Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sci-Fi Book Reviews

I think I have discovered my nemesis. It is the graveyard shift. I have spent the last 6 days working the 11pm-7am shift. For some reason, naps during the day don't seem sufficient to reset the old biological clock. I feel like I have been living one long day that began 6 days ago. Luckily, my last night is tonight. The upside of being strung out by sleep vertigo is that I've had a good bit of reading time. On the recommendation of some friends, I read Isaac Asimov's Foundation and Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. In lieu of another topic, and at present the mental firepower, to write about anything more intellectually demanding, I thought I'd give my reviews. Foundation This book sold itself to me on the basis of its premise: a galactic empire has reached its peak and is about to enter a state of decline. An ingenious scientist who is an expert on the new science of psychohistory has worked out mathematical systems to describe the course of history through exact statistical modeling of human behavior and inadvertently discovers this fact. He has determined that it is not possible to alter the course of events, so he set up a foundation, called simply Foundation, to help the galactic system recover after the unfolding of the collapse. Feeling threatened by his work, the galactic empire intervenes in his plans and has him arrested. However, the empire equally fears the public backlash of having him executed, so they banish him to a far corner of the galaxy, where he is allowed to continue his project unmolested. Over the coming years, the empire indeed does begin the slow process of decay, and the book follows the next ~200 years of history as the Foundation begins, pardon the pun, "laying the foundation" of the next empire. In the intro to the book, it is revealed that Asimov got the idea from his reading of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a book I have long been interested in but have never gotten around to reading myself. That sold it for me; I plunked down my $2 at the used book store and took it home. Unfortunately, the book didn't live up to the promise of its premise. Everything about the storyline should have been interesting: the slow decline of the galactic empire and the rise of local kings and kingdoms, the decay of the social order into a feudal system, the rise of a new religion, which becomes the backbone of a new system that centralizes power with the Foundation and brings the kingdoms in line under its authority. Pretty neat, right? Unfortunately, there is no depth to the book at all. It covers the span of ~200 years in about as many pages, most of it gobbled up with oh-so-clever dialogue between overwitted, two dimensional characters as they fight their way through their petty confrontations. Character development is virtually nil; I don't think a single character makes it past 20-30 pages, and almost all are unrealistic in the first place. They are completely unworthy of the investment of any interest on the part of the reader. Asimov tries to work in some profound witicisms, mostly about how cool science is, but for somebody who isn't already a science fetishist they fall rather flat. The potential for deep social commentary is completely ignored, and based on the previous observations, was probably beyond Asimov's abilities in the first place. On the other hand, Asimov managed to crank out 440 volumes in his lifetime, which I would guess comes to approximately a book every 1-2 months. That's impressive in-and-of-itself, but at that kind of pace, I doubt anyone could write anything particularly profound. He probably made a good living at it, and good for him, but personally I don't want to read this kind of stuff. So, although the plot was a spectacular idea, this was a very shallow read. It was fun, but a waste of time for someone who is interested in "fiction with an impact." I will not be partaking of any more of Asimov's work in the future, but it the idea certainly was a doozy with a lot of untapped potential. Maybe somebody else should take a stab at writing this book. Starship Troopers This book was fantastic, and it was absolutely nothing like the movie that came out some years ago by the same name. In fact, it is absolutely nothing like what the title would suggest. The story follows a young man, fresh out of high school, who signs up for military service against his father's wishes. He winds up in the M.I. (Mobile Infantry) as, basically, a foot soldier for interplanetary combat. Of course, infantry in the future has lots of interesting and more powerful weaponry, especially in the form of advanced space suits capable of performing "air drops" from space and inflicting massive damage over enormous land areas very quickly. In the opening scene ~10 guys virtually raze a city covering several square miles in a matter of minutes, then rendezvous with their exit craft and are back in space within seconds. While the young man is in training, a war breaks out between the human Federation and two other alien empires, one described as "the skinnys," in reference to their anatomy, and the other as "the Bugs," since they are, in fact, termite-like insects. The skinnys turn to the human side early on, and the remainder of the war is fought against the bugs. Pretty lame, right? Even as sci-fi goes, teched-out, uber-powerful space marines fighting an army of alien insects doesn't sound like the most compelling plotline for much of anyone who would describe himself as an adult. Not so fast. In many ways, this is the complete literary inverse of the Foundation novel: a rather shallow premise developed to an amazing depth with a great deal of profound social commentary. Almost half the book is devoted to the main character's training in boot camp. Heinlein uses the training to develop and describe the structure of human society in the future and how it arrived at that point. He also uses the events to illustrate how critical personal discipline is to social order in a way that is quite persuasive and insightful. Even once the main character leaves boot camp, very little of the novel is devoted to actual fighting. Most is concerned with the decision making process of the military chain of command, the relationship between the military and civilians in this future society, and, believe it or not, the ethics and purpose of warfare. All through the eyes of a relatively unremarkable young man, who, as a result of his training and experiences, develops into a remarkable soldier. A lot of what is described is a tad unrealistic: the overwrought competence of the military instructors and their ability to predict the behavior of their recruits, the complete dependency of the social order and military success on this super-human level of competence, the mathematical perfection of their ethical systems, etc. Nonetheless, the book has really left me thinking. I had almost, almost become a near complete pacifist under the influence of such as Fred Reed and Vox Day. I still have my doubts about "salvation through violence," politics, and the like, or the utility of war for the reform of societies; there is no hope outside of the acceptance of God and His law and will in the life of individuals and societies. Heinlein's agnostic moral calculation cannot touch this truth, yet something about this book has shaken me. I recognize shortcomings in his model, but I also recognize that there are deep truths contained here that jut against my understanding. For now, the jury is out; I will have to read more Heinlein. On a lighter note, Heinlein also likes to pepper his work with insightful quips, and comes off quite a bit better about it than Asimov. In an ironic twist, an early chapter on boot camp contains this profound insight:
I made a very important discovery at Camp Currie. Happiness consists in getting enough sleep. Just that, nothing more.
With that, I head off for my last sleepless graveyard shift for the month!

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