Book Reviews: The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection Edited by Gardner Dozois and Best Science Fiction of the Year Volume 3 Edited by Neil Clarke

Although I read the Clarke anthology and wrote its review first, I’m going to start here with the Dozois book. Gardner Dozois died recently, so this is the last time he’ll compile the best science fiction of the year for our edification. I have read several of his collections and, like most anthologies, I have usually found them a mixed bag of stories I think are great, stories I like, stories that are so-so, and a few stories I don’t care for at all. This last effort, though, is excellent, possibly the finest best of the year he produced – or at least the finest of the ones I have read. A fitting epitaph to a great career in the science fiction field. Every story is good to excellent, and the selection is wide-ranged and touches on many of the numerous facets of the science fiction universe. The Clarke collection, by contrast, as I explain below, is good but imbalanced, leaning heavily towards one type of story to the exclusion of others.

Both books have one immense flaw, which is more pronounced in the Dozois collection – so that I almost returned it to the library without reading it. (Glad I didn’t.) Although the book is an enormous doorstopper, the print is miniscule and the fonts are printed lightly instead of well-defined. It’s very hard on the eyes. My glasses couldn’t cope. I had to take them off and hold the book an inch from my face to be able to make out the words. I would have been much happier if the books had had half the number of stories in a larger and darker font.

Both books had several stories in common, including most of the stories I mention below in my appraisal of the Clarke volume. This is to be expected. The main difference, as I said, is that the Dozois book is much more open and encompassing in range of theme and subject matter. Clarke is just starting out as a best of the year editor, so hopefully he’ll improve as he goes along. Dozois, of course, has been long acknowledged as one of the greatest editors the science fiction field ever produced.

And now on to the review of the Clarke anthology:

Each “best of” editor brings their own particular tastes to their selections. Overall I would say that the proportion of stories I loved, stories I kind of liked, stories I tolerated, and stories I didn’t care for was about the same as most “best of” anthologies I’ve read. Early on I felt there is an unwieldy preponderance of interstellar stories, especially about multigenerational starships, which focus too much on the science and info-dumps of explanation and not enough on story. Most of the book, in fact, deals with space drama, space warfare, space politics, and, as I mentioned, intergenerational spaceships. Not to say that’s a bad thing; one of the best stories in the book, “The Tale of the Alcubierre Horse” by Kathleen Ann Goonan, concerns a multigenerational starship that invokes the mythology of Polynesian wayfaring. Deep space stories are not my personal favorite science fictional fare, however, and I found myself longing for an atmospheric dystopia, time travel conundrum, or far out idea set on Earth for variety.

Eventually I journeyed far enough into the selections to find the type of stories that set my sense of wonder into overdrive. One is “The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata, in which a scientist and master sculptor remotely building a monument on Mars must choose between her art and the lives of people in peril. Another favorite is “The Last Boat-Builder in Ballyvoloon” by Finbarr O’Reilly, a dark, truly original tale set in an Irish seaside village that posits a future in which the oceans have been taken over by a race of mechanical squid developed to consume the human refuse dumped into the seas. Other noteworthy stories include “Death on Mars” by Madeline Ashby, “An Evening With Severyn Grimes” by Rich Larson, and “The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer.

Neil Clarke is an award-winning, insightful editor, and I welcome this new series of “best of the year” anthologies as a further opportunity to broaden my reading in the field.

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Ride or Pi

ride or pi mountain

Check out this amazing but true story:

Samuel Nestor Walters (my son), born in Bangladesh to an American father and Greek mother, educated in Greek-language schools, at age 19 decided to embrace his American heritage and join the U.S. Navy. His ambition was to become a Navy SEAL. However, he first trained as a corpsman, or medic, was attached to a Marine Corps unit, and deployed to southern Afghanistan in what was at the time an intense battle zone. When he returned to the States, he received an opportunity for SEAL training, in which he persevered despite broken bones and other injuries.

