Monday, April 07, 2008

Science Fiction Catch-up

Toward the end of last week, I was working hard on a devilishly difficult data reduction problem. (If you must asked, it involves trying to track down extra light, or sometimes a deficit of light, in spectra that I've taken. Like any intermittent problem with your car that you try to explain to the repairman, who obviously doesn't believe you, it's very frustrating to try and track down and solve the problem, especially since I can't just go back to the telescope and try again. See, you really didn't want to know.) So, I took the weekend off and, in addition to some spring cleaning, did some reading that I'd had on my list for a long time.

I love to read, especially the "classics" that I so hated analyzing in high school (but now that I do not have to compare and contrast the hero's plight with that of classic Greek drama, or point out 12 examples of foreshadowing, I've come to realize that most of those books really are an excellent read. And all of those miserable exercises learning literary tools actually help me to appreciate those books more. So, my apologies to any of my generally great high school English teachers who were exasperated by my dislike for their curriculum). But though I love to read, I am not a big fan of science fiction, which surprises lots of people. And so, I haven't read a lot of science fiction.

I have read Frank Herbert's Dune (the one with the giant sand worms), and I really enjoy that book. But I'd also read Issac Asimov's I, Robot, and I wasn't as impressed. "Dune" is written in the style of a typical novel, most of the characters are fairly well-developed, there are numerous sub-plots, and the futuristic setting is merely part of the landscape, not the focus of the plot. "I, Robot," on the other hand, is a series of short stories bound together under one premise (the Three Laws of Robotics). Each story involves the same characters who resolve their dilemmas by applying the logic of the Three Laws to a specific situation. It's a great exercise in formal logic, but the characters are flat, and there is no overarching plot to the book. So, it was interesting to read once, but not satisfying for my literature tastes.

However, I've been told that "I, Robot" was not the best work of Asimov (who seems to be revered as a god of science fiction), so this weekend I set out to read Asimov's Foundation trilogy, supposedly his crowning achievement. I made it through the first book, but doubt I'll get around to the second two. Frankly, it was disappointing. The book was, like "I, Robot," more a series of short stories than some great novel. The novel purports to tell some great epic about one scientist's plan to lessen the impact of the fall of the Galactic Empire on civilization, but really it is another series of short stories, skipping through time without developing characters, or giving more than a skeleton outline of what happens in the decades to centuries between each story. Most of these stories are resolved with a deus ex machine device. And often the outcome of the resolution is given in a quote presented at the start of the chapter, leaving no room for literary tension to draw me further into the story. It would be like opening a suspense novel on the 2012 presidential election by saying "Candidate X only won in 2012 by a 26-24 decision in the House of Representatives, but went on to become the best president these United States ever had."

So, I doubt I will become a ravenous sci-fi fan, and certainly not of Asimov. Yes, there are many people who love his work. Perhaps from a standpoint of dreaming up new places and new technology it works, but from a standpoint of storytelling, it falls flat and seems amateurish. I think I'll go back to my Hardy, Tolkien, and Melville.

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