Review: Sea of Tranquility

Sea of Tranquility, Emily St. John Mandel. New York: Knopf, 2022.

Summary: Incidents of a strange hiccup in time over several centuries all have elements in common, including the appear of Gaspery-Jacques Roberts in various guises.

A distortion of reality, a kind of darkness, the sound of a violin, the hum of a train, and a whoosh recur in a number of places over several centuries, as does the appearance of a mysterious figure, Gaspery-Jacques Roberts.

He appears as a substitute priest to Edwin St. John St. Andrew, exiled to Canada in 1912 on remittances for careless remarks about colonialism. This after Edwin wanders in a forest near the village of Caiette, and witnesses this strange anomaly.

In 2020, Mirella visits a sound and light performance created by her friend Paul. During the performance, there is a video with the same phenomena. A person by the name of Gaspery-Jacques Roberts questions him about the anomaly afterwards. Mirella, trying to connect with a lost mutual friend, Vincent, through Paul recognizes Roberts as a man she saw in an underpass as a child.

In 2203, Olive is on a book tour on earth for her novel, Marienbad, the story of a pandemic, even as reports of a spreading pandemic trouble her and leave her counting the days until she is reunited with her children on the moon. But first, she must have an interview with a journalist interested in a passage where she recounts the same distortion of reality, the violin, the sound of the train, the woosh of a spacecraft taking off. And you guessed it–his name is Gaspery-Jacques Roberts.

It is 2401, and we learn at last about Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, who grew up in Colony 2 on the moon, the Night City, because of the failure of the dome projection system. He is named after a minor character in Olive’s book, Marienbad. After taking a hotel detective job in Colony 1 with the help of his childhood friend Talia, he enlists in The Time Institute after hearing his sister Zoey discuss the case of their investigation of the anomaly in Marienbad and at other points in time. It becomes his assignment, against the counsel of his sister, to go back in time and investigate.

But there are risks. The greatest is to change the timeline. The primary concern are changes that impinge on the Time Institute itself. And the classic dilemma of time travel stories arises–do you let bad things happen to people when you know what will happen to them? Do you do so even when you may be exiled in time, not allowed to return to your own?

The plot is probably not terribly original as time travel stories go. The novel recapitulates the pandemic story we’ve all lived (“We knew it was coming“). But the writing is gorgeous and spare and the relationship between Gaspery, his sister, and Talia particularly well-drawn. Each vignette is brief, sometimes broken into several chapters, moving first forward, and then back in time until we encounter the violinist in the railway station…

Review: To Open The Sky

To Open The Sky, Robert Silverberg. New York: Open Road Media, 2014 (first published in 1967).

Summary: Noel Vorst’s new religion sweeps the Earth with its promise of eternal life, but Vorst’s plans extend far beyond Earth or even the near planets to the stars.

By 2077, the Earth has colonized Mars and Venus, terraforming Mars and adapting humans to live in the Venusian atmosphere. A UN functionary, Reynolds Kirby struggles with the high tension this high tech life creates, little relieved by temporary plunges into nothingness, or other pleasures. A new religion is on the rise, replacing those that no longer speak to the world Kirby lives in. They are called the Vorsters after Noel Vorst their founder. Their chapels are springing up in many cities, the central focus of which is the small cobalt reactor giving off a bluish light. Services follow a liturgy that is a pastiche of scientific mysticism with the promise of eternal life for followers. Kirby is drawn in, and over the years rises to become Vorst’s right hand man.

Meanwhile, another movement breaks off from the Vorsters, led by David Lazarus, until he was supposedly martyred. They are the Harmonist and they’ve succeeded where the Vorsters failed in establishing their mission to Venus. Vorsters who try either die from the vicious creatures on the planet or the inhabitants who want nothing to do with them, or they become Harmonists.

The Vorsters have advanced in extending life and the breeding of ever more effective ESPers at their Santa Fe center. The most visible sign is Vorst himself, who is still alive 100 years later. On Venus, the Harmonists have advanced in telekinesis with the development of “pushers” able to move things and people further and further. All the Vorsters efforts to train the ESPers to do this fail, often at the cost of their lives.

Then Lazarus is found in a nutrient bath encased and buried on Mars. The Vorsters bring him to life, only to turn him over to the Harmonists. It turns out that all of this is part of a grand plan of Vorst that extends far beyond Earth, Mars, or Venus, to “open the sky,” as it were, to the universe.