After five years as a SEAL and ten years overall in the Navy, at the age of thirty he decided that it was time to move on to another chapter in his life. His first step was to gain the advantage of higher education. To this end, in his free time while still serving as a Navy SEAL, with the help of the free online educational organization Khan Academy he taught himself calculus and SAT preparation. The result? He applied and was accepted to Yale, Princeton, and Stanford. He opted for Stanford.

But that’s not all. To express his appreciation for the assistance of Khan Academy in realizing his educational dreams and to help finance world-class free education for all, he decided to turn his journey to Stanford in the early fall into a fundraising odyssey. Thus was born Ride or Pi.

The concept is simple, albeit epic. He proposes to ride a bicycle roughly 1,000 miles from Seattle to Stanford in 6.3 days, or approximately 2 x Pi. That’s about 160 miles a day, which means he’ll not be sleeping more than four hours or so a night for the duration of the journey. Totally worth it, says he, for the cause of worldwide education.

To prepare for the trip, during a brief respite in Greece, Sam trained on steep, winding roads in the hills east of Thessaloniki by cycling 50 to 100 miles a day. Additionally, he recently climbed Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in the country, carrying his bicycle. That’s an amazing feat; when I attempted Olympus, making it two-thirds of the way to the top without a bike on my back completely exhausted me. He made it all the way to the summit burdened with the weight of his hefty metal steed. The climb took him from 7 in the morning until 11:30 at night. That’s perseverance.

In summary, join Sam in spirit for his 1,000 mile trek, and support the tremendous educational institution of Khan Academy while you’re at it. Find out more at https://www.instagram.com/rideorpi/ and donate at www.facebook.com/donate/336706436872195/.

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Book Review: Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder

Let’s start this out the right way: It’s not hyperbole to say that this book hit me more profoundly, personally, and viscerally than any other book I’ve read in the past few years. One other possible contender about which I’ve written recently is How to Change Your Mind, but that’s about it. I stumbled across Nomadland by chance at the library when I was browsing through the large-print nonfiction section. I look to large-print books sometimes not only because they’re easier on the eyes, but also because others don’t think to look there, and I can often find popular recent books that have long reserve lists in the regular section. Damn, now the secret’s out.

Bruder’s book deals with a cast-aside segment of American society: itinerant workers who wander in RVs, campers, vans, and cars from temp job to temp job, trying to survive the best they can in the cracks through which they have fallen in the system. Most of them are elderly, and many were part of the middle or upper middle class with comfortable homes and well-paying jobs until fiscal disaster struck: for some, the recession of 2007 to 2009 wiped out their retirement savings; or their Social Security payments were grossly inadequate to deal with skyrocketing rental costs; or they were laid off from their jobs; or they suffered a medical emergency such as an accident or illness; or they went through a nasty divorce and lost their home. Regardless of their circumstances, they ultimately found themselves living in their vehicles and roaming from place to place trying to survive.

Although Bruder sketches a picture of people drawn together by circumstance building a joyful community on the road, the book is suffused with tragedy. These are not vacationers or comfortable retirees; they are old folks who have been forced out on to the road to eke out an existence roaming from one backbreaking minimum-wage job to the next. They face filth, hunger, loneliness, hoodlums, and laws that increasingly target homeless people as criminals just because they have no fixed address. The author points out that they do not consider themselves homeless but houseless. They feel at home in their vehicles surrounded by others who are in similar predicaments. However, at the end of the book, an elderly woman named Linda who has been one of the main focal characters is weary of life on the road and can think of nothing better than buying a cheap plot of land in a remote corner of the Arizona desert, building a small home, and settling down.

Why did this book hit me so hard? Apart from the fact that it’s fascinating and well-written, I identify with these disenfranchised people. I’m in my sixties and poor. I dump all the money I make and more that I manage to scrounge up into rent, bills, food, and household needs. I’ve daydreamed of getting back out on the road, but it’s not a choice for me now, as I am a single parent and want to see my youngest son at least through high school before I change situations. Still, as I said, I have envisioned myself roaming American in a camper van, although in my imagination I have enough money to get by comfortably so that I can write full-time and not take on outside jobs.

