Inherit the Stars, by James P. Hogan

The sub-genre of “Hard” SF (roughly, fiction built on the foundation of carefully extrapolated science ideas) never went away after its inception as Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C 41+ in 1911, but it certainly had its down periods. The most recent was probably the time around Dangerous Visions and “New Wave” SF, between the mid-1960’s and mid-1970’s. The increasing population of full-time writers and editors who did not have much experience or enthusiasm for science (at least relative to their cultural and political ideas) must have factored into this; the genre certainly became a less welcoming place for intriguing part-time authors like Kris Neville (see comments of this post).

I wouldn’t say the same thing about SF in film, however — Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey came out in 1968, featuring spacecraft imagined by Werner von Braun, artificial intelligence and the deadening banality of 21st-century culture. Those things, plus the place of mankind in the grand plan of the universe. It is an unsurpassed movie, and squarely within the traditions of Hard SF.

No surprise, then, that the second half of the 1970s saw the comeback of Hard SF in form of several classics: Rendezvous with Rama from Clarke, Orbitsville from Shaw, Ringworld from Niven and The Dispossessed from Le Guin*. I enjoyed all of these, but never felt the impetus to follow up and read any of their sequels.

James P. Hogan’s Inherit the Stars (1977) may not be an acknowledged classic, but it has a place among the better Hard SF books of the decade. Thanks to a pair of online reviews (plus the fact that the cover features a skeleton), I was sufficiently interested in it to pull a copy out of the local used bookstore.

hogan_sweet

Darrell Sweet cover for Del Rey. amazon.com

ItS starts off (after a well-written prologue) with the discovery of an ancient mummified body on the surface of the moon. This body has been preserved for around 50,000 years by its space suit, which is of superior design to those of contemporary astronauts. It is given the nickname “Charlie” and brought back to the United States for study. Helpfully, in this near future the scientific effort spans North America and Europe, including the Soviet Union, without anything resembling political intrigue. Charlie, despite being in a 50,000 year-old spacesuit, is almost certainly a human being (albeit a noticeably stockier and hairier one than usual). This has implications for our biological and evolutionary history.

The two main characters of ItS, a British engineer named Victor Hunt and his intellectual rival, the American biologist Danchekker. Hunt has helped design a novel imaging machine, where the internals of an object can be examined without physical contact; we have magnetic resonance imaging today, and Hogan was speculating on the ability to exploit neutrino physics to construct a scope for non-magnetic materials. Hunt is convinced, at least initially, that the discovery of Charlie is proof of an off-planet origin of homo sapiens, or at least of a very close relative. Danchekker, however, makes a spirited defense of orthodox evolutionary theory:

Danchekker frowned for a moment before replying.

“No. The point you are overlooking here, I think, is that the revolutionary process is fundamentally made up of random events. Every living organism that exists today is the product of a chain of successive mutations that has continued over millions of years. The most important fact to grasp is that each discrete mutation is in itself a purely random event . . .

“There are still people who find this principle difficult to accept — primarily, I suspect, because they are incapable of visualizing the implications of numbers and time scales beyond the ranges that occur in everyday life. Remember we are talking about billions of billions of combinations coming together over millions of years.”

Danchekker is not made very likable in the beginning, but he makes some solid points and I grew to respect the way he defends his opinions. He also demonstrates the ability to change his stance — a bit more easily than Hunt, it turns out — as more of Charlie’s civilization is uncovered and another game-changing discovery is made on Ganymede.

There are other characters in ItS, but not enough is invested in them to make them significant. The head director of the research mission is supposed to have a genius-level talent for managing personalities, but we don’t see much proof of this. The sole (American) female professional in the story offers a key insight into the calendar-like nature of Charlie’s journal, but the men in the room are staring at her butt while she’s doing this.**

Anyway, this is Hard SF; the big ideas take precedence and the feelings of individuals will inevitably take a back seat (In 2001, Kubrick made the dialogue of the humans banal and lifeless for a reason — to make you pay attention to the visual language instead). Le Guin managed to create an interesting cast of characters in The Dispossessed, which is a much larger book, but the secondary personalities of Shaw’s Orbitsville were inherently forgettable, in Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama they were not relatable, and in Niven’s Ringworld some of them were downright irritating. Hogan sort of punts on the issue midway through this book — as new evidence of the history of the human race appears, our place in the universe is debated exclusively between Hunt and Danchekker almost exclusively.

ItS is recommended. Inspired by 2001, it’s a well-paced story of the reconciliation between our established theories of human origin and new discoveries that place our past elsewhere in the solar system. Hogan has the discipline to keep the physics and evolutionary biology lectures to a reasonable length, for the most part. He also doesn’t attempt to make his characters much more than the carriers of ideas, which is sufficient for this novel but may not work for its sequels. 8/10.

