Archive for June, 2010

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Synthetic Men of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

June 24, 2010

The Book: Synthetic Men of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Originally published in 1939, the edition read was published by Ballantine Books in 1976.

The Setting: MARS!

The Story: John Carter and his loyal man Vor Daj set out to find Ras Thavas, the Master Mind of Mars, because Dejah Thoris has been horribly injured in a crash.  They get captured by hideous creatures who refuse to die.  These hormads are the creation of Ras Thavas, but they have taken control and plan to take over all Barsoom.  The story involves Vor Daj swapping brains with a hormad, fighting, falling in love with a girl, trying to win said girl, and trying to save his original body.  It all ends well, and Vor Daj gets the girl and his body.

The Science: Hormads and genetic engineering:  The hormads are spit out of some sort of primeval life soup.  They come out horribly misshapen, so much so that most must be destroyed because they cannot be of use.  The others usually have random faces, arms in weird places, and odd proportions.  At one point, one of the primeval soup vats gets out of control and grows without end, consuming itself and anyone in its path.  And it would just keep going like that until it covered the whole of the planet, if John Carter hadn’t bombed it out of existence. It’s really pretty crazy.  But, you say, no sort of thing can continue generating indefinitely.  And there’s where science comes in.  Check out this immortal jellyfish.  And this immortal line of human cells – from a woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951.  So it’s possible to continue forever in the right circumstances – but not exactly like in the book.

The Reaction: Meh.  It was fun to read, but it’s the same formula with a slightly different spin.  Everyone gets kidnapped this time.  More brain swapping and fighting and exploring unknown reaches of Barsoom.  At least John Carter was around for part of this book.

The Cover: Cover art by Gino d’Achille.  A scene from the book.  A couple of hormads capture a red man.  The hormads aren’t horribly misshapen, which I think would have been a lot cooler.  But it’s an action cover, so it’s alright.  Nothing remarkable.

Next Up: “Homo Sol” by Isaac Asimov

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“Heavy Planet” by Milton A. Rothman

June 20, 2010

The Book: “Heavy Planet” by Milton A. Rothman.  Story originally published in 1939 by Astounding Science Fiction.  Read in the anthology Where Do We Go from Here? edited by Isaac Asimov published by Fawcett Crest in 1972.

The Setting: Heavyplanet.  Creative name, that.

The Story: Ennis, inhabitant of Heavyplanet, encounters an Earthly spaceship which has crashed in the ocean.  No survivors, only red jelly.

The Science: Rothman has a vision of a planet with gravity much much heavier than earths, so much so that the human body squishes under the pressure.  The Heavyplaneteers are enormous, squat men, evolved to withstand the enormous pressures of their world.  Also the same, one wonders whether life in heavy gravity would be the harder-than-rock sort described in the story, or if it would choose a more yielding form.  Or, at the very least, if bipedalism is really the best answer.  Why have legs when it would be hard to stand up?

The Reaction: Original.  Interesting.  Scientific.  It’s genuinely good science fiction.  And short too!

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

Etc: Not only does the author have a cool name, but he was a physicist who literally wrote The Laws of Physics.  Also, a total nerd.  ❤

Next Up: Synthetic Men of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

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“The Day is Done” by Lester Del Ray

June 19, 2010

The Book: “The Day is Done” by Lester Del Ray.   Story originally published in 1939 by Astounding Science-Fiction.  Read in the anthology Where Do We Go from Here? edited by Isaac Asimov, published by Fawcett Crest in 1972.

The Setting: Prehistoric Earth

The Story: The last Neanderthal feels sad.

The Science: Neanderthals and early humans did probably encounter each other, and no one is quite sure why Neanderthals died out.  This story has a two pronged explanation: Early humans were better hunters and made easy prey difficult to get.  Also, neanderthals got inferiority complexes and didn’t really want to live in a world with a superior species.  I don’t know about that.  Neanderthals were pretty hardy  – I once heard a physical anthropologist suggest that they developed their trademark thick brow ridges because they kept getting hit over the head.  And that there are a large number of neanderthal remains with blunt force trauma to the head to support that.  I’m not going to speculate on why they died out, or even if they did.  But I tend to think it had more to do with climate change or interbreeding than it had to do with depression.

The Reaction: Meh.  It’s fine, but I was a little annoyed that the early humans talk like Shakespeare, except the outcast who has a distinctly lower class way of talking.  It’s certainly a different sort of science fiction than I’ve been reading.  No outer space, no rockets.  Just rocks.

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

Next Up: “Heavy Planet” by Milton A. Rothman

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Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

June 18, 2010

The Book: Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis.  First published in 1938, the edition read was published by MacMillan in 1975.

