27 October 2014

Books: Leaping to the Stars by David Gerrold (2002)




Sometimes I feel like an unreliable narrator, especially when talking about my earliest age, most of which existed (obviously) but most of which I’ve forgotten. I know, somewhere in the mid 1970’s I began to read books, but when and what started me on that route is very unclear. But if I read any books, say between 8 and 10, I’m not sure. All I had –until I got a bike for my communion, was the library located within my grade school. The big public library of Schaumburg eventually called my name after I figured out the route to get there on my bike.

I remember reading Jaws back in 1975, but I’m unsure if I understood any of it (and I have never re-read it). And I tried to read a few of the original Star Trek books Bantam published back then, but again, I’m not really sure I read any of them (but my brother collected them and somehow, I ended up with them. Still have them). 

As a youth, I never read The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. For reasons that I also fail to understand, these books held little appeal. Perhaps, at that young age, I was already beginning to like other stuff, the less popular titles like The Three Investigators (which no one seems to remember). I’ve mentioned before that what appeals to me in such arenas as music, movies and books is generally stuff opposite of what is popular. So maybe by liking the little remembered Three Investigators shows my likes for the odd and little read was set long before I understood it.

When I entered high school in the fall of 1977 I discovered Agatha Christie. Here’s another mystery (if you can excuse the turn of the phrase):  I cannot fully comprehend how I ended up reading her stuff. I mean, I went through one book after another of hers during that 1977-78 year and well into 1979, but why I found her books appealing is still a conundrum to me.

But 1979 was a watershed year for me. I discovered fantasy novels. And from then on out, I read a ton of sword and sorcery books, the good, the bad and the ugly. I tried science fiction from time to time, but found I could not figure them out. Part of it was, I felt, that the books philosophical ideas, its metaphors and complex science were beyond me (again, I found no thrill reading the math need to calculate the fuel needed to get in and out of orbit of a planet; I liked the magical aspect of the Enterprise “doing” it, but not explaining the “how” of it). I tried Arthur C. Clark, Robert Heinlein and even Isaac Asimov, but their books never seemed to grab my attention the way fantasy had (yes, the space opera of Star Trek and Star Wars appealed to me, but they were not real science fiction books).

In my first posting about reading the novels of David Gerrold, I pointed this out. But I was determined to read this series, despite the fact that I knew there was going to be passages in the book that explained, in great detail, the why and how of space travel. 

And while I knew science fiction was about setting a story in the near future –close enough to look and feel like tomorrow, but far enough to get away with some technological advances- but the gist of these stories was noting that we human’s problems remain the same as today. For the longest time, this did not seem to appeal to me. I was, I admit, beguiled by Gene Roddenberry’s utopian ideals of the 23rd Century of Star Trek.  

Now, with reading Gerrold’s Dingillian trilogy, I’ve circled back to books I probably should’ve read a long, long time ago.

Leaping to the Stars is the exciting conclusion to the series. We start where we left off, with Douglas, Charles and Bobby (along with Dad, Mom, her girlfriend Bev, and Mickey, Douglas’ boyfriend) agreeing to head off the troubled Luna and leave the moon and the Earth behind forever after they realize that HARLIE, the advanced artificial intelligence device packed into the body of a toy monkey, was the whole reason this adventure began. With Earth now falling to pieces and potentially to never again to regain any status, Lunar Authority has decided they will become the power in the system and that means getting HARLIE (it was here that the boys Dad was killed. I understand Gerrold's choice in this trope -now Charles must fully grow up and achieve everything his Dad wanted, but I thought it was pointless). But the Dingillian’s are a clever bunch and with HARLIE “bonded” to Charles, they board a ship to take them to Outbeyond, one the farthest Earth colonies in the solar system. It sounds bleak and backbreaking, but it gives the boys something they’ve wanted since the start, freedom. 

But, of course, nothing goes as planned. These colonists, in particular Charles, face pressure from Revelationists, a fundamentalist religious group traveling aboard the Cascade to their own colony on the way to Outbeyond. The Revelationists believe HARLIE is evil and must be destroyed, along with Charles and the crew of the Cascade and anyone else that does not agree with them. Still, some of the rhetoric they spout does get the best of Charles, who begins to have some uncertainty about HARLIE's true motives.

