On My Bookshelf: Books With Ideas

I’m still reading a lot of science fiction this year. Mike Flynn spoiled me. After I finished In The Lion’s Mouth, I wanted more. So I picked up Leviathan Wakes. Okay. I’m spoiled after reading some good literary science fiction. I started rereading Asimov’s Foundation trilogy the other night, and I’m still thinking I’m spoiled.

Let me get to the new book first, then explain my title above a bit more. This tome is well-reviewed on Amazon, and a notable writer, George R.R. Martin praises it. And it does have its good points. There are about five or six big battles/confrontations in the book. And every one is set up with a nice swell of the plot. And then we move on to the next hurdle.

But it’s obviously written by guys who are not deep into science fiction. They seem like they’re deep into television, like a mini-series. And that’s okay, but it doesn’t make for excellent writing.

Leviathan Wakes reads like a tv show. Biggest flaw are the stock characters: a divorced, alcoholic police detective (who’s not nearly the character Jerry Orbach played on Law & Order), a hotshot captain (like James T. Kirk, among others, but we never really get into his head), the woman in love with a guy who doesn’t know she exists (as a woman), etc.. Bad guys (and corporations) are bad. Good guys (and military leaders) are good. And the police detective is really troubled.

Please.

Write some characters not so predictable.

As for the science, I was thinking of Mr Spock’s advice to Kirk in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. He reminds his captain that Khan’s intelligent, but inexperienced. One key plot idea in Leviathan Wakes seems to assume that an advanced alien race thinks in two dimensions. They lob something into the solar system, but it gets caught in Saturn’s orbit instead of reaching Earth. Stupid aliens and lucky us.

Any alien race of sufficient technology that wants to take over the Earth is not going to lob something in on us along the plane of the solar system’s planets. They will drop something onto our north or south pole and make sure obstacles are minimal. They might even think to plant it personally. Even 21st century Earthlings know there are a boatload of giant planets in the universe. They tend to scatter comets and asteroids and small planets into interstellar space.There are ways to avoid them.

The authors (James S. A. Corey is a pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) have done enough homework to know that when you hollow out an asteroid and spin it, you get the Coriolis effect playing with human dizziness and such. But they haven’t done quite enough homework to write convincingly of other aspects of the science of human space settlement. Intelligent guys I’m sure, but inexperienced.

Let’s get back to characters. I think there are some great characters on television. I liked the way the NCIS writers and Mark Harmon played Gibbs on the early seasons of that show. This dude was a little unnerving, how obsessed he was to find Ari. I like a protagonist that has a little bit of creepiness about him. Just to make me wonder. The Captain in Leviathan Wakes has his issues, as well he should. But they write him a little too straight, and a little too cosmetically. Not nearly enough depth on him or his companions.

In contrast, I’ve started reading the Foundation Trilogy for the first time in decades. Isaac Asimov is not the most literary writer. He’s big on talk and super on ideas, but minimal on characterization. And let’s be honest: not much wonder in his stories in terms of the descriptions of human experience on a galactic scale.

I was trying to think of why the Foundation stories are so superior. I suspect it’s because of the ideas behind them.

Foundation is Asimov’s treatment of the fall of the Roman Empire, only set fifty millennia in the future. The Fall of Rome is a big cultural anchor for western civilization. To top it off, the whole idea of psychohistory, of being able to predict the development of human societies, toys with the idea of self-determination.

If the Seldon Plan is so sound, does an individual human being have any leeway in living her or his life? Are we all pawns of a greater god? Or God? Is it all about us being carried to the ocean in a very swift stream? And thanks to the geniuses in charge, we’re powerless to alter the big picture.

Even reading a book for which I know the ending, I’m drawn in and I’m thinking. Again. Much more enjoyable than a sf book with more sex and shooting. But face it: Leviathan Wakes has one idea. War. Yawn. We had that watching Everybody Loves Raymond with Ray’s wife and mother-in-law tussling. At least Orson Scott Card gave us an original twist to the conduct of war in Ender’s Game. That was original, thoughtful, and something you could ponder for days after you finished the book.

I’m thinking that good science fiction, at least sf that appeals to me, has to have a Big Idea working for it. It has to be bigger than war. Bigger than sex. Bigger than most of what passes for sf in the movies and on television.

I hear that somebody has bought the rights to film Asimov’s Foundation. I have a few ideas on what I’d hope to see, if I were producing such an effort. But that’s a post for later this weekend. Stay tuned.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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One Response to On My Bookshelf: Books With Ideas

  1. crystal says:

    I’ve never read The Foundation Trilogy. Maybe I’ll try it. I did like Ender’s Game. I like sicnce fiction that makes me think new things, new ways – have you tried The Cuty & The City? It had a pretty interesting idea behind it but it took a little while to grow on me. An old sci fi book I’ve been thinking of re-reading is To Your Scattered Bodies Go – I remember it having an interesting theme of everyone on Earth who’d ever died being reborn on another planet.

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