Tuesday, September 20, 2016

As usual, the aliens is us

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space aliens, speculative fiction, short stories, collections, essays

I note upon looking back through my records that I have previously read only two books by David Brin. I reckon it is time to remedy that. His recent book Insistence of Vision gathers stories and a couple of excerpts from throughout his writing career, together with brief story notes and two essays on the craft of fiction writing and his views on its value (positive, naturally, but the key is why it is valuable). The first essay is titled "The Heresy of Science Fiction" and the second, "Waging War With Reality".

One core idea from the first essay is worth abstracting: The message underlying much speculative fiction is one of two moods, either "give up and give in" or "try harder and push forward". Brin is of the latter persuasion, concluding, "…we are the rebels. We who think change might (possibly) bring good." The following 21 stories (including a novelette) and the closing essay illustrate his optimism.

Even in a rather dark story such as the title one, "Insistence of Vision", in which the punishment for certain crimes is blinding (apparently reversible) of the natural eyes, and forcible reliance on virtual reality jacked right into the brain, which is not operative in certain "free zones"; in such a story the actual message is that sanctions more humane than those now practiced might be possible, and even effective.

Here is a basic formula: Discern a trend in society, technology, fashion, or whatever, and extrapolate it to a logical conclusion…or an illogical one! It seems simple enough, and one might think it would lead to one-dimensional fiction. Most certainly it can. But the dimensions available are as numerous as human personal variation allows, and the possibilities are endless. That is just one tool of speculative fiction. Consider a visit by Martians or some similar aliens who out-Spock Mr. Spock. Emotionless, logical to a severe extreme, and they have a grievance against certain persons here on Earth (One thinks of a space probes crash-landing and injuring someone powerful. Kind of like Dorothy and her Kansas house, dropped on the Wicked Witch of the East). How might those beings take vengeance? "Mars Opposition" provides one possible scenario. The plot twist upon the narrator is a "Brin Special", the kind of eye-opening surprise he is noted for.

What makes David Brin special is the believableness of his space aliens. That rests in the glimmer of familiarity. No matter how alien, you find yourself thinking, "I know someone like that" or "that's what I'd do!".

Looking the stories over, I find I must either summarize them all or stop here. I'd better leave more room for a reader's delight. Get this book, and do restrain yourself, so that it lasts more than a single sitting!

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