Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy Weir
Hardcover: Crown Publishers, 978-0-8041-3902-1, $24.00, 369pp, February 2014
Tradepaper: Broadway Books, 978-0-553-41802-6, $15.00, 369pp, October 2014

I bought this book a long time ago after seeing the movie in the theaters (which is an unusual procedure for me when it comes to SF) and I’ve finally gotten around to reading it. I doubt many people interested in it at all have been any slower than I have, so a long synopsis or detailed critique wouldn’t be much good. Basically, a half-dozen explorers are on Mars when a storm starts to tip their exit vehicle and they have to leave almost as soon as they’ve arrived. One of them, Mark Watney, is injured and the sensors indicate he’s dead. After efforts above and beyond the call of duty, his companions can’t find him, so they leave without him. What follows is his tale of fighting to survive alone for a long time with meager supplies.

Among the few problems this book has is that there’s only so much logical suspense over the ultimate story arc given the way the book is written though that also doesn’t stop the emotional response from working (and, to be fair, it’s hard to judge that aspect of the book having already seen the movie). A second is that the narrative structure seems loose, with a huge amount of first-person logging from Watney mixed (sometimes at places where it feels jarring and sometimes not at places where you’d expect it) with some third-person stuff on Earth and some omniscient, objective stuff on Mars as well. And thirdly the protagonist is arguably a bit of wish-fulfillment – yes, he’s a believable human and does screw up and so on, but he’s a damned funny, smart, brave, indomitable person.

On the other hand, I’ve been getting to bed late for awhile because (as is often said hyperbolically) “it was hard to put down.” One of the best things about the book is how well it judges and handles Watney’s problems and successes so that I never got bored with too much success and relative safety or irritated by excessive failure. (The movie actually gives Watney an easier time of it.) I also enjoyed the fuller internal dimension of Watney’s subjective view though the movie’s greater relative balance between the parts makes cinematic sense, too. The book also has more funny lines and clever details than the movie has room for. To further compare the two, the movie is a remarkably faithful adaptation though necessarily much abridged, especially in the back half (which results in a logic glitch to one of the best parts). On the other hand, it adds a famous line and takes cinematic advantage of something that was discussed but not actually done in the book. I rewatched it on completing the novel and had forgotten how fantastic it looked, too.

If you’re feeling at all jaded about SF or life in general, either treatment of the story will help with that. Basically, if you’ve liked the book or movie at all and haven’t experienced both, you almost certainly want to try the other.

At one point while reading this I came to hope they’ve begun passing it out in every classroom in the country (or world) and, when looking for the cover art for this post, was delighted to stumble across a classroom edition (though that probably just means they censored the frequent profanity). This book is a great guide to life, itself: explore, educate yourself about reality, face facts, solve problems, take necessary risks but be smart about it, never give up, keep a sense of humor, be hopeful, survive, and help your fellow humans.

Review: Stormland by John Shirley

Stormland by John Shirley
Hardcover: Blackstone Publishing, 978-1-09-401782-2, $26.99, 338pp, [April] 2021

This will not be a review so much as a notice because I actually read this immediately after The Godel Trigger and entered the above information to start the review, but never got around to writing anything else until yesterday (on a different book) and this is no way to write a review.

As I remember it, the premise of this book is that climate change has led to a constant series of storms hitting the southern United States, making the region almost unlivable but making it one of the better places to hide out with the people unable to leave if you’re a criminal or otherwise want to leave the rest of the world. Another element is the continued privatization of all things, resulting in various law enforcement corporations. The main protagonist is a rent-a-cop who remembers when things were otherwise and prefers those times, but has been sent out to track down a serial killer who has disappeared into Stormland. Another element is the strife between a rich showoff and his son during and after the former crashes his fancy vehicle into Stormland. And, along the way, we meet various natives and a couple of the 1% who are evil voyeuristic mind-controlling nutjobs. (And there just might be something more broadly symbolic and thematic in that.)

I’m not generally a big fan of cli-fi or apocalyptic stuff but I am a pretty big fan of John Shirley. My favorite book of his is Eclipse and there was a moment in this when the near-future scenario, the eclectic band of characters, the socioeconomic themes, and the vivid, gritty tangibility of this book excited me with the feeling that I might have another Eclipse-level book on my hands. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to that but that’s a high bar and I still enjoyed it. Perhaps the worst thing is the very premise, in that I have a hard time buying the notion of what seems to be basically a year-round procession of hurricanes while the rest of the planet seems to be more or less “normal.” (I have thought about Earth developing a Jovian permanent storm which seems a little more plausible, but I don’t know.) The weirdest part was how this was at once ferociously apocalyptic and oddly cozy with lots of nice and semi-mean people and only a few utterly vicious folks, with most of the latter not even being in Stormland. But this mixture is actually probably more realistic than either purer form of apocalyptic fiction. I think one of the best parts was the relationship that develops between the cop and the killer and the questions raised by the latter’s past and current state, which I’ll let the reader discover. Ultimately, it’s a pretty action-packed and thoughtful book.

