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Book Review: Contact

Book Name: Contact
Author: Carl Sagan
First Published: 1985
Locus Award for Best First Novel in 1986.

Dr. Carl Sagan was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1934. He earned bachelor and master’s degrees at Cornell and gained a double doctorate at the University of Chicago in 1960. He became a professor of astronomy and space sciences as well as a director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University. He would go on to take a leading role in NASA’s Mariner, Viking, Voyager, and Galileo expeditions to other planets.

Dr. Sagan received many prestigious awards in his field of study. As a scientist trained in both astronomy and biology, he has made large contributions in the study of planetary atmospheres, surfaces and the history of the Earth. For twelve years, he was the editor-in-chief of Icarus, the leading professional journal devoted to planetary research. He was a co-founder and President of the Planetary Society, a one hundred thousand strong organization that is the largest space interest group in the world.

An author or co-author of twenty books, including The Dragons of Eden (1977) which won a Pulitzer. His other books include Contact (1985), Pale Blue Dot (1995), and The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark (1996).

Sagan produced and starred in the PBS series, Cosmos, which won Emmy and Peabody awards and brought the concepts of science into the living rooms of everyday people. The series was watched by 500 million people in 60 countries. A book by the same title came out in 1980 and was on the New York Times Bestseller List for seven weeks.

Co-Producer with his wife, Ann Druyan, Sagan turned his popular novel Contact into a major motion picture of the same name which starred Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey in 1977. At the time, Sagan was struggling with bone cancer and two years before his film would be seen the theaters, he lost the battle and passed away. His wife gives the following account of her husband in his last moments in the epilogue of Sagen’s last book Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium: “Contrary to the fantasies of the fundamentalists, there was no deathbed conversion, no last minute refuge taken in a comforting vision of a heaven or an afterlife. For Carl, what mattered most was what was true, not merely what would make us feel better. Even at this moment when anyone would be forgiven for turning away from the reality of our situation, Carl was unflinching. As we looked deeply into each other’s eyes, it was with a shared conviction that our wondrous life together was ending forever.”

“The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.” ― Carl Sagan, Contact

Fate comes into play in many factors of a life, a planet, and a universe. It was pure luck that the radio telescopes of the Argus project happened to point at Vega at exactly the right time in the night sky. If not, then the scientists would never have picked up the repetition of prime numbers that showed the first sign of life beyond our own planet. This is the theme of Contact, based on Sagan’s studies as an astrophysicist and philosopher, he gives his idea on how our world might reaction to the knowledge of extraterrestrial life.

This is the story of Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway, an astrophysicist and radio telescope engineer. She is a scientist working on the SETI project, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. We learn about her childhood and college years as a curious girl who loses her father at a young age. She becomes a rebel who asks questions about religious contradictions and turns to science as the answer.

After college and graduate school, she joins SETI and what is known as the Argus project, a large radio telescope array that is designed to search the universe. Late one night, a signal is picked up. Prime numbers being repeated. The signal is confirmed to be coming from the star system of Vega, twenty-six light years away. Not only prime numbers are transmitted. Two more messages are sent from Vega. One is a playback of the first Earth transmission into space, a speech that embarrasses many, but also a blueprint from a machine, one that is designed to transport people elsewhere.

There is much debate about the machine among the political forces of the Earth. There are also religious forces that wish to find answers. Two prominent American preachers, Rev. Billy Jo Rankin and Palmer Joss meet with Eleanor to talk about the religious implications of the message from Vega. As more about the machine’s blueprint is recorded, the more the tensions between the religious and the scientific communities increase.

The machine from Vega is built but later is destroyed by a bomb placed on one of its parts. The American who was supposed to travel in the Machine is killed in the explosion. A second machine is built near Hokkaido, Japan. Eleanor is chosen to be America’s representative along with four others from other nations to use the machine to travel.

The machine is activated and the five explorers are shot through a wormhole. They enter a sort of cosmic mass transit system, viewing many star systems along the way. Eventually, they end their journey near the center of the galaxy where a docking station is the end of the line.

The five humans are deposited on what appears to be an Earth beach. When the others go off to explore, Ellie remains behind on the sand. She is surprised when instead of an alien, she is greeted by her long dead father. Eleanor and her “father”, who is one of the aliens who took the form to help make Ellie more at ease, talk about Earth’s place in the universe and how they traveled to this place. It is suggested that there may be a Creator after all and her “father” suggests that to find the signature of this Creator, she look at the number pi.

