Tag Archives: science fiction

Scifaiku: Orbiting Secrets

Orbiting Secrets, a Scifaiku poem illustration

Orbiting Secrets

In stationary orbit
city in the clouds
learning secrets

*poem published in Far Horizons Magazine – February 2015

A Scifaiku by Wendy Van Camp
Illustrated by Wendy Van Camp

Inspired by concept sketches by NASA of a proposed floating scientific station in the clouds of Venus.

Book Review: The Integral Trees

Book Name: The Integral Trees
Author: Larry Niven
First Published: 1984
Locus Award 1985

Larry Niven was born in Los Angeles, California and spent much of his childhood in Beverly Hills. His schooling has ranged from a brief stint at Cal Tec, Washburn University in Kansas, and graduate work in mathematics at UCLA. He ended up dropping out of school in order to write science fiction full-time.

His first story was published in Worlds of If. The Coldest Place was set on the dark side of Mercury and earned him a grand total of $25. As Niven continued to write, his friend and publisher, Fred Pohl, suggested that he write science fact based stories, pointing the author toward the “odd pockets of the universe.” Niven took the idea as his own and would become one of the more renown hard science fiction writers of the 20th century.

Niven’s “known space” universe exploded with life. His books were filled with unique aliens such as the Kzinti, Trinocs, Outsiders and Kdatlyno. His vivid descriptions of of worlds such as Jinx, Plateau and Down were devoured by the fans who all wanted more. Niven’s Opus is the series of books known as Ringworld, winner of the Hugo award. In this series, Niven created a Dyson Sphere and populated it with adventures and more unique aliens. The author has also had a career in writing for television. He has written scripts for series such as “Land of the Lost”, “Star Trek: The Animated Series”, and for DC Comics character Green Lantern.

In Niven’s later years, he has been writing in collaboration for the most part with authors Jerry Pournelle, Steven Barnes, Brenda Cooper and Edward M. Lerner. Two exceptions to this are The Integral Trees and its sequel, The Smoke Ring. This is his most ambitious world building vision since the creation of the Dyson Sphere of the Ringworld. In this series, Niven has created a massive, naturally-occurring free-fall environment that orbits a neutron star and has populated it with more of his unique characters. The Integral Trees was nominated for a Hugo for best novel (1985), nominated for a Nebula for Best Novel (1985), and was also nominated for a Science Fiction Chronicle Reader Award (1985).

Larry Niven lives in California with his wife and continues to turn out more wonderful books of hard science fiction, fantasy and other colorful subjects.

“The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program, it’ll serve us right!”
― Larry Niven

The Integral Trees is a story set around the fictional neutron star Levoy’s Star (known as “Voy” in the book). A gas giant, called Goldblatt’s World and nicknamed “Gold”, orbits Voy just outside its Roche Limit. The planet’s gravity is not enough to keep its atmosphere and it has been pulled free into an independent orbit around the star and forms a gas torus ring. In the center of this torus is an inner ring where the air is thick enough to support life and is known as “The Smoke Ring”. Most of the plants in the Smoke Ring are fragile because they do not need to support their own weight. The exception to this are the “integral trees”, giant stalks with a green “tuff” at each end. They grown hundreds of miles long with one end pointed at Voy and the other at Gold. Due to the winds inside the ring, each end of the tree curves making the plant resemble the mathematical symbol for “integral”. Five hundred years ago, twenty astronauts from an interstellar “ramship” colonized the Smoke Ring. Their descendants have adapted to the free-fall environment and have lost much of their technology and culture. Due to the micro gravity, the people are very tall and thin and have developed prehensile toes as a second set of hands.

The story begins with the inhabitants of the Dalton-Quinn tree. Quinn tribe’s tree is slowly falling out of the smoke ring and is dying. The tribe is suffering from a severe drought. The leader decides to send a party up the tree, to hunt and recut the tribe markings, but he populates the group with the cripples and people he considers troublemakers to the tribe. It is not said, but they are being sent away to die.

