I just couldn’t put Old Man’s War down

John Perry is a likable old man from Ohio who joins the army of the future for a shot at a second life. In typical Heinlein fashion, military recruits derive benefits unavailable to everyday citizens. See, if you join the army on your seventy-fifth birthday you receive the luxury of a brand new body, which is more physically fit than your original body ever was. From there you’re shuffled off to boot camp on a remote planet where you’re likely to learn that disgusting, evil-looking aliens are humanity’s allies while the pleasant-looking, dear-like aliens are most likely among your worst nightmares.

old people review Old Man’s War

That’s nearly half of the book, but I haven’t given too much away. The fun isn’t so much what happens, but how it happens. Remember Kick the Can? It was the episode of The Twilight Zone (remade as a segment in the movie version) in which a group of elderly people learn how to be young again. That’s what Old Man’s War reminds me of a lot of the time. It’s as if a large group of seventy-five year olds relive their first day of school on an intergalactic scale. For a long, opening section of the book it’s a whimsical fantasy. At the beginning of the second section, however, it turns dark, but manages to retain its charm.

Although I frequent his blog more than most I haven’t gotten around to reading any of John Scalzi’s fiction until now. I bought Old Man’s War a long time ago after reading Scalzi’s candid introduction to The Forever War (one of my all-time favorites), but it was one of those books that got lost by the bed in my ever growing “To Read” pile. I should know by now that the book I plan to read is never the book I read at the time. Every time I finish one novel, instead of going to the next in line, I go through my unread pile and read first sentences at random. A Dune sequel wasn’t doing it for me. Neither was The Wheel of Time or Consider Phlebas. So with a sigh I picked up Old Man’s War and read:

I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.

Now you should see why I was hooked. Openings are the most important and perhaps hardest part to get right. Scalzi does it in a little over a dozen words.

Heinlein’s stamp is all over Old Man’s War in a pleasant way… and I’m not the biggest Heinlein fan. Scalzi is a Heinlein fan and isn’t ashamed to draw inspiration from the SF maestro. Old Man’s War is a casual read, though not at all shallow, and you can’t read it in the same house anyone’s sleeping in—it’s far too funny for that. An early scene in which John visits an army doctor had me howling.

I think it’s worth noting that Scalzi originally self-published Old Man’s War on his blog, where it became so popular Tor eventually picked it up. It just goes to show that the science fiction portion of the publishing industry is relatively fearless of trying new things, not to mention particularly proud of finding new talent. In a matter of a few short years Scalzi went from being a self-published science fiction writer to the head of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. Oh, and Paramount optioned Old Man’s War into a movie. Sure, options are a dime a dozen—I’m still waiting for a Repairman Jack film—but I imagine Old Man’s War: The Movie has a good shot of being made if Ender’s Game performs well at the box office (it will).

I assumed John Scalzi was one of those guys who lucked out. I realize I was wrong. The guy’s got the talent to back it up. I don’t remember the last time I became so enamored with a writer after reading only one of his novels. Check out the user reviews. I’m far from being the only one with such high praise, even if two of the three people in the video above disliked it.

I don’t plan on reading any of the sequels next, but that’s only because I never read the books I plan on reading.

The Hammer Of God will bore you to death before it knocks your socks off

If you know me at all, you know I love the works of Arthur C. Clarke. As Woody Allen told Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, love isn’t even a strong enough word. I need an entirely new word for how much I love ACC. Yet, I don’t absolutely love everything he’s written. I’m not so blinded by my fandom that I can’t see the flaws in his method. It sometimes seems there are two ACCs, one who writes what we want and, well, one who almost seems like an impostor. Almost.

