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.

Review: Tower of Glass

Tower of GlassTower of Glass, Robert Silverberg. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2014 (initially print publication, 1970).

Summary: Mega-wealthy Simeon Krug, creator of the process that produces androids, learns of signals from a distant star and uses his androids to build a tower of glass to communicate. Obsessed with distant life, he is woefully ignorant of the hopes and faith the life he has created place in him.

Robert Silverberg began publishing science fiction around the time I stopped reading it. I may have read a few of his short stories in anthologies, but that was a long time ago. Over time he was awarded five Hugo and five Nebula awards (yes, I know the cover image says four Hugos!). He is one of twenty-nine science fiction writers to receive the Grand Master Award of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Recently, Open Road Media has re-released a number of his books in e-book format, where I am discovering him for the first time.

Tower of Glass is set in the twenty-third century. It is premised on a relatively depopulated earth from previous wars. Simeon Krug has helped fill this population vacuum and become fabulously wealthy by perfecting the process to create android humans out of vats filled with the basic components of life. Three classes of androids exist in ascending intelligence from gammas to betas to alphas and Krug sells them to serve the remaining human population.

The novel begins with Krug setting out to build a 1500 meter glass tower in the Arctic permafrost to send tachyon signals to NGC 7293. Krug, whose previous efforts to discover life forms in nearby systems have all failed, has learned of cryptic signals in the form of number sequences coming from this ring nebula. He employs a vast work force of his androids under the leadership of his Alpha foreman, Thor Watchman, in an ever more frantic quest to complete the tower, oblivious to the increasing death toll this dangerous task entails. Simultaneously, in a Denver factory he is building a space ship to send more androids in suspended animation to NGC 7293.

While focused on the stars, he is more or less oblivious of intertwined undercurrents with his son, Manuel, and the androids. Like other sons of the fabulously wealthy Manuel is trying to find his own meaning in life beyond inheriting his father’s enterprises. He is in an affair with an android woman, Lilith, while married to Clissa, who has yet to bear him a child. His quest leads him to “shunting” where he exchanges consciousness with five other friends, discovering their most intimate thoughts, emotions, and memories, as they do his.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to any, including Simeon Krug, most of the androids, apart from a few political activists, have given themselves over to the religion of Krug. They have created a whole religious system centered around their “creator”, in whom they lodge their hopes that after trials, they, the people of the Vat, will be full partners with the people of the Womb, enabled by their Creator Krug, who they venerate and pray to in secret services in “chapels” all over the world.

Redemption is slow in coming. When Manuel tours one of the factories that gives birth to androids and is deeply disturbed by what he sees, his lover, Lilith, and Thor Watchman see a chance to help their prayers for deliverance from servitude to their human masters. Manuel is cultivated as an android ally, finally learning the truth of their religious belief in his father.

As the tower nears completion, Manuel goes to his father to reveal the hidden religion and intercede for the androids. We approach this plot climax wondering whether any of this was such a good idea and how Simeon Krug will react to his god-hood.

Beyond the android religious rituals, I was struck with a couple other profound echoes of biblical religion. One was the idea of Krug’s tower. Like the tower builders in Babel, Krug builds a tower to reach up to the heavens–literally. We watch a hubristic quest, an obsession really where pursuing a technological chimera that justifies mounting death tolls and sending a ship full of androids toward the blue giant at the center of the nebula in a quest to communicate with life that could incinerate them.

We also see in Thor Watchman a kind of Moses figure concerned with the deliverance of his people from their servitude. Moses’s initial attempt as a young man involved taking that deliverance into his own hands to no good end. I will leave you to discover the results of Thor Watchman’s effort to take deliverance into his own hands.

We also cannot help but consider the implications of crossing the threshold of become “creators” of life, and what that does to both “creator” and “created”. Our technologies are resulting in increasingly life-like and humanoid robots, and our cloning experiments have resulted in viable animal forms of life. This book explores the presumption of control by the creators. It also explores the consequences of what happens when such creations have “self-awareness” and with that longings both for worship and for self-realization. If anything, Silverberg’s story speaks with greater prescience and relevance today than when first published 46 years ago, warning us of the dangers of our hubristic dreams.

[Parent advisory: This book does contain explicit descriptions of sexual intercourse as well as some violence.]

