The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974)

‘Sade-138 will be the most distant collapsar men have gone to. It isn’t even in the galaxy proper, but rather is part of the Large Magellanic Cloud, some 150,000 light years distant. Our voyage will require four collapsar jumps and will last some four months, subjective. Manoeuvring into collapsar insertion will put us about three hundred years behind Stargate’s calendar by the time we reach Sade-138.’
(The Forever War p.174)

This may be the only novel I’ve read by a soldier who won the Purple Heart, awarded in the name of the President to those wounded or killed while serving in the US armed forces. Haldeman was a Physics major when he was drafted into the US Army and went to fight in Vietnam, where he was badly wounded, before receiving his honour.

The Forever War intertwines the reality of contemporary conflict, 1970s-style, with social prophecy and a detailed and believable grasp of advanced physics, to make a plausible and powerful narrative which is also an Orwellian fable.

The plot

It is the 1990s and Earth science has discovered collapsars, a type of black hole, which allow space ships instantaneous travel to other collapsars, thus giving humans the ability to travel astronomical distances in short periods.

Barely have we Terrans (earthlings – in practice, Americans) begun to settle the new solar systems and planets reachable via this miraculous device, than we are attacked, ships blown up, colonies wiped out by violent alien forces. Since the first attack happens in a star system near Taurus, the enemy are named Taurians.

The novel consists of four sections following the first-person account of William Mandella, one of the first elite conscripts called up to be trained in the new star-jumping, alien-fighting technology.

Crucial to the narrative is the idea that, although the astronauts jumping through collapsars experience the passage of just weeks or months, because they are travelling at near light speed and so time (for them) has slowed right down — for everyone else, including their loved ones left back on Earth, time continues at the speed we’re familiar with. So that when they return after a mission lasting what is for them only a few months, decades have passed back on Earth.

Private Mandella We are given a detailed account of his training, of the complex space suits required, how him and his team build the first habitations on the planetoid named Stargate, before being subjected to artificial enemy ‘attacks’.

Amusing details of future Army life, including that the official group response to officers is, ‘Fuck you, Sir!’ and promiscuous sex is encouraged between men and women who are treated completely equally as regards training and combat.

When they finally emerge from collapsar travel and hit the surface of a planetoid known to harbour a Taurian base, the enemy turn out to be skinny monsters enveloped in bubble of their own atmosphere who ride a kind of broomstick. The one and only attack made on their compound is surprisingly easy to beat off, with the Taurians virtually lining up to be killed, although an enormous flower-shaped machine burps bubbles of acid which float at head height and you have to duck (in between avoiding laser weapon fire) if you don’t want to be decapitated.

Sergeant Mandella 2007-2024 Mandella sets off on another tour of duty in a more advanced space ship but, realistically enough, this one is attacked before it even gets near the destination planet, coming out of the collapsar to be immediately hit, so that Mandella comes out of cryogenic suspension to find blood everywhere and half the crew dead, and the woman he’s become closest to in the previous episodes, Marygay, with half her guts hanging out (due to futuristic medicine, she survives). The ship limps back to the nearest collapsar, on to Stargate, and Mandella prepares to go ‘home’, back to Earth.

But, of course, in the meantime decades have passed. His mother has aged 40 years, his father is dead. This is the fullest description in the book of how earth has changed while he was away i.e. Haldeman’s own predictions for what will happen in the 40 or so years from the mid-1990s.

He predicts a huge population explosion, with the number of people on earth ballooning to over 9 billion, which leads to food shortages and the so-called ‘Ration Wars’. When Mandella returns it is to find that his mother living in a huge high-rise; that everyone needs a bodyguard; that you have to bribe agents to get even a basic job; that food is strictly rationed; and that his mother has taken a lesbian lover.