Review: Octavia Gone by Jack McDevitt

Octavia Gone by Jack McDevitt
Hardcover: Saga Press, 978-1-4814-9797-8, $27.99, 375pp, May 2019
Paperback: Pocket Books, 978-1-4814-9798-5, $8.99, 440pp, February 2020

Any discussion of this eighth installment in the Alex Benedict series (in which a dealer in antiquities stumbles across a historical mystery to investigate in each novel) will necessarily spoil an element of the seventh.

That element is the return of Alex’s uncle, Gabe, which, along with other things in Coming Home (such as its title), made me think that was a nice stopping place for the series (which opened with his disappearance). I think that may have been the plan, too, because the gap between the seventh and eighth volumes was longer than any since it was turned into a series with the second[1]. Even when this did come out, I wasn’t intending to get it but things eventually worked out so that I did. The return of Gabe also makes the subtitle, “An Alex Benedict Novel” almost a misnomer. In the first, essentially stand-alone, novel, Alex was the narrator. In the subsequent novels, Chase Kolpath (his pilot and girl Friday) became the narrator and Alex becomes an object in Chase’s universe of perception. In this, Alex retreats further to the background as the first three-quarters or so of the book focuses more on Gabe and one of the key discoveries occurs then. However, the first half or so contains no real discoveries at all as the actual investigation into the mystery doesn’t really kick in until after that, focusing instead mostly on Gabe’s return and adjustment to having, in essence, traveled over a decade into the future and on the fact that there actually is a mystery to eventually be investigated.

The mystery is that, about a decade ago, four scientists were investigating a black hole from Octavia, a space station which was orbiting it, when the station disappeared. Gabe and Alex undertake more or less separate lines of research with Chase sometimes accompanying Gabe and sometimes Alex. The usual searches for and meetings with people who might have been involved or have known something occur, artifacts are followed up on, multiple seeming dead-ends are encountered, and eventually breakthroughs occur and things progress as they usually do in the novels of this series. Along the way, the characters confront and reassess their relations with the artificial intelligences which are such an important but under-appreciated part of their civilization which works on a science fictional level and, presumably, a symbolic one as well.

All in all, this would probably work well (perhaps better) for a reader new to the series despite it seemingly being so focused on backstory, because the backstory is made clear and the series would be shiny and new, and it’s not a bad book or a labor to read. Still, I’d recommend reading the older ones instead. And for me, I rarely read so many volumes in a series, yet enjoyed the seven I’d read so much that I felt I could read the next mystery episode indefinitely, yet was also satisified when the series seemed to reach a stopping place. This belated episode, which changes the chemistry and pushes the serial arc further, didn’t really rekindle my enthusiasm. The mystery was fairly average, took too long to get to, and its resolution was underwhelming (though it is clever how the parts relate), and the most interesting part of the book, while conceptually central to it, was slighted in terms of the actual narrative focus and dramatic action devoted to it.


[1] It’s presumably irrelevant to the fiction, but another change is that of publisher, as the series has moved from Ace to Saga/Pocket. Also completely irrelevant to the fiction but something I just want to say, is that this Pocket paperback is a very nice book as a physical object and reading experience, with generous inner margins, a firm spine but flexible covers and paper, nice looking title page, typography, style, etc.

Review: The Godel Operation by James L. Cambias

The Godel Operation by James L. Cambias
Trade Paperback: Baen, 978-1-9821-2556-1, $16.00, 273pp, May 2021

(This review will be brief because, while I was intending to get back to blogging this year, I wasn’t intending to review this book when I started reading it. But, in the end, I decided I might as well.)

The Godel Operation is set about eight thousand years in the future in a solar system teeming with life both biological and artificial, which is a sort of miracle since there have been intermittent wars throughout the intervening time, some of which pitted biological vs. artificial life and were vast in scale and ferocious in intensity. Thanks to a change of heart (or new calculation) between the AIs, leading to some civil strife between them, a new, non-genocidal (dis)order arose. So, much like the first decades after WWII, but on a far larger scale of time and space, life in the solar system is doing fairly well after it all, though there are extremists on both sides who still pine for a final solution. Similarly, many habitats have been repaired or created but relics of the wars persist, especially including the Godel Trigger, a legendary weapon that is rumored to be able to eliminate all artificial life.

