Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Review: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Published: G.P. Putnam’s Sons (1962), Gollancz (2009)
Awards Won: Hugo Award

The Book:

It's America in 1962, but not the America you know.  The United States lost World War II, and the country has been divided and jointly occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan.  In this world, genocide is commonplace and slavery is legal.  In San Francisco, both the Japanese and the downtrodden locals consult the I Ching for guidance.

A handful of people, with limited power to change the reality of the world in which they live, move through the actions of their daily lives.  As their stories intersect or influence one another, they may come closer to seeing through artifice and understanding the truth of their lives and their world.” ~Allie

I’ve read a few of Philip K. Dick’s novels before, but this is the first one I’ve reviewed on this blog. By complete coincidence, I finished The Man in the High Castle directly before the pilot for a series adaptation on Amazon Prime was announced! I watched the pilot, of course (it is available here), but it remains to be seen if it will be greenlighted for a full season.  I’m going to include my impressions of the pilot after the book review. This is a book I chose to read both for Stainless Steel Dropping's Sci-Fi Experience and Little Red Reviewer's Vintage Sci-Fi Month.

My Thoughts:

The Man in the High Castle shows a world where World War II has ended very differently, with Japan and Germany dividing up and occupying a defeated United States.  It was set in modern day for the time of publication, which puts it around half a century into our past. Thus, it has now become an alternate past extrapolated forward from a more distant alternate past. I’m sure plenty of people have discussed the I Ching and the nested/interconnected authentic and inauthentic realities of the story.  Since I’m not familiar with I Ching, and I just spent a lot of time writing about multiple WWII realities in my review of The Separation, I’m not going to go into that discussion here. Instead, I will focus on the parts of the novel that have stuck with me the most—the characters and how they cope with their world.

The story follows a handful of characters that are each leading their ordinary lives. Frank Frink is an artisan hiding a Jewish heritage, and his vanished wife Juliana just wants to live peacefully in the unoccupied Rocky Mountain States as a judo instructor. Robert Childan is a shopowner who sells antiques of American culture to enthusiastic Japanese patrons, and Tagomi, a San Francisco trade missioner, is one of his top customers.  Tagomi begins the story in preparations to meet with Mr. Baynes, supposedly a rich Swedish industrialist who seems to have an ulterior motive. Some of these characters’ stories intersect, or influence one another in indirect ways, but there is never a point where all the stories converge. I was pretty equally interested by each of the storylines, since they each showed a mental perspective from a different level of society.

However, while it was interesting seeing views from people of various levels of power and privilege in a fascist world, the portrayal of the world and the characters necessarily involves a lot of racism. This racism ran from quietly held beliefs, to racial slurs, to acceptance of genocide, and I think it was clearly intended to be shocking. It seemed that the point was to show how people can get used to a world like their (or, well, like ours), and how they can pass their daily lives without examining their prejudices or really thinking about distant atrocities that seem unchangeable.  At the same time, while the characters may have had little power to affect their world on the large scale, their thoughts and actions still have meaning and impact the lives of the people around them.  I really enjoyed seeing how each character’s actions could intentionally and unintentionally affect the lives of the others. The ending of the novel is pretty weird, but I took it in a metaphorical way.  That may not have been the intention, but I think that interpretation makes for a rather satisfying ending.

My Rating: 4/5

The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history story about the daily life of a defeated American people.  The novel follows many loosely connected characters living in a western US occupied by Japan, whose stories influence one another but never merge into a single narrative. I thought each of the storylines was pretty interesting in its own right, and I enjoyed seeing how they intersected with each other. With the I Ching, the alternate history within an alternate history, the portrayals of people in various strata of society and more, I think that this is a book that merits a lot of discussion. I also enjoyed the Amazon Prime pilot, though it differs from the novel in some very significant ways. I hope the rest of the show is produced!

