Thursday, July 31, 2014

Flowers for Algernon

Daniel Keyes
Harvest, 2004 (my copy is from Harvest, 2013), although copyright is from 1959
Size: Average (my TPB copy has 311 pages)
Theme: Human cognition – enhanced skills
Narrative: first-person
Main character: Charlie Gordon
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES

I picked up a copy of this book because it was on a top 100 sci-fi list that I’ve been slowly collecting for a few years. Having been written in the 1950’s, the book is a precursor in terms of human enhancement through science. It should also be analyzed as having been written that long ago, during the primordial ages of classic sci-fi. The concept behind the story is based on a group of scientists that develop a technique, mixing psychology, neurology, and biochemistry, to boost intelligence. After testing it successfully on a lab mouse named Algernon, they move on to human trials. Charlie Gordon is picked as the first human subject, due to his mental disabilities coupled with a great motivation to learn and become smarter. Everything appears to have gone successful as Charlie quickly becomes more intelligent than all those around him, to the point where he can no longer have a challenging conversation with anyone. However, as Algernon’s mental health starts declining, the question becomes whether the same will occur to Charlie…

The book is told/written in the first person by Charlie. A brilliant writing style allows us to feel how the character is changing along the plot, since in the first few pages Charlie has horrible spelling and grammar, and displays a lack of complex reasoning and a child vision of the world around him, but as the book progresses, he becomes more eloquent but also more self-assured, and later more aggressive. Sadly, once Charlie is truly explored as a character, and one is left with the feeling that much more could have been tackled from the perspectives of Alice, the two main scientists, and even some of Charlie’s acquaintances. As in many other books I have read, I would not have minded having 200 more pages to go through.

This novel is loaded with layer upon layer of significance and food for thought. Charlie’s early innocent thoughts make him a friendly person, and he is never aware of how people make fun of him or put him down. As his awareness expands, so does his perception of how cruel and dishonest human beings can be. He learns about fallacies of the society and struggles to cope with his expanding feelings. Have we not all felt like our eyes being open to a new reality? For certain, the famous sentence “Whereas once I was blind, now I see”, is not very often a positive change. Do we not realize how in our child years, there was a shroud in front of our eyes, and how everything looks different now that our eyes are “open”? And how, as honored and adults, do we look down at the “innocent” and the “different”? In a way, Charlie’s trip from mentally handicapped to highly intelligent reflects all of us, as we travel from child to adult and then to elderly person (given enough time, plagued with senility). It is the cold hard reality of it all that speaks very close to an attentive reader.

The book has no hard sci-fi, nor advanced technologies, but it’s a beautiful tale of human achievement and human relations. Maybe if children had this as required reading in school they would not be so cruel upon others. Or maybe that is just wishful thinking. Would I suggest this novel to any sci-fi reader? Most definitely yes!

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Seven Forges

James A. Moore
Angry Robot, 2013 (an advance proof was gently provided to me by Angry Robot)
Size: Average (my hardcover copy has 332 pages)
Theme: Adventure fantasy
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Captain Merros Dulver
Recommended minimum age: Young Adult
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES

After several recent sci-fi novels which failed to meet my expectations and made me stop reading for a while, this fantasy book was a breath of fresh air. The story follows Captain Merros Dulver’s quest to the inhospitable and icy region of the Blasted Lands, with the goal of reaching the seven forges, a mountain range from where no expedition has ever returned. Under the orders of the emperor’s sorcerer and right-hand man, he wonders if he will be able to take advantage of the promised reward. Right from the start, things become tough, as in the midst of storms, they are attacked by Pra-Moresh, monstrous wilder beasts known to roam the blasted lands. However, as soon as they are saved by a tribe of people that unbelievably come from the seven forges, the fantastic invades Dulver’s life. What are the real intentions of these people? What impact will this have on the empire? And why does it seem that he will play a huge role in the upcoming events?

The story has a very nice blend of action/adventure and magic. In this first book of the series, only a bit of the veil is lifted, and as we move through the pages, we learn a bit more about the Sa’ba Taalor, their rituals and their motivations. A series of other characters are well explored, and a set of secondary storylines. From the start, I never found the book dull; it keeps a nice pace, while still describing sceneries and exploring some character’s inner thoughts.

Overall, the book was a pleasure to read, changing a bit from my more typical technology-driven sci-fi. I am looking forward to reading where the next book of the series will take this very interesting story…

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Goliath Stone

Larry Niven and Matthew Joseph Harrington
Tor, 2013 (a review copy was gently provided to me by Tor)
Size: Average (my hardcover copy has 314 pages)
Theme: Nanotechnology
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Toby Glyer
Recommended minimum age: Young Adult
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: UNSURE

The concept behind this book appears to be quite simple: a large asteroid is on its way to earth, with its course continuously shifting so that it seems increasingly likely that it will collide. Several years ago, nanotechnology had reached a progress level that a mission was setup to send nanomachines to harvest a small asteroid. In practical terms, the plan was to divert its course so that it would orbit earth and could be mined. However, all contact was lost with the mission, which was abandoned. It appears now that maybe the nanomachines are involved in the recent change in course of the large asteroid. The question is whether they are still trying to perform their initial goal, or whether they are aiming it to destroy earth.

This is not a particularly innovative idea, nor is most of what takes place during the relatively short story. Although I enjoyed it as a light read, the novel is sort of a blunder. In fact, given Niven’s reputation (note I have not yet read the Ringworld acclaimed series, although it is in my to-read pile), I was expecting much more. Characters are shallow and one-dimensional, one of them featuring the archetype of superhuman intellect and capabilities. Subtle hints at the authors’ political views are pressed into the story. The main characters actually did not have to exist, as most of the events would have happened the same without them; I can hardly remember a book where the characters do not influence the result (earth’s destruction or not) in any way. It is also surprising how nobody really stresses out from the fact that the world is about to be destroyed, so apparently all those movies and books where people panic and riot are just pessimistic. What I enjoyed the least was the annoying and impossible to believe dialogues full of witty remarks and comebacks, full to the brim with what I guess the authors must have thought were clever references to sci-fi literature. Curiously, the story ends up being as much on the asteroid as on how the main characters are involved in nanotechnology reshaping humanity, again in an excessive and unfeasible manner.

I’m going to have to call this casual over-the-counter literature, and definitely not to be mentioned in the records of sci-fi. Once you take it as something just to entertain you for a few hours, and to be forgotten afterwards, it’s fine. Just do not have higher expectations than that.