Book Review: ‘The World of Null-A’

Cover of The World of Null-A, with the illustration of a head partially covered in shadow. In the background are drawings of a man and woman, as well as rocket ships and very tall trees.

The World of Null-A by A. E. van Vogt

I wanted to enjoy this book more than I did. The set up for the book is large … The blurb on Amazon includes the bold sentence: “The entire careers of Philip K. Dick, Keith Laumer, Alfred Bester, Charles Harness, and Philip Jose Farmer were created or influenced by The World of Null-A, and so it is required reading for anyone who wishes to know the canon of SF classics.”

Talk about lifting your expectations.

I enjoy Philip K. Dick’s (PKD) stories, and I can see the influence of A. E. van Voght’s book on PKD’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.” That story was made into the movie Total Recall (1990) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, adding more action to stretch the story (which makes sense if you’ve got Arnold in the driver’s seat).

Back to The World of Null-A … I liked how the story started, with Gilbert Gosseyn about to join the games of the Machine, an immense structure comprised of 25,000 “electronic brains.” Winners of the games get to take a trip to Venus, which in this book is a forest planet. And if you do well in the games, you are chosen to be among the leaders on Earth.

A lie detector surprises our main character by saying he is not Gilbert Gosseyn, then adds that no knowledge exists in his mind about his true identity. So who is this guy? Through the rest of the book, the character is still called Gilbert Gosseyn as he searches for clues to his hidden identity.

The plot expands to include a cast of characters who are interested in Gosseyn, some of them thinking he has a role to play in an invasion from an empire that wants to take over Earth and Venus. Gosseyn jumps a couple times between those planets in his hunt for his true background. 

“Null-A” means “non-Aristotelian logic.” Some people in the book have had Null-A training and are supposedly able to think more rigorously and more nimbly than others.

A story around the novel is interesting … 

Back in 1945, author Damon Knight heavily criticized the book. Then, jumping to 1974, he offered context that softened his earlier criticism and gave a reason why some readers scratch their heads about odd jumps in van Vogt’s plots:

“Van Vogt has just revealed, for the first time as far as I know, that during this period he made a practice of dreaming about his stories and waking himself up every ninety minutes to take notes. This explains a good deal about the stories, and suggests that it is really useless to attack them by conventional standards. If the stories have a dream consistency which affects readers powerfully, it is probably irrelevant that they lack ordinary consistency.” Source: Wikipedia

I’m good with “dream consistency” — it’s part of why I enjoy Haruki Murakami’s stories. As for confusion: PKD’s plots also can be confusing at times, but they keep my interest. World of Null-A didn’t do that so well.

Scott Bradfield has an informative video about Null-A on YouTube. A broader discussion of van Vogt and this book is found in Dr. Gregory B. Sadler’s YouTube channel. He and a group chat about them as part of his “Worlds of Speculative Fiction: Philosophy, Fantasy, and Science Fiction.”

Book Review: ‘Parable of the Sower’

Front cover of Parable of the Sower. There is an illustration of a Black woman wearing a pink and orange dress. Around her are small shapes, like seeds.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

If you like dystopian fiction, I highly recommend this novel. 

The state of the union of America is chaos. Like Cormac McCarthy in The Road, Ms. Butler doesn’t dwell long on reasons why American society collapsed. Although, climate change and expanding wealth gap are mentioned here and there in this powerful novel. Unlike McCarthy’s novel, Parable of the Sower includes much information about the effects of that collapse.

Life is dangerous in unprotected places. People are apt to rob, kidnap, rape, and/or kill those who are seen as easy targets. When called, police might not show up. If they do, it could be the next day. You’ll need to pay a fee to the police for them to look into a crime. And there’s no guarantee they will follow through with an investigation.

The book’s main character, Lauren Olamina, lives in a walled community with her family—along with several neighbors—in a suburb of Los Angeles. Their life is safer than outside the wall, yet danger can arrive. Sometimes, thieves scale the wall and steal items the houses. And they steal vegetables from gardens and fruits from trees. In this future, food is scarce—unless you grow your own. Drinkable water is scarce, too.