Mandella seeks escape from the violent city by going to visit the family of his lover, Marygay, who live on a farm/commune. He discovers that the farms are subject to raids and attacks and has barely settled in before, having taken Marygay to a dance, they return to discover a full-scale raid taking place at her parents’ farm. Rather inevitably, the parents are killed and he and Marygay, disillusioned with this violent Earth, decide to re-enlist.

Lieutenant Mandella 2024-2389 Mandella arrives back in space to discover the technology has moved on hugely since his first tour: the Starbase he helped build in pat one is now a small city with 10,000 inhabitants – the number of collapsars discovered is now into the hundreds.

The camp new officers inform him that homosexuality is now the predominant gender on Earth where heterosexuality is frowned on. Don’t worry, though, most people think heterosexuality can be cured, so he should be just fine!

Mandella’s squad have only barely reached the target planet and deployed before the vehicle he’s in is blown up, falling on his leg and crushing it. But the space suits are now very advanced, with built-in guillotines which amputate damaged limbs, hermetically seal the suit and inject the patient with morphine. You sleep till rescued or till you die in your sleep. Mandella is rescued and undergoes new treatment for regrowing limbs, which is explained in some detail.

Major Mandella 2458 – 3143 By this time William is one of the few people who have lived through the entire war. He learns that Earth’s population has now stabilised at a billion homosexuals, bred in test tubes, pushed out of artificial vaginas, raised in clinics. None of that parenting nonsense. Like Brave New World (1932). He is now in command of 120 of these brave new humanoids in a mission to the furthest collapsar yet discovered. Their mission is to erect a base on a planetoid in the system and await the inevitable attack. He knows they’re probably all doomed.

This final section gives a persuasive and powerful sense of the burden of command over an essentially alien race, a detailed description of the new fighting technology, including a stasis bubble, in which no electrical pulses can travel. When the predicted Taurian attack comes, Haldeman powerfully describes its successive phases: first the rival ships out in space fighting each other at nearly the speed of light; then the computer-operated lasers located around the periphery zapping everything which moves, including all the alien drones; then ‘tachyon’ bombs raising the temperature so high that the lasers can no longer operate; and then wave after wave of invader ships disgorging ranks of Taurians who relentlessly attack, until the last survivors are forced back into the stasis bubble, where…

Well, you’ll have to read the exciting climax yourself.

Fighting

I assume that Haldeman’s descriptions of the army, training, military discipline and hierarchy, are closely based on his own experiences in the U.S. Army and in Vietnam, a factor which anchors the often ludicrous plotline in powerful and persuasive descriptions of combat.

The events may be fantastic, but the cynical soldier’s reactions to them seem lived-in and real. As in other military memoirs I’ve read, the most important factor of Army life appears to be the infinitesimally small amount of time spent actually fighting, with 99% of the time being spent in boring training, building camps, keeping fit, carrying out fatigues and so on, or rotating back to the world for R&R.

Social commentary

Population explosion Halderman is writing in a period when the greatest threat facing humanity was meant to be the ‘population explosion’ (see the classic 1973 movie, Soylent Green). In the novel, the advent of a population of 9 billion begins a process of calamitous change, starting with wars over food.

When he wrote, the world population was about 3.5 billion, today it is double that, 7.5 billion. Maybe surprisingly, this hasn’t led to global social collapse and certainly not in the highest-populated countries – China, India, the USA, which have both absorbed the tremendous growth and managed to significantly raise the standard of living for hundreds of millions.

Space travel I feel I have lived through the Space Age. The fact that both J.G. Ballard and Gerard DeGroot thought it was over by 1972 (the last moon landing) confirms my feeling that the Space Shuttle era (1981-2011) was a long, expensive anti-climax. Obviously, new satellites are launched all the time and the International Space Station continues to be occupied and carry out its experiments. But we’ll never go back to the moon, and the notion of manned flights to Mars is crackers. During my lifetime humanity discovered that space travel is too expensive and too risky and brings little or no return.

All space-based science fiction therefore has a wistful, nostalgic feel. It is a technologically optimistic past’s vision of a future which is not, now, going to happen.

