Monday, January 31, 2011

"Monument" by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.

Cover from Amazon.com
Monument, by Lloyd Biggle, Jr., is one of my very favorite works of classic science fiction. It's based on Biggle's short story - or novelette, really - of the same name, first published in 1961.

The original story is good, but this short novel, published in 1974, is superb. It's a quick, easy, pleasant read, with plenty of humor, deceptively light-weight. By that, I mean the story has plenty of substance beneath its entertaining surface.

I've read the book many times - it's just that kind of story - and yesterday, I read it again. This time, I was struck by how modern the book seems. Most older works of science fiction - of any genre, probably - need to be given some slack. Times change, and things that once went without saying seem old-fashioned, if not actually objectionable, now.

Take the minor issue of smoking, for example. Smoking was ubiquitous years ago, and I doubt if many authors gave it much thought. But when some distant ancestor, far in the future, pulls out a cigarette, that seems jarring these days.

Well, in Monument, there are a couple of times where one character smokes, but it's not at all what you might think. It's clearly not tobacco (nor marijuana), and the smoke apparently doesn't even result from combustion. This is something entirely different, a future vice that's not even close to what we consider "smoking."

Now, very little is made of this. Most people probably won't even notice it. Biggle certainly doesn't hit us over the head with his cleverness. It's probably only a couple of lines in the whole book, and not at all important to the grand scheme of things. But it's an example of how he gets even the minor details right.

When Monument begins, Cern Obrien realizes that he's dying, and the thought panics him. He's an old man, and he's led a fulfilling life, especially after he crashed his ship onto a paradise planet. The primitive people living there, descendants of some earlier mishap, welcomed him, and Obrien became the most respected man on the planet. His final years, he's lived at ease, with great honor, surrounded by his many descendants.

But the thought of dying panics him, because he knows these people are doomed. When galactic society discovers them, as will inevitably happen, they'll have no chance at all. Their lovely planet is just too valuable, and they can't even imagine what they'll be up against. Obrien thinks he knows of a way to save them. He's worked it out in detail over many years. But now he's dying, and he's absolutely terrified.

So Obrien, a spaceship mechanic with little formal education himself, tries to teach his plan to some students - young men and women who have never even seen a classroom before, and who traditionally spend this part of their life in leisurely courtship. As you might guess, it's frustrating. And as Obrien becomes weaker and weaker, he begins to despair.

Note that Obrien isn't worried about bloody invasion. It's not that kind of book. Federation society has laws against that sort of thing. In fact, there are plenty of laws specifically designed to protect people like these, and a strong military to enforce them. But when there's this much to gain, there are ways around even the best of laws. His people need a good lawyer far more than they need weapons.

Most of the book shows these young people blindly trying to follow Obrien's plan, which they don't understand at all, after his death, when the planet is finally discovered. OK, this is a neat idea, isn't it? But what makes the book so special? I wonder if I can even begin to explain.

First of all, these people are not just extremely likable characters, they're reasonable. They're plausible. The natives aren't entirely sure about Obrien's plan, at least not at first. They're not idiots, and they know that any man, no matter how well respected, can be wrong. They don't stop thinking for themselves, although they're also smart enough to know when they're completely out of their depth.

And the galactics aren't evil. Even the villain of the story isn't evil. He's greedy, true. And he sees a way to become even wealthier, so he's willing to break the law. But he's convinced himself that he's doing a great thing, something that will even benefit the natives of the planet. After all, some of that wealth will trickle down to them, won't it?

Heh, heh. Yeah, this is a great portrayal of "trickle-down" economic theory long before that became a catch-phrase among conservatives (well, OK, now they use "supply-side"). But seriously, this book could have been written today. It really seems remarkably modern. But, in fact, this kind of thinking is not new, not at all. And Biggle shows us that in a really timeless book.

It's always easy to believe what you want to believe. And if something benefits you, personally - like tax-cuts for the rich, for example - it's very, very easy to believe that it's good for everyone else, too. This is just human nature. And so, although it's easy to hate the villain in this story, he's not evil. He's convinced himself that he's the benefactor here, that he's doing a wonderful thing (despite the illegality of it).

The rest of the characters are just as realistic, and most of them are quite appealing. The wealthy man's niece, who might at first seem to be a stereotypical rich bitch, quickly demonstrates that she can laugh at herself. That shows us there's more to her than you might expect, even though she doesn't exactly make a good first - or second - impression.

The military men, and other government types, are decent people constrained by the law. They're sympathetic to the natives, who are clearly getting a raw deal, but they still have to follow orders. Societies are built on law, and for good reason. But the overall good of that requires that some injustice simply can't be fought, or not directly - and not quickly enough to save this planet full of people.

In all cases, this is very realistic. Monument shows the problems of a large, complex society, but also the benefits. These natives are apparently doomed, but not because they face military invasion or any direct violence at all. There are laws to protect people like them - to protect all people, in fact. But wealthy, powerful men can also find ways around those laws.

However, as I say, these men certainly don't think that they're being evil. They might be breaking the law - or, more frequently, just bending it - but they think they've got a good reason. That reason is to gain more wealth, higher status, and greater political power for themselves, but they find it easy to convince themselves that others benefit, too. Well, this is a very modern issue, don't you think?

Don't get me wrong. This book is a delightful romp on the surface. These issues are implied, but Monument certainly doesn't preach at you. In fact, I doubt I thought all this the first time I read the book. It really is great fun. It's just that it has depths, too. You might read the whole book and not notice, being so busy laughing and crying and just enjoying the story, but they're still there.

From the very beginning of Monument, you'll know which side you're on. You'll cheer on the natives, even as you chuckle at them sometimes. You'll bristle at the injustice, even though the bad guys aren't really evil, just human. And basically, you'll feel good, that some people can fight the good fight. (The ending is never really in doubt, though the mechanism is.)

Basically, this book will cheer you up. If the winter weather is getting you down, Monument will definitely help with that. Heck, even the setting - basically, a Polynesian-style paradise of sandy beaches, warm sun, and gentle breezes - will lift your spirits (at least until you have to put the book down again). But the story, too, is a real delight. I highly recommend it.

***
PS. The original short story is available free online, but if you can find the novel, I really recommend that you read it instead (or at least first). The short story will spoil the ending for you. Furthermore, although the short story is good, the novel is better. It's not a very long novel, but the extra material really improves the story.

The current trade paperback edition is rather expensive, but there are plenty of used copies of Monument out there. I don't know how common it is in libraries. It's not, after all, a new book. But it's certainly worth some effort to find. I promise you that.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I followed the link you gave, but it found no matches for "Lloyd Biggle", nor "Monument". I reallly loved that short story, and felt let down by the padded-out novel!

WCG said...

Sorry, Anonymous. Baen Books used to have a huge Free Library, but they removed it when they started selling ebooks at Amazon.com. Apparently, Amazon didn't want to compete with free.

Re. the novel, tastes differ. You might have felt that way because you read the short story first,... or not. As I say, tastes differ. At any rate, I'm sorry it wasn't to your taste.