* Le Guin’s book is usually not considered Hard SF, but its physics concepts certainly felt as important to the story as the characters and political themes.

** Let’s give Hogan the benefit of the doubt and call this episode satire. I think it’s probably a comment on ham-handed efforts to make the genre more inclusive beyond the usual white males. The presence of a high-level female scientist is mentioned, but she is in the Soviet Union. Hogan is thus not opposed to the whole idea of women in prominent intellectual roles, but I suspect he sees little need for quotas in his fiction.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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11 Responses to Inherit the Stars, by James P. Hogan

  1. fredfitch says:

    I’m not sure I consider anything Le Guin wrote to fall into that category. It’s something of a prequel–she’d already introduced all the tech referred to in The Dispossessed in earlier novels–the protagonist is the one who comes up with the mathematical formulae which will make the FTL communication system, the ‘ansible’ possible, but it’s much more about social science than hard science. I suppose some might put it into the latter category because the protagonist is a physicist, and his life journey leads him to the insight that bridges the gaps between distant worlds–while the very narrow gap between Urras and Anarres remains unyielding. But see, that in itself is way too artsy for hard SF. They don’t go in for high-toned literary metaphors much in that nabe. Well, I could be wrong.

    I never got to Hogan, and so have nothing to contribute there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      Yeah, The Dispossessed is the unusual fit in the list. I remember it best as the story of the life of an idea. I’m not too worried about how artsy Hard SF is supposed to be (although that’s certainly a reasonable qualifier), since I consider 2001 the most artfully fulfilling film I’ve ever watched. Assuming artfully fulfilling makes any sense as a phrase.

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      • fredfitch says:

        Yeah, but the art came from Kubrick, and did he know any science at all?

        What Clarke taught him, I guess.

        I’m more of a Quatermass and the Pit man, myself. Which I’ll always think is where Clarke originally got the idea from (The Sentinel is barely even a sketch), but he had plenty of his own. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        This just out–crossed my desk at the library–well researched AND written, which is rare for this type of thing.

        I didn’t know Clarke disliked the movie when he first saw it–was disappointed it didn’t feature his voiceover narration–but he came around over time, like everybody else, and kept his mouth shut because he really wanted it to succeed.

        The section on the opening night reaction and the critics was mindboggling–they loathed it–and then it turned into the biggest film of the year.

        I saw it at a local theater a few years later, when my dad took us–I’ve never had a film get under my skin like that. My teeth were chattering when we left, and it wasn’t that cold. But today, it doesn’t move me at all (it’s not a film to watch on TV). The ideas really aren’t all that profound, but the visuals will never cease to impress.

        Kubrick never really could follow up on that–nor could he ever properly credit his collaborators, which I think is why his subsequent career was increasingly less impressive, though not without highlights. His ego required him to pretend it was all him, but with movies, it’s never just one person.

        He should not have gotten the Oscar for visual effects by himself, with Trumbull nowhere in sight. That was wrong. He did the same thing to Terry Southern. And he wanted Kirk Douglas to credit him as the screenwriter for Spartacus, instead of Dalton Trumbo (maybe partly because he was afraid of a boycott). So that’s consistent. But the thing about genius is–it’s complicated. And not always very nice. But you put up with it. As long as it produces.

        Liked by 1 person

      • pete says:

        Thanks, I’ll check out the book.
        I’m a fan of all of Kubrick’s post-2001 films, as well (except Barry Lyndon, only because I haven’t watched it yet). The more I’m exposed to his visual language and use of pacing, the more appreciation I have for his work.

        I guess I’m not too concerned about who got what Oscar award, since I don’t take those things seriously.

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      • fredfitch says:

        I think we can agree that technical awards matter a whole lot to the unsung heroes who make special effects so special. Kubrick, already rich and famous, destined for immortality, could have let them take their bow. Except he couldn’t. Oh well. Nobody nominated him for sainthood.

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  2. fredfitch says:

    I have read Rendezvous with Rama–I’ve seen better renditions of that idea elsewhere. Ker-Plop by Ted Reynolds comes to mind, as well as a certain NG Trek ep that was quite certainly influenced by Clarke’s book.

    Even at the time, I found RWR entertaining but bland, generic–marketed and packaged like a Michael Crichton novel. Also, I think the ‘orgasm run’ described at the end, where everybody engages on a non-stop orgy on the way home because there’s nothing else for them to do–sounds lovely, but harder to buy than a planet-sized fully-functioning space station with no occupants. Clarke is all about ideas, and I have to admit, the ideas grab you. It’s characters who hold me, over time, and he never has.

