Posts Tagged ‘Social Science Fiction’

Doomed City, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, front cover(The Doomed City, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2016, 462 pp., $18.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were the most popular science fiction writers in the Eastern Bloc from the 1950s through the early 1990s (when the Bloc dissolved), and were arguably the most popular science fiction authors ever. In his illuminating forward, fellow Russian sci-fi novelist Dmitry Glukhovsky, author of Metro 2033, reveals that their many novels in the 1970s had initial press runs of 500,000 and sold out immediately. Their 1964 novel, Hard to be a God, is very probably the biggest selling science fiction title of all time, the world over.

During the 1980s and 1990s, I became a Strugatsky enthusiast and read everything I could find by them in English. So, I was excited to see the appearance of Doomed City last year — a Strugatsky novel I’d never heard of.

It turns out that they wrote it in 1972, but hid the manuscript and didn’t dare to send it to a publisher for fear of being thrown in a gulag (yes, it could have happened even to such immensely popular authors) until the perestroika period in the late 1980s. It finally appeared in Russian in 1989, and the English translation only appeared last year.

Why? Doomed City is a bleak, brutal, and very thinly veiled critique of the Soviet Union and the ideology that produced it and all of its horrors.

Doomed City is set in the City (always capitalized), a place entirely isolated that might not even be on Earth, and which is the site of the Experiment (the nature of which is never explained, nor are the experimenters named). The residents of the City are all volunteers drawn from all over the world: Russians, Americans, Brits, Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Swedes, and Germans, including former Nazis. Once in the City, they’re arbitrarily assigned to jobs unrelated to their previous occupations.

The protagonist, and by far the best drawn character, is Andrei Voronin, a former astrophysicist who, at the beginning of the book, is working as a garbage collector. He’s also, not coincidentally, a former Komsomol (official Communist Party youth organization) member, a conventional Marxist-Leninist, and a bit of a blockhead.

Through the following 400+ pages, we follow Voronin and his acquaintances as he works respectively as a garbage collector, detective, journalist, political boss, and adventurer/expedition leader (while still a political boss).

What’s striking throughout all this is how Voronin’s work, the amount of power he has in each job, and his position within the City’s hierarchy, is reflected in his attitudes.

As a garbage collector, he’s a blind believer in the Experiment, despite his bottom-of-the-heap position and the grossly obvious flaws in the City and its workings.

As a policeman, he becomes distrustful, suspects everyone, and becomes increasingly willing to use brutality — supplied by former Nazis who are now fellow policemen — against those he looks down on, which is pretty much the entire population of the City, including his supposed friends.

As a journalist, he adopts an adversarial attitude toward those in power.

And as a political boss, he adopts the attitudes of a political boss: entitlement, contempt for those he supposedly serves, willingness to suck up to even the slimiest political hierarchs, willingness to use violence and coercion to remain in power, and acceptance of a rigidly stratified society, with the political bosses on top and the vast army of proles (including personal servants) beneath them.

It would be hard to provide a better description of the characteristics of the “leadership” that ran the Soviet Union.

This political critique is by far the best part of the book. Other than that, Doomed City doesn’t have much to recommend it. It has a certain dreamy quality, which, however, is largely the result of poor, or at least deliberately hazy, writing (done in part in the vain hope of disguising the political critique, or at least rendering it nonspecific).

Almost all of the descriptive passages are vaguely written, using generalities rather than concrete physical description. The geography of the City, even its size, is all but indecipherable (as is the geography of the lands Voronin explores in the final section of the book). And there are too many nearly nonsensical stream-of-consciousness passages (from inside Voronin’s head), some lasting for pages. (At many points, I found myself asking, “When will this passage end?”)

As well, the secondary characters aren’t very well drawn, there are numerous loose ends, there’s almost nothing in the way of a conventional plot, and the authors offer nothing even approaching a solution to the dismal situation they critique so effectively.

That critique is summed up in a line by Izya Katzman, the most prominent and arguably the best drawn secondary character, in the latter part of the book:

“Any elite that controls the lives and fates of other people is odious.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Recommended only for diehard Strugatsky fans and those with an interest in critiques of Leninism and the former Soviet Union.

