A few years ago I considered writing a book of book reviews. I didn't get very far with it, and most of the books I was going to write about I’ve discussed on my blog or elsewhere. But I did write reviews of two of my favorite sf books, and I might as well share them with you now.
I say “classics,” but it’s possible both will be new to you. A lot of sf gets talked about too much, but I don’t recall much discussion of either of these. But they’re both well worth your time, and hold up better than many of the well known novels from their period.
—M.R., September 2021
The concept is simple enough to explain to a movie executive. It’s AD 2301. A CEO, Ben Reich, is having nightmares. Worse, his business, dominant though it is, is being licked by the rival D’Courtney Cartel. He resolves on a desperate course: murder its head, Craye D’Courtney.
How he does it is lovingly detailed. But then comes the difficult bit: this society is suffused with peepers. Espers, mind readers. There hasn’t been a successful premeditated murder for 75 years, because the peepers will catch it before it can happen.
Reich is unusually determined. He does it anyway. His adversary is Lincoln Powell, police prefect, peeper 1st class. He meets Reich soon after the crime, suspects him based on a verbal slip, and peeps to make sure. But peeping isn’t admissible in court. Powell has to prove it with cold facts.
The structure is simple: a cat and mouse game between Reich and Powell— both determined, both intelligent, both relentless. It’s also a nice variation on the murder mystery: we know the culprit in the first few pages, we learn how he planned and executed the crime, we know the odds against him, but we don’t know if he’s going to get away with it.
The mystery form is perhaps still inadequately used in sf. Yet it’s a natural for exploring a world. The game gives Bester a chance to show us the supercontrolled offices of a 24th century business tycoon, a pawnbroker’s shop, a game preserve set on an asteroid, a high-end bawdyhouse, and more. It doesn’t hurt that Bester has one of the surest voices of 1950s sf, within spitting distance of the masters of noir.
I don’t think any single author is better than Bester at presenting a convincing future world. Most books and films aim at a thematic unity. One shot and you know you’re on Hoth, or Coruscant, or Tattooine, or Dagobah— they’re all neatly sorted by ecosphere and architecture, they’re all monocultures. Bester’s future is gloriously miscellaneous. It has conflicts and subcultures, it has its own slang, it has the sense of bustle and confusion of our own times.
Of course in a sense it is our own times; Bester starts by projecting the 1950s into the future. But most authors can’t help tidying up afterward. Roddenberry removes all the conservatives; Niven removes all the liberals. Bester keeps all the complexity, all the human passion and sin, and enhances them with vividly drawn characters. (I should note that the world of Stars is more or less dystopian, while this book’s is not. It doesn’t take much to spin the 1950s in either direction.)
As just one little detail, a low-life named Snim has the bright idea, at one point, of trying to rob a bank— more precisely, robbing a customer. Bester comments:
He was not too bright and made the mistake of selecting the Mars Exchange as his battlefield. It looked dowdy and provincial. Snim had not yet learned that it is only the powerful and efficient institutions that can afford to look second-rate.That throwaway observation made a great impression on me when I read it as a teenager— Bester makes you feel like you’re not only learning about an invented society, but about our own world. I also like the casual way he makes this powerful bank Martian; it’s a reminder that in a truly interplanetary society Earth doesn’t necessarily dominate the solar system.
Powell and Reich both proceed with little tricks and deceptions, and these are like candy for an intelligent reader. Tricksters are always fun to read about.
Another nice example: to create his own mental block— something normally only Espers can do— Reich picks up what we’d call an earworm. (The book calls it a “pepsi.”)
Eight, sir, seven, sir,The tune’s creator explains some of the tricks behind the jingle, and we can feel it— there’s a skipped beat after each quatrain, which denies closure and makes you want to repeat it again. We can’t hear the music that really drives the earworming process, but we get enough to swallow Reich’s maneuver.
Six, sir, five, sir,
Four, sir, three, sir,
Two, sir, one!
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tenser, said the Tensor.
And dissension have begun.
