Friday, December 27, 2002

Book notes:

:: A few days ago I finished reading David Brin's science fiction novel Sundiver. This is the first novel in his Uplift series, which as far as I can tell involves two separate trilogies. The central concept of the series, that of "Uplift", is that all sentient species in the galaxy have been "uplifted" to sentience by a previous, older species -- all species, that is, except humanity, which appears to have had no benefactor species at all. Humanity may well be the only species that did not receive a helping hand.

The Uplift series -- sometimes called a "saga" -- has been cited in some places as being a space opera, with giant wars and ancient races and relics and whatnot; I was thus surprised that this book is basically cast as a mystery, and it's not the most involving one, unfortunately. A scientist named Jacob Demwa is working to "uplift" dolphins when he is asked to join an expedition into the upper portions of the Sun itself in a spherical ship called a "Sunship", in order to observe a race of aliens that actually live within the star itself. This whole idea is fascinating, and the best parts of the book evoke that "sense of wonder" that drives all of the best science fiction, and this facet of the book is really why I recommend reading it. The mystery plot, involving various scientific factions and a galactic "pecking order" amongst the races and species, is less involving because it's fairly clear who the villain actually is (although the way in which it's all revealed is fairly nifty). It's one of those mysteries that the reader can solve by filling in the blank for the sentence, "It would be the most surprising for the murderer to turn out to be _____" So I found myself absorbed in the dives into the sun, in the interactions with the solar beings, and the explorations of Brin's future while I also found myself skimming over the "investigation" bits (which include one of those standard "parlor gatherings" that ended every Agatha Christie novel). I've looked at a few reviews of Sundiver since I finished it, and the consensus opinion seems to be that the Uplift series gets much, much better after this first novel (which is also Brin's first novel, period). Some even call the series a classic, so Sundiver is successful in that I want to read more of this universe and explore more of these ideas. On the grading curve, I guess I'd call it a B-minus.

:: I was delighted last week to find that my local public library had copies of Asimov on Science Fiction and Asimov's Galaxy: Reflections on Science Fiction, both by the great Isaac Asimov. These books, or at least the essays contained within, should be sought out by anyone interested in the background or nuts-and-bolts of science fiction. The essays -- many of them written for Asimov's Science Fiction, one of the last SF magazines still being published -- reflect Dr. Asimov's views on various matters pertaining to science, science fiction, science fiction writing, writing in general, fantasy, and occasional political matters. Asimov's fiction writing nowadays seems very unsophisticated, and in a lot of ways it really is, but Asimov was a leading light in SF for many, many years -- but still, too few -- and these essays capture the thoughts of one of the twentieth centuries most fluid and liveliest minds. Some of the essays have been reprinted elsewhere, but I haven't read many of them in a long time -- at least five years for some of them -- so I greatly welcomed encountering them again. To this day, Asimov's blunt statement regarding the importance of learning spelling and grammar is the best such formulation I have ever seen:

Besides, take it from an old war-horse, if your spelling and grammar are rotten, you won't be writing a great and gorgeous story. Someone who can't use a saw and hammer does not turn out stately furniture.


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