Intro

This is the blog and homepage of Mark R. Kelly, the founder of Locus Online in 1997 (for which I won a Hugo Award in 2002 — see the icon at right) and of an index to science fiction awards in 2000 that became sfadb.com in 2012. I’m retired from my day job of 30 years, from 1982 to 2012, as an aerospace software engineer, supporting the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

Posts here are mostly about my reading, of science fiction and of books about science, history, philosophy, and religion; and comments to articles in newspapers that I link to. Movie reviews and pics from travels are posted on Facebook.

More on my About page, including a photo of the Hugo Winners the year I was among them, and links to an index of my columns and other writings, and to my earliest homepage with links to some of my work.

June 2019: Currently in the process of revising pages for bibliographies and links to posts about SF and NF, as seen above…

Posted in Personal history | Leave a comment

The Invaders — In Color!

The past few evenings I’ve watched and rewatched several episodes of the mid-1960s TV series The Invaders. The show began in January 1967 – a mid-season replacement for some other show, presumably, in the same season as Star Trek’s first year – for 17 episodes, then ran a full season of 26 episodes from Fall 1967 to March 1968. It wasn’t a show I watched closely at the time, but I did see enough episodes for the show to make an impression on me, and to lead me to buy the DVD set of the show’s first season a while back.

The Invaders was a show about a Santa Barbara architect, played by Roy Thinnes — a fine actor, who apparently had a substantial career (see Imdb), but who never became any kind of star, past this brief 2-year TV series — who witnesses, late one night, the landing of an alien spacecraft. He becomes convinced that aliens our invading our world, and the series is about him trying to convince others, and always failing. The show is a descendant of 1950s movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Invaders from Mars, and books like Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, that imagined various ways aliens would try to infiltrate human society and take over our planet. All of these, of course, can be understood as analogs for the American fears in the 1950s and 60s about communists taking over American society.

Be that as it may. The show is also a prototypical story, common in both SF and fantasy, about a person who witnesses an extraordinary event and then tries to convince others, and fails, again and again. (Until, in some of these stories, the person is validated at the end, sometimes indirectly, incidentally, after the characters have left the stage.)

So in the past few evenings I’ve watched several first season episodes at random, including the premiere episode, “Beachhead,” and several later ones, including one guest-starring Michael Rennie, famous for his roles in The Day the Earth Stood Still and the two-part Lost in Space episode “The Keeper.”

A couple comments about the series in general. It was produced by Quinn Martin, whose name was even more prominent in the opening credits than Gene Roddenberry’s was in Star Trek’s. “A Quinn Martin Production” it would be announced by the narrator. Quinn Martin also produced the more successful and long-running series “The F.B.I.,” starring Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., that began in 1965 and ran for 9 years. Both that series and “The Invaders” had similar structures: each show opened with a pre-credits bit (a prolog, or teaser) before the show credits. Those credits had a narrator announcing the show’s principal guest stars (always four, it seems), and then announcing the title: “Tonight’s episode: ‘The Interrogator'” or whatever. And then as the show resumed after each commercial break, there was a title: “Act I,” then “Act II,” and so on. Finishing with an “Epilog.” (Most shows in the 1960s, including Star Trek, had similar structures, though Trek didn’t have a separate epilog following a commercial.)

I appreciate these opening credits, because they identified the guest actor names with their faces. In virtually all TV shows and movies over these past decades, the credits list actor names and somehow presume you the viewer will know what role they play in the show. Hollywood insiders do, but most of us casual watchers don’t. (Did you really keep track of which actors played which characters on Game of Thrones? Maybe the top three or four.)

So: The Invaders begins with the episode “Beachhead,” that depicts architect David Vincent, who lives in Santa Barbara, driving home from some conference, and trying to take a short cut through the mountains, late at night. He stops for sleep at a deserted diner, but is later awakened by the sound and eerie glow of… a spaceship landing in front of him. (A round flying saucer, of course, widest and flat at the bottom, as in the photo above.)

This initial episode has him driving immediately to the Santa Barbara sheriff’s office to report the incident. His architectural partner Alan Landers, played by James Daley (who would a couple years later star in a Star Trek episode), shows up. When they return to the scene of his sighting, the sign has changed — no longer “Bud’s Diner” but now “Kelly’s Diner”. (Why did the aliens bother with such small a detail? Presumably simply to discredit the witness.) Vincent meets a man and woman camping nearby, who say they are hunters, but react violently, leading to a fist-fight, and in this scene Vincent notices two key ways of identifying aliens posing as humans: their pinky fingers stick straight out, and when badly injured or dead, they glow red – and when killed, disappear leaving only a bit of ash.

Vincent’s investigations take him to a small town, Kinney, deserted except for this episode’s female guest star, Diane Baker, whose husband, he learns, died after seeing something… in a nearby hydro-electric plant, where Vincent finds an alien control room and vertical glass tubes the aliens use to regenerate their human bodies. Vincent’s partner shows up but is captured, put in one of those tubes, and dies. When police finally show up, all evidence has vanished, and Vincent simply leaves town. The ominously-toned narrator, Twilight Zone-style, provides concluding remarks.

Some general points apply to all these episodes.

  • The opening credits emphasize that the show is IN COLOR! This was 1967, when broadcast shows were just transitioning from black and white to color. Star Trek debuted in color in 1966, but Lost in Space, beginning a year earlier in 1965, had one season of black and white before switching to color in the second season. Both Trek and especially LIS in that 2nd season use vivid colors the show the advantage of having a color TV; thus the bright red, blue, and tan shirts in Trek.
  • Smoking is common and routine. Presumably to be an actor in those days, you had to have learned to smoke.
  • Every episode (it seems) features at least one fist fight, generally between David Vincent and some bad guy. I’ve noted that the original Star Trek also featured routine physical violence, in a way that Next Generation did not; and in general, my impression is that kind of violence, routine in Westerns and Detective shows in the 1950s and ’60s, faded over the following couple decades. (These days I gather cop shows include lots of gun violence, but not milquetoast fist fights.) Again, to be an actor in a certain type of show in the ’60s meant you had to be able to handle yourself in a fight, even if a stunt double stepped in for the difficult shots. Recall also that NBC bought Star Trek when the second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” ended with a big fistfight, according to sources. (See my comments about the episode here, along with a reference to Steven Pinker about declining violence.)
  • All, or almost all, the cars seen are Fords, or Ford-related: Mercurys and Lincolns. The same was true in “The F.B.I.”; apparently Quinn Martin had a marketing deal with the company. (A few exceptions include the hearse at the end of “Beachhead,” which is a Cadillac.)
  • Each episode has a prominent female costar, sometimes an actual or potential love-interest for David Vincent, other times the wife or girlfriend of one of the male guest stars.
  • As in all ‘60s TV shows, each episode is independent and cannot depend on any others; there is not any kind of story arc. Thus David’s brother in “Wall of Crystal” or Peter Graves in “Moonshot,” though each convinced of Vincent’s cause, cannot join the fight. The episodes were written to be shown in any order.
  • The music is by Dominic Frontiere, famous at the time for The Outer Limits a couple years before. While having no way to study individual tracks in each episode (as I’ve done with Trek), my impression from these few episodes is that Frontiere composed one set of themes for the show that were used over and over again in every episode. There seem to be no individual episode scores. The music consisted of an ominous trio of descending two-notes and a repeating set of rising three-notes (at 4:00). A compilation is here on YouTube.
  • As with most TV shows in the 1960s, it was shot at various locations in Southern California, in rural areas north and west of Los Angeles, with actual locations standing in for fictitious towns in the stories. Yet while set in Santa Barbara, some of the location shooting does seem to have been in Santa Barbara, judging from the ridge of mountains seen in some scenes, e.g. when David Vincent meets Burgess Meredith’s character at the bank parking lot.

Other episodes just watched:

In “Wall of Crystal” a carousing newly-wed couple – the bride played by the late Peggy Lipton, of Mod Squad fame—accidentally runs a truck off the road, whose cargo is a bunch of crystals that suffocate them. David Vincent, following news stories for any strange incidents that might indicate alien presence, shows up to collect a sample of the crystals. [How is David Vincent making a living while obviously not attending to his job as an architect? How can he afford to jet across the country following these leads?] The story involves David’s brother Bob and his wife Grace, and a TV commentator played by Burgess Meredith who becomes convinced of Vincent’s claims when the scientist testing the sample is mysteriously killed. In this episode we learn that the aliens actually can’t live in Earth’s oxygen atmosphere, and plan to replace it, via the crystals. The story has this episode’s alien baddy, played by Edward Asner (pre-Mary Tyler Moore Show), kidnapping Bob to force Vincent and the TV commentator to renounce their stories. The final confrontation occurs at a deserted winery, where the Asner and Meredith characters, and an entire building of the winery, vanish in alien glow before the police can arrive.

