Review: Science Fiction by Scientists, edited by Michael Brotherton

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Science Fiction by Scientists, edited by Michael Brotherton
Tradepaper: Springer, 978-3-319-41101-9, $19.99, 214pp, January 2017 [1]

  • “Down and Out” by Ken Wharton
  • “The Tree of Life” by Jennifer Rohn
  • “Supernova Rhythm” by Andrew Fraknoi
  • “Turing de Force” by Edward M. Lerner
  • “Neural Alchemist” by Tedd Roberts
  • “Hidden Variables” by Jed Brody
  • “Upside the Head” by Marissa Lingen
  • “Betelgeuse” by J. Craig Wheeler
  • “Sticks and Stones” by Stephanie Osborn
  • “One for the Conspiracy Theorists” by Jon Richards
  • “The Schroedinger Brat Paradox” by Carl(ton) Frederick
  • “Fixer Upper” by Eric Choi
  • “Spreading the Seed” by Les Johnson
  • “The Gatherer of Sorrows” by J. M. Sidorova

In Science Fiction by Scientists, Mike Brotherton presents us with fourteen stories focused on science and scientific ideas written by “a new generation of twenty-first century scientist science fiction writers.” Even so, there is a zombie tale and a surrealist meltdown and other things you might not expect, though most do hew to more usual biology and physics and other disciplines and all have some sort of scientific basis underlying even the strangest things. In terms of mood, there are several dour, depressing stories, though fewer than most anthologies contain and there are a few upbeat, expansive tales, but I personally would have liked to see more of the latter. In terms of ideas, there is quite a bit of variety—epigenetics and quantum mechanics appear a couple of times and two stories are set on the International Space Station, but the stories in each pair are quite different from each other and I noticed no similar elements featured more than twice. As someone who loves idea-centered no-foolin’ science fiction, I enjoyed it, though not as much as I’d hoped. It opens and closes with two strong tales and, while nothing in between quite rises to excellence, only a couple struck me as full misses. However, I have to admit that many of the stories are weak on fictional values, mostly in the stereotypical ways that hard SF stories are perceived to be weak and people who aren’t especially hard SF fans are, alas, unlikely to be converted, unless by the two bookend stories. It genuinely is packed with ideas, though, and almost all the non-fiction essays (which are mostly about the science behind the stories) add substantial value themselves.

Down and Out” by Ken Wharton

Ogby lives with her fellow Rygors in a strange universe in which a core of ice is surrounded by an ocean, which is surrounded by a sphere of rock. She has been melting her way below the surface in an effort to learn more about her world. However, the action is above, where more fascinating discoveries are being made as other scientists drill and blast into the rock up there. She has a deathly fear of heights, as she could get swept away by the currents when her bladders don’t provide the weight that normally keeps her safe on the surface. Indeed, this fear is so profound she can’t overcome it—she panics and basically locks up and is carted back down. After a period of depression, she again tackles her own research when she realizes that the other team had been using the new-fangled explosives to blast and that she could apply that to her own work to speed things up. She takes her underwater vehicle to explore the effects and breaks through the ice into an amazing and strange place never imagined but also a place that is uninhabitable. With her ship damaged, she desperately needs to survive and desperately needs to communicate her civilization-changing discoveries. The climax hinges on whether she can do either and there’s yet another discovery (for the reader) in store.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner. I hope the synopsis above is at least a little intriguing—in the immediate post-read excitement, I tried to describe the story verbally and off the cuff to someone and didn’t seem to do a very good job. Indeed, the above is just a plot synopsis. From it, I hope you can see that there’s a genuine character with psychological and world-view issues and a genuine plot, and that this is well-constructed fiction. But this leaves out all the wonderful details of the creatures “chroming” and “soning” their communications, having a time system based on the oddly regular flexing of their world, the “airlabs” of carbon dioxide they build, the methane rains, the creatures’ logically sound arguments leading to false conclusions because of their bases in false premises (a favorite motif in much SF), and the whole process of disorientation and discovery in the story. My only criticism is one of two contradictory parts: I thought I knew what was going on very soon and I suspect most people would figure it out decisively. So it may be too hard to guess with certainty but too easy to suspect accurately, or too hard for some and too easy for others. Indeed, knowing the ending made it difficult to write the synopsis without feeling like I was spoiling it. Still, the author holds one little tidbit in reserve and, while it doesn’t change anything we’ve learned, it makes it more precise in a wonderful way. I recommend this generally, but if you love the alien perspectives sometimes found in Hal Clement’s work or the weird underwater milieus and aliens sometimes found in Robert L. Forward’s or James Cambias’ work, or the tales of under-equipped young aliens discovering the nature of their worlds as in Greg Egan’s Incandescence, then you should especially enjoy this.

The Tree of Life” by Jennifer Rohn

A virologist is working on a project for NASA to create insta-terraforming bugs (sort of) as an escape from her dull job of making super apples when the aliens come to erase all terrestrial life and take all our stuff. One alien takes a liking to her and keeps her alive for awhile to talk genetics. Meanwhile, she works feverishly to combine her two projects to try to do an evolutionary end-run around the aliens. Will she succeed? And do we care? This does a good job on the science side in terms of making it interesting and has some decent descriptions of lab work but really doesn’t work as fiction as it is so unlikely and contrived and there is almost zero emotional authenticity to this traumatic apocalypse. (Our protagonist is extremely resilient.) And, succeed or fail, could her efforts possibly make up for what has happened? And how can she possibly see her alien as “a friend of sorts”? Some nice ideas, though—a shame a better story couldn’t have been woven around them.

Supernova Rhythm” by Andrew Fraknoi

Eve is a graduate student astronomer who discovers an odd frequency and pattern to the supernovae in NGC 6946 and comes to an even odder conclusion which she shares with her supervisor.

It would be apt if this were a piece of “flash” fiction but it is (barely) longer than most of those. It contains a couple of infelicities. First, given an anthology of this type, I was really hoping to not read any present tense stories. Even if I liked present tense stories (which I don’t, as such), they are usually used to convey a sort of fairy tale effect or a pseudo-immediacy or perhaps any number of other things but, here, it has the effect of someone selling product on commercial television: “The graphs display instantly. It fits!” (And slices and dices! Act now!) Second, one could probably forgive avoiding an “as you know, Bob” with an infodump but to combine them is a bit much. The following is the student speaking to the supervisor and the narrator breaking in a clause too late:

“I have a galaxy whose supernova rate has been, well…unbelievably high. And, surprisingly, they are almost all Type Ia supernovae, which are only supposed to be a fifth of the total.”

Of the main kinds of exploding stars, Type Ia’s tend to be more rare….

(I do like the way she avoids saying the rate is “astronomical,” though.) Finally, the central idea is a humdinger but it seems our characters (or at least the supervisor) should probably assume a different cause—it’s difficult to specify why without spoiling, but, basically—because of general scientific principles and examples like ocean waves having a (relatively simple) rhythm and similar phenomena. Finally, there’s not much story here, flash or no. Still, while only the most “science over fiction” SF fan would likely enjoy this, I sort of did.

Turing de Force” by Edward M. Lerner

A couple of AIs (who have no recollection of their origins) arrive in the solar system, drawn here by its “modulated electromagnetic energy,” as part of their search for intelligence and proceed to apply their Turing test on the denizens of the internet.

This story examines human intelligence (or lack thereof) and examines the Turing test from the perspective of AIs. There are minor problems (and lesser ones not worth detailing): given the aliens’ bias toward assuming intelligence can’t reside in protoplasm, the looser AI sure does leap to the possibility of human intelligence and the stiffer one grasps his implication too easily. More importantly, this sort of thing has been done a lot and just isn’t interesting (there are no real traumatic stakes to the story and four of its eleven pages are devoted to eight conversations between the AI and “intelligence candidates” on the internet) and the afterword, while not exactly scintillating itself, is much more interesting, raising issues regarding Winograd schemas and volition, that aren’t even addressed in this story whose point is simply “the Turing test is non-optimal.”

Neural Alchemist” by Tedd Roberts

Professor John Wissen has been playing around with a special strain of stem cell derivates when he dies in a car crash. Then he returns to life and tries to figure out what happened. Thus the scientific zombie apocalypse begins.

