... and I really enoyed it! I have a huge soft spot for early, post-WW2 SF, and this collection, chosen by Asimov, did not disappoint. The book collects 12 stories from 1939 to 1972 that he considered to be good stories spanning three decades of writing: "... two early examples, two late samples, and eight from the gold decade (for me) of the Fifties."
I loved his suggestion of an alternative title for the collection as "The Pretty Good and Pretty Representative Stories of Isaac Asimov" - he was a humble man, it seems.
The twelve stories are:
Marooned Off Vesta (1939),
Nightfall (1941) - his masterpiece,
The Martian Way (1952),
The Deep (1952),
The Fun They Had (1954),
The Last Question (1956),
The Dead Past (1956),
The Dying Night (1956),
The Billiard Ball (1967), and
'Nightfall' needs no introduction from me - it is one of the most singularly imaginative SF stories ever written. This story was read by Steve Ely for the One Hundredth edition of the 'Escape Pod' podcast - Steve (now Serah) gave it a respectful and energetic reading, which I recommend listening to.
I loved 'The Billiard Ball', which I am not going to spoiler zone here - it features a well thought out revenge-murder.
Mr Asimov's personal favourite was 'The Last Question', but it seemed no better than the rest of the collection to me.
My personal favourite was 'C-Chute' - I loved the idea of a desperately homesick man going to extraordinary lengths in order to avoid becoming a prisoner of war. There is a also a pretty good audio performance of this story available from the "X-Minus One" radio shows.
One confusion I have is why Sphere decided to publish this 1973 UK version of the book with that terrible cover? It says nothing about the genre or overall themes of the stories - why would anyone have chosen that for an SF book?
I first encountered this story as the TV serial that is advertised on the front cover. To my childhood eyes it seemed quite possible Britain in the late '70s and early '80s to collapse into the anarchic state being shown. Five years of Labour Party governance (Harold Wilson in '74 - '76, James Callaghan in '76 - '79) had brought the country to its knees. Callaghan had a tiny majority in Parliament and faced rampant Trade Union strikes that came to a head in the 'Winter of Discontent' (Winter '78-'79) - I still remember eating cold food by candle light because of power cuts. Public employees were walking out leaving food and fuel undelivered, rubbish uncollected, and bodies unburied. No government that can't feed its people or bury the dead can survive, and Callaghan was ousted by Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives on 3rd May 1979.
Thatcher was a completely different kind of political animal. Out went Keynesian economics, massive Public Services and a huge State apparatus. In came Monetarism, a priority on controlling inflation over unemployment, social conservatism over liberalism. There was a belief that through entrepreneurialism people could quiet ably look after themselves, and success came to those who worked for it. Thatcherite economics may have been a necessary readjustment to the UK economy but the means by which that was achieved were egregiously exclusive: London, the financial sector and certain parts of the South-East were favoured. The industrial Midlands and North were abruptly deemphasised, downsized and essentially scrapper. Strikes by the coal miners represented just the tip of resentment Thatcher's government created with 'ordinary people' (i.e., anyone not loaded with cash or privilege). Whole families and communities were devastated by these changes being forced on them without a proper compensating programme of investment in their futures. On the council estate where I grew up things felt electrified, ready to explode at the wrong word. Violence and Vandalism went hand-in-hand, and only 'getting a [rare] good job' was going to save you from the unemployment line (I was very lucky in that regard).
These kinds of feelings are the foundation that Kneale built his novel on. He had previously written three stories for television starring Professor Bernard Quatermass (1953, 1955 and 1958) and some film versions were subsequently produced. Quatermass is a quintessential British scientist of the post-war era, smart but somewhat dour, somewhat 'Establishment' but out on the edge. In this final tale in the Quatermass quadrilogy, the Professor is searching for his grand-daughter, Hettie, across the ruins of the country. The UK, and the wider world at large, have slumped into social and economic collapse, and he sums it all up in a few sharp sentences during a TV interview at the start of the book:
". Two super-powers, full of diseases - political diseases, social diseases, economic diseases - they've got them all - and their infections are too strong for us, the small countries! When we catch them we die! ..."
All the young people are either being drawn into a hippie cult called the Planet People, or into violent gangs who fight to the death and celebrate killing with sex. The Planet People gather at historically symbolic meeting sites (mostly stone circles) in the belief that they are going to be 'taken to the Planet'. Quatermass witnesses a group of Planet People being destroyed by a beam of light that turns them into a crystalline ash. He investigates what has happened with the help of other scientists and eventually discovers that the young people are being harvested by an alien force.
