This week I started off with Theodore Sturgeon’s The Synthetic Man (better known under it’s original title, The Dreaming Jewels) another used bookstore find. A brief synopsis: A boy runs away from an abusive home, joins the circus disguised as a girl, and gets tangled up in the circus owner’s evil plot to use sentient alien gemstones to kill as many people as possible out of spite. I’m always a sucker for crystalline alien life, and the disguised-as-a-girl element sounded like an opportunity for some interesting stuff regarding gender identity, so I was pretty enthusiastic about this book, and I ended up enjoying it quite a bit.
The Synthetic Man was much more character focused than the last novel I read, using one deeply thought out sf concept as an angle to get at a very humanistic and tender story, which is much more to my taste as a reader. The vibe was ultimately celebratory and optimistic, one of those books where “what it means to be human” and such is very important to the action of the story and the motivations of the characters; all of the elements of the story, in fact, contribute to this idea effectively.
On paper, the book might sound a little cliched, or played out. The whole “kid runs away to the circus” thing might be a red flag for some, but the carny/freak show elements are treated with subtlety and sensitivity, and are used to good effect according to both the sf concept and the play with humanity; the “freaks,” as a systematically dehumanized population, have an important perspective for getting at the “essence of humanity” or whatever you want to call it. Likewise, the villain is basically a mad scientist, illegitimated and blackballed from the scientific community, and aiming to destroy humanity out of spite, but it didn’t really strike me how tropey and cartoonish that sounded until I went to describe him. Chalk it up to skill on Sturgeon’s part in making what should be a flat character relatively compelling; he has the subtlety and style to pull it off.
One of the really excellent aspects of the novel is its alien life; utterly bizarre and incomprehensible, and totally indifferent to humanity, but well-conceived. Tiny alien crystals seem to form replicas of living creatures and objects for no apparent reason. That’s where the title The Dreaming Jewels comes from. The replicas are byproducts of some unknown natural function, just as dreams are a byproduct of sleep, their purpose not understood. Just like dreams, the replicas are not always perfect, which is where the “freaks” come from. The question of how to communicate truly alien life when using earthly points of reference is a classic problem of SF, and of the different strategies I’ve seen, using a poorly understood phenomenon like dreams as a model is a pretty good one in my opinion. It’s also a nice subversion of the alien invasion narrative to have the alien life be completely indifferent and inaccessible to humanity except through the strange, tangible dream creatures. Sturgeon kind of skirts the classic question of “what do aliens want with Earth in the first place” and uses it to contribute to the overall effect of the book, which is great. Gosh, reading something unified, tight and cohesive is just so refreshing sometimes!
The one problem is that towards the ending, this concept does start to make things feel convoluted; the question of who is and isn’t a synthetic crystal dream person becomes really important, and on my initial read through felt a little overplayed. Thinking about it again after some time has passed, I realize that it’s actually fairly effective; the author has put in the work with the characterization, so that the choices he makes concerning who’s “real” and who isn’t open up some cool avenues of thought into the novel’s theme. (What a nice perk about writing reviews! A chance to unify your thoughts on a book after a little time away really helps everything come together in new and interesting ways.)
Another issue was that the climactic moments were a bit abstract; the kind of thing where the action all takes place in a character’s mind and spirit or willpower. I don’t necessarily love this technique, but it does give us a really heartwarming moment, so I’ll take it.
The gender-bending potential doesn’t really pay off in a groundbreaking or exciting way, but that’s not a huge letdown.
I’m a sucker for any book with book recommendations built into it. The Garden of the Plynck is now firmly on my ever-growing book wishlist. Thanks Theodore Sturgeon!
Final thoughts: A Good book! Read it!
Caves of Steel
I also read Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov. One of my professors told me she had a theory that when it comes to genre fiction you’re either a mystery person or a speculative person, which rang a little hollow for me. When someone recommended Caves of Steel as a novel which is both very classically sf, and very classically detective-y, it felt like a great addition to the quest this summer, since I’m interested in flexing my genre reading muscles a little bit, and also because I’ve found Asimov’s robot stories to be really enjoyable in the past.
As the book opened and laid out the problem, I thought “wow, this has a lot of potential!” and by the end of the book, I was thinking “wow, this has a lot of potential!” I fond the approach quite compelling, using a murder as a window into a cultural clash between the City dwellers of earth and the delegates from the independent colonized “Outer Worlds.” The problems of overpopulation and (in true Asimovian fashion) human/robot relations were also important. The novel has a satisfying Hercule Poirot in the parlor moment, where a seemingly minor detail makes the whole case come together, and it has some satisfying philosophical explorations, so ultimately the sf and mystery elements both succeed somewhat.
However, the novel has several flaws that hold it back. Some of these might have to do with its sf/mystery two flavor swirl, but I think mostly they’re on account of the mediocre writing.
I’ll admit I’m not much of an expert reader when it comes to the mystery genre, but one of the elements I like in mysteries I’ve read is that you get these occasional musings about the nature of human motivations, relationships, etc. These are appropriate to a mystery when an understanding of human nature can be a great tool for a literary detective. In Caves of Steel it felt like these deeply individualistic, human moments were replaced with the kind of large-scale “fate of humanity as a collective entity” questions that Golden Age science fiction is all about. Our detective’s musings lead him not to a deeper understanding of the motivations and human dynamics behind the case, but to ideas about how to solve humanity’s problems, which are tangential to the novel.
Plus, both genres risk feeling a little bit contrived when not handled correctly, and in the hands of a clumsy writer, they risk compounding each other’s weaknesses. Unfortunately, Asimov’s writing here is clumsy. A global population of 8 billion (a thousand years in the future, to boot) has led to changes so extreme that nobody’s ever heard of a window and the idea of a New Yorker going outside is so unbelievable that the detective proposes two embarrassingly outlandish conspiracy theories rather than even consider it. Considering we’re almost at that point now, the figure unfortunately dates the book quite a bit, and the transformation of Earth is just a little too extreme to be taken seriously. The fact that this plays a significant role in the detective’s logic leads to the red herring solutions (and even the final result) feeling just as outlandish.
More significantly, though, is the fact that the dialogue—whether it be the exaggerated, emotionless Mr. Spock statements of the robot, the fact that the cop’s teenage son starts every sentence with “gee whiz,” or the embarrassingly sexist treatment of his wife, Jessie—is flat and cartoonish. Speaking of Jessie, some of the most compelling moments centered around her, but overall, she’s hysterical, superficial and petty, and a major failure when it comes to the portrayal of women in science fiction.
Overall, I appreciate this book for what it does with genre, and despite my frustrations, I was satisfied and engaged for the most part. I just wish it had been executed much better.
I also read The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende, but that is another review, and it shall be posted another time…