This is an odd story: points for following Jack Williamson’s lycanthropes but deductions for doing it here and in this way. The afterword talks about SF being a means for scientists to “inspire our successors” but I sure hope no one is inspired to try to make zombies. This is more a There Are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know story which is the antithesis of the scientific attitude. Still, fictionally, it ends with a kind of inadvertently comical bit of melodrama which oddly repeats the opening and some people who aren’t into the details of university science may not always be on the edge of their seats, and the fact that this was a “challenge” story often shows, but it’s at least ingenious and pretty fair fare.

Hidden Variables” by Jed Brody

A couple of twins get together for their 33rd birthday and one has had a poem materialize under a teapot and has previously found the “hidden local variables” which makes her omniscient after a fashion. They do a dual QM infodump. Then they transmogrify and fight and then the universe goes all swirly for one of them.

Yep. A quantum physics “story” (which is to say, actually, a fable of pions). The day QM builds me a faster-than-light spaceship, I’ll be interested. Until then, I’ll stick to more sensible physics. But, on the fiction, I suppose if a surreal QM dialog floats your boat, this may be entertaining; if not, then definitely not.

Upside the Head” by Marissa Lingen

Via her journal, we meet Catherine Huang and learn that she is a doctor working on a trial of “ARF” (amygdala regrowth factor) which involves a bunch of hockey players with head trauma. A hockey team is funding her for the PR, which leads to the need for diplomacy, which is not Huang’s strong suit. More importantly, this drug may cause side effects.

This story suffers from a Yoda opening—backwards the introduced elements are—so that it’s confusing and off-putting for the first few paragraphs, but it quickly sorts itself out and becomes quite interesting in a low-key way. Perhaps because it feels like a “Flowers for Algernon” setting and has some of its material, I felt rather underwhelmed after I’d finished it, though. But I think that would be the case even without comparisons. Still, a decent read.

Betelgeuse” by J. Craig Wheeler

Two AIs happen to meet near Betelgeuse and hang out, having conversations. One is to study Betelgeuse’s evolution and its approaching supernova. The other has wandered around various places looking for life. As they converse, they get to be quite companionable and make some discoveries but all good things…

This dialog (basically) could definitely use more action and some of its coolest stuff is just a bit of background tossed off in a phrase. If you, like me, are fascinated by all things astronomical and stellar evolutionary this may just hold your interest, but only barely and, otherwise, probably won’t at all.

Sticks and Stones” by Stephanie Osborn

One fine day on the ISS, a crew member gets sick. Steps are taken to get her home, both for her own sake and for the safety of the crew at risk from contamination. However, another crew member also gets sick, in an even more dangerous way. Part of the problem is that she can’t get home (as the experiment to resist or reverse bone loss doesn’t work at all according to plan) and another part is that no one realizes quite how sick she is.

Although it doesn’t apply in a space station, the line “In space, no one can hear you scream,” kept coming to mind. The author describes this as an SF mystery but it’s actually closer to a horror story. The author is also at pains to point out that this story is not an indictment of NASA and that she’s also a very pro-space person. Be that as it may, this is not at all a pro-space story. Leaving aside the ending, while biological processes such as defecation and vomiting are a part of life and can be legitimately dealt with in fiction, especially in a space story, doing so without repelling most readers demands the writer be at the top of her game and I don’t feel like this effort got away with it. More significantly, the structure turns out to be a purposeful arrangement of a couple of timelines indicated by the elaborate section headers but it isn’t immediately apparent in the course of reading: the story doesn’t seem to flow but seems to be just a pile of blocks.

One for the Conspiracy Theorists” by Jon Richards

A scientist at the SETI Institute is searching for signals all by his lonesome and gets very industrious about it and eventually discovers what he thinks could be a signal but isn’t sure and isn’t sure what to do about it.

When the science afterword is fairly bland, undramatic and virtually indistinguishable from the “story,” then there is a problem. This was mildly interesting, as is SETI, but other than being a little more descriptive and describing a fictional dilemma, this is basically an essay followed by an essay.

The Schroedinger Brat Paradox” by Carl(ton) Frederick

A psychiatrist calls in a quantum physicist for help with a patient who doesn’t seem to be a classic schizophrenic or dissociative identity disorder patient. At a loss for explanations, she wonders if the boy’s conversations and voices relate to bleed-through from the other worlds of the “many worlds” interpretation of QM. Despite her far-fetched notions, the scientist gets an idea about testing his own theory. When the test goes a bit askew, it leads to an extremely vivid test of the theory’s correctness or incorrectness and includes an extra final twist.

I’ve already said how I feel about QM so this story didn’t work for me, but it did have interesting ideas portrayed in a dramatically effective (and non-surreal) way with a genuinely creepy segment so may well work for QM-SF fans. And bonus points to the author(s) for the explanation of the byline.

Fixer Upper” by Eric Choi

An American who had previously served on the International Space Station and a Chinese commander (later joined for a time by three more Chinese) work to repair and reactivate an abandoned ISS in the vicinity of 2030. A Chinese corporation run by a weird guy has big plans for it. The commander stays behind while the American takes the last ride back and observes the events.

This story could use more drama through its bulk and it wouldn’t have hurt if its ending was less predictable (but this was telegraphed more than once, so suspense doesn’t appear to have been the objective) but this was an interesting story, realistically described and got in a plug for duct tape (alas, no WD40 appears to have been used in the making of this story). By depicting an active and extroverted (if slightly wacky and derivative) China and a backwards US, this paints an unpleasantly (from a North American POV) plausible picture of the future.

Spreading the Seed” by Les Johnson

Any story that begins with one character saying, “We’re actually going to the stars,” and another character replying, “About damn time,” already has a leg up with me. Akhil and his friend begin talking about why they’re going and what it all means. After that conversation, he also gets together with his wife but they mostly listen to a government spokesperson and we learn that, while we don’t know the precise nature of the distant world we’re going to, we have evidence from a nearer world that a sentient, technical civilization had existed there prior to destroying itself or being destroyed by others. And this is only part of the information.

Unfortunately, from the synopsis, it’s clear that this isn’t a narration of action, but is a lot of talking. I’m not sure that the master, Asimov, wasn’t almost sui generis (at least among non-playwrights) in consistently being able to succeed at wresting high drama from dialog. This does a decent job of painting an interesting scenario but it needs action. On minor aspects, it depicts a society with the usual “rejuve” and “contract marriages” and so on. On major aspects, the destroyed civilization (and why it’s in the story) is also fairly commonplace. But the exoplanet search (ongoing) and the depiction of a nifty method of interstellar travel (maybe someday?) are fresher and fun. There is also a pointed moral, indicated by the title. How you feel about that may depend on how much you agree with it. So, again, partly well-suited for me and perhaps others but probably insufficient for many.

The Gatherer of Sorrows” by J. M. Sidorova

In a rather confusing opening, an elderly teacher is hauled off from class to appear before a billionaire. Via their emotionally loaded and mostly dramatically effective conversation and her flashbacks, we gradually learn how she, as a young scientist, was able to secure funding from a pair of billionaire twins to test her disconcertingly Lamarckian-flavored ideas (which apparently have some basis in current biological science?). The basic idea is that, in addition to random mutations over generations, non-coding RNA can “pick up” life experiences and rewrite a person’s own DNA which will directly affect their offspring. Isolating and reproducing “life-is-bad” and “life-is-good” elements is a knowledge win in itself but could also be used to engineer offspring. Which is what it turns out one of the twins may have done with the scientist/teacher’s egg, producing the current billionaire she’s trying to deal with—trying to restrain Caligula, basically.

This is another dialog/reverie story but, as I indicated, the intensity of the dialog works fairly well and the reverie does involve scientific, family, and social conspiracies which can have species-wide implications (with an interesting variation on the “money is speech” theme). Perhaps the only real flaw is that the teacher discovers a critical piece of information which, as far as I can tell, she explains with only “I started to suspect it was earlier than that” and I’m not clear what prompted her suspicion. This (familial biology story) isn’t quite my cup of tea and genuinely doesn’t seem quite as strong as “Down and Out” but is nearly so; this anthology opens and closes well.


[1] This is a reformatted, but otherwise unchanged, reprint of a review which originally appeared at Tangent Online on December 22, 2016. Even though it’s not very good and too long (partly because I had to review every story), I’m reprinting it because it’s one of three “science fiction by scientists” anthologies I’ve reviewed (with one more to go) and I want them all to be available here. (The other two are Great Science Fiction by Scientists, edited by Groff Conklin and The Expert Dreamers, edited by Frederik Pohl.) I should also point out that the ISFDB lists this as having been published November 2016 which is probably actually correct but it was dated January 2017.

