More Proof We Live in a Science Fictional World, 5/16/08

This dude is now very likely to compete in the Olympics —

— and the reason that he was initially denied a chance to compete was because it was ruled that his prosthetics gave him too much of an advantage over runners with standard-issue legs. That was just overruled, but the fact that was how the ruling initially went tells you a little bit about where the technology is (and, also, what a kickass athlete Oscar Pistorius here must actually be). Clearly, I think this is all very neat.

63 Comments on “More Proof We Live in a Science Fictional World, 5/16/08”

  1. Well of course being a double amputee gives you an unfair advantage. Just last week I was saying to myself, gosh, I hope some sort of terrible physical tragedy befalls me so that I lose both of my legs from the knees down. Clearly the only thing separating me from world Olympic domination is my lack of carbon fiber below the knee.

    IAAF, you are a bunch of slap happy rubes.

  2. Todd, I think you’re being a bit silly. Being a double amputee doesn’t give you an advantage. Living in a highly developed industrial society that replaces those lost legs with prosthetics which, while leaving a lot to be desired in many functions such as aesthetics, balance while standing still, ability to swim, etc., do provide you with a possible distinct advantage on one area, that of running at high speed.

    Having said that, good for him! I don’t claim to have the slightest idea of whether the prosthetics give him an unfair advantage or not. It was right of the IAAF to look into it, and the decision seems to have worked out for him. I look forward to watching him compete.

  3. Mike,
    Todd was being facetious.

    Anyway, kind of makes me try to see the world as less filled with obstacles.

    In other words, pretty inspiring.

  4. I believe those are kind of “running only” legs. There was a really cool show on Discovery Health maybe a while back that was about a prosthetist and his patients. If I’m remembering correctly they’re designed for forward motion so standing still or just walking are more difficult.

    I so wish the Paralympics were televised in the States, those people train just as hard as the “regular” Olympic athletes and are just as incredible athletes. It is looking like I’m going to be able to go to the Canada Cup (quad rugby/Murderball tournament in Vancouver) in June which I’m very excited about and will be as close to seeing the Olympic version as I’m likely to get.

  5. @Mark Terry: Mike was being facetious too.

    Besides that:

    a) It’s not an unfair advantage because all of the other competitors are free to saw off parts of themselves if they so choose. How dedicated to the sport are you people?

    b) There’s probably something I don’t understand about the leverage or something, but I can’t imagine how it would be advantageous to have those devices instead of legs. He has less muscles to push with. The fake-feets are just pushing against the ground with whatever force he exerts, right?

  6. I remember seeing clips of runners using these during the Paralympics scenes in Murderball (excellent documentary, btw). I’ve always been sad that I’ve never really got to watch the Paralympics live, they seem way-cooler than the normal Olympics. Plus, way to go bringing the win for equality.

  7. reminds me of Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain, where athletes were prevented from participating in sporting events because their sleeplessness gave them an unfair advantage.

  8. If none of you have yet, give the Body has a Mind of its Own a read, or a listen since the audiobook version is quite good.

    There’s some fascinating information about how people adapt to prosthetics, and how the mind maps itself to the body. The example in that book was of a woman with the same situation, but I got the book from the library and can’t track down her name.

  9. Yeah, he has special prosthetics (prostheses?) for racing, but I believe that they are similar in weight and energy return to actual legs. The original ruling was based on the thought that his prosthetics were lighter and more efficient than a normal leg. IMO, the challenge of not having ankle joints and all those stabilizing muscles and tendons more than makes up for any weight or spring advantage, especially in his event. The 400m is a full lap.

  10. Playing the devil’s advocate for minute (I’m actually glad they’re letting him compete), there is the argument that by allowing him to use technology to compensate for a physical disadvantage creates a precedent. If a weight lifter can prove another athlete’s body naturally produces more testosterone than his own, why shouldn’t he be allowed take steroids to make up the difference?

  11. Jemaleddin @#6: “It’s not an unfair advantage because all of the other competitors are free to saw off parts of themselves if they so choose.”

    I predict that within, oh, 20 years exactly that will happen – some borderline world-class athlete will decide that he or she can perform better with prosthetics and will have a voluntary amputation.

    I’m not sure how I feel about that, aside from echoing JS’s point that this is certainly science-fictional.