The Man in the High Castle: The Amazon Pilot 
(Some Mild Episode 1 TV Spoilers Ahead)
Overall, I thought the pilot episode of The Man in the High Castle was pretty entertaining.  There were some changes made to the story from the novel that I agree were necessary, and also others that seemed unnecessary.  On the unnecessary side, for instance, I believe Juliana is into aikido instead of judo.  Perhaps Aikido is more stylish these days?  On changes that were necessary for the adaptation, they have managed to connect all of the disparate storylines into two main plot threads, cutting out only one viewpoint character at this point. I think this was probably needed for a one-hour television pilot, or the story might have seemed too disjointed.  Also, I think there is a rule written somewhere that science fiction pilots must have action—something that only shows up later in the novel’s story.  To this end, they have introduced an American Resistance, which provides violence and tension for the early story. I am really interested in seeing what direction they go with this adaptation, so I hope Amazon greenlights its season!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Review: The Separation by Christopher Priest

The Separation by Christopher Priest
Published: Old Earth Books (2003), Scribner (2002)
Awards Won: BSFA and Arthur C. Clarke Awards
Awards Nominated: John W. Campbell Memorial Award

The Book:

“Twin brothers Joe and Jack, both with the initials J.L. Sawyer, competed together as rowers in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and their lives afterward were shaped by the coming war. Their differing ideologies caused them to become estranged as the paths of their lives diverged. Joe became a conscientious objector and worked with the Red Cross. Jack became an RAF bomber pilot, going on endless missions against the German people to defend his own.

However, this is not only a story of two different perspectives of the same war, but an examination of what the war might have been in numerous contradictory realities. Which of the brothers, if either, dies in a bombing raid?  Does the UK sign a separate peace with Germany, or do they fight the war through to the end? The past, present, and future are ambiguous and full of possibilities.” ~Allie

This is the third of Priest’s novels that I have read, the first two being The Prestige and The Islanders. I listened to this one on audiobook, thanks to a new blue-tooth iphone connector that will allow me to listen to novels on my commute. There will be more audiobook reviews to come! I thought the narrator, Joe Jameson, was excellent, though I have no idea how accurately he represented the various regional accents of the UK. For another interesting coincidence, this is the first of two reviews that will focus on alternate histories of WWII, since my next review will be of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.

My Thoughts:

The Separation is a less fantastical story than the other two novels that I have read by Priest, but there are common elements between the three appear to be characteristic of his style.  Perhaps most notably, twins or doubles are an integral element of the story. The Sawyer brothers are not the only pair that makes an appearance, and the nature of being or having a twin or double is often touched upon.  In the case of the Sawyer brothers, they are tied together by their similarities, and their differences serve to emphasize the alternate versions of WWII. Joe tends to dominate the narrative of a WWII with a peaceful resolution, while Jack dominates the narrative of a war that continues to allied victory.  The two brothers’ stories often interact in confusing ways, and sometimes others even take them to be the same person.  It was sometimes difficult to keep track of each twin’s current experiences at different points in the novel, but they made an interesting pair with which to explore variations on WWII history.

The two other elements that seem to be characteristic of Priest are the extensive use of fictional documents, which comprise most of the novel, and unresolved puzzles. The story is told through the Sawyer twins’ personal records, through the experiences of others who knew them, and through a historian who is investigating their life history.  I thought the documents were very well done, with each fictional author having a distinct voice that was further enhanced by the audiobook narrator.  The puzzling part of this collection of documents arises from the fact that they are often contradictory. They seem to describe more than two simple separate timelines (peace and war) since there are also records within each of these broad categories that seem to differ in key details. It is never clarified how much of the disagreements arise from unreliable narrators, and how much arise from differing realities. I think the confusion and contradictions might be intended as a comment on the uncertainty of recorded history, but they were also fun to try to piece together into coherent worlds. As in The Islanders, one should not expect to find definitive explanations in the text, or for the story to have a particularly clear resolution.  However, it felt like a very carefully constructed novel, and I think it would benefit from multiple readings to help filter all the information into the right patterns.

While trying to keep all the details straight, it also occurred to me that this would probably be an easier book to follow for readers with extensive knowledge of the UK during the WWII time period. Being able to pick up immediately how Priest is altering history might help one see more clearly the intentions behind the particular changes.  I am not especially knowledgeable in this area, but I enjoyed going over the details with my father, who has read more extensively than I have on the subject.  For instance, I didn’t really know anything about the theories surrounding Ruldolf Hess, and the possibility of peace between the UK and Germany in 1941.  The Separation might be better appreciated by someone coming to it with more knowledge than I have, but I enjoyed being inspired to learn.  It is a novel that demands an engaged and attentive reader, and one that is well worth the consideration.

My Rating: 4/5

The Separation tells the story of Jack and Joe Sawyer, twins who took two different paths in the Second World War.  Jack joined the RAF, while Joe joined the Red Cross. While they share the same reality, they also seem to exist in alternative, overlapping realities.  For instance, in Joe’s dominant reality, the war ends in 1941 with a peace arrangement between the UK and Germany.  The story is told through many different sorts of fictional documents, which often tell contradictory stories about the lives of the two young men.  The story is a kind of puzzle, requiring the reader to be actively engaged in piecing information together from the many sources.  Many questions are never explicitly resolved, and I think the novel would require multiple readings to appreciate fully. I thought The Separation was intensely interesting, and I enjoyed continuing to think through the various unresolved questions long after I'd finished the novel. I look forward to reading more of Christopher Priest's work in the future! 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Review: Farmer in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein

Farmer in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein
Published: Scriber, 1950
Awards Won: Retro Hugo Award

The Book:

The Earth is crowded and food is rationed, but a colony on Ganymede, one of the moons of Jupiter, offers an escape for teenager Bill Lermer and his family. Back on Earth, the move sounded like a grand adventure, but Bill soon realizes that life on the frontier is dangerous, and in an alien world with no safety nets, nature is cruelly unforgiving of even small mistakes.

Bill's new home is a world of unearthly wonders and heartbreaking tragedy. He will face hardships, survive dangers, and grow up fast, meeting the challenge of opening up a new world for humanity and finding strengths within himself that he had never suspected existed.” ~WWEnd.com

I’ve read my fair share of Heinlein novels and stories, though I think this is the first I’ve read of his juveniles.  I originally picked this up because it won the Retro Hugo Award, a popular vote award given retroactively for a year where the standard Hugo Award was not given.

My Thoughts:

Farmer in the Sky is the story of a young Boy Scout heading out with his family to colonize a Jovian moon.  Since it was originally intended as a serialization for the Scouts’ Boy’s Life magazine, there’s a very strong presence of Scouting throughout the story.  I think it suits the story well, since Bill’s adventure is one of determination in the face of adversity, preparedness, and a frontier spirit.  Scouting was pretty popular when I was a kid (I have no idea if it is still as popular), so I found that aspect of the story pleasantly nostalgic. Bill is a model Scout, calm, clever and resourceful in the worst of times, and generally compassionate for others. He also had a bit of a self-important streak, and often felt compelled to teach disagreeable people a lesson.  I felt that this helped his character feel more like a flawed, realistic teenage boy.  The story moves quite quickly, so most of the other characters are pretty lightly drawn. There are quite enough to fill out Bill’s world, though, with his friends and enemies in the Scouts, helpful and unhelpful neighbors, and his family, which has its share of internal problems.

From the focus on science in the novel, it seems that the story was also intended to promote an interest in science for young readers. I enjoyed the focus on science and math, and thought that the story gave an exciting context for the drier discussions.  However, given how old the novel is, it’s inevitable that a fair amount of the scientific content is now known to be untrue.  Also, whenever a problem came up that required a great leap of technology, Heinlein kept the details a bit vague (like the ‘mass converter’ that was used to terraform Ganymede). On the other hand, this is the novel for which Heinlein is credited with predicting the microwave, so a few of the predictions are spot on. My e-book version also came with an essay by Dr. Jim Woosley about the science of the novel, which I think would be really useful for new young readers coming to the work today.

In addition to the Scouting and science promotion aspects, Farmer in the Sky is a very entertaining novel.  Space colonization stories are a classic staple of science fiction, and I enjoyed following Bill’s journey from the regulated, overpopulated Earth, through the months-long space journey, and into the farming colony of Ganymede.  Bill approached the journey as if it were going to be a grand adventure, and while I think it was that, it was also not exactly what he expected. Subsistence farming is not easy (I have never participated, but have subsistence-farming relatives), and there are deadly risks associated with establishing a colony on a world not naturally suited for human life. Bill grows up through the work and responsibility of homesteading, and the grief from the consequences of unavoidable disasters.  Despite the hardships Bill, his family, and his community endure, I think the ending is very optimistic and upbeat about facing what the future holds in store.      

My Rating: 3.5/5

Farmer in the Sky tells the exciting story of Bill and his family’s journey to become homesteaders in a colony on Ganymede.  The experience is more difficult than young Bill may have anticipated, but he rises to the occasion with intelligence and resourcefulness.  I enjoyed watching Bill grow up through his challenging and painful experiences in the new colony. Bill is also a Boy Scout, and the organization has a constant presence throughout the story.  Though the science is dated, I think that the story would still be able to inspire an interest in new young readers.  Though it was written over half a century ago, I think that the story of Farmer in the Sky is still one that new readers will be able to enjoy.