When the party reaches the midpoint of the tree, they are attacked by the Dalton-Quinn tribe that live at the opposite end of the tree. During the battle, a tremor splits the tree in half causing the in-tuff where the Quinn tribe lives to fall closer to the neutron star and killing all of its inhabitants. The tree finds a new equilibrium that is closer to the Smoke Ring’s center. The surviors of the battle jump clear of the broken tree and are set adrift in the sky. They almost die of thirst before they hook a passing whale-like “moby” which takes them to a free-fall jungle of plant life. There they are catapulted into a battle between the Carther States who live in the jungle and the slave-runners from London Tree. The party is split when six of them are captured by the slavers and two remain in the jungle.

The Carther States counter-attacks a few weeks later and during the battle the Quinn Tribe members manage to steal London Tree’s CARM (Cargo And Repair Module), it is a small spacecraft that belonged to the original settles of the Smoke Ring. While the Quinn members do not completely understand how to pilot the CARM, they manage to fly it into the thinest part of the gas torus and see the naked stars for the first time.

Once in space, they attract the attention of the Interstellar ship Discipline that is being cared for by an AI named Kendy. The AI aids the occupants of the CARM and helps them return to the Smoke Ring safely, but what is there for them to return to? And what of the AI’s original mission?

Integral Trees Book CoverOne of the reasons why I wanted to review Larry Niven’s The Integral Trees, beyond the fact that it is a book I enjoyed in my college days and remember fondly, is that the complex habitat that he dreamed up with fellow writer Robert Forward is every bit as wild and wonderful as the author’s Ringworld, but of a more organic and analog nature. It is not as well known, but I feel that it is a series of books that should be given a second look.

The plot and characters of the book are simple. In fact, I would call the plot almost YA in nature due to the lack of character development. The constant warfare is a comment on human nature, but I found that the lack of female independence in his world to be stifling. I suppose that in regressing civilization, Niven felt that regressing the role of women in the smoke ring societies to be in a similar vein.

It is the world that Niven creates that is the real star of the book and it is not an accident that he begins the novel with diagrams of what the world and the trees look like, in order to help the reader understand this alien environment that he has envisioned. If you are not a mathematics major, you might miss why the trees are named as they are, being in the shape of a mathematical symbol for integral. The natives of the story do not refer to the trees this way. The world is lush, wondrous and full of mystery. It is a hard place to ever forget once you’ve read the book. I highly recommend The Integral Trees. It is a story that you should experience at least once.

The State Series
A World Out of Time (1976)—Locus SF Award nominee, 1977
The Integral Trees (1984)—Nebula Award nominee, 1984; Locus SF Award winner, and Hugo nominee, 1985
The Smoke Ring (1987)

Book Review: Time Enough For Love

Book Name: Time Enough For Love
Author: Robert A. Heinlein
First Published: 1973
Prometheus Hall of Fame Award recipient 1998
Nominated for Nebula 1973
Nominated for Hugo and Locus Awards 1974

Robert Anson Heinlein was born in 1907 to accountant Rex Ivar Heinlein and Bam Lyle Heinlein. He spent much of his childhood in Kansas City, Missouri and the values of the bible belt would play an influence on his science fiction, especially in his later works such as Time Enough For Love and To Sail Beyond The Sunset.

Heinlein’s first career was in the US Navy. He graduated from the US Naval Academy in Maryland in 1929 with a BS in naval engineering. He was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Lexington in 1931 where he worked in radio communications. During this time, Heinlein married his first wife, Elinor Curry, but their marriage was short lived. In 1932 his second marriage was to Leslyn MacDonald and this time it lasted for 15 years. MacDonald was a political radical and it created a stormy atmosphere in their marriage.

