The Penultimate Truth, by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) has become the most important author in the history of the science fiction genre; aside from his wide influence within literature, his ideas permeate all sorts of SF games, TV shows and movies. PKD is also a perennial favorite of mine, and I’ve been reading through his novels, after having finished his large number of collected short fiction. The more I read, the more it seems we’re living in his imagined future – but this is far from an original observation.

There are several options when seeking an introduction to PKD – my two favorites are this website extensively describing his short stories, and the various podcast episodes posted on sffaudio. The sffaudio discussion of The Penultimate Truth (1964) identifies three 1950’s short stories as being the “DNA” of the novel:

  • “The Defenders” (1953)
  • “The Mold of Yancy” (1955)
  • “The Unreconstructed M” (1957)

I suggest adding “The Chromium Fence” (1954) to the above list, for a reason explained later. I highly recommend reading these stories prior to taking on The Penultimate Truth, because the ideas packed into TPT will be easier to process. In fact, I had read the novel some years ago, and could not recall anything about its contents before starting it again (this time after reading through the short fiction). It turns out that TPT is a pretty strong, thematically rich novel that belongs in the “better half” of PKD’s output.

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Chris Moore cover for Voyager (isfdb.org)

Summarizing the plot of PKD novels are an interesting exercise: there appears to be a confusing jumble of events at first, but the underlying story usually turns out to be simple. It is often like watching a David Lynch movie, in that the weirdness of what you witness disguises an often very straightforward sequence of events. Here, I stick to describing only the opening premise and how the ideas from the short fiction (listed above) find their way into the novel.

TPT starts with a crisis in a small, post-holocaust subterranean community. The people of the “tank” are collectively responsible for manufacturing a quota of robot soldiers, but their last remaining technical expert is in a coma. The local “president” of the tank is coerced into venturing onto the Earth’s surface in search of an artificial pancreas to save the engineer, and therefore, his pocket society.

Meanwhile, the residents of the planet’s surface have recreated a feudal society in zones where the post-war radiation levels have fallen to tolerable levels. The leaders are “yance-men,” whose job is to write speeches for the artificial leader of the tank-dwellers, named Yancey. Some yance-men are interested in liberating all of the tank-dwellers, but the rest are determined to keep most of them underground with fake quotas and artificial Yancey speeches.

PKD modeled Yancey on the artificially folksy demeanor of Dwight Eisenhower, but we’ve been treated to this kind of false familiarity from the political class ever since.  The evolution of Yancey’s messages, and how they carefully maintained the power relationship between the true centers of power and the proles, is touched on in TPT but is the focus of “The Mold of Yancey.”

Similarly, TPT uses the soldier robots to embody the ideas of war and automation, but in a less complex way than his story “The Defenders.” The tank-dwellers are ruled by automation in that they must meet their production quotas or suffer dire, and even existential, consequences. Their skill levels have also decayed to the point where the colony has lost its last engineer. However, as explained here, the robots in TPT remain the vassals of the yance-men and lack the capability to evolve beyond following their directives.

“The Unreconstructed M” describes a murder committed by a machine that attempts to disguise itself after the fact. While the story explores the implications of having this powerful technology on corporations and the people who own them, TPT uses the automated assassin as more of a means to advanced the plot. Still, it’s interesting to see how PKD is less interested in the destructive potential of this robot, and more in the levels of fakery and concealment.

Finally, the odd story “The Chromium Fence” illustrates the troubles one ordinary person has when attempting to live his life without taking sides in a political clash. This is what happens to the tank-dweller who surfaces and is confronted with the politics and fakery of the yance-men’s world. When the outside world was represented through the Yancey broadcasts, he was able to stay out of this conflict (while believing he was on one side of another war, of course), but when he interacts with humans he is pressured to stray from his original mission.

PKD did not repeat his short stories in his novels, instead combining his ideas with a greater plot, in an effort to reach a broader market. TPT is mostly successful, but the depth of the excellent stories can hint at what could be missing to some degree. It remains a very enjoyable book and resides on the tier of “very good” among the PKD canon.  7/10.