The only negative aspect I can really give about the series (and something that I’ve written about with The Expanse series written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck -under the pen name James S. A. Corey), is that the villains are pretty cartoonish (yes, religion is good and bad, corporations are always bad). I mean, it’s a fun read and all, but you need to get past the dysfunctional family caricatures to get to Gerrold’s real purpose here, proposing moral and ethical dilemmas and how to work them out. Here Gerrold shines and I enjoyed those discussions. 

It may, in the end, get me to read more science fiction now. But we’ll see. We’ll see.

20 October 2014

Books: Bouncing Off the Moon by David Gerrold (2001)




Bouncing Off the Moon, the continuation of Jumping Off the Planet (literally is begins mere hours after the first book) and the second book in David Gerrold’s Dingillian series, we see narrator Charles "Chigger" Dingillian, his older brother Douglas and younger brother Bobby begin a new life after divorcing their squabbling parents. The Moon is their destination, but before they can really plan the trip, they discover that all is not well at Geosynchronous Station: there’s a new plague on Earth that resulted in social and economic collapse of the planet, with the rich and powerful trying to escape, even if it means doing things illegally. So, with the aid of a Russian money-surfer named Alexei and Mickey, the son of the judge who helped the boys with their legal issues (and now Douglas’ boyfriend), the boys set out in an automated cargo pod bound for the Moon.  Through Alexei, the brothers realize the moon is an unforgiving and potentially deadly environment, but also begin to wonder if several mishaps along the way are just that or deliberate attempts at murder. Slowly, both Douglas and Charles realize that neither Alexei nor Mickey can be trusted but with ruthless interplanetary corporations on their heels in search of a toy monkey that seems to possesses a computer far more advanced than might be required of a toy, they’ll need all their wits to figure out who is their friend and who is their foe.

Once again, Gerrold creates a wonderful, realistic tale of speculative future. And unlike the recent spate of post-apocalyptic future YA books like The Hunger Games, Gerrold’s goal seems to be –as the vintage science fiction books of Heinlein and Asimov used to do- want to create a believable future, one where things play out logically. In the end, Gerrold creates a riveting and engaging story that is equally funny as it is harrowing.

12 October 2014

Books: Jumping Off The Planet by David Gerrold (2000)




At the heart of David Gerrold’s coming of age science fiction tale is the Charles (or Chigger, his nickname), a new version of Jack who must grow up by "climbing" a beanstalk to see the “real world.” 

Jumping Off the Planet is set a few decades into the future (though like all science fiction writers of the 1950s and on, they never nail down the specific date. I’m assuming this is more to do with keeping future technology more real –another words, no holodecks), but the world hasn't changed that much: it's still a complete mess. What was supposed to save it was the Beanstalk, an orbital elevator system that lifts humanity up from the exhausted Earth to the Moon, the planets and, one assumes, eventually the stars. But while the Beanstalk is a technological success (read here on the theoretical aspect of the space elevator idea that has been around since 1895) it has, inadvertently, destabilized the world economy. 

Enter stage left, the Digillian family, a hugely dysfunctional family that would not be out of place in most of today’s TV dramas. Max and Margaret Dingillian have a had a bitter divorce and both have used their three sons, 17 year-old Douglas (who, as Charles narrates, is called Weird), the after mentioned Chigger, the  13 year-old middle child and the youngest, Robert (who Charles calls Stinky) as weapons in their never ending battle to ruin each other. Max is sort of a wimpy Dad, who has left a trail of broken promises to his sons, while Margaret comes off as selfish. But Max, perhaps realizing the only way to save what’s left of his family and his relationship with his three boys, finally takes them the vacation he has been promising for years and takes them on the space elevator, on the Beanstalk, up to Geostationary.

But a family that has only known dysfunction will continue to be dysfunctional. Also, their is a subplot (the books McGuffin) that has Digillian clan get mixed up in global politics and a web of smuggling that simmers on the very edge of the story. 