The Hammer Of God is a balanced mixture of these two ACCs. For the first half of the book, one catches glimpses of the world-building that made Rendezvous with Rama such a compelling read, but for the most part it’s a dud. The first half is mostly filler. He probably could have cut 60% of it, but even with the first half intact, this is a very short novel. It’s a one-day read, maybe two.
On the other hand, the second half of the book is more than worthwhile. I’m sure that’s the half which interested Spielberg when he optioned the book into a movie. Why his production company made Deep Impact instead, I’ll never know.
“I have great faith in optimism as a guiding principle.”
A little background: humans are living not just on Earth, but on the moon and Mars. One of the world’s fastest growing religions has been started by a woman who, inspired by a tour of duty in Desert Storm, decided to combine Christianity and Islam into something new. Partly because Chrislam isn’t as prude as most religions when it comes to sex and other modern desires, it becomes popular pretty quickly. When Earth receives what appears to be a deliberate radio signal from another star system, Chrislamists preach it’s a message from God. In the same way paranormal investigators unwittingly construct tools to give them the false positives they’re looking for, Chrislamists use special methods to insure they get exactly the message they want to extract from the signal. More on these bozos later.
ACC recycles ideas. Since this is the guy who first wrote about the geostationary satellites we rely on today for communications, can you blame him? In Hammer of God more than 90% of all asteroids and comets in the solar system have been cataloged by SPACEGUARD. Does that program sound familiar? It’s because he made it up in Rendezvous with Rama, but in the years between that novel and Hammer, it became a reality. In Hammer, he writes about the real SPACEGUARD, interestingly enough, rather than the one he imagined. Nevertheless, it’s an amateur astronomer living on Mars who originally detects a doomsday asteroid on a collision course with Earth. 
(The real world implications are frightening. Consider: in the next thousand years, a catastrophic collision is expected to occur on Earth, the moon, or Mars. If you plan on staying on Earth for the rest of your life, as most of us will no doubt have to do, this is more or less like being forced to play spin the bottle with a loaded gun and only three players.)
Thankfully, there’s a spacecraft within rendezvous distance of the doomsday asteroid (the same thing happened in Rendezvous with Rama), which scientists dub Kali, after the goddess of destruction. Astronauts plan to touchdown on the asteroid and attach a thruster system known as ATLAS, which will nudge Kali out of its current trajectory. ATLAS, however, requires a mindbogglingly large amount of fuel, which takes a month to acquire. By the time they get it, Kali is within the orbit of Mars—frighteningly close to the homeworld. No worries, though, because things seem to be smooth sailing once they get their fuel. The astronauts land on Kali, attach ATLAS, turn the system on and, surprise-surprise: it’s been sabotaged by Chrislamists. It turns out they believe only God should decide whether or not the asteroid collides with Earth.

This is when the book gets good. And I mean really good. The astronauts devise one plan after another, only to encounter problems left and right. The scientists and politicians back on Earth decide to take out an insurance policy: a hastily constructed nuke which they plan to fire at the asteroid when all is lost. If the astronauts succeed, the scientists will simply send a deactivation signal. If the astronauts fail, they’ll allow the nuke to continue as planned. As you can imagine, things don’t work out as simply as that.
I’m tempted to tell readers of The Hammer of God to start at its halfway point. They shouldn’t. The second half really is worth the first half. 

Nightfall and Nightfall

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!

In 1941, Isaac Asimov published a What if? story inspired by John W. Campbell who, in turn, was inspired by the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote above. What if humanity had never seen stars? In both the short story and novel form, Nightfall proposes people would go crazy. Catastrophically crazy.

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The Short Story

The short story takes place on a planet with six suns. At any given time, you can expect the six suns to light every inch of the surface. Which means the people who live there don’t know what darkness is. It’s an abstract concept to them. We learn early on that when these people are faced with darkness they go apeshit insane.

A group of scientists make a terrifying discovery: every two thousand years, the planet goes dark. What does this mean for a civilization who has never seen darkness? Widespread psychosis. A civilization that tears itself down. See, the darkness is scary enough, but the appearance of the stars make the people go absolutely mad. Gripped by the star-crazed madness, the people will do anything for light. They’ll burn any and everything they can get their hands on.

