Sunday, July 27, 2014

'Hothouse' by Brian Aldiss. Book review and analysis

First published in the UK as 'Hothouse' this is the US Book Club edition from 1962
The Long Afternoon of EarthThe Long Afternoon of Earth by Brian W. Aldiss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First a personal note. Here is a book that I first read 50 years ago, at the time when it won a Hugo award. I loved it then. It made a lasting impression. It is enlightening to see how my memory of the book contrasts with my current impressions. Back then I was struck by the wildly imaginative setting and several of the vivid scenes.

What impresses me now, apart from the author's far-reaching imagination, is his skill at constructing the tale. Using a rich vocabulary and engaging prose, Aldiss actualizes a setting some five billion years in the future when the sun is about to go nova and burn all life on Earth to a crisp. He brings this world to the reader by populating it with well-realized characters who face conflict with a seemingly endless array of threatening new life forms.

This is a world dominated by vegetation. Plants have assumed the niches formerly occupied by most animals, and the animals have largely gone extinct. Some plants can see, though none can hear. Some are able to walk or crawl or fly, though always crudely compared to their animal counterparts. There is one vegetable creature, taking the form of a giant spider, that has conquered outer space and now spins its webs between the earth and the Moon. Is this plausible? Is it sci-fi? More on this later.

The plot centers on Gren, an inquisitive and rebellious adolescent male in a tribe ruled by women. The elders of the tribe declare that it is time for them to 'Go Up' - presumably to their death - leaving the youngsters to establish a new social order. In the uncertainty that ensues, Toy is the young woman who assumes leadership. Because Gren questions Toy's decisions, she banishes him from the tribe, and another young woman, Poyly, sides with Gren.

Without the support of a tribe, Gren and Poyly are not likely to survive in this hazardous world. But a morel - a brain fungus with the knowledge of a sage - parasitizes both of them and helps them successfully negotiate all challenges. However the morel has its own agenda, and therein lies the conflict that is the focal point of the rest of the story. To say more would be to cross the boundary into spoiler territory.

This book was first published in the UK under the title "Hothouse." I am delighted to note that "Hothouse/Long Afternoon of Earth" was recently re-released (2009) so that the current generation has a chance to experience this masterful tale. I hope this generation will come to the book without pre-conception, because it does not fit cleanly into the genre that Aldiss identifies with. There is an image problem.

The image problem can be crystallized by this example: There is a scene in the middle of the book in which Gren enters a cave where thought is corrupted, as if by a psychedelic drug, and into which beings are involuntarily drawn, as if by a pheromone on the wind. When Aldiss later explains the purpose of this cave, the explanation is more mystical than physical. The resulting processes utterly defy basic laws, such as that of gravitation. (Yes, this is deliberately vague, so as to avoid spoilers.)

Reviews of this book have a bimodal distribution. People generally either love it or hate it. The common theme among the negative reviews is that it is not science fiction. I have to agree. Though I don't pay attention to labels and don't make reading decisions based on them, I can see where others might be put off by unmet expectations. If this book were identified to readers as a Fantasy, no one would object to the metaphysical scenes and concepts.

That is the crux of the image problem. The more inflexible hard-sci-fi enthusiasts don't like their unswerving faith in reductionism challenged by an example of emergence and irreversible evolution that could undermine their static 'fact-based reality' paradigm, even if the example is fictional.

These poor vulnerable victims of the grand enlightenment should have been forewarned.

Brian Aldiss was named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 2000 and inducted by the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2004.  He will celebrate his 89th birthday in August 2014. As far as I know he is still active and still thinking so far outside the box that "the box" is little more than a quantum fluctuation amid the profound diversity of reality. He has lived long and prospered. May he continue to do so.

Postscript and commentary:

Without giving away too much about 'Hothouse/Long Afternoon of Earth' or about my own distant future sci-fi/Fantasy novel series 'Eden's Womb' I want to note that Aldiss and I both share a thirst to explore the distant future, to speculate about the fate of mankind, and to understand our place in the cosmos.

