Skip to main content

The Martian Way (SF) - Isaac Asimov ***

A collection of three novellas and a short story from one of the recognised masters of the 'golden age' of science fiction. These 1950s stories demonstrate well both why this period was given this title back then - the quality was far higher than, say, the 1920s and 30s - and also why that gold has tarnished in quite a big way since. By Asimov standards, the characters here are slightly more three dimensional than usual, but still from the stock cupboard, while women only feature as part of the scenery.

Still, there's some good material. The Martian Way is a bit of a precursor for Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress - space colony under pressure from the dominant Earth realises that it has to find a way to be truly independent. In this case, the problem is water and the solution is recognising the wider resources available to those with mastery of space. Youth has some of the feel of a Bradbury story with young protagonists (inevitably both male) - though Asimov can't capture the same sense of wonder. But it's a classic twist-in-the-tale piece of SF, nicely done. The Deep, the short story, tries to look at human culture through alien eyes and half succeeds. And Sucker Bait involves a mission to a failed colony where Asimov does what he does best - tries to find the solution to a problem of maintaining a galactic civilisation, in this case information overload.

The idea of that last story is that people are increasingly specialised and computers don't have insight, so there's a need in a widespread society (across thousands of planets) is to somehow have the ability to cross index and analyse knowledge. Now, of course, we would turn to computers, but we can't blame Asimov for not thinking of the advances we've seen in both software and hardware - so instead he proposes a human solution, individuals programmed from birth to be in the Mnemonic Service - remembering everything they see and able to link together forgotten pieces of information. Human Googles, you might say.

Clearly this isn't a realistic solution, but at least Asimov had thought about the issue. The story still has those 1950s faults. The captain and crew of the ship are straight out of marine central casting and regard the 'egghead' scientists as weirdos. And there's a sentence that beautifully sums up the period approach to women in the description of the origin of the settlement: 'In the next months, some of the unattached men arranged to have women brought in, so the settlement must have flourished for a while.' Yet despite these faults, this is primarily a story of ideas and Asimov was exploring an issue that most tales of galactic empire simply never considered.

I wouldn't say this short book is a collection to rush out and obtain - but if you come across it, it's well worth giving it a try.

The book is long out of print and isn't currently on Kindle. The cover shown is of my 1974 reprint of the 1965 Panther edition.
Paperback 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under