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A novel by Isaac Asimov
(1987, Bantam)

A Russian team with an American scientist enters the brain of a comatose patient, intent on using a miniaturized submarine to retrieve lingering memories in the hopes of making miniaturization affordable.


-- 2nd reading (paperback)
July 12th to 25th, 2010


From the first page, this can be recognized as pure modern Isaac Asimov. It is full of people talking each other into various arguments, demands from characters to explain such and such theory, into such minute detail that it becomes exhausting.

Spoiler review:

But the first one hundred and fifty pages aren't about battling theories, though those do come up far too often. Instead, they are about an American complaining about being kidnapped by Soviet scientists. I had such trouble getting through this, the incessant complaining by Alfred Morrison, that I wished the Soviets didn't have to make him cooperative. Although everybody kept saying these were the "good new days", seventy years after the Soviet Union collapsed in our timeline, everything seems like the 1980s.

In terms of society, which Asimov was obviously trying to showcase, the world is at peace, the the nations other than the US and USSR demand that these two keep it that way. Apparently they won't put up with any more in terms of Cold War activities. However, secrecy is still the main objective, with the same kind of rivalry. Apparently, the US is working on antigravity, and the USSR on miniaturization. Somebody else is working on faster-than-light travel.

But the Soviets have run into a snag, in that their main miniaturization genius had an accident in deminiaturizing, and is in a coma. So the Soviets sent a team to convince Alfred, a neurobiologist who specializes in theories of reading thoughts, and who is considered to be completely crazy by his professional colleagues, to help them. There is too much time spent on repeating, ad nauseum, how Alfred's career is dying, and how he has been treated in the US. So much that the Soviets do a good job convincing me that he should stay. Alfred has too much naive confidence in his government, which he knows wanted him to take the job in the first place.

Through various chapters, Alfred meets the one-note characters he will be traveling with, even as he denies that miniaturization is impossible. Asimov does a good job in convincing us that it is indeed possible, through the use of real scientific principles, and arguments based in reality. It sounds simple when they say they just change Planck's constant. But how to do that is the real task! We have Arkady, full of quotes from his father, and happy-go-lucky Russian who drinks too much. There is beautiful and sexy Natasha, whose body Alfred (and Asimov) is obsessed. She and serious (obsessed) Yuri had a child together, whom Yuri refuses to acknowledge, so there is a cold silence as they don't talk to each other. And we also have the commander of the expedition, Natalya.

All of them are eager to get inside Shapirov's brain, because he had a great idea about making miniaturization affordable and easy, but he went into the coma before he revealed any of this theory to anybody else. They hope that taking Alfred, with his unique portable computer program, could sense thoughts from the synapses of the dying man, and make the Soviets famous.

Alfred is not happy to go along, but he does so willingly after being essentially blackmailed by Natalya Boranova. The adventure becomes interesting when they finally become miniaturized, though Alfred still gets some digs in about how he was kidnapped and forced into this situation. That provides for some friction between the crew, as Yuri thinks Alfred is deliberately misleading them, and nobody picks up any thoughts form the synapses in the brain.

Also typical Asimov, things are not as they seem, which is the great thing about this book, even though it is slow moving at times, and annoying at others, not to mention very repetitive. People do get stray thoughts, which they all attribute to Shapirov. But as Shapirov theorized before he died, the thoughts actually come from the various crewmembers, transferred from Alfred's machine to one another.

The adventure runs into the mandatory trouble, which shakes things up a bit, as they get swallowed by a white blood cell (who knew what would happen after that? - it provided scientific knowledge, anyway) and end up in the wrong artery. Alfred complains constantly about Soviet budgeting constraints, such as the one-gear, forward-only ship they are using, but they manage to get around these obstacles. Alfred nearly overheats going out into the bloodstream to turn the ship around manually, but he succeeds. The writing is sharp, and enough to keep the reader interested, at least. When they get into the brain and into a neuron, they circle around it, and when they get nothing, the force Alfred outside again in the hope that he will be more sensitive to brain waves outside the ship. At that point, something collides with the ship and takes Alfred with it, alone, in the middle of a brain. Because Yuri can hear Alfred's thoughts of loneliness, they can locate him.

When Alfred is brought back in, and tells of sensing nothing, Yuri goes out, obsessed with finding anything at all, but still gets nothing.

At some point through the expedition, Alfred realizes what his machine really does, but tries as hard as possible not to think of it. None of the other crewmembers figure it out until after they leave the body. For while they are in the brain, Shapirov dies.

The adventure doesn't end there, however, because Yuri figures out what Alfred already knows. Natasha knows something is up, that Yuri won't give up Alfred, but because she wants sweet revenge on him for abandoning their child, she takes him toward the airport as quickly as possible. But Yuri finds them there, and professes his love for Natasha. And because Alfred has sensed Yuri's thoughts on the matter, he mutters that he knows it's true. So Natasha gives up Alfred, and it is up to the American spy to get Alfred out of the Soviet Union.

I don't know if it was because I've read this book before, almost twenty years ago, but some things were obvious to me from the start. Although I have no memory of the plot of this book, or its resolution, I did figure out that the woman who so vehemently hated Americans had to be an American spy. She was presented with too much character to be simply a throwaway personality longing for the old days of hatred and mistrust. I also recognized that the people in the submarine were sensing each others' thoughts, though Alfred was quite silent on the issue, though most of the book was from his point of view.

It's also amazing to see that we have en entire novel centered around barely a story. It goes like this: Alfred it taken from the US, complains and debates in minute detail the same things over and over, like the impossibility of miniaturization and of Soviet-American politics. Then they enter the body, and spend a long time passing through cells, and doing absolutely nothing, aside from a couple of stints of danger. Even the stray thoughts are rare, so that we spent an inordinate amount of time going over the same theories in different ways.

Like all modern Asimov novels, this one is tied in slightly to the Foundation universe, in that they have developed simple positronic brains. I guess miniaturization never became profitable, though, because it is not seen in any of his "future" novels.

But lest I seem to hard on this novel, which only Asimov could write, in that it gives such minute detail of imaginary theories, I did enjoy it. Part of that is the surprise ending, in which the mission actually fails! Also, Alfred, instead of becoming the love interest, is actually being used by the woman to get to another man! When Alfred gets back to the US, he explains that with Soviet miniaturization and American brain-wave theory, they should be able to unlock the mystery they were searching for in Shapirov's brain. The spirit of cooperation, and the beginning, probably, of dismantling Terrestrial nations as we know them. I like that.


-- First reading (paperback)
October 19th to 31st, 1990


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