The question around this book is that of “at what cost” Is the cost warranted of the young lives wrecked, ESPers driven into insanity and a merciful death, “pushers” who are destroyed, all of these young and devout? Is this “religion” just the cloak for the ambitions of one man, as much as others seem to be helped?

In some ways, this book feels more timely today than in 1967, as we see many religious figures who have used religion to gain and abuse their power, and often their followers. In the human longing for something more, there is a great vulnerability, that may be twisted by the power, either tempting others who are needed to join in the quest for power, or to be used up and discarded by the powerful. In this, Silverberg may have been prescient.

Review: Parable of the Talents

Parable of the Talents (Earthseed #2), Octavia E. Butler. New York: Open Road Media, 2012 (first published in 1998).

Summary: The growth and heartbreaking destruction of Acorn, the Earthseed community founded by Lauren Olamina, and how Earthseed rose from the ashes.

In Parable of the Sower (review) Octavia Butler creates a leader, Lauren Olamina, of a new religious movement in a dystopian America, and describes how she gathers a band of refugees into Acorn, a community formed around the principles of Earthseed. This work continues that story through the narration of Lauren’s daughter, who eventually, with the help of her uncle found her mother’s religious writings and journals, after being abducted as an infant by the extremist wing of a Christian nationalist group.

The chapters of the book begin with an Earthseed verse, then a section in bold print by daughter Asha Vere (born Larkin) followed by journal entries of Lauren that tell the story of the growth and heart-breaking destruction of Acorn, and what followed. Acorn was the place where Lauren and her husband Bankole built a community of refugees on his land and formulated the teachings of Earthseed, gradually drawing convinced adherents. Everyone worked and contributed, children were taught, and products of quality were sold in neighboring towns. She began to think about how they could send people out to teach Earthseed elsewhere. Amid this, the child they hoped for so long was born, who they named Larkin.

Meanwhile, Christian America, a church-based nationalist movement with political aspirations gained increasing sway in a country that wasn’t working. They brought order, housed the homeless, and their leader, Jarrett, became president on a platform of restoring American greatness by cleansing the country of all “heathen” beliefs. Her half-brother Marcos, rescued from slavers, refuses to join Earthseed, drawn by Christian America and his desire to preach. Bankole sees what is happening and wants to take Lauren and Larkin to a quiet town. Lauren refuses, convinced of the truth of Earthseed and the potential of a movement that would eventually take the human race to the stars.

Until, that is, the Crusaders, a radical arm of Christian America come, seize Acorn, imprisoning the men and women separately, and taking all the children away, placing them with adoptive parents, including Larkin. The adults were all “collared” with electronic collars. Bankole dies during the attack as does Olamina’s close childhood friend Zahra. They are supposedly being “re-educated” but no one succeeds in being released. Women are assaulted by their Christian captors and expected to be submissive.

How they escaped, overcoming their captors, and how Earthseed arose out of the ashes occupies the later part of the book. It comes down to Lauren’s “talents,” her abilities to lead and persuade people to follow, not blindly, but willingly. It also has to do with her “magnificent obsession” that she pursues, even when her brother won’t follow, or face the evils Christian America had perpetrated. Likewise, she seeks her daughter for years, but ironically, it is Marcos who finds her, misleads her about her mother and educates her, showing her love her adoptive family never did and her mother never could.

There is so much here. Butler presciently anticipates the Christian nationalism and demagoguery of our own day and its appeal, as well as the xenophobia of anything that is “other” and the subjugation of women. That is chilling. Equally interesting is her exploration of what it means to be a founder of a religious group, to know to the core of one’s being that a revelation is true, and how one cannot do other than pursue what one knows in one’s being is true. Persecution, the loss of family, and arduous work are all part of it, but also the forming of a community of the convinced.

Butler is a compelling but uneasy read. There are brutal and heartbreaking passages, but also much to provoke thought. In a sense, these books might also be parables that might come with the words of the greatest parable-teller, “Let the one who has ears, hear.”

Review: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein. New York: Ace, 2018 (originally published in 1966).

Summary: In 2076, Luna, a colony of Earth on the Moon, decides to declare independence, to end the one-sided grain export to earth that will deplete lunar ice reservoirs, under the leadership of a sentient computer.

