Archive for May, 2010

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“A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum

May 31, 2010

The Book: “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum.  Story originally published in 1934 by Wonder Stories.  Read in the anthology Where Do We Go from Here? edited by Isaac Asimov published by Fawcett Crest in 1972.

The Setting: Mars

The Story: One of the first men on Mars crashes his flier and attempts to walk back to base.  He’s joined by an intelligent bird like creature and encounters many other strange beasts on his way back.  Like the Odyssey!

The Science: The science part is almost cheating.  This book includes comments by Asimov on the science of each story, as well as discussion questions.

  • Martian Life: Hey, how about that?  Aliens who are not only are weird looking, but who have alien brains and codes of conduct as well!  There’s Tweel, the bird creature who learns to communicate with the human protagonist.  There’s plant life that moves about on tiny legs.  There’s the silicon based pyramid-monster who spits out bricks and builds pyramids around himself.  There’s the dream-beast that lures its victims by mining their deepest desires and having them come to it. Then there are the cart-pushing drum-barrel creatures who does something in a deep mine and menace the man and the bird.  Asimov indicates that silicon based life is not likely, and I’ll take his word on that.  For now.
  • First Men on Mars:  I have to applaud Weinbaum for envisioning the first major trip to Mars as a mulit-national endeavor.  There are two Americans, one French person, and a Russian.  It didn’t quite work that way in the space race a couple decades later.

The Reaction: The story is not exactly compelling.  One guy tells three other guys (with some pretty bad dialogue) about his Martian adventure.  But it definitely gets points for originality when it comes to creature imagining and inter-species communication efforts.  Weinbaum’s Mars is a much more biologically complex world than Burroughs’.

The Cover: A generalized science fiction anthology cover with what may be planets or molecules or whatever.  But mostly, ASIMOV.

Next Up: Swords of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

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Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

May 30, 2010

The Book: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.  Originally published in 1932.  Edition read was published by Harper and Row as “A Perennial Classic” in 1969.

The Setting: London, 600 years in the future

The Story: In a world where people are mass produced at different levels of functionality, all reared and conditioned for consuming goods and easy controlability, a naturally born man confronts civilization.

The Science:

  • Science controls reproduction: Nowadays, in vitro fertilization is a not uncommon process.  In that process, fertilization of the egg is done outside the body.  Usually, many of these fertilized eggs are implanted in the uterus to increase the odds of conception, frequently resulting in multiples.  Now, the budding and totally external process described in the book may be possible – at least the external part – but it will probably never be tested because of ethical concerns.  But there is some crazy science going on around the process of baby making these days.
  • Soma: The perfect drug.  Pleasant and no negative aftereffects.  Makes a bad situation seem perfectly okay.  Do we have such a drug today?  No, but the anti-depressants that so many use today seem to try to approach it.  Certainly it seems that we rely more and more on pharmaceuticals to live our lives.  And the people of Brave New World rely on soma to get by.  It is a hardship to be without, even if there are no physical withdrawl symptoms.
  • Ford based society:  The world of Brave New World is one in which religion, literature, and free will are severely curtailed.  It’s a world where the time starts with the birth of Henry Ford, father of the assembly line.  The book mentions a war, a war which had severe impacts on society and the population, so much so that the population chose to re-organize society in a way that might seem monstrous today.  Remove the concept of family, create sub-humans and ultra-humans, make pleasure and purchasing the highest good.  It seems to me that this vision is a bit unrealistic.  In times of great stress, society seems to reorganize itself into tribal structures, where the strong or intimidating lead the rest (or is that too many movies talking?).  I have a hard time imagining society choosing to restructure itself in this way, but I can imagine it happening in a sort of gradual way.  Starting small and growing into what it becomes in the book.

The Reaction: I read this book multiple times in my teens, but not since high school.  So it was an interesting experience to read it again.  I think I appreciated it more this time, maybe because I’ve grown more cynical about the world?  I don’t know.  I always got a little lost near the end, and it happened this time too.  I had to go back and read the last couple pages a second time.  But it’s a really good book, really effective.  Huxley can write, and that was kind of refreshing.

The Cover: Cover design by Roger Zimmermann.  Words.  Bold.  Simple.  They say: Modern Classic.  But boring for the project.  Yawn.

Next Up: Short story:  “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum.

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Thuvia, Maid of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

May 26, 2010

Oops.  This should have been posted May 5th.  It was read in order.  Guess I didn’t hit publish.

The Book: Thuvia, Maid of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Originally published in 1916 as a serial, the edition read was published by Ballantine Books in 1976.

The Setting: MARS!  BARSOOM!  It’s the same place!

