Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Jan 27, 2006

A Miracle of Rare Design

Mike Resnick's novella doesn't really have a plot; it is more an illustration of two ideas, one bad, one good.

The main character, William Xavier Lennox, is a sensationalist writer who spends his time visiting alien cultures and ferreting out their secrets, usually at great personal risk. In the course of one of these adventures he has a severe mishap and is mutilated.

His fame and peculiar personality draw Nora Roberts to him, and she offers him a deal: he can be surgically altered to truly become a member of another species so that he can observe them without as much risk. After some thought, he jumps at the chance.

The first idea is that technologically gaining superior physical function is good, but this seems an aside, not really the intent of the author. The author's idea is that being human, with limited senses and physical capabilities, is not very satisfactory at all.

Better to have the night vision and reflexes of a Firefly, the enormous strength and empathic sensing of a Hawkhorn, the decorative web-building ability of a Wheeler, and the wings and voice of a Singer than to be stuck in the kludgy unformed body of a human.

My response to this? Foolishness. There is nothing that any of those races can do that humans can't do by using their minds. The other races are limited to what their existing sensory equipment has provided them automatically: none have moved much beyond the stage of perceptual thinking.

It is only a desire for automatic functioning that could lead someone to prefer the state of a well-adapted animal to a thinking human being. Sensory input and acute reflexes are a wonderful thing, but without rigorous analysis they are meaningless.


A V Fernando said...

This is the blog post that originally drew me to the site, and I apologize for being sidetracked by the fisheries debate.

I would like to note only two things:

- Wm Xavier Lennox is (loosely) based on Sir Richard Burton (English adventurer of the Victorian era). In particular, the episode with the singers is an idealized version of Burton's pilgramige to Mecca, during a time when a European attempting such would face certain death. I happen to like Resnick, but he very rarely comes up with ideas out of whole cloth.

- The author's idea is that being human, with limited senses and physical capabilities, is not very satisfactory at all.
The above statement is a misread of the novel, but one that is reasonable if you have not read other books by Resnick. _A Miracle of Rare Design_ is set in Resnick's "Birthright" universe, and there is quite a bit of "history" in the existance of Robert's Democracy that you would not have been aware of. In particular I'd recommend _Ivory_ by Mike Resnick as a better introduction to his work. With the additional context, Lennox is a man who _does not fit_ his society, and the book is about his reaction to that. It says nothing about being human.

-AV Fernando

Jennifer Snow said...

I'm not bashing Resnick in toto, I've reviewed other of his books (Santiago) fairly well, after all.

As for not knowing enough history to evaluate this book: so much the worse. A novel, like a painting, is a stand-alone work of art. If you have to read other books for reference to be able to understand a particular novel it is not a proper novel by definition.

That's not to say that you can't have a series of books that are all related, but each book within the series should be able to stand on its own.