Fifty years after first reading 'Long Afternoon of Earth' I cannot quantify the degree to which Aldiss's book influenced mine, because I ran across many other inspirational sources along the trajectory to my book, and because my original book concept was set just a decade or two into the future.

In 2001, after seeing a commentary that Brian Aldiss wrote in the journal 'Nature', I wrote him a fan letter.  To my delight he replied with an obviously personalized and thoughtful response.  This is a letter I will always treasure.

Personal letter from Brian Aldiss.  The addresses are obsolete.

The over-arching themes of 'Hothouse' and of 'Eden's Womb' are the same.  As you can see from the letter (and from Aldiss's original commentary in 'Nature') we both believe that humans find themselves effectively alone in the universe because of the unfathomably short time span during which we have been capable of interstellar communication using radio signals and the vast distances to other similar, putatively short-lived civilizations.

To guess the longevity of intelligent beings' radio technology, we have a statistical sample of one.  If we are anywhere near the center of the statistical distribution (and it is sheer fantasy to assume otherwise), one must conclude that the capability for interstellar communication among 'intelligent' beings lasts barely two centuries (one that we have lived through and one more that is to come as the ability tails away because of the possible forms of decay, including those discussed in the letter, social upheaval, economic crisis, global pandemics caused by mutated microbes, major earthquakes, and/or mega-cyclones).

We are a needle in an unimaginably giant haystack.  Two centuries is 0.0000014% of the life of the universe.  The probability that two civilizations will coincide--exist simultaneously in relative time--is therefore one in five hundred billion.  Current estimates are that there are *only* 8.8 billion habitable planets in our galaxy.  Rounding up to ten billion, that means that we would have to flawlessly separate cognitive radio signals from random noise coming from every one of the fifty nearest full-sized galaxies before we would have a 50/50 chance of finding just one civilization like ours.

The nearest major galaxy to us, Andromeda, is 2.6 million light years away.  How do you hold a conversation with somebody if it takes them 5.2 million years to reply?  Suppose we find that there is or once was microbial life on Mars.  Suppose we find fish in Europa's seas, as Brian Aldiss speculates in his novel?  We will glory in the knowledge that life is abundant, if not ubiquitous.  But we will still be without conscious friends or enemies.  We will remain sole stewards of our own fate.  So we better get used to it.  The road ahead is full of perils, and the vast majority of of them are self-inflicted.  Will we learn?  Will we successfully negotiate the 'Long Sojourn into Harmony and Balance' as the humans in my novel 'Eden's Womb' have?  It seems doubtful.  Yet if we do, that is still just the first step in an epic, epic journey.  Check my novel for more ...

Monday, July 21, 2014

Book Review: Golem in the Gears

Golem in the Gears (Xanth, #9)Golem in the Gears by Piers Anthony
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A few years ago I bought several of the oldest of the Piers Anthony Xanth series at a used book store, and after reading a few I was enjoying them enough, despite misgivings about the author's blatant sexism, to buy more (at fifty cents a pop) and to begin entertaining the idea of reading the entire series (there are about 38 of them as of 2014). The early books gained popularity to the point of becoming New York Times bestsellers. I think this particular one, ninth in the series, started the steady decline. It was nowhere near as good as the previous.

The story follows a quest undertaken by Grundy the Golem, a one-foot-tall one-of-a-kind being who, based on the cover illustration by Darrell K. Sweet, looks like a miniature human. He has an inferiority complex because of his size, and this provides the arc of his personal journey through the book. Both this and the physical quest are shallowly realized and linear, even more so than in the preceding books of the series. This book lacks any of the interweaving themes and layers that the others do, and that's saying something, since none of the books have a great deal of depth.

The book has the distinct feel of being hastily produced. Anthony almost seems to apologize for it by declaring that this was the first book he had used a computer to write. What? It is almost as if he let this Mundane (lacking magic) mechanical device substitute for his imagination - or perhaps he had a deadline to complete the book and used most of his time and energy getting up to speed with the new technology and thus had less to devote to the story itself. In either case, it was a significant mistake to allow something this inferior to go public.