Our narrator is Daslakh, an AI inhabiting a spider mech body and doing mining chores with Zee, who is “pretty clever for a lump of meat.” When Zee is feeling down, Daslakh contacts the “god” (controlling AI) of Raba, an asteroid of the Uranus Trailing Trojans where the pair lives and works. That AI implants artificial memories in Zee, supposedly to add spice and give meaning to Zee’s life, about a lost love who is actually a character taken from a “first-person virtual entertainment.” This leads to Zee’s determination to find her and make things right, and to Daslakh going with him. So begins a series of adventures taking them to various places in the solar system and closer and closer to the Godel Trigger, culminating on a partially terraformed Mars. Along the way, they meet a woman who has the name of Zee’s “love” and looks like he remembers her but certainly doesn’t act like her, another woman Zee is actually much more drawn to, an uplifted cat and her two human goons, a system-famous thief who may never have stolen anything, and several other more or less colorful humans and AIs.

Daslakh’s sarcastic narrative style, in which light contends with dark, engagement with remoteness, is enjoyable. The other characters are interesting, though the narrative viewpoint allows or covers for some distance. The standard quest plot is deftly executed through a fascinating milieu which makes the solar system feel like a galaxy and gives a good feel of the millennia gone by. Admittedly, Daslakh is a sort of tour guide who tells us about much of this but it’s lightly handled and comes alive with plenty of action, too. In broad strokes, it may not be utterly unique but the details and handling make it seem quite fresh and much more convincing than many other futures. And, as the whole plot plays on one extremely well-known trope, so the ending audaciously reinvents another one. Ultimately, it had something to say about the aesthetic justification of the universe, the changes that can occur to intelligence over time (partly in a social/physical sense, but most pertinently in a personal, psychological sense), and I enjoyed it and recommend it.

Birthday Reviews: Bates, Popkes, Reed

Adventures involving a giant robot, a big hit, and a great ship await us in this week’s birthday stories. Coincidentally, all the authors represented were born on the same day and two of the three stories were published in essentially the same month. However, I’m also remembering the birthday of Frank Herbert (1920-10-08–1986-02-11), author of The Dragon in the Sea (oh, and of Dune and others), though I can’t recall a short work of his that’s really done it for me.

Harry Bates (1900-10-09–1981-09-??)

“Farewell to the Master” (Astounding, October 1940)

“Farewell to the Master” is the basis for The Day the Earth Stood Still in a technical, legal sense but, by comparison, “Who Goes There?” was perfectly faithfully adapted into The Thing from Outer Space. In the story, Klaatu and a robot (here called “Gnut”) have arrived on Earth and Klaatu has been killed by a madman. To demonstrate how sorry humanity is, Gnut is subjected to all sorts of ray-guns, acids, and more, and is now in a museum along with the impenetrable spaceship. The story begins when a reporter is looking over a couple of photos he’s taken and realizes Gnut is not in exactly the same place it was before. He spends a night at the museum on stakeout with his camera and is so unnerved when Gnut actually begins moving about – and towards him! – that he’s only able to get a couple of pictures of the spaceship port Gnut eventually opens and enters. Crazy things go on that night, including a fight between an alien robot and a gorilla but things come to make sense after additional stakeouts and more interactions between the reporter and the metal man.

This story has several weaknesses, mostly in logical plot details including how an alien robot is feared mightily but, when evidence that something has disturbed the museum it is in is found, no standing watch is put on the museum the next night, so the reporter can sneak in again. Still, the strange doings in the museum and the reporter’s fears and thrills have a good effect, some pathos is achieved near the end, and the very end could be a great twist depending on whether the reader foresees it. It’s also interesting that this was written by the first editor of Astounding and published by its third.

The next two comments are lightly revised from a 2013-08-14 review at my previous site.

Steven Popkes (1952-10-09)

“Sudden, Broken, and Unexpected” (Asimov’s, December 2012)

“Sudden, Broken, and Unexpected” is about AI and music in a non-dystopian near future. I often don’t like rock’n’roll stories because they frequently fail to translate basically incompatible media (a story is not a song) and can be embarrassingly juvenile. For me, this story works well because it creates an ambiguous protagonist who is interesting and real, and manages to avoid the pitfalls of music-in-story while also being a good exploration of AI and, not incidentally, of humanity. This isn’t a particularly original story conceptually, but it’s one of the best examples of it – such that it basically becomes original by the mix of ingredients and the execution. However, if someone didn’t like a long novella filled with dialog about AI like “an anomalous non-deterministic emergent event deriving from conflicting algorithms” or about music like “that triple beat arpeggio driven square into a four by four rhythm…a long glissando across three octaves back to hold the new key into the final chorus,” I could certainly understand.