The unconscious American basis of science fiction A few centuries in the future Haldeman sees the entire population being hatched out of test tubes and engineered to be homosexual or neuter. This, like all notions of space travel and lots of other classic sci-fi predictions, relies on the premise that the whole world can be brought up to American levels of affluence and technological prowess. I.e. it doesn’t understand the uniqueness of the American achievement.

Old-school Marxists say this is because America spent the 20th century erecting a vast military-industrial apparatus designed to exploit the rest of the world’s commodities and raw materials. With around 5% of the world population, it consumes about 25% of the world’s resources (Scientific American, 14 September 2012)

By contrast, free marketeers say that America’s ongoing economic and technological success is based on its high level of education, its competitive capitalist culture, and its flexible working practices.

Whatever the reason, it is clear that all science fiction which premises its narratives on the notion of the continuous economic and technological improvement of all humanity, enabling us all to reach the same luxury lifestyle – and then expand that lifestyle out into space – is profoundly flawed.

Fewer than one in ten of the world population enjoy anything like the lifestyle, the affluence and the technological gewgaws everyone reading this blog takes for granted. And the entire trend of our time is towards the attributes of middle-class life contracting, all across the industrialised world, as wealth is redistributed away from the squeezed middle upwards to the super-rich. (Middle-Class Squeeze Wikipedia article)

‘Hard’ science fiction is the name given to sci-fi based on a realistic understanding of science – here, the laws of physics and relativity, among other technically plausible details.

But I find it almost unreadable because it requires such a tremendous suspension of disbelief in the realities of the world we live in.

In the world we live in there will be no space travel. There will be no planetary government. There will be no attainment of luxurious lifestyles for the entire global population.

These ideas are as faded and dated as Victorian theology. The technological and economic optimism which gave birth to them died in the 1970s and was replaced by our current ideology of gross inequality and cultural pessimism.

The forever war The one prediction which does ring true is the idea that the attacks of an ill-defined but real enemy will create an atmosphere of paranoia and lead to the placing of society on a permanent war footing.

Left-wing writers call it the Shock Doctrine or Disaster Capitalism, but anyone who reads the newspapers can follow how the world has developed since 9/11 – how the highfalutin’ notion that a united government of earth will come together to fund idealistic expeditions to found new settlements on inhabitable planets across the universe seem like childish dreams compared to the permanent instability we have created here on earth, and the eternal and much-publicised ‘terrorist threat’ which justifies enhanced levels of spying, monitoring and control over all the populations of the economically advanced countries for the foreseeable future.

In this, the most cynical and satirical prediction of this powerful novel, Haldeman was bitingly accurate.

Number one

In 1999 Millennium Publishing began republishing the best science fiction novels of all time, eventually producing a list of 50 all-time classics (each one numbered). The Forever War was number one in the series and, when the top ten were reprinted in hardcover editions, The Forever War was also included. The experts consider it that important.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov (1956)

‘You had a plainer motive, too, Dr Leebig. Dr. Rikaine Delmarre was in the way of your plans, and had to be removed.’
‘What plans?’ demanded Leebig.
‘Your plans aiming at the conquest of the Galaxy, Dr. Leebig,’ said Baley.
(Chapter 17, A Meeting is Held)

It is 3,000 years in the future. Humanity is dived between ‘Spacers’, who have colonised 50 of the ‘outer planets’ which rely heavily on robot labour, and have developed cultures and laws of their own – and earth, packed to the brim with 8 billion citizens, all raised in the subterranean cells and covered domes of 200 vast super-cities, terrified of ‘the outdoors’, used to cramped living space, rationed artificial food, and a rigidly hierarchical society.

Detective Elijah Baley, who we first met in The Caves of Steel, has been promoted to grade C-6. Despite his protests he is assigned another murder case, but this time on a remote planet out there in space somewhere, Solaria.

