Sunday, September 09, 2007

The cream of the questions

kw: book reviews, science fiction, anthologies

Originally published in 1980, The Future in Question, edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph Olander forms half of a 2006 volume entitled Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Treasury.

The twenty stories in Question all have titles that are questions, except the twentieth, which is Asimov's classic "The Last Question". These stories, mainly from the 1950s and 1960s, cover the range of writing styles and attitudes of the "golden age of sci-fi".

Why should there be such a "golden age"? Why such a variety of it seems? In a time of rapidly increasing scientific discovery, with a sense that knowledge and technology would grow without bound, and with a profound ignorance of the limitations future discoveries would place on both, one could imagine greatly with little fear that SF fans would know enough to disdain your ideas. How hard it is to read now of "cheap and effective" star travel, when we know the real cost of simply escaping the Sun's gravity well. What a shiver of disappointment accompanies a story line based on a "robot" that can't be distinguished from a human, when we know how little progress has been made in "artificial" intelligence.

The more one knows about science—genuine science, not the hugely oversimplified versions (by the dozen) portrayed by most SF authors—, the harder it becomes to willingly suspend disbelief in favor of star-hopping galactic civilizations, great discoveries made quickly, or machine minds. Yet in these stories, many of them the best of their genre, we find the non-credible elements fade away before the human element.

Thus, for example, "Who Goes There?" by John Campbell (the earliest story included) isn't so much about a shape-shifting space alien as it is about what it means to be human; "Who's There?" by Arthur C. Clarke at first appears to be about work in space and about ghosts—and how could they go together?!—but is about the power of imagination; and "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" by James Tiptree, Jr., a woman writing under a male pseudonym, uses time and space travel to explore the necessity of even having a male sex (and she makes the uncomfortable point that males are required to "protect" females...from other males, and that's about all).

Well, this is just half the omnibus volume. Stay tuned for the other half.

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