  12. Actually, not long ago I saw someone walking down the street using prosthetic devices very similiar to the ones pictures here–but he seemed to have both of his own legs and was using them as stilts. It struck me as deeply cool, but Oscar Pistorius is clearly deeply cooler.

  13. @Craig: No, but they would be allowed to watch very manly films and dine in sports bars way past the point of decency. Also, I understand from my father that there are testosterone-boosting effects to broccoli vis-a-vis chest hair.

    @DG Lewis: this is already happening with the Tommy John surgery, if the rumors about voluntary surgeries are to be believed.

  14. Interestingly South Africa will now (hopefully) have two amputees participating in the able-bodied olympics: Oscar Pistorius, as mentioned, and Natalie du Toit, who is a single leg amputee, and who has just qualified for the 10km open water event in Beijing by finishing fourth in the 10km at the World Open-Water Swimming Championships.

    I’m South African, and I think thats cool ;).

  15. I’m wondering what kind of strange stuff is in the air in South Africa which causes a fella be born without shin bones.

  16. Jemaleddin @#15: Yes, I guess one could say that the difference between LASIK, voluntary UCL replacement, and voluntary double amputation is merely one of degree, but the latter seems a bit more extreme to me…

  17. Body modification seems to have no boundaries. Scalzi had an author on just a month or so ago for The Big Idea who shared a story about this very topic. It dealt with the Elephant Man. It was a well written, interesting look at this topic with very creepy undertones. I’m sorry, I forgot the author’s name, but I have it written down so I can check out more of her work. Anyone got that name? I recommend a read of this particular story. It sort of reminded of The Star-bellied Sneetches. No one is ever happy with who they are.

  18. IMO the idea that the prostheses give him an advantage is fallacious. Look at his times and compare them with a similiarly motivated able bodied athlete. He’s just about competitive at 200m but way off at 400m – certainly in Olympic terms. Would he be if he had ‘good’ legs? I suspect he would be in the shake up.

    No shame on the IAAF. Shame on the other athletes who couldn’t bear the thought of being beaten by the guy.

    As for athletes ‘disabling’ themselves for advantage, this had happened at previous Paralympics.

  19. This is terrible! Now it’s only a matter of time before the Olympics become dominated by a race of cybernetic supermen. And shortly after that: world domination!

  20. It is sort of cool – I say good luck to him. I also think we should spare a thought for the rule-makers who govern sports as we move inexorably into the science-fictiony Scalziverse of the future – as if the drugs aren’t making it hard enough already, they’re going to be wading into a very muddy pool indeed as H. sapiens+ comes online.

    Can you imagine the ‘Open’ class? The basic-model athletes (biblical standard, made in His image) will be the supporting act while the cyborg competitors gleam and buzz in the wings, flexing their pneumo-hydraulic quads and tossing their carbon nanotube dreds.

  21. As a competitive cyclist, I can tell you that while technology can help you compete, it doesn’t give you the huge gains that some people would like to claim.

    As an example, you could put me on a high-end time-trial bike, put an in-form Lance Armstrong on a department store piece of crap, and the dude would still tear my legs off and feed them to me.

    Now, please understand, I’m not saying that technology should be disregarded — in cycling, things like aerobars, aerodynamic helmets, and high-end aero wheelsets all contribute to faster speeds.

    But in the end, it’s still the motor that wins the race.

  22. Because this guy is an inspirational and sympathetic figure, people seem to feel that the composition and performance of his prosthetics should be off limits. That’s absurd and leads to all sorts of crazy results. His “legs” are equipment just like shoes and should be subject to scrutiny as such.

    Currently there is a brand of shoes ( spira) that has actual metal springs in the soles. They are illegal in competition because they do afford an unfair advantage. This guy’s “legs” were tested and evaluated under the same criteria. The tests showed that they give him an advantage. The ruling was overturned because of public sympathy for the “poor” guy with no legs.

    Lost in the warm glow of helping this poor guy achieve his dream of course is the plight of the other runners who have spent their whole lives training for this race, who now have to run against a guy with “legs” that give him an edge over them. In a race where winning and losing is measured to three decimal places this is not a trivial argument.