Baley’s agoraphobia

As usual, Asimov’s description of many of the appurtenances of his imagined future are genuinely interesting and effective, especially around Baley’s fear of the open. Asimov powerfully conveys Baley’s terror at being forced to catch a plane from New York to Washington – over and again he fixates on how there’s only an inch or so of steel between you and… nothingness! – and then petrified at taking a spaceship. He is horrified when he lands on Solaria to learn that the human population has windows in its buildings and wander around outside.

It is one of the themes of the book how Baley he tries to nerve himself to get used to being ‘outside’: these are interesting attempts to convey how generation after generation of humans living in completely covered urban ‘wombs’ would create a new human nature and psychological conventions.

Baley is pretty much blackmailed to take the case by his boss, Under-Secretary Minnim. If he refuses, he’ll be ‘declassified’ i.e. he and his family will lose all their privileges in the city. And Minnim asks him not only to solve the case, but to keep his eye open and record everything he observed about the outer Worlds, their strengths and weaknesses. ‘Be a spy?’ asks Baley.

It comes as a huge relief when, there to greet him on his spaceship’s arrival on Solaria, is the advanced, humanoid robot, Daneel Olivaw, who had worked with on the case described in the prequel, The Caves of Steel.

Solaria’s peculiarities

Another prominent element is the drastically ‘different’ customs of the Spacers who live on Solaria. Here people, from birth, avoid personal contact, and live on huge estates which are worked by vast populations of specialised robots. There are only some 20,000 humans on the whole planet but two hundred million robots – that’s ten thousand robots to every human!

People live either alone or with a spouse but physical contact – even being in the same room – ‘seeing’ someone in the flesh – is regarded with disgust. Instead, communication is carried out through holography (referred to as ‘viewing’). Only then are the Solarians truly relaxed about what they wear or say.

As the leading Solarian sociologist tells him, when Baley, insists on actually visiting him, in the flesh:

‘You’ll forgive me, Mr. Baley, but in the actual presence of a human, I feel strongly as though something slimy were about to touch me. I keep shrinking away. It is most unpleasant.’

The plot

As to the plot, it kicks off like hundreds of thousands of detective stories, with a murder. Rikaine Delmarre is a prominent Solarian and a foetologist by profession and he is found, at his house, with his head smashed in as with a blunt implement. Unfortunately, his household robots clean up the crime scene so efficiently and even dispose of the body by incinerating it, that there isn’t a shred of evidence left at the scene of the crime.

It’s only well over half way through the book that we discover what this means, when Baley visits what he expects to be a laboratory and discovers it is in fact the baby farm which provides all of Solaria’s population. He is shown round by Delmarre’s assistant, Kiorissa Cantoro, who explains how ‘growing’ babies in test tubes is the logical extension of the Solarians’ distaste for being physically near anyone. In the same way, the babies, once hatched, are raised entirely by robots, lacking any contact with adults.

Ordinarily, Delmarre’s wife, Gladia, would be the prime suspect, since no-one else had access to or was anywhere their joint home (not that she was physically anywhere near him at the time; robots summoned her after the murder and she discovered a robot had been present but had a nervous breakdown due to its failure to implement Asimov’s First Law of Robots:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

On first arriving at the house (which has been built specially to accommodate him during his stay and will be demolished after he leaves) Baley has several holographic interviews with the man who asked for his services, Hannis Gruer, the Head of Security on Solaria. Hannis explains that they have no crime on Solaria, none at all. So a murder has really thrown them, but they had heard of his reputation through his involvement with the murder of a Spacer which was heavily publicised in the Outer Worlds (the subject of the first novel in the series, The Caves of Steel).

About the third time they’re chatting via hologram during a meal, Hannis takes a swig of his glass and is immediately poisoned, saying his throat is burning, falls to the floor and passes out with Baley, of course, unable to do nothing. Hannis is replaced, as Baley’s contact point with Solario authorities, by Corwin Attlebish.

