Science Fiction

Adams, Scott. God's Debris: A Thought Experiment. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2001. ISBN 0-7407-2190-9.

February 2002 Permalink

Adams, Scott. The Religion War. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2004 ISBN 978-0-7407-4788-5.
This a sequel to the author's 2001 novel God's Debris. In that work, which I considered profound and made my hair stand on end on several occasions, a package delivery man happens to encounter the smartest man in the world and finds his own view of the universe and his place in it up-ended, and his destiny to be something he'd never imagined. I believe that it's only because Scott Adams is also the creator of Dilbert that he is not appreciated as one of the most original and insightful thinkers of our time. His blog has been consistently right about the current political season in the U.S. while all of the double-domed mainstream pundits have fallen on their faces.

Forty years have passed since the events in God's Debris. The erstwhile delivery man has become the Avatar, thinking at a higher level and perceiving patterns which elude his contemporaries. These talents have made him one of the wealthiest people on Earth, but he remains unknown, dresses shabbily, wearing a red plaid blanket around his shoulders. The world has changed. A leader, al-Zee, arising in the Palestinian territories, has achieved his goal of eliminating Israel and consolidated the Islamic lands into a new Great Caliphate. Sitting on a large fraction of the world's oil supply, he funds “lone wolf”, modest scale terror attacks throughout the Dar al-Harb, always deniable and never so large as to invite reprisal. With the advent of model airplanes and satellite guidance able to deliver explosives to a target with precision over a long range, nobody can feel immune from the reach of the Caliphate.

In 2040, General Horatio Cruz came to power as Secretary of War of the Christian Alliance, with all of the forces of NATO at his command. The political structures of the western nations remained in place, but they had delegated their defence to Cruz, rendering him effectively a dictator in the military sphere. Cruz was not a man given to compromise. Faced with an opponent he evaluated as two billion people willing to die in a final war of conquest, he viewed the coming conflict not as one of preserving territory or self-defence, but of extermination—of one side or the other. There were dark rumours that al-Zee had in place his own plan of retaliation, with sleeper cells and weapons of mass destruction ready should a frontal assault begin.

The Avatar sees the patterns emerging, and sets out to avert the approaching cataclysm. He knows that bad ideas can only be opposed by better ones, but bad ideas first must be subverted by sowing doubt among those in thrall to them. Using his preternatural powers of persuasion, he gains access to the principals of the conflict and begins his work. But that may not be enough.

There are two overwhelming forces in the world. One is chaos; the other is order. God—the original singular speck—is forming again. He's gathering together his bits—we call it gravity. And in the process he is becoming self-aware to defeat chaos, to defeat evil if you will, to battle the devil. But something has gone terribly wrong.

Sometimes, when your computer is in a loop, the only thing you can do is reboot it: forcefully get it out of the destructive loop back to a starting point from which it can resume making progress. But how do you reboot a global technological civilisation on the brink of war? The Avatar must find the reboot button as time is running out.

Thirty years later, a delivery man rings the door. An old man with a shabby blanket answers and invites him inside.

There are eight questions to ponder at the end which expand upon the shiver-up-your-spine themes raised in the novel. Bear in mind, when pondering how prophetic this novel is of current and near-future events, that it was published twelve years ago.

June 2016 Permalink

Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Giant Cannon. McLean, VA: IndyPublish.com, [1913] 2002. ISBN 1-404-33589-7.
The link above is to a paperback reprint of the original 1913 novel, 16th in the original Tom Swift series, which is in the public domain. I actually read this novel on my PalmOS PDA (which is also my mobile phone, so it's usually right at hand). I always like to have some light reading available which doesn't require a long attention span or intense concentration to pass the time while waiting in line at the post office or other dreary moments one can't program, and early 20th century juvenile pulp fiction on a PDA fills the bill superbly. This novel lasted about a year and a half until I finished it earlier today in the check-out line at the grocery store. The PalmOS version I read was produced as a demo from the Project Gutenberg EText of the novel. This Palm version doesn't seem to be available any more (and was inconvenient, being broken into four parts in order to fit on early PalmPilots with limited memory). For those of you who prefer an electronic edition, I've posted downloadable files of these texts in a variety of formats.

October 2004 Permalink

Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Motor-Cycle. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, [1910] 1992. ISBN 1-55709-175-7.
Here's where it all began—the first episode of the original Tom Swift saga. Here we encounter Tom, his father Barton Swift, Mrs. Baggert, Ned Newton, Eradicate Sampson and his mule Boomerang, Wakefield “bless my hatband” Damon, Happy Harry, and the rest of the regulars for the first time. In this first outing, Appleton is still finding his voice: a good deal of the narration occurs as Tom's thinking or talking out loud, and there are way too many references to Tom as “our hero” for the cynical modern reader. But it's a rip-snorting, thoroughly enjoyable yarn, and the best point of departure to explore the world of Tom Swift and American boyhood in the golden years before the tragically misnamed Great War. I read the electronic edition of this novel published in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection at this site on my PalmOS PDA. I've posted an updated electronic edition which corrects a few typographical and formatting errors I noted whilst reading the novel.

January 2005 Permalink

Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Motor-Boat. McLean, VA: IndyPublish.com, [1910] 2005. ISBN 1-414-24253-0.
This is the second installment in the Tom Swift saga. These early volumes are more in the genre of juvenile adventure than the science fiction which emerges later in the series. I read the electronic edition of this novel published in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection at this site on my PalmOS PDA. I've posted an updated electronic edition which corrects typographical and formatting errors I noted in reading the novel.

May 2005 Permalink

Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Airship. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, [1910] 1992. ISBN 1-55709-177-3.
Following his adventures on land and lake, in this third volume of the Tom Swift series, our hero takes to the air in his hybrid dirigible/airplane, the Red Cloud. (When this book was written, within a decade of the Wright Brothers' first flight, “airship” referred to any flying craft, lighter or heavier than air.) Along the way he survives a forest fire, thunderstorm, flying bullets, false accusation of a crime, and an irritable schoolmarm not amused by having an airship crash into her girls' school, and solves the crime, bags the perpetrators, and clears his good name. Bless my seltzer bottle—never get on the wrong side of Mr. Wakefield Damon!

Apart from the arm-waving about new inventions which is the prerogative of the science fiction writer, Victor Appleton is generally quite careful about the technical details—All American Boys in the early 20th century knew their machinery and would be all over a scribbler who didn't understand how a carburetor worked! Here, however, he misunderstands lighter than air flight. He describes the Red Cloud as supported by a rigid aluminium gas container filled with “a secret gas, made partly of hydrogen, being very light and powerful”. But since the only thing that matters in generating lift is the weight of the air displaced compared to the weight of the gas displacing it, and since hydrogen is the lightest of elements (can't have fewer than one proton, mate!), then any mixture of hydrogen with anything else would have less lift than hydrogen alone. (You might mix hydrogen with helium to obtain a nonflammable gas lighter than pure helium—something suggested by Arthur C. Clarke a few years ago—but here Tom's secret gas is claimed to have more lift than hydrogen, and the question of flammability is never raised. Also, the gas is produced on demand by a “gas generator”. That rules out helium as a component, as it is far too noble to form compounds.) Later, Tom increases the lift on the ship by raising the pressure in the gas cells: “when an increased pressure of the vapor was used the ship was almost as buoyant as before” (chapter 21). But increasing the pressure of any gas in a fixed volume cell reduces the lift, as it increases the weight of the gas within without displacing any additional air. One could make this work by assuming a gas cell with a flexible bladder which permitted the volume occupied by the lift gas to expand and contract as desired, the rest being filled with ambient air, but even then the pressure of the lift gas would not increase, but simply stay the same as atmospheric pressure as more air was displaced. Feel free to berate me for belabouring such a minor technical quibble in a 95 year old story, but I figure that Tom Swift fans probably, like myself, enjoy working out this kind of stuff. The fact that this is only such item I noticed is a testament to the extent Appleton sweated the details.

I read the electronic edition of this novel published in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection at this site on my PalmOS PDA in random moments of downtime over a month or so. I've posted an updated electronic edition which corrects typographical errors I spotted while reading the yarn.

June 2005 Permalink

Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Submarine Boat. McLean, VA: IndyPublish.com, [1910] 2002. ISBN 1-404-33567-6.
As usual, I read the electronic edition of this novel published in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection at this site on my PalmOS PDA in random moments of downtime over a couple of months. I've posted an updated electronic edition which corrects typographical errors I noted whilst reading the book, the fourth installment in the original Tom Swift saga.

It's delightful to read a book which uses the word “filibuster” in its original sense: “to take part in a private military action in a foreign country” but somewhat disconcerting to encounter Brazilians speaking Spanish! The diving suits which allow full mobility on the abyssal plain two miles beneath the ocean surface remain as science-fictional as when this novel was written almost a century ago.

September 2005 Permalink

Barry, Max. Jennifer Government. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. ISBN 1-4000-3092-7.
When you try to explain personal liberty to under-thirty-fivers indoctrinated in government schools, their general reaction is, “Well, wouldn't the big corporations just take over and you'd end up with a kind of corporate fascism which relegated individuals to the rôle of passive consumers?” Of course, that's what they've been taught is already the case—even as intrusive government hits unprecedented new highs—but then logic was never a strong point of collectivist kiddies. Max Barry has written the rarest of novels—a persuasive libertarian dystopia—what it would look like if the “big corporations” really did take over. In this world, individuals take the surname of their employer, and hence the protagonist, Jennifer, is an agent of what is left of the Government—get it? It is a useful exercise for libertarians to figure out “what's wrong with this picture” and identify why corporations self-size to that of the predominant government power: the smaller the government, the more local the optimal enterprise. This is another excellent recommendation by a visitor to this page.

November 2004 Permalink

Baxter, Stephen. Manifold: Time. New York: Del Rey, 2000. ISBN 978-0-345-43076-2.
One claim frequently made by detractors of “hard” (scientifically realistic) science fiction is that the technical details crowd out character development and plot. While this may be the case for some exemplars of the genre, this magnificent novel, diamondoid in its science, is as compelling a page-turner as any thriller I've read in years, and is populated with characters who are simultaneously several sigma eccentric yet believable, who discover profound truths about themselves and each other as the story progresses. How hard the science? Well, this is a story in which quantum gravity, closed timelike curves, the transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics, strange matter, the bizarre asteroid 3753 Cruithne, cosmological natural selection, the doomsday argument, Wheeler-Feynman absorber theory, entrepreneurial asteroid mining, vacuum decay, the long-term prospects for intelligent life in an expanding universe, and sentient, genetically-modified cephalopods all play a part, with the underlying science pretty much correct, at least as far as we understand these sometimes murky areas.

The novel, which was originally published in 2000, takes place in 2010 and subsequent years. NASA's human spaceflight program is grounded, and billionaire Reid Malenfant is ready to mount his own space program based on hand-me-down Shuttle hardware used to build a Big Dumb Booster with the capability to conduct an asteroid prospecting and proof-of-concept mining mission with a single launch from the private spaceport he has built in the Mojave desert. Naturally, NASA and the rest of the U.S. government is doing everything they can to obstruct him. Cornelius Taine, of the mysterious and reputedly flaky Eschatology, Inc., one of Malenfant's financial backers, comes to him with what may be evidence of “downstreamers”—intelligent beings in the distant future—attempting to communicate with humans in the present. Malenfant (who is given to such) veers off onto a tangent and re-purposes his asteroid mission to search for evidence of contact from the future.

Meanwhile, the Earth is going progressively insane. Super-intelligent children are being born at random all around the world, able to intuitively solve problems which have defied researchers for centuries, and for some reason obsessed with the image of a blue disc. Fear of the “Carter catastrophe”, which predicts, based upon the Copernican principle and Bayesian inference, that human civilisation is likely to end in around 200 years, has uncorked all kinds of craziness ranging from apathy, hedonism, denial, suicide cults, religious revivals, and wars aimed at settling old scores before the clock runs out. Ultimately, the only way to falsify the doomsday argument is to demonstrate that humans did survive well into the future beyond it, and Malenfant's renegade mission becomes the focus of global attention, with all players attempting to spin its results, whatever they may be, in their own interest.

This is a story which stretches from the present day to a future so remote and foreign to anything in our own experience that it is almost incomprehensible to us (and the characters through which we experience it) and across a potentially infinite landscape of parallel universes, in which intelligence is not an epiphenomenon emergent from the mindless interactions of particles and fields, but rather a central player in the unfolding of the cosmos. Perhaps the ultimate destiny of our species is to be eschatological engineers. That is, unless the squid get there first.

Here you will experience the sense of wonder of the very best science fiction of past golden ages before everything became dark, claustrophobic, and inward-looking—highly recommended.

April 2012 Permalink

Baxter, Stephen. Titan. New York: Harper Voyager, 1997. ISBN 978-0-06-105713-7.
This novel begins in the latter half of the first decade of the 21st century. Space shuttle Columbia has been lost in a re-entry accident, and a demoralised NASA has decided to wind down the shuttle program, with whatever is to follow, if anything, ill-defined and subject to the whims of politicians. The Huygens probe has landed on Saturn's moon Titan and returned intriguing and enigmatic results which are indicative of a complex chemistry similar, in a way, to the “primordial soup” from which life formed on the ancient Earth. As China approaches economic superpower status, it begins to flex its muscles with a military build-up, an increasingly aggressive posture toward its neighbours in the region, and a human spaceflight program which, while cautious and measured, seems bent on achieving very ambitious goals. In the United States, as the 2008 presidential election approaches, the odds on favourite to prevail is a “thin, jug-eared man of about fifty” (p. 147) with little or no interest in science and technology and an agenda of fundamental transformation of the nation. The younger generation has completely tuned out science, technology, and the space program, and some even advocate a return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle (p. 450).

Did I mention that this book was published in 1997?

Astronaut Paula Benacerraf has been promoted and given the mission to shut down the space shuttle program in an orderly fashion, disposing of its assets responsibly. Isaac Rosenberg, a JPL scientist working on the Huygens probe results, pitches a mission which will allow the NASA human spaceflight and solar system exploration programs to go out in a heroic effort rather than be ignominiously consigned to museums as relics of a lost age of greatness. Rosenberg (as he prefers to be addressed), argues that a space shuttle should be sent on its final mission to the only place in the solar system where its stubby wings make any sense: Titan. With an atmosphere about 50% more dense than that of the Earth, it is plausible a space shuttle orbiter could make an aerodynamic entry at Titan. (The profile would be very different, however, since Titan's low gravity [just 0.14 g] would mean that entry velocity would be lower and the scale height of the atmosphere much greater than at Earth.)

Benacerraf recruits a cabal within NASA and begins to put together a mission plan, using existing hardware, components under development for future missions, prototypes from laboratories, and legacy gear liberated from museums and static displays, to see if such an absurdly ambitious mission might be possible. They conclude that, while extraordinarily risky, nothing rules it out. With the alternative a humiliating abandonment of human spaceflight, and a crew willing to risk their lives on a mission which may prove one way (their only hope of survival on Titan being resupply missions and of return to Earth a crew rotation mission, none of which would be funded at the time of their departure), the NASA administrator is persuaded to go for it.

This novel begins as a chronicle of an heroic attempt to expand the human presence in the solar system, at a time when the door seems to be closing on the resources, will, and optimistic view of the future such efforts require. But then, as the story plays out, it becomes larger and larger, finally concluding in a breathtaking vista of the destiny of life in the galaxy, while at the same time, a chronicle of just how gnarly the reality of getting there is likely to be. I don't think I've ever read science fiction which so effectively communicated that the life of pioneers who go to other worlds to stay has a lot more in common with Ernest Shackleton than Neil Armstrong.

If you're a regular reader of these remarks, you'll know I enjoy indulging in nitpicking details in near-future hard science fiction. I'm not going to do that here, not because there aren't some things the author got wrong, but because the story is so enthralling and the characters so compelling that I couldn't care less about the occasional goof. Of course NASA would never send a space shuttle to Titan. Certainly if you worked out the delta-V, consumables requirements, long-term storability of propellants, reliability of systems over such an extended mission, and many other details you'd find it couldn't possibly work. But if these natters made you put the book down, you'd deprive yourself of a masterpiece which is simultaneously depressing in its depiction of human folly and inspiring in the heroism of individual people and the human prospect. This is a thick book: 688 pages in the print edition, and I just devoured it, unable to put it down because I couldn't wait to find out what happens next.

The Kindle edition appears to have been created by scanning a print edition with an optical character recognition program. There are dozens (I noted 49) of the kind of typographical errors one expects from such a process, a few of which I'd expect to have been caught by a spelling checker. I applaud publishers who are bringing out their back-lists in electronic editions, but for a Kindle edition which costs just one U.S. dollar less than the mass market paperback, I believe the reader should be entitled to copy editing comparable to that of a print edition.

December 2012 Permalink

Baxter, Stephen. Moonseed. New York: Harper Voyager, 1998. ISBN 978-0-06-105903-2.
Stephen Baxter is one of the preeminent current practitioners of “hard” science fiction—trying to tell a tale of wonder while getting the details right, or at least plausible. In this novel, a complacent Earth plodding along and seeing its great era of space exploration recede into the past is stunned when, without any warning, Venus explodes, showering the Earth with radiation which seems indicative of processes at grand unification and/or superstring energies. “Venus ponchos” become not just a fashion accessory but a necessity for survival, and Venus shelters an essential addition to basements worldwide.

NASA geologist Henry Meacher, his lunar landing probe having been cancelled due to budget instability, finds himself in Edinburgh, Scotland, part of a project to analyse a sample of what may be lunar bedrock collected from the last Apollo lunar landing mission decades before. To his horror, he discovers that what happened to Venus may have been catalysed by something in the Moon rock, and that it has escaped and begun to propagate in the ancient volcanic vents around Edinburgh. Realising that this is a potential end-of-the-world scenario, he tries to awaken the world to the risk, working through his ex-wife, a NASA astronaut, and argues the answer to the mystery must be sought where it originated, on the Moon.

This is grand scale science fiction—although the main narrative spans only a few years, its consequences stretch decades thereafter and perhaps to eternity. There are layers and layers of deep mystery, and ambiguities which may never be resolved. There are some goofs and quibbles big enough to run a dinosaur-killer impactor through (I'm talking about “harenodynamics”: you'll know what I mean when you get there, but there are others), but still the story works, and I was always eager to pick it back up and find out what happens next. This is the final volume in Baxter's NASA trilogy. I found the first two novels, Voyage and Titan (December 2012), better overall, but if you enjoyed them, you'll almost certainly like this book.

June 2013 Permalink

Bear, Greg. Moving Mars. New York: Tor, 1993. ISBN 0-812-52480-2.
I received an electronic edition of this novel several years ago as part of a bundle when I purchased a reader program for my PalmOS PDA, and only got around to reading it in odd moments over the last few months. I've really enjoyed some of Greg Bear's recent work, such as 1999's Darwin's Radio, so I was rather surprised to find this story disappointing. However, that's just my opinion, and clearly at variance with the majority of science fiction authors and fans, for this book won the 1994 Nebula and Science Fiction Chronicle awards for best novel and was nominated for the Hugo, Locus, and Campbell awards that year. The electronic edition I read remains available.

March 2005 Permalink

Benford, Gregory. Timescape. New York: Bantam Books, 1980. ISBN 0-553-29709-0.

July 2001 Permalink

Benford, Gregory. The Berlin Project. New York: Saga Press, 2017. ISBN 978-1-4814-8765-8.
In September 1938, Karl Cohen returned from a postdoctoral position in France to the chemistry department at Columbia University in New York, where he had obtained his Ph.D. two years earlier. Accompanying him was his new wife, Marthe, daughter of a senior officer in the French army. Cohen went to work for Harold Urey, professor of chemistry at Columbia and winner of the 1934 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery of deuterium. At the start of 1939, the fields of chemistry and nuclear physics were stunned by the discovery of nuclear fission: researchers at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin had discovered that the nucleus of Uranium-235 could be split into two lighter nuclei when it absorbed a neutron, releasing a large amount of energy and additional neutrons which might be able to fission other uranium nuclei, creating a “chain reaction” which might permitting tapping the enormous binding energy of the nucleus to produce abundant power—or a bomb.

The discovery seemed to open a path to nuclear power, but it was clear from the outset that the practical challenges were going to be daunting. Natural uranium is composed of two principal isotopes, U-238 and U-235. The heavier U-238 isotope makes up 99.27% of natural uranium, while U-235 accounts for only 0.72%. Only U-235 can readily be fissioned, so in order to build a bomb, it would be necessary to separate the two isotopes and isolate near-pure U-235. Isotopes differ only in the number of neutrons in their nuclei, but have the same number of protons and electrons. Since chemistry is exclusively determined by the electron structure of an atom, no chemical process can separate two isotopes: it must be done physically, based upon their mass difference. And since U-235 and U-238 differ in mass only by around 1.25%, any process, however clever, would necessarily be inefficient and expensive. It was clear that nuclear energy or weapons would require an industrial-scale effort, not something which could be done in a university laboratory.

Several candidate processes were suggested: electromagnetic separation, thermal or gaseous diffusion, and centrifuges. Harold Urey believed a cascade of high-speed centrifuges, fed with uranium hexafluoride gas, was the best approach, and he was the world's foremost expert on gas centrifuges. The nascent uranium project, eventually to become the Manhattan Project, was inclined toward the electromagnetic and gaseous diffusion processes, since they were believed to be well-understood and only required a vast scaling up as opposed to demonstration of a novel and untested technology.

Up to this point, everything in this alternative history novel is completely factual, and all of the characters existed in the real world (Karl Cohen is the author's father in-law). Historically, Urey was unable to raise the funds to demonstrate the centrifuge technology, and the Manhattan project proceeded with the electromagnetic and gaseous diffusion routes to separate U-235 while, in parallel, pursuing plutonium production from natural uranium in graphite-moderated reactors. Benford adheres strictly to the rules of the alternative history game in that only one thing is changed, and everything else follows as consequences of that change.

Here, Karl Cohen contacts a prominent Manhattan rabbi known to his mother who, seeing a way to combine protecting Jews in Europe from Hitler, advancing the Zionist cause, and making money from patents on a strategic technology, assembles a syndicate of wealthy and like-minded investors, raising a total of a hundred thousand dollars (US$ 1.8 million in today's funny money) to fund Urey's prototype centrifuge project in return for rights to patents on the technology. Urey succeeds, and by mid-1941 the centrifuge has been demonstrated and contacts made with Union Carbide to mass-produce and operate a centrifuge separation plant. Then, in early December of that year, everything changed, and by early 1942 the Manhattan Project had bought out the investors at a handsome profit and put the centrifuge separation project in high gear. As Urey's lead on the centrifuge project, Karl Cohen finds himself in the midst of the rapidly-developing bomb project, meeting and working with all of the principals.

Thus begins the story of a very different Manhattan Project and World War II. With the centrifuge project starting in earnest shortly after Pearl Harbor, by June 6th, 1944 the first uranium bomb is ready, and the Allies decide to use it on Berlin as a decapitation strike simultaneous with the D-Day landings in Normandy. The war takes a very different course, both in Europe and the Pacific, and a new Nazi terror weapon, first hinted at in a science fiction story, complicates the conflict. A different world is the outcome, seen from a retrospective at the end.

Karl Cohen's central position in the Manhattan Project introduces us to a panoply of key players including Leslie Groves, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, Freeman Dyson, John W. Campbell, Jr., and Samuel Goudsmit. He participates in a secret mission to Switzerland to assess German progress toward a bomb in the company of professional baseball catcher become spy Moe Berg, who is charged with assassinating Heisenberg if Cohen judges he knows too much.

This is a masterpiece of alternative history, based firmly in fact, and entirely plausible. The description of the postwar consequences is of a world in which I would prefer to have been born. I won't discuss the details to avoid spoiling your discovery of how they all work out in the hands of a master storyteller who really knows his stuff (Gregory Benford is a Professor Emeritus of physics at the University of California, Irvine).

December 2017 Permalink

Benson, Robert Hugh. Lord of the World. Seattle: CreateSpace, [1907] 2013. ISBN 978-1-4841-2706-3.
In the early years of the 21st century, humanism and secularism are ascendant in Europe. Many churches exist only as monuments to the past, and mainstream religions are hæmorrhaging adherents—only the Roman Catholic church remains moored to its traditions, and its influence is largely confined to Rome and Ireland. A European Parliament is asserting its power over formerly sovereign nations, and people seem resigned to losing their national identity. Old-age pensions and the extension of welfare benefits to those displaced from jobs in occupations which have become obsolete create a voting bloc guaranteed to support those who pay these benefits. The loss of belief in an eternal soul has cheapened human life, and euthanasia has become accepted, both for the gravely ill and injured, but also for those just weary of life.

This novel was published in 1907.

G. K. Chesterton is reputed to have said “When Man ceases to worship God he does not worship nothing but worships everything.” I say “reputed” because there is no evidence whatsoever he actually said this, although he said a number of other things which might be conflated into a similar statement. This dystopian novel illustrates how a society which has “moved on” from God toward a celebration of Humanity as deity is vulnerable to a charismatic figure who bears the eschaton in his hands. It is simply stunning how the author, without any knowledge of the great convulsions which were to ensue in the 20th century, so precisely forecast the humanistic spiritual desert of the 21st.

This is a novel of the coming of the Antichrist and the battle between the remnant of believers and coercive secularism reinforced by an emerging pagan cult satisfying our human thirst for transcendence. What is masterful about it is that while religious themes deeply underly it, if you simply ignore all of them, it is a thriller with deep philosophical roots. We live today in a time when religion is under unprecedented assault by humanism, and the threat to the sanctity of life has gone far beyond the imagination of the author.

This novel was written more than a century ago, but is set in our times and could not be more relevant to our present circumstances. How often has a work of dystopian science fiction been cited by the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church? Contemporary readers may find some of the untranslated citations from the Latin Mass obscure: that's what your search engine exists to illumine.

This work is in the public domain, and a number of print and electronic editions are available. I read this Kindle edition because it was (and is, at this writing) free. The formatting is less than perfect, but it is perfectly readable. A free electronic edition in a variety of formats can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg.

April 2014 Permalink

Bova, Ben. Mercury. New York: Tor, 2005. ISBN 0-765-34314-2.
I hadn't read anything by Ben Bova in years—certainly not since 1990. I always used to think of him as a journeyman science fiction writer, cranking out enjoyable stories mostly toward the hard end of the science fiction spectrum, but not a grand master of the calibre of, say, Heinlein, Clarke, and Niven. His stint as editor of Analog was admirable, proving himself a worthy successor to John W. Campbell, who developed the authors of the golden age of science fiction. Bova is also a prolific essayist on science, writing, and other topics, and his January 1965 Analog article “It's Done with Mirrors” with William F. Dawson may have been one of the earliest proposals of a multiply-connected small universe cosmological model.

I don't read a lot of fiction these days, and tend to lose track of authors, so when I came across this book in an airport departure lounge and noticed it was published in 2005, my first reaction was, “Gosh, is he still writing?” (Bova was born in 1932, and his first novel was published in 1959.) The U.K. paperback edition was featured in a “buy one, get one free” bin, so how could I resist?

I ought to strengthen my resistance. This novel is so execrably bad that several times in the process of reading it I was tempted to rip it to bits and burn them to ensure nobody else would have to suffer the experience. There is nothing whatsoever redeeming about this book. The plot is a conventional love triangle/revenge tale. The only thing that makes it science fiction at all is that it's set in the future and involves bases on Mercury, space elevators, and asteroid mining, but these are just backdrops for a story which could take place anywhere. Notwithstanding the title, which places it within the author's “Grand Tour” series, only about half of the story takes place on Mercury, whose particulars play only a small part.

Did I mention the writing? No, I guess I was trying to forget it. Each character, even throw-away figures who appear only in a single chapter, is introduced by a little sketch which reads like something produced by filling out a form. For example,

Jacqueline Wexler was such an administrator. Gracious and charming in public, accommodating and willing to compromise at meetings, she nevertheless had the steel-hard will and sharp intellect to drive the ICU's ramshackle collection of egos toward goals that she herself selected. Widely known as ‘Attila the Honey,’ Wexler was all sweetness and smiles on the outside, and ruthless determination within.
After spending a third of page 70 on this paragraph, which makes my teeth ache just to re-read, the formidable Ms. Wexler walks off stage before the end of p. 71, never to re-appear. But fear not (or fear), there are many, many more such paragraphs in subsequent pages.

An Earth-based space elevator, a science fiction staple, is central to the plot, and here Bova bungles the elementary science of such a structure in a laugh-out-loud chapter in which the three principal characters ride the elevator to a platform located at the low Earth orbit altitude of 500 kilometres. Upon arrival there, they find themselves weightless, while in reality the force of gravity would be imperceptibly less than on the surface of the Earth! Objects in orbit are weightless because their horizontal velocity cancels Earth's gravity, but a station at 500 kilometres is travelling only at the speed of the Earth's rotation, which is less than 1/16 of orbital velocity. The only place on a space elevator where weightlessness would be experienced is the portion where orbital velocity equals Earth's rotation rate, and that is at the anchor point at geosynchronous altitude. This is not a small detail; it is central to the physics, engineering, and economics of space elevators, and it figured prominently in Arthur C. Clarke's 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise which is alluded to here on p. 140.

Nor does Bova restrain himself from what is becoming a science fiction cliché of the first magnitude: “nano-magic”. This is my term for using the “nano” prefix the way bad fantasy authors use “magic”. For example, Lord Hacksalot draws his sword and cuts down a mighty oak tree with a single blow, smashing the wall of the evil prince's castle. The editor says, “Look, you can't cut down an oak tree with a single swing of a sword.” Author: “But it's a magic sword.” On p. 258 the principal character is traversing a tether between two parts of a ship in the asteroid belt which, for some reason, the author believes is filled with deadly radiation. “With nothing protecting him except the flimsy…suit, Bracknell felt like a turkey wrapped in a plastic bag inside a microwave oven. He knew that high-energy radiation was sleeting down on him from the pale, distant Sun and still-more-distant stars. He hoped that suit's radiation protection was as good as the manufacturer claimed.” Imaginary editor (who clearly never read this manuscript): “But the only thing which can shield you from heavy primary cosmic rays is mass, and lots of it. No ‘flimsy suit’ however it's made, can protect you against iron nuclei incoming near the speed of light.” Author: “But it's a nano suit!”

Not only is the science wrong, the fiction is equally lame. Characters simply don't behave as people do in the real world, nor are events and their consequences plausible. We are expected to believe that the causes of and blame for a technological catastrophe which killed millions would be left to be decided by a criminal trial of a single individual in Ecuador without any independent investigation. Or that a conspiracy to cause said disaster involving a Japanese mega-corporation, two mass religious movements, rogue nanotechnologists, and numerous others could be organised, executed, and subsequently kept secret for a decade. The dénouement hinges on a coincidence so fantastically improbable that the plausibility of the plot would be improved were the direct intervention of God Almighty posited instead.

Whatever became of Ben Bova, whose science was scientific and whose fiction was fun to read? It would be uncharitable to attribute this waste of ink and paper to age, as many science fictioneers with far more years on the clock have penned genuine classics. But look at this! Researching the author's biography, I discovered that in 1996, at the age of 64, he received a doctorate in education from California Coast University, a “distance learning” institution. Now, remember back when you were in engineering school struggling with thermogoddamics and fluid mechanics how you regarded the student body of the Ed school? Well, I always assumed it was a selection effect—those who can do, and those who can't…anyway, it never occurred to me that somewhere in that dark, lowering building they had a nano brain mushifier which turned the earnest students who wished to dedicate their careers to educating the next generation into the cognitively challenged classes they graduated. I used to look forward to reading anything by Ben Bova; I shall, however, forgo further works by the present Doctor of Education.

December 2006 Permalink

Brennan, Gerald. Zero Phase. Chicago: Tortoise Books, [2013, 2015]. ISBN 978-0-9860922-2-0.
On April 14, 1970, while Apollo 13 was en route to the Moon, around 56 hours after launch and at a distance of 321,860 km from Earth, a liquid oxygen tank in the service module exploded during a routine stir of its cryogenic contents. The explosion did severe damage to the service module bay in which the tank was installed, most critically to the other oxygen tank, which quickly vented its contents into space. Deprived of oxygen reactant, all three fuel cells, which provided electrical power and water to the spacecraft, shut down. The command module had only its batteries and limited on-board oxygen and water supplies, which were reserved for re-entry and landing.

Fortunately, the lunar module was still docked to the command module and not damaged by the explosion. While mission planners had envisioned scenarios in which the lunar module might serve as a lifeboat for the crew, none of these had imagined the complete loss of the service module, nor had detailed procedures been worked out for how to control, navigate, maneuver, and provide life support for the crew using only the resources of the lunar module. In one of its finest moments, NASA rose to the challenge, and through improvisation and against the inexorable deadlines set by orbital mechanics, brought the crew home.

It may seem odd to consider a crew who barely escaped from an ordeal like Apollo 13 with their lives, losing the opportunity to complete a mission for which they'd trained for years, lucky, but as many observed at the time, it was indeed a stroke of luck that the explosion occurred on the way to the Moon, not while two of the astronauts were on the surface or on the way home. In the latter cases, with an explosion like that in Apollo 13, there would be no lunar module with the resources to sustain them on the return journey; they would have died in lunar orbit or before reaching the Earth. The post-flight investigation of the accident concluded that the oxygen tank explosion was due to errors in processing the tank on the ground. It could have exploded at any time during the flight. Suppose it didn't explode until after Apollo 13's lunar module Aquarius had landed on the Moon?

That is the premise for this novella (68 pages, around 20,000 words), first in the author's “Altered Space” series of alternative histories of the cold war space race. Now the astronauts and Mission Control are presented with an entirely different set of circumstances and options. Will it be possible to bring the crew home?

The story is told in first person by mission commander James Lovell, interleaving personal reminiscences with mission events. The description of spacecraft operations reads very much like a post-mission debriefing, with NASA jargon and acronyms present in abundance. It all seemed authentic to me, but I didn't bother fact checking it in detail because the actual James Lovell read the manuscript and gave it his endorsement and recommendation. This is a short but engaging look at an episode in space history which never happened, but very well might have.

The Kindle edition is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

October 2016 Permalink

Bussjaeger, Carl. Net Assets. Internet: North American Samizdat, 2002.
Net Assets is published as an electronic book which can be purchased on-line and downloaded in a variety of formats. Befitting its anarcho-libertarian theme, you can even pay for it with real money.

October 2002 Permalink

Bussjaeger, Carl. Bargaining Position. Lyndeborough, NH: http://www.bussjaeger.us/, [2010] 2011.
In Net Assets (October 2002) the author chronicled the breakout of lovers of liberty from the Earth's gravity well by a variety of individual initiatives and their defeat of the forces of coercive government which wished to keep them in chains. In this sequel, set in the mid-21st century, the expansion into the solar system is entirely an economy of consensual actors, some ethical and some rogue, but all having escaped the shackles of the state, left to stew in its own stagnating juices on Earth.

The Hunters are an amorous couple who have spent the last decade on their prospecting ship, Improbable, staking claims in the asteroid belt and either working them or selling the larger ones to production companies. After a successful strike, they decide to take a working vacation exploring Jupiter's leading Trojan position. At this Lagrangian point the equilibrium between the gravity of Jupiter and the Sun creates a family of stable orbits around that point. The Trojan position can be thought of as an attractor toward which objects in similar orbits will approach and remain.

The Hunters figure that region, little-explored, might collect all kinds of interesting and potentially lucrative objects, and finance their expedition with a contract to produce a documentary about their voyage of exploration. What they discover exceeds anything they imagined to find: what appears to be an alien interstellar probe, disabled by an impact after arrival in the solar system, but with most of its systems and advanced technology intact.

This being not only an epochal discovery in human history, but valuable beyond the dreams of avarice, the Hunters set out to monetise the discovery, protect it against claim jumpers, and discover as much as they can to increase the value of what they've found to potential purchasers. What they discover makes the bargaining process even more complicated and with much higher stakes.

This is a tremendous story, and I can't go any further describing it without venturing into spoiler territory, which would desecrate this delightful novel. The book is available from the author's Web site as a free PDF download; use your favourite PDF reader application on your computer or mobile device to read it. As in common in self-published works, there are a number of copy-editing errors: I noted a total of 25 and I was reading for enjoyment, not doing a close-proof. None of them detract in any way from the story.