In 1934 Heinlein was discharged from the Navy due to pulmonary tuberculosis. He spent time going to graduate classes at UCLA in mathematics and physics, but he quit due to his poor health combined with an interest in politics. Although he had a small pension from the navy, it was not enough to live on comfortably. Heinlein engaged in different occupations over the next several years, including real estate sales and silver mining. He became connected with Upton Sinclair’s socialist End Poverty movement and when Sinclair gained the nomination for Governor of California, Heinlein was active as an operative in his campaign. In 1938, Heinlein would run for the California State Assembly, but he was unable to secure the seat.

With little money left in the bank after his bid for the assembly seat, Heinlein turned to writing in order to pay his mortgage. His first story, “Life-Line” was published in Astounding Science-Fiction in 1939. He had written it for a contest entry, but the payment for the article in the magazine was more money than winning the contest would have provided. He also branched out to writing for The Saturday Evening Post, being the first science fiction author to break into the mainstream with his story “The Green Hills of Earth”. In 1950, his story Destination Moon was made into a movie and won an academy award for special effects. From 1947 through 1959, each year Heinlein would write a single book geared toward teenagers. These novels would later be called his “juveniles”.

In the early 1950s, Heinlein met and befriended a chemical engineer named Virginia “Ginny” Gerstenfeld in the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. When her own engagement fell through, she moved to California and studied at UCLA for doctoral studies in chemistry. As Heinlein’s second wife lost herself to alcoholism, Heinlein moved out and filed for divorce. He and Ginny rekindled their friendship into something more and when Heinlein was free they married and set up a home in Colorado. They would remain together until Heinlein’s death in 1988.

In 1959, Heinlein’s “juvenile” Starship Troopers was considered too controversial for a children’s book and was rejected by his regular publisher. Heinlein shopped the book to a competitor (Putnam) and it was purchased. Heinlein felt free of the constraints imposed on him by the children’s book publisher and declared that he would write “my own stuff, my own way”. Thus followed Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, both of which would be award winners.

In the early 1970s, a decade of life-threatening attacks of peritonitis intruded into his life. The recovery period of the first attack was over two years. When he felt well enough after the attack, he began writing Time Enough For Love which would introduce many of the themes that would be found in his later novels. These themes touched on individualism, libertarianism and the expression of emotional and physical love. It was for these books that Heinlein won the Libertarian Futurist Society’s Prometheus Hall of Fame Award that is designed to honor classic libertarian fiction.

During the writing of his novel I Will Fear No Evil, Heinlein suffered another attack. He had a blocked carotid artery and was given one of the earliest known carotid bypass operations. While Heinlein continued to write during this time, his work suffered and his stories were not what his fans expected. It is thought that I Will Fear No Evil was a literary failure. It was not until the 1980s that his health improved enough that the old Robert A. Heinlein emerged and his final two novels were back to the quality the fans expected.

After Heinlein’s death in 1988, his wife Ginny created a compilation of her husband’s correspondence and notes into an autobiographical look at his writing career and it was published in 1989 as Grumbles from the Grave. Much of Robert A. Heinlein’s manuscript drafts, correspondence, photographs and artifacts are housed in the Special Collections department of McHenry Library at the University of Santa Cruz.

Oh, I have strong opinions, but a thousand reasoned opinions are never equal to one case of diving in and finding out. Galileo proved that and it may be the only certainty we have. – Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough For Love

Time Enough For Love begins with a 2400 year old man who desires to die, waking up in a clinic where many people who love him want to help him regain the desire to live. Lazarus Long has held every job imaginable, gone everywhere and seen everything that there is to be seen. He is weary of life and eager to embrace death. Lazarus agrees to not end his life as long as his companion, a descendant of his old friend Ira Weatherall of the Howard Families, will listen to his stories as he undergoes treatment. It is a reversal of the Arabian Nights fable where Scheherazade, the bride of a Persian King, tells a cliff-hanger story each night in order to stay the axe from her neck and in the end, saves her life and gains the heart of the King. In Lazarus’ case, the stories he tells stays his own hand from suicide.

