Black Hole Reads: Foundation

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Foundation is the first volume of Isaac Asimov’s well-known series. In the book, psychohistory is a discipline whose goal is to predict future events through a mathematical model applied to large groups of people. Such an approach adds up to the originality of the novel, because its focus is not on the quest of a hero but on general dynamics of history: masses are at its center, not individuals.

To some extent, the activity of the psychohistorian is similar to that of the science fiction writer trying to imagine a future.

The Galactic Empire history seems to mirror the evolution of society in the middle age, with the clash between religious and secular power and later the rising of the merchants and the middle class.

The initial idea is good, but I’m not impressed. Characters are not well described, nor there is enough psychological insight. Hari Seldon and the others are merely names with a public role attached. There’s too much politics and no room for the individual background of the charachters. Decades pass by too fast and the reader has no time to get used to them. There can’t be much involment on the reader’s part when there is no one in the story he can identify with.
This is supposed to be a classic of science fiction, but it didn’t click with me. I had high expectations which were disappointed. But I’m not giving up on this author. I’ll try and read something else by Asimov before I decide whether it’s worth to continue the Foundation cycle or not.

Black Hole Reads: Stranger in a Strange Land

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Valentine Michael Smith is born during a mission to the red planet, and gets raised by the Martians. When a human airship comes and takes him back to the Earth 25 years later, he’s completely innocent and confused, knows nothing about his own people and planet and has to learn everything from scratch. Also, he finds himself with a immeasurable inheritance that causes the goverment to segregate him in order to lay hands on his patrimony and political privileges. He’s lucky enough to meet a bunch of shrewd but well-meaning friends who help him shake the goverment off his back and move to a safe home. Thanks to his supernatural powers, charisma, good looks and, of course, money, he soon adjusts and finds his place in the world.

This novel seems to have influenced ’60s counterculture and inspired the free-love revolution. The main charachter is an individual who is completely estranged from human behaviour codes, and his naive reactions prompts his mates, as well as the  reader, to reflect on how arbitrary and artificial morals are. There are no absolute ethic values; even truth is relative.

The movement founded by the man from Mars looks like a hippy commune. But are the women really liberated? They’ve definitely lost their inhibitions in favour of sexual freedom, but their role is still that of a helper to the man: they all look like Barbies, do all the cooking and the most they can achieve professionally is becoming a nurse or a stereotyped sexy secretary. The book sounds hypocrite and still full of the petty bourgeois values of conformist ’50s America. After all, an author who has a female character state “nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped it’s partly her fault” can’t be very progressive.

However, although I would not certainly define Heinlein’s novel a masterpiece, I’ve quite enjoyed it in spite of the sexist mentality, because it has the light tone of a comedy, but is also an excuse to discuss philosophy. With a heavier tone, all those pages and pages of debating on various moral issues would be unbearable.

Black Hole Reads: Gods of Riverworld

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The final chapter of The Magic Labyrinth looked like a happy ending: every obstacle seemed to have been overcome, but it was by no means so. Nothing was solved. Our eight heroes have settled in the tower, deeply paranoid and haunted by an ubiquitous past. Moreover, they now have to face the responsibility that comes along with power. The enemy was defeated, but is it really so?

There is less adventure and more philosophical reflection in this last volume of the Riverworld saga. If you were in a position to kill Hitler, would you do it? Would it be ethical? Are spouses, parents and children still bound in the afterlife? How much time people should be allotted to save themselves? How do you establish when a soul is beyond redemption? Do men have free will, or is everything predetermined? These and more questions must be answered by Burton’s “team” as they realize that playing God is not much fun.

Black Hole Reads: The Magic Labyrinth

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This is the book in which all puzzles are solved except one: what happens to the wathans after they finally break free from the reincarnation cycle? However, the expedition gets inside the tower and the identities of the mysterious stranger, X, is revealed, as well as that of the Operator.

I think the description of the boat battle is too long and detailed, and as usual there is too much repetition of explanations already present in the previous book about the peculiarities of life in the Riverworld. Apart from that, I’m still being dragged on by the compelling action and the affection I developed for some characters. Sadly, not all of them make it to the destination, but this makes the story more engaging.

Black Hole Reads: The Dark Design

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Resurrections have stopped in the Rivervalley, and someone is starting to notice there are very few people who died after 1983. Some new characters are introduced, and some of the old are not quite what they claim to be.

The Dark Design is the third instalment of the Riverworld series. The book is as thick as the first two put together.

It could have been shorter if there wasn’t so much repetition of how things work in the hereafter. This is probably for the benefit of readers who haven’t read the other books, but spoils the reading experience for those who are reading the whole series. Once again, Farmer stands out as a very inventive author who sometimes goes too far with digressions. Also, he could avoid being too technical and converting metrical to imperial and vice versa every time a measurement is given. However, it doesn’t get too dull, thanks to the intriguing subplots and the shift in the point of view from one character to the other, unlike the previous volume which was mostly centered on Sam Clemens.

