Category Archives: vintage science-fiction

Audiobook Review: Prelude to Foundation by Issac Asimov

preludePrequels are difficult. Just ask George Lucas or Brannon Braga.

While there is a great opportunity to fill in the backstory for characters and do a bit of worldbuilding, it feels like the risks often outweigh the rewards. A prequel series can also be limiting in how many surprises or revelations an author or creative team can throw the fans way before fandom starts crying foul or screaming that this detail or that one has violated continuity or a long-held character belief.

But long before Star Trek and Star Wars were looking to their past, author Issac Asimov was taking the opportunity to fill in a few gaps in his Foundation novels. Asimov’s output of the ’80s seemed to be almost obsessed with finding ways to connect various threads across his novels and short stories. And so it was that we come to Prelude to Foundation, a prequel to his popular, award-winning series that explored the early days of Hari Seldon and some of the steps in the creation of psychohistory.

Less sweeping in scope than the other Foundation entries, Prelude to Foundation focuses on an early adventure of Seldon in the days after presented a paper on psychohistory. As the Galactic Empire begins to crumble, multiple parties see Seldon’s psychohistory as their opportunity to gain, keep, or consolidate power. Most of the original Foundation trilogy puts Seldon on a pedestal and gives us the image of a wise figure forecasting the fall of an Empire and doing his best to shorten humanity’s coming Dark Age. Continue reading

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#VintageSciFiMonth Review: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells

H. G. Wells: The Invisible Man

One of the eternal questions debated on many a playground is if you could pick one superpower, which one would it be and why? Odds are that a lot of the responses are going to be the old standards of flying, running fast, or becoming invisible.

The becoming invisible portion is the basis for one of the building blocks of the science-fiction genre in H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. Odds are that even if you haven’t read it, you’re aware of the basic outline of the story thanks to multiple pop-culture retellings or uses of the character over the years.

vintage-sf-badgeFor this year’s Vintage SciFi Month, I decided that I’d take a look at the foundational novel in the genre and see if it holds up.

Since it was included as part of my Audible subscription, I decided to take advantage of it and began listening. And immediately found myself not really looking forward to going back to it. The story of a scientist who invents a serum that allows him to become invisible and then becomes a raging ball of id just never quite connected with me this time around. Doing a bit of research, I found that Wells initially serialized the story, which then put into the Doctor Who frame of mind of figuring out where the cliffhangers all were. And maybe the story would have worked better unfolding in weekly or monthly installments. But I’m honestly not so sure. Continue reading

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Vintage Sci-Fi Month: Looking Forward

vintage-sf-badgeIt’s Vintage Sci-Fi Month! It’s a time to celebrate the foundation (pun fully intended) and look back at some of the building blocks that brought us to the future.

Hosted by the Little Red Reviewer, “vintage” refers to anything published on or before 1979. And while, I’ve picked out a few books to read during the month, I have to admit part of my excitement about 2021 will be two adaptations of two of the giants in the genre.

Yes, I’m referring to the upcoming adaptations of Foundation and Dune.

Dune has had multiple attempts to bring it to the silver-screen, including the David Lynch version and a couple of Sci-Fi Channel miniseries back in the mid-90’s. Both had their good points, both had some limitations. But I can’t wait to see what director Denis Villeneuve brings to this sprawling epic. His work on Arrival (which made me weep at the end. If you haven’t seen it, go into it without knowing anything) alone made me think that he could do for Dune what Peter Jackson did for Lord of the Rings. I have to admit, I’m extremely encouraged by the preview we got late last year and while I have HBO Max, I may still pony up for a ticket to see the one on a huge screen with cutting edge surround sound.

A_foundation_seriesI’m also equally intrigued to see Issac Asimov’s Foundation novels come to life as a tv series. I read these for the first time back in high school and loved them. I read them at the time when Asimov appeared to have a bit of a resurgence on the best-seller list and was working to tie all of his various universes together (with varying degrees of success). It seems like there were rumors for years that the novels would become a movie franchise, though I have to admit after I, Robot, I was concerned that a two-hour movie might not do justice to this seminal sci-fi series. Now, that it’s a series for Apple TV, I hope it has the time to tell it’s story right and hopefully open up this world to a whole new generation of fans. Again, the preview released late last year has me intrigued.

I know we’ve got a bit of a longer wait for Dune than Foundation (which I think is promised this spring). And I really do hope that both live up to my expectations and dreams for them.

Either way, I think I may spend some of my 2021 reading time with these old friends. I’ve already purchased the audiobook of Dune to refresh my memory and I’m leaning toward doing the same for the Foundation novels.

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Review: Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

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As part of the 2016 Sci-Fi Experience and getting in early for Vintage Sci-Fi month, I thought I’d offer up some thoughts on Arthur C. Clarke’s classic genre novel Childhood’s End.

