Monday, November 05, 2007

Review of Destiny's Road and Other Thoughts

Here's the thing that's starting to bother me. I hear rumblings...nothing serious, just wistful thinking on the part of people right and left who are starting to hate representative democracy and wish--oh, just so slightly--that we could have a dictatorship for a short while to keep those people down. You know what I'm talking about:

You think the American system has failed. You think it's become "too partisan" (meaning the other side's barbs are starting to get to you). You want the hostility and arguments to stop. You just want someone who will lay it on the line and settle things.

Oh, you might not think you want a dictator. But how many of you applauded when Anakin Skywalker suggested that one person stand up and get the two sides of a big issue to just fix a problem? Have you wanted the arguments on TV to stop? Do you want the police to instill law and order and "the crazies" to have their guns taken away? Do you applaud when a persecuted social group that you're not part of gets their taxes raised? Have you silently wished that someone would just take charge in Iraq and get "those people"--pick your faction--to either get along or shut up? Do you think it is reasonable or expected or inevitable that federal agents can enter a private home and search it because the owner is suspected of something, without anyone specifying what, as long as it keeps your neighborhood safe? Do you enjoy the idea of those people (again, pick your faction or social group) being denied access to the media to prevent their horrid ideas from being spread? This is not the violent demand for a Fürher; it is the slow slide toward subservience.

These are not the thoughts of a free people, ladies and gentlemen. They are the thoughts of people longing to be ruled. That is not what America is about. America is about people having control of their government, not vice versa. Yet we're coming to expect it. We expect grandmothers to be patted down at the airport on thier way to innocent vacation trips. We expect half-trained strangers to paw through our underwear looking for Deus-knows-what. We expect that the U.S. President will send soldiers or Marines anywhere there is trouble or perceived evil in the world; but we don't want to know about gory details like casualities. We expect to meekly obey a civil or governmental figure, no matter how unreasonable their demands, simply because they have the power or the badge behind them.

Is this really what we want?


Is it me, or is the culture becoming completely infantile? Two commercials in a row brought home the fact:

--Commercial #1 for Volvo (and odds are you've seen or heard it): An SUV is advertised while a Mr. Rogers-type voice sings, "The wheels of the car go 'round and 'round..."
--Commercial #2 for the city of Orlando (my beloved former home): A mother and daughter enter a roller coaster. After a quick flash-forward through the 'coaster (Big Thunder Mountain), both people come out of the ride as children. The child maintains her age, the parent turns into a child.

It's not like I have an objection to a grown-up being as joyful as child. I have a problem with grown-ups becoming as juvenile as a child.


It's a pleasure to watch Hollywood suffer from a writer's strike. More proof--though the producers and studio heads in H'wood would never admit it--that nothing in their world would get done without ideas from serious writers. What a frickin' concept. I read recently that writers get something like .3% of residuals on DVDs. It was their story, without which the art designers, actors, directors, producers, gaffers, and the like would have nothing to produce, and they're being shafted. Let 'em strike. With any luck, the networks and the studios will be forced to show quality reruns or rerelease favorite classics that the audiences actually like. Maybe the marketing people can spend some time crunching the numbers and finding out what people will actually watch, rather than what the bosses and producers think will sell. What a concept.


This weekend I read Destiny's Road by Larry Niven. I am a huge fan of Ringworld and The Integral Trees, as well as Niven's Known Space stories and his collaborations with Jerry Pournelle, but I must confess that it took me a bit to get into this book. In fact, this was the second time I'd picked up the book. The first time I just plain gave up after the first page. However, I was fresh off reading Lucifer's Hammer, so I figured what the heck, I'd give it another try.

Here's the problem, I think: Niven is excellent at portraying better, futuristic societies; however, I find his primitive societies (such as the one found in The Integral Trees) a little less believable. He is much more comfortable describing a better future than a poorer one. Even in societies that have gone to seed, like the one on the planet Destiny, there is still "settler magic" around to offer the hope of a better future. The grime and dirt of a really "fallen" civilization is better portrayed in Lucifer's Hammer.

That being said, Niven offers up some of his usual enjoyable literary tactics: a character geared toward travel and tourism (ensuring that the story will keep moving in location, and thus in plot); alien landscapes and creatures; social and environmental puzzles for his "tourist" character to solve; and some hope of progress and redemption. Niven is an optimist, which is probably why he has difficulty envisioning a truly primitive culture. That's not where he's at home.

We have, in this case, a wandering character named Jemmy Bloocher (I confess, I kept imagining "Frau Blücher" from Young Frankenstein every time I came across his last name). Jemmy lives with his family on a reasonably secure family farm on the human-settled world of Destiny, with some rather odd cultural rules and a few leftover technologies from a more advanced civilization. The most important aspects to life on Destiny are the need for every person to consume "speckles" (a spice of sorts) in their daily diet to prevent becoming stupid, and The Road, a smooth rock trail that was created by the fusion-powered spacecraft Cavorite by flying low over the ground until it solidified glass-smooth. The Road is traveled by caravans of traders that Jemmy alternately joins and avoids over the course of years. Early on in the story, we realize that Jemmy has set himself upon a quest: to learn what happened to the Cavorite. The story takes us along on that journey.

One of the different things we see in this story is what might happen if a Nivenesque "tourist" is forced to stay in one place for a long time. I leave that lesson for the reader, but I found it a definite departure from most of his usual traveling bards.

I liked Destiny's Road, but I'm not sure if I'd read it again, as I continue to reread Ringworld. Some reasons I'd give would ruin the story, but in some ways, despite the usual traveling motif, I found Destiny's Road strangely confining. Perhaps it's because I have really enjoyed Niven's more futuristic worlds. Another problem I had was with the main character changing names/identities frequently throughout the story. There are also, I must confess, some coincidences that are just too convenient, even for a storyteller as skilled as Niven. In any case, this is definitely different from other books he has written, and I admire his courage, for as a writer I somehow felt that this was a step into uncomfortable territory for the author. However, if no risks are taken, we are left with weak repetition and little that is new, so for that he is to be commended.

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