The Story: Carthoris, son of John Carter and Dejah Thoris, loves Thuvia, maid of Mars, who figured into the previous volume (Warlord of Mars).  But, alas!, she is betrothed to another.  And then she is kidnapped!  Carthoris seeks to rescue her, gets lost due to treachery, gets lucky and finds her again.  They find themselves at Castle Mindfuck (another undiscovered race, this time with vast mental powers) and, wouldn’t you know it?, in terrible danger.  But they get away, Thuvia gets herself kidnapped again, and Carthoris is in the right place at the right time and saves her.  Then he saves her fiance.  The fiance witnesses their superior love and releases Thuvia from the betrothal.  All is well with the world.

The Science: Two bits of science.

  • Autopilot.  Carthoris has developed a very clever and tamper-proof autopilot and obstruction detector device for his flying machine.  (Which, of course, is tampered with, sending him off on the story of the book.)  Autopilot, as we know today, exists!  And works!  “Obstruction detectors” exist as well, in the form of radar and what have you, but automatically avoiding those obstructions, as Carthoris’ device does, is something I don’t believe has been developed, at least not for commercial use.  So I think this was a pretty neat thing for Burroughs to develop.
  • MIND POWERS.  Carthoris and Thuvia encounter a fair skinned, auburn haired race of people who can conjure armies, food, pretty much anything by the power of their minds.  Not just phantoms, but physical beings which can fight wars and then dissipate when they are no longer needed.  Individuals of this race also can plant ideas in the minds of their enemies and effect mind control.  While I will not say that such a thing as telepathic mind control exists, it has certainly been a point of much interest throughout history.  The CIA was involved with mind control experiments, although maybe not in the way one might imagine initially.  So it’s a tantalizing idea, but one which science lacks evidence for.

The Reaction: A good story, but not as good as its predecessors.  The recipe is kind of the same.  True love + kidnapped love interest = high adventure.  This book suffers from a less distinct point of view.  It jumps between the view of several characters, sometimes confusing me, while the previous volumes had a single point of view.  Still, worth reading.  And the prose, while still fun, is not as fun as the last book.

The Cover: Cover art by Gino d’Achille.  Thuvia poses with a banth.  Well, we assume it’s a banth, since those are the beasts that Thuvia can magically control.  This beast doesn’t have enough legs, and it’s teeth are too thick.  But not bad all around.  Well done!

Etc: Special note on Planet Mindfuck.  A term which has evolved from watching a great deal of Star Trek and Doctor Who (yes, of course I’m that kind of nerd), both shows which frequently put their characters in situations explained by the presence of a GIANT BRAIN WHICH CONTROLS REALITY.  Or something.  Castle Mindfuck is a manifestation of Planet Mindfuck, just on a less than planetary scale.

Next Up: The Chessmen of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

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A Fighting Man of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

May 22, 2010

The Book: A Fighting Man of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Originally published in 1930, the edition read was published by Ballantine Books in 1973.

The Setting: Mars/Barsoom

The Story: A soldier of noble birth, Tan Hadron of Hastor, falls in love with a rich princess, Sanoma Tora.  She’s promptly kidnapped.  Hadron rushes off to her rescue, alone, but crashes in unfriendly territory.  He rescues Tavia, a slave girl, from the green men of Mars, and they continue on the quest to rescue Sanoma Tora.  Along the way Hadron encounters nearly certain death in the form of: an underground river, giant spiders, white apes, a wicked king, a mad scientist, another wicked king, and cannibals. In the end, Sanoma Tora is rescued, a couple of minor characters find a happy ending, and Hadron discovers that he loves Tavia, not Hadron.  And, surprise, Tavia is actually a princess, not a slave!

The Science: We’ve got another mad scientist in this book.  His name is Phor Tak, he enjoys revenge, and he likes to shout “Heigh-oo!”  He also invented the:

  • Disintegrating gun: Phor Tak created a rifle which disintegrates metal portions of whatever it’s pointed at.  This is bad, because it can disintegrate airships, and everyone falls to their death.  According to the book, the gun can “change the polarity of the protons in metallic substances, releasing the whole mass as free electrons.”  I am greatly disappointed that the gun does not reverse the polarity of the neutron flow. It seems to me that chaos would ensue if you could convert protons to electrons, but I don’t think that’s even possible, given that protons are like a thousand times larger than electrons.  Something about the law of conservation of mass would kick in, wouldn’t it?
  • Invisibility paint: Phor Tak develops a paint which, being invisible itself, can make objects invisible when applied.  He explains that it bows light around it, bows a viewers line of vision right around an object, thus rendering it unobservable, or invisible for all practical purposes.  I thought maybe this was impossible, but holy crap, science is working on making this stuff! But it’s only at the nano-scale now.  Madness.

