Archive for April, 2011

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The Stars Like Dust by Isaac Asimov

April 11, 2011

The Book: The Stars Like Dust by Isaac Asimov. Originally published by Doubleday in 1951, the edition read was published by Lancer Books in 1968.

The Setting: Outer Space! The Future!

The Story: My name is Biron Farrill. You killed my father. Prepare to die. Or, prepare to run around the galaxy and participate in incomprehensible political intrigue of the highest order.

The Science: There’s a fair amount of science-y things in this book. One item, established for the sole purpose of using it to get away later is a device called the Visionor. The visionor impresses electrical impulses directly on the brain – apparently only visual and auditory impulses. The inventor supposes it can be used like a piano – to create future-symphonies, but it also freaks out a brain not accustomed to dealing with stimuli that don’t exist in the physical world. As for the question of whether such a device is probable or even possible, I couldn’t even begin to guess. Well, I will, I suppose. It seems rather like something people would invent for “defense” purposes, which is the end to which it is used just a few short pages after its introduction.

The Reaction: When I finished this book, I put my head in my hands and wept. No, I sighed heavily. It took me a while to get in the groove of this book, and it ended like an Encyclopedia Brown story – the main character explains everything that happened. Except that he makes some leaps that are completely impossible, given the story. It’s ridiculous. And there’s this mysterious Earth document that everyone wants for some reason, but no one knows what it is. They think maybe it’s coordinates to a secret planet. But no. It’s a plan for how planets might rule themselves when they’re freed from the rule of the Tyranni – it’s the US Constitution! *headdesk* Oh, and Tyranni? Really? Tyranni. Well, that’s one way to establish the character of a race. I can’t think of a good reason for anyone to run out and track down a copy of this book. Sorry, Isaac.

The Cover: What? What is that? Some guy holding “the stars like dust?” Is that what that is? Lame. And I’m not even sure the guy on the cover is supposed to be a character in this story. No one in this story is happy like that guy is happy. I am not impressed.

Next Up: The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

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“To People a New World” by Nelson Bond

April 10, 2011

The Book: “To People a New World” by Nelson Bond. Originally published in Blue Book Magazine, November 1950. The version read was inBeachheads in Space, edited by August Derleth, published by Berkeley Books in 1952.

The Setting: Earth, the future.

The Story: A family lives an isolated life without any metal.

The Science: Something happens which disrupts the atoms in metal, making them, I presume, highly radioactive and making those who come into contact with them highly sick. This is a nice bit of pseudo-science. It’s hard for me to imagine that any sort of chemical reaction that resulting in unstable and radioactive metals would affect only metals and not other materials. So I think it’s just a convenient plot device, not really science.

The Reaction: I was interested in this story – a family lives in a strange new world with strange new rules – until the end. Then it got biblical. A boy killed his brother. The boy’s name? Cain. Oy. So cliche. Not even a twist. Just something that’s supposed to make you go “oooh… what a clever thing this is.” But it’s not. The ending ruined it for me.

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 Stars Like Dust by Isaac Asimov.

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“Spectator Sport” by John D. MacDonald.

April 8, 2011

The Book: “Spectator Sport” by John D. MacDonald. Originally published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, February 1950. Read in Science Fiction Omnibus, edited by Groff Conklin, published by Berkeley Books in 1956.

The Setting: Earth, the future.

The Story: A time traveler is upset that no one notices him, but finds himself in a position envied by most of the future residents.

The Science: The story revolves around virtual reality, but a very immersive sort that involves getting lobotomized and wired up. It’s sort of like being addicted to your Blackberry, but way more fun (except for the part where they flay your hands…). It’s a perceptive look at the future, one that might be easier to imagine today when so many people spend their time in non-physical based pursuits.

The Reaction: Short, quick, fun. It’s the right length for the story. No one gets fully developed, but that’s not the point. The point is: The future sucks more than the present, Cold War and all.

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: “To People a New World” by Nelson Bond.

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Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov

April 6, 2011

The Book: Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov. Originally published by Doubleday in 1950, the edition read was published by Fawcett-Crest sometime much later.

The Setting: Earth, the distant future.

The Story: An unsuspecting tailor catapulted into a distant future where language has changed so greatly he can’t communicate by speech. Not to mention that Earth is the radioactive backwater of a vast Galactic Empire. The people who find him take him to the nearest city where he undergoes an experimental procedure to enhance his ability to learn. And it works! In fact, he not only learns to talk, but develops mind powers which allow him to kill by thought. Meanwhile, planet Earth is about to launch a deadly attack on the rest of the known universe, and someone has got to do something about that.

The Science: A major part of the story hinges on the procedure which makes people smarter (or kills them, or drives them crazy until they die). The procedure does this by decreasing the spaces between neurons (the synapses) so that electrical impulses may move more quickly through the brain resulting in faster thought and faster learning. Makes sense to me. What I don’t get is how accelerated thought translates into the ability to control and kill other human beings. But maybe that’s the fiction side of things.

The Reaction: While I enjoyed this book, I wouldn’t characterize it as great. There is a lot going on in the book. It’s notable that the central character is just some guy, while the daring interstellar archaeologist is a supporting character. Actually, now that I think of it, the characters are decently rounded. And there’s interesting stuff going on. I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone interested in reading this.

The Cover: Wait, what? I have not the faintest clue what’s going on in this cover. It certainly doesn’t appear to relate to the novel. There were no people dancing around an encapsulated city with floating orbs. It’s bizarre and ridiculous, and not even in a very interesting way. Alas.

Etc: Apparently Asimov’s first published novel.

Next Up: “Spectator Sport” by John D. MacDonald.

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The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

April 4, 2011

The Book: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. Originally published by Doubleday in 1950, the edition read was published by Bantam Books in 1966.

The Setting: Mostly Mars, the future. Also, a little, Earth.

The Story: A series of short stories and vignettes chronicles the fall of Martian culture, then the rise and fall of human society on Mars.

The Science: Science is not really the strong point of this book. It’s much more social. That said, the Martians fend off/murder several expeditions of human explorers with/because of their mind powers. However, the humans ultimately win because of disease. Chickenpox wipes out nearly the entire Martian race – near enough so that it doesn’t matter if any are left. The people can come and take over. Interestingly enough, no disease travels in the opposite direction.  Decimation (understatement: decimate technically means only 10% reduction) by disease is common on earth, and would probably be a very serious issue if mankind ever encountered biologically similar alien life forms.

The Reaction: A good set of stories with an interesting variety of focuses. Classically Bradbury with an interest in the social and lack of interest in exactly how and why things work the way they do. 

The Cover: Elegant, simple, evocative of Mars and Earth. Two thumbs up.

Next Up: Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov

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“A Subway Named Mobius” by A. J. Deutsch.

April 2, 2011

The Book: “A Subway Named Mobius” by A. J. Deutsch. Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction December 1950. Read in the anthology Where Do We Go from Here? edited by Isaac Asimov published by Fawcett Crest in 1972.

The Setting: Boston, Earth.

The Story: An addition to the Boston subway system has unexpected mathematical consequences.

The Science: A Mobius strip subway makes trains disappear. That’s ridiculous. The Mobius does have unusual topological properties, but it’s not in communication with some sort of mystical fourth-dimensionality. I call bullshit.

The Reaction: It reminds me of “-And He Built a Crooked House-“, but somehow less good. It’s not the greatest story, but it’s not so long that I resent having read it.

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

Next Up: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.