Eye On Sci-Fi Book Review: The City and the Stars, by Arthur C. Clarke

city

“Alvin was an explorer, and all explorers are seeking something they have lost. It is seldom that they find it, and more seldom still that the attainment brings them greater happiness than the quest.” — The City and the Stars

Ah, Diaspar! The city shimmered as a jewel amid a sea of desert.

It was the last surviving human habitat in a world ravaged by severe drought and climate change. The last 100 million or so people left alive had sought refuge in this fortified utopia, where they lived lifespans of thousands of years in peace and security. The citizens of Diaspar had willingly handed over any and all control of their lives to the all-knowing Central Computer. Their lives were carefree, peaceful and, mostly, uneventful. It was to be this way for a billion years.

And then one day, Alvin emerged from the Design Center. As all inhabitants of this great city were genetically engineered to fear the outside world–for legends warned them never to set foot outside its walls, and not even to wonder about what lay beyond–Alvin by contrast was a Unique. He’d been designed to be different and for what purpose no one knew. As all citizens lived multiple lives, regenerating every few thousand years from the Memory Banks to walk the city streets again, Alvin was different. He was on his first life, and what a strange life it was. Why strange? Well, because Alvin would often gaze at the stars and wonder what lay beyond.

city3

It hadn’t always been this way, however. Long ago, humankind had once traversed the stars and forged a galactic empire. But the legends of the city told of how that earlier race of humans had overextended themselves and run across a foul enemy they dubbed the Invaders. A vicious war was fought and humankind had lost. Pushed back to its home planet, the human race was forbidden to ever leave their planet again. And so it was for a billion years.

Until Alvin got to wondering.

Change, however, wasn’t welcome in Diaspar. As Clarke writes:

They had forgotten much, but they did not know it. They were as perfectly fitted to their environment as it was to them—for both had been designed together. What was beyond the walls of the city was no concern of theirs; it was something that had been shut out of their minds. Diaspar was all that existed, all that they needed, all that they could imagine. It mattered nothing to them that Man had once possessed the stars.

city2

Alvin doesn’t let this stop him. He has a calling and he’s determined to find a way out of the city walls. He must know what is beyond. He must know, because he’s convinced his destiny lies somewhere in those forbidden stars above.

Thus Arthur C. Clarke, that genius technologist and author, blasts us into the future aboard one awesome rocket ship of a story. We accompany Alvin as he experiences what it’s like to explore a world unknown by humankind for a billion years. We are right beside him as he staggers under the revelations that the legends and myths that have been fed to his fellow citizens in Diaspar by the Central Computer are lies.

What Alvin discovers beyond will rock the city of Diaspar to its foundations.

If there’s one science fiction book out there that you need to read, it’s The City and the Stars.

This book is a masterpiece, no kidding. It’s up there with Childhood’s End, Rendezvous with Rama, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. All books, by the way, that I’ve read from Clarke and also thought wonderful. This book holds its own when standing among that amazing pantheon. Truth.

Clarke, as I believe is justly due, is one the best science fiction writers to ever have walked the Earth. I mean, I just don’t know how the guy did it? Not only was he a beautiful writer–with clear, concise prose–he was a hard science fiction writer. And not only that, he was also an inventor. I mean, the guy was an absolute expert in two things: technology and storytelling.

city4

I don’t want to give too much away about the story because I myself barely knew anything. I just picked it up and started reading. And honestly, I enjoyed it more that way. So I will pass this gift on to you. Just read it. Trust me.

Who knows, this story is so good it could very well be read by inhabitants of some far off future society a billion years from now. Let’s hope so, because this story is one for the ages.

–Charles Moritz

Advertisements

Eye On Sci-Fi Book Review: Before Adam, by Jack London

before1

“These are our ancestors, and their history is our history. Remember that as surely as we one day swung down out of the trees and walked upright, just as surely, on a far earlier day, did we crawl up out of the sea and achieve our first adventure on land.” — Before Adam

A young boy is plagued by dreams and nightmares of a primordial world he has never known in waking life. Once asleep, wild boars and ferocious saber-tooth cats stalk him as prey. He forages for vegetables and fruit, and sometimes also eats birds and lizards uncooked. In his dreams, he knows starvation and terror of night, fangs and claws, and yet in his dreams, the boy also knows camaraderie and altruism among those who must band together in order to survive. The boy, a city-dweller of early 20th century America, knows these savage things intimately, even though he has never seen a wild boar, nor a saber-tooth cat, nor monkeys, or how they behave in the wild.