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Gilgamesh the King by Robert Silverberg

The encyclopedia entry on Robert Silverberg divides his prolific SF career into three phases – an early period full of by-the-numbers space adventures, the acclaimed 1966-1976 interval where he published several original classics and pushed the field forward, and a more “commercial” third phase with many longer works that did not excite the critics. Many of his post-1979 works, especially the Majipoor fantasy sequence, were nonetheless popular and I thought some of the titles from this period to be at least worth looking into.

The 1984 novel Gilgamesh the King is a full-sized retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the famous legend of a Sumerian king’s tragic quest for immortality and thought to be the oldest written tale in history.

My favorite Gilgamesh interpretation has long been the “Rivers of Light” game that came with the 1986 Amiga software Adventure Construction Set, which had players retrace the journey for immortal life – including the monster in the cedar forest, the crossing of the deadly sea and many other episodes (but no Enkidu, if I remember correctly). I used the graphics and sound motif to make many of my own Gilgamesh-like adventures, so perhaps I was primed to enjoy Silverberg’s interpretation.

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screenshot from Youtube

Adopting the point of view of Gilgamesh, Silverberg describes his life from his childhood as an heir to the throne of the city of Uruk, through many episodes as a wildly ambitious king, to his final acceptance of death at an old age. As a youth, Gilgamesh is considered a threat to his uncle (who inherits the throne after Gilgamesh’s father dies), and makes his name in the service of the rival city to the north. This escape, as well as his eventual rise to the power inside Uruk, is aided by a priestess (holy prostitute, actually) in the temple of Inanna. Just as the king attains god-like status in Uruk, so too does the priestess; the human story of the novel is thus reconciled with the direct relationship between king and Inanna of Sumerian legend.

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Jim Burns cover for Bantam Spectra (isfdb.org)

The other major relationship in the novel is the brotherhood that grows between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, a hairy wild-man originally sent to fight him (Gilgamesh had a tendency to consume his subjects in different ways). After a great wrestling match, the two become best friends and go on a series of quests together, including the battle of the monster in the cedar forest and the wrestling of a gargantuan bull running loose in the city. These feats eventually lead them out of political favor in the eyes of Inanna and other gods (like the myths of the Greeks and others, the unfairness of life is driven by the fragile egos of these deities).

The latter half of the story describes Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality, wherein he follows the trail of a local legend to places well outside of his dominion. Those familiar with the legend of Gilgamesh will know how this dogged pursuit eventually turns out, but it’s worth discovering how Silverberg deals with the many supernatural aspects of the legend. For those who haven’t any version the Sumerian epic, Silverberg’s version is at least as plausible as more direct translations.

The idea that death itself could be defeated possessed Gilgamesh following the passing of Enkidu, and the jealousy of Inanna fueled his desire to test the supremacy of the gods his people worshipped. Of course, his great quest leads him to the legendary immortal Utnapishtim, in a scene that unfolds rather rationally but tragically on multiple levels. Following this ultimate challenge to his place among mortals, Gilgamesh returns home to Uruk in a sequence of events that make up the weakest part of the book (the myth is over at that point), which to Silverberg’s credit does not drag. There is also less internal brooding than one might expect, which fits the character built up through the initial chapters – there’s simply too much to do in the life of a king for equivocating.

Maybe Gilgamesh the King is a longer and more “commercial” book than his second-phase masterpieces, but it is an entertaining read with interesting characters and reflects an understanding of the ancient Sumerians. 8/10.

 

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a William Sleator primer

Once you read 20 books by the same author, you are almost inarguably a fan (but probably not an expert) of that author. This post is a partial “primer” of the works of William Sleator (1945-2011) wherein I provide at least a sentence or two about every title of his that I’ve been able to find and read.

Sleator was a science fiction author who wrote for the juvenile and young adult markets. I read The Green Futures of Tycho (1981) in my grade school library (back in late 1980’s), and it was my first legitimate science fiction reading experience. I’ve retained vivid memories of that book ever since, making Sleator one of the most important writers of my reading history.

