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.

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.

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.

Asimov’s Centennial: Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter

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Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter by Paul French (Isaac Asimov)
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.75, 192pp, 1957

Lucky Starr and his sidekick Bigman Jones continue their tour of the Solar System, this time taking us as far as Jupiter where they have their most direct confrontation with the Sirian menace yet. Earth is secretly developing the first Agrav starship but the Earth’s power-seeking former colony is somehow pulling off an impossible job of espionage and finding out all about it. If Sirius gets the complete plans if and when the ship is successfully completed, it will mean war. Initially, Lucky is worried about telepathy and a V-frog (of a species introduced a couple of books back [1]) makes another appearance because Lucky’s thinking to set a telepath to catch a telepath. So the two men and their Venusian critter set out to Jupiter Nine to save the Agrav project. It quickly turns out that it’s not telepathy, but could be the Invasion of the Robot Body Snatchers. Fortunately, the V-frog will be useful for the task of identifying any robot spies, as well, since they lack emotion. Unfortunately, the V-frog is quickly killed. Fortunately, the pool of possible spies is reduced when the Agrav ship, the Jovian Moon, sets out on its maiden voyage with a limited crew, one of whom must be the spy. Unfortunately yet again, it turns out the ship is sabotaged and what had been a wondrous journey to see amazing Jupiter and its retinue of moons turns into a struggle against imminent destruction. Fortunately, yet again, the sabotage reveals the Sirians’ hand to Lucky, if only he can survive to use the knowledge.

In this Asimov completely takes off the Paul French gloves. Sirius is shown to be essentially a Spacer world. The notion of robots is central to this tale and, beyond that, the Three Laws are actually quoted in full in this one. Beyond that total-milieu similarity (or identity), there is also a bit of specific sameness to some of this in both good and bad ways. The good is that taking the reader to the worlds of the Solar System maintains its joy. The bad is that things like Lucky having to endure unfair hazing at the hands of larger, more skilled opponents (who lose anyway) lose their interest, as Lucky’s fight in the Agrav corridor with Armand is just like his pushgun fight in Pirates of the Asteroids. Lucky also behaves non-optimally more than once, such as when he provokes the Commander of the project due to a frankly silly supposed need to “field-test” the V-frog’s perception of emotions, which produces a continued struggle for dominance between the two throughout the book. The “puppy dog” aspect of Bigman’s relationship to Lucky continues, with Bigman getting excitedly playful and nearly dying when things go wrong, though he is given a moment to be clever in the way he evens the playing field (not too much, not too little) for Lucky in the corridor fight. Still, it’s another proficient Lucky Starr adventure (perhaps better than average though not the best) and will probably hit the reader however they’ve been hit by the other tales.


[1] All the previous books in this series are referenced in footnotes in the first ten pages of this one.

Review: The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett
Hardcover: Doubleday, 2.95, 222pp, 1955

The oldest people, such as fourteen-year-old Len Colter’s grandmother, can remember the time before the Destruction when God destroyed man’s cities in a rain of fire (an atomic war) and, much chastened, men have become religious extremists and amended the Constitution to never allow cities again, while building a general orthodoxy which includes a deadly intolerance for almost any form of machinery or technology beyond nineteenth-century levels. As a New Mennonite living in Piper’s Run (Ohio?), Len and his fifteen-year-old cousin, Esau, chafe against the restrictions. Esau is innately a perverse hellraiser while Len is ambivalent about most things but frustrated with his current life and enchanted by the little he can learn from his grandmother about how things used to be. They also hear rumors of a possibly mythical place called Bartorstown [1] where men still have technology and it becomes a sort of El Dorado to them. They suspect Hostetter, a trader who frequently travels back and forth through Piper’s Run, is actually a man of Bartorstown. One night, Hostetter has heated words with a fellow trader, Soames, who ignores what Hostetter was telling him and falls victim to a stoning by religious fanatics who are convinced that Soames is a Bartorstown man. When Hostetter gets the man’s effects and takes off with the traumatized boys who witnessed the murder, it turns out that Esau is not too traumatized to have a peek into the belongings, be irresistibly drawn to one of the items, and steal it. It’s a radio and the boys become consumed with trying to make it work, even stealing some of their teacher’s books in a fruitless effort to help. Even so, partly by clever thought and partly by luck, they eventually succeed, hearing remote voices in the night. More inspired than ever, Esau unwisely decides to contact Hostetter to get taken to Bartorstown but Hostetter instead turns him in to the town’s authorities as a good non-Bartorstown man would do. This gets Len caught as well and both boys are whipped by their fathers (who do so with differing degrees of eagerness). Where Esau had been aggressive, he is broken after the whipping and often-timid Len is suddenly more certain than ever. He decides to run away and invites Esau to come with him, restoring some measure of spirit to the other boy. The fact that it’s later decided that they’ll undergo a public flogging in addition to their private whippings makes leaving that much easier.