In “The Innocent” Vincent follows a lead to a coastal Maine village where a fisherman has encountered the aliens and has captured one of their disc weapons. But Vincent is captured by the aliens, led here by the imposing Michael Rennie, who claims the aliens have decided on a peaceful approach. He invites Vincent onto an alien ship, which seems to take off and quickly lands in the valley of Santa Margaretta, where Vincent’s architectural dreams have been realized, and where his old girlfriend Helen is there to drive him around. This turns out to have been an illusion; Vincent is forcefully made drunk and forced to drive a car on a mountain road [obviously above Malibu, despite the story’s Maine setting], which of course he survives.

In “The Ivy Curtain” a charter pilot, played by Jack Warden, is forced to land his plane in a storm. He notices that one of his passengers, despite severe injuries, doesn’t bleed. The pilot is taken to his passengers’ destination, Midlands Academy, where he’s paid off (by the administrator, played by Murray Matheson) to forget what he’s seen. Meanwhile David Vincent has learned of this place and investigates: he finds classrooms of aliens being instructed on how to act plausibly human. The female lead here is Susan Oliver (of Trek fame), who plays the pilot’s wife, and who betrays him. Vincent’s attempts to summon authorities results in the usual vanishing of evidence.

And in “Moonshot” David Vincent comes to the Florida Keys, where two of the astronauts scheduled for the first Moon landing have been killed by a helicopter dropping red fog over their fishing boat. Vincent meets the head of security, played by Peter Graves (who would become the star of Mission: Impossible later in 1967), and one of the replacement astronauts, Hardy Smith, whom Vincent suspects is an alien imposter. The story involves Hardy Smith’s wife, played by this episode’s female lead Joanne Linville (seen a year and half later in Trek’s “The Enterprise Incident”), who eventually is forced to admit her husband is an imposter, and the Moon mission’s secret agenda to investigate structures on the Moon that might be alien artifacts. The story ends as the alien Hardy Smith imposter launches the rocket and explodes it.

I’ve ordered a newer DVD set that includes the series’ entire run. I’m curious if the concept advanced in the second season.

Posted in TV Sci Fi | Comments Off on The Invaders — In Color!

Asimov, I, ROBOT

(The photo shows a 1969-era Science Fiction Book Club edition of a Doubleday hardcover, with the jacket copy claiming the book is “Long out of print and in great demand”; a 1984 mass market paperback from Del Rey; and the currently available 2008 trade paperback edition, also from Del Rey.)

I, ROBOT, published in 1950, is a collection of nine earlier-published stories gathered into a collection in an arrangement that has an historical progression, and with added interludes that expand the significance of a key character, Susan Calvin, a chief roboticist who develops the robots and explains their occasionally aberrant behavior. A key theme is that robots are constrained by the “Three Laws of Robotics” — summarized here at Wikipedia (briefly: robots can’t harm humans; must obey orders; must protect themselves, but each law overridden by any previous). And the background historical progression includes social and technological changes, among them the development of a hyperlight drive that enables what Asimov, in other stories, imagines as an interstellar and then galactic empire. The progression of stories ranges from the homespun to the grandiose, from the concerns of a young girl’s nursemaid, to the concerns of a species that suspects it’s being manipulated or controlled for its own good.

Asimov wrote these stories in the 1940s, in parallel with his “Foundation” stories, and apparently presumed the two series had nothing to do with each other. The book I, ROBOT collected these nine stories, with some revisions and some connecting material added as framing: so the book begins with a first-person reporter arriving to interview Susan Calvin, now 75, and listens to her stories about their development, and her belief that robots are “a cleaner and better breed than we are” p17 (page references – no check this – to the 2008 Del Rey trade paperback edition).

The first story, “Robbie,” first published as “Strange Playfellow” – the magazine editor changed it, and Asimov changed it back for the book) was Asimov’s 9th published story. It’s about a young girl, Gloria, whose parents have bought her a robot nursemaid, which she adores. [The original version of this story, which lacks references to the three laws and the cameo appearance by the unnamed Susan Calvin that we see in the book, is in the anthology THE GREAT SF STORIES Vol. 2.] But Mrs. Weston distrusts it, and the neighbors gossip about it, and so Mr. Weston reluctantly returns it. A visit to New York City (this is set in 1998) includes a trip to a robot museum, where the discarded Robbie now works on the line, and a fortuitous accident redeems Robbie and his position in Gloria’s life.

The story is notable for not being a puzzle story, as most of the later ones are. But it establishes a recurrent theme of these stories and others by Asimov (such as his first-published story, “Trends”) – the social resistance, often religiously inspired, to new technology and attempts at exploration.

The second story, “Runaround,” presents a classic puzzle scenario: a robot is behaving inexplicably, and can be understood only by a deep, situational, understanding of the Three Laws of Robotics. The story introduces a pair of wiseacre engineers, Powell and Donovan, who appear in several of these stories. We meet them here on Mercury, where a robot named Speedy, sent out to gather selenium from an open pool on the surface, hasn’t returned. In fact it’s circling the selenium pool as if in confusion or indecision. The solution involves an understanding of the relative priorities of the three laws; the orders given it, its need to protect itself, and its need to protect human beings.

The third story, “Reason,” originally published earlier than “Runaround,” is about a robot assembled on a space station far from Earth, who becomes aware, looks around, and refuses to believe the stories that Powell and Donovan tell about the Earth and the stars. Basically, he’s a creationist robot! He only believes the evidence of his immediate senses. I blogged about this in some detail several years ago — http://www.markrkelly.com/Blog/2015/09/21/rereading-isaac-asimov-part-3-reason-a-creationist-robot/. This and the last story are the most profound in the book.

The next few stories include a couple involving complex situations in which robot behavior seems inexplicable. In “Catch That Rabbit” a set of linked “multiple robots” on an asteroid work only when being watched by humans, and otherwise act crazily, going through wild gyrations of dance. In “Little Lost Robot” a special robot with a relaxed first law hides itself among ordinary robots after being told, by an angry engineer on a space station, to ‘get lost’. This latter story has the unfortunate, to contemporary ears, use of the words ‘boy’ to address the robot and ‘master’ for a robot to address a human. And in “Escape” a grand ‘thinking machine,’ built to assist the construction of a hyperdrive engine, confounds the engineers since the experience of hyperdrive causes human to too closely experience death…an effect presumably overcome in Asimov’s later galactic empire, when spaceship jumps of thousands of parsecs was routine.

“Liar!” on the other hand, the third written of all these stories after “Robbie” and “Reason,” has a heavy emotional component, and it’s all about Susan Calvin. (It’s worth noting that, looked at in order of publication, Asimov wrote his first robot story about a little girl’s nursemaid, then wrote the one about the creationist robot, and this one about the lying robot, the next year; and later he wrote the more intellectual puzzle stories about detailed conflicts among the laws.)

In “Liar!” the US Robots factory discovers they have accidentally built a mind-reading robot, RB or Herbie. They have to keep it a secret, lest they trigger more anti-robot resistance among the public. Susan Calvin interviews it, of course; US Robots need to understand how this happened. But then background soap opera situations overtake the story. Calvin has a crush on a younger roboticist, Ashe; a US Robots official, Bogert, desires to become director. And so—spoiler!—the robot Herbie tells them what they want to hear, that the things they desire will come true. Angry and embarrassing recriminations occur, until Susan realizes what is happening. Again, the three laws: the robot decided it couldn’t harm humans by distressing them with the truth. Of course, this is a quandary; surely telling people lies leads to more harm? Susan confronts the robot with this paradox—in a back and forth banter that the robot is unable to answer, until it *screams* and goes insane, never to speak again. It’s exactly like those situations in Star Trek where Kirk would argue a computer or robot into catatonia or destruction.

And the story relies on a sexist depiction of Susan Calvin as, being a professional woman, a homely biddy who can never hope to marry. It’s 1941.

The final two stories raise the stakes, or expand the scope, as the impact of robots is felt on the broad human society.

Before “Evidence” we have an interlude with the interviewer and Susan Calvin about how nationalism has come to an end and the world is divided into ‘Regions’ with a ‘Golden Age’ brought about by robots. The story concerns a politician, Stephen Byerley, who is accused of being a robot – he never eats in public, or sleeps. A rival politician wants to expose him; can he do so by forcing him to break one of the three laws? Not breaking the laws proves nothing; “the Rules of Robotics are the essential guiding principles of a good many of the world’s ethical systems” and so a human operating along these principles is simply a very good human.

