Zen in the Art of Writing: ‘On the Shoulders of Giants’

Maybe I’ve been working too much too lately or am just getting old (I’m 37), but I thought I’d posted this chapter commentary already. I haven’t, so here it goes…

Much of this chapter has to do with what was once a taboo genre of literature. Once dubbed inferior and not worthy of being read by those who desired to read fiction, science fiction has over the years slowly gained an acceptance. Currently, the top grossing movie of all time, Avatar, is science fiction.

Mr. Bradbury starts off this chapter with a reference to a poem of his about a boy in a semi-animatronic museum in the future. The boy stumbles upon Plato, Euripedes and Socrates.

Kids, Mr. B asserts, became teachers early on in this first time in history as they moved art and teaching “back in the form of pure illustration.” Sci-fi gives us a chance to ask “what if” and be creative.

When I think of some of my favorite sci-fi movies and books, I think of the “What if?” questions they answered…

What if man could design a pressurized space craft to enter into Jupiter and explore its oceans? (Ben Bova’s Jupiter)

What if artificial intelligence took over the world, lost a critical battle to humans and then invented time travel to try to kill the human resistant’s leader’s mother before he was ever born? (The Terminator)

What would it be like for humans in deep outer space with nothing to do but do scientific research? (Frederick Pohl’s Starburst)

What would happen if a corporation’s greed for profits almost allows a hostile lifeform to take over a ship and destroy the crew? (Alien)

What happens when robots do the unthinkable and start thinking for themselves? (Philip K. Dick’s Bladerunner, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and Ray Bradbury’s Marionettes, Inc.)

I wasn’t born until 1973, so I was pretty surprised to learn that in the 1920s and 1930s, there was no science fiction in school curriculum and few in any libraries. Even up to 1962 it was difficult, according to Mr. B, to find anything written by Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Alfred van Vogt or Bradbury.

Why was this? I defer to Mr. B, since he was an adult and aware back then. He believes the perception then was that facts and not fiction were worth reading. Fantasy literature was considered escapist and a waste of time.

But inevitably, kids grew more and more curious and wanted to read these books. This led to an explosion. Sci-fi flooded the market. Instead of being confined to pulp fiction magazines or paperbacks in dime stores, sci-fi graduated to hard cover and was soon in libraries and first-hand book stores.

More importantly, according to Mr. B, sci-fi brought with it new ideas that then turned into advances in technology. People read these books and get ideas. Perhaps someone long ago read Jules Verne’s book about traveling to the moon and thought, “Why can’t we travel to the moon?”

This is one reason why I’ve grown to love the fantasy science fiction rather than the “hard” science fiction. Hard bores me. I’ve tried to read a few of these books and am amazed: unless you have an advanced science degree in physics or engineering, you’re often lost. Too often far too much time is devoted to technical information while the story line is left to wither. I like the stories that ask “What if?” and let the imagination take them where they will.

Richard Zowie is a professional writer who likes reading science fiction. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

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Review of ‘Jupiter’ by Ben Bova

Like my movie reviews, here’s how I review books I’ve read: I tell you the basic details and then what I liked and didn’t like and then my overall thoughts. It’s then up to you, the reader, to decide for yourself from there whether you want to read it. No Roger Ebert snootiness, no thumbs up or down. I find critiquing to be extremely subjective and seldom on target, so I take the modest approach. What works for me might not work for others, and vice versa.

Jupiter, by Ben Bova, is a science fiction novel about Grant Archer, a young, recently-married scientist who must complete his four-year public service at a space station orbiting Jupiter while his wife Marjorie remains on earth doing her service. Archer has no choice and is depressed once he arrives. As a Believer (presumably what Christians and other adherers of religious faiths will be called in this futuristic tale), he’s also sent by the New Morality to spy on what’s happening at the station.

Archer, who grew up in a Christian home, feels very conflicted as a scientist. He’s also very frustrated, feeling being stuck at Jupiter’s a waste of time when his field is astophysics.

Archer soon learns the station’s doing secret manned missions into Jupiter (something that’s absolutely impossible today due to the unimaginable pressure of the Jovian atmosphere and its oceans that make human existence out of the question) to look for intelligent life. This has New Morality very angry. Archer is eventually recruited into one of those missions.

This is an example of what one artist thinks Jupiter’s “surface” looks like. (Actually, Jupiter is thought to be one gargantuan ocean).

What I liked about this book: Wow. Just about everything. Bova does an outstanding job of pacing: he gives you enough technical details to set the scene and give you a mind’s eye of what’s happening but not so much so that you get bogged down and bored. He’s also not afraid to use his imagination and come up with some very ingenious ideas about entering Jupiter. The action is also very fast-paced with a few surprises here and there and a very satisfying ending. There were a few nights I stayed up well past midnight reading because, well, I had to know what happened next. I also took the book with me and read as I walked outside. I can’t remember the last time I did that.

Christians and religion are often portrayed with hostility in science fiction. I remember trying to read Contact and quitting in disgust over Carl Sagan’s horrific caricature of both Christianity and anyone who dares to be skeptical of evolution and ask questions. I don’t know Bova’s spiritual beliefs, but I believe he was very tasteful in his approach.

And, best of all, this wasn’t a corny space opera like Robert L. Forward’s Saturn Rukh. No cheesy metaphors for female breasts, no clichés like “body of a Greek goddess”, no space crews passing around herpes or some other STD. When Bova mentions sex a few times in the book, it’s used tastefully and to set the scene and little more.

What I disliked about this book: Very little. Nothing comes to mind.

The book poses a question: can you be a Christian and believe in evolution or extraterrestrial life? While I’m a firm believer in creationism and intelligent design, my answer to both is yes. One fellow Christian named Bob, who’s the brother I never had, leans towards evolution, as does his brother.

As far as ETs, my feeling is this: it’s a big universe. How do we know God didn’t create life elsewhere? There are many mysteries about God, and I suspect that the extrasolar planets are one of them.

Overall, Jupiter by Ben Bova was an excellent book that I loved. I will definitely read more of Bova’s books.