A couple of years ago, I came across some more Sleator titles while helping my own kids find books in the juvenile section of the library. I decided to check out The House of Stairs (1974) … and have been reading every Sleator book I could find since then.

As seen in the descriptions below, Sleator’s works tend to feature life growing up in imperfect families, but also a deep distrust in non-family institutions (corporations, schools and medicine in particular). He adopted a large variety of SF tropes to these themes, and with well-realized characters, made a career’s worth of consistently readable novels.

Essentials

The Green Futures of Tycho (1981) describes the adventures of Tycho, the youngest of five siblings, who all (but for Tycho, who begins the story digging holes in backyard in a quest for dinosaur fossils) possess some sort of special talent. Tycho uncovers an egg-shaped time-travel device, and rapidly learns the power inherent in its use. His adventures take a troubling turn when he encounters other versions of himself.

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James Nazz cover for E.P. Dutton (isfdb.org)

Like many Sleator titles, this novel features the theme of sibling rivalry and the burden of keeping secrets. Also typical is the use of a familiar SF trope (here, it’s time travel) and an aggressive pace to the plot. We get to know the characters (good and bad, or ambiguous) in a very short amount of pages. This title obviously holds a special place in my memories, and remains one of my favorite books: 10/10.

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Richard Cuffari cover for E.P. Dutton (isfdb.org)

The House of Stairs (1974) features a group of five teenagers trapped in a maze of stairs and rooms, explicitly modeled after M.C. Esher’s “The House of Stairs.” As they attempt to survive, understand their prison and plot an escape, they appear to be behaviorally manipulated by disturbing outside forces. This tense mystery is probably Sleator’s most famous work: 8/10.

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Broeck Steadman cover for Puffin (amazon.com)

Singularity (1985) features twin brothers visiting the property of their recently-deceased relative in the middle of central Illinois cornfields. While exploring a strange shed, they come across a disruption of time and space, which soon provokes their competitive relationship. A very clever take on the “singularity” SF trope: 8/10.

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Penguin (amazon.com)

Oddballs (1993) is a semi-fictitious collection of stories about Sleator and his siblings during their childhood. Every episode is entertaining and worthwhile, and often very funny. This might be the only autobiographical work that has held my attention in recent years: 8/10.

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Paw Prints (amazon.com)

The Boy Who Couldn’t Die (1993) is Sleator’s version of a zombie story, where the zombies involved are of the voodoo, Caribbean variety. It is an adventure tale, but the characters are interesting and the plot has some surprising twists. His later works are not necessarily well known among the large amount of series these days, but I really enjoyed this one: 8/10.

Other favorites

Interstellar Pig (1984) is a moderately famous novel about a vacationing teenager who meets up with a group of mysterious but charming strangers, who have a strangely passionate relationship with a board game. This one deserves to be little more well known among the board gaming hobby: 7/10.

The Boxes (1998) is a “Pandora’s Box” story where the main character opens her strange uncle’s parcel to reveal mechanical automatons. Corporate villains soon take notice. Unlike the Pandora of myth, the protagonist Annie is a willful and clearly intelligent girl who struggles with her introverted nature and distrust in most adults (a character type Sleator makes use of in several books): 7/10.

Parasite Pig (2002) is a bizarre and, at times, disturbing, follow up to Interstellar Pig, where the game continues with new and even stranger “players.” This one made me suspect Sleator was a vegetarian: 7/10.

The Last Universe (2005) features a teenage girl who starts the story by pushing her brother (who is confined by severe illness to a wheelchair) through an expansive garden. This garden has something in common with the setting of the 1941 Borges story “The Garden of the Forking Paths,” which leads to a first-hand exploration of the quantum wave equation. As that last sentence implies, Sleator ambitiously handles some extremely tricky concepts, especially when there is an undercurrent of the impact of illness on family and social life. 7/10.

Hell Phone (2007) is a supernatural tale about cell-phone hacking and the afterlife. It is far better than I thought it ever could be, and is well worth a look: 7/10.

