April 26th, 2010

Reed, Brunner, Gladwell

Books Considered: Julian Comstock, by Robert Charles Wilson; The World Swappers, by John Brunner; The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell

It's been a while since I've posted -- sorry! One reason is that I spent a week in the Baltimore area on business. But mostly I've just been busy with regular review assignments. Anyway, a pretty good variety of books here, I suppose. A current Hugo nominee, a slim 50 year old novel from one of the field's greats, and a 10 year old nonfiction bestseller.

It strikes me about Julian Comstock that it's not very high-concept, which is a departure for Robert Charles Wilson, whose books are often built on quite striking SFnal ideas, such as the time-slowing barrier around Earth in Spin, or the weird reversion to prehistoric times of Darwinia. Julian Comstock, instead, has a fairly straightforward post-Collapse scenario. In the '50s a book like this would have been set after a nuclear war. Julian Comstock, instead, is set in the 22nd Century after an economic collapse caused at least in part by global warming. The United States, which now includes Canada, has devolved to essentially a religiously-dominated monarchy, though the "President" is still elected. The narrator is Adam Hazzard, ambiguously a member of the "leasing class". (American society has become formally divided into three classes: Aristos, leaseholders, and indentured laborers.) He lives on an estate in Athabaska, somewhere (I presume) in what is now western Canada but has become one of the 60 states of the U.S. His closest friend is Julian Comstock, the nephew of the President, sent to Athabaska to keep him out of sight of his Uncle, who is suspicious of any rivals, and who in fact had Julian's father executed when he seemed to be becoming too popular. Adam is an eager reader of boys adventure books, and indeed hopes to become a writer. (As it is clear he does, this book being purportedly his account of Julian's career.) Julian is also interested in books, but more particularly banned "Philosophy": that is to say, 20th and 21st Century science, now banned by the religious authorities.

The US is engaged in a protracted war with the "Dutch", who occupy Labrador. Adam and Julian end up conscripted into the Army, but Julian takes an assumed name to avoid his Uncle's attention. Much of the novel then follows their military career -- first in Montreal, then campaigns in Labrador. For Adam this is significant as he falls in love with a rather odd young woman, a singer, and gains her affection (ambiguously, perhaps) when he rescues her from her abusive brothers. Adam also meets a war reported who gives him advice on writing, meantime stealing Adam's firsthand accounts of battles and passing them off as his own work. This becomes particularly significant when Julian, in classic style, reveals his bravery and military brilliance -- and Adam's account becomes a bestseller, and they return to New York, to deal with Julian's Uncle.

The rest of the story concerns Julian's conflict with his tyrannical and insane Uncle, and his eventual plans for a better government. All this is complicated by his anti-religious attitudes, and by the enmity the established Church leaders have for him. Julian also becomes obsessed with bringing Philosophical ideas back, going so far as to sponsor the production of an adventure film about Charles Darwin. All this, of course, cannot end quietly.

I liked the novel a lot. Robert Charles Wilson is a wonderful writer. Adam and Julian are both interesting characters. Adam in particularly is almost absurdly naive, and that comes through in nearly every line of the book. Julian is more complicated, and his career, which in my brief synopsis looks clichedly heroic, is much more ambiguous -- and believable -- in Wilson's telling. I'd say it's a worthy Hugo nominee, though perhaps not the winner.

I really enjoy most of John Brunner's work, particularly his early career output, less ambitious, a bit slapdash, but generally quite fun. The World Swappers comes from the middle of that period, 1959. It was originally half of an Ace Double (backed with A. E. Van Vogt's Siege of the Unseen), though my copy is a later single reprint. It's about 45,000 words.

It's set in the 26th Century. Earth is comfortable but slipping into stagnation, and becoming overcrowded. Thirty-one planets have been colonized, and they are at various levels of their own comfort -- though none is as well off as Earth. One man wants to "rule the Galaxy", by which he means, solve both Earth's problems and the colonies by encouraging people from Earth to move to the colonies. But there will of course be problems -- friction between the "new" immigrants and the older colonists. The story opens with this man, Bassett, encountering a mysterious man named Said Counce, who says Bassett is going about things entirely the wrong way, and offers help -- an offer which is refused. Counce has his own motivations -- he is part of a group trying to encourage humans to get along better, and he believes more transfer of colonists between colonies -- and Earth -- if done right, will help this process. The particular need for this is not just a general desire for brotherhood -- Counce and his group have found evidence that intelligent aliens have explored planets near Earth's colonies.

The action then mostly focuses on Ymir, the poorest of the colony worlds, founded by religious fanatics who have tended to make a virtue of their poverty. Their world is all but uninhabitable to humans: it is too cold. But the aliens prefer colder worlds -- and then it seems that they know of Ymir, and may be heading there. This adds urgency to Counce's plans, which involve subverting the young people of Ymir to rebel against their parents' attitude. Eventually he hopes that they will be the leaders of a movement to abandon Ymir and emigrate to other colonies ... for a variety of reasons.

Things start happening fairly quickly, involving a pretty young Ymiran girl, and Anty Dreean, a brilliant but unconfident new recruit to Counce's movement. We learn some secrets behind Counce's group -- particularly their tech, which includes immortality and instantaneous matter transmission. Indeed the immortality comes from the matter transmission -- a copy is save each time you use the "transfax", and if you die, you can be reconsistited from the copy -- with edits. This is very similar to what Wil McCarthy does in his Queendom of Sol novels. It's a natural result of the idea of matter transmission when applied to humans retaining consciousness and memory through a transmission -- and I wonder when the idea was first used in this fashion. Was it Brunner in 1959?

Anyway, the crisis occurs -- aliens encounter Ymir, are diverted, react with hostility. The problem is not just making humans tolerate aliens -- it's making aliens tolerate humans. (Shades of Stephen Hawking!) ... Things are of course resolved happily enough. I have to say, this isn't one of the best of Brunner's early novels, despite some definite ambition, or perhaps because of it. The actions and motivations really don't convince -- the plot doesn't hold together -- the good guys do some high-handed things that we are assured are right, but which seem questionable to me. (They work out, of course!) Interesting, but not really all that good.

Finally, I at long last read Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, which was a huge bestseller back in 2000 or so. Gladwell is a staff writer at the New Yorker, and I love his articles in general. He does a great job of looking at fairly mundane subjects closely and from a slighly slant angle. In The Tipping Point he suggests that fairly small things sometimes have a huge effect, especially as regards "epidemics" -- whether the epidemic is a disease, or an idea, or sales of a product. He also details the importance of people he calls "Mavens" (experts), "Connectors" (communicators -- people who know a lot of people), and "Salesmen".

It's fairly interesting, and usually fairly sensible, but at times a bit annoying. Anecdotal evidence is sometimes presented as proof. Obvious things are celebrated as if remarkable. But those are to some extent quibbles. There is a lot of good in the book, and most of the ideas seem pretty worthwhile. I was particularly struck by the "law of the few" -- the idea that a group should be no larger than about 150 to be an effective unified "team". Still, I have to say that at book length I was less enthralled by Gladwell's writing than at article length.