Tag Archives: Isaac Asimov

Through the wormhole 9/13/09

Linky time again.

Sci Fi Wire has a map of 68 must-see sci-fi sites around the U.S. (with a few in Canada as well). Museums, buildings and locations used in movies, that sort of thing. Some of them are pretty lame; and hey, what’s The Texas Chainsaw Massaacre doing in there? The Midwest seems under-represented, with only James T. Kirk’s birthplace in Riverside, Iowa. They forgot about the Superman statue in Metropolis, IL — not far from where I grew up.

Here’s a list of reality shows and mainstream dramas that could be improved with the addition of sci-fi elements. I like the Dirty Jobs in Space idea.

Star Trek aftershaves. “Smell like the future, because tomorrow may never come.”

Here’s a graph at io9 showing science fiction television trends over the last 40 years.

Physicist Michio Kaku is a really cool guy; I see him on a lot of science shows and documentaries (the History Channel’s series The Universe for instance). Here he discusses how many science fictional technologies — like invisibility, teleportation, and time travel — are actually closer to reality than to fantasy. I recently watched a few episodes of another History Channel program, That’s Impossible (narrated by Number One himself, Jonathan Frakes), which explores the same ideas — the growing reality of laser weapons, force fields, and other sci-fi staples. Interesting stuff.

Domed cities on Mars or other planets have long been a common image in science fiction. Could they actually be coming to Earth?

Ben Bova talks about science fiction and why politicians should read more of it.

Isaac Asimov’s phycohistory may have more of a basis in reality than you thought.

Wild adventure and sociopolitical insight come together in Star Bridge

It is its own nemesis. Success is temporary, and idolization will not make the ephemeral permanent. Decay is implicit in the birth of any organism.
An empire is an organism.

Title: Star Bridge
Authors: Jack Williamson and James E. Gunn
Year: 1955
Rating: 3/5 stars

starbridgeA while back I was looking for more Gunn to read, and this was one of the books I picked up, although I hadn’t previously been aware of it. I’m glad it came to my attention, however, since it’s quite an enjoyable read. This is a spirited adventure story with plenty of fast-paced action, but also with a lot of deeper commentary about the nature of empires, freedom, and the forces that shape the affairs of humanity.

The golden-skinned Masters of Eron rule the many worlds of the human galaxy, by virtue of their monopoly on the technology of the Tubes. These star bridges are what make interstellar commerce and travel possible (unless you want to take a really long voyage by ship), and all the Tubes converge on Eron, the center of absolute power and control. Of course, not everyone is happy with the status quo, and Eron is accustomed to putting down rebellions. This, of course, only inspires more rebellions — an inherent problem for an empire whose primary management tool is force. Against this setting we follow Horn, who grew up in the Cluster, home of one of those failed rebellions. Drafted into the Eron military, Horn deserted and became a roaming adventurer, a gun for hire. Only now, he’s been hired for what seems a suicide mission: to assassinate one of Eron’s Masters!

At first impression, this is a straightforward adventure story, guilty of some of the pulp sensibilities of the age in which it was written. The hero is a Manly Man of uncommon strength and intelligence, who wondrously manages to get out of every jam he gets into, and over whom the women swoon, of course. However, the novel is not nearly that simplistic. The protagonist Horn is supremely capable and skillful, yes, but not so much so that he’s beyond the reach of self-doubt. In fact, he spends a great deal of time wrestling with himself, wondering whether his actions and decisions have been the right ones, or if he even could have chosen differently. His attitude is sometimes forthrightly optimistic, as he declares his belief in the power of a single man to shape his own destiny. At other times his outlook is much more bleak, and he is haunted by the specter of determinism:

But there wasn’t any choice. A quarry has but one function: to run. When he stops, he is finished; the game is over. Horn sat in the darkness staring at eight floating choices and reflected how inevitability had channeled his actions since he had left the Cluster. Since he had accepted the money from the voice in the darkness, there had been only one step to take, and he had taken it; one path to follow, and he had followed it. Beyond, it had seemed, there would be choice; never now.

It seems probable this book was at least partly inspired by Asmiov’s Foundation series. Common to both is a concern with empires and their decay, and with the possibility of large-scale social prediction. Maybe all these authors were just kicking around the same kinds of ideas at the same time. But passages like this one bring to mind Asimov’s psychohistory:

Atoms and men….
They are moved by certain general forces in accordance with certain general laws, and their movements can be predicted in certain broad generalizations.
Physical forces, historical forces — if a man knew the laws of of one as well as he knew the laws of the other, he could predict the reactions of a culture as accurately as the reactions of a rocket ship.

The action portions of the book have a sort of Alfred Bester quality; it’s Horn getting into one crazy unexpected situation after another, and getting out again just as wildly. At times these situations comes across as almost too frivolous or whimsical, but it never becomes too much to bear since they are balanced against the book’s more serious passages. I’ll end this with one more of those, in which Gunn and Williamson offer a grand cyclical view of history and freedom:

“The love of freedom dies as the memory of its alternative fades. Oh, it’s not a sudden thing. It takes generations, centuries. But gradually it slips away. And it’s more than that. There is a time for freedom, just as there is a time for empire. […] When its job is done, empire disappears, and it is freedom’s turn to revive the human spirit by the challenge of the infinite horizon. And then, when men begin to grow too far apart, empire will return to unite them again.”

Flynn offers SF with a sense of history in Eifelheim

eifelheimShe stared at him, her head spinning. Aliens? she thought. In medieval Germany? It was fantastic, unbelievable.

Yes, aliens in medieval Germany. That’s the general premise of Eifelheim (2006), Michael Flynn’s unusual take on extraterrestrial contact set in the fourteenth century when the Black Death was ravaging Europe. This is a moderately strong novel with a refreshing twist on the first contact theme, and it comes across as a mature and balanced look at the intersection of two types of minds that we might consider alien: those of the actual aliens, and those of our medieval ancestors. Actually, in some ways the extraterrestrials are easier for our modern sensibilities to relate to; this is partly because they are closer to us in terms of science and technology, and partly because Flynn does a good job of showing just how different medieval thinking was from that of today.

The story is told in two different time frames. One is that of Germany circa 1348, when the alien Krenken, visiting Earth during a scientific expedition, become stranded and find themselves increasingly entangled in the lives of nearby villagers. The other is the present day, when two people, one a physicist and the other a historian, each working on a particular problem in their own field, realize that their two problems intersect, and stumble upon the truth about an alien visit centuries earlier.

The “Now” chapters tell the story of historian Tom Schwoerin and his physicist girlfriend Sharon Nagy. Tom specializes in cliology, which is essentially what Isaac Asimov called “psychohistory” — the rigorous mathematical study of history that provides understanding and predictability of large-scale social trends. Tom encounters a mystery: cliology tells him that cities and towns distribute themselves in a certain pattern based on population, natural resources, terrain, and so forth. However, the village of Eifelheim presents an inexplicable gap in his maps of medieval Germany. It was suddenly abandoned and never repopulated, when all his theories predict that it was a location that should have remained in use. This problem consumes Tom and he won’t let it go. Sharon works in the heady realm of physics and cosmology. She theorizes on the topology of space-time, particularly in the framework of something called Janatpour space. As she pushes her theories further and further, she sees the possibility of instantaneous travel through what she calls “hypospace.” Her ideas are unconventional and her department chairman ridicules them, but Sharon knows she’s on to something. As Tom and Sharon vent their frustrations and bounce ideas off each other, they begin to see a connection between their respective projects…. a connection that will change the world. These “Now” chapters are taken from Flynn’s original “Eifelheim” novella from 1986, and actually make up only perhaps 20% of the present novel. By far, the majority of the story takes place in the past, describing the events of the alien contact itself.

The relationship between the stranded aliens and the Eifelheim villagers is a strained one. The Krenken are humanoid (two arms, two legs, bipedal, etc.) but have an insectoid, grasshopper-like appearance which causes some people to take them, literally, for demons. But the general reaction of the villagers is shaped largely by Eifelheim’s priest, Dietrich, who takes his mandate of charity very seriously. He views the Krenken as men from a distant place, perhaps from China or somewhere even further away, and convinces the local Lord that the right thing is to aid them in their time of need, rather than to shun them. And as it turns out, their need is very great, for they are, in fact, dying from lack of an essential nutrient not found on Earth. A further tragic complication is added when the Black Death sweeps into the area.

In an interview I read, Flynn said he wanted to avoid the common stereotype that “medieval” means “primitive,” and he succeeded at that; there is little in this book that could be called “stereotypical.” The fourteenth century is portrayed with realistic complexity. There is the kind of small-minded superstition we would expect, yes, but Flynn also emphasizes the degree to which logic and reason were prized, even during the so-called Dark Ages. There is the ugly side of religion, the torture of “heretics” and the strife between various sects, yes, but there is also the simple dedication of the villagers to uphold their ideals of charity, even with respect to creatures who are frighteningly different. And, contrary to what you might think, Flynn does not give us the common scenario of the “primitive” humans learning at the feet of the advanced aliens. The interaction is a two-way street, with the two peoples exchanging philosophy, political ideas, and spiritual concepts. In fact, some of the Krenken actually convert to Christianity before the end.