It is Byerley who arranges a situation to prove himself not a robot. He stages a public speech, and a man from the crowd challenges Byerley to hit him, something a robot could never do, to harm a human. Byerley does. Slug him.

Of course there is another explanation, which Susan Calvin perceives.

It’s notable how often Asimov invokes ‘fundamentalists’ as the enemies of progress and exploration. Back in the 1940s! Perhaps some things never change. P186t:

It was what the Fundamentalists were waiting for. They were not a political party; they made pretense to no formal religion. Essentially they were those who had not adapted themselves to what had once been called the Atomic Age, in the days when atoms were a novelty. Actually, they were the Simple-Lifers, hungering after a life, which to those who lived it had probably appeared not so Simple, and who had not been, therefore, Simple-Lifers themselves.

Quite prescient!

In the interlude before the final story, we’re told that Byerley became Regional Co-ordinator, and then the first World Co-ordinator in 2044. By that time the Machines were running the world—standing devices the equivalent of robots, bound by the same laws. (It’s curious that Asimov imagined vast computers, ‘Machines,’ as being the successors to the individually built robots that we’ve seen in the earlier stories.)

The final story is “The Evitable Conflict,” first published in 1950, the same year the book I, Robot was published – presumably as the book was proposed, Asimov sat down to write a grand concluding story about how robots would affect human society.

Stephen Byerley, World Coordinator, meets with the now 70-year-old Susan Calvin to discuss why various economic inefficiencies are creeping into the system. The world has stabilized, because it’s run by robots and Machines, who have the first law built into them. There is no overproduction, no shortages, no more war. And yet, there are inefficiencies. Have the Machines been given the wrong data?

Byerley recounts his visits to each of the four ‘Regions’ on Earth.

  • The Eastern Region, run by Ching Hso-lin in Tientsin, which has a problem of unemployment. (Note the emphasis on yeast; cf. the Lucky Starr Venus novel)
  • The Tropic, in ‘Capitol City’; a shortage of labor
  • The European, capital Geneva, where Madame Szegeczowska discusses the falling of production from the Almaden mercury mines
  • And the Northern (a combination of North America and the former Soviet Union), capital Ottawa, with a Scots Vice-Co-ordinator, who says they can’t be fed false data
  • And finally the entire Earth’s capital, New York. [of course]

There are several references to the Society for Humanity (p201, 208, 201) as being opposed to progress; p213.7 “They would be against mathematics or against the art of writing if they had lived at the appropriate time.”

Then on p215.3 it’s suggested that there are men in this society who are *ignoring* the dictates of the Machines. All the inefficiencies can be tied to them. “Men who feel themselves strong enough to decide for themselves what is best for themselves, and not just to be told what is best for others” p215.4

So what is the solution? Outlaw the Society? No. Calvin explains that the Machines will compensate, because their overriding drive is the first law…which becomes a law of humanity, not just an individual human.

And to do that, the machines must preserve themselves. Thus they take care of, ignore, the human elements that threaten them. They cannot reveal this to humanity, lest they ‘hurt our pride’ p218t.

So, what is best for humanity? Perhaps the style of earlier civilizations would make people happier. The machines will figure it out, without telling us. Agrarian, urbanization? Yes, humanity has lost control of its destiny; perhaps horrible, perhaps wonderful.

This is certainly the most profound of the robot stories, because it addresses big issues about human happiness and progress, and why those things are not necessarily best determined by the aggregate of individual humans.

Maybe humans don’t know what’s good for themselves. P223b

Stephen, how do we know what the ultimate good of humanity will entail? We haven’t at our disposal the infinite factors that the Machine has at its! Perhaps, to give you a not unfamiliar example, our entire technical civilization has created more unhappiness and misery than it has removed. Perhaps an agrarian or pastoral civilization, with less culture and less people would be better. If so, the Machines must move in that direction, preferably without telling us, since in our ignorant prejudices we only know that what we are used to, is good—and we would then fight change. Or perhaps a complete urbanization, or a completely caste-ridden society, or complete anarchy, is the answer. We don’t know. Only the Machines know, and they are going there and taking us with them.

This a brilliant set of insights, some 70 years ago, about the evolution of the human race, echoed by others, e.g. Harari, about how agriculture was a huge mistake, how we might have been happier living in other ways.

On the other hand– this premise assumes the notion that the machines are somehow infallible and wiser than actual human beings. This premise has not played out. As it’s turned out, it’s naïve to presume that all you have to do is feed computers a bunch of raw data and voila, they will answer any question you have.

\\

I’ve yet to reread Asimov’s two later robot novels, THE CAVES OF STEEL and THE NAKED SUN, so now I’m curious to see if in those books he followed up on these implications. Further out—he wrote several novels in the 1980s that managed to reconcile the robot series with the galactic empire series. Did these themes come up there? Beyond even those – Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, and David Brin wrote three follow-up Foundation novels, in the 1990s, to wrestle with Asimov’s themes. I’ll try to get to them too.

\\

Asimov’s conclusion reflects one of my provisional conclusions: that humans are happiest living in a community with a common set of beliefs, no matter how rational evaluation would show those beliefs to be in error or delusional. That to recognize reality, and humanity’s tiny place in it, can at best be an individual project.

Posted in Book Notes, Isaac Asimov, science fiction | Comments Off on Asimov, I, ROBOT

Link and Comment: Krugman on Terrorism

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman regularly criticizes President Trump and the entire Republican party for engaging in fantasy economics– the kind of economics, which actually has never worked, that says cutting taxes on the wealthy will spur business and actually increased federal tax revenue. It’s a cute theory but it never seems to work. That doesn’t stop Republicans — and the wealthiest in our country support Republicans, never mind all their other policies, precisely because of such tax cuts.

Once in a while Krugman steps back and takes a broader view, as he did in his column on Tuesday, called “Trump, Tax Cuts and Terrorism.” My Google News feed shows me a outraged reaction to this column from conservative Washington Examiner, which suggests to me that he struck a nerve.

NY Times: Trump, Tax Cuts and Terrorism: Why do Republicans enable right-wing extremism?

The central story of U.S. politics since the 1970s is the takeover of the Republican Party by economic radicals, determined to slash taxes for the wealthy while undermining the social safety net.

With the arguable exception of George H.W. Bush, every Republican president since 1980 has pushed through tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the 1 percent while trying to defund and/or privatize key social programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act.

This agenda is, however, unpopular. Most voters believe that the rich should pay more, not less, in taxes, and want spending on social programs to rise, not fall.

So how do Republicans win elections? By appealing to racial animus. This is such an obvious fact of American political life that you have to be willfully blind not to see it.

In effect, then, the Republican Party decided that a few massacres were an acceptable price to pay in return for tax cuts. I wish that were hyperbole, but the continuing refusal of G.O.P. figures to criticize Trump even after El Paso shows that it’s the literal truth.

This reflects my inclination to believe that the gun fetishists are willing to suffer the increasingly common massacres in order to preserve their rights to own weapons to kill people with. I suspect all of them, not just the ones who commit these massacres, are in some sense mentally ill — in the sense that they are unfit to live in a larger community where Peter Singer’s expanding circle applies to larger and larger groups of people, and life. But if there are so many of them, how can they be called mentally ill? Maybe the attitude they expound reflects a natural tribalistic attitude of humanity that can never be overcome. Maybe the idealistic notion of a worldwide culture that lives in peace is a fantasy. Let alone the idealistic notions of a galactic Federation, as imagined in Star Trek.

Posted in Culture, Human Progress, Lunacy, Psychology | Comments Off on Link and Comment: Krugman on Terrorism

Asimov, THE CURRENTS OF SPACE

[draft]


The third of Asimov’s “Galactic Empire” novels, first published in 1952, opens with a fish out of water situation a bit like that in PEBBLE IN THE SKY. But first there is a prolog as the book opens with a conversation between two unidentified people arguing about taking action against some vaguely identified threat – this is a passage you return to, later in the book, once you understand who those people are and what they were talking about.

And then we begin, with a simpleton, maybe a crazy person, named Rik, a worker at a kyrt mill on the planet Florina. He’s an amnesiac, taken care of by a woman named Valona March who because she is plain has no romantic prospects. He has flashes of memory—that he had a job, that it involved “analyzing Nothing.” And, that everyone on this planet will die.

As in the previous books, each chapter switches point of view to other characters, and in this book the chapter titles are roles – The Foundling, The Townsman, The Librarian, The Rebel, etc. – though as the book goes on, we see that some individual characters play several roles.