Lauren’s father is a Baptist minister who who gives sermons in their house. And he teaches his children about guns and takes them for regular target practice. I mention this because of Lauren’s actions. She fires a gun several times in the hostile world to survive and protect people around her.

Also, Lauren develops her own religion: Earthseed. The overall book is comprised of Lauren’s journal entries. Before each chapter is an excerpt of the book within the book—Eathseed: The Books of the Living. One of those excerpts:

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

— Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower

Another of Lauren’s inheritances: “hyper-empathy” because her mother used a drug during pregnancy. With this condition, Lauren acutely feels pain and pleasure of other people.

Lauren Olamina makes for an intriguing main character. The book’s beginning has Lauren as a teenager and drama with her neighbors inside the walled community. Then Lauren takes a journey, and she navigates the lawless landscape of California. 

This is a gripping book, for the wildness of its near-future world. The story begins in July 2024, a mere three years from when I’m writing this review. The world in the story is very different than now. Much of society has regressed: slavery, purchase of people, company towns. There’s a new drug called pyro, which makes people stare at fires in fascination, and addicts go on killing rampages.

Octavia Butler has crafted a scary world here. Yet there’s light. That’s a lot of weight on Lauren’s shoulders. Thankfully, she has strong shoulders.

Review of 2 Books by Octavia Butler

Front cover of Bloodchild, which has a background of alternating bands of black and mustard color.

Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler. A collection of seven short stories and two essays.

These stories are masterful examples of weaving world-building into a story so it’s part of the tapestry. Contrasted with a writer stepping out of the story and speaking directly to a reader: “Okay, since this story happens far into the future, on another planet, I need to bring you up to speed on the lay of the land.” Then giving an explanation of the world.

I realize in fantasy and science-fiction stories this needs to be done to some degree. Some explanation is helpful to understand the physical and societal landscape of the different world. We’re not on Earth anymore, Toto.

Nor are we on Earth in the “Bloodchild” story. Rather, we’re on the planet of aliens called Tlic, and humans are kept in a limited area called the Preserve. (Echoes of how Native Americans have been treated in the US.)

The relationship between humans and the Tlic is interesting, as each group helps the other. Part of that is history: well before the time of the story, humans left Earth in search of safety and found it on the Tlic planet. There, the humans aided the Tlic. And now, the Tlic who live on the Preserve give narcotic comfort to humans, and male humans serve as hosts for Tlic eggs.

Octavia Butler had an amazing imagination to craft this story. Same with the others in this collection.

In “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” a cure for cancer has been created. But it has side effects. If a cured person has a child, that child develops a disease that causes them to be violent and hurt themselves. The story explores treatment for the disease.

In “Speech Sounds,” a sickness has spread through the world. With some people, they can’t speak any longer. With other people, they can’t read or write. The story follows Rye as she leaves Los Angeles and travels to Pasadena to be with her family. She must navigate a harsh landscape. Government has fallen, so law enforcement is done by people organizing on their own. Survivors scavenge for resources and some people take them by force.

The stories in this book show how a world can be condensed into a short story. To me, each story was like taking the lid off a jar and tipping it, so the fantastical contents roll out — but more contents come out than should’ve been able to fit in the jar. Ideas that could’ve supported a novel are in each story. And the stories can ignite us to envision more of those novels beyond their paragraphs.

Front cover of Mind of My Mind, on which a sihouette of a woman raises her arm and rays expand from her fingers.

Mind of My Mind by Octavia E. Butler

This novel is the second in Ms. Butler’s Patternist series.

The back cover text of this book really grabbed me: “For four thousand years, an immortal has spread the seeds of an evolutionary master race, using the downtrodden of the underclass as his private breeding stock. But now a young ghetto telepath has found the way to awaken—and rule—her superhuman kind, igniting a psychic battle from L.A. mansions to South Central slums, as she challenges her creator for the right to free her people … And enslave the Earth.”