Bottom line: not a lot good to say about this book. Anthony's target audience seems to be teenage males who lived in the 1950's. His perspective on women and relationships is positively Neanderthal (wait, perhaps I'm being unkind to the Neanderthals). After reading Golem in the Gears, I no longer have interest in reading this series through to the end. I'll read the ones I already own--half a dozen or so--and unless something changes, I'm done.

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Review of 'Amercian Gods' by Neil Gaiman - underwhelming compared to the hype

American GodsAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3 1/2 stars really. Once I finished, I judged the book to be interesting, worth the read, but not particularly inspired or memorable. However, it needs to be noted that after reading about 35 pages I literally threw the book across the room, vowing not to finish it.

I must have been in a bad mood. Perhaps I was just expecting too much, based on the seven pages of hype (truly hyperbole in this case) quoted from reviewers and included in my edition. The next day I reconsidered, mostly because this was a book I had asked for (as a present). Someone in my family paid good money for it. I owed them the courtesy of finishing it. I chose to be patient and look for the positives as I pushed on, rather than railing about the negatives (though I'll mention most of them here). By the middle of the book I had to admit that I was being well entertained. The last third of the book sparked. At last I started to enjoy the ride and to turn the pages with enthusiasm. Then the end began to drag again. There were, actually, about three endings. And then there was a Postscript. All the closure any reader could hope for. Little left to ponder or speculate about.

American Gods is a contemporary fantasy. There is almost no overt attempt at world building here. Everything except a place called 'backstage' is drawn from American and European common cultural experience. And 'backstage' is about as nondescript as an empty dark room. All of the imagination that Gaiman musters is directed toward the plot and character development. And even those do not stand out as particularly masterful.

The plot is awkwardly structured. In order to preserve the narrative tension Gaiman must sustain a false impression until near the end of the book--a classic device, to which I have no objection. However in this case the false impression is also one that appears so contrived and unconvincing that even the most passive and compliant of protagonists would surely question it. Yet our protagonist, an oversized ex-con called simply 'Shadow' is so submissive that he fails to question much of anything. This makes Shadow a character that is hard to get invested in. He seems more like a marionette being led across the stage of the plot by the author and by the other primary character named Wednesday, who is meant to be curmudgeonly at best, utterly dis-likeable at worst, and just comes across as such an enigma that I, as reader, could never decide what to make of him until I am told what to think near the end.

Wednesday.  Dress him in a suit and put him in a first class seat on a plane drinking a Jack Daniels, and you have the character as Gaiman introduces him.  The name is more than a hint to his true identity.

It is apparent that Gaiman wants us to suspend our disbelief at the 'Alice in Wonderland' level while clinging to a contemporary, entirely physical setting where the only Wonderlands we visit are artificial, man-made pseudo-attractions that really exist -- House on the Rock in Iowa County, Wisconsin, and Rock City on Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee. For me, that just didn't quite work. Sure there were dreams and visions galore, in the vein of Alice's single mega-dream, but these seemed strewn through the plot randomly for the convenience of the Author. Shadow is granted provisional temporary access to various phantasms but then they are withdrawn when their usefulness is spent.

If the book has a theme, or overarching message it is that America is a place where Gods do not do well. I don't think it is much of a spoiler to say that lots of gods originating in old world traditions appear in the book and are characterized as living in America. Unanswered is the question of why they chose to abandon their origin cultures (or do they have multiple physical manifestations) given that America provides them so little of what they need. To me this suggests a parallel to Gaiman's real life. An Englishman, he moved to America in 1992, settling in Wisconsin. Unlike the gods in his story, Gaiman has been richly rewarded for his move. And I don't begrudge him this - American Gods is a well written, workmanlike, ultimately satisfying tale.

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Liberty Reservoir circuit hike - birth of an idea

Liberty Reservoir, the City of Baltimore's water supply, is surrounded by an uninterrupted buffer of public forest land with an extensive network of fire roads.  To this, add one amateur mountaineer, home from his ultimate bucket-list quest and looking to stay fit.  The result - a month of hiking joy while scouting an 81 mile circuit hike around the lake.  This was just the first milestone in a path that has now extended to 8,550 documented miles and continues to grow.