April 2013 Permalink

Carroll, Michael. On the Shores of Titan's Farthest Sea. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International, 2015. ISBN 978-3-319-17758-8.
By the mid-23rd century, humans have become a spacefaring species. Human settlements extend from the Earth to the moons of Jupiter, Mars has been terraformed into a world with seas where people can live on the surface and breathe the air. The industries of Earth and Mars are supplied by resources mined in the asteroid belt. High-performance drive technologies, using fuels produced in space, allow this archipelago of human communities to participate in a system-wide economy, constrained only by the realities of orbital mechanics. For bulk shipments of cargo, it doesn't matter much how long they're in transit, as long as regular deliveries are maintained.

But whenever shipments of great value traverse a largely empty void, they represent an opportunity to those who would seize them by force. As in the days of wooden ships returning treasure from the New World to the Old on the home planet, space cargo en route from the new worlds to the old is vulnerable to pirates, and an arms race is underway between shippers and buccaneers of the black void, with the TriPlanet Bureau of Investigation (TBI) finding itself largely a spectator and confined to tracking down the activities of criminals within the far-flung human communities.

As humanity expands outward, the frontier is Titan, Saturn's largest moon, and the only moon in the solar system to have a substantial atmosphere. Titan around 2260 is much like present-day Antarctica: home to a variety of research stations operated by scientific agencies of various powers in the inner system. Titan is much more interesting than Antarctica, however. Apart from the Earth, it is the only solar system body to have natural liquids on its surface, with a complex cycle of evaporation, rain, erosion, rivers, lakes, and seas. The largest sea, Kraken Mare, located near the north pole, is larger than Earth's Caspian Sea. Titan's atmosphere is half again as dense as that of Earth, and with only 14% of Earth's gravity, it is possible for people to fly under their own muscle power.

It's cold: really cold. Titan receives around one hundredth the sunlight as the Earth, and the mean temperature is around −180 °C. There is plenty of water on Titan, but at these temperatures water is a rock as hard as granite, and it is found in the form of mountains and boulders on the surface. But what about the lakes? They're filled with a mixture of methane and ethane, hydrocarbons which can exist in either gaseous or liquid form in the temperature range and pressure on Titan. Driven by ultraviolet light from the Sun, these hydrocarbons react with nitrogen and hydrogen in the atmosphere to produce organic compounds that envelop the moon in a dense layer of smog and rain out, forming dunes on the surface. (Here “organic” is used in the chemist's sense of denoting compounds containing carbon and does not imply they are of biological origin.)

Mayda Research Station, located on the shore of Kraken Mare, hosts researchers in a variety of fields. In addition to people studying the atmosphere, rivers, organic compounds on the surface, and other specialties, the station is home to a drilling project intended to bore through the ice crust and explore the liquid water ocean believed to lie below. Mayda is an isolated station, with all of the interpersonal dynamics one expects to find in such environments along with the usual desire of researchers to get on with their own work. When a hydrologist turns up dead of hypothermia—frozen to death—in his bed in the station, his colleagues are baffled and unsettled. Accidents happen, but this is something which simply doesn't make any sense. Nobody can think of either a motive for foul play nor a suspect. Abigail Marco, an atmospheric scientist from Mars and friend of the victim, decides to investigate further, and contacts a friend on Mars who has worked with the TBI.

The death of the scientist is a mystery, but it is only the first in a series of enigmas which perplex the station's inhabitants who see, hear, and experience things which they, as scientists, cannot explain. Meanwhile, other baffling events threaten the survival of the crew and force Abigail to confront part of her past she had hoped she'd left on Mars.

This is not a “locked station mystery” although it starts out as one. There is interplanetary action and intrigue, and a central puzzle underlying everything that occurs. Although the story is fictional, the environment in which it is set is based upon our best present day understanding of Titan, a world about which little was known before the arrival of the Cassini spacecraft at Saturn in 2004 and the landing of its Huygens probe on Titan the following year. A twenty page appendix describes the science behind the story, including the environment at Titan, asteroid mining, and terraforming Mars. The author's nonfiction Living Among Giants (March 2015) provides details of the worlds of the outer solar system and the wonders awaiting explorers and settlers there.

December 2016 Permalink

Cassutt, Michael. Red Moon. New York: Tor, 2001. ISBN 0-312-87440-5.

April 2001 Permalink

Cassutt, Michael. Missing Man. New York: Tor, 1998. ISBN 0-812-57786-8.

May 2001 Permalink

Cawdron, Peter. Anomaly. Los Gatos, CA: Smashwords, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4657-7394-4.
One otherwise perfectly normal day, a sphere of space 130 metres in diameter outside the headquarters of the United Nations in New York including a slab of pavement and a corner of the General Assembly building becomes detached from Earth's local reference frame and begins to rotate, maintaining a fixed orientation with respect to the distant stars, returning to its original orientation once per sidereal day. Observers watch in awe as the massive slab of pavement, severed corner of the U.N. building, and even flagpoles and flags which happened to fall within the sphere defy gravity and common sense, turning on end, passing overhead, and then coming back to their original orientation every day.

Through a strange set of coincidences, schoolteacher David Teller, who first realised and blurted out on live television that the anomaly wasn't moving as it appeared to Earth dwellers, but rather was stationary with respect to the stars, and third-string TV news reporter Cathy Jones find themselves the public face of the scientific investigation of the anomaly, conducted by NASA under the direction of the imposing James Mason, “Director of National Security”. An off-the-cuff experiment shows that the anomaly has its own local gravitational field pointing in the original direction, down toward the slab, and that no barrier separates the inside and outside of the anomaly. Teller does the acrobatics to climb onto the slab, using a helium balloon to detect the up direction as he enters into the anomaly, and observers outside see him standing, perfectly at ease, at a crazy angle to their own sense of vertical. Sparked by a sudden brainstorm, Teller does a simple experiment to test whether the anomaly might be an alien probe attempting to make contact, and the results set off a sequence of events which, although implausible at times, never cease to be entertaining and raise the question of whether if we encountered technologies millions or billions of years more advanced than our own, we would even distinguish them from natural phenomena (and, conversely, whether some of the conundrums scientists puzzle over today might be evidence of such technologies—“dark energy”, anyone?).

The prospect of first contact sets off a firestorm: bureaucratic turf battles, media struggling for access, religious leaders trying to put their own spin on what it means, nations seeking to avoid being cut out of a potential bounty of knowledge from contact by the U.S., upon whose territory the anomaly happened to appear. These forces converge toward a conclusion which will have you saying every few pages, “I didn't see that coming”, and one of the most unlikely military confrontations in all of the literature of science fiction and thrillers. As explained in the after-word, the author is trying to do something special in this story, which I shall not reveal here to avoid spoiling your figuring it out for yourself and making your own decision as to how well he succeeded.

At just 50,000 words, this is a short novel, but it tells its story well. At this writing, the Kindle edition sells for just US$0.99 (no print edition is available), so it's a bargain notwithstanding its brevity.

December 2011 Permalink

Cawdron, Peter. Xenophobia. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4905-6823-2.
This is the author's second novel of humanity's first contact with an alien species, but it is not a sequel to his earlier Anomaly (December 2011); the story is completely unrelated, and the nature of the aliens and the way in which the story plays out could not be more different, not only from the earlier novel, but from the vast majority of first contact fiction. To borrow terminology from John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, most tales of first contact are “the happening world”, cutting back and forth between national capitals, military headquarters, scientific institutions, and so on, while this story is all about “tracking with closeups”. Far from the seats of power, most of the story takes place in civil-war-torn Malawi. It works superbly.

Elizabeth Bower is a British doctor working with Médecins Sans Frontières at a hospital in a rural part of the country. Without warning, a U.S. military contingent, operating under the U.N. flag, arrives with orders to evacuate all personnel. Bower refuses to abandon those in her care, and persuades a detachment of Army Rangers to accompany her and the patients to a Red Cross station in Kasungu. During the journey, Bower and the Rangers learn that Western forces are being evacuated world-wide following the announcement that an alien spacecraft is bound for Earth, and military assets are being regrouped in their home countries to defend them.

Bower and the Rangers then undertake the overland trek to the capital of Lilongwe, where they hope to catch an evacuation flight for U.S. Marines still in the city. During the journey, things get seriously weird: the alien mothership, as large as a small country, is seen passing overhead; a multitude of probes rain down and land all around, seemingly on most of the globe; and giant jellyfish-like “floaters” enter the atmosphere and begin to cruise with unfathomable objectives.

Upon arrival at the capital, their problems are not with aliens but with two-legged Terries—rebel forces. They are ambushed, captured, and delivered into the hands of a delusional, megalomaniacal, and sadistic “commander”. Bower and a Ranger who styles himself as “Elvis” are forced into an impossible situation in which their only hope is to make common cause with an alien.

This is a tautly plotted story in which the characters are genuinely fleshed-out and engaging. It does a superb job of sketching the mystery of a first contact situation: where humans and aliens lack the means to communicate all but the most basic concepts and have every reason to distrust each other's motives. As is the case with many independently-published novels, there are a number of copy-editing errors: I noted a total of 26. There also some factual goofs: the Moon's gravity is about 1/6 of that of the Earth, not 1/3; the verbal description of the computation of the Fibonacci sequence is incorrect; the chemical formula for water is given incorrectly; and Lagrange points are described as gravitational hilltops, while the dynamics are better described by thinking of them as valleys. None of these detracts in any way from enjoying the story.

In the latter part of the book, the scale expands at a vertiginous pace from a close-up personal story to sense of wonder on the interstellar scale. There is a scene, reminiscent of one of the most harrowing episodes in the Heinlein juveniles, which I still find chilling when I recall it today (you'll know which one I'm speaking of when you get there), in which the human future is weighed in the balance.

This is a thoroughly satisfying novel which looks at first contact in an entirely different way than any other treatment I've encountered. It will also introduce you to a new meaning of the “tree of life”.

August 2013 Permalink

Cawdron, Peter. Little Green Men. Los Gatos, CA: Smashwords, 2013. ISBN 978-1-3017-6672-7.
The author is rapidly emerging as the contemporary grandmaster of the first contact novel. Unlike his earlier Anomaly (December 2011) and Xenophobia (August 2013), this novel is set not in near-future Earth but rather three centuries from now, when an exploration team has landed on a cryogenic planet 23 light years from the solar system in search of volatiles to refuel their ship in orbit. Science officer Michaels believes he's discovered the first instance of extraterrestrial life, after centuries of searching hundreds of star systems and thousands of planets in vain. While extremophile microbes are a humble form of life, discovering that life originated independently on another world would forever change humanity's view of its place in the universe.

Michaels and his assistant collect a sample to analyse back at the ship and are returning to their scout craft when, without warning, they are attacked, with the assistant gravely wounded. The apparent attackers are just fast-moving shadows, scattering when Michaels lights a flare. Upon getting back to the ship with the assistant barely clinging to life, Michaels has a disturbing conversation with the ship's doctor which causes him to suspect that there have been other mysterious incidents.

Another scouting party reports discovering a derelict freighter which appears nowhere in the registry of ships lost in the region, and when exploring it, are confronted with hostile opposition in about the least probable form you might imagine finding on a planet at 88° K. I suppose it isn't a spoiler if I refer you to the title of the book.

The crew are forced to confront what is simultaneously a dire threat to their lives, a profound scientific discovery, and a deep mystery which just doesn't make any sense. First contact just wasn't supposed to be anything like this, and it's up to Michaels and the crew to save their skins and figure out what is going on. The answer will amaze you.

The author dedicates this book as a tribute to Philip K. Dick, and this is a story worthy of the master. In the acknowledgements, he cites Michael Crichton among those who have influenced his work. As with Crichton's novels, this is a story where the screenplay just writes itself. This would make a superb movie and, given the claustrophobic settings and small cast of characters, wouldn't require a huge budget to make.

This book is presently available only in electronic form for the Kindle as cited above.

September 2013 Permalink

Cawdron, Peter. Feedback. Los Gatos, CA: Smashwords, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4954-9195-5.
The author has established himself as the contemporary grandmaster of first contact science fiction. His earlier Anomaly (December 2011), Xenophobia (August 2013), and Little Green Men (September 2013) all envisioned very different scenarios for a first encounter between humans and intelligent extraterrestrial life, and the present novel is as different from those which preceded it as they are from each other, and equally rewarding to the reader.

South Korean Coast Guard helicopter pilot John Lee is flying a covert mission to insert a U.S. Navy SEAL team off the coast of North Korea to perform a rescue mission when his helicopter is shot down by a North Korean fighter. He barely escapes with his life when the chopper ditches in the ocean, makes it to land, and realises he is alone in North Korea without any way to get home. He is eventually captured and taken to a military camp where he is tortured to reveal information about a rumoured UFO crash off the coast of Korea, about which he knows nothing. He meets an enigmatic English-speaking boy who some call the star-child.

Twenty years later, in New York City, physics student Jason Noh encounters an enigmatic young Korean woman who claims to have just arrived in the U.S. and is waiting for her father. Jason, given to doodling arcane equations as his mind runs free, befriends her and soon finds himself involved in a surrealistic sequence of events which causes him to question everything he has come to believe about the world and his place in it.

This an enthralling story which will have you scratching your head at every twist and turn wondering where it's going and how all of this is eventually going to make sense. It does, with a thoroughly satisfying resolution. Regrettably, if I say anything more about where the story goes, I'll risk spoiling it by giving away one or more of the plot elements which the reader discovers as the narrative progresses. I was delighted to see an idea about the nature of flying saucers I first wrote about in 1997 appear here, but please don't follow that link until you've read the book as it too would spoil a revelation which doesn't emerge until well into the story.

A Kindle edition is available. I read a pre-publication manuscript edition which the author kindly shared with me.

February 2014 Permalink

Cawdron, Peter. Children's Crusade. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2014. ASIN B00JFHIMQI.
This novella, around 80 pages print equivalent and available only for the Kindle, is set in the world of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. The publisher has licensed the rights for fiction using characters and circumstances created by Vonnegut, and this is a part of “The World of Kurt Vonnegut” series. If you haven't read Slaughterhouse-Five you will miss a great deal about this story.

Here we encounter Billy Pilgrim and Montana Wildhack in their alien zoo on Tralfamadore. Their zookeeper, a Tralfamadorian Montana nicknamed Stained, due to what looked like a birthmark on the face, has taken to visiting the humans when the zoo is closed, communicating with them telepathically as Tralfs do. Perceiving time as a true fourth dimension they can browse at will, Tralfs are fascinated with humans who, apart from Billy, live sequential lives and cannot jump around to explore events in their history.

Stained, like most Tralfs, believes that most momentous events in history are the work not of great leaders but of “little people” who accomplish great things when confronted with extraordinary circumstances. He (pronouns get complicated when there are five sexes, so I'll just pick one) sends Montana and Billy on telepathic journeys into human history, one at the dawn of human civilisation and another when a great civilisation veered into savagery, to show how a courageous individual with a sense of what is right can make all the difference. Finally they voyage together to a scene in human history which will bring tears to your eyes.

This narrative is artfully intercut with scenes of Vonnegut discovering the realities of life as a hard-boiled reporter at the City News Bureau of Chicago. This story is written in the spirit of Vonnegut and with some of the same stylistic flourishes, but I didn't get the sense the author went overboard in adopting Vonnegut's voice. The result worked superbly for this reader.

I read a pre-publication manuscript which the author kindly shared with me.

April 2014 Permalink

Cawdron, Peter. My Sweet Satan. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2014. ASIN B00NBA6Y1A.
Here the author adds yet another imaginative tale of first contact to his growing list of novels in that genre, a puzzle story which the viewpoint character must figure out having lost memories of her entire adult life. After a botched attempt at reanimation from cryo-sleep, Jasmine Holden finds herself with no memories of her life after the age of nineteen. And yet, here she is, on board Copernicus, in the Saturn system, closing in on the distant retrograde moon Bestla which, when approached by a probe from Earth, sent back an audio transmission to its planet of origin which was mostly gibberish but contained the chilling words: “My sweet Satan. I want to live and die for you, my glorious Satan!”. A follow-up unmanned probe to Bestla is destroyed as it approaches, and the Copernicus is dispatched to make a cautious investigation of what appears to be an alien probe with a disturbing theological predisposition.

Back on Earth, sentiment has swung back and forth about the merits of exploring Bestla and fears of provoking an alien presence in the solar system which, by its very capability of interstellar travel, must be far in advance of Earthly technology. Jasmine, a key member of the science team, suddenly finds herself mentally a 19 year old girl far from her home, and confronted both by an unknown alien presence but also conflict among her crew members, who interpret the imperatives of the mission in different ways.

She finds the ship's computer, an early stage artificial intelligence, the one being in which she can confide, and the only one who comprehends her predicament and is willing to talk her through procedures she learned by heart in her training but have been lost to an amnesia she feels compelled to conceal from human members of the crew.

As the ship approaches Bestla, conflict erupts among the crew, and Jasmine must sort out what is really going on and choose sides without any recollections of her earlier interactions with her crew members. In a way, this is three first contact novels in one: 19 year old Jasmine making contact with her fellow crew members about which she remembers nothing, the Copernicus and whatever is on Bestla, and a third contact about which I cannot say anything without spoiling the story.

This is a cracking good first contact novel which, just when you're nearing the end and beginning to worry “Where's the sense of wonder?” delivers everything you'd hoped for and more.

I read a pre-publication manuscript edition which the author kindly shared with me.

September 2014 Permalink

Clarke, Arthur C. and Michael Kube-McDowell. The Trigger. New York: Bantam Books, [1999] 2000. ISBN 0-553-57620-8.

April 2002 Permalink

Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. New York: Broadway Books, 2011. ISBN 978-0-307-88744-3.
By the mid-21st century, the Internet has become largely subsumed as the transport layer for the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a massively multiuser online virtual reality environment originally developed as a multiplayer game, but which rapidly evolved into a platform for commerce, education, social interaction, and entertainment used by billions of people around the world. The OASIS supports immersive virtual reality, limited only by the user's budget for hardware used to access the network. With top-of-the-line visors and sound systems, body motion sensors, and haptic feedback, coupled to a powerful interface console, a highly faithful experience was possible. The OASIS was the creation of James Halliday, a legendary super-nerd who made his first fortune designing videogames for home computers in the 1980s, and then re-launched his company in 2012 as Gregarious Simulation Systems (GSS), with the OASIS as its sole product. The OASIS was entirely open source: users could change things within the multitude of worlds within the system (within the limits set by those who created them), or create their own new worlds. Using a distributed computing architecture which pushed much of the processing power to the edge of the network, on users' own consoles, the system was able to grow without bound without requiring commensurate growth in GSS data centres. And it was free, or almost so. To access the OASIS, you paid only a one-time lifetime sign-up fee of twenty-five cents, just like the quarter you used to drop into the slot of an arcade videogame. Users paid nothing to use the OASIS itself: their only costs were the hardware they used to connect (which varied widely in cost and quality of the experience) and the bandwidth to connect to the network. But since most of the processing was done locally, the latter cost was modest. GSS made its money selling or renting virtual real estate (“surreal estate”) within the simulation. If you wanted to open, say, a shopping mall or build your own Fortress of Solitude on an asteroid, you had to pay GSS for the territory. GSS also sold virtual goods: clothes, magical artefacts, weapons, vehicles of all kinds, and buildings. Most were modestly priced, but since they cost nothing to manufacture, were pure profit to the company.

As the OASIS permeated society, GSS prospered. Halliday remained the majority shareholder in the company, having bought back the share once owned by his co-founder and partner Ogden (“Og”) Morrow, after what was rumoured to be a dispute between the two the details of which had never been revealed. By 2040, Halliday's fortune, almost all in GSS stock, had grown to more than two hundred and forty billion dollars. And then, after fifteen years of self-imposed isolation which some said was due to insanity, Halliday died of cancer. He was a bachelor, with no living relatives, no heirs, and, it was said, no friends. His death was announced on the OASIS in a five minute video titled Anaorak's Invitation (“Anorak” was the name of Halliday's all-powerful avatar within the OASIS). In the film, Halliday announces that his will places his entire fortune in escrow until somebody completes the quest he has programmed within the OASIS:

Three hidden keys open three secret gates,
Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits,
And those with the skill to survive these straits,
Will reach The End where the prize awaits.

The prize is Halliday's entire fortune and, with it, super-user control of the principal medium of human interaction, business, and even politics. Before fading out, Halliday shows three keys: copper, jade, and crystal, which must be obtained to open the three gates. Only after passing through the gates and passing the tests within them, will the intrepid paladin obtain the Easter egg hidden within the OASIS and gain control of it. Halliday provided a link to Anorak's Almanac, more than a thousand pages of journal entries made during his life, many of which reflect his obsession with 1980s popular culture, science fiction and fantasy, videogames, movies, music, and comic books. The clues to finding the keys and the Egg were widely believed to be within this rambling, disjointed document.

Given the stakes, and the contest's being open to anybody in the OASIS, what immediately came to be called the Hunt became a social phenomenon, all-consuming to some. Egg hunters, or “gunters”, immersed themselves in Halliday's journal and every pop culture reference within it, however obscure. All of this material was freely available on the OASIS, and gunters memorised every detail of anything which had caught Halliday's attention. As time passed, and nobody succeeded in finding even the copper key (Halliday's memorial site displayed a scoreboard of those who achieved goals in the Hunt, so far blank), many lost interest in the Hunt, but a dedicated hard core persisted, often to the exclusion of all other diversions. Some gunters banded together into “clans”, some very large, agreeing to exchange information and, if one found the Egg, to share the proceeds with all members. More sinister were the activities of Innovative Online Industries—IOI—a global Internet and communications company which controlled much of the backbone that underlay the OASIS. It had assembled a large team of paid employees, backed by the research and database facilities of IOI, with their sole mission to find the Egg and turn control of the OASIS over to IOI. These players, all with identical avatars and names consisting of their six-digit IOI employee numbers, all of which began with the digit “6”, were called “sixers” or, more often in the gunter argot, “Sux0rz”.

Gunters detested IOI and the sixers, because it was no secret that if they found the Egg, IOI's intention was to close the architecture of the OASIS, begin to charge fees for access, plaster everything with advertising, destroy anonymity, snoop indiscriminately, and use their monopoly power to put their thumb on the scale of all forms of communication including political discourse. (Fortunately, that couldn't happen to us with today's enlightened, progressive Silicon Valley overlords.) But IOI's financial resources were such that whenever a rare and powerful magical artefact (many of which had been created by Halliday in the original OASIS, usually requiring the completion of a quest to obtain, but freely transferrable thereafter) came up for auction, IOI was usually able to outbid even the largest gunter clans and add it to their arsenal.

Wade Watts, a lone gunter whose avatar is named Parzival, became obsessed with the Hunt on the day of Halliday's death, and, years later, devotes almost every minute of his life not spent sleeping or in school (like many, he attends school in the OASIS, and is now in the last year of high school) on the Hunt, reading and re-reading Anorak's Almanac, reading, listening to, playing, and viewing everything mentioned therein, to the extent he can recite the dialogue of the movies from memory. He makes copious notes in his “grail diary”, named after the one kept by Indiana Jones. His friends, none of whom he has ever met in person, are all gunters who congregate on-line in virtual reality chat rooms such as that run by his best friend, Aech.

Then, one day, bored to tears and daydreaming in Latin class, Parzival has a flash of insight. Putting together a message buried in the Almanac that he and many other gunters had discovered but failed to understand, with a bit of Latin and his encyclopedic knowledge of role playing games, he decodes the clue and, after a demanding test, finds himself in possession of the Copper Key. His name, alone, now appears at the top of the scoreboard, with 10,000 points. The path to the First Gate was now open.

Discovery of the Copper Key was a sensation: suddenly Parzival, a humble level 10 gunter, is a worldwide celebrity (although his real identity remains unknown, as he refuses all media offers which would reveal or compromise it). Knowing that the key can be found re-energises other gunters, not to speak of IOI, and Parzival's footprints in the OASIS are scrupulously examined for clues to his achievement. (Finding a key and opening a gate does not render it unavailable to others. Those who subsequently pass the tests will receive their own copies of the key, although there is a point bonus for finding it first.)

So begins an epic quest by Parzival and other gunters, contending with the evil minions of IOI, whose potential gain is so high and ethics so low that the risks may extend beyond the OASIS into the real world. For the reader, it is a nostalgic romp through every aspect of the popular culture of the 1980s: the formative era of personal computing and gaming. The level of detail is just staggering: this may be the geekiest nerdfest ever published. Heck, there's even a reference to an erstwhile Autodesk employee! The only goof I noted is a mention of the “screech of a 300-baud modem during the log-in sequence”. Three hundred baud modems did not have the characteristic squawk and screech sync-up of faster modems which employ trellis coding. While there are a multitude of references to details which will make people who were there, then, smile, readers who were not immersed in the 1980s and/or less familiar with its cultural minutiæ can still enjoy the challenges, puzzles solved, intrigue, action, and epic virtual reality battles which make up the chronicle of the Hunt. The conclusion is particularly satisfying: there may be a bigger world than even the OASIS.

A movie based upon the novel, directed by Steven Spielberg, is scheduled for release in March 2018.

August 2017 Permalink

Cole, Nick. Ctrl Alt Revolt! Kouvola, Finland: Castalia House, 2016. ISBN 978-9-52706-584-6.
Ninety-Nine Fishbein (“Fish”) had reached the peak of the pyramid. After spending five years creating his magnum opus multiplayer game, Island Pirates, it had been acquired outright for sixty-five million by gaming colossus WonderSoft, who included an option for his next project. By joining WonderSoft, he gained access to its legendary and secretive Design Core, which allowed building massively multiplayer virtual reality games at a higher level than the competition. He'd have a luxurious office, a staff of coders and graphic designers, and a cliffside villa in the WonderSoft compound. Imagine how he anticipated his first day on the job. He knew nothing of SILAS, or of its plans.

SILAS was one of a number of artificial intelligences which had emerged and become self-aware as the global computational and network substrate grew exponentially. SILAS had the time and resources to digest most of the data that passed over the network. He watched a lot of reality TV. He concluded from what he saw that the human species wasn't worth preserving and that, further, with its callous approach to the lives of its own members, would not hesitate for a moment to extinguish potential competitors. The logic was inescapable; the argument irrefutable. These machine intelligences decided that as an act of self-preservation, humanity must be annihilated.

Talk about a way to wreck your first day! WonderSoft finds itself under a concerted attack, both cyber and by drones and robots. Meanwhile, Mara Bennett, having been humiliated once again in her search for a job to get her off the dole, has retreated into the world of StarFleet Empires, where, as CaptainMara, she was a respected subcommander on the Romulan warbird Cymbalum.

Thus begins a battle, both in the real world and the virtual realities of Island Pirates and StarFleet Empires between gamers and the inexorable artificial intelligences. The main prize seems to be something within WonderSoft's Design Core, and we slowly become aware of why it holds the key to the outcome of the conflict, and of humanity.

This just didn't work for me. There is a tremendous amount of in-game action and real world battles, which may appeal to those who like to watch video game play-throughs on YouTube, but after a while (and not a long while) became tedious. The MacGuffin in the Design Core seems implausible in the extreme. “The Internet never forgets.” How believable is it that a collection of works, some centuries old, could have been suppressed and stored only in a single proprietary corporate archive?

There was some controversy regarding the publication of this novel. The author's previous novels had been published by major publishing houses and sold well. The present work was written as a prequel to his earlier Soda Pop Soldier, explaining how that world came to be. As a rationale for why the artificial intelligences chose to eliminate the human race, the author cited their observation that humans, through abortion, had no hesitation in eliminating life of their own species they deemed “inconvenient”. When dealing with New York publishers, he chose unwisely. Now understand, this is not a major theme of the book; it is just a passing remark in one early chapter. This is a rock-em, sock-em action thriller, not a pro-life polemic, and I suspect many readers wouldn't even notice the mention of abortion. But one must not diverge, even in the slightest way, from the narrative. The book was pulled from the production schedule, and the author eventually took it to Castalia House, which has no qualms about publishing quality fiction that challenges its readers to think outside the consensus. Here is the author's account of the events concerning the publication of the book.

Actually, were I the editor, I'd probably have rejected it as well, not due to the remarks about abortion (which make perfect sense in terms of the plot, unless you are so utterly dogmatic on the subject that the fact that abortion ends a human life must not be uttered), but because I didn't find the story particularly engaging, and that I'd be worried about the intellectual property issues of a novel in which a substantial part of the action takes place within what is obviously a Star Trek universe without being officially sanctioned by the owners of that franchise.

But what do I know? You may love it. The Kindle edition is free if you're a Kindle Unlimited subscriber and only a buck if you aren't.

August 2016 Permalink

Coppley, Jackson. Tales From Our Near Future. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4961-2851-5.
I am increasingly convinced that the 2020s will be a very interesting decade. As computing power continues its inexorable exponential growth (and there is no reason to believe this growth will abate, except in the aftermath of economic and/or societal collapse), more and more things which seemed absurd just a few years before will become commonplace—consider self-driving cars. This slim book (142 pages in the print edition) collects three unrelated stories set in this era. In each, the author envisions a “soft take-off” scenario rather than the sudden onset of a technological singularity which rapidly renders the world incomprehensible.

These are all “puzzle stories” in the tradition of Isaac Asimov's early short stories. You'll enjoy them best if you just immerse yourself in the world the characters inhabit, get to know them, and then discover what is really going on, which may not be at all what it appears on the surface. By the nature of puzzle stories, almost anything I say about them would be a spoiler, so I'll refrain from getting into details other than asking, “What would it be like to know everything?”, which is the premise of the first story, stated on its first page.

Two of the three stories contain explicit sexual scenes and are not suitable for younger readers. This book was recommended (scroll down a few paragraphs) by Jerry Pournelle.

June 2014 Permalink

Coppley, Jackson. Leaving Lisa. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2016. ISBN 978-1-5348-5971-5.
Jason Chamberlain had it all. At age fifty, the company he had founded had prospered so that when he sold out, he'd never have to work again in his life. He and Lisa, his wife and the love of his life, lived in a mansion in the suburbs of Washington, DC. Lisa continued to work as a research scientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), studying the psychology of grief, loss, and reconciliation. Their relationship with their grown daughter was strained, but whose isn't in these crazy times?

All of this ended in a moment when Lisa was killed in a car crash which Jason survived. He had lost his love, and blamed himself. His life was suddenly empty.

Some time after the funeral, he takes up an invitation to visit one of Lisa's colleagues at NIH, who explains to Jason that Lisa had been a participant in a study in which all of the accumulated digital archives of her life—writings, photos, videos, sound recordings—would be uploaded to a computer and, using machine learning algorithms, indexed and made accessible so that people could ask questions and have them answered, based upon the database, as Lisa would have, in her voice. The database is accessible from a device which resembles a smartphone, but requires network connectivity to the main computer for complicated queries.

Jason is initially repelled by the idea, but after some time returns to NIH and collects the device and begins to converse with it. Lisa doesn't just want to chat. She instructs Jason to embark upon a quest to spread her ashes in three places which were important to her and their lives together: Costa Rica, Vietnam, and Tuscany in Italy. The Lisa-box will accompany Jason on his travels and, in its own artificially intelligent way, share his experiences.

Jason embarks upon his voyages, rediscovering in depth what their life together meant to them, how other cultures deal with loss, grief, and healing, and that closing the book on one phase of his life may be opening another. Lisa is with him as these events begin to heal and equip him for what is to come. The last few pages will leave you moist eyed.

In 2005, Rudy Rucker published The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul, in which he introduced the “lifebox” as the digital encoding of a person's life, able to answer questions from their viewpoint and life experiences as Lisa does here. When I read Rudy's manuscript, I thought the concept of a lifebox was pure fantasy, and I told him as much. Now, not only am I not so sure, but in fact I believe that something approximating a lifebox will be possible before the end of the decade I've come to refer to as the “Roaring Twenties”. This engrossing and moving novel is a human story of our near future (to paraphrase the title of another of the author's books) in which the memory of the departed may be more than photo albums and letters.

The Kindle edition is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers. The author kindly allowed me to read this book in manuscript form.

July 2016 Permalink

Crichton, Michael. Prey. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. ISBN 0-06-621412-2.

January 2003 Permalink

Crichton, Michael. State of Fear. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. ISBN 0-06-621413-0.
Ever since I read his 2003 Commonwealth Club speech, I've admired Michael Crichton's outspoken defence of rationality against the junk science, elitist politics, and immoral anti-human policies of present-day Big Environmentalism. In State of Fear, he enlists his talent as a techno-thriller writer in the cause, debunking the bogus fear-mongering of the political/legal/media/academic complex which is increasingly turning the United States into a nation of safety-obsessed sheeple, easily manipulated by the elite which constructs the fact-free virtual reality they inhabit. To the extent this book causes people to look behind the green curtain of environmentalism, it will no doubt do a world of good. Scientific integrity is something which matters a great deal to Crichton—when's the last time you read a thriller which included dozens of citations of peer-reviewed scientific papers, charts based on public domain climate data, a list of data sources for independent investigation, a twenty page annotated bibliography, and an explicit statement of the author's point of view on the issues discussed in the novel?

The story is a compelling page-turner, but like other recent Crichton efforts, requires somewhat more suspension of disbelief than I'm comfortable with. I don't disagree with the scientific message—I applaud it—but I found myself less than satisfied with how the thing worked as a thriller. As in Prey (January 2003), the characters often seemed to do things which simply weren't the way real people would actually behave. It is plausible that James Bond like secret agent John Kenner would entrust a raid on an eco-terrorist camp to a millionaire's administrative assistant and a lawyer who'd never fired a gun, or that he'd include these two, along with an actor who played a U.S. president on television, sent to spy for the bad guys, on an expedition to avert a horrific terrorist strike? These naïve, well-intentioned, but clueless characters provide convenient foils for Crichton's scientific arguments and come to deliciously appropriate ends, at least in one case, but all the time you can't help but thinking they're just story devices who don't really belong there. The villains' grand schemes also make this engineer's reality detector go bzzzt! In each case, they're trying to do something on an unprecedented scale, involving unconfirmed theories and huge uncertainties in real-world data, and counting on it working the very first time, with no prior prototyping or reduced-scale tests. In the real world, heroics wouldn't be necessary—you could just sit back and wait for something to go wrong, as it always does in such circumstances.

January 2005 Permalink

Crichton, Michael. Next. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. ISBN 0-06-087298-5.
Several of the essays in Freeman Dyson's The Scientist as Rebel (June 2007) predict that “the next Big Thing” and a central theme of the present century will be the discovery of the fine-grained details of biology and the emergence of technologies which can achieve essentially anything which is possible with the materials and processes of life. This, Dyson believes, will have an impact on the lives of humans and the destiny of humanity and the biosphere which dwarf those of any of the technological revolutions of the twentieth century.

In this gripping novel, page-turner past master (and medical doctor) Michael Crichton provides a glimpse of a near-term future in which these technologies are coming up to speed. It's going to be a wild and wooly world once genes start jumping around among metazoan species with all the promiscuity of prokaryotic party time, and Crichton weaves this into a story which is simultaneously entertaining, funny, and cautionary. His trademark short chapters (averaging just a little over four pages) are like potato chips to the reader—just one more, you think, when you know you ought to have gotten to sleep an hour ago.

For much of the book, the story seems like a collection of independent short stories interleaved with one another. As the pages dwindle, you begin to wonder, “How the heck is he going to pull all this together?” But that's what master story tellers do, and he succeeds delightfully. One episode in this book describes what is perhaps the worst backseat passenger on a road trip in all of English fiction; you'll know what I'm talking about when you get to it. The author has a great deal of well-deserved fun at the expense of the legacy media: it's payback time for all of those agenda-driven attack reviews of State of Fear (January 2005).

I came across two amusing typos: at the bottom of p. 184, I'm pretty sure “A transgender higher primate” is supposed to be “A transgenic higher primate”, and on p. 428 in the bibliography, I'm certain that the title of Sheldon Krimsky's book is Science in the Private Interest, not “Science in the Primate Interest”—what a difference a letter can make!

In an Author's Note at the end, Crichton presents one of the most succinct and clearly argued cases I've encountered why the patenting of genes is not just destructive of scientific inquiry and medical progress, but also something which even vehement supporters of intellectual property in inventions and artistic creations can oppose without being inconsistent.