Doro is the immortal being, and he has the ability to slide his consciousness into another person’s body. When the “shell” he occupies is hurt, say stabbed, Doro leaves that shell then occupies the body of the person doing the stabbing. Doro’s breeding plan is to create a population of telepaths — which includes incest. That’s in the story, as Doro sleeping with his daughters, without graphic description.

Mary is one of Doro’s daughters, and she develops telepathic powers stronger than any of Doro’s other offspring. She uses this power to summon other telepaths to join her in L.A. She hopes using her stronger abilities — together with the community she’s nurturing — will be enough to defeat the controlling Doro.

I didn’t like this book as much as Bloodchild. While the ideas in the book are interesting, I found the characters to be pretty flat. I rooted for Mary to win, given that Doro is so selfish and uncaring about other people (maybe that happens after living for 4,000 years?). Yet I didn’t feel the depth of emotional tug as I did with characters in Bloodchild.

I enjoyed the expansiveness of Ms. Butler’s story — it goes beyond the typical white dude protagonist of other sci-fi books I’ve read. Mary is biracial, has a single mother who works as a prostitute, and grows up in a poor neighborhood in Los Angeles. I believe Harlan Ellison crafted characters from similar cloth, but I can’t think of others sci-fi authors who did.


If you’d like to hear more about Octavia Butler, the Imaginary Worlds podcast has an episode about her — “Episode 48: The Legacy of Octavia Butler.” The host of the show, Eric Molinsky, talks with a few guests. One is Nisi Shawl, who says that Ms. Butler advised a writing class to write about their fears. One of Ms. Butler’s fears was not having control of your body. That came out in the “Bloodchild” story, with male humans having Tlic eggs placed in their bodies. And in Mind of My Mind, the people with telepathic powers place thoughts in the minds of average people, who don’t realize those thoughts are coming from someone else.

Man, that’s scary stuff.

Emergence

This story was published a year ago, on 365 Tomorrows, one of the highlights for me in the sludge year that was 2020.


Emergence
by Dave Williams

When the warnings blasted on radios and TVs and cellphone texts, Sasha called Tony and their frantic voices collided. “Is this real”—“Do what we planned”—“I’ll come get you”—“Get in the bunker”—“It’ll be faster if I get you”—“Stick to the plan.”

Then Tony’s voice vanished. Sasha tapped the phone’s screen, but the rings ended with his voicemail greeting. If she drove to his office, they’d be back home before he got here on the bus. If buses were running. Streets would’ve been packed with cars.

The plan had seemed ridiculous months ago, but they said “just in case” and figured searching for each other would’ve led to getting lost in chaos. Smarter to head home on their own. Her luck to be working from home today. Why couldn’t this happen on Saturday?

Sasha crammed food into bags—fruit, veggies, cookies, potato chips—and carried them into the bunker disguised as a shed in the backyard. A floor hatch opened to a ladder leading underground. A main room and tiny bathroom.

She had thought Tony was nutty for thinking the bunker was a great idea to buy the house. The bunker was a relic from the Cold War, when the homeowners feared Soviet and American missiles could fly in both directions. Tony had said, “It’d be cool to have something different. The kids could use the bunker as a fort.”

Two kids. Another plan. Since the bunker was well-maintained and not creepy, Sasha took the plunge. Tony became boy-like as he stocked the bunker with provisions. And he participated in decorating the nursery. Her doomsday-prepper jokes died off; let him have his fun. A joy to make the home their own.

Stick to the plan. Tony’s last words echoed in Sasha’s mind as she kept redialing his number.

The hand-cranked radio said, “Confirmation that missiles are targeting major metropolitan areas.”

Shock made way for tears lasting for weeks. Sasha gripped hope she’d hear a knock and Tony’s voice: “It’s me! Unlock the hatch!” Giving up on that, she gripped hope that Tony found a safe place. She cursed their choice to live in suburbs close to the city. Why not live in a small town? But those didn’t have as many jobs.