I’m by no means saying that The Dark Design was disappointing. Like in every saga, one can’t expect the writing to be excellent 100% of the time. The story still holds my interest, for several reasons: it’s difficult to tell the bad from the good in this series, and this is an excellent way to keep up the suspense in adventure stories. Also, Burton and Clemens – the heroes of books one and two – are both back, and this makes you expect that at some point in the novel they will finally meet, thus allowing for their storylines to merge.

I had a moment of sheer intellectual pleasure when Alice quoted a few lines from Chile Roland to the Dark Tower Came. This confirms my theory that Riverworld and Stephen King’s The Gunslinger were both inspired by Browning’s poem.

I’m at the third book of the Riverworld series and still enjoying it: the idea at the base of it is original but I suspected the novelty would wear out after about 1000 pages. In spite of some minor flaws, that hasn’t happened. “Towerward ho!”

Black Hole Reads: The Real Story

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Let’s face it: this book is BDSM porn disguised as science fiction.
A few sex scenes can contribute to make a story more realistic, but as I hit page 70 I realised there had hardly been anything else so far.

It’s a pity, because the style is flowing and quite concise, and I appreciate the originality in adopting the bad guy’s point of view: however, I find it disturbing to be in the maniac’s mind  all the time. I decided to endure until the end because of these two features and also because it was only 158 pages.

Well, I was rewarded. The value of this novel is in the last few chapter, where it becomes clear that the author is playing with the traditional triangle of drama roles, mixing them up. He writes extensively about this in the afterword, where he also deals with the creative process and explains how he got inspiration from Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

The Real Story is part of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Gap saga. I might try and read more of the series, just to see if they’re all alike, but not now. For the moment, I think I’ll dive again into that Riverworld – pun intended – for a while.

Black Hole Reads: Ender’s Game

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In a future scenario where couples are denied the right to give birth to more than two children, the exceeding ones are recruited and trained as soldiers who will serve in the forthcoming alien war. Six-year-old Ender enters the Battle School: the boy is a natural leader, but before he can fully develop his potentiality he has to defeat bullying and adult idiocy with his cleverness as his only resource.

I decided to read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card after reading a review on BluChickenNinja’s blog. The novel is an enjoyable young adult sci-fi, although I had a bit of a deja-vu: especially in the first part, the pattern of the story is a little harrypotterish. To its credit, the book dates back to 1985, so obviously it was no way inspired by the young wizard.

The climax and ending are brilliant. I didn’t feel the need to continue to the sequel, because it’s such a well crafted story that it’s complete in itself. It can be read as a standalone book.

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Screenshot from the 2013 film based on Ender’s Game (image source)

Ender’s Game was recently made into a movie. Disappointingly, the reason behind the school strict discipline is known from the beginning in the film, while in the book the truth is concealed by the adults until the crucial moment. Such a pity, because that unexpected revelation at the right point really enhanced the novel.

Beware, this book could lead to two false assumptions:

1) Because you’re good at video games you qualify to save the world.

2) Rants in a forum or blog by a nobody can influence public opinion and condition international politics.

Black Hole Reads: The Fabulous Riverboat

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The Fabulous Riverboat is book two of the Riverworld series. I love how P. J. Farmer created characters based on historical figures, and built a storyline for them so that they repeat in the Riverworld novels, though obviously in a quite different way, what they did – or wrote – in real life.

In the first volume we had Robert Burton, who in his past life had been exploring Africa in search of the headwaters of the Nile, now trying to reach the source of The River.

In a similar way Sam Clemens, alias Mark Twain, is devoted to his project of becoming the captain of a steamboat, and spend the rest of his second life sailing up The River. His alter ego, a mighty but good-hearted giant, is always on his side. Their situation parallels that of Huckleberry Finn and his friend Jim to some extent. Just like them they have to deal with racism. Also, Jim spoke in vernacular: no wonder his counterpart Joe Miller has a speech impediment. However, Sam will be not nearly as carefree as his fictional Mississippi boy.

A brand new start is impossible on the Riverworld, because men are revived with pristine bodies but also with the memories of their earthly life. Their moral flaws, prejudice, sense of guilt and feuds have followed them beyond resurrection. To Sam, this is evidence to his deterministic philosophy.

In order to realize his dream Sam has to compromise many times: he commits murder and treason, allies with an untrustworthy partner and falls in the traps of diplomacy. A small scale industrial revolution develops around the shipyard, but along with the re-invention of useful technology come pollution and the making of more effective – and deadly – weapons. It’s clear by now that this is not heaven: at most, it’s a steampunk purgatory.

Also, Clemens is haunted by the ghosts of his pasts. He becomes even more troubled when his lost wife reappears at the side of another man. Here’s what he says when reminded of his reputation as a writer:

“A humorist is a man whose soul is black, black, but who turns his curdles of darkness into explosions of light. But when the light dies out, the black returns”.