The final conclusion to the story was unsatisfying for me, and the use of a 35-kiloton nuclear weapon with a focussed charge felt like too much of a McGuffin. Those closing scenes did not spoil the story overall, but I did feel that Kneale missed the mark there.
== The TV version (starring John Mills) was broadcast in four parts in October-November 1979 and is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD.
I first became aware of Michael Crichton's story "The Andromeda Strain" through the 1971 film starring Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olsen and Kate Reid. Having seen the film, I wanted to read the book, and was not disappopinted with it! I've just read it again about thirty years later - it was still as engaging as I remembered.
The story revolves around the recovery of a crashed satellite from 'Project Scoop'. Scoop was designed to recover novel (bio warfare?) organisms from low-Earth orbit. When the Scoop VII satellite suffers a malfunction it has to be brought back prematurely. The military track it to a small, isolated town in Arizona called Piedmont. They find that everyone there is dead except for an old man and baby. The team they send in to recover the satellite are quickly killed as well - Scoop VII has brought a nasty organism back to Earth and the 'Wildfire Team' are activated.
Wildfire's job is to examine the satellite in a secure bio-lab facility, classify how the deadly organism functions, and then find a cure for it. The facility reminded me of an underground Titan missile base. Once the team have travelled down to Level V, being increasingly decontaminated as they descend, they are essentially cut off from the surface with only computers and machines linking them to the outside world. Wildfire is clinical, clean, cold and dispassionate. The opinions of the computer programs come faster than the humans could form them and are unchallenged. The message is clear: technology can fix anything if the smartest people are using it.
Wildfire has been fitted with the ultimate fail-safe of a nuclear bomb that will automatically vaporise the facility if the computers detect that the bio-containment seals have failed. Only one unmarried man is given the key that could deactivate that bomb: if the alarm sounds he will have three minutes to decide whether he should stop it.
"The Andromeda Strain" is definitely a product of its time, blending Cold War secrecy and militarism with all the technological capability that America's military-industrial complex could develop in the 1960s. Both the book and 1971 film feel claustrophobic and dispassionate; the survival of the team, the general population of the USA and even the world, will be determined by the unsmiling efforts of science. The scientists are compartmentalised both by their specialisms and their security ratings. They are progressively isolated as they descend through layers of decontamination, most of the Wildfire's infrastructure is automated and communication is electronic, impersonal.
Using a vast array of computer-driven tests, the team eventually discover the Andromeda organism. Andromeda seems to be able to directly convert energy into matter without the need for digestion or respiration. It has a crystal structure and grows without DNA, RNA or any amino acids. It has also evolved into a form that can destroy (digest?) plastic-rubber. Although not lethal in that form, it escapes from confinement and the nuclear fail-safe is activated. The team realise that if the bomb detonates the energy released will probably result in Andromeda taking over the Earth - the story ends with them trying to avert that crisis. which I am not going to spoil here!
I really enjoyed re-reading The Andromeda Strain. It is a bit slow and by today's standards the technology is over-explained... we're all used to the ideas of computers and electron microscopes now. Some of the technology like the use of tele-printers has dated the book, but this took nothing away from the story.
Whilst I have enjoyed both the original book and 1971 film, unfortunately I must add that I did not like the 2008 mini-series - it felt much too slow and ponderous, which is saying something for this story!
I thought I had missed getting a first edition copy of this but found one by chance in a local bookstore today - fantastic!
I like the filmed version of Alien 3 - it felt rather British, which appealed to me. I also enjoyed reading Gibson's script and now I'm looking forward to tucking into this comic-book version... hope it lives up to expectations!
Picking this up reminded me of the fun I had watching Alien and Aliens back-to-back at the cinema in 2014 - my blog post from that wonderful night out ('Halloween Horror') is below...
I saw two of my favourite sci-fi genre films back-to-back at Vue on 31st October 2014: Ridley Scott's "ALIEN" followed by James Cameron's "ALIENS"... WOW, what an
I first saw ALIEN on VHS video in about 1985, some six years after the original cinema release - of all the films I have seen, it made the most lasting and influential impression on me as a lover and writer of science fiction.
I remember being:
* captivated by the harshly industrial Nostromo/platform sets,
* awed by the balletic orbital manouvering in the landing sequence (beautifully enriched by Jerry Goldsmith's music),
* totally drawn into an alien world as the crew walked towards the derelict, and...