Madness threatened beyond her depression. She paced the room, ate junk food and raw produce, probed radio stations for news and music, hated herself for gratitude that she wasn’t pregnant. She yearned for children, but a newborn would’ve made this situation much more challenging.

She struggled into a routine. Did stretches throughout the days. Read used paperbacks. Acted as four opponents in Scrabble. Rearranged the old bed, table, chairs. Wrote her worries in a notebook. Frugally consumed the canned and dried food.

As months dragged, the food supply lowered. She grew disgusted with the bunker’s stale, unwashed odor.

The devil’s advocate won her inner debate, and Sasha opened the hatch. She ached for different environment, different air. In the shed, she listened to sounds of the outside world. Thankfully, birds were chirping. But no noises of cars. She was too scared to open the shed’s door.

Then she had to open it. The food was gone. She felt bad for nagging Tony about wasting money on canned goods. She never thought he’d be right.

Outside, she breathed deeply without caring if the air was radioactive. Either that or starvation. The sky and trees were gorgeous.

She went into her house for a shower, fresh clothes, large meal. Then she would decide where to search for other survivors.


copyright © 2020 Dave Williams

Book Review: Dune

Book cover of Dune: the silhouette of a man walking across a series of desert dunes

Dune (Dune Chronicles, Book 1) by Frank Herbert

My first experience with Dune was watching part of the David Lynch-directed movie (1984). I didn’t see the movie in a theater; I watched part of it when it came to TV — which was in 1988, according to Wikipedia. I remember being confused by the story, and I didn’t last through the whole movie. (I was 16 years old in 1988.)

I didn’t get around to reading the book until this year, so it’s my second experience. And it lived up to the description of it as one of the masterpieces of science fiction. Actually, it’s a masterpiece of a story — forget about genre for a minute.

This is one of those books that I thought during reading, How the hell did the author create this? As a self-published writer who feels like an amateur, to me the experience was like watching a master magician’s show and scratching my head in wonder about how the tricks were pulled off.

Why do I say this? Because Frank Herbert invented a world with various forces acting upon each other, societies, and histories to form the story’s setting. This is akin to Tolkien’s inventing Middle-earth in which to place The Lord of the Rings.

“I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows.”
Ernest Hemingway

However, Papa didn’t invent an entire, other-world for a story. Tolkien and Herbert created a huge mass of iceberg to support the tip that can be seen above the water’s surface.

I’m far from an expert in the Dune universe, but I’ll give it a go for the basics around this book…

At the start, House Atreides rules the planet Caladan. House Harkonnen rules Arrakis (Dune), a desert planet where “spice” is collected and shipped to all over. Spice is in demand for its ability to extend life, and to help see into the near future. The Emperor instructs House Atreides to leave Caladan and take over the rule of Arrakis. And, oh yeah, the Atreides and Harkonnens don’t care for each other.

House Atreides has Duke Leto, his “concubine” Lady Jessica, and his son Paul Atreides. Only 15 years old at the beginning of the story, Paul is the book’s main character. He is taught by his parents, as well as several mentors.

Lady Jessica is a Bene Gesserit, an all-female group that runs a school to teach keen powers of observation of others and control of their own bodies. Bene Gesserits act as advisors to the heads of Houses.

There are many groups, each with their own agenda to expand their power. The Houses, the Emperor, the Bene Gesserit, the Guild that controls travel among planets (they’re focused on commerce).

And there are the Fremen, the native people of Arrakis, who have learned to live in the very harsh conditions of the desert.

That’s a tiny part of the iceberg. I won’t go further about the plot, since the delight of the book is experiencing events unfold. If you want a plot summary, there’s the Wiki page.

Also, in the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, episode 417 has a really good, in-depth discussion of the book — hosted by David Barr Kirtley with guests Andrea Kail, Rajan Khanna, and Matthew Kressel. The episode is available on Youtube, Apple Podcasts, and Spotify.

I’ll wrap up by saying that Dune has political strategizing, knife fights, careful walks over the desert, rituals and life of the Fremen, and trippy moments. And let’s not forget about those enormous worms.