(For those new to the Strugatskys, rather than starting with Doomed City, I’d recommend Hard to be a God and Roadside Picnic.)

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover




(Insurgence by Ken Macleod front coverThe Corporation Wars: Insurgence, by Ken Macleod. Orbit, 2016, 331 pp., $9.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Insurgence, the brand new second installment in Ken Macleod’s Corporation Wars trilogy, resolves issues left hanging in the first book, Dissidence.

Insurgence settles the matter of what’s real and what’s virtual in the Corporation Wars universe, and also clearly reveals the nature of one of the two antagonistic political factions, the Reaction, or Rax. They’re essentially the alt-right: racist, abusive, self-seeking propertarians who regard other people as “potential slaves.” (As in Dissidence, there’s frustratingly little in Insurgence on the nature of the Rax’s opponents, the Acceleration, or Axle.)

Like its predecessor, Insurgence is a page-turner, akin to what another reviewer termed an “airport bookshop thriller.” There’s enough intrigue and more than enough well described combat scenes to satisfy even the most hardcore military sci-fi fans.

Along the way, we get to know both the trilogy’s protagonist, Carlos, and the rebellious, sentient robots, the “freebots,” quite a bit better. As well, there’s a lengthy, quite plausible section showing how a cult of personality can emerge in even the most seemingly progressive political movements.

Like the first book in the series, Dissidence, Insurgence doesn’t work as a stand-alone novel. Instead, it reveals the nature of the conflict, reveals more of the nature of the conflicting parties, and sets the stage for the conclusion of the trilogy.

Recommended (but only after you’ve read Dissidence).

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(Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on its sequel. A large sample from Free Radicals, in pdf form, is available here.)

Free Radicals front cover




The Immortality Option by James P. Hogan cover(The Immortality Option, by James P. Hogan. Gallantine, 1995, 323 pp.; out of print, but commonly available in used bookstores and also available as an overpriced e-book)


reviewed by Zeke Teflon


This is the sequel to Hogan’s amusing and insightful Code of the Lifemaker, which we reviewed in June. It takes up where Code of the Lifemaker leaves off, with the Taloid mechanoid civilization on Titan, the mutant spawn of a damaged interstellar alien probe a million years ago, temporarily saved, but still under both internal threat from religious and political authoritarianism, and under external threat from GSEC, a rapacious Earth-based corporation.

The cast of characters is mostly the same as in Code of the Lifemaker. Like that book, this sequel is a combination of hard sci-fi and social sci-fi, and the political and social subtext is essentially the same: that science, free inquiry, and free expression are essential to progress, and that religion is  inimical to progress, and its practitioners often irrationally and sadistically cruel.

What’s new in The Immortality Option is the revelation of where the interstellar probe came from that set off the explosion of mechanical evolution on Titan: the Borjilans, an avian-descended race from a star a thousand light years off. The description of that race and their ultra-competitive civilization is highly amusing. From reading it, I strongly suspect that Hogan was at least somewhat familiar with avian behavior; here, he focuses almost exclusively on its negative,  darkly comedic aspects.

The one real problem with Hogan’s description of the events leading up to the launching of the probe is that it hinges on a cover up of an existential threat to the Borjilan home world that would be impossible to hide in any even remotely open society. That’s unfortunate, because there were ways Hogan could have avoided this implausibility. But he didn’t, and at least the chapters on the Borjilans are so intricate and amusing that it’s fairly easily to overlook the implausibility of the pivotal cover up.

Without giving away too much, The Immortality Option deals largely with the encoded personalities of one the Borjilans (especially Sarvik, the primary Borjilan character), the pompous scientist (Weinerbaum, a new character) who discovers them, GENIUS, an AI created by Sarvik, and the machinations of the Borjilans and the Taloid priests and authoritarian politicians, and their rational foes among the Taloids and “Lumians” (humans).

While probably not as good a book as Code of the Lifemaker, The Immortality Option is still a lot of fun in its own right.

Recommended — but do yourself a favor and read Code of the Lifemaker first.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel.

