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Alien reading

Two classic sci-fi books

I thought I'd try to do a couple of short reviews of two classic science fiction novels I read last week. The trouble is, I really ought to do these reviews a lot more promptly as I have a weak memory when it comes to remembering the exact details of the books I read. Never mind, I will do my best. First up Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg and then Time for the Stars by Robert Heinlein.





Gunderson is returning to a planet previously known as Holman's Planet but now known as Belzagor. It was once owned, or run, by the huge mining corporation that Gundersen worked for as an administrator. He has events in his past, that happened on the planet, that he regrets and is here to try to make amends. The planet has been handed back to the indigenous species as it was realised that they were sentient beings and intelligent enough to run their own affairs. There are two sentient species in fact. The nildoror are very similar to elephants in appearance, they live in the more temperate zones around the equator. The 'sulidoror' live in the northern mist country, are bipeds and much more secretive than the nuldoror. What Gundersen wants is to gain access to the mist country to view the mystical rebirth ceremony. He needs permission from the nuldoror to do this but they may be bearing a grudge against him. Setting out on his journey of discovery Gundersen can have no idea what's in store for him.

This is why I took up reading science fiction in my teens. Sadly I missed this one, it was published in 1970 and I never saw it anywhere - library or bookshops. It's a shame, I would have loved it. In fact I don't actually remember reading anything by Robert Silverberg, but suspect I must have at some stage. No matter, I'm making up for it now. Part of the attraction for me is that Silverberg never shrank from the task of imagining new planets: boy can he do some inventing. Three books I've read by him now and every new planet in each book is unique. Belzagor was a stunning place, clearly very beautiful but also dangerous. Things happened to ex-pats still living there which made my eyes stick out on stalks... but I'm weird... I love that kind of thing. I also love it when a book makes me think about my prejudices and values. The huge question in this book is sentience and our human attitude to appearance. Can a being that looks so much like an Earth animal - in this case an elephant - really be treated by humans as a fully sentient and intelligent being? How do we overcome the temptation to use them as we use elephants on Earth... ie: beasts of burden, fit only to do our heavy work. Especially as their intelligence is different to ours. They're not city builders or competive in the way of wanting to conquer other lands or planets. Do we still respect them in the way we ought? Is it possible to understand these people without trying to rule over them or at the very least feel superior. And of course the same questions can be applied to expansionism on our own world where plenty of peace loving indigenous peoples have been shoved aside or even wiped out by expanding populations from other parts of the world. Fascinating questions which I have to admit to finding very complicated. Easy to think the right thing in the comfort of your own armchair where your thoughts and decisions make no difference to anyone.

Next, Time for the Stars by Robert Heinlein.




Earth is a very over-crowded place in 2200 and space is the only place to go. The Long Range Foundation is sending a dozen or so ships out into the unknown and for instant communication it's been decided to find telepathic twins, one staying behind on Earth, the other going on the spaceship. Tom and Patrick Bartlett are two such individuals. Pat is the twin who tends to get his own way and even though Tom would like to be the one to go, Pat as always gets his way and is going. Until he has a skiing accident and, at short notice, Tom boards the craft with 200 other explorers, scientists, telepaths, and sets out on the voyage of a life-time.

This was my first Heinlein book, my daughter was a huge reader of his books as a teen but for some reason I never got around to them. This one I gather was written for young adults... specifically, it says on the cover: 'boys'. As it was written in the 1950s, that kind of sexism (perhaps too strong a word) is fairly typical of the times. Really, it's a ripping yarn that I quite enjoyed. It explores the nature of telepathy very thoroughly, also the nature of long-distance space-travel, especially the implications of the theory of relativity, whereby if you set off into space you age normally but your relations back on Earth will be old by the time you get back, if not dead. Most of the story takes place on the ship and explores the various relationships between those aboard. This was quite good, interesting, but for me the book really took off when they reached the alien planets and described events there. That didn't happen until the about the last third of the book and honestly I would have been happier with more of that... perhaps a longer book rather than less detail about the journey. I know the author wrote many longer books (this was less than 200 pages) so possibly I need to try those in order to get a better idea of his work. There must be a good reason why Robert Heinlein was, and remains, such a hugely popular science fiction writer.

Having written all that I just checked FantasticFiction for something and see that I have actually read one other Robert Heinlein book: The Puppet Masters. I remember thinking at the time that it was excellent and I still own it.

Thoroughly enjoying this foray into classic science fiction at the moment and planning to read a lot more throughout the year... especually Robert Silverberg. If anyone has any other sc-fi recs I would love to hear about them.

Comments

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is a classic well worth a read.