This novel, the beginning of a trilogy, is filled with some fantastic ideas. It often reminds me of what the heyday of science fiction was always about, taking a theoretical possibility (the space elevator) and wrapping a human, even modern story around it. While all the characters are difficult to like –they all seem to think unhappiness is a better way than trying to work together- you end up having a fondness of the three boys as the story progresses (well, except for Stinky). But I’ll admit there were times when all the characters did stuff that seemed more out of heightening the drama than solving their family problems.  Still, Gerrold keeps the voice of Charles set very much in the real world, making him intelligent, yet still yielding a convincing teenager who is caught in a battle between his feuding parents and resentment that some middle child feel when sandwiched between the older sibling who seems to get everything and the younger one who gets away with murder.

In the end though, it fulfills the basic aspect of all coming of age adventure: a boy who must leave childhood behind and become a man to replace the one who has become a full grown adult. Gerrold writes with an engaging style, even when describing (in great detail, mind you) the theory of the space elevator.

01 October 2014

Books: When HARLIE Was One By David Gerrold (1972)




I’ve never been a hardcore science fiction reader -space opera, yes. I mean, while I love science and all, the problems I always confronted when reading the genre was long, very detailed soliloquys on the mathematical equations of the fuel vs thrust needed to get into orbit of a planet. Monologues on how space travel is impossible because of distance.  I get bored with stuff like that, even though I know science fiction writers (some who are scientists in their own right) know it’s important that they discuss the real science behind space exploration.  

So, over the years, I’ve avoided authors like Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Gregory Benford and many others because I felt I needed a Master’s Degree in science to understand the story. Sure, underneath the science was a human story, something science fiction was really about. TV programs like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek excelled at the idea of taking a story from today and transposing it to a future where there the author can construct a theoretical model about social and economic plights that affect us today. Under the theme of science fiction, Zone creator Rod Serling could tell tales about inequality, war, and mankind’s insatiable desire to destroy one another. Gene Roddenberry tried to the same with Star Trek by giving us stories about racism, the pointlessness of war and how putting aside the need for financial wealth and helping others is more human.

Which brings me to David Gerrold. I’ve never read his books before, but due to my association with folks who worked on the web series Star Trek: Hidden Frontier and Star Trek: Phase II, and Bent Con, I’ve met him a few times. Plus I’m read his prolific Facebook postings (and he’s also the writer of one of Star Trek: The Original Series most popular and favorite episodes, The Trouble with Tribbles) so, in a way, I read David Gerrold. Just not his novels.

So a few weeks ago, I was at Iliad’s in North Hollywood, perusing the science fiction section and stopped at the part of the alphabet that started with G. There I found a few works of Gerrold’s and started to look through them. 

One of them was When HARLIE Was One.

"HARLIE"-an acronym for Human Analog Replication, Lethetic Intelligence Engine- is an Artificial Intelligence, launched Stellar-America and shepherd by David Auberson, a psychologist who is responsible for guiding HARLIE from childhood into adulthood. He was built using what Gerrold calls "judgment circuits" which allows the computer to program itself, to essentially learn like any human being. Over time, HARLIE has become so complex –more than anyone anticipated- that he’s become self-aware. He has feelings, wants and needs.

In a lot of ways, HARLIE sounds much like the Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey –except without the conflict and psychotic behavior (it’s interesting to note, Gerrold released this novel –which, as I found out later, was actually a fix-up of four short stories- in 1972, only a few years after Stanley Kubrick’s movie). 

Despite its age, the novel’s main focus appears fairly modern, the ever problem of corporate America focusing more on the bottom line. The company that originated the HARLIE, Stellar-America, has recently been taken over by a new group, headed by company president Brandon Dorne. The new group is very much concerned about the corporate bottom line, especially the odious Carl Elzer, a member of the board of directors who questions the profitability of HARLIE versus the enormous cost (which, in some ways, is covered by the budget). While Dorne is suspect that HARLIE is not going to generate profit for them, Elzer is openly calling for HARLIE being shut down -which Auberson thinks would be tantamount to murder. HARLIE is alive.

The board acquiesces for a bit, and thus gives time for Auberson to prove that HARLIE is worth the cost of running and will eventually show a profit. So like any father teaching his son the ropes of the real world, David takes his problem directly to HARLIE. What the computer proposes is to build something called the Graphic Omnicient Device (G.O.D.), which would be an extension to HARLIE's brain that would be able to answer questions about life, the universe and everything. 

