30 January 2015

Books: Foundation By Isaac Asimov (1951)

Isaac Asimov's Foundation series was on my list of classic science fiction novels I decided to read in the coming months, after skipping over them for decades. But knowing Asimov wrote two sequels and two prequels some 25 years plus after completing the trilogy, I wondered if I would need to read them (or want to read them) just so I could get to the original three. Upon a few inquires of other people, most said the later books -published in the 1980s- were not as strong as the original three and I would not be missing anything if I skipped over them.
So that's what I've decided.
The premise of the series is that mathematician Hari Seldon has spent his life developing a branch of mathematics known as psychohistory. Using this knowledge -which can predict the future on a large scale- Seldon foresees the imminent fall of the Galactic Empire. It would be a horrible dark age that will last some 30 thousand years before a second great empire arises. But Seldon foresees an alternative where the interregnum will last only one thousand years. To ensure the more favorable outcome, Seldon creates a foundation of talented artisans and engineers at the extreme end of the galaxy, to preserve and expand on humanity's collective knowledge, and thus become the foundation for a new galactic empire. The novel opens with Seldon arriving on Trantor, for he's to be put on trial on allegations of treason -for foreshadowing the decline of the Galactic Empire. 
Not to be put off by threat of imprisonment or death, Seldon explains to those prosecuting him, if allowed, he would collect the most intelligent minds and create a compendium of all human knowledge, entitled Encyclopedia Galactica that would cut the fall to only a thousand years. Despite some reservations, these men allow Seldon to assemble whomever he needs, provided he and the "Encyclopedists" be exiled to a remote planet of Terminus. Seldon agrees to set up his own collection of Encyclopedists, and also secretly implements a contingency plan—a second Foundation—at the "opposite end" of the galaxy.
Despite being one of the most classic books the of the genre, Foundation is awfully dry. Not much actually happens and there is very little in the way of action. I liked the premise, as it often reminded me of Nate Silver, the statistician who predicted a few elections. Of course, Asimov's Seldon does it on a grander scale (and some 60 years before Silver). Plus there was a lot of analogies going on here, especially with religion as political figures trying to suppress the knowledge that the Empire is failing. Still, it's challenge to get through this book as really addresses my thought process that I'm a well-read, intellectual chap. The other issue with reading these books now, instead of when I was young (or better, grew up with them) is that my ideas have already been shaped and what Asimov was doing here, some sixty-plus years ago seems less mind-blowing now. 
And while science fiction can and has predicted a plausible future, after reading this and authors like Heinlein (and the early works of David Gerrold) it surprises me that not one thought smoking would've ever gone out of style. I guess, because of the era, smoking was seen as okay. But it still, in some ways, surprises me that these "futurists", so to speak, could not predict a future where smoking was seen as unhealthy and dangerous. 

25 January 2015

Books: The Man Who Folded Himself By David Gerrold (1973)

I'm unsure how to approach David Gerrold's 1973 novel The Man Who Folded Himself. As a fan of time travel stories, I liked it. But the novel, I think, seemed to be designed as the ant-time travel books, as it takes a serious look -and make the claim -that temporal paradoxes are impossible. Which, of course, is what has kept time travel stories in books, TV and movies going for generations. Still, Gerrold appears to go with the Many Worlds Theory that dictates that there is an infinite number of alternate universes; that if time travel were indeed possible, you don't travel one linear road back and forwards, but that you wold "jump" one timeline for another, one that is exact in every detail, but subtly differences at the same time. 

We meet Daniel Eakins in 1975. He's a young college student when he's visited by his only known relative, an older man named Uncle Jim. He tells Daniel that he's worth a lot of money and will increase his monthly allowance for living expenses as long as college student keeps a diary. Shortly after the visit, Uncle Jim dies, and Daniel inherits not money, but something called a 'Timebelt'. Dan quickly figures out the mysterious gift and begins to travel in time, He quickly meets an alternate version of himself, who accompanies him to a race-track where the pair make a fortune betting on horse racing. The following day, Daniel realizes that it is his turn to guide his younger self through the previous day at the races; through this and other events the time-travelling Daniel learns more about the belt, about the nature of the 'timestream', and about his personal identity. Daniel, then, repeatedly encounters alternate versions of himself, ultimately having sex with himself and beginning a relationship with himself. But he discovers, however, that his personal timeline has been changed, and has excised his childhood. He tries to repair that, and ends really far in the past that he meets a female version of himself named Diane. Of course, he has a relationship with her that produces a child. 

And then things get even weirder. 