Unfortunately Heinlein's later work, after Stranger in a Strange Land, became very sex-obsessed, with every heroine determined to have babies at the drop of - er - well, let's say a hat; not to mention the ubiquitous Lazarus Long and his tedious time-travelling incest with his mother...

On the other hand there are always interesting ideas, though I find the "devil-take-the-hindmost" philosophy rather obnoxious.

And as for trying to understand the ending of the otherwise entertaining Number of the Beast...

Did you ever read anything by Eric Frank Russell or William Tenn? both classic oldies.

And I'm fond of Melissa Scott (except for Jazz which I couldn't get through), especially Dreamships. And the lovely Points fantasies which you may already know.

Of course it's no secret I'm a Sheri Tepper freak, though I was disappointed with The Waters Rising.





Ah yes, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I knew there was one of his which was a huge classic. Perhaps I'll give that one a go. He's obviously written some *interesting* stuff. *g*

I've heard of Eric Frank Russell but not William Tenn, have made a note and will see what I can dig up by them, ta. Likewise Melissa Scott... somehow I've managed never to read anything by her.
I never understood the saying "an elephant never forgets" before zoologists discovered how much brighter elephants are than they previously thought. They always remember people who are cruel to them (or kind, I imagine), and it was astounding to learn that elephants can paint pictures that are recognizable (trees, houses, other elephants), without being taught. So the book Downward to Earth is quite relevant today. People can be so arrogant in the way they treat any species they consider "less intelligent" than humans, when the fault is really one of human misperception.

The Heinlein book sounds like one of his early ones, which as the previous commenter says, were much easier to take than some of his later books. I still enjoy his less weird books, although it's been years and years since I read his work. The whole idea of telepathy as a work-around to distance is an intriguing one, because radio waves can't travel faster than light, but theory says the speed of thought is instantaneous.
Yes, elephants are apparently really quite intelligent. I kept thinking that while I was reading this book, written before we knew that possibly... 1977 I think. They grieve for their dead just like we do I gather, plus all the things you mention.

The Heinlein is a 1950s book and it shows I think. Although women are treated as fairly equal because he's writing forward to 2200, he threw me one or two wobblies which seemed to indicate that he thought women might still be thought of as 2nd. class citizens even then. Almost as though that was as he thought it should be. I might be doing him an injustice as I really don't know his writing well, plus he may just have been reflecting male thinking in the 1950s. It happens. And it doesn't take much for me to take against an author if I get even a sniff of such an attitude. Orson Scott Card for instance. Raymond Feist... I liked his first three 'Pug' books and then I began to realise he was always leaving the women at home while the men went off and did manly things and that was it... I read no more. I'm very fickle. LOL!
Actually Heinlein was usually a bit ahead of whatever time he was writing in and one of the plus points of Number of the Beast (slight spoiler) was one of the women firmly taking command - by no means a given in 1980 SF.

And (slight spoiler again) his perfectly casual revelation well into Tunnel in the Sky that the hero is not the default white guy was certainly unusual for 1955!

Oh, and have you read anything by Octavia Butler? Kindred is remarkable.

I'm pleased to hear that as I honestly don't like to be put off an author before I've even started. LOL.

Octavia Butler is another author I've inadvertantly managed not to read. I shall make a note of that title.
Back again. I've just been checking out Octavia Butler on AmazonUK (all the library has is two audios). You mentioned Kindred, which I will definitely try to get hold of, but Lilith's Brood and Fledgling also sound very good. Have you read those and if so, what did you think?
...it doesn't take much for me to take against an author if I get even a sniff of such an [sexist] attitude.


I hear that! I was not crazy about Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas series when I picked up the first (I think) book in the series. There was something a little smarmy about the main character's ingenuous cheerfulness and the general style of writing, to my way of thinking, but people said, "oh, you'll love it!"

**** SPOILER ALERT! ****

Then when he killed off the hero's sweetheart in a predictable, "isn't-it-wonderful-how-he's-dealing-with-this-huge-sorrow" kind of way, that tore it! What a sexist cliché! Kill the woman to make the man seem sensitive, especially since he had to make a choice whether to save her or the rest of the people in the town. So He Did What He Knew She Would Have Wanted Him to Do... (and besides, now he's Lonely and Available for future romantic pairings... urk.) It's oceans away from Severus Snape ...Actually, I guess there IS a writer J.K.Rowling surpasses! LOL!
*Urk* indeed. LOL. I've read nothing by Koontz whatsoever *but* oddly enough I just got a free book of his, 77 Shadow Street, so I'll have to now. Not sure why but I've never felt inclined to read his stuff. My loss perhaps.
Well, Odd Thomas is all I've read by him, and I didn't like it, but he has lots of fans so there are potentially lots of good books by him that I've just missed out on. You'll know after reading 77 Shadow Street, though!