Archive for October, 2010

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Against the Fall of Night by Arthur C. Clarke

October 31, 2010

The Book: Against the Fall of Night by Arthur C. Clarke.  Originally published in the magazine Startling Stories in 1948, the edition read was published in 1954 by Perma Star, a division of Doubleday.

The Setting: Earth, in a distant future.

The Story: A boy defies his unquestioning, immortal society by traveling outside the bounds of the last city on earth, discovering another city with living people in it, making a friend, and traveling across the stars where he finds the key to rediscover history.

The Science: The book is set at least a billion years in the future. It’s a time so distant that making any assumptions about it are wholly useless because the variables are so many.  But humans remain humans. Clarke makes the beautiful gesture of referencing intervening stages of evolutionary change, which I appreciated immensely. One group of humans is mostly normal, but pretty much immortal – lifespans of at least a million years. The other group of humans is also mostly normal – a more standard lifespan, but they have telepathy. The story reveals, near its end, that it was scientific manipulation of the genome which led to these developments in the first place, but long periods of evolutionary divergence which led to the disparate groups. Not quite species, because interbreeding seems possible, but very disparate.

It’s all the more striking when you compare the timeline of the book, a billion years in the future, with how long it took to go from anatomically modern humans to Homo sapiens. 200,000 years. That’s a blink of the eye to distant future of this story.

The Reaction: This is a story, first and foremost, about what makes us human. There are many parallels with Destination Infinity – a distant future, an isolated and waning civilization, individuals with something so close to immortality it hardly matters whether it is or not, and a character which defies the status quo. But this story has a very likable protagonist – he’s a kid. In fact, I bet this is shelved under Young Adult in many libraries because of that very fact.

I liked this book a great deal. There are a lot of little bits of plot which seem kind of pointless or are unexplored, but this is a good story, and worth reading.

The Cover: Young man running from a desert toward a rocket and stars? Yep, that’s the story right there, with great art and some really excellent 1950s hair.

Next Up: “Fever Dream” by Ray Bradbury

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NSF Double Header: “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl” and “Powerhouse” by Ray Bradbury

October 18, 2010

The Book: “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl” and “Powerhouse” by Ray Bradbury. “Fruit” was first published by Detective Book Magazine in November 1948. “Powerhouse” was also published in 1948, copyright Street and Smith Publications. Both were read in The Golden Apples of the Sun by Ray Bradbury published by Bantum Books in 1961.

The Setting: Earth.

The Story: “Fruit” – A murderer grows increasingly frantic that he has left fingerprints in his victim’s home. This is his downfall.

“Powerhouse” – A not religious woman has a religious experience at a remote desert power station.

The Science: Not science fiction, not relevant.

The Reaction: These are both lovely little stories. Bradbury has a way of establishing a story and a character very quickly. “Fruit” starts slow and whips itself into a frenzy, “Powerhouse” is slow and reverent throughout except for the climactic experience. Both very nice.

The Cover: Same as last time.

Next Up: Against the Fall of Night by Arthur C. Clarke

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“Metamorphosite” by Eric Frank Russell

October 17, 2010

The Book: “Metamorphosite” by Eric Frank Russell. First published in the December 1946 edition of Astounding Science Fiction. The version read was in Beachheads in Space, edited by August Derleth, published by Berkeley Books in 1952.

The Setting: A distant planet, in a distant future.

The Story: An alien is captured, ushered through a bureaucracy, escapes, then turns civilization on its head. Nothing big. Turns out that alien is what earthfolk become after serious disaster and a lot of time and the bureaucracy are lost colonists. No big whoop. Except the earthling? Now pure radiation in disguise.

The Science: I can’t even imagine trying to take on the evolutionary tangent this story ends on, so let’s tackle a relatively minor matter. The main character, Harold Harold-Myra, comes from Terra. Terra sent some settlers to a star 4.5 light years from it. So… probably Alpha Centauri, which is 4.37 lights years from Earth.  Alspha Centauri is actually a binary star, so it’s a couple of stars hanging out right next door to each other.

According to Wikipedia, Alpha Centauri is similar to Sol, so the possibility of terrestrial planets is tantalizing, particularly as current science can’t detect planets that small and no large bodies have been found orbiting the stars at optimal distances. Cool.

The Reaction: When I began this story, I was intrigued – I didn’t know anything inside the head of the character, and so it was all possibility. Then I learned more and started to get bored. I’m not sure it’s a bad story, it’s just that the story sustains itself half through action, half through random surprise, and half through not revealing the Why of anything until the end. Not the strongest story ever and I’m pretty darn sure I don’t ever need to read it again.

The Cover: Alas, no cover art credit for this book. Because it has got a really awesome spaceship on the cover, and an outpost on a hill, and is very lovely science-fictiony in general. Awesome.

Next Up: “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl” by Ray Bradbury

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“Repetition” by A. E. Van Gogt

October 16, 2010

The Book: “Repetition” by A. E. Van Gogt. Originally published in 1940, Astounding Science Fiction. Edition read in Beachheads in Space, edited by August Derleth, published by Berkeley Books in 1952.

The Setting: Europa, Moon of Jupiter.

The Story: A famous statesman and former explorer named Thomas is to evaluate the colony on Europa, but finds himself in a struggle for life, just the same as his ancestors did, except also against a man as well as brutal natural forces.

The Science: The title of the story is the point of it – man keeps doing things the same way, so the social science is much more relevant than the hard science. In one episode, Thomas has to escape from a blood thirsty, ridiculously deadly extraterrestrial beast. So he takes a blade, cuts his hand and smears the blade with his own blood. Thomas wedges the handle of the blade into rock and hides. The beast starts licking the blood stained blade, gets excited by the taste of what is now its own blood from its lacerated tongue, and then dies. Thomas says the Eskimos killed wolves in this way.

