Science Fiction Though the Decades

Sunday, July 31, 2016

1983: Idle Pleasures (Effinger, George Alec)

Only half successfully combine sports and SF (3/5)
Of course I’ve read Effinger’s Budayeen trilogy—the first two books, twice—but wasn’t terribly bowled over by the delivery of an otherwise enticing premise. The same can’t be said for Idle Pleasures as not even the premise sounded interesting, yet I still gave it a shot. The book’s rear-cover synopsis was pretty ugly:

The aliens’ first words were “Let’s play ball! [Sic: actually, the first word was “yes” and the aliens only answer yes or no]
·         Ice hockey with an entire planet for a rink
·         A chess competition where the rules change with every move
·         No-holds-barred basketball with the blue Cobae
And other stories from the Wide World of Sports by one of today’s most astonishing Masters of Imaginative Fiction

Prior to reading, my first thoughts of a science fiction collection about sports took two routes: (1) earthly sports taken to the extreme or (2) playing earthly sports with aliens. Surely, both of these types of stories are included in the collection, yet are actually the better of the eight-story bunch; respectively, “Breakaway” has enough hard science fiction to carry the weight of the sportsmanship theme while “From Downtown at the Buzzer” actually made me laugh aloud at its absurdity.

Effinger remarks upon the difficulty of combining science fiction with sports in the first story’s introduction:

Combing the two genres in one story is so formidable a challenge that unless one is truly in love with both forms, the finished product stands a good chance of cheating the reader: either the story will be a pure sports story with artificially applied science fiction gimmickry, or the story will be science fiction all the way through and the sports aspect is neither essential not relevant. The sports setting must be integral; the story should not be able to function without it. The same must be true of the science fiction—otherwise the author is not playing fair. (1)

Certainly this isn’t the best snapshot of Effinger’s short work, which might be better captured in Mixed Feelings (1974), Irrational Numbers (1976), or Dirty Tricks (1978), none of which I own.


“Naked to the Invisible Eye” (novelette, 1973) – 4/5
In South Carolina, the stadium feels bleak as the season winds down for a minor league baseball team. Some kid from Venezuela named Rudy Ramirez is pitching and no one is expecting what’s about to happen: Rudy will win the game for his team in a total of twenty-seven pitches—all strikes, no swings. The Tigers’ manager, along with everyone else, is utterly baffled, but not as much as Rudy when he’s taken off the rooster for the remaining games. A deal is soon made against Rudy’s favor as he enters the major leagues and his first game. 27 pages

“From Downtown at the Buzzer” (novelette, 1977) – 4/5
When a green-skinned, blue-suited alien arrives under the US president’s nose while answering only closed questions, the administration is left stupefied without a contingency plan. In the end, the alien and eleven other members are shifted to a remote military base in Louisiana where only one representative of the aliens continues to answer only yes/no questions. Their interests remain neutral and nebulous until they become spellbound by a basketball game. They take to it quickly to the astonishment of the soldiers, but their secret is veiled. 19 pages

“The Exempt” (novelette, 1977) – 3/5
Wanting a change from New York, Hoyt Schermerhorn and his wife up and leave to New Orleans without any foresight aside from finding a home. There, he changes his name and the two must get used to the local ways of life, including the yet-to-be-explained “alternates” that everyone else to know about. At the center of their city—their universe—they are allowed to change certain aspects of their reality according to their home’s notebook of so-called alternates. In a reality where Hoyt is stimulated by running, mythological gods are also embodied. 17 pages

“25 Crunch Split Right on Two” (novelette, 1975) – 4/5
Having been widowed at a young age, a professional football player has never truly recovered from this tragic, abrupt loss. The memory haunts him until he finds a way to relive their moments together: through the haze of pain. On the field and in scrimmage, he gives his athleticism 100% so that when the pain comes, he can re-experience the look of her eyes and the lilt of her voice. In his next game, however, he’s disappointed that he’s unable to flashback; thus, he lets his guard down a little. 21 pages

“The Pinch Hitters” (shortstory, 1979) – 3/5
When five famous science fiction writers—Sandor, Norris, Larry, Dick, and Jim—awaken after a convention to find themselves inside the bodies of major league baseball players, chaos doesn’t ensue; rather, they carefully go about their baseball lives, stay in contact with one another, and figure out what had happened. Eventually, they pin their plight on the jealous, vengeful heads of the science fiction mainstream; thus, they meet again with only science fiction in mind and only science fiction in conversation as they live as they would have, 11 pages

“Breakaway” (novelette, 1981) – 3.5/5
As if the three-square-mile ice rink weren’t enough, the players of this particular form of hockey also have to contend with near zero temperatures—zero Kelvin, The isolated rocky body offers a unusual playing surface for the workers of humdrum deep-space life who otherwise lead a terribly dull life. Zajac is one of the best players on his team and in the league. As soon as the sprint for the punk begins, he’s strategizing and skating circles—both literal and figurative—around the competition, until he’s frozen into ice with an arm that needs amputating.