The Reaction: By the time I finished the book, I’d forgotten half of it.  There’s a lot of story in this book, with more characters and more strange and unusual dangers than previously.  A nice change of pace, however, is Tavia.  Tavia can fight as well as Hadron and fly an airship.  She’s not helpless and she doesn’t act it, insisting that she will fight  beside Hadron.  So that was pretty cool.  The book was fine while I was reading it, but there’s just too much story, with some parts being wrapped up in a couple of sentences when they deserved more.

The Cover: Cover art by Gino D’Achille.  Two mostly naked guys with swords go through spiderwebs with giant spiders in the background.  This is a scene from the book, pretty accurately depicted.  I could nitpick, but I won’t.  It is a fine and decent cover.

Etc: I kept getting distracted by the name Hadron, since hadrons are also a thing in physics, a la the Large Hadron Collider.  But I’m not sure Burroughs was aware of that.

Next Up: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

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The Skylark of Space by Edward E. Smith

May 20, 2010

The Book: The Skylark of Space by Edward E. Smith.  Originally published as a serial in 1928, the edition read was published by Pyramid Books in 1958.

The Setting: Earth, Outerspace, Planet Osnome

The Story: A brilliant scientist, Richard Seaton, from humble beginnings accidentally discovers the secret of space travel.  His arch-nemesis, De Quesne,  steals it from him and kidnaps his girl into DEEP SPACE.  Seaton and his millionaire best friend, Martin Crane, set off to rescue the girl.  They do, narrowly escaping a black hole at the far reaches of the universe.  They also rescue De Quesne and another dame he’d kidnapped.  They team up, reluctantly, and try to get home to earth, for which they need more copper.  They try a few planets, encountering only terrible danger.  They find a copper bearing planet with inhabitants suspiciously like Barsoomian red men except kind of greenish, beat the bad guys, marry the girls, and become Overlords of the planet.  Then they make it make to Earth just fine.  But super rich from jewels and stuff.

The Science: The author is actually a Ph.D in chemical engineering, so there’s a lot of science in this book.  How much of it is good science…  I don’t know.

  • Space travel: Seaton discovers the mechanism for space travel by accident.  There’s this element X, you see, found by accident.  He’s examining it and put some into solution.  When he went to throw it out, the solution sloshed over the side of its copper tub and the tub accidentally came into contact with some electric current and then… it busted out through the wall.  Small bits of copper wire had the same result.  Turns out, a machine in the next room was the key, in addition to the solution of X and the electricity.  The X somehow turned the copper into pure energy, no radiation by products.  So naturally, into space they go! Honestly, I have no idea if something like this is feasible.  I mean, I kind of doubt it.  Especially since it relies on Chemical Element X, only ever found on Earth once.  But it works well enough for a plot device for the story.  It’s a hell of a reaction – complete transfer  of matter to energy.  Certainly nothing we’re even close to achieving on earth.
  • Otherworldly food: One thing I really appreciated in this book is that, when invited to a feast on a planet very different than their own, the human protagonists (geniuses, all, except for the women who are merely spunky and fast learners) have the presence of mind to examine the food and determine if it will kill them or not.  It will.  How exactly they can tell, I’m not sure, but it’s a good effort.  Later, the aliens make them food they can eat, something which is not fully explained.  But, in so many books, humans eat whatever they find and it very rarely disagrees with them, much less poisons them.
  • Education machines: At one point, an alien prince rigs up a learning machine MacGyver style in order to teach the humans how to speak.  And, accidentally, he imprints his entire brain on Seaton, and Seaton’s brain imprints on the alien.  But it’s cool – their normal brains are still there, they just have bonus knowledge.  An education helmet is a pretty classic science fiction idea, as are education pills.  At this point in time, the brain is still a very mysterious thing, so a machine to imprint knowledge is pretty much not gonna happen.  However, science is reaching a point where it knows what you’re thinking.  I’m not kidding.  It’s pretty crazy.

The Reaction: I tried to read this book once before.  The prose is…. not so good.  Smith has this unfortunate habit of not really fleshing everything out – I kept having to go back to try and figure out what was happening or why it was happening, and not finding an answer.  Once I got past the prose, I hit the misogyny.  Sure, the broads are spunky, but the men are always amazed at their spunk and the women are always off dressing up and making sandwiches for the men somewhere out of scene.  I can assign it as a function of the times and the genre – the main characters in this book are hyper-idealized; the men are manly and the women are beautiful and good at making sandwiches.  Or something.  Anyway, I guess it’s a classic and one of the first space operas and all, but…  I’m not inclined to be at all interested in reading this again.

The Cover: Cover art by Richard Powers.  The cover (what hasn’t been damaged) shows a super cool, kind of organic-y building and a couple of flying spaceships, of which I assume one is meant to be the Skylark (that’s the name of the spaceship, by the way).  Problem is, the Skylark is just a great big sphere.  But that wouldn’t look nearly as awesome.  So I’m okay with the cover.  In fact, I kind of love it.