The Phantom Limb (2011) is a medical drama where a lonely boy works to save his mother from the confines of an nefarious hospital. This one also features illness, supernatural elements and a dogged protagonist. This is Sleator’s final book and has an abrupt ending among other flaws, but there is enough here to recommend it: 7/10.

Other works

The Boy Who Reversed Himself (1986) features journeys into an extra dimension: 6/10.

The Duplicate (1988) is about a cloning device, and corruptive influence of power: 5/10.

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Puffin. (amazon.com)

Strange Attractors (1989) begins with a our hero (Max, in the middle of the cover) receiving a phone call from a strange girl, which immediately makes him suspicious because he does not get calls from girls. Max then puts on his fanny pack, because he rarely goes anywhere without it. These two items might be related. The time-travel story that follows felt pretty standard: 5/10.

Others See Us (1993) involves mind-reading and some very strange swamp water, in a story about the hidden corrupted nature of a New England family. Though the SF trope he used is not my favorite, Sleator accomplishes some of his most interesting character development arcs in this one: 6/10.

The Night the Heads Came (1996) is a very fast-developing story amount alien invasion – the “heads” come on page 4: 5/10.

The Beasties (1997) describes adventures in the woods around a remote cabin, where nasty gnome-like creatures are involved. This one has quite the ending: 6/10.

Rewind (1999) is the tale of a junior-high loner who is killed by a car, but receives a chance to relive his final days and escape his fate: 5/10.

Marco’s Millions (2001) is a pre-quel to The Boxes, describing the adventures of Annie’s mysterious uncle Marco. Marco goes on a strange and interesting trip through a wormhole of sorts, but the character development did feel incomplete: 6/10.

Test (2008) is a fairly complex exercise in world-building, where a corporate-controlled school system yokes our main character to a dreaded final test. She rebels with the help of a shy Thai immigrant, but unfortunately the villain characters are not as well realized this time: 5/10.

By my ratings, his stronger works tended to come from the first half of his career, although I obviously found much to like from his post-Oddballs output as well. His style is very direct but he seems to always be capable of at least one or two surprising elements in every story.

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Leiber and AI

A Grandmaster and the first two-time winner of Hugo for novels, Fritz Leiber is probably best known for his Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series of stories.  However, some of his SF and horror stories remain well-regarded and accessible in recent anthologies, including the Library of America’s American Fantastic Tales (“Smoke Ghost”), and American Science Fiction (The Big Time).

LoA selections are almost always a solid bet: I recently read The Big Time (1958) and was surprised how different it is to the standard SF fare. It describes an ongoing “Change War” involving two sides fighting over the sweep of history (naturally, with the end of times arriving with an atomic bomb). We are not exposed to the battlefields or any famous historical figures; instead, the story is told through the actions and dialogue of convalescing soldiers and their caretakers. Several personalities from all over space and time populate a sort of vessel that is partially isolated from the rest of the Universe in a sort of vessel.

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Jack Woolhiser cover for Ace (isdb.org)

The Big Time was written after a long break from productivity, when Leiber drew inspiration from a novel he read that featured an “intensified and embellished first person viewpoint”, creating a beatnik-era young woman who was scooped away from certain death into the refuge. She splits time between a principled but abusive German officer and a strange alien creature from the earliest, abundant years of the moon. It’s her role to attend to these other characters, but her own backstory and motivations are the most compelling. We indirectly experience the Change War through her eyes and ears, as soldiers from different eras party, brawl and incompletely recover from shell-shock. The dialogue (internal and external) is certainly unusual for SF and will likely be distracting for a lot of readers, but I thought it encapsulated the frozen-in-time nature of the character.

The other distinguishing feature of The Big Time is the single setting of the novel, strongly resembling a one-act play. The plot resembles that of a “locked room” mystery, where one of the characters manages cut off the vessel completely from the rest of the universe, and another accidentally arms a smuggled nuclear bomb. Leiber had a background in theater, and we can see the careful timing of plot events among the character interactions and expository descriptions. It made me think back on how several Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories seemed to be so carefully staged and populated.