Robert Reed (1956-10-09)

“Katabasis” (F&SF, November/December 2012)

“Katabasis” puts me in mind of Cordwainer Smith’s “A Planet Named Shayol” as its almost immortal people undergo a horrific endurance test in a weird section of the Great Ship. The protagonist who was almost destroyed in a terrible fire and wasn’t entirely put back together is compelling, as is his relationship to the viewpoint character. That character and her species is exceptionally imaginatively conceived and what they go through to get to the Great Ship is yet another horror of an endurance test. I can’t at all say I love this but it is reasonably well done and powerful.

Asimov’s Centennial: Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn

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Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn by Paul French (Isaac Asimov)
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.75, 179pp, 1958

The Rings of Saturn is the last Lucky Starr book, though it’s not the final one. Isaac Asimov had a notion to write Lucky Starr and the Snows of Pluto but he switched to primarily writing non-fiction and there were never any more Lucky Starr books. That makes this the sixth of seven novels which introduces a third wheel while asking two key questions in a milieu which includes fifty outer worlds and the Three Laws of Robotics.

The plot involves the Earth Council discovering “Agent X,” a spy for the most anti-Earth outer world, Sirius, and sending ordinary ships out in pursuit after Agent X blasts his way out of Mos Eisley spaceport. Of course, these ships are not up to the task, but Lucky Starr and his big-in-spirit companion, Bigman Jones, take their snazzy supership out and go on an exciting chase to Saturn [1] where Agent X jettisons a capsule of the stolen plans to the Death Star and is destroyed by an unlucky connection with some space junk. However, it is then revealed that the Sirians have established a base on Titan, claim it as their own territory, and warn Lucky off. He does retreat, only to hide by an asteroid and pick up Wess, a fellow Councilman, before detaching (somewhat like the Falcon floating away with the Star Destroyer’s garbage). Even so, the Sirians have some spiffy mass detectors and track Lucky’s ship as he ducks into the Cassini Division and then crashes into the snowball of Mimas. (Actually, he burns his way in with a fusion beam.) Still, the Sirians persist, so the trio set up a base, leave Wess behind (Lucky tries to get Bigman to stay behind, too, but predictably fails) and then Lucky surrenders. A conference has been set up at which the fifty worlds and Earth will decide if solar systems are indivisible territorial units (as has been the previous assumption and is still Earth’s position) or if Sirius’ new definition of any uncolonized world being up for grabs will hold. After Lucky’s surrender, evil Sirian Sten Devoure’s plan is to kill Bigman in some excruciating way if Lucky doesn’t agree to be taken to the conference and confess his war crimes of invading Sirius’ world of Titan. Much derring-do still results in Lucky agreeing to go to the conference but, rather than telling Sirian lies for them, he instead agrees to reveal Wess’ presence in exchange for Bigman’s life. Both Bigman and a couple of more honorable Sirians are dismayed at Lucky’s moral failure but take Lucky to Vesta for the climactic conference (which turns into a sort of trial) in which all appears lost.

In this one, Lucky and Bigman’s relationship (in which an adult male is repeatedly tousling another adult male’s hair and so on) still bugs me, Sten Devoure is as melodramatic a black hat as his name suggests, there are many contrivances including the mass detectors, the Sirian robots’ limitations (especially including the “battle stations” gimmick), and Lucky’s habitual silence about his clever plans until the end, and the climax is too easy for all the big todo that led up to it. On the other hand, there are exciting scenes, some of the space combat (with a “pea-shot” vs. “grape-shot” and the light speed delays) are similar to Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet space fights, the interstellar politics near the end have an almost Foundation-like feel, and the courtroom scene (and, obviously, the robots themselves) have a Robot-like feel. In addition to the interesting notion of stellar territorial definitions, this also finally raises (though it does not satisfactorily answer) what being “human” is and how robots [2] recognize it in the context of their Three Laws (dramatized by the racialist Sirians ordering their robots to kill the small, subhuman Bigman Jones). Related to this, Asimov specifically has Lucky make the case for the advantages of diversity.

Looking at this book as part of the whole series, I’d say that certain melodramatic aspects and repeated motifs drag this one down but some of its questions and exciting scenes lift it up to place it on par with most of the rest. Though it is clear there could be more stories in the series (with one Sirian brought into the Earth fold and intimations that Devoure and Lucky will tangle again and with the Earth-Sirian cold war still ongoing rather than being ended in some sort of climactic grand finale), it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, either, so makes a decent close to the series.


[1] The depiction of details of Saturn, its rings, and its moons are no longer completely accurate, but they are reasonable and it shouldn’t cause much of a problem for anyone.

