Tag Archives: #VintageSciFiMonth

Review: Alas Babylon by Pat Frank

Alas, BabylonMy consumption of sci-fi and fantasy dwindled a bit in 2022. Part of this stems from the ongoing feeling that many of the books hitting the shelves are part of some of a series. I’m either a book or two behind or because George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss burned me not delivering new installments after I got invested in a series and I’m scared to dip my toes into something new for fear of further abandonment.

For years, my real-world book club started off the year by dipping our toes into the past and reading an older science-fiction novel. This tied well into #VintageSciFiMonth when it started up a few years ago.

And while my real-world book club has gone dormant, as 2023 dawned, I found myself wanting to make a more concerted effort to sci-fi and fantasy and to check a few books off my to-be-read pile.

Enter Alas, Babylon, a novel that I picked up a few years ago for the #VintageSciFiMonth but never quite got around to reading. It’s been a while since I read a post-apocalyptic story and I felt like it was time for the “end of the world as we know it” to happen in the fictional world.

vintage-sf-badge-e1580140191983Published in 1959, Alas, Babylon recounts the days leading up to a nuclear war between the United States and the days, months, and years following said attack. Pat Frank spends the first quarter of the novel introducing us to Randy Bragg and the people in his Florida small-town world. Randy lives an aimless life in the small town until he receives a telegram from his brother with their secret code of “Alas, Babylon” which signifies a massive shift coming in the world. In this case, it’s the Soviet Union seizing an opportunity to strike the United States with tactical nuclear weapons.

The first quarter of the novel at times feels like a thriller by Tom Clancy, with tensions escalating due to moves made by each side until an accidental bombing of an ammunition depot in the Middle East by an American jet pilot sets off a chain reaction that leads to nuclear war.

Randy’s town is far enough from major population centers and military installations to not be bombed out of existence. However, it does face major changes in the world on The Day when the bombs fall and afterward.

At times, Alas, Babylon is chillingly effective, especially the chapter the details how the day the bombs fall becomes The Day and spends twenty-four hours detailing what happen — from the initial shockwaves to the run on supplies to the power finally and permanently failing. Hauntingly told, the chapter alone is one reason that this novel has survived and remained part of the literary consciousness all the years.

Frank also creates a haunting portrait of the world post-bombing and the impact is has on his characters. It’s probably strange that I’m reading the new Jack Reacher book as I finish this one because I feel like Randy and Jack are cut from the same literary cloth — the man who always has the answers and is rarely phased by much. Give Randy a travel toothbrush and he probably is a bit more like Reacher. Seeing how differently things are valued in the pre-and post-attack world is one of the more intriguing aspects of the story. It certainly made me wonder how long I might survive in the new world order described.

The parts that don’t work as well now are the blatant racism and sexism that exist. If you’re looking for a book with strong characters of color and strong females, you’re probably going to want to skip this one. (Though it is interesting that once the news starts filtering in about the world beyond the scope of Randy’s small town that the balance of power has shifted to Asia).

The other big drawback of the story is the ending feels a bit anti-climatic. Early on, Randy’s brother, Mark, sends his family to live with Randy to get them out of harm’s way. Mark is a high-ranking military official, so he’s near one of the areas that would be one of the first targets in the attacks. I kept getting a feeling that Mark would somehow magically survive the first wave of attacks and enter the story again in the later stages. Thankfully, Frank doesn’t allow this to happen though there is some drama centering on his wife coming on to Randy and later becoming romantically entangled with the town’s doctor.

All of this leads up to an ending that feels like it’s trying too hard to give us a bit of hope when the past hundred or so pages don’t really support it. Seeing the world struggle to put itself back together is compelling but the last chapter undermines it a bit. I wonder if Frank struggled to find a way to end the story and couldn’t quite find a way that satisfied him to stick the landing.

Stil, I can see why this one is among the more cited stories of the post-apocalyptic genre. When the novel is working, it’s firing on all cylinders. There are just a couple of speed bumps in there.

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#VintageSciFiMonth: “Sally,” “Flies,” “Nobody Here But –” & “It’s Such A Beautiful Day” by Isaac Asimov

nightfallasimovAs #VintageSciFiMonth starts to wind down, I’ve got a few more thoughts stories collected in Issac Asimov’s Nightfall and Other Stories collection.

Sally (4 Stars)
One of the hallmarks of Asimov was his contributions to the fictional world of positronic intelligence. “Sally” feels like an interesting precursor to his robots in a lot of ways, concerning a time in which cars are given artificial intelligence. Originally published in 1953, the story is set in 2015 and indicates another one of those odd coincidences in which Asimov came close to predicting the date when his sci-fi would become reality.

Overall, this is an intriguing story. The idea of a farm to which the AI cars retire and the greedy man who wants to strip them of their AI with little regard for the impact it will have on the cars is a good one and sets up an interesting conflict. Honestly, I think this one would serve as a great basis for a movie (indeed, it feels like a shorter version of Stephen King’s Christine) since you have intelligent cars defending themselves.

