Another classic piece of science fiction, this should take you less than an hour to read, but it will set you thinking for long after you've finished it. You might say that it will keep you thinking after Nightfall.
If anyone could write a compelling and insightful science fiction treatment of the concept, I thought that it would be Asimov. I was wrong.
It was actually a television adaptation of Foundation that prompted me to realize how long it had been since I last read this science fiction classic, and that it was probably time for a revisit. My wife and I recently watched AppleTV’s interpretation of Asimov’s novel, and so I decided it was an opportune time for a reread.
The Variable Man’s description included references to a post-nuclear apocalypse Earth, and a man from the past. Whatever I expected from that sparse summary, it was not what the story proved to be. The fact that the Earth set piece happened to have undergone a nuclear apocalypse (at least five of them, actually) is really something of a footnote, one of those throw-away world-building tidbits, like villius flowers, that don’t really add to the plot or the substance of the story, and exist only to create a more full-fleshed world. As for the man from the past…that’s where things got interesting.
I came across this particular text when I was browsing through an actual bookstore, and added it to my list almost entirely because of the author on the cover; everything I've read of Asimov's, from his Robot books, to two massive compilations of his short stories, to Foundation, which is one of my most frequently referenced books, has been enjoyable, so I figured I was pretty safe to add Fantastic Voyage to my reading list, even though the description didn't sound very compelling to me. It's surprising, therefore, that I mostly found this story disappointing.
As computers have become more advanced, faster, and more capable, the arguments in favor of manned spaceflight have become weaker, and space travel has increasingly become the domain of machines. Long before the invention of the microchip, Isaac Asimov proposed exactly this, describing unmanned, computer-controlled space exploration vehicles that would be able to venture into territories too extreme and too dangerous for humans. That vision has come to pass, and it is now commonly argued that humans are indeed too soft, vulnerable, and unreliable to utilize in spaceflight, and that removing them from the paradigm removes the weakest link. Manned spaceflight has largely been relegated to an oft-maligned holdover of Cold War international competition and patriotism. This is a mistake.
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.
Science fiction seems to have faded. At least, when I go to a library, or a bookstore, or more likely browse the Amazon Kindle library, I find a lot more good, really original fantasy being put out by new names and in modern times than I do science fiction. I can’t claim to know why this might be, but I do know that it hasn’t always been this way; my dad has often said that when he was younger it was the opposite, with fantasy in a kind of rut, and science fiction the blossoming flower. This present situation is perhaps why I find that I read today much for fantasy than I do science fiction, which is really shame, since every time that I pick up one of these older science fiction novels I invariably enjoy it.
With a title like that, you’re probably expecting a how to write type of post, walking through the disparate functions, actions, and reactions of the narrative structure. That’s not what it’s going to be about, but I wasn’t able to come up with a better title. I think that you’ll understand once you’ve read it. This is one of my occasional writing philosophy posts, although in this case it’s actually drifting more into the realm of just straight philosophy. The premise: the narrative is the quantum mechanics of human beings.
There are certain novels that you can read again and again, and you’ll always get something a little different out of them. It can be because you’re at a different point in your life, or because you’ve read other things and are approaching the story with a different context, or simply because the story is that intricate and beautifully written that, like any other great work of art, there are always more mysteries to be revealed. When it comes to literature, these are often the books that first got you into the genre, and that you come back to time and time again. These are the books that are thumbed through and dog-eared and well-worn. There might be pages trying to fall out, maybe even a tear here and there. These are well loved books.