Book Review: A Man from Planet Earth by Giancarlo Genta

16 Jun

Starting in 2014 Springer began publishing books in their Science and Fiction series, a collection “born out of the recognition that scientific discovery and the creation of plausible fictional scenarios are often two sides of the same coin.” Envisioned as “hard” science fiction that is largely written by practicing scientists, the series includes novels, collections of short stories, critical analysis, and covering topics in a relatively non-technical matter, as they could be applied in genre speculation.

I’m not one to leap at the chance to read works that promote themselves as hard science fiction. In general I find they are too conservative in their political and social outlook and too focused on technology or engineering rather than science. The science that is present seems dominated by physics and astronomy, and any literary aspects become utterly expendable. Obviously this isn’t always true, and even if not often literary, a hard science fiction story like one in Analog can be entertaining while teaching the reader about something new.

As a scientist myself I was excited when I heard about this series from Springer, I think more scientists should develop skills at bridging the science and the fiction universes. I hoped (and still do) that their curated series would tilt towards the type of technically focused science fiction that I could still find entertaining.

A Man from Planet Earth by Giancarlo Genta is a space opera published last year by an author who wrote one of the first “scientific novels” for the Springer series. A professor in the Department of Mechanics at a university in Turin, Genta is also the director of an Italian SETI branch and the author of hundreds of scientific papers and about a dozen books. With these professional experiences and interests, he certainly has the background to cover the hard science aspects for a book in Springer’s series. The fiction and its cultural and social themes, however, are less impressive.

Genta’s novel is written with a flavor of Golden Age science fiction adventure, the kind of story that the Rabid Puppies have extolled. With nods to well-known science fiction works from Star Trek to stories by Asimov, A Man from Planet Earth uses space adventure to showcase science and the human mind as idealized tools of dominance and success.

Taking place in the near future, the novel involves a confederation of planets that turn to an Earthling to revive their Starfleet and help confront a dangerous, mysterious enemy. The eponymous male Earthling chosen by the confederation of aliens is Thomas Taylor, a professor who has written a few papers on relativistic space propulsion and interstellar flight. Being from a ‘less peaceful world’ outside the confederation and ignorant of alien life, an Earthling is a radical and controversial choice, born solely from the aliens’ desperation. Taylor himself is chosen, according to Sinqwahan his recruiter:

“We needed a scientist, a person more used to thinking than to action. We do not want to put you in command of a fleet, we just want you to study the situation and bring in new, unbiased ideas. And we need a technically minded person, and one who knows astronomy, like your wife.” (p. 19)

Yes, contrary to the title this novel is actually about a man and a woman from planet Earth. But that woman, Susan, is just Tom’s wife: a background character that is there to support and be used by Tom. She’s essential, but hardly worth including in the title.

While the character of Susan is blandly one-dimensional, Tom is ubermensch one-dimensional. The aliens might not want to put him in command of a fleet, but dammit, no Earth man is going to sit by and let a bunch of aliens run things when the fate of so many lives is at stake! There are next to no fish-out-of-water moments for Tom. Despite being new to the reality of aliens in all of their species, cultures, and technology, Tom has no problem mastering complete functionality in the confederation. By page 52 he already steps up to charge the captain of the ship that he is on with “negligence and misconduct… formally asking her to be removed from command.”

At this moment and countless others, Tom simply assumes that protocols and social situations will proceed in a particular way, despite it being an alien environment. Not just a scientist who will use his mind, he is quick to decision and action, never wavering. Tom’s pompous certainty comes out most absurdly and insultingly on a page following the quote of the previous paragraph, when his actions cause the captain to threaten Susan with a gun as a hostage. Tom responds with a bluff that starts with him loudly laughing and then proclaiming:

“Go on, shoot, you are going to do me a favor. I can find as many females like her as I wish, on Earth…” (p. 53)

Now granted, Tom does this with a fair degree of logic that his wife will not be shot, as the pages that follow go into. However, it still is a bluff, without absolute chance of success, and is not by any means the most reasonable way of proceeding in the situation. Moreover, Susan ends up accepting Tom’s actions with some gentle chastisement for keeping her out of the loop. Despite such reckless confidence, Tom proves to be universally effective. Scientist, admiral, diplomat, Tom is expert in all, and his instincts never fail. And thus despite any intrigue of the novel, it rapidly becomes boring.

And so, A Man from Planet Earth does the opposite of the advice of the lyrics of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (“If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes, and other science facts, just repeat to yourself “It’s just a show, I should really just relax.”). Genta diligently covers the scientific facts. The characters themselves frequently bring up objections to plot points, to be followed by explanation of why this would work according to scientific or technological understanding. Following the novel, a section of “The Science Behind the Fiction” covers these in even more detail. But in that focus on the facts he neglects the believability of his characters and their imperfections. He misses the basics of fiction.

In a strict sense the novel does then fulfill the hard science mission of the Science and Fiction series from Springer. I firmly believe this could be done without sacrificing good writing and characterization, but unfortunately this novel doesn’t manage that. I’ll still try out some other offerings from the series, and others who do really go for an emphasis on hard science fiction should consider checking them out too.


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