    The worst example of this is the girl in the northeast somewhere ( I can find the link if anyone really needs it) who was allowed to participate in track using her wheel chair. Never mind that she “won” her “running” events by huge margins or the fact that her chair was an obstacle to the actual runners on the track. Some judge ruled that it was “fair” for her to compete in a running event without being able to actually you know run.

    Sporting events are arbitrary events with arbitrary rules. If you change the rules you change the event. If that’s what you want to do that’s fine, but you have to know that you now have a new event. Like the introduction of over sized clubs in golf, or steroids in baseball, the sport has now changed.

  23. Redcoat @25
    I think it’s a mistake to assume that the unmodified athletes would be the side-show. The “open” class, as you call it would probably end up 80% marketing expo.

    It’s one thing to look at professional automotive racing, and have people go ga-ga over the most expensive machines, because they’re ALL cars. But I think you’ll SPLIT the viewers where “feats of human athleticism” are replaced with “feats of human ingenuity.”

    Personally, I think both can be fascinating, when seen in person, or PROPERLY televised. I further expect that the SF-leaning crowd here has a far higher appreciation for the idea of the “feats of human ingenuity” spectacle than the average joe.
    I also think that William Gibson is over his true, heart-of-hearts disgust with the idea, and could watch with the amazement I hope to experience before my death!

  24. Mary:

    I think the person you saw would’ve been using Kangaroo Boots or some variation thereof.

  25. Drew @28

    The judges ruled that the mechanical advantage WAS NOT SHOWN. The judges did not rule, “Oh, what the hell, we always wanted to have disabled athletes in the Olympics, but they could never really make the times before.”

    I think there’s a good reason to investigate whether or not he has a mechanical advantage or not, and then whether or not the hypothetical advantage is fair or not.

    (Some mechanical advantages are considered fair, for example, the high tech full-body speed-os that most olympic swimmers rock these days)

  26. I just changed my mind on this whole issue: we shouldn’t allow this kid to compete. Why not? Because of his unfair advantage.

    No, I’m not talking about his prosthetic legs. I really have no idea of those help or hinder him. And until we find some twins who run track that don’t mind not being identical any more because of major surgery, we may never really know. That’s not really the point.

    You see, I watch a lot of those sports promos where they interview the most amazing specimens of physical strength and skill, and to a one, they never attribute their greatness to winning the genetic lottery. They claim that it’s all about hard work and mental toughness.

    And where does that mental toughness come from? Inspirational stories. And honestly, which runner can beat “I have no legs” in a inspiration-off?

    So I vote no! No Oscar in the Olympics!

  27. What if they had attached cheetah legs below his knees? Would he then still be able to compete?

    I’ve heard that Mark McGwire not only took steroids but had his arms replaced by a gorilla’s. I guess that adds a whole new meaning to the term “kong shot.”

  28. @28. Also, I think at the high school level, the issue was that she was not offered an alternative division to compete in. Round up all the wheelchair athletes in high school and you could make a good wheelchair competition, but the travel times would be long and it would cost. So, they put her on the regular track team. If there is no alternative, at the high school level, I see no harm in letting her compete.

    In regards to the paraolympics, true equity will not be gained by just televising them, although that would be a start. There is great competition there and very elite athletes. But the paraolympic events need to be integrated into the “real” olympics. I’m not saying the double amputee skiers need to compete with the able bodied skiers, keep the same event classifications, but just have the competitions along side each other in the regular olympics.

    In that way, if the issue of technology being an unfair advantage to compete in the regular olympics comes up, there can easily be a class of athletic competitions that use that technology. People are so worried that some disabled person is going to have an unfair advantage, but never seem to care that currently, most disabled athletes are disadvantaged not by their disability, but by having to compete on the sidelines.

    This is more than just nice-y nice feel good integration here. Olympic Athletes get funding opportunities that ParaOlympic athletes don’t get. Along with the prestige, media exposure and endorsement deals that may come after an olympic win. Until the Olympics are integrated, all disabled athletes are at an unfair disadvantage.

    My hope is that having this guy compete will not just be a little inspirational feel-good story but will open eyes to the level of athleticism of disabled athletes and work to get the paraolympics integrated.