Gerrold produces some interesting quandaries here, moral questions and ideas of what time travel represents and what us mere human might do with what Dan calls "God" like powers. His theories are logical, yet confusing at the same time. Of course I realized early in the book where the story was going, but that did not put me off. Time travel stories are inherently full of paradoxes, and despite the whole premise circles back on himself, I'm still curious where the Timebelt comes from -which is just the MacGuffin of the story; you're not suppose to know. Again, that does not decrease my enjoyment of the novel, but it's these small things that some times distracts me. 

Note: While the book was written in 1973, it appears have been updated by Gerrold, once in 1983 (the edition I read) and again in 2003 for the e-book edition. 

20 January 2015

Books: Golden Son By Pierce Brown (2015)

With Golden Son, author Pierce Brown's second novel in his Red Rising Trilogy, he's able to forgo the World Building that preoccupied the first book and rush pellmell into Darrow's emotional and very violent struggle to bring down the Gold society from within that dominates the worlds of Mars and Luna (the moon). 

The story picks up two years after the events of Red Rising, and we see Darrow au Andromedus on a training mission aboard his own starship for war-games -though these Academy days seem fairly over, as this is about all we see of that time. Still, as Darrow navigates his way, he worries about the fact that in that time, he's heard nothing from the Sons of Ares, the secret rebellion group that started him on this journey. In the end though, this shift away from the Institute opens the book to a wider and more complex arena, even if the reader is forced to believe that Darrow had the ability, the agility to keep up his deceptive appearance amongst the duplicitous Golds for all those years without hearing from the Sons of Ares. Anyways, Darrow’s reach has expand exponentially, and story leaves Mars behind (for now) which helps with the action, as things move swifter than a nail driven through concrete out into the galaxy. Brown, however, is not afraid to take his hero Darrow down a few pegs, but like any true defender of the downtrodden, he gets back up to continue. But this can also be a bit of contrivance, Brown ultimately explains it that the reason Darrow does not let things defeat him is because the real tragedy of this struggle is the massive loss of life -something not done by his hand, of course, but more so the effect of what he's become. So he's driven more by guilt so he must always get back up on his two feet. And that maybe one of the very few flaws with the book; Brown's over reliance on this story structure. Darrow encounter's some horrible situation, then comes up with a magical (it seems) solution then suddenly stumbles into another setback. 

Unfortunately, this had the tendency to take me out of the narrative. But the book does rocket along and (hopefully) it'll break out of the box that some seem to want to put it in, that this is just another dystopian novel in the vein of The Hunger Games. By far, these books (especially this second one) are better written, with more complex characters and with higher stakes, so those thoughts should be set aside. 

Again, there is no clear explanation to how Earth fell, but Brown makes some veiled references. History, they say, repeats itself and Golden Son could be defined as a retelling of the Roman Empire during its glory years. And while Homer and Sophocles survived, apparently Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire did not. And this colored based society has no historian (probably suppressed by the Golds), but to be honest, I'm not sure they would even admit that the original Roman tumbled under its own importance. 

I'm curious if, in the end, all this series is really is about, a science fiction retelling of Roman Empire and it's eventual (in book III) fall. 

But for me, who devoured this in a few days, I have a long wait for 2016 and that final book.

16 January 2015

Books: Methuselah's Children By Robert A. Heinlein (1958)

There is a lot of ideas in this thin little novel (183 pages of this old hardcover edition I got at the library) that could fill many others. But Methuselah's Children is not about filling endless pages of prose that may fill the ego of today's authors (there is no way writers like George R. R. Martin today could accomplish what Heinlein did without taking three or four books at a 1,000 pages each), it's about adventure, with humor, conflict and even romance to remind us that science fiction during it's Golden Age was characters who moved the plot. 
Heinlein also introduces us to a character that will pop up again in his latter writings. 
We begin in the 22nd Century, but the roots of the story go back to Gold Rush era. Despite wealth, Ira Howard will die young and childless. But he creates a trust that states he'll financially support families who have long-lived grandparents. This desire to prolong human life has, by the 22nd Century, have over 100,000 Family members living well over 150 years. 
Despite Earth being somewhat of a utopian society, the idea that human life can be extended creates a conflict -many believe the Families lifespan induced by selective breeding is a ruse, and they have developed a secret method to extend life. Of course, the family possess no such rejuvenation device. To prevent a pogrom, Lazarus Long (the oldest member of the Howard Family it seems), proposes to their one supporter and the Families: hijack the colony starship New Frontiers, and leave Earth.  Themes of the Bible also play into the story, as the first planet they discover turns out not be the Eden like place they hoped and are expelled when conflicts arise with the species that inhabit the planet. Then there is more issues with the second planet as well, that eventually puts the Family back on track to Earth.  But for Long, who reveals his age to be somewhere around 241, decides that Earth is no longer his home and with the help of brilliant engineer Andrew "Slipstick" Libby -who built (with the group minds that occupied the second planet) that helped create the FTL drive that got them home 74 years after they left, decide to recruit other members of the Families in hopes of exploring space with the new drive. And to see what's out there. 

As I said, there are a lot of ideas that the author puts out -from a Earth of the future that will be able to overcome war, prejudice, and famine ala Star Trek's Federation (and I suspect Gene Roddenberry got some of his ideas from this book) to the "magical" inertia device that removes mass to help space travel (along with the near faster than light travel). And long before it became fashionable for an author to tie everything to one single universe, this book (which began life as a serialized tale in 1941) falls into what John W. Campbell, Jr. coined as Heinlein's "Future History", a projected future of the human race between the 20th Century through the early 23rd (most of his short stories where written between 1939 and 1941 as well as 1945 through 1950 and complied into the 1966 book The Past Through Tomorrow). Although it seems Heinlein never fully intended to tie everything together (something that Isaac Asimov would eventually do as well) -he seemed to create a chronology of tales that fit together rather brilliantly. 

Then there is the character of Lazarus Long, who will go on to appear in four other Heinlein novels. Which are now on my reading list of 2015 and on. 

12 January 2015

Books: Old Man's War By John Scalzi (2005)

John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife's grave. Then he joined the army. 

The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce-- and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.

Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity's resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don't want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You'll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You'll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you'll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.

John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine--and what he will become is far stranger.

I've read only two other books by John Scalzi, both skewed towards his snarky humor that I adore so much. And while Old Man's War (and the authors 2005 debut) has a lot of humor (especially in the first 100 pages or so), the rest of the novel -more or less- is a space war opera in the tradition of Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers. But I don't think that Scalzi is recycling Heinlein, but exploring new ideas that even the classic author may not even considered, like what it really means to be human when you've been regenerated (for lack of a better word) into a killing machine designed for one purpose: kill before being killed. 

Perry, like any good protagonist, is the reader. And through John, Scalzi can open a debate on the human condition and war. One the biggest questions that comes up is why the CDF does not try more diplomatic solutions when dealing with alien species than coming in, a guns ablazin'. 

Of course, we have many cliches of military here, the hardin' commanders who use colorful metaphors and fear to break in new recruits. There is also a self-awareness to the book, as Scalzi has the characters point out they are stereotypes we've seen many times over in real life and war fiction. But there is a heart to this tale, a lot of humor (even if Scalzi turns it down as the book progresses) and a lot of techno-babble. This was also the first book in a series, which means I'll probably have to read the others. 

I enjoyed the book, despite not being a huge fan of this sub-genre in science fiction -the military fiction. Perhaps, though, I enjoyed it because I like Scalzi's style, his sense of humor and his self-depricating ways. 

I know SyFy is working on an adaptation of this book into a TV series. Much like The Expanse series, I'm hoping for a workable translation that keeps the themes (politics, war, human condition) in place and not watered down for the masses who just want simple stories with a lot of violence and little in the way of social commentary -which has always been science fiction's bread and butter. 

07 January 2015

Books: The Martian By Andy Weir (2014)

Andy Weir's The Martian has done something that seems brilliant, yet familiar. Yes the tale of a modern day (somewhat) astronaut left on Mars and forced to fend for himself is not new (Robinson Caruso comes to mind first, then Castaway, MacGyver and a lot of Apollo 13), but Weir does not give his protagonist an easy time (Martians helped Caruso) in solving how the man will survive on the red planet. 

The story opens with Mark Watney, one of the first humans to walk on Mars. Him and fellow astronauts on the spaceship Hermes, are surveying the planet when a huge dust storm forces an emergency evacuation of Mars. But a piece of debris hits Watney, holing his suit and plunging him away from his crew. With no time to waste, and with his fellow members believing him now dead, the landing party leaves Mars and Mark behind. But the man survives and finds himself stranded millions of miles from the nearest human being, with no way to even signal Earth that he's alive--and even if he could get word out, his food would be gone years before a rescue mission could arrive. Chances are, though, he won't have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old "human error" are much more likely to get him first. But the human will to survive is strong within Mark, and drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit, he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. 

The novel owes a lot to the science fiction authors that came before, but I think Weir achieves something that even writers like Asimov or Clarke could not, which is a very technical, very realistic science to science fiction novel, using no magical realism to propel the story forward. This book is also a celebration of human ingenuity, something seen today as not being praise worthy.

Most of the book features Mark, and it's Weir's ability to make that compelling is its greatest strength. Plus, Watney is a smart-ass as well as super smart. It makes him appealing human even when he rattles off mathematical equations that the average reader will never fully understand.

NASA, for all is bureaucracy that has overtaken it, hires smart people, ones whom have the ability to think outside the box, take risks and force the next step to solve a problem that propagates twelve more. It's these people who I want in my corner when things fall apart.