I have a lot of experience camping out in vehicles – but in Europe, not here in the States. I traveled all over Italy in various types of campers and vans in all sorts of weather and terrain. Eventually, when our family moved from Italy back to Greece, we bought a Mercedes camper van and drove there. My wife, our three young sons, and I lived in the van for months on the road in southern Greece until we finally found an apartment in Athens. I used to love living in campers: the adventure, the constant changes of scenery, meeting new people. And my particular thrill: being snug and warm in the van while heavy rain drums on the roof.

I was younger then, though, and southern Europe is a far cry from the United States. I always felt safe on the road in Europe, and it was easy to find places to park. People were respectful and hospitable; there was none of the stigma of homelessness that is so prevalent here. I don’t know if I would feel so joyous and free roaming the roads in America. As I mentioned earlier, people have an irrational distrust of those with no fixed dwelling. They fear what they don’t understand. And often they lash out at what they fear, either legally or with vigilante actions.

I don’t know what my personal future holds, but this book gave me great sympathy for the many elderly homeless who are forced out onto the road by circumstance. It illuminates a segment of society of which many are unaware. Someday we’re all going to age, folks, and many of us may be exposed to difficulties such as those described in this book. Those who want to remain nomads should be treated with respect, not approbation, and there should be places to go for those who want to come in off the road.

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Book Review: The Writers: A History of American Screenwriters and Their Guild by Miranda J. Banks

After my six-week stint at Clarion West science fiction writing workshop in 1973, my epic hitchhiking journey down the West Coast, through Mexico and into Guatemala, my return to Seattle, and my abortive attempt to get normal jobs, I got it into my head to move down to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter. I packed up my typewriter and transferred it to an apartment in the San Fernando Valley where I hoped to be able to write gripping drama and win fame and fortune. Alas, life does not always follow the same scenarios as our dreams. I wasn’t ready to write yet. I didn’t know what I wanted to say. I had a few friends down there, but most of the time I was so damned lonely it almost paralyzed me. I smoked dope, took acid once or twice, and wrote one teleplay synopsis in collaboration with a Clarion buddy that got shopped around a bit and then cast aside. Seeing the futility of my endeavors, I followed the urgings prompted by Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, Jack London, and others, and hit the road in search of adventures and my literary voice. That is a summary of my brief attempt to knock at Hollywood’s golden doors.

There are, of course, people who make careers out of writing for film and television. This book is not about how they write their stories or how they get started. Instead, it tells about their attempts to unionize and wrest appreciation and suitable payment from the producers and studios. Without writers, everyone else in Tinsel Town would be sitting around twiddling their thumbs. (I was going to use another expression but decided to keep this family-friendly.) Writers fuel the machine. Writers provide the stories that the rest of the apparatus molds and shapes and puts into pictures and sound. But writers, traditionally, have been given short shrift in favor of directors, producers, and anyone else with the money and clout to take center stage.

The stories of the birth and growing pains of Writers Guild of America West and East is fascinating, although it may not appeal to film lovers as much as biographies of their favorite celebrities. As I mentioned, writers are unsung and unappreciated heroes. The value of this book is in its insight into the industry from a different perspective, from those who work in it behind the scenes. Anyone who contemplates a career as a writer of film or television should read this book. It reminds us that not all the streets are paved with gold and that most of the players who make visual entertainment media what it is have to work hard to achieve any measure of success, much less recognition.

I enjoyed this book immensely, but then, I already knew a lot of the background from other books, articles, and essays I’ve read over the years. It introduces a lot of writers, a lot of history, and a lot of struggles and strikes that the guild membership endured on the road to what it has become now, which is still a work in progress. If you have any ambitions at all to become a writer of stories for the silver screen, read this book.

