Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A Life for the Stars, by James Blish

Rating: 3
Pages: 101

A thousand years in the future, Earth is an impoverished wasteland. One by one the great cities fit themselves with spindizzy drives and fly off into space in search of work on richer colony worlds. James Blish uses the image of an Okie, a migrant worker in America's Great Depression. These Okie cities fight for scraps in a hostile universe.

Our protagonist is sixteen-year-old Crispin deFord. Chris gets caught in Scranton, Pennsylvania when that city leaves Earth in search of work. Scranton is a desperately poor city: undersupplied, overpopulated, inexperienced; it is ruled by an inept cabal of brutal thugs. Chris is bright but has no job skills--which would normally condemn him to dangerous, backbreaking manual labor. However, he manages to apprentice himself as a navigator. That's a sham, though, because he hasn't the astronomy knowledge necessary to be a real navigator, and Scranton's navigator isn't able to teach him. Finally Chris seizes a chance to better his situation: Scranton trades some of its citizens to New York City for supplies; Chris is part of that trade.

In New York City there are opportunities for Chris. He decides to try for citizenship, and is enrolled in the city schools. When New York works a contract on the planet Heaven, Chris manages to help save the city when he uncovers a plot by their clients to overthrow and seize control of the city. Later, Chris helps again by averting a shooting war when New York finds itself in a standoff with Scranton.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

Rating: 4
Pages: 578
Awards: 1993 Hugo, 1992 Nebula

The trickiest part of writing believable time travel stories is handling the paradox problem: what happens if I go back in time and prevent Kennedy's assassination? In Doomsday Book, Connie Willis solves the problem by making it impossible to change the past. Past events are fixed, and the laws of the universe don't allow them to be changed. If I try to travel back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination, my arrival time will "slip" past the critical juncture, and I will arrive too late to prevent the historical events from occurring.

This makes time travel difficult, because you can never know exactly how much slippage there will be; slippage can be as little as a few seconds or as much as several years, depending on the events at your target destination time.

Doomsday Book begins as Kivrin, a graduate student, is sent back alone to a village in 1320 to study conditions in England in the Middle Ages. She is eager but ill-prepared; her trip is part of a petty university departmental power struggle, by professors who care more about their standing than the wellbeing of their students.

Kivrin arrives in the Middle Ages and immediately falls ill. Back in the 21st century, a similar outbreak of illness occurs. The diseases seem similar, but the 21st century influenza is contagious and deadly, but back in the Middle Ages, Kivrin is the only one sick. But no sooner does Kivrin recover from her illness than another sickness strikes the village; Kivran watches as everyone in the village falls ill and dies horribly.

The majority of the book is an exercise in contrasts between the way 21st century and 14th century England deal with epidemics. Kivrin's story is heartrending, and makes Doomsday Book worth reading. The 21st century epidemic feels like a farce, though, and is hard to take seriously. In fact, everything about the 21st century seems petty and unreal; it's not a convincing future. But Connie Willis has created a captivating 14th century, and that's why Doomsday Book rates a four.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Double Helix, by Sigmund Brouwer

Rating: 2
Pages: 306

If Sigmund Brouwer has talent, Double Helix displays none of it. The sparse bits of science take a back seat to the ludicrous plot, and the characters are caricatures rather than believable figures with human motivations. Then, for good measure, Brouwer throws in some gratuitous religion at the climax.

The villains are cartoonish. Van Klees, the top baddie, heads a clandestine research operation that is using cloning and genetic engineering to produce the perfect human. Van Klees has no scruples, and performs all manner of grisly experiments on creations. He kills anyone who learns too much about his Institute. No motivation other than money is offered to explain Van Klees's monstrous crimes.

Van Klees's right hand man is Zwaan. His only motivation appears to be sadism: he enjoys torturing people. Zwaan does all the dirty work: arranging accidents for people who know too much about the Institute, torturing and murdering any Institute scientist who steps out of line, and kidnapping African refugees to use as surrogate mothers for Van Klees's clones. Zwaan is a cold-blooded killer whose favorite part of inflicting pain is listening to the symphonies of pain.

On the side of justice we have Slater Ellis, a man on the run from the law. He's been hiding out in New Mexico until he stumbles upon three children who escaped from Van Klees's laboratory. The children speak only Latin (again, not explained in the book. Where did Van Klees even find a native speaker of Latin to raise the clones?) Instead of turning the kids over to the authorities, or just letting them go, Ellis takes it upon himself to exact justice on Van Klees. He gets help from a professor of Latin from a California university--who also doesn't see the need to contact the authorities.

Our other hero/love interest is Paige Stephens, widow of Darby Stephens, who killed himself out of guilt over his involvement in Van Klees's Institute. Paige investigates her husband's death, and her meddling eventually leads her to Slater Ellis. (Actually, an unbelievably fortuitous coincidence leads Ellis to her, but let's not criticize Brouwer too much. Writing books is hard.) Together, they outwit Van Klees and bring down his empire of evil.

Double Helix rates barely a two.