Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Reading older science fiction

I started reading The Mote in God's Eye, one of the best regarded space operas I have yet read. I have yet to get to the meat of the story (first contact) but there are a few distracting elements. For one, the book was written in 1974 and postulates a US-USSR union that eventually falls apart. Not a big deal, we can just pretend it is a US-Chinese union like in Serenity.

I find it a little more distracting that the space navy is clearly modeled on Horatio Hornblower stories. Crews are swapped higgeldy piggeldy, the most valuable crewmember is known as the "sailing master," midshipman start aboard ship in their early teens, captains can be 25, and the Captain goes around saying things like "Damn your eyes!." David Weber's Honor Harrington books must owe some debt here, although Webers books are even more Hornblower/ Aubrey-Matruin in space than Mote in God's Eye, which uses the material more as background.

Like some other authors from the period (e.g. Chester Himes) Niven and Pournelle want to use some swears, but apparently the eff bomb wasn't kosher. The frak solution was yet to be developed, so instead of saying "Fuck em," characters say "Rape em." This isn't a case of future speak since aside from technology, everyone talks like 19th century people, which makes me think they should have said "bugger them!" Fuck em, while clearly hostile is non-specific in its outcome. Rape em has a much more menacing connotation even than, say, go to hell, which is also fairly hostile.

Fortunately, all of this is background. The story itself remains excellent and worth reading, so far at least. Unlike mysteries, which are (usually) set in a current or historical setting, science fiction creates futures, and those futures can seem silly to later generations. I recall a Norman Spinrad novel, written in the hippie days, where one future rebel type goes around saying "Come the revolution!" I prefer the current manner of making future humans in many ways alien, as our society would appear to our ancestors.


Anonymous said...

Ah, the swearing problem. Always an important aspect to note. I can't say this is a book I'll read (although I'm always on the lookout for SF/Fantasy for Mr. CitizenReader) but the "rape em" stuff would rather stop me in my tracks.

I can't say I was into Firefly/Serenity's method of using "Goram," either. Just swear, already, is all I can ever think.

Tripp said...

I think it must have been a late 60s/early 70s thing where they will worried about using eff bombs. I have seen it in more than one place.

Tripp said...

Speaking of Mr CR's, sf interests have you looked at the Arthur C Clarke award list? You will find some hidden gems therein.

Goram is ridiculous you are right, but I like the random Mandarin that appears..