Archive for the ‘Science Gone Bad’ Category

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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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“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.

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“The Pyramid in the Desert” by Katherine MacLean.

March 31, 2011

The Book: “The Pyramid in the Desert” by Katherine MacLean. Originally published by Astounding Science Fiction in February 1950 under the title “And Be Merry.” Read in The Diploids and Other Flights of Fancy published by Avon (G-1143) in 1962.

The Setting: New York, Earth.

The Story: An endocrinologist spends the summer attempting to find the secret of bodily rejuvenation and succeeds, with psychic consequences.

The Science: A mold by-product has the ability to become any sort of cell and a new sort of cell. Anti-aging ‘science’ is a big deal, what with all the Boomers aging and all. But so far, no science has done a replacement therapy as complete and radical as this. The best thing about the science in the story is that most of the story is the scientist’s notes. And she experiments on herself in a most interesting manner.

The Reaction: Hooray for female scientists! Competent female scientists! Even if she does lie to her husband to avoid spending the summer on an archaeology dig (which is irrelevant to her pursuits as an endocrinologist). Her science is fun to read, but her break with reality at the end is a bit hard to take. Still, totally worth it.

The Cover: Same as before.

Etc:

Next Up: “A Subway Named Mobius” by A. J. Deutsch.

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“Silence Please” by Arthur C. Clarke

March 27, 2011

The Book: “Silence Please” by Arthur C. Clarke. Originally published as “Silence, Please!” in Science-Fantasy, Winter 1950. The story was read as part of Tales from the White Hart published by Ballantine Books in 1957.

The Setting: The White Hart, England, Earth.

The Story: A man at a pub tells a story about a man who invents a machine that cancels out sound and is used, naturally, by a spurned love.

The Science: To cancel out sound, the target sound is captured, amplified, and inverted, effectively canceling it out. That’s in the story. Which is pretty much exactly how it works in reality. Well done, Mr. Clarke.

The Reaction: A nice enough little story, but not very memorable as evidenced by the fact that I completely forgot it between reading it and blogging it – a period of a month or so.

The Cover: Same as before .

Next Up: “Incommunicado” by Katherine McLean.

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“Chrysalis” by Ray Bradbury

September 2, 2010

The Book: “Chrysalis” by Ray Bradbury.  Originally published in Amazing Stories in 1946.  The edition read was published in S is for Space by Bantum in 1970.

The Setting: Earth.

The Story: A guy turns green and petrifies, but isn’t quite dead yet.  Two doctors argue about whether or not he should be destroyed.

The Science: Radiation is pretty amazing isn’t it?  One of those pesky little catchalls which can do anything you want it to in a story.  Here, Bradbury wants it to make a man’s body into a chrysalis for the next stage of evolution.  So he does.  Science says…. No.  Not gonna happen.  Radiation might give you cancer and mutate some cells, but mostly that’s gonna kill you and deform your babies.

The Reaction: A neat little story, but with a rather disappointing ending.  The guy hatches and…  it’s the same guy.  But he can fly off into space.  So he does.  And that’s it.

The Cover: Ray Bradbury squints at a spaceman doing the backstroke.  It’s a bit silly, but you’re buying this book for Bradbury, aren’t you?

Next Up: NSF double header, take 2, courtesy of Bradbury.

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The Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth by H.G. Wells

March 18, 2010

The Book: The Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth by H.G. Wells.  Originally published in1904.  The edition read was published in 1967  by Berkley Highland Books.

The Setting: Britain, mid 19th to early 20th century

The Story: Two scientists invent a substance that makes things grow.  Things start to grow to six or more times their normal size.  Enormous baby chicks prove that it works!  But it gets out of hand and it goes horribly wrong!  18″ wasps!  Rats the size of horses that eat people and horses!  But the scientists and an ass kicking civil engineer wipe out the outbreak, and it’s all good.   But then they feed it to some babies, babies who will grow into adults.  ENORMOUS ADULTS!  And that’s pretty much what happens.  The story continues to trace the effects of the substance over the next 20 odd years.  Conflict ensues as the large and the small just can’t get along.  The story ends on the eve of a war between the Giants and the little people.  THE WORLD WILL NEVER BE THE SAME…

The Science: This book tells the story of Herakelophorbia IV, aka the Food of the Gods, aka Boomfood, from inception to the age of 21.  Boomfood somehow uninhibits the growth process, causing things to grow more and more rapidly than the previous natural order of things.  Everything grows in normal proportions, just really really big.  Moreover, Big things that reproduce have Big babies, so the genetics of the individuals seem to be impacted.  And anything that ingests it becomes dependent on it and will die without continued consumption of the Food throughout the growth period.  Essentially, babies fed it become junkies for the next 18 years.

