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Just Finished (For the third time) - 'Mirror Dance' by Lois McMaster Bujold

Thursday, December 13, 2012

1962 Hugo Award Nominee- Dark Universe by Daniel F. Galouye

Dark UniverseIn a critique of writing Samuel Delany once talked about science fiction saying that there was no real seperation of 'story' and 'writing.'  In our minds we often say something like "the writer had a good idea, a good story, but the writing of it wasn't that great."  Delany doesn't buy that, he says that the concept of a story and the written story are derived from the same place and inextricably linked together.  Now, Delany is obviously much smarter than I am, and knows quite a bit more about writing than I do, but I would like to ask him about 'Dark Universe' by Galouye for just that reason.  This novel has such a great concept, such a beautiful setup, that it almost overshadows the fact that the writer can't quite deliver on the promise of it.

Universe was written in the early sixties, mired in a time when a lot of sci-fi was concerned with both the Cold War and fears of nuclear annihilation.  These twin fears have certainly laid a lot of the groundwork for science fiction through the ages, how many books have you read where the author took a new technology, pushed it to it's apocalyptic extreme and then wrote a book about it?  The sixties nominees are full of books like this, and it really could be considered a genuine fear for the people in those times (perhaps ours too).  While the sixties didn't invent the dystopian genre ('1984' anyone) the fear of nuclear annihilation made these sort of books a lot more common, and much more relevant than they might have been otherwise. Really any dystopian  science fiction you read has some roots in the books written in the early sixties, when authors tried to point us in the right direction by telling us what might happen if we went in the wrong one.

But Galouye uses that old template of nuclear war to set us up for the real concept behind the novel, which is the idea of a people raised in a world where they have never seen, and forgotten the concept, of light.  He describes a world in which everyone has fled underground to escape the radiation plaguing the surface, and of one poor community whose power generation has failed, leaving them in complete darkness.  The survivors described in the novel are the descendants of people who lived on the surface, having no recollection of what light is, or any modern scientific understanding.

The writing of Universe is fairly pedestrian, mired in several stereotypes of the time.  Galouye seems like he felt compelled to turn portions of his novel into an adventure tale, when the subject matter screams out for an almost revolutionary style of writing, some way of describing action that can't be seen through words.  A much more subdued and descriptive style of writing might have served the subject better.  Though one example that stands out to me still was how the writer had his characters replace the phrase "I see what you mean," with "I hear..." little touches like that go a long way towards crafting a world.  There are also some touching points in which the main character attempts to search for light in a world of darkness.  The story of a character in a dystopian future trying to understand some forgotten relic from our present day is almost a cliche now, but lines like "And if I find Darkness, then I may have some kind of idea as to the nature of Light" really get me where I live.  It's too bad that there is far too little of this in the novel, and far too much running, and jumping, and falling into rivers.  It's not often that I ask for less action from a novel.

I think the main problem with 'Dark Universe' is that Galouye set his sights too high.  This is a book that is nigh unwritable.  The concept of describing a world without light just doesn't lend itself to the written word very well.  And while there are many blind authors out there writing today, even they haven't written anything like this.  Galouye's writing is just not up to the task, and that's no fault of his own because no one's writing is up to the task.  Especially not in the sixties, when a sci-fi writer was expected to churn out stories at a now unprecedented rate if he wanted to stay published, check out Galouye's wikipedia page if you don't believe me (, just look at the number of short stories the guy wrote in his life.  This novel should have taken years of research to develop and write, time which Galouye wasn't given.

Science Fiction is a genre in which writer's will build upon the past.  Taking ideas from previous novels and expanding or changing them is to be expected.  You can't write a novel about interstellar travel without making a few choices, and you have to at least acknowledge how previous writers have made those same choices before you or you'll just cover new ground.  How groundbreaking a work is can be measured almost by how often other writers will reference that work.  'Dark Universe' has no imitators, no one copied anything from this book.  And I don't see this as a knock against it.  Like I said, Galouye set his sights too high, and the writing wasn't there to back up the concept.  But people need to ask themselves what the point is of giving out an award for science fiction.  Do we want to award only those books that are the best written?  Or are we willing to give a nod to those novels that try something different?  That push the boundaries a little? 

'Dark Universe' isn't the best book ever written but it aims high, and we've got to give it props for that.  Maybe someday someone will write a book dealing with this same concept but do it better, though I doubt it.  We as readers need to acknowledge that there is always going to be some difference between concept and writing, and weigh it out between the two as to what deserves our praise, and which is the more important in a given novel.  Though this isn't the best novel Galouye aims high, tries for something that hasn't been done before or since, and at the very least we need to give him credit for that.  If an author can't try something new and fail miserably in science fiction, then where can he?

 People could criticize me for judging this book not on what it is, but on what I wish it was, and I would take them back to that original statement by Delany.  Can there be a seperation between story concept and writing?  I believe there can be, and that the idea behind 'Dark Universe' is huge, and original, and one of a kind, and much too unwieldy to write a full size novel about.  This book might be a full blown fiasco, but it is more than deserving of a Hugo nomination.

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