It's my first ever double book review post! I'm reviewing two books by English science fiction authors with wild imaginations: The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams and Raft by Stephen Baxter.
The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams
This is Adams's second book about Dirk Gently, a "holistic detective" who solves mysteries based on his belief that everything is connected to everything else. Despite this theme of holistic connection, there's little explicit connection between The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul and the first Dirk Gently book, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. You could easily read the second without having read the first. You might want to read them soon, since BBC America debuts a Dirk Gently series starring Elijah Wood on October 22 (See a weird trailer here. There was apparently an earlier adaptation several years ago on regular BBC, er, I guess, BBC Britain, which I have not seen).
This is typical inspired zaniness from Douglas Adams. While I still think the Hitchhiker's Guide books are my favorites, there are some great things about the Dirk Gently books. Dirk himself is an absent-minded savant versus the everyman ordinariness of Arthur Dent; funny things happen to Dent, but Gently is often the source of the humor in these books.
In this second book, we get more on the idea that all things are interconnected, which is a hilarious idea if you think about it. The new character, Kate, just wants to get a pizza delivered in London and makes some hilariously fortuitous bath soap purchases.
We also get the idea that the Norse gods have fallen on hard times since nobody believes in them anymore, which is perhaps a reflection of Adams's atheism in real life: if you think about it, who would really want to be a god when you can have clean linen? Perhaps the simple, mortal life isn't so bad, and you don't need to go on hankering after something more grandiose. The universe is a pretty grandiose place as it is, albeit somewhat less so with Adams's untimely passing in 2001.
See also my Goodreads review.
Raft by Stephen Baxter
If you like hard SF in general or Stephen Baxter in particular, you'll probably like this. It definitely has an old timey Arthur C. Clarke feel to it, right down to the fact that this universe apparently contains precisely two women (okay, that's slightly unfair, since there are other women mentioned in the background, but the reader only gets to know two of them). Nonetheless, there is an awful lot to like.
The plot starts out as a plain vanilla teenage-boy-discovers-he's-special and turns into an odyssey/messiah story as Rees, the aforementioned boy, goes on an epic adventure, figures out how to save (part of) humanity, and ends up as the reluctant leader. Some of the characters are interesting, but honestly, you're probably not a Stephen Baxter fan for the plot and characters. It's his patented Big Ideas you're after. And there are plenty of those.
The universe here is weird. Really, really weird. Gravity is one billion times stronger than in our universe, so humans are large enough to exert a noticeable gravitational pull on one another. The humans, who are descendants of humans who mistakenly entered this universe hundreds of years earlier, live in a nebula and harvest the cores of dead stars for minerals. Some of them live on the eponymous Raft, while others are miners in the Belt, and a few more live in an even weirder place. There are space whales and flying trees. And more. Your imagination may not be able to keep up. Mine couldn't keep up with everything, but it sure was fun trying.
In addition to the philosophical, mind-expanding fun of imagining this universe, there's some food for thought about the value of curiosity, scientific reasoning, and imagination. Rees starts to fear that the nebula is dying, but nobody around him cares. He stows away on a flying tree to the Raft where he meets some Scientists, the only people dedicated to keeping the old knowledge from the original crew alive. Eventually there's an ill-advised revolution where people destroy much of the scientific knowledge that could save them, but then again, the miners were being exploited economically, so they kind of had a point. There's a lot more - far too much, I think, for such a relatively short novel. I like short books and I almost never want a book to be longer, but this one could use another hundred or so pages to flesh things out.
Another message of the book is that we're all in this together. It may be the best and brightest who save the day, but we're all human, no matter which universe we live in. And there's something valuable about humanity that's worth hanging on to for at least a little bit longer.
This is the first of Baxter's sprawling Xeelee sequence, but I don't think it really does much with the main elements of that series. It just takes place in the same multi-verse (maybe?), but it does make me keen to read more of the Xeelee books.
See also my Goodreads review.