In 2075, the colony of three million on Luna lives underground in a warren of tunnels. Many are convicts, former convicts, and descendants of convicts. Nominally, they are ruled by a Warden whose main responsibility is insuring the continuity in hydroponically-grown grain shipments being shipped to earth via the catapult. He’s largely incompetent, and the real brain behind Luna’s operations is Holmes IV, a supercomputer, that, unknown to all but a computer tech who listened and treated him humanely, had become sentient. The tech, “Manny” O’Kelly-Davis engages him and teaches him to joke.

As extraordinary as this relationship is, it is just the prelude to a series of events leading a body including Manny and the computer, now named Mike (short for Mycroft Holmes), to instigate a movement leading to a declaration of independence on July 4, 2076. Joining him is Wyoming (Wyoh) Knott, a female revolutionary agitator and Professor Bernardo de la Paz, who has recognized that Luna’s grain shipments to earth will use up Luna’s ice reserves in seven years, leaving the moon waterless and threatening the existence of the colonies. And Mike? He becomes Adam Selene, leader of the movement (as well his alter ego, Simon Jester, who loved to poke fun at Luna Administration as the impetus for revolution developed)

After independence, Manny and the Prof pursue a desperate course to head off an invasion from a vastly more powerful but dependent Earth. Despite their physical weakness due to living their lives in Moon’s low gravity, they go to Earth, even while they leave Mike and Wyoh to prepare an unorthodox defense of Luna. They hope to negotiate a peaceful transition to independence and a sustainable trade relationship that didn’t deplete Luna’s ice reserves, serving as ambassadors for Luna. Will proud Earth listen, especially the North Americans, or will they be as stubborn as the British monarchy 300 years ago? You can probably guess, if you don’t know the story. Will a war be necessary and will these scrappy revolutionaries have any better chance of succeeding? Mike had calculated their odds as one in seven.

The plot serves as a vehicle for exploring a variety of alternative possibilities–sentient computers being just one example. Line marriages address a two to one ratio of men to women, where one married into a line of interlaced marriages of men and women spanning generations and lasting over a century or more. Government, such as it is a combination of a function-driven bureaucracy and a cross between anarchy and libertarianism. The threat of being tossed out an airlock keeps most in line–the bad actors don’t last long. They develop a system of trade with little theft and where payment of debt is a high value. With the “harsh mistress” of the moon, perhaps they realized both responsibility and interdependence.

Of course, the most interesting question is what the relation of colonies on the Moon, or perhaps Mars, will be to Earth. More recent futurists and many in the space exploration enterprise have considered the colonizing of the Moon and Mars, particularly as life on earth becomes more environmentally tenuous. It is easy to think of Earth as the Mother planet. But if colonies become established, and people inhabit them for generations, what paths will exist to redefine these relationships to avoid interplanetary war? Admittedly, this is still a ways off, if ever. But Heinlein makes us consider questions that go beyond feasibility and technology–questions that in a way have always occupied us and need to be answered anew.

Review: Imago

Imago (Xenogenesis #3), Octavia E. Butler. New York: Popular Library, 1989 (Link is to a current, in-print edition).

Summary: The concluding volume of this trilogy explores what happens when human-Oankali breeding results in a construct child that is not supposed to occur.

Jodahs is one of Lilith’s children with both human and Oankali parents. Up until now all of these “constructs” mature to be males or females with a blend of human and Oankali traits. This appeared to be the case with Jodahs and its paired sibling Aaor until they began to metamorphose. They didn’t smell right to the others. They were changing into ooloi, the third sex of the Oankali (referred to as “it”). This was not supposed to happen and was potentially dangerous. Ooloi could alter DNA at a touch, indeed the structure of anything, and an imperfect ooloi could unleash organic destruction on the planet.

The sensible thing was to transport to the mother ship. The family takes the riskier course of leaving the settlement of Lo to an isolated place to allow both Jodahs and Aaor to complete their metamorphoses. In the process, Jodahs encounters a brother and sister, Tomas and Jesusa, afflicted with painful tumors that will kill them and much of their settlement–but they are also fertile humans. Using its ooloi powers, which are not flawed, it heals them and bonds with them. They become mates and help it complete its metamorphosis. Aaor is less fortunate. It needs mates too, and lacking them, it goes formless with despair, and is danger of dissolving, not a good thing

This leads to a daring action. The settlement the brother and sister came from had kept its existence hidden. This could not continue. The shuttles would come for them. Jodahs realizes he can play a key role in helping them end resistance, choosing either breeding with the Oankali or joining the human-only colony on Mars. The settlement also offers hope of mates for Aaor. But they religiously hate Oankali, and especially ooloi. There is a good chance Jodahs, Aaor, Tomas, and Jesusa could all end up dead.

