There is an adventurous prologue, in which two beings in space suits march across the desolate lunar landscape until one expires. Then in the first chapter we meet two men, partners, theoretical scientist Hunt and engineer Gray, who are on a supersonic flight from London to San Francisco. The engineer uses what we would call a laptop computer to make aircar reservations in SF. Hunt and Gray are the inventors of a sort of microscope that uses neutrinos to see into and through matter, and they have been summoned to America on secretive business.
It is the early 21st century, and the world is a happy place. “High technology living” has led to the end of political, ethnic, racial and religious strife, national borders have weakened and the UN seems to be running almost everything, including a space agency for which price is no object! Hogan is painting for us a picture the exact opposite to that which our depressing buddy Barry Malzberg is always laying on us!
It turns out that the body of the man who died on the moon in the prologue has been discovered, and examination has revealed that he expired 50,000 years ago. The scope Hunt and Gray invented is needed to examine his books and equipment; the scope can photograph the pages of the books without touching the books, which after 500 centuries are extremely fragile. Hunt proves himself such a mastermind that soon the UN space agency is giving him more and more power and responsibility and eventually sends him off to Ganymede, where an ancient space ship has been uncovered.
Hundreds of scientists and astronauts toil in labs and explore the solar system for many months, making additional discoveries. A picture of life in the solar system 50,000 years ago emerges. A modern human civilization existed on a planet named Minerva whose orbit lay between Mars and Jupiter. Minerva was doomed by an approaching ice age, and totalitarian governments seized control of every aspect of life, channeling all human efforts into figuring out how to escape Minerva and into fighting each other over the scarce resources afforded by the mineral-poor planet. Tragically, in a nuclear war the Minervans managed to blow up their entire planet, creating the asteroid belt!
And there are discoveries more shocking still: The Minervans were the descendents of primates imported from Earth to Minerva by mysterious aliens 25 million years earlier. Earth originally had no moon; the war that destroyed Minerva also propelled Minerva’s moon sunward, where it was captured by Earth’s gravity. Most shocking of all, present day Earth humans are descended from the refugees from the Minervan war who rode the moon past Mars’s orbit to Earth orbit! These people escaped the moon, landed on Earth, conquered the Neanderthals and are the ancestors of us all!
It is easy to see why Asimov would call Inherit the Stars “pure science fiction” and why it would appeal to a scientist like himself; it romanticizes scientists and engineers and their work and dispenses with distaste the fighting men, politicians, government bureaucrats and business people that populate so many SF books and who so often seem to be in charge of the world in our real lives. The book is full of science lectures on things like radiocarbon dating, evolution, the geology of the moon, the reasons an African has a different body shape than an Eskimo, and on and on. Besides the lectures, the book consists mostly of scenes in which scientists, sitting around tables or standing before projection screens or models, smoke cigarettes and cigars, argue various points, and make shocking revelations. Hogan handles all this sciency material well. There is very little action or character development stuff, but what is there is also reasonably good.