The Cat Who Walks Through Walls By Robert A. Heinlein.

16685Heinlein was one of the Trinity of Sci-Fi Masters that rose to prominence during the Golden Age of science fiction. The Science Fiction Writers of America named him the very first Grand Master in 1974, he had an asteroid named after him in 1990, and in 1994 a major Martian crater was named after him as well.

Heinlein is considered one of the greatest and most influential science fiction writers ever. So it is surprising that The Cat Who Walks Through Walls has received so much negativity. Was this because there were preconceived expectations from an author that strictly followed most genre conventions – his attempt to branch off into something different viewed as weak and disappointing?

I have never read any of his works, and decided based on numerous curious synopses and disenfranchised reviews, that perhaps it would be an intriguing introduction to Heinlein’s work. Perhaps I could enter this novel with no preconceived notions of what to expect from his writing style.

At first the book was strange, and awkward, and seemed plotless drivel filled with bad dialogue and unbelievable scenarios, and flat underdeveloped characters. I struggled to understand exactly what the plot was – the characters seemed to just go from one situation to the next.

The Cat also makes assumptions that I have read previous entries in the series, and as such the character development takes place before this entry, and many confusing references start to make sense to me as the book progresses.

It wasn’t until towards the end of the book that it’s genius hit me. The nonsensical story, the bad dialogue, the coincidences and near-misses are all explained (or at least make sense) towards the end of the book. This wasn’t poorly written; it was a deliberate exercise.

I shall write a list of my evidence below:

  • The Cat is in reference to Schrödinger’s cat – a paradoxical thought experiment that deals with multiple states of being.
  • The Scourge of The Spaceways! is a sci-fi serial of major importance to the characters.
  • This book is metafiction – Heinlein winks at us – the readers – multiple times, addressing us directly and breaking the fourth wall.
  • The World as Myth. ’nuff said.

When you read this book, think back on it retrospectively – and you will see their significance. This book is both a parody of science fiction serials and of metafiction in general. It’s also, I feel, fan-service to his own fan-base, and as such is satirical of his own books.

The World as Myth is a theory that strings many of Heinlein’s books together and includes characters and locations from other works; if a book or story or script has been written, then it creates a universe where these things are real and tangible; likewise, our universe is both real and hypothetical as an author somewhere writes fiction that creates and defines our reality.

This premise is what drives the style of the book – I believe Heinlein wrote this book as a parody of itself. The unbelievable dialogue or sequences or plot points… he’s stating the fact to the readers, that none of this is real because it is only fiction, but paradoxically that’s what makes it real. It’s confusing, but retrospectively the book treads along this paradox and it isn’t obvious to the reader that this is happening until the latter half of the book.

However, I was let down by a consistent theme in the book: sex. There is so much of it. It’s everywhere. Monogamy, polygamy, group-sex, incest, homosexuality – the pages are practically stuck together from it. Again, one could argue that it can be explained away by The World As Myth theory, but if you research the author, it perhaps takes on a more personal attribute.

Heinlein and his wife tried unsuccessfully to have children. They were just not able to create life. It is not unreasonable that, in this, sex would have become a subconscious preoccupation. Women have all the sexual power in this book, they take who and what they want, when and where they want it – the future is dictated by free-love for all. It’s almost as though Heinlein was creating a fantasy world where all sexual responsibility would be taken off him, and all the shame of being unable to gift his wife with a child would disappear.

It would also help explain his preoccupation with pseudo-pedophilia. At no time is there any pedophilic activity – but there is a tendency to try to titillate the reader in numerous scenes involving a thirteen year-old girl, including some nudity and attempted sex (again, by the girl, not the main character.) But if someone had never had a child, had never understood the child-parent dynamic first hand, and had built up the idea of a child onto a pedestal, it would be logical that this deification could spill over into a physical desire and not be constrained to just an emotional and psychological desire.

But psycho-analysis aside – without prior knowledge of the author or of the series, and no knowledge of The World As Myth or any of the characters – it was an uncomfortable book to read. And yet, it still held me. I was morbidly fascinated. Like a car crash on the highway, I couldn’t look away, I was too curious about what I might see if I stayed.

The book, for all it flaws, isn’t terrible. It has some really decent ideas, it deals with paradoxes in an interesting way, and the characters being to grow on you – though you do wish they would shut-up sometimes.

There were times when I felt the author was, perhaps, being lazy or perhaps uncaring in his writing, and other times where I would dismiss those ideas because of the excitement of the scenes I was caught up in. It was often fast-paced and hard to put down, and despite the confusion, I generally cared about where the story might or might not be headed.

Overall, it was actually a decent book. It took a lot of discussion and deep thinking to figure out – but that’s what I get for choosing a controversial book at the near-end of a series to introduce myself to. I’m convinced that if I had read his previous entries in the series, that I would have had an even richer experience from this book. I will definitely keep an eye out for more from Heinlein.

