Monday, May 30, 2005

Reading :: Inherit the Stars

Originally posted: Mon, 30 May 2005 19:48:40

Inherit the Stars

by James P. Hogan

I mentioned the science fiction books of my childhood several posts back. One book that stood out early on, because of the creepy cover art, was James P. Hogan's Inherit the Stars. Who wouldn't want to read a book in which two astronauts excavate a 50,000 year old corpse in a spacesuit? I distinctly remember being intrigued by my older brother's copy when I was in third or fourth grade, and later I got my own copy (long since sold or given away). So when I saw this copy in the used book store for a dollar, I had to buy it.

I mostly wanted to scan the book cover to provide a new icon for my AIM. But since we visited family this weekend, I went ahead and brought the book for those in-between times. It's a surprisingly quick read, and illustrates both what's right and what's wrong about "hard" science fiction.

What's wrong is quickly apparent. In the first chapter, Hogan spends three pages detailing a transaction in which one character, on an intercontinental flight, places an order for a rental vehicle. Yes, three pages in which the character opens up his briefcase to reveal a screen in its lid, talks to the Avis rep on the videophone, runs his license and credit card through special slots in the briefcase, and enters his password: "Gray cast his eye rapidly down the screen, grunted, and keyed in a memorized sequence of digits that was not echoed in the display." Bear in mind that the book was published in 1977; the author got a lot of the details right, but not enough, and I just kept thinking how much easier it would be to use the Avis website. I can see why writers like William Gibson elide most of these details. But Hogan is all about such details, and the book consequently has a short shelf life.

What goes right, though, is that the book provides a sampling of several different scientific fields. What would happen if we discovered a 50,000 year old corpse on the moon? Hogan realistically portrays the coordination that would have to go on among different scientific communities (although I think he provides a two-dimensional portrayal of the controversies that would arise). We get to learn a little bit about evolutionary biology, astrophysics, chemistry, cryptography, and so forth. And we get the pleasure of watching this cross-disciplinary community solve a complex puzzle. The solution is pretty improbable, but what do you want. Hard science fiction is still science fiction, after all.

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