A Mind @ Play

random thoughts to oil the mind

Tag: Science Fiction

Nightfall Two

Nightfall TwoAs one of the world’s most prolific authors, and one of the true giants of science fiction, it can be difficult to know where to start with Asimov. As a child I read a few stories and was soon hooked, but perusing his oeuvre takes some time. For anyone interested in wetting their fingers with this master of science fiction, however, the Nightfall anthology is a great place to start.

Put together by Asimov in the late sixties, it was his attempt to address what he felt was an undue amount of attention to the short story which gives the collection its name. Nightfall was published in 1941 when Asimov was just 21 years old, but was immediately recognised by the magazine editor as being worthy of a bonus rate. Unwilling to accept that his best work was written basically at the beginning of his career, this collection is an opportunity for readers to judge for themselves, whether Nightfall deserves such high praise, and whether or not Asimov’s writing style had improved in the intervening period.

This second volume contains fifteen short stories published between 1951 and 1967 (“In a Good Cause–” (1951), “What If–” (1952), “Sally” (1953), “Flies” (1953), “Nobody Here But–” (1953), “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” (1954), “Strikebreaker” (1957), “Insert Knob A In Hole B” (1957), “The Up-To-Date Sorcerer” (1958), “Unto the Fourth Generation” (1959), “What is This Thing Called Love?” (1961), “The Machine that Won the War” (1961), “My Son, the Physicist” (1962), “Eyes Do More Than See” (1965), and “Segregationist” (1967)). In comparison to the first volume, this is much more of a mixed bag in terms of quality. Given that Asimov set out to prove that Nightfall wasn’t his only decent short story, a lot of the choices contained in this volume seem to have more in the way of anecdotal value. For instance, “What If-” was written as a bet between Asimov and his wife as to whether he could base a story around something as simple as their train journey; the two-page “Insert Knob A In Hole B” was written during a television panel discussion, when he was challenged to write a story on the spot (he admits in the preface that he had expected the challenge to come up and prepared accordingly). Similarly other stories were written at the behest of editors seeking to fulfil a particular niche, including one for Playboy.

As with the first volume, each story is prefaced by a small introduction, which partly makes up for the lower quality of the stories. The stories are obviously a lot shorter in this volume, and as a result have a much broader range of backgrounds, so there is certainly a chance that at least something will appeal to every reader. Nevertheless, there’s little denying that this volume can’t live up to the standards set by Nightfall One.

Nightfall One

Nightfall OneAs one of the world’s most prolific authors, and one of the true giants of science fiction, it can be difficult to know where to start with Asimov. As a child I read a few stories and was soon hooked, but perusing his oeuvre takes some time. For anyone interested in wetting their fingers with this master of science fiction, however, the Nightfall anthology is a great place to start.

Put together by Asimov in the late sixties, it was his attempt to address what he felt was an undue amount of attention to the short story which gives the collection its name. Nightfall was published in 1941 when Asimov was just 21 years old, but was immediately recognised by the magazine editor as being worthy of a bonus rate. Unwilling to accept that his best work was written basically at the beginning of his career, this collection is an opportunity for readers to judge for themselves, whether Nightfall deserves such high praise, and whether or not Asimov’s writing style had improved in the intervening period.

This first volume contains five stories published between 1941 and 1951 (“Nightfall” (1941), “Green Patches” (1950), “Hostess” (1951), “Breeds There A Man…?” (1951), and “C-Chute” (1951)). The eponymous Nightfall certainly deserves credit for being an extremely tight and thought-provoking story, to the extent that some write of a ‘Nightfall event’ as synonymous with the end of a civilisation. The other stories cover a range of topics, including extraterrestrials in search of a disease, and at that time very topical story dealing with the invention of shield against atomic weapons. All in all a wonderful little collection.

Aside from the stories themselves, each is prefaced by a small introduction by the author featuring some interesting background information as to how he got his inspiration or how the story was received. Asimov is very self-deprecating, often denying that he is much of a writer. Whilst he perhaps wouldn’t win any prizes for style, this volume shows how brilliantly fertile his mind was, and aside from entertainment value, might spark an idea or two in its readers’ minds. Sadly, Nightfall Two does not live up to the standards set by these stories.

Cryptonomicon

CryptonomiconThis is a book with much promise. Neal Stephenson is a very decent writer; his prose can be both engaging and exciting, without pandering to the reader in the way many techno-thriller authors choose. Unfortunately, this is also a book that seems to have been written in an ecstasy of authorship, without enough time and consideration given to making the book a reader’s choice. My copy weighed in at over 1100 pages, which is a very long expanse for Stephenson to ultimately say very little.

Cryptonomicon is essentially several smaller storylines all rolled into one. There are two distinct timeframes, and several major/minor characters all pursuing their own goals, occasionally overlapping along the way. The problem is that all the hopping backwards and forwards simply adds pages, as Stephenson has to constantly remind us who we’re reading about, where they are and what they’re doing. By which point, we’ve moved back 50 years and half-way around the world to another thread in the story. If you put the book down for a few days, you’ll probably find yourself reading a few chapters just to get your head around what all the various characters are currently up to, before you can continue on to something fresh.

All of which isn’t to say the book doesn’t have its moments. There’s clearly a lot of time, effort and research gone into this book, and this shows, particularly in the historical timeframe and the bits dealing with cryptography. Isoroku Yamamoto’s death, for instance, is featured as a nice allusion to the importance of what the main characters are up to. Yet for all its breadth, this novel is a pure geek’s heaven, and despite the oodles of space given over to something like Van Eck phreaking, there’s little space to give the characters anything more than a lick of paint. Others have commented that the female characters are wooden objects in a male-dominated world: I’d go as far as to say the entire piece is being played out by marionettes.

Whilst I wasn’t exactly expecting inner drama from a book like this, and could have suspended my disbelief for a few lack-lustre characters, there’s only so much fantasy I can take whilst reading a book gushing with technical detail. I’ve no doubt many readers would be quite satisfied with the defence of ‘artistic license’ but I found myself confusedly shaking my head a number of times reading Cryptonomicon, trying to work out quite whether I was supposed to be taking what I was reading seriously. Not satisfied with creating characters and events, Stephenson creates new countries and languages.

After a few hundred pages I was already getting a bit weary of some of the characters, and a number of far-fetched/unbelievable events and entirely fictitious ‘facts’ had strained my enjoyment of the plot. But persisting for several hundred more pages didn’t produce much in the way of a reward. The picture that gradually gets revealed over this meandering epic really isn’t equal to the effort that the author (and reader!) put into it.

This book has been described elsewhere as “the ultimate geek novel.” You’ll either love the book–for the winding journey, the nauseating detail, the multi-page descriptions, possibly even the cardboard-cutout characters–or like me you’ll find the whole escapade rather tedious, unbelievable, unnecessarily long, and ultimately disappointing.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén