Archive for the ‘Mad Science!’ Category

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“Breeds There a Man…?” by Isaac Asimov

February 4, 2012

The Book: “Breeds There a Man…?” by Isaac Asimov. Originally published in Astounding, June 1951. The version read was in Beachheads in Space, edited by August Derleth, published by Berkeley Books in 1952.

The Setting: Contemporary Earth.

The Story: A scientist on the edge of a breakthrough becomes relentlessly suicidal. Because of aliens?

The Science: Well. Huh. So the scientist in question invents a force-field. And it works. The story doesn’t much go into why, and frankly I’m getting a bit bored trying to be scientific in this science section. I’m a pretty well informed lay person, so I can hoot and holler when stuff is just ridiculous, but some folks, like Asimov, make the explicit stuff seem pretty plausible.

The Reaction: A good story. The idea that humans are the experiment of some other force is a pretty old one. Actually, isn’t that the idea behind a lot of major religions…?

The Cover: Still a truly lovely cover. 

Next Up: “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down…” by John Wyndham

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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 Synthetic Man (The Dreaming Jewels) by Theodore Sturgeon

March 26, 2011

The Book: The Synthetic Man (The Dreaming Jewels) by Theodore Sturgeon. Originally published in 1950, the edition read was published in 1957 by Pyramid Books.

The Setting: The United States, Earth, a mid-century present.

The Story: A young boy runs away from a cruel adoptive family with only the broken remains of his toy jack-in-the-box and ends up joining the circus where he hides from the mean circus-master by disguising himself as a female midget. He reads voraciously and is loved by Zena, a real female midget, for many years. Meanwhile, the circus master is conducting research on sentient crystals which produce life. His aim is to destroy mankind by forcing the crystals to create evil and poisonous things instead of, say, little boys *coughcough*. After a decade or so, the boy (now a young man who, as the product of the crystals is able to control his shape) and the circus master face off in a battle which may determine the future of mankind. Or not.

The Science: The crystals, or dreaming jewels of the original title, represent a truly alien form of life. The crystals can work singly or in pairs, and create life, copies of other life (not always very accurate or pretty). But creating life is merely a by product of whatever sort of thought life they lead. Horty, the boy in the book, is ultimately able to enter into that thought life and force his impressions on the crystals, but they’re not all that interested. Definitely an original life form for a novel, and one which we would not be able to recognize if we were to encounter one.

The Reaction: I liked this story. It’s original and readable. The evil characters are REALLY evil and the good ones are REALLY good, but it’s a sort of fairy tale that centers on the idea of what it really is to be human. And Horty, in the middle, has to decided what that means to him. Not a stellar book, but enjoyable.

The Cover: Cover art by Art Sussman. Crazy looking broken face, guy holding up red hand missing three fingers. Important plot elements and a cover that makes you go WTF? Seems to be out of the mystery novel school of covers. I’m not in love, but I’m not complaining.

Next Up: “Silence Please” by Arthur C. Clarke

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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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Synthetic Men of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

June 24, 2010

The Book: Synthetic Men of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Originally published in 1939, the edition read was published by Ballantine Books in 1976.

The Setting: MARS!

The Story: John Carter and his loyal man Vor Daj set out to find Ras Thavas, the Master Mind of Mars, because Dejah Thoris has been horribly injured in a crash.  They get captured by hideous creatures who refuse to die.  These hormads are the creation of Ras Thavas, but they have taken control and plan to take over all Barsoom.  The story involves Vor Daj swapping brains with a hormad, fighting, falling in love with a girl, trying to win said girl, and trying to save his original body.  It all ends well, and Vor Daj gets the girl and his body.

The Science: Hormads and genetic engineering:  The hormads are spit out of some sort of primeval life soup.  They come out horribly misshapen, so much so that most must be destroyed because they cannot be of use.  The others usually have random faces, arms in weird places, and odd proportions.  At one point, one of the primeval soup vats gets out of control and grows without end, consuming itself and anyone in its path.  And it would just keep going like that until it covered the whole of the planet, if John Carter hadn’t bombed it out of existence. It’s really pretty crazy.  But, you say, no sort of thing can continue generating indefinitely.  And there’s where science comes in.  Check out this immortal jellyfish.  And this immortal line of human cells – from a woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951.  So it’s possible to continue forever in the right circumstances – but not exactly like in the book.

The Reaction: Meh.  It was fun to read, but it’s the same formula with a slightly different spin.  Everyone gets kidnapped this time.  More brain swapping and fighting and exploring unknown reaches of Barsoom.  At least John Carter was around for part of this book.

The Cover: Cover art by Gino d’Achille.  A scene from the book.  A couple of hormads capture a red man.  The hormads aren’t horribly misshapen, which I think would have been a lot cooler.  But it’s an action cover, so it’s alright.  Nothing remarkable.

Next Up: “Homo Sol” by Isaac Asimov

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The Master Mind of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

May 19, 2010

The Book: The Master Mind of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Originally published in 1927, the edition read was published by Ballantine Books in 1973.

The Setting: Mars.  Surprised?

The Story: A John Carter fan boy gets himself to Mars, apprentices to a mad scientist, falls in love with a beautiful mind transferred to a horrible body, and resolves to return that mind to its (also beautiful) body.  He teams up with an assassinated assassin, a guard in the body of a noble, and a great white ape with half the brain of a man.  Then they fight their way in the pursuit of what must be right, and manage to position themselves as a god while doing it (nope, that’s not an agreement problem).  Which helps them on their way.  It all works out in the end – everyone ends up in the right bodies, and the fan boy marries the beautiful mind, and its attendant beautiful body.  And John Carter is best man at his wedding!

The Science: MAD SCIENCE.  So the WWI soldier spends the first part of the book learning to become a surgeon under the character I assume the title refers to.  The Mad Scientist is interested only in science, with no eye toward what we Earthlings might call ethics.  So, in addition to fixing broken down organs and replacing limbs and all manner of humanitarian whatnot, he’ll also transfer your brain into another body that you like better, for money naturally.  Or put your brain in an animal.  Or half your brain in an animal.  You know, for science.

While organ transplants are now pretty well established (and still pretty freaking awesome), and stuff like face transplants actually happen, Martian medicine seems significantly more advanced – what with allowing brains to be transferred and everybody wakes up okay.  What bugs me is how the mad scientist would put together half and half brains.  I’m pretty sure that you can’t just cut a brain in half and it’ll be just fine and dandy.  The right and left lobes have fairly distinct sets of responsibilities, if you will.  So I am skeptical that  you could reconcile the halves of two different, if similar species.  But maybe the mad scientist was just that good.  He seemed to be.

The Reaction: The book was alright.  I read most of it on a 4 hour flight (and am typing this now IN THE AIR!  SCIENCE!).  I feel like Burroughs is stuck in a kind of rut.  Even though the girl didn’t actually get herself kidnapped or lost, it was still a rescue mission.  And there’s the shock value.  The brain replacement bit is a bit, well, shocking.  Right up there with human taxidermy (oh god, I’m going to get google hits for that now, aren’t I?).  So while it was a fine adventure story, it was nowhere near the caliber of the early books.  And what’s with the earthman?  Does he not feel ethically conflicted about some of this shit that went down?  I mean, really! Brain swapping! I’m glad that Burroughs began to put more time between volumes – I think the stories could use some refreshing.

The Cover: Cover art by Gino D’Achille.  This cover features the dreaded white ape of Mars carrying (fighting?) a red man of Mars.  And a white ape is a protagonist for a while, and he does fight red men.  So I guess that’s fine.  If a bit dull.

Next Up: The Skylark of Space by Edward E. Smith.