He knows these things because the boy, when he rests his head on his pillow at night, is transported back in time to primeval Earth. There, he chatters in caves with strange looking half-human, half-ape people, and flees from ferocious lions, even before he’s old enough to have read about such animals in modern magazines.

before5

As the unnamed narrator of Jack London’s superb speculative tale Before Adam reveals to us, he is a “freak”, a modern man with the uncanny ability to remember the life of one of his prehistoric ancestors. These ‘racial memories’, as the narrator calls them, have been ingrained in his DNA down through the ages, lying dormant until his genes, for whatever bizarre turn of events, activated them when he was brought into being. He is an atavist, as he says; an example of a recurring trait of an ancestral form due to genetic recombination.

For years, the boy was reluctant to share this personal torment with anyone. The few times he did had produced such worried reactions among adults that he felt it was better to remain quiet. Growing up, he even showed signs of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, like the time his father took him to the zoo and upon seeing the caged tigers, the boy screamed and was insensible with fear for hours afterward. It’s not until the boy grows into a young man and goes away to college does he learn the truth of his torment. In college, he learns about evolution and “racial memory” and atavism, and only then does he fully grasp the nature of his uniqueness.

During the day, he is a Modern. At night, he is Big Tooth, a primitive hominid that struggled to survive thousands of generations ago. And what a struggle it was!

before2 Big Tooth

Big Tooth is a member of what the narrator calls the Cave People, early hominids who had come down from the trees to live in caves. On the cusp of intelligence, there are faint glimpses of budding human traits among the Cave People. There is a sense of community, a sense of humor, of altruism, but also savagery and tyranny. There are also the Tree People, the beings more monkey than man who have yet to progress on the evolutionary scale. And there are the Fire People, feared by both Cave and Tree People, who are the ancestors of modern humans and who hunt both species for food and land.

As Jack London spins this incredible tale, serialized in 1907-1909, we watch Big Tooth as he falls in love with a fellow hominid named the Swift One, befriends a fellow orphan/outcast called Lop-Ear, stands up to the vicious and tyrannical Red-Eye, and how their home among the caves is under threat by the expansion of the Fire People.

Though Jack London is best known for his naturalistic masterpieces, The Call of the Wild and White Fang, I daresay that Before Adam is quite close to being a masterpiece as well. Throughout the entire story I was enthralled as the life of our primitive ancestors was revealed in all its brutal, unforgiving and yet compassionate struggle. There’s no candy-coating here. The main character, Big Tooth, is a tormentor as well as a compassionate person. Life was harsh and life spans short. There was no mercy, no room for error, and no do-overs. For our ancestors, life was lived purely in the moment. As Jack London captures one memorable scene, a moment of outrage and growing unity to overthrow the tyrannical Red-Eye is quickly replaced by an urge to dance and make merry. These hominids did not have the minds of us Moderns. Instead, they had glimpses of what we would call the forerunners of human thought and emotion. Jack London depicts this superbly.

Jack London would know. The man was a true adventurer. Born in San Francisco, he was raised in poverty and mostly self-educated. When he was old enough, he made a living for a while as an “oyster pirate”. Later he became a seal hunter off the coast of Japan, before spending time after the economic crash of 1893 as a vagrant. He joined the Klondike Gold Rush where he gained inspiration for The Call of the Wild and White Fang. Afterward, after fame and fortune had come to him, he became a war correspondent. Tragically, he died at the age of 40, but only after cementing his name in the pantheon of great American writers.

before4 Jack London

Before Adam is a prime example of why Jack London’s name is still among the finest of authors.

If you’ve ever gazed up at the stars while huddling over a camp-fire surrounded by forest, and found yourself wondering what it must have been like hundreds of thousands of years ago, Before Adam is the best glimpse into that unknowable past you will probably ever get. It’s a thrilling, heart-warming, fascinating tale. And those primordial memories lie dormant in all of us.

-Charles Moritz

 

Eye On Sci-Fi Book Review: The Shrinking Man, by Richard Matheson

shrink2

Richard Matheson should be considered a God of Science Fiction.

There, I said it.