Free Radicals front cover


Code of the Lifemaker cover

Code of the Lifemaker, by James P. Hogan. Del Rey, 1983, 295 pp., $13.95 (reissued in 2010)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

When the Huygens probe descended to the surface of Titan in 2005, I was bitterly disappointed. I’d been irrationally hoping that it would deliver images of the exceedingly strange mechanoid civilization and environment that the late science fiction author James P. Hogan vividly describes in his 1983 novel, Code of the Lifemaker.

But no. All the probe returned was a bonanza of scientific data.

In Code of the Lifemaker, Hogan achieved something difficult: a successful synthesis of hard science fiction and social science fiction. He devised a well developed, unique setting for the story, and in the story he examines questions such as what makes us human? does god exist? what is the role of religion in society? what is the role of science in society? Despite delving into these heavy questions, the tone of the novel is light, and in places it’s very funny.

Most of the book’s events take place beneath the impenetrable (to telescopes) clouds of Titan, where a million years ago a radiation-damaged alien ship set off an automated, runaway explosion of technological development–extraction processes, factories, machines of all types, robots–all controlled by badly corrupted software. The end result was the evolution of a very complicated mechanical ecology, whose development Hogan describes in a lengthy prologue (10 pages!) that’s entertaining despite being pure exposition (what sci-fi writers often describe as an “infodump”).

This unique ecology is inhabited by the Taloids, sentient robots, who are remarkably human in thought and action, who are at approximately a Renaissance level of social and political development, and who understand their mechanical ecology no better than Renaissance humans understood their biological ecology.

In the novel, the first probe to Titan revealed this ecology (in roughly 2015), but the government suppressed the images so as to be able to exploit the knowledge to be gained and get a leg up on the Soviets. (Code of the Lifemaker was written in 1983; at the time, almost everyone–including this reviewer–assumed the Soviet Union would exist well into the 21st century.)

The action begins with a joint government/corporate (General Space Enterprises Corporation–GSEC) mission to Titan consisting of scientists, government functionaries, a military contingent, corporate tools, and, as part of the GSEC p.r. campaign to sell the exploitation of Titan, one of the novel’s two protagonists, the famous psychic, Karl Zambendorf. (The other is the Taloid scientist and victim of religious persecution, Thirg The Questioner.) Once at Titan, the expedition quickly establishes contact with the Taloids and conflict commences in the Earth delegation between those who would enslave the Taloids and those who would assist them, and on the Taloid side between the budding scientists and their version of the Inquisition.

Zambendorf, originally presented as an unsympathetic fraud, is later revealed to be a confirmed rationalist who hoaxes the public largely because he thinks they’re so stupid that they deserve to be hoaxed, and why shouldn’t he be the one to profit from it? The detailed descriptions of how Zambendorf and his team pull off their hoaxes add an enjoyable, and unexpected, element to the novel. (All but one of the hoaxes Hogan describes are standard scams “psychics” routinely perpetrate; the only exception is an elaborate hoax that would only work over interplanetary distances.)

Thirg, the Taloid scientist, is also entertaining, mostly in his role as an acerbic critic of religion. The following quote is fairly typical:

“Does it not seem strange that eternal salvation for the many, in a hereafter which they are asked to accept on mere assurances, should be attainable in no other way than by their enduring hardships gratefully and laboring their lives in wretchedness for the further enrichment of a pious few who exhibit a suspiciously unholy interest in the quality of their own herenow?”

And some of the descriptions of Titan’s mechanical ecology are whimsical and wonderful:

“[Thirg’s] home was situated in a small clearing amid pleasant forest groves of copper and aluminum wire-drawing machines, injection molders, transfer presses, and stately pylons bearing their canopy of power lines and data cables, among which scurrying sheet riveters, gracefully moving spot welders, and occasional slow-plodding pipe benders supplied a soothing background of clattering, hissing, whirring, and clunking to insulate him from the world of mortals and their mundane affairs…”

While scientific discovery has rendered impossible the setting of Code of the Lifemaker, its treatment of the many philosophical, scientific, and religious questions it raises remains as timely as when Hogan wrote the book over thirty years ago.

Highly recommended.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel.

Free Radicals front cover