Butler explores the unanticipated consequences of colonizing a race. The settlement of Tomas and Jodahs represents the human passion for self-determination, which clashes with a more powerful race that neither succeeded in keeping them sterile, nor could let them, exist as they were. Is benevolent intent from one’s own worldview sufficient when it violates the self-determination of others. Is using one’s power to shape the decisions of others so that they will accept what they need to do to survive acceptable when their self determination will kill them?

The capacities of the ooloi also raise questions for humanity as we are witnessing the dawning of new genetic technologies such as CRISPR, capable of possible healing of genetic disorders, but also “optimizing” human genetics or even changing our genetic codes, giving us new capacities. The ooloi seem capable of making perfect changes. Would this be so for us, and would there also be unforeseen consequences?

I came to the end of this book wondering why the trilogy ended here. To say much more would be to leave spoilers, but I thought this series could go further. Others see the emergence of construct ooloi as the culmination of the process that began in Dawn. I can’t help but think this may have opened possibilities the Oankali haven’t anticipated. But we’ll never know…

Review: Adulthood Rites

Adulthood Rites (Exogenesis #2), Octavia Butler. New York: Popular Library, 1988. (Out of print. Link is to a different edition)

Summary: Lilith’s son Akin, a human “construct,” is kidnapped by resisters and raised in one of their settlements, and realizes his own unique and risky calling.

Akin was a male child born of Lilith, the main character of the first volume in this series. He is the first male “construct,” He is the fruit of a human-alien union–a human father and an Oankali mother and father, and a Ooloi, neither male nor female. Outwardly he looks human, except for his tongue, through which he senses the world, and can also kill. He is also unlike any human in language and intelligence. In months, he can speak like an adult. One day a refugee from a resister settlement, Tino shows up and is accepted into the community of Lo. Over time, Akin and Tino develop a special bond, the beginning of an unanticipated connection with the resisters, humans unwilling to bond with the Oankali, and therefore sterile.

One day, Akin and Tino are out when kidnappers seize Akin, leaving Tino for dead. After a harrowing journey, he ends up in Phoenix, a resister settlement hungry to acquire children if they cannot conceive their own. He becomes the child of Gabe and Taft, developing bonds with them even as he grieves the severed bonds with his own siblings in Lo, bonds he can never fully regain. Over time, he recognizes the contradiction of the drive to live, and the drive to kill in humans, and that they are a dying race on a dying planet, with or without the Oankali. He also grasps that there is another possibility, one only possible if he becomes an Akjai, a kind of go-between.

It is risky. Though rescued at last by Lilith and his family, he must give up Lo, embrace training with the Oankali, and then risk return to a Phoenix, even as he transitions to adulthood. And there is no guarantee they will accept the way to a new life he will propose, or even survive the attempt.

This is such an imaginative series. Butler continues to explore the implication of the “trade” the Oankali engage in with humans, and what human-alien progeny might be like. It also parses out the implications of the miscalculation that many humans would refuse the trade the Oankali offered. It strikes me that this is analogous to the blindness of earthly colonizers who cannot grasp why native peoples would refuse the “blessings” of civilization, even when this meant inevitable extinction. But Butler also sees another side to this, that humans faced with the struggle to survive will resort to suspicion and violence and killing, even at the continual diminishment of their numbers.

Can this dying race in a post-nuclear world be saved? Will Akin’s desperate effort work, even with a remnant? And what of us–a people at each others’ throats when faced with a global pandemic, a rapidly warming climate, rising lawlessness and violence in many quarters, and the shadow of thermo-nuclear destruction under which I’ve lived since childhood? Why do we both love life and seem committed to self-destruction? What hope is there for us?

Review: Dawn

Dawn (Xenogenesis #1), Octavia Butler. New York: Popular Library (Warner Books), 1988 (publisher link is to a different, in print, edition).