The story scared the shit out of me. It doesn’t play on the fear of darkness itself, but on the fear of “crazy” people. To be more exact, the horror element emerges from the taut suspense: you know people are going to start flipping out and you know there’s nothing the main characters can do about it. The very last line of the story chilled me to the bone.

Asimov stated he was perplexed by the popularity of the story (along with Campbell’s Who Goes There? and Orson Scott Card’s original version of Ender’s Game, it’s often called the best short story in the SF genre). He had been reluctant to give the story credit, but finally did in a short stories collection. To date, the story has been anthologized almost 50 times.

The Novel

In the nineties, Asimov and Robert Silverberg co-wrote a novel version. The cover of my edition claims the short story was only part of the story. They weren’t kidding.

The novel begins years before the events we witnessed in the short story. We get to know many of the characters and watch them piece together the facts: a psychologist who is treating psychotic patients who have been exposed to darkness, an archaeologist who accidentally discovers several previous civilizations, all of which were burned to the ground, and an astronomer who realizes a time will come when the planet is plunged in darkness.

The catastrophe itself takes place about midway through the book and it happens more or less exactly as it happened in the short story. The last third of the book is about the aftermath, in which most of the world’s survivors are irreversibly insane. At one point, a main character observes a group of crazy men desperately trying to uproot a tree. It was one of those images that will stick with me. The men had no good reason—you don’t have to when you’re crazy—they just wanted to pull a tree out of the ground.

You could say these people are overreacting, sure, but even Earthlings who are accustomed with nightfall have this embedded fear of the dark, which is only ignored and never cured. It isn’t really that hard to buy the catastrophic events that occur.

The original title of this post was Nightfall VS Nightfall, but it wasn’t fair to compare them. They are two separate entities written at two very different times. The novel won’t be considered a classic, and that’s shame, just because it retreads some of the same material as the short story, which is considered a classic. I suggest reading them both, starting with the short story which you can listen to at Escape Pod.

The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov

I couldn’t really remember why I liked this book so much when I was younger and decided to check it out again.

One day, chemist Frederick Hallam discovers plutonium-186… sitting on his desk. The container is marked TUNGSTEN STEEL. As it turns out, aliens from a parallel universe want our tungsten. The physical laws of their universe are different than ours; tungsten to them is as powerful an energy source as plutonium-186 is for us. What the humans set up with the aliens (“para-men”) is a free energy trade: they get our tungsten steel, we get their plutonium-186. And although there is the distinct possibility that pumping resources back and forth will lead to disaster, humanity is too addicted to care. They deny the potential catastrophe. Who’d want to give up free energy?

Isaac Asimov is known for relying on standard prose to convey grand ideas, but here he steps out of his comfort zone (a little) and creates something unusually (for him) literary. In his memoirs, which I read recently, he calls it “writing above my head.” For the first time he writes something which belongs with the then current trend of “New Wave” science fiction. It’s experimental, it’s risque, and it’s anything but golden age.

The book begins with Chapter 6. Then we get Chapter 1, more of Chapter 6, Chapter 2, and so on. When Chapter 6 finally concludes, you get why he arranged the novel this way. And just when you get to know the human characters—poof!—Asimov changes gears altogether and presents us the titular gods themselves: the para-men, who occupy roughly one third (the best part) of the novel’s attention.

The somewhat abstract yet scientifically plausible para-men are as different from any alien ever imagined as they are from the humans. They come in two major categories: the hard ones and the soft ones. The soft ones come in three sexes: parental, emotional, and rational, and it requires all three of these types for the species to breed. The good doctor does something he’s never done before: he writes about sex. And although their sex is vastly different than our sex, he isn’t dodging anything at all even though Asimov himself complains about his sometimes laughable characterizations of sex matters in the aforementioned memoirs.

Despite Asimov’s departure from his usual style, you never forget he’s the man who masterminded it. He’s far too modest when it comes to the quality of his writing, but The Gods Themselves proves he shouldn’t be. Here he proves he is a great science fiction writer. He has said this is his favorite novel of his. Maybe it’s my favorite book of his, too. I don’t know.