  29. Drew … The fact is, no tests, no scientific analysis, was done to prove advantage. The fact is, the designers of the running leg used the inherent springiness of the human leg as a model for their leg, but because articulated reproductions of human calf-and-foot systems just break down too fast, they went back to the structural minimum to design a leg that will actually last for an entire race. The stride that Pistorius has to use is less efficient for running because it uses different muscles, and runners who regularly use the strap-on version of the same leg have reported that it’s more fatiguing than regular running for the same distance, and there goes the “mechanical advantage” claim. (Note, the strap-on version is used as a ‘low-gravity’ simulator, for jumping further.)

    The fact is, the man has run against runners with flesh and blood legs, and lost, and won, and tied, and the fact is, his aerobic conditioning and training are the factor that determines which he does, just as for other runners.

    Yes, do please provide your link to the girl in the wheelchair, because unless it’s an open marathon where this has been accepted for some years now, I at least would like some verification.

  30. Scott:

    “I think there’s a good reason to investigate whether or not he has a mechanical advantage or not, and then whether or not the hypothetical advantage is fair or not.”

    Indeed, and in this case there seems to have been some fairly comprehensive investigation into the matter.

  31. John: I know!
    That’s what the paragraph immediately preceding says. Maybe I should have put those in the other order?

    I was just indicating that I agreed with a specific part of Drew’s comment. I do believe there is such a thing as an unfair advantage, and if somebody is using something in the games, that that something should be checked for fairness. Drew says “metal springs in shoes: not fair” (not that I had ever heard that before), I say “Speedos: fair.”
    He says “cheetahs: not fair” I say, “The appals board said they were, or at the very least, that the unfairness wasn’t shown”

  32. The CAS is handing down some peculiar decisions these days.
    The science demonstrates clearly that there is an advantage to running on these carbon-fibre legs. Pistorius is the only 400m runner in the recorded history of the world who speeds up in the second 200m. This can happen only if the carbon-fibre legs are giving him more propulsion than old-fashioned meat and bone. See
    for details.

    It is cool and science-fictiony, but these legs aren’t in fact different from doping. It’s just a visible form of body engineering. For political reasons, CAS has decided to let Pistorius run. Story of the world really, but still depressing that science is always and everywhere trumped by politics.

    Note that the so-called ‘independent’ tests conducted by Professor Herr are nothing of the sort. Prof. Herr is a co-developer of the prosthetic limbs, and a collaborator, contracted expert and speaker for their manufacturer.

    For details of the last peculiar decision from CAS, my blog at

  33. Sounds like it’s time to dig Bernard Wolfe’s classic SF black humor novel “Limbo” out of obscurity. The story revolves around a peace movement which takes “disarming” very literally, and celebrates itself with new Olympic records resulting from hydraulics.

  34. If you can get past the marketing bullshit, this Nike ad has footage of Pistorius running around 0:35. I’m glad he and Kim duToit get to compete, seeing how they’ve both trained their guts out and earned their spots.

  35. DG Lews@12: I predict that within, oh, 20 years exactly that will happen – some borderline world-class athlete will decide that he or she can perform better with prosthetics and will have a voluntary amputation.

    Heh. Heh. Heh. 20 years? I give it five, maximum, and I’d put the over/under as to whether it’s happening already somewhere around 20%.

  36. JOhn,

    Here is my problem with the “investigation”. Did they just look at the recoil of the fake legs versus the real legs, or did they take into account other issues like:

    –that Oscar doesn’t have to pump blood through the prostethics so his heart can be more efficient.

    — Are the prosthetics lighter than real legs

    — How do you simulate cramps or fatigue in the fake legs

    — How about lactic acid


    However the real issue is that if these “legs” are a perfect replicate of the real thing and give no benefit, what happens if the manufacturer comes out with a new model that is better. Will those be allowed. Will there be a range of allowable efficiencies. What if Oscar gets a new pair that he says are identical but his times drop a second? Can he prove that it’s not due to the new legs? Who gets to decide? Is there someone out there with a degree in comparative ambulatory devices?

    Why can’t we just say that people who do not have legs can’t run. They can do other things, but they lack the actual equipment to run. Adding wheel chairs and prosthetics, and what not to the equation may be good for the individual but it ruins the sport.

    I too would love to run in the olympics. It has been a lifelong dream of mine. However I was born with a tragically deficient set of genes that prevent me from competing. Why is my condition different than his?

