In Sci-Fi, a Changing of the Guard

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ISAAC ASIMOV and Robert Heinlein are gone. Arthur C. Clarke, last of science fiction's grand triumvirate, uses collaborators to write his novels and has seen publication of his authorized biography. The day has finally come: Science fiction is entering the Post-Grandmaster Age.

Rest assured that the future of futuristic literature lies in capable hands. Anyone perusing the bookstores this spring will find a cornucopia of excellent reading from which to choose.

The genre's publishing event of the year is Asimov's swan song - the final volume of that cornerstone of science fiction's canon, the "Foundation" series. Inspired by Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," the youthful Asimov imagined a future galactic empire comprising 25 million worlds. The premise of the series raised an intriguing question: What if a new science - psychohistory - could be developed to predict the course of the empire and to forestall its impending fall?

In this last volume of the series, "Forward the Foundation," Asimov tells the story of psychohistory's inventor, Hari Seldon, a figure of ancient legend in the series's previous installments. There are some surprising twists, as Asimov manages to link the "Foundation" universe to his popular robot series. And although, true to form, Asimov leans rather heavily on dialogue to carry the story, we are privileged to learn something more of Seldon, whom Asimov regards as his alter ego - intellectually vigorous, witty, vulnerable, and deeply concerned about the fate of his fallible species. In the end, is it Hari Seldon or Isaac Asimov who "died with the future he created unfolding all around him"?

David Brin, winner of the Nebula and Hugo Awards, should contend for this year's honors with "Glory Season." The tale of a matriarchal society where sexual patterns have been genetically calibrated to the seasons and where daughters are the clones of their mothers, this is imaginative artistry of a high order. Brin skates over some thin socio-political ice as he examines the role of men in an overpopulated world, but his expertise in biology turns "Glory Season" into a considered and nuanced speculation rather than a stale battle-of-the-sexes tract. Brin's prose echoes the influence of Asimov, Frank Herbert, and Aldous Huxley. If the plotting is not always brisk, it is only because his world is so painstakingly drawn and is splashed with such radiant and varied hues.

Two authors who will never run out of ideas are Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. With "The Mote in God's Eye," published in 1974, they set a standard by which all such collaborations will be judged. "The Gripping Hand" is the sequel to that classic, and anyone who enjoys their special brand of sophisticated space opera will devour it without regard for table manners.

This story unfolds 25 years after the Empire of Man first vanquished the Moties - an inscrutable, hyper-reproductive alien race - and quarantined them within their own solar system. …