Thursday, March 19, 2009

SF Book Club: "The Hammer of God"

I've started going to this Science Fiction book club that meets on the second Tuesday of every month in Dublin's Central Library in the ILAC. The most recent book was The Hammer of God, a late Arthur C. Clarke book set in a couple of centuries time, about an asteroid on collision course with the Earth. The book like a greatest hits of Arthur C. Clarke, with lots of stuff in it that would be broadly familiar from other works of his. Some of this had a certain wry humour, like a robot making a joke inspired by HAL in 2001.

I found the book initially a bit slight. Clarke's typical inability to write characters is a particular problem in the early chapters, because these focus on the development of social mores in the future. This became less of a problem when the asteroid shows up, and the people are flying around in (realistic) spaceships trying to do something about it. For all his commitment to the kind of scientific accuracy that could otherwise come across as being a bit boring, this all gets rather exciting, and you do find yourself rooting for all the interchangeable fellows who find themselves stuck in a rather sticky situation. Even with that, though, I suspect that this was a book that Clarke threw out fairly quickly, and it does rather betray its origins as a short-story extended to (short) novel length.

It is still the stuff about future social mores that I find myself thinking about now. Clarke seems to be a free love kind of guy, predicting that our future descendants will drift in and out of relationships with each other, staying together for a while to bring up a child, say, and then unproblematically separating to get some new love elsewhere. He partly puts this down to the invention of longevity treatments that greatly extend the span of human life, with people only being able to stick living with one other for so long. I am not completely convinced by this – it seems to me like having a longer life to live would, for a lot of people, mean that a couple would be bound together by a greater number of shared memories. That would make them more likely to remain together for longer, or else would make their separation something other than the carefree act that Clarke paints it.

The other thing that is not that convincing about Clarke's sociology of the future is the stunningly monocultural nature of the world. Like a lot of secular humanists, he does not really seem to get religion and largely has it disappearing over the next centuries, apart from some nutjob religion for incomprehensible bad guys.

So that's it for The Hammer of God. The book we are reading for next month is Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, a classic of brainy SF. Le Guin has largely passed me by up to now, though I know this book by reputation. Set on a planet where it is nearly always bloody freezing, it is about the planet's bisexual humanoid inhabitants. They spend most of their time being sexually inert, but every so often (once a month, or something) they become randomly female or male, and shag crazy. Then they go back to being inert. I am expecting lots of "makes you think" insights into the nature of gender and sexuality, perhaps conditioned by my advance impression of Le Guin as being a bit dry and overly intellectual.

The next meeting of the book club is on Tuesday the 14th February, 6.30 pm, in the Central Library, should you fancy coming along and offering your tuppence on The Left Hand of Darkness.

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