Baley has an interview with the planet’s leading sociologist, Anselmo Quemot, who boasts about his theory that Solario has reached an optimum human-robot population. Henceforward the human population will not grow. And how, eventually all planets, even earth, will become like this. A finite, controlled human population surrounded by vast hordes or robot slaves.

And he also meets Dr Jothan Leebig, Solario’s premier roboticist. With him Baley points out the flaw in the First Law of Robotics. Ostensibly the law says no robot may harm a human. But it doesn’t take account of intention. It should really read that no robot may intentionally harm a human.

The climax

After all the effort put into creating an entirely new world with its own rules and conventions, and into creating half a dozen characters, with whom Baley has elaborate, and sometimes interesting, conversations, the climax is straight from an Agatha Christie novel, with Baley playing the role of Hercules Poirot.

He arranges a conference holographic call with all the characters we’ve met so far, namely: Gladia, Kiorissa, Attlebish, Quemot, Leebig, plus the doctor who attended the scene of the original murder, Dr Altim Thool.

Asimov employs the tried and tested formula of proceeding slowly and leveling an accusing finger at each of the people present one by one until… with a grand flourish, he reveals the true murderer. It is Dr Jothan Leebig.

His motive? He had several. One, he was susceptible to the charms of Gladia Delmarre, young and good looking who, in her first scenes with Baley we had witnessed casually walking about half-undressed (because it was only via ‘viewing’, not in-the-flesh ‘seeing’). She is frustrated by the lack of attention from her dry-as-dust husband, Rikaine, not enough to murder him, but enough to flirt, maybe unconsciously, with other men.

Leebig offered her a job as his secretary but when she turned it down his adoration, as so often in these kind of picturebook versions of human nature, turned to hatred and he devised the murder to take his revenge on both the Delmarres.

‘You despised yourself for your weakness, and hated Mrs. Delmarre for inspiring it. And yet you might have hated Delmarre, too, for having her.’

But why kill the doctor at all? Because Delmarre knew about Leebig’s experimental work into expanding robot capabilities. In particular he knew about Leebig’s plan to create spaceships controlled by positronic brains. Now, ordinarily, a robot simply cannot harm a human: their positronic brains are wired in such a way that they would short-circuit. Even witnessing harm to humans damages them, as the way the brain of the robot who witnessed Delmarre be murdered had completely fried.

But Leebig was planning to make spaceships with positronic brains which would assume that any spaceships which opposed it were also manned only by robots and positronic brains and that it could therefore destroy them with impunity. Such spaceships would behave more logically than ones captained by humans, and would almost certainly win all their battles. Or, as Baley puts it:

‘But a spaceship that was equipped with its own positronic brain would cheerfully attack any ship it was directed to attack, it seems to me. It would naturally assume all other ships were unmanned. A positronic-brained ship could easily be made incapable of receiving messages from enemy ships that might undeceive it. With its weapons and defenses under the immediate control of a positronic brain, it would be more maneuverable than any manned ship. With no room necessary for crewmen, for supplies, for water or air purifiers, it could carry more armor, more weapons and be more invulnerable than any ordinary ship. One ship with a positronic brain could defeat fleets of ordinary ships. Am I wrong?’

Leebig was, in other words, working on a plan to take over the galaxy!!

As a grown-up reader, it was difficult not to smile at the sheer pulp grandiosity of this motive.

The murder weapon – which Baley and robot Daneel have cudgelling their brains trying to figure out and which provided many a red herring throughout the book? The robot which had been in attendance on Delmarre throughout the murder. What? How? It was one of a new range Delmarre himself was working on with detachable limbs. Get it yet? The murder walked up to Delmarre and his robot, ordered the robot to give him his arm, the robot did so, Leebig smashed Delmarre’s head in with it, then clipped the arm back onto the robot which, by this stage, had gone into meltdown.