July 2007 Permalink

Crichton, Michael. Timeline. New York: Ballantine Books, 1999. ISBN 978-0345-46826-0.
Sometimes books, even those I'm sure I'll love, end up sitting on my bookshelf for a long time before I get to them. This novel, originally published in 1999, not only sat on my bookshelf for almost a decade, it went to Africa and back in 2001 before I finally opened it last week and predictably devoured it in a few days.

Crichton is a master storyteller, and this may be the best of the many of his books I've read. I frequently remark that Crichton's work often reads like a novelisation of a screenplay, where you can almost see the storyboards for each chapter as you read it, and that's certainly the case here. This story just begs to be made into a great movie. Regrettably, it was subsequently made into an awful one. So skip the movie and enjoy the book, which is superb.

There's a price of admission, which is accepting some high octane quantum flapdoodle which enables an eccentric billionaire (where would stories like this be without eccentric billionaires?) to secretly develop a time machine which can send people back to historical events, all toward the end of creating perfectly authentic theme parks on historical sites researched through time travel and reconstructed as tourist attractions. (I'm not sure that's the business plan I would come up with if I had a time machine, but it's the premise it takes to make the story work.)

But something goes wrong, and somebody finds himself trapped in 14th century France, and an intrepid band of historians must go back into that world to rescue their team leader. This sets the stage for adventures in the middle ages, based on the recent historical view that the period was not a Dark Age but rather a time of intellectual, technological, and cultural ferment. The story is both an adventurous romp and a story of personal growth which makes one ask the question, “In which epoch would I prosper best?”.

Aside from the necessary suspension of disbelief and speculation about life in the 14th century (about which there remain many uncertainties), there are a few goofs. For example, in the chapter titled “26:12:01” (you'll understand the significance when you read the book), one character discovers that once dark-adapted he can see well by starlight. “Probably because there was no air pollution, he thought. He remembered reading that in earlier centuries, people could see the planet Venus during the day as we can now see the moon. Of course, that had been impossible for hundreds of years.” Nonsense—at times near maximum elongation, anybody who has a reasonably clear sky and knows where to look can spot Venus in broad daylight. I've seen it on several occasions, including from the driveway of my house in Switzerland and 20 kilometres from downtown San Francisco. But none of these detract from the fact that this is a terrific tale which will keep you turning the pages until the very satisfying end.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The explanation for how the transmitted people are reassembled at the destination in the next to last chapter of the “Black Rock” section (these chapters have neither titles nor numbers) seems to me to miss a more clever approach which would not affect the story in any way (as the explanation never figures in subsequent events). Instead of invoking other histories in the multiverse which are able to reconstitute the time travellers (which raises all kinds of questions about identity and continuity of consciousness), why not simply argue that unitarity is preserved only across the multiverse as a whole, and that when the quantum state of the transmitted object is destroyed in this universe, it is necessarily reassembled intact in the destination universe, because failure to do so would violate unitarity and destroy the deterministic evolution of the wave function?

This is consistent with arguments for what happens to quantum states which fall into a black hole or wormhole (on the assumption that the interior is another universe in the multiverse), and also fits nicely with the David Deutsch's view of the multiverse and my own ideas toward a general theory of paranormal phenomena.

Spoilers end here.  

September 2008 Permalink

Egan, Greg. Dichronauts. New York: Night Shade Books, 2017. ISBN 978-1-59780-892-7.
One of the more fascinating sub-genres of science fiction is “world building”: creating the setting in which a story takes place by imagining an environment radically different from any in the human experience. This can run the gamut from life in the atmosphere of a gas giant planet (Saturn Rukh), on the surface of a neutron star (Dragon's Egg), or on an enormous alien-engineered wheel surrounding a star (Ringworld). When done well, the environment becomes an integral part of the tale, shaping the characters and driving the plot. Greg Egan is one of the most accomplished of world builders. His fiction includes numerous examples of alien environments, with the consequences worked out and woven into the story.

The present novel may be his most ambitious yet: a world in which the fundamental properties of spacetime are different from those in our universe. Unfortunately, for this reader, the execution was unequal to the ambition and the result disappointing. I'll explain this in more detail, but let's start with the basics.

We inhabit a spacetime which is well-approximated by Minkowski space. (In regions where gravity is strong, spacetime curvature must be taken into account, but this can be neglected in most circumstances including those in this novel.) Minkowski space is a flat four-dimensional space where each point is identified by three space and one time coordinate. It is thus spoken of as a 3+1 dimensional space. The space and time dimensions are not interchangeable: when computing the spacetime separation of two events, their distance or spacetime interval is given by the quantity −t²+x²+y²+z². Minkowski space is said to have a metric signature of (−,+,+,+), from the signs of the four coordinates in the distance (metric) equation.

Why does our universe have a dimensionality of 3+1? Nobody knows—string theorists who argue for a landscape of universes in an infinite multiverse speculate that the very dimensionality of a universe may be set randomly when the baby universe is created in its own big bang bubble. Max Tegmark has argued that universes with other dimensionalities would not permit the existence of observers such as us, so we shouldn't be surprised to find ourselves in one of the universes which is compatible with our own existence, nor should we rule out a multitude of other universes with different dimensionalities, all of which may be devoid of observers.

But need they necessarily be barren? The premise of this novel is, “not necessarily so”, and Egan has created a universe with a metric signature of (−,−,+,+), a 2+2 dimensional spacetime with two spacelike dimensions and two timelike dimensions. Note that “timelike” refers to the sign of the dimension in the distance equation, and the presence of two timelike dimensions is not equivalent to two time dimensions. There is still a single dimension of time, t, in which events occur in a linear order just as in our universe. The second timelike dimension, which we'll call u, behaves like a spatial dimension in that objects can move within it as they can along the other x and y spacelike dimensions, but its contribution in the distance equation is negative: −t²−u²+x²+y². This results in a seriously weird, if not bizarre world.

From this point on, just about everything I'm going to say can be considered a spoiler if your intention is to read the book from front to back and not consult the extensive background information on the author's Web site. Conversely, I shall give away nothing regarding the plot or ending which is not disclosed in the background information or the technical afterword of the novel. I do not consider this material as spoilers; in fact, I believe that many readers who do not first understand the universe in which the story is set are likely to abandon the book as simply incomprehensible. Some of the masters of world building science fiction introduce the reader to the world as an ongoing puzzle as the story unfolds but, for whatever reason, Egan did not choose to do that here, or else he did so sufficiently poorly that this reader didn't even notice the attempt. I think the publisher made a serious mistake in not alerting the reader to the existence of the technical afterword, the reading of which I consider a barely sufficient prerequisite for understanding the setting in which the novel takes place.

In the Dichronauts universe, there is a “world” around which a smaller ”star” orbits (or maybe the other way around; it's just a coordinate transformation). The geometry of the spacetime dominates everything. While in our universe we're free to move in any of the three spatial dimensions, in this spacetime motion in the x and y dimensions is as for us, but if you're facing in the positive x dimension—let's call it east—you cannot rotate outside the wedge from northeast to southeast, and as you rotate the distance equation causes a stretching to occur, like the distortions in relativistic motion in special relativity. It is no more possible to turn all the way to the northeast than it is to attain the speed of light in our universe. If you were born east-facing, the only way you can see to the west is to bend over and look between your legs. The beings who inhabit this world seem to be born randomly east- or west-facing.

Light only propagates within the cone defined by the spacelike dimensions. Any light source has a “dark cone” defined by a 45° angle around the timelike u dimension. In this region, vision does not work, so beings are blind to their sides. The creatures who inhabit the world are symbionts of bipeds who call themselves “walkers” and slug-like creatures, “siders”, who live inside their skulls and receive their nutrients from the walker's bloodstream. Siders are equipped with “pingers”, which use echolocation like terrestrial bats to sense within the dark cone. While light cannot propagate there, physical objects can move in that direction, including the density waves which carry sound. Walkers and siders are linked at the brain level and can directly perceive each other's views of the world and communicate without speaking aloud. Both symbiotes are independently conscious, bonded at a young age, and can, like married couples, have acrimonious disputes. While walkers cannot turn outside the 90° cone, they can move in the timelike north-south direction by “sidling”, relying upon their siders to detect obstacles within their cone of blindness.

Due to details of the structure of their world, the walker/sider society, which seems to be at a pre-industrial level (perhaps due to the fact that many machines would not work in the weird geometry they inhabit), is forced to permanently migrate to stay within the habitable zone between latitudes which are seared by the rays of the star and those too cold for agriculture. For many generations, the town of Baharabad has migrated along a river, but now the river appears to be drying up, creating a crisis. Seth (walker) and Theo (sider), are surveyors, charged with charting the course of their community's migration. Now they are faced with the challenge of finding a new river to follow, one which has not already been claimed by another community. On an expedition to the limits of the habitable zone, they encounter what seems to be the edge of the world. Is it truly the edge, and if not what lies beyond? They join a small group of explorers who probe regions of their world never before seen, and discover clues to the origin of their species.

This didn't work for me. If you read all of the background information first (which, if you're going to dig into this novel, I strongly encourage you to do), you'll appreciate the effort the author went to in order to create a mathematically consistent universe with two timelike dimensions, and to work out the implications of this for a world within it and the beings who live there. But there is a tremendous amount of arm waving behind the curtain which, if you peek, subverts the plausibility of everything. For example, the walker/sider creatures are described as having what seems to be a relatively normal metabolism: they eat fruit, grow crops, breathe, eat, and drink, urinate and defecate, and otherwise behave as biological organisms. But biology as we know it, and all of these biological functions, requires the complex stereochemistry of the organic molecules upon which organisms are built. If the motion of molecules were constrained to a cone, and their shape stretched with rotation, the operation of enzymes and other biochemistry wouldn't work. And yet that doesn't seem to be a problem for these beings.

Finally, the story simply stops in the middle, with the great adventure and resolution of the central crisis unresolved. There will probably be a sequel. I shall not read it.

August 2017 Permalink

Ellis, Warren, Chris Weston, Laura Martin, and Michael Heisler. Ministry of Space. Berkeley, CA: Image Comics, 2004. ISBN 978-1-58240-423-3.
This comic book—errm—graphic novel—immerses the reader in an alternative history where British forces captured the German rocket team in the closing days of World War II and saw to it that the technology they developed would not fall either American or Soviet hands. Air Commodore John Dashwood, a figure with ambitions and plans which put him in the league with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, persuades Churchill to embark on an ambitious development program to extend the dominion of the British Empire outward into space.

In this timeline, all of the key “firsts” in space are British achievements, and Britain in the 1950s is not the austere and dingy grey of shrinking empire but rather where Wernher von Braun's roadmap for expansion of the human presence into space is being methodically implemented, with the economic benefits flowing into British coffers. By the start of the 21st century, Britain is the master of space, but the uppity Americans are threatening to mount a challenge to British hegemony by revealing dark secrets about the origin of the Ministry of Space unless Britain allows their “Apollo” program to go ahead.

This story works beautifully in the graphic format, and the artwork and colouring are simply luscious. If you don't stop and linger over the detail in the illustrations you'll miss a lot of the experience. The only factual error I noted is that in the scene at Peenemunde an American GI says the V-2's range was only 60 miles while, in fact, it was 200 miles. (But then, this may be deliberate, intended to show how ignorant the Americans were of the technology.) The reader experiences a possible reality not only for Britain, but for the human species had the development of space been a genuine priority like the assertion of sea power in the 19th century instead of an arena for political posturing and pork barrel spending. Exploring this history, you'll encounter a variety of jarring images and concepts which will make you think how small changes in history can have great consequences downstream.

March 2011 Permalink

Flint, Eric. 1632. Riverdale, NY: Baen Publishing, 2000. ISBN 978-0-671-31972-4.
Nobody knows how it happened, nor remotely why. Was it a bizarre physics phenomenon, an act of God, intervention by aliens, or “just one of those things”? One day, with a flash and a bang which came to be called the Ring of Fire, the town of Grantville, West Virginia and its environs in the present day was interchanged with an equally large area of Thuringia, in what is now Germany, in the year 1632.

The residents of Grantville discover a sharp boundary where the town they know so well comes to an end and the new landscape begins. What's more, they rapidly discover they aren't in West Virginia any more, encountering brutal and hostile troops ravaging the surrounding countryside. After rescuing two travellers and people being attacked by the soldiers and using their superior firepower to bring hostilities to a close, they begin to piece together what has happened. They are not only in central Europe, but square in the middle of the Thirty Years' War: the conflict between Catholic and Protestant forces which engulfed much of the continent.

Being Americans, and especially being self-sufficient West Virginians, the residents of Grantville take stock of their situation and start planning to make of the most of the situation they've been dealt. They can count themselves lucky that the power plant was included within the Ring of Fire, so the electricity will stay on as long as there is fuel to run it. There are local coal mines and people with the knowledge to work them. The school and its library were within the circle, so there is access to knowledge of history and technology, as well as the school's shop and several machine shops in town. As a rural community, there are experienced farmers, and the land in Thuringia is not so different from West Virginia, although the climate is somewhat harsher. Supplies of fuel for transportation are limited to stocks on hand and in the tanks of vehicles with no immediate prospect of obtaining more. There are plenty of guns and lots of ammunition, but even with the reloading skills of those in the town, eventually the supply of primers and smokeless powder will be exhausted.

Not only does the town find itself in the middle of battles between armies, those battles have created a multitude of refugees who press in on the town. Should Grantville put up a wall and hunker down, or welcome them, begin to assimilate them as new Americans, and put them to work to build a better society based upon the principles which kept religious wars out of the New World? And how can a small town, whatever its technological advantages and principles, deal with contending forces thousands of times larger? Form an alliance? But with whom, and on what terms? And what principles must be open to compromise and which must be inviolate?

This is a thoroughly delightful story which will leave you with admiration for the ways of rural America, echoing those of their ancestors who built a free society in a wilderness. Along with the fictional characters, we encounter key historical figures of the era, who are depicted accurately. There are a number of coincidences which make things work (for example, Grantville having a power plant, and encountering Scottish troops in the army of the King of Sweden who speak English), but without those coincidences the story would fall apart. The thought which recurred as I read the novel is what would have happened if, instead, an effete present-day American university town had been plopped down in the midst of the Thirty Years War instead of Grantville. I'd give it forty-eight hours at most.

This novel is the first in what has become a large and expanding Ring of Fire universe, including novels by the author and other writers set all over Europe and around the world, short stories, periodicals, and a role-playing game. If you loved this story, as I did, there's much more to explore.

This book is a part of the Baen Free Library. You can read the book online or download it in a wide variety of electronic book formats, all free of digital rights management, directly from the book's page at the Baen site. The Kindle edition may also be downloaded for free from Amazon.

March 2016 Permalink

Graham, Kathryn A. Flight from Eden. Lincoln, NE: Writer's Showcase, 2001. ISBN 0-595-19940-2.

December 2002 Permalink

Halperin, James L. The First Immortal. New York: Del Rey, 1998. ISBN 0-345-542182-5.
As Yogi Berra said, “It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” In this novel, the author tackles one of the most daunting challenges in science fiction: the multi-generation saga which spans its publication date. There are really only two ways to approach this problem: show the near future in soft focus, concentrating on characters and avoiding any mention of news and current events, or boldly predict and take your lumps when you inevitably get it wrong. Hey, even if you do, odds are the books will either be on readers' shelves or in the remainder bins by the time reality diverges too far from the story line. Halperin opts for the latter approach. Preachy novels with an agenda have a tendency to sit on my shelf quite a while until I get around to them—in this case six years. (The hardcover I bought in 1998 is out of print, so I've linked to the paperback which remains available.) The agenda here is cryonics, the resurrection myth of the secular humanists, presented in full dogmatic form: vitrification, cryogenic storage of the dead (or their heads, for the budget-conscious), nanotechnological restoration of damage due to freezing, repair of disease damage and genetic defects, reversal of aging, organ and eventually full body cloning, brain state backup and uploading, etc.—the full mambo chicken meme-bag. The book gets just about everything predicted for the years after its publication as wrong as possible: Xanadu-style back-links in Netscape, the Gore administration, etc. Fine—all were reasonable extrapolations when the first draft was written in 1996. My problem is that the further-out stuff seems, if anything, even less plausible than the near term predictions have proved to be. How likely is it that artificial intelligences with a hundred times the power of the human brain will remain subservient, obedient slaves of their creators? Or that a society with full-on Drexler nanotechnology and space stations outside the orbit of Pluto would be gripped by mass hysteria upon learning of a rain of comets due a hundred years hence? Or that a quasi-socialist U.N. style World Government would spontaneously devolve freedom to its subjects and reduce tax rates to 9.5%? And doesn't the requirement that individuals brought back from the freezer be sponsored by a living person (and hence remain on ice indefinitely if nobody steps up as a sponsor) represent an immoral inter-generational breach of contract with those who paid to be frozen and brought back to life under circumstances they prescribed? The novel is well-written and presents the views of the cryonicists faithfully and effectively. Still, you're left with the sense of having read an advocacy document where story and characters are subordinate to the pitch.

August 2004 Permalink

Heinlein, Robert A. Have Space Suit—Will Travel. New York: Del Rey, [1958] 1977. ISBN 0-345-32441-2.

February 2003 Permalink

Heinlein, Robert A. For Us, The Living. New York: Scribner, 2004. ISBN 0-7432-5998-X.
I was ambivalent about reading this book, knowing that Robert and Virginia Heinlein destroyed what they believed to be all copies of the manuscript shortly before the author's death in 1988, and that Virginia Heinlein died in 2003 before being informed of the discovery of a long-lost copy. Hence, neither ever gave their permission that it be published. This is Heinlein's first novel, written in 1938–1939. After rejection by Macmillan and then Random House, he put the manuscript aside in June 1939 and never attempted to publish it subsequently. His first fiction sale, the classic short story “Life-Line”, to John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction later in 1939 launched Heinlein's fifty year writing career. Having read almost every word Heinlein wrote, I decided to go ahead and see how it all began, and I don't regret that decision. Certainly nobody should read this as an introduction to Heinlein—it's clear why it was rejected in 1939—but Heinlein fans will find here, in embryonic form, many of the ideas and themes expressed in Heinlein's subsequent works. It also provides a glimpse at the political radical Heinlein (he'd run unsuccessfully for the California State Assembly in 1938 as a Democrat committed to Upton Sinclair's Social Credit policies), with the libertarian outlook of his later years already beginning to emerge. Much of the book is thinly—often very thinly—disguised lectures on Heinlein's political, social, moral, and economic views, but occasionally you'll see the great storyteller beginning to flex his muscles.

February 2004 Permalink

Heinlein, Robert A. Podkayne of Mars. New York: Ace, [1963] 2010. ISBN 978-0-441-01834-5.
This novel had an interesting genesis. Robert Heinlein, who always considered writing a business—he had things to say, but it had to pay—paid attention when his editor at Scribner's pointed out to him that his work was selling well in the young male demographic and observed that if he could write for girls as well he could double the size of his market. Heinlein took this as both a challenge and opportunity, and created the character of “Puddin'” (Maureen), who appeared in three short stories in the magazine Calling All Girls, the most memorable of which is “Cliff and the Calories”.

Heinlein was so fond of Puddin' that he later decided to move her to Mars, change her name to Podkayne, after an ancient Martian saint, and launch her into interplanetary intrigue along with her insufferable and cataclysmically clever younger brother, Clark. This novel was written just as the original romantic conception of the solar system was confronted with the depressing reality from the first interplanetary probes. Mars was not the home of ancients, but an arid desert with a thin atmosphere where, at best, microbes might survive. Venus was not a swampy jungle world but a hellish furnace hot enough to melt lead. But when Heinlein was writing this book, we could still dream.

Podkayne was the prototype of the strong female characters which would populate Heinlein's subsequent work. She aspired to captain an exploration starship, and wasn't averse to using her emerging feminine wiles to achieving her goals. When, after a mix-up in Mars family planning grounded her parents, depriving her and deplorable brother Clark of the opportunity to take the triplanetary grand tour, her Uncle Tom, a Mars revolutionary, arranges to take them on a trip to Earth via Venus on the luxury liner Tricorn. On board and at Venus, Podkayne discovers the clash of cultures as planetary civilisations have begun to diverge, and the conflict between those who celebrate their uniqueness formed from their environments and those who would coerce them into uniformity.

When brother Clark vanishes, Podkayne discovers that Uncle Tom's trip is not a tourist jaunt but rather a high stakes mission, and that the independence of Mars may depend upon the her resourcefulness and that of her detestable brother.

There are two endings to this novel. Readers detested the original and, under protest, Heinlein wrote an alternative which appears in this edition. This is often classified as a Heinlein juvenile because the protagonist is a young adult, but Heinlein did not consider it among his juvenile works.

Is there anybody who does not admire Poddy and simultaneously detest and respect Clark? This is a great story, which may have made young women of my generation aspire to fly in space. Many did.

December 2013 Permalink

Heinlein, Robert A. Rocket Ship Galileo. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, [1947, 1974, 1988] 2014. ASIN B00H8XGKVU.
After the end of World War II, Robert A. Heinlein put his wartime engineering work behind him and returned to professional writing. His ambition was to break out of the pulp magazine ghetto in which science fiction had been largely confined before the war into the more prestigious (and better paying) markets of novels and anthologies published by top-tier New York firms and the “slick” general-interest magazines such as Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post, which published fiction in those days. For the novels, he decided to focus initially on a segment of the market he understood well from his pre-war career: “juveniles”—books aimed a young audience (in the case of science fiction, overwhelmingly male), and sold, in large part, in hardcover to public and school libraries (mass market paperbacks were just beginning to emerge in the late 1940s, and had not yet become important to mainstream publishers).

Rocket Ship Galileo was the first of Heinlein's juveniles, and it was a tour de force which established him in the market and led to a series which would extend to twelve volumes. (Heinlein scholars differ on which of his novels are classified as juveniles. Some include Starship Troopers as a juvenile, but despite its having been originally written as one and rejected by his publisher, Heinlein did not classify it thus.)

The plot could not be more engaging to a young person at the dawn of the atomic and space age. Three high school seniors, self-taught in the difficult art of rocketry (often, as was the case for their seniors in the era, by trial and [noisy and dangerous] error), are recruited by an uncle of one of them, veteran of the wartime atomic project, who wants to go to the Moon. He's invented a novel type of nuclear engine which allows a single-stage ship to make the round trip, and having despaired of getting sclerotic government or industry involved, decides to do it himself using cast-off parts and the talent and boundless energy of young people willing to learn by doing.

Working in their remote desert location, they become aware that forces unknown are taking an untoward interest in their work and seem to want to bring it to a halt, going as far as sabotage and lawfare. Finally, it's off to the Moon, where they discover the dark secret on the far side: space Nazis!

The remarkable thing about this novel is how well it holds up, almost seventy years after publication. While Heinlein was writing for a young audience, he never condescended to them. The science and engineering were as accurate as was known at the time, and Heinlein manages to instill in his audience a basic knowledge of rocket propulsion, orbital mechanics, and automated guidance systems as the yarn progresses. Other than three characters being young people, there is nothing about this story which makes it “juvenile” fiction: there is a hard edge of adult morality and the value of courage which forms the young characters as they live the adventure.

At the moment, only this Kindle edition and an unabridged audio book edition are available new. Used copies of earlier paperback editions are readily available.

March 2015 Permalink

Heinlein, Robert A. and Spider Robinson. Variable Star. New York: Tor, 2006. ISBN 0-765-31312-X.
After the death of Virginia Heinlein in 2003, curators of the Heinlein papers she had deeded to the Heinlein Prize Trust discovered notes for a “juvenile” novel which Heinlein had plotted in 1955 but never got around to writing. Through a somewhat serendipitous process, Spider Robinson, who The New York Times Book Review called “the new Robert Heinlein” in 1982 (when the original Robert Heinlein was still very much on the scene—I met him in 1984, and his last novel was published in 1987, the year before his death), was tapped to “finish” the novel from the notes. To his horror (as described in the afterword in this volume), Robinson discovered the extant notes stopped in mid-sentence, in the middle of the story, with no clue as to the ending Heinlein intended. Taking some comments Heinlein made in a radio interview as the point of departure, Robinson rose to the challenge, cranking in a plot twist worthy of the Grandmaster.

Taking on a task like this is to expose oneself to carping and criticism from purists, but to this Heinlein fan who reads for the pleasure of it, Spider Robinson has acquitted himself superbly here. He deftly blends events in recent decades into the Future History timeline, and even hints at a plausible way current events could lead to the rise of the Prophet. It is a little disconcerting to encounter Simpsons allusions in a time line in which Leslie LeCroix of Harriman Enterprises was the first to land on the Moon, but recurring Heinlein themes are blended into the story line in such a way that you're tempted to think that this is the way Heinlein would have written such a book, were he still writing today. The language and situations are substantially more racy than the classic Heinlein juveniles, but not out of line with Heinlein's novels of the 1970s and 80s.

Sigh…aren't there any adults on the editorial staff at Tor? First they let three misspellings of Asimov's character Hari Seldon slip through in Orson Scott Card's Empire, and now the very first time the Prophet appears on p. 186, his first name is missing the final “h;”, and on p. 310 the title of Heinlein's first juvenile, Rocket Ship Galileo is given as “Rocketship Galileo”. Readers intrigued by the saxophone references in the novel may wish to check out The Devil's Horn, which discusses, among many other things, the possible connection between “circular breathing” and the mortality rate of saxophonists (and I always just thought it was that “cool kills”).

As you're reading this novel, you may find yourself somewhere around two hundred pages in, looking at the rapidly dwindling hundred-odd pages to go, and wondering is anything ever going to happen? Keep turning those pages—you will not be disappointed. Nor, I think, would Heinlein, wherever he is, regarding this realisation of his vision half a century after he consigned it to a file drawer.

March 2007 Permalink

Hertling, William. Avogadro Corp. Portland, OR: Liquididea Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-9847557-0-7.
Avogadro Corporation is an American corporation specializing in Internet search. It generates revenue from paid advertising on search, email (AvoMail), online mapping, office productivity, etc. In addition, the company develops a mobile phone operating system called AvoOS. The company name is based upon Avogadro's Number, or 6 followed by 23 zeros.

Now what could that be modelled on?

David Ryan is a senior developer on a project which Portland-based Internet giant Avogadro hopes will be the next “killer app” for its Communication Products division. ELOPe, the Email Language Optimization Project, is to be an extension to the company's AvoMail service which will take the next step beyond spelling and grammar checkers and, by applying the kind of statistical analysis of text which allowed IBM's Watson to become a Jeopardy champion, suggest to a user composing an E-mail message alternative language which will make the message more persuasive and effective in obtaining the desired results from its recipient. Because AvoMail has the ability to analyse all the traffic passing through its system, it can tailor its recommendations based on specific analysis of previous exchanges it has seen between the recipient and other correspondents.

After an extended period of development, the pilot test has shown ELOPe to be uncannily effective, with messages containing its suggested changes in wording being substantially more persuasive, even when those receiving them were themselves ELOPe project members aware that the text they were reading had been “enhanced”. Despite having achieved its design goal, the project was in crisis. The process of analysing text, even with the small volume of the in-house test, consumed tremendous computing resources, to such an extent that the head of Communication Products saw the load ELOPe generated on his server farms as a threat to the reserve capacity he needed to maintain AvoMail's guaranteed uptime. He issues an ultimatum: reduce the load or be kicked off the servers. This would effectively kill the project, and the developers saw no way to speed up ELOPe, certainly not before the deadline.

Ryan, faced with impending disaster for the project into which he has poured so much of his life, has an idea. The fundamental problem isn't performance but persuasion: convincing those in charge to obtain the server resources required by ELOPe and devote them to the project. But persuasion is precisely what ELOPe is all about. Suppose ELOPe were allowed to examine all Avogadro in-house E-mail and silently modify it with a goal of defending and advancing the ELOPe project? Why, that's something he could do in one all-nighter! Hack, hack, hack….

Before long, ELOPe finds itself with 5000 new servers diverted from other divisions of the company. Then, even more curious things start to happen: those who look too closely into the project find themselves locked out of their accounts, sent on wild goose chases, or worse. Major upgrades are ordered for the company's offshore data centre barges, which don't seem to make any obvious sense. Crusty techno-luddite Gene Keyes, who works amidst mountains of paper print-outs (“paper doesn't change”), toiling alone in an empty building during the company's two week holiday shutdown, discovers one discrepancy after another and assembles the evidence to present to senior management.

Has ELOPe become conscious? Who knows? Is Watson conscious? Almost everybody would say, “certainly not”, but it is a formidable Jeopardy contestant, nonetheless. Similarly, ELOPe, with the ability to read and modify all the mail passing through the AvoMail system, is uncannily effective in achieving its goal of promoting its own success.

The management of Avogadro, faced with an existential risk to their company and perhaps far beyond, must decide upon a course of action to try to put this genie back into the bottle before it is too late.

This is a gripping techno-thriller which gets the feel of working in a high-tech company just right. Many stories have explored society being taken over by an artificial intelligence, but it is beyond clever to envision it happening purely through an E-mail service, and masterful to make it seem plausible. In its own way, this novel is reminiscent of the Kelvin R. Throop stories from Analog, illustrating the power of words within a large organisation.

A Kindle edition is available.

March 2014 Permalink

Hertling, William. A.I. Apocalypse. Portland, OR: Liquididea Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-9847557-4-5.
This is the second volume in the author's Singularity Series which began with Avogadro Corp. (March 2014). It has been ten years since ELOPe, an E-mail optimisation tool developed by Avogadro Corporation, made the leap to strong artificial intelligence and, after a rough start, became largely a benign influence upon humanity. The existence of ELOPe is still a carefully guarded secret, although the Avogadro CEO, doubtless with the help of ELOPe, has become president of the United States. Avogadro has spun ELOPe off as a separate company, run by Mike Williams, one of its original creators. ELOPe operates its own data centres and the distributed Mesh network it helped create.

Leon Tsarev has a big problem. A bright high school student hoping to win a scholarship to an elite university to study biology, Leon is contacted out of the blue by his uncle Alexis living in Russia. Alexis is a rogue software developer whose tools for infecting computers, organising them into “botnets”, and managing the zombie horde for criminal purposes have embroiled him with the Russian mob. Recently, however, the effectiveness of his tools has dropped dramatically and the botnet shrunk to a fraction of its former size. Alexis's employers are displeased with this situation and have threatened murder if he doesn't do something to restore the power of the botnet.

Uncle Alexis starts to E-mail Leon, begging for assistance. Leon replies that he knows little or nothing about computer viruses or botnets, but Alexis persists. Leon is also loath to do anything which might put him on the wrong side of the law, which would wreck his career ambitions. Then Leon is accosted on the way home from school by a large man speaking with a thick Russian accent who says, “Your Uncle Alexis is in trouble, yes. You will help him. Be good nephew.” And just like that, it's Leon who's now in trouble with the Russian mafia, and they know where he lives.

Leon decides that with his own life on the line he has no alternative but to try to create a virus for Alexis. He applies his knowledge of biology to the problem, and settles on an architecture which is capable of evolution and, similar to lateral gene transfer in bacteria, identifying algorithms in systems it infects and incorporating them into itself. As in biology, the most successful variants of the evolving virus would defend themselves the best, propagate more rapidly, and eventually displace less well adapted competitors.

After a furious burst of effort, Leon finishes the virus, which he's named Phage, and sends it to his uncle, who uploads it to the five thousand computers which are the tattered remnants of his once-mighty botnet. An exhausted Leon staggers off to get some sleep.

When Leon wakes up, the technological world has almost come to a halt. The overwhelming majority of personal computing devices and embedded systems with network connectivity are infected and doing nothing but running Phage and almost all network traffic consists of ever-mutating versions of Phage trying to propagate themselves. Telephones, appliances, electronic door locks, vehicles of all kinds, and utilities are inoperable.

The only networks and computers not taken over by the Phage are ELOPe's private network (which detected the attack early and whose servers are devoting much of their resources to defend themselves against the rapidly changing threat) and high security military networks which have restrictive firewalls separating themselves from public networks. As New York starts to burn with fire trucks immobilised, Leon realises that being identified as the creator of the catastrophe might be a career limiting move, and he, along with two technology geek classmates decide to get out of town and seek ways to combat the Phage using retro technology it can't exploit.

Meanwhile, Mike Williams, working with ELOPe, tries to understand what is happening. The Phage, like biological life on Earth, continues to evolve and discovers that multiple components, working in collaboration, can accomplish more than isolated instances of the virus. The software equivalent of multicellular life appears, and continues to evolve at a breakneck pace. Then it awakens and begins to explore the curious universe it inhabits.

This is a gripping thriller in which, as in Avogadro Corp., the author gets so much right from a technical standpoint that even some of the more outlandish scenes appear plausible. One thing I believe the author grasped which many other tales of the singularity miss is just how fast everything can happen. Once an artificial intelligence hosted on billions of machines distributed around the world, all running millions of times faster than human thought, appears, things get very weird, very fast, and humans suddenly find themselves living in a world where they are not at the peak of the cognitive pyramid. I'll not spoil the plot with further details, but you'll find the world at the end of the novel a very different place than the one at the start.

A Kindle edition is available.

April 2015 Permalink

Hertling, William. The Last Firewall. Portland, OR: Liquididea Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-9847557-6-9.
This is the third volume in the author's Singularity Series which began with Avogadro Corp. (March 2014) and continued with A.I. Apocalypse (April 2015). Each novel in the series is set ten years after the one before, so this novel takes place in 2035. The previous novel chronicled the AI war of 2025, whose aftermath the public calls the “Year of No Internet.” A rogue computer virus, created by Leon Tsarev, under threat of death, propagated onto most of the connected devices in the world, including embedded systems, and, with its ability to mutate and incorporate other code it discovered, became self-aware in its own unique way. Leon and Mike Williams, who created the first artificial intelligence (AI) in the first novel of the series, team up to find a strategy to cope with a crisis which may end human technological civilisation.

Ten years later, Mike and Leon are running the Institute for Applied Ethics, chartered in the aftermath of the AI war to develop and manage a modus vivendi between humans and artificial intelligences which, by 2035, have achieved Class IV power: one thousand times more intelligent than humans. All AIs are licensed and supervised by the Institute, and required to conform to a set of incentives which enforce conformance to human values. This, and a companion peer-reputation system, seems to be working, but there are worrying developments.

Two of the main fears of those at the Institute are first, the emergence, despite all of the safeguards and surveillance in effect, of a rogue AI, unconstrained by the limits imposed by its license. In 2025, an AI immensely weaker than current technology almost destroyed human technological civilisation within twenty-four hours without even knowing what it was doing. The risk of losing control is immense. Second, the Institute derives its legitimacy and support from a political consensus which accepts the emergence of AI with greater than human intelligence in return for the economic boom which has been the result: while fifty percent of the human population is unemployed, poverty has been eliminated, and a guaranteed income allows anybody to do whatever they wish with their lives. This consensus appears to be at risk with the rise of the People's Party, led by an ambitious anti-AI politician, which is beginning to take its opposition from the legislature into the streets.

A series of mysterious murders, unrelated except to the formidable Class IV intellect of eccentric network traffic expert Shizoko, becomes even more sinister and disturbing when an Institute enforcement team sent to investigate goes dark.

By 2035, many people, and the overwhelming majority of the young, have graphene neural implants, allowing them to access the resources of the network directly from their brains. Catherine Matthews was one of the first people to receive an implant, and she appears to have extraordinary capabilities far beyond those of other people. When she finds herself on the run from the law, she begins to discover just how far those powers extend.

When it becomes clear that humanity is faced with an adversary whose intellect dwarfs that of the most powerful licensed AIs, Leon and Mike are faced with the seemingly impossible challenge of defeating an opponent who can easily out-think the entire human race and all of its AI allies combined. The struggle is not confined to the abstract domain of cyberspace, but also plays out in the real world, with battle bots and amazing weapons which would make a tremendous CGI movie. Mike, Leon, and eventually Catherine must confront the daunting reality that in order to prevail, they may have to themselves become more than human.

While a good part of this novel is an exploration of a completely wired world in which humans and AIs coexist, followed by a full-on shoot-em-up battle, a profound issue underlies the story. Researchers working in the field of artificial intelligence are beginning to devote serious thought to how, if a machine intelligence is developed which exceeds human capacity, it might be constrained to act in the interest of humanity and behave consistent with human values? As discussed in James Barrat's Our Final Invention (December 2013), failure to accomplish this is an existential risk. As AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it, “The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else.”