[2] Interestingly, Lucky’s cosmopolitan admiration of the “human” accomplishment of the “Sirian” robots seems to echo Asimov’s presumed admiration of the Soviet Sputnik and, while he doesn’t mention that directly anywhere that I know of, this book was written from November 1957 to February 1958, after Sputnik went up in October 1957. (This scientific event may also have played a role in Asimov’s change of focus after this novel from science fiction to mostly scientific non-fiction.

Birthday Reviews: Vinge

Vernor Vinge (1944-10-02)

There is only one journey this week but with an interstellar journey of extreme importance as well-written as this, you only need one.

“Long Shot” (Analog, August 1972)

Via third-person limited narration, we accompany an AI named Ilse through her experiences as she goes through a sort of school in orbit around Earth, gets equipped with a new and much larger body, takes a thrilling jump down to the Sun before dispensing with that body and hurtling outward from the Solar System with the gravity-assist to begin her 10,000 year journey to Alpha Centauri. Along the way, something epochal occurs in an offhand line (fortunately, Ilse is a bit naive but, unfortunately, the reader is not) and Ilse struggles with the ills that circuits are heir to, threatening her mission with several angles of failure.

This is very nearly a perfect story. Maybe it’s a little too slow in parts before the stakes are raised, but they are raised. Maybe a word or two could have been different but it does have an understated, evocative style. Maybe the journey is too clear and straightforward but it’s a tremendous journey and complications do occur before its effective completion. Essentially, it’s a superb realization of what an interstellar journey would be like and is a fascinatingly humanist story despite being diamond-hard SF [1] with an AI for its only character. Again, a truly superb and strongly-recommended story.


[1] Hard SF for 1972, though exoplanet hunting technology has progressed by leaps and bounds beyond where Vinge has it in this story.

Birthday Reviews: Lee, Martin, Shiras, Wells

This is another busy week in which we experience a strange incursion into a relic of empire, get involved in an alien cult, meet a superboy, and suffer a cosmic cataclysm.

Tanith Lee (1947-09-19–2015-05-24)

“Into Gold” (IAsfm, March 1986)

Somewhere in the western portions of what had been the Empire, after a freshly fallen Rome, a princeling and his devoted companion are partly estranged when an Eastern caravan arrives, carrying a woman with strange powers. The companion narrates how the princeling developed an immediate lust for the woman and how everyone around him thought well of her as she became his wife and bore him a son, except the companion, himself. When the sorceress goes off with only her child and a single guard, ostensibly to cure a village suffering from disease, he recollects tales of child disfigurement and sacrifice by Easterners and sneaks off to try to prevent any evil she may be up to. Things, naturally, do not turn out as intended by anyone.

This is a richly-told tale full of imaginative sensory descriptions and details. I particularly like its tragic nature. It’s a case of hamartia rather than the characters being black-hatted villains. Their virtues are their flaws. The stoic taciturn surface of people barely keeping lids on bubbling passions is also appealing and well-done. It might have been better told in third-person, though. All tales are inherently artificial and the third-person, often omniscient, narrative approach may be the most artificial of them all but it’s precisely that which allows it to recede into the background, because artifice is most natural within artifice. You can simply say, “Okay, so some omniscient being is telling me this story,” and forget about the mechanics of it. With this tale, you have to constantly wonder how such a man as the narrator could have such wide-ranging information, be so sensuous in his perceptions, and have such a prodigious memory even when, for example, he tells you things about a parchment which depicts many things, including “three figures, judges of the dead from Aegyptus, I would have thought, if I had thought about them…” It’s not that you can’t do a story in first person, obviously – compare the brilliantly done appropriate subjectivity of Charlie in “Flowers for Algernon” – but it’s actually a trickier thing to do and even the best authors sometimes unnecessarily strain credibility with it. Still, it’s a powerful and generally effective story with many appealing elements.

George R. R. Martin (1948-09-20)

“A Song for Lya” (Analog, June 1974)

When I started doing these birthday reviews, I was actually looking forward to this long novella from Martin’s science fiction days coming up and re-reading it, but I just don’t feel like I have the time now. Suffice to say, this tale of a loving couple’s experiences with an alien religious cult tackles many powerful themes, including most of those touched on by Silverberg’s “Born with the Dead” (“death, love, marriage, boredom, obsession” – just not the boredom) and even more effectively. I recall it being a great story the first time through to my last re-read a few years ago (I guess) and vigorously recommend it.

