Wednesday, October 1, 2008

This Week at the Library (1/10)

Books this Update:
  • In the Balance, Harry Turtledove
  • Foundation and Earth, Isaac Asimov

I had an extraordinarily busy weekend when it came to schoolwork, but I was able to read In the Balance between writing sessions. In the Balance is an alternate-history and science fiction novel by Harry Turtle, the publisher- or self-proclaimed “Master of Alternative History”. I wouldn’t go that far, but considering how much I’ve read by him I obviously enjoy what he writes. In the Balance is set in the middle of the Second World War. A fleet of alien spacecraft from Tau Ceti 3 (this according to the Fount of All Knowledge) arrives in December 1941 with the intentions of conquering Earth -- to find to their horror that human beings have progressed much in the 800 years since their probes first examined our humble planet.

They had expected to find a globe occupied by rudely-armed peasants and knights errant, since their own technological progress had been slow. They found instead dense urbanization and countries in the middle of the second industrial revolution -- with planes, trains, and automobiles. While they arrived at Earth -- or as they call it, Tosev 3 -- with more weapons than they needed, they find that we Tosevites are not so easy to suppress. The aliens, who call themselves the Race, find that humans are imaginative and unpredictable. This presents a problem, because the Race is not very good at responding to changing situations. In the Balance covers the first year of the Earth-Race war.

One of Turtledove’s strengths is inserting minor details that make the story seem real. At the beginning of the book, before the Race begins its invasion, we learn that one of the principle characters is a science fiction aficionado. He races to the newsstand to buy the latest copy of Astounding Stories. Turtledove writes that “the latest serial from Robert Heinlein had just ended”, but that the character (Sam Yeager) was still excited to see what the new offerings would be from Heinlein, Asimov, and others. The forties and fifties have been described (by Asimov and others) as science-fiction’s heyday, and it was nice to see the cultural reference. The reference probably had to be made, of course, given that this is a science fiction novel and had it actually happened, people would think of magazines like Astounding Stories. Another example of this specificity is that Turtledove portrays the Race as having to figure out why humanity is the way it is -- examining human behavior by looking at biological and environmental factors. As a history/sociology student, I find the observations interesting.

Turtledove’s cast of characters is fairly varied. Some of the more memorable characters include a ball playing sci-fi fan turned soldier; an American nuclear physicist; two German panzer crewmen, a female Russian pilot, and a Jewish quasi-rabbi in Poland. There are also various historical personalities -- Foreign Minister Molotov of the USSR, Italian scientist Enrico Fermi, George S. Patton, and Adolf Hitler. These historical personalities are not viewpoint characters, however. An extended scene between Molotov and Hitler was interesting read: how do you put words into the mouth of a man who is used as the standard for pure evil? How do you write him? It’s the same question I would ask if I read Anne Rice’s Jesus books: how do you put words into the mouth of a man who is regarded as a god?

The members of the Race are reptilian in nature; the human characters in the book refer to them as the Lizards. Being a Star Trek fan, my initial mental image was that of the Gorn, from the original series’ “The Arena”. Turtledove adds that the Lizards are only waist-high compared to most humans, and consequently their name for us is “Big Uglies”.

Considering that these lizards have come across the stars to add Earth to their growing space empire, they’re not that technologically advanced. They came to Earth in sleeper ships, although the Fount of All Knowledge says that they have apparently achieved half the speed of light. That’s fairly quick -- it means you can get from the Sun to Earth in four minutes. Outside of that, though, the Lizards don’t seem that technologically advanced. They attack with helicopters, jet aircraft with heat-seeking misses, and land cruisers that don’t seem that far beyond 21st century Earth.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. The plot works: it seems plausible. The fictional characters emerge as distinct people, three of them in particular. The story was interesting to me, and I say if science fiction relating to Earth or alternative history with science-fiction elements interests you, give the first book a try.

