Saturday, December 27, 2008

Where Do We Go From Here?

Where Do We Go From Here?
ed. Isaac Asimov, © 1971

Where Do We Go From Here
, a short-story collection assembled by Isaac Asimov, is more than the usual collection of short stories. Asimov introduces it in this way: "I have long maintained that science fiction has potential as an inspiring and useful teaching device. For this anthology, therefore, I have selected seventeen stories which, I think, can inspire curiosity and can lead the students into lines of questioning of his own that may interest and excite him, and may even help determine the future direction of his career. [...] [T]he seventeen stories included are all good ones, clever and exciting in their own right. Anyone who wishes can read them for themselves alone, need make no conscious effort to learn from them, and may totally ignore my own comments after each story. For those who would probe a little deeper, I have placed after each story a few hundred words of commentary in which I talk about the scientific points made in the story, pointing out their validity, or, sometimes, explaining their errors. Finally, after each comment, I have appended a series of suggestions and questions designed to direct the reader's curiosity in fruitful directions."

As said, this is a collection of seventeen science fiction short stories, chosen for both their worth as stories and as science fiction. Asimov believed that good science fiction must have within it good science. The stories come from a variety of authors. A few are well-known names -- Lester del Rey, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke -- but most were new to me. Two stories are by a Hal Clement, and at least one story was written by John Campbell, the editor of Astounding Stories under a pseudonym. After each story, Asimov reveals the year in which the story was published and comments on the author's predictions, assumptions, and so on, ending his commentary with three or four questions that are intended to jog the reader's mind. For instance, at the end of "The Cave of Night", he writes "Gunn has the rescue vessels designed, built, and launched in the space of thirty days. Do you think this is practical? Look up data on the space program and find out how such things take." Another example follows "Dust Rag" : "It is likely that Venus has an iron core, yet it has no magnetic field to speak of. How do we know it has none? Why should it not have one despite the iron core? What about other planets: Mars, Jupiter, Saturn? How do we know?"

Only one story ("Proof") escaped me completely. I was able to enjoy all of the others to varying degrees. The stories seem deliberately chosen to cover the full range of scientific knowledge: in "Omnilingual", the readers join a team of scientists on the surface of Mars as they attempt to learn about a long-dead Martian civilization. This particular chapter concerns language. In "Dust Rag", two men on the surface of the Moon encounter problems with electromagnetism in that their visors become charged and attract lunar dust that is being charged by the Sun. The result is that the visors and the outside of their suits (including air filters) become covered in lunar dust and the astronauts -- in bulky space suits -- have to figure out how to return to their camp or shuttle before they run out of air. In "The Day is Done", we see speculations on human-Neanderthal interaction. Here Asimov posits in his commentary that the Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals may have interbred to produce humans, but this is quite dated. (Asimov died nearly twenty years ago, so he can be forgiven for not considering the last two decades of evidence in regards to Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons.) One of my favorite stories was "Surface Tension", which shows the results of humans modifying the human genome for life on other planets. The particular planet that the story is set on is covered in water and the largest animals are crayfish, so the humans are designed to be microscopic and interact with amoebas and so forth in a story that is completely implausible but very interesting.

I found the book to be tremendously enjoyable: the stories as well as the questions Asimov probed. I wonder if he did any other projects like this.

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