The question is then, how feasible can this be?

There are a few subplots dealing with a relationship Auberson is having with Dorne’s executive secretary, Annie, and a Dr. Stanley Krofft, who has been corresponding with HARLIE by email, who is shocked to discover he’s been communicating with a computer and who, inadvertently, will come to their rescue later on. Over all, though, the book is mostly a conversation on philosophy, taking aim at whether or not HARLIE is actually human, and what it means in many ways to be human.

I enjoyed the book (Gerrold is a good writer, even in this early stage of his career), but I wonder now if I’m spoiled by the fact it took me 40 years to read it. Maybe in 1972, those ideas were revolutionary, but I’ve grown up with these same ideas done by other men and women, in books, TV and movies.  So when I read it, I felt I knew what was coming, because I’ve seen it done a million times already. And I was not as awed as I might’ve been had I read sometime in the late 1970s or early 80s (I was like 9 when the book was released in July of 1972). 

After I finished the book, I discovered that in 1988 Gerrold released a revised version of this book, taking out some computer aspects that were dropped in those sixteen years (and, apparently, taking out all references to marijuana, which the author projected would be legal in the future) and streamlined the narrative and changed the ending. He also changed HARLIE’s acronym to Human Analog Replication, Lethetic Intelligence Engine.

Since I don’t own an e-reader, I guess I’m going to have to search Albris to find paperback version -I am curious to see what he did change. Also, one of the reasons I read this was because I also want to read his The Dingilliad series, and HARLIE makes an appearance in those novels. So I just wanted to get a baseline understanding of this AI.

19 September 2014

Books: Alive in Necropolis By Doug Dorst (2008)




Long time ago, when I spent 18 months living in the Bay Area, one of the joys of that era was making fun of California cities; Berkeley became Bizerkeley because of all the riots is seemed to have at the drop of hat and Colma, a small incorporated town near Daly City, a suburb of San Francisco became Coma. The funny part is that Colma was founded as a necropolis in 1924. With most of Colma's land dedicated to cemeteries, the population of the dead outnumbers the living by over a thousand to one. This has led to it being called, "the city of the silent," and also has given rise to a humorous motto, now recorded on the city's website: "It's great to be alive in Colma."

When I came across the book Alive In Necropolis by Doug Dorst and discovered it was set in Colma and that it’s plot revolved around the dead and the living of that city, I was intrigued. 

But the air was quickly let out my balloon when, as I read, Dorst sort of created a novel where none of the subplots seem to work and never, ever, merge into any cohesive narrative.

The plot revolves around these longtime cemetery for San Francisco, where they’re the resting place of the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Wyatt Earp, and aviation pioneer Lincoln Beachey. It is also the home of Michael Mercer, a rookie cop trying to go by the book as he struggles to navigate a new realm of grownup relationships—including a shaky romance with an older woman; a growing alliance with his cocky, charismatic partner, Nick Toronto; fading college friendships; and an aching sense of responsibility for a local rich kid who Mercer rescues from a dangerous prank in the cemetery. But instead of settling comfortably into adult life, Mercer becomes obsessed with the mysterious fate of his predecessor in the police unit, Sergeant Featherstone, who seems to have become confused about whether he was policing the living or the dead. And as Mercer delves deeper into Featherstone’s story, it appears that Mercer’s own sanity is beginning to slip—either that, or Colma’s more famous residents are not resting in peace as they should be.

While Dorst gives us an imaginative premise, he does little with it. While he writes extraordinarily well, he seems to build no tension between the living and the dead. As a matter of fact, the dead leave living alone, which sort of disappointed me. Why build a foundation were the dead and living can mingle, but never have the dead play any sort of perceptible role in the lives of the living and vice versa? Why does Mercer even care then what goes on in this world of the dead where these ghosts can be “killed” even more? 

Why should we? 

Dorst does a great job of writing a noir type comedy, but ultimately by trying to shoehorn a detective novel, a supernatural ghost story, a comedy and the many personal issues of all the characters, the book becomes nothing but a collection of interesting ideas that never amounts to much.