All posts by Shannon McMaster

And Another Thing… (Reader Response, another…)

I’ve made it through a few more chapters. Things are much as they were. A minor character has returned and taken a central role in moving the plot, such as it is, forward.

And the plot, such as it is, doesn’t appear to the the plot I was looking forward to at the end of the first chapter.

At this point, it appears an awful lot of energy was put into getting our characters together, but without much effort at smoothly integrating with what came before. Nevertheless, we’re firmly in the Hitchhiker’s universe. The author never lets us forget that. Alas.

However, when the author forgets that he’s spending a lot of money to make it sound like… and settles into telling his story, that’s when it’s a good book. Not often enough, but often enough. Barely.

And Another Thing… (Reader Response, pt.1)

Who would have expected a sixth Hitchhiker’s book? Not me, and I was, as so many were, totally comfortable with five books in the trilogy. Here’s all the information you need about the book as a book you might get. I took my copy from the library.

On the other hand, it makes sense, though even still, I wouldn’t have expected another author, but rather some posthumous folderol. Nope. I’m through the first chapter, needed a sandwich, and decided to start responding now. Don’t expect a chapter-by-chapter response.

Or maybe there will be one. I read Life, the Universe, and Everything in one sitting when I was in eighth grade and bought my copy at the grocery store, after all.

The opening was a bit… hyper. Like someone really wanting to sound like… someone spent a lot of money trying to… sound like someone else. But I wasn’t hopeful in the first place.

Now, I was really irritated with the end of Mostly Harmless. If he didn’t want to write any more Hitchhiker’s books, he just shouldn’t have written any more. I felt like I’d been strung along on a writer’s exercise in disparaging the fan base. And if the point was the pointlessness of it all, well, that didn’t make things any better. I’m not interested in philosophical point-making at the expense of the story in a novel. That’s why I’m not interested in those tree killers from Ayn Rand.

But, at the end of Mostly Harmless, there were still some characters around who had a way of pulling something from the jaws of something else. Then chapter one started, and once I got my bearings, thought, “hey, that guy! Pretty cool.” Then that guy wasn’t that guy. Then I wondered if maybe that guy was really that other guy after all. Why not? It might be a bit too tidy. But it might work, since this sort of thing is similar to the sort of thing we’ve seen in other books (for instance, The Restaurant At the End of the Universe).

(Edit: I’m reviewing several posts in this blog. These posts about And Another Thing are frustratingly vague about being non-spoilery. I am sorry about that. Jan. 3, 2019.)

Then other characters were introduced, enough people were together to move the story along, that one guy who might also be that other guy was acting the way we need him to, and the beginning of a plot had been introduced along the way.

Not bad.

Reader Response: Pebble in the Sky (conclusion)

It closed almost as strong as it opened, though this bears in mind the very opening, in the science lab in Chicago, an almost throw-away scene where Something Bad Happens that sets up the rest of the story, but is never explained, or, indeed, even referred to again. That was a neat chapter, and I wish the rest of the book had been more like it.

The close was much stronger than the beginning of the story with the tailor who could just as easily been sliced in two himself rather than the rag doll. By the end of the novel one thing after another was happening. Reasonable-sounding things, from a narrative point of view, yet from the point of view of the characters, totally unreasonable. It’s not exactly that nobody was listening to each other, as nobody could quite believe that people on the other side of the issue were saying the things they were saying.

And then, after all the talk-talk, lectures, arguments (as opposed to disputes), there were scenes of torture, interpersonal vengance with violence, and a covert, unauthorised, hypnotically compelled military mission with the effect of resolving the Problem while leaving the Plot untouched. And the resolution came on quickly, in the context of the book. Of course, it had to come on quickly since there was this deadline looming. The Villian had only to keep people talking until the deadline passed. Or so he thought, never reckoning on the possibility that the Mind Reader could actually Read Minds, despite the fact that he had, himself!, been under pretty severe Mind Control.

But it all seemed so reasonable during the reading. Very Michael Crichton-y. So, am I glad I read it? Of course I’m glad I read it. It’s one of Those Books… actually, it’s just a part of one of Those Books. I’ll have to read the entire Foundation/Empire/Robot saga to really have read it. Kind of like the remaining three Lensmen books or the Known Space books. I may not be overly impressed with any given part, but I look forward to being able to look back on it, to see its over all form. I’ll judge then if it was actually time well-spent.

