read_warbler (read_warbler) wrote,

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.
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