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Book Review: Lara: The Untold Love Story and the Inspiration for Doctor Zhivago by Anna Pasternak

At the beginning, I need to make two things clear: this is an excellent book, and I almost couldn’t bring myself to read it because of the packaging. I realized by the time I had read a dozen pages that the title, the cover illustrations, and the blurbs were exceedingly deceptive. They make it appear as if the book is some sort of ethereal and light-hearted romantic adventure, while in fact it is a profoundly dark tragedy. They also lead prospective readers to believe that Boris Pasternak’s lover Olga is the book’s main character, and that she was the main impetus for the writing of the novel Doctor Zhivago. In fact, as this book admits, Pasternak had conceived the idea of writing the epic novel that became Doctor Zhivago long before he met Olga, and although the relationship between Pasternak and Olga was inspiration for numerous facets of the relationship between Yuri Zhivago and Lara, the book also explains that Pasternak took aspects of the backgrounds of his two wives to deepen the character of Lara. She is a composite. As for the cover, instead of mirroring the stark reality of the actual contents, it is strewn with brightly colored flowers as if it is illustrating a fairy tale. After you read the actual text, this phony gaiety is very off-putting.

The main storyline of this book, at least what makes it outstanding for me, is the process of the writing of the novel Doctor Zhivago. It is Pasternak’s only major piece of prose apart from his translations. He was already a famous poet when he undertook to begin his epic novel. The book explains that poets in Russia were lionized like rock stars are today. Pasternak was considered one of Russia’s finest poets after the publication of his first volume of poetry in 1921. He worked on Doctor Zhivago, which eventually covered a sweep of time from the Russian Revolution of 1905 to World War II, for decades until completing it in 1956.

The Russian government’s rejection of the novel and refusal to publish it is one of the great scandals in literature. Publishing houses led Pasternak on, promising to publish it but never having any intention of doing so. Eventually, an Italian smuggled a copy out of the country and presented it to an Italian publishing company, which brought forth an Italian translation that became an immediate bestseller. Shortly afterwards, the book came out in multitudes of other languages. The CIA was responsible for putting out the first Russian edition, which it distributed clandestinely to Russian visitors to Europe.

In 1958, Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. The rest of the world rejoiced, but in Russia this was an outrageous scandal. The KGB, the Writer’s Union, and the Russian government made life hell for Pasternak. They harassed him relentlessly until he was forced to decline the prize. During the era of the great purge in Russia, Stalin, for superstitious reasons, had given orders that Pasternak was not to be touched. Instead, to punish him for his unorthodox writings, the police had arrested his lover Olga and sent her to a labor camp. After Pasternak’s death, they arrested her again along with her daughter, and they both did time in prison and work camps.

I don’t want to diminish the importance of Olga to Pasternak. I only want to emphasize that that is one thread in a complex story concerning the life of the writer and the creation of his novel. Lara also has extensive sections about Pasternak’s two marriages, his fight to get the book published, and his deterioration in the aftermath of the fracas about the Nobel Prize.

One thing that hit me hard while I was reading the tragic closing chapters of this book was how uncertain fame and fortune are even to writers of exceptional quality. Pasternak’s is not an isolated case. Many internationally acclaimed writers led tragic lives and came to tragic conclusions. Pasternak devoted his life to the completion of his novel; it was his overwhelming priority for decades. He managed to get it published and it achieved astounding success. However, although his publishers made millions off the book, Pasternak was unable to personally profit, as he couldn’t get his royalties into the country. The rest of the world lauded him as a novelist of genius, while in Russia he was shunned, isolated, and thrown out of the Writer’s Union. When he died, the location and time was not officially publicized, but word got round underground, and despite the risk, his funeral was attended by thousands. Doctor Zhivago was not published in Russia until 1988, and it was not until 1989 that one of Pasternak’s sons was able to go to Stockholm to receive his posthumous Nobel Prize.

Not too long ago I read the novel Doctor Zhivago for the first time; I have been a fan of David Lean’s film since I was a young teen. Pasternak’s life illustrates for me the profound responsibilities of a writer. He wrote Doctor Zhivago because he felt he had to, in the face of intense pressure and approbation. He remained true to his artistic vision despite almost insurmountable obstacles. Being a real writer is not about becoming famous or making lots of money; it’s about writing the words you have inside you that need to be written, no matter what it costs you personally. It cost Pasternak everything. I recently read a Paris Review article by the late Ursula Le Guin in which she said that the Sartre Prize for Prize Refusal should have been called the Boris Pasternak Prize. She emphasized that Pasternak was one of her true heroes. I think that he has been a true hero to a lot of people, and to writers in particular he epitomizes the need to place art above other petty and selfish considerations.