Reader response: Pebble in the Sky (part 2)

So things have picked up a bit. Quite a bit, to be honest. A plot has emerged, and is unfolding apace. At this point it has been revealed the intent and scope of the Earthling Government, though the details haven’t been fully revealed. However, there are still too many lectures, though there seems to be a pattern to the writing style.

When elite characters talk, even to one another, they still tend to lecture to one another. Any plot development is more like a schematic of a story rather than the story itself. There’s a conversation between the high minister of Earth and his secretary. There’s a discussion between the archeologist and the high minister.

On the other hand there’s a really good discussion, from a plot and character point of view, between Schwartz and the old farmer over a chess game. Now, there is a lot of hoopde-hoo about the chess game itself. It’s neat, in a sort of abstract way, that Asimov uses an actual high-end chess match as the background for this conversation. It signals seriousness of purpose that the author would put an element into a story which works for those knowledgeable about the element to unravel. However, it remains the case that thus far Asimov’s prose contains a lot of stilted interjections demonstrating either the intelligence of the author (or injecting that intelligence into the charaters) or making unnecessary clarifications of pronouns and antecedents (clarifications better made by revising the prose).

Nevertheless, the plot, as it is unfolding, is an interesting one, and the characters, when they’re allowed to breath without Asimov pushing them around with his descriptions of their actions, are sympathetic. I care about them, what’s going on, and what’s going to happen. I look forward to seeing what’s next.

Pebble in the Sky initial thoughts…

So. Inspired by a question over at TrekWeb about the best order to read the Empire/Foundation/Robot books, I’ve decided to finally give this a go in the order of initial publication. Last night I started reading Pebble in the Sky, and got about three chapters into it. I expected a larger book, and I expected something different from what I gotten so far from the story.

Which isn’t to say I had any very solidly-formed expectations. Such expectations as I had were formed, I’m sure, twenty-odd years ago seeing a line of thick sci-fi paperback novels packed on the shelves in the basement of a friend. This visual, along with some modest discomfort at the idea of reading something purporting to deal with a galactic empire and something called a “foundation” probably kept me from these books all this time. It was just too much. I knew Asimov was a Big Deal Author, and had enjoyed “I, Robot” but just wasn’t ready for what I expected to be a big commitment. Then for years and years I just didn’t have much tolerance for fiction.

Like any of that matters.

So, here are my initial thoughts. Given the publication history, I’m going to assume that Larry Niven was profoundly influenced by Asimov, since I felt like I was reading something by the author of Ringworld. Early this year I re-read All the Myriad Ways, and last month read Ringworld. When I wasn’t reading Asimov twenty-odd years ago, I was reading a bunch of Known Space stuff, but I don’t think I ever read Ringworld.

Again, so what? So what is this. This sort of science fiction, maybe it has a category name, is like reading a lecture punctuated with bits of insider knowledge masquerading as levity. I found this especially true in the opening chapter when the tailor tries to figure out if his experience is a dream. Also, the initial conversation between the archaeologist and governor smacked of the Author Lecturing. Possibly the information needed introduction when the book was initially published.

On the other hand, maybe not. In the second chapter we are introduced to the world and culture of Earth in the future. This was done through characterization and dialog, and done effectively. As a reader I felt immersed in a world I didn’t understand, but which was effectively introduced and by the end of the chapter I felt both that the plot had advanced in a meaningful way and the world had been illuminated somewhat.

More when I’ve read more.

Star Trek’s two timelines

Abstract: The author originally posted this at TrekWeb (link defunct 2018/01/02). The author takes the position that the continued existence of the original Star Trek time line is plausible within Star Trek canon, and that the argument that the events shown in the 2009 movie necessarily mean the original time line has been (narratively) obliterated is hokum. Word count: ±800.

Quote from StillKirok:
It’s clear that the intent was to have them be the same people. So it’s the same universe, overwritten. The movie itself shows that, has no differences in time travel than with previously established canon, and the only “hope” for the prime universe is comments that were clearly meant to appease hardcore fans but have no backing in the movie itself.

This business that the general principle of time travel in Star Trek is that it always endangers the previous time line is hokum. Call it overwriting, obliterating, replacing, throwing in the trash, what-have-you. It’s still hokum.

Sometimes, like in “City on the Edge of Forever,” it appears to. Appears to. Our heroes lose contact with the ship and the Guardian tells them what’s what. And they accept it because it’s consistent with their experience. Then they go back in time, figure out that when McCoy–off screen–prevented the death of Edith Keeler things changed, and that to fix them they have to let her die. Then, having let her die, they all get to come home, and things are fixed.

