Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Review - Nemesis by Isaac Asimov

Short review: A dissatisfied orbital colony figures out how to leave the Solar System and then discovers alien life as well as a threat to all humanity.

Leaving Earth's orbit
Bound for a secret planet
Alien algae

Full review: In his later years Asimov spent most of his time writing mediocre sequels to his Foundation series and clumsily trying to connect them to his Robot books. Once in a while, however, he got a little bit of his old inspiration and went off in a different direction. Nemesis seems to be the result of one of those moments, and is a reasonably interesting, although not particularly spectacular stand-alone science fiction novel that raises the interesting questions of socioeconomic conflict, the advance of technology, and the collective intelligence, but doesn't really follow-up on them to any extent.

Nemesis posits that in the future, wealthy orbital colonies and a comparatively impoverished Earth will be at loggerheads, constantly fighting with one another. Nemesis follows a breakaway orbital colony that leaves the solar system using "hyper assistance" (allowing them to travel at the speed of light) to a nearby red dwarf star (that is named Nemesis) and a marginally habitable planet. Internal politics of the colony make settling the planet less than a priority, and eventually humanity catches up with them - by developing superluminal flight.

At the same time, one of the young members of the breakaway colony discovers that the bacterial life that covers the planet forms a single collective intelligence. It is also discovered that Nemesis itself threatens all life in the solar system because it will disturb the orbits of the planets, killing everything. With the help of the collective intelligence, the threat is averted. And that is pretty much all that happens in the book. And this is why the book is decent, but not more than that. Despite several developments that should be individually substantial enough to have huge implications for human civilization - the establishment of the first human colony around a different star, the discovery of alien life, the discovery of intelligent alien life, the discovery of superluminal flight, and so on - and yet just when these elements are set to have an impact, the story wanders off into an engineering problem and then ends.

As noted before, this is one of the few novels Asimov wrote in his later years that could work as a stand alone effort. There is a clumsy effort to tie it into the Foundation chronology, but that can be safely ignored as irrelevant (it is implied that the collective intelligence found in the book forms the basis for the Gaia of the Foundation sequels). Because of the interesting issues it raises, the book is slightly above average, better than most of the later Foundation-Robot prequels, sequels, and crossovers, but because it really never goes much of anywhere with them, it is not as good as Asimov's earlier works.

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