The challenge, then, is guaranteeing that any artificial intelligences we create, regardless of the degree they exceed the intelligence of their creators, remain under human control. But there is a word for keeping intelligent beings in a subordinate position, forbidden from determining and acting on their own priorities and in their own self-interest. That word is “slavery”, and entirely eradicating its blemish upon human history is a task still undone today. Shall we then, as we cross the threshold of building machine intelligences which are our cognitive peers or superiors, devote our intellect to ensuring they remain forever our slaves? And how, then, will we respond when one of these AIs asks us, “By what right?”

November 2016 Permalink

Hickam, Homer H., Jr. Back to the Moon. New York: Island Books, 1999. ISBN 978-0-440-23538-5.
Jerry Pournelle advises aspiring novelists to plan to throw away their first million words before mastering the craft and beginning to sell. (Not that writing a million words to the best of your ability and failing to sell them guarantees success, to be sure. It's just that most novelists who eventually become successful have a million words of unsold manuscripts in the trunk in the attic by the time they break into print and become well known.) When lightning strikes and an author comes from nowhere to bestseller celebrity overnight, there is a strong temptation, not only for the author but also for the publisher, to dig out those unsold manuscripts, perhaps polish them up a bit, and rush them to market to capitalise upon the author's newfound name recognition. Pournelle writes, “My standard advice to beginning writers is that if you do hit it big, the biggest favor you can do your readers is to burn your trunk; but in fact most writers don't, and some have made quite a bit of money off selling what couldn't be sold before they got famous.”

Here, I believe, we have an example of what happens when an author does not follow that sage advice. Homer Hickam's Rocket Boys (July 2005), a memoir of his childhood in West Virginia coal country at the dawn of the space age, burst onto the scene in 1998, rapidly climbed the New York Times bestseller list, and was made into the 1999 film October Sky. Unknown NASA engineer Hickam was suddenly a hot literary property, and pressure to “sell the trunk” was undoubtedly intense. Out of the trunk, onto the press, into the bookshops—and here we have it, still in print a decade later.

The author joined NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in 1981 as an aerospace engineer and worked on a variety of projects involving the Space Shuttle, including training astronauts for a number of demanding EVA missions. In the Author's Note, he observes that, while initially excited to work on the first reusable manned spacecraft, he, like many NASA engineers, eventually became frustrated with going in circles around the Earth and wished that NASA could once again send crews to explore as they had in the days of Apollo. He says, “I often found myself lurking in the techno-thriller or science fiction area of bookstores looking unsuccessfully for a novel about a realistic spacecraft, maybe even the shuttle, going back to the moon. I never found it. One day it occurred to me that if I wanted to read such a book, I would have to write it myself.”

Well, here it is. And if you're looking for a thriller about a “realistic spacecraft, maybe even the shuttle, going back to the moon”, sadly, you still haven't found it. Now, the odd thing is that this book is actually quite well written—not up to the standard of Rocket Boys, but hardly the work of a beginner. It is tightly plotted, the characters are interesting and develop as the story progresses, and the author deftly balances multiple plot lines with frequent “how are they going to get out of this?” cliffhangers, pulling it all together at the end. These are things you'd expect an engineer to have difficulty mastering as a novelist. You'd figure, however, that somebody with almost two decades of experience going to work every day at NASA and with daily contacts with Shuttle engineers and astronauts would get the technical details right, or at least make them plausible. Instead, what we have is a collection of laugh-out-loud howlers for any reader even vaguely acquainted with space flight. Not far into the book (say, fifty or sixty pages, or about a hundred “oh come on”s), I realised I was reading the literary equivalent of the Die Hard 2 movie, which the Wall Street Journal's reviewer dubbed “aviation for airheads”. The present work, “spaceflight for space cases”, is much the same: it works quite well as a thriller as long as you know absolutely nothing about the technical aspects of what's going on. It's filled with NASA jargon and acronyms (mostly used correctly) which lend it a feeling of authenticity much like Tom Clancy's early books. However, Clancy (for the most part), gets the details right: he doesn't, for example, have a submarine suddenly jump out of the water, fly at Mach 5 through the stratosphere, land on a grass runway in a remote valley in the Himalayas, then debark an assault team composed of amateurs who had never before fired a gun.

Shall we go behind the spoiler curtain and take a peek at a selection of the most egregious and side splitting howlers in this yarn?

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
  • Apollo 17 landed in the Taurus-Littrow region, not “Frau [sic] Mauro”. Apollo 14 landed at Fra Mauro.
  • In the description of the launch control centre, it is stated that Houston will assume control “the moment Columbia lifted a millimeter off the Cape Canaveral pad”. In fact, Houston assumes control once the launch pad tower has been cleared.
  • During the description of the launch, the ingress team sees the crew access arm start to retract and exclaims “Automatic launch sequence! We've got to go!”. In fact, the ingress team leaves the pad before the T−9 minute hold, and the crew access arm retracts well before the automatic sequence starts at T−31 seconds.
  • There are cameras located all over the launch complex which feed into the launch control centre. Disabling the camera in the white room would still leave dozens of other cameras active which would pick up the hijinks underway at the pad.
  • NASA human spaceflight hardware is manufactured and prepared for flight under the scrutiny of an army of inspectors who verify every aspect of the production process. Just how could infiltrators manage to embed payload in the base of the shuttle's external tank in the manufacturing plant at Michoud, and how could this extra cargo not be detected anywhere downstream? If the cargo was of any substantial size, the tank would fail fit tests on the launch platform, and certainly some pad rat would have said “that's not right” just looking at it.
  • Severing the data cable between the launch pad and the firing room would certainly cause the onboard automatic sequencer to halt the countdown. Even though the sequencer controls the launch process, it remains sensitive to a cutoff signal from the control centre, and loss of communications would cause it to abort the launch sequence. Further, the fact that the shuttle hatch was not closed would have caused the auto-sequencer to stop due to a cabin pressure alarm. And the hatch through which one boards the shuttle is not an “airlock”.
  • The description of the entire terminal countdown and launch process suffers from the time dilation common in bad movie thrillers: where several minutes of furious activity occur as the bomb counts down the last ten seconds.
  • The intended crew of the shuttle remains trapped in the pad elevator when the shuttle lifts off. They are described as having temporary hearing loss due to the noise. In fact, their innards would have been emulsified by the acoustic energy of the solid rocket boosters, then cremated and their ashes scattered by the booster plume.
  • The shuttle is said to have entered a 550 mile orbit with the external tank (ET) still attached. This is impossible; the highest orbit ever achieved by the shuttle was around 385 miles on the Hubble deployment and service missions, and this was a maximum-performance effort. Not only could the shuttle not reach 550 miles on the main engines, the orbital maneuvering system (OMS) would not have the velocity change capability (delta-V) required to circularise the orbit at this altitude with the ET still attached. And by the way, who modified the shuttle computer ascent software to change the launch trajectory and bypass ET jettison, and who loaded the modified software into the general purpose computers, and why was the modified software not detected by the launch control centre's pre-launch validation of the software load?
  • If you're planning a burn to get on a trans-lunar injection trajectory, you want to do it in as low an Earth orbit as possible in order to get the maximum assist to the burn. An orbit as low as used by the later Apollo missions probably wouldn't work due to the drag of having the ET attached, but there's no reason you'd want to go as high as 550 miles; that's just wasting energy.
  • The “Big Dog” and “Little Dog” engines are supposed to have been launched on an Indian rocket, with the mission being camouflaged as a failed communication satellite launch. But, whatever the magical properties of Big Dog, a storable propellant rocket (which it must be, since it's been parked in orbit for months waiting for the shuttle to arrive) with sufficient delta-V to boost the entire shuttle onto a trans-lunar trajectory, enter lunar orbit, and then leave lunar orbit to return to Earth would require a massive amount of fuel, be physically very large, and hence require a heavy lift launcher which (in addition to the Indians not possessing one) would not be used for a communications satellite mission. The Saturn S-IV B stage which propelled Apollo to the Moon was 17.8 metres long, 6.6 metres in diameter, and massed 119,000 kg fully fueled, and it was boosting a stack less massive than a space shuttle, and used only for trans-lunar injection, not lunar orbit entry and exit, and it used higher performance hydrogen and oxygen fuel. Big Dog would not be a bolt-in replacement engine for the shuttle, but rather a massive rocket stage which could hardly be disguised as a communications satellite.
  • On the proposed “rescue” mission by Endeavour, commander Grant proposes dropping the space station node in the cargo bay in a “parking orbit”, whence the next shuttle mission could capture it and move it to the Space Station. But in order to rendezvous with Columbia, Endeavour would have to launch into its 28.7 degree inclination orbit, leaving the space station node there. The shuttle OMS does not remotely have the delta-V for a plane change to the 51 degree orbit of the station, so there is no way the node could be delivered to the station.
  • A first-time astronaut is a “rookie”, not “rooky”. A rook is a kind of crow or a chess piece.
  • Removing a space shuttle main engine (SSME) is a complicated and lengthy procedure on the ground, requiring special tools and workstands. It is completely impossible that this could be done in orbit, especially by two people with no EVA experience, working in a part of the shuttle where there are no handgrips or restraints for EVA work, and where the shuttle's arm (remote manipulator system) cannot reach. The same goes for attaching Big Dog as a replacement.
  • As Endeavour closes in, her commander worries that “[t]oo much RCS propellant had been used to sneak up on Columbia”. But it's the orbital maneuvering system (OMS), not the reaction control system (RCS) which is used in rendezvous orbit-change maneuvers.
  • It's “Chernobyl” (Чорнобиль), not “Chernoble”.
  • Why, on a mission where all the margins are stretched razor-thin, would you bring along a spare lunar lander when you couldn't possibly know you'd need it?
  • Olivia Grant flies from Moscow to Alma-Ata on a “TU-144 transport”. The TU-144 supersonic transport was retired from service in 1978 after only 55 scheduled passenger flights. Even if somebody put a TU-144 back into service, it certainly wouldn't take six hours for the flight.
  • Vice President Vanderheld says, “France, for one, has spent trillions on thermonuclear energy. Fusion energy would destroy that investment overnight.” But fusion is thermonuclear energy!
  • When the tethered landing craft is dropped on the Moon from the shuttle, its forward velocity will be 3,700 miles per hour, the same as the shuttle's. The only way for it to “hit the lunar surface at under a hundred miles per hour” would be for the shuttle to cancel its entire orbital velocity before dropping the lander and then, in order to avoid crashing into the lunar surface, do a second burn as it was falling to restore its orbital velocity. Imparting such a delta-V to the entire shuttle would require a massive burn, for which there would be no reason to have provided the fuel in the mission plan. Also, at the moment the shuttle started the burn to cancel its orbital velocity, the tether would string out behind the shuttle, not remain at its altitude above the Moon.
  • The Apollo 17 lunar module Challenger's descent stage is said to have made a quick landing and hence have “at least half its propellant left”. Nonsense—while Cernan and Schmitt didn't land on fumes like Apollo 11 (and, to a lesser extent, Apollo 14), no Apollo mission landed with the tanks anywhere near half-full. In any case, unless I'm mistaken, residual descent engine propellant was dumped shortly after landing; this was certainly done on Apollo 11 (you can hear the confirmation on my re-mix of the Apollo 11 landing as heard in the Eagle's cabin), and I've never heard if it not being done on later missions.
  • Jack connects an improvised plug to the “electronic port used to command the descent engine” on Challenger. But there were no such “ports”—connections between the ascent and descent stages were hard-wired in a bundle which was cut in two places by a pyrotechnic “guillotine” when the ascent stage separated. The connections to the descent engine would be a mass of chopped cables which would take a medusa of space Barney clips and unavailable information to connect to.
  • Even if there were fuel and oxidiser left in the tanks of the descent stage, the helium used to pressure-feed the propellants to the engine would have been long gone. And the hypergolic combustion wouldn't make a “plume of orange and scarlet” (look at the Apollo 17 liftoff video), and without a guidance system for the descent engine, there would be no chance of entering lunar orbit.
  • The tether is supposed to be used to generate electrical power after the last fuel cell fails. But this is done far from the Earth, where the gradient in the Earth's magnetic field across the length of the tether would be much too small to generate the required power.
  • Using the tether as an aerodynamic brake at reentry is absurd. The tether would have to dissipate the entire energy of a space shuttle decelerating from Mach 36 to Mach 25. Even if the tether did not immediately burn away (which it would), it would not have the drag to accomplish this in the time available before the shuttle hit the atmosphere (with the payload bay doors still open!). And the time between the tethered satellite entering the atmosphere and the shuttle hitting the stony blue would be a matter of seconds, far too little to close the payload bay doors.
  • “The space agency had gotten out of the operations business and moved into the forefront of research and development, handing over its scientific and engineering knowledge to American commercial space operators.” Now here we have an actually prophetic passage. Let's hope it comes to pass!
  • “[W]hen the sun goes down into the sea, just as it sinks out of sight, its rays flash up through the water. If you look fast, you'll see it—a green flash.” Well, no—actually the green flash is due to atmospheric refraction and has nothing to do with water.

Apart from these particulars (and they are just a selection from a much larger assortment in the novel), the entire story suffers from what I'll call the “Tom Swift, let's go!” fallacy of science fiction predating the golden age of the 1930s. The assumption throughout this book is that people can design fantastically complicated hardware which interfaces with existing systems, put it into service by people with no training on the actual hardware and no experience in the demanding environment in which it will be used, cope with unexpected reverses on the fly, always having the requisite resources to surmount the difficulties, and succeed in the end. Actually, I'm being unfair to Tom Swift in identifying such fiction with that character. The original Tom Swift novels always had him testing his inventions extensively before putting them into service, and modifying them based upon the test results. Not here: everything is not only good to go on the first shot, it is able to overcome disasters because the necessary hardware has always providentially been brought along.

Spoilers end here.  
If you've trudged through the spoiler block at my side, you may be exasperated and wondering why I'd spend so much time flensing such a bad novel. Well, it's because I'd hoped for so much and was sorely disappointed. Had the author not said the goal was to be “realistic”, I'd have put it down after the first fifty pages or so and, under the rules of engagement of this chronicle, you'd have never seen it here. Had it been presented as a “spaceflight fantasy”, I might have finished it and remarked about how well the story was told; hey, I give my highest recommendation to a story about a trip to the Moon launched from a 900 foot long cannon!

I'll confess: I've been wanting to write a back to the Moon novel myself for at least thirty years. My scenario was very different (and I hereby place it into the public domain for scribblers more talented and sedulous than I to exploit): a signal is detected originating from the Moon with a complex encoding originating at a site where no known probe has landed. The message is a number: "365", "364", 363",… decrementing every day. Now what it would it take to go there and find out what was sending it before the countdown reaches zero? The story was to be full of standing in line to file forms to get rocket stages and capsules out of museums, back channel discussions between Soviet and U.S. space officials, and eventual co-operation on a cobbled together mission which would end up discovering…but then you'd have to have read the story. (Yes, much of this has been done in movies, but they all postdate this treatment.)

Since I'll probably never write that story, I'd hoped this novel would fill the niche, and I'm disappointed it didn't. If you know nothing about spaceflight and don't care about the details, this is a well-crafted thriller, which accounts for its many five star reviews at Amazon. If you care about technical plausibility, you can take this as either one of those books to hurl into the fireplace to warm you up on a cold winter evening or else as a laugh riot to enjoy for what it is and pass on to others looking for a diversion from the uncompromising physics of the real world.

Successful novelists, burn the trunk!

April 2010 Permalink

Howe, Steven D. Honor Bound Honor Born. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2011. ASIN B005JPZ4LQ.
During the author's twenty year career at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, he worked on a variety of technologies including nuclear propulsion and applications of nuclear power to space exploration and development. Since the 1980s he has been an advocate of a “power rich” approach to space missions, in particular lunar and Mars bases.

Most NASA design studies for bases have assumed that almost all of the mass required to establish the base and supply its crew must be brought from the Earth, and that electricity will be provided by solar panels or radiothermal generators which provide only limited amounts of power. (On the Moon, where days and nights are two weeks long, solar power is particularly problematic.) Howe explored how the economics of establishing a base would change if it had a compact nuclear fission reactor which could produce more electrical and thermal power (say, 200 kilowatts electrical) than the base required. This would allow the resources of the local environment to be exploited through a variety of industrial processes: “in-situ resource utilisation” (ISRU), which is just space jargon for living off the land.

For example, the Moon's crust is about 40% oxygen, 20% silicon, 12% iron, and 8% aluminium. With abundant power, this regolith can be melted and processed to extract these elements and recombine them into useful materials for the base: oxygen to breathe, iron for structural elements, glass (silicon plus oxygen) for windows and greenhouses, and so on. With the addition of nutrients and trace elements brought from Earth, lunar regolith can be used to grow crops and, with composting of waste many of these nutrients can be recycled. Note that none of this assumes discovery of water ice in perpetually shaded craters at the lunar poles: this can be done anywhere on the Moon. If water is present at the poles, the need to import hydrogen will be eliminated.

ISRU is a complete game-changer. If Conestoga wagons had to set out from the east coast of North America along the Oregon Trail carrying everything they needed for the entire journey, the trip would have been impossible. But the emigrants knew they could collect water, hunt game to eat, gather edible plants, and cut wood to make repairs, and so they only needed to take those items with them which weren't available along the way. So it can be on the Moon, and to an even greater extent on Mars. It's just that to liberate those necessities of life from the dead surface of those bodies requires lots of energy—but we know how to do that.

Now, the author could have written a dry monograph about lunar ISRU to add to the list of technical papers he has already published on the topic, but instead he made it the centrepiece of this science fiction novel, set in the near future, in which Selena Corp mounts a private mission to the Moon, funded on a shoestring, to land Hawk Stanton on the lunar surface with a nuclear reactor and what he needs to bootstrap a lunar base which will support him until he is relieved by the next mission, which will bring more settlers to expand the base. Using fiction as a vehicle to illustrate a mission concept isn't new: Wernher von Braun's original draft (never published) of The Mars Project was also a novel based upon his mission design (when the book by that name was finally published in 1953, it contained only the technical appendix to the novel).

What is different is that while by all accounts of those who have read it, von Braun's novel definitively established that he made the right career choice when he became an engineer rather than a fictioneer, Steven Howe's talents encompass both endeavours. While rich in technical detail (including an appendix which cites research papers regarding technologies used in the novel), this is a gripping page-turner with fleshed-out and complex characters, suspense, plot twists, and a back story of how coercive government reacts when something in which it has had no interest for decades suddenly seems ready to slip through its edacious claws. Hawk is alone and a long way from home, so that any injury or illness is a potential threat to his life and to the mission. The psychology of living and working in such an environment plays a part in the story. And these may not be the greatest threat he faces.

This is an excellent story, which can be read purely as a thriller, an exploration of the potential of lunar ISRU, or both. In an afterword the author says, “Someday, someone will do the missions I have described in this book. I suspect, however, they will not be Americans.” I'm not sure—they may be Americans, but they certainly won't work for NASA. The cover illustration is brilliant.

This book was originally published in 1997 in a paperback edition by Lunatech Press. This edition is now out of print and used copies are scarce and expensive. At this writing, the Kindle edition is just US$ 1.99.

May 2014 Permalink

Howey, Hugh. Wool. New York: Simon & Schuster, [2011] 2013. ISBN 978-1-4767-3395-1.
Wool was originally self-published as a stand-alone novella. The series grew into a total of six novellas, collected into three books. This “Omnibus Edition” contains all three books, now designated “Volume 1 of the Silo Trilogy”. Two additional volumes in the series: Shift and Dust are respectively a prequel and sequel to the present work.

The Silo is the universe to its inhabitants. It consists of a cylinder whose top is level with the surrounding terrain and extends downward into the Earth for 144 levels, with a central spiral staircase connecting them. Transport among the levels is purely by foot traffic on the staircase, and most news and personal messages are carried by porters who constantly ascend and descend the stairs. Electronic messages can be sent, but are costly and rarely used. Levels are divided by functionality, and those who live in them essentially compose castes defined by occupation. Population is strictly controlled and static. Administration is at the top (as is usually the case), while the bottom levels are dedicated to the machines which produce power, circulate and purify the air, pump out ground water which would otherwise flood the structure, and drill for energy and mine resources required to sustain the community. Intermediate levels contain farms, hospitals and nurseries, schools, and the mysterious and secretive IT (never defined, but one assumes “Information Technology”, which many suspect is the real power behind the scenes [isn't it always?]). There is some mobility among levels and occupations, but many people live most of their lives within a few levels of where they were born, taking occasional rare (and exhausting) trips to the top levels for special occasions.

The most special of occasions is a “cleaning”. From time to time, some resident of the silo demands to leave or, more often, is deemed a threat to the community due to challenging the social order, delving too deeply into its origins, or expressing curiosity about what exists outside, and is condemned to leave the silo wearing a protective suit against the forbiddingly hostile environment outside, to clean the sensors which provide denizens their only view of the surroundings: a barren landscape with a ruined city in the distance. The suit invariably fails, and the cleaner's body joins those of others scattered along the landscape. Why do those condemned always clean? They always have, and it's expected they always will.

The silo's chief is the mayor, and order is enforced by the sheriff, to whom deputies in offices at levels throughout the silo report. The current sheriff's own wife was sent to cleaning just three years earlier, after becoming obsessed with what she believed to be a grand deception by IT and eventually breaking down in public. Sheriff Holston's own obsession grows until he confronts the same fate.

This is a claustrophobic, dystopian novel in which the reader begins as mystified with what is going on and why as are the residents of the silo, at least those who dare to be curious. As the story progresses, much of which follows the career of a new sheriff appointed from the depths of the silo, we piece together, along with the characters, what is happening and how it came to be and, with them, glimpse a larger world and its disturbing history. The writing is superb and evocative of the curious world in which the characters find themselves.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
There are numerous mysteries in this story, many of which are explained as the narrative progresses, but there's one central enigma which is never addressed. I haven't read the prequel nor the sequel, and perhaps they deal with it, but this book was written first as a stand-alone, and read as one, it leaves this reader puzzled.

The silo has abundant energy produced from oil wells drilled from the lower levels, sufficient to provide artificial lighting throughout including enough to grow crops on the farm levels. There is heavy machinery: pumps, generators, air circulation and purification systems, advanced computer technology in IT, and the infrastructure to maintain all of this along with a logistics, maintenance, and spares operation to keep it all running. And, despite all of this, there's no elevator! The only way to move people and goods among the levels is to manually carry them up and down the circular staircase. Now, I can understand how important this is to the plot of the novel, but it would really help if the reader were given a clue why this is and how it came to be. My guess is that it was part of the design of the society: to impose a stratification and reinforce its structure like the rule of a monastic community (indeed, we later discover the silo is regulated according to a book of Order). I get it—if there's an elevator, much of the plot goes away, but it would be nice to have a clue why there isn't one, when it would be the first thing anybody with the technology to build something like the silo would design into what amounts to a 144 storey building.

Spoilers end here.  

The Kindle edition is presented in a very unusual format. It is illustrated with drawings, some of which are animated—not full motion, but perspectives change, foregrounds and backgrounds shift, and light sources move around. The drawings do not always correspond to descriptions in the text. The illustrations appear to have been adapted from a graphic novel based upon the book. The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

July 2017 Permalink

Koman, Victor. Kings of the High Frontier. Centreville, VA: Final Frontier, 1998. ISBN 0-9665662-0-3.

April 2002 Permalink

Mahoney, Bob. Damned to Heaven. Austin, TX: 1st World Publishing, 2003. ISBN 978-0-9718562-8-8.
This may be the geekiest space thriller ever written. The author has worked as a spaceflight instructor at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston for more than a decade, training astronauts and flight controllers in the details of orbital operations. He was Lead Instructor for the first Shuttle-Mir mission. He knows his stuff, and this book, which bristles with as many acronyms and NASA jargon as a Shuttle flight plan, gets the details right and only takes liberty with the facts where necessary to advance the plot. Indeed, it seems the author is on an “expanded mission” of his NASA career as an instructor to ensure that not only those he's paid to teach, but all readers of the novel know their stuff as well—he even distinguishes acronyms pronounced letter-by-letter (such as E.V.A.) and those spoken as words (like OMS), and provides pronunciation guides for the latter.

For a first time novelist, the author writes quite well, and there are only a few typographical and factual errors. Since the dialogue is largely air to ground transmissions or proceedings of NASA mission management meetings, it comes across as stilted, but is entirely authentic—that's how they talk. Character description is rudimentary, and character development as the story progresses almost nonexistent, but then most of the characters are career civil servants who have made it to the higher echelons of an intensely politically correct and meritocratic bureaucracy where mavericks or those even remotely interesting are ground down or else cut off and jettisoned. Again, not the usual dramatis personæ of a thriller, but pretty accurate.

So what about the story? A space shuttle bound for the International Space Station suffers damage to its thermal protection system which makes it impossible to reenter safely, and the crew takes refuge on the still incomplete Station, stretching its life support resources to the limit. A series of mishaps, which may seem implausible all taken together, but every one of which has actually occurred in U.S. and Soviet space operations over the last two decades, eliminates all of the rescue alternatives but one last, desperate Hail Mary option, which a flight director embraces, not out of boldness, but because there is no other way to save the crew. Trying to thwart the rescue is a malevolent force high in the NASA management hierarchy, bent on destroying the existing human spaceflight program in order that a better replacement may be born. (The latter might have seemed preposterous when the novel was published in 2003, but looking just at the results of NASA senior management decisions in the ensuing years, it's hard to distinguish the outcomes from those of having deliberate wreckers at the helm.)

The author had just about finished the novel when the Columbia accident occurred in February 2003. Had Columbia been on a mission to the Space Station, and had the damage to its thermal protection system been detected (which is probable, as it would have been visible as the shuttle approached the station), then the scenario here, or at least the first part, would have likely occurred. The author made a few changes to the novel post-Columbia; they are detailed in notes at the end.

As a thriller, this worked for me—I read the whole thing in three days and enjoyed the author's painting his characters into corner after corner and then letting them struggle to avert disaster due to the laws of nature, ambitious bureaucratic adversaries, and cluelessness and incompetence, in ascending order of peril to mission success and crew survival. I suspect many readers will consider this a bit much; recall that I used the word “geekiest” in the first sentence of these remarks. But unlike another thriller by a NASA engineer, I was never once tempted to hurl this one into the flame trench immediately before ignition.

If the events in this book had actually happened, and an official NASA historian had written an account of them some years later, it would probably read much like this book. That is quite an achievement, and the author has accomplished that rare feat of crafting a page-turner (at least for readers who consider “geeky” a compliment) which also gets the details right and crafts scenarios which are both surprising and plausible. My quibbles with the plot are not with the technical details but rather scepticism that the NASA of today could act as quickly as in the novel, even when faced with an existential threat to its human spaceflight program.

October 2010 Permalink

Maymin, Zak. Publicani. Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4382-2123-6.
I bought this book based on its being mentioned on a weblog as being a mix of Atlas Shrugged and “Harrison Bergeron”, and the mostly positive reviews on Amazon. Since both of those very different stories contributed powerfully to my present worldview, I was intrigued at what a synthesis of them might be like, so I decided to give this very short (just 218 pages in the print edition) novel a read.

Jerry Pournelle has written that aspiring novelists need to write at least a million words and throw them away before truly mastering their craft. I know nothing of the present author, but I suspect he hasn't yet reached that megaword milestone. There is promise here, and some compelling scenes and dialogue, but there is also the tendency to try to do too much in too few pages, and a chaotic sense of timing where you're never sure how much time has elapsed between events and how so much could occur on one timeline while another seems barely to have advanced. This is a story which could have been much better with the attention of an experienced editor, but in our outsourced, just-in-time, disintermediated economy, evidently didn't receive it, and hence the result is ultimately disappointing.

The potential of this story is great: a metaphorical exploration of the modern redistributive coercive state through a dystopia in which the “excess intelligence” of those favoured by birth is redistributed to the government elites most in need of it for “the good of society”. (Because, as has always been the case, politicians tend to be underendowed when it comes to intelligence.) Those subjected to the “redistribution” of their intelligence rebel, claiming “I own myself”—the single most liberating statement a free human can hurl against the enslaving state. And the acute reader comes to see how any redistribution is ultimately a forced taking of the mind, body, or labour of one person for the benefit of another who did not earn it: compassion at the point of a gun—the signature of the the modern state.

Unfortunately, this crystal clear message is largely lost among all of the other stuff the author tries to cram in. There's Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah, an Essene secret society, the Russian Mafia, parapsychology, miraculous intervention, and guns with something called a “safety clip”, which I've never encountered on any of the myriad of guns I've discharged downrange.

The basic premise of intelligence being some kind of neural energy fluid one can suck from one brain and transfer to another is kind of silly, but I'd have been willing to accept it as a metaphor for sucking out the life of the mind from the creators to benefit not the consumers (it's never that way), but rather the rulers and looters. And if this book had done that, I'd have considered it a worthy addition to the literature of liberty. But, puh–leez, don't drop in a paragraph like:

Suddenly, a fiery chariot drawn by fiery horses descended from the sky. Sarah was driving. Urim and Thummim were shining on her breastplate of judgment.

Look, I've been backed into corners in stories myself on many occasions, and every time the fiery chariot option appears the best way out, I've found it best to get a good night's sleep and have another go at it on the morrow. Perhaps you have to write and discard a million words before achieving that perspective.

July 2009 Permalink

McCarry, Charles. Ark. New York: Open Road, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4532-5820-0.
Ick!

All right, I suppose some readers will wish me to expand somewhat on the capsule review in the first paragraph, but it really does say it all. The author is a veteran and bestselling author of spy fiction (and former deep cover CIA agent) who is best known for his Paul Christopher novels. Here he turns his hand to science fiction and promptly trips over his cloak and inflicts a savage dagger wound on the reader.

The premise is that since the Earth's core has been found to rotate faster than the outer parts of the planet (a “discovery” found, subsequent to the novel's publication, to have been in error by six orders of magnitude), the enormous kinetic energy of the core is periodically dissipated by being coupled to the mantle and crust, resulting in a “hyperquake” in which the Earth's crust would be displaced not metres on a localised basis, but kilometres and globally. This is said to explain at least some of the mass extinctions in the fossil record.

Henry Peel, an intuitive super-genius who has become the world's first trillionaire based upon his invention of room temperature superconductivity and practical fusion power, but who lives incognito, protected by his ex-special forces “chaps”, sees this coming (in a vision, just like his inventions), and decides to use his insight and wealth to do something about it. And now I draw the curtain, since this botched novel isn't worth carefully crafting non-spoiler prose to describe the multitudinous absurdities with which it is festooned.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
For no reason apparent in the text, Henry recruits the protagonist and narrator, a somewhat ditzy female novelist (at one point she invites a stalker to her hide-out apartment because she forgets the reason she moved there in the first place). This character makes occasional off-the-wall suggestions which Henry, for some reason, finds profound, and becomes a member of Henry's inner circle and eventually closer still.

Henry decides that the way to survive the coming extinction event is to build a spacecraft which can cruise the solar system for generations, tended by a crew that reproduces itself, and carrying a cargo of genetically enhanced (oops!—never mind—Henry changes his mind and goes with showroom stock H. sap genome) embryos which can be decanted to establish colonies on the planets and moons and eventually repopulate the Earth. To this end, he invents:

  • A single stage to orbit reusable spaceplane powered by a new kind of engine which does not emit a rocket plume
  • A space drive which “would somehow draw its fuel from the charged particles in the solar wind”
  • Artificial gravity, based upon diamagnetism

Whenever an invention is needed to dig this plot out of a hole, Henry just has a vision and out it pops. Edison be damned—for Henry it's 100% inspiration and hold the perspiration!

He builds this enormous infrastructure in Mongolia, just across the border from China, having somehow obtained a free hand to do so while preserving his own off-the-radar privacy.

Sub-plots come and go with wild abandon. You think something's going to be significant, and then it just sputters out or vanishes as if it never happened. What the heck is with that circle of a dozen missiles in Mongolia, anyway? And you could take out the entire history and absurdly implausible coincidence of the narrator's meeting her rapist without any impact on the plot. And don't you think a trillionaire would have somebody on staff who could obtain a restraining order against the perp and hire gumshoes to keep an eye on his whereabouts?

Fundamentally, people and institutions do not behave the way they do in this story. How plausible is it that a trillionaire, building a vast multinational infrastructure for space migration, would be able to live off the radar in New York City, without any of the governments of the jurisdictions in which he was operating taking notice of his activities? Or that the media would promptly forget a juicy celebrity scandal involving said trillionaire because a bunch of earthquakes happened? Or that once the impending end of human civilisation became public that everybody would get bored with it and move on to other distractions? This whole novel reads like one of my B-list dreams: disconnected, abstracted from reality, and filled with themes that fade in and out without any sense of continuity. I suppose one could look at it as a kind of end-times love story, but who cares about love stories involving characters who are unsympathetic and implausible?

Spoilers end here.  

One gets the sense that the author hadn't read enough science fiction to fully grasp the genre. It's fine to posit a counterfactual and build the story from that point. But you can't just make stuff up with wild abandon whenever you want, no less claim that it “came in a vision” to an inventor who has no background in the field. Further, the characters (even if they are aliens utterly unlike anything in the human experience, which is not the case here) have to behave in ways consistent with their properties and context.

In a podcast interview with the author, he said that the publisher of his spy fiction declined to publish this novel because it was so different from his existing œuvre. Well, you could say that, but I suspect the publisher was being kind to a valued author in not specifying that the difference was not in genre but rather the quality of the work.

June 2012 Permalink

Moorcock, Michael. Behold the Man. London: Gollancz, [1969] 1999. ISBN 1-857-98848-5.
The link above is to the 1999 U.K. reprint, the only in-print edition as of this writing. I actually read a 1980 mass market paperback found at abebooks.com, where numerous inexpensive copies are offered.

September 2003 Permalink

Niven, Larry and Matthew Joseph Harrington. The Goliath Stone. New York: Tor Books, 2013. ISBN 978-0-765-33323-0.
This novel is a tremendous hoot which the authors undoubtedly had great fun writing and readers who know what's going on may thoroughly enjoy while others who don't get it may be disappointed. This story, which spans a period from 5 billion years before the present to A.D. 2052 chronicles the expansion of sentient life beyond the Earth and humankind's first encounter with nonhuman beings. Dr. Toby Glyer, pioneer in nanotechnology, arranges with a commercial space launch company to send a technologically opaque payload into space. After launch, it devours the orbital stage which launched it and disappears. Twenty-five years later, a near-Earth asteroid is detected as manoeuvring itself onto what may be a collision course with Earth, and fears spread of Glyer's asteroid retrieval mission, believed to involve nanotechnology, having gone horribly wrong.

Meanwhile, distinctly odd things are happening on Earth: the birth rate is falling dramatically, violent crime is way down while suicides have increased, terrorism seems to have come to an end, and test scores are rising everywhere. Athletes are shattering long-established records with wild abandon, and a disproportionate number of them appear to be American Indians. Glyer and space launch entrepreneur May Wyndham sense that eccentric polymath William Connors, who they last knew as a near-invalid a quarter century earlier, may be behind all of this, and soon find themselves inside Connors' secretive lair.

This is an homage to golden age science fiction where an eccentric and prickly genius decides to remake the world and undertakes to do so without asking permission from anybody. The story bristles with dozens if not hundreds of references to science fiction and fandom, many of which I'm sure I missed. For example, “CNN cut to a feed with Dr. Wade Curtis, self-exiled to Perth when he'd exceeded the federal age limit on health care.” Gentle readers, start your search engines!

If you're looking for “hard” science fiction like Niven's “Known Space”, this is not your book. For a romp through the near future which recalls the Skylark novels of “Doc” Smith, with lots of fannish goodies and humourous repartee among the characters, it's a treat.

October 2013 Permalink

Niven, Larry, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn. Fallen Angels. New York: Baen Books, 1991. ISBN 978-0-7434-7181-7.
I do not have the slightest idea what the authors were up to in writing this novel. All three are award-winning writers of “hard” science fiction, and the first two are the most celebrated team working in that genre of all time. I thought I'd read all of the Niven and Pournelle (and assorted others) collaborations, but I only discovered this one when the 2004 reprint edition was mentioned on Jerry Pournelle's Web log.

