Triplanetary (Lensman, #1)

By E.E. "Doc" Smith

Rating: 2 stars

I picked this up because I saw it on Project Gutenberg for free, and I needed something to pad out my e-reader for a holiday. It’s been about twenty years since I last read any Doc Smith, and, good grief, I should have left it that way. I was only just out of my teens when I read the Skylark series and I quite enjoyed that at the time. But since then I’ve developed a taste for things like plot, character development and moral consideration.

The writing here is fast-paced and breathless in its descriptions, edging on purple – with everything being “indescribable”, and “unbelievable”. There are lots of rays as well, for everything except, well, light. Relativity would be quite new at this point, but still fairly well known, but there’s no mention of the speed of light or any indication that there’s a problem in travelling between star systems (which happens at, of course, “indescribable speed…”).

The book has an odd structure, with the first three short sections describing the fall of Atlantis, Rome and our civilisation, according to the plan of the powerful Arisians, as they try to create a race that can face the evil Eddorians in a battle across time and space. The main body of the book is a space opera set in a future civilisation when the inner planets of the solar system are united under a single “Triplanetary” government. It’s full of the sort of lantern-jawed super super-scientists that Heinlein would go on to make famous. Surprisingly, there is a female character, and although she’s mostly there to provide motivation to one of the aforementioned lantern-jawed scientist secret service men, she does actually get to fight at one point.

The story was pretty slight, with lots of cycles of fighting, being captured, escaping, rinse and repeat, and there were a few casual city-wide slaughters that were casually swept under the rug at the end. I might have enjoyed this more as a teenager, but I think I’ll skip the rest of the books and just look up the plot summary on Wikipedia.

Book details

ISBN: 9781882968091

Asimov’s Mysteries

By Isaac Asimov

Rating: 4 stars

This book is science fiction of the old school: where characters are there purely to drive the plot, but the plot hinges on some extrapolation of actual science. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy this sort of thing. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve really started to appreciate more sociological and character-driven SF, but this is the stuff I grew up on, with all its strengths and flaws.

Asimov presents thirteen of his science fiction short stories, all with a mystery theme to them. Several of them feature Wendell Urth, an “extraterrologist” with extreme agoraphobia, who has never travelled further than he can walk. And yet, he has a detailed knowledge of the worlds outside of Earth and uses this to help the police solve crimes from around the solar system. Some of the stories are funny (a two page shaggy dog story that was there purely to set up a pun had me cackling), some are serious. There’s a spy story that seems like it’s inspired by James Bond, except that the author says he wrote it before he’d heard of Bond. And the final story in the collection: The Billiard Ball is the only whodunnit I’ve read in which the key to the mystery involves general relativity!

As ever, Asimov’s own words on his stories are part of the fun. He provides fore- and/or afterwords on each story, with a bit of history or context, and his authorial voice is charming. I do wish I could have met the man.

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection, but, as ever with SF of this era, YMMV. There are almost no women to speak of and there’s not much in the way of depth of characterisation. But if you want a set of solid whodunnits, in an SF context, you can’t go far wrong with this.

Book details

ISBN: 9780586029299
Publisher: Panther
Year of publication: 1969


By Clifford D. Simak

Rating: 3 stars

This is a collection of eight short stories in the same setting, connected with a framing story that describes the stories themselves as legends that Dogs have passed down throughout the years about the decline and fall of the mythical species known as Man.

Simak sees a future where first humanity abandons the cities in favour of small, rural communities and later flees Earth for new forms on Jupiter, leaving only a small remnant behind, that is too intimidated by their forebears to create anything new, content to pass on their legacy to the Dogs.

There is continuity in the stories through the Webster family that recurs at pivotal moments, and of the robot Jenkins who serves the Websters. It’s a melancholic sort of book, dealing as it does with the end of humanity, but one with hope that our successors, the Dogs that a Webster uplifted, will be better than us.

The idea of the rugged individual or small community rather than the close living of cities feel decidedly American to me, especially the America of the middle of the 20th century. Having read other of Simak’s works, this love of country life above that of the city is a hallmark of his work. Personally, I really enjoy city life, which made the premise of the first story (which sees the end of the cities) difficult to accept, but once I got past that, the decline of humanity was easier to accept.

The stories are very Golden Age SF, with hardly a woman in sight and, apart from one that was set on Jupiter, all very much rooted on Earth. Simak contrasts Man’s desire to look outward and reliance on technology with Dog’s more introspective intelligence and finds us wanting.

A quietly retrospective book, tinged with melancholy, whose ideas will linger in mind after you put the book down.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575105232
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2011

Powered by WordPress