I looked it up. The internet says this is true. Which is totally bad ass. So, 2 points for accurate ethnographic tidbits in science fiction!

The Reaction: I have a very high tolerance for poor writing. Very high. But I had a hard time getting past the second paragraph of this story. That paragraph commits many many sins against the written word. But I persevered and the writing calmed down to a more normal level. I’m intrigued by the incorporation of accurate ethnographic information into the story, but mostly I can’t recommend it. The writing is pretty poor and it’s too long for what it is. What a shame.

The Cover: Alas, no cover art credit for this book. Because it has got a really awesome spaceship on the cover, and an outpost on a hill, and is very lovely science-fictiony in general. Awesome.

Next Up: “Metamorphosite” by Eric Frank Russell.  Oooohh… An interesting made up word from an author with three first names? Count me in.

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“The Blinding Shadows” by Donald Wandrei

October 15, 2010

The Book: “The Blinding Shadows” by Donald Wandrei. Originally published in the May 1934 edition of Astounding Stories. Edition read in Beachheads in Space, edited by August Derleth, published by Berkeley Books in 1952.

The Setting: New York City, Earth.

The Story: A scientist proves that a four-dimensional world overlaps with ours, with disastrous results. He gets eaten by a three dimensional shadow of a four dimensional creature.

The Science: This story starts out great, with real science that makes sense. Can something exists in the space between? After all, matter is less solid that we suppose – atoms are mostly empty space. (I once read that all the matter in the human body could be condensed to a point the size of a pin head.) So, the scientist expects, there are worlds that exist there. Four dimensional worlds. With three dimensional shadows. And he makes a mirror to see them. The whole mirror thing seems a bit sketchy to me. I don’t buy it. But it starts out all sciencey.

The Reaction: I liked it. It was explicit science fiction which gets a bit spook story at the end. But worth the read.

The Cover: Alas, no cover art credit for this book. Because it has got a really awesome spaceship on the cover, and an outpost on a hill, and is very lovely science-fictiony in general. Awesome.

Etc: A note on the title – beachhead is not a word in my vocabulary. I would have guessed in was like “deadhead” or maybe a synonym for lighthouse. But no, it’s a military term. Not likely to be understood these days.

Next Up: “Repetition” by A.E. Van Gogt.

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Destination Infinity by Henry Kuttner

October 14, 2010

The Book: Destination Infinity by Henry Kuttner.  Originally published in 1947 as Fury, the edition read was printed by Avon in 1956.

The Setting: Venus, 600 odd years in the future.

The Story: Sam Reed, short squat and bald, lives in the undersea domes of Venus and makes a pretty good living as a criminal. He gets mixed up in some bad business with the Immortals, a race of long-lived genetic mutants, and disappears for 40 years. Wakes up and finds he’s immortal too! Hey, how about that? Through intrigue, bullying, and keen instinct he gains power and influence. He colonizes the violent, Jurassic-type surface of the planet, and gets power mad. And deposed. And put into a sleep state until he’s “needed” again…

The Science: We’ve already discussed how earlier perceptions of Venus were pretty much wrong. It’s not ocean-y. There are no jungles. And the plant life won’t eat you because there is no plant life. Kuttner also draws on the theme of plant life that’s just as vicious as animal life if not more so. Because Kuttner’s Venus is so violent, people live in undersea domes which are pretty much just cities.

Some of the story involves a metal, korium, which seems to be a very important radioactive power source, but isn’t really involved except for being demanded as ransom. The science-y bits of this book are more incidental than anything.

The Reaction: I had some trouble getting into this book. But about a third of the way through I was really drawn in. The writing in this book varies tremendously.  There’s a lot of pointless foreshadowing (something like “this would be the last time he saw her alive”) and a couple instances that made me laugh out loud (“Sam searched and pondered, pondered and searched.”). But the intrigue is pretty intriguing and the character in the central part of the book is really where it comes into its own. And the epilogue might be great, or it might be horrible. I can’t tell. Worth the read, I think.

The Cover: I wish there was an art credit for this cover because I love it, even if it’s a tad inaccurate for the story. City in dome, check. Space bombers, check. Dynamic use of italics, check. Love it.

Etc: Fury is a much better title for this book.

Next Up: “The Blinding Shadows” by Donald Wandrei

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“Morning Star” by Robert Spencer Carr

October 13, 2010

The Book: “Morning Star” by Robert Spencer Carr. Dated 1947, possibly published in the Saturday Evening Post, but my only source on that is Wikipedia. Read in Beyond Infinity by Robert Spencer Carr, published in 1951 by Dell.

The Setting: The New Mexico desert. Earth.

The Story: An illegal alien (from space!) infiltrates a top secret meeting of government scientists and convinces them to send a man to Venus. For sex.  Probably.

The Science: I’ll admit that I’m trying to write about this quite a while after reading it, but I can’t come up with much on the science side of the discussion. They plot some things for space travel, but it’s much less about science than men going ga-ga for a pretty lady.

The Reaction: I don’t even know where to start with this. A Venusian woman (they’re all women there, I think) comes to Earth to beg them not to use the bomb and please, oh please, send some nice young men to Venus. It’s dated and pretty sexist. Some amusing devices in the story (trying to frame it from a third perspective) but mostly… meh.

The Cover: Cover art by Richard Power. The cover is very cool. 1950s abstract sci-fi aesthetic. Not very sensical, but some nice shapes.

Next Up: Destination Infinity by Henry Kuttner.