Birthday Reviews: Cherryh, Schroeder, Wilcox, Zahn

This week’s birthday authors take us to the clouds of Jupiter, to a world six hundred years’ voyage away, and present us with two variations on Cassandra.

C. J. Cherryh (1942-09-01)

“Cassandra” (F&SF, October 1978)

Cherryh is mostly known for her novels (I’ll be reading at least my thirty-fourth of hers soon, which is now less than half the total), which include some fantasies and many set in realistic future space milieus, but she’s written several stories collected in Sunfall, Visible Light and, ultimately, in the Collected Short Fiction of C. J. Cherryh. One of her earliest, and one which made one of the biggest impacts, was this updated myth of mad Alis, who staggers through life in and out of mental hospitals seeing a double vision of her current reality of people and places and her possible future of ghosts and destruction after the War. It’s a short and seemingly simple tale but Alis’ agony (and ours) is firmly, judiciously depicted, with depth.

Karl Schroeder (1962-09-04)

“The Pools of Air” (Tesseracts 3, 1991)

A filmmaker, her on-air talent, and a tech guy are trying to save their skins after the helium-3 refining ship they are filming on crashes into something while cruising the clouds of Jupiter, destroying its front-end and cutting them off from direct access to their shuttle. The protagonist has baggage, both figurative and literal, which is not helping her or her companions. In a way, that element is the whole story so it’s hard to say it should be minimized but, in ways, a lot of hard SF [1] is damaged by writers who have drunk the kool-aid and overtly bow to what Asimov called “the tin-god of characterization” in an effort to be accepted as literature. There’s a certain kind of SF where that usually works and sometimes hard SF can be fused with it but, generally, it’s a distraction and hard SF works better on a scientific and social level than a personal one. Be that as it may, this is a concise and energetic story that takes the reader to an impressive setting.

Don Wilcox (1905-08-29–2000-03-09)

“The Voyage That Lasted Six Hundred Years” (Amazing, October, 1940)

This is an honorary happy birthday because parts of this story are painful to read but it is the first full treatment of the generation starship (a year before Heinlein) and it’s oddly clever in ways. Akin to how puns are contrived but still work, this is a pile of author fiats but is at least elaborately contrived. The first generation starship takes off from Earth with what turn out to be seventeen couples and one “Keeper of the Traditions” (our narrator) who goes into suspended animation [2] for a century at a time before coming out to see how things are going and to try to set anything wrong to right. However, he takes a couple of steps backward for every one he takes forward. The time lapse view of the society leads to a certain propulsive effect and the variety of this civilization’s discontents maintain some interest.

Timothy Zahn (1951-09-01)

“The Cassandra” (Analog, November 1983)

Going out through the in door, this Cassandra is quite different. Zahn portrays this as a generational mutation (with characteristic physical markers of white hair and green eyes) on a colony which then collapses due to group trances of apocalyptic visions and the ensuing dislocations and stress. Now a few Cassandras are back on Earth, suffering in a more isolated way and we follow the effort of one such highly educated man struggling to get and keep a job as a dishwasher. This is a story in which there is a problem to be solved (whether it is solved or not) and, despite the author’s afterword talking about how atypically tragic it is for him, there is actually a sense in which it is uplifting because it’s not an inexplicable and pointless affliction or a parable of human blindness but is a natural problem with a cause and actually has some gain come from the pain. This is yet another example of how you can give twelve authors one theme and get twelve unique stories back. If you only think of Zahn as a tie-guy or even just a novelist, check this and his other short fiction out.


[1] I call it hard SF because it seems like it generally, despite being insufficiently concerned with Jupiter’s radiation. The trio breathe a sort of liquid air which, among other things, helps them deal with gravity and I suppose it also wouldn’t hurt regarding radiation but, so far as I recall, radiation is never mentioned.

[2] If it was ever explained why there is suspended animation tech and the mission was designed to (a) have such a tiny population and (b) not provide them all with the tech so as to avoid having to endure such a difficult and uncertain voyage, I missed it.

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Asimov’s Centennial: The Naked Sun

The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.95, 187pp, 1957

The Naked Sun is a sequel to The Caves of Steel and, like it, features a heavily populated Earth with few and despised robots in a sort of ghetto within the fifty lightly populated and heavily robotic Spacer Worlds after Earth had founded the core of them in an earlier age. On one of these worlds, Solaria, a man has been murdered for the first time in the world’s 300-year history. Solaria’s Head of Security, Hannis Gruer, has heard of Elijah Baley’s work and, though an Earthman has never set foot on an independent Spacer world, he is convinced the Earther’s unique experiences and talents will be helpful and contacts Aurora about getting in touch with Baley. The Aurorans agree to make this happen with the price being that one of their agents will accompany Baley. Baley is informed of part of this when he leaves the comforting enclosure of his City to undergo the ordeal of flying to another to meet with Undersecretary Albert Minnim in Washington. He is not pleased to have done this only to find that he must undergo the far more difficult ordeal of spaceflight to another world. Minnim orders Baley to go, overtly as a detective and covertly as a spy, because the conflicts between Earth and the Spacer Worlds are growing sharper and Earth’s sociologists predict Earth will be “virtually wiped out as a populated world” in such a conflict. Earth needs to know better what it’s up against.

After arriving on Solaria, he meets the Auroran agent who is none other than R. Daneel Olivaw, who is himself traveling covertly in the sense of not revealing to any Solarian that he is, in fact, a robot. In the car that is taking Baley to his headquarters for the case, the two get into an argument about Baley’s safety in relation to his agoraphobia but Baley is determined to confront his fears, tricks Olivaw, and gets the robot driver of the car to put back the roof. It doesn’t go well, especially as Baley, having left his cave of steel, stares “at the naked sun,” but Baley will continue working to overcome his phobia (while the physical reality of the sun will take on a changed symbolic import). Once at his home base, he experiences the culture shock of a gigantic mansion all to himself and Olivaw (except for the many, many generally unobtrusive robots), and embarks on the first of what is essentially two series of interviews. He experiences his second shock when, at the end of his first meeting with Gruer, Gruer disappears. He learns that, while Spacers generally have a phobia about contact with dirty Earthers, Solarians have a phobia about any contact at all and will generally only “view” one another with a complicated system of telepresence. It turns out that, while Spacer worlds like Aurora have small populations and fifty robots per human, Solaria has a rigidly controlled population of 20,000 on a hospitable world 9,500 miles in diameter and has 10,000 robots for every human. They live on vast estates and their point of pride about not needing to see their neighbors has turned into a rigid social and psychological extreme of isolation. Marriages are based on gene matches and people “see” one another only for necessities such as certain doctor visits and the rare and unpleasant necessity of replacing a death. In fact, they are working on artificial insemination to make this completely unnecessary and to further perfect their gene screening. This all plays into part of why the murder is so inexplicable. Rikaine Delmarre is a “good Solarian” who has volunteered for the socially necessary but unpleasant work of “fetologist,” or one who works on the baby farms. That he is found to have been bludgeoned to death is inexplicable. Why would one rich isolated Solarian want to kill another and how could they in this way without personal contact? The only suspect is Rikaine’s wife, Gladia (pronounced Gla-DEE-a) and she is a small woman who found the body and collapsed in shock. Other than her, robots such as one rendered non-functional by seeing a human death, and the doctor who arrived on the scene, no one was or has been there and no murder weapon was found. Any more subtle evidence that would have been there has been destroyed as the robots of this crime-free world cleaned up the murder scene as they would any untidiness. Baley at one point notes that, “This is a rather peculiar case. No motive, no means, no witnesses, no evidence.”

In the first sequence of interviews, Baley “views” Gladia and other relevant parties after viewing Gruer. From this, he decides that the lack of weapon and Gladia’s lack of strength clears her though, given the lack of any other options, all Solaria is convinced she’s guilty. [1] He also learns that there is strife between Aurora and Solaria and Gruer had actually wanted an Earth sociologist (or what’s nearly the same, a detective) because of Earth’s greater understanding of humans. Aurora is the most powerful Spacer world but Solaria’s contribution to the Worlds’ robot economy is essential. There is also conflict within Solaria, between those who like things basically as they are and those who would push even further. According to Gruer, there is a conspiracy at work which, in what precise way he isn’t sure, threatens all humanity. While saying this, as if on cue, he drinks from his glass and collapses from poison.