I Learned Science from Arthur C. Clarke

Two years ago today, the last surviving member of science fiction’s “Big Three” died. It was Arthur C. Clarke, whose prose was never really what anyone else would call great, but it was sufficient. That’s not the point. He was an ideas man.

ACC also had science—real science, when it didn’t get in the way of awesomeness—and he had a huge influence on my imagination today, which is why I believe that science fiction stories and fiction in general are healthy things for children; a lot of Clarke’s works would have been labeled “young adult” if released today. I was always interested in science, but I wasn’t in love with the subject until ACC showed me how weird and bizarre it is.

So maybe I should really say I learned science appreciation from Clarke, instead of using the sensational title above, but having revisited a lot of his stories lately, I was struck by one epiphany after another: it was unreal how often I would stop reading and think, “Oh… so that’s why I started thinking about that at such an early age.” He didn’t just have a big influence on my interest in science, but creatively and politically.

I never realized how much Clarke influenced the adult I would grow up to be until recently. 

Rendezvous with Rama

Consider Rendezvous with Rama, which won both the Hugo and the Nebula, not to mention it’s one of the books that got me reading in the first place. It’s a haunting adventure story told without the prerequisite heroes and damsels in distress, yet it’s every bit as entertaining as Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure. Clarke’s seminal work begins: “Sooner or later, it was bound to happen.”

The book’s fictional element starts on September 11th, 2077, when a meteorite strikes Earth and kills six hundred thousand people. This is foreshadowed, a paragraph before, by Clarke’s textbook narration of two narrow misses in real life: in June of 1908, “Moscow escaped destruction by three hours and four thousand kilometers—a margin invisibly small by the standards of the universe. On February 12, 1947, another Russian city had a still narrower escape, when the second great meteorite of the twentieth century detonated less than four hundred kilometers from Vladivostok, with an explosion rivaling that of the newly invented uranium bomb.”

Clarke writes on about the killer meteorite of 2077:

Somewhere above Austria it began to disintegrate, producing a series of concussions so violent that more than a million people had their hearing permanently damaged. They were the lucky ones.

The catastrophe spurs humans to implement SPACEGUARD, a program which watches for catastrophic collisions. Fifty years later, SPACEGUARD (which is on the brink of being shut down) discovers what scientists will soon call Rama: a cylindrical spacecraft which has mysteriously entered our solar system and will soon leave. This gives humans a very small window by which to study the alien craft. At which point I was hooked and spent a long night reading the novel beneath my covers with a flashlight.

The year was 1993 and I was ten years old. I’d seen Rama Revealed on a bookshelf and was fascinated by the cover and its synopsis. When I realized it was a sequel, I begged one of my parents to order a copy of the original book for me. Here’s a startling thought: what if they hadn’t? Honestly, the very thing that makes me me is so deeply wrapped up in that story. If they hadn’t indulged my request, the person writing this post wouldn’t exist.

What Rendezvous did for me was introduce my feeble little mind to visual thinking, including in and about conceptual physics. The spacecraft Rama generates artificial “gravity” via centripetal force. Inside, separating the two halves of the cylindrical craft is an ocean in the form of a equatorial band, held in place by said spin. Perhaps I struggled with this imagery at first: a giant band of water that “sticks” to the inside of the cylinder’s continuous wall. And when the characters ride a boat in the middle of this ocean, they can look up and see more of the ocean ahead and above them.

Sure, this type of spacecraft setup has been a staple of science fiction before and since, but it was probably my first brush with the concept. In an interesting subplot somewhere in the middle of the book, the explorers want to get a look at the device at the far end of the craft, which they assume is some sort of a space drive. You see spaceships in movies that don’t have any visible means of propulsion, but in an ACC story, this is troublesome because it violates Netwon’s third law of motion: “For every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction.”

The Sentinel/2001: A Space Odyssey

Some time after inhaling the entire Rama series, I found the book version of 2001, which was more or less written concurrently with the film at Kubrick’s request. If nothing else, it expanded on the Dawn of Man stuff seen in the film, which was probably the first time I considered human evolution and our prehistoric ancestors. It also expands on how Hal 9000 tries to kill the main character, which in some ways is scarier than the movie. I mean, imagine being alone on a spaceship with a brilliant yet murderous computer and, suddenly… well, let’s not spoil that here, but the sequence was probably deemed unfilmable by Kubrick’s budget, which is why we got what we got—which was good, too.

The novel is allegedly based on ACC’s short story The Sentinel, which is probably the first time I considered the fact that the haze of distance is unique to planetary objects with atmospheres:

On the Moon, of course, there is no loss of detail with distance—none of that almost imperceptible haziness which softens and sometimes transfigures all far-off things on Earth.

This may not be pertinent information to most people, but it was exactly the kind of information I needed as a budding science geek. (Though the short story is essentially the beginning of 2001, minus the Dawn of Man stuff, ACC himself has said 2001 really isn’t based on The Sentinel despite common belief.)

The Early Stuff

Some of ACC’s earlier stuff may seem a little lackluster compared to classics like 2001 and Rama, but the science is still pretty hard and the stories are charming, if not disappointingly simplistic in structure. Some of the things he dwells on is common knowledge for most SF fans (particularly the “There’s no up or down in space” stuff), but I think it’s interesting to note how early he was writing it… specifically the fact that he was writing it before humans ever went to space. A lot of what he wrote was not common knowledge when originally published.

And sometimes he demonstrated unexpected humor early on, as is the case with Islands in the Sky, a novel aimed at teenagers in which the narrator wins a trip to space:

There were also, I’d discovered, some interesting tricks and practical jokes that could be played in space. One of the best involved nothing more complicated than an ordinary match.

What happens is the other astronauts play a prank on the boy: they tell him the way you make sure you have a fresh supply of oxygen is the same way miners do it back on Earth: you light a match. (Never mind why astronauts have matches on board. That’s not the point.) If the match goes out, “well, you go out too, as quickly as you can!”

One of the astronauts demonstrates by lighting a match which promptly extinguishes itself, much to the boy’s dismay.

It’s funny how the mind works, for up to that moment I’d been breathing comfortably, yet now I seemed to be suffocating.

The boy worriedly tells him to light another match. And it, too, goes out. Then, after the boy panics, he realizes they were only pulling his chain. ACC then has his characters explain that, in the absence of gravity, smoke has nowhere to go and suffocates the flame. I don’t know why, but that scene always stuck with me. I guess I enjoyed daydreaming about all the pranks you could pull in microgravity.

Childhood’s End

Childhood’s End is probably the most loved of Clarke’s earlier novels. (I confess I didn’t care that much for it the first time I read it, and only begrudgingly enjoy aspects of it now that I’m adult.) At one point in the novel, the characters successfully use a device that’s essentially a spirit board, which is disappointing to those who love ACC’s usually hard science. (Yes, Clarke’s work has always been described as “mystical,” but more in an Indiana Jones way, minus the paranormal crap. Think: the ark of the covenant if it were a natural artifact instead of a paranormal relic.)

Having said that, beyond the explanations of time dilation at relativistic speeds (one of the first times I was introduced to that concept), the only thing about Childhood’s End that really sticks out in my mind today is the introduction included in my edition (1990, Pan Books LTD.). There, Clarke admits that he was impressed by the evidence for the paranormal when he wrote Childhood’s End.

When Childhood’s End first appeared, many readers were baffled by a statement after the title page to the effect that “The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author.” This was not entirely facetious; I had just published The Exploration of Space, and painted an optimistic picture of our future expansion into the Universe. Now I had written a book which said, “The stars are not for Man,” and I did not want anyone to think I had suddenly recanted.

Today, I would like to change the target of that disclaimer to cover 99 percent of the “paranormal” (it can’t all be nonsense) and 100 percent of UFO “encounters.”

At any rate, I just thought I’d use the anniversary of Clarke’s death to geek out about the things that made me such a geek today.