Friday, December 18, 2009

Reviews From 1984

Here's another set of retro-reviews. These appeared in the Baltimore Sun sometime in 1984.

Harry Harrison's West of Eden is a stunning book. Its premise is simple enough: What if dinosaurs had never died out, but continued to evolve until they were the dominant intelligent race on Earth? What if the only humans on the globe were poor Stone Age creatures hiding in the frozen northlands?

Harrison has taken this single premise and built up a fascinating and intricate world. He has created every aspect of the dinosaur culture, from a language based on both sound and body position, to the living creatures that the dinosaurs have created as part of their technology. The main story springs from the conflict between human and dinosaur creatures, but the main delight of the book is the marvelously complex and deliciously detailed background. West of Eden is a book to pore over, a book to reread every so often, a book that will become a classic. I hope we have not seen the last of this particular world.

Heechee Rendezvous is the third book in Frederik Pohl's Gateway series. Conventional wisdom teaches that sequels ought to play it safe by resembling the first successful book as much as possible. Fred Pohl has sought the unconventional -- and succeeded.

In this book Pohl's hero, Robinette Broadhead, is an old, very rich and very influential man. His life is happy -- he is deeply in love with hsi wife, he has many friends (including one of Pohl's most delightful touches, a computer program modeled after Albert Einstein), and he has the best medical attention on the planet.

But Boradhead's conscience bothers him. He feels guilty because his life is maintained by transplanted organs that belonged to others. He feels angui9sh that humanity is beset by terrorism and the threat of war. And Broadhead lives in fear that the Heechee, a long-vanished race of godlike aliens, will return to judge mankind -- and Boradhead.

Eventually, Broadhead gets everything he ever wanted -- and, characteristically, he has trouble dealing with that, too.

The book is filled with compassionate humor. Its underlying message -- that love and compassion are more important to human salvation than technological wonders -- is as vital to us today as it is in Pohl's future world.

In the tradition of Mary Renault and Mary Stewart, Robert Silverberg has taken the 4,000-year-old Epid of Gilgamesh and turned it into a delightful novel.

Gilgamesh the King is the story of the Sumerian folk hero Gilgamesh, told in his own words. Silverberg has chosen to present the historical Gilgamesh, king of the cioty of Uruk, rather than the mythological hero, and so his tale is more believable than it might have been otherwise.

Robert Heinlein's new book, Job: A Comedy of Justice will offend everyone. Everyone, that is, who lacks a sense of humor. Heinlein manages to good-naturedly insult religious fundamentalists, atheist, liberals, conservatives, women, men, angels, and God himself.

The story is a complex one that is unfolded gently and with skill: Alex Hergensheimer becomes lost in alternate universes with Mergrethe, the girl he loves. Alex is from a world where religious fundamentalism is the rule, and as the book develops, he is tested again and again with situations that would sorely try the pateince of Job. Every time Alex and Mergrethe manage to start adjusting to a new and different universe, they are cast into still another world and left without money or belongings.

But Alex continues to work and continues to be happy, for he is with Mergrethe, and that is all he wants on earth.

Until the Last Trump, when Alex becomes a saint in heaven, only to find that Mergrethe has been kept out of paradise on a technicality. So he challenges the highest authority....

Heinlein tells this madcap story with gentleness and compassion. Alex is such a likable character that we stay with him through metaphysical speculation piled layers deep atop theological whimsy. Heinlein doesn't become preachy, as he has so often in the past. Job is a book that leaves the reader with a sense of well-being in his heart and a smile on his lips.


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