How did Leebig manage to sneak up on Delmarre? Because Delmarre was a ‘good Solarian’ who had given up ‘seeing’ people in the flesh when he was still a boy. thereafter all his interactions were via hologram. Therefore, when Leebig arrived at his house and entered his room and walked up to him… he simply couldn’t believe, until the last minute, that he was not a hologram. Too late.

I was smiling through all this explication, a smile which got broader when all the (holographic) faces in this meeting turn to Leebig who furiously denies it all, until… Baley plays his master-stroke and reveals that his assistant Daneel Olivaw has, all this time a) been at Leebig’s laboratory securing the records of all his research there which will no doubt prove the positronic spaceship theory but now b) is on his way to Leebig’s house to arrest him in person.

Now Asimov had carefully planted in Baley’s holographic interview with Leebig that the latter was really hysterically afraid of face-to-face contact with humans. When Baley had threatened to do it, Leebig had been reduced to sucking his thumb like a boy and crying. Now, at the threat of another human entering his personal space, Leebig collapses:

‘But I won’t see him. I can’t see him.’ The roboticist fell to his knees without seeming aware of the motion. He put his hands together in a desperate clasped gesture of appeal. ‘What do you want? Do you want a confession? Delmarre’s robot had detachable limbs. Yes. Yes. Yes. I arranged Gruer’s poisoning. I arranged the arrow meant for you. I even planned the spaceships as you said. I haven’t succeeded, but, yes, I planned it. Only keep the man away. Don’t let him come. Keep him away!’

In other words, the accused man makes a full and free confession in front of all his peers. And then – as if that wasn’t cheesy enough – as we hear the arrival of Daneel, we see Leebig fall to the floor, beg to be left alone, then scrabble in his pockets for something which he outs into his mouth, is seized with a spasm of agony, and collapse dead on the floor.

The irony, laid on with a planet-sized trowel, is that the ‘human’ whose proximity drove Leebig to suicide, is none other than Daneel who is, of course… a robot!

If you’re not roaring with laughter by this stage then you are probably the kind of 14-year-old boy this kind of story was originally aimed at.

Coda 1 – last scene with Gladia

There’s more, more clichés. In a final scene Baley has a last interview with Gladia. She is going to Aurora (traveling with Daneel, since Auroroa is his home planet). She has to get away from the scene of this awful murder! He is surprised that she agrees to be there in person i.e. she has agreed to ‘see’ him.

‘Why have you decided to see, rather than view?’
‘Well’ – she smiled weakly – ‘I’ve got to get used to it, don’t I, Elijah? I mean, if I’m going to Aurora.’
‘Then it’s all arranged?’
‘Mr. Olivaw seems to have influence. It’s all arranged. I’ll never come back.’
‘Good. You’ll be happier, Gladia. I know you will.”
I’m a little afraid.’
‘I know. It will mean seeing all the time and, you won’t have all the comforts you had on Solaria. But you’ll get used to it and, what’s more, you’ll forget all the terror you’ve been through.’
‘I don’t want to forget everything,’ said Gladia softly.
‘You will.’ Baley looked at the slim girl who stood before him and said, not without a momentary pang, ‘And you will be married someday, too. Really married, I mean.”
Somehow,” she said mournfully, “that doesn’t seem so attractive to me – right now.’
‘You’ll change your mind.’
And they stood there, looking at each other for a wordless moment.
Gladia said, ‘I’ve never thanked you.’
Baley said, ‘It was only my job.’

Aw shucks, John Wayne.

Asimov may have set out to demonstrate that science fiction wasn’t a genre but a topic or theme which could be applied to any genre. But in these books he merely proved that science fiction can be just as larded with corny characters and hammy scenarios as any 3rd-rate Hollywood B-movie.

As usual, the plot and lots of the characterisation are laughable, they would make a writer of Mills and Boon romances blush with shame.