This sounds like a statement he could really have said. Let’s compare it with something Twain has actually written on the subject:

“Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of Humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven”. – Following the Equator

The final chapter opens up like a happy ending, but Sam’s trouble are not over yet: expect a cliffhanger.

New Feature: Black Hole Reads

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If you’re a WordPress user, you know: running a blog is not like keeping a journal. It means writing for the benefit of others. This involves some planning, which is better done if you know what your potential readers are likely to find interesting and/or useful. So, bloggers take a look at the stats page from time to time.

Yesterday, the stats gave me a startling revelation: while my poetry posts attracted a decent amount of traffic, the visits to my book reviews sum up to a little over zero.

Something is very wrong here. Dear readers, why have you been wasting your time reading my sloppy poems while a world of fine literature awaits you on the shelves of the www? Go explore!

You need more books. This is why, contrary to what I said in a previous post about downsizing my reading goals, I’ve added a new book-related feature to this blog. I am proud to introduce Black Hole Reads!

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The series will recur bimonthly and the focus will be on science fiction. Reviews will feature works by Philip J. Farmer, Robert A. Heinlein, Orson Scott Card, Stephen R. Donaldson and Isaac Asimov. The first issue is already out and will take you to a planet where bedbugs don’t bite.

Want to Read? Go for quality!

Black Hole Reads: To Your Scattered Bodies Go

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Dear Extraterrestrial,

why are you abducting so many people and not me? I’m really bored, and although I’m not sure I’d like your food and I do realize there might not be a proper hairdresser where you’ll be taking me, at least I can be sure there is no Facebook over there. Or, is there? In the meantime, all I can do to fight this misery is reading and reviewing some SF novels I’ve been recommended by other…let’s say…”fans” of yours.


Review: To your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip José Farmer

British explorer Richard Francis Burton gets killed in 1890. He wakes up on the banks of a river, naked and rejuvenated. He’s not alone: thousands of people from every historical period are being raised from the dead at the same time. They soon realise their surroundings have little to do with the Christian heaven or the hereafter described by any other religion on Earth. They have in fact been translated to a strange planet crossed by a gigantic river.

Who placed them on this planet? God? The aliens? The deities of a religion previously unknown to men? Why were they revived? Is this hell? Were they offered a second chance? Is it a scientific or anthropological experiment? Are they part of a vicious game?

No one shows up to answer their questions, but Burton has reason to believe their resurrection was not attained through supernatural means. Before his proper awakening, he accidentally came round and saw something he was not supposed to see.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go is part of the Riverworld series. Having read this book right after finishing The Gunslinger by Stephen King, my latest Tome of the Month, I was quite surprised to find some affinity between the two novels. The coincidence was striking, since my choice of reading them in succession was totally accidental. I read King’s novel after I had my non-bookish husband pick any title in my e-book library by pointing a finger on a random icon. I accepted the draw: after all, I had never read anything by that author and I had to start somewhere. The Riverworld saga instead was suggested to me by a fellow blogger who commented on my post on sci-fi favourites. So, you see, the reading sequence was unintentional.

However, the two novels have three things in common:

  • In both books the deceased wake again on another world, endure multiple deaths and there is no explanation;
  • Both heroes are practical and though men;
  • Both are looking for a Dark Tower.

After noticing these similarities I can’t avoid comparing the two novels.

While in King’s story the main character swore to go on a quest from the beginning, Burton here is first of all concentrating on survival and adapting to the new environment, like a castaway. He has an ability to think ahead, and unlike the minor characters he wastes no time in recollections or speculations, saving them for later when he’ll have secured at least basic life support and safety.

Only halfway through the book, when his situation is more stable and information has become more substantial, he starts to actively investigate what’s really going on. Along with him we gradually discover hints and this makes him a character who is easier to identify with than Roland Deschain.

Then again, the book has its flaws. There are too many digressions on political and historical issues. The characters bring on an endless debate on forms of society and human habits. All these dissertations make the book hard to digest and make it look like an essay in dialogue form. Luckily, the plot is engaging, imaginative and rich in events, and although the reader might be tempted to skip a page now and then, the story never gets stuck and at least it’s not confusing like the constant flow of occult references in The Gunslinger.

Several factors put the basis for an interesting story: the mix of people from different ages and lands; the presence of fictional characters along with historical figures; the shortage of things that were taken for granted in everyday life on Earth, which prompts Burton’s crew to find creative solutions to their practical problems.

On the other hand, nationalities are a bit too stereotyped: the snobbish upper-class Victorian lady, the loud and hormone-driven Italians, the nazi Germans, the eternally sad Jew.

While The Gunslinger is essentially epic, To Your Scattered Bodies Go is a dystopic novel. What’s unusual for a dystopia, though, is that the main character is very quick to understand that this apparently perfect world is destined to failure, because men are no better than they were on Earth. While others are still busy recovering from the shock, he acts fast because he expects the usual human abuse instinct to break out very soon, followed by anarchy and the rise of natural leaders like himself.

Will he succeed in solving the afterlife enigma? Maybe I’ll find it out reading the following book in the Riverworld series.