Baley feels stymied in his remote investigations and, when Gruer’s replacement, Attlebish, turns out to be an ass who punches Baley’s buttons, Baley uses a pretense of connection to Aurora’s power to threaten him into concessions which will allow Baley to move about the planet and “see” people if he can get them to agree. Because Gruer has been poisoned for investigating this case and because “seeing” would put Baley in direct danger from a similar attempt, Olivaw is required by the First Law to prevent Baley from going. Again, Baley tricks Olivaw, this time into revealing that he is a robot to the other household robots and orders them to guard Olivaw. Feeling euphoric over his victories over a Spacer human and robot, Baley heads out on his second series of interviews, again confronts his fear of the open and, again, it doesn’t go very well. However, he does manage to meet with Solaria’s version of a sociologist, Quemot, in which we learn that Quemot can barely stand to “see” another and eventually flees back to viewing. Meanwhile, we also learn about Solaria’s history, its relation to Earth’s Sparta and Athens, its Traditionalists, and Solaria’s great weapon: the positronic robot. It is Quemot’s contention that society is pyramidal and now robots can form its base while humanity occupies its apex. Further, a robotic economy is unidirectional, always pushing towards more robots and, without lifting a finger, Solaria will witness the galaxy adopting Solaria’s social structure. More directly to the nitty-gritty of the case, he also informs Baley that Delmarre had an assistant fetologist. Going to interview her, he learns about the biological basis of Solaria and that he should next talk to Delmarre’s friend who is a roboticist who can stand physical proximity even less than Quemot. Before leaving the farm, Olivaw is proved correct when an attempt is made on Baley’s life. On Baley’s meeting with the roboticist, the mystery begins to move into the home stretch but there is one more fascinating chapter I can talk about when Baley first “sees” Gladia (another in Asimov’s line of memorable female characters) and learns about her abstract light art (another in Asimov’s line of fascinating future arts). She does a “portrait” of him which is flattering but for it being contained within a gray box, “holding Baley’s imprisoned soul fast in the gray of the Cities.” Not to be hypocritical about forcing Solarians to “see” him, he once more forces himself to face the outdoors in an attempted exchange to get Gladia to remove the box from her art. The chapter ends with a remarkably vivid sunset which affects Baley even more than the reader and, with just another step or two, gets us to the moment when Baley can put the case together and even package it for proper consumption by several parties.

While The Naked Sun has a completely separate case, explains its own milieu well enough, and can be read alone, I’d still recommend reading The Caves of Steel first because I feel like a deeper knowledge of what Earth is like would produce a better understanding of Baley’s character. And, obviously, because I also think The Caves of Steel was a great book. In some ways, while definitely not perfect [2], this is even better. Like Caves, it works on the level of a personal murder mystery and on the level of a social science fiction novel. This inverts Caves, however, in showing us an extreme Spacer society while still never losing sight of Earth. In fact, the book is full of comparisons and contrasts. Frequent reference is made to the notion that robots are logical but not reasonable which, I think, ties into elements of many other Asimov stories where logic is respected but it’s pointed out that an impeccable chain of abstract logic can be unreasonable (or at least inaccurate) when applied to concrete situations. Another is between instincts and education where the Solarians could be said to “view-train” their children to educate the gregariousness, which they find disgusting, out of them. One thing I found particularly interesting about this element was how it relates to our current “social networking” system of Skyping and Zooming (leaving aside how it’s now exacerbated by the plague) which is nothing but a primitive form of “viewing.” (He also mentions how youth is necessary for beneficial change but specifies that the change should be moderate.) And Asimov, through Baley, again returns to the recurrent concern over “blind alleys” (here called a “dead end” at one point, which is the same principle) as Earth’s clustering and Solaria’s isolation are both seen as unhealthy extremes. Indeed, while he heads in the right direction but overshoots the mark in a couple of extreme moments of psychological pressure on the roboticist and on Baley, himself, the psychological and sociological depictions are superb, especially in the scene in which Quemot struggles with reason vs. emotion (another contrasting pair) and tries to explain to Baley the difficulty with “seeing” him. Through it all, Baley never spares himself in his effort to be an exemplar and undergo some of what he puts on others as he tries to get over his dependence on the security blanket of the Cities. Though it’s in a different context, he even cites a principle that will become important in much later Robot novels when he says to Olivaw, “It’s as much my job to prevent harm to mankind as a whole as yours is to prevent harm to man as an individual.”

This is a short novel which is so efficiently executed and packed to bursting with ideas that it contains just as many events as a novel twice as long and more ideas than most novels that are several times as long without feeling rushed or thin. I wish I could achieve Asimov’s efficiency and ability to provoke thought rather than producing this verbose review which still fails to convey how exciting and deeply-textured this experience of an alien world and society is but I can say that I recommend it highly.


[1] I probably hadn’t yet seen A Shot in the Dark (1964) the last time I read this but, the whole time I was reading it this time, with Baley’s obvious awareness of Gladia’s attractiveness and his frequent decisions on her innocence despite all evidence being against her, I kept thinking, “Maria Gambrelli is innocent!” By the way, an isolated moment which struck me funny was when Baley is told he must go to Solaria and, for a moment, he tries to place it – “Solaria, Australia?” – before he grasps that he’s being ordered off-world. Another amusing moment, which may be referencing Asimov’s annoyance about editorial interference in The Stars, Like Dust, is when Quemot and Baley are discussing the notion of the “pursuit of happiness” and when Quemot wonders where the phrase is from, Baley says, “Some old document.” Another reference comes when Baley, apparently oblivious to its antecedents, says that when you have “eliminated the impossible, what remains, however improbable, is the truth.”

[2] Non-nitpicky readers should probably skip this entire footnote as it would just rain on the parade of enjoying this excellent novel, but one of the things that bothered me involved communications. Asimov seems to generally assume a lack of direct interstellar communications which is strange given that there is hyperspace and, though it’s not precisely in the same universe, Lucky Starr was just involved in a project regarding the properties of light in hyperspace (so what about radio waves?). If there were such communications, why would a Solarian even think that an Earther would need to “see” Solaria? If there are not, how do Solaria’s planetary communications (“viewing”) work with no lag at all?

While those are technical questions and easily explained or excused, there are more serious issues involving the robots of Solaria having a sort of omniscience at times and an almost total lack of awareness at others and this inconsistency is not restricted to them. Olivaw is creatively hyper-vigilant about not allowing harm to come to Baley yet, in a key scene, violates both the First and Second Laws, somehow disobeying an order (though it was psychologically more of a plea) and inadvertently causing harm to a human when he should have known better.

More than that, the perpetrator is convicted by the perpetrator’s own prior utterance. Baley attempts, in passing, to provide a psychological explanation for why the perpetrator was so dumb in this instance and it’s plausible but only barely. Also, I don’t really like who the perpetrator is or the punishment. (I’m being somewhat misleading here to avoid spoilers but it gets my points across.)

Finally, perhaps from a youthful sentimentality or from focusing on elements of The Caves of Steel (or maybe even The Robots of Dawn) more strongly than elements of this one, I remembered Baley and Olivaw’s relationship and attitude towards each other (especially Baley’s towards Olivaw) differently and didn’t really like aspects of the relationship in this book, though that’s more personal taste than a flaw (as is the second half of the previous paragraph).

None of these things significantly impair an extremely clever and multi-level novel that works perfectly otherwise, but they did make me scratch my head on occasion.

Birthday Reviews: Binder, Bradbury, Tiptree, Vance

Eando Binder (Otto has the birthday this week) introduces us to one of science fiction’s more significant robots while Jack Vance takes us to an ancient alien battlefield where the fighting’s just begun and Ray Bradbury and James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon) bring us visions of damsels with dulcimers in their completely different ways.

Happy birthday also to Vonda N. McIntyre (1948-08-28–2019-04-01). While not generally the biggest fan, I would have re-read and reviewed her remarkable “Aztecs” novella but I intend to read the novel expanded from it sometime this eon, so didn’t feel like getting into the novella right now. The birthday party is still full, anyway.