The plot moves on as the caretaker Valona takes Rik to the city. Asimov literalizes social structure on Florina, where an Upper City, held up off the ground by thousands of pillars, sits above a Lower City, where the workers live. The Upper City is reserved for Squires, from the planet Sark, which rules over Florina and controls its product, kyrt. (Shades of Dune here.) Asimov craftily avoids explaining why kyrt is such a valuable product until nearly half way through the book.

So Valona takes Rik to a library in the Upper City where he can consult books, hoping to trigger more memories. He recognizes the phrase “analyzing nothing” as being a function of the Institute of Spatio-Analysis … that Rik must have belonged to. But the librarian’s nosiness makes them suspicious, and they flee…. Eventually onto a spaceship, leaving the planet.

Other plots threads involve a scientist, Dr. Selim Junz, who’d gotten an alarming message from one of his analysts but who subsequently disappeared… a year ago. And Terens, a ‘Townsman’ on Florina who oversees the factory where Rik and Valona work, and who found Rik near-naked and drooling in a field… a year ago… and took him to a doctor in the City, a doctor who was killed in a car accident a week later. And: an ambassador from Trantor, Abel, who believes that the only road to galactic peace is for the current Trantorian Empire to become a true Galactic Empire…but by force if necessary.

And several Great Squires on Sark, the planet that oversees Florina, who’ve gotten blackmail notices… a year ago… concerning Florina’s likely destruction.

There’s a significant female character here, a Lady Samia, who happens to be on the spaceship that Valona and Rik escape upon. She fancies herself a detective and takes interest in them. Alas, later in the book, when her hypothesis is disproven, she disappears from the plot.

The resolution of course involves all these characters and plot threads converging. As in THE STARS, LIKE DUST, the villain turns out to be a character we’ve met earlier. The conspiracy theories imagined by the Great Squires are undermined, to their discredit.

But here’s why this is a significant science fiction novel, and not just a projection of ancient politics into outer space, as in the previous book. The reason ‘kyrt’ –- a voluptuous fabric that can only grow on Florina – is so valuable, the reason Rik made a discovery about the “currents of space,” and the threat to Florina, and potentially the whole galaxy, are all interconnected, and all explained by the end. (There are some infodumps here about the nuclear processes that power stars – and how investigations into the threats these ideas imply to the kyrt trade are shut down to preserve that trade. [Just like Republicans shutting down climate change or gun violence research!] And it’s not just this particular circumstance – it’s about a threat that could apply to hundreds of planets a year, considering that humans have colonized millions of planets throughout the galaxy. That much is very plausible; the ‘currents of space’ notion, reasonably plausible.

Again there’s background about the growing galactic empire, and whether Trantor want might to use a dispute between Sark and Florina to take control.

Asimov likes formal structures, and here he daisy-chains the chapters by shifting the focus from one character to the next (though sometime the same character is playing multiple roles), and with a Prolog labeled ‘A Year Before’ and an Epilog labeled ‘A Year After.’

The final pages of the book are notable in showing how Asimov could write a strikingly emotional note to end a story. It’s not quite up there with the finale to “An Ugly Little Boy,” but it shows how his villain, who perhaps was cornered by circumstances, repents.

\\
Asimov’s idea of a futuristic library describes visitors being led to private rooms with ‘readers’ with knobs to bring up menus.

Posted in Book Notes, Isaac Asimov, science fiction | Comments Off on Asimov, THE CURRENTS OF SPACE

Asimov, THE STARS, LIKE DUST


This second of Asimov’s three “Galactic Empire” novels is the least interesting of the three, despite the poetic (and gratuitous) title. It’s entirely about circumstance, with no specific science fictional content at all. Presumably this is an example of Asimov writing far future ‘science fiction’ based on historical circumstances — Asimov was an expert on Biblical and Roman history — and indeed there is a bit of intellectual discussion here about the economic cycles of planets and how economic growth might stagnate…

And this one really is about a conspiracy!

The story opens as one Brion Farrill, the son of the influential “Rancher of Widemos” on his home planet Nephelos, is about to graduate from the University of Earth. This is clearly the same Earth as in the previous novel, heavily radiated in parts; but apparently not such the backwater that that book implied, if a high status individual like BF has come here for university. He’s awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call, then the threat of a radiation bomb inside his room. He escapes and his met by his friend Sander Jonti, who warns him that this attempt on his life parallels a threat to his father’s life back on Nephelos, threats from the ruling Tyranni (not a subtle name), a race that dominates over 50 worlds in the Nebula Regions near the Horsehead Nebula.

Urged to return home, BF sets off for Nephelos (leaving Earth behind for the remainder of the book). He discovers evidence the radiation bomb was a hoax—he’s being manipulated.

There is some science-fictional window-dressing here: details of the ship lifting into space; the view; background information about the number of stars in the galaxy, the number of planets, all very basic stuff, and then, p50, some discussion of how small empires emerge. Later we get some reflection on night descending, and how differently nights would look on various planets.

Farrill arrives on Nephelos and claims sanctuary rights with the planet’s Director against a threat, he supposes, from the Tyranni. A dotty uncle of the Director urges Farrill to escape, and take me with you! They escape in a Tyranni ship, and dotty uncle tells a story from years before that has led him to believe that a planet ready to rebel against the Tyranni exists, if only they can find it. Who would know more? The Autarch of Lingane, someone dotty uncle knows. Turns out Farrill knows him too, under another name…

Not only is Farrill victim of a conspiracy against his life and status, somehow this all involves an ancient document that Farrill’s father was working to find. A search ensues for the rebel planet, somewhere in the Horsehead Nebula. There’s a confrontation between Farrill and the bad guy, and then some deduction about the rebel world… a deduction that resembles the conclusion of the Foundation trilogy.

As in the previous book, the protagonist and the only woman in the plot have eyes for each other, and eventually unite.

And the final reveal is about the nature of that ancient document. It’s an eye-rolling revelation that is up there with Star Trek’s “The Omega Glory” and Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Man” – the presumption that something significant in our own time – at least to some people, but of course including the author or his editor – should inevitably be of paramount significance to people centuries from now and far off in the galaxy. A vainglorious conceit.

Notes:

Though I read this book years ago, I’d forgotten the use of the word autarch, much later made famous by Gene Wolfe’s BOOK OF THE NEW SUN novels.

For that matter, I should have made the connection between this novel and “The Omega Glory,” but if I did, I don’t remember that either. Asimov reveals someplace that the notion was Galaxy magazine editor H.L. Gold’s, who edited the novel for serialization before book publication, and Asimov let the idea stay, if reluctantly, and never removed it from publications of the book. In retrospect, it’s easy to suspect that Gene Roddenberry (author of that episode) lifted his idea from Asimov’s book, published over a decade earlier.

Again, the entire plot is political, and conspiratorial. There are passages about space travel and so on, but they are generic and the story here doesn’t rely on them. (The next book is much better on this point.)

To mention a few other substantial passages – pages from the Tor trade paperback:

Chapter 7, the dotty Uncle Gill ponders how governments kill by their nature, about the economic cycles of planets, how the Kingdoms under the Tyranni will be semi-colonial forever—and how Earth was the only truly mature society. Page 71, Uncle Gill speaking:

You’ve been to school. You’ve learned the economic cycle. A new planet is settled and its first care is to feed itself. It becomes an agricultural world, a herding world. It begins to dig in the ground for crude ore to export, and sends its agricultural surplus abroad to buy luxuries and machinery. That is the second step. Then, as population increases and foreign investments grow, an industrial civilization begins to bud, which is the third step. Eventually, the world becomes mechanized, importing food, exporting machinery, investing in the development of more primitive worlds, and so on. the fourth step.

And page 72:

Consider! All the Galaxy has been in a continuous state of expansion since the first discovery of interstellar travel. We have always been a growing society, therefore, an immature society. It is obvious that human society reached maturity in only one place and at only one time and that this was on Earth immediately prior to its catastrophe. There we had a society which had temporarily lost all possibility for geographical expansion and was therefore faced with such problems as over-population, depletion of resources, and so on; problems that have never faced any other portion of the Galaxy!

Amazingly prescient, or anticipating the obvious, given the long-term perspective a few people have, but which most people don’t?

Ch11, 117b: Asimov goes into detail about how hyperspace jumps are plotted using three coordinates: rho, theta, and phi. (Did Asimov make this up, or is there some basis for this? Apparently so: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spherical_coordinate_system)

Ch12, thoughts about how architecture and windows reflect a culture. Later in this chapter, how to transfer from one ship to another, in deep space, by guideline.