The five humans return to Earth using the same method that took them to the way station. Instead of the eighteen hours that they knew was their travel time, they are told that they were only gone for twenty seconds. There is no evidence to back up their claim for being gone as long as they had and since the camera Eleanor carried only recorded static, there is no proof of their journey through space.

Did Ellie and the others actually travel to the center of the universe or are they having delusions? Is the great machine nothing but a big hoax? Can their story be believed simply on faith? You will have to read the book to find out.

Contact Book CoverMy first exposure to Dr. Sagan was via his PBS series Cosmos. Decades later I can still hear that lilting melody of its theme like a perpetual earworm. The show introduced me to concepts of science as a child and sparked not only an interest in the planets and the world around me, but in science based fiction as well. The man had a way of explaining complex subjects in a way that was easy to understand. As I studied science, his name would come up time and again and I realize that his television series and books were only a small part of the amazing accomplishments this man gave to the world. I found the movie Contact to be wonderful in its idea of a great machine that would take us to the stars and that he chose a female protagonist to do the job. In the seventies, this was not a common occurrence. I am not surprised that his first novel won a Locust award for excellence. Contact is a book that I can recommend to people that enjoy “hard science fiction”. While there is some relationships that go on in the book, the focus is on the technology and scientific concepts that make the wonders in the book happen.

Book Review: The Tar-Aiym Krang

Book Name: The Tar-Aiym Krang
Author: Alan Dean Foster
First Published: 1972

Alan Dean Foster was born in New York City in the year 1946, but he was raised in California. He received a B.A. in Political Science in 1968, and a M.F.A. in Cinema from UCLA 1969. He worked as a copywriter for two years after graduation for a small advertising and public relations firm in Studio City, California. It was during this time that he wrote a lovecraftian letter and sent it into a bi-annual magazine called The Arkham Collector. Much to his surprise, the editor published it as a short story. Sales of short stories to other magazines soon followed. His first attempt at a novel, The Tar-Aiym Krang, was bought by Ballantine in 1972 and it incorporated several suggestions from science fiction editor John W. Campbell.

Imagine for a moment that George Lucas approached you to write the novel version of Star Wars: A New Hope in the early 70s. At the time, the movie was unknown. Your name would not be on the cover and the payment would be a mere $5000. Do you take the job as a ghostwriter for this unknown filmmaker? Two authors had said no. Alan Dean Foster said yes. And the rest, as they say, is history. When Star Wars became a hit and more novels were needed, Foster was the first to be called in to write them. His first spin-off novel of Star Wars with his own name on the cover was Splinter of the Minds Eye (1978). He has gone on to write countless Star Wars movie novels, including the pending Star Wars: The Force Awakens that will be released in late 2015. He has a story credit for the original Star Trek: The Motion Picture, many novels based on episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and he has also written ten novels for Star Trek the Animated series. Other movie tie-in books include the Alien movies, the Black Hole, and Starman. It is little wonder that Alan Dean Foster has won the 2008 Grand Master award from the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers. He continues to write and has well over 100 novels to his credit, both movie tie-ins and his own original series.

Currently, Foster lives in Arizona with his wife, but he enjoys traveling because it gives him opportunities to meet new people and explore new places and cultures.

“…Who would have suspected it? The Krang is both a weapon and a musical instrument.” – Alan Dean Foster, from The Tar-Aiym Krang

The Tar-Aiym Krang begins on the world of Moth, a planet with “wings”, two golden clouds of dust suspended in space around it. On this world many travelers come. Hardened space-sailors, merchant buccaneers and the insect race known as the Thranx are the targets of the young orphan boy Philip Lynx “Flinx” and his mini-dragon pet Pip, an empathic flying snake that shoots a corrosive and violent neurotoxic venom. Flinx has odd empathic talents that help him live as a thief on the streets of Moth. One day, he steals a starmap off a dead body that really didn’t need it any longer. Flinx thus starts an adventure that takes he through the reaches of space to a strange alien artifact on an abandoned world.

The Tar-Aiym Krang Book CoverThe first book I read by Alan Dean Foster was Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. I was a huge Star Wars fan (still am) and anything I could read to further those adventures was like gold to me. Splinter came out two years before The Empire Strikes Back and doesn’t read as canon any longer, but at the time I loved it and it brought this author to my attention. When I spotted Foster’s first original novel The Tar-Aiym Krang, I found it to be a light-hearted space opera filled with dead ancient alien civilizations, uncharted worlds and majestic ruins and the search for an artifact that could threaten the galaxy. It is easy to see why the Flinx and Pip novels were very popular. I began reading more of the Humanx Commonwealth Series and they put a smile on my face.

