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Now in Paperback

April 27, 1986|ALEX RAKSIN

Great Science Fiction Stories by the World's Great Scientists, edited by Isaac Asimov, with Martin Greenberg and Charles Waugh (Donald I. Fine: $4.50). Many critics not enamored with science fiction as a literary form have predicted that the genre would fade as we grew accustomed to the technological age: When helicopters, ice cube makers and rockets have ceased to impress us, these critics argue, our interest in space voyages and alien cultures will wane as well. To a limited extent, they're right: Even before World War II, writers who envisioned utopian cities were overshadowed by those more cynical about how humans would employ technology.

But, instead of fading, science fiction has trekked through new forms: social science fiction--inspired by J. R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert, among others--and hard science fiction, such as the stories in this volume, where freakish monsters are replaced by plausible theories. This is a thoroughly entertaining book of fiction by scientists living or educated in the United States. Most of the stories are sugar-coated technological speculation (David Brin's "The Warm Space," for instance, offers a wry look at the failings of machines and humans). Some, however, such as Paul J. Nahin's "Publish or Perish," stay down-to-earth. Nahin, an engineering professor at the University of New Hampshire, fashions an exchange of letters between a top university researcher hoping to complete his Ph.D. and an Army colonel who has decided that the academic's work is "too secret." The colonel, of course, emerges the victor, and the academic is sent this letter of consolation: "We wish you well in your new post at the South Australian Boys Military Prep School."

American Eccentrics, Carl Sifakis (Facts On File: $8.95). Deciding who would fit the book's title proved to be a more arduous task than former UPI reporter Carl Sifakis anticipated. First of all, Sifakis concluded, eccentrics had to be "very rich." "An ordinary person is no longer trusted with such traits. . . . If you are poor and act bizarrely, you're crazy and perhaps dangerous." Second, the eccentric must be, as Harvard sociologist Peter McEwen pointed out, "extraordinarily secure. . . . He thinks that he has the answer." Not all of the characters in this book meet the criteria to a tee, but all are entertaining. By exaggerating aspects of the American character, they also offer insights about our nation. Some characters don't cast a glowing light on the United States: The millionaire miser Hetty Green, for example, postponed treatment for her son's injured leg until she could find a free clinic, causing her son to lose his leg. Others, however, capture everyone's hearts. English-born Joshua Norton migrated to San Francisco in 1849, but saw his quarter-million-dollar fortune dissipated in bad deals and was relegated to working in a Chinese rice factory. Not wishing to accept the reality, Norton decided to declare himself emperor of the United States. Soon after his announcement was printed in the San Francisco Bulletin, Norton achieved instant fame. He dissolved both political parties and the Republic, and a chair was reserved for him in the State Senate. He never missed a session until just before his death, when he was given a lavish funeral with 10,000 mourners.

NOTEWORTHY: Sea of Slaughter, Farley Mowat (Bantam Books: $9.95). How man, arrogant and alienated from nature, is causing the devastation of all different types of animate life on the Northeastern seaboard. Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion: Eighth Edition, Leslie Halliwell (Scribner's: $14.95). An expansive (1,150 pages) short-entry encyclopedia from the buyer for Britain's Granada Television. Includes 7,000 new and revised entries and a quiz, a self-described "aimless romp through the classics of film history." The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, Breyten Breytenbach (McGraw Hill: $5.95). Writings on activism, isolation and torture from the poet and anti-apartheid activist who was jailed after returning to South Africa in 1975. A Gardener Touched by Genius: The Life of Luther Burbank, Peter Dreyer (University of California: $10.95). How the American horticulturist (1849-1926) managed to contribute to the productivity of farms, orchards and gardens despite criticism from biologists of the day who disputed his theory that acquired characteristics are inherited. Secrecy and Democracy: The CIA in Transition, Stansfield Turner (Harper & Row: $7.95). Though the CIA "shredded" more than 100 passages from this book, it remains a candid account of the author's struggle to control an agency dominated by a reckless, deeply rooted old-boy network.

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