Friday, 29 June 2012

The Many Colored Land

This novel is the first in The Saga of Pliocene Exile.  Since I’m a confirmed fan of palaeontology, the word “Pliocene” attracted my attention early on in my reading project.  I was interested enough to research a bit and find out that the author, Julian May, was in fact a woman (Judy May).  Add more points to the plus side for a female author of speculative fiction.
            And my hopes came true:  I found the book hard to put down—I lost a lot of sleep during the week that I read it [thankfully spent on vacation, not trying to concentrate at work].  Probably the slowest part is the initial introduction, where we learn the set up for the story:  a world in which mankind is one of several species involved in the Galactic Milieu, which has some pretty specific guidelines for how life will be lived ; an elderly physicist who has established a time-travel portal to Earth’s Pliocene, six million years in the past ; his widow, who decides to finance her future by transporting discontented people back to the Pliocene for a fee ; and meeting the “Green Group” of travelers that the novel follows through the way-back machine.
            Who hasn’t dreamed of really getting away from it all?  For me, it means a week at Sylvan Lake, away from my phone, a computer connection, my job & a regular schedule.  For some people, it means a beach holiday.  Others retreat to the wilderness to camp.  Think of the Pliocene as the ultimate camping adventure:  no civilization, large & dangerous animals and no way home.  Yes, it’s a one-way trip.  When the distinguished professor attempts to bring creatures forward in time, they instantaneously age 6 million years and crumble to dust before his eyes [as he demonstrats with a Hyracotherium caught with carrot bait—so awesome].  So time-portal travelers are heading into the unknown to rough it among mastodons and sabre-tooth cats.  At least in theory.
            In practice, the time travelers find that another space-faring species (The Tanu) has arrived before them and is finding the constant flow of escape-seeking humans to be a bonanza of workers—need a body guard, a farm worker or a sex-slave?  Wait until next week’s shipment and we’ll see who arrives!  They also have the advantage of psi-powers, amplified by necklace-like torcs and they slap a similar device on anyone who they wish to control. 
            Once again, who hasn’t had a plan go horribly wrong?  The vacation that is compromised by unpleasant tour participants, getting your dream job and then realizing that you now have the boss from hell, the project that you thought would be so fun that has turned into the biggest circus ever?  It’s a situation that we can all relate to—getting more than we bargained for and/or ending up in over our heads.  Only we usually get to go home at some point and leave the nightmare behind.
There’s a lot that I can relate to in this novel—including some female main characters who have realistic thoughts, feelings, goals….you name it.  I hadn’t thought that gender of the author mattered, until I started reading speculative fiction by female authors!  Night and day!  It is so refreshing to be able to truly identify with the characters and have them reflect your own concerns and emotions realistically.  It made me realize how often male-authored science fiction just feels uncomfortable to me—the women don’t feel and think like I do.  I would be interested to know if men feel as off-kilter when reading female authors as I do when reading male authors!
It was also startling [in a good way] to have a lesbian (Felice) appear as a main character [trying to out-testosterone the men and being pretty good at it!].  I think this is the first time during my reading project that I’ve encountered a homosexual character—and she is portrayed as a strong and determined woman.  Considering the amount of prejudice which still exists for the homosexual community, I found this rendering to be extraordinary for a novel published in 1981. 
            Add to that the fossil creatures that run through the narrative and this was just an excellent book for my tastes!  I can hardly wait to read the other three novels in the series and to get my hands on more speculative fiction written by women.  We’ve come a long way, baby!

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Remembering Ray Bradbury

We lost a great writer this week when Ray Bradbury passed away at age 91.  I haven’t been acquainted with his writing for long, having just discovered him in 2011, but I was blown away by the prophetic views of society that I found in his writings.
                My favourite book by far (from the works that I have read) is Fahrenheit 451.  Its hard for me to fathom how, in 1953, Ray saw so clearly where our civilization was headed.  We haven’t outlawed books just yet, but there are certainly lots of people who are trying to censor what we read and to decree what libraries ought to own and lend.  It amazes me that we are still fighting this battle—that the concept of the free market place of ideas hasn’t been won yet.  So many of the proponents of censorship are also supporters of free enterprise—they believe in the principle for business, but not for the rest of life!  And certainly not in the realm of ideas!  The current stir over the novel Fifty Shades of Gray is just one example.  Ironically, this is what the free marketplace of ideas is all about—debating the ideas as a society and eventually choosing the ones with the most merit.  As we have done with issues like slavery, sexism and cruelty.  While the censors have the right to present their arguments, they have no right to squash opposing opinions.  That’s another tenet of Western society— individuals get to choose what’s right for them.  It will always be the right way to do things, but I guess it will always bring out the bigots who want to control others, not just themselves.  It’s all about karma—thankfully, history has not been kind to those who espouse censorship [or slavery, sexism or cruelty for that matter].
                There are certainly no shortage of people trying to impose their values and morality on the rest of society.  Ray understood this human tendency well.  In the story The Pedestrian, Leonard Mead is arrested for taking a walk and for not owning a television.  He is eventually committed to a mental hospital for these “aberrations.”  We are a very tribal species, requiring proof from our members that they adhere to our values.  What does it say about our society that I can envision this situation taking place in the not-too-distant future?  So few people walk for pleasure any more, we don’t know our neighbours (often on purpose), we are glued to our electronic devices instead of interacting with people around us and many conversations that we do participate in revolve around television programs or internet sensations, rather than books, real ideas or experiences. 
                Ray predicted the isolation of the individual in our technological society.  Households in Fahrenheit 451 possessed enormous televisions and people aspired to own four so as to cover all four walls of their TV rooms and be surrounded by the programming.  His fictional people watch incomprehensible shows about a fictional family, and they can pay an extra fee to have their names inserted in some places in the dialog.  Rather than spending time with their real families, they basically live passively through a TV family.   As I have said before, for me Ray Bradbury was a prophet, predicting ‘reality’ TV extremely accurately.   The tribal imperative in this society was enforced through the burning of all books and the persecution of activities such as creating art & music, as well as getting outside to appreciate nature.  At least we can read e-books on our myriads of electronic devices, but I suspect most users spend their time in pointless activities instead.  I like Facebook as much as the next person, but really isn’t it much more fun to see your friends in person?  To hike in the mountains?  To listen to great music while cooking dinner?
                I hope we never see a future in which books, art & classical music are illegal.  I hope we never have to memorize books in order to keep them available.  I hope that we can use our electronic devices to foster community and to get to know our friends and relatives better.  I hope we rarely choose television over our families.  But at least Ray Bradbury caused us to think about these possibilities and to decide if that was what we wanted.  Last, but not least, thank you Ray for all the kind things that you said about libraries and the people who work in them.  For this and so much more, we appreciate you!