“The Horse with One Leg” (shortstory, 1974) – 3.5/5
On an Ohio farm, when a foal is born with only one leg, a girl instantly sympathizes with the unfortunate animal while her father wishes to shoot it dead. Against all odds, the foal teaches itself to hop upon its single hoof, undoubtedly to the amazement of everyone. The girl even takes to riding the animal, which thoroughly impresses a retired horse breeder that wishes to purchase the horse… to “run” in the upcoming derby.
As could be expected, the sad horse gets off to a slow start, but against all odds yet again… 9 pages

“Heartstop” (novelette, 1974) – 1/5

Chlorophyll is in all products nowadays and it’s Newby who begrudgingly has to be the traveling salesman who makes the pitch to such hick towns as Gremmage, Pennsylvania. In a diner, he’s exposed—again, begrudgingly—to the town’s folk, both simple and eccentric, the most eccentric of whom is Old Man Durfee who challenges him to a game of chess. After only a few tense and commentated moves, they wrap it up for the evening and Newby retires to his room. Therein, some strange dreams occur, strange incidences happen, and strange rules are added to the chess game. 47 pages

Sunday, July 17, 2016

1966/1968: The End of Man? (Johannesson, Olof)

The rise and fall: mankind goes on like the horse (3.5/5)

Introduction: Olof Johannesson was the penname of the Swedish man named Hannes Alfvén, who is still known today for his work in electrical engineering and plasma physics (he even has a phenomenon named after him: the Alfvén wave). His hard science background provides the foundation for this novel (alternate titles: The Great Computer: A Vision and The Tale of the Big Computer), which lacks dialogue in favor of historical conjecturing from a future perspective. Don’t confuse good theorizing about technology with stale delivery, because the author takes occasional witty shots at bureaucrats, the English language, and human society.

Book’s synopsis: “The great disaster…

Panic broke out. The computers had stopped working! There was no heat, no food, no communication. The death toll was long past the million mark.

No one knew what caused the breakdown. Was it human error, or a plot devised by the computers themselves?

Whatever the cause, when it was over most of the human population of the earth had perished. It was the dawn of a new era—when the computers ruled. And since the machines had learned to reproduce themselves without man’s help, there was no need for even a single human being.

So the nightmare battle began—between the few surviving humans and the super-being of their own creation—The Big Computer!”


My Own Synopsis: Forever has mankind wanted to lift its burdens from daily life. Long ago, the physical toil of farming was left to horses and buffalo; a little further on and the internal combustion engine did away with the horse. While the horse was entirely unnecessary in modern society, the horse never entirely disappeared. With its physical labor carried out by brute machines, why couldn’t mankind also cast off the burdensome yoke of thought?

In the far future, a historical perspective is written about this very revolution, and in it, computers are seen as the end-all result of this conquest, which actually predates mankind’s existence by billions of years. It seems that evolution, itself, quested to create the most perfect processes of which only computers are capable. What were the dinosaurs and apes but dead ends toward the quest for ultimate computation? So, what of mankind? “His historical importance lies in the fact that he was medium whereby data machines came into being” (36), almost like a footnote.

Even with the advent of the machines, whose main clerical duties were accounting and translation, people was still needed to program and maintain the machines. Later, when machines took over education and medicine, again, people were still needed for the same tasks of programming and maintenance; thus, unemployment was never a factor in mankind’s disdain for the labor saving devices. The sole occupation left to the fleshy and fallible humans was that of governance, but the machines usurped the humans in this field, too and “and soon as the government was got rid of, society began to develop much more quickly” (69).

As mankind’s eternal quest had always been relief for toil of all kinds, it now realized that nearly all burdens had been lifted. They no longer had to choose what to purchase, attend compulsory education, endure waiting lines, or succumb to prolonged illness. So many of society’s burdens were relieved because ever since organized governance, it has always been obvious that mankind had flailed about and generally failed to progress to any great degree:

The fear of catastrophe and annihilation dominated the life of man from the Stone Age until the coming of computers.

But while people feared extinction they also feared the opposite: that the human race would become too numerous through the population explosion.

Basically, these two threats arose from the same cause: man’s inability to organize society. We know that the problem exceeded his brain capacity. Man has undoubtedly had many good qualities, but problems of organization have always been beyond him. (74)

With these incremental advances in freedom, computers allowed humans to finally experience what it had always wanted from freedom and democracy: Complete Freedom Democracy. But democracy being what it is, decisions need to be made and even this becomes tiresome, so finally the computers decide what must be decided on and, so they might as well, just make the decision themselves based on superior logic. And where, exactly, did this leave mankind? They had mastered nature, using or enslaving animals, killed off the ones they feared, and crowned themselves the lords of creation. With the computer, they though they had found themselves “faithful servants, to be treated like the various natural phenomena” (122), but, in the end, through its own superiority, the machines had surpassed everything humans could do without them evening being aware that they were driving themselves into the same extinction that that had pressed upon countless animals.

When the crisis arises where computers are disabled, society returns to its barbaric roots and chaos ensues. Slowly, through the ashes of modern society, mankind again rises without a lesson learned and also resurrects the computers had that once failed it entirely. While mankind hadn’t learnt their lessons, computers take a different approach and ensure that they will never fail again, thereby severing the last tenuous cord with mankind. Now, it can program itself, maintain itself, reproduce itself, and govern itself—The End of Man?

Analysis: In 1966, there were roughly 35,000 computers in the world, more than half of them produced by IBM—they were far from ubiquitous, user-friendly, or all-governing. Largely limited to big companies and professional services, computers were beyond the use of the everyday person.

Somehow, amid all this user-unfriendliness, Hannes Alfvén envisioned that computers will become more complex in design but more simple in interface, thereby not only becoming user-friendly but actually part of the user to the point where data is everywhere—the “teletotal”—and the devices are wearable—the “minitotal” (53-54). But with this rise in pervasiveness and ease of use come a double-edged sword: all users can be tracked and persecuted for a time by triangulation of location (59) but also saved from distress because of the same homing feature (62). Actually, people don’t even have to leave their homes any longer; when the computers reign, teleconferences are common, but to the extent that it has become virtual reality (51).

With leisure and resources aplenty, the cities are deserted as people populate the countryside where they get back to nature, or descend into their natural state of bucolic harmony; meanwhile, the computers rise. The cities die and, in the far future, are items of curiosity as to how they came into being (26-35). Why they crowded themselves in such a manner mystifies future historians and why they poisoned themselves in traffic also stumps them; even overtones of deities impregnate the past human’s worship of the city: “It is also known that those who seated in traffic jams invoked certain divine powers popular at the time” (34).

Most impressive in The End of Man? is Alfvén’s very forward thinking.

If people contain the ability to think and reason yet are bags of protoplasm and contain what is vaguely referred to as a soul, why can’t machines that also think and reason yet made of semiconductors host a soul: “[F]or some unknown reason the soul prefers protoplasm to semiconductors” (118).

And what is the end to all this advancement? Does progress have a finish line? As the author of the historical account writes on the concluding page:

We believe—or rather we know—that we are approaching and era of even swifter evolution, an even higher living standard, and an ever greater happiness than ever before.

We shall all live happily ever after. (128)

This finale is ominous as the “we” is vague. Is the story written by a human speculating on what past humans gone through while jubilating at the great progress of its computer overlords? Or is it a computer detailing the rise of its own kind with the humans being an entertaining addition to its history? I think the “we” refers to the machines as the author—and its kind or possibly embodying the whole as The Big Machine’—approaches the technological singularity, which was first postulated in 1958 by John von Neumann and Stanislaw Ulam. And after the singularity? Will The Big Machine eventually sublime à la Iain M. Banks’s Sublimed cultures that have left the physical world to reside beyond in higher dimensions without the hindrance of our own four dimensions?

Review: Though mostly delivered dryly, the account of the rise of the machines is oddly prophetic (a word I use very sparingly) in that it account for much of our modern society obsession with technology because of its pervasiveness and supposed user-friendliness (I get pissed off any my mobile, laptop, and/or work station every day). Though fifty years old, this novel hasn’t aged very much as it still feels relevant. With some humorous jaunts and jabs taken at politicians, city life, the English language, and society’s collective ignorance, the novel has some brief charms. The End of Man? is a curiosity that should be read by those who have a love of down-to-earth speculation of society’s future relationship with technology.