Warning: this post may contain spoilers for James P Hogan’s novel Inherit the Stars, composed of The Two Moons, and The Gentle Giants of Ganymede
As the cover quote from Isaac Asimov indicates, this is one of the classics of science fiction, being the first two novels (which really should be read as one book, and are certainly of length suitable to doing so, which is why I will be reviewing them that way) in James P Hogan’s Giants series. I believe there are six, but I’m not entirely certain what ground would be covered in the other four that wasn’t already covered in these first two, because I’m not really thinking of any unanswered questions left when I finished this book.
Every time I pick up one of these classic-style science fiction novel, like Ringworld or Double Star, I find myself saying that a) I should read these sorts of books more often, and b) I wish that books like these were still written today. Unfortunately, I don’t really know of any new science fiction that can properly be put into the same category as something like this. Hard science fiction seems to mostly be composed of gritty, character-heavy stories like The Martian or The Expanse, which just are not the same. Those are stories about people and societies, more than they are about big idea, what if questions. I almost look for somewhat forgettable characters, negligible plots, and inconsistent world-building in books like this, because all of the attention is really on the ideas.
It’s a little ironic that I like this kind of book so much, considering that they are structured much like mysteries, and that is one of the few genres that I avoid. I get very little out of a traditional mystery novel and trying to figure out “who done it,” but the mysteries and questions laced through a science fiction novel like Inherit the Stars fascinate me and are the main things that kept me turning pages – I finished both books together in about three days. Maybe it’s because many of the mysteries pertained to real fields of science and physics with which I am quite conversant, but I was able to solve most of the mysteries significantly before the characters did, but that did not make the reading any less enjoyable.
The Two Moons is largely a story about assumptions, and why in science it’s so important to be aware of the assumptions you’re making, and to be able to separate them out and stop making them. Everything we claim to “know” about the universe is really just our best guess at explaining the observed data, and that data has all been observed from a shared perspective: at a minimum that of a human being on Earth. It is not difficult to imagine how that can affect and distort our view of reality, and how it can lead us astray if we don’t pay very careful attention. It is also a fine piece in favor of the concept of the polymath and their power to synthesize information across multiple fields.
It’s fascinating to think of all the possible different explanations for how we got to where we are, and the tiny things that had to happen and have to continue to happen in order for us to exist as we do – the staggering complexity of life is simply overwhelming when you stop to really think about it. An almost incomprehensibly large number of things have to go right after single moment in time in order for you to be alive, and an even greater number of mutations, random chances, and freak accidents had to occur to bring you into existence in the first place. This book digs deeply into both of those ideas, and has one of the better treatments I’ve read for handling complex topics.
Many aspects of the science are surprisingly rigorous, as tends to be the case with this period’s science fiction, which is always an amusing contrast to the cultural anachronisms that are thick amongst the characters and settings. The Earth in these novels has basically achieved a post-scarcity civilization through nuclear fusion power, has commutes to the Moon the way we currently commute between major cities, and permanent bases on Jupiter’s moons…and all of the characters still act, talk, drink, and smoke like it’s the 1960s. I always find this more amusing than off-putting, and I actually think it contributes to the charm of these sorts of books. It also helps keep the focus on the ideas, and not on the world-building, which for stories like this is exactly where it ought to be.
In other words, I enjoyed just about everything about this book, and I would definitely recommend it if you like reading science fiction.