Posts Tagged ‘hard SF’

James Blish: The Seedling Stars

March 21, 2021

     Found this one that I bought in 1977 and apparently hadn’t read. It’s a set of four loosely linked tales about adapted humans, with the basic premise that finding habitable earth-like planets is pretty unlikely, terraforming planets is very long-term and costly, and therefore the way to go is to manipulate humans so that they can live in radically different conditions. And yet Blish’s adapted humans think and emote just like us ordinary humans in hard SF… I found this just a little unconvincing, really. The novel dated from the mid-1950s, and yet already there is the notion that humans are outgrowing, and wearing out, their own planet.

As I read this moderately interesting novel of ideas – for that’s basically what it is, nothing plot-wise to sustain a reader’s attention here – I was struck by the progression from Olaf Stapledon, in Last and First Men, where humans modify themselves in order to colonise planets, in the sweep of a story of humanity across several billion years, to Blish in this novel, exploring a similar idea, but focusing on smaller groups of individuals in a more limited time-frame, with the similar idea of humanity ‘seeding’ other worlds with intelligent life. And then I realised what Ursula Le Guin had done, picking up the same idea in a much more sophisticated manner in her Hainish novels and stories. In those, the Hainish, in the distant past, seeded many worlds across the universe with variations on the human form; these eventually re-discover each other and form a loose association called the Ekumen, and homo sapiens here on planet Earth is merely one of the results of the Hainish seeding. And then, with her background in anthropology, she can put homo sapiens under the microscope.

It’s good to see how writers play with each other’s ideas, develop and vary them, and provide us with more food for thought in different ways. I can acknowledge Blish’s part in this sequence, and I liked the final twist at the end where the racism that had always blighted humanity’s time on Earth, re-appeared as the different human types re-connected with each other, and the ‘original’ Terrans demonstrated their innate sense of superiority once again… But ultimately Blish is too much hard science, and unconvincing would-be humans for me.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Red Mars

February 20, 2017

519dthny83l-_ac_us218_I’d been quite looking forward to reading the Mars series for a good while, and I finally got started…now I’m not so sure. It’s certainly a very ambitious work (and I’ve only read the first part so far) but what does Robinson actually want the book to be – political treatise, detective story, travelogue around another planet, Swiss Family Robinson on Mars? – it’s all of these at different times, and none of them very well at all, at least to this reader.

There’s plenty of hard SF – if you like that sort of thing – about terraforming planets and building space elevators, and some thought given to the politics, psychology and ideology of a major human effort like colonising Mars. It all comes from a rather limited US perspective, at least to this European reader. There’s a compelling enough story about the clashes of personalities and approaches to colonising a planet, which draws the reader forward, though with a tendency to skim at times.

My biggest gripe, and it’s not one that I’d direct at this novel alone but at an awful lot of SF, is the poor characterisation. And I know one might say I’m a bit spoilt with the kind of ‘softer’ SF that I tend to prefer, and that I’d be bound to notice failings in this area. Robinson’s characters (he starts off with a hundred of them, the first group of colonists selected, which isn’t a terribly good idea in itself, I fear) are sketchy, some more than others, but some just random and interchangeable names at times, making the novel as hard to follow as a Russian classic. It’s hard to care about most of them, as they exist to serve the plot, and are picked up and dropped willy-nilly as the story unfolds. It’s all very well to say, but this is hard SF, this is a novel of ideas, but that’s not good enough when the genre is nearly a century old, it’s actually very frustrating. And I could get side-tracked into questions of genre, and science-fiction as literature, which I researched and wrote theses about years ago, but I won’t.

The one main point that I latched on to, that I think the writer does explore well, is just how difficult it is (will be?) for humans anywhere to escape their past, not so much their biology and physiology as their conditioning and their ideology, which lead to political and military conflict wherever humans go, and are reproduced with drastic consequences even on another planet. This pessimistic strand is quite well explored, and gave me pause to think…

In the end, I think that there’s just too much material Robinson wants to cram in, too much time and too many events and so the key elements of any story, and in particular characterisation, are just spread too thin. But it’s a compelling enough page-turner and I’ll probably read the rest when I find then in a second-hand shop, but there’s no real rush…

Neal Stephenson: Seveneves

July 23, 2016

51J6jDML6PL._AC_US160_It’s a strange novel in some ways: for starters, the two main sections are separated by a period of five thousand years. Shakespeare takes us past sixteen years with a little awkwardness in The Winter’s Tale, but five millennia? And, whilst the first part is a ripping yarn that carries you along, the second feels limp, self-indulgent.

For some reason, never explained, in the near future the moon explodes, and the further process of its disintegration into rocks and meteorites which bombard the earth, brings about the end of the humanity, but not before everyone’s efforts have been focused on trying to create a future for the human race in space, with a colony of about 1200 people centred on the International Space Station. There’s a little mild exploration of how the species might react faced with the prospect of annihilation, but we are mainly focused on politicking, which demonstrates the absurdity of our species, and hard science: there’s a great deal – far too much, to be honest – scientific explanation of how all the different machinery and robotics and spacecraft work in the two years between the calamity and the end of humanity. What this means is that a lot of the time I was skim-reading: not that I didn’t want to know about how everything worked, but I didn’t want so much information…I wanted to get on with the plot.

Human stupidity leads to further problems inside the space station and to factions and breakaway groups, fighting and cannibalism, meaning that in the end humanity is reduced to eight females, seven of whom are able to reproduce… and we also get the impression that if everything were left to the sensible scientists, things would have gone a great deal better (!)

So, there was a plot, some excitement and some tension in that part… then we arrive in the future, with humanity having re-established itself, but in seven slightly different races and colonised the ex-moon’s orbit space, and engaged in re-engineering the old earth for habitation. And here, things do seem to flag, initially. Eventually, we become aware that there were some survivors of the cataclysm on the surface: a sea-based race descended from people on a nuclear submarine that sheltered in the deepest oceans, and a land-based one that had secured itself in very deep mine-workings; the encounters between all the different groups and the potential for future problems are quite interesting. However, I feel Stephenson spoils his plot by replicating a Cold War Red/Blue split and stand-off between the space survivors – of all the hackneyed tropes to come up with!

Stephenson creates a future world, with some utopian elements, but it’s ultimately fantastical in the sense that he doesn’t have to/ choose to tell us how we get there: the five thousand year time-leap becomes a cop-out, and in some ways we are in the vague and mentally exhausting ages of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, where he takes us forward several billion years in a series of leaps, but fails to engage us emotionally in the future of the human race. And there is just too much scientific description of invented elements of future technology…..

I have enjoyed much of Stephenson’s earlier work: Cryptonomicon was gripping and credible, and the Baroque Cycle trilogy was a masterpiece. But here the ideas and the delivery feel rather laboured, and I felt up against science fiction’s oldest problem: can you create interesting and believable characters that really engage your reader (no) along with speculative ideas (yes) explained without too much technical detail (no). So, space opera then.

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