 

Eando Binder (1911-08-26–1974-10-14)

“I, Robot” (Amazing, January 1939)

Shortly before Isaac Asimov was to set his stamp on robot stories forevermore, Earl and Otto Binder wrote this bildungsroman/Frankenstein-revision about a robot with an iridium-sponge brain (it’s the platinum that makes Asimov’s robots so good) who was created by Dr. Link and raised and named Adam Link by him. The “to whom it may concern” letter structure written in a quiet space amidst much trouble makes it a little distant and it’s a bit sentimental, but it’s an interesting and effective tale now and was even more unusual when written. It’s good stuff for anybody but essential for Asimov and/or robot fans.

Ray Bradbury (1920-08-22–2012-06-05)

“The Anthem Sprinters” (Playboy, June 1963)

Everybody’s gotta love The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 but I’m actually not otherwise the biggest Bradbury fan. However, this is a story that I’ve read twice, with a grin the whole time both times. And it’s not even science fiction.

An American is in an Irish pub when he learns about a “bug under a microscope [which] is the greatest beast on earth,” in this case, the betting sport the gang has to entertain themselves based on what needs to happen at the ends of movies… unless still greater things intervene. Actually, while not SF, and without anything that flatly contradicts the natural world, this is a species of fantasy just because everything in it is imbued with such improbable joy.

James Tiptree, Jr. (1915-08-24–1987-05-19)

“Milk of Paradise” (Again, Dangerous Visions, 1972)

This story resists synopsis in the way that poems resist paraphrase and, as the references both within and in the title of the story to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” indicate, that’s not an accident. To put it baldly and rob it of its texture, Timor was the son of a scout who, with his father dead, lived with aliens as a boy until he was rescued at age 10. Now apparently a young man, he can hardly associate with humans who are repugnant to him, as he is to himself, for not being like those wondrous aliens. This is especially hard to understand for the people who come into contact with Timor because humans generally know of only one other species, the sub-human Crot. When Santiago shows up, strikes a familiar chord in Timor, and wants to take him on a space journey, Timor’s isolation changes and changes again, each time in an ambiguous way.

Much as the river Alph, the story flows in what seems like a reasonably clear and accessible way which engages the reader but is obviously going to be deeper than many stories. Even feeling that, the waters at the chasm burst out with surprising force and depth of psychological action. Perhaps it’s a restatement of the poem in science fictional terms or perhaps it’s a reply. It also may be tangential to all that, only borrowing the poem for a title and a quote, and be saying something about the extraordinary power (for good or ill) of formative events, or seeing with more than eyes or, conversely be about us and, as Nietzsche had it, that we may need our self-deceptions to survive. Either way, it’s a fascinating and powerful experience that may err on the side of obliqueness but is otherwise excellently executed.

Jack Vance (1916-08-28–2013-05-26)

“Sulwen’s Planet” (The Farthest Reaches, 1968)

Professors Gench and Kosmin and Dr. Drewe are the focal characters of a mission to develop a plan of exploration of Sulwen’s Plain on Sulwen’s Planet which orbits Sulwen’s Star. The plain is the scene of a 62,000-year-old battle where no less than seven starships of at least two races have crashed. Gench is a philologist while Kosmin is a comparative linguist and they are constantly stepping on each others’ hated toes. Drewe is a mathematician and Director of the mission. We follow the dangerously serious games of one-upsmanship between the two wordmen before a clever double-ending.

This reminds me of something else I can’t put my finger on and any reader would be justified in being disappointed in the insufficient use made of the fantastic setting (as well as being put off by the personalities of both Gench and Kosmin) but the setting is so fantastic while the action within it is so believable, the plot is so clever, and the final perception of Gench and Kosmin is sufficiently modified that it’s an enjoyable tale.

Asimov’s Centennial: Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury

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Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury by Paul French (Isaac Asimov)
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.50, 191pp, 1956

Project Light involves investigation into the nature of light in hyperspace which may have implications for energy and weather control on Earth but someone or something is sabotaging the project. Lucky Starr and John Bigman Jones are on Mercury to investigate and have to deal with several people who may be friend or foe, including a project manager who is stressed to the point of insanity, a base leader who sees menacing Sirians under his bed, and a lieutenant of a Senator bent on exposing “waste” and destroying Lucky’s employers, the Council of Science. Over the course of events, Starr and Jones will face death separately and solve the mystery together.

There are several problems with this book ranging from minor to middling which cumulatively become major. The opening behavior from the project engineer is too extreme and the lack of consequences for it is mystifying. The stress constantly laid upon Lucky’s anonymity while having everyone in the Solar System identify him is pointless and annoying. While villains are not meant to be lovable, the unmitigated repugnance of the Senator’s lackey is difficult to bear. The isolated nature of something in the old mine shafts which should be part of a system is a problem. More seriously, Lucky is made to be pretty stupid once and, though Bigman is the sidekick and still has his clever and heroic moments, he is made to be extremely stupid at least twice, if not three times.

While not exactly a problem, it’s at least odd that, with Asimov having dispensed with the unneeded “French” persona [1], he goes the opposite way and declares that all worlds in the Galaxy are settled with quadrillions of people (despite this having been and still being essentially confined to the Solar System). Further, the Sirians are now directly described, without using the word, as Spacers and (no spoiler, because it’s on more than one cover), positronic robots are introduced with the Three Laws paraphrased. In fact, there are specific echoes of “Runaround,” in which Donovan and Powell went to Mercury to see about restarting a mining operation. But only the robot really has anything to do with the plot and it’s not really necessary for it to be a positronic three-law robot.

All that said, this is an efficiently constructed tale at its core and, like the Venus adventure, has a good setting [2] that’s put to good use in Chapter 10, where readers, via Lucky and his somewhat magical inso-suit, are transported from wherever they happen to be reading to the surface of Mercury in order to experience its “big sun” in one of those exhilarating moments which are a big part of what makes science fiction so much fun.


[1] The books continued to be published under the Paul French name though, presumably for consistency’s sake.

[2] As usual, Asimov includes a Foreword to warn the reader that, though it was published in 1956 with the best intention of being accurate, subsequent exploration has determined that Mercury does rotate rather than having one side always facing the sun. (However, unlike some stories which make tidal locking a central element with many ramifications extending from that, it’s not an overwhelming issue in this one.)

Review: Twin Worlds by Neil R. Jones

Twin Worlds by Neil R. Jones
Paperback: Ace, G-681, $0.50, 157pp, 1967 [1]

If you’ve read my other reviews in this series [2], you basically know how the last verse (at least for now) of this song goes. The only significant difference is that, while Jones’ powers of invention never flag, his patience with ending stories seems to be running low.

Neil R. Jones would probably not welcome comparisons to Robert L. Forward on the one hand or Ursula K. Le Guin on the other, but the first tale deals with political unrest on “Twin Worlds” a mere 100,000 miles apart. It begins when the Zoromes enter a four-planet system – no, five! – and pick one of the two twins to land on, which they find is called Selimemigre from the first person they meet, who happens to be a good exile they can help. Said exile, Kamunioleten, tells how the evil Bemencamla (Harris?) has taken control of Dlasitap by murdering five of Kam’s fellow administrators and framing him for it. In punishment, Kam has been placed on the low end of an island which is inundated daily with the monstrous tides between the two worlds. Unfortunately, his home is springing a leak. The ship with most of the Zoromes goes to Dlasitap to find out what’s going on over there while we stay with Kam and a few Zoromes, including the Professor. After the ship has been gone an unduly long time, the Professor starts reminiscing on the Double Planet about the time he was waiting alone a (very!) long time at the Double Sun. He must stop his reveries when it turns out that workers who had supposedly come to repair the leak had, in fact, come to ensure it “accidentally” got worse and there follows a rather thrilling effort to reach high ground before the tides peak (impossible for Kam alone and not a given for the machine men trying to help him). After waiting still longer at high ground, Jameson finally resolves to try the local method of transportation to reach the other world and search for their ship. Steampunk fans will rejoice because that method involves a Verne-like bullet being fired from a steam-driven flywheel (depicted on the cover). This is dangerous, to say the least, and the doughty machine men do indeed crash-land in shallow water but are able to catch a ride hanging on to the underside of an ocean ship headed for port. There they learn all about Bem and the tardy ship. After some running about, it’s all wrapped up in moments and one of the big surprises (regarding where the Zorome ship has been) will surprise few.

