Sci-Fi Saturday 9/24/22

The Sci-Fi Saturday posts lately have reported on books by Robert J. Sawyer, my new favorite science fiction author, or on books by Ben Bova, one of the notable stars in the SF firmament. A couple of posts recommended interesting movies (this one and that one).

This month I’ve been exploring other things. For instance, other parts of YouTube than I usually frequent (see yesterday’s post). Relevant here, other science fiction authors. (And maybe a TV show if there’s space.)

Today’s post reports on books by: Isaac Asimov, William Gibson, Neil Gaiman, and James S. A. Corey.

Starting with The Gods Themselves (1972), by one of the revered Fathers of Science Fiction, the inestimable Isaac Asimov (1920–1992).

The title, and the three section names, come from a line in The Maid of Orleans, a nineteenth century play based on the life of Joan of Arc. The line reads, “Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.” Asimov’s book has three sections:

  • First part: Against Stupidity…
  • Second part: …The Gods Themselves…
  • Third part: …Contend in Vain?

Note the question mark Asimov puts at the end of the third clause. Science fiction has long been optimistic and aspirational. The modern era of deconstruction and cynicism has increased the fraction of dystopic and dismal stories, but hopefully we’ll get over that. Asimov, of course, is on the aspirational side.

The Wiki article for the book mentions that Asimov wrote in his autobiography how this novel, especially section two, was the “biggest and most effective over-my-head writing [that I] ever produced”. I can see why. It’s good; I give it a strong Ah! rating and recommend it for any science fiction fan.

It’s good enough that I don’t want to spoil the plot. (If you really want to know, the Wiki article has an overview, a timeline, and a long plot synopsis.)


I will say that sections one and three occur in our reality, on Earth and the Moon, respectively. Which correctly implies section two doesn’t. It takes place in a completely different reality. The book calls it a parallel universe, one of many, without getting into specifics. Pick your favorite multiverse hypothesis.

Physics geeks will appreciate the book’s genesis. Robert Silverberg had made up an isotope, plutonium-186, and when Asimov replied that no such isotope could exist, Silverberg challenged him to write an SF story about it. [In our reality, plutonium isotopes have numbers from 238 to 244 depending on how many neutrons it has. A plutonium-186 atom would have far too few neutrons for even momentary stability. It just couldn’t ever be created here.]

So, the parallel universe has different physics. Specifically, the strong force is much stronger there. Stars are smaller because they burn brighter, but they also burn out much faster. The beings on the parallel world are facing the cooling of their Sun. They’ve discovered a way to leverage the difference between their universe and ours by exchanging lumps of plutonium-186 for lumps of tungsten-186 (which is a normal isotope of tungsten in our reality).

Once exchanged, our tungsten and their plutonium are unstable in their new realities, so both undergo a nuclear reaction that generates energy. It appears both civilizations now have a source of free energy!

This was initiated by the beings in the parallel universe and is presented to us as a gift. Which really ought to have been the first clue.


Asimov’s aliens are interesting and strikingly different while at the same time echoing very human traits.

There are three sexes: Parentals (“rights”), Emotionals (“mids”), and Rationals (“lefts”). They basically echo Homemaker, Child, Wage-Earner. And, yeah, this is Asimov, so there’s a definite sense of Wife, Child, Husband.

I wondered, at least at first, if there was also a casting of Ego, Id, and Superego, and after reading the whole book… maybe? Given the full life cycle of these beings, I think there is at least the possibility.

One thing Asimov definitely does is invoke the notion science advances one dead scientist at a time. More specifically the way some scientists can over-invest in their ideas to the point where they’re unable to admit to any evidence against them.

The story also has two characters, one in each reality, that are impatient, angry, prone to ignoring rules, hard to get along with, but ultimately right. Ben Bova writes characters like this, too, and I’m not a huge fan. But that’s a minor complaint. I highly recommend the book. It seems unlike Asimov’s usual work.

§ §

The stories William Gibson (1948–) writes have both style and substance, but style almost always detracts from story. I favor less style in storytelling, so Gibson will never be a favorite author. I do find him interesting, though. Great ideas, but sometimes a bit of a challenge to read.

His Blue Ant trilogy circles from some distance around a central character, Hubertus Bigend (what a name). The trilogy comprises three books:

  1. Pattern Recognition (2003)
  2. Spook Country (2007)
  3. Zero History (2010)

Again, I’m not going to get much into the plot or even the characters. The Wiki articles for each book can provide those details if you want them. I give the trilogy an Eh! rating. I found them worth reading despite minor issues with Gibson’s style and characters.

One problem is that I have little or no identification with his characters. For example: There’s nothing “sad” to me about cut hair on the floor. If anything, I find it a relief, even a joy. Many of his main characters are fearful and/or ignorant. Not at all engaging, let alone aspirational. And I often find their actions unclear and unexplained.