In the second part of the three-part book, the boys are young men who have stopped at Refuge, a bustling metropolis pushing the mandated limit of “one thousand people or two hundred buildings to the square mile” along their blind and winding way to El Dorado where the dominant religion is the ever-so-slightly more relaxed Church of the Holy Thankfulness. They’ve been taken in by Judge Taylor who tolerates Esau but likes Len. Still, he’s aware of their troublesome ways and advises Len that he might have a good life here if he’ll find some of the same contentment Len’s father also once advised him to find. One of the things standing in the way of that contentment is the judge’s daughter, Amity, because both the young men like her and she doesn’t discourage either of them. Eventually it comes to blows between the boys and Len decides to leave, with the Judge throwing out Esau for good measure and warning him to have nothing to do with his daughter, which Esau obeys as much as he does anything else. Meanwhile, they’d been working for Dulinsky, a businessman who is working on building another, and illegal, warehouse. The neighboring town, Shadwell, has effortlessly been growing from Refuge’s overflow and is not pleased at the notion that Refuge may grow and deprive them of their own easy wealth. This comes to a head in more violence and death in which Len is beaten up more than once and nearly lynched before being saved by a finally-revealed Hostetter. Esau and the pregnant Amity have already been rounded up and they are finally off to Bartorstown, which requires an arduous journey through the great West. In the third part, they will learn that it both is (a little) and is not (a lot) like what they’d imagined, will learn that Bartorstown is terrified of being destroyed and will not let them ever leave, and will suffer great culture shock and paths of adjustment to it. This is a road far, far harder for Len than Esau (complicated by his meeting Joan, a sharp, flashing-eyed woman who has an agenda of her own) and Len will finally have to do something he’s never done before.

Despite, or because of, being a fan of Leigh Brackett’s planetary romance and space opera, I put off reading this for a long time [2]. Novels about backwards societies and religious fanatics don’t appeal to me. However, while this was easy to put down because it isn’t my kind of thing, it also had me enthralled as long as I had the book in my hands because it’s so well done, emotionally engaging, and uses the light of its thoughtful author and questing protagonist to shine through the darkness which seems to overwhelm most such books. This is a well-regarded novel but, if Brackett had been a “literary” figure instead of a “pulp” author, like Orwell, Huxley, Shute, Stewart, etc., this would probably be considered a classic of “real” literature alongside them. Through her Hamlet of Len Colter, she explores the difference between dreams and reality and, even more pointedly, between those ruled by fear and a need for stasis which they cloak in holy garb and those who recognize both the dangers and rewards of change and, either way, its inevitability, however quick or long it is in coming.

This isn’t a perfect novel. The most glaring thing is how gentle a holocaust this was, with no craters where cities stood, or mutants roaming irradiated badlands, but with amendments to the Constitution and still a Mexican border. There is either too much or too little Esau: too simply characterized for almost a dual main-character or too prominently featured for a sidekick. There are odd glitches such as having a New Mennonite teacher and town leaders who almost revere relics of books rather than burning them. Also, while she did an excellent job of showing both the brutal, vicious father of Esau and his brother, the basically decent and compassionate father of Len, and more generally showing the rationale and “goodness” of even self-righteous murderers (and even agreeing so overwhelmingly with the side of technological change and free thought as I do), I feel like she could have given the forces of fear and stasis an even fairer hearing. Finally, the book is a “classic SF novel” in most ways but is a little long for that. It pays off in great tangibility and detail for her milieu but does prevent a breakneck pace.

All that is trivial in comparison to the reality of Len, the way the novel can make the reader furious and excited and nervous and happy, and the subjects it handles with such psychological acumen and philosophical depth. Though chapters 27-29 (of the 30) had me very worried she was going to ruin it (and were some of the most emotionally involving at the same time), she pulled it off for what I think is a great success. Again, not my kind of thing, but highly recommended.


[1] It’s eventually explained that it’s named after the former Secretary of Defense, Henry Waltham Bartor, who was a driving force behind getting it built (Bartor’s Town) but it long confused me, seeming like a strange corruption of “Barter Town” or something.

[2] Of all the books she published in her lifetime, this was the only one I hadn’t yet read.

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.

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.