Summary: Lilith is chosen to lead a handful of humans preserved after a thermonuclear war by an alien race but faces difficult choices when she realizes the price she and her people must pay for their survival.

She remembers periods of wakefulness, a strange interior, a voice questioning her, bland tasteless food, and then sleep. After she is awakened again, she finds a scar on her abdomen. Slowly it comes back. Husband and son killed in an auto accident. A then the war. The destruction of nearly all life on earth. The cold of nuclear winter.

Lilith discovers she has survived because she was taken by an alien race, the Oankali, aboard their ship, orbiting outside the moon’s orbit. Centuries have passed during which she was in suspended animation in pod-like organic containers that sustained her life. The Oankali are creatures covered with tentacles and her first challenge is to become comfortable being in their presence, a hideous sight at first for humans. Jdaya is the creature’s name. He tells her that she has been asleep apart from the brief periods of wakefulness for 250 years while Earth has been healed by his people. She has been healed as well from a cancer that they treated by altering her body to reabsorb it while they gained the knowledge of cancer, calling it “beautiful.”

As she becomes acculturated into the Oankali, she learns that their intention is that she lead a colony of humans back to earth to re-settle the planet. There is a price. The Oankali are traders, not of commodities, but themselves. As they cross the galaxy, they trade something of their genetic substance for the peoples they encounter. They will do this with Lilith and her people–no choice is given.

Eventually, she is matched up with a different Oankali, of a third gender, Ooloi, neither male nor female, and referred to as “it.” “Its” name is Nikanj, and it is a young member of the species, and part of her task is to accompany “it” as it sexually matures, leading to a bonding between them. She also is tasked with choosing and awakening the first group of settlers to be trained to go to earth.

And this is where it gets interesting. The awakened learn from but become suspicious of Lilith, because of “enhancements” that have already altered her. The awakened pair off and each is joined with an Ooloi in what turns out to be a highly pleasurable human-alien “three way,” But resistance grows both to the Oankali and to Lilith, dangerous resistance. She is faced both with danger and the dilemma of a better understanding the true situation of the control the Oankali hold, trying to make the group understand their only options to have a chance at freedom on their own planet. Meanwhile, she must wrestle with the bond that has formed between her and Nikanj, and her unwillingness to be part of any “trade” resulting in offspring even a little less human.

Butler takes the human-alien encounter in a fascinating direction, exploring and enlarging the range of emotions and experiences that might come with this. What kind of “intercourse” (in all the senses of the word) can happen, and is the price of giving something essentially human away one that should be accepted?

Furthermore, Butler explores the human psyche, and the tension between intelligence and distrust of hierarchies that exist among us. We both look to leaders and try to cut the legs out from under them. Can people shaped with this outlook, no matter how “enhanced” they may be, return to Eden and create a new civilization?

This is the first of three books in the Xenogenesis series, followed by Adulthood Rites and Imago. I look forward to seeing how all this plays out.

Review: Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower (Earthseed #1), Octavia E. Butler. New York: Open Road Media, 2012 (first published 1993).

Summary: Lauren Olamina, whose life has been spent in a guarded enclave from a violent society, flees with two other survivors when it is destroyed, the core of an Earthseed community, the outgrowth of a religious vision.

All that you touch
You Change.
All that you Change
Changes you.
The only lasting truth
Is Change.
God is Change.

Lauren Olamina is a most unusual founder of a religion. Brought up by a Baptist father and distant stepmother trying to survive in dystopian southern California in a radically deteriorating United States, she is forced to take a hard look at the beliefs she embraces, around the core ideas that open this book quoted above. She also struggles with hyperempathy–when others are in pain, she feels it. And if she must use violence against another, she feels that as well–until the other dies.

Her father’s approach was to try to preserve his religious beliefs and some form of community within the walled cul-de-sac he and a collection of inter-married families live. Then her brother is brutally murdered and her father disappears. The fabric of society is shredding with social inequities, widespread poverty, and a particularly scary substance addiction called pyro or ‘ro, in which users are impelled to set fires engaging in the orgiastic destruction of property and people, followed by the looting of anything remaining of value. Lauren has been preparing, formulating ideas, learning about survival, and creating an emergency pack. She envisions creating resilient communities that not only survive this dystopia but spread humanity to the stars.