    Ringworld is funny, and not all hard science–who seriously believes you can genetically engineer for dumb luck? (Hmmm–the Trumps do come from Germany……)

    To me, an ideal example of ‘hard’ SF would be Hal Clement’s MIssion of Gravity. Which is from the 50’s, of course. Back when nobody really bothered to distinguish between hard and soft, because hard was the norm. It’s a thrilling story of humans exploring a high gravity planet with intelligent centipedes who live there and are themselves lower-tech explorers–and it’s just non-stop science, all the way.

    The characters aren’t deep, but they’re engaging and believable–I guess there is a wee bit of a metaphor there, relating to how famous western explorers relied on native guides who were great explorers in their own right. Can’t believe they haven’t done a movie yet. C’mon, Pixar! You made sewer rats lovable! You can do centipedes. Anyway, I read the sequel to that, and like most sequels, it wasn’t as good.

    Another example would be The Mote in God’s Eye–which I find a very mixed bag (and maybe just a bit of a veiled metaphor about the Chinese?) In some ways, I wish it had been written from the perspective of the Moties. The humans just aren’t that interesting, which is a real problem with hard SF. Seems like for writers in that area to create good characters, they have to dream up whole new species.

    It’s a strange genre. Well, that’s what we’re after, apparently.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      I’m not sure how I managed to forget about The Mote in God’s Eye — that’s a great example and was probably one of most important books that demonstrated how to win over some of those Dune fans. That’s another one where I enjoyed the original and never bothered with the follow-up volumes.

      A shorter, but in my mind still impressive spin on the theme of The Mote in God’s Eye is Gordon Dickson’s The Alien Way. That one does have much of the book told from the perspective of a far-off, warlike alien.

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      • fredfitch says:

        Dickson could get a bit mystical for a hard SF writer, but I did like the Dorsai series–my favorite of his, though I haven’t read it in eons, is Alien From Arcturus–not saying it’s his best, but it’s funny, and I think that’s probably where they got the idea for Star Trek: First Contact.

        I didn’t even know there were sequels to TMIGE.

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  3. fredfitch says:

    Pete, I was just thinking–the hard vs. soft thing. I wonder if it’s more a question of emphasis.

    One of my favorite SF authors is James Tiptree Jr.–who, under her mortal guise of Alice B. Sheldon, actually worked as a research scientist (psychology, mainly working with rats). She probably knew more about science than most of the people who wrote hard SF, but of course even there her emphasis was on reaction to stimuli, as opposed to building cool stuff.

    There’s a lot of good science in her stories, particularly the early ones (written to a market that rewarded people who knew their stuff). I think you can say that most of them are based on carefully extrapolated science ideas–like an unattractive girl whose nervous system gets wired to a supermodel android body, or a huge carnivorous sentient arachnid on an alien world, guarding and feeding a tiny female of his species, who is growing ever larger and more ravenous. Or all her stories set in a universe where earth has formed a galaxy-spanning federation–that is, shall we say, a lot less PC than Star Trek’s (even original Trek).

    But see, it’s not hard SF, because it’s never about the tech–the idea is carefully developed solely for the purpose of casting a light on the characters, and expressing certain dark underlying themes that obsessed Sheldon throughout her life. She was an idealist who knew the world she lived in was not made for idealists. That our impulses tend to overwhelm our ethics. She’s just using the tropes of her genre to tell these complex challenging (and often very saddening) stories about the sorrows of sentience, and the triumph of entropy.

    I don’t think hard SF writers are all soulless technocrats, latter day Gernsbacks, promising that science and technology will cure all ills, win all battles. That’s a banal and oversimplistic take on what they do, and Sheldon (who adored the brainiac world of SF fandom as it was then, in the days before Comic-con and Cosplay) would be the first to say so. She started out writing classic hard stuff, but her intellect simply wouldn’t allow her the luxury of using it as an escape. Her brooding introspective nature caught up with her, and infected what she wrote with her own entropic ethos. She put people (of all species) first.

    So that’s why you can make a case for Le Guin, but not a very good one. She was a huge admirer of Tiptree’s before he was outed as a she. Which only delighted her more. Her take on life was also often dark, but much more optimistic. Her truth was different, but she could embrace other truths–knowing it’s a spectrum, and the fuller the better.

    This, to me, is the best SF can be, and I can respect the hard stuff, enjoy it, while still finding it–limiting. If I have to choose, I’ll take inner space over outer. We may never get to the latter. We have to deal with the former every day of our lives.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      Lois McMaster Bujold might be another example. The speculative science in her Vorkosigan series is solid, as far as I can tell, but it’s the characters that keep people coming back to her books. I’ve enjoyed most of that series.

      Liked by 1 person

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