Saturday, December 15, 2007

Book Review: Clarke County, Space and Lit Review: Isaac Asimov

I was going to review Clarke County, Space by Allen Steele for NSS, but the trick to those reviews is that the books need to be on so NSS can get a piece of the action. Oh, well. I read, I write: that's what I do. One thing worth noting/reading on Steele's website is his congressional testimony regarding "the coming space age." Nice to see fellow advocates publish successfully.

Clarke County, Space is a crisply paced and short space adventure compared to most of the ones I see on the shelves lately (231 pages). Clarke County (CC in this review) is a Bernal Sphere space station orbiting Earth in a wide elliptical orbit. CC is part farm community, part tourist attraction, with the occupants divided between corporate financiers, hippie-type communalists, hospitality industry types, and tourists.

The story begins with a frame story, from which the author flashes back. This seems to be a common technique in SF (see Red Mars, Mars Underground, Moving Mars, as well as my review of Star Trek: Best Destiny among others), as authors feel the need to show events that lead up to some grim or glorious future. As with most of these frame stories, it could probably be eliminated with a minimum of fuss, as it mostly tells us that at least one character or two is going to live or die. And in the case of Clarke County, I did not feel that the frame story "added value," if I may use a marketing phrase, so I will concentrate on the primary narrative.

Trouble comes to the life of John Bigthorn, sheriff of CC, when the former girlfriend of a mafia don sneaks away from said bad guy and hides herself at the colony. Behind her is the Golem, a hit man. CC is also "invaded" by a reconstituted Church of Elvis while one of the leaders of the local leadership council suddenly declares that CC should declare its independence from Earth and its corporate interests. And lurking in the midst of all this is Blind Boy Grunt, an electronic blogger who sees all, knows all within CC. If this sounds like a lot of loose ends to tie up in 230 pages, it is; Steele manages to tie up most of them neatly by the end of the book.

The lead character, Bigthorn, is a Native American (Navajo), who stoically puts up with stereotypical "Injun" humor while making equally stereotypical remarks about "Anglos." We aren't given much of his background--or anyone else's, for that matter--except to know that he's an impressive, muscular guy, a bit of a hardass, a peyote user, and a gentleman with an impressive set of male equipment. Early in the story, the wife of the commune's leader (and the one who declares independence later) tries to seduce Bigthorn in a rather Heinleinian manner, using language that, if a man used it on a woman, would probably get him rightly kicked in the equipment.

Aside from fending off seduction attempts from one of CC's leading citizens, Bigthorn is informed of the arrival of Macy, the mafia don's girlfriend, by Blind Boy Grunt, who seems to know everything about everybody. He is also informed about the arrival of the Golem, who he quickly shakes down and irritates. Much of the story, then, swirls around Bigthorn, Macy, and the Golem. Macy eventually takes refuge with the Church of Elvis, which is run by Elvis Parker, a con man who got plastic surgery done on his face to look exactly like "the King."

The Church of Elvis subplot actually comes closest to having a space component to it, as they manage to obtain access (via Macy) to a space weapon. Despite Steele's occasional descriptions and discussions of the construction or interior of CC, I didn't get that much of a "space" feel to the story. Tweak a few things here and there, and the story coul have taken place at an offshore resort here on Earth.

Surprisingly, the aspect of the story that would normally get the most attention in a space colony story like this--the declaration of independence--is mostly a subplot. The woman who makes the declaration seems to make it out of the ether. The reader is not given a lot of insight into what's motivating her, why she makes the declaration, or why the colonists should even care. It's brought up, and then dropped except for a "town meeting" later in the story.

On the whole, I liked Clarke County, both for its brevity and its fast-moving plot. The characters are not deep, but easily distinguishable. John Bigthorn's quick banter and Steele's mildly cynical narration recall Heinlein's early style and move the story along with a minimum of fuss. Perhaps this short adventure story suffers from too little of the gosh-wow factor that I've picked on other books for having too much of. Clarke County is so familiar in its environment that it is difficult to remember that it takes place in space. That could have been intentional on Steele's part: he's telling a tale which just happens to take place in the future on an orbiting habitat, but that's no big deal. While some SF stories go too far into hardware/environment worship, Steele has gone almost entirely in the other direction. He is more concerned with people and what they're doing, and that is a factor worth considering: just as we take our cell phones, text messaging, and other electronic toys for granted, so people in the future would just consider space colonies part of the landscape. It's just we primitives in the past who would bother with the gee-whiz.


Continuing my review of the SF Giants, I'll next turn my attention to Isaac Asimov, the chemistry professor who might be the most prolific writer of this (or any) age. The official site for this Grand Master, who died in 1992, lists 506 books to his credit, not to mention countless essays, letters, and Deus knows what else. He gives "work ethic" a whole new meaning. Asimov is known as both an important SF writer and science educator, having written books in just about every fiction and nonfiction category in the library.

Born in 1920, Asimov was one of those authors who brought literary and scientific law and order to a science fiction genre that had been dominated by the "pulps" before the arrival of serious technologists like him, Heinlein, and their mentor, John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction. While Heinlein was writing action-oriented adventure stories, Asimov was selling logic puzzles disguised cleverly as stories about robots and of all things, encyclopedia writers.

Asimov's most famous short stories are his robot stories, collected among other places in the book I, Robot, which should not be confused by the Will Smith movie on which it was loosely based. Asimov put a new spin on runaway robot stories, which in the pulp era had often represented Robby the Robot-type monsters terrorizing the populace. Instead, Asimov and Campbell hacked out the "Three Laws of Robotics" as a means of limiting and explaining robotic behavior. They are:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human
    being to come to harm.

  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders
    would conflict with the First Law.

  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

A "runaway" robot, then, was an anomaly for Asimov's peaceful, purposely harmless machines. If a failure occurred, it was usually the result of robots acting as best as they could when trying to interpret human beings who had not thoroughly thought through what they were asking. The mystery of the story, then, becomes figuring out what went wrong in what today we would call the "human-machine interface." The lead character for many of these stories is Dr. Susan Calvin, a roboticist with a brilliant mind but utterly cold personality. Her attitude can be neatly summed up by her opinion of robots:

To you, a robot is just a robot. But you haven't worked with them. You don't
know them. They're a cleaner, better breed than we are.

Following the robot stories (and novels), Asimov's most enduring fictional work is a series of short stories and novellas collected into three books as The Foundation Trilogy. Inspired by reading of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Asimov (again with guidance from John W. Campbell) set about creating a "Foundation" that would work to reduce the damage done by the collapse of a Galactic Empire. The Foundation is actually "Encyclopedia Foundation Number One," established on the remote planet Terminus to preserve the knowledge of the Empire and to keep them away from the capital world of Trantor, where their pronouncements of galactic doom were feared to cause unrest.

The Foundation's founding member is a "psychohistorian" named Hari Seldon. Seldon uses the science of psychohistory to predict the future--at least on a statistical basis for large groups of people. Seldon sees the Empire, currently at its greatest extent and power, nearing collapse, following which will be a 30,000-year dark age. He gets the Foundation established and purposely moved to the outer edges of the galaxy in the hopes of reducing the dark age from 30,000 years to a mere 1,000.

Not being comfortable in the rough-and-tumble violence of ancient Rome, Asimov instead conjures up stories that are again logic puzzles, this time of the sociological sort. The most important lead character of early stories is Salvor Hardin, Mayor of Terminus, whose motto is typical Asimov: "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent." As the Empire collapses, local petty chieftains begin to threaten the Foundation. Hardin, a pragmatic politician with no training in psychohistory, has to guess at its workings to find ways to keep the Foundation safe. What we are treated to over the course of the next several stories, then, are a series of "Seldon Crises," which end up in the Foundation gradually converting itself from a community of scholars to a theocracy to a trading federation, guided as always by the invisible hand of Seldon's calculations, who had anticipated all these crises along the path toward creating a Second Galactic Empire.

The relentless progress of the Foundation is interrupted by the interference of the Mule, a mutant of some sort who can control the minds of his followers, as well as the mythic "Second Foundation," which Seldon had arranged to be placed "at Star's End."

It helps to have know something about Gibbon or at least post-Roman European history to get the full flavor of what Asimov is attempting. The original stories only took readers through about 250 years of galactic history. It was only at the insistence of one of his editors that Asimov returned to the Foundation universe, and then he did something even more ambitious: writing a series of books that tied together the Robot stories, his less-well-known "Galactic Empire" stories, and the Foundation stories. The leaps of logic are ingenious and thus typically Asimov, but I sometimes wonder if it was worth all the effort. The books were written during different periods in Asimov's career, and technologies were often incompatible or even out of date in the intervening years. But such was the nature of Asimov's work ethic and dedication to his craft.

Of all the science fiction writers whose works have had their stories turned into movies, Asimov's have received the fairest, best treatment. Bicentennial Man starring Robin Williams is based on an Asimov novella by the same name that follows the travails of Andrew Martin, a robot obsessed with becoming human. I, Robot, mentioned earlier, is a Will Smith crime story borrowing from several Asimov stories and including an appearance by Dr. Susan Calvin. Both stories manage to convey Asimov's inherent decency, as Bicentennial Man manages a PG rating, while I, Robot has a PG-13 rating that could probably have been scaled back were it not for the addition of modern-era profanity. Again, Asimov's stories are cerebral, exercises for the mind, not the body, and it is no surprise to me that Disney made Bicentennial Man. Director Chris Columbus manages to convey the charm and benign nature of an Asimovian future.

Oddly, the best treatment Asimov has received has been in movies and television shows that were NOT direct translations of his work. The character of Lt. Commander Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation is one of the best Asimovian robots/androids ever to grace the big or small screens. Another series that owes a lot to (i.e. stole a lot from) Asimov is George Lucas's Star Wars saga, starting with its Galactic Empire and continuing with its capital world Coruscant, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the world-city of Trantor, a planet completely covered by metal. In fact, Star Wars can be seen as a retelling of Foundation, which is a retelling of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which is a work of history about actual events following the fall of Rome. That's one way to get your history lessons, I suppose.

If the reader cannot tell, I am very much a fan of Asimov's; though I am not blinded by some of his literary tics. His stories are very "talky." He is, after all, solving puzzles with words, not battling bad guys or describing a lot of alien landscapes. The Foundation stories are best read on their own, as they appeared in Astounding; otherwise the books suffer from repitition. Despite this dialogue-driven storytelling method, Asimov isn't nearly as pedantic or action-oriented as Heinlein, nor does he aspire to the poetry of Clarke. Instead, he provides the clear, charming prose of an entertaining and erudite professor, which (incredibly) was his day job. Asimov was a political liberal, and had a falling-out with Heinlein after the latter's shift to the right. He stood along with Clarke and Carl Sagan in his opposition to the Strategic Defense Initiative. I cannot, in all honesty, recall any harsh word spoken by or about him. His works will be with us for a long time. If you were somehow able to read one Asimov book a day and started today, you would finish sometime around May 5, 2009. Regardless of what you pick up, you are likely to learn. That is the mark of a truly great writer and teacher.

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