I admired how much ecology Frank Herbert included about Arrakis. Not only does that planet have a delicate ecosystem, the same adjective could be applied to any ecosystem:

“A system maintains a certain fluid stability that can be destroyed by a misstep in just one niche. A system has order, a flowing from point to point. If something dams that flow, order collapses The untrained might miss that collapse until it was too late. That’s why the highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences.”
— Planetologist Pardot Kynes, quoted in Appendix I: “The Ecology of Dune”

Herbert’s words were published in 1965, five years before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was established and the first Earth Day.

One almost-last thing! I never went back to watch the David Lynch movie of the book. Maybe I’ll check it out sometime. More importantly, there’s a new Dune movie directed by Denis Villeneuve. I don’t know when the movie will be released. I was excited seeing the trailer before I read the book, and reading the book made me look forward to the movie even more.

One last thing! The above swoon-worthy cover (yes, I typed swoon-worthy) was designed by Jim Tierney — and he created designs for the series. Please excuse my drooling.

TV Review: The Expanse

Bright Center Star Cluster, by NASA
Bright Center Star Cluster_by NASA on Unsplash

A year passed between when I finished watching the fourth season of The Expanse by myself and when my family started watching the series at the beginning.

While I liked the series the first time, the second viewing was even better. There was the sense of sharing the story with my family and talking about it together. And I more appreciated the arc of the characters who become the crew of the Rocinante.

James Holden says in the first episode, “No heroes here, Cap,” to Captain McDowell of the Canterbury, as Holden and a handful of characters are on a shuttle to investigate the distress call coming from the Scopuli.

Well, those characters go a long way, literally and figuratively, in five seasons of the show. Traveling the solar system (and beyond), they become heroes.

I enjoyed the series for the complex storytelling involving many more characters than the main folks of the Rocinante. And the characters are interesting for their motivations and goals, from Chrisjen Avasarala to Joe Miller to Bobbie Draper to Fred Johnson to Jules-Pierre Mao. All of them contribute to the plot’s weaving, their motivations pushing against each other, and conflicts arising.

The show takes place (mostly) in our own solar system, so we get a chance to see how fictional humans have ranged from Earth. And those new homes have consequences. The main source of conflict is among three factions — people from Earth, Mars, or the asteroid belt — in how they view and treat one another. We see how the effort to terraform Mars, and the delay of that goal, has affected Martians. And how mining has affected Belters, as well as scarcity of water. They view Earthers as spoiled by having breathable air and easy lives.

For an overview of the plot, split by seasons, where you can drill down to episodes, check out the Wikipedia article.

The Fandom hosts The Expanse Wiki if you want to check out that for more info.

The storytelling and characters are huge strong points for the series. To me, the details add a great deal to the show’s feel. I’m not an astrophysicist, but these details seem more “realistic” than other science fiction series and movies.

What I mean about the details…

Ships don’t have “warp speed” or “hyper jumps.” Instead of getting to a destination in a flash of zoomy lines, a ship takes a while to get there. This is important for different reasons, such as military ships traveling toward conflicts. And for rescuing stranded characters. In season 4, one character says it’ll take their ship a week to get to Illus. In The Expanse, ships are equipped with the Epstein Drive, which uses fusion.

Also on the note of speed, communications aren’t instantaneous. If characters are in close enough proximity, they can chat back and forth on video — such as Luna (our moon) to Earth. However, long distances can take more time for a video message to be delivered. In those cases, a conversation doesn’t happen, just a video clip is shown.

In the scenes on ships, we’re not treated to lovely backgrounds of stars through windows. The ships have video screens instead of windows, so the characters can check out different views on the screens. This might not be as scenic as windows, but it strikes me as more practical. Especially in battles, when fired rounds can punch through ships’ hulls.

Some ships have comfortable space for their occupants: Rocinante and various military vessels. But that’s not true across the board, as many ships have cramped quarters. For example, the Tynon, which Klaes Ashford captains for a time.

Gravity on board the ships isn’t automatic. When ships are not accelerating enough to simulate gravity, characters turn on the magnetism on the bottom of their boots, so they can walk and don’t float around.