* increasingly terrified as the film accelerated with tense horror after that infamous 'chest-burster' scene.
Few films have managed to combine so many wonderful elements: innovative scriptwriting, world-class acting, a haunting score, game-changing realism in set design, and a genuinely unique vision of horror (Giger's monsters - apparently when Dan O'Bannon first showed Giger's paintings to Gordon Carroll, the producer recoiled saying 'This man is sick').
One quote I really like is the foreshadowing of Brett's death:
Parker: If they find what they're lookin' for out there, that mean we get full shares?
Ripley: Don't worry, Parker, yeah. You'll get whatever's coming to you.
Brett: Look, I'm not gonna do any more work, until we get this straightened out.
Ripley: Brett, you're guaranteed by law to get a share.
And wow, did he get a share!
When James Cameron's ALIENS came along in 1986 I was old enough to see it in the cinema. I remember enjoying the film as more of a sci-fi adventure yarn than a horror movie - after ALIEN that was a surprise.
The biggest shock was that The Alien was no longer invulnerable: as long as you had enough firepower you could survive contact with Ash's "perfect organism... [whose] ... structural perfection is matched only by its hostility". Cameron had obviously taken the franchise on a completely new direction.
Whereas Scott's ALIEN is full of memorable settings and relentless tensions, Cameron's ALIENS runs on a full tank of memorable dialogue and one-liners. Some of my favourite quotes from the second film include:
On the Sulaco, shortly after the marines have woken from hypersleep:
Hudson: Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?
Vasquez: No. Have you?
and also... with the marines preparing for the drop:
Ripley: I feel like kind of a fifth wheel around here, is there anything I can do?
Apone: I dunno, is there anything you can do?
and of course... in the APC after the marines barely escape from the Aliens' surprise attack:
Vasquez: Okay. We have several canisters of CM-20. I say we go back in there and nerve gas the whole fuckin' nest.
Hicks: It's worth the try, but we don't know if that's gonna affect them.
Hudson: Let's just bug out and call it even, man! What are we even talking about this for?
Ripley: I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.
Hudson: Fuckin' A!
The second movie was fun and memorable, and spawned some computer games I have enjoyed playing, but its lasting impact was very much less for me
(I actually prefer David Fincher's ALIEN 3 to ALIENS).
I'd always wondered what the Big Screen experience of ALIEN was like. I'd heard and read the legendary tales of people vomitting in the cinemas when it was released and I felt intimidated to try it for myself. I'm so glad I got brave enough to try it (with some friends for back-up) - it was AWESOME and the experience will stay with me forever!!
However, it's a miracle that I ever picked this wonderful book up. What were Harper thinking when they published it in this cover? That image speaks to no genre, certainly not sci fi (in my opinion).
Even today HarperCollins still seem to be misplacing this book. Amazon lists it against Medical Thrillers and Medical Fiction (where it ranks very highly), but casual SF browsers will never find it.
The taglines of "Sunday Times Bestseller" (yawn) and "A better writer than Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell" seemed overly egotistical and I expected to be disappointed - wrong! This is writing of the first order.
I nearly passed it by in the book shop. However, I was always intrigued by gravity when I was studying physics, and that was just enough to get me to read the blurb... which contained lots of things that I love in SF '... study living creatures in space... space travel... space station... infects the astronauts... NASA... contagion...' - what's not to like in that list?
Gerritsen masterfully tells an interwoven medical and space exploration story. The medical science is believable. The descriptions of space technology and procedures feel accurate. I was turning the pages fast in order to see what happened next. Despite many deaths, the story ends on a somewhat upbeat note that I appreciated.
The central premise of the book is that an ancient organism dug up from the Galapagos Rift becomes 'contaminated' with frog genes before being shipped to the ISS as a private experiment. On board the ISS it acquires mouse and human genes. The resulting organism then infects the crew of both the station and astronauts visiting in the space shuttle with a 'disease' that digests them from the inside out. The closing chapters contain a powerfully told cover up and betrayal, followed a State versus The People narrative. Will the astronauts survive and return to Earth? - you'll have to read the book to find out.
The only moment I squirmed over was the fictional destruction of Discovery and her crew. Accidents happen in space, which is a minor theme in this book, but I couldn't help but feel that this plot line came too soon after the loss of Challenger in 1986. Sometimes even thirteen years isn't long enough.
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