Within this framework, Lazarus tells stories from his past spanning from the 20th Century on Earth, to following humanity’s journey out to the stars. The first story is “The Tale of the Man Who Was Too Lazy to Fail”, about a young US Navy cadet who rises in the ranks by applying what he terms “constructive laziness”. The next is the controversial “The Tale of the Twins Who Weren’t”. Lazarus is a cargo trader and buys a pair of slaves, a brother and sister. He frees them, but they don’t understand the concept of freedom. All the twins want is be together as husband and wife, but the girl’s chastity belt prevents their union. They have no understanding of the taboo against incest. Lazarus determines that because the twins were a result of an experiment in genetic recombination, they are no more closely related genetically than two strangers who meet on the street. There is no biological reason that they could not remain together, marry and have healthy children. As a ship’s captain, he marries the twins as they desire and then helps to establish them as successful restaurant owners on a planet that his ship frequents.

The most popular tale of the book is “The Tale of the Adopted Daughter”. Lazarus, this time a banker and shopkeeper on a frontier world of approximately 19th century technology, saves a young girl named Dora from a burning building. He becomes her guardian. When she grows up, he marries her and the two set off to create a homestead in the wilderness. They found a new community and find happiness together. There is a catch, Lazarus doesn’t age due to being of “Howard stock” (He is immortal due to his genetic heritage.), but Dora is very mortal and lives a regular human lifespan. She dies of old age, leaving Lazarus behind in his grief.

By this time in the story, Lazarus is beginning to regain his love of life. The youth treatments he is receiving at the clinic have healed him physically, and his descendants have intrigued him enough to try again. He joins his family on the planet “Boondock” and they create a polyamorous family of three men, three women and a number of children, two of whom are female clones of Lazarus himself!

The final tale “Da Capo” is a time travel story where Lazarus returns to the time of the first world war to revisit the time of his childhood and see his original family again. In the trenches of the Western Front, he is wounded and would have gained his original wish to die, but is instead rescued by his cloned twins and returned to the future.

Time Enough For Love Book CoverTime Enough For Love is not a book for children and I do not recommend that it be read such. Yet, I seem to recall reading the book for the first time when I was only around twelve or thirteen years of age. I loved Heinlein’s juveniles and the character of Lazarus Long, so when Time Enough For Love emerged on the book shelves, I naturally reached for it. While there are many subjects in the book that are controversial, such as incest, at its core Heinlein cuts through many taboos that our society dictates with a gusto that you simply must marvel at. He had the audacity to say that all taboos are social constructs, with a possible biological basis, but when that basis disappears then taboos mean nothing. It is time to move on and enjoy your life.

This novel was written during a time in the author’s life when he was staring death in the face and this theme is central to Time Enough For Love. What if we do live forever? What if all of humanity has the ability of living for hundreds of years? Technology is bringing this possibility into reality in the not to distant future. The social mores we take for granted now will change significantly in the face of this. Heinlein is one of the few science fiction authors that has probed this concept and it does give one pause for thought.

I like this book and I will say that it has had some influence on me as a writer. My favorite “tale” is the one about Dora on the frontier world. Give it a try, but be warned that many of the ideas contained within the novel are controversial and may be offensive depending on your personal outlook.

Wendy Van Camp published in Far Horizons Magazine (Feb 2015)

Far Horizons Magazine Cover February 2015

I’m pleased to announce that a book review and three of my Scifaiku poems have published in the February 2015 issue of Far Horizons. The magazine is free to readers. I hope you’ll stop by and read not only my work, but the other fine stories to be found there.

