Sunday, September 11, 2011

Science fiction done right: Inherit the Stars by James P Hogan

So far most of the content of this blog has been more about the science and less about the writing. Today, however, I want to highlight a book that gets the science spot on.

Inherit the Stars by James P Hogan was first published in 1978 and is now available from Baen (it's even part of their free library). It's got a bit of a "Golden Age" feel to it but it's also recent enough that the science it covers isn't very outdated.

Now, I'm not saying that every mention of science in Inherit the Stars is 100% spot on and accurate today — it can't be, there's been too much progress in the past thirty or so years — but what really makes it stand out is the way in which it presents the day-to-day science and the scientific method.

The story starts when some lunar colonists come across a space-suited body on the moon. A very old space-suited body. Human and yet very much pre-dating human space travel. And so the mystery begins.

The the book can be best described as a scientific mystery as the characters — mostly scientists — try and work out where the body came from, not to mention who it is and why they were even on the moon. The best part is, they do it in a very logical and scientific way. I found it to be a very realistic depiction of how real scientists would go around trying to work something like this out, clunky 70s technology notwithstanding.

The way it was paced, with new hints and bits of information being gradually uncovered (or in a few cases, coming to them completely out of the blue) made it continuously interesting. The main character also goes off and does other things and time passes before new information is uncovered. Unlike in Hollywood, significant scientific discoveries take time to fully understand (y'know more time than just the speed of the plot). Also, because of how the facts were meted out it was difficult to guess the ending ahead of the characters. Which isn't to say that knowing science didn't help me guess a few things before they were revealed, but it was nice not having to read about dull characters that can't put the pieces together and see what's obvious to the reader.

So there you have it, if you want to see a shining example of science done right, go read Inherit the Stars. It's free, so what's stopping you?

(I should also mention that it's the first of a series, but I haven't got around to reading the others yet, so I can't recommend them either way.)


  1. It's one of those series which seems to have suffered from sequelitis. The second book is interesting, but it's less of a mystery and more of a vehicle for political commentary. I never finished the third book, and the later ones, as far as I can tell, get softer and softer (in terms of the hardness of the science), being about simulated realities, AIs with personality, time travel and so on. TV Tropes advises me that they retcon and ruin the original, so I don't intend to bother.

    Inherit the Stars itself? Masterpiece. My favourite SF novel.

  2. I suspected that might be the case from reading the blurbs of the sequels. It's not that I had that many objections to the world he set up, but the really appealing part was solving the mystery. Once the mystery was solved, you couldn't really go solving it again.

    And political commentary from the 70s? I guess that's better than from the 50s or 60s...


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