This interpretation–that a change in the past obliterated our heroes’ present, and that they fixed things by their actions in the past–relies on an assumption that the Guardian gave an accurate assessment of the situation.

On the other hand, we are faced with the time travel story in the movie called The Voyage Home. In that movie our heroes go back in time and make–on screen–at least four significant alterations in the time line. And these don’t include the incidental interactions the characters have (into which category I’ll even put the “Chekov’s arrest and surgery” subplot).

The first is when McCoy and Scotty give transparent aluminum to that 20th Century engineer. This is an incursion of advanced technology into the past. In the new movie the mere implication of advanced technology is enough to make major changes in the technology and design of things in the new time line. What changes in the future time line might happen with transparent aluminum available so many, many years before it was supposed to be? McCoy and Scott briefly wonder, but leave it to the side with a glib, “how do we know he didn’t invent the stuff?” We don’t, of course, know that he didn’t invent the stuff, but it’s a change in the time line even if he was ‘supposed’ to invent it when it appears on his Macintosh computer fully-formed in the late 1980s rather than as a result of years of development.

The second is when McCoy gives the dialysis patient a pill and she grows a new kidney. This is another example of the Edith Keeler problem. What was that woman ‘supposed’ to do as a dialysis patient? What will she do now? What changes to the time line might her no longer needing dialysis cause? How about the fact that she grew a new kidney? Might this lead to the early discovery of McCoy’s organ-growing pills? What changes might this early discovery cause?

The third and fourth changes occur at the same time, and are essentially additional examples of the Edith Keeler problem. Our heroes remove from the time line Dr. Taylor (#3) and the whales (#4). What might these beings not do now that they were ‘supposed’ to do before? It might be argued that the whales can’t affect the time line. I’d respond that clearly humpback whales (generally considered) are very important or that probe wouldn’t be there looking for them in our heroes’ present. It’s therefore possible that any individual whale might be important to the ‘proper’ unfolding of the time line, even if that importance is largely invisible to humans.

Yet, with all of these alterations to events–and remember that these aren’t ‘merely’ interactions with 20th Century people which could be shrugged off; these are actual material changes in the flow of events, changes caused by our heroes–when our heroes go home they end up… home. They even manage to pop out within a handful of seconds of when they left. The initial crisis for which time travel seemed a reasonable solution continues unchanged. There is no alteration in the time line. None.

My point isn’t that, within Star Trek stories, time travel cannot cause an existential threat to the time line, but rather that within canon there appears to be ample evidence that mere alterations in the time line do not necessarily cause the obliteration of the original time line. And the fact that our point of view changes (including both our POV as viewers, and the POV of our characters)–we were following one time line and now we are following a different one–does not have any implications for the continued existence (or not) of the time line we were following in the first place.

All we can say for sure is that, sometimes, time travel causes our heroes to become disconnected from their home time lines and that sometimes it does not. Because that is all we’ve really seen–on screen.


On ‘science!’ On ‘fiction!’ On ‘science fiction!’ Now dash away, all!

Abstract: The author originally posted this at TrekWeb (now defunct 2018/01/02). The author takes the position that demanding a lot of science in Star Trek misses a lot of Star Trek. (Word count: ±1,000 words)

Quote (from TrekWeb member Cylykon):
If the “future” is that Star Trek is to be written by those numb-nutz, Orci and Kurtzman, from now on, then I don’t think I’ll accept it at all. They’ve already aptly demonstrated that they have less of a grasp of the “science” in “science fiction” than the writers for Space 1999. I wish I could personally thank Andre Bormanis for doing one hell of a job for keeping the “science” in “science fiction” for “Classic Trek”.


I don’t know about insisting upon a high degree of emphasis on ‘science’ in the ‘science fiction’ of Star Trek as the sole (or even most important) criterion for judging good Star Trek. A science advisor, even one who’s a good fiction writer, is potentially always hamstrung by both the ‘science’ part of ‘science fiction’ and by the needs of the ‘fiction’ part. We, as viewers (readers, consumers of the product), have to choose what level of plausibility we require to enjoy what we’ve been presented with. It sounds like you, Cylykon, require a very high degree of scientific backstopping for Star Trek, which is fine. I find most of the science and technology presented in Star Trek most of the time to be minimally plausible in terms of the science. In terms of moving a story forward, if the technology does what is needed to maintain the dramatic tension or propel the narative, then I’m OK with it, pretty much no matter what.

