volunteer is Robinette Broadhead, a former miner of oil shale (now used for growing foodstuffs -- yum), who wins the lottery.
Bob, as he’s called, is a pretty flawed character, a self-centered, sex-chasing man who’s also somewhat of a coward. But he’s easy to relate to, not really being a bad guy at heart, and his fear is understandable, given the horrible deaths that await many prospectors. His story unfolds in two parts, one of which follows his life and relationships from Earth to Gateway and beyond, and the other of which has the older and now fantastically rich Mr. Broadhead in sessions with an AI psychiatrist, trying to get to the root of a deep trauma that both threads will eventually converge on. (And it is a pretty terrible one.)
Some readers aren’t fans of the sessions between Robinette and the computer psychiatrist, Sigfrid von Shrink, but I loved their relationship and think it’s integral to the story, in a subtle way. I found it fun watching Bob try to trick Sigfrid, only to find that the machine’s programming was nearly always a step ahead of him.
This book isn’t really about the Heechee (see further entries in the series to learn more about them), but about the dirty, messy tension of human desires, fears, and guilt in a place that stands between life and death, known and unknown. Gateway’s a moving examination of the psychology of our existence, of how we, from the personal level up to the species level, neither want to place our hopes on a frightening gamble on the unknown, nor on the ugly, suffering-filled known, but sometimes must make a choice and face what comes.
Still a classic.
I was impressed with this short 1970s Russian science fiction novel, which still feels pretty fresh and original. It's as gripping as any recent book, and, with a few minor updates, could have easily worked in the present day. The story begins about a decade after aliens of some sort landed on Earth, bringing several strange "zones" into existence. The zones are very hazardous places, full of dangerous substances and weird phenomena, many of which defy all current human understanding of physics and even causality. People who go in run a high chance of being killed (or being unkilled, in the case of corpses that come back to life).
Roadside Picnic is set in a small town close to a zone in North America (given the bleak tone and character attitudes, the authors undoubtedly had good reason not to use their own country). The population of this town breaks down into roughly two central camps, the first being legitimate scientists studying the artifacts the aliens left behind -- though no one is really certain that such mysterious beings actually "left", or even that they were "there" in person in the first place. Then there is a subculture of people called "stalkers", who go into the zone illegally to gather artifacts for sale on the black market. The protagonist is a rough-necked former stalker nicknamed Red, who is working for the scientists at the outset of the book, but hasn't lost his swaggering, cynical view of human nature or his distrust of authority.
If this were a typical US or British sci-fi novel, we might expect Red and the scientists to set to work solving the puzzle of the artifacts and eventually figure out the motives of the aliens, but this book has a different, more subtle set of concerns. Like Stanislaw Lem's brilliant Solaris, it uses the incomprehensibility of the truly alien as a mirror to human psychology and our ideas concerning our place in the universe. As one scientist points out, the visitors might have simply been advanced beings on some equivalent of a casual holiday, leaving their litter behind them for the local creatures to scavenge. If so, what does that say about the economy and culture of exploitation that's arisen in the zone town? Or about someone like Red, one of the few people with the instinct and drive to reach the heart of the zone and the Solaris-esque wish fulfillment mechanism that awaits him there?
Roadside Picnic has one of those ambiguous endings that threw me for a loop at first, but the more I reflected on its connection all the layers of commentary in the book, the more powerful it became. There are probably some indirect observations about Soviet society in there, too, given the way the national authorities in the story treat certain zone residents, but the less obvious bits doubtless went over the head of an American like me.
In sum, a work of stunning, dark, gritty vision, and one I'd definitely add to my best-of-science-fiction list. I can't speak with authority to the authenticity of Olena Bormashenko's recent Russian-to-English translation, but it felt solid. The audiobook narrator did a decent job -- his old school tough guy voice is a good fit for Red, and adequate for some other characters.