The Setting: Earth, but mostly Mars (Malacandra)

The Story: A philologist is kidnapped by a physicist and an opportunist.  Kidnapped to MARS! He learns he is to be handed over to the inhabitants of Mars (sorns), presumably so he can be eaten by their leader.  Sensibly, he runs away after they land.  He encounters a hrossa, a sort of tall skinny intelligent otter, goes to live with them, and learns their language.  He is accepted by them, but is told by invisible voices that he needs to go see Oyarsa, who runs Malacandra.  He goes, encountering a sorn along the way.  He does not get eaten.  Anyway, he talks to the invisible Oyarsa, learns that earth is run by a demented version of Oyarsa (and thus “silent” cut off from the rest of the planets), sees how pitiful and broken mankind is, and goes back to earth where he is tasked to make sure the physicist never leaves again to cause interstellar trouble.

The Science:

  • Lessened gravity and the natural world:  Mars has less gravity than earth.  In other books, it makes the earth men seem like supermen.  Here, it has less an effect on the earth men, than working a change on the biology and the natural world.  Both the sorns and the hrossa are tall and thin.  The sorns especially so.  The mountain peaks are tall and needle like.  The trees are enormously tall and wave like stalks of corn.  Basically the idea is less gravity leads to taller and thinner shapes in the natural world.  Which, on the surface, seems to make perfect sense.  Nature meets less resistance as it moves up, so it moves up further.  But evolution on Mars would face a series of different challenges than life on earth, so would there be this sort of generalizable difference in the worlds?  Honestly, I don’t know.
  • Hot in space: We love some space travel.  Once again, the vehicle of choice is a sphere.  Because the main character is drugged when it takes off, we never get a really clear idea of how the space ship is supposed to operate, only that it does.   The individuals in the ship go from being desperately hot to almost unbearably cold.  Why?  Because of where they are in relation to the sun.  Space itself has no temperature, but objects in space are subject to radiation from the sun.  So when the sun hits the craft, it gets really hot.  When the craft is further from the sun, or the sun is blocked by a different body, it gets really cold.  Here’s an explanation from someone who seems to be a real scientist.  So the experience in the book seems reasonably accurate!  Which is neat.

The Reaction: This is a book.  This is literature.  This is someone who can really write and write well.  And the story is interesting and novel.  There are familiar elements: kidnapping, a journey, Mars – but they are reconfigured in such a way as to be novel from earlier incarnations.  And it’s C.S. Lewis, so you know it’s good, and probably a little theological.  But a neat story, even if you don’t go in for the theology so much.  Recommended.

The Cover: Cover painting by Bernard Symancyk.  First off, the cover painting is awesome.  I mean…  look at that spaceship… those spacey bubbles… that spacey spaceman.  There are quibbles with accuracy – the landscape doesn’t seem quite right, there were no spacesuits, I don’t think the spacecraft was painted.  But mostly, it’s pretty sweet.

Next Up: “The Day Is Done” by Lester Del Ray

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The Legion of Space by Jack Williamson

June 9, 2010

The Book: The Legion of Space by Jack Williamson.  Originally published as a serial in 1934, the novel is a revised version first published in 1947.  The edition was published by Pyramid Books in 1969.

The Setting: Mostly on a distant planet, orbiting Barnard’s Runaway Star.

The Story: Young John Ulnar, just out of the Starfleet Legion Academy, is assigned (through family connections) to protect a (beautiful, blonde, young) woman who holds the secret to an ultimate weapon, AKKA.  Turns out his family wants to overturn the current government, but John is having none of it.  He and “a fabulous trio of swashbucklers” (according to the back of the book) set off to rescue the girl from a hideous race of evil black jellyfish who want to take over the Solar System and from his relatives who want to rule the Solar System.  The rescue is hard, many horrible dangers are faced, but John and his team win in the end.  Although, I suspect, a lot of people die in the Solar System before they manage to save it.

The Science:

  • Barnard’s Runaway Star: When I was reading this, I totally thought it was made up.  I mean, Barnard’s Runaway Star?  You’ve got to be kidding me.  Except, it’s real!  In the book, the star is a dying red dwarf star which no longer gives off enough heat to sustain the lone planet that orbits it.  Although it was once thought to have a planet or two larger than Jupiter, scientists are now only able to confirm that certain planets do not exist around the star.  The star itself is thought to be one of the oldest in the galaxy, which is kind of a big deal.  And it certainly appears to be running away, if you check out the .gif in the linked wikipedia article.  Great fodder for science fiction.
  • Geodynes: The spaceship the quartet travels in uses “geodynes” to traverse the light years in a speedy manner.  They, somehow (they hum, I guess), manage to bend space time about the ship, getting it there faster.  The author used geodynes in more than one book. They’re certainly convenient.  Sort of little worm hole generators, I guess?  And no nasty fuel to explode and muck everything up.  Honestly, they don’t make any sense to me.

The Reaction: I read this once before and I didn’t like it anymore this time.  I was able to recognize the Burroughsian theme of beautiful girl+kidnapping=fighting and falling in love.  The prose certainly didn’t improve with time.  And I am just annoyed by Giles Habibula, the talkative muskateer.  I don’t see a good reason to read this book.  Except the prologue, which I assume was added for the novel version.  The Prologue has a great idea and it’s interesting and intriguing, and then it all goes downhill.

The Cover: Cover credit to Paul Lehr.  There’s a very nice flying saucer on the cover.  It even has something orbiting it.  But it resembles nothing in the book.  It’s a generic sci-fi cover – not related to the book, but not intrinsically ridiculous.

