August 3rd, 2020

meow, cat, Siamese, catty

Hope Amidst the Ruins

Parable of the Sower (Earthseed, #1)Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I originally became acquainted with this novel and the Earthseed religion of God is Change when I was writing an article on Kindred and had to do a brief summary of the author's other novels. With the current upheavals, I decided to read it and its sequel Parable of the Talents as a way of reconciling myself to day-to-day unpredictability.

The protagonist, Lauren Olamina, lives in a tiny island of community amidst a civilization coming apart at the seams. She has a condition known as hyperempathy syndrome as a result of her biological mother abusing an Alzheimer's drug. She lives with her father and stepmother in a walled neighborhood where people try to maintain something resembling a middle-class existence in the face of disintegrating public services, ever worsening shortages, and civil disorder caused by drug abusers who set fires while high. The families of this island of sanity try their best to educate the children after schools have closed. They grow as much food as they can, because hyperinflation and the disintegration of food distribution systems have made store-bought food well-nigh unaffordable. They teach one another how to defend themselves and their community, and when the madness outside tries to force itself into the gates, they set watches to scare away the intruders, or kill if there is no other choice.

Things first go wrong when Lauren's brother Keith leaves the community, then starts bringing back large sums of cash and various consumer goods. It's clear he's fallen in with a bad crowd -- and then his parents are called to identify his tortured and mutilated body. Then Lauren's father fails to return from work. Lauren and some friends go searching amidst the ruins of what was once Los Angeles, but the only evidence they find is a severed arm of about the right musculature and skin tone. It's our first hint that cannibalism is becoming a problem beyond the walls.

And then comes the night in which the pyro druggies force their way in and torch the tiny neighborhood, destroying, stealing, and killing. Lauren and two other members of their community are the only survivors, and there is no way they can maintain their neighborhood by themselves. There's nothing to do but salvage what they can carry, including bundles of nearly worthless money, and join the crowds of people on a grim trek northward to a hope that may not exist.

On the way they encounter other refugees, some of which have turned predator on their fellow unfortunates, and others who are frightened and in need of help. At first Lauren and her surviving neighbors regard every stranger as an enemy, but bit by bit they begin to trust those who seem to be good people, and a new community forms. One of their number is trekking to his own personal Promised Land -- a small farm owned by his sister and her husband. He thinks there may be room for their community, since more people means more watchers to protect against the druggies and roving bands of bandits. It's better than the company towns that are little better than a new form of slavery.

The ending is a bittersweet discovery of old hopes destroyed, and the possibility of creating a new hope. Reading this novel, I kept thinking about some of the things John Ringo's protagonist in The Last Centurion kept talking about -- the importance of social trust, and what happens when it breaks down. Lauren's world is one in which general trust has collapsed, and people can only trust those they know, and then only guardedly. Companies offer security, but at the price of debt peonage, and sometimes outright human trafficking. But Lauren is hoping that her Earthseed religion, a deist faith for the modern mind that the pre-Copernican worldview of the traditional religions cannot satisfy, will help create an ever-growing network of new communities that trust one another, and will take humanity and life to the stars, like seeds scattered on the wind.

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meow, cat, Siamese, catty

A Childhood Favorite Rediscovered

When I was in third grade, we were allowed to begin checking books out of the school library. Among them was a YA science fiction novel that I loved so much that I re-read it again and again, until the school librarian took me aside and told me that I shouldn't monopolize it by checking it out so many times.

It probably wouldn't have made any difference, since most of the other kids in our school were quite mundane, and in any case, our class was moving to a different building the next year. I never saw the book again, but I had fond memories of the story of young people going to Mars with their family and having adventures.

