Sunday, September 7, 2008

Gifts and Derelict

The books in this review came to me by way of my Uncle Orson. A War of Gifts he authored, Galactic Derelict by Andre Norton, he recommended.

You might think that someone my age would have enough experience to be somewhat wary of reading a book that was recommended largely on sentimental value. But there it was, in a list of Uncle Orson's favorite books, along with a description of how it did such a great job of creating a sense of wonder by transporting the reader to intriguing new worlds. (I like exploring intriguing new worlds. Isn't that half the reason we read speculative fiction?)

So when I saw Galactic Derelict sitting on the shelf at my local used book store, I couldn't pass it up-- after all, its an old book and likely hard to find. So at $2.95 I felt like I was getting a steal of a deal.

A couple years later I finally got around to reading the book and it was, in a word, boring.

I'm not an expert on the evolution of science fiction. But I've learned enough about it to know that 1959 was a time when sci-fi authors were concerned almost entirely with ideas, as opposed to character development and motivation, and story, and relationships between characters and... you get the idea.

The characters in this book are one step shy of meaningless. The only reason they exist in the story at all is so that it has some way of moving forward. Norton's primary interest here is taking the reader to alien worlds.

The story begins in a future where the secret to time travel has been discovered. Also discovered is the fact that sometime during earth's prehistory an alien race visited our planet and left some of their spaceships behind. The people who posses the technology for time travel decided that more could be learned from these spaceships if they were to go back in time and retrieve them in their original state, rather than examinig the ships in their decrepit condition, 15,000 years later in their own era.

So the first alien world that Norton examines in the book is prehistoric earth, where she brings her characters face-to-face with the likes of wooly mamoths and sabre-tooth cats and well-muscled hunter-gatherers.

They don't stick around in the stone-age for long though. The process of transporting the spaceship through time to the future causes it to active and launch, with the main characters aboard. The remainder of the story consists of those characters experiencing the alien environments of the different worlds the ship takes them to as it carries out its pre-programmed flight plan.

I can absolutely understand why Orson Scott Card found this to be a fascinating book as a seventh grader, and therefor, why it would maintain so much sentimental value for him. I agree that for a middle-grade reader who hasn't had a lot of exposure to science fiction, this could definately be a worthwhile book. (I intend to keep it around for that very reason.) But for anyone who's read any sci-fi that's somewhat more engaging, this book will seem quaint at best, and probably more like just plain dull.

(Oh yeah, and just in case you were wondering about the goofy snake-beast on the cover-- it doesn't even make an appearance in the book. I suppose it was just part of some misguided marketing effort from the 1970s... "Sabre-tooth tigers? No one will read a spaceship story with a sabre-tooth tiger on the cover. Why don't we throw something else on there to liven it up a little-- some kind of snake-beast alien... with tyranosaur claws, and mean-looking fangs. Yeah, that should do the trick!")

Card's A War of Gifts, on the other hand, was delightful. Fans of any of the Ender series will not want to miss this story as it examines the Battle School, and the bugger war in general, through the eyes of a new character, Zeck Morgan. And yes, Ender Wiggin is featured in this story as a secondary character, albeit one who plays a pivot role.

The book is brief- only 128 pages- and with such a short story it's hard to reveal much of the details without spoiling significant parts of the story. The crux of the story is centered around a small rebellion among the Battle School students as they decide to break the rules about religious observation and give each other Christmas gifts.

Or is it? That's where the story's title comes from. But what was more interesting for me was the moral journey experienced by the main character as he redefines his views of religion and morality, helped out, of course, by the young Mr. Wiggin himself.

See, I told you I couldn't reveal anything about the story without spoiling it. Oh well, it's still definately worth reading, even after I've gone and spoiled it.

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