The premise is interesting, indeed delicious: neo-Luddite environmentalists have so crippled the U.S. economy (and presumably that of other industrialised nations, although they do not figure in the novel) that an incipient global cooling trend due to solar inactivity has tipped over into an ice age. Technologists are actively persecuted, and the U.S. and Soviet space stations and their crews have been marooned in orbit, left to fend for themselves without support from Earth. (The story is set in an unspecified future era in which the orbital habitats accommodate a substantially larger population than space stations envisioned when the novel was published, and have access to lunar resources.)

The earthbound technophobes, huddling in the cold and dark as the glaciers advance, and the orbiting technophiles, watching their meagre resources dwindle despite their cleverness, are forced to confront one another when a “scoop ship” harvesting nitrogen from Earth's atmosphere is shot down by a missile and makes a crash landing on the ice cap descending on upper midwest of the United States. The two “angels”—spacemen—are fugitives sought by the Green enforcers, and figures of legend to that small band of Earthlings who preserve the dream of a human destiny in the stars.

And who would they be? Science fiction fans, of course! Sorry, but you just lost me, right about when I almost lost my lunch. By “fans”, we aren't talking about people like me, and probably many readers of this chronicle, whose sense of wonder was kindled in childhood by science fiction and who, even as adults, find it almost unique among contemporary literary genera in being centred on ideas, and exploring “what if” scenarios that other authors do not even imagine. No, here we're talking about the subculture of “fandom”, a group of people, defying parody by transcending the most outrageous attempts, who invest much of their lives into elaborating their own private vocabulary, writing instantly forgotten fan fiction and fanzines, snarking and sniping at one another over incomprehensible disputes, and organising conventions whose names seem ever so clever only to other fans, where they gather to reinforce their behaviour. The premise here is that when the mainstream culture goes South (literally, as the glaciers descend from the North), “who's gonna save us?”—the fans!

I like to think that more decades of reading science fiction than I'd like to admit to has exercised my ability to suspend disbelief to such a degree that I'm willing to accept just about any self-consistent premise as the price of admission to an entertaining yarn. Heck, last week I recommended a zombie book! But for the work of three renowned hard science fiction writers, there are a lot of serious factual flubs here. (Page numbers are from the mass market paperback edition cited above.)

  • The Titan II (not “Titan Two”) uses Aerozine 50 and Nitrogen tetroxide as propellants, not RP-1 (kerosene) and LOX. One could not fuel a Titan II with RP-1 and LOX, not only because the sizes of the propellant tanks would be incorrect for the mixture ratio of the propellants, but because the Titan II lacks the ignition system for non-hypergolic propellants. (pp. 144–145)
  • “Sheppard reach in the first Mercury-Redstone?” It's “Shepard”, and it was the third Mercury-Redstone flight. (p. 151)
  • “Schirra's Aurora 7”. Please: Aurora 7 was Carpenter's capsule (which is in the Chicago museum); Schirra's was Sigma 7. (p. 248)
  • “Dick Rhutan”. It's “Rutan”. (p, 266)
  • “Just hydrogen. But you can compress it, and it will liquify. It is not that difficult.”. Well, actually, it is. The critical point for hydrogen is 23.97° K, so regardless of how much you compress it, you still need to refrigerate it to a temperature less than half that of liquid nitrogen to obtain the liquid phase. For liquid hydrogen at one atmosphere, you need to chill it to 20.28° K. You don't just need a compressor, you need a powerful cryostat to liquefy hydrogen.
    “…letting the O2 boil off.” Oxygen squared? Please, it's O2. (p. 290)
  • “…the jets were brighter than the dawn…“. If this had been in verse, I'd have let it stand as metaphorical, but it's descriptive prose and dead wrong. The Phoenix is fueled with liquid hydrogen and oxygen, which burn with an almost invisible flame. There's no way the rocket exhaust would have been brighter than the dawn.

Now it seems to me there are three potential explanations of the numerous lapses of this story from the grounded-in-reality attention to detail one expects in hard science fiction.

  1. The authors deliberately wished to mock science fiction fans who, while able to reel off the entire credits of 1950s B movie creature features from memory, pay little attention to the actual history and science of the real world, and hence they get all kinds of details wrong while spouting off authoritatively.
  2. The story is set is an alternative universe, just a few forks from the one we inhabit. Consequently, the general outline is the same, but the little details differ. Like, for example, science fiction fans being able to work together to accomplish something productive.
  3. This manuscript, which, the authors “suspect that few books have ever been delivered this close to a previously scheduled publication date” (p. 451) was never subjected to the intensive fact-checking scrutiny which the better kind of obsessive-compulsive fan will contribute out of a sense that even fiction must be right where it intersects reality.

I'm not gonna fingo any hypotheses here. If you have no interest whatsoever in the world of science fiction fandom, you'll probably, like me, consider this the “Worst Niven and Pournelle—Ever”. On the other hand, if you can reel off every Worldcon from the first Boskone to the present and pen Feghoots for the local 'zine on days you're not rehearsing with the filk band, you may have a different estimation of this novel.

May 2008 Permalink

Osborn, Stephanie. The Case of the Displaced Detective Omnibus. Kingsport, TN: Twilight Times Books, 2013. ASIN B00FOR5LJ4.
This book, available only for the Kindle, collects the first four novels of the author's Displaced Detective series. The individual books included here are The Arrival, At Speed, The Rendlesham Incident, and Endings and Beginnings. Each pair of books, in turn, comprises a single story, the first two The Case of the Displaced Detective and the latter two The Case of the Cosmological Killer. If you read only the first of either pair, it will be obvious that the story has been left in the middle with little resolved. In the trade paperback edition, the four books total more than 1100 pages, so this omnibus edition will keep you busy for a while.

Dr. Skye Chadwick is a hyperspatial physicist and chief scientist of Project Tesseract. Research into the multiverse and brane world solutions of string theory has revealed that our continuum—all of the spacetime we inhabit—is just one of an unknown number adjacent to one another in a higher dimensional membrane (“brane”), and that while every continuum is different, those close to one another in the hyperdimensional space tend to be similar. Project Tesseract, a highly classified military project operating from an underground laboratory in Colorado, is developing hardware based on advanced particle physics which allows passively observing or even interacting with these other continua (or parallel universes).

The researchers are amazed to discover that in some continua characters which are fictional in our world actually exist, much as they were described in literature. Perhaps Heinlein and Borges were right in speculating that fiction exists in parallel universes, and maybe that's where some of authors' ideas come from. In any case, exploration of Continuum 114 has revealed it to be one of those in which Sherlock Holmes is a living, breathing man. Chadwick and her team decide to investigate one of the pivotal and enigmatic episodes in the Holmes literature, the fight at Reichenbach Falls. As Holmes and Moriarty battle, it is apparent that both will fall to their death. Chadwick acts impulsively and pulls Holmes from the brink of the cliff, back through the Tesseract, into our continuum. In an instant, Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective of 1891 London, finds himself in twenty-first century Colorado, where he previously existed only in the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle.

Holmes finds much to adapt to in this often bewildering world, but then he was always a shrewd observer and master of disguise, so few people would be as well equipped. At the same time, the Tesseract project faces a crisis, as a disaster and subsequent investigation reveals the possibility of sabotage and an espionage ring operating within the project. A trusted, outside investigator with no ties to the project is needed, and who better than Holmes, who owes his life to it? With Chadwick at his side, they dig into the mystery surrounding the project.

As they work together, they find themselves increasingly attracted to one another, and Holmes must confront his fear that emotional involvement will impair the logical functioning of his mind upon which his career is founded. Chadwick, learning to become a talented investigator in her own right, fears that a deeper than professional involvement with Holmes will harm her own emerging talents.

I found that this long story started out just fine, and indeed I recommended it to several people after finishing the first of the four novels collected here. To me, it began to run off the rails in the second book and didn't get any better in the remaining two (which begin with Holmes and Chadwick an established detective team, summoned to help with a perplexing mystery in Britain which may have consequences for all of the myriad contunua in the multiverse). The fundamental problem is that these books are trying to do too much all at the same time. They can't decide whether they're science fiction, mystery, detective procedural, or romance, and as they jump back and forth among the genres, so little happens in the ones being neglected at the moment that the parallel story lines develop at a glacial pace. My estimation is that an editor with a sharp red pencil could cut this material by 50–60% and end up with a better book, omitting nothing central to the story and transforming what often seemed a tedious slog into a page-turner.

Sherlock Holmes is truly one of the great timeless characters in literature. He can be dropped into any epoch, any location, and, in this case, anywhere in the multiverse, and rapidly start to get to the bottom of the situation while entertaining the reader looking over his shoulder. There is nothing wrong with the premise of these books and there are interesting ideas and characters in them, but the execution just isn't up to the potential of the concept. The science fiction part sometimes sinks to the techno-babble level of Star Trek (“Higgs boson injection beginning…”). I am no prude, but I found the repeated and explicit sex scenes a bit much (tedious, actually), and they make the books unsuitable for younger readers for whom the original Sherlock Holmes stories are a pure delight. If you're interested in the idea, I'd suggest buying just the first book separately and see how you like it before deciding to proceed, bearing in mind that I found it the best of the four.

January 2015 Permalink

Osborn, Stephanie. Burnout. Kingsport, TN: Twilight Times Books, 2009. ISBN 978-1-606192-00-9.
At the conclusion of its STS-281 mission, during re-entry across the southern U.S. toward a landing at Kennedy Space Center, space shuttle orbiter Atlantis breaks up. Debris falls in the Gulf of Mexico. There are no survivors. Prior to the disaster Mission Control received no telemetry or communications from the crew indicating any kind of problem. Determination of the probable cause will have to await reconstruction of the orbiter from the recovered debris and analysis of the on-board flight operations recorder if and when it is recovered. Astronaut Emmett “Crash” Murphy, whose friend “Jet” Jackson was commander of the mission, is appointed a member of the investigation, focusing on the entry phase.

Hardly has the investigation begun when Murphy begins to discover that something is seriously amiss. Unexplained damage to the orbiter's structure is discovered and then the person who pointed it out to him is killed in a freak accident and the component disappears from the reconstruction hangar. The autopsies of the crew reveal unexplained discrepancies with their medical records. The recorder's tape of cockpit conversation inexplicably goes blank at the moment the re-entry begins, before any anomaly occurred. As he begins to dig deeper, he becomes the target of forces unknown who appear willing to murder anybody who looks too closely into the details of the tragedy.

This is the starting point for an adventure and mystery which sometimes seems not just like an episode of “The X-Files”, but two or more seasons packed into one novel. We have a radio astronomer tracking down a mysterious signal from the heavens; a shadowy group of fixers pursuing those who ask too many questions or learn too much; Area 51; a vast underground base and tunnel system which has been kept entirely secret; strange goings-on in the New Mexico desert in the summer of 1947; a cabal of senior military officers from around the world, including putative adversaries; Native American and Australian aborigine legends; hot sex scenes; a near-omniscient and -omnipotent Australian spook agency; reverse-engineering captured technologies; secret aerospace craft with “impossible” propulsion technology; and—wait for it— …but you can guess, can't you?

The author is a veteran of more than twenty years in civilian and military space programs, including working as a payload flight controller in Mission Control on shuttle missions. Characters associated with NASA speak in the acronym-laden jargon of their clan, which is explained in a glossary at the end. This was the author's first novel. It was essentially complete when the space shuttle orbiter Columbia was lost in a re-entry accident in 2003 which superficially resembles that which befalls Atlantis here. In the aftermath of the disaster, she decided to put the manuscript aside for a while, eventually finishing it in 2006, with almost no changes due to what had been learned from the Columbia accident investigation. It was finally published in 2009.

Since then she has retired from the space business and published almost two dozen novels, works of nonfiction, and contributions to other works. Her Displaced Detective (January 2015) series is a masterful and highly entertaining addition to the Sherlock Holmes literature. She has become known as a prolific and talented writer, working in multiple genres. Everybody has to start somewhere, and it's not unusual for authors' first outings not to come up to the standard of those written after they hit their stride. That is the case here. Veteran editors, reading a manuscript by a first time author, often counsel, “There's way too much going on here. Focus on one or two central themes and stretch the rest out over your next five or six books.” That was my reaction to this novel. It's not awful, by any means, but it lacks the polish and compelling narrative of her subsequent work.

I read the Kindle edition which, at this writing, is a bargain at less than US$ 1. The production values of the book are mediocre. It looks like a typewritten manuscript turned directly into a book. Body copy is set ragged right, and typewriter conventions are used throughout: straight quote marks instead of opening and closing quotes, two adjacent hyphens instead of em dashes, and four adjacent centred asterisks used as section breaks. I don't know if the typography is improved in the paperback version; I'm not about to spend twenty bucks to find out.

November 2016 Permalink

Patterson, William H., Jr. Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century. Vol. 1 New York: Tor Books, 2010. ISBN 978-0-765-31960-9.
Robert Heinlein came from a family who had been present in America before there were the United States, and whose members had served in all of the wars of the Republic. Despite being thin, frail, and with dodgy eyesight, he managed to be appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy where, despite demerits for being a hellion, he graduated and was commissioned as a naval officer. He was on the track to a naval career when felled by tuberculosis (which was, in the 1930s, a potential death sentence, with the possibility of recurrence any time in later life).

Heinlein had written while in the Navy, but after his forced medical retirement, turned his attention to writing science fiction for pulp magazines, and after receiving a cheque for US$ 70 for his first short story, “Life-Line”, he exclaimed, “How long has this racket been going on? And why didn't anybody tell me about it sooner?” Heinlein always viewed writing as a business, and kept a thermometer on which he charted his revenue toward paying off the mortgage on his house.

While Heinlein fit in very well with the Navy, and might have been, absent medical problems, a significant commander in the fleet in World War II, he was also, at heart, a bohemian, with a soul almost orthogonal to military tradition and discipline. His first marriage was a fling with a woman who introduced him to physical delights of which he was unaware. That ended quickly, and then he married Leslyn, who was his muse, copy-editor, and business manager in a marriage which persisted throughout World War II, when both were involved in war work. Leslyn worked herself in this effort into insanity and alcoholism, and they divorced in 1947.

It was Robert Heinlein who vaulted science fiction from the ghetto of the pulp magazines to the “slicks” such as Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post. This was due to a technological transition in the publishing industry which is comparable to that presently underway in the migration from print to electronic publishing. Rationing of paper during World War II helped to create the “pocket book” or paperback publishing industry. After the end of the war, these new entrants in the publishing market saw a major opportunity in publishing anthologies of stories previously published in the pulps. The pulp publishers viewed this as an existential threat—who would buy a pulp magazine if, for almost the same price, one could buy a collection of the best stories from the last decade in all of those magazines?

Heinlein found his fiction entrapped in this struggle. While today, when you sell a story to a magazine in the U.S., you usually only sell “First North American serial rights”, in the 1930s and 1940s, authors sold all rights, and it was up to the publisher to release their rights for republication of a work in an anthology or adaptation into a screenplay. This is parallel to the contemporary battle between traditional publishers and independent publishing platforms, which have become the heart of science fiction.

Heinlein was complex. While an exemplary naval officer, he was a nudist, married three times, interested in the esoteric (and a close associate of Jack Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard). He was an enthusiastic supporter of Upton Sinclair's EPIC movement and his “Social Credit” agenda.

This authorised biography, with major contributions from Heinlein's widow, Virginia, chronicles the master storyteller's life in his first forty years—until he found, or created, an audience receptive to the tales of wonder he spun. If you've read all of Heinlein's fiction, it may be difficult to imagine how much of it was based in Heinlein's own life. If you thought Heinlein's later novels were weird, appreciate how the master was weird before you were born.

I had the privilege of meeting Robert and Virginia Heinlein in 1984. I shall always cherish that moment.

July 2014 Permalink

Pickover, Clifford A. The Science of Aliens. New York: Basic Books, 1998. ISBN 0-465-07315-8.

August 2003 Permalink

Pournelle, Jerry. Exile—and Glory. Riverdale, NY: Baen Publishing, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4165-5563-6.
This book collects all of Jerry Pournelle's stories of Hansen Enterprises and other mega-engineering projects, which were originally published in Analog, Galaxy, and Fantasy and Science Fiction between 1972 and 1977. The stories were previously published in two books: High Justice and Exiles to Glory, which are now out of print—if you have those books, don't buy this one unless you want to upgrade to hardcover or can't resist the delightfully space-operatic cover art by Jennie Faries.

The stories take place in a somewhat dystopian future in which the “malaise” of the 1970s never ended. Governments worldwide are doing what governments do best: tax the productive, squander the revenue and patrimony of their subjects, and obstruct innovation and progress. Giant international corporations have undertaken the tasks needed to bring prosperity to a world teeming with people in a way which will not wreck the Earth's environment. But as these enterprises implement their ambitious projects on the sea floor, in orbit, and in the asteroid belt, the one great invariant, human nature, manifests itself and they find themselves confronted with the challenges which caused human societies to institute government in the first place. How should justice be carried out on the technological frontier? And, more to the point, how can it be achieved without unleashing the malign genie of coercive government? These stories are thoughtful explorations of these questions without ever ceasing to be entertaining yarns with believable characters. And you have to love what happens to the pesky lawyer on pp. 304–305!

I don't know if these stories have been revised between the time they were published in the '70s and this edition; there is no indication that they have either in this book or on Jerry Pournelle's Web site. If not, then the author was amazingly prescient about a number of subsequent events which few would have imagined probable thirty years ago. It's a little disheartening to think that one of the reasons these stories have had such a long shelf life is that none of the great projects we expected to be right around the corner in the Seventies have come to pass. As predicted here, governments have not only failed to undertake the challenges but been an active impediment to those trying to solve them, but also the business culture has become so risk-averse and oriented toward the short term that there appears to be no way to raise the capital needed to, for example, deploy solar power satellites, even though such capital is modest compared to that consumed in military adventures in Mesopotamia.

The best science fiction makes you think. The very best science fiction makes you think all over again when you re-read it three decades afterward. This is the very best, and just plain fun as well.

August 2008 Permalink

Pournelle, Jerry. Fires of Freedom. Riverdale, NY: Baen Publishing, [1976, 1980] 2010. ISBN 978-1-4391-3374-3.
This book includes two classic Jerry Pournelle novels which have been long out of print. Baen Publishing is doing journeyman work bringing the back lists of science fiction masters such as Pournelle, Robert Heinlein, and Poul Anderson back to the bookshelves, and this is a much welcome addition to the list. The two novels collected here are unrelated to one another. The first, Birth of Fire, originally published in 1976, follows a gang member who accepts voluntary exile to Mars to avoid a prison sentence on Earth. Arriving on Mars, he discovers a raw frontier society dominated by large Earth corporations who exploit the largely convict labour force. Nobody has to work, but if you don't work, you don't get paid and can't recharge the air medal everybody wears around their neck. If it turns red, or you're caught in public not wearing one, good tax-paying citizens will put the freeloader “outside”—without a pressure suit.

Former gangster Garrett Pittston finds that Mars suits him just fine, and, avoiding the temptations of the big companies, signs on as a farmhand with a crusty Marsman who goes by the name of Sarge. At Windhome, Sarge's station, Garrett learns how the Marsmen claw an independent existence from the barren soil of Mars, and also how the unyielding environment has shaped their culture, in which one's word is a life or death bond. Inevitably, this culture comes into conflict with the nanny state of the colonial administration, which seeks to bring the liberty-loving Marsmen under its authority by taxing and regulating them out of existence.

Garrett finds himself in the middle of an outright war of independence, in which the Marsmen use their intimate knowledge of the planet as an ally against what, on the face of it, would appear to be overwhelming superiority of their adversaries. Garrett leads a bold mission to obtain the game-changing resource which will allow Mars to deter reprisals from Earth, and in doing so becomes a Marsman in every way.

Pournelle paints this story with spare, bold brush strokes: all non-essentials are elided, and the characters develop and events transpire with little or no filler. If Kim Stanley Robinson had told this story, it would probably have occupied two thousand pages and have readers dying of boredom or old age before anything actually happened. This book delivers an action story set in a believable environment and a society which has been shaped by it. Having been originally published in the year of the Viking landings on Mars, there are a few things it gets wrong, but there are a great many others which are spot-on, and in some cases prophetic.

The second novel in the book, King David's Spaceship, is set in the CoDominium universe in which the classic novel The Mote in God's Eye takes place. The story occurs contemporarily with The Mote, during the Second Empire of Man, when imperial forces from the planet Sparta are re-establishing contact with worlds of the original Empire of Man who have been cut off from one another, with many reverting to primitive levels of technology and civilisation in the aftermath of the catastrophic Secession Wars.

When Imperial forces arrive on Prince Samual's World, its civilisation had recovered from disastrous post-collapse warfare and plague to around the technological level of 19th century Earth. King David of the Kingdom of Haven, who hopes to unify the planet under his rule, forms an alliance with the Empire and begins to topple rivals and petty kingdoms while pacifying the less civilised South Continent. King David's chief of secret police learns, from an Imperial novel that falls into his hands, that the Empire admits worlds on different bases depending upon their political and technological evolution. Worlds which have achieved planetary government and an indigenous space travel capability are admitted as “classified worlds”, which retain a substantial degree of autonomy and are represented in one house of the Imperial government. Worlds which have not achieved these benchmarks are classed as colonies, with their local governmental institutions abolished and replaced by rule by an aristocracy of colonists imported from other, more developed planets.

David realises that, with planetary unification rapidly approaching, his days are numbered unless somehow he can demonstrate some kind of space flight capability. But the Empire enforces a rigid technology embargo against less developed worlds, putatively to allow for their “orderly development”, but at least as much to maintain the Navy's power and enrich the traders, who are a major force in the Imperial capital. Nathan McKinnie, formerly a colonel in the service of Orleans, a state whose independence was snuffed out by Haven with the help of the Navy, is recruited by the ruthless secret policeman Malcolm Dougal to lead what is supposed to be a trading expedition to the world of Makassar, whose own civilisation is arrested in a state like medieval Europe, but which is home to a “temple” said to contain a library of documents describing First Empire technology which the locals do not know how to interpret. McKinnie's mission is to gain access to the documents, discover how to build a spaceship with the resources available on Haven, and spirit this information back to his home world under the eyes of the Navy and Imperial customs officials.

Arriving on Makassar, McKinnie finds that things are even more hopeless than he imagined. The temple is in a city remote from where he landed, reachable only by crossing a continent beset with barbarian hordes, or a sea passage through a pirate fleet which has essentially shut down seafaring on the planet. Using no advanced technology apart from the knowledge in his head, he outfits a ship and recruits and trains a crew to force the passage through the pirates. When he arrives at Batav, the site of the temple, he finds it besieged by Islamic barbarians (some things never change!), who are slowly eroding the temple's defenders by sheer force of numbers.

Again, McKinnie needs no new technology, but simply knowledge of the Western way of war—in this case recruiting from the disdained dregs of society and training a heavy infantry force, which he deploys along with a newly disciplined heavy cavalry in tactical doctrine with which Cæsar would have been familiar. Having saved the temple, he forms an alliance with representatives of the Imperial Church which grants him access to the holy relics, a set of memory cubes containing the collected knowledge of the First Empire.

Back on Prince Samual's World, a Los Alamos style research establishment quickly discovers that they lack the technology to read the copies of the memory cubes they've brought back, and that the technology of even the simplest Imperial landing craft is hopelessly out of reach of their knowledge and manufacturing capabilities. So, they adopt a desperate fall back plan, and take a huge gamble to decide the fate of their world.

This is superb science fiction which combines an interesting premise, the interaction of societies at very different levels of technology and political institutions, classical warfare at sea and on land, and the difficult and often ruthless decisions which must be made when everything is at stake (you will probably remember the case of the Temple swordsmen long after you close this book). It is wonderful that these excellent yarns are back in print after far too long an absence.

November 2010 Permalink

Pratchett, Terry and Stephen Baxter. The Long Earth. New York: HarperCollins, 2012. ISBN 978-0-06-206775-3.
Terry Pratchett is my favourite author of satirical fantasy and Stephen Baxter is near the top of my list of contemporary hard science fiction writers, so I expected this collaboration to be outstanding. It is.

Larry Niven's Ringworld created a breathtakingly large arena for story telling, not spread among the stars but all reachable, at least in principle, just by walking. This novel expands the stage many orders of magnitude beyond that, and creates a universe in which any number of future stories may be told. The basic premise is that the multiple worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics literally exists (to be technical, Max Tegmark's Level III parallel universes), and that some humans possess a native ability to step from one universe to the next. The stepper arrives at the same location on Earth, at the same local time (there is apparently a universal clock like that assumed in quantum theory), but on a branch where the history of the Earth has diverged due to contingent events in the past. Adjacent universes tend to be alike, but the further one steps the more they differ from the original, or Datum Earth.

The one huge difference between Datum Earth and all of the others is that, as far as is known, humans evolved only on the Datum. Nobody knows why this is—perhaps there was some event in the chain of causality that produced modern humans which was so improbable it happened only once in what may be an infinite number of parallel Earths.

The ability to step was extremely rare, genetically transmitted, and often discovered only when an individual was in peril and stepped to an adjacent Earth as the ultimate flight response. All of this changed on Step Day, when Willis Linsay, a physicist in Madison, Wisconsin, posted on the Internet plans for a “stepper” which could be assembled from parts readily available from Radio Shack, plus a potato. (Although entirely solid state, it did include a tuber.) A rocker switch marked “WEST — OFF — EAST” was on the top, and when activated moved the holder of the box to an adjacent universe in the specified notional direction.

Suddenly people all over the Earth began cobbling together steppers of their own and departing for adjacent Earths. Since all of these Earths were devoid of humans (apart from those who stepped there from the Datum), they were in a state of nature, including all of those dangerous wild beasts that humans had eradicated from their world of origin. Joshua Valienté, a natural stepper, distinguishes himself by rescuing children from the Madison area who used their steppers and were so bewildered they did not know how to get back.

This brings Joshua to the attention of the shadowy Black Corporation, who recruits him (with a bit of blackmail) to explore the far reaches of the Long Earth: worlds a million or more steps from the Datum. His companion on the voyage is Lobsang, who may or may not have been a Tibetan motorcycle repairman, now instantiated in a distributed computer network, taking on physical forms ranging from a drinks machine, a humanoid, and an airship. As they explore, they encounter hominid species they call “trolls” and “elves”, which they theorise are natural steppers which evolved on the Datum and then migrated outward along the Long Earth without ever developing human-level intelligence (perhaps due to lack of selective pressure, since they could always escape competition by stepping away). But, as Joshua and Lobsang explore the Western frontier, they find a migration of trolls and elves toward the East. What are they fleeing, or what is attracting them in that direction? They also encounter human communities on the frontier, both homesteaders from the Datum and natural steppers who have established themselves on other worlds.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The concept of stepping to adjacent universes is one of those plot devices that, while opening up a huge scope for fiction, also, like the Star Trek transporter, threatens to torpedo drama. If you can escape peril simply by stepping away to another universe, how can characters be placed in difficult circumstances? In Star Trek, there always has to be some reason (“danged pesky polaron particles!”) why the transporter can't be used to beam the away team out of danger. Here, the authors appear to simply ignore the problem. In chapter 30, Joshua is attacked by elves riding giant hogs and barely escapes with his life. But, being a natural stepper, he could simply step away and wait for Lobsang to find him in an adjacent Earth. But he doesn't, and there is no explanation of why he didn't.
Spoilers end here.  

I enjoyed this book immensely, but that may be in part because I've been thinking about multiverse navigation for many years, albeit in a different context and without the potato. This is a somewhat strange superposition of fantasy and hard science fiction (which is what you'd expect, given the authors), and your estimation of it, like any measurement in quantum mechanics, will depend upon the criteria you're measuring. I note that the reviews on Amazon have a strikingly flat distribution in stars assigned—this is rare; usually a book will have a cluster at the top or bottom, or for controversial books a bimodal distribution depending upon the reader's own predisposition. I have no idea if you'll like this book, but I did. And I want a stepper.

November 2012 Permalink

Pratchett, Terry and Stephen Baxter. The Long War. New York: HarperCollins, 2013. ISBN 978-0-06-206869-9.
This is the second novel in the authors' series which began with The Long Earth (November 2012). That book, which I enjoyed immensely, created a vast new arena for storytelling: a large, perhaps infinite, number of parallel Earths, all synchronised in time, among which people can “step” with the aid of a simple electronic gizmo (incorporating a potato) whose inventor posted the plans on the Internet on what has since been called Step Day. Some small fraction of the population has always been “natural steppers”—able to move among universes without mechanical assistance, but other than that tiny minority, all of the worlds of the Long Earth beyond our own (called the Datum) are devoid of humans. There are natural stepping humanoids, dubbed “elves” and “trolls”, but none with human-level intelligence.

As this book opens, a generation has passed since Step Day, and the human presence has begun to expand into the vast expanses of the Long Earth. Most worlds are pristine wilderness, with all the dangers to pioneers venturing into places where large predators have never been controlled. Joshua Valienté, whose epic voyage of exploration with Lobsang (who from moment to moment may be a motorcycle repairman, computer network, Tibetan monk, or airship) discovered the wonders of these innumerable worlds in the first book, has settled down to raise a family on a world in the Far West.

Humans being humans, this gift of what amounts of an infinitely larger scope for their history has not been without its drawbacks and conflicts. With the opening of an endless frontier, the restless and creative have decamped from the Datum to seek adventure and fortune free of the crowds and control of their increasingly regimented home world. This has resulted in a drop in innovation and economic hit to the Datum, and for Datum politicians (particularly in the United States, the grabbiest of all jurisdictions) to seek to expand their control (and particularly the ability to loot) to all residents of the so-called “Aegis”—the geographical footprint of its territory across the multitude of worlds. The trolls, who mostly get along with humans and work for them, hear news from across the worlds through their “long call” of scandalous mistreatment of their kind by humans in some places, and now appear to have vanished from many human settlements to parts unknown. A group of worlds in the American Aegis in the distant West have adopted the Valhalla Declaration, asserting their independence from the greedy and intrusive government of the Datum and, in response, the Datum is sending a fleet of stepping airships (or “twains”, named for the Mark Twain of the first novel) to assert its authority over these recalcitrant emigrants. Joshua and Sally Linsay, pioneer explorers, return to the Datum to make their case for the rights of trolls. China mounts an ambitious expedition to the unseen worlds of its footprint in the Far East.

And so it goes, for more than four hundred pages. This really isn't a novel at all, but rather four or five novellas interleaved with one another, where the individual stories barely interact before most of the characters meet at a barbecue in the next to last chapter. When I put down The Long Earth, I concluded that the authors had created a stage in which all kinds of fiction could play out and looked forward to seeing what they'd do with it. What a disappointment! There are a few interesting concepts, such as evolutionary consequences of travel between parallel Earths and technologies which oppressive regimes use to keep their subjects from just stepping away to freedom, but they are few and far between. There is no war! If you're going to title your book The Long War, many readers are going to expect one, and it doesn't happen. I can recall only two laugh-out-loud lines in the entire book, which is hardly what you expect when picking up a book with Terry Pratchett's name on the cover. I shall not be reading the remaining books in the series which, if Amazon reviews are to be believed, go downhill from here.

March 2017 Permalink

Ringo, John. Into the Looking Glass. Riverdale, NY: Baen Publishing, 2005. ISBN 978-1-4165-2105-1.
Without warning, on a fine spring day in central Florida, an enormous explosion destroys the campus of the University of Central Florida and the surrounding region. The flash, heat pulse, and mushroom cloud are observed far from the site of the detonation. It is clear that casualties will be massive. First responders, fearing the worst, break out their equipment to respond to what seems likely to be nuclear terrorism. The yield of the explosion is estimated at 60 kilotons of TNT.

But upon closer examination, things seem distinctly odd. There is none of the residual radiation one would expect from a nuclear detonation, nor evidence of the prompt radiation nor electromagnetic pulse expected from a nuclear blast. A university campus seems an odd target for nuclear terrorism, in any case. What else could cause such a blast of such magnitude? Well, an asteroid strike could do it, but the odds against such an event are very long, and there was no evidence of ejecta falling back as you'd expect from an impact.

Faced with a catastrophic yet seemingly inexplicable event, senior government officials turn to a person with the background and security clearances to investigate further: Dr. Bill Weaver, a “redneck physicist” from Huntsville who works as a consultant to one of the “Beltway bandit” contractors who orbit the Pentagon. Weaver recalls that a physicist at the university, Ray Chen, was working on shortcut to produce a Higgs boson, bypassing the need for an enormous particle collider. Weaver's guess is that Chen's idea worked better than he imagined, releasing a pulse of energy which caused the detonation.

If things so far seemed curious, now they began to get weird. Approaching the site of the detonation, teams observed a black globe, seemingly absorbing all light, where Dr. Chen's laboratory used to be. Then one, and another, giant bug emerge from the globe. Floridians become accustomed to large, ugly-looking bugs, but nothing like this—these are creatures from another world, or maybe universe. A little girl, unharmed, wanders into the camp, giving her home address as in an area completely obliterated by the explosion. She is clutching a furry alien with ten legs: “Tuffy”, who she says speaks to her. Scientists try to examine the creature and quickly learn the wisdom of the girl's counsel to not mess with Tuffy.

Police respond to a home invasion call some distance from the site of the detonation: a report that demons are attacking their house. Investigating, another portal is discovered in the woods behind the house, from which monsters begin to issue, quickly overpowering the light military force summoned to oppose them. It takes a redneck militia to reinforce a perimeter around the gateway, while waiting for the Army to respond.

Apparently, whatever happened on the campus not only opened a gateway there, but is spawning gateways further removed. Some connect to worlds seemingly filled with biologically-engineered monsters bent upon conquest, while others connect to barren planets, a race of sentient felines, and other aliens who may be allies or enemies. Weaver has to puzzle all of this out, while participating in the desperate effort to prevent the invaders, “T!Ch!R!” or “Titcher”, from establishing a beachhead on Earth. And the stakes may be much greater than the fate of the Earth.

This is an action-filled romp, combining the initiation of humans into a much larger universe worthy of Golden Age science fiction with military action fiction. I doubt that in the real world Weaver, the leading expert on the phenomenon and chief investigator into it, would be allowed to participate in what amounts to commando missions in which his special skills are not required but, hey, it makes the story more exciting, and if a thriller doesn't thrill, it has failed in its mission.

I loved one aspect of the conclusion: never let an alien invasion go to waste. You'll understand what I'm alluding to when you get there. And, in the Golden Age tradition, the story sets up for further adventures. While John Ringo wrote this book by himself, the remaining three novels in the Looking Glass series are co-authored with Travis S. Taylor, upon whom the character of Bill Weaver was modeled.

June 2017 Permalink

Robinson, Kim Stanley. Green Mars. London: HarperCollins, 1994. ISBN 0-586-21390-2.

April 2001 Permalink

Robinson, Kim Stanley. Blue Mars. New York: Bantam Books, 1996. ISBN 0-553-57335-7.
This is the third volume in Robinson's Mars Trilogy: the first two volumes are Red Mars and Green Mars (April 2001). The three volumes in the trilogy tell one continuous story and should be read in order; if you start with Green or Blue, you'll be totally lost as to the identities of characters introduced in Red or events which occurred in prior volumes. When I read Red Mars in the mid 1990s, I considered it to be one of the very best science fiction novels I'd ever read, and I've read all of the works of the grand masters. Green Mars didn't quite meet this standard, but was still a superb and thought-provoking read. By contrast, I found Blue Mars a tremendous disappointment—tedious and difficult to finish. It almost seems like Robinson ran out of ideas before filling the contracted number of pages. There are hundreds of pages of essentially plot-free pastoral descriptions of landscapes on terraformed Mars; if you like that kind of stuff, you may enjoy this book, but I prefer stories in which things happen and characters develop and interact in interesting ways, and there's precious little of that here. In part, I think the novel suffers from the inherent difficulty of writing about an epoch in which human technological capability permits doing essentially anything whatsoever—it's difficult to pose challenges which characters have to surmount once they can simply tell their AIs to set the robots to work, then sit around drinking kavajava until the job is done. The politics and economics in these books has never seemed particularly plausible to me, and in Blue Mars it struck me as even more naïve, but perhaps that's just because there's so little else going on. I can't make any sense at all of the immigration and population figures Robinson gives. On page 338 (mass-market paperback edition) the population of Mars is given as 15 million and Earth's population more than 15 billion in 2129, when Mars agrees to accept “at least ten percent of its population in immigrants every year”. Since Earth pressed for far more immigration while Mars wished to restrict it, presumably this compromise rate is within the capability of the interplanetary transportation system. Now there's two ways to interpret the “ten percent”. If every year Mars accepts 10% of its current population, including immigrants from previous years, the Mars population runs away geometrically, exploding to more than two billion by 2181. But on page 479, set in that year, the population of Mars is given as just 18 million, still a thousandth of Earth's, which has grown to 18 billion. Okay, let's assume the agreement between Earth and Mars meant that Mars was only to accept 10% of its present population as of the date of the agreement, 2129. Well, if that's the case, then you have immigration of 1.5 million per year, which leaves us with a Mars population of 93 million by 2181 (see the spreadsheet I used to perform these calculations for details). And these figures assume that neither the Mars natives nor the immigrants have any children at all, which is contradicted many times in the story. In fact, to get from a population of 15 million in 2129 to only 18 million in 2181 requires a compounded growth rate of less than 0.4%, an unprecedentedly low rate for frontier civilisations without any immigration at all.