How does a fearsomely aggressive, newly discovered, invasive species (first identified in North America in 1996) lead to a successful double thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail?  How does that then translate into a retiree's lifetime pursuit of hiking onward toward the endless horizon?

Looking back on it all, it seems a perfectly natural evolution.

The year was 2010.  I was living in a condo within walking distance of the 3100 acre Liberty Reservoir (the view from my favorite secret spot is shown above - there is no trail to this place).  Early in the year I had accomplished a major bucket list goal of climbing a 20,000'+ mountain in South America.  I was in the best shape in my life and didn't want to lose that fitness.

One spring day, I happened to be idly surfing the internet and was looking around the Maryland Dept. of Natural Resources web site when I came across this page about a newly discovered invasive called Wavyleaf Basketgrass.

My heart skipped a beat.  I had seen this grass.  I thought I had seen it on my frequent training hikes on a mile of steep trail in Cunningham Falls State Park. The web page had (still has) an appeal to report sightings and to get involved, so I contacted Kerrie Kyde through the email address given.  My report raised a stir because Kerrie had not had any reports of Wavyleaf occurring in Frederick County.  This would be a major setback, indicating that the plant had spread more widely than believed.

I promptly went back out to Cunningham Falls Park and scoured the places along the trail to Bob's Hill where I thought I remembered seeing the plant.  None.  I could not find a trace of it.  I felt embarrassed.  I searched my memories, trying to figure out what was wrong with my flawed mind.  And suddenly it hit me.  I had seen the grass on the few casual non-training rambles I had taken around Liberty Reservoir near my home--within the range where it had already been reported.  I quickly contacted Kerrie and confessed my mistake and apologized profusely.

This ignominious start had nonetheless piqued my interest in this new invasive.  Kerrie had high hopes of completely eradicating Wavyleaf Basketgrass from this continent before it got too widely established.  I volunteered to report to her the specific locations where I found it and then started scouting more of the Liberty Reservoir fire roads and trails around home.  One day I even happened upon Ed Uebel, the amateur botanist who had first discovered Wavyleaf back in 1996.  That was a thrill for me.  Ed was actually a retired Entomologist--a soft-spoken and humble old guy who seemed bemused at my excitement upon meeting him.  He was out working a patch of pine woods near Bollinger Mill Rd., pulling Wavyleaf up by hand--along with other common invasives that infest the same habitat--Japanese Stiltgrass and Oriental Bittersweet.

As I ranged the reservoir I was finding more and more Wavyleaf--so much that I began to doubt that it could be eradicated, especially since it had established on this sensitive Baltimore water supply watershed where they are reluctant to allow spraying of chemicals to control it.  Below is an example of a place where the stuff has entirely taken over.  All the beautiful carpet of greenery adorning this rocky knoll is Wavyleaf.

As summer approached I was hiking almost daily and reporting to Kerrie my findings using map coordinates and verbal descriptions.  Kerrie offered to loan me a GPS so that I could report the positions more accurately, and in a way that would be easier for her to use.

GPS!  I had never used one--never even considered it.  But I remembered my South American expedition where we used a GPS to tell us when we had exceeded the magical 20,000 foot elevation mark.  I told Kerrie that her offer was generous, but that I would go ahead and buy my own GPS.  I found a new but outdated Garmin unit for sale at REI for a really good clearance-sale price and bought it.

And that little gadget transformed my hiking from casual rambling to precisely recorded, reproducible tracks.  I was able to bushwhack my way around in the woods and not get lost.  I began ranging farther and wider around Liberty Reservoir, and I began to annotate my county map book with my tracks and mileages.

As I kept exploring new territory, looking for Wavyleaf, I began to realize how much more fun it was to hike a new and different place every day than to repeat the same few trails over and over, as I had done in my training hikes leading up to the South America expedition.  I hatched the idea to hike all the way around the reservoir--to scout a continuous trail and to report it so that others could follow.