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A Second Look: Sunflower: A Novel

sunfloweralternatecover

A sequel of sorts to The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen:

 In early 1970 a new era, the Age of Aquarius, seems to be dawning. Penny, who adopted the name of Sunflower on the way to the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, attends another rock concert touted as Woodstock West, at Altamont Speedway near San Francisco. Seeking to enhance the transcendent Woodstock experience, she instead comes away covered in the blood of a man brutally stabbed to death in front of the stage.

 Has the new youth experience descended from idealism to anarchy? To find out Sunflower, confused and disillusioned, embarks upon an odyssey across an America torn by violent Vietnam War protests, racial tension, and gangs of hard drug dealers. From a search for a shared social experience it becomes a personal quest for fulfillment that leads her on a journey across continents.

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Vision of a Bright Flower in a Remote Jungle: An Encouragement to Self-Publishers

Let’s go on a journey together, you and I, far, far from our familiar habitat, to the most remote corner of the Earth. Where do you envision it? Deep in the Amazon jungle, perhaps? In the remote wastes of the Siberian tundra? In an oasis by a waterhole in the Australian outback? For the purposes of our illustration we have to imagine that a flower grows there, but it doesn’t really matter whether or not that would really be possible. My most remote place is a valley deep in the forests of Papua New Guinea. Wherever you picture this place, add to your vision of it that no human has ever seen it, that it is the epitome of pristine. And now think of the flower. It should be brightly colored and set in the midst of emerald foliage. If it’s in a jungle, sunlight stabs through the overhanging branches and strikes it in such a way as to bring out its dazzling, luxuriant colors. Around it you can envision what you will: hills, valleys, waterfalls, a gently flowing river. Now this is the important thing: imagine that this flower, this gorgeous flower, this breathtaking flower that rivals any flower that has ever existed in the world for beauty, has never been seen by a human being. It has grown to maturity in this remote place without ever having been accorded appreciation. Still, it is there. It exists.

Is it real? Is it as significant as a possibly less lovely flower growing in Central Park that is seen and appreciated by thousands of passers-by daily? Central Park flowers don’t even have to be breathtaking, come to think. They still impress people with their soot-covered humble beauty because they are the only game in town.

The image of the flamboyant flower in the deep jungle came to me very strongly when I was out on a walk last week. It encouraged me in a strange sort of way. Whether or not anyone sees it, the flower is real, of course. Its incomparable beauty, scent, and texture are real. Despite its unsurpassed elegance, though, it will never be appreciated by humans as the ultimate in floral splendor. Other lesser flowers will receive that honor because they are obvious and visible.

You may have already caught the comparison I am making here. I am thinking of unknown works of art, specifically of works of literature. Self-publishing has enabled people to publish their works, works that would have in the past been shut down by literary gatekeepers such as publishers, editors, and, increasingly, accountants as large companies look more and more to their bottom lines. However, this has caused many works to become buried in the sheer volume of new books being published. So the question is: are these works valid, even if they are hidden amidst the rest? When I write this I am thinking of my own books, of course, and wonder if their publication is justified even if they don’t sell well – or hardly at all. Are they valid as artistic output even if they are like that flower in the jungle’s remote forgotten glade? Do they exist? Do they have value? Are they real?

I have to answer yes to these questions. They are real and they have value. Unlike the flower we envisioned at the beginning of this essay, they will not wilt. They will continue to remain in that remote location, shining brightly whether or not anyone sees them, until one day, someone might chance upon that locale, and become enraptured, and appreciate their worth, and tell others, and beam the light of awareness upon that previously unknown place.

Does the unknown flower have as much value as one set in a city park? You can answer that question any way you like, whatever seems real to you. My answer is yes. Yes, it does.