Wilmar H. Shiras (1908-09-23–1990-12-23)

“In Hiding” (Astounding, November 1948)

When a worried teacher tells a psychiatrist that one of her students seems generally fine but has something a little off about him, the psychiatrist begins a slow process of earning the boy’s trust and finding out what he’s hiding. Since it’s the core of the story and revealed fairly early (and is clear even before officially revealed), it’s no spoiler to say that he’s a tremendously intelligent superboy who has to hide how far ahead he is of everyone else his age, though Shiras holds back a little related material for the end (though it’s given away in the story’s appearance in book form).

In terms of science fiction, this is another John W. Campbell discovery, as this was Shiras’ first sale but her story has a nearly fatal flaw in that there’s little story. You’d think a tale about a boy hiding something would be full of drama but there is only the essential existential conflict without any instances of foreground conflict or any reversals. This, in a way, is a similar treatment of what’s handled by van Vogt in Slan and other such stories and it’s arguably more sophisticated but, while the desire for plotting, conflict, and excitement may be unsophisticated, it’s a desire I won’t hide and this story would have benefited from more of all that. Still, the characterization of the boy, his guardian/grandmother, and the psychiatrist is very well done and the realization of the “super” motif and what it would be like for a person to live among “puppies” is excellent. Because it’s all on a relative scale, it also works in a literal way. When the boy complains that most adults don’t want to learn or understand anything about the world but only preserve their rote attitudes and behavior, it touches on much of what really governs our world.

H. G. Wells (1866-09-21–1946-08-13)

“The Star” (The Graphic, Christmas Number 1897)

In what must have been a very odd Christmas issue, Wells here tells Fritz Leiber’s big novel, The Wanderer (1964), in just a few pages as a rogue planet smashes into Neptune, creating a fiery mass which is called a “star” more in the etymological than astronomical sense. This is all very interesting, at least to some humans (and others) but becomes much more urgent when a mathematician calculates that the star will pass disastrously close to us or perhaps hit us directly in its fall toward the sun. This is all very excitingly told with much imagination and careful selection put into both the astronomical and human elements of the disaster. Some may find the ending turns the story into a sort of bad joke or may find it transforms it in an interesting way (or maybe even a bit of both) but the whole thing certainly makes an impression.

Asimov’s Centennial: Earth Is Room Enough

Earth Is Room Enough by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.95, 192pp, 1957

After receiving comments indicating that he wrote too many space stories [1], Isaac Asimov responded by making his second collection of all-1950s stories also be a collection of all-Earth-based stories. It is a very well-constructed volume which contains seventeen items, with substantial pieces placed at the ends, within which other substantial works alternate with less substantial ones (including one poem after the first story and one before the last). The strongest tales are the ones at the ends and the one in the middle (which is the collection’s sole Robot story). [2] It also contains an unusual number of fantasies and, on the other hand, stories which are about or mention Multivac, the “ten-mile-long” computer which structures society as orderly and rationally as this collection is structured.

The first and longest item in the book (filling a quarter of it) is just such a story. In “The Dead Past,” Arnold Potterly is a professor of history with a mania regarding Carthage, which leads him to petition the government for use of the chronoscope (which is manipulated through interactions with Multivac), through which he can see Carthaginian history and absolve them of the things history has blamed them for. When his request is refused, he commits “intellectual anarchy,” defying this society’s strictures on directed research and suborns a physicist into attempting to create their own chronoscope. That physicist suborns his uncle, a science writer, into more illicit deeds. At that point, the story morphs a couple of times to reach its conclusion.

This is a significant story and ultimately successful, albeit imperfect. While the physicist and his uncle come to life, they are structurally as much conveniences as characters, a part that is not yet the climax feels like it possibly could have been a better climax (and the actual ending seems a little sidewise from what has gone before), and the story is sometimes too “on message” and has a strange message, besides, playing devil’s advocate for the notion that perhaps unfettered scientific research might be bad and government intrusion could be benevolent though it may not be painting certain things as either good or bad but simply inevitable. The human-interest angle with the professor and his wife dealing in their own ways with the loss of their daughter, the complex nature of the chronoscope, the depiction of how grants can be used to control avenues of scientific research for good or ill, is all effective and makes for a compelling and thought-provoking tale.

At the other end, “Dreaming Is a Private Thing” focuses on a day in the life of the head of Dreams, Inc. (which deals in “dreamies,” or a sort of virtual reality). He first deals with the parents of a boy who may have the potential to become a “dreamer,” then a government official who wants to know more about the illicit pornographic dreamies made by others and threatens all dreamie makers, including Dreams, Inc., with censorship, then an employee who is panicked about their competitors, Luster-Think, moving into low-quality mass-market dreams and, finally, with the company’s star dreamer who wants to quit because the creation of his art has taken over his life. Through these angles, we can contemplate aspects of art and artists. While perhaps a bit too directly translated from non-fiction (about fiction) to fiction, it’s a well-done story with good observations and details which really does imagine its new art form in believable detail (with the “overtones,” multiple layers, clouds visualized with synaesthetic associations of touch and smell, and so on).