Yet even she is surprised when the pyromaniacs attack and destroy her enclave. She and two other barely survive, beginning a flight to who knows where and a fight to survive on the road. Slowly they gather others, more guns, and form a kind of community life around Lauren’s ideas. Bankole, a doctor who owns land up north occupied by relatives, offers a place of refuge. But will this rag tag group that includes escaped slaves (yes, there is slavery in this dystopia) and children, fend off murderers, maniacs, and fire?

Butler does not explain the reason for the deterioration of the social fabric of the country, apart from a prescient anticipation of global warming that leaves California drier, warmer, more prone to catastrophic fire (she wrote this in 1993). Yet there are suggestions that she is anticipating the outworking of the growing economic inequities in America that we see–debt slavery, a permanent underclass, growing substance abuse and violence.

It is unsettling to read this amid a pandemic, particularly where we see the rapid unraveling of an economy in literally days. While it seems resources are being mobilized to help those on the margins, it makes one pause to think what may happened if the illness or the economic factors lead to the exhaustion of resources and increasing hopelessness and desperation.

Butler portrays two contrasting responses. Lauren’s father tries to hang on to the old ways, creating an enclave in both mind and physical circumstances, building the walls spiritually and physically and setting guards to keep out those who would endanger their increasingly fragile lifestyle, while trusting in the protection of God.

Lauren believes that the only God is Change and that human beings are meant to be Change-makers, those who make God by their actions. She forms a community committed to each other believing that their actions, the changes they make as they set out on the road. Will self and mutual reliance be enough?

I find myself wondering if the dichotomy Butler offers is too simple. Are our only two choices enclaves and change-making? A more troubling question is how believing communities of any stripe exist when order breaks down and violence reigns. The use of violence in defense is the one thing both “communities” share in common in this story.

Perhaps the warning in this book is to act before social order breaks down. Most of us don’t think a breakdown of the social fabric similar to what is portrayed in this book can happen, and we become complacent toward rhetoric and economic structures that accentuate divides. Parable of the Sower, which occurs in 2024 in the United States is just too close to home not only in time and place and social conditions. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Review: Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers

Starship TroopersRobert A. Heinlein. New York: Ace, 2006 (originally published in 1959).

Summary: Juan “Johnny” Rico’s narrative of training and fighting in the Mobile Infantry during the Terran Wars with the Pseudo-Arachnids (“Bugs”) set 700 years in the future.

I read several of what would now be considered Robert A. Heinlein classics in my youth. Somehow, I missed this one, despite the fact that it won a 1960 Hugo Award. Coming across a copy, I finally decided to fill that gap.

I found myself wondering what this book is really about. The setting is a war between the Terran Federation and the Pseudo-Arachnids (“Bugs”) set seven centuries in the future, at a time when travel at faster than light speeds is possible through Cherenkov Drive. The book opens with the narrator, Juan “Johnnnie” Rico describing a “drop” onto a “Skinny” planet (the Skinnies at this period were allied with the “Bugs” and later with the Terrans.) We’re introduced to the Mobile Infantry and their special powered and armored suits, equipped with all sorts of lethal weaponry that renders each infantryman more powerful than a tank.

The book then traces Rico’s enlistment into the military, assignment to the apparently “lowly” Mobilized Infantry (M.I.), his basic training under Sergeant Zim (a good portion of the book), his deployment with Rasczaks Roughnecks, battles, acceptance into officer training, deployment, and further battles culminating in an attack on the Bugs home world of Klendathu, the outcome of which for Rico, or his forces, we do not learn.

What, then, is this book? According to Wikipedia, Heinlein wrote this in about two weeks as an angry response to President Eisenhower’s decision to cancel nuclear testing in 1959, at the height of the Cold War. It has the feel of a work that upholds the necessity of the military, especially the most basic element of it, its infantry. Its battle scenes reflect both strategic thinking and imaginative tactics based on the power suits the M.I. is equipped with. It touts values ranging from unit cohesion, never leaving a buddy behind, and the wisdom of sergeants It proposes a form of militarized society in which only those who have served (and survived, both men and women) have the right to vote and hold office. Others have basic rights of free speech and the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, but not full citizenship.

