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Book Review #5, by Eric Weeks

May 23, 1998
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It's been about four weeks since the last review. I was at a conference that was busier than I had expected, so it's taken a while to finish this review. I'll make up for it by reviewing 9 books... OK, really it's nine books comprising two separate series, and 6 of the books were short ones. Just think, would you ever find a review of all the books in a six-book series in a professional sf magazine? Just one of the many advantages of a web-based 'zine. On to the reviews.

The Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson: "Red Mars," 1993; "Green Mars," 1994; "Blue Mars," 1996, Bantam Books.

As Mars is explored and colonized in this book, the colonists frequently name places after famous sf authors who wrote books related to Mars -- the towns of Burroughs and Bradbury Point, for example. Clearly when Mars is colonized in real life, the settlers will have to name their capital city after Robinson, or at least rename one of the moons. Red Mars won the Nebula award (awarded by sf writers), and Green Mars won the Hugo award (awarded by sf readers). You hardly need me to tell you to read this series, but hey, I'm a book reviewer, so I'm gonna write a book review. Let's start by saying this is a 4 star hard science fiction series: although depending on how you feel about hard sf, you may want to decrease the rating of the series. I found that the series suffered from some of the flaws I see in other hard sf books, but overall it's the among the best in hard sf that I've ever read, maybe the best.

In Red Mars, the initial stages of exploration and colonization are carefully detailed by Robinson. In Green Mars, the terraforming of Mars continues, and we see an interesting variety of second-generation Martian colonists. In Blue Mars, the planet progresses to a full-fledged world with a developing world government. There are several interwoven plots in this series, which can be summarized as questions: How far and fast should terraforming proceed? What is the political relationship of Mars and Earth? What form of government is best for Mars? How can the various groups of colonists deal with their wide varieties of cultures? How should the Martians deal with the powerful profit-oriented corporations back on Earth which have funded their colonies? Most fundamentally, what does it mean to be a Martian rather than a citizen of Earth?

The first group of settlers includes several main characters (nine or more, depending on how you count main characters). Each of these characters could be described simply: the Scientist, the Engineer, the Charismatic Leader, the Cunning Politician, the Homesick Man, the Anarchist, the Mystic, the Environmentalist. However, this is misleading, these characters are far more than one-dimensional archetypes. For example, while the Engineer is always trying to build things, she also dabbles in politics, has love interests, and can enjoy the beauty of Mars. In fact, much of the character development in the series has the characters breaking free of their stereotypes. These people have a wide range of reasons for being on Mars, and they have intelligent differences of opinion on how the colonization and exploration should proceed. The series tries to answer the questions posed above, and the characters change their opinions from time to time. Generally the love interests and such are deemphasized in order to focus more deeply on solving the questions the series poses, although personal conflicts and loyalties do influence the course of the debates.

I already have told you I consider this a four star sf book, the first four star rating I've given so far, in fact. Unfortunately this does not mean this book is perfect, and I think its flaws are in general common to all hard sf books I have read. In fact, the four star rating simply means that these flaws are more subdued than in a typical hard sf book, but I will point them out anyway because that's the kind of nit-picking reviewer I am. I hope some day a hard sf book comes along without these flaws, but I suspect true hard sf fans don't consider them flaws. If you have any opinions send me email, my email address is below; I can put the discussion in a future column, perhaps.

The first problem is that Robinson has collected so much detail on things, and occasionally he gets carried away with listing it all. For example, he frequently gives the names of everybody sent on an expedition, when usually only a few of them are people we care about or meet in the future. Another typical example was when the Engineer gets a collection of tools: we are given the complete list of more than FIFTY tools she has. As an experimental physicist, I found the list interesting, as a reader, I felt it was unnecessary (certainly her possession of any of these tools plays no role in the plot). Robinson occasionally drops these lists into the text where they add nothing to the story.

A second problem is that Robinson has in his head a vast encylopedia of information about Mars in at various stages in its development. In order to present this information to the reader, characters frequently have urges to wander around. Having a bad day? Take a hike! Feeling bored? Go visit various laboratories! Want to talk to a friend? The friend is missing, you should wander around looking for them! Much of the book is taken up with characters moving around from place to place like little video cameras making a documentary of the development of Mars. The more interesting travels are when a character's primary purpose is to talk with people, so the focus is more on the people than on the places. Still, I found the plot occasionally driven by Robinson's need to show us the Mars that he has envisioned. (In lesser hard sf books, the plot often becomes completely subservient to the need to show off the hard sf world, but Robinson doesn't have that problem.)

So why is this a four star series? Because fundamentally the series is more about the ethical and political questions than it is a description of terraformed Mars. The series often moves rapidly, with various violent clashes interrupting the thoughtful debates. Even when the political situation is more stable, the political intrigues themselves are interesting and suspenseful. I think even readers who are uninterested in the long descriptions of terraforming will find the ethical and political debates quite engaging. If you really dislike hard sf, I'd recommend you consider this a 3 star book: you should read it anyway, just skim the sections on the science details.

