Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Humanoids

This book group selection of Jack Williamson's classic scifi depiction of a world ruled by robots took me back to a childhood (mis)spent immersed in science fiction. Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Frederik Pohl, Andre Norton -- you name it, I read it. This book, which I may or may not have read, was first serialized in Astounding Science Fiction magazine, which I subscribed to. My first efforts at writing (age 10 or so) were science fiction stories that actually earned rejection slips at the magazines I submitted them to.

Unfortunately, our group felt that this book had been written by someone only slightly older, largely due to the clumsy narrative. Much of the actual language, I felt, was not that bad, but the story and characters are a bit of a jumble, making you feel the author neglected to read the earlier installments as he was writing the next one.

The main issue though -- is man better off coddled and protected from his own worst instincts or is individual freedom preferable even though it leads to unhappy and perhaps even fatal choices -- came through in spite of the writer's shortcomings. To my surprise, there were actually some in our group who thought maybe that Clay Forester at the end of the book, programmed now to accept the humanoids guarding him from actions that might make him unhappy, was indeed better off.

At least it shows the allure of that promise and explains the appeal of Frank Ironsmith, the character who from the beginning embraced the "salvation" brought by the humanoids. For myself, however, and I would have thought for anyone who cherishes free will and individuality, Forester's long resistance to the stifling solicitude of the robots is the more natural reaction.

The group discussed science fiction, robots and Asimov's three laws, and paraphysical phenomena (which plays a subordinate role in the novel). Again to my surprise no one but myself seemed to believe that telepathy, telekinesis or teleportation was really possible, saying there was no evidence that the human mind was capable of such feats.

Who needs evidence when you have imagination?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Earthly Delights

The first book in Kerry Greenwood's Corinna Chapman series was recommended by a friend as a good audiobook for a road trip. It fulfilled that purpose as a light, mildly humorous mystery featuring some good scenes in a bakery and a look at faraway Melbourne.

The main character was generally entertaining. Her apartment house, modeled quirkily on an old Roman building, was studded with equally quirky neighbors. The plot did not shy away from the seedier aspects of Melbourne's drug scene and, briefly, its S&M hangout.

Sound like fun? Not so much. Chapman is something of an anti-heroine -- she's fat, she terribly misses the smoking habit she gave up three years ago, she lives a dull life as a baker that makes her susceptible to a romance that seems so improbable you suspect the guy as the villain [*spoiler alert*] up to the moment the book ends and he's still a good guy.

The over-convoluted plot involves a series of junkie overdoses as someone intentionally or unintentionally is selling heroine too pure for consumption, parallel to an escalating harassment of the women in the apartment building that seems increasingly threatening. There is also the soup truck with Corinna's love interest, the junkie teenager who undergoes a remarkable conversion into an able baker's apprentice, and assorted red herrings from the local witch, a transvestite neighbor and retired wise old professor. If it all sounds a bit contrived, it's because it is.

Nonetheless, it helped pass the time for us on a long drive, and was easier to listen to than some more serious audiobooks we have tried.