Toolmaker Koan - John McLoughlin It's astonishing (for some of us) that it's been 20 years since the Soviet Union broke up and the whole existential threat of those Godless Commie pinko bastards vanished like a pipe dream.

Warsaw Pact? East Germany? Containment? Detente?

I'm reminded of these things because Toolmaker Koan was published in 1988, a year before the Berlin Wall (what's that, grandpa?) came down and three short years before the USSR splintered yet the chimaera of US/Soviet rivalry was so firmly established that the background to this novel is a near-future world where Earth is divided between the United People's Democratic Republics of Africa and Eurasia and the Greater Columbian Alliance. There's nary a whisper of the mortal threat of Muslim jihadists to Western civilization. But the "bad guys" would be just as cartoonishly simplistic.

Toolmaker Koan is an example of one of those nostalgic favorites that turns out to be far less then you remembered. McLoughlin is not a terribly good writer. He has no style, his paragraphs falling upon your head like an avalanche (Is that a good use of simile? It's better than McLoughlin's):

"Before them in the grass stood a vast oaken table, three meters at least in length. Covered with a damask cloth whose edges swayed softly in the breeze, the board sparkled with silver place-settings, crystal goblets, trays, bowls, plates; these contained cakes and croissants, pastries of every description. They were laden with tiny roasted birds glistening in mahogany sauces, great reeking hot slabs of thick-sliced bacon, sausages of different colors and shapes, lobsters, shrimp, a tuna of perhaps twenty kilograms' mass, fruits of every description, a variety of pastas and their sauces, antipasto, pesto in little gold-wrought bowls, rices and spices and assorted vices, including a wood-carved humidor whose glass top showed the tips of a dozen dark, powerful-looking cigars...all in the midst of the African wilderness, with no other sign of artifice for seemingly endless kilometers of tree-studded grassland." (pp. 104-05)


And there's an element (I sincerely hope unconscious) of white, Euro-centrism that borders on the offensive (perhaps it crosses for some - I'm a white, Euro-male myself but even my hackles rose on lines like this: "'Of course not. Would that we had the money for such foolishness!' Ulibarri emitted another noxious nebula, shrugged hispanically." (p. 33)) And is it coincidence that the two most sympathetic protagonists are both white, both blond?

But, despite the inelegant, inept and impolitic prose, the idea behind Toolmaker Koan is still fascinating. I need to go into a bit of background here to explain things: A Soviet probe has discovered a possibly alien artifact 22 AU from Earth. Both the Sovs and the West send expeditions to find out what's out there. The ships destroy each other before contacting the artifact but "Charon," an eons-old AI built by an extinct civilization, saves two people from each ship and resurrects them aboard the Hwiliria, an artifact of Earth's first intelligent race, the Whileelin, who immolated themselves 65 million years ago (hint: what killed off the dinosaurs?). Charon has preserved the last of the Whileelin in the hopes that together humans and Whileelin can resolve the Toolmaker Koan which he explains here (after a truly painful infodump about Lamarckian evolution and koans):

"'On any planet where life evolves, given time, certain adaptable organisms acquire Lamarckian evolutionary systems - culture - to enhance their own survival. Once Lamarckian evolution is initiated, though, its consequent extinction is ensured. Or, to put it another way, animals with culture can see farther into the future than any other animals; but for cultural animals the future is brief. Why? Why must cultural toolmakers, the most gifted of the universe's spontaneous expressions, so swiftly and inexorably beat themselves into extinction with their very giftedness? Ah, my dear humans, that's a conundrum at the very heart of my own existence. The Toolmaker Koan: you, like me, are mad.'" (pp. 126-27)


The solution is to break free from the planetary womb to exploit space since toolmaking cultures need room (Lebensraum?) to expand into and survive. (This still doesn't resolve the koan - it just puts off its fatal denouement until a culture reaches the limits of the extraterrestrial sandbox.) And in the end, humans and Whileelin can't coexist and it's the humans who come out on top.

I can't recommend this one but if you have an interest in topics like this, you might like it, if not really enjoy it.
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I'm in the midst of rereading this. I was cleaning out the storage space above the carport; came across it in one of the boxes; and thought "What the heck," I had had it on my mind since reading Endgame: Volume 1: The Problem of Civilization.

Alas, my fond memories are not faring well...

I'll return with a more complete tale of woe when I've finished :-(
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Reading Alistair Reynolds' Galactic North reminded me of this little-known book I read as a teen-ager.

The koan of the title is that intelligent species always destroy themselves just as they reach a cusp of technology and development. I.e., they see the cliff they're going over but they can't stop themselves from going over it.

I found that idea intriguing. The other interesting thing about the novel is that the humans uncover an advanced civilization of dinosaurs that destroyed themselves 65 million years ago, ushering in our chance for self-immolation.