His characters often use references that I can tell are references but which fly over my head. One reason I get such a kick out of Robert J. Sawyer is that we share so many reference points. His characters act and speak in ways that make sense to me. That are like me. Gibson lives in a rather different world from mine (which is part of the charm as well as challenge).


Unlike much of his more famous work, this story takes place in more-or-less reality as we know it now. The overall theme is leading edge marketing and fashion in a fast-paced technological world. What’s absolutely like Gibson are the interesting ideas and observations.

One that really caught my eye:

Fully imagined futures are a luxury of the past when “now” lasted longer and the world moved slower and more predictably. Our current future has less foundation because our present is so volatile. “We have only risk management.”

History is vague as one goes back, but the information age may fix our past better than ever before. Digital storage is cheap, and the internet is forever. Crowd sourcing creates a distributed reality that makes it hard for the winners (or anyone) to rewrite history in their favor. Which raises an interesting question: How does the lack of a revisionist past affect culture and the future?

[Technologies like blockchain are especially interesting in their ability to preserve information from change. They can be used to create unalterable public journals distributed among multiple servers.]

Another interesting thought:

Mass media was within the world, now it encompasses it. Consider the progression: neighborhood gossip; town crier; city newspaper; regional radio; national TV; the world-wide web. Marshall McLuhan’s global village is here (the call is coming from inside the house).

Books: once written by hand; then by press; now by digital technology. Images: once drawn or painted by hand; then printed by photo process or printing press; now by digital technology. Music: once created by voice; then by (hand-made) instrument; now by digital technology. Keyboards replace handwriting. Calculators replace figuring. We rush headlong embracing the digital world.


Gibson includes a fair amount of description and utterly pedestrian character business for flavor and tone. As with any off-center form of storytelling, it’s great at first, but ultimately gets old. It works better when his universe is equally off-center. In a tale in the “real” world, it feels too stylized to me.

There’s good reason the ancient forms are ancient. They work. Transparency ultimately makes for the best storytelling mode. It allows the most immersion.

Another element that lends to the sense of the surreal is how many coincidences Gibson weaves into a story. In most cases, I call that questionable, but I think he uses it as a tonal element. It’s part of the dreamlike flavor his writing usually has. (And, again, it doesn’t work as well for me in more realistic stories.)

Lastly, I noticed Gibson has something of a torturous sentence structure. Long sentences with a general “A, B, A, C, A, D, A…” pattern. The main A sentence interrupted with a large number of sub-clauses. Admittedly, I tend towards sub-clauses myself, but damn.

§ §

Neil Gaiman (1960–) is responsible for The Sandman (1989–1996), a graphic novel series I thought was outstanding. I really liked his fantasy novel American Gods (2001), but I loved Good Omens (1990), which he co-authored with my all-time favorite author, Terry Pratchett.

All three have been made into TV adaptations. Amazon did a very good version of Good Omens (2019), I liked what I saw of the Starz adaptation of American Gods (2017–2021; three seasons), and I’m antici-dreading the Netflix adaptation of The Sandman (2022). I’m of the opinion that live-action adaptations of animated stories are bad, but Sandman was a comic, so there should be more latitude (to not fail).

I also really loved the TV series Lucifer (2016–2021), which is based on that character from the Sandman series. So, I’m generally a fan of Gaiman’s work, is what I’m saying.

Which brings me to Neverwhere (1996), a companion novel to his BBC TV series with the same name (and date). There’s also a graphic novel version (2005) by Mike Carey and Glenn Fabry for Vertigo Comics.

Sorry, Neil, but I’m afraid it’s a definite Meh! on this one.

In fairness, it might be more a subjective matter of taste than objective quality judgement. I’m less and less taken with the usual forms of fantasy. Comedy-fantasy is about all that grabs me. These epic big-budget Lord of the Rings wannabes leave me stone cold.

That said, there’s an ‘everything including the kitchen sink’ wild randomness to this one that got old fast for me. It’s probable the story works better visually, and this novelization is just a pale imitation (like the novelization of Alien, for instance). I’m going to re-read the graphic novel as a bridge between them.

§ §

I finally got around to reading the various James S. A. Corey novellas and short stories:

  • The Butcher of Anderson Station (2011)
  • Gods of Risk (2012)
  • Drive (2012)
  • The Churn (2014)
  • The Vital Abyss (2015)
  • Strange Dogs (2017)
  • Auberon (2019)
  • The Sins of Our Fathers (2022)

I’ve read the nine main novels in The Expanse series but have been putting off digging into the other stories. I enjoyed these. I’m once again thankful for libraries and the ability to check out ebooks!

§ §

Special shout out to Hoka! Hoka! Hoka! (1998), a collection of related short stories by Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson. These are comedy shorts somewhat reminiscent of Keith Laumer’s Retief series. A lot of fun. Recommended.

Lastly, the first season of Star Trek: Lower Decks was available on Amazon Prime. Eh! (ST: It’s Dead Jim! The zombie with its name is a sham.)

Stay isotopic, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

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