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A Second Look: The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen

MamaKitchen_V2Big

My second novel:

 Sarah Tabitha Jones, a twenty-year-old fascinated by the youth culture of the late 1960s, leaves her middle-class home and wanders to a wilderness commune and then to the Haight/Ashbury in search of truth. On the way she encounters many strange characters: bikers, draft dodgers, Vietnam War veterans, peyote worshipers, heroin dealers, Jesus people, feminists, violent anarchists, Black Panthers, and science fiction fans. She experiments with drugs and sex, but at the same time helps out those she can; though often disillusioned, she believes that hippies should unite to create a better world. In the midst of all this she finds herself pregnant. Eight and a half months later, undaunted, belly bulging, she travels to Woodstock for one last attempt at finding the love and unity she seeks.

 The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen will appeal not only to those who lived through the disconcerting era of the 60s and 70s but to those younger who are curious about what took place back then. It will also resonate with anyone who is idealistic and in search of personal fulfillment, as well as those who simply enjoy a wild tale: sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, sometimes violent, sometimes sexy, always extreme.

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Book Review: How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan

This fascinating book focuses on the new research that has been done in the last decade or so in the field of psychedelics. On the way, the author visits various institutions where studies are being carried out and interviews scientists, therapists, and subjects. He also recounts the history of psychedelic research since Albert Hofmann first discovered and synthesized LSD in 1938. He describes the research done by various labs in the 1960s and 1970s, the CIA experiments on mind control known as Project MXULTRA, the widespread use of the drugs for recreation during the hippy era, and Timothy Leary’s outlandish antics that eventually brought about the classification of LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and other psychedelics as Schedule I dangerous drugs according to the Controlled Substances Act, which led to the elimination of virtually all research for decades. The author also goes into the neuroscience of psychedelics and a description of the use of psychedelics for the treatment of depression, addictions, the trauma of approaching death for cancer patients, and other mental disorders.

One of the most interesting facets of this book, and what elevates it several grades above a mere history or science study, is that Pollan adds memoir by trying LSD, psilocybin, and other psychedelics and then writing about his experiences. This all adds a heightened level of verisimilitude. For his own safety and peace of mind, each time he uses the drugs he does it in a controlled setting with an experienced guide. This is a method that he endorses throughout the book. He argues that since psychedelics are so powerful and volatile, it is imperative to use them in carefully crafted surroundings with people who know how to help you out if you become discomfited.

Early on in the book, Pollan mentions that in his opinion psychedelics might be one of those experiences that are wasted on the young, and that they might be more valuable to people later in life that need further navigation to go the distance. I know that when I started taking psychedelics when I was a teenager I was totally unprepared for what transpired during my trips. I took them as casually as I did any other drug such as marijuana or alcohol, and my experiences often deteriorated rapidly into chaos and paranoia. I stopped taking them entirely for awhile. Later, when I was slightly older, I took them occasionally, but I was more careful about the surrounding environment and who I took them with. Pollan emphasizes the importance of careful selection of setting and companions, and I have to say that I agree. My best psychedelic experience was when I was visiting Katmandu in Nepal. I dropped LSD with a German traveler, and together we took a path up to the summits of the foothills surrounding the city where we had a breathtaking view of countless snow-covered Himalayan peaks. It was truly a transcendental experience.

Pollan is at his best when he is writing as a journalist or a memoirist. The book is fascinating throughout and only lags a bit at the end when he tries to summarize his findings and come to some conclusions. Because the new psychedelic research is still in the fledgling stage, he goes into a lot of speculation that is not much more than guesswork.

The book definitely advocates the controlled use of psychedelics for the treatment of anxiety about death, addictions, and depression. Pollan is a bit more ambivalent when it comes to using psychedelics for recreation, but encourages them as a means of spiritual enlightenment.