 

The Month in Reviews: September 2015

This month’s list of books reviewed clearly is a reflection of my (odd, eclectic?) reading tastes. A good dose of biblical studies and theology with books on Mark 13 and Ephesians, universalism and substitution. Books on restoration and renaissance–topics of interest for one who hasn’t given up on the possibility of Christians having a truly redemptive influence in society. There’s historical fiction, a book by an environmental writer and the late Oliver Sacks on music and sci-fi based on Mars. In case you missed any reviews in September, they are all here, with links to the full review and publication information in the book title:

AgincourtAgincourt, Bernard Cornwell. Through the eyes of Nicholas Hook, we see the massacre of Soissons, and the English invasion of France under Henry V including the frustrating seige of Harfleur, and the miraculous victory at Agincourt.

Evangelical UniversalistThe Evangelical UniversalistGregory MacDonald. This book provides the biblical, philosophical and theological arguments for why the view that all will finally be saved is consistent with evangelical theology and also includes additional appendices responding to issues raised since the book’s first edition.

Wild IdeaWild Idea: Buffalo & Family in a Difficult Land. Dan O’Brien. Dan O’Brien continues the story begun in Buffalo for the Broken Heart, describing the growth of the Wild Idea Buffalo Company, the move to a new ranch, and the challenges of a maturing daughter, an aging friend, and the struggle to build an ethical and ecologically sound business on the ever-challenging Great Plains.

Jesus the Temple and the Coming of the Son of ManJesus, The Temple, and the Coming Son of Man, Robert H. Stein. This commentary on Mark 13 sorts through the complex interpretive issues concerning the fall of the temple, apocalyptic events, and the return of the Son of Man.

Restoring All ThingsRestoring All ThingsWarren Cole Smith and John Stonestreet. This book narrates the impact of mediating institutions and efforts by Christians in bringing restoration into some of the most challenging situations faced by our society today.

Drama of EphesiansThe Drama of Ephesians, Timothy G. Gombis. This book approaches Ephesians as a drama of the victory of God over cosmic powers in opposition to Him through Christ and through a redeemed and transformed church that acts as Divine Warrior. I also posted an interview with the author here.

MusicophiliaMusicophiliaOliver Sacks. Renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks chronicles the neuroscience of music–the various ways music affects the brain, and the unusual effects of various neurological conditions on our perception, performance, and experience of music.

RenaissanceRenaissance, Os Guinness. Against the doomsayers speaking of the darkness of the times, Guinness remains hopeful for a spiritual and cultural renaissance in the west, rooted in the power of the Christian message; and he charts the tasks of faithful witness that precede this and the contours of such a renaissance.

Reading C.S. LewisReading C.S. Lewis: A CommentaryWesley Cort. This book provides an undogmatic look at C.S. Lewis, considering the influences upon his life and writing, and a commentary on Lewis’s major Christian works.

Defending SubstitutionDefending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul, Simon Gathercole. Gathercole defends the oft-maligned doctrine of substitutionary atonement, responding to the criticisms and challenges raised and demonstrating from key biblical texts that it can be argued from scripture that “Christ died in our place.”

The MartianThe MartianAndy Weir. Mark Watney, left by his crew for dead on Mars, survived a potentially fatal incident and must find a way to survive on Mars alone until he can be rescued.

Beyond AwkwardBeyond Awkward: When Talking About Jesus is Outside Your Comfort ZoneBeau Crosetto. Talking about faith with others often feels awkward and is why most of us don’t do it. This book explores how to press through that awkwardness to important and life-changing conversations.

Best Book of the Month: I rarely choose a religious book as my best book of the month but I found The Drama of Ephesians by Timothy Gombis particularly compelling for its fresh perspective on Ephesians that highlights the spiritual warfare aspect of the book. I also appreciated that Gombis combined good scholarship with clear writing that could be grasped by any thoughtful student of the Bible and applications set in the life of real congregations.

Best Quote of the Month: This is from The Drama of Ephesians:

“In the logic of Ephesians, the two groups are not the saved and the damned, the in and the out. The two groups are those whom God is transforming by his love and those to whom the first group is sent in order to embody God’s love” (p. 77).

Among the things I’m currently reading are a couple books on environmentally sustainable agriculture by an early exponent, Ohio novelist Louis Bromfield, a book seeking to reconcile the philosophy of Ayn Rand and Christianity, a thoughtful work on ways we abuse scripture, and an account of Robert Kennedy’s last campaign by David Halberstam. Last month,I mentioned the Zaleskis’ book on the Inklings. I hope to start it before the month is out. Whether I do or not, isn’t part of the fun of reading the anticipation? At any rate, happy reading!