Recently I developed a desire to revisit some of those old favorites -- but because I was so young when I read it, I had only a hazy recollection of the title and the author's name hadn't even registered with me. At first I thought it might have been one of Heinlein's juveniles, but a little research showed that the only one set on Mars, Red Planet, was a completely different story. Yes, they both take place on the Old Mars with the canals that Percival Lowell thought to be the engineering projects of intelligent Martians (but have turned out to be the result of eye strain from trying to make out fine details through a telescope), but there were none of the vivid events I remembered. Heinlein's story takes place entirely on Mars and the protagonists are Mars-born, while the story I remembered involved a vividly-remembered incident of radiation danger on the spaceship which brought the protagonists to Mars (which I even dreamed about when I read it, although the safety room became the furnace room in the church basement in my dream). And Heinlein's colonists didn't live in individual bubble-houses, an element in the mystery story which had provided the harrowing scene when the characters have to race against time to find an air leak in theirs, with the truck carrying spare compressed air too far away to get to them if they don't.

I also came across Robert Silverberg's Lost Race of Mars when we were still actively acquiring books for our business, and while I immediately recognized that novel as one I'd read, it was not the one I was looking for. In fact, it was my very first chapter book, which Dad read to me chapter by chapter each evening, just a year or so before I read the half-remembered book. And upon re-reading it, I remembered how, when I was first reading the mystery book, I'd noted the similarities and contrasts of the two stories. In Silverberg's story, the lunar settlement is a single huge dome and life is fairly regimented, while in the mystery book, the settlement was very much like an Earth city and suburbs, only with airlocks and artificially provided air.

Running out of leads, I started asking around on the Web. Although people were able to identify a couple of other novels I'd read around that period, they could not identify that one. And without an accurate memory of the title, I couldn't search for it.

I was just about ready to give up, to consider the possibility that memory had confused two or more books into a ghost book, when I finally found the answer on a Goodreads group dedicated to identifying half-remembered books. It's Richard Elam's Young Visitor on Mars, and when I looked it up on eBay, I saw at least one image of the red cover I remembered from my childhood. (As it turned out, my memory of the title was close, but not close enough to the exact wording to find without the name of the author).

And as it turned out, it wasn't necessary to spring for a copy on eBay to re-read it, since it's available for free on Project Gutenberg, both with and without the illustrations from the original. It's been an interesting walk down memory lane, and I've been astonished at some of the things that either slid right by me in those days, or I'd completely forgotten.

For instance, the first chapter opens with a clear reference to the year being 2003. Today it give the story some rather painful Zeerust, but at the time, it was significant in a different way: it was exactly fifty years after the book was published, and when one considers that fifty years earlier was humanity's first successful powered heavier-than-air flight, it's understandable that people who'd seen humanity go from those first tentative flights to jet fighters over Korea would think another fifty would take us to permanent settlements on the Moon and Mars.

And soon we discover their spaceship is commanded by an individual named Grissom, who is described as stout. Given that Gus Grissom was a short, stocky man, it's easy to wonder whether this character might be a deliberate Tuckerization rather than a coincidence. Although this novel would've been written almost a decade before the selection of the Mercury Seven, even by 1953 Gus had come to some prominence in the military aviation community for his skill as a fighter pilot and a flight instructor.

However, I discovered that I was wrong about several things: I'd incorrectly remembered the liftoff scene as being from Earth, when it is in fact later, from the Moon, where they had to make an emergency layover after a near collision with another spaceship resulted in heat damage. And I'd completely forgotten about Randy, the Mars-born youngster who was living on the Moon with a family friend while his father was doing some dangerous exploration on Mars -- and who was missing and feared dead. He joins the protagonists as a sort of foster brother after a very informal agreement, and shares all the adventures on Mars.

Much as I'd love to give it a proper reading and write a critical essay on it for The Billion Light-year Bookshelf, other tasks are more pressing right now. But at least now I know how to find it online for free, and maybe someday when I can afford to be sentimental, I may try to find a hardcopy of it, and of its companion volume Young Visitor to the Moon, which isn't on Gutenberg. It's a shame that the author doesn't seem to have written a similar novel about young people visiting Venus. I'd love to see his take on the Old Venus of mists and swamps that was still believable in the 1950's, before the first space probes revealed it to be a hell world of enormous temperatures and pressures.
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