A great moment in prose from this one is when Professor Jameson calculates the length of a local unit of measure and declares that it is “7.193 feet and some few inches.” Possibly topping that is this lengthy bit from immediately after Jameson and friends have crashed into the shallow bottom of the ocean:

…the water grew darker. It seemed too soon for late afternoon twilight, and the three Zoromes looked up to see a dark object hovering above them. Into the mind of Professor Jameson flashed a memory of the huge fish which had swallowed 88ZQ4 and himself when they had sunk into the depths of the hydrosphere, yet this shadowy object above them moved too mechanically and majestically to be a fish. Moreover, its movement was too sluggish for association with the marine denizens.

“A boat!” flashed 6W-438.

After that adventure, the Zoromes find themselves “On the Planet Fragment,” which is a rectangular prism or cuboid. This leads to some almost Eganesque planetary exploration with Clementine gravity, while Jones populates the bizarre surface and shallow atmosphere with a menagerie of odd creatures, from the friendly disc-shaped Uum (whom Jameson originally calls the “Disci”) who are preyed upon by the floating aerial pseudo-jellyfish Eiuks to the gigantic, hugely powerful Ooaurs from the high-gravity regions on the long end of the fragment, to the Oaos who are enemies of the Eiuk but otherwise turn out to not be what they seem. Why the Eiuk seem to only attack at night and how they can be brought down in the Land of Exhaustion (as the Uum call the high-gravity regions) but then fly away the next day, are some of the key questions and each answer is replaced by “still another of the puzzles confronting the machine men of Zor on the planet fragment.” Eventually, the nature of the Uum city of Ui, the Ooas, and more come clear after much exploring and fighting.

Though this also stops suddenly with a weird non-ending followed by an epilogue of just over a page which recounts a novel we don’t get to read, and though it also features winning prose where something “shot like a plummet into the rarefied atmosphere above” and we are always trying to defend the “tender and delectable Disci,” I enjoyed this wild tale the most of this trio.

Finally, despite the epilogue, we do experience one more adventure on the planet fragment when, in an effective in media res opening, the Zoromes have traveled to volcanic lava regions, fight the Fire Dwellers there, and eventually meet “The Music Monsters.” (Other than the alliteration, I can’t think why they’re called that. Though semi-barbaric, they are sentient, friendly to the Zoromes, and not at all monster-like. Such creatures are never otherwise called monsters.) The fighting, gambling, accidentally musical “monsters” are quite memorable, as are the very different plant-creatures encountered further along the way. Even the Eiuks make another appearance and our perspective on them undergoes an interesting change. Perhaps the best part is how the Uum have been getting along generally and do get along specifically with the “monsters” when they meet. Still, this all feels like an episodic appendix to the prior tale, though it does end well.

That ending is especially fortunate because, while Jones probably couldn’t have known it, T. O’Connor Sloane was to leave the editor’s chair of Amazing with the very issue that contained this story and Raymond Palmer was to arrive and take the magazine in another direction, so this first run of twelve stories from 1931-38 ended here. After a short while, Frederik Pohl (who was running a pair of shoe-string magazines as a teenaged editor) published another quartet of the stories in Astonishing from 1940-42. Jones published nothing from 1943-47 (indeed, aside from a 1948 fanzine story and a 1951 magazine novel, Jones’ non-Jameson career ended in 1942) but, when Ejler Jacobson took over Super Science Stories, the Jameson series grew by another five stories from 1949-1951. Nothing new appeared from 1952-66 until DAW books collected the first dozen Jameson tales in four books and added a fifth book which took one from the Pohl era, one from the Jacobson era, and added two previously unpublished tales. More silence followed until, finally, a last unpublished tale appeared in a 1989 fanzine shortly after Jones’ death.

I’m not saying I’ll never review Doomsday on Ajiat but I don’t have any intention of doing so anytime soon, so I’ll just end this with a list of the Jameson stories I enjoyed the most:

  • “The Jameson Satellite” (Amazing Stories, July 1931)
  • “Into the Hydrosphere” (Amazing Stories, October 1933)
  • “Labyrinth” (Amazing Stories, April 1936)
  • “On the Planet Fragment” (Amazing Stories, October 1937)

[1] Original publications:

  • “Twin Worlds” (Amazing Stories, April 1937)
  • “On the Planet Fragment” (Amazing Stories, October 1937)
  • “The Music-Monsters” (Amazing Stories, April 1938)

[2] Previous reviews of the Professor Jameson stories:

Birthday Reviews: Bear, Egan, Forward, Lovecraft

This week, I wish a happy birthday to four authors, including two Gregs, who have moved into the forward ranks of writers with their love of their craft. Greg Bear takes us out to the galaxy and Greg Egan takes us into our heads in can’t-miss stories. Additionally, Robert L. Forward takes us down to an unusual money pit and H. P. Lovecraft takes us up to a strange high house.

Greg Bear (1951-08-20)

“Hardfought” (IAsfm, February 1983)

Several years before Stephen Baxter would begin to mine this sort of thing for at least nine novels and three fat collections, Greg Bear wrote this single remarkable fusion of space opera and cyberpunk about an infinite war between an old species that evolved from the Population II stars versus other species, especially humans, which evolved from Population I stars and its cost to humanity, even if they’re not losing in terms of combat. Most of the story occurs in a virtual reality computer interface aboard a dead Senexi starship inhabited by one Senexi (who is crazy in Senexi terms), two clones of an original human fighter from thousands of years ago (one modified by the Senexi), and a much more modified Senexi/Human hybrid. They learn about human history, hope, and passions, all of which have been lost but for the memory stores of the “Mandate” or the VR/computer. While chapters might have been welcome for breaks, the long, continuous novella speaks with inexhaustible detail which is still mind-blowing in 2020 and does so through a compressed, altered, future-slang-filled style which is conceptually accessible but creates a timeless remoteness (successfully timeless in that it still feels fresh in 2020) and which deals with subject matter which has only grown more relevant with time. This story, snapped up by the under-appreciated Shawna McCarthy, shows why Bear’s golden decade (approximately) of 1983-1993 (about) was one of the most remarkable in SF’s history.

Greg Egan (1961-08-20)

“Learning to Be Me” (Interzone #37, July 1990)

Some people think horror is madmen running around with axes. This story is true horror. Tomorrow or the next day, people have “jewels” implanted in their heads, or a device that is trained to “be them.” Every reaction, experience, event: all is mimicked by the jewel so that, when the time comes–say when you’re thirty and feel you’ve lost a mental step–you have the jewel hooked into your nervous system, your brain scraped out and replaced with something more like an artificial liver or kidney, and go about your business as the same person you always were, except immortal. Half the story follows the life of the protagonist at various ages with various reactions to the concept of the jewel and his attempts to get himself to undergo the operation. The second half of the story takes a sharp turn and, while somehow already having you on the edge of your seat from the freaky ideas and black humor, it turns into a calm, sedate, contented horror the like of which few if any stories have achieved. Or maybe that’s just me.

Robert L. Forward (1932-08-15–2002-09-21)

“Self-Limiting” (Analog, May 1992)

Forward’s best short fiction is probably the sequel to his second-best (“Acceleration Constant” and “The Singing Diamond,” respectively) but I wanted to review just one story. This one ran in the Probability Zero department and is thus a far-fetched (though sound) gimmick/joke that’s hard to describe without ruining it. Basically, this uses a bit of science and a bit of humor to explain why “there are no millionaires on Xanax,” and we might do worse than to adopt their standard.

H. P. Lovecraft (1890-08-20–1937-03-15)

“The Strange High House in the Mist” (Weird Tales, October 1931)

Minimally adapted from a 2019-10-30 review of Weird Tales, edited by Leo Margulies.

This is more of a fantasy than horror. Even leaving aside the magazine it was published in, it’s a very weird tale in which nothing much happens and it’s all told in a very mannered way but that achieves a sort of mesmeric effect conveying an awe-fulness symbolized by the unforgettable “strange high house in the mist” which the protagonist strives to reach.

SFTV Re-Views: Rogue One, Star Wars

 

star-wars

I’ve finally done something I meant to do almost since Rogue One came out on DVD and that’s watch it and Star Wars back-to-back.