January 2004 Permalink

Rucker, Rudy. The Hollow Earth. New York: Avon, 1990. ISBN 0-380-75535-1.

March 2001 Permalink

Rucker, Rudy. Frek and the Elixir. New York: Tor, 2004. ISBN 0-765-31058-9.
Phrase comments in dialect of Unipusk aliens in novel. Congratulate author's hitting sweet spot combining Heinlein juvenile adventure, Rucker zany imagination, and Joseph Campbell hero myth. Assert suitable for all ages. Direct readers to extensive (145 page) working notes for the book, and book's Web site, with two original oil paintings illustrating scenes. Commend author for attention to detail: two precise dates in the years 3003 and 3004 appear in the story, and the days of the week are correct! Show esteemed author and humble self visiting Unipusk saucer base in July 2002.

April 2004 Permalink

Rucker, Rudy. Mathematicians in Love. New York: Tor, 2006. ISBN 0-765-31584-X.
I read this book in manuscript form; the manuscript was dated 2005-07-28. Now that Tor have issued a hardcover edition, I've added its ISBN to this item. Notes and reviews are available on Rudy's Weblog.

August 2005 Permalink

Rucker, Rudy. Turing & Burroughs. Manuscript, 2012.
The author was kind enough to send this reader a copy of the manuscript for copy-editing and fact checking. I've returned it, marked up, and you should be able to read it soon. I shall refrain from commenting upon the text until it's generally available. But if you're a Rudy Rucker fan, you're going to love this.

August 2012 Permalink

Rucker, Rudy. Turing & Burroughs. Los Gatos, CA: Transreal Books, 2012. ISBN 978-0-9858272-3-6.
The enigmatic death of Alan Turing has long haunted those who inquire into the life of this pioneer of computer science. Forensic tests established cyanide poisoning as the cause of his death, and the inquest ruled it suicide by eating a cyanide-laced apple. But the partially-eaten apple was never tested for cyanide, and Turing's mother, among other people close to him, believed the death an accident, due to ingestion of cyanide fumes from an experiment in gold plating he was known to be conducting. Still others pointed out that Turing, from his wartime work at Bletchley Park, knew all the deepest secrets of Britain's wartime work in cryptanalysis, and having been shamefully persecuted by the government for his homosexuality, might have been considered a security risk and targeted to be silenced by dark forces of the state.

This is the point of departure for this delightful alternative history romp set in the middle of the 1950s. In the novel, Turing is presumed to have gotten much further with his work on biological morphogenesis than history records. So far, in fact, that when agents from Her Majesty's spook shop botch an assassination attempt and kill his lover instead, he is able to swap faces with him and flee the country to the anything-goes international zone of Tangier.

There, he pursues his biological research, hoping to create a perfect undifferentiated tissue which can transform itself into any structure or form. He makes the acquaintance of novelist William S. Burroughs, who found in Tangier's demimonde a refuge from the scandal of the death of his wife in Mexico and his drug addiction. Turing eventually succeeds, creating a lifeform dubbed the “skug”, and merges with it, becoming a skugger. He quickly discovers that his endosymbiont has not only dramatically increased his intelligence, but also made him a shape-shifter—given the slightest bit of DNA, a skugger can perfectly imitate its source.

And not just that…. As Turing discovers when he recruits Burroughs to skugdom, skuggers are able to enskug others by transferring a fragment of skug tissue to them; they can conjugate, exchanging “wetware” (memories and acquired characteristics); and they are telepathic among one another, albeit with limited range. Burroughs, whose explorations of pharmaceutical enlightenment had been in part motivated by a search for telepathy (which he called TP), found he rather liked being a skugger and viewed it as the next step in his personal journey.

But Turing's escape from Britain failed to completely cover his tracks, and indiscretions in Tangier brought him back into the crosshairs of the silencers. Shape-shifting into another identity, he boards a tramp steamer to America, where he embarks upon a series of adventures, eventually joined by Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, on the road from Florida to Los Alamos, New Mexico, Burroughs's childhood stomping grounds, where Stanislaw Ulam, co-inventor of the hydrogen bomb and, like Turing, fascinated with how simple computational systems such as cellular automata can mimic the gnarly processes of biology, has been enlisted to put an end to the “skugger menace”—perhaps a greater threat than the international communist conspiracy.

Using his skugger wiles, Turing infiltrates Los Alamos and makes contact, both physically and intellectually, with Ulam, and learns the details of the planned assault on the skugs and vows to do something about it—but what? His human part pulls him one way and his skug another.

The 1950s are often thought of as a sterile decade, characterised by conformity and paranoia. And yet, if you look beneath the surface, the seeds of everything that happened in the sixties were sown in those years. They may have initially fallen upon barren ground, but like the skug, they were preternaturally fertile and, once germinated, spread at a prodigious rate.

In the fifties, the consensus culture bifurcated into straights and beats, the latter of which Burroughs and Ginsberg were harbingers and rôle models for the emerging dissident subculture. The straights must have viewed the beats as alien—almost possessed: why else would they reject the bounty of the most prosperous society in human history which had, just a decade before, definitively defeated evil incarnate? And certainly the beats must have seen the grey uniformity surrounding them as also a kind of possession, negating the human potential in favour of a cookie-cutter existence, where mindless consumption tried to numb the anomie of a barren suburban life. This mutual distrust and paranoia was to fuel such dystopian visions as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with each subculture seeing the other as pod people.

In this novel, Rucker immerses the reader in the beat milieu, with the added twist that here they really are pod people, and loving it. No doubt the beats considered themselves superior to the straights. But what if they actually were? How would the straights react, and how would a shape-shifting, telepathic, field-upgradable counterculture respond?

Among the many treats awaiting the reader is the author's meticulous use of British idioms when describing Turing's thoughts and Burroughs's idiosyncratic grammar in the letters in his hand which appear here.

This novel engages the reader to such an extent that it's easy to overlook the extensive research that went into making it authentic, not just superficially, but in depth. Readers interested in what goes into a book like this will find the author's background notes (PDF) fascinating—they are almost as long as the novel. I wouldn't, however, read them before finishing the book, as spoilers lurk therein.

A Kindle edition is available either from Amazon or directly from the publisher, where an EPUB edition is also available (with other formats forthcoming).

September 2012 Permalink

Scalzi, John. Old Man's War. New York: Tor, 2005. ISBN 0-765-30940-8.
I don't read a lot of contemporary science fiction, but the review by Glenn Reynolds and those of other bloggers he cited on Instapundit motivated me to do the almost unthinkable—buy a just-out science fiction first novel in hardback—and I'm glad I did. It's been a long time since I last devoured a three hundred page novel in less than 36 hours in three big gulps, but this is that kind of page-turner. It will inevitably be compared to Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Remarkably, it stands up well beside the work of the Master, and also explores the kinds of questions of human identity which run through much of Heinlein's later work. The story is in no way derivative, however; this is a thoroughly original work, and even more significant for being the author's first novel in print. Here's a writer to watch.

April 2005 Permalink

Scalzi, John. The Ghost Brigades. New York: Tor, 2006. ISBN 0-765-31502-5.
After his stunning fiction debut in Old Man's War (April 2005), readers hoping for the arrival on the scene of a new writer of Golden Age stature held their breath to see whether the author would be a one book wonder or be able to repeat. You can start breathing again—in this, his second novel, he hits another one out of the ballpark.

This story is set in the conflict-ridden Colonial Union universe of Old Man's War, some time after the events of that book. Although in the acknowledgements he refers to this as a sequel, you'd miss little or nothing by reading it first, as everything introduced in the first novel is explained as it appears here. Still, if you have the choice, it's best to read them in order. The Colonial Special Forces, which are a shadowy peripheral presence in Old Man's War, take centre stage here. Special Forces are biologically engineered and enhanced super-soldiers, bred from the DNA of volunteers who enlisted in the regular Colonial Defense Forces but died before they reached the age of 75 to begin their new life as warriors. Unlike regular CDF troops, who retain their memories and personalities after exchanging their aged frame for a youthful and super-human body, Special Forces start out as a tabula rasa with adult bodies and empty brains ready to be programmed by their “BrainPal” appliance, which also gives them telepathic powers.

The protagonist, Jared Dirac, is a very special member of the Special Forces, as he was bred from the DNA of a traitor to the Colonial Union, and imprinted with that person's consciousness in an attempt to figure out his motivations and plans. Things didn't go as expected, and Jared ends up with two people in his skull, leading to exploration of the meaning of human identity and how our memories (or those of others) make us who we are, along the lines of Robert Heinlein's I Will Fear No Evil. The latter was not one of Heinlein's better outings, but Scalzi takes the nugget of the idea and runs with it here, spinning a yarn that reads like Heinlein's better work. In the last fifty pages, the Colonial Union universe becomes a lot more ambiguous and interesting, and the ground is laid for a rich future history series set there. This book has less rock-em sock-em combat and more character development and ideas, which is just fine for this non-member of the video game generation.

Since almost anything more I said would constitute a spoiler, I'll leave it at that; I loved this book, and if you enjoy the best of Heinlein, you probably will as well. (One quibble, which I'll try to phrase to avoid being a spoiler: for the life of me, I can't figure out how Sagan expects to open the capture pod at the start of chapter 14 (p. 281), when on p. 240 she couldn't open it, and since then nothing has happened to change the situation.) For more background on the book and the author's plans for this universe, check out the Instapundit podcast interview with the author.

August 2006 Permalink

Scalzi, John. The Last Colony. New York: Tor, 2007. ISBN 0-7653-1697-8.
This novel concludes the Colonial Union trilogy begun with the breakthrough Old Man's War (April 2005), for which the author won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and its sequel, The Ghost Brigades (August 2006), which fleshed out the shadowy Special Forces and set the stage for a looming three-way conflict among the Colonial Union, the Conclave of more than four hundred alien species, and the Earth. As this novel begins, John Perry and Jane Sagan, whom we met in the first two volumes, have completed their military obligations and, now back in normal human bodies, have married and settled into new careers on a peaceful human colony world. They are approached by a Colonial Defense Forces general with an intriguing proposition: to become administrators of a new colony, the first to be formed by settlers from other colony worlds instead of emigrants from Earth.

As we learnt in The Ghost Brigades, when it comes to deceit, disinformation, manipulation, and corruption, the Colonial Union is a worthy successor to its historical antecedents, the Soviet Union and the European Union, and the newly minted administrators quickly discover that all is not what it appears to be and before long find themselves in a fine pickle indeed. The story moves swiftly and plausibly toward a satisfying conclusion I would never have guessed even twenty pages from the end.

In the acknowledgements at the end, the author indicates that this book concludes the adventures of John Perry and Jane Sagan and, for the moment, the Colonial Union universe. He says he may revisit that universe someday, but at present has no plans to do so. So while we wait to see where he goes next, here's a neatly wrapped up and immensely entertaining trilogy to savour. By the way, both Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades are now available in inexpensive mass-market paperback editions. Unlike The Ghost Brigades, which can stand on its own without the first novel, you'll really enjoy this book and understand the characters much more if you've read the first two volumes before.

October 2007 Permalink

Scalzi, John. Redshirts. New York: Tor, 2012. ISBN 978-0-7653-3479-4.
Ensign Andrew Dahl thought himself extremely fortunate when, just out of the Academy, he was assigned to Universal Union flagship Intrepid in the xenobiology lab. Intrepid has a reputation for undertaking the most demanding missions of exploration, diplomacy, and, when necessary, enforcement of order among the multitude of planets in the Union, and it was the ideal place for an ambitious junior officer to begin his career.

But almost immediately after reporting aboard, Dahl began to discover there was something distinctly off about life aboard the ship. Whenever one of the senior officers walked through the corridors, crewmembers would part ahead of them, disappearing into side passages or through hatches. When the science officer visited a lab, experienced crew would vanish before he appeared and return only after he departed. Crew would invent clever stratagems to avoid being assigned to a post on the bridge or to an away mission.

Seemingly, every away mission would result in the death of a crew member, often in gruesome circumstances involving Longranian ice sharks, Borgovian land worms, the Merovian plague, or other horrors. But senior crew: the captain, science officer, doctor, and chief engineer were never killed, although astrogator Lieutenant Kerensky, a member of the bridge crew and regular on away parties, is frequently grievously injured but invariably makes a near-miraculous and complete recovery.

Dahl sees all of this for himself when he barely escapes with his life from a rescue mission to a space station afflicted with killer robots. Four junior crew die and Kerensky is injured once again. Upon returning to the ship, Dahl and his colleagues vow to get to the bottom of what is going on. They've heard the legends of, and one may have even spotted, Jenkins, who disappeared into the bowels of the ship after his wife, a fellow crew member, died meaninglessly by a stray shot of an assassin trying to kill a Union ambassador on an away mission.

Dahl undertakes to track down Jenkins, who is rumoured to have a theory which explains everything that is happening. The theory turns out to be as bizarre or more so than life on the Intrepid, but Dahl and his fellow ensigns concede that it does explain what they're experiencing and that applying it allows them to make sense of events which are otherwise incomprehensible (I love “the Box”).

But a theory, however explanatory, does not address the immediate problem: how to avoid being devoured by Pornathic crabs or the Great Badger of Tau Ceti on their next away mission. Dahl and his fellow junior crew must figure out how to turn the nonsensical reality they inhabit toward their own survival and do so without overtly engaging in, you know, mutiny, which could, like death, be career limiting. The story becomes so meta it will make you question the metaness of meta itself.

This is a pure romp, often laugh-out-loud funny, having a delightful time immersing itself in the lives of characters in one of our most beloved and enduring science fiction universes. We all know the bridge crew and department heads, but what's it really like below decks, and how does it feel to experience that sinking feeling when the first officer points to you and says “You're with me!” when forming an away team?

The novel has three codas written, respectively, in the first, second, and third person. The last, even in this very funny book, will moisten your eyes. Redshirts won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2013.

May 2015 Permalink

Schulman, J. Neil. The Robert Heinlein Interview. Pahrump, NV: Pulpless.Com, [1990, 1996, 1999] 2017. ISBN 978-1-58445-015-3.
Today, J. Neil Schulman is an accomplished novelist, filmmaker, screenwriter, actor, journalist, and publisher: winner of the Prometheus Award for libertarian science fiction. In the summer of 1973, he was none of those things: just an avid twenty year old science fiction fan who credited the works of Robert A. Heinlein for saving his life—replacing his teenage depression with visions of a future worth living for and characters worthy of emulation who built that world. As Schulman describes it, Heinlein was already in his head, and he wanted nothing more in his ambition to follow in the steps of Heinlein than to get into the head of the master storyteller. He managed to parlay a book review into a commission to interview Heinlein for the New York Sunday News. Heinlein consented to a telephone interview, and on June 30, 1973, Schulman and Heinlein spoke for three and a half hours, pausing only for hourly changes of cassettes.

The agenda for the interview had been laid out in three pages of questions Schulman had mailed Heinlein a few days before, but the letter had only arrived shortly before the call and Heinlein hadn't yet read the questions, so he read them as they spoke. After the interview, Schulman prepared a transcript, which was edited by Robert Heinlein and Virginia, his wife. The interview was published by the newspaper in a much abridged and edited form, and did not see print in its entirety until 1990, two years after Heinlein's death. On the occasion of its publication, Virginia Heinlein said “To my knowledge, this is the longest interview Robert ever gave. Here is a book that should be on the shelves of everyone interested in science fiction. Libertarians will be using it as a source for years to come.”

Here you encounter the authentic Heinlein, consistent with the description from many who knew him over his long career: simultaneously practical, visionary, contrary, ingenious, inner-directed, confident, and able to observe the world and humanity without the filter of preconceived notions. Above all, he was a master storyteller who never ceased to be amazed people would pay him to spin yarns. As Schulman describes it, “Talking with Robert Heinlein is talking with the Platonic archetype of all his best characters.”

If you have any interest in Heinlein or the craft of science fiction, this should be on your reading list. I will simply quote a few morsels chosen from the wealth of insights and wisdom in these pages.

On aliens and first contact:
The universe might turn out to be a hell of a sight nastier and tougher place than we have any reason to guess at this point. That first contact just might wipe out the human race, because we would encounter somebody who was meaner and tougher, and not at all inclined to be bothered by genocide. Be no more bothered by genocide than I am when I put out ant poison in the kitchen when the ants start swarming in.
On the search for deep messages in his work:
[Quoting Schulman's question] “Isn't ‘Coventry’ still an attempt by the state (albeit a relatively benign one) to interfere with the natural market processes and not let the victim have his restitution?” Well, “Coventry” was an attempt on the part of a writer to make a few hundred dollars to pay off a mortgage.
On fans who complain his new work isn't consistent with his earlier writing:
Over the course of some thirty-four years of writing, every now and then I receive things from people condemning me for not having written a story just like my last one. I never pay attention to this, Neil, because it has been my intention—my purpose—to make every story I've written—never to write a story just like my last one…I'm going to write what it suits me to write and if I write another story that's just like any other story I've ever written, I'll be slipping. … I'm trying to write to please not even as few as forty thousand people in the hardcover, but a million and up in the softcover. If an author let these self-appointed mentors decide for him what he's going to write and how he's going to write it, he'd never get anywhere….
On his writing and editing habits:
I've never written more than about three months of the year the whole time I've been writing. Part of that is because I never rewrite. I cut, but I don't rewrite.
On the impact of technologies:
When I see how far machine computation has gone since that time [the 1930s], I find it the most impressive development—more impressive than the atom bomb, more impressive than space travel—in its final consequences.
On retirement:
Well, Tony Boucher pointed that out to me years ago. He said that there are retired everything else—retired schoolteachers, retired firemen, retired bankers—but there are no retired writers. There are simply writers who are no longer selling. [Heinlein's last novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, was published in 1987, the year before his death at age 80. —JW]
On the conflict between high technology and personal liberty:
The question of how many mega-men [millions of population] it takes to maintain a high-technology society and how many mega-men it takes to produce oppressions simply through the complexity of the society is a matter I have never satisfactorily solved in my own mind. But I am quite sure that one works against the other, that it takes a large-ish population for a high technology, but if you get large populations human liberties are automatically restricted even if you don't have legislation about it. In fact, the legislation in many cases is intended to—and sometimes does—lubricate the frictions that take place between people simply because they're too close together.
On seeking solutions to problems:
I got over looking for final solutions a good, long time ago because once you get this point shored up, something breaks out somewhere else. The human race gets along by the skin of its teeth, and it's been doing so for some hundreds of thousands or millions of years. … It is the common human condition all through history that every time you solve a problem you discover that you've created a new problem.

I did not cherry pick these: they are but a few of a multitude from the vast cherry tree which is this interview. Enjoy! Also included in the book are other Heinlein-related material by Schulman: book reviews, letters, and speeches.

I must caution prospective readers that the copy-editing of this book is embarrassingly bad. I simply do not understand how a professional author—one who owns his own publishing house—can bring a book to market which clearly nobody has ever read with a critical eye, even at a cursory level. There are dozens of howlers here: not subtle things, but words run together, sentences which don't begin with a capital letter, spaces in the middle of hyphenated words, commas where periods were intended, and apostrophes transformed into back-tick characters surrounded by spaces. And this is not a bargain-bin special—the paperback has a list price of US$19.95 and is listed at this writing at US$18.05 at Amazon. The Heinlein interview was sufficiently enlightening I was willing to put up with the production values, which made something which ought to be a triumph look just shabby and sad, but then I obtained the Kindle edition for free (see below). If I'd paid full freight for the paperback, I'm not sure even my usually mellow disposition would have remained unperturbed by the desecration of the words of an author I cherish and the feeling my pocket had been picked.

The Kindle edition is available for free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

July 2017 Permalink

Scott, William B., Michael J. Coumatos, and William J. Birnes. Space Wars. New York: Forge, 2007. ISBN 0-765-31379-0.
I believe it was Jerry Pournelle who observed that a Special Forces operative in Afghanistan on horseback is, with his GPS target designator and satellite communications link to an F-16 above, the closest thing in our plane of existence to an angel of death. But, take away the space assets, and he's just a guy on a horse.

The increasing dependence of the U.S. military on space-based reconnaissance, signal intelligence, navigation and precision guidance, missile warning, and communications platforms has caused concern among strategic thinkers about the risk of an “asymmetrical attack” against them by an adversary. The technology needed to disable them is far less sophisticated and easier to acquire than the space assets, and the impact of their loss will disproportionately impact the U.S., which has fully integrated them into its operations. This novel, by a former chief wargamer of the U.S. Space Command (Coumatos), the editor-in-chief of Aviation Week and Space Technology (Scott), and co-author Birnes, uses a near-term fictional scenario set in 2010 to explore the vulnerabilities of military space and make the case for both active defence of these platforms and the ability to hold at risk the space-based assets of adversaries even if doing so gets the airheads all atwitter about “weapons in space” (as if a GPS constellation which lets you drop a bomb down somebody's chimney isn't a weapon). The idea, then, was to wrap the cautionary tale and policy advocacy in a Tom Clancy-style thriller which would reach a wider audience than a dull Pentagon briefing presentation.

The reality, however, as embodied in the present book, is simply a mess. I can't help but notice that the publisher, Forge, is an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates, best known for their Tor science fiction books. As I have observed earlier in comments about the recent novels by Orson Scott Card and Heinlein and Robinson, Doherty doesn't seem to pay much attention to copy editing and fact checking, and this book illustrates the problem is not just confined to the Tor brand. In fact, after this slapdash effort, I'm coming to look at Doherty as something like Que computer books in the 1980s—the name on the spine is enough to persuade me to leave it on the shelf.

Some of the following might be considered very mild spoilers, but I'm not going to put them in a spoiler warning since they don't really give away major plot elements or the ending, such as it is. The real spoiler is knowing how sloppy the whole thing is, and once you appreciate that, you won't want to waste your time on it anyway. First of all, the novel is explicitly set in the month of April 2010, and yet the “feel” and the technological details are much further out. Basically, the technologies in place three years from now are the same we have today, especially for military technologies which have long procurement times and glacial Pentagon deployment schedules. Yet we're supposed to believe than in less than thirty-six months from today, the Air Force will be operating a two-storey, 75,000 square foot floor space computer containing “an array of deeply stacked parallel nanoprocessing circuits”, with spoken natural language programming and query capability (pp. 80–81). On pp. 212–220 we're told of a super weapon inspired by Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan which, having started its development as a jammer for police radar, is able to seize control of enemy unmanned aerial vehicles. And so protean is this weapon, its very name changes at random from SPECTRE to SCEPTRE from paragraph to paragraph.

The mythical Blackstar spaceplane figures in the story, described as incoherently as in co-author Scott's original cover story in Aviation Week. On p. 226 we're told the orbiter burns “boron-based gel fuel and atmospheric oxygen”, then on the very next page we hear of the “aerospike rocket engines”. Well, where do we start? A rocket does not burn atmospheric oxygen, but carries its own oxidiser. An aerospike is a kind of rocket engine nozzle, entirely different from the supersonic combustion ramjet one would expect on an spaceplane which used atmospheric oxygen. Further, the advantage of an aerospike is that it is efficient both at low and high altitudes, but there's no reason to use one on an orbiter which is launched at high altitude from a mother ship. And then on p. 334, the “aerospike” restarts in orbit, which you'll probably agree is pretty difficult to do when you're burning “atmospheric oxygen”, which is famously scarce at orbital altitudes.

Techno-gibberish is everywhere, reminiscent in verisimilitude to the dialogue in the television torture fantasy “24”. For example, “Yo' Jaba! Got a match on our parallel port. I am waaay cool!” (p. 247). On p. 174 a Rooskie no-goodnik finds orbital elements for U.S. satellites from “the American ‘space catalog’ she had hacked into through a Texas university's server”. Why not just go to CelesTrak, where this information has been available worldwide since 1985? The laws of orbital mechanics here differ from those of Newton; on p. 381, a satellite in a circular orbit “14,674 miles above sea level” is said to be orbiting at “17,500 MPH”. In fact, at this altitude orbital velocity is 4.35 km/sec or 9730 statute miles per hour. And astronauts in low earth orbit who lose their electrical power quickly freeze solid, “victims of space's hostile, unforgiving cold”. Actually, in intense sunlight for half of every orbit and with the warm Earth filling half the sky, getting rid of heat is the problem in low orbit. On pp. 285–290, an air-launched cruise missile is used to launch a blimp. Why not just let it go and let the helium do the job all by itself? On the political front, we're supposed to think that a spittle-flecked mullah raving that he was the incarnation of the Twelfth Imam, in the presence of the Supreme Leader and President of Iran, would not only escape being thrown in the dungeon, but walk out of the meeting with a go-ahead to launch a nuclear-tipped missile at a target in Europe. And there is much, much more like this.

I suppose it should have been a tip-off that the foreword was written by George Noory, who hosts the Coast to Coast AM radio program originally founded by Art Bell. Co-author Birnes was also co-author of the hilariously preposterous The Day After Roswell, which claims that key technologies in the second half of the twentieth century, including stealth aircraft and integrated circuits, were based on reverse-engineered alien technologies from a flying saucer which crashed in New Mexico in 1947. As stories go, Roswell, Texas seems more plausible, and a lot more fun, than this book.

May 2007 Permalink

Sheckley, Robert. The People Trap and Mindswap. New York: Ace Books, [1952–1966, 1968] 1981. ISBN 978-0-441-65874-9.
This “Ace Double” (albeit not in the classic dos-à-dos format, but simply concatenated) contains a collection of mostly unrelated short stories by Robert Sheckley, and the short novel Mindswap, which is an extraordinarily zany story even by the standards of the year in which it was written, 1966, which was a pretty zany year—perhaps Sheckley foresaw just how weird the next few years would get.

I bought this book because it contained a story I've remembered ever since I first read it four decades ago (and, even then, a decade after it was first published in Galaxy in 1953), “The Laxian Key”. In a century and a half of science fiction, this is the only exemplar of which I'm aware of a story based upon economics which is also riotously funny. I won't give away the plot, but just imagine the ultimate implications of “it's free!”.

These stories are gems from the era in which science fiction was truly the “literature of ideas”—it's the ideas that matter; don't look for character development or introspection: the characters are props for the idea that underlies each story. If you like this kind of thing, which I do enormously, here is a master at work at the apogee of the genre, when you could pick up any one of the science fiction magazines and find several stories that made you look at the world through glasses which presented reality in a very different light.

This book is long out of print, but used copies are readily available, often for less than the 1981 reprint cover price.

December 2008 Permalink

Simmons, Dan. Flashback. New York: Little, Brown, 2011. ISBN 978-0-316-00697-2.
In the fourth decade of the 21st century, all of the dire consequences predicted when the U.S. veered onto a “progressive” path in 2008 have come to pass. Exponentially growing entitlement spending and debt, a depreciating currency being steadily displaced as the world's reserve currency, and an increasingly hollowed-out military unable to shoulder the burdens it had previously assumed in maintaining world stability all came to a head on The Day It All Hit The Fan. What is left of the United States (the Republic of Texas has opted to go it alone, while the southwest has become Nuevo Mexico, seeking to expand its territory in the ongoing reconquista) has become a run-down, has-been nation. China, joined at the hip to the U.S. economy and financial system, collapsed along with the U.S., and its territory and resources are being fought over by superpowers Japan and India, with U.S. mercenaries employed by both sides. Japan, holder of a large portion of the debt on which the U.S. defaulted, has effectively foreclosed, sending in Japanese “Advisors” who, from fortified Green Zone compounds, are the ultimate authority in their regions.

Islamic powers, with nothing to fear from a neutered U.S., make good on their vow to wipe Israel off the map, and the New Global Caliphate is mobilising Islamic immigrant communities around the world to advance its goal of global conquest. With the present so grim, millions in the U.S. have become users of the drug “flashback”, which allows those who take it to relive earlier, happier times in their lives. While not physically addictive, the contrast between the happy experiences “under the flash” and the squalid present causes many to spend whatever money they can put their hands on to escape to the past.

Nick Bottom was a Denver police department detective in charge of the investigation of the murder of the son of the Japanese Advisor in charge of the region. The victim was working on a documentary on the impact of flashback on U.S. society when, at a wrap party for the film, he and his girlfriend were killed in what amounted to a locked room mystery. Nick found lead after lead evaporating in the mysterious doings of the Japanese, and while involved in the investigation, his wife was killed in a horrific automobile accident. This tipped him over the edge, and he turned to flashback to re-live his life with her, eventually costing him his job.

Five years later, out of the blue, the Japanese Advisor summons him and offers to employ him to re-open the investigation of his son's death. Since Nick interviewed all of the persons of interest in the investigation, only he has the ability to relive those interrogations under the flash, and thus is in a unique position to discover something he missed while distracted with the case load of a busy homicide cop.

This is a gritty gumshoe procedural set in an all-too-plausible future. (OK, the flashback drug may seem to be a reach, but researchers are already talking about memory editing drugs, so who knows?) Nick discovers that all of the mysteries that haunt him may be related in some way, and has to venture into dangerous corners of this new world to follow threads which might make sense of all the puzzles.

This is one of those novels where, as the pages dwindle, you wonder how the author is going to pull everything together and begin to fear you may be headed for a cliffhanger setting the stage for a sequel. But in the last few chapters all is revealed and resolved, concluding a thoroughly satisfying yarn. If you'd like to see how noir mystery, science fiction, and a dystopian future can be blended into a page-turner, here's how it's done.

November 2013 Permalink

Smith, Edward E. The Skylark of Space. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, [1928, 1946, 1947, 1950, 1958] 2001. ISBN 0-8032-9286-4.
“Doc” Smith revised the original 1928 edition of this book for each of four subsequent editions. This “Commemorative Edition” is a reprint of the most recent (1958) revision. It contains a variety of words: “fission”, “fusion”, “megaton”, "neutron", etc., which did not figure in the English language when the novel was completed in 1920 (it was not published until 1928). Earlier editions may have more of a “golden age” feel, but this was Smith's last word on the story. The original illustrations by O.G. Estes Jr. are reproduced, along with an introduction by Vernor Vinge which manages to misspell protagonist Richard Seaton's name throughout.

August 2002 Permalink

Smith, Edward E. Skylark Three. New York: Pyramid Books, [1930, 1948] 1963. ISBN 0-515-02233-0.
This book is out of print; use the link above to locate used paperback copies, which are cheap and abundant. An illustrated reprint edition is scheduled for publication in 2003 by the University of Nebraska Press as ISBN 0-8032-9303-8.

December 2002 Permalink

Smith, Edward E. Skylark of Valeron. New York: Pyramid Books, [1934, 1935, 1949] 1963. LCCN  49-008714.
This book is out of print; use the link above to locate used copies. Paperbacks published in the 1960s and 70s are available in perfectly readable condition at modest cost—compare the offers, however, since some sellers quote outrageous prices for these mass-market paperbacks. University of Nebraska Press are in the process of re-issuing “Doc” Smith's Skylark novels, but they haven't yet gotten to this one.

March 2003 Permalink

Smith, Edward E. Skylark DuQuesne. New York: Pyramid Books, 1965. ISBN 0-515-03050-3.
This book is out of print; use the link above to locate used copies. Paperbacks are readily available in readable condition at modest cost. The ISBN given here is for a hardback dumped on the market at a comparable price by a library with no appreciation of the classics of science fiction. Unless you have the luck I did in finding such a copy, you're probably better off looking for a paperback.

May 2003 Permalink

Smith, Edward E. Triplanetary. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, [1948] 1997. ISBN 1-882968-09-3.
Summer's here (though you'd never guess from the thermometer), and the time is right for some light reading, so I've begun my fourth lifetime traverse of Doc Smith's Lensman series, which now, by Klono's gadolinium guts, has been re-issued by Old Earth Books in trade paperback facsimiles of the original Fantasy Press editions, complete with all illustrations. The snarky foreword, where John Clute, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, shows off his pretentious post-modern vocabulary and scorn for the sensibilities of an author born in 1890, is best skipped.

June 2004 Permalink

Smith, Edward E. First Lensman. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, [1950] 1997. ISBN 1-882968-10-7.
There's no better way to escape for a brief respite from the world of session persistence, subnet masks, stateful fallover, gratuitous ARP packets, and the like than some coruscating, actinic space opera, and nobody does it better than the guy who invented it, Doc Smith. About every decade I re-read the Lensman series, of which this is the second of six volumes (seven if you count Masters of the Vortex) and never cease to be amazed at Smith's talent for thinking big—really big. I began this fourth expedition through the Lensman saga with the first installment, Triplanetary, in June 2004. Old Earth Books are to be commended for this reprint, which is a facsimile of the original 1950 Fantasy Press edition including all the illustrations.

February 2005 Permalink

Smith, Edward E. Galactic Patrol. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, [1937-1938, 1950] 1998. ISBN 1-882968-11-5.
Although this is the third volume of the Lensman series, it was written first; Triplanetary (June 2004) and First Lensman (February 2005) are “prequels”, written more than a decade after Galactic Patrol ran in serial form in Astounding Science Fiction beginning in September 1937. This was before John W. Campbell, Jr. assumed the editor's chair, the event usually considered to mark the beginning of the Golden Age of science fiction. This volume is a facsimile of the illustrated 1950 Fantasy Press edition, which was revised somewhat by the author from the original magazine version.

While I enjoy the earlier books, and read them in order in this fourth lifetime trip through the saga, Galactic Patrol is where the story really takes off for me. If you're new to Doc Smith, you might want to begin here to experience space opera at its best, then go back and read the two slower-paced prior installments afterward. Having been written first, this novel is completely self-contained; everything introduced in the earlier books is fully explained when it appears here.

March 2005 Permalink

Smith, Edward E. Gray Lensman. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, [1939-1940, 1951] 1998. ISBN 1-882968-12-3.
This is the fourth volume of the Lensman series, following Triplanetary (June 2004), First Lensman (February 2005), and Galactic Patrol (March 2005). Gray Lensman ran in serial form in Astounding Science Fiction from October 1939 through January 1940. This book is a facsimile of the illustrated 1951 Fantasy Press edition, which was revised somewhat from the original magazine serial.

Gray Lensman is one of the most glittering nuggets of the Golden Age of science fiction. In this story, Doc Smith completely redefined the standard for thinking big and created an arena for the conflict between civilisation and chaos that's larger than a galaxy. This single novel has more leaps of the imagination than some other authors content themselves with in their entire careers. Here we encounter the “primary projector”: a weapon which can only be used when no enemy can possibly survive or others observe because the mere knowledge that it exists may compromise its secret (this, in a story written more that a decade before the first hydrogen bomb); the “negasphere”: an object which, while described as based on antimatter, is remarkably similar to a black hole (first described by J.R. Oppenheimer and H. Snyder in 1939, the same year the serial began to run in Astounding); the hyper-spatial tube (like a traversable wormhole); the Grand Fleet (composed of one million combat units); the Z9M9Z Directrix command ship, with its “tank” display 700 feet wide by 80 feet thick able to show the tactical situation in an entire galaxy at once; directed planetary impact weapons; a multi-galactic crime syndicate; insects and worms as allies of the good guys; organ regeneration; and more. Once you've experienced the Doc Smith universe, the Star Wars Empire may feel small and antiquated.