Flies (1.5 Stars)
The first swing and a miss for this collection, “Flies” looks at a group of scientists, gathering for their twenty-year reunion and looking at their legacy and current work. All of them have gone into the field of studying flies, based on the fact that one of the group’s body chemistry seems to attract the flies.
There are some good ideas in here, but overall, this one didn’t quite connect with me as some of the other stories in this collection have.

Nobody Here But — (3 Stars)
Asimov attempts to write a rom-com with a sci-fi twist in “Nobody Here But –” It’s the story of two scientists who have invented an AI (a common theme for Asimov) and how the AI starts to become self-aware. Of course, this all comes to a head on the night of the narrator’s big date with his girlfriend and the question arises as to whether his colleague suggested he ask the girl to marry him or the computer did to survive or distract the two.

Nothing necessarily “wrong” about this story but it felt a bit forced at times. And Asimov is accused of not writing well for his female characters — and that certainly isn’t helped here.

It’s Such A Beautiful Day (4 Stars)
This one feels oddly prescient today, even if we don’t necessarily have technology that allows us to instantly move from one point to another. The doors system is a technology that allows people to travel instantly from one place to the other (it feels like the transporter on Star Trek). When the door breaks down at one family’s home, their young son takes the scenic route and walks to school instead. He finds he likes it and much to the chagrin of his teachers and others, he begins to walk instead of beaming from place to place.

The question of just because technology makes life easier does it necessarily make it better looms large over this one. The horror of various people that the boy wants to get wet and muddy is well-realized and it keeps this story feeling relevant to today as we all become increasingly dependent on technology that supposedly makes our lives better.

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#VintageSciFiMonth: “Breeds There A Man,” “C-Chute” & “What If –” by Issac Asimov

nightfallasimovAs #VintageSciFiMonth continues, I’ve read/listened to a few more of Issac Asimov’s short stories from his Nightfall and Other Stories collection.

Breeds There a Man?  (4.5 Stars)

“Breeds There a Man?” shows a different side of Issac Asimov and it’s one I found fascinating.

Elwood Ralson is a brilliant physicist who can apparently look at a problem and come up with a solution. As humanity lives under the threat of nuclear war, Ralson may be the only hope for one side to create a defense against nuclear attack. The only issue is that Ralson is suicidal and psychologically unstable.

Ralson operates under the theory that humanity is little more than an experiment in a test tube for higher intelligence and that anytime humankind gets to a certain level, the experiment is wiped out and everything starts over again.

The concept is a compelling, fascinating one and Asimov explores it well in the course of this story. It’s interesting to note how early on, Asimov shows an inclination to exploring why there are highs and lows in the history of humanity and how his characters attempt to combat them.

C-Chute (5 Stars)

Asimov’s work is typically filled with robots rather than aliens. So a short story that presents an alien race is intriguing for him.

“C-Chute” is a bit of space opera with loftier ideals and well-drawn characters. In the near future, humanity is at war with an alien race. Our freighter is caught in the middle and its various passengers and crew are taken as prisoners of war. The group goes from being at each other’s throats to trying to find a way to escape and rescue themselves before being held on the aliens’ home world.

A compelling, taut story that was adapted for X-Minus One. I will definitely be listening to it at some point. This is one of my favorite stories from this collection to this point.

In a Good Cause— (2.5 Stars)

In the preface, Asimov notes that this is a story where he disagrees with his main characters’ viewpoint. And I suppose, that could be interesting if the story were a bit stronger.

Two friends come into repeated conflict over whether or not Earth should become part of a central, unified government (think the Federation in Star Trek). The story unfolds on three days when one of them was arrested for his beliefs and explores why the two are on opposite sides.

It’s good, but I can’t help but think this one should have been stronger. The idea of one man being right at the wrong time is intriguing. I did have a hard time not seeing this as a potential stepping stone for Gene Roddenberry in creating Starfleet, though it feels more like the Starfleet of TNG and beyond than it does TOS.

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The Robert Holmes Doctor Who Rewatch: “Pyramids of Mars”

downloadWhile his name doesn’t appear in the opening titles, Robert Holmes heavily rewrote “The Pyramids of Mars” enough that it I can count it as one of his stories for the purposes of my rewatch. (And if you doubt me, Steven Moffatt cited Holmes as the writer when this serial was chosen as the representative of the fourth Doctor’s era for the fiftieth anniversary, saying that Holmes was teaching everyone how to write for Doctor Who).

For a while, “Pyramids of Mars” was my favorite Doctor Who story. The years have reordered my list a bit and it’s still in the top ten.