Rogue One

This isn’t a full-dress review (I sort of did that on Mk I of this blog and didn’t manage to do a very good job) but just some notes on the assumption that people have seen it (though this is an even worse job).

The new non-Williams music, the subtitles, and the CGI actors still bug me. The grimdark rebels also bug me in theory but it’s done well. While some of the organic effects like the truth-reading organism weren’t great, the mechanical effects (ships, etc.) were fantastic. The movie found the sweet spot in its homages avoiding the big chunky ham-handed stuff of the sequel trilogy and instead focusing on the largest scale of being a Star Wars movie and the small scale of quick little bits. It also didn’t restrict itself to that with nods to Indiana Jones and others.

The plot mostly made a sort of sense and created some small-scale action before blossoming into full-blown space opera battle. There was a strong sense of old WWII movies generally (what with an Imperial tank and many rebels wearing WWII-style helmets) and of a Battle for the Pacific, specifically, with the island and palm trees. So that kept everything interesting and exciting (with a lot of the emotional ups and downs of Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi in one) but that needs characters to fully work and this had them. When Jyn is meeting Chirrut, and Andor says, “We’re not here to make friends,” it’s deeply ironic because they are there to make friends. I think Jyn is very pretty (and don’t care if people can’t take that as a compliment) but she’s also an interesting person who’s lost her biological parents and the last straw is losing her foster parent so that she’s drifted without connection or anything to believe in until she finds out things about her father and hooks up with her band of rebels, eventually even being able to embrace the notion that “rebellions are built on hope.” Andor is also lost, in that his hands are so dirty he’s turning into a stormtrooper for the rebellion but he still finds some compassion and independence within. The next tier of Chirrut (“the force is with me and I am one with the force”), Baze (Mr. Machine-Gun-Laser), Bodhi (Imperial Shuttle Pilot on the Road to Redemption), and even K-2SO (the least Asimovian “good” robot ever) is also strong. One might argue that they band together too quickly and that Jyn and Andor’s necessarily platonic romance is too automatic but it just recalls the quick banding together of the rebels in the original movie. More seriously, the Empire has some weird damn data protocols [1] but it made for interesting drama before the space opera morphs into a disaster movie (embracing on the shore) and then into a horror movie (as Vader goes through the corridors like Jason and Freddy and all rolled into one).

One small-ish spoiler (for anyone who hasn’t seen it) is that I loved that the Death Star bad guy was on the tower when that tower got obliterated by the Death Star.

Star Wars

As far as how they run back-to-back, the first movie was made about forty years earlier when pocket calculators cost hundreds of dollars and any PC-like things people had were built by hobbyists out of kits so there are going to be some differences in feel, despite Star Wars being shockingly beyond the state of the art of its time. (I mean this generally but, speaking specifically, it was interesting that the slick new movie managed to keep old Death Star graphics and the like and get away with it.) Still, after some FX-shock, Star Wars seemed as wonderful as ever. But the most glaring thing is how tiring that assault through the corridor must have been for Vader because, in Star Wars, he just sort of strolls through the next corridor and his duel with Kenobi is very gentle.

Perhaps the most important thing is that Rogue One dramatizes most of the opening text crawl of Star Wars and fixes one of the weird issues in Star Wars of why the Empire would built such a massive contraption that has such a glaring flaw. On the other hand, it’s not clear why the Empire is tearing things apart trying to find any evidence of Galen Erso’s sabotage in the prequel and then everybody seems quite content that the Death Star is invincible in Star Wars until the guy reports to Tarkin that they’ve analyzed the attack and there is a weakness.

I’m not going to actually “review” this one at all – if you somehow haven’t seen it, you simply must. But a couple of random notes I thought about this time: Star Wars has a much greater appreciation for non-verbal communication. In Rogue One, someone’s talking almost non-stop. Star Wars is much more like THX 1138 in that regard. Speaking of verbals, though, I love the audio effects during the Death Star battle scene when they cut from “camera in the cockpit” to “camera somewhere else” and the voices go from “in the cockpit” to “over the comms.”

I still love the scenes between Tarkin and Leia, especially when he tells her “You’re far too trusting” and, moments later, is scandalized when he declares to Vader, “She lied! She lied to us!” (Jyn’s cool but nobody will ever top Leia. Speaking of topping Leia, yes, it still bugs me that Chewie doesn’t get a medal but my theory is that Chewie’s too tall for Leia to get it over his head, so he got his in a separate ceremony. And the hold in that scene where C-3PO is shown and the camera cuts away before the camera returns and then pans down is classic.)

The main thing I thought about in this experiment of running the films back to back is that they are superb but I so deeply wish I could unsee the prequel trilogy. Also, I’m amazed at how good Rogue One is when I had to make so many allowances for The Force Awakens, didn’t even like its sequel and don’t have to unsee the sequel to that because I’ve never bothered to watch it.

Still, while I’m glad I finally did this, it worked pretty well, and I enjoyed it, it’s probably best to let some time elapse between the two. (But it is kind of hard not to at least want to watch Star Wars right after Rogue One.)


[1] And why shouldn’t there be weird data protocols and mechanisms in Rogue One if tractor beam mechanisms are so weird in Star Wars?

Asimov’s Centennial: The End of Eternity (Two Versions)

The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.95, 191pp, 1955

Like Pebble in the Sky, The End of Eternity is another novel with an alternate version (in this case, a prior novella) in The Alternate Asimovs. I’ll cover both, beginning with the most familiar.

1955 Novel

The central organization in this temporal novel is Eternity, which had its genesis in the 24th century as a result of Vikkor Mallanssohn’s work on Temporal Fields, though it wasn’t until the 27th that Eternity was founded as a organization outside time which facilitated trade up and down the timeline of Reality. (Depending on orientation, Eternity can be seen as a giant corridor or elevator where Eternals on one side live and work at the stations of different centuries and, on the other, can pass into the Timed realm of those centuries.) Later still, Eternity became more and more focused on Reality Changes, though this second aspect was kept hidden from the “Timers” within the ever-fluctuating timestream the Eternals manipulate. They would be disturbed to know that, as in one extraordinary scene, an Eternal using the principle of Minimum Necessary Change can move a container from one shelf to another to destroy a technology, kill millions, create millions, and alter the personalities of millions more. After fairly modest beginnings even as Changers, Eternity created access to the far future, tapped into the power emitted by the Sun, which will somehow go nova, and is now powered by Nova Sol and has access to all Time, excepting only the 70-150 Thousandth Centuries in which Eternity exists but out of which Eternals cannot pass into Reality. And, after that, there are no humans in the higher centuries anyway.

Eternity is also a bureaucratic organization. Eternals must be drawn from Timers (usually at the age of 15), spend ten years as Cubs, before becoming Observers (who actually go into Time and bring back data), before finally becoming Specialists which, among other things, may mean Computers (those who compute the Reality Changes), Plotters (who determine the nature of analogous people after Changes), Sociologists (who study societies generally), or Technicians (who determine the methods and then implement the Changes – and who are ostracized by the others much as judges are admired and hangmen are are not – scapegoats for the “collective guilt involved in playing God”). Those who fail become Maintenance though, without them, Eternity could not function. Eternals are also not allowed to marry or reproduce and must have even temporary liaisons submitted for approval.

The Eternal the book focuses on most is Technician Andrew Harlan, a 32-year-old native of the 95th Century who recently worked in the 482nd Century but is now primarily based in the 575th Century after attracting the attention of Senior Computer Laban Twissell, the most powerful member of the Allwhen Council, and being transferred there to work with him. The engine of the plot began before the story opens, when he received his first assignment as an unsupervised Technician, though still under the authority of Assistant Computer Hobbe Finge who increasingly dislikes him. Harlan returns the favor when his puritanical morals are offended (and his jealousy stoked) by Finge’s new secretary, Noyes Lambent, a Timer from the 482nd Century who is a sexually liberated and barely clothed aristocrat of a hedonistic society with matriarchal elements. This brings out much psychosexual conflict (though it turns out Finge has other motivations) and, when Harlan is assigned to observe from her home in the 482nd and ends up sleeping with her, one result of this is a feeling of victory over Finge but another is that he decides he must continue this relationship with her, Eternity be damned if necessary. The night he slept with her, he also had an insight into a secret about Eternity that he believes gives him great power so that he can force them to let him have Noyes.