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Douglas Adam’s Starship Titanic By Terry Jones

51sdnzvetcl‘The Ship That Cannot Possibly Go Wrong’ is a novel based on the game Starship Titanic (written by Douglas Adams,) but due to timing constraints he was unable to write the novelization himself, so he approached the next best person – the voice actor of the parrot in the game – Terry Jones.

This is the one-and-the-same Terry Jones of Monty Python fame, and he is an extraordinary talent with science fiction, fantasy and comedy, irrespective of the medium.

Starship Titanic is an inane and hilarious (stylistically an amalgam of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett) space adventure that manages to conjure some pretty original and clever science fiction ideas, whilst conforming to the tropes we know-and-love.

A small band of humans are given a free cruise after the ships systems malfunction and it crashes through their roof. Before they can truly make a decision they find themselves in space, caught up in a grand scheme of corruption and greed and murder. But this is no mystery story – this is a race against time as they struggle to stop a bomb, fix the ship, fix their relationships, and have vague and hilarious alien sex.

The human characters are a bit under-developed and two-dimensional, but this contrast also plays well against the strange and over-the-top alien and robot characters, so it actually balances out quite nicely.

This book was written for one purpose alone – to promote the CD-ROM game, and it does so as one of the best game-to-novel translations I have read.

It’s a fast-paced book that catches you in it’s gravitational pull and refuses to let you go. I read it in one sitting: the book gave me no indication of when I could rest or catch my breath. It is an incredibly fun romp that I highly recommend for both young adults and a more mature audience.

To help promote this book it was published online in it’s entirety here in alphabetical order: http://www.fpx.de/fp/Fun/Titanic/pages/index.html.

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Mortal Gods by Jonathan Fast (part one)

2271892Her skin was sea-blue, so fine as to be almost transparent. The scintillation of light across it seemed to be caused by some sparkling oil, possibly cosmetic or else an effusion of the flesh. Her neck was long, thin and graceful; her face, surrounded by a halo of fleecy white hair, was dominated by huge almond eyes. Nose and mouth combined in a pliant beak, giving her the profile of a hawk.

And thus are we introduced to the strange and reclusive Alta-Tyberians: a species destined to extinction unless the scientists at MutaGen Corporation can find the fault in Alta-Ty DNA and prevent further generations of deformities and sterility.

Nicholas Harmon – a failed genetic engineer now working as public relations officer – is chosen to accompany Hali, the Alta-Ty emissary who brought the frozen samples of sperms and ova to MutaGen. While she is on Sifra-Mesa Spaceport (cloning and genetic engineering being outlawed sciences on Earth) she witnesses the murders of two Lifestylers – God-like genetic constructs that are worshipped across the galaxy.

It is at this point that the story starts taking twists and turns in unexpected directions. It becomes an inter-dimensional murder mystery layered with political intrigue, social rhetoric, decent action scenes and some crazy adventures that give it a 50’s pulp science fiction vibe.

Nick Harmon is bigoted and chauvinistic and makes no effort to disguise the fact. His attitude towards women and aliens, the casual use of strong swear words in some scenes and the numerous sex scenes (a mix of equally erotic and uncomfortable to read,) make this book a futuristic blaxploitation story but with an updated colour pallet.

This feel is further fuelled by the almost-African features of Hali on the cover and the constant retrofuturistic language and technology used throughout the book. And yet, these elements are redeemed; the science is, still to this day, relatively accurate, the political environment surprisingly close to post 9-11 America (this book being written in 1978), and Nicholas Harmon actually has a deep and thorough character arc.

Pepper this with a mixture of hard-science, biopunk and some technoir elements (imagine The Matrix and Blade Runner and the Alien franchise had a bastard child), and add some intriguing ideas and compelling plot, and you get an incredibly unique and entertaining story.

See Mortal Gods (part two) for an interview with Jonathan Fast.

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Plague Ship by Andre Norton

uiqlqvtPlague Ship is the second novel in a seven volume series about the Free Traders – A crew of Merchants that explore new worlds and make contact with new species to open up trade. The story was published in 1956, and though it is almost sixty years old now, it has aged gracefully.

Set within its own clear continuity, it makes no specific references to style, language or culture that could otherwise date the book. The story makes no effort to try to explain the precise intricacies of its scientific principles; a common pitfall of vintage science fiction that causes the stories to become nonsensical as our evolving knowledge of technology destroys their credibility.

The first chapter does an amazing job setting the scene on the strange and exotic planet of Sargol; its strange cultural practices, its beautiful scenery and its interesting people. Dutiful and honour-bound, the crew of the Solar Queen are all likable and well-written characters. The antagonists are the IS – InterSolar – an interplanetary trading conglomerate that uses corrupt bureaucratic processes and corporate espionage to undermine their competitors and secure trading rights

At its heart this is an under-dog story. It is a tale of over-comming obstacles and challenges, and the battle of truth over injustice. This is a theme we can all relate to at some point in our lives, whether it is in our youths or in our adulthoods.