Next I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Earth. Chronologically, it is the last book in the Foundation series, at least according to the Fount of All Knowledge’s list of books in the series. The series is set in a galaxy occupied by human beings, far in the future. I have read five of the books in the series proper, I believe. Asimov intended that people be able to enjoy this book without having read any of the books preceding it, and I think he was successful. Reading Foundation's Edge, first, though, is recommended by me. The Foundation Triology isn’t necessary, although would make the reading of Foundation and Earth more rich, I think.

To describe the book without spoiling any plot points in the preceding books, Foundation and Earth is about the search by three people (Golan Trevize, Janov Pelorat, and “Bliss”) to find Earth. The galaxy of the series is set over twenty thousand years in the future, and the characters know that humanity have to have evolved on one planet and then settled the rest of the galaxy. They want to find this planet; Pelorat for historical reasons and Trevize for reasons that pertain to the plot of the book. They hope that finding Earth will answer questions that they’ve had since Foundation’s Edge. Since this book is last in the meta-series, it does as you might imagine answer questions and tie up some loose ends and everything it’s supposed to.

I’ve become something of an Asimov enthusiast in recent years, especially in the last year. That enthusiasm is supported by how much I continue to enjoy reading his fiction books. With the exception of Foundation and Empire -- the enjoyment of which I think was spoiled by having accidentally read its sequel before it -- I have enjoyed the books in this series thoroughly. I can find nothing ill to say about them except they keep ending on me. I am happy that I still have many books in the meta-series to read yet, but I understand that sadly one day I’ll have read the entire series -- because I intend to borrow or buy every book I can. I must confess that part of me wants to have a bookcase in my future home that is sagging under the weight of all of the books in it just so that I can sit there admiring my bookcase and say “Just look at all that Asimov!”

Pick of the Week: Foundation and Earth. Turtledove is interesting; Asimov is…amazing. Here's an interview with him.

Quotation of the Week:

“The enlightened people of the SSSR have cast the rule of the despots onto the ash-heap of history,” Molotov said.

Avtar laughed in his flat face. “The Race has flourished under its Emperors for a hundred thousand years. What do you know of history, when you were savages the last time we looked over your miserable pest-hole of a planet?” The Fleetlord heartily wished the Tosevites had remained savages, too.

“History may be slow, but it is certain,” said Molotov stubbornly. “One day the inevitable revolution will come to your people, too, when their economic conditions dictate its necessity. I think that day will be soon. You are imperialists, and imperialism is the last phase of capitalism, as Marx and Lenin have shown.”

The interpreter stumbled through the translation of that last sentence, and added, “I have trouble rendering the natives’ religious terms into our language, Exalted Fleetlord. Marx and Lenin are gods or prophets in the SSSR.” He spoke briefly with Molotov, then said, “Prophets.”

This particular scene struck me as funny. Molotov, the foreign minister of the USSR, has been hauled up into space to treat with the Lizards -- or rather, that’s what the Lizards hauled him up there for. Molotov is completely unbothered by the fact that he’s standing in an alien spaceship orbiting Earth and completely at their mercy. Confronted with a demand that the USSR surrender to the Emperor of the Race, he states that he was part of the revolution that killed his own emperor and then starts predicting that Communism is the future for the Race, too. Here’s another scene I found funny. For context, two German tankmen have survived an encounter with Lizard land cruisers in Russia. They take off into the countryside to look for a way back to Wehrmacht headquarters, finding their way to a Russian village. Their rifles attract the attention of a Russian pilot who lands; after coming to terms with the whole “ideological enemies” thing, they begin discussing the Lizards

So here is German arrogance first hand, Ludmila thought. Having admitted that the Lizards had smashed his unit to bits, all the panzer major cared to talk about was the foe’s shortcomings. Ludmila said, “Since our equipment is unfortunately not a match for theirs, how do we go about fighting them?”

Das ist die Frage,” Sergeant Schultz said solemnly, for all the world like a Nazi Hamlet.

Next Week:
  • Prelude to Foundation, Isaac Asimov
  • Tilting the Balance, Harry Turtledove
  • Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures, Carl Zimmer

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