Quite a declaration, you say? Well, watch as I back this up.

Matheson’s The Shrinking Man is one of those long lost gems. A classic. It’s also a damn shame that I don’t see this amazing storyteller being mentioned among younger generations like my own. But I’ll go into all that soon enough.

For now, enter the world of The Shrinking Man:

Scott Carey is just your average guy who happens to be very fortunate in life. He’s in love with his beautiful wife, who’s also deeply in love with him. They have a wonderful daughter. Scott makes good money working for his brother, Marty, in a job he also happens to enjoy.

Everything is going great for Scott.

Until one day…

It’s a sunny afternoon and Scott is out enjoying a family vacation at the lake on his brother’s boat. Just a perfect summer day.

Scott takes the boat out for a spin alone and passes through a mysterious cloud of mist. He thinks that it’s strange since the mist doesn’t exactly appear to be water, but he’s having too much fun so he soon forgets about it.

As Matheson writes, “It was the beginning…”

The story then jumps to when Scott is half an inch tall and fighting for his life against a gigantic spider that’s trying to eat him.

spider

He rushes across his basement floor, which is more like a vast concrete desert for someone of his scale.

Chairs are mountains. The basement walls are sheer cliffs thousands of feet high.

There are insects out to devour him, insects which, when he was of normal size, he didn’t think twice before stepping on.

Scott Carey, who had everything a man could hope for, is locked in a tooth and nail nightmare struggle for survival.

It’s a jungle life he now leads. His days are filled with the unending and exhausting search for food. Trapped in the basement, there’s not much to find. A box of stale crackers that was left on top of a table might as well be on Mount Everest.

Water he’s been able to find due to the leak in the cooling system of a refrigerator.

When night falls, Scott is filled with a panic that only those who live in the African savanna could identify with.

For out there, in the immense cold concrete desert that is the basement floor, lurks a black widow spider that’s been hunting him.

But this nightmare didn’t happen overnight. Oh no, Mr. Matheson is much too methodical to do that to us readers.

No, Scott Carey’s journey to become the Shrinking Man is presented to us in all its torturous, humiliating detail.

You see, Scott Carey only shrinks one inch per month.

At first, it’s worrisome but not too noticeable among his family and friends. The doctors will find the cause and cure it, they assure Scott.

Except there is no cure. In fact, the medical community has never seen anything like this. Even worse, they treat Scott like a new toy they can experiment with.

doctor

So Scott stops going to the doctors. His fate, apparently, is sealed.

And yet the agony is minute to minute, day by torturous day for Scott.

His 4 year old daughter no longer pays attention to him. As Scott bitterly concludes, most adult authority over children comes from the fact that their stature is so much taller and stronger than a child, so the child is more apt to listen and obey. When Scott is equal in height with his daughter, he’s heartbroken to find that she no longer really considers him a father. A father is strong and tall. Scott seems like just another playmate.

And when Scott continues to shrink, eventually he cannot be around his daughter any more due to the fact that his daughter wants to play with him like a doll.

doll

Not to mention his love life with his beautiful wife. We painfully watch the intimacy between them shrivel in increasingly squeamish scenes as Scott and his wife desperately try to overcome this barrier between them. But there is no overcoming it.

Scott himself goes through many changes. He is angrier, more impulsive. He’s bitter beyond belief. Absent a cause to blame for his affliction, he disperses his anger and rage toward everyone and everything around him.

Soon he is too small to even partake in anything that resembles a normal life.

His wife buys him a dollhouse to live in.

dollhouse1

The family cat prowls the halls, searching for the mouse-sized Scott to eat.

cat

Eventually no one can even see him as he shrinks beyond the measure of an inch.

One day he becomes trapped in his basement and that’s that. The lid to his tomb is closed. He is a man forced to eke out an existence similar to primitive humans until one day he knows he’ll die.

And yet, despite all this, Scott does not give up.

He cannot bring himself to end it all by his own hand.

The mysterious forces of nature that have conspired against him and put him in this situation he refuses to let win so easily.

No, despite the horror, the starvation, the fear, Scott Carey goes on and on and on.

His belief is that no matter what, he will not quit. Even facing the prospect of eventually shrinking into oblivion does not dispel his willpower.

No matter what, he will not quit.