Again a silent moment while they faced each other at ten paces. Then Gladia cried suddenly, ‘Oh, Elijah, you’ll think it abandoned of me.’
‘Think what abandoned?’
‘May I touch you? I’ll never see you again, Elijah.’
‘If you want to.’
Step by step, she came closer, her eyes glowing, yet looking apprehensive, too. She stopped three feet away, then slowly, as though in a trance, she began to remove the glove on her right hand.
Baley started a restraining gesture. ‘Don’t be foolish, Gladia.’
‘I’m not afraid,’ said Gladia.
Her hand was bare. It trembled as she extended it.
And so did Baley’s as he took her hand in his. They remained so for one moment, her hand a shy thing, frightened as it rested in his. He opened his hand and hers escaped, darted suddenly and without warning toward his face until her fingertips rested feather-light upon his cheek for the barest moment.
She said, ‘Thank you, Elijah. Good-by.’
He said, ‘Good-by, Gladia,’ and watched her leave.

BUT – the book is sort of worth reading for not one but two extended tropes, which are thought provoking – maybe it’s better so say imagination-provoking – and which it dramatises at length, namely:

  • Baley’s struggle to cope with being outdoors generated by the entrenched claustrophobia of an overpopulated underground earth culture
  • and the opposite, the repulsion at physical contact or even proximity, created by the exact opposite type of planet, so sparsely populated that individuals almost never meet, except via cam

These two worldviews or psychological states dominate the book and it is interesting to do the thought experiment of thinking your way into these kinds of altered states. Despite Asimov’s rickety plot and execrable English, nonetheless, what if…?

Coda 2 – Baley reports back to Minnim

Remember how Minnim had asked Baley to be a spy. He is thrilled with Baley’s findings because they appear to show that Solaris has become decadent, individuals living too long, and too isolated. Baley expresses this as the fact that they have stopped being tribal of having to co-operate and also conflict. Minnim joyfully sees this as confirmation that Earth will not be conquered by the Spacers who will decline.

But Baley hasn’t finished. He goes on to prove the exact opposite. He says that Solaris is an exception to the outer Worlds, the planet most like Solaria is Earth. Earthers have buried themselves in underground cities and locked themselves away from the rest of the galaxy.

Earthers need to get out, leave earth, go and colonise, face a brave future. that turns out to be the epiphany he had as he faced the outdoors for the first time in his life. He didn’t like it, but he realised it brought a whole new dimension to his life, and that all mankind must face up to it as he has.

Baley felt as though a touch of madness had come over him. From the very first the open had had its weird attraction over him; from the time in the ground-car when he had tricked Daneel in order to have the top lowered so that he might stand up in the open air.

He had failed to understand then. Daneel thought he was being perverse. Baley himself thought he was facing the open out of professional necessity, to solve a crime. Only on that last evening on Solaria, with the curtain tearing away from the window, did he realize his need to face the open for the open’s own sake; for its attraction and its promise of freedom.

There must be millions on Earth who would feel that same urge, if the open were only brought to their attention, if they could be made to take the first step.

So, despite the detective novel trappings, deep down the book turns out to have been a sort of primer, explaining how humans did decide to escape earth. It sets up the origins of the Galactic Empire described in the Foundation books. If all this requires is for Baley’s character and beliefs to undergo a 180 degree transformation, well, too bad for character and plausibility. it was never Asimov’s prime concern. His Visions of Great Futures are his prime concern.

He had told Minnim the Cities were wombs, and so they were. And what was the first thing a man must do before he can be a man? He must be born. He must leave the womb. And once left, it could not be re-entered.
Baley had left the City and could not re-enter. The City was no longer his; the Caves of Steel were alien. This had to be. And it would be so for others and Earth would be born again and reach outward.
His heart beat madly and the noise of life about him sank to an unheard murmur.
He remembered his dream on Solaria and he understood it at last. He lifted his head and he could see through all the steel and concrete and humanity above him. He could see the beacon set in space to lure men outward. He could see it shining down. The naked sun!


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Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov
– 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

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