Archive for November, 2010

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Needle by Hal Clement

November 18, 2010

The Book: Needle by Hal Clement. Originally published in 1949 for Astounding Science Fiction then as a novel in 1950, the edition read was published by Avon in 1967.

The Setting: Earth, a secluded tropical island.

The Story: An alien, gelatinous detective pursues an alien, gelatinous  criminal. They both crash land on Earth. The detective takes up residence inside (yes, inside) of Bob, a teenager on a tropical island. Bob heads back to prep school in New England the next day, making it hard for the detective to chase his quarry. The story follows Bob and the detective as they get to know each other and work together to solve the mystery! Which sounds totally lame when I write it like that, but there’s a lot of danger and boat repair, too.

The Science: This book is jam packed with interesting scientific ideas. My favorite is the one which makes up the backdrop for most of the action. Making oil using bacteria/microbes/germs/something tiny like that.

Clement sets the book on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean. The island is populated because it is used for (presumably experimental) oil production. Enormous vats are built to house some sort of ‘bug’ or germ which eats, apparently, anything and excretes petroleum. The vats are so effective that they produce enough for the 600-odd people on the island, as well as for a tanker to come by on a weekly basis. I mean, that’s a pretty awesome idea for 1949.

It was in 1949 when M. King Hubbert published an article which suggested the world would, someday run out of oil. But it was well before the modern era of energy crises. For Clement to make a leap from that (presuming he read the article) to some kind of bio-diesel production is really fantastic. What’s more, the method he imagined is, more or less, coming to pass. A search for “bacteria producing oil” turns up lots of research and news articles from the past five years. I guess the future is here.

The Reaction: I am impressed as hell. Clement was a scientist, and being up on his contemporary literature clearly informed his work. The story is good – there are some things I’d like to know more about, but the basic detective structure of the second half of the book? Very nice. I was definitely trying to solve the mystery as I was reading and I missed it, even though the clues are right there in the story. I heartily recommend this book.

The Cover: Cover art by Hector Garrido. Oh man, the cover. I kind of hate it, but my husband kind of loves it. It’s a weird angle of some kid with a wan looking flying spaghetti monster hovering around his head. Which, on a story level, works. But on an awesome retro cover level, fails miserably. It’s definitely in the vibe of mid-1960s horror/suspense idea, but sadly lacking in ray guns.

Next Up: The Big Eye by Max Ehrlich.

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“The One Who Waits” by Ray Bradbury

November 5, 2010

The Book: “The One Who Waits” by Ray Bradbury. Originally published in The Arkham Sampler, Summer 1949.  Story was read in The Machineries of Joy, published by Bantum Books in 1965.

The Setting: Mars, the future.

The Story: An entity lives in a well, takes over the minds of men, then goes back to the well.

The Science: Not so much science as procedure today. Man lands on Mars. Man finds ancient Martian well. Man takes 30 seconds to run a test on it and starts drinking – becomes possessed by Martian entity. Would man really be so rash? Okay, he probably would. Well played, Bradbury, well played.

The Reaction: Very short, pretty tight. Worth the read. Also, a story about water on Mars reminded me of the Doctor Who special The Waters of Mars. There are a couple of similarities, but mostly not.

The Cover: Same as last time.

Next Up: Needle by Hal Clement

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“The Human Angle” by William Tenn

November 4, 2010

The Book: “The Human Angle” by William Tenn. Originally published in the October 1948 edition of Famous Fantastic Mysteries. The story was read in The Human Angle (a collection of William Tenn Stories) printed by Bantum in 1964.

The Setting: Way out in the boonies, USA.

The Story: A reporter tries to find ‘the human angle’ on a story of a vampire hunt and becomes much more familiar with the subject than he had expected.

The Science: The only thing to really address in this very short story is: Do vampires exist? Under the fangs in neck, afraid of light and garlic category – no.  The internet tells me so. But there are, ahem, a lot of opinions on the topic.

The Reaction: After so much Bradbury, a different narrative voice was welcome, and this is a nice, tight little story. Not totally unpredictable, but nice.

The Cover: Four words: Joan Miro in space.

Next Up: “The One Who Waits” by Ray Bradbury

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NSF: “The October Game” by Ray Bradbury

November 3, 2010

The Book: “The October Game” by Ray Bradbury.  Originally published in the March 1948 edition of Weird Tales, the story was read in Long after Midnight published by Bantam in 1978.

The Setting: Halloween, middle America.

The Story: A man hates his wife and wants revenge on her. At a Halloween party, partygoers and the family sit around and play a game ala “This is the witch’s cold dead heart” which goes somewhat differently than the wife expected.

The Science: N/A

The Reaction: I liked reading it. It’s a short couple of scenes and has that implied horribleness that Bradbury specializes in.

The Cover: Same as before.

Next Up: “The Human Angle” by William Tenn

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“Pillar of Fire” by Ray Bradbury

November 2, 2010

The Book: “Pillar of Fire” by Ray Bradbury. Originally published in the September 1948 edition of Planet Stories. The edition read was published in S is for Space by Bantum in 1970.

The Setting: Earth, 2349.

The Story: The last corpse on earth wakes up, is pissed about it, and starts blowing shit up.

The Science: Um. Well. There’s your problem. I’d like to talk about the walking dead here, but there’s no reason given as to why this corpse wakes up except that he his filled with hate and rage. Hate and rage are not scientific concepts, and are certainly not the very spark of life, particularly if the spark of life has already died from the brain. So… that makes no sense.

The Reaction: It’s not a bad story. It’s a bit in the vein of a lamentation for the loss of all things gritty and creative, a theme which crops up here from time to time. Plus, it’s a hate filled zombie wandering around, blowing stuff up. AND he goes to the library too.

The Cover: Same as before.

Next Up: “The October Game” by Ray Bradbury

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“Fever Dream” by Ray Bradbury

November 1, 2010

The Book: “Fever Dream” by Ray Bradbury. Originally published in the September, 1948 edition of Weird Tales. The story was read in A Medicine for Melancholy printed in 1963 by Bantum Books.

The Setting: A present, small town America.

The Story: A very sick boy is taken over by germs.

The Science: I read once that 90% of the cells in the human body belong to non-human microbes. That’s a lot. And the idea of some sort of spontaneous (r)evolution wherein the microbes gang up and take over is interesting, but not really plausible, given what I know about  such things. Sure, some little organisms can change the behavior of the carrier, but this story implies a great deal more coordination and intention than that.

The Reaction: A nice short story, with a nice idea, and a chilling ending. I feel like I’m hitting Bradbury at his stride just now.

The Cover: Well, I suppose a medicine for melancholy would be whimsical, and this cover has whimsy, in that old fashioned clip art sort of way. But I’m not delighted overall, and am downright confused about that naked lady.  It’s like the cover designer had 15 minutes to put it together.

Next Up: “Pillar of Fire” by Ray Bradbury.