A few more minor comments. Robinson ends up postulating a society best described as a decentralized socialism economy coupled with a democratic central government. He puts forth the argument for this sort of organization more strongly than some of the other issues in the book; a little bit optimistic, but interesting to read about. Another interesting topic is the effects of a longevity treatment. Robinson's approach to longevity is more thoughtful than most.

The bottom line: you should read this series.

The Lucky Starr series by Isaac Asimov (writing as Paul French): "David Starr -- Space Ranger," 1952; "Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids," 1953; "Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus," 1954; "Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury," 1956; "Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter," 1957; "Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn," 1958; Fawcett Crest Books.

This series was one of my first introductions to science fiction. I would guess these six books were written for ages 12-15 years old, but I found them enjoyable to read now. They're about 170 pages each, fairly quick reads. Asimov once wrote that someone said it was impossible to write a science fiction mystery, as new technology would be invoked to solve the mystery that the reader would have no way to predicting. In Asimov's Daneel and Bailey series and the Starr series, he disproves this claim. The science fiction is laid out up front, and is part of the solution to the mystery, but the reader has the clues in advance. I am not a judge of good mysteries, but as far as I can tell, both the Bailey series and the Lucky Starr series seem to be reasonable mystery books as well as being solid sf.

David "Lucky" Starr is a member of the Council of Science, the most powerful branch of the government. (As a scientist, I find this idea rather amusing.) In practice, not only is Lucky an brilliant scientist, he's also six feet tall, extremely athletic, and is a great secret agent. (Perhaps Asimov did not know many real scientists.) Beyond this, Lucky is not a terribly interesting character. He's mostly a nice guy, with a restrained sense of humor, who goes around annoying bad guys. His sidekick is Bigman Jones, who is height-challenged; Bigman's main character trait is to go around getting angry at people who make fun of his small size. For some reason, nearly everybody in these books makes fun of small men. Bigman is more interesting than Lucky, and is often used for comic relief. He often does things impulsively, some of which are useful and some of which cause problems for Lucky.

We are first introduced to Lucky in David Starr -- Space Ranger. Food from Mars is being poisoned, so he goes to Mars to track down the source. I found the resolution to this mystery a little unsatisfying; it was hard to believe that any of the characters were sufficiently evil that they would be willing to poison hundreds of people. In this book, Lucky acquires a powerful device which is useful in this book and the following, but which is never mentioned in the last four books; I think Asimov wisely decided that it was more interesting when Lucky didn't have this extra help.

The second volume is Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids. Lucky is fighting against the pirates, some of whom may have killed his parents when he was a child. Lucky's main goal is to solve the pirate problem, which boils down to a question of where the pirate base is hidden; in this sense it's less of a mystery than the other books. I found this book a little slower than the rest of the series.

In Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus, Lucky and Bigman investigate problems on Venus. An interesting twist is that a key suspect is a member of the Council of Science as well as a former friend of Lucky's, so the crimes this suspect may have committed would reflect poorly on the Council and cause bad political repercussions. This book is fun as Asimov has the oceans on Venus populated with interesting critters; a little unusual for Asimov, who typically writes only about humans and robots.

In Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury the setting is a science station established on Mercury by the Council of Science. The plot is more complicated than the rest of the series, with more possible suspects than usual. The main problem is that the science station has a saboteur within. In addition, one character is busy trying to make Lucky and the Council of Science both look bad, although this character may not be the one responsible for the sabotage... or is he? This book is one of the more fast-paced and suspenseful of the series.

Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter has Lucky and Bigman investigate an antigravity project to look for a spy who is feeding information about the project to the Sirians, the bad guys. I liked this book, as it shows some of the excitement of the antigravity science project, in addition to the mystery. Also, the spy may be a robot (this is mentioned on the back cover, so I'm not giving anything away), so Asimov's 3 Laws of Robotics come in to play. Another interesting element in this book is that technology discovered in ...Oceans of Venus is used by Lucky in a clever way in this book.

Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn is the final volume, and has Lucky confronting Earth's main enemy, the Sirians, who have invaded the moons of Saturn. This was the most suspenseful book, with Lucky and Bigman trying to prevent a war that Earth would lose. It's a little bit less of a mystery, although the reader knows Lucky is plotting something and has a chance to guess what Lucky's plans are.

This series is worth 2 1/2 stars as sf for younger readers. The books are exciting reading, but not as grand as books such as The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien, for example. Bigman and especially Lucky are fairly simple characters. The strong points of this series are the adventure and suspense elements. When I read these when I was younger, the fact that they were mysteries as well completely missed me.

A final note: these adventures borrow somewhat from Asimov's future universe (the timeline which includes the I, Robot stories, the Bailey novels, and the Foundation series). There are fifty colony worlds who use robots much more than Earth does, and who are somewhat united against Earth. However, the Lucky Starr adventures aren't ever part of Asimov's other books, and some parts of them are slightly contradictory to the Bailey novels.