Archive for the ‘Lost Civilizations’ Category


Secret of the Black Planet by Milton Lesser

December 21, 2011

The Book: Secret of the Black Planet by Milton Lesser. According to the ISFDB, originally published as two shorter stories in June and July of 1951. The edition read was printed by Belmont in 1965.

The Setting: Earth, Space and Really really distant planets, all in a not that distant future.

The Story: A strong man in a circus is really a famous space archaeologist who has discovered a secret of eternal life and now people are trying to kill him. Then, the strong man/archaeologist’s son and a girl travel the universe trying to find who first found the secret of eternal life, and love.  Also Martians, Venusians, and competing planetary mobs.

The Science: Uh. Okay. So. You sit in this chair in this mysterious “black planet” hanging out in the asteroid belt, do some stuff, and you get infused with life, strength, the ability to heal, and, what the hell, you can even come back after being killed-but-good.  BUT! If you sit in that chair too long, you’ll age in reverse until you’re not even a twinkle in your daddy’s eye. In that second scenario, something is seriously wrong with the law of conservation of mass, because no energy seems to be given off in the reaction.

Don’t even getting me started on the teleportation issues.

The Reaction: I liked that it was an adventure story for a while. It was very much in the spirit of John Carter, and that was fun. When it’s fun, I don’t care that it’s not making much sense. But this book committed a cardinal sin, in the area of formatting. In many places, SECTION BREAKS ARE OMITTED. You might not think section breaks are important, but when you’re jumping between two scenes, and there’s no space between the paragraphs to alert you, it gets confusing. Confusing pulls you out of the story. It all ends in rage. Bad editor, bad bad editor.

The Cover: Formatting issues aside, this cover is awesome. Alas, no credit for the illustrator. There’s a spaceship, there’s a dude with a ray gun in his long johns, and there’s a girl straight out of the ’40’s hanging back. Also, that font. I love a font. The only problem is that the blurbs on the front and back cover seem to have been written by someone who read a different story.

Next Up: “Feedback” by Katherine MacLean


“The Years Draw Nigh” by Lester del Rey

October 16, 2011

The Book:  “The Years Draw Nigh” by Lester del Rey.  Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1951, the edition read was in the anthology Mortals and Monsters published by Ballantine in 1965.

The Setting:  A far future, Mars.

The Story:  The last of a fleet of intergalactic exploration ships returns to home base.

The Science:  This story starts with the idea that the human race has developed a way to rejuvenate itself – no one need grow old. People can live forever returning to youth when old age begins to creep back. The interesting thing about the idea as played here is that people are no longer choosing rejuvenation. The world, apparently, is dying and there’s no hope for anything better. So people are choosing to let their lives end naturally when they could have it otherwise. An interesting take on the eternity machine idea.

The Reaction:  This is a nice story. It worked well, with good characters and ideas. It’s melancholy, even morose, but it’s the right tone. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the tone should be morose, ultimately. I didn’t follow the leap the story made of 1+1=failure when it seemed to me that 1+1 could= a new hope.

The Cover:  ISFDB says the cover is Richard Powers, and it is even signed on the side, but it doesn’t have that cool feel Powers usually has. It’s got a collage feel and a sort of clockwork robot. This cover means nothing to me.

Next Up: “And It Comes Out Here,” by Lester del Rey


City at World’s End by Edmond Hamilton

September 9, 2011

The Book: City at World’s End by Edmond Hamilton. Originally published in 1951, the edition read was published by Crest in 1957.

The Setting: Middle America in the present. A distant future Earth. A distant future distant plant. All over the place, I guess.

The Story: A small city, which could be any small city, is blasted off the face of the earth in some sort of next generation bomb attack and ends up on a dying Earth in the far future. And the Federation of Stars wants to move them to some other planet that’s not dying. The nerve!

The Science: The earth they find is cold, with a larger red sun. This suggests that the sun is entering its red giant phase, during which the Earth will be destroyed, one way or the other. Either the sun will get so big it swallows up the Earth’s orbit, or the changes in the sun will a) throw the Earth’s orbit off ending in catastrophe, or b) boil away all the atmosphere and water from the Earth – also catastrophe. So it looks like the townspeople are not going to have a happy ending for very long when the Earth is tossed out into space in a half billion more years.

The Reaction: I really liked the first half of the book, when the townspeople were finding ways to survive on the dying planet. I had rather hoped that the story would continue in that direction. But no. Space people show up with their bureaucracy and handful of alien life forms. And then the book gets less interesting. Alas.

The Cover: No art credit given. ISFDB tells me it’s Richard Powers, which seems about right. It’s a good cover. Evokes the emptiness of the planet with a stream of people headed toward a domed city and a man and a woman looking over them. Also, nice rocks.

Next Up: “The Pedestrian,” by Ray Bradbury


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


“The Blue Bottle” by Ray Bradbury

February 4, 2011

The Book: “The Blue Bottle” by Ray Bradbury. Originally published by Planet Stories in Fall 1950, the story was read in Long after Midnight published by Bantam in 1978.

The Setting: Mars.

The Story: A man seeks for an ancient and mysterious blue bottle.

The Science: I mean, it’s set on Mars, but it’s not really science fiction, it fantasy. A bottle that contains whatever you most desire? That’s fantasy.

The Reaction: Even at only 12 pages, I felt ripped off by this story. It was kind of dull and simplistic. I wasn’t really feeling the characters and the magical blue bottle kind of annoyed me. Bah.

The Cover: Still the same as before.

Next Up: “Punishment without Crime” by Ray Bradbury


Cosmic Engineers by Clifford D. Simak

February 2, 2011

The Book: Cosmic Engineers by Clifford D. Simak. Originally published in 1950 as a novel (based on a serial in Astounding published in 1939), the edition read was published by Paperback Library (52-498)  and printed in 1967.

The Setting: Space, Pluto, and a planet at the far end of the Universe. The year: 6948.

The Story: Oh good golly, where to begin. Two newspaper men, somewhere near Pluto, find a thousand year old prison ship and a lovely young scientist in suspended animation within it. They wake her and learn that her lovely smart brain has been working for those thousand years and is now way beyond most normal human brains. Just then! A call from Pluto where scientists have intercepted signals from across the universe – thought signals! And the young woman, Caroline Martin, is able to communicate with the advanced brains! These advanced creatures, the Cosmic Engineers, need help. So the humans build a stargate and get to the Engineers to learn that our Universe will collide with a different Universe, destroying both. As they try to work out what to do, they come under attack from the Hellhounds, a hateful race that would just as soon have the Universe end. The humans have to travel forward in time to a distant future earth to get some science answers, which they do, but are sidetracked on their way back by an insane, omnipotent intelligence. Then they get back, defeat the Hellhounds, and save the Universe. Phew.

The Science: The science in this book all seemed pretty sketchy as presented. The idea of multiple universes is something that physicists are pretty cool with, but have no way of proving, since, of course, they are not within our universe. So that’s something. But I’m afraid that’s all I feel like talking about.

The Reaction: At first, I was really excited about this book. Oh! Another smart female scientist! How lucky! But then the book became one insane incident after another. I was forced to step back and realize what a mess this book was. There was too much story and not enough craft. The front cover has a quote “…enough thrills for five sequels.” Enough thrills for five separate short novels, more like. It was like a series of unfortunate Star Trek episodes, but without the characters.

The Cover: The cover is a definite high point. There’s a metal man with a ray gun, rocket ships, and people in space suits. It’s pretty awesome. That metal man? That’s a Cosmic Engineer, depicted quite nicely.

Next Up: NSF: “The Great Fire” by Ray Bradbury


“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


“Dark They Were and Golden-eyed” by Ray Bradbury

December 25, 2010

The Book: “Dark They Were and Golden-eyed” by Ray Bradbury. Originally published in Thrilling Wonder Stories in August, 1949.  The story was read in A Medicine for Melancholy printed in 1963 by Bantum Books.

The Setting: Mars.

The Story: A pioneer family is stranded on Mars begins to adapt to their new surroundings, so to speak.

The Science: The idea of the story is that Earth things become Mars things when on Mars. This applies to plants and to people. That somehow, through exposure to the environment, humans slowly become Martian. It’s not a sudden transition, but a slow and natural seeming one which extends beyond physiology to culture and language. It’s something more than a genetic mutation and something less then a parasite taking over their bodies. It doesn’t really work scientifically at all.

The Reaction: The story is good. It feels like a classic. I like it.

The Cover: Same as last time.

Next Up: 1984 by George Orwell.


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


“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