One wonders if Heinlein thought Eisenhower had gone soft against the Communist threat of his time, and maybe American society with him. Corporal and capital punishment are practiced in this military–floggings to executions. One also the sense of a military engaged in cosmic warfare for the future of the planet (occasionally attacked, one of which results in the death of Rico’s mother, and the subsequent enlistment of his father, who had opposed Johnny’s enlistment), while the rest of the planet goes to the shopping mall, or whatever its equivalent was.

Twice during the book, Rico undergoes courses on History and Moral Philosophy, the first with a high school teacher (former M.I we later learn) and later in Officer Candidate School. Each seems to provide Heinlein the opportunity to explore profound political questions that give one the sense that Heinlein had deep questions about the long term viability of democratic-republican forms of government.

Needless to say, this has been a book to stir up controversy on a number of fronts from  Heinlein’s portrayals of gender relationships, to his political ideas, to his militarism, to proper forms of discipline and punishment. Yet to create such a social imaginary is not necessarily to advocate for it. One wonders, rather, if in his time, this was his way of challenging a country he thought might be going soft with what is required to prevail in a global conflict. One is reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s comment following the Constitutional Convention when asked by a lady, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin’s reply was, reportedly,   “A Republic, if you can keep it.” One wonders what Heinlein might write in our day.

Review: Across A Billion Years

Across a Billion Years

Across a Billion Years, Robert Silverberg. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2013 (originally published in 1969).

Summary: A group of space archaeologists from different planets make a discovery that puts them on the trail of an ancient, highly advanced race that disappeared nearly a billion years ago.

Tom Rice is a graduate archaeology researcher part of a team drawn from several different races from different planets on an expedition excavating a site on one of the planets occupied by an incredibly advanced and ancient civilization, The High Ones. Tom, in his youthful enthusiasm, is the narrator of this story. The chapters are recorded messages to his telepath sister, Lorie, whose mind can communicate across the galaxy while her invalid body is confined to a hospital bed.

The dig, like most, is tediously routine at first, allowing us to get to know the expedition’s characters–the android Kelly, the rhino-like Mirrick, Dr. Horkk from Thhh, Steen Steen, a hermaphroditic creature, Saul the stamp collector, Leroy Chang, who turns out to be kind of creepy, Pilazinool, who loves to remove and replace his robotic limbs, Dr Shein, who heads the expedition, 408b, an octopoid creature, and Tom’s love interest, Jan, who at first is more interested in the stamp collector.

The expedition shifts from tedium to intrigue when Tom discovers a sphere that is kind of a projector, that plays back scenes from The High One’s civilization. Nothing like this has ever been discovered. More than that, it puts them on a trail of discovery leading first to an asteroid where a robot has been entombed in a cave, it turns out over 800 years ago. They find the asteroid, and the robot intact, who conveniently is a universal translator. The robot in turn takes them to a home planet, abandoned “just” 275 million year ago by the Mirt Korp Ahm, as the High Ones call themselves. The planet continues to be inhabited by a fantastic assemblage of self-maintaining robots, much like Dihn Ruu, their interpreter.

It is here that Dihn Ruu learns why the aging home star of the Mirt Korp Ahm cannot any longer be seen. The planetary system has been enclosed by a Dyson sphere to conserve energy. And with this news, the explorers lay plans to head there, only to face arrest from Galaxy Central!

Will they make it to the home planet of the Mirt Korp Ahm? If they do, what will they find? Will they be received or destroyed? And how will these discoveries change them? These are interesting questions that I cannot answer without spoiling the conclusion.

Perhaps as interesting as this adventure from planet to asteroid to planet are the relationships between the members of the team. Silverberg explores the human-android relationship–are humans from a vat really different from those conceived the old-fashioned way? And why do humans inherently suspect other species?

Equally intriguing is Tom’s perception of his sister. He pities her physical disabilities and “guards” her from aspects of his life that highlight her disabilities. Silverberg gives us an interesting portrayal of how the “abled” view those “differently abled” and how the “differently abled” see things.

Oddly, it seemed to me that what Silverberg considers the least is the encounter between species, and how such contact, particularly if one is far advanced, would change the explorers civilization. Nor does there seem to be much interest in the highly advanced robotic civilization, other than as stepping stones to learn what has become of the Mirt Korp Ahm.

Nevertheless, he raises the interesting question of what a race a billion years old might be like, for humans who reckon the advance of modern civilization over less than 50,000 years. Silverberg presents us with this interesting thought experiment clothed in a chase across a galaxy.