Meanwhile, Twissell has assigned Harlan, who has an interest in Primitive history (the time before Eternity) to teach this history to Brinsley Sheridan Cooper (a new Cub, unusually old at 24, who was even married in his time of the 78th Century) as Cooper is being prepared for a special mission which is critical to the existence of Eternity. Harlan’s connections to Noyes and Cooper come together when a Change will erase Noyes, he pulls her from Time and takes her “upwhen” where they stop at the 111,394th Century, which is in the Hidden Centuries. He intends to hide her there until he can work out something better but, on a return visit, he finds he’s blocked at the 100,000th Century and, thinking Finge may be responsible, returns to violently confront him. One thing leads to another and Harlan is prepared to sabotage the Cooper mission when revelation is followed by revelation and Harlan’s intent is changed again and again.

Aside from the story and its technical execution, there are a couple of particularly interesting conceptual elements to this (aside from, obviously, the quietly awe-inspiring concept of Eternity, itself). The most isolated is the character of Noyes Lambent. There are aspects in which she’s the girl of one’s dreams and a sort of trophy, at least in part of Harlan’s mind, but his puritanical disapproval (driven by sublimated lust) is broken by actual contact with her and, while he suffers from some virgin excess and aspects of the romance both ways strain credulity, she is ultimately an independent woman. This (complete with bedroom scene) is remarkable coming from the previously almost sexless Asimov writing in 1955. Later, Harlan wants to ask her about previous relationships but doesn’t when he attains a new perspective about her different background: “He might as well ask a girl of his own homewhen if she had ever eaten in the presence of a man and how dare she?” This might not be impressive to some now (or maybe it would be, with aspects of a New Puritanism creeping in) but, in terms of 1950s science fiction, this seems to me to be an extraordinary depiction of a “liberated” woman.

Even more interesting, but tied to extrinsic things, is the comparison of this with its prior version and with the Foundation series. In ways, Eternity is to Time as Foundation is to Space. Given the insignificance of Gaal Dornick’s character, Seldon essentially stood alone, whereas Harlan and even Cooper have relatively more prominent roles but Twissell (despite the poor name) is something of a Seldon figure. Much is made of Heinlein’s garrulous know-it-alls such as Lazarus Long but Asimov also seems to have had his own icon of a wise old man of deep technical prowess. Also, like Heinlein, you can’t necessarily read too much into it in a simplistic way, as the Seldon of the Foundation and the two Twissells are all three portrayed with very different moral evaluations. Moving to the organization itself, “Harlan liked to think that Eternity was like the monasteries of Primitive times,” and both the Foundations and Eternity have something of the medieval cloister to them. Both have a public front of commerce or academia but, behind the scenes, they really shape and mold humanity for good or ill (making foreknowledge a problematic thing). And that’s precisely one of the more interesting things: Asimov usually sees this as good, but not always. This book wrestles with the notion of beneficial and harmful technologies (whether mass duplicators, “atomic wars and dreamies,” or space travel), the costs of promoting or suppressing one or the other, whether one can sensibly choose one’s own adventures and whether this will help or harm the species (raising again Asimov’s nightmare of “blind alleys”), what “the good” in life is, and perhaps fails to wrestle with, but implicitly raises such issues as how one can have diversity in an empire or cohesion in chaos.

As interesting as all that is, as compelling as some of the characterological and conceptual drama is, and as unusual a time travel book as this is (with few paradoxes and little actual travel in Reality), it does suffer from some of the ills that time travel fiction is heir to. Though there is a reason for the Hidden Centuries, there are other limits in time and space to this shaping of Reality which are not explained and it certainly seems like there would be an easier solution to the entire dilemma of Eternity than what is actually applied. There are structural issues such as the narrative POV’s poor handling of Harlan’s frequent reveries in subjective time about his real past (as in the scenes with Voy in at least Chapters 1, 6, and 10) which even leads to his discovering something about Noyes twice and, probably due to the expansion from the novella, there are a couple of flabby chapters including 6. Even more significantly, chapters 12, 15, and 17 have contrived elements regarding Harlan’s actions for and against Eternity and an action toward him, as well as an issue—though it ends up not mattering—that Cooper should be puzzled about after his trip to the past. The fact that it doesn’t matter is yet another problem, as this suffers from what might be described as Chekhov’s bazooka or a red whale-herring, though I can’t get into it (or most of the problems) without spoiling the surprises.

All in all, this is an audacious and interesting book and I certainly wouldn’t advise anyone to avoid it, but I can’t fully recommend it to the general reader, either. Asimov fans or time travel buffs basically have to have it, though. [1]

1954 Novella

As The Alternative Asimovs details [2], this all came about on November 17, 1953, when Asimov was in the Boston University library looking over old issues of Time and saw what looked like a mushroom cloud. Though it turned out to be a line drawing of Old Faithful, he started wondering about how it could have come to be if it had been a mushroom cloud and, from December 7, 1953 to February 6, 1954, he wrote what he came to see as a “dehydrated novel” which he could not get anyone to accept. Finally he gave it to his book editor and asked if there was potential for a novel and the editor said there was, so he rewrote it from April 21 to December 5, 1954. Even that could not find anyone to run it as a serial, so it came out in book-form only.

Unlike the relatively mild changes to “Grow Old Along with Me”/Pebble in the Sky, the differences in these two versions are extreme, though there are minor differences as well. For instance, Andrew Harlan was originally named Anders Horrem and Vikkor Mallansohn was Harvey Mallon. Harlan and basically everyone else are a few years younger and sometimes come from different centuries. More significant changes include the elimination of some people and ideas. [3] Even the essential plot, until elements of the end, are about the same (though the major element of the Hidden Centuries was missing). However, in the original, Horrem is a sort of villain and Cooper is a much more important character (who almost disappears from the novel) while Noyes is a significant plot motivator but minor character. Even beyond that, the story doesn’t wrestle with the definitions of “improve” or “the good” and the entire philosophy and conclusions of the two versions are diametrically opposed.

The effects of some of these differences are to make the original much more concise (obviously) with some stronger scenes (such as the container-switching scene) but also more coherent in plotting, though at the cost of diminishing the still huge scope and being less focused on central characters. It also produces odd fallout where, in the novel, the reduction of Cooper’s character and his interactions with Harlan versus those with Manfield make the psychological profiling for communication methods at the end even less convincing. On the other hand, the ending to the novel is vastly stronger than the parts of the two-step ending of the novella combined. I was pleased to note that even Asimov admitted in the Afterword, “I was amazed I had made the ending as weak as I had.” So, in ways, the novella is initially stronger but ultimately pales in comparison to the novel.

There are a couple of funny things about this, though. One is that having two versions of The End of Eternity is perfectly fitting, as Asimov simply worked a vast Reality Change on the story just as happens multiple times within the stories. Also, the two versions make this perhaps the first example of Asimov’s revision of a work to hew closer to the One True Series, a process which came to a climax with the mid-80s novels. Some changes are made to relate this to the Foundation universe and an Afterword at the end of Foundation’s Edge implies this is officially “in universe” though this is abandoned for the list in the Author’s Note in Prelude to Foundation.

Ultimately, I think this novella has an amazing concept and is generally well-executed and has several characters with compelling backstories but the underwhelming ending and deflating twist don’t do justice to the material. I wouldn’t have wanted to reject it and certainly wouldn’t have wanted the total revision that Gold did, but I would have wanted Asimov to write a better ending. I find the novel version superior and the novella version is probably only of interest to major fans or writers but, due to its differences, it’s of more interest to those major fans than even “Grow Old Along with Me.”


[1] It’s my impression that it’s a well-regarded novel and that I’m in a minority of the less impressed but Asimov, himself, says “I do consider it underappreciated, however, and feel it is unfairly drowned out by my Foundation novels and my Robot novels. Someday, after I’m dead perhaps, it may come into its own.”

[2] I read the Foreword, this version, re-read the novel version, and thought about them prior to reading Asimov’s Afterword but we make many of the same points.

[3] For instance Cooper’s teacher, Manfield, disappears, with half of his character being given to Harlan and half to Twissell. A character named Attrell is deleted along with his interesting perspective that “The last millennium of Primitive times was a kind of straight-line development with a steadily developing technology,” but “You’re going to find out the human pattern of history isn’t a line; it’s an irregular sine curve… A given era is just as likely to be similar to your own as different.”