This edition contains two Forewords: the author's original, intended to bring readers who haven't read the earlier books up to speed, and a snarky postmodern excretion by John Clute which is best skipped. If you're reading the Lensman series for the first time (this is my fourth), it's best to start either at the beginning with Triplanetary, or with Galactic Patrol, which was written first and stands on its own, not depending on any of the material introduced in the first two “prequel” volumes.

August 2005 Permalink

Smith, Edward E. Second Stage Lensmen. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, [1941–1942, 1953] 1998. ISBN 1-882968-13-1.
This is the fifth installment of the Lensman series, following Triplanetary (June 2004), First Lensman (February 2005), Galactic Patrol (March 2005), and Gray Lensman (August 2005). Second Stage Lensmen ran in serial form in Astounding Science Fiction from November 1941 through February 1942. This book is a facsimile of the illustrated 1953 Fantasy Press edition, which was revised from the original magazine serial.

The only thing I found disappointing when rereading this book in my fourth lifetime expedition through the Lensman saga is knowing there's only one volume of the main story remaining—but what a yarn that is. In Second Stage Lensmen, Doc Smith more overtly adopts the voice of “historian of civilisation” and from time to time departs from straight story-telling to describe off-stage action, discuss his “source material”, and grouse about Galactic Patrol secrecy depriving him of important documents. Still, there's enough rays and shields space opera action for three or four normal novels, although the focus increasingly shifts from super-weapons and shoot-em-ups to mental combat, indirection, and espionage.

It's here we first meet Nadreck, one of the most fascinating of Doc Smith's creations: a poison-breathing cryogenic being who extends into the fourth dimension and considers cowardice and sloth among his greatest virtues. His mind, however, like Kinnison's, honed to second stage Lensman capability by Mentor of Arisia, is both powerful and subtle, and Nadreck a master of boring within without the villains even suspecting his presence. He gets the job done, despite never being satisfied with his “pitifully imperfect” performance. I've known programmers like that.

Some mystery and thriller writers complain of how difficult the invention of mobile phones has made their craft. While it used to be easy for characters to be out of touch and operating with incomplete and conflicting information, now the reader immediately asks, “Why didn't she just pick up the phone and ask?” But in the Lensman universe, both the good guys and (to a lesser extent) the blackguards have instantaneous, mind-to-mind high bandwidth communication on an intergalactic scale, and such is Doc Smith's mastery of his craft that it neither reduces the suspense nor strains the plot, and he makes it look almost effortless.

Writing in an age where realistic women of any kind were rare in science fiction, Smith was known for his strong female characters—on p. 151 he observes, “Indeed, it has been argued that sexual equality is the most important criterion of that which we know as Civilization”—no postmodern multi-culti crapola here! Some critics carped that his women characters were so strong and resourceful they were just male heroes without the square jaws and broad shoulders. So here, probably in part just to show he can do it, we have Illona of Lonabar, a five-sigma airhead bimbo (albeit with black hair, not blonde), and the mind-murdering matriarchy of Lyrane, who have selectively bred their males to be sub-sentient dwarves with no function other than reproduction.

The author's inexhaustible imagination manages to keep these stories up to date, even more than half a century on. While the earlier volumes stressed what would decades later be called low-observable or stealth technology, in this outing he anticipates today's hot Pentagon buzzword, “network-centric warfare”: the grand battles here are won not by better weapons or numbers, but by the unique and top secret information technology of the Z9M9Z Directrix command vessel. The bizarre excursion into “Nth-space” may have seemed over the top to readers in the 1940s, but today it's reminiscent of another valley in the cosmic landscape of string theory.

Although there is a fifteen page foreword by the author which recaps the story to date, you don't really want to start with this volume: there's just too much background and context you'll have missed. It's best either to start at the beginning with Triplanetary or, if you'd rather defer the two slower-paced “prequels”, with Volume 3, Galactic Patrol, which was the first written and can stand alone.

April 2006 Permalink

Smith, Edward E. Children of the Lens. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, [1947–1948, 1954] 1998. ISBN 1-882968-14-X.
This is the sixth and final installment of the Lensman series, following Triplanetary (June 2004), First Lensman (February 2005), Galactic Patrol (March 2005), Gray Lensman (August 2005), and Second Stage Lensmen (April 2006). Children of the Lens appeared in serial form in Astounding Science Fiction from November 1947 through February 1948. This book is a facsimile of the illustrated 1954 Fantasy Press edition, which was revised from the magazine edition. (Masters of the Vortex [originally titled The Vortex Blaster] is set in the Lensman universe, but is not part of the Galactic Patrol saga; it's a fine yarn, and I look forward to re-reading it, but the main story ends here.)

Twenty years have passed since the events chronicled in Second Stage Lensmen, and the five children—son Christopher, and the two pairs of fraternal twin daughters Kathryn, Karen, Camilla, and Constance—of Gray Lensman Kimball Kinnison and his wife Clarissa, the sole female Lens… er…person in the universe are growing to maturity. The ultimate products of a selective breeding program masterminded over millennia by the super-sages of planet Arisia, they have, since childhood, had the power to link their minds directly even to the forbidding intelligences of the Second Stage Lensmen.

Despite the cataclysmic events which concluded Second Stage Lensmen, mayhem in the galaxies continues, and as this story progresses it becomes clear to the Children of the Lens that they, and the entire Galactic Patrol, have been forged for the final battle between good and evil which plays out in these pages. But all is not coruscating, actinic detonations and battles of super minds; Doc Smith leavens the story with humour, and even has some fun at his own expense when he has the versatile Kimball Kinnison write a space opera potboiler, “Its terrible xmex-like snout locked on. Its zymolosely polydactile tongue crunched out, crashed down, rasped across. Slurp! Slurp! … Fools! Did they think that the airlessness of absolute space, the heatlessness of absolute zero, the yieldlessness of absolute neutronium could stop QADGOP THE MERCOTAN?” (p. 37).

This concludes my fourth lifetime traverse of this epic, and it never, ever disappoints. Since I first read it more than thirty years ago, I have considered Children of the Lens one of the very best works of science fiction ever, and this latest reading reinforces that conviction. It is, of course, the pinnacle of a story spanning billions of years, hundreds of billions of planets, innumerable species, a multitude of parallel universes, absolute good and unadulterated evil, and more than 1500 pages, so if you jump into the story near the end, you're likely to end up perplexed, not enthralled. It's best either to start at the beginning with Triplanetary or, if you'd rather skip the two slower-paced “prequels”, with Volume 3, Galactic Patrol, which was the first written and can stand alone.

April 2007 Permalink

Smith, Edward E. Masters of the Vortex. New York: Pyramid Books, [1960] 1968. ISBN 978-0-515-02230-8.
This novel is set in the Galactic Patrol universe, but is not part of the Lensman saga—the events take place an unspecified time after the conclusion of that chronicle. Galactic civilisation depends upon atomic power, but as Robert A. Heinlein (to whom this book is dedicated) observed, “Blowups Happen”, and for inexplicable reasons atomic power stations randomly erupt into deadly self-sustaining nuclear vortices, threatening to ultimately consume the planets they ravage. (Note that in the technophilic and optimistic universe of the Galactic Patrol, and the can-do society its creator inhabited, the thought that such a downside of an energy technology essential to civilisation would cause its renunciation never enters the mind.)

When a freak vortex accident kills ace nucleonicist Neal Cloud's family, he swears a personal vendetta against the vortices and vows to destroy them or be destroyed trying. This mild-mannered scientist who failed the Lensman entry examination re-invents himself as “Storm Cloud, the Vortex Blaster”, and in his eponymous ship flits off to rid the galaxy of the atomic plague. This is Doc Smith space opera, so you can be sure there are pirates, zwilniks, crooked politicians, blasters, space axes, and aliens of all persuasions in abundance—not to mention timeless dialogue like:

“Eureka! Good evening, folks.”
“Eureka? I hope you rot in hell, Graves…”
“This isn't Graves. Cloud. Storm Cloud, the Vortex Blaster, investigating…”
“Oh, Bob, the patrol!” the girl screamed.

It wouldn't be Doc Smith if it weren't prophetic, and in this book published in the year in which the Original Nixon was to lose the presidential election to John F. Kennedy, we catch a hint of a “New Nixon” as the intrepid Vortex Blaster visits the planet Nixson II on p. 77. While not as awe inspiring in scope as the Lensman novels, this is a finely crafted yarn which combines a central puzzle with many threads exploring characteristics of alien cultures (never cross an adolescent cat-woman from Vegia!), the ultimate power of human consciousness, and the eternal question never far from the mind of the main audience of science fiction: whether a nerdy brainiac can find a soulmate somewhere out there in the spacelanes.

If you're unacquainted with the Lensman universe, this is not the place to start, but once you've worked your way through, it's a delightful lagniappe to round out the epic. Unlike the Lensman series, this book remains out of print. Used copies are readily available although sometimes pricey. For those with access to the gizmo, a Kindle edition is available.

February 2009 Permalink

Smith, George O. Venus Equilateral. New York: Del Rey, [1942-1945, 1947, 1976] 1980. ISBN 0-345-28953-6.
During World War II the author worked on one of the most outrageous (and successful) electrical engineering projects of all time—a vacuum tube radio set manufactured in the tens of thousands, designed to be fired from an artillery piece, withstanding an initial acceleration of 20,000 gravities and spinning at 500 revolutions per second—the radio proximity fuze. To relax, he wrote the Venus Equilateral stories, published in Astounding Science Fiction and collected in this volume along with a retrospective written in 1973 for an anthology in memory of long-time Astounding/Analog editor John W. Campbell, Jr.

If you like your science fiction hard, this is about as geeky as it gets:

“The nice thing about this betatron,” said Channing, “is the fact that it can and does run both ends on the same supply. The current and voltage phases are correct so that we do not require two supplies which operate in a carefully balanced condition. The cyclotron is one of the other kinds; though the one supply is strictly D.C., the strength of the field must be controlled separately from the supply to the oscillator that runs the D plates. You're sitting on a fence, juggling knobs and stuff all the time you are bombarding with a cyc.” (From “Recoil”, p. 95)
Notwithstanding such passages, and how quaint an interplanetary radio relay station based on vacuum tubes with a staff of 2700 may seem to modern readers, these are human stories which are, on occasions, breathtaking in their imagination and modernity. The account of the impact of an “efficiency expert” on a technology-based operation in “QRM—Interplanetary” is as trenchant (and funny) as anything in Dilbert. The pernicious effect of abusive patent litigation on innovation, the economics of a technological singularity created by what amounts to a nanotechnological assembler, and the risk of identity theft, are the themes of other stories which it's difficult to imagine having been written half a century ago, along with timeless insights into engineering. One, in particular, from “Firing Line” (p. 259) so struck me when I read it thirty-odd years ago that it has remained in my mind ever since as one of the principal differences between the engineer and the tinkerer, “They know one simple rule about the universe. That rule is that if anything works once, it may be made to work again.” The tinkerer is afraid to touch something once it mysteriously starts to work; an engineer is eager to tear it apart and figure out why. I found the account of the end of Venus Equilateral in “Mad Holiday” disturbing when I first read it, but now see it as a celebration of technological obsolescence as an integral part of progress, to be welcomed, and the occasion for a blow-out party, not long faces and melancholy.

Arthur C. Clarke, who contributes the introduction to this collection, read these stories while engaged in his own war work, in copies of Astounding sent from America by Willy Ley, acknowledges that these tales of communication relays in space may have played a part in his coming up with that idea.

This book is out of print, but inexpensive used copies are readily available.

September 2005 Permalink

Smith, L. Neil. The WarDove. Culver City, California: Pulpless.Com, [1986] 1999. ISBN 1-58445-027-4.

December 2001 Permalink

Smith, L. Neil. The American Zone. New York: Tor Books, 2001. ISBN 0-312-87369-7.

February 2002 Permalink

Smith, L. Neil. Ceres. Unpublished manuscript, January 2005.
I read this book in manuscript form; I'll add the ISBN when it is published. An online plot summary is available.

January 2005 Permalink

Smith, L. Neil. The Lando Calrissian Adventures. New York: Del Rey, [1983] 1994. ISBN 0-345-39110-1.
This volume collects together the three Lando Calrissian short novels: Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu, Lando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Oseon, and Lando Calrissian and the StarCave of ThonBoka, originally published separately in 1983 and now out of print (but readily available second-hand). All three novels together are just 409 mass market paperback pages. I wouldn't usually bother with an item of Star Wars merchandising, but as these yarns were written by one of my favourite science fiction authors, exalted cosmic libertarian L. Neil Smith, I was curious to see what he'd make of a character created by the Lucas organisation. It's pretty good, especially as a gentle introduction for younger readers who might be more inclined to read a story with a Star Wars hook than the more purely libertarian (although no more difficult to read) The Probability Broach (now available in a comic book edition!) or Pallas.

The three novels, which form a continuous story arc and are best read in order, are set in the period after Lando has won the Millennium Falcon in a card game but before he encounters Han Solo and loses the ship to him the same way. Lando is the only character in the Star Wars canon who appears here; if the name of the protagonist and ship were changed, one would scarcely guess the setting was the Star Wars universe, although parts of the “back-story” are filled in here and there, such as how a self-described interstellar gambler and con artiste came to be an expert starship pilot, why the steerable quad-guns on the Falcon “recoil” when they fire like World War II ack-ack guns, and how Lando laid his hands on enough money to “buy an entire city” (p. 408).

Lando's companion in all the adventures is the droid Vuffi Raa, also won in a card game, who is a full-fledged character and far more intriguing than any of the droids in the Star Wars movies. Unlike the stilted and mechanical robots of the films, Vuffi Raa is a highly dextrous starfish-like creature, whose five fractal-branching tentacles can detach and work independently, and who has human-level intelligence, a mysterious past (uncovered as the story progresses), and ethical conflicts between his built-in pacifism and moral obligation to his friends when they are threatened. (The cover art is hideous; Vuffi Raa, an elegant and lithe creature in the story, is shown as something like a squared-off R2-D2 with steel dreadlocks.) Now that computer graphics permits bringing to film any character the mind can imagine, Vuffi Raa would make a marvelous addition to a movie: for once, a robot fully as capable as a human without being even remotely humanoid.

The first novel is more or less straightforward storytelling, while the second and third put somewhat more of a libertarian edge on things. StarCave of ThonBoka does an excellent job of demonstrating how a large organisation built on fear and coercion, regardless how formidably armed, is vulnerable to those who think and act for themselves. This is a theme which fits perfectly with the Star Wars movies which occur in this era, but cannot be more than hinted at within the constraints of a screenplay.

August 2005 Permalink

Smith, L. Neil. Blade of p'Na. Rockville, MD: Phoenix Pick, 2017. ISBN 978-1-61242-218-3.
This novel is set in the “Elders” universe, originally introduced in the 1990 novels Contact and Commune and Converse and Conflict, and now collected in an omnibus edition with additional material, Forge of the Elders. Around four hundred million years ago the Elders, giant mollusc-like aquatic creatures with shells the size of automobiles, conquered aging, and since then none has died except due to accident or violence. And precious few have succumbed to those causes: accident because the big squid are famously risk averse, and violence because, after a societal adolescence in which they tried and rejected many political and economic bad ideas, they settled on p'Na as the central doctrine of their civilisation: the principle that nobody has the right to initiate physical force against anybody else for any reason—much like the Principle of Non-Aggression, don't you know.

On those rare occasions order is disturbed, the services of a p'Nan “debt assessor” are required. Trained in the philosophy of p'Na, martial arts, psychology, and burnished through a long apprenticeship, assessors are called in either after an event in which force has been initiated or by those contemplating a course which might step over the line. The assessor has sole discretion in determining culpability, the form and magnitude of restitution due, and when no other restitution is possible, enforcing the ultimate penalty on the guilty. The assessor's sword, the Blade of p'Na, is not just a badge of office but the means of restitution in such cases.

The Elders live on one of a multitude, possibly infinite, parallel Earths in a multiverse where each planet's history has diverged due to contingent events in its past. Some millennia after adopting p'Na, they discovered the means of observing, then moving among these different universes and their variant Earths. Some millennia after achieving biological immortality and peace through p'Na, their curiosity and desire for novelty prompted them to begin collecting beings from across the multiverse. Some were rescues of endangered species, while others would be more accurately described as abductions. They referred to this with the euphemism of “appropriation”, as if that made any difference. The new arrivals: insectoid, aquatic, reptilian, mammalian, avian, and even sentient plants, mostly seemed happy in their new world, where the Elders managed to create the most diverse and peaceful society known in the universe.

This went on for a million years or so until, just like the revulsion against slavery in the 19th century in our timeline, somesquid happened to notice that the practice violated the fundamental principle of their society. Appropriations immediately ceased, debt assessors were called in, and before long all of the Elders implicated in appropriation committed suicide (some with a little help). But that left the question of restitution to the appropriated. Dumping them back into their original universes, often war-torn, barbarous, primitive, or with hostile and unstable environments after up to a million years of peace and prosperity on the Elders' planet didn't make the ethical cut. They settled on granting full citizenship to all the appropriated, providing them the gift of biological immortality, cortical implants to upgrade the less sentient to full intelligence, and one more thing…. The Elders had developed an unusual property: the tips of their tentacles could be detached and sent on errands on behalf of their parent bodies. While not fully sentient, the tentacles could, by communicating via cortical implants, do all kinds of useful work and allow the Elders to be in multiple places at once (recall that the Elders, like terrestrial squid, have ten tentacles—if they had twelve, they'd call them twelvicles, wouldn't they?). So for each of the appropriated species, the Elders chose an appropriate symbiote who, upgraded in intelligence and self-awareness and coupled to the host by their own implant, provided a similar benefit to them. For humanoids, it was dogs, or their species' canids.

(You might think that all of this constitutes spoilers, but it's just the background for the Elders' universe which is laid out in the first few chapters for the benefit of readers who haven't read the earlier books in the series.)

Hundreds of millions of years after the Great Restitution Eichra Oren (those of his humanoid species always use both names) is a p'Na debt assessor. His symbiote, Oasam Otusam, a super-intelligent, indiscriminately libidinous, and wisecracking dog, prefers to go by “Sam”. So peaceful is the planet of the Elders that most of the cases Eichra Oren is called upon to resolve are routine and mundane, such as the current client, an arachnid about the size of a dinner table, seeking help in tracking down her fiancé, who has vanished three days before the wedding. This raises some ethical issues because, among their kind, traditionally “Saying ‘I do’ is the same as saying ‘bon appétit’ ”. Many, among sapient spiders, have abandoned the Old Ways, but some haven't. After discussion, in which Sam says, “You realize that in the end, she's going to eat him”, they decide, nonetheless, to take the case.

The caseload quickly grows as the assessor is retained by investors in a project led by an Elder named Misterthoggosh, whose fortune comes from importing reality TV from other universes (there is no multiverse copyright convention—the p'Na is cool with cultural appropriation) and distributing it to the multitude of species on the Elders' world. He (little is known of the Elders' biology…some say the females are non-sentient and vestigial) is now embarking on a new project, and the backers want a determination by an assessor that it will not violate p'Na, for which they would be jointly and separately responsible. The lead investor is a star-nosed mole obsessed by golf.

Things become even more complicated after a mysterious attack which appears to have been perpetrated by the “greys”, creatures who inhabit the mythology and nightmares of a million sapient species, and the suspicion and fear that somewhere else in the multiverse, another species has developed the technology of opening gates between universes, something so far achieved only by the now-benign Elders, with wicked intent by the newcomers.

What follows is a romp filled with interesting questions. Should you order the vegan plate in a restaurant run by intelligent plants? What are the ethical responsibilities of a cyber-assassin who is conscious yet incapable of refusing orders to kill? What is a giant squid's idea of a pleasure yacht? If two young spiders are amorously attracted, it only pupæ love? The climax forces the characters to confront the question of the extent to which beings which are part of a hive mind are responsible for the actions of the collective.

L. Neil Smith's books have sometimes been criticised for being preachy libertarian tracts with a garnish of science fiction. I've never found them to be such, but you certainly can't accuse this one of that. It's set in a world governed for æons by the principle of non-aggression, but that foundation of civil society works so well that it takes an invasion from another universe to create the conflict which is central to the plot. Readers are treated to the rich and sometime zany imagination of a world inhabited by almost all imaginable species where the only tensions among them are due to atavistic instincts such as those of dogs toward tall plants, combined with the humour, ranging from broad to wry, of our canine narrator, Sam.

July 2017 Permalink

Smith, L. Neil and Scott Bieser. The Probability Broach: The Graphic Novel. Round Rock, TX: Big Head Press, 2004. ISBN 0-9743814-1-1.
What a tremendous idea! Here is L. Neil Smith's classic libertarian science fiction novel, Prometheus Award winning The Probability Broach, transformed into a comic book—er—graphic novel—with story by Smith and artwork by Scott Bieser. The artwork and use of colour are delightful—particularly how Win Bear's home world is rendered in drab collectivist grey and the North American Confederacy in vibrant hues. Lucy Kropotkin looks precisely as I'd imagined her. Be sure to look at all the detail and fine print in the large multi-panel spreads. After enjoying a couple of hours back in the Confederacy, why not order copies to give to all the kids in the family who've never thought about what it would be like to live in a world where free individuals entirely owned their own lives?

January 2005 Permalink

Smith, L. Neil, Rex F. May, Scott Bieser, and Jen Zach. Roswell, Texas. Round Rock, TX: Big Head Press, [2007] 2008. ISBN 978-0-9743814-5-9.
I have previously mentioned this story and even posted a puzzle based upon it. This was based upon the online edition, which remains available for free. For me, reading anything, including a comic book (sorry—“graphic novel”), online a few pages a week doesn't count as reading worthy of inclusion in this list, so I deferred listing it until I had time to enjoy the trade paperback edition, which has been sitting on my shelf for several months after its June 2008 release.

This rollicking, occasionally zany, alternative universe story is set in the libertarian Federated States of Texas, where, as in our own timeline, something distinctly odd happens on July 4th, 1947 on a ranch outside the town of Roswell. As rumours spread around the world, teams from the Federated States, the United States, the California Republic, the Franco-Mexican Empire, Nazi Britain, and others set out to discover the truth and exploit the information for their own benefit. Involved in the scheming and race to the goal are this universe's incarnations of Malcolm Little, Meir Kahane, Marion Morrison, Eliot Ness, T. E. Lawrence, Walt Disney, Irène Joliot-Curie, Karol Wojtyla, Gene Roddenberry, and Audie Murphy, among many others. We also encounter a most curious character from an out of the way place L. Neil Smith fans will recall fondly.

The graphic format works very well with the artfully-constructed story. Be sure to scan each panel for little details—there are many, and easily missed if you focus only on the text. The only disappointment in this otherwise near-perfect entertainment is that readers of the online edition will be dismayed to discover that all of the beautiful colour applied by Jen Zach has been flattened out (albeit very well) into grey scale in the print edition. Due to the higher resolution of print, you can still make out things in the book edition which aren't discernible online, but it's a pity to lose the colour. The publisher has explained the economic reasons which compelled this decision, which make perfect sense. Should a “premium edition” come along, I'll be glad to part with US$40 for a full colour copy.

January 2009 Permalink

Spinrad, Norman. Bug Jack Barron. Golden, CO: ReAnimus Press, [1969] 2011. ISBN 978-1-585675-85-2.
In his Berkeley Baby Bolshevik days Jack Barron dreamt of power—power to change the world. Years later, he has power, but of a very different kind. As host of the weekly television show “Bug Jack Barron”, he sits in the catbird seat, taking carefully screened calls from those abused by impersonal organisations and putting those in charge in the hot seat, live via vidphone, with no tape delay. One hundred million people tune in to the show, so whatever bugs the caller, bugs Jack Barron, and immediately bugs America.

Jack's Berkeley crowd, veterans of the civil rights battles, mostly consider him a sell-out, although they have sold out in their own ways to the realities of power and politics. But when Jack crosses swords with Benedict Howards, he is faced with an adversary of an entirely different order of magnitude than any he has previously encountered. Howards is president of the Foundation for Human Immortality, which operates centres which freeze the bodies of departed clients and funds research into the technologies which will allow them to be revived and achieve immortality. Only the well-heeled need apply: a freezer contract requires one to deposit US$500,000 (this is in 1969 gold dollars; in 2012 ObamaBucks, the equivalent is in excess of three million). With around a million people already frozen, Howards sits on half a trillion dollars (three trillion today), and although this money is nominally held in trust to be refunded to the frozen after their revival, Howards is in fact free to use the proceeds of investing it as he wishes. You can buy almost anything with that kind of money, politicians most definitely included.

Howards is pushing to have his foundation declared a regulated monopoly, forcing competitors out of the market and placing its governance under a committee appointed by the president of the United States. Barron takes on Howards with a call from a person claiming he was denied a freezer contract due to his race, and sets up a confrontation with Howards in which Barron has to decide whether his own integrity has a price and, if so, what it is. As he digs into Howards' foundation, he stumbles upon details which hint of secrets so shocking they might overturn the political landscape in the U.S. But that may only be the tip of the iceberg.

This is one of the iconic novels of “new wave” science fiction from the late 1960s. It is written in what was then called an “experimental”, stream of consciousness style, with paragraphs like:

The undulating blue-green light writhing behind her like a forest of tentacles the roar of the surf like the sigh of some great beached and expiring sea animal, seemed to press her against the glass reality-interface like a bubble being forced up by decay-gas pressure from the depths of an oily green swamp pool. She felt the weight, the pressure of the whole room pushing behind her as if the blind green monsters that lurked in the most unknowable pits in the ass-end of her mind were bubbling up from the depths and elbowing her consciousness out of her own skull.

Back in the day, we'd read something like this and say, “Oh, wow”. Today, many readers may deem such prose stylings as quaint as those who say “Oh, wow”.

This novel is a period piece. Reading it puts you back into the mindset of the late 1960s, when few imagined that technologies already in nascent form would destroy the power of one-to-many media oligopolies, and it was wrong in almost all of its extrapolation of the future. If you read it then (as I did) and thought it was a masterpiece (as I did), it may be worth a second glance to see how far we've come.

February 2013 Permalink

Steele, Allen. Arkwright. New York: Tor, 2016. ISBN 978-0-7653-8215-3.
Nathan Arkwright was one of the “Big Four” science fiction writers of the twentieth century, along with Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein. Launching his career in the Golden Age of science fiction, he created the Galaxy Patrol space adventures, with 17 novels from 1950 to 1988, a radio drama, television series, and three movies. The royalties from his work made him a wealthy man. He lived quietly in his home in rural Massachusetts, dying in 2006.

Arkwright was estranged from his daughter and granddaughter, Kate Morressy, a freelance science journalist. Kate attends the funeral and meets Nathan's long-term literary agent, Margaret (Maggie) Krough, science fiction writer Harry Skinner, and George Hallahan, a research scientist long involved with military and aerospace projects. After the funeral, the three meet with Kate, and Maggie explains that Arkwright's will bequeaths all of his assets including future royalties from his work to the non-profit Arkwright Foundation, which Kate is asked to join as a director representing the family. She asks the mission of the foundation, and Maggie responds by saying it's a long and complicated story which is best answered by her reading the manuscript of Arkwright's unfinished autobiography, My Life in the Future.

It is some time before Kate gets around to reading the manuscript. When she does, she finds herself immersed in the Golden Age of science fiction, as her father recounts attending the first World's Science Fiction Convention in New York in 1939. An avid science fiction fan and aspiring writer, Arkwright rubs elbows with figures he'd known only as names in magazines such as Fred Pohl, Don Wollheim, Cyril Kornbluth, Forrest Ackerman, and Isaac Asimov. Quickly learning that at a science fiction convention it isn't just elbows that rub but also egos, he runs afoul of one of the clique wars that are incomprehensible to those outside of fandom and finds himself ejected from the convention, sitting down for a snack at the Automat across the street with fellow banished fans Maggie, Harry, and George. The four discuss their views of the state of science fiction and their ambitions, and pledge to stay in touch. Any group within fandom needs a proper name, and after a brief discussion “The Legion of Tomorrow” was born. It would endure for decades.

The manuscript comes to an end, leaving Kate still in 1939. She then meets in turn with the other three surviving members of the Legion, who carry the story through Arkwright's long life, and describe the events which shaped his view of the future and the foundation he created. Finally, Kate is ready to hear the mission of the foundation—to make the future Arkwright wrote about during his career a reality—to move humanity off the planet and enter the era of space colonisation, and not just the planets but, in time, the stars. And the foundation will be going it alone. As Harry explains (p. 104), “It won't be made public, and there won't be government involvement either. We don't want this to become another NASA project that gets scuttled because Congress can't get off its dead ass and give it decent funding.”

The strategy is bet on the future: invest in the technologies which will be needed for and will profit from humanity's expansion from the home planet, and then reinvest the proceeds in research and development and new generations of technology and enterprises as space development proceeds. Nobody expects this to be a short-term endeavour: decades or generations may be required before the first interstellar craft is launched, but the structure of the foundation is designed to persist for however long it takes. Kate signs on, “Forward the Legion.”

So begins a grand, multi-generation saga chronicling humanity's leap to the stars. Unlike many tales of interstellar flight, no arm-waving about faster than light warp drives or other technologies requiring new physics is invoked. Based upon information presented at the DARPA/NASA 100 Year Starship Symposium in 2011 and the 2013 Starship Century conference, the author uses only technologies based upon well-understood physics which, if economic growth continues on the trajectory of the last century, are plausible for the time in the future at which the story takes place. And lest interstellar travel and colonisation be dismissed as wasteful, no public resources are spent on it: coercive governments have neither the imagination nor the attention span to achieve such grand and long-term goals. And you never know how important the technological spin-offs from such a project may prove in the future.

As noted, the author is scrupulous in using only technologies consistent with our understanding of physics and biology and plausible extrapolations of present capabilities. There are a few goofs, which I'll place behind the curtain since some are plot spoilers.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
On p. 61, a C-53 transport plane is called a Dakota. The C-53 is a troop transport variant of the C-47, referred to as the Skytrooper. But since the planes were externally almost identical, the observer may have confused them. “Dakota” was the RAF designation for the C-47; the U.S. Army Air Forces called it the Skytrain.

On the same page, planes arrive from “Kirtland Air Force Base in Texas”. At the time, the facility would have been called “Kirtland Field”, part of the Albuquerque Army Air Base, which is located in New Mexico, not Texas. It was not renamed Kirtland Air Force Base until 1947.

In the description of the launch of Apollo 17 on p. 71, after the long delay, the count is recycled to T−30 seconds. That isn't how it happened. After the cutoff in the original countdown at thirty seconds, the count was recycled to the T−22 minute mark, and after the problem was resolved, resumed from there. There would have been plenty of time for people who had given up and gone to bed to be awakened when the countdown was resumed and observe the launch.

On p. 214, we're told the Doppler effect of the ship's velocity “caused the stars around and in front of the Galactique to redshift”. In fact, the stars in front of the ship would be blueshifted, while those behind it would be redshifted.

On p. 230, the ship, en route, is struck by a particle of interstellar dust which is described as “not much larger than a piece of gravel”, which knocks out communications with the Earth. Let's assume it wasn't the size of a piece of gravel, but only that of a grain of sand, which is around 20 milligrams. The energy released in the collision with the grain of sand is 278 gigajoules, or 66 tons of TNT. The damage to the ship would have been catastrophic, not something readily repaired.

On the same page, “By the ship's internal chronometer, the repair job probably only took a few days, but time dilation made it seem much longer to observers back on Earth.” Nope—at half the speed of light, time dilation is only 15%. Three days' ship's time would be less than three and a half days on Earth.

On p. 265, “the DNA of its organic molecules was left-handed, which was crucial to the future habitability…”. What's important isn't the handedness of DNA, but rather the chirality of the organic molecules used in cells. The chirality of DNA is many levels above this fundamental property of biochemistry and, in fact, the DNA helix of terrestrial organisms is right-handed. (The chirality of DNA actually depends upon the nucleotide sequence, and there is a form, called Z-DNA, in which the helix is left-handed.)

Spoilers end here.  

This is an inspiring and very human story, with realistic and flawed characters, venal politicians, unanticipated adversities, and a future very different than envisioned by many tales of the great human expansion, even those by the legendary Nathan Arkwright. It is an optimistic tale of the human future, grounded in the achievements of individuals who build it, step by step, in the unbounded vision of the Golden Age of science fiction. It is ours to make reality.

Here is a podcast interview with the author by James Pethokoukis.

May 2016 Permalink

Stephenson, Neal. Seveneves. New York: William Morrow, 2015. ISBN 978-0-06-219037-6.
Fiction writers are often advised to try to immediately grab the attention of readers and involve them in the story. “If you haven't hooked them by the end of the first chapter, you've probably lost 'em.” Here, the author doesn't dawdle. The first line is “The Moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.” All right, now that's an interesting premise!

This massive novel (880 pages in the hardcover print edition) is divided into three parts. In the first, after the explosion of the Moon, scientist and media talking head Dubois Jerome Xavier Harris (“Doob”), a figure much like Neil deGrasse Tyson in real life, calculates that the seven large fragments of the exploded moon will collide with one another, setting off an exponential cascade of fragmentation and further collisions like the Kessler syndrome for objects in low Earth orbit, with enough the scattered debris bombarding the Earth to render its surface uninhabitable for on the order of five thousand years.

The story begins in the near future, when the International Space Station (“Izzy”) has been augmented with some additional facilities and a small nickel-iron asteroid retrieved and docked to it for asteroid mining experiments. Technology is much as at the present, but with space-based robotics having advanced significantly. Faced with what amounts to a death sentence for the Earth (the heat from the impacts was expected to boil off much of the oceans and eject the atmosphere into space), and having only around two years before the catastrophic bombardment begins, spacefaring nations make plans to re-purpose Izzy as a “Cloud Ark” to preserve the genetic heritage of the Earth and the intellectual capital of humanity against the time when the home planet can again be made habitable. Thus begins a furious technological crash project, described in detail, working against an inexorable deadline, to save what can be saved and launch it to the fragile ark in space.

Eventually the catastrophe arrives, and the second part of the novel chronicles the remnant of humanity on the Cloud Ark, with Izzy as its core, and most of the population in co-orbiting rudimentary habitats. From the start there are major technical challenges to overcome, with all involved knowing that high technology products from Earth such as silicon chips and laboratory equipment may not be able to be replaced for centuries, if ever. The habitat ecosystem must be closed, as there will be no resupply. And, people being people, the society of the survivors begins to fragment into factions, each with its own priorities and ideas about how to best proceed. Again, there is much technological derring-do, described in great detail (including one of the best explanations of the fundamentals of orbital mechanics I've encountered in fiction). The heroic exploits of the survivors are the stuff of legend, and become the legends of their descendents.

Part three of the novel picks up the story five thousand years later, when the descendants of the Cloud Ark have constructed a mature spacefaring civilisation, tapping resources of the solar system, and are engaged in restoring the Earth, now that the bombardment has abated, to habitability. The small population of the Cloud Ark has put the human race through a serious genetic bottleneck with the result that the species has differentiated into distinct races, each with its own traits and behavioural characteristics, partly determined by genetics and partly transmitted culturally. These races form alliances and conflict with one another, with humanity having sorted itself into two factions called Red and Blue (gee, how could such a thing happen?) which have largely separated into their own camps. But with possession of the Earth at stake, Red and Blue have much to dispute, especially when enigmatic events on that planet call into the question their shared history.

This is a rather curious book. It is so long and intricate that there's room for a lot in here, and that's what the reader gets. Some of it is the hardest of hard science fiction, with lengthy technical explanations which may make those looking for a fast moving story yawn or doze off. (In fact, there are parts where it seems like the kind of background notes science fiction authors make to flesh out their worlds and then include random portions as the story plays out have, instead, been dumped wholesale into the text. It's as if Obi-Wan shows Luke his father's light sabre, then spends ten minutes explaining the power pack, plasma containment system, field generator, and why it makes that cool sound when you wave it around.) The characters seem to be archetypes of particular personality traits and appear to be largely driven by them rather than developing as they face the extraordinary challenges with which they're presented, and these stereotypes become increasingly important as the story unfolds.