I accomplished that complete circuit on July 25, 2010.  The map below is a consolidation of the map book pages on which I recorded all my travels.  It is full of detail and a very busy visual, but that's actually the point.  I hiked hundreds of miles in order to identify an 81 mile route around the reservoir - all the light lime-green or yellow-green lines.

Unfortunately the chosen route, indicated with the wider green highlighting, includes a couple miles of pure bushwhacking where the reservoir buffer property is too steep or too narrow to contain any fire roads and too remote to have any trails.

Okay.  Liberty Reservoir circuit hike accomplished.  What next?  I was staying in shape and loving the routine of doing a daily hike into unexplored new territory.  So I started ranging south from Liberty Reservoir onto the adjacent strand of state parkland along the Patapsco River.  I learned of the extensive network of trails in that park unit--about 170 miles of them.  I also revisited Cunningham Falls State Park and hiked more of the trails there, including the Catoctin Trail, maintained by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.  Since the Catoctin Trail ends just a couple miles from the Appalachian Trail, I took a few hikes along that famous trail as well.

A dozen or so miles south of Liberty Reservoir along the Patapsco River park corridor is Ellicott City, a place I used to live.  Sometime while I was doing these hikes in the summer of 2010 I hatched the idea that I would connect my footsteps to that former home and to another former residence in nearby Columbia.

At the same time I was falling in love with the AT and hiking more and more of it in Maryland.  I wanted to connect my footsteps to that, too, even as I was exploring more of the AT itself.  Eventually I got as far south as Harper's Ferry and visited the AT Conservancy office.  I talked with the enthusiastic reception-desk volunteer on duty that day--Judith "Judo" McGuire--and with staff there, including Laurie Potteiger and Dave Tarasevich.  And I bought some maps.  I was getting hooked!

I completed the connection between Liberty Reservoir and the AT on August 16th, 2010.  Now I needed more new territory to conquer.  So sometime later that summer or fall, as I continued to hike the AT south into Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, I resolved to hike to every place I had ever lived.  Since I had lived in State College, PA, in Wisconsin, and in Colorado, this would give me nearly unlimited opportunity to keep hiking new trail.

And thus was born the idea of a Personal Continuous Footpath - a personalized hike connecting meaningful places in my life.

As a child and teen I lived in Delaware and nearby southeastern PA.  In the summer of 2011 I completed the hike to those former residences.  And later I reached all of my far-flung Maryland residences.  The map below presents an overview of this ever-expanding spidery network of connected footprints.

Then in 2012 I completed an entire out-and-back double thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.  Now, as of this summer of 2014, I have completed the major 700 mile hike that connects my AT footprints with all my beach-hiking footprints around my new home on Topsail Island, NC.  For this I used a large portion of NC's state trail - the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST), newly rerouted to pass within just a few miles of my home.  Below is a map of this route (the purple).

Again this map is a little busy.  It shows a route from Hillsborough, NC (light blue) that connects up to the AT near Bedford, VA.  That was where I had originally planned to make the AT connection from Topsail, but instead I made the connection in the Roan Highlands of NC.  That left only a few hundred miles of the MST that I have not hiked.  Time permitting, perhaps I will be able to complete that before the calendar year ends and become a bona-fide MST thru-hiker.

Next up - I've already started west from the AT toward Penn State, Wisconsin, and Colorado by hiking a piece of the C&O Canal Tow Path.  Here's the blog post covering that hike.

From there I go up the Tuscarora Trail, veer north on the Standing Stone Trail where the Tuscarora turns east, take a short connector Trail to Pennsylvania's Mid-State Trail (another MST, if you will), and then walk a couple miles on roads to State College, PA where I took my undergraduate education.

Then it's back down to the C&O Canal and on west via the American Discovery Trail to Colorado with a detour to Wisconsin via the Grand Illinois Trail, the Jane Addams Trail, the Badger Trail, and finally onto portions of Wisconsin's highly rated state trail, the Ice Age Trail, which comes within a few miles of my birthplace and first residence, and as a bonus, passes right through the center of the town where my German Great-Great Grandfather settled upon immigrating to the USA in 1852.

So there you have it: the saga of how an insignificant little crinkle-leafed grass species launched a man on his life-long journey. :-)