This story began as a book series by James S. A. Corey. While researching for this post, I learned that isn’t one person, but the pen name of two writers: Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. I haven’t read the books yet, but I’ll have to make time to do so.

The TV show ran on the Syfy Network for three seasons, then was picked up by Amazon Prime and came out with seasons 4 and 5. I’m looking forward to season 6. Wikipedia says that will be the final season, but the authors say that’ll be a pause.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens after that.

Book Review: Nevertheless, She Persisted

Today I’m reviewing Nevertheless, She Persisted — an anthology of eleven flash-fiction stories.

The book’s blurb starts with:

She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted. Three short lines, fired over social media in response to questions of why Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced on the floor of the United States Senate, for daring to read aloud the words of Coretta Scott King.

The authors of the stories in this book are Seanan McGuire, Charlie Jane Anders, Maria Dahvana Headley, Jo Walton, Amal El-Mohtar, Catherynne M. Valente, Brooke Bolander, Alyssa Wong, Kameron Hurley, Nisi Shawl, and Carrie Vaughn

The stories are great examples of how a skilled writer can include a lot of information in a small space. These eleven flash stories manage to create other worlds by offering glimpses of those worlds and allowing the reader’s imagination to expand from there.

In the stories, women strive against forces that wish to keep them down. Several stories begin with the same three sentences: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” From there, the writers fly off in various directions. It’s interesting to see where different authors go from the same starting point.

One character battles a monster to defend a city. Another wants to connect her brain with a neural network. Another strives to escape a labyrinth. Another dares to touch the emperor’s heart.

I enjoyed some stories more than others, which is no surprise in an anthology of stories by different authors. Overall, I found this book to have quality sci-fi and fantasy stories.

As of today, the ebook is free on Amazon, a very nice incentive to check it out.

Book Reviews: Tanweer Dar

Book covers for Neon Nightmares and The Man With No Name

I’m adding book reviews to my blog, since I love reading fiction in addition to writing it. I want to share the books I’ve enjoyed reading and talk about them here. I plan on reviewing self-published authors and traditionally published ones.

Today, the reviews are all about cyberpunk. Two books by Tanweer Dar that bring the reader into a society that’s heavy with technology and neon. But not all is fun and sparkling in those lights.

Neon Nightmares

In the blurb for this book, there’s the phrase: “What could possibly go wrong?” Well, lots of things. And this book tells stories of what could go wrong with technology. It gives us fuel for the nightmare of rats that become resistant to a virus engineered to wipe them out. And the nightmare of a robotic pet dog that isn’t cuddly. And the nightmare in Neon Dreams, a nightclub where you’re supposed to dance the night away — not dance to your death. These are just a few of the 13 stories in this book. When someone says a smart apartment would be so convenient, that you could tell the system to dim the lights, change the music, change the temperature, etc. Yes, that would be convenient. But Tanweer Dar is here to tell us those conveniences have dark sides, too.

The Man with No Name

Tan expands the cyberpunk vibe into a longer story with this novella. It’s dark and gritty and full of action.

The man with no name is the loner type of hero, similar to Western movies. He’s got a gasoline-powered muscle car instead of a horse (people in the city travel in electric vehicles). Flashbacks allow the reader to understand why he has no name and add depth to his character.

The environment is vibrantly described, so I could easily imagine the city of skyscrapers, rife with advertisements, as the characters zipped from one area to another — all the characters with individual agendas.

And when those agendas intersect, there’s a lot of action. Some characters want to keep control, some want to regain control, some want escape. Tan keeps them rushing toward those goals. Hold on to your seat or reading device or paperback book: this story is a fast-paced ride.

Emergence Published

I’m very happy to that my short story “Emergence” is published on 365 Tomorrows! It was actually published on May 31, so this announcement is several days late. Please check it out when you have a few moments. It’s a flash fiction, at just under 600 words, so it’s not a long read. It’s a science fiction story about a woman who escapes to a bunker during a missile attack.