Friday, July 30, 2010

Ringworld, Arthur C. Clarke, "The Call of Cthulhu," and Cordwainer Smith

Listing them out makes me realize how scattered I am. Scattershot approach, I always say. Have as many irons in the fire as possible, you get more done that way. Um. Yes.

I've begun reading from the short stories of Clarke, Lovecraft, and Cordwainer Smith because Ringworld is starving me in a number of ways. The ideas are interesting and for that—as a hypothetical situation, you know, a planet in the form of a ring around a sun—I give Larry Niven credit. But the characters lack soul. The conversation is dull and even the moments of introspection that crop up from time to time for Louis Wu are emaciated.  

The interaction between the three different races could be more than what it is, and from time to time there's not enough insight into why the kzin or puppeteer (the two main alien races) do strange things. Niven seems to want to convey a sense of danger or mystery to certain actions, but instead I feel cheated in moments such as when Speaker-to-Animals (the Kzin, who is like a humanoid cat. Think Cats-the-musical-creatures with the height of a Wookie) leaps into the bushes suddenly after grinning maniacally at Louis Wu. Later we learn that Speaker-to-Animals was just going hunting, not that something monstrous happened to him, as the foreboding tone initially suggested. 

Niven leads you down a path part of the way and then jerks you in another direction, for seemingly no reason except perhaps because he can. I get it: he wants us to feel as confused as Louis Wu does by the aliens and their oh-so-alien behavior. I guess that's one way to accomplish it.

But to me this is the problem with a surplus of show-don't-tell. You end up with just the skeleton, which, as interesting as that is, requires some skin and meat to make it attractive. This is why when I pick up Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu," I devour it. It's why as soon as a friend loaned me Cordwainer Smith and I saw that there was more than just soulless dialog and fruitless introspection, I dove in headfirst. 

I knew nothing of H.P. Lovecraft until last winter. Kind of insane, don't you think? It blows my mind that despite my eight years in college studying literature and before that, the twelve years of public education, I read obscure things like the City of Ladies, but no Lovecraft. 

This baffles me even more when I see in his writing such carefully constructed prose and beautifully rendered scenes that I can feel the horror growing (and it's not gory horror, at least, not so far. It's the kind of horror that suggests that "we live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far." As soon as we figure out the universe, we'll go mad...) with each sentence as the protagonist journeys further into his discovery.

Perhaps I go overboard. I haven't finished the story yet, though it's short. I am also in the midst of "Scanners Live in Vain" by Cordwainer Smith. I'm beginning to wonder if I'll ever get through Ringworld. I DID finish the story "The Nine Billion Names of God" by Arthur C. Clarke and I am sad to say it was a huge disappointment. This is the only Clarke I've ever read and the sheer uneventful nature of that short story makes me wonder if I ought to read any more.  

The thing is, I think I struggle with hard sci-fi. I don't really know where the line of demarcation is separating hard sci-fi from soft (?) sci-fi, but I'm going to say it's between Ringworld and Lovecraft. I know, I know, Lovecraft is horror. Not sci-fi. 

So what is hard sci-fi? I plan to research it more and perhaps when I'm done with Ringworld and the short stories, I'll put up a review. 

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