The only problem I can see about the novel is that the female characters are not as well-developed as the male characters. They are little more than window dressing in the story. This was somewhat typical of the times when science fiction was geared toward adolescent boys instead of a wider adult audience. The book tends toward a YA level, but there are a few sexual situations that might make it considered to be more adult. Still, it is a well-paced book that is a fun read. If you are looking for a book to experience Alan Dean Foster as an original author, The Tar-Aiym Krang is a good place to start and then continue in your exploration. Don’t stop with the Humanx Commonwealth. Foster has several good original series including The Spellsinger Series and The Damned trilogy.

Humanx Commonwealth Series (Pip & Flinx)

The Tar-Aiym Krang (1972)
Bloodhype (1973)
Orphan Star (1977)
The End of the Matter (1977)
Snake Eyes (Short Story) (1978)
For Love of Mother-Not (1983)
Mid-Flinx (1995)
Flinx in Flux (1988)
Reunion (2001)
Side Show (Short Story) (2002)
Flinx’s Folly (2003)
Sliding Scales (2004)
Running from the Deity (2005)
Trouble Magnet (2006)
Growth (Short Story) (2008)
Patrimony (2007)
Flinx Transcendent (2008)

Luna Station Quarterly Features Book Review of The Blue Sword

The Blue Sword Book CoverFor the past few months, I’ve been a regular contributor to the online feminist magazine Luna Station Quarterly. It is a magazine that features up and coming female speculative fiction writers, and columns about all things related to science fiction and fantasy. The magazine debuted in 2011 and features a subscription-based magazine and free online columnists that write on subjects connected to speculative fiction. There is also an anthology of stories put out by Luna Station Quarterly that can be found on Amazon.

This May, Luna Station Quarterly has reprinted my book review of the vintage fantasy novel The Blue Sword by author Robin McKinley. I hope you will stop by the magazine and read the offerings by columnists such as myself.

http://www.lunastationquarterly.com/book-review-the-blue-sword/

Book Review: Crystal Singer

Book Name: Crystal Singer
Author: Anne McCaffrey
First Published: 1982

Anne McCaffrey was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The only daughter of three siblings and the middle child, she grew up on the east coast of the United States. Eventually, she graduated cum laude from College where she gained a degree in Slavonic Languages and Literature. In 1950 she married Horace Johnson and they had three children: Alec, Todd and Gigi. The family lived in Wilmington, Delaware for around a decade and then moved to Sea Cliff, Long Island in 1965 where they remained until 1970. During this time, Anne McCaffrey began to work full time as a writer and served a term as the secretary-treasurer of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Her duties not only included the publishing of two monthly newsletters for the guild, but she also handcrafted the Nebula Award trophies.

In 1970, McCaffrey divorced her husband and weeks later took her children to live in Ireland. During the 1970s, Ireland offered artists to live exempted from income taxes and Anne McCaffrey, being of Irish descent, emigrated to Ireland to take advantage of this opportunity. Anne’s mother soon joined the family where they lived in Dublin. McCaffrey’s books about the dragons that lived in a symbiotic relationship with the human settlers of the planet Pern became bestsellers and classics of science fiction. They paid for her cottage in Ireland that she called “Dragonhold” in honor of the dragons that supported herself and her children. She lived there until her death at the age of eighty five.

The roots of the Crystal Singer series begins while Anne McCaffery was a student studying voice. She performed as a singer, directed a play and was employed by the record label, Liberty Music Shop. Despite these successes, it was during her later years of study that she was informed that there was a flaw in her voice that would limit her in achieving in the field of music. McCaffery was devastated by this experience and used it in the Crystal Singer series to shape her main character Killashandra Ree.

The book first began as a series of shorts that were published in Continuum Magazine.

    “Prelude to a Crystal Song”, Continuum 1 (Apr 1974)
    “Killashandra – Crystal Singer”, Continuum 2 (Aug 1974)
    “Milekey Mountain”, Continuum 3 (Dec 1974)
    “Killashandra – Coda and Finale”, Continuum 4 (Aug 1975)

In the short stories, Killashandra Ree dies, but when McCaffery decided to combine all the short stories into a single novel, she revised all the shorts heavily to not only blend them into a single story, but changed the main character’s ultimate fate. The name of the crystal singer was inspired by a small town in north central Ireland called Killeshandra.

