Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Practice Effect (David Brin)

The Practice Effect
David Brin
Fiction, Sci-Fi
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: In the 21st century, the bleeding edge of science is embodied in the zievatron, a device that - in theory - could allow instantaneous travel across space from the comfort of a laboratory. The first working model, however, develops a peculiar glitch: the first robot probes returned with subtle alterations, and now nothing sent through even returns. When physicist Dennis Nuel steps into the zievatron airlock to investigate, he finds himself trapped on an alien world, where technology seems like a haywire mishmash of Neolithic and industrial. As he struggles to figure out what's going on and how to repair the zievatron, he finds himself swept up in a ruthless baron's battle for dominance - and enchanted by the captured princess of a rival tribe.

REVIEW: I've read and enjoyed Brin's work previously (Kiln People), so I figured I might enjoy this older title, even if it clearly had a pulp-inspired theme. The cover promised "rich characterization" and emphasized Brin's credentials as a real live scientist writing real live science fiction. While I can't speak for the theories (at least, theories as of the 1984 publication), I can speak for the rest of the story, which was anything but "rich." Dennis may be a genius, but he's also a world-class (or interworld-class) moron, prone to fits of absolute stupidity whenever the plot demands it. The story tries to brush off this habit as "tunnel vision" induced by his excessive intelligence and "stress," but it conveniently doesn't kick in under far more stressful situations than when it does occur. If this is "rich characterization," I must not understand the term. Everyone else comes straight out of the stock bin: the petty lab rival Brady, the greedy warlord Kremer, the scrawny comic-relief thief Arth, the glamorous (and utterly helpless, not to mention prone to swooning and oddly immune to human failings like stinking of sweat after several days' hard travel away from baths,) Princess Linnora, and so forth. Gender roles, even in Dennis's "future" Earth, come straight out of the Stone Age; the only lady scientist in the zievatron program exists for her fellow scientists to lust over, and seems to enjoy pitting would-be suitors against each other despite risk of compromising the program itself and her fellows - which it does. Indeed, in reading this, I began to suspect that the entire subgenre of Earth-man-going-to-strange-primitive-worlds specfic was (or is, as some of these still appear) entirely about guys, particularly nerdy guys, getting laid by conveniently defanged and objectified women... a theme particularly blatant here. (I found it especially hilarious/aggravating when Dennis keeps referring to the natives as simple, unsophisticated "cavemen" even when he - Mr. Evolved Modern Man - can't stop drooling over the pretty girl whom he'd only glimpsed at a distance... and I don't believe it was intended to be a humorous juxtaposition.) The story hits more than its share of subgenre cliches as Dennis is mistaken for a wizard and ordinary Earth ideas fill the natives with superstitious wonder and awe... even to the point of cowering in terror from a wheeled cart. No, it's not the old gunpowder trick that strikes terror into the naive locals, but the wheel. (Well, the wheel and almost everything else the guy does - which goes back to my hypothesis of why this subgenre exist, as the nerd scientist finds himself celebrated as a demigod simply for existing among a populace of morons... possibly how more than one scientist actually views themselves, but I digress.) I honestly started wondering if Brin was writing a parody - and, if so, why I was cringing instead of laughing. Though there were some intriguing uses of the main gimmick of this other world's peculiar physics, by the time it finished - with a lengthy explanation that didn't really explain much - I was just glad it was over. While I'd considered reading other works by Brin, particularly his much-vaunted Uplift series, I'm significantly more gunshy if this is an indication of the writing I'll find there. If I do read more by him, I think I'll stick to later works.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Wiz Biz (Rich Cook) - My Review
Pyramid Scheme (Eric Flint and David Freer) - My Review
The Dark World (Henry Kuttner) - My Review

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