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.
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.