It’s obvious that the book was meticulously researched, and the level of historical detail is impressive. I was pleased to recognize some of the information presented about the Black Death, remembering it from a documentary I saw last year. Flynn kindly assists the reader at the end of the book with both Historical Notes and Physics Notes. And at the front there is even a map of the area (very useful) and a list of characters (not very useful in my opinion). This was an enjoyable read from a capable writer, and I’m happy to recommend it.

Happy (Sci-Fi) Thanksgiving!

If you’re done eating turkey and you’ve parked yourself in front of the computer to sit and digest your dinner a while, be sure to take a look at this John Scalzi Sci-Fi Scanner post in which he tells us what he’s thankful for in terms of science fiction movies.

Science fiction is worth giving thanks for — I certainly do. But perhaps it deserves its own holiday? I wonder…..

[Googling pause]

Oh… hey… whaddya know? There actually IS a National Science Fiction Day! It’s January 2nd, which is Isaac Asimov’s birthday.

Awesome. New Year’s, Science Fiction Day, AND my birthday, all in one month. January is Party Time! 😉

More dream makers (addendum to a previous review)

dreammakerspb1A while back I did a review of Charles Platt’s Dream Makers: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers at Work, a collection of interviews he conducted with numerous famous authors. The particular item I was reviewing was a 1987 hardcover edition that was, I stated at the time, a merger of two previous paperback volumes by the same title. It turns out that description was not quite accurate, because I just picked up the first of those paperbacks — Dream Makers: the Uncommon People Who Write Science Fiction, published in 1980 — and found out that not all of the profiles made it into the later hardcover. It seems the hardcover edition took only about half of the profiles from each of the paperbacks, so anyone looking to get the maximum benefit would be well advised to seek out the original two volumes, rather than the later hardcover.

The 15 profiles that appear both here and in the hardcover are: Isaac Asimov, Thomas Disch, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Frederik Pohl, Alfred Bester, Algis Budrys, Philip Jose Farmer, A.E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradybury, Frank Herbert, Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, and Brian Aldiss.

The 14 profiles appearing only in this first paperback edition are: Robert Sheckley, Hank Stine, Norman Spinrad, Samuel R. Delany, Barry Malzberg, Edward Bryant, C.M. Kornbluth (the interview was actually with his wife, since he died in 1958), Damon Knight, Kate Wilhelm, E.C. Tubb, Ian Watson, John Brunner, Gregory Benford, and Robert Silverberg.

I’m not going to delve into this and do any specific quoting; I’ll just say that everything in my previous review applies here as well. There’s a lot of good material here giving a glimpse into the lives and writing of some of the field’s top authors — lots of intriguing little tidbits of information here. I especially enjoyed the interviews with Norman Spinrad, Samuel Delany, and Robert Silverberg. On the other hand, there are some real downers in this bunch. Particularly depressing is Malzberg, who says he gets nothing from seeing his work in print and that he hates his career.

It’s also interesting to read what sf authors have to say about other sf authors. In some cases, the various authors included in this book have criticisms to level at each other, as well as at others. Two of these authors, for instance, state their belief that Heinlein is totally unreadable. And E.C. Tubb offers a strongly negative opinion of ANY new wave or “literary” writer, such as Delany (he calls Dhalgren a “monument of unreadability”). Some of these authors also share their criticism of the genre as a whole, or its fans.

I don’t know about you, but I find this kind of stuff fascinating, and I quickly zipped through the profiles here that were new to me. I can’t wait to find the second paperback volume to finish off Platt’s wonderful interview project.

Zeroing in on Vulcan

Over at Discover magazine’s Science Not Fiction blog, there’s an article about the discovery by astronomers that one of our closest stellar neighbors, Epsilon Eridani (10.5 light years away) has a solar system somewhat like our own, with rocky inner planets, outer gas giants, and two asteroid belts.

This is good news, insofar as numerous science fiction stories have used the Epsilon Eridani system as a home for alien civilizations, or future human colonies. So it would seem sf can take some small amount of pride in getting this location right.

But….. just who in science fiction was right? This solar system has been used in several books and tv series. Most famously, it was the location of Vulcan in Star Trek. It was also the location of the planet the Babylon 5 station orbited. Epsion Eridani also has made appearances in the fiction of Isaac Asimov, Greg Bear, C.J. Cheryh, Gordon Dickson, Alastair Reynolds, David Weber, and others.

They can’t ALL be right, can they?

I know who I’m rooting for. When we finally zoom in with more powerful telescopes, or actually travel there, I’m really really hoping we find Vulcan. And I’m hoping some of their logic rubs off on my species. 😉

The makers of our science fiction dreams

I just finished a fascinating book called Dream Makers: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers At Work, by Charles Platt. It’s a book of author profiles based on interviews Platt (an editor and writer himself) conducted in the late 1970’s. The work was originally published in two paperbacks in the early 80’s; this 1987 hardcover volume is a “new and revised” merger of those two earlier editions. The authors covered are: Isaac Asimov, Jerry Pournelle, James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), L. Ron Hubbard, Algis Budrys, Harry Harrison, Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Frederick Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, A. E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Philip Jose Farmer, Thomas Disch, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, Fritz Leiber, Piers Anthony, Keith Laumer, Alfred Bester, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Stephen King.

Platt’s introduction tells us something about his goals:

I started doing profiles of science-fiction authors (and other writers of imaginative literature) because I knew from personal experience that they could be just as interesting — sometimes, just as bizarre — as their own books. Also, I believed that the personality of the writer was relevant to his work. Most critics focus exclusively on the text itself, as if it might be “improper” to make deductions or inquiries about a writer’s life. To me, this is snobbish and arbitrary. We can appreciate their work more if we know more about them as people.

And I do know more about these authors as people, after reading these profiles. I learned a lot about these authors, about the way they live, the way they write, the things they’re passionate about, that made me appreciate many of them more (and a few of them less). Most of the material presented is direct quotation from the authors, with a minimum of Platt’s commentary. Which is fine, because Platt’s comments and questions are rather dull most of the time (with a few insightful opinions now and then). It’s the words of the writers themselves that really make this book shine. I’d like to share some of the more interesting quotes and tidbits of information I picked up from this book.

Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr.) and her husband both worked for the CIA in its early days, in relatively important positions (cool — a spy and a science fiction writer). Alice had a degree in psychology, and one of her comments was:

“Man does not change his behavior, he adapts to the results of it. That is, to me, the most grisly truth I learned from psychology.”

Harry Harrison shared his opinions about the corruption of sf awards, the lack of respect (and decent pay) for sf writers, and the dirty behavior of publishers and Hollywood. It all culminates in this recollection:

“Someone once sent me a clipping from some magazine, an interview with George Lucas, saying ‘I grew up reading science fiction, I really was a fan of science fiction, but I didn’t like things written by people like Heinlein or Bradbury, I thought Harry Harrison was my god, and I enjoyed everything he wrote.’ That kind of thing. I thought, ‘Well! Why the hell didn’t you write to me and have me do a god damned script for you, you know, if that’s what you feel, old son, I’d be very happy to come over and make some money from this rotten field.’ Oh there’s no justice in this field.”

Frederick Pohl is (or was back then) quite politically active; he also sometimes lectured/preached at churches (mostly Unitarian). But he was pessimistic about whether anyone really listened to him:

“I remember talking to a group in Chicago once and saying that the primary requisite for achieving a viable relationship between our society and the planet’s ecology was individual self-control. They stood up and cheered me. Then the next speaker said exactly the opposite and they stood up and cheered him too.”

A. E. van Vogt spent much of his interview babbling about Dianetics, est training, and other psycho-nonsense. He came across as a total crackpot, saying that psychology needed saving and he might be the one to save it. Mighty humble, that one.

Philip K. Dick talked about…. well, the kooky stuff PKD is so well known for. From much of what he said, his unfortunate mental problems are all too apparent. However, even with his problems, he came across as more modest, intelligent, and likable than van Vogt.

Frank Herbert was also an amateur scientist and inventor. He and an electronics engineer friend once tried to design their own new kind of computer. He also experimented with harnessing wind power and came up with some pretty cutting-edge designs.

Piers Anthony is a hyperactive tour-de-force. He talks fast, moves fast, works fast — fast and non-stop. And even though he has a very successful writing career, he lives humbly:

“I am not foolish about money at all. I don’t waste it, you don’t see me going off and buying Cadillacs, no you see me out there splitting wood, because we have a wood-burning stove, and solar-powered water heating, if the sun doesn’t shine we don’t bother with hot water, because I don’t like paying fuel bills. I’m a miser!”

Alfred Bester had one of the most fun profiles to read. Asked about his method of dealing with rejection letters, his answer was: “drink more!” Did you know Bester, while an editor for Holiday magazine, was responsible for talking Peter Benchley into turning what was then just a story into an entire novel — Jaws? When asked about retirement, he said:

“Retire? Yeah, I want to retire with my head in the typewriter. That’s my idea of retirement.”

One of the things I liked about Platt’s style was that he helped to give a feel for the authors by describing their homes (most of the interviews were in person), and particularly their work areas used for writing. There was quite a variety, from Ballard’s desk by a big window facing his back yard, to Anthony’s office barn, to Farmer’s windowless basement room with walls covered in erotic art.

There’s a lot more I could mention — this book is full of great stuff! And somehow, in some mysterious way, my “to read” list has grown longer. Funny how that happens all the time. 😆