Another nice detail: the creator of the tune is named Duffy Wyg&, i.e. Wygand. Bester anticipated the fad for whimsically using special characters for decorative effect, only he was limited to those on the typewriter keyboard.
The books holds up very well, by the way— though read with modern eyes, I think it underplays its women. The main characters are men; the one key female character is mostly a plot point and love interest. He did much better in Stars.
As The Stars Our Destination plays with teleportation, The Demolished Man plays with telepathy. There are about 100,000 Espers in the world— all organized in an Esper Guild which tightly regulates the ethics and economics of peeping. Bester works out the consequences— the Espers are sprinkled in key positions throughout society: psychologists, police officers, accountants, HR people, security personnel. He shows us how they work, how they interact with normals, how they party among themselves. (Curiously they like to weave webs of speech which happen to form nice patterns on the printed page.)
Bester is fairly adroit at the explaining that is the necessity and bane of sf. He only explains what you really need to know (such as the structure of Esper society). He does have a few “As you know…” speeches, but they’re lampshaded.
Toward the end, both books make a move into transcendence. The story of Powell and Reich becomes something more than cat and mouse. This sort of thing can fall flat, but I think Bester makes it work, because of the strength of his vision. There was a reactionary streak to much of ’50s sf— a conviction that most people were sheep, and the elite, the geeks, would create a techno-utopia despite them. Bester rejects that elitism; his vision is intensely democratic. Everyone has enormous potential and the thing a future society has to do is find a way to unleash it all. The world doesn’t belong to alpha males like Ben Reich. But it doesn’t need to destroy them, either. The end of Reich is, as the title promises, Demolition. But Demolition turns out to be not quite what we were expecting.
Another unusual feature, but a very attractive one, for a reader half a century later: the 1950s sf masters knew how to write a short book. The Demolished Man is less than 200 pages; Stars is barely longer.
There’s a small set of books which are thoroughly geeky and thoroughly charming: the Alice books; Abbott’s Flatland, Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus, perhaps Dewdney’s The Planiverse and Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. Sf rarely quite scratches this itch, though Stanley Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” comes close. Borges’s Ficciones probably falls in this class, though it is more melancholy than most.
Stanisław Lem’s The Cyberiad fits, however, though it seems to me that it’s largely forgotten. I don’t remember the last time I heard someone refer to it. But if you’ve read it, it stays with you.
In form, it’s a series of fables about Trurl and Klapaucius, two robot constructors— meaning both that they construct robots, and that they are robots. The bulk of the book consists of their “Seven Sallies”, or voyages in search of challenging and well-paid work.
A typical story is “Trurl’s Machine”, in which Trurl accidentally creates the world’s stupidest supercomputer. It’s eight stories tall and insists that two and two is seven. Trurl tries to adjust it, running up and down inside the giant robot and tinkering till he’s exhausted, but nothing works, and indeed, arguing with the thing only makes it angry and then murderous. Trurl and then Klapaucius are forced to flee into the hills and into a cave. They are only saved when the robot, flinging itself again and again against the opening of the cave, finally bursts something and collapses into junk.
My favorite bit, though, is Trurl’s attempt to create the greatest possible poet. Klapaucius, jealous of his colleague, tests it by asking for “a love poem, lyrical, pastoral, and expressed in the language of pure mathematics.” And the machine, and Lem, oblige.
For what did Cauchy know, or Christoffel,Lem loves to play with language, mixing mathematics, cybernetics, and semi-medieval knight-errantry (the clients of the constructors are mostly kings). For instance, here’s the description of a literal love machine:
Or Fourier, or any Boole or Euler,
Wielding their compasses, their pens and rulers,
Of thy supernal sinusoidal spell?
I see the eigenvalue in thine eye,
I hear the tender tensor in thy sigh.
Bernouilli would have been content to die
Had he but known such a2 cos 2Φ!