I read this one a decade ago as part of a vintage genre campaign, but large chunks of it had slipped my memory. So when SyFy’s new mini-series showed up on the DVR, I decided to re-visit the original material before I started watching the new adaptation.

So, here we go….

Childhood's EndOne of my big complaints about the current state of science-fiction and fantasy is the overwhelming need to make EVERY single concept into a trilogy or on-going series.

Which is what makes going back to the classics of the genre such a pleasure.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End is one of the most economic genre novels ever published. But I’d argue that the novel packs more ideas and punch into its two hundred pages than some on-going series have packed into their thousand plus (and counting) pages.

In many ways, Clarke created the mythology of the alien invasion. The Overlords arrive in ships that hover over the greatest cities on Earth, saying that they are here to help humanity. The Overlords put an end to petty conflicts and help point humanity toward a better tomorrow — but there could be a price to it all. They refuse to allow human beings to see them as they really are for the first fifty years of their overseeing our world. Instead, a single human is chosen as the intermediary for humans and Overlords. Continue reading

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Review: Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain By Issac Asimov

vintage-sf-badgeFantastic Voyage II:  Destination Brain

In his introduction to Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain, Issac Asimov tells us that he wasn’t satisfied with his novelization of Fantastic Voyage and that this novel is an attempt to correct some things he didn’t like about the first novel.

The result is this book which is less a sequel to the original and more a re-telling of the original story and concept. Asimov tries his hardest to make the concept of miniaturization more scientifically plausible, but it’s at the the cost of making the second installment far less interesting and page-turning. The first novel took about half its page length to get the crew miniaturized and inside the human being in question to try and save life. Unfortunately, so does Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain. At several points, I found myself muttering “Let’s get on with the shrinking already” as our hero, Morrison expresses a sense of trepidation about the procedure he is about to undergo.

And it may be with Morrison that this book finds its biggest flaw. Asimov sets up our protagonist as a scientist whose fortunes and favor in the scientific community are on the decline. When approached by a Soviet agent about coming to the Soviet Union to help in an experiment, Morrison is quick to decline, despite the fact that he has no prospects on the horizon in the United States. Even when asked by his own government to go, Morrison declines and eventually has to be kidnapped and taken to the Soviet Union in order to become part of the team.

Morrison protests this treatment a lot over the course of the novel. It feels almost like Asimov wants to remind us every ten or so pages that Morrison has become part of this project against his will. This works to the detriment of the book. Part of the fun of the original was no matter who fantastic the situation, the participants were at least enthusiastic about the opportunity to travel inside a human being and possibly save his life. Here the motivation isn’t so much saving a life but not allowing a scientist to die without passing on vital knowledge that could make the process of miniaturization easier and more cost effective.

Yes, you read that correctly. One of the motivating factors for this journey inside the body of a man and to his brain is to unlock his secrets is entirely budgetary. A good reason, sure. But not exactly one that compels you to turn pages and wonder what will happen next. At least the first novel had the specter of the Cold War hanging over it to drive some of the character and plot motivations.

I kept hoping that once our team of scientists got miniaturized and injected into the subject that things might pick up. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case and the novel plods along at its leisurely pace even once we’re injected and running against the clock. The only moments of tension come when the ship is diverted by a white blood cell and later when Morrison is forced to go to extreme measures to try and make the mission a success. (And even then, he has to be blackmailed into it by the Soviet team though threats of destroying what little is left of his academic reputation.)

The book also suffers from the same flaw that several later Asimov projects do — his desire to tie all his universes together. Thankfully it’s not quite as egregious as Robots and Empire, but there’s a coda that makes Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain a stepping stone toward Asimov’s Robots and Foundation novels. It’s only a couple of pages and it’s meant to serve as a coda, so it’s a bit easier to overlook and forgive than some of the other examples from the Asimov library, but it’s still there.

Had I not read the original novel first, I might have liked this one more. Of course, had I not read the original I might not have been willing to give Asimov the benefit of the doubt I needed to keep plowing through this one in the hopes things would get better.

This one just validates my theory that 80’s Asimov output is no where nearly as entertaining and readable as those stories from his early career. I can see what he’s trying to do here, but I still think the original novel, despite all of its scientific implausibilities, is a more entertaining and enjoyable reading experience.

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Review: Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov

vintage-sf-badge

Better late than never, I guess. January is the Vintage Science-Fiction Non-Challenge month hosted by Little Red Reviewer. I had intended to read a few more vintage sci-fi novels during the month to participate, but the best laid plans often go astray….

However, I was able to pull a book off the TBR pile and read it, as well as watch the movie. It’s Isaac Asimov’s adaptation of Fantastic Voyage.