Far Horizons: Tales of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror

Book Review: Glory Season

Book Name: Glory Season
Author: David Brin
First Published: 1993
Nominated: Hugo 1994 and Locus 1994

David Brin is an American scientist and writer of hard science fiction novels. His works have been New York Times Bestsellers and he has won multiple Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Campbell awards. Brin was born in Glendale, California. He graduated from the California Institute of Technology with a degree in astrophysics. He followed this with a master of science in applied physics and a doctorate of Philosophy in Space Science from the University of California, San Diego. He currently lives in Southern California with his wife and children.

“A living planet is a much more complex metaphor for deity than just a bigger father with a bigger fist.”
― David Brin, Glory Season

To understand the basis of the culture of Glory Season, you must go back three thousand years when a scientist named Lysos, the founder of the human colony on the planet of Stratos, used genetic engineering to change their local strain of humanity so that their reproduction was based on seasons. Men are sexually receptive in the summer and women are in the winter. When a woman conceives in the summer, she produces a mix of her own genes and that of the male, having an equal chance for a boy or girl child. When a woman conceives in the winter, she always produces a female clone of herself. Finally, the men of Stratos have been changed so that they are less aggressive during the times that they are less sexually receptive. The result is that most of the people of Stratos are successful group of women clones.

Into this feminist social backdrop, a pair of twins are born to a “hive” of clones called “Lamatia”. They specialize in commercial import/export banking. Maia and Leie are welcome to remain with the hive of their birth, like all variants born of the clone sisters, until they reach their majority. Then they will be thrust out into the world to survive as they will. The twins create a plan to pass themselves off as two members of a larger hive and hope to work as sailors on the seas of Stratos to make their fortunes. As “vars” (variants) they would be considered social inferiors, but as sisters of a “hive” they would lose the stigma.

Events prevent the two sisters from carrying off their plans. They are separated by the ship masters to work on different ships instead of remaining together. Leie is lost at sea and Maia, is injured while battling pirates. Maia leaves the sea and instead takes a job on a railroad while she tries to reconcile the loss of her sister and heal from her wounds. During this time, she becomes involved with a plot by “Perkinites” to eliminate men from an isolated valley and later the entire world of Stratos. Maia attempts to inform the planetary authorities and is put in prison by the Perkinites for her efforts.

Maia remains in prison a long time and discovers that her fellow prisoner is a male interstellar visitor from an untampered branch of humanity. This visitor is seeking a devise known as a “Jellicoe Former”, it is an advanced manufacturing facility that can act as a 3D printer for complicated, technological devises. On Stratos, a pastoral and low-technology society, the Former’s existence would be an eruption of new ideas that would change its stable society forever. Renna wants the machine in order to create items that would repair his spaceship and allow him to return home.

In the end, a climactic battle between political radicals, freed vars and a group of virtuous male sailors will determine the fate of the world and Maia’s personal destiny.

World building is an aspect of speculative fiction that sets it apart from more traditional genre. The author takes an idea of making an aspect of their world different from our own and uses it to explore new ideas of society and technology. To me, this is what sets great science fiction apart from the pretenders. David Brin is a master at this skill. Before he started his story in Glory Season, he had looked at the reproduction cycle of aphids; they reproduce clones of themselves during times of abundance and sexually reproduce during times of stressful environmental change. This gives them a reproductive advantage. Brin applied this concept to humans, using the pretext of genetic engineering to create humans who use this cyclic idea of reproduction, then applied the concept to their world and culture. What I found intriguing about his idea is that instead of making the clones part of a mechanical process, which is how traditionally cloning is displayed in science fiction, he made it a new biological process where sex and relationships took on new forms with his redesigned humanity. Since only women have wombs, they rise to predominance in his stable fictional society.

Glory Season Book CoverThe plot of Glory Season is decent, but not stellar. I still would recommend the book despite this. The culture that results from this new innate biologic process is alien in feel and yet retains enough humanity to allow the reader to feel sympathy for the characters and the problems that they face in the plot. It is worth exploring. My only real regret is that Glory Season is a stand alone novel. I would love a sequel so that I could return and see more of this unique and intriguing world.