In between, with “Satisfaction Guaranteed,” Susan Calvin returns briefly to bestow TN-3 on a woman whose husband will be going out of town for awhile. “Tony” is a sort of butler, maid, gardener, interior decorator, and much more, including a component of an experiment. The transformations the two go through are effectively drawn and anticipate some women’s reactions to Spock and the like; though various people of today may find things to dislike for various reasons, it’s a well-done story.

Of the other substantial tales, “Franchise” and “Jokester” are not so substantial that they fully require their length and are hard to accept literally but “Franchise” is a Multivac story about elections being decided by Multivac interviewing a single citizen as a sort of satirical “if this goes on” of polling and does stress the importance of voting in its way. “Jokester” is another Multivac tale in which Multivac provides an astonishing answer to some questions given it about jokes. I don’t buy all the details of the analysis of humor and the ending isn’t strong, but it does include some demonstration jokes which, as conventional as they are, were worth a chuckle. “Someday” is another tale which at least cites Multivac, but is more about people in the future having become dependent on machines and having forgotten how to read or write since all media are audiovisual, as dramatized through two kids who despise one kid’s low-quality story-telling machine and who learn about writing from an oddly antiquarian teacher and resolve to learn it… so they can use it to send secret messages in a club. It ends on a rather un-Asimovian note.

One of the more interesting tales is “Living Space,” which is an “Earths Is Room Enough” parallel-worlds story in which each family gets a world of their own (except for the poor saps who have to stay on “Earth proper” to make the base work), using alternate Earths where life didn’t develop. The first complication to this is excellent (presenting us with the viewpoint of lebensraum, which is handled with remarkable equanimity) and the second makes an even bigger jump but I feel like Asimov didn’t realize quite what he had here, as this could have been a great story but ends quickly and simply as merely a good one.

There are also two substantial fantasies in the Unknown style long after Unknown‘s demise. One is a bizarre tale in which insects are elves (or vice versa) and is one of a few (such as “Dreaming”) which deal with writing or similar things, as Jan Prentiss is writing a story for Horace W. Browne’s Farfetched Fantasy Fiction [3] which he insists is most definitely not “Kid Stuff” when he is confronted with the appearance of a malicious imperial bug. The other is “The Last Trump,” which initially reads as a brilliant parody of “Resurrection Day” which simply renders it as literally and rationally as possible but which gets distracted by its angel’s efforts at encouraging the Chief to indulge in some sophistry at the end.

Of the less substantial pieces that fill the gaps, “The Foundation of S.F. Success” and “The Author’s Ordeal” both apologize to W. S. Gilbert and presumably take his lyrics and replace the words while preserving the meter/tune. The latter probably took more effort and creates an effective headlong effect while satirizing how SF stories are generally written but the former is an even funnier and more clever self-satire of Asimov’s Foundation stories.

There are also two more fantasies. “Gimmicks Three” (originally published as “The Brazen Locked Room”) is a fantasy with a science fictional twist (only partially realized) on the “deal with the devil” motif. “Hell-Fire” is another science fantasy about the hellish power of the atomic bomb which relies on its moral more than its structure.

The remainder of the slighter pieces are SF. “The Watery Place” is one of several of Asimov’s groaner pun short-shorts involving a sheriff’s comical failure to realize he’s making first contact. While not exactly a pun, “The Message” is a time-travel piece going back to WWII which may be even more groan-worthy. “The Fun They Had” seems to be a sentimental piece about schoolchildren of the future looking back on schools of the past. The best of these is “The Immortal Bard,” in which a drunken physicist at a party reveals his ability to transport people from the past and tells the English professor something shocking. Like many of these (the SF parody poems, “Dreaming,” “Kid Stuff,” etc.) this has a strongly personal element as Asimov had a running struggle with critics telling him what his stories really meant.

While this collection only has the three really great pieces (plus the excellent minor piece of “The Bard”), there are several near-great or extremely interesting pieces and all the rest can be casually enjoyed, so this is a very good collection overall.


[1] I think it may have been James Blish who said in a review, “Come home Isaac, all is forgiven!” but I can’t find the quote now. If anyone knows it, please drop me a line. I’m certainly not going to complain, as Earth is not room enough for me, but it’s true that his Foundation novels, Empire novels, half the Robot novels and stories, and The End of Eternity, in a sense, are all mostly off-Earth.