The femfatalotron operated on a power of forty megamors, with a maximum attainable efficiency— given a constant concupiscense coefficient— of ninety-six percent, while the systems’ libidinous lubricity, measured of course in kilocupids, produced up to six units for every remote-control caress. This marvelous mechanism, moreover, was equipped with reversible ardor dampers, omnidirectional consummation amplifiers, absorption philters, paphian peripherals, and “first-sight” flip-flop circuits, since Trurl held here to the position of Dr. Yentzicus, creator of the famous oculo-oscular feel theory.Lem was Polish, and translating all this required nerdiness, skill, and a sense of humor; Michael Kandel deserves a heaping pile of kudos for his work here and in other Lem books. (His own Strange Invasion isn’t bad either, a sort of mixture of Lem and Philip K. Dick.)
This is not hard sf, nor is it overly concerned with worldbuilding; Lem’s robots are barely disguised caricatures of humans, and they drink (mostly mulled electrocyte) and program progeny like any paleface (Lem’s or Kandel’s term for humans). At times their power is godlike (they rearrange some stars to create an advertisement for themselves), but when the narrative requires it they are more limited. It all works, just as the Alice stories work— the inventiveness and the wordplay wouldn’t be improved by more careful conworlding.
Still, the fables do touch on the problems of artificial intelligence and transhumanism: a constant question is what do you do or become, and what can go wrong, when your power to create is virtually unlimited? One fable, “Altruizine”, postulates a civilization at the “Highest Possible Level of Development”. Simply because they can, they make their sun and their planet cubical, and they go about for millennia attempting to improve people’s lives. Their attempts are all catastrophic failures, however, and the HPLD denizens end up simply lounging around all day sleeping and scratching themselves.
(As a philosophy, I find this notion facile and absurd. But perhaps it’s best read as a critique of the equally foolish techno-enthusiasm of American sf, and a recognition— easily reached by an observer of the Cold War— that great nations’ attempts at improving things all too often created more horrors than simply leaving things alone would have.)
Fortunately Trurl and Klapaucius have not reached this level, so they can at least find things to do. Not infrequently, they then have to fix the things that went wrong, or punish the kings who attempt to refuse payment.
Lem also addresses the issue which John Searle clumsily expressed with the Chinese Room: how do we distinguish real and faked simulated mental states? Does an AI understand, or only simulate understanding? Searle acts as if the answer is obvious, but it’s actually a very tricky question. Is the number in your bank’s computer your balance, or a simulation of the balance? If you think it’s a bloodless digital abstraction, can I have yours? And yet when the bank programmers create a backup for testing new software, it’s not your balance anymore, despite being the same number accessed with the same code.
Lem in particular addresses the problem of simulated suffering. Banging on your toaster certainly isn’t sadism. Killing all the NPCs in a video game— probably not. But when Trurl creates more and more advanced simulated life for a sadistic king, Klapaucius reproves him— Trurl has done his job too well, and created beings so sophisticated that their suffering is real.
I found the book delightful when I discovered it as a teenager, and it holds up just as well today. The only story I don’t care for, then and now, is one about a robot princess who falls in love with a paleface, that is, a human, “liquid, pulpy, doughy, and spongy.” The conceit that robots would find their human creators disgusting is amusing enough, but I find writers who profess a horror at the entire human species to be dysfunctional rather than profound. (Yes, it ruins the last bit of Gulliver’s Travels too.)
Once you finish Cyberiad you will probably want to read The Futurological Congress. This tells a single story, though it ends up being (for thematic reasons) strangely fragmented. The story starts in the present day, when the cosmonaut Ijon Tichy joins his friend Dr. Trottelreiner at the titular congress. The story begins with contemporary satire, but turns bizarre when the authorities toss enormous quantities of hallucinogens into the water— hoping to stymie a revolution. Tichy begins to have strange experiences that turn out to be drug-induced illusions; finally he is so addled that he must be cryogenically frozen, to be cured in the future.
The future, apparently a utopia, turns out to be based on the widespread use of a wide array of mind-altering drugs. Lem has a field day playing with the names and functions of these drugs. And when the utopia turns into a dystopia, he gives us some truly chilling images. (My only complaint is that Tichy is barely a character.)