Up Next: A Fighting Man of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

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The Master Mind of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

May 19, 2010

The Book: The Master Mind of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Originally published in 1927, the edition read was published by Ballantine Books in 1973.

The Setting: Mars.  Surprised?

The Story: A John Carter fan boy gets himself to Mars, apprentices to a mad scientist, falls in love with a beautiful mind transferred to a horrible body, and resolves to return that mind to its (also beautiful) body.  He teams up with an assassinated assassin, a guard in the body of a noble, and a great white ape with half the brain of a man.  Then they fight their way in the pursuit of what must be right, and manage to position themselves as a god while doing it (nope, that’s not an agreement problem).  Which helps them on their way.  It all works out in the end – everyone ends up in the right bodies, and the fan boy marries the beautiful mind, and its attendant beautiful body.  And John Carter is best man at his wedding!

The Science: MAD SCIENCE.  So the WWI soldier spends the first part of the book learning to become a surgeon under the character I assume the title refers to.  The Mad Scientist is interested only in science, with no eye toward what we Earthlings might call ethics.  So, in addition to fixing broken down organs and replacing limbs and all manner of humanitarian whatnot, he’ll also transfer your brain into another body that you like better, for money naturally.  Or put your brain in an animal.  Or half your brain in an animal.  You know, for science.

While organ transplants are now pretty well established (and still pretty freaking awesome), and stuff like face transplants actually happen, Martian medicine seems significantly more advanced – what with allowing brains to be transferred and everybody wakes up okay.  What bugs me is how the mad scientist would put together half and half brains.  I’m pretty sure that you can’t just cut a brain in half and it’ll be just fine and dandy.  The right and left lobes have fairly distinct sets of responsibilities, if you will.  So I am skeptical that  you could reconcile the halves of two different, if similar species.  But maybe the mad scientist was just that good.  He seemed to be.

The Reaction: The book was alright.  I read most of it on a 4 hour flight (and am typing this now IN THE AIR!  SCIENCE!).  I feel like Burroughs is stuck in a kind of rut.  Even though the girl didn’t actually get herself kidnapped or lost, it was still a rescue mission.  And there’s the shock value.  The brain replacement bit is a bit, well, shocking.  Right up there with human taxidermy (oh god, I’m going to get google hits for that now, aren’t I?).  So while it was a fine adventure story, it was nowhere near the caliber of the early books.  And what’s with the earthman?  Does he not feel ethically conflicted about some of this shit that went down?  I mean, really! Brain swapping! I’m glad that Burroughs began to put more time between volumes – I think the stories could use some refreshing.

The Cover: Cover art by Gino D’Achille.  This cover features the dreaded white ape of Mars carrying (fighting?) a red man of Mars.  And a white ape is a protagonist for a while, and he does fight red men.  So I guess that’s fine.  If a bit dull.

Next Up: The Skylark of Space by Edward E. Smith.

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“The Color Out of Space” by H.P. Lovecraft

May 9, 2010

The Book: “The Color Out of Space” by H.P. Lovecraft from Science Fiction Omnibus edited by Groff Conklin.  Story originally published in 1927.  Edition read was published by Berkeley Books in 1956.

The Setting: Earth, rural New England

The Story: A meteor falls to Earth and infects? hunts? destroys a family and their land, manifesting itself as a color no one can quite describe.

The Science: Meteors fall to earth all the time, bringing with them bits of the universe, which is what makes this story so effective – it’s plausible!  The universe is a big place, and we can’t know everything that does or does not exist in it, so the possibility of something otherworldly falling to earth and not being totally compatible is there.  The color out of space cannot be described, but it was carried within the meteor and spread when it came to earth.  It got into the water supply and poisoned plants, animals, and people, sucking the life out of them until they turned to grey, crumbling dust.  I don’t know of any earthly analogy other than certain wasting diseases specific only to plants or animals, not both, but, hey, the universe is a big place…

The Reaction: Great story.  I read stories like they’re movies, and this one was a great story.  I had to see if it had been made into a film.  And it has.  Three times.  Must be hard to capture something like an indescribable color on film.  The story also struck me because I’ve been reading so much Burroughs lately.  In Burroughs, the characters are relentlessly active.  In this story, the characters watch in terror that which they can do nothing about.  Super.

The Cover: It’s an anthology and clearly this cover has nothing to do with this story, but it’s gorgeous.  I mean, look at all those spaceships!  And they’re such space age spaceships of the future.  Love it.  But I’m a sucker for retro-future spaceships and rayguns.

Next UpThe Master Mind of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs