February 2017

Verne, Jules. Hector Servadac. Seattle: CreateSpace, [1877] 2014. ISBN 978-1-5058-3124-5.
Over the years, I have been reading my way through the classic science fiction novels of Jules Verne, and I have prepared public domain texts of three of them which are available on my site and Project Gutenberg. Verne not only essentially invented the modern literary genre of science fiction, he was an extraordinary prolific author, publishing sixty-two novels in his Voyages extraordinaires between 1863 and 1905. What prompted me to pick up the present work was an interview I read in December 2016, in which Freeman Dyson recalled that it was reading this book at around the age of eight which, more than anything, set him on a course to become a mathematician and physicist. He notes that he originally didn't know it was fiction, and was disappointed to discover the events recounted hadn't actually happened. Well, that's about as good a recommendation as you can get, so I decided to put Hector Servadac on the list.

On the night of December 31–January 1, Hector Servadac, a captain in the French garrison at Mostaganem in Algeria, found it difficult to sleep, since in the morning he was to fight a duel with Wassili Timascheff, his rival for the affections of a young woman. During the night, the captain and his faithful orderly Laurent Ben-Zouf, perceived an enormous shock, and regained consciousness amid the ruins of their hut, and found themselves in a profoundly changed world.

Thus begins a scientific detective story much different than many of Verne's other novels. We have the resourceful and intrepid Captain Servadac and his humorous side-kick Ben-Zouf, to be sure, but instead of them undertaking a perilous voyage of exploration, instead they are taken on a voyage, by forces unknown, and must discover what has happened and explain the odd phenomena they are experiencing. And those phenomena are curious, indeed: the Sun rises in the west and sets in the east, and the day is now only twelve hours long; their weight, and that of all objects, has been dramatically reduced, and they can now easily bound high into the air; the air itself seems to have become as thin as on high mountain peaks; the Moon has vanished from the sky; the pole has shifted and there is a new north star; and their latitude now seems to be near the equator.

Exploring their environs only adds mysteries to the ever-growing list. They now seem to inhabit an island of which they are the only residents: the rest of Algeria has vanished. Eventually they make contact with Count Timascheff, whose yacht was standing offshore and, setting aside their dispute (the duel deferred in light of greater things is a theme you'll find elsewhere in the works of Verne), they seek to explore the curiously altered world they now inhabit.

Eventually, they discover its inhabitants seem to number only thirty-six: themselves, the Russian crew of Timascheff's yacht; some Spanish workers; a young Italian girl and Spanish boy; Isac Hakhabut, a German Jewish itinerant trader whose ship full of merchandise survived the cataclysm; the remainder of the British garrison at Gibraltar, which has been cut off and reduced to a small island; and Palmyrin Rosette, formerly Servadac's teacher (and each other's nemeses), an eccentric and irritable astronomer. They set out on a voyage of exploration and begin to grasp what has happened and what they must do to survive.

In 1865, Verne took us De la terre à la lune. Twelve years later, he treats us to a tour of the solar system, from the orbit of Venus to that of Jupiter, with abundant details of what was known about our planetary neighbourhood in his era. As usual, his research is nearly impeccable, although the orbital mechanics are fantasy and must be attributed to literary license: a body with an orbit which crosses those of Venus and Jupiter cannot have an orbital period of two years: it will be around five years, but that wouldn't work with the story. Verne has his usual fun with the national characteristics of those we encounter. Modern readers may find the descriptions of the miserly Jew Hakhabut and the happy but indolent Spaniards offensive—so be it—such is nineteenth century literature.

This is a grand adventure: funny, enlightening, and engaging the reader in puzzling out mysteries of physics, astronomy, geology, chemistry, and, if you're like this reader, checking the author's math (which, orbital mechanics aside, is more or less right, although he doesn't make the job easy by using a multitude of different units). It's completely improbable, of course—you don't go to Jules Verne for that: he's the fellow who shot people to the Moon with a nine hundred foot cannon—but just as readers of modern science fiction are willing to accept faster than light drives to make the story work, a little suspension of disbelief here will yield a lot of entertainment.

Jules Verne is the second most translated of modern authors (Agatha Christie is the first) and the most translated of those writing in French. Regrettably, Verne, and his reputation, have suffered from poor translation. He is a virtuoso of the French language, using his large vocabulary to layer meanings and subtexts beneath the surface, and many translators fail to preserve these subtleties. There have been several English translations of this novel under different titles (which I shall decline to state, as they are spoilers for the first half of the book), none of which are deemed worthy of the original.

I read the Kindle edition from Arvensa, which is absolutely superb. You don't usually expect much when you buy a Kindle version of a public domain work for US$ 0.99, but in this case you'll receive a thoroughly professional edition free of typographical errors which includes all of the original illustrations from the original 1877 Hetzel edition. In addition there is a comprehensive biography of Jules Verne and an account of his life and work published at the height of his career. Further, the Kindle French dictionary, a free download, is absolutely superb when coping with Verne's enormous vocabulary. Verne is very fond of obscure terms, and whether discussing nautical terminology, geology, astronomy, or any other specialties, peppers his prose with jargon which used to send me off to flip through the Little Bob. Now it's just a matter of highlighting the word (in the iPad Kindle app), and up pops the definition from the amazingly comprehensive dictionary. (This is a French-French dictionary; if you need a dictionary which provides English translations, you'll need to install such an application.) These Arvensa Kindle editions are absolutely the best way to enjoy Jules Verne and other classic French authors, and I will definitely seek out others to read in the future. You can obtain the complete works of Jules Verne, 160 titles, with 5400 illustrations, for US$ 2.51 at this writing.


Jenne, Mike. Pale Blue. New York: Yucca Publishing, 2016. ISBN 978-1-63158-084-0.
This is the final novel in the trilogy which began with Blue Gemini (April 2016) and continued in Blue Darker than Black (August 2016). After the harrowing rescue mission which concluded the second book, Drew Carson and Scott Ourecky, astronauts of the U.S. Air Force's covert Blue Gemini project, a manned satellite interceptor based upon NASA's Project Gemini spacecraft, hope for a long stand-down before what is slated to be the final mission in the project, whose future is uncertain due to funding issues, inter-service rivalry, the damage to its Pacific island launch site due to a recent tropical storm, and the upcoming 1972 presidential election.

Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, progress continues on the Krepost project: a manned space station equipped for surveillance and armed with a nuclear warhead which can be de-orbited and dropped on any target along the station's ground track. General Rustam Abdirov, a survivor of the Nedelin disaster in 1960, is pushing the project to completion through his deputy, Gregor Yohzin, and believes it may hold the key to breaking what Abdirov sees as the stalemate of the Cold War. Yohzin is increasingly worried about Abdirov's stability and the risks posed by the project, and has been covertly passing information to U.S. intelligence.

As information from Yohzin's espionage reaches Blue Gemini headquarters, Carson and Ourecky are summoned back and plans drawn up to intercept the orbital station before a crew can be launched to it, after which destroying it would not only be hazardous, but could provoke a superpower confrontation. On the Soviet side, nothing is proceeding as planned, and the interception mission must twist and turn based upon limited and shifting information.

About half way through the book, and after some big surprises, the Krepost crisis is resolved. The reader might be inclined, then, to wonder “what next?” What follows is a war story, set in the final days of the Vietnam conflict, and for quite a while it seems incongruous and unrelated to all that has gone before. I have remarked in reviews of the earlier books of the trilogy that the author is keeping a large number of characters and sub-plots in the air, and wondered whether and how he was going to bring it all together. Well, in the last five chapters he does it, magnificently, and ties everything up with a bow on the top, ending what has been a rewarding thriller in a moving, human conclusion.

There are a few goofs. Launch windows to inclined Earth orbits occur every day; in case of a launch delay, there is no need for a long wait before the next launch attempt (chapter 4). Attempting to solve a difficult problem, “the variables refused to remain constant”—that's why they're called variables (chapter 10)! Beaujolais is red, not white, wine (chapter 16). A character claims to have seen a hundred stars in the Pleiades from space with the unaided eye. This is impossible: while the cluster contains around 1000 stars, only 14 are bright enough to be seen with the best human vision under the darkest skies. Observing from space is slightly better than from the Earth's surface, but in this case the observer would have been looking through a spacecraft window, which would attenuate light more than the Earth's atmosphere (chapter 25). MIT's Draper Laboratory did not design the Gemini on-board computer; it was developed by the IBM Federal Systems Division (chapter 26).

The trilogy is a big, sprawling techno-thriller with interesting and complicated characters and includes space flight, derring do in remote and dangerous places, military and political intrigue in both the U.S. and Soviet Union, espionage, and a look at how the stresses of military life and participation in black programs make the lives of those involved in them difficult. Although the space program which is the centrepiece of the story is fictional, the attention to detail is exacting: had it existed, this is probably how it would have been done. I have one big quibble with a central part of the premise, which I will discuss behind the curtain.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The rationale for the Blue Gemini program which caused it to be funded is largely as a defence against a feared Soviet “orbital bombardment system”: one or more satellites which, placed in orbits which regularly overfly the U.S. and allies, could be commanded to deorbit and deliver nuclear warheads to any location below. It is the development of such a weapon, its deployment, and a mission to respond to the threat which form the core of the plot of this novel.

But an orbital bombardment system isn't a very useful weapon, and doesn't make much sense, especially in the context of the late 1960s to early '70s in which this story is set. The Krepost of the novel was armed with a single high-yield weapon, and operated in a low Earth orbit at an inclination of 51°. The weapon was equipped with only a retrorocket and heat shield, and would have little cross-range (ability to hit targets lateral to its orbital path). This would mean that in order to hit a specific target, the orbital station would have to wait up to a day for the Earth to rotate so the target was aligned with the station's orbital plane. And this would allow bombardment of only a single target with one warhead. Keeping the station ready for use would require a constant series of crew ferry and freighter launches, all to maintain just one bomb on alert. By comparison, by 1972, the Soviet Union had on the order of a thousand warheads mounted on ICBMs, which required no space launch logistics to maintain, and could reach targets anywhere within half an hour of the launch order being given. Finally, a space station in low Earth orbit is pretty much a sitting duck for countermeasures. It is easy to track from the ground, and has limited maneuvering capability. Even guns in space do not much mitigate the threat from a variety of anti-satellite weapons, including Blue Gemini.

While the drawbacks of orbital deployment of nuclear weapons caused the U.S. and Soviet Union to eschew them in favour of more economical and secure platforms such as silo-based missiles and ballistic missile submarines, their appearance here does not make this “what if?” thriller any less effective or thrilling. This was the peak of the Cold War, and both adversaries explored many ideas which, in retrospect, appear to have made little sense. A hypothetical Soviet nuclear-armed orbital battle station is no less crazy than Project Pluto in the U.S.

Spoilers end here.  
This trilogy is one long story which spans three books. The second and third novels begin with brief summaries of prior events, but these are intended mostly for readers who have forgotten where the previous volume left off. If you don't read the three books in order, you'll miss a great deal of the character and plot development which makes the entire story so rewarding. More than 1600 pages may seem a large investment in a fictional account of a Cold War space program that never happened, but the technical authenticity; realistic portrayal of military aerospace projects and the interaction of pilots, managers, engineers, and politicians; and complicated and memorable characters made it more than worthwhile to this reader.