Archive for January, 2011


“History Lesson” by Arthur C. Clarke

January 31, 2011

The Book: “History Lesson” by Arthur C. Clarke.  Originally published by Startling Stories in 1949, the story was read in Science Fiction Omnibus edited by Groff Conklin.  Edition read was published by Berkeley Books in 1956.

The Setting: Earth and Venus in a distant future.

The Story: A devastating cooling of the sun has caused a final ice age. The last humans carry with them pieces of the mid-20th century as sacred relics. As the end descends, they hide the relics away on the highest peak before they die. Later, Venusians come to Earth and discover these relics, seeking to interpret their meaning and learn of this lost culture.

The Science: The central relic found by the Venusians is a reel of film. At the time of this story, most movies were on nitrate film, a highly flammable and dangerous type of material (the fire at the end of Inglourious Basterds? Nitrate film.). So the idea that a reel of film would survive until the end of time, and then survive the environment of Venus is highly questionable. Although the cold of the ice age would be optimal for preservation of such materials.

The Reaction: ooh, I liked this one. Archaeology and the end times, all in one? Lots of fun.

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 Up: I, Robot by Isaac Asimov


“Defense Mechanism” by Katherine McLean

January 30, 2011

The Book: “Defense Mechanism” by Katherine MacLean. Originally published by Astounding Science Fiction in October 1949. Read in The Diploids and Other Flights of Fancy published by Avon (G-1143) in 1962.

The Setting: Earth.

The Story: A man and his infant son share a psychic link and love bunny rabbits.

The Science: In this story, a man and his infant son share the ability to communicate telepathically and sense other minds around them. Despite its best efforts, science has not yet been able to make a good case for the existence of psychic communication between two human people.

The Reaction:The idea is interesting, but I felt the execution was a little messy. I had to read the end two or three times to really follow along. An attempt to give something of a feminist reading to this makes me glad to point out that the father is taking on a strong care-taker role in his infant son’s life. Perhaps progressive for 1949.

The Cover: Clearly not related to this story, the cover intrigues me with its wandering people, pointy bubbles and chaotic sky. Not my favorite, perhaps, but quite nice nonetheless.

Etc: The first female author I’ve encountered in this project. I look forward to reading more of her stories.

Next Up: “History Lesson” by Arthur C. Clarke


Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

January 10, 2011

The Book: Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. Originally published in 1949. The edition read was published by Fawcett Crest in 1971.

The Setting: Earth, San Francisco.

The Story: A young graduate student gets bitten by a rattlesnake while a plague wipes out nearly 100% of America’s (and presumably the world’s) population. He survives, establishes a community, and maybe, just maybe, saves the human race. Or maybe they save themselves.

The Science: Plague is a real thing and a real threat. There’s no question in my mind that a plague on the level of Stewart’s is a possibility. So I won’t talk about it. Instead – population science! Ish, the main character finds maybe a dozen people in his hometown of San Francisco. Yet a small community of seven adults forms. Pairs form (in one case, a trio) and babies start popping out like crazy. The second generation marries each other, and, by the third generation, a second group is identified and they begin to intermarry with them. Still, the population group is no larger than a few hundred. A few hundred individuals, isolated for a few generations will become very closely genetically linked. This can lead to a bringing forward of previously recessive traits, like hemophillia, and can decrease a population’s ability to resist diseases. Which is not good.

Stewart mentions that there are other population groups left, and eventually they will probably start to communicate and intermarry, which will increase the genetic variation of the groups. Nonetheless, a genetic bottleneck as described in this book has the potential for a profound impact on the future of the human race. But the science is quite good in this book.

The Reaction: I owned this book as a teenager. I’d read the first part more than once, but never read the whole thing. I’m not sure why. It’s a good book. It has interludes where it describes the changes in the land, or animal populations, or man’s inventions. It is written solely from the view of one character, from the moment of crisis until he draws his last breath, which seems unusual considering the epic scope of the novel. It is a solid book, and a clear inspiration for later post-apocalyptic novels.

The Cover: No credit for the artist. The cover depicts a small man wandering a street next to some piles of cars with a city of bubble structures in the distant background. It adequately conveys a sense of smallness and desolation, but darned if I know what those bubble things are supposed to be. Pretty sure they’re not mid-century San Francisco. Still, I kind of like it.

Etc: Apparently, this book was an inspiration for Steven King’s The Stand. I’m not at all surprised. A lot of the first part of the book is re-imagined in King’s book.

Next Up: “Defense Mechanism” by Katherine MacLean. Holy carp. The author is a woman.


“Those Men from Mars” by Robert Spencer Carr

January 9, 2011

The Book: “Those Men from Mars” by Robert Spencer Carr. Dated 1949, 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. At 75 pages, this is firmly in novella territory.

The Setting: Earth, Washington D.C., the White House lawn

The Story: A newspaper man, a bio-chemist, and a secretary walk into the first encounter with life from Mars. The Martian just wants a little place for the last of his race to call home, but he and his brother have to figure out whether the US or the USSR will offer a better deal. They disagree on the answer to that one and end up fightin’ round the world.

The Science: In this story, a synthetic uranium atom, blown up to the size of a beach ball, hooked up to an unknown power source (possibly cosmic rays) produces impenetrable “air armor.” This is the first story I remember reading that has force field armor, and I thought it was pretty cool. As for the actual mechanics of the stuff, it sounds pretty fishy to me – solar powered energy shield? I was also delighted to find that there is ongoing research into deflector shields using plasma. I wonder where that research is now.

The Reaction: I went back and forth on this story. At first I was really distracted by the narration. It’s very corny and very 1940s. It’s either fantastic or horrible and I can’t decide which. Then I was distracted by the cartoonishness of the Martian ship, as it was described developing facial features. But I think it’s still a good story, if a bit simplistic. The Martians go from a peace loving, telepathically linked pair to a death duel in about 24 earth hours. It seems too fast to be reasonable.

The Cover: Same as last time.

Next Up: Earth Abides by George R. Stewart.