“There’s nothing wrong in doubting. It sometimes leads to greater faith.”
― Anne McCaffrey

Crystal Singer begins when a young vocal student named Killashandra Ree is finishing ten years of study in order to become a vocal soloist of a futuristic civilization known as the Federated Sentient Planets. She anticipates becoming a “rock star” of interstellar proportions. During her final exams, it is discovered that she has a fatal flaw in her voice that will forever prevent her from singing lead roles, despite her perfect pitch and performing talents. Killashandra is heartbroken and plans to leave both the school and her home world in private disgrace.

At the spaceport she meets an older man who uses his musical skills to identify an arriving space shuttle that is about to explode to the authorities, averting the disaster. The two hit it off and he treats her to a whirlwind romance on her home world while he is on vacation. She grows curious about her new lover and his profession of “crystal singer”. It is a occupation of people with perfect musical pitch that use their voices to control devices in which to mine a very rare crystalline mineral on the planet of Ballybran. These crystals are used in most of the complex systems that power interstellar communications and power much of the machinery of her civilization. It is a dangerous profession, but one that earns high credits and has a select and small membership. Although she is warned away repeatedly, Killashandra is drawn to the mysterious Heptite Guild and becomes determined to become a crystal singer herself.

Travel to Ballybran is forbidden to all but its residents. On the moon of Ballybran, Killashandra learns the reason why. Anyone that ventures onto the planet is infected by a symbiotic life form that invades the human body and causes genetic mutations. Many people simply die. Others only gain a partial adaptation that allows them to live, but with reduced hearing or eyesight. They are forever confined to the planet, unable to leave because if they do the symbiont dies and they along with it. Those few that get a full adaption to the symbiont become the crystal singers who gain increased vision and hearing, rapid healing and a long life. It makes them sterile and in the end they suffer memory loss, paranoia and dementia, but only after hundreds of years of life. They also can depart Ballybran for short periods of time without their symbiont dying.

Headstrong and stubborn, Killashandra journeys to Ballybran along with thirty other inductees. The novel follows her and her classmates during their education while they wait for the invading infection. One by one, they fall to the symbiont until all have been converted. During this time she gains the attention of the head of the guild, a man named Lanzecki. He offers her a job that she can’t refuse, one that not only allows her to use her new skills as a crystal singer, but one that might allow her to present a public performance that would put her back in the spotlight she trained all those years for.

Crystal Singer Book CoverI have always loved the Crystal Singer series by Anne McCaffery. I first read the book when it was first released in the early 80’s and felt a strong identification with the main character, Killashandra Ree. She is a complex character, a combination of confidence that borders on arrogance and yet inside she is shy and vulnerable. Many artists have this sort of personality and I liked that she was a strong woman that was willing to take control of her own life in the face of failure. She felt like a real and likable woman to me.

The Federated Sentient Planets that Killashandra lives in is powered not by manufactured technology, such as ours is, but by natural forming crystals that can be sung into service. I love the concept of human art meeting function in this way. It is quite unique and the world of Ballybran and the Heptite Guild society is an interesting concept. The visual of the crystal singer serenading a mountain side and it singing back to her is powerful and one that you will not soon forget. Of all the series set in the universe, I feel that this one is the most clerical in nature. You need a card for everything and the machines monitor all the details. It reminds me of our current way of life.

There are some outdated qualities to the book. During the late 70s and early 80s, sexual freedom was thought to be women sleeping around much as single men of the time period did. Killashandra has several lovers in this fashion. The sex is free and easy, completely consensual, but without long term attachments. There are no steamy sex scenes in the book, but in my view the easy going relationships don’t quite mesh with what we might think of feminism now.

The men in the book were also somewhat paternalistic toward the female main character. Again, this was a common attitude during this decade and it has carried over into the culture of this interstellar society. It is not as bad as in some books and for the most part I felt that Killashandra was treated as an equal by peers, even when they could not stand her for her “perfection”.

While Crystal Singer is not a Nebula or Hugo award winner, it does have staying power and I believe that it would most appeal to high school or college aged readers. It can be a little difficult to find at the local library due to its age, but you should be able to find it on the online outlet of your choice. Go and find the books. If you love classic science fiction and enjoy reading females authors in this genre, Crystal Singer is a great choice.

Crystal Singer Series

Crystal Singer 1982
Killashandra 1986
Crystal Line 1992

Book Review: Red Mars

Book Name: Red Mars
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
First Published: 1993
Nebula Award Winner for Best Novel 1993

Author Kim Stanley Robinson was born in Waukegan, Illinois, but mainly grew up in Southern California. He earned a B.A. in literature from the University of California, San Diego in 1974 and gained a Masters in English from Boston University in 1982. He returned to his California ala mater in 1984 to finish a PhD in English.

Robinson is an avid backpacker and many of his novels feature characters that hike or climb mountains including his Mars Trilogy. He doesn’t consider himself to be a mountain climber, more of a man that loves the great outdoors. In 2009, Robinson was a Clarion Workshop instructor and the following year he was the guest of honor at the 68th World Con. His novels have won 11 major science fiction awards and 29 nominations.

He is married with two sons and his family currently resides in Davis, California.

“History was like some vast thing that was always over the tight horizon, invisible except in its effects. It was what happened when you weren’t looking — an unknowable infinity of events, which although out of control, controlled everything.”
― Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars

The epic novel Red Mars begins when one hundred participants are chosen to go to the red planet after a detailed and rigorous selection process. The winners are geniuses from Russia and the United States along with a few other countries. They undertake a nine month space mission to reach their goal of forming a colony base on Mars. “Underhill” has nuclear generators for power, medical stations are established, GMO foods are produced on martian farms and new life forms that can survive on the Martian surface unprotected are also genetically created. During this time, a debate that started on the spacecraft and continues both on Mars and Earth about the moral right of humans to terraform and mine Mars for their own profit.

Two factions arise on Mars. One is the Reds, led by Ann Cayborne. She believes that Mars should not be used for corporate profit or for Earth’s expansion. The other are the Greens, led by Sax Russell. He believes that terraforming is important in order for life on Mars to continue. As time goes on, these and other political arguments tear the martian settlement apart, even as more new Earth immigrants arrive to worsen the situation. Added to the mix is a new discovery by a medical team, a drug that grants near immortality. One of the medical team disappears with a group of followers and they harvest many eggs in order to produce children at will.

What was once a scientific operation, turns into a struggle for power by governments and international companies who wish to carve out a piece of Mars for themselves. Mining on Mars increases and more workers are imported from Earth to handle the work load. The new city domes become crowded and understaffed. Riots begin as water and other supplies are lost or damaged, causing massive flooding and death. Even the entire moon of Phobos is destroyed in the chaos.

Most of the first hundred colonists are killed in the resulting revolution. Their work is destroyed. The survivors take refuge in a hidden colony called Zygote under the southern pole and begin to build a new life for themselves on a chaotic and destroyed Mars.

Red Mars Book CoverOne of the draws of Robinson’s work is his detailed world building based on known science. There are many “sense of wonder” descriptions of the Martian landscape that draw you in as a reader and give you an appreciation for the natural environment. His details about the science behind the transformation of Mars make you wish that you could visit these people and places. As someone who enjoys natural beauty, this was one of the aspects of the novel that I enjoyed. I also liked how the author shifted the third-person point of view among the main characters of the book, allowing me to see Mars, its society and its culture through their different perspectives.

Robinson often features scientists as heroes, not because of their physical brawn, but more for the importance of their discoveries, networking or collaboration with other scientists. The characters struggle to preserve and enhance the world around them in a manner evoking individualism and entrepreneurship such as was found on the American Frontier a century ago. In Robinson’s novels, scientists must take responsibility for educating the public in the responsible use of their discoveries and often emerge as the best people to direct public policy on environmental and technological issues. Robinson could be considered an anti-capitalist, his ideas promote an egalitarianism that more in keeping with socialist ideals. The Martian Constitution in his Mars Trilogy, draws upon these social democratic ideals and focus on the community-participation elements in the Martian’s political and economic life. I personally do not agree with all his political views, however, Robinson is not overt in his preaching and it is tolerable if you keep an open mind and enjoy the environmental and technological ideas.

Whatever your views on his political ideas, Red Mars is a detailed portrayal of how this planet might be colonized in the near future with present day technology. Considering that there are programs in real life that are in the planning stages of going to Mars with an eye toward colonization, Robinson’s books are incredibly timely and an interesting read. It is my hope that the destruction and chaos that happens on Red Mars might be bypassed by our own colonists, but human nature being what it is, we can only hold our breath and hope for the best. I feel that the Mars Trilogy is well worth reading and I hope you’ll consider adding it to your to-read list.

The Mars Trilogy

Red Mars (1993) – Colonization
Green Mars (1994) – Terraforming
Blue Mars (1996) – Long-term results
The Martians (1999) – Short stories