I have to admit that as I read this book, I couldn’t help but wonder what a psychedelic trip would do for me now, at this age and in this stage of my life. Although creativity is a profoundly important part of my existence, I have settled into certain grooves and habits of thought and behavior that seem very repetitive and counterproductive. Pollan explains that neurologically, psychedelics help break people free of their default mode network, or DMN, which causes them to follow predetermined courses, and opens them to new paths and possibilities. Researchers have found that neurological patterns of people on psychedelics are similar to the patterns of children under five years old. The egos that have shaped their adult behaviors have been eliminated, allowing them to view the wonder and brilliance of the cosmos unimpeded. I could use some of that; a fresh perspective would be good for me.

Of course, for me the possibility of trying psychedelics again is a mental exercise; it would take a profoundly safe and serene setting and an excellent companion or companions around for me to attempt it. However, for those suffering from various mental afflictions, psychedelic therapy may offer great hope. I was talking with a friend of mine the other day, a veteran who was stationed in Iraq diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. She told me that psychedelic therapy is available for veterans with PTSD. I was surprised but heartened at the liberality of the veteran’s administration in this regard. It could very well be that the current research being done with psychedelics will harbinger a new era of treatment based upon the inherent value of the pharmacological substances rather than fear of the imaginary boogiemen of the past.

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Book Review: Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

I never read this book back in the early seventies when I was absorbing a lot of science fiction and attempting to make some sort of impact as a science fiction writer – even though it was highly acclaimed and won multiple awards. Admittedly I was veering away from a strict diet of science fiction and fantasy at that time, the early 1970s, devoting many of my reading hours to such writers as Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Jack London, and Henry David Thoreau. Additionally, the science fiction I did read was mostly part of the literary movement that became known as the New Wave. Examples of New Wave writers – who heavily emphasized style, mood, characterization, and analysis of hot contemporary political and sociological topics – include Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, Samuel Delaney, and James Tiptree, Jr.

Arthur C. Clarke was decidedly not part of the New Wave. He falls more into the category of classic or Golden Age science fiction writers, who relied more on ideas than characterization and style to fuel their stories. Rendezvous With Rama is a case in point. The style is rudimentary: basic serviceable English without any bells and frills. As for characterization, there is little to none. The characters are all but interchangeable. All that we know about their differences is that some are male and some female, some outrank others, some are older than others, and some have specific useful skill sets. Most of them have short Anglo-Saxon names that you might find in a list of the fifty most common names in England, with the exception of an occasional Boris or Rajiv that evidence no other difference than name to the rest of the cast. Racial diversity does not appear to exist in the twenty-second century, and men still hold all of the important and high-ranking positions. I don’t mean these comments as any particular disparagement of Clare’s work. This sort of blandness and lack of social progress was common back then in much of genre fiction, and the revolution that elevated science fiction to a higher art form as exemplified by the aforementioned New Wave was just picking up steam.

Now let’s move on to the positive side of the ledger. Despite the blandness, lack of characterization, and pedestrian style, Rendezvous With Rama has one thing in abundance that turns it into a terrifically entertaining reading experience: an overwhelming sense of wonder. Clarke’s gift as a writer was to be able to take scientific possibilities and projections, envision them, and make them come alive to his readers. In this book he takes us along as a space ship investigates an enigmatic phenomenon that has entered our solar system: an enormous cylinder that turns out to be an alien spacecraft that has been voyaging through the universe for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years. Inside, the investigating space ship crew discovers evidence that an astonishing degree of intelligence was behind the crafting of this technological wonder. In a series of short chapters, Clarke leads us on into this intricate microcosm. He uncovers it all as if through the eyes of the crew members, one detail at a time.

It’s all exciting, wholesome, mind-bending fun. As I said, the strength of this book is the sense of wonder, the uncovering of mysteries. Although it appears as if the explorers are in danger from time to time, they always get out of it quickly. There is never any pulse-pounding excitement. Again, that’s not a disparagement. The overwhelming feeling is one of awe.

Arthur C. Clarke is famous, of course, as the co-author of the ground-breaking film 2001: A Space Odyssey. He also wrote numerous other well-received novels such as Childhood’s End (which I remember thrilling to as a young teen) and The Fountains of Paradise. He was a master of cosmic-scaled ideas, and Rendezvous With Rama is an excellent example of his work.

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