20 July 2012

Inherit the Stars

Hardcover, 728 pages
Published 1981 (contents: 1977-81)
Acquired March 2008

Read June 2012
The Minvervan Experiment
by James P. Hogan

I have fond memories of reading James P. Hogan's Inherit the Stars from when I was a kid. It was passed on to me by my father, and I know I read it at least twice. A few years ago, I acquired this book-- the first I knew that Inherit the Stars had any sequels, much less four. It's first two are collected here, and I took the opportunity to reread the original and read the other two for the first time:

Inherit the Stars
It's pretty easy to read many sf stories as essentially detective fiction, but perhaps that has never been more true than with this novel. The novel lays out a very intriguing mystery-- how did the corpse of a human being in a spacesuit end up on the moon 50,000 years ago?-- and all of the information, and then proceeds to have the characters solve it. There's not much of characterization or depth here, really, but that's not what you're reading it for. Even if you've read the book before and know the answer, there's a certain joy in watching a set of skilled professionals at work, slowing piecing together the clues and unraveling the mystery.

Inherit the Stars was published around a decade after Thomas Kuhn blew open the scientific world with The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and it would not surprise me at all to learn that Hogan had read his work; the book in many ways epitomizes what Kuhn says about the moment of crisis that causes a paradigm change. Some attempt to keep on working in the old paradigm, ignoring bits that don't fit, others plunge ahead, and it's hard for everyone to communicate without a common language.

There are also some interesting echoes of Darwin. One of my favorite parts of The Descent of Man is when Darwin talks about the valiant little ape who saved his comrade, as it's inspiring; we as a species came into existence because of a countless number of events of tenacious survival. Inherit the Stars ends similarly, with the solution to the mystery actually being quite inspirational in what it says about humankind.

The Gentle Giants of Ganymede
This book suffers one of the most common problems of sequels. It's essentially the same book as the first one, only less compelling. It's structured around a mystery, but instead of "how did the corpse of a human being in a spacesuit end up on the moon 50,000 years ago?", it's something about amino acids. Of course, it grows more complex from there, but one central mystery never drives the novel, just a number of small and underdeveloped ones.

One of the big weaknesses in Inherit the Stars, by the by, is that the characters uncover the spaceship on Ganymede at the exact moment they need the information it contains. Lucky them! The Gentle Giants of Ganymede exacerbates this tenfold with its big coincidence; all in all, I found this a dull and pointless sequel.

Giants' Star
Thankfully, things pick up with Giants' Star, which takes the series from scientific mysteries to political ones; this is actually a pretty fast-paced thriller about alien interference in human development. There's spy missions, space warfare, alien invasions, and some really cool mysteries to unravel. It's a massive change in tone from the first two books, and involving in a much less intellectual way than Inherit the Stars, but I liked it a lot anyway-- you just have to enjoy it for what it is. The plots within plots get pretty elaborate at some points.

It does undermine the series' own mythology in some key ways, though. One of the problems I have with the Foundation series as it goes on is that it constantly undoes its own purpose: you start out thinking psychohistory predicts everything, but soon you find out that the Second Foundation's telepaths manipulated everything, and then you find out that there are even further levels of manipulation, so that psychohistory (ostensibly the core premise of the series) doesn't work at all. Something similar happens here; by the end of Giants' Star, you've learned that the scientists in Inherit the Stars were right about what happened... but for all the wrong reasons. It reads as though readers objected to Hogan's solution on scientific grounds, and he had to keep on coming up with reasons it could still work, disrupting the sheer elegance of the original. I also think that focusing on the giants is focusing on the less interesting part of the series premise-- Charley's people are the cool ones!

If you can just look at Giants' Star as a standalone though, it works pretty well, and I'm interested enough that I've picked up the last two books in the series, and hopefully I'll read them soon...

(These books also introduced me to the UK idea of the "cryptic crossword." Geeze! I struggle with the L.A. Times one enough, and I'll stick to that, thank you very much.)

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