    Finally, if you think that the governing bodies of these sports are not influenced by politics and public opinion … The IAAF ran a series of clinical tests that showed the legs to have superior recoil and spring compared to normal legs. This is actually something that they know a lot about because they have precise tests that they use for evaluating shoes. The appeals court did not redo the tests, instead they listened to a lot of people tell them why Oscar is such an inspirational guy that he should get the benefit of the doubt. It’s an olympic year. Everyone loves a good story. Because no one has ever had to study this exact issue before, there are no peer reviewed studies, just a few informed opinions. The committee construed that as a lack of evidence. They gave him a golden ticket. Good for Oscar, bad for the sport.

  37. Part of the reason that we don’t say people without legs can’t run is because the can. They might not run like someone with legs, but what other word do you want to wrap around what he’s doing?

    And the broader issues is much more profound. We don’t say it because throughout human history we’ve talked about what people with disabilities can’t do and it is shameful.

    They can’t survive, so we leave them to die on rocks. They can’t live, so we put them in cages in institutions but we call them cribs. They can’t have families, so we sterilize them because “three generations of idiots is enough.” They can’t work, so we allow businesses to discriminate. They can’t go out in the world, so we create a built environment that they can’t navigate because of the architectural barriers. They can’t learn, so they don’t get to go to school. They can’t take care of themselves, so we stunt their growth and create “pillow angels.” They can’t be productive or stay on their meds, so we lock them up in prison. They can’t hear evacuation orders in buildings or cities in emergencies, so we let them die in terrorist attacks and hurricanes.

    This legacy of inhumane treatment and discrimination has given rise to new generations of people with disabilities and advocates who will not tolerate statements about what people with disabilities cannot do. We’ve come too far and there’s far too much at stake to allow it.

  38. Drew:

    Good points, and I myself do wonder if he’s henceforth obliged to run on the prosthetics he’s using now, or whether he’s able to upgrade and what those will mean for his advantages/disadvantages.

  39. #46 You are just being silly. Nobody is suggesting that this guy be treated as anything other than human. This is not a question of dignity or fairness. It’s a matter of reality.

    If you start changing the rules of a game, at some point it is no longer the same game. You need a football to play football. You need legs to run. Can you play football with a soccer ball or a volley ball? sure but it’s no longer football.

    The case I linked to above about the girl in the wheel chair is a classic example. She wanted to “run” even though she can’t even walk. So she complained to her parents who sued the school. A judge ruled that she should be allowed to “run”. A good mile time for high school girls is 5:30, she wheels in at 4:30. Most distance runners can do one maybe two races in a meet. She can wheel 4 or 5. That’s nice, but she is not running. Moreover, the message to the other athletes is that this girl is more important than they are.

    The only reason she is on that track is because a judge agreed with her parents that she should be able to do anything she wants to, no matter how absurd it might be. How is that good for anyone?

    Limits are a part of life. How is telling kids that there are no limits a good thing?

    Athletics are a gift not a right. Now if you want to talk about access to universal rights like education, nutrition, freedom, etc… I’m with you 100%.

  40. Can I also point out that we are talking about a GAME here not about LIFE.

    In my world the “right” to play is not on the same level as the “right” to live.


  41. Reminds me of the cyclists who argued that Lance Armstrong had an unfair advantage from the chemotherapy drugs he was taking during the Tour. (Or did some suggest it was the cancer itself giving the unfair advantage?)

  42. Neat so they changed the ruling did they? Was kind of disappointed when they decided he couldn’t participate. There was a indepth show here about the case as the company that makes his prosthetics (Össur) is Icelandic and we kinda like it when we “make it” in the big big world…

    Yes we’re sad…but proud!

    This opens up the question of whether the Special Olympics will be disbanded somewhere down the road. Not for a couple of decades at least but when disabilities as missing an arm or a leg or a two isn’t exactly a handicap anymore you’ve got to wonder.

    The “fairness” issue will always be there but there are of course some kind of standardized prosthetics expertly evaluated to be roughly the same as natural legs. Or at least there should be.

    The apartheid in sports is slowly eroding, gender, disabilities and so on seems to matter less and less. And to me it’s a good thing.

  43. Asgeir J.

    Just a nitpick. The Special Olympics is NOT the same as the ParaOlympic Games. I’m not saying anything negative about the special olympics, but it is more about participation, feel-good, non competitiveness. It will never be integrated because it thrives on the “special” for fund raising, etc.