As far as I know, this couldn’t work.  The human body simply couldn’t sustain that sort of physical strain.  I don’t think.  Individuals over 8 feet tall have massive physical problems, so I can’t imagine that a 40′ human wouldn’t have some kind of, um, growing pains.  But people have always messed with their food supplies on the genetic level.  That’s what domestication is.  And it’s become more explicit now, with growth hormones, genetically modified foods, and targeted breeding.  That’s why grocery store chicken breasts are so unbelievably gigantic.  It’s not a stretch of the imagination to suppose that someone really is working on a way to enlarge food animals, grains, and vegetables to help with the food crisis.  And it’s not out of the realm of possibility that something would go horribly wrong….

The Reaction: Meh.  The structure is sort of weird.  It starts out with a totally normal story arc and then continues with vignettes and episodes 20 years in the future.  At one point the narrator (the unspecified narrator) tells you that one of the two original main characters is leaving the story for good.  And he does!  So the story is fine, the idea is kind of cool, but it’s like Wells kind of hit a wall.  I think there’s a pretty good reason this isn’t one of his better known books.

The Cover: Looking at the cover, I was super excited to read this book.  Giant baby chicks!  A Statue of Liberty impersonator!  Crowds of aimless bystanders!  But alas, there were never even enormous eggs in the book, although there were enormous chicks (though not so enormous as the cover had had me hoping.  And whatever’s going on on the cover never happened in the book.  So, two points for awesome giant baby chicks, no points for accuracy.

Next Up: Short story!  “The Empire of the Ants” by H.G. Wells

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The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells

February 7, 2010

The Book: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells.  Originally published in 1897.  The edition read was published in 1967, copyright in 1963. , by Scholastic Book Services.

The Setting: England in Wells’ present day.

The Story: A mysterious man, swathed in bandages, moody, and demanding, arrives at a rural inn.   He’s a strange fellow, and is eventually discovered to be invisible.  Upon discovering this, the townspeople attempt to apprehend him (because he stole money while invisible, not just because they can’t see him).  He escapes and runs rampant all over town, freaking out the townspeople.  He leaves, terrorizing various people along his journey until, wounded after an altercation, he seeks refuge by breaking into a random house outside town.  As chance would have it, it’s the home of Kemp, a former classmate of the Invisible Man.  The Invisible Man monologues for about 50 pages, recounting how he, Griffin by name, became invisible.  Apparently, it’s important to be an albino for it to work.  Also, being invisible is not all it’s cracked up to be – especially in January.  When you’re naked and didn’t think to make yourself an invisible jacket.  Anyway, Kemp tries to get Griffin arrested, Griffin escapes, and returns the next day, trying to kill Kemp and promising a reign of terror.  Kemp lives, Griffin dies, and in so doing, becomes visible once again.

The Science: The idea here is that any body, human or otherwise, can be changed to match the refractive index of light, which will make it effectively invisible.  To be successful, you must be albino and drink a potion which bleaches the blood of all its color, then stand between a couple of things that vibrate in the right way, and away you go!  Being an albino is important, otherwise, you end up as a pair of floating eyeballs.  And no one wants that.  DO NOT TRY AT HOME.

The Reaction: What an odd little book.  Told partly from a sort of police report accounting, with the author breaking in and referring to himself at least once, the book is partly comedy, partly memoir, partly terror.  And all quite effective.  There’s no real hero of the book, not until maybe the end, and the Invisible Man is a real psychopath, increasingly unsympathetic.  I do wonder how many more extended monologues I’ll encounter from Wells, though.  I liked it!

The Cover: Cover design by Constance Ftera.  You know, I think this is a lovely cover.  It’s sort of poignant.  It’s a cover which makes me want to sympathize with the Invisible Man, something which becomes impossible once he leaves the inn.

Next Up: Short story!  “The Man Who Could Work Miracles” by H.G. Wells.