The story is well paced and broken into three Acts. The first Act deals with the inter-relationships between the Solar Queen, the IS agents trying to sabotage their trade negotiations, and the Salariki – the native inhabitants of Sargol – and there is plenty of well-written exploration of the Salariki culture and their environment.

An interesting species, they remind you of the Na’Vi from James Cameron’s Avatar – a strong, lithe and cat-like alien species that lives in balance with their surrounding environment. An interesting and unique part of these people is their sense of smell. It is so strong that it has guided their cultural evolution, and their customs and currency all revolve around scent and aroma.

The second Act deals with their travels in space as they leave Sargol behind and return to Terra to sell their acquired commodities. It is during this time they begin to fall ill and are labeled by the IS as a Plague Ship. This creates all sorts of conflicts as they have limited resources, their crew numbers are dropping, and they are contractually bound to complete their trade or they lose the sole trading rights to Sargol and forfeit a fortune and are potentially black-listed.

The pace becomes faster as they try to meet the trade deadline whilst struggling to solve the growing mystery of the plague. The plague itself was well-written and keeps you guessing throughout the story as to its origin or cause. Ideas and concepts from the start of the story are reintroduced here and this makes the story feel well rounded.

The third Act is a departure from the first two as it deals with bureaucracy and politics and the legal ramifications of the actions the Solar Queen’s crew in their struggle to survive. There are some nice action scenes in the climax, and then a short but satisfying denouement: the heroes are rewarded, the antagonists get their comeuppance, and the final lines are a tidy segue into the next book:

     “Thank the Spirit of Free Space there’s practically no trouble one can get into on a safe and sane mail route!”

     But Cargo-Master Van Rycke, in spite of knowing the Solar Queen and the temper of her crew, was exceedingly over-optimistic when he made that emphatic statement.

I have read this book several times over the years, and I think each time I read it I enjoy it a little bit more. As previously stated, the characters are likeable and, most important, they are relatable and realistic and so are their actions.

Andre Norton was always a master at creating colorful worlds and creatures and she knew how to make them co-exist in believable ways, and I highly recommend this book for any fan of Science-Fiction or Fantasy.

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The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

0141John Campbell (editor of Astounding Science Fiction, later called Analog Science Fiction and Fact) once commented that Science Fiction was incompatible with Mystery. In response to this, Asimov wrote The Caves of Steel – A Science Fiction murder mystery which, to this day, is still one of the best technoir books I have read.

It is set in a distant dystopian future where Earth’s population explosion and limited resources have seen humanity cluster together in self-contained megacities. As humanity dwells in these ‘steel caves’, they become more agoraphobic and xenophobic with each passing generation as people forget about the outdoors and forget about open spaces, the concepts becoming archaic and almost mythical.

Because of lacking resources, these megacities are designed to be efficient in various ways: there is no longer a fiscal currency, only a privilege-based caste system, designed to encourage people to work harder for perks instead of abstract wealth; and amenities are shared to reduce maintenance and energy costs (unless your caste provides you with individual amenities,) and to more efficiently utilise available floor-space.

The story is about detective Elijah Baley who is tasked to solve the murder of a robotics expert who lives outside in a “Spacer Outpost”. The Spacers are Earth emigrants that have colonised many other worlds. They maintain low population densities and use extensive robot labour and as a result they live comfortable lives of wealth and excess.

Elijah, with all his inherited prejudices and biases, is partnered with a robot detective, R. Daneel Olivaw, from the Spacer Outpost. Together they must investigate the murder while trying to remain inconspicuous in an environment of fear; riots and hate-crimes against robots within the city being standard. Not only must he be discrete, but Elijah must succeed in order to preserve his social privileges and prevent being declassified into a lower caste.

The characters are likeable – Elijah’s concerns are actually valid and thought-out, and Daneel is just the right mix of computer and personality. They each have decent character arcs, and their relationship is realistic and sometimes down-right funny.

The settings are incredibly unique (and are the precursors to Asimovs Foundation series, with Daneel Olivaw a recurring character) and are well described, and as with any Asimov fiction, the world is logical and makes sense.

The murder mystery is superb. There are so many suspects, so many dead-ends, red-herrings and false trails, that up until the last chapter I had wrongly deduced the murderer at least half a dozen times, and anytime I came close to the truth, Asimov would throw misleading information at me and I would be just as confused as the characters.

This book is of prime dualities – it is an excellent example of how to write a detective murder mystery, and it is also a great example of how to write intelligent science fiction that takes into account technology and civism and politics and how they change over time.

If you love Asimov then you will enjoy this book. If you have never read Asimov, then this is a great introduction for you, and a great introduction to the Laws of Robotics that define almost all his writings, and influenced generations of writers and film makers.

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