The Shrinking Man is an incredible story full of tension, anxiety and pain. The incurable agony this poor man undergoes is nothing short of horrific. The defiance he has in the face of all these horrors is nothing short of heroic.

I can safely say that this novel is one of the most original stories I’ve ever read.

Matheson is a master. This is not hype. His influence is astounding.

richardmatheson[1]

Richard Matheson also wrote I Am Legend, another masterpiece. Forget the Will Smith movie version. The book will straight up give you chills.

He was a regular screen writer for The Twilight Zone, including the iconic episodes “Nightmare at 20,000 feet” where a passenger witnesses a gremlin on the wing of his airplane, and the episode entitled “Steel”, where human boxing has been replaced by fighting robots, which the 2011 Hugh Jackman movie Real Steel was based off of.

He also wrote the stories which the movies What Dreams May Come (Robin Williams), Somewhere In Time (Christopher Reeve) and Steven Spielberg’s first major film, Duel, was based on.

There’s a 1957 movie called The Incredible Shrinking Man, which I would love to see a remake of if they adhered to Matheson’s story. There’s also a graphic novel out that looks amazing.

The man should be considered a Titan, if not a God, of Science Fiction.

Unfortunately, most people I talk to my age have never heard of him.

So, please. Read The Shrinking Man and be blown away.

And afterward, do as I’m doing now. Spread Richard Matheson’s name as much as possible. This man deserves it.

He’s a Giant.

–Charles Moritz

 

 

Eye On Sci-Fi Book Review: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, by Philip K. Dick

‘For everyone lost in the endlessly multiplicating realities of the modern world, remember: Philip K. Dick got there first.’ –Terry Gilliam

three

Where to begin with this bad acid trip of a story???  Ah. Here we are: What a great book!

Three Stigmata is so many things. The best analogy I can give is it’s an onion that you are peeling one layer at a time as you try to get to the core of its reality. Only, it has no core. It just keeps unraveling and unraveling and unraveling in your hands and in your mind until you start to wonder if onions ever existed in the first place, and what will happen if you keep unraveling? Are you sure you even want to find out?

But a brief bit of story background first.

It’s sometime in the 21st century and Earth is a sun blasted wasteland where no living thing can survive outdoors for very long unprotected. Humanity is cramped into mega-cities full of countless towers with countless floors constantly blasting A/C. Soon Earth will be uninhabitable and it’s why every habitable planet within the solar system is full of colonies of intrepid humans trying to eke out any kind of existence. Especially Mars. But life on these other planets is depressing. The days are full of routine and the colonists are all left staring at the same hovel walls day in and day out until one day they know they will die.

So enter Leo Bulero and his brilliant Pre-Fash consultant Barney Mayerson. They are #1 and #2 of a company called P.P. Layouts, which constructs doll-like sets (think Barbie and Ken) for people to project hallucinations onto and to feel like they are still on Old Earth when they take an illicit, illegal drug called Can-D. Can-D is grown off-world and shipped throughout the solar system by growers, runners and pushers hired by P.P. Layouts, although this is all hush-hush since Bulero will never openly admit this. The United Nations Authority has been trying to crack down on Can-D for decades but is always one step behind.

Leo has enjoyed a very lucrative monopoly until news breaks that a mega-rich industrialist, Palmer Eldritch, has crash landed on Pluto after being gone for ten long years in deep space. Word on the street also says there is a certain exotic lichen that was found on board Eldritch’s ship, possibly a variant strain of Can-D. This immediately sends shivers of panic through Bulero, who thinks he might finally have a competitor.

palmer Palmer Eldritch, who has artificial eyes, steel teeth and a mechanical arm

He’s right. It quickly comes to light that Palmer Eldritch has with him a product he is calling Chew-Z, and he’s threatening to rock the illegal drug markets with its upcoming release. Leo Bulero takes an immediate flight to the artificial moon that Palmer Eldritch is being hospitalized at to see what’s going on personally. But instead of personally, he is met with some sort of robot contraption that talks and acts like Palmer Eldritch but isn’t Palmer Eldritch. This is when Leo Bulero realizes that somewhere along the way he must have been secretly injected with the new drug, Chew-Z, and from here on out the story is locked in that ever unraveling onion that turns out to be a nightmarish quasi-hell.