I would not claim The Big Time to be a favorite novel, but it’s definitely worth picking up for anyone interested in early Hugo winners, 1950’s postwar fiction or Leiber’s work in general.

The Leiber short story collection A Pail of Air (1964, stories originally published between 1950 and 1962) is rather scarce, but I was able to find its components online (thank you, SFF audio) and in other collections. It is one of the best single-author collections of short fiction that I’ve read over the past few years.

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Richard Powers cover for Ballantine (isfdb.org)

“The Coming Attraction” (1950) is a strikingly pessimistic imagining of a future New York where human relationships are corrupted by violent thrill-seeking.

“A Pail of Air” (1951) is a rich survival story of a future Earth buried under layers of frozen atmosphere, after an astrophysical catastrophe named The Big Jerk pulled the planet away from the warmth of the sun.

Leiber had an enthusiasm for Greenwich Village bohemians. “Rump-tity-tity-tum-tah-tee” (1958) and “Pipe Dream” (1959) feature this lifestyle in entertaining, but dated, stories. A stronger statement is made in “The Beat Cluster” (1960), which places beatniks squarely (heh) in the center of the future of space exploration (after they hang out in the periphery, of course). All are recommended for anyone who enjoyed Kerouac’s onomatopoetic On the Road.

Most interesting to me, however, is the 1962 novelette “The 64-Square Madhouse,” about a chess tournament where world-class players encounter a new contestant – a machine featuring artificial intelligence. We experience this event through the eyes of a newspaper reporter and chess novice. She works for the Chicago Space Mirror, but that’s to put your mind at ease the humans will remain the best at chess for a long time after the moon is settled, and so on. It has its pedestrian moments, but the story is on the whole very readable.

The real gem of “The 64-Square Madhouse” occurs early, when our reporter is interviewing the oldest contestant before his first match. He explains how the computer must play in order to overtake the humans:

If you had,” he said, “a billion computers all as fast as the Machine, it would take them all the time there ever will be in the universe just to play through all the possible games of chess, not to mention the time needed to classify those games into branching families of wins for White, wins for Black and draws …. So the Machine can’t play chess like God. What the Machine can do is examine all the likely lines of play for about eight moves ahead—that is, four moves each for White and Black—and then decide which is the best move on the basis of capturing enemy pieces, working toward checkmate, establishing a powerful central position and so on.”

This does not exactly anticipate the means by which IBM’s Deep Blue finally defeated Kasparov in 1996: that computer really did massively compute entire games between moves. However, Leiber does anticipate the changes needed to produce a system capable of conquering the game of go last year.

Unlike chess, which has maybe 20 to 30 choices for a typical move (creating about 15,000 board positions after 3 moves), go consists of placing a stone on a large (19 by 19) grid, creating a state space of possibilities far greater than that of chess (200 to 300 choices, and about 15 million board positions after 3 moves). Slogging through these massive options between turns like a typical chess AI system is simply impractical. The successful AlphaGo system was designed from the beginning to build intuition and play go like a human. It built a large information bank of every championship-level go match that could be found (also preceded by the “book-learning” in Leiber’s story) and kept multiple versions of itself to self-train, developing an ability to read the board and react correctly, just as an experienced go player would. So we reached this point (long) before settling the moon, but it’s interesting to see a bit of insight featured in Leiber’s short fiction.

The Big Time gets 7/10 and A Pail of Air gets 8/10. Leiber continues to be an author of considerable interest.

Note 1: The novel that inspired Leiber’s creation of Greta Forzane in The Big Time was Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth – an example of the useful content found in the Notes section of the LoA edition.

Note 2: A pretty good description of the challenges posed by chess and go to AI developers (prior to Deep Blue and AlphaGo) can be found in Introduction to Artificial Intelligence by Philip Jackson Jr., 1985 (2nd ed.)

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hello

This blog is an assortment of posts about books (science fiction, mostly), board and card games, and other forms of media. I named it gaping blackbird after some of the local residents here in the Southwest.

 

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