Faster-than-light travel? AOK. Beaming? I’m there. Tricorders? Communicators? Magic wands in the kit bag of the ship’s medical officer? You betcha. I’m OK with what the technology does, but I don’t really care about the explanations for how it works, because I expect that if current or future real-world technology does the same things (has the same effects), it will do it for different reasons than the scripted drama offers me today.

But, in any case, I never really thought that the science in Star Trek had to do any of the shows’ heavy lifting. Star Trek, for me, has never been about the science; it’s been about the people. And this is especially true of the Classic Trek Kirk-Spock-McCoy stories. It’s been a while since I watched the original series, but I don’t recall it having a terribly strong grip on science. (Engrams?) Spock’s extra eyelids was a pretty good example, I think, of pretty good science in Star Trek. No doubt there were others.

In Star Trek: The Motion Picture the characters talk about how V’Ger fell into what “they used to call a black hole.” In the new movie Nero and Spock also fall into a black hole. It seems Star Trek means something different by the term ‘black hole’ than our current science does; my understanding is that if something ‘falls into a black hole’ then it doesn’t come out–not on the far side of the galaxy, and not in the past. And I’m perfectly willing to accept that the use of the term ‘black hole’ in both movies was a MacGuffin; in neither movie does the story hinge on the real-world science of ‘black holes,’ it hinges on our heroes’ response to some other problem made possible by the ‘black hole,’ whatever a ‘black hole’ in the movie actually is.

Similarly, in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home we get our lecture on time travel from Dr. McCoy, and it’s more of a sketch of a lecture at best, but it keys into an episode from the original series–it may be bad science, but at least it’s consistent. In this movie, our heroes travel back in time and make at least four significant changes: they take someone into the future (even if she wasn’t ‘supposed’ to have descendants, who knows what else she was ‘supposed’ to do, and our heroes didn’t even ask (not that I’d expect the Klingon computers to be any help)– it’s the Edith Keeler situation revisited); they take two whales into the future (possibly not significant for human history, but clearly the whales have something going on, or else there wouldn’t be a probe looking for them; George and Gracie’s absence might have a significant effect on the time line); Dr. McCoy gives an old woman a pill and she grows a new kidney (again, the Edith Keeler problem presents itself even aside from the odd science of McCoy keeping a ready supply of organ-growing pills handy, and the odd narrative mechanic of him having such a supply at this point in the larger multi-movie cycle; what was that woman ‘supposed’ to do as a dialysis patient that she won’t do now?); our heroes introduce transparent aluminum (the incursion of advanced technology into the past; this is one of the explanations for why the technology in the new movie’s time line is significantly different from the original series’s technology, so we might expect a significant alteration of the time line from this event alone). Yet, with all these interferences with the flow of events (and with only a passing nod to the fact that they’re interfering when McCoy and Scotty talk about the aluminum–after they’ve let the cat out of the bag, by the way), when they return home, our heroes find themselves in an unaltered time line.

My point isn’t to nitpick the science in these shows and movies (though it might be to poke a little on the ‘time travel is fraught with existential danger to the time line’ threads we’ve seen so much of here at TrekWeb lately). My point is that the storytellers pick the level of scientific verisimilitude they need to tell the story at hand. But if the science is going to get in the way of the story, it seems to be let go. (And I realize that TNG and DS9 certainly have a better grip on the science than the original series; but they also suffer from the ‘critique of technobabble.’ For me technobabble isn’t just a term for bad or made-up science, it’s a term for relying too much on science of any sort in order to keep the viewer oriented within the story or to keep the story moving.)

And here’s the science-y reason why the story tellers have to pick their level of scientific verisimilitude: real-world science is always going to outstrip the story science. In ten years much of the science in any given story will be outdated from the point of view of the viewers. And if not in ten years, then eventually it will be. No matter how good the science is, unless it’s both firmly settled, and easy to present to a layman, eventually it’s going to be wrong. Or misguided, or incomplete. Which is to say implausible as science. So the storyteller’s first obligation is to the story, because if the story is good, I think most viewers will be willing to give the science a pass, like I do with the ‘black holes’ and the changes in the time line business from the above examples.

If someone can tell a good Star Trek story with good science, then great! I’m all for that. But to hold that Star Trek is somehow harmed–or that the writers are somehow failures, or that the fans have been presented with a disservice–by the presentation of otherwise entertaining stories with, at best, questionable science seems to ignore a major thread in the way Star Trek has done stories from the very beginning–after all, even “The Cage” relied on interstellar telepathy as its MacGuffin.

Take care