I clearly recall the first time I saw it on KTEH in San Jose, being utterly mesmerized by part one. It aired on a Friday night and by the time we got the “I bring Sutekh’s gift of death to all humanity” cliffhanger to end part one, I was hooked. We had a VCR at the time and I was allowed to collect favorite stories on video-tape. I found myself wishing I’d recorded part one that night and vowing I would have it as part of my collection.

Pyramids_of_Mars_1988_VHS_USThe story was one of the first wave of VHS releases and came to the United States in the omnibus format. I plunked down by twenty dollars (mail order through the PBS catalog) and couldn’t wait to watch this one over and over again.

Which may be the reason that before my rewatch, it had been seven or eight years since I’d dusted off this one and watched.

My enthusiasm for it hasn’t changed. Despite feeling like I know large passages of this one by heart, the story still enthralled and entertained the heck out of me this time. It’s easily one of the top ten greatest stories in the Doctor Who canon and it’s Robert Holmes having a marvellous time rewriting. Continue reading

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#VintageSciFiMonth: “Hostess” by Issac Asimov

nightfallasimov“Hostess”:  Five Stars

You’d think Asimov couldn’t top “Nightfall” in his Nightfall and Other Stories collection, but he has.

This is a fascinating, compelling little story that is one part mystery, one part science-fiction, and one part mind-blowing concept. Rose married late in life to a police officer, something her friends and colleagues didn’t understand. Rose is a biologist, but there’s something about Drake that has forged a connection between the two.

Now, Rose has the honor of hosting an alien dignitary in their home Drake isn’t overly thrilled, but Rose is delighted to learn more about the alien world and culture — beyond what they allow the people of Earth to know.

I’ve just skimmed the surface of this story because it’s one of those delights that it’s best you don’t know much if anything about it before embarking on it. As with “Nightfall,” there are echoes of future, longer works by Asimov here — the police officer who is skeptical of a new form of life and intelligence, the debate over hosting such a being in one’s home, etc. But this one has a bit more sinister thread running through it than the Bailey novels.

If you haven’t read this one, you should. If you’ve read it, it might be time to read it again. A marvel.

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#VintageSciFiMonth: “Nightfall,” “Green Patches” by Issac Asimov

One of the great things about Issac Asimov is his prolific body of work. This means there will probably be no shortage of material for #VintageSciFiMonth featuring Asimov in my lifetime. I’ve read Asimov since my teens and it looks like I won’t soon run out of new (to me) stuff to read.

And while I’ve read a good portion of his longer works, I’ve not sampled as many of his short stories as I should or could. So, this year for #VintageSciFiMonth, I decided to dip into his prolific short story output with the collection Nightfall and Other Stories. Over the course of the next month, I will be offering up my thoughts on the stories from the collection as I read through.

Nightfall (1949): Five stars

Asimov prefaces this story by saying that many consider it to be his best story and that while it was anthologized elsewhere he had never included it in one of his collections. Fifty-plus years later, “Nightfall” is the selling point of this collection and it’s interesting that Asimov puts it upfront instead of making us wait until the end to read it.

The planet Lagesh has multiple suns, meaning that people of this world are rarely without light. Once every two thousand or so years, the suns all set, sending the society of that work into chaos and ruin since the mere concept of a sky without at least one sun in it sends much of the population into madness. As the story opens, it’s a few hours from the last sun setting and civilization as we know it ending.

In many ways, this feels like Asimov trying on some of the concepts he will later explore in his Foundation novels. There’s a society on the brink of chaos, facing a coming dark age with a group of learned scientists who attempt to preserve some of the civilization and its learning in a secret location. “Nightfall” shows us the beginning of the fall of the Lagesh civilization and the madness that comes when people who have never missed light are deprived of it.

As with a lot of Asimov, this story features a lot of characters sitting around and having deep conversations about what’s unfolding. And yet, there is still a bit of action as the sun slowly sets and people dread the coming of the mysterious objects known as stars. The world-building for a short story is nothing short of remarkable and the growing sense of dread is palpable.

It’s easy to see why many consider this one of, if not the, best Asimov short stories.

The story was expanded to a novel with the help of Robert Silverburg in 1990. I’ve read that book but don’t recall much about it. I may have to dip into it again this year.

“Green Patches”: Four stars

The second expedition to Saybrook’s Planet wants to determine why the initial expedition destroyed itself after sending back one final message. Turns out the planet’s life is all part of one organism with a unified consciousness. This consciousness wants to help organize the chaos is that is humanity and Earth.

Everything lives in balance with the plans producing enough food for consumption and being allowed to thrive. Biological lifeforms that have been fertilized by the planet are known by the green patches in the place of eyes.

The story is a bit of a race against time to keep a rogue lifeform from getting to Earth and taking over the planet. But the concept of a world where everything is in perfect balance is one that intrigues me. Reading this, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to the Borg on Star Trek and Mary Doria Russell’s superb The Sparrow.

While this one isn’t as strong as “Nightfall,” it’s still pretty solid and one I really enjoyed.

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