So many books to read, so little time.

Clerks, Cretins and Other Worlds

with 9 comments

When I was a teenager I read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy. A heck of a lot. Favourite authors included J R R Tolkein, Ursula Le Guin, Andre Norton, Isaac Asimov, Philip K Dick, and Alan Garner. I haven’t read much sci-fi for a while, although I sometimes dip into Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings and Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy. But when I read a Times review of Paul McAuley’s The Quiet War, I knew that I had to order this new sci-fi novel.

Described by the Times as a “rich and rewardingly complex novel”, The Quiet War

“is set two centuries in the future, after global warming and the death of billions. Humanity is divided into two camps: those who live on Earth, worship Gaia, and are dedicated to restoring the planet, and the Outers, who’ve created independent city-states and habitats in the hostile environments of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter.

To the militaristic, ruling families of Earth, the independent Outers, now looking to colonise more of the Solar System, genetically altering their children to cope with new ecosystems, are a threat. A “quiet war” of espionage, politics and diplomatic skirmishing is heading towards open, total war to decide the future of humankind.”

Sci-fi and fantasy is often derided as infantile and escapist. Witness, for instance, the English literati’s hostile reaction to Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings and its continued success.

Whatever. Like travel, or living in a foreign country, good sci-fi and fantasy expands the mind and its sense of possibilities. Fantasy and sci-fi can used to examine ethical questions (often in unconventional ways), sound out new ideas and ways of thinking, imagine the impact of revolutionary change, and explore possible futures and alternative worlds. Some of the best sci-fi and fantasy I’ve read – from Norton’s novels about the galactic free traders to Le Guin’s mages of Earthsea – are situated at the fissures and crossing points between civilizations, cultures and worlds. They grapple with the thorny question of whether individuals from different cultures and species can ever understand each other, let alone get along.

And sci-fi and fantasy is just good fun. Any decent novel is escapist – that’s the point of fiction. If you work as a clerk in an airless office with a cretin for a boss, the last thing you want to read is a novel about a clerk in an airless office with a cretin for a boss. That is unless the cubicle is actually a portal to parallel worlds, and the cretinous boss gets torn to pieces by ravenous aliens.

Cross-posted at Kotare: The Strategist.


Written by kotare1718

November 16, 2008 at 7:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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9 Responses

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  1. I read a huge amount of science fiction between ages 13 and 30. When I went to law school I sold about 2,000 paperbacks, of which I had read most of them, some of them several times. I kept a tiny fraction. I had overdosed and I needed to read history and more history, which I continue to do.

    Still, to this day, a very good science fiction novel is one thing I cannot put down. In recent years, the one that grabbed me the most was The Diamond Age, or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, by Neal Stephenson. It was saturated with good ideas, and was written in an brilliant and humorous style.

    The idea that writers of this kind of fiction need to apologize or explain themselves to academics in the humanities is a joke. The stuff emerging from those communities is a farce. In a century, people will look back and scratch their heads over the money spent on it.

    Lexington Green

    November 16, 2008 at 7:48 pm

  2. The universe you describe sounds remarkably like the one set up in Mobile Suit Gundam, Japan’s premier sci-fi anime series. Gundam is sort of a combination between Star Trek and Star Wars (and also a weird allegory to the Second World War in some ways). It features a similar conflict between a decaying and militaristic Earth and a space that presents a new kind of future for humanity.

    The interesting thing about Gundam (besides the awesome giant robots) is that the moral righteousness of the two sides switches. In the opening series, Earth is presented as imperfect but better than a militaristic space separatist group opposing it (with the colonies caught in the middle). The second installment of the series has Earth transformed into a kind of fascist state oppressing space. Then the moral alignment shifts again in favor of Earth and the “silent majority” of space.


    November 16, 2008 at 10:24 pm

  3. A.E. : Agreed. The dudes who write the various scripts for the series are simply great. & prior to that I always thought only dudes in the west could write sci – fi. You know, Star Trek & Star Wars.

    Yours Truly

    November 17, 2008 at 9:22 am

  4. Sounds like an interesting read. I still read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, so I’ll add this one to the list.


    November 17, 2008 at 6:16 pm

  5. YT,

    What is your favorite Gundam?


    November 18, 2008 at 11:56 pm

  6. You meant which series? Ought to be “Mobile Suit Gundam Wing”. Though the recent “Gundam Seed Destiny” was cool. Lacus Clyne could really reach into your heart.


    November 20, 2008 at 2:58 pm

  7. I think Zeta is probably the best. Gundam Wing had some cool mobile suit models and political intrigue, but Zeta–if you can get past the 80s animation and soundtrack–was the darkest and best plotted.


    November 20, 2008 at 5:45 pm

  8. Zeta Gundam, I meant.


    November 20, 2008 at 6:12 pm

  9. I’ll go check it out, missed out on lotsa 80s anime. Thanks, Adam.

    There were some rather corny anime back in the 80s. My favourite was this love triangle thing with a dolt with ESP powers. I think it was called “Kimagure”. Well, those days they didn’t have all those computerized details but they still had great soundtrack & script.

    Yours Truly

    November 28, 2008 at 5:36 am

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