[2] Contents:

  • “The Dead Past” (Astounding, April 1956)
  • “The Foundation of S.F. Success” (F&SF, October 1954)
  • “Franchise” (If, August 1955)
  • “Gimmicks Three” (F&SF, November 1956)
  • “Kid Stuff” (Beyond Fantasy Fiction, September 1953)
  • “The Watery Place” (Satellite, October 1956)
  • “Living Space” (The Original Science Fiction Stories, May 1956)
  • “The Message” (F&SF, February 1956)
  • “Satisfaction Guaranteed” (Amazing, April 1951)
  • “Hell-Fire” (Fantastic Universe, May 1956)
  • “The Last Trump” (Fantastic Universe, June 1955)
  • “The Fun They Had” (Boys and Girls Page, December 1951)
  • “Jokester” (Infinity, December 1956)
  • “The Immortal Bard” (Universe Science Fiction, May 1954)
  • “Someday” (Infinity, August 1956)
  • “The Author’s Ordeal” (Science Fiction Quarterly, May 1957)
  • “Dreaming Is a Private Thing” (F&SF, December 1955)

[3] Asimov is presumably conflating editors Horace Gold, John W. Campbell (or perhaps Robert W. Lowndes), and Howard Browne and keying on the magazine which published this story, Gold’s Beyond Fantasy Fiction.

Birthday Reviews: Spinrad, Waldrop

This week’s stories would seem to be opposites, combining to tell us a tale of two regions as we travel to New York looking for a beautiful thing and to Mississippi looking for ugly things but, as with humanity, there’s a deeper bond beneath their surface differences.

Norman Spinrad (1940-09-15)

“A Thing of Beauty” (Analog, January 1973)

thing-of-beauty

Mr. Harris sells the antiquities (which he calls the “old junk”) of a post-Insurrection United States which has fallen from power and Mr. Ito is looking to buy. He needs something for his “garden” that is just so – his wife and her folks don’t think he has any taste and he must prove them wrong to restore harmony to his home. So Harris takes Ito around New York in a Mach-whatever jumper, showing him the ruins and pointing out potential buys. Ito regretfully does not want the Statue of Liberty, would love to buy Yankee Stadium but can’t because his maniacal infatuation with American baseball would be seen as further lack of taste, and is exceedingly offended that he could possibly want the UN buildings. What he finally sees that sends him into fits of rapture is quite a comical twist and things twist again after that.

This is probably one of the first “Japan, the economic powerhouse, takes over the world” stories which took over much SF by the 1980s. It stereotypes a bit though much of that can be attributed to the antihero, Harris, who is not a nice man (though Ito isn’t either, really). He’s not so repugnant that the late humorous element doesn’t work but is unsympathetic enough that the complex ending also works on all levels.

This is one of Spinrad’s many not-so Star-Spangled Futures that were collected in a book of that name (along with some in Other Americas) and I wouldn’t steer anyone away from those but most of the stories in the first (and one of those in the second) can be found in his first two collections, The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde and No Direction Home, which I heartily recommend, along with the novella Riding the Torch and the novels Bug Jack Barron, The Iron Dream, and The Void Captain’s Tale. I wouldn’t stop there, but I’d recommend starting there.

Howard Waldrop (1946-09-15)

“Ugly Chickens” (Universe 10, 1980)

ugly-chickens

The Turkey City Writers’ Workshop has a Lexicon and in that Lexicon is the notion that, “I’ve suffered for my art; now it’s your turn.” This is applied when “the author inflicts upon the reader hard-won, but irrelevant bits of data acquired while researching the story.” Well, in this story, Howard Waldrop (a founding member of that workshop) probably suffered for this art, but now it’s your turn to enjoy this masterpiece of a perfectly prepared story which inverts the critique by fusing seemingly irrelevant data into the plot and theme while contributing to a brilliant mood and voice. It starts when “a graduate student in ornithology at the University of Texas” is riding the city bus and looking at a book of extinct birds when a lady says to him, “I haven’t seen any of those ugly chickens in a long time.” What he’s looking at in that moment is a picture of dodos and so begins his trans-world journey from Texas through the South to Mauritius as he floods us with amusingly conveyed fascinating information about the dodos and the Gudger family. As an example of the flavor, an early part of the journey is described thus:

Behind the Krait house were a hen house and pig sty where hogs lay after their morning slop like islands in a muddy bay, or some Zen pork sculpture. Next we passed broken farm machinery gone to rust, though there was nothing but uncultivated land as far as the eye could see. How the family made a living, I don’t know. I’m told you can find places just like this throughout the South.

And, like a good story of the South, while it’s informative, amusing, and captivating, there’s also an angry edge to the humor which comes from the underlying pain of deprivation and loss. There are recommended stories and then there are recommended stories and this is the latter.