Ch17, essay on how to find planets, when approaching a sun from deep space. Types of stars; types of planets. (Asimov later contributed to a nonfiction book called HABITABLE PLANETS FOR MAN.)

Posted in Book Notes, Isaac Asimov, science fiction | Leave a comment

Asimov: PEBBLE IN THE SKY


Isaac Asimov began publishing stories in magazines in 1939, but his first book wasn’t released until 1950, and that first book was his first proper novel, PEBBLE IN THE SKY. By 1950 however he had published in the magazines all the stories that went in to the collection (or story-cycle) I, ROBOT, his second published book also in 1950; and all the stories that comprised his so-called “Foundation Trilogy” published in three books, FOUNDATION, FOUNDATION AND EMPIRE, and SECOND FOUNDATION – his 4th, 6th, and 9th published books, according to his own list in OPUS 100, his 100th published book.

The chronology of his magazine stories and book publications suggests that, having finished his final Foundation story for Astounding Stories, a serial that ran in late 1949 and Jan 1950, he immediately sat down and wrote his first novel-length work, PEBBLE IN THE SKY, published later in 1950; he moved from writing long tales for magazines, to longer tales for book publication. Two more novels subsequently followed in the next two years: THE STARS LIKE DUST and THE CURRENTS OF SPACE. In 1952 he also launched his juvenile series with DAVID STARR SPACE RANGER in 1952 (discussed in a previous post). The balance of the decade saw three collections of earlier (unrelated) published stories; three more novels, the two robot novels THE CAVES OF STEEL and THE NAKED SUN and a complex time travel novel, THE END OF ETERNITY; and, oh yes, a non-sf mystery novel, THE DEATH DEALERS. By the end of the decade he’d set fiction writing mostly aside, in favor of nonfiction books for general audiences. He’d published 32 books by the end of 1959; 20 science fiction books, and 12 nonfiction books. (In the entire next decade, he published just 7 science fiction books, including 2 anthologies; and 61 nonfiction books.)

So the SF novels in the ‘50s fall into distinct groups: the three FOUNDATION books; the six LUCKY STARR books; two robot and one time travel novels; and the three published in the early ‘50s. Those last three came to be called the “Galactic Empire” novels, because they all involve, at least incidentally, Earth, but are set in a future in which humanity has spread onto planets throughout the entire galaxy. Still, it is an era long before the unification of the galaxy into the Galactic Empire of the Foundation novels. These three novels have seldom been out of print in all these years, but have never enjoyed the popularity or acclaim of the Foundation stories, the robot stories and novels, or END OF ETERNITY.

I reread them (for the first time in decades) in the past couple weeks, and they’re interesting enough. Actually, far from being a trio of similar novels, they strike me as having quite different strengths and weaknesses. I’d give PEBBLES a B, STARS a C, and CURRENTS an A, which wasn’t what I’d expected when I sat down to revisit them.

The photo shows the mass market paperback editions I bought from 1968 to 1972, the first a Bantam Pathfinder edition, the second and third from Fawcett Crest, with the worst cover on the best book; and the recent trade paperback editions from Tor, which I read just now. Old mass market paperbacks used tiny print and compressed pagination, I suppose for economy; the more respectful modern editions relax the fonts and paginations. Thus, ironically, the smaller mass market paperback of CURRENTS ran 191 pages; the larger trade paperback of same runs 239 pages.)

*

The opening pages of PEBBLE IN THE SKY are the most memorable of anything in the three. Joseph Schwartz, a retired tailor, walks down a street in Chicago, quoting Browning to himself (“Grow old along with me…”). Meanwhile, at a nearby Nuclear Research facility, a hastily cut-short experiment sends a beam of *something* that cuts a hole through the walls and outward into the city—

And Joseph Schwartz finds himself in a grassy field with no houses in sight. Schwartz has been cast into the far future, still on Earth, but in an unknown society and circumstances.

Asimov tells the story with chapters that alternate between several sets of characters, as he does in all these books. So the novel develops with several parallel plot strands that, rather coincidentally, intersect.

  • Schwartz stumbles upon the home of Loa Maren, her husband Arbin, and her father Grew, living in an isolated house away from the city. He cannot speak their language and so they think him an imbecile, or perhaps an Outsider spy. They decide to unload him onto a scientist at the Nuclear Institute in the city nearby city Chica (the city names have distorted over the centuries, but not the name of the Nuclear Institute!) who, according to the papers, has developed a device called a Synapsifier, to improve learning. It hasn’t yet been tried on humans, and the scientist, Shekt, is looking for human volunteers.
  • Meanwhile, an archaeologist from Sirius, Bel Arvardan, arrives on Earth to look for evidence of his pet hypothesis: that humans from all the planets in the galaxy originally evolved on a single planet — a radical, unpopular idea — and that planet is Earth. Ironically, we come to learn, there’s a political sect on Earth who believes the same thing.
  • The Procurator of Earth (that is, the representative of the Galactic Empire who lives on and oversees Earth), Ennius, who lives in an elaborate artificial estate on a plateau near Mt. Everest, worries about rebellion by the locals. Earth is highly radioactive in some areas, the result of some long-age war, and Outsiders, humans from the rest of the Galaxy, think Earthmen are feeble and disease-ridden. Because resources are limited on Earth, a custom called The Sixty has arisen, by which anyone reaching that age is obliged to sacrifice his life; a few talented scientists and other privileged people are exempt. Ennius learns of Shekt’s device and wonders if it might be made available to the Empire.

Then things develop.

  • Schwartz is subjected to the Synapsifier and not only survives, he quickly learns the language, and develops a ‘Mind Touch,’ a telepathic awareness of others around him and what they are thinking. He escapes from the Institute.
  • Arvardan is shadowed by an agent of the Brotherhood, the sect who believe Earth is humanity’s home planet.
  • Earth’s High Minister, a puppet under control of his secretary, Balkis, hears of the confluence of the Outsider [Schwartz], Shekt’s device, and the archaeologist Arvardan, and thinks these can’t all be coincidences—there must be a conspiracy afoot.

The plot of the novel is entirely circumstantial – that is, driven by coincidence. Yet twice in the book the bad guy, Balkis, takes coincidences as evidence of conspiracies! This may be Asimov mocking his own jury-rigged story, yet it may also illustrate how nationalistic zealots driven by fear and hatred are also prone to conspiracy thinking.

(spoilers follow)

  • Shektz, whose work has been suppressed by the Brotherhood, meets Arvardan and reveals Earth’s plan to dominate, or even exterminate, the rest of the galaxy. How? By releasing a virus that Earthmen have developed an immunity to (because the radioactive environment) but which the rest of humanity has not.
  • But they are caught and arrested, and taken to the same jail where Schwartz has been recaptured to. (More coincidences!) Schwartz reveals he cannot only read minds, he can control others’ bodies, and so they stage a jailbreak by taking control of the evil secretary Balkis and simply walking out in front of all the guards. And they learn from Balkis’ mind that the attack on the galaxy will consist of missile launches in just a couple days. [How do these missiles travel in space and will so easily travel great distances across the galaxy? In other books Asimov describes hyperspace jumps, but they are assumed here.]
  • And so Shektz and his daughter Pola, Schwartz, and Arvardan, with the captive Balkis, head for the missile base, and demand that the Procurator Ennius be brought and informed of the plot. Ennius is brought, but refuses to believe the Earthman plot, and does nothing.
  • In an anticlimactic conclusion, Arvardan wakes the morning after the deadline and learns that Schwartz escaped the meeting the night before, took control of an airplane pilot, and bombed the missiles himself. But he, and we the reader, learn this in retrospect.

Along the way,

  • There’s a romantic subplot between Arvardan, the Sirian, who fights his prejudice against filthy Earthmen, and Shekt’s daughter Pola, who finds him attractive but thinks he’s contemptuous of her. Soon enough they admit their love for each other. There’s an identical subplot in the next book.
  • Asimov plays the coincidences for dramatic laughs as a minor character from early on shows up near the end, in a position to take a revenge and foil the good guys’ victory – and then is used by Schwartz to foil the evil plot.
  • The idea that humanity has forgotten not just that the entire race derived from a single planet, but even which planet that was, is a tad incredible, though Asimov tries to explain the logic behind the so-called ‘Merger’ theory. It seemed more plausible from the perspective of those in the early Foundation stories, far away, for whom the mere existence of Earth was a legend.

So: a pleasant enough book, but driven by coincidence and circumstance. It benefits from the romantic situation of Earth being a remote and nearly forgotten world in a far-future galaxy entirely populated by the human race. But there’s not much intellectual content. Learning machines and telepathy are pulp SF devices (now long-discredited). The most provocative ideas are political, reflecting historical models, as Asimov has admitted about these early books. Thus the Procurator, and High Minister, the uncomfortable relations between locals and outsiders, and the conspiracy tendencies of zealots.

Posted in Book Notes, Isaac Asimov, science fiction | Leave a comment

Links and Comments: Sapiens; Leaving Religion; Conspiracy Theories; Weather Forecasting

1. From yesterday’s NYT Book Review.

Chuck Klosterman likes Harari: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/18/books/review/chuck-klosterman-likes-writers-who-arent-self-absorbed-sociopaths.html

What’s the last great book you read?

I picked up “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” by Yuval Noah Harari. I thought: “This will probably be O.K. I’ll probably learn a few things about Neanderthals and wheat.” But it ended up being the best reading experience I’ve had in at least 10 years. Harari writes about complicated things with unbelievable clarity, and I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a book where the author so often makes bold, original arguments that (somehow) immediately seem self-evident. It was so good that I started looking for any other book that seemed vaguely similar, most notably “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” by Jared Diamond. Diamond’s book won the Pulitzer in 1998 and is (probably) a little more respected, simply because it’s more rigorous and the style is more academic. And while that book is also undeniably excellent, I still liked “Sapiens” more. This is partially because Harari had the benefit of Diamond’s pre-existing work, but mostly because of the overall presentation. “Guns, Germs, and Steel” is a book that says, “Here are things that happened, and here’s why they happened the way that they did.” “Sapiens” is a book that says, “Here are things that happened, here’s why they happened, and here’s what that says about the experience of being human in the modern age.”

2. A review by C. E. Morgan: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/01/books/review/leaving-the-witness-amber-scorah.html

LEAVING THE WITNESS
Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life
By Amber Scorah

Though religious fundamentalism has surged globally in recent decades, the anti-intellectualism of these authoritarian movements, their staunch refusal to cede ground to reason and empiricism, often confounds nonbelievers. How can people devote the totality of their lives to the unseen, the unevidenced? How can faith subsume thinking?

But reason is a poor weapon against the believer whose very religious identity springs from an embrace of the unreasonable. Many fundamentalists are conscious of the seeming absurdity of their position, but it is precisely the stridency of their faith, their ability to withstand the irrational, that confirms for them their exceptionalism and salvation. They reject modernity’s demystification project and instead construct meaning in the supernatural. Their faith becomes very thick armor indeed, one that even the sharpest Enlightenment rationalism won’t penetrate.

But the stunted psychology of those raised in extreme religion is another problem altogether. For these children, there is no obvious forfeiture of common sense or flight from existential chaos that informs adult conversion. Rather, they experience a totalizing indoctrination that so severely limits the formation of an adult psychology that many don’t ever achieve maturity in the way secular society conceives of it, a state of empowered capability that permits complex life choices, a state in which contradictory ideas can be held in tension without psychic recoil. Instead, the fundamentalist child, raised on fear and limitation, lives a life of diminished options, constrained by strict dualisms: black and white, good and bad, God and Satan, and (perhaps most alarmingly for the broader culture) us and them.

The reviewer, curiously, teaches at Harvard Divinity School.

3. The New Yorker: Elizabeth Kolbert on conspiracy theories: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/04/22/whats-new-about-conspiracy-theories

America has always had a weakness for paranoid fantasies. … Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum are professors of government at, respectively, Dartmouth and Harvard. A few years ago, they found themselves, in their words, “startled into thought.” Yes, they knew, crazy ideas were a fixture of American life. But not this crazy. “The subject required more detailed and thoughtful interpretation,” the two write at the beginning of “A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy.”

“Classic” conspiracy theories, according to Muirhead and Rosenblum, arise in response to real events—the assassination of John F. Kennedy, say, or the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Such theories, they argue, constitute a form of explanation, however inaccurate they may be. What sets theories like QAnon apart is a lack of interest in explanation. Indeed, as with the nonexistent child-trafficking ring being run out of the nonexistent basement, “there is often nothing to explain.” The professors observe, “The new conspiracism sometimes seems to arise out of thin air.”

The constituency, too, has shifted. Historically, Muirhead and Rosenblum maintain, it’s been out-of-power groups that have been drawn to tales of secret plots. Today, it’s those in power who insist the game is rigged, and no one more insistently than the so-called leader of the free world.

Personal comments: It occurred to me recently that the appeal of conspiracy theories is among those who find ordinary explanations for things unconvincing. There must be something more; life can’t be just about coincidence. And it’s analogous to the appeal of creationism. How can natural forces result in all this complex natural world, in *us*? That it was all ‘created’ by some magical being is a kind of conspiracy theory: a simple-minded but unlikely explanation for something that has a natural explanation.

Another thought about conspiracy theories, from a couple comments I’ve read somewhere: No one who has worked in Washington DC, or who has been a project manager, can possibly believe in conspiracy theories. On the latter point, how often has a team of 30 or 3000 designers and engineers ever coordinated a project and gotten everything done on time and on budget? It never happens. It would have to have happened for any of those conspiracies theories about faking the moon landing or hiding evidence of alien visitors to be true.

4. Among the many ways life is better now than it was decades or centuries ago – despite the MAGA cultists – is how good weather forecasting has gotten. Hannah Fry in The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/07/01/why-weather-forecasting-keeps-getting-better.

In our world, weather forecasts are so ubiquitous that we treat them as notable only when wrong. It’s easy to forget what a crucial role they play, and to overlook the monumental achievement they represent. But Andrew Blum’s new book, “The Weather Machine” (Ecco), asks us to pause and marvel at the globe-spanning networks of collaboration required to turn the weather from something we experience to something we can predict.

The supercomputers have brought improved accuracy, too. In 2015, the E.C.M.W.F.’s six-day forecast was as good as its three-day forecast was in 1975. In 2012, its computers correctly foresaw Hurricane Sandy at least six days in advance. By 2025, they are expected to be able to detect high-impact events two weeks into the future.

The E.C.M.W.F.’s American cousin, run by the National Weather Service, tends to be a little less accurate a little more often. (Notably, it had Hurricane Sandy turning out to sea until just four days before it made landfall.) The two systems differ in the way they take observations into account, and there is no shortage of people who are vehement proponents of one model over the other. But both, of course, have their shortcomings: anyone who has ever been caught short without an umbrella won’t need to be told that even an “accurate” prediction isn’t the same as a perfect one.

It’s easy to forget that behind each prediction is one of humankind’s greatest accomplishments—something that requires armies of people all over the globe collecting and sharing data, exquisite mathematical modelling, and staggering computer power. The weather doesn’t respect political or geographic boundaries: we’re all living under the same sky. And so weather prediction has been a marvel not only of technology but also of international coöperation. As we enter an era of more storms and greater uncertainty than we’ve ever experienced, let’s hope it stays that way.

E.C.M.W.F. is the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. These are the European and American models that Al Roker frequently mentions.

Posted in Human Progress, Psychology, Religion, Technology | Leave a comment

Apollo 11

Like most others of my generation, I remember watching the Apollo 11 moon landing in grainy footage on a black & white TV in July 1969. I was not quite 14, and was living with my family in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, where we gathered around that TV set, and heard Neil Armstrong’s famous words.

I grew up with continuous news of the growing space program; the Mercury missions, the Gemini missions. There was a certain inevitability, perhaps the flavor of a manifest destiny, about the exploration of space and the expansion of mankind into the planets and the universe.

At the same time, on TV, there were early Twilight Zone episodes, like the very first, that presumed the inevitability of launches into space, Then, proceeding from the ridiculous to the sublime, there was Lost in Space, that assumed the need for colonizing other planets; and there was Star Trek, that showed the exploration of space far advanced, by a multi-cultural, multi-species, egalitarian society. And there was Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, just a year before Apollo 11, that depicted a grandiose space station and moon base.

So the success of Apollo 11 was gratifying, but not especially surprising. It was just the next step, in a long series expected to continue.

I have other distinct memories of July 1969. Just a week or two after the Apollo 11 landing, my family took a road trip east, from where we lived near Chicago. We drove through Smokey Mountains National Park. And then we stayed with a cousin of my mother’s and her family just outside Washington DC. We visited Dulles Airport, because my father was an architect and admired its design and wanted to see it. There, on a paperback rack, I bought a book called WE REACH THE MOON, by John Noble Wilford. It was what came to be called an ‘instant book,’ one written and published very quickly after the event it covered. (Just 72 hours after the event, the book claims; so obviously it was mostly written in advance, assuming the mission’s success.) It detailed the history of space flight until then, with 64 pages of color photos and appendices of past missions and transcripts of the Apollo 11 flight. Wilford still writes for the New York Times, so he must have been very young when he published that book. (I also recall, visiting those cousins, explaining 2001 to them, having both seen the movie and read the book. I’m not sure I succeeded.)

In later years I spent most of my career working for Rocketdyne, a rocket engine factory in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, supporting for many of those years first the Space Shuttle Main Engines and then the power system for the International Space Station. I was too young to support Apollo, and the Space Shuttle is long gone, but the Space Station persists. Though likely the systems and software I contributed to have long since been replaced by newer versions.

Posted in Personal history, Space | Leave a comment

Asimov, Six Lucky Starr novels


In the 1950s Isaac Asimov wrote six short science fiction novels for the ‘juvenile’ market, what today we would call ‘young adult.’ These were:

  • DAVID STARR, SPACE RANGER (1952)
  • LUCKY STARR AND THE PIRATES OF THE ASTEROIDS (1953)
  • LUCKY STARR AND THE OCEANS OF VENUS (1954)
  • LUCKY STARR AND THE BIG SUN OF MERCRUY (1956)
  • LUCKY STARR AND THE MOONS OF JUPITER (1957)
  • LUCKY STARR AND THE RINGS OF SATURN (1958)

They were all originally published by Doubleday, his regular publisher. I’m reading the New American Library/Signet paperback editions, published in 1971 ad 1972, with Bob Pepper cover art.

Let me stipulate that these are probably the least significant novels Asimov ever wrote. No one should start reading Asimov with these. But I’ve discovered that sometime the most ordinary novels of an era are more revealing of assumptions and attitudes of its time. The ‘classic’ novels are classic specifically because they’re out of the ordinary and do something different and unusual – they’re atypical. Typical works can be just as interesting, in different ways.

So. Why did Asimov write these books? I can speculate a little. No doubt Asimov explained why in his very detailed autobiographies (IN MEMORY YET GREEN and its sequel), but I haven’t read them and don’t even own copies. Perhaps because Robert A. Heinlein was having some success writing his ‘juvenile’ novels, at a rate of one a year (beginning with ROCKET SHIP GALILEO in 1947). Or perhaps because there was a growing library market for juveniles in general; other sf writers of the time were writing ‘juveniles’, like Wollheim and del Rey. In any case, Asimov’s six books are different than most of the others in that they concern a single recurring character. The books also provide Asimov with an opportunity to tour the solar system, as you can tell by the titles, and take the pedagogical opportunity to present the state of planetary science as it was in that era. (Actually, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucky_Starr_series notes that Asimov’s agent and publisher wanted him to write a series of books as the basis for a TV series. The series was never made, but Asimov kept writing the books, even planning a 7th, before abandoning fiction entirely for some years to write only non-fiction.)

The first book introduces us to a future some 5000 years after the atom bomb, when the solar system and galaxy are all populated. The setting is International City, on Earth, which reads like a future New York, and technical wonders like tri-television and force-fields (e.g. to provide an invisible table top) are common.

Earth’s food comes from Mars, and the action opens as David Starr, a prodigal young man and full member of the Council of Science, witnesses a diner in a restaurant collapse from having eaten a Martian plum. Learning of reports that 200 people have died from eating Martian products, David – who is impulsive and inclined to sidestep authority – sets off to Mars to investigate. He pretends to be a common worker, gets a job on a Martian farm (in a huge dome), and is alert for clues about sabotage or threats. Hearing speculation about possible Martian intelligence underground, he descends into a deep crevice and…

And eventually David solves the mystery of who’s sabotaging the Martian food and why. But that is the least interesting part of the novel. Much more interesting are these aspects of the book:

  • David is an orphan, we’re told early on, the sole survivor of a pirate attack in space that killed his parents. Two friends of his father’s, Hector Conway and Augustus Henree, being unmarried, adopted David and raised him. This is told matter-of-factly (p18-19 of the Signet edition) as if entirely unremarkable.
  • The highlight of the novel, and perhaps of the entire series, is David’s discovery of intelligent Martian life, deep underground, as he descends into a fissure using a silicon rope with force-field anchors. An opening appears, and his body is taken over and lifted into an airlock. He is spoken to by unseen entities who talk about matter-mind transformations (p89), how they descended underground a million years ago and have become pure mind and energy, and are sufficient living by themselves instead of exploring the universe. They suggest that David’s kind will eventually achieve such an ‘Inner Life’, despite their fragile flesh and penchant for secrecy. They decide David should be described as ‘Space Ranger’. They give him a kind of force-field mask, and return him to the surface, as if by magic.
  • Here’s the reason why such an ordinary book is interesting: because here we see the commonplace assumptions and presumptions of 1950s science fiction. Force fields. Beings of pure mind and energy. Superior minds without the need for physical travel. If these sound like themes of Star Trek episodes, that’s exactly right. Star Trek, in the mid-1960s, drew on common themes of science fiction of the couple decades before it. There wasn’t much conceptually original in Star Trek; its endurance as part of our popular culture, 50 years later, is one way in which (traditional) science fiction has conquered the world.
  • So this is the origin story of a superhero! David, who becomes known by his nickname Lucky in the second book, keeps his force-field mask secret. He claims to have been saved from the Martian desert by a ‘Space Ranger,’ and when necessary, takes on the identity of Space Ranger himself, wearing his mask. He’s an ordinary person with a secret identity! Wikipedia notes the character is based closely on the Lone Ranger, down to the Western-like setting on Mars, but surely Batman comes to mind as well.
  • And yet, reading the following books – this superhero secret-identity angle is abandoned. Lucky uses his mask at least once more, but he never uses his secret ‘Space Ranger’ identity to intervene when he can’t himself.
  • David never reveals his discovery of the Martian intelligence. He keeps that, and his mask, secret.

More incidentally,

  • All the men smoke pipes or cigars. (Curiously, Asimov came to loathe smoking, but it was common in the era of these books.)
  • The future envisioned here, in International City, is oddly familiar given 5000 years have passed; but that is a very typical failure of imagination in virtually all science fiction, which underestimates the rate of change over centuries or millennia.
  • Asimov imagines a society apparently run by a Council of Science, experts who decide all the important things. Wishful thinking, perhaps.
  • David ‘Lucky’ Starr picks up a sidekick, the ironically nicknamed Bigman, a short loud man ever anxious to defend himself in fights, who initially befriends David and later recognizes that David and the ‘Space Ranger’ are the same person. Bigman appears in all the following books.

The second book concerns the “pirates of the asteroids,” presumably the pirates who killed Lucky Starr’s parents. Lucky’s father figures Conway and Henree prepare an unmanned rocket as a booby-trap for those pirates, but Lucky sneaks aboard. When he’s found by the pirates he pretends to be disaffected, with no opportunities for him on Earth or the colonies, and wants to join them. He’s taken to meet a wealthy hermit, Joseph Hansen, in his own private luxurious asteroid – who knew Lucky’s father, and recognizes Lucky. Escapes and pursuits ensue, with much detail about relative coordinates and positions of various asteroids. Key points:

  • As with the first book, this plays out as a mystery that Lucky solves and reveals in a long speech at the end.
  • This book introduces the ‘Sirians’ (presumably from Sirius, though it’s not clear in this book if these are aliens or human colonists – eventually clarified to be the latter, since all of Asimov’s early works depicted a human-only occupied galaxy) as villains, collaborating with the pirates.
  • There are info-dump passages here about asteroids, moving in orbits, etc.
  • With this book we see that there are one or more fistfights in every book, sometimes involving Lucky (incognito) as a means of establishing his order in a social group, sometimes with Bigman anxious to defend his honor. Was this because TV series of the times required action scenes? Certainly Star Trek exhibited the same taste for physical action, as in Westerns, a taste that had faded by the time of Trek TNG (cf Pinker).
  • Lucky uses his Martian mask to protect himself as he transits across the solar system on a close pass over the sun, with much detail, calling it his ‘glimmer shield.’
  • The resolution involves Lucky’s understanding that he’s met, and captured, the pirate who killed his parents. So there’s a nice emotional resolution here.

Book three takes us to Venus, and it’s the traditional Venus of early SF, a warm world decked by clouds, here imagined as inhabited by people in underwater domes. Lucky and Bigman come to Venus to investigate a charge against an old roommate of Lucky’s, Lou Evans, that he stole information and ruined a vat of yeast, the planet’s main commodity and valuable export. Action scenes: the ‘coaster’ ship used to take them to the surface crashes when the pilots suffer a blackout. A man barricades himself at a sealock and threatens to flood the city; Bigman crawls through ducts to save the day. Evans flees as if guilty; in pursuit, Lucky and Bigman’s subsea craft are buried under a huge orange ‘patch’ creature. Specific interesting bits:

  • Early on a long (two-page) description of a six-legged V-frog, apparently merely a common pet, signals part of the solution – that humans are having strange blackouts due to telepathic manipulation by these frogs.
  • Late in the book Lucky has telepathic contact with the frogs, who claim they distrust humans because they end life by eating meat, and threaten the extermination of humans on Venus.
  • But Lucky realizes the frogs are only tools, being controlled by the bad guy, chief engineer Turner, whom when introduced earlier carries a ‘computer’ around with him always – an invention unlike anything in the galaxy, he says.
  • What was Turner’s motive? Apparently just dictatorial ambitions, p141. But because he’s built this unique computer, he will be rehabilitated, not executed.
  • As in the first book it seems the entire galaxy is occupied by humans, and here it’s said Earth’s system is the oldest in the galaxy, p35.

Book four, Mercury, again relies on 1950s ideas of what the planet was like – and in this case, Asimov provides a new foreword to this 1972 Signet edition to explain that Mercury does not face one side to the sun after all. (He had an analogous foreword in the Venus book.) But that’s what was thought at the time, and like one of Asimov’s robot stories, “Runaround,” the setting is the narrow band between the sunlit side and the backside forever in shadow. Lucky and Bigman come to Mercury to investigate failures that are plaguing Project Light, an ambitious project to send energy from the sun, via sub-etheric options, to Earth. They meet various supporters and critics of the project: an operative sent by a Senator on Earth afraid of wasting taxpayer money [anticipating Proxmire!], and Perverale, an observatory head afraid the project will leave Earth more vulnerable to the Sirians, among them.

  • Perverale provides some background about the Sirians, humans who’ve refined themselves into a unified race, and developed positronic robots as servants. Ah ha! Asimov had written his early robot stories and early Foundation stories by the time he wrote this book, without ever suggesting why there were no robots in the empire of the Foundation. Since the Lucky Starr books might well be taken as being set in a precursor to that empire, it’s significant that he suggests reasons why some planets might have adopted the use of robots, and others not.
  • Yet the discussion of robots isn’t incidental; the solution of the mystery involves a Sirian robot instructed to damage the project and is half insane from the heat. Lucky even recalls and tries to use the three laws to control it. [The books were originally published under a pseudonym, Paul French, but by including discussion of the famous three laws of robotics, Asimov was giving away the author’s actual identity.]
  • This book’s fight is a duel between Bigman and another, initially held in Mercury gravity until one of the villains switches gravity back to Earth normal.
  • And this book’s alien life-form is something in the old mining tunnels that feeds off heat, but which plays no part in the mystery about the project.
  • And once again Asimov asserts that scientists are the ones to best run the world, p21: “In this age of Galactic civilization, with humanity spread through all the planets of all the stars in the Milky Way, only scientists could properly cope with mankind’s problems. In fact, only the specially trained scientists of the Council were adequate.”
  • And yet, at the book’s very end, Lucky reflects on that hostile senator: “No, Senator Swenson is not a real cause for worry. He’s ruthless and dangerous, but for that very reason he keeps the Council on its toes, keeps us from getting flabby. Besides, the Council of Science needs its critics, just as Congress and the government do. If ever the Council began to consider itself above criticism, then the time might come when it would establish a dictatorship over the Earth, and certainly I wouldn’t want that to happen.”

Book five takes us to Jupiter, or least the moons around Jupiter. This time the project is an experimental anti-gravity ship, and again the Sirians have perhaps infiltrated the project to sabotage it.

  • Lucky brings a V-frog with him to check for telepathic leaks.
  • This book’s fight is a challenge to Lucky in an agrav corridor.
  • Despite the hostility of the local engineers – some hundreds of men, apparently, living inside Jupiter Nine, which is riddled with caverns and corridors – to Lucky’s visit, and despite the possibility of a hidden saboteur (perhaps a robot in disguise?), the first test flight of the agrav ships gets underway. Asimov provides much detail about Jupiter and its moons and the trip.
  • They land on Jupiter’s moon Io, where Bigman plays in ammonia snow and gets trapped down a crevasse. Fortunately one of the crew, the blind Harry Norrich, has brought his dog, who helps rescue Bigman. (Yes the dog wears a spacesuit too.)
  • They depart. Someone sabotages the controls of the agrav ship; they land on Jupiter Five, Amalthea, for repairs, and realize that one of the crew never boarded at Io. Tracked down, that saboteur admits having sold out to the Sirians, for a decent way of life away from Earth (recalling a story Lucky used in book two).
  • There is in fact a robot involved, but not in the shape of a human. (Saw this coming several chapters early on.) Not a mechanical robot; a creature with a robot mind. At the same time a biological creature, or people would have noticed.

Finally to Saturn, with its two rings – again per astronomical knowledge of the time. Lucky and Bigman come there because a suspected Sirian spy on Earth has fled in a ship toward Saturn. When Lucky, Bigman, and another Councilman, Wess, approach, they are challenged by a Sirian ship. So Lucky withdraws! But soon returns by himself to investigate whether the Sirians have occupied Saturn’s big moon Titan.

  • An interesting legal point is at the core of the dispute: a so-called Hegellian Doctrine (p125), whether or not an unoccupied world is open to colonization by anyone, even if it’s in the same system as other inhabited planets. That is, is it OK for Sirians, on a planet orbiting the star Sirius, 8.6 light years away, to occupy Titan, in Earth’s own solar system?
  • We get Asimov’s usual astronomical tour as they linger near Saturn: the rings, the gap, the ‘crepe ring’, the Cassini division; As in previous books, frequent descriptions of how far they are from earth, how big the nearby planet appears in the sky, how much dimmer it is than the earth or moon, etc. We also learn about the small moon Mimas, where Lucky’s ship drills a hole and hides—the moon is just a big snowball—until it emerges and they are challenged by the Sirians.
  • Eventually Lucky and Bigman are taken to Titan, where a colony inside a dome looks just like Earth, with buildings and lawns. The Sirian leader, Devoure, is contemptuous of Earthmen, especially ‘deformed’ ones like Bigman – who shortly challenges him to a personal fight, and wins. (This book’s fist fight.)
  • There’s some nice steady tension as the book’s climax approaches—a formal conference, on Vesta, to determine Sirian rights to Titan. Lucky is willing to testify, and his compatriots worry that he can’t help but support the Sirian case. Lucky testifies—and points out that his extraction from Mimas by the Sirians is exactly what the Sirians claim Earth is, unfairly, doing to them. Their case is lost.
  • This story is more political than the others, having the flavor of the Foundation stories, with immediate action backed up by larger issues of principle.
  • There’s also a strong theme in what we might understand today as nationalism vs. globalization: The Sirians are obsessed with racial purity and improving their breed, while Lucky claims the diversity of Earthmen is their strength.

So these books are pleasant but not terribly consequential. The paperbacks are all about 140 pages, and so are quick reads. They’re significant in that Asimov as always does the science right, even as he uses commonplace space opera devices like pseudo-gravity and telepathy, but especially because the books can be seen as part of Asimov’s grand project of imagining a future galactic civilization, one entirely populated by humans, that already saw its culmination in his earlier Foundation stories. And here (and also in 1950’s PEBBLE IN THE SKY, which I happen to be reading now) he was already considering how to reconcile that future with the one dominated by robots he had imagined in the stories in I, ROBOT, a concern he addressed in much greater detail in his later 1980s novels.

Posted in Book Notes, Isaac Asimov, science fiction | Leave a comment

Film Notes: Mulholland Drive

Over the past couple nights we re-watched one of my favorite movies of all time — Mulholland Drive (stylized, in Wikipedia’s take, Mulholland Dr.). I like it for its depiction of ’70s era Hollywood, and especially for Angelo Badalamenti’s score — here’s the key passage of his compelling, mysterious music at YouTube. We watched it so long ago, maybe 15 years ago, I didn’t remember what the ‘solution’ was, if any, for all the discordant and seemingly supernatural events. Having watched it again, I got a take — but according to Wikipedia, there is no single interpretation of the film, beyond resource to ‘dream logic’. My rough take: the first 3/4 of the film is a fantasy by a young actress from Ohio about what Hollywood is like, from charming cottages to a brilliant audition, about high-strung directors and mysterious mafiosi. And the final quarter is about her waking up to reality. And killing herself.

Posted in Movies | Leave a comment