If you want to read what others have done for the month, check out Red’s page. You’ll find some great stuff!

Fantastic Voyage

Being a bibliophile (aka literary snob), I generally like to read the book (or short story as the case may be) before I see the movie. But in the case of Fantastic Voyage, it isn’t necessarily that simple. The novel is a tie-in into the movie and it’s likely the book wouldn’t exist without the movie. But a quick clicks of the keyboard quickly helped me discover that Isaac Asimov’s adaptation of the 20th Century Fox blockbuster hit the shelves a few weeks before the movie opened, so I felt comfortable in my decision to read the book first and then see the movie.

And I think it all worked out for the best.

My research leads me to believe that Asimov had to be talked into adapting the movie’s script for the printed page and that he agreed to do it if he could be allowed to at least bring some put some science in the science fiction of the plot and premise.

And you can certain see Asimov trying to put some credible science into the concept of miniaturizing a top-secret, top-of-the-line submarine with five people inside down to the point where they can be injected into the body of an injured man. The man in question is a high ranking scientist who is defecting and could help keep the balance of power in check for both sides during the Cold War. The Enemy (they are always capitalized by Asimov) try to take him out on the way to the top-secret installation where he will reveal his secrets to our side and help us either keep up with our Enemy and maintain the balance of mutually assured destruction.

Just as the film spends the first half hour or so setting up the situation and the characters, so does the book spend its first third or so setting up the background. As I said before, it’s interesting to watch as Asimov attempts to reconcile the fantastic premise with real-world science of the day and to speculate on if this could or would happen in the future. The concept of shrinking down people to go inside a person and help break up a clot in a near inoperable place is a fascinating and intriguing and it was apparently very influential. Most genre shows worth their salt will feature a story with character shrunk down a bit — in fact, Doctor Who did it at least twice that I can think of during the classic series run.

Interestingly, Asimov’s book inserts a bit more drama to the situation by emphasizing that this is a race against time — not only to help break up the clot and help reduce any permanent damage to said scientist but also because there is a limit to how long the sub and crew can be miniaturized before the process wears off and they began to revert back to normal size. There’s also the intriguing idea that the passage of time will FEEL different to our heroes in their miniaturized form as opposed to how time is really passing for all of the normal sized people on the outside. The movie does give a nod or two to this, but it doesn’t feel quite as pressing and weighing on everyone as much as it does in the novel.

There’s also the angle of a saboteur being on board the ship and wondering who it might be. Again, the movie brings this up, but it’s not quite as pervasive as Asimov makes it out to be in the novel. Of course, it could be that reading the novel takes a bit longer than watching the film and that allows time for these ideas and turns of events to sink on the reader, rather than just being another obstacle to overcome on-screen.

And while the mission is fairly straight-forward on the outside, once inside the body of the scientist, things go a bit awry. Both the movie and the novel have to come up with a crisis point every few minutes or pages to keep our heroes on their toes. And it’s probably a good thing because it would be rather dull if they just zipped right to the clot, broke it up and got out again without any complications. It’d also make for a shorter book and movie.

Honestly, I have to say that I enjoyed the novel more than the film. The film is good and I can respect and admire how ground-breaking and spectacular the effects were for the time. But there are large parts of the film that feel like stretches of Star Trek: The Motion Picture — we’re supposed to sit back in awe and wonder of what’s unfolding because holy cow, this is fantastic and amazing. And while I’m all for stunning visuals, I still think there should be a plot driving these visuals.

It’s also interesting to see that Asimov expands the ending a bit more — he gets out two love-crossed heroes together (sort of) and we get confirmation the mission was a successful one. Watching the movie, I guess we can figure that it worked because our heroes remove the clot and escape before they revert back to regular size, but the movie doesn’t confirm this for us. Instead, everyone is shaking hands and congratulating our heroes on a job well done and ignoring the fact that we left one guy behind for dead and the sub breaking up inside the scientst. After putting so much emphasis on why we had to get out in time, the movie seems to say — well, it’s OK cause those white blood cells took care of it all. Asimov at least attempts to explain why it’s OK in his version of events.

One thing I find interesting is that outside of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, this is probably his best known work. And while part of me wishes that his Robot novels were better known, I still can’t help but think this book is a good entry point for readers who want try some Asimov but not necessarily feel like they want to take on his Foundation series just yet. It’s a good entry point book. And the fact that you can go out and see the movie after you’re done reading is probably another good selling point.

Is this great Asimov? Probably not.

Is it good Asimov? Absolutely.

It also intrigued me enough to make me want to pick up Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage 2: Destination Brain and read it. I’ve read that it’s less a sequel to this on but instead more of a re-telling with Asimov trying to put better science into the science fiction.

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