Etc: If you read the back of this edition, you have NO IDEA what this book is about.  “FORTUNE HUNTERS OF THE STARWAYS!” the back proclaims.  Except they are not seeking fortune.  They are seeking survival.  The back matter tries to tell you it’s about the three muskateers characters, but they’re just there to make any of what happens remotely plausible and bulk out the book with several pages of unnecessary nattering away.  I AM ANNOYED.

Next Up: Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis.  Lewis – now there’s a guy who can tell a story.

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“Night” by Don A. Stuart

June 2, 2010

The Book: “Night” by Don A. Stuart (pseudonym of John W. Campbell).  Story originally published in 1935 by Astouning Stories.  Read in the anthology Where Do We Go from Here? edited by Isaac Asimov published by Fawcett Crest in 1972.

The Setting: Earth

The Story: An anti-gravity experiment goes haywire, catapulting its pilot to very nearly the end of time.  But don’t worry, he gets back to his present.  A race of machines based on Neptune help him.

The Science: Again, Asimov comments on the science.

  • Anti-gravity and time travel: Here, I’ll let Asimov do the talking.  Take it, Isaac!

The story contains two notions that are very common in science fiction: anti-gravity and time-travel.  Both are quite impossible in the light of our present knowledge of the Universe.

According to Einstein’s theory of relativity there is no way of insulating one’s self from the effect of a gravitational field, nor is there such a thing as gravitational repulsion.

As for time-travel, that would seriously compromise the law of cause-and-effect, of of the fundamentals on which science is based.  Breaking the law would introduce unusual paradoxes. […]

Science fiction writers have written very ingenious stories to take care of such paradoxes, but orthodox science will have none of it.

  • Sentient machines: The main character is rescued from the dead planet Earth by a race of machines based on Neptune.  They were built by humans to be curious and learn, but they’ve pretty much learned everything they need to know.  Now, all they really want is for the universe to end so they can stop existing.  It sounds like a downer, but these are no Marvin the Paranoid Android.  They’re just realistic.  Are machines ever going to reach such a level of self awareness?  Not for a while, but it certainly seems plausible to me.  Terrifying, but plausible.  Which is probably why it’s such a common component of science fiction stories and films.

The Reaction: I’m not sure if everyone in the 1930s just spoke like they were doing dialogue out of a bad film noir, but it seems to be the case in these stories I’ve read lately.  The beginning of the story has some bad narration, almost to the point of being hard to follow, but once we get to the re-telling of the adventure story, it livens up and becomes interesting because of the situation of the main character.  All in all, not a bad way to spend 20 pages.

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

Next Up: The Legion of Space by Jack Williamson.

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Swords of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

June 1, 2010

The Book: Swords of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Originally published as a serial in 1934-1935, the edition read was published by Ballantine Books in 1975.

The Setting: MARS!  BARSOOM!

The Story: John Carter goes undercover to assassinate assassins and ends up in a heap of trouble, which he fights his way out of, but not before his beautiful princess, Dejah Thoris, is kidnapped and taken to the moon (TO THE MOON!) by his enemies.  To which he must follow and rescue her.  Naturally.

The Science:

  • Shrinking to the Moon: The most bizarre first.  In order to make the tiny moons of Mars useful to the story, Burroughs works in what the Wikipedia article calls “some bizarre quirk of pseudo-scientific relativistic hocus pocus” which results in those who travel from Mars to the moons shrinking until the moon seems the relative size of Mars, and presumably vice versa.  This, of course, is hooey.  Useful to the story, yes, sensible, no.  I don’t even have anything else to say about it.  It’s just bad science.
  • Mechanical brain: A scientist invents a spaceship piloted by mind control.  He creates a “mechanical brain” which operates the ship completely and is controlled by human (or Martian) will power, telling it what to do.  The brain is carefully constructed to be without independent thought and will, and so can only be controlled by someone focusing their thoughts upon it.  Does man currently have any similar sort of mind control over devices?  No.  But it could certainly look that way to someone unfamiliar with the modern world.  Sliding doors.  Remote controls.  Automation of any sort.  Hell, even the Nintendo Wii.  Science looks like magic used to, and that’s pretty freaking awesome.

The Reaction: Best book since the third of the series.  Two factors contribute to this.  The first is the return of John Carter as main character and narrator.  The second is that the initial story is not motivated by a kidnapping.  John Carter goes undercover to take names and kick ass.  There are some novel characters, the love story is already well established, so we don’t have to go over it again, and fun stuff happens.  It was fun to read.  Books 4-7 in the series had all pretty much been the same, so this was refreshing.  I hope Burroughs keeps it up.

The Cover: Cover art by Gino D’Achille.  A big ship (which I presume is a spaceship) is attacked by two smaller fliers.  I don’t recall this from the book.  At least not where anyone actually hits the spaceship.  For some reason, these ships remind me a great deal of Jabba’s ships in Return of the Jedi.

Next Up: “Night” by Don A. Stuart.