It seems that Chew-Z, somehow, is tapped into Palmer Eldritch’s mind and users stay locked for years in whatever hallucinatory world he wants (though they are barely able to recognize it as an hallucination and it actually blends with real reality). He has plans to spread the drug across Earth and all the colonies and therefore take full control over humanity.

But why would people take the drug then? Well, throughout the story as we follow these characters, we see them descend into the very pits of self-pity, loneliness, and their need to escape truth and their real reality–even Palmer Eldritch, whoever or whatever he is. Isolation is a major theme of this work and none expresses it better than Palmer Eldritch when he confesses how lonely deep space can be to Barney in one of their dream worlds.

stigmata The many layers of reality

The imagery of this book is vivid and takes turns you wouldn’t expect. Like when Leo Bulero has full blown conversations with beings that are the evolutionary descendants of ourselves, or when he chokes a little girl in the dream world because he knows it’s actually Eldritch behind the illusion. At times the dreamer will wake and seem to be in reality but then things take a turn for the nightmarish and once again the dreamer, along with the reader, are plunged into the twisted mind of Palmer Eldritch. You the reader cannot escape either.

But it is poor Barney Mayerson, the #2 man of P.P. Layouts, who we get the most closely examined psyche via Chew-Z. He’s a sad man who has regretted every day of his life ever since he divorced his wife and only wishes he could get her back. He takes Chew-Z in a half-baked plan cooked up by Leo Bulero in order to sabotage the spread of the drug, but instead he finds himself trapped in Palmer Eldritch’s hallucination not knowing what’s real or what’s unreal.  He relives his mistakes of leaving his wife over and over in Palmer’s world, forever doomed to repeat them.

As time goes on and Barney and Leo dig ever deeper into this rabbit hole, they eventually conclude that Palmer Eldritch can no longer be considered human. They surmise that their competitor has been overtaken by something he encountered in his long voyage in deep space, an alien presence which now inhabits what was once the human Palmer Eldritch. What that something is, though, no one can tell. Is it God? Or just a piece of God?

There are so many layers to this book that it’s almost like taking Can-D or Chew-Z itself. One hallucination or layer of reality gives into another one. You think you’re back to the safety and security of what you come to think of as real dependable reality, until people who are talking in a scene start to morph into Palmer Eldritch, and then you realize that no, you are not back in reality, if there ever was such a place. Only Palmer Eldritch’s reality is reality. He controls everything here.

That’s what makes this story so cool. I can imagine its mind-boggling narrative when it was published in 1964, before the drug-addled 60s spread love and peace and open-mindedness into mainstream culture. Dick was way ahead of the charge there. From what I’ve read about this extraordinary American author, he lived for many years in houses chock-full of drug users and peaceniks. He knew what he was describing, he’d been there. You can tell he must have had many, many bad acid trips!

A great PKD quote which will help you get through this story and life in general: “Reality is that which when you stop believing in it does not go away.”

You know he learned this from first hand experience.

30book

"The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick"

Philip K. Dick

Credit: Frank Ronan

PKD

Unfortunately, or however you view it, PKD himself became a victim of the multiple layers of reality. One day he experienced an epiphany of some kind, something he attributed to a closeness with God or the Other world, he didn’t know which. He spent the rest of his life trying to figure out what had happened to him. Whether it was a religious experience or a bout of mental illness, no one knows. Not even PKD.

To close, this book is a trip. PKD’s writing style is not conventional. Sometimes it’s rough, at times sloppy. He uses a lot of semicolons, something that contemporary editors and the writing world frown upon nowadays. But the story itself transcends all that. If you’ve ever contemplated the nature of reality, if you’ve ever caught yourself wondering if reality even exists at all (some people think we’re all living in a computer simulation) then this book is for you. Even if you haven’t, read it and treat yourself to a perspective that will be brand new to you. It might just have you questioning everything around you.

Just a head’s up, though. If the person you are talking to all of a sudden springs artificial eyes, steel teeth and a mechanical arm…then you are about to enter a world of pain!

–Charles Moritz

Eye On Sci-Fi Book Review: H.G. Wells, Another Kind of Life

“Our true nationality is mankind.” — H.G. Wells

hg

The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr. Moreau. Anytime you hear these titles or see stories in the same vein–time travel, alien invasion, technology used for nefarious reasons, genetic engineering gone wrong–you are seeing firsthand the legacy of H. G. Wells. Not only that, but the concepts of globalization, multiculturalism and universal human rights–things we encounter directly and signify our current epoch–were all championed and furthered by none other than H.G. Wells.

I’ve always been a fan, finding myself returning now and again to his pantheon of timeless science adventure novels, dubbed “scientific romances” in his own time. And it was upon finishing The Time Machine a few months ago and impressed by how modern his prose is even though the novel was published in 1894, that I found I wanted to know more about the inimitable H.G. Wells. Up to that point, I did not know much about his life.

So I checked out at my library Michael Sherborne’s 2010 bio, H.G Wells: Another Kind of Life. Let me tell you now, H.G. Wells was not only a visionary, but he was a man who lived enough to fill ten different men’s biographies.

another

Born in 1866 to a care-free irreligious father and a stoic, religiously-observant mother, H.G. (Herbert George) was the son of servants and a victim of the class system of Victorian Britain. His father was a gardener and his mother a house maid, and both toiled on the bourgeois estates of some of Britain’s richer nobler families.

H.G., known as Bertie when he was young, had two older brothers and all three of them were “destined” to go into the drapery business, a stable way to earn a living and the best that their parents could provide for them.

Bertie’s two older brothers did this without complaint, though no one was too thrilled to become a draper’s assistant. Bertie, on the other hand, was going to have none of it. He rebelled, refusing to work the 16 hour days, 7 days a week as an apprentice, where you slept in a room in the back of the shop and did not get paid as you were “earning” the skills sets of the job. After putting his parents through many trials and tribulations, no doubt worrying them to death that their youngest son would wind up a vagrant or a criminal, Bertie found an interest in school.

Science was his passion and he excelled at it. So much so that soon he won a scholarship to a prestigious school in London where after many years of hard work as a teacher and by self-education, he found himself under the tutelage of the great T. H. Huxley, grandfather of Aldous Huxley.

But Bertie was still poor and he yearned, as was his trait throughout his entire life, to keep molding himself anew, constantly learning and transcending his mind and his life to a higher level. He began writing and found he liked it. A story he worked on through  many many years was that called The Chronic Argonauts, which eventually became The Time Machine, his first novel, which catapulted him to fame. But until then, H.G. was just another struggling everyman.

It being Victorian England, sexual expression was frowned upon. Boiling under the surface with repressed sexual energy, Bertie married a distant cousin whom he had fallen in love with, Isabel, in the hopes of getting some action on a constant basis. This was not the case, however, and after some time Bertie found he was an unhappily married man laboring his life away at a job he hated. This was also the time he nearly died from illness.

Wells was always a sickly child and this followed him into his early youth until one time, in his early 30s, he found Death knocking at his door. Luckily, not only for himself but also for the sake of the world and science fiction, he survived and in effect had an epiphany.

No longer was he going to waste his life. Wells was going to live the way he wanted.

In short, over the course of the next handful of years, Wells divorced his wife and married one of his students, he quit his teaching job and churned out the 4 books mentioned above in quick succession. Soon he found himself a best seller earning piles of cash, he was the talk of the town, frequenting literary circles with the likes of the best authors in the world.

war2 Original illustration for The War of the Worlds

As the 20th century approached, Wells saw his chance to become “the man of futurity.” And this he did. Espousing a world government set on progressive ideals such as women’s right to vote, racial tolerance, the abolishing of the class system, and the reorganizing of the entire world order, Wells cemented his reputation in the public consciousness as one of the most forward thinking people alive.

Through the next four decades Wells would trumpet that a world utopia was, indeed, within mankind’s grasp if only mankind could let go of nationalism and ethnocentrism and instead embrace multiculturalism and world peace.

Unfortunately, mankind did not listen and two world wars would bring civilization to its knees. By the end of his life, after warning the world of impending catastrophes, Wells died in 1946 shortly after the atomic bombs–which he had warned about in a novel called The World Set Free back in 1914–were dropped on Japan. Wells died disheartened, afraid that the human species was not up to the task of saving itself from destruction, and indeed this was the underlying point Wells seemed to make in all his works: that science and technology enabled not only the betterment of human society but also that it enabled the darker side of our natures to have the power to destroy itself on a grander scale. He was one of the few who realized this in such times and he did his best to bring this to light for others to recognize before it was too late.

H.G. Wells, a man born in Victorian England to servant parents, had, through his own determination and ingenuity, found himself one of the most famous men of his times. He had dozens of mistresses, had one on one talks with the greatest personalities of his age–everyone lent an ear when he spoke. He was also a very kind hearted, generous man, and I would have to write a complete biography myself in order to detail all the amazing things this guy did. Luckily, I don’t have to as H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life has already done this.

sf H.G. Wells, Science Fiction’s poster boy

Jorge Luis Borges once put it that H.G. Wells has accomplished his own time-traveling feat. With his iconic images of aliens laying waste with their ray guns, a man time-traveling into a fantastic future world, among others–these images are recognized in parts of the world where English is not even spoken and where Wells has never been known. In short, Borges asserts, and I agree, that Wells has created such rich visual impressions on the human psyche and expounded on such important topics–he championed universal human rights to his dying day–that thousands of years from now, his legacy will be felt even if the man and his words are forgotten.

Wells himself has transcended Time.

The_Time_Machine The Time Machine

-Charles Moritz

Eye On Sci-Fi Book Review: WE, by Yevgeny Zamyatin

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-TLYrKYUpH0A/UBUcIu9PL4I/AAAAAAAAHjI/FnZls-daUw0/s1600/We+1.jpg

Before Brave New World…Before 1984…There was…We

 

“One thousand years ago your heroic ancestors subdued the entire terrestrial globe to the power of the One State. Yours will be a still more glorious feat: you will integrate the infinite equation of the universe with the aid of the fire-breathing, electric, glass Integral. You will subjugate the unknown beings on other planets, who may still be living in the primitive condition of freedom, to the beneficent yoke of reason. If they fail to understand that we bring them mathematically infallible happiness, it will be our duty to compel them to be happy…Long live the One State, long live the numbers, long live the Benefactor!”

So begins one of the most influential Sci-Fi novels of the 20th century. We, completed in 1923 by Russian intellectual Yevgeny Zamyatin, was the forebear to Brave New World and 1984. It inspired those two now timeless classics of Western literature. And it was no mere fantasy novel sprung from its author’s imagination. We was born out of the beginnings of Russian totalitarianism.

Although Aldous Huxley and George Orwell are hailed as prophets and literary greats, Zamyatin is practically unheard-of on this side of the Hemisphere and his great literary feat has now fallen into near obscurity, at least within Western consciousness. The only reason I can attribute for this is that his name fell victim to the Cold War.

For almost 50 years the icy relations between two ideologies—Capitalism and Communism—made reading literature from the other side very difficult if not sometimes impossible. Despite the fact that Zamyatin was essentially criticizing the direction his own country was heading, he nonetheless found himself caught between the two warring ideologies and was marginalized by both continents.

Though copies of his novel did make it into circulation and left indelible impressions on Huxley and Orwell, We ultimately fell to the wayside. It is only now, with the Cold War over, that full attention can be given to this visionary. He deserves to be hailed as a literary master.

Kustodiev Zamyatin.jpg Yevgeny Zamyatin

We is written in the style of a series of journal entries, narrated by the number D-503 (people are referred to as numbers in the One State), the Master Builder of the spaceship Integral, tasked with subduing alien races of other planets to the will of the One State. D-503 believes completely in his task and in the ultimate wisdom of the Great Benefactor, the god-like dictator of the One State. His mission is one of near holy importance. This is what makes it all the more shocking to him when he encounters a rebellious woman, I-330, who burns with such a passionate belief in freedom of the individual and in love, that he is unable to control himself and falls in love with her. Passion, after all, unless directed toward the Great Benefactor and the One State, is a disgusting and shameful thing. Emotions of any kind are forbidden.

We 5

As D-503 wrestles with his inner turmoil—he considers himself “sick” and “diseased” due to the passion he feels for I-330—he records it all in his journal, which is to be used as a reference point for the newly conquered alien races who will no doubt be suffering their own versions of inner turmoil as they are forced to cast aside their cultures and beliefs and committ wholly to the Great Benefactor. It is this way that we get to see the transformation of D-503 from a brain-washed automaton into a thinking, feeling human being.

A little more context, however, is needed in order to understand the full impact of D-503’s experience. The One State is a gigantic city made of glass, and I mean everything is glass—the walls, floors and ceilings of houses and buildings, chairs, tables, roads. Everything is transparent so that there is no privacy. No one can hide anything because, as the argument goes in the One State—and eerily today in our own country—if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Privacy is for people who are doing things they shouldn’t be doing. And to ensure that all numbers are behaving the way that the One State wants them to behave, there are also the Guardians—the fanatical ideologues who monitor the numbers of the city from planes (called aeros) and who have installed voice-recording equipment to cover every inch of the city in order listen to every conversation among the One State’s 10 million inhabitants. Think of the NSA on steroids.

http://www.panospallaris.co.uk/gallery/1320105600/1321960672-ca8e802da28ce2b4ae9c59c97e6ecb24.jpgThe One State

And along with the subjugation of the human will, Nature also has been subdued and virtually eradicated from the confines of the city. Nothing green, no grass or trees, not even animals (numbers eat some kind of petroleum-based processed food), exists within it. Nature, that chaotic, disgusting unruly force, has been expelled beyond what is called the Green Wall, which encircles the One State. Beyond the Green Wall lies the wasteland that is the rest of Earth. In the aftermath of the Two Hundred Years’ War, in which the One State burned every surrounding town and village and forced every survivor to migrate into its glass-encased circumference, the rest of Earth has been left to rot.

This is the world D-503 has been born and raised and lives in. A world where for a thousand years since the Two Hundred Years’ War, the numbers of the One State have been living a strictly scheduled, rigidly observed daily routine. Not even sex has escaped regulation. Numbers receive “coupons” to copulate with someone of their choosing on designated days at designated hours and everyone is available. There is no ownership, no relationship and no property that exists unless it is controlled by the One State.

And although this may sound bleak and dystopian, Zamyatin at heart is no cynic. For in his depiction of this dark world there is still something untouchable, something mysterious that exists within human nature that the One State can never stamp out. Zamyatin recognizes, no doubt gleaned from his own real life experiences, that some people, despite the circumstances in which they find themselves, will never bow down completely. And this is exemplified in the underground resistance which lives under the surface of the One State and is gaining momentum. A certain contingent of people who simply are going through the motions of worshipping the One State, but who never believe in what they are doing. These people are merely wearing a disguise in order to survive. And this is embodied in I-330. She is an integral part in this resistance and her relationship with D-503 might not be only one of passion, but also one of calculation. For if the Master Builder of the Integral can be convinced to turn against the One State, then who can’t be?

But of course, time, as in any great novel, is running out. The One State knows there is trouble brewing. And the One State’s Science Department has located the actual organ in the brain that is responsible for imagination. So the One State has decreed under penalty of death that every number must report to the Auditorium to undergo the Procedure—in other words, have their imagination permanently removed. It will be the final nail in the coffin for individuality.

Yet the novel is more complex than this. It is a multi-layered, dynamic piece of literature. I have only read it once, but I have a sneaking suspicion that if you read it more times you’ll find many ideas that you didn’t pick up the first time through. I saw many things in this book that I recognized as having inspired the great scenes in Huxley’s and Orwell’s masterpieces. We is that good.

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-CZl8BJB2XOk/UwFhh_by3bI/AAAAAAAAAAM/CxKfbN8zLZU/s1600/orwell.jpg

Zamyatin paid the price for his great novel. As the Russian Revolution morphed into the beginnings of Leninism and Stalinism, Zamyatin was given a glimpse into the future of Russia. The Great Revolution had occurred in 1917 and by 1921, when We was being written, Zamyatin was already being critically attacked for writing anti-Party literature. The growing and ever pervading belief at that time was that all art and talent should be directed toward hailing the Great Revolution and the rising power of the new Russia. Anything else was considered heretic.

Zamyatin never bowed down. To the end he fought for and was vehemently outspoken in his belief that literature and writers should have the freedom to express whatever the writer and the work of art believes to be the truth. Truth, for Zamyatin, was the ultimate ideal.

Once Stalin fixed his crosshairs on the troublesome Zamyatin, his career in Russia was over. Luckily, and surprisingly, Zamyatin escaped with his life, but he was banished from Russia for the remainder of it. Exiled in Paris, Zamyatin was left a somewhat embittered, displaced man, a victim of ideology.

But his sacrifices should not be in vain. Read his book. It’s the least We can do.

-Charles Moritz

%d bloggers like this: