Friday, 3 March 2017

A Trio of Classic Science Fiction Novels

I'm steaming ahead with my book challenge at the very least, 10 books so far out of my target of 40. According to Goodreads I am 4 books ahead of schedule, though I feel like I will be losing some ground over the next few weeks as I'm about a quarter of the way through the 950 page Tolstoy opus, Anna Karenina. Anyway back to the science fiction.

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

The Caves of Steel is the first book in Asimov's Robot series, which has multiple novels and many short stories in it. This book takes place in the near-ish future, at a time when robots were still in their infancy. Most robots in this book are dumb things, not a great leap from artificial intelligences of today. This book features detective Elijah Baley, and possibly the first of the truly intelligent robots, Daneel Olivaw. An important ambassador has been murdered, and it is Baley and Daneel's job to investigate the crime and discover the culprit, to prevent a greater crisis.

This book has been on my to be read list for a long time now, and I finally got around to it after picking up a cheap paperback copy. The detective story itself is quite a basic one, but it was the world building and the great ideas that really got me hooked on this book. Considering it was written in (checks Wikipedia) 1954, it has aged really, really well. Okay so the computers they are talking about are pretty basic and possibly involved punched cards, and some of the numbers are a bit off (the 8 billion population may be several times that of Asimov's era, but today's population is close to that) but otherwise it is very believable. The political/social system described is bordering on communist, but is still quite believable, and some of the technology was a delight (I loved the idea of the moving walkways where you stepped from lane to lane, which increase in speed each time). Overall, a great, short book, still very relevant and enjoyable today and a good start to his Robot series.

The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl & C M Kornbluth

This is a 1950's classic science fiction novel by the writing team of Frederick Pohl and C M Kornbluth. Ad man Mitch Courtenay is at the top of his game, and has been given the plum assignment of managing the Venus contract - promoting the new colonisation of Venus to ensure that his agency exclusively controls the spending of the would be colonists. In this imagined future, the world is effectively controlled by three giant advertising companies, the leaders of which are more powerful even than the US president. The ad men are rich, powerful and can have whatever they want, the consumers however are a downtrodden underclass...

This is a short novel, and in keeping with most science fiction of this era, it is desperately short on good characterisation - the characters are quite two dimensional almost just ciphers to move the plot along. The plot itself is also somewhat pedestrian, although with a twist at the end. I have to say however I really enjoyed this book. Although it is really dated, having been written over 60 years ago it has some very interesting technology and even the dated aspects of the novel hold a certain interest - in many ways the future the authors portrayed is already here. A lot of the scary stuff is a lot closer now than it was in the 1950's and even the stuff they got wrong casts light on the present. A great read.

The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison

In the far future, criminal intent, violence and deviousness has been bred out of the human race. Once in a while though someone slips through the genetic net. James Bolivar diGriz a.k.a. Slippery Jim is such a person. He is a master criminal and a brilliant disguise artist with a cunning mind, always staying several steps ahead of the law. Until...

This is the first in a science fiction comedy series, begun in the 1970s by the prolific science fiction author Harry Harrison. It was written, I think, as a spoof of the early space opera series by the likes of E E Doc Smith. I've never been a big fan of comic science fiction, or comic fiction generally, but it gives the author a lot of freedom to disregard the rules of science or sense and just have fun. I really enjoyed this, it was a great fun read. Incidentally, rather than reading this I listened to the audiobook from Brilliance Audio (on and I thought it worked great as an audiobook and the narrator did a really good job.

That's it for now. I've just ordered several of the SF Masterworks so I'll be covering them in a later post. Before that, Hemingway and Tolstoy amongst others!