    The ParaOlympic Games, OTOH, are competitive and consist of elite top quality athletes in their sport. These are people who train diligently at a high level and are way better athletes than (I assume) you or me. They are on par with Olympic level athletes in their respective sports in terms of high level competition.

    I don’t think we know enough yet, haven’t flushed it out enough, to know if this type of technology is an unfair advantage. I would be interested to know the competitive times of other athletes that use these prosthetics and average it out among an average of able-bodied runners. It is not fair to put the entire responsibility of whether this is fair or not on a single athlete. The sample is too small. Also, though, we need to give the para track athletes the same financial and technical/training/coaching advantages of our top Olympic athletes. The only way that is going to happen on a broad basis is, again, if we integrate the para olympic athletes into the standard Olympics and raise the awareness and prestige of these athletes.

    People might not wish any harm to the disabled, but in cases like these I think a real bias shows up. It is okay to pity a disabled person as having less than you. And it is okay to be inspired by a high achieving disabled person who may be a special “hero” who has perhaps outperformed you. But it is NOT okay to look at disabled people as equals. People really hate, hate, hate the idea of being outperformed in whatever area, by a disabled person. Even if double amputee track events were kept segregated, people are not going to like the fact that one of them might someday end up being the fastest runner in the world. Somehow, their Olympic medals are not supposed to mean as much as ours. It is easier to shut them out of having to directly compete with us than deal with our biases and insecurities about being outdone by a disabled person.

  44. Of course he gets a mechanical advantage from his artificial legs. He doesn’t *have* natural legs, so if he had peg legs, he’d be getting some mechanical benefit

  45. If this guy is smart and he gets to compete in Beijing he won’t pull anything more than a bronze. If he shows up with those things and wins four gold medals with them he’ll be tossed for sure.

  46. Man where to start? For athletes at the professional or Olympic level the game is their life.
    Everybody thinks that the whole Amateur thing is for fairness. Wrongo, it was so the nobels who founded the modern olympics wouldn’t have to compete against the masses.
    On the subject of fairness how many athletes had to sit out the olympics because their country was pissed at the host country and decided to boycot?
    Are you an amateur if you are in the military and do nothing in the military except train in your sport?
    Dan at #27, No equipment would enable you to beat Armstrong at his best. At the Olympic level the slightest advantage can be the difference between the fame that goes with a medal finish and four more years of obscurity and unpaid training.
    I know where to end this. How the heck do they decide if the legs give an unfair advantage or not?

  47. Yeah, he’s just holding back. If he really let loose he could outrun a locomotive. Honestly! He has metal legs. It’s not like he became the Flash.

    And I can’t help but think whatever advantages this guy gets in an area would be offset by a disadvantage somewhere else so it evens out.

    And would there be less of a problem if his prosthetic was exactly identical to a flesh and blood leg? Do the nay-sayers have a problem with prosthetics in athletics per se or just the type?

  48. I’m gonna assay one of them prediction things.

    Over the next 10-20 years, we’ll see parallel competitive series develop. One will be stricter than modern sports generally are now, with comprehensive testing for modifying substances, probably a regulation diet as well as regulation clothing and such. The other will be much looser, tolerant of prosthetics, chemical alterations, and whatever else is lying around. We’re now really past the point of being able to have one pinnacle of achievement, but not culturally yet set to accept two. I think we will, though, out of necessity and with rationalization following it.

  49. What if he straps on a different set of legs and competes in the swimming events? I’m sure a nice set of extra wide ‘feet’ will provide a nice set of flippers.

  50. “what happens if the manufacturer comes out with a new model that is better. Will those be allowed. Will there be a range of allowable efficiencies”

    That is how the auto racing organizations manage it.

  51. I’m a physical therapist assistant and I occasionally work with amputees (not athletes, so far; just regular folks).

    One aspect of Pistorius’s situation that’s been overlooked in this discussion is what happens to your stumps when you run in prostheses. Before unleashing rhetoric like Drew’s, talk to someone who deals with this on a daily basis.

    Pistorius might have an advantage–if the able-bodied runners had to line their shoes with sandpaper.

    (Circe @ #20: “The Last Stand of the Elephant Man” by Jennifer Pelland, found in the collection Unwelcome Bodies)

  52. I agree with #39. I read the thread first, and was going to make the same point, were it not made.

    To amplify, from reviews at amazon:

    The Rule of the Quadriplegics, June 9, 2003
    By Patrick Shepherd “hyperpat” (San Jose, CA USA)
    Limbo is one of the forgotten classics of the SF field, a strong dystopian/post-apocalyptic work published in the same time frame as Orwell’s 1984 and George Stewarts’ Earth Abides, and very much belonging in that company.

    Neurosurgeon Dr. Martine (pronounced like the drink – your first clue to the heavily satiric nature of this book) is happily ensconced on an idyllic tropical island, where there is no conflict and everyone is happy – and if they’re not, the Doctor will merrily perform a lobotomy on the offending person to ensure that there are no wild cards that could upset the harmony of the islanders. But he himself is not quite happy, nagged by the feeling that this method of producing a utopia is not the best, and some memories he has of his part in the WWIII conflict. That conflict was one of two giant computers out to dominate the world, and eventually resulted in a rebellion by the people, a rebellion fueled by a certain notebook that Dr. Martine left lying around when he exited the normal world in favor of his island hideaway. Eventually Martine’s doubts lead him to return to the outer world to see what has happened, only to find his old notebook has become the new bible, and people in following its maxims are deliberately having their limbs amputated and replaced by miracles of cybernetic prosthesis, as their method of proving the dominance of mind over machine. This portrayed society is fascinating both for its startling differences and its commonalties with our own.

    The book obviously has a heavy philosophical component, as we follow the Doctor’s thoughts and excerpts from his notebooks. But there is also a strong humorous undercurrent, with multiple (rather atrocious) puns (are puns ever anything else?), and a lot of laughing at itself for being so self-important. There is also a trend to treat sex as one of the most important actions of the human animal (one scene runs to a couple of pages as a single sentence), an item that inevitably gets folded into the philosophical discourse. The general prose style is quite readable, not overly descriptive and with reasonable dialogue, but it probably wouldn’t win any style contests. Characterization is almost totally that of Martine, other characters have little development other than as foils for his development of a new philosophy – which naturally he records in another notebook.

    There is much food for thought here, while Wolfe maintains a very interesting and dramatic story line, and keeps the whole thing all too believable. Is it the best thing ever written? No, but it is more than deserving of a contemplative read, and the thoughts and ideas presented will make you do a little thinking about just where our computerized world of today is headed.

    — Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)

    Little Known & One Of Science-Fiction’s Best, January 2, 2003
    By Doc Barham “Peak Performance Coach doc@ppgcoa… (LOS ANGELES, CA USA)
    David Pringle’s 100 Best Science-Fiction Novels is a decent resource and shopping list for well-read SF fans. I was rounding out my classic post-apocalyptic & distopian future books part of the list (i.e. 1984, Brave New World, We, Canticle For Leibowitz, etc.) when I came across Limbo. The fact that I’d never heard of Limbo or it’s author, Bernard Wolfe, and that it was, apparently, the only SF novel he ever wrote, intrigued me. I wasn’t disappointed.

    This is a wonderful 50’s era cautionary tale, Swiftian in many ways, all dressed up as science fiction. Wolfe writes quite well and with a depth not encountered in much of SF. It makes for a great read not to mention a great recommendation to friends because it is so little known. Though the book seems quaintly dated at some points, the various themes all regard fundamental questions of the human condition that are timeless and universal.

    It is essentially a commentary on Cold War era America through the device of future projection. In the spirit of great satire, Wolfe extrapolates an extreme and ludicrous version of the present moment and places it far into the future. The statement is simple: This is what we’re going to be like if we keep going this way. It’s all there – WWIII, nuclear devastation, rebuilding what’s left with the few that are left, but here’s the kicker: since we obviously will never learn to control ourselves and to prevent future destruction, everyone will lay down their arms and legs, literally, via amputation, and replace them with nuclear powered, auto-controlled limbs. Absolutely absurd and that’s precisely the point.

    I don’t want to give away any more specifics. I’m sure you can find more elsewhere if you need to. As far as SF goes, I’m a pretty harsh critic. To this day Limbo remains one of my favorites, and IMO, may be the best American contribution to the distopian novel genre. It’s a great ride that’ll have you aching for your own brand new set of nuclear powered limbs by the end.

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