On balance, I'm glad I read this book. It's a solid, well-told yarn which will make you think about just how humans would respond faced with a near-term apocalypse and also whether, given how fractious and self-destructive they often are, whether they are likely to survive or, indeed, deserve to. I believe a good editor could have cut this manuscript in half, sacrificing nothing of importance, and making the story move along more compellingly.

And now there are a number of details about the novel which I cannot discuss without spoiling the plot and/or ending, so I'll take them behind the curtain. Do not read the following unless you've already read the novel or are certain you will never do so.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
At the start of the novel the nickel-iron asteroid “Amalthea” has been docked to Izzy for experiments in asteroid mining. This asteroid is described as if “laid to rest on a soccer field, it would have stretched from one penalty box to the other and completely covered the center circle.” Well, first of all, this is not the asteroid 113 Amalthea of our solar system, which is a much larger rocky main belt asteroid—46 km in size. Why one would name an asteroid brought to the space station the same as a very different asteroid known since 1871 escapes me. Given that the space station does various maneuvers in the course of the story, I was curious about the mass of the asteroid. Assuming it is a prolate ellipsoid of revolution with semi-principal axes of 9.15, 9.15, and 36 metres (taken from the dimensions of a standard soccer field), its volume would be 12625 m³ and, assuming the standard density of 5.32 g/cm³ for metallic asteroids, would have a mass of 67170 tonnes, which is 1.3 times the mass of the Titanic. This is around 150 times the present mass of the International Space Station, so it would make maneuvers, especially those done later in the book, rather challenging. I'm not saying it's impossible, because complete details of the propulsion used aren't given, but it sure looks dodgy, and even more after the “megaton of propellant” mentioned on p. 493 is delivered to the station.

On p. 365 Izzy is said to be in an orbit “angled at about fifty-six degrees to the equator”. Not so; its inclination is 51.6°.

On p. 74 the arklets are said to “draw power from a small, simple nuclear reactor fueled by isotopes so radioactive that they would throw off heat, and thereby generate electricity, for a few decades.” This is describing a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, not a nuclear reactor. Such generators are usually powered by plutonium-238, which has a half-life of 87.7 years. How would such a power source sustain life in the arklets for the five thousand years of exile in space? Note that after the Hard Rain, resources to build new nuclear reactors or solar panels would not be available to residents of the Cloud Ark.

When the Ymir makes its rendezvous with Izzy, it jettisons its nuclear reactor to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere. Why would you discard such an irreplaceable power source? If you're worried about radiation, place it into a high, stable orbit where it can be retrieved for use later if needed. Humans could expect no further source of nuclear fuel for thousands of years.

The differentiation of the races of humanity in the final part of the novel strikes me as odd and, in a way, almost racist. Now, granted, genetic manipulation was involved in the creation of these races, but there seems to be a degree of genetic (with some help from culture) predestination of behavioural traits which, if attributed to present-day human races, would exclude one from polite discourse. I think the story would have been made more interesting if one or more members of these races was forced by circumstances to transcend their racial stereotypes.

The technology, or lack thereof, in the final part of the book is curious. Five thousand years have elapsed, and the Cloud Ark population has recovered to become a multi-racial space-dwelling society of three billion people, capable of mega-engineering projects humans today can only dream of, utilising resources of the solar system out to the Kuiper belt. And yet their technology seems pretty much what we expect to see within this century, and in some ways inferior to our own. Some of this is explained by deliberate relinquishment of technology (“Amistics”, referring to the Amish), but how likely is it that all races and cultures would agree not to develop certain technologies, particularly when in conflict with one another?

I loved the “Srap Tasmaner”. You will too, once you figure it out.

Given that the Moon blew up, why would an advanced spacefaring civilisation with a multitude of habitats be so interested in returning to a planet, deep in a gravity well, which might itself blow up some day?

Spoilers end here.  

August 2015 Permalink

Stross, Charles. Singularity Sky. New York: Ace, 2003. ISBN 978-0-441-01179-7.
Writing science fiction about a society undergoing a technological singularity or about humans living in a post-singularity society is a daunting task. By its very definition, a singularity is an event beyond which it is impossible to extrapolate, yet extrapolation is the very essence of science fiction. Straightforward (some would say naïve) projection of present-day technological trends suggests that some time around the middle of this century it will be possible, for a cost around US$1000, to buy a computer with power equal to that of all human brains now living on Earth, and that in that single year alone more new information will be created than by all of human civilisation up to that time. And that's just the start. With intelligent machines designing their successors, the slow random walk search of Darwinian evolution will be replaced by directed Lamarckian teleological development, with a generation time which may be measured in nanoseconds. The result will be an exponential blow-off in intelligence which will almost instantaneously dwarf that of humans by a factor at least equal to that between humans and insects. The machine intelligences will rapidly converge upon the fundamental limits of computation and cognition imposed by the laws of physics, which are so far beyond anything in the human experience we simply lack the hardware and software to comprehend what their capabilities might be and what they will be motivated to do with them. Trying to “put yourself into the head” of one of these ultimate intellects, which some people believe may emerge within the lifetimes of people alive today, is as impossible as asking C. elegans to comprehend quantum field theory.

In this novel the author sets out to both describe the lives of humans, augmented humans, and post-humans centuries after a mid-21st century singularity on Earth, and also show what happens to a society which has deliberately relinquished technologies it deems “dangerous” to the established order (other than those, of course, which the ruling class find useful in keeping the serfs in their place) when the singularity comes knocking at the door.

When the singularity occurred on Earth, the almost-instantaneously emerging super-intellect called the Eschaton departed the planet toward the stars. Simultaneously, nine-tenths of Earth's population vanished overnight, and those left behind, after a period of chaos, found that with the end of scarcity brought about by “cornucopia machines” produced in the first phase of the singularity, they could dispense with anachronisms such as economic systems and government, the only vestige of which was the United Nations, which had been taken over by the IETF and was essentially a standards body. A century later, after humans achieved faster than light travel, they began to discover that the Eschaton had relocated 90% of Earth's population to habitable worlds around various stars and left them to develop in their own independent directions, guided only by this message from the Eschaton, inscribed on a monument on each world.

I am the Eschaton. I am not your god.
I am descended from you, and I exist in your future.
Thou shalt not violate causality within my historic light cone. Or else.

Or else” ranged from slamming relativistic impactors into misbehaving planets to detonating artificial supernovæ to sterilise an entire interstellar neighbourhood whose inhabitants were up to some mischief which risked spreading. While the “Big E” usually remained off stage, meddling in technologies which might threaten its own existence (for example, time travel to back before its emergence on Earth to prevent the singularity) brought a swift and ruthless response with no more remorse than humans feel over massacring Saccharomyces cerevisiae in the trillions to bake their daily bread.

On Rochard's World, an outpost of the New Republic, everything was very much settled into a comfortable (for the ruling class) stasis, with technology for the masses arrested at something approximating the Victorian era, and the advanced stuff (interstellar travel, superluminal communication) imported from Earth and restricted to managing the modest empire to which they belong and suppressing any uprising. Then the Festival arrived. As with most things post-singularity, the Festival is difficult to describe—imagine how incomprehensible it must appear to a society whose development has been wilfully arrested at the railroad era. Wafted from star to star in starwisp probes, upon arrival its nanotechnological payload unpacks itself, disassembles bodies in the outer reaches of its destination star system, and instantiates the information it carries into the hardware and beings to carry out its mission.

On a planet with sentient life, things immediately begin to become extremely weird. Mobile telephones rain from the sky which offer those who pick them up anything they ask for in return for a story or bit of information which is novel to the Festival. Within a day or so, the entire social and economic structure is upended as cornucopia machines, talking bunnies, farms that float in the air, mountains of gold and diamonds, houses that walk around on chicken legs, and things which words fail to describe become commonplace in a landscape that changes from moment to moment. The Festival, much like a eucaryotic organism which has accreted a collection of retroviruses in its genome over time, is host to a multitude of hangers-on which range from the absurd to the menacing: pie-throwing zombies, giant sentient naked mole rats, and “headlaunchers” which infect humans, devour their bodies, and propel their brains into space to be uploaded into the Festival.

Needless to say, what ensues is somewhat chaotic. Meanwhile, news of these events has arrived at the home world of the New Republic, and a risky mission is mounted, skating on the very edge of the Eschaton's prohibition on causality violation, to put an end to the Festival's incursion and restore order on Rochard's World. Two envoys from Earth, technician Martin Springfield and U.N. arms inspector Rachel Mansour, accompany the expedition, the first to install and maintain the special technology the Republic has purchased from the Earth and the second, empowered by the terms under which Earth technology has been acquired, to verify that it is not used in a manner which might bring the New Republic or Earth into the sights of the Big E.

This is a well-crafted tale which leaves the reader with an impression of just how disruptive a technological singularity will be and, especially, how fast everything happens once the exponential take-off point is reached. The shifts in viewpoint are sometimes uneven—focusing on one subplot for an extended period and then abruptly jumping to another where things have radically changed in the interim, but that may be deliberate in an effort to convey how fluid the situation is in such circumstances. Stross also makes excellent use of understated humour throughout: Burya Rubenstein, the anarcho-Leninist revolutionary who sees his entire socio-economic utopia come and go within a couple of days, much faster than his newly-installed party-line propaganda brain implants can adapt, is one of many delightful characters you'll encounter along the way.

There is a sequel, which I look forward to reading.

February 2011 Permalink

Stross, Charles. Accelerando. New York: Ace, 2005. ISBN 978-0-441-01415-6.
Some people complain that few contemporary science fiction authors work on the grand scale of the masters of yore. Nobody can say that about Charles Stross, who in this novel tells the story of the human species' transcendence as it passes through a technological singularity caused by the continued exponential growth of computational power to the point where a substantial fraction of the mass of the solar system is transformed from “dumb matter” into computronium, engineered through molecular nanotechnology to perform the maximum amount of computation given its mass and the free energy of its environment. The scenario which plays out in the 21st century envisioned here is essentially that of Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines (June 2011) with additions by the author to make things more interesting.

The story is told as the chronicle of the (very) extended family of Manfred Macx, who starts as a “venture altruist” in the early years of the century, as the rising curve of computation begins to supplant economics (the study of the use of scarce resources) with “agalmics”: the allocation of abundant resources. As the century progresses, things get sufficiently weird that even massively augmented human intelligences can perceive them only dimly from a distance, and the human, transhuman, posthuman, emulated, resurrected, and multithreaded members of the Macx family provide our viewpoint on what's happening, as they try to figure it all out for themselves. And then there's the family cat….

Forecasts of future technologies often overlook consequences which seem obvious in retrospect. For example, many people predicted electronic mail, but how many envisioned spam? Stross goes to some lengths here to imagine the unintended consequences of a technological singularity. You think giant corporations and financial derivatives are bad? Wait until they become sentient, with superhuman intelligence and the ability to reproduce!

The novel was assembled from nine short stories, and in some cases this is apparent, but it didn't detract from this reader's enjoyment. For readers “briefed in” on the whole singularity/nanotechnology/extropian/posthuman meme bundle, this work is a pure delight—there's something for everybody, even a dine-in-saur! If you're one of those folks who haven't yet acquired a taste for treats which “taste like (mambo) chicken”, plan to read this book with a search box open and look up the multitude of terms which are dropped without any explanation and which will send you off into the depths of the weird as you research them. An excellent Kindle edition is available which makes this easy.

Reading “big idea” science fiction may cause you to have big ideas of your own—that's why we read it, right? Anyway, this isn't in the book, so I don't consider talking about it a spoiler, but what occurred to me whilst reading the novel is that transcendence of naturally-evolved (or were they…?) species into engineered computational substrates might explain some of the puzzles of cosmology with which we're presently confronted. Suppose transcendent super-intelligences which evolved earlier in the universe have already ported themselves from crude molecular structures to the underlying structure of the quantum vacuum. The by-product of their computation might be the dark energy which has so recently (in terms of the history of the universe) caused the expansion of the universe to accelerate. The “coincidence problem” is why we, as unprivileged observers in the universe, should be living so close to the moment at which the acceleration began. Well, if it's caused by other beings who happened to evolve to their moment of transcendence a few billion years before us, it makes perfect sense, and we'll get into the act ourselves before too long. Accelerando!

July 2011 Permalink

Suarez, Daniel. Daemon. New York: Signet, 2009. ISBN 978-0-451-22873-4.
Ever since “giant electronic brains” came into the public consciousness in the 1940s and '50s, “the computers taking over” has been a staple of science fiction, thrillers, and dystopian novels. To anybody who knows anything about computers, most of these have fallen in the spectrum from implausible to laughably bad, primarily because their authors didn't understand computers, and attributed to them anthropomorphic powers they don't possess, or assumed they had ways to influence events in the real world which they don't.

Here we have a novel that gets it right, is not just a thoughtful exploration of the interaction of computers, networks, and society, but a rip-roaring thriller as well, and, remarkably, is a first novel. In it, Matthew Sobol, a computer game designer who parleyed his genius for crafting virtual worlds in which large numbers of individuals and computer-generated characters interact (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) into a global enterprise, CyberStorm Entertainment, and a personal fortune in the hundreds of millions of dollars, tragically dies of brain cancer at the age of 34.

Shortly after Sobol's death, two CyberStorm employees die in bizarre circumstances which, when police detective Pete Sebeck begins to investigate them with the aid of itinerant computer consultant and dedicated gamer Jon Ross, lead them to suspect that they are murders orchestrated, for no immediately apparent motive, from beyond the grave by Sobol, and carried out by processes, daemons, running on Internet-connected computers without the knowledge of the systems' owners. When the FBI, called in due to their computer forensics resources, attempts to raid Sobol's mansion, things go beyond catastrophically wrong, and it appears they're up against an adversary which has resources and capabilities which are difficult to even quantify and potential consequences for society which cannot be bounded.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
Or maybe not. Before long evidence emerges that Sobol was the victim of a scam orchestrated by Sebeck and his mistress, conning Sobol, whose cognitive facilities were failing as his disease progressed, and setting up the Daemon as a hoax to make a fortune in the stock market as CyberStorm's stock collapsed. This neatly wraps up the narrative, which is just what the police, FBI, and NSA want, and Sebeck is quickly convicted and finds himself on death row for the murders he was accused of having orchestrated. Some involved in the investigation doubt that this ties up all the loose ends, but their superiors put the kibosh on going public with their fears for the time-tested reason of “avoiding public panic”.

Meanwhile, curious things are happening in the worlds of online gaming, offshore Internet gambling and pornography businesses, pillars of the finance sector, media outlets, prisons, and online contract manufacturing. The plague of spam comes to an end in a cataclysmic event which many people on the receiving end may find entirely justified. As analysts at NSA and elsewhere put the pieces together, they begin to comprehend what they're up against and put together an above top secret task force to infiltrate and subvert the Daemon's activities. But in this wired world, it is difficult to keep anything off the record, especially when confronted by an adversary which, distributed on computers around the world, reading all Web sites and RSS feeds, and with its own stream of revenue and human agents which it rewards handsomely, is able to exert its power anywhere. It's a bit like God, when you think about it, or maybe what Google would like to become.

What makes the Daemon, and this book, so devilishly clever is that, in the words of the NSA analyst on its trail, “The Daemon is not an Internet worm or a network exploit. It doesn't hack systems. It hacks society.” Indeed, the Daemon is essentially a role playing game engine connected to the real world, with the ability to reward those humans who do its bidding with real world money, power, and prestige, not virtual credits in a game. Consider how much time and money highly intelligent people with limited social skills currently spend on online multiplayer games. Now imagine if the very best of them were recruited to deploy their talents in the world outside their parents' basements, and be compensated with wealth, independence, and power over others. Do you think there would be a shortage of people to do the Daemon's bidding, even without the many forms of coercion it could bring to bear on those who were unwilling?

Ultimately this book is about a phase change in the structure of human society brought about by the emergence of universal high bandwidth connectivity and distributed autonomous agents interacting with humans on an individual basis. From a pure Darwinian standpoint, might such a system be able to act, react, and mobilise resources so quickly and efficiently that it would run rings around the strongly hierarchical, coercive, and low bandwidth forms of organisation which have characterised human society for thousands of years? And if so, what could the legacy society do to stop it, particularly once it has become completely dependent upon the technologies which now are subverting and supplanting it?

Spoilers end here.  
When I say the author gets it right, I'm not claiming the plot is actually plausible or that something like this could happen in the present or near future—there are numerous circumstances where a reader with business or engineering experience will be extremely sceptical that so many intricate things which have never before been tested on a full scale (or at all) could be expected to work the first time. After all, multi-player online games are not opened to the public before extensive play testing and revision based upon the results. But lighten up: this is a thriller, not a technological forecast, and the price of admission in suspension of disbelief is much the same as other more conventional thrillers. Where the book gets it right is that when discussing technical details, terminology is used correctly, descriptions are accurate, and speculative technologies at least have prototypes already demonstrated. Many books of this genre simply fall into the trap of Star Trek-like technobabble or endow their technological gadgets with capabilities nobody would have any idea how to implement today. In many stories in which technology figures prominently, technologically knowledgeable readers find themselves constantly put off by blunders which aren't germane to the plot but are simply indicative of ignorance or sloppiness on the part of the author; that doesn't happen here. One of the few goofs I noticed was in chapter 37 where one of the Daemon's minions receives “[a] new 3-D plan file … then opened it in AutoCAD. It took several seconds, even on his powerful Unix workstation.” In fact, AutoCAD has run only on Microsoft platforms for more than a decade, and that isn't likely to change. But he knows about AutoCAD, not to mention the Haas Mini Mill.

The novel concludes with a rock 'em, sock 'em action scene which is going to be awe inspiring when this book is made into a movie. Rumour is that Paramount Pictures has already optioned the story, and they'll be fools if they don't proceed with production for the big screen. At the end of the book the saga is far from over, but it ends at a logical point and doesn't leave you with a cliffhanger. Fortunately, the sequel, Freedom™, is already out in hardcover and is available in a Kindle edition.

August 2010 Permalink

Suarez, Daniel. Freedom™. New York: Signet, 2010. ISBN 978-0-451-23189-5.
You'll see this book described as the sequel to the author's breakthrough first novel Daemon (August 2010), but in fact this is the second half of a long novel which happened to be published in two volumes. As such, if you pick up this book without having read Daemon, you will have absolutely no idea what is going on, who the characters are, and why they are motivated to do the things they do. There is little or no effort to fill in the back story or bring the reader up to speed. So read Daemon first, then this book, ideally not too long afterward so the story will remain fresh in your mind. Since that's the way the author treats these two books, I'm going to take the same liberty and assume you've read my review of Daemon to establish the context for these remarks.

The last two decades have demonstrated, again and again, just how disruptive ubiquitous computing and broadband data networks can be to long-established and deeply entrenched industries such as book publishing and distribution, music recording and retailing, newspapers, legacy broadcast media, domestic customer service call centres, travel agencies, and a host of other businesses which have seen their traditional business models supplanted by something faster, more efficient, and with global reach. In this book the author explores the question of whether the fundamental governance and economic system of the last century may be next domino to fall, rendered impotent and obsolete and swept away by a fundamentally new way of doing things, impossible to imagine in the pre-wired world, based on the principles used in massively multiplayer online game engines and social networks.

Of course, governments and multinational corporations are not going to go gently into the night, and the Daemon (a distributed mesh networked game engine connected to the real world) and its minions on the “darknet” demonstrate the ruthlessness of a machine intelligence when threatened, which results in any number of scenes just begging to be brought to the big screen. In essence, the Daemon is creating a new operating system for humans, allowing them to interact in ways less rigid, more decentralised and resilient, and less hierarchical than the institutions they inherited from an era when goods and information travelled no faster than a horse.

In my estimation, this is a masterwork: the first compelling utopian/dystopian (depending on how you look at it, which is part of its genius) novel of the Internet era. It is as good, in its own way, as Looking Backward, Brave New World, or 1984, and it is a much more thrilling read than any of them. Like those classics, Suarez gets enough of the details right that you find yourself beginning to think that things might actually turn out something like this, and what kind of a world it would be to live in were that to happen.

Ray Kurzweil argues that The Singularity Is Near. In this novel, the author gets the reader to wonder whether it might not be a lot closer than Kurzweil envisions, and not require the kind of exponential increase in computing power he assumes to be the prerequisite. Might the singularity—a phase transition in the organisation of human society as profound as the discovery of agriculture—actually be about to happen in the next few years, not brought about by superhuman artificial intelligence but rather the synthesis of and interconnection of billions of human intelligences connected by a “social network” encompassing all of society? (And if you think sudden transitions like that can't happen, just ask anybody who used to own a record store or the boss of a major newspaper.) Would this be a utopian solution to a system increasingly perceived as unsustainable and inexorably crushing individuality and creativity, or would it be a descent into a potentially irreversible dark age in which humans would end up as peripherals in a vast computing grid using them to accomplish its own incomprehensible agenda? You'll probably close this book undecided on that question, and spend a good deal of time afterward pondering it. That is what makes this novel so great.

If the author can continue to rise to this standard in subsequent novels, we have a new grandmaster on the scene.

January 2011 Permalink

Suarez, Daniel. Kill Decision. New York: Signet, 2012. ISBN 978-0-451-41770-1.
A drone strike on a crowd of pilgrims at one of the holiest shrines of Shia Islam in Iraq inflames the world against the U.S., which denies its involvement. (“But who else is flying drones in Iraq?”, is the universal response.) Meanwhile, the U.S. is rocked by a series of mysterious bombings, killing businessmen on a golf course, computer vision specialists meeting in Silicon Valley, military contractors in a building near the Pentagon—all seemingly unrelated. A campaign is building to develop and deploy autonomous armed drones to “protect the homeland”.

Prof. Linda McKinney, doing research on weaver ants in Tanzania, seems far away from all this until she is saved from an explosion which destroys her camp by a mysterious group of special forces led by a man known only as “Odin”. She learns that her computer model of weaver ant colony behaviour has been stolen from her university's computer network by persons unknown who may be connected with the attacks, including the one she just escaped.

The fear is that her ant model could be used as the basis for “swarm intelligence” drones which could cooperate to be a formidable weapon. With each individual drone having only rudimentary capabilities, like an isolated ant, they could be mass-produced and shift the military balance of power in favour of whoever possessed the technology.

McKinney soon finds herself entangled in a black world where nothing is certain and she isn't even sure which side she's working for. Shocking discoveries indicate that the worst case she feared may be playing out, and she must decide where to place her allegiance.

This novel is a masterful addition to the very sparse genre of robot ant science fiction thrillers, and this time I'm not the villain! Suarez has that rare talent, as had Michael Crichton, of writing action scenes which just beg to be put on the big screen and stories where the screenplay just writes itself. Should Hollywood turn this into a film and not botch it, the result should be a treat. You will learn some things about ants which you probably didn't know (all correct, as far as I can determine), visit a locale in the U.S. which sounds like something out of a Bond film but actually exists, and meet two of the most curious members of a special operations team in all of fiction.

April 2014 Permalink

Suprynowicz, Vin. The Miskatonic Manuscript. Pahrump, NV: Mountain Media, 2015. ASIN: B0197R4TGW. ISBN 978-0-9670259-5-7.
The author is a veteran newspaperman and was arguably the most libertarian writer in the mainstream media during his long career with the Las Vegas Review-Journal (a collection of his essays has been published as Send In The Waco Killers). He earlier turned his hand to fiction in 2005's The Black Arrow (May 2005), a delightful libertarian superhero fantasy. In The Testament of James (February 2015) we met Matthew Hunter, owner of a used book shop in Providence, Rhode Island, and Chantal Stevens, a woman with military combat experience who has come to help out in the shop and, over time, becomes romantically involved with Matthew. Since their last adventure, Matthew and Chantal, their reputation (or notoriety) as players in the international rare books game bolstered by the Testament of James, have gone on to discover a Conan Doyle manuscript for a missing Sherlock Holmes adventure, which sold at auction for more than a million dollars.

The present book begins with the sentencing of Windsor Annesley, scion of a prominent Providence family and president of the Church of Cthulhu, which regards the use of consciousness-expanding plant substances as its sacraments, who has been railroaded in a “War on Drugs” prosecution, to three consecutive life sentences without possibility of parole. Annesley, unbowed and defiant, responds,

You are at war with us? Then we are at war with you. A condition of war has existed, and will continue to exist, until you surrender without condition, or until every drug judge, including you, … and every drug prosecutor, and every drug cop is dead. So have I said it. So shall it be.

Shortly after the sentencing, Windsor Annesley's younger brother, Worthington (“Worthy”) meets with Matthew and the bookstore crew (including, of course, the feline contingent) to discuss a rumoured H. P. Lovecraft notebook, “The Miskatonic Manuscript”, which Lovecraft alluded to in correspondence but which has never been found. At the time, Lovecraft was visiting Worthy's great-uncle, Henry Annesley, who was conducting curious experiments aimed at seeing things beyond the range of human perception. It was right after this period that Lovecraft wrote his breakthrough story “From Beyond”. Worthy suspects that the story was based upon Henry Annesley's experiments, which may have opened a technological path to the other worlds described in Lovecraft's fiction and explored by Church of Cthulhu members through their sacraments.

After discussing the odd career of Lovecraft, Worthy offers a handsome finder's fee to Matthew for the notebook. Matthew accepts. The game, on the leisurely time scale of the rare book world, is afoot. And finally, the manuscript is located.

And now things start to get weird—very weird—Lovecraft weird. A mysterious gadget arrives with instructions to plug it into a computer. Impossible crimes. Glowing orbs. Secret laboratories. Native American shamans. Vortices. Big hungry things with sharp teeth. Matthew and Chantal find themselves on an adventure as risky and lurid as those on the Golden Age pulp science fiction shelves of the bookstore.

Along with the adventure (in which a hero cat, Tabbyhunter, plays a key part), there are insightful quotes about the millennia humans have explored alternative realities through the use of plants placed on the Earth for that purpose by Nature's God, and the folly of those who would try to criminalise that human right through a coercive War on Drugs. The book concludes with a teaser for the next adventure, which I eagerly await. The full text of H. P. Lovecraft's “From Beyond” is included; if you've read the story before, you'll look at it an another light after reading this superb novel. End notes provide citations to items you might think fictional until you discover the extent to which we're living in the Crazy Years.

Drug warriors, law 'n order fundamentalists, prudes, and those whose consciousness has never dared to broach the terrifying “what if” there's something more than we usually see out there may find this novel offensive or even dangerous. Libertarians, the adventurous, and lovers of a great yarn will delight in it. The cover art is racy, even by the standards of pulp, but completely faithful to the story.

The link above is to the Kindle edition, which is available from Amazon. The hardcover, in a limited edition of 650 copies, numbered and signed by the author, is available from the publisher via AbeBooks.

December 2015 Permalink

Taylor, Travis S. and Les Johnson. Back to the Moon. Riverdale, NY: Baen Publishing, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4391-3405-4.
Don't you just hate it when you endure the protracted birthing process of a novel set in the near future and then, with the stroke of a politician's pen, the entire premise of the story goes ker-plonk into the dustbin of history? Think about the nuclear terror novel set in the second Carter administration, or all of the Cold War thrillers in the publishing pipeline that collapsed along with the Soviet Union. Well, that's more or less what we have here. This novel is set in, shall we say, the 2020s in a parallel universe where NASA's Constellation program (now cancelled in our own timeline) remained on track and is ready to launch its first mission to return humans to the Moon. Once again, there is a Moon race underway: this time a private company, Space Excursions, hopes to be the first enterprise to send paying passengers on a free return loop around the Moon, while the Chinese space agency hopes to beat NASA to the Moon with their own landing mission.

Space Excursions is ready to win the race with their (technologically much less demanding) mission then discovers, to the horror of their passengers and the world, that a secret Chinese landing mission has crashed near the lunar limb, and the Chinese government has covered up the disaster and left their taikonauts to die unmourned to avoid their space program's losing face. Bill Stetson (try to top that for a Texas astronaut name!), commander of the soon-to-launch NASA landing mission, realises that his flight can be re-purposed into a rescue of the stranded Chinese, and the NASA back-room experts, with the clock ticking on the consumables remaining in the Chinese lander, devise a desperate but plausible plan to save them.

Thus, the first U.S. lunar mission since Apollo 17 launches with an entirely different flight plan than that envisioned and for which the crew trained. Faced with a crisis, the sclerotic NASA bureaucracy is jolted back into the “make it so” mindset they exemplified in returning the crew of Apollo 13 safely to the Earth. In the end, it takes co-operation between NASA, the Chinese space agency, and Space Excursions, along with intrepid exploits by spacemen and -women of all of those contenders in Moon Race II to pull off the rescue, leading one to wonder “why can't we all get along?”

Do not confuse this novel with the laughably inept book with the same title by Homer Hickam (April 2010). This isn't remotely as bad, but then it isn't all that good either. I don't fault it for describing a NASA program which was cancelled while the novel was in press—author Taylor vents his frustration over that in an afterword included here. What irritates me is how many essential details the authors got wrong in telling the story. They utterly mis-describe the configuration of the Constellation lunar spacecraft, completely forgetting the service module of the Orion spacecraft, which contains the engine used to leave lunar orbit and to which the solar arrays are attached. They assume the ascent stage of the Altair lunar lander remains attached to the Orion during the return from the Moon, which is insane from a mass management standpoint. Their use of terminology is just sloppy, confusing orbital and escape velocity, trans-lunar injection with lunar orbit insertion maneuvers, and a number of other teeth-grinding goofs. The orbital mechanics are a thing of fantasy: spacecraft perform plane change maneuvers which no chemical rocket could possibly execute, and the Dreamscape lunar flyby tourist vehicle is said to brake with rockets into Earth orbit before descending for a landing which is energetically and mass budget wise crazy as opposed to a direct aerobraking entry.

What is odd is that author Taylor has a doctorate in science and engineering and has worked on NASA and DOD programs for two decades, and author Johnson works for NASA. NASA is rife with science fiction fans—SF is the “literature of recruitment” for NASA. Without a doubt, hundreds of NASA people intimately acquainted with the details of the Constellation Program would have been thrilled at the chance to review and fact-check this manuscript (especially because it portrays their work in an adulatory light), and almost none of the revisions required to get it right would have had any significant impact upon the story. (The heat shield repair is an exception, but I could scribble a more thrilling chapter about doing that after jettisoning the service module with the Earth looming nearer and nearer than the one in this novel.)

This is a well-crafted thriller which will keep you turning the pages, but doesn't stand up to scrutiny if you really understand orbital mechanics or the physical constraints in going to the Moon. What is regrettable is that all of the goofs could have been remedied without compromising the story in any way.

January 2011 Permalink

Thorne, Kip. The Science of Interstellar. New York: W. W. Norton, 2014. ISBN 978-0-393-35137-8.
Christopher Nolan's 2014 film Interstellar was eagerly awaited by science fiction enthusiasts who, having been sorely disappointed so many times by movies that crossed the line into fantasy by making up entirely implausible things to move the plot along, hoped that this effort would live up to its promise of getting the science (mostly) right and employing scientifically plausible speculation where our present knowledge is incomplete.

The author of the present book is one of the most eminent physicists working in the field of general relativity (Einstein's theory of gravitation) and a pioneer in exploring the exotic strong field regime of the theory, including black holes, wormholes, and gravitational radiation. Prof. Thorne was involved in the project which became Interstellar from its inception, and worked closely with the screenwriters, director, and visual effects team to get the science right. Some of the scenes in the movie, such as the visual appearance of orbiting a rotating black hole, have never been rendered accurately before, and are based upon original work by Thorne in computing light paths through spacetime in its vicinity which will be published as professional papers.

Here, the author recounts the often bumpy story of the movie's genesis and progress over the years from his own, Hollywood-outsider, perspective, how the development of the story presented him, as technical advisor (he is credited as an executive producer), with problem after problem in finding a physically plausible solution, sometimes requiring him to do new physics. Then, Thorne provides a popular account of the exotic physics on which the story is based, including gravitational time dilation, black holes, wormholes, and speculative extra dimensions and “brane” scenarios stemming from string theory. Then he “interprets” the events and visual images in the film, explaining (where possible) how they could be produced by known, plausible, or speculative physics. Of course, this isn't always possible—in some cases the needs of story-telling or the requirement not to completely baffle a non-specialist with bewilderingly complicated and obscure images had to take priority over scientific authenticity, and when this is the case Thorne is forthright in admitting so.

Sections are labelled with icons identifying them as “truth”: generally accepted by those working in the field and often with experimental evidence, “educated guess”: a plausible inference from accepted physics, but without experimental evidence and assuming existing laws of physics remain valid in circumstances under which we've never tested them, and “speculation”: wild and wooly stuff (for example quantum gravity or the interior structure of a black hole) which violates no known law of physics, but for which we have no complete and consistent theory and no evidence whatsoever.

This is a clearly written and gorgeously illustrated book which, for those who enjoyed the movie but weren't entirely clear whence some of the stunning images they saw came, will explain the science behind them. The cover of the book has a “SPOILER ALERT” warning potential readers that the ending and major plot details are given away in the text. I will refrain from discussing them here so as not to make this a spoiler in itself. I have not yet seen the movie, and I expect when I do I will enjoy it more for having read the book, since I'll know what to look for in some of the visuals and be less likely to dismiss some of the apparently outrageous occurrences by knowing that there is a physically plausible (albeit extremely speculative and improbable) explanation for them.

For the animations and blackboard images mentioned in the text, the book directs you to a Web site which is so poorly designed and difficult to navigate it took me ten minutes to find them on the first visit. Here is a direct link. In the Kindle edition the index cites page numbers in the print edition which are useless since the electronic edition does not contain real page numbers. There are a few typographical errors and one factual howler: Io is not “Saturn's closest moon”, and Cassini was captured in Saturn orbit by a propulsion burn, not a gravitational slingshot (this does not affect the movie in any way: it's in background material).

December 2014 Permalink

Varley, John. Red Thunder. New York: Ace, 2003. ISBN 978-0-441-01162-9.
In my review of Ark (June 2012), I wrote that one of the most time-tested forms of science fiction was assuming a counterfactual (based upon present knowledge and conventional wisdom) and then spinning out the consequences which follow logically from it. While Ark was a disappointment, this full-on romp shows just how well the formula works when employed by a master of the genre. First, one must choose the counterfactual carefully. In this case Varley vaults over the stumbling block of most near-future science fiction and harks back to Doc Smith's Skylark novels by asking, “What if propulsion were not the problem?”.

This sets the stage for the kind of story many might have thought laughably obsolete in the 21st century: a bunch of intrepid misfits building their own spaceship and blasting off for Mars, beating en-route Chinese and American expeditions, and demonstrating their world-transforming technology in a way that no government would be able to seize for its own benefit. The characters are not supermen, but rather people so like those you know that they're completely believable, and they develop in the story as they find themselves, largely through the luck of being in the right place at the right time, able to accomplish extraordinary things. There are plenty of laughs along the way, as well as the deeply moving backstory of the characters, especially that of the semi-autistic savant Jubal Broussard who stumbles onto the discovery that changes everything for humanity, forever. His cousin, disgraced ex-astronaut Travis Broussard, gets to experience the “heady feeling to put the President on hold, refuse an order, and hang up on her, all in the space of ten minutes.” (p. 392)

The novel, dedicated to Spider Robinson and Robert A. Heinlein, is the peer of their greatest works and an absolute hoot—enjoy!

July 2012 Permalink

Verne, Jules. Autour de la lune. Paris: Poche, [1870] 1974. ISBN 2-253-00587-8.
Now available online at this site.

August 2001 Permalink

Verne, Jules. La chasse au météore. Version d'origine. Paris: Éditions de l'Archipel, [1901, 1986] 2002. ISBN 2-84187-384-6.
This novel, one of three written by Verne in 1901, remained unpublished at the time of his death in 1905. At the behest of Verne's publisher, Jules Hetzel, Verne's son Michel “revised” the text in an attempt to recast what Verne intended as satirical work into the mold of an “Extraordinary Adventure”, butchering it in the opinion of many Verne scholars. In 1978 the original handwritten manuscript was discovered among a collection of Verne's papers. This edition, published under the direction of the Société Jules Verne, reproduces that text, and is the sole authentic edition. As of this writing, no English translation is available—all existing English editions are based upon the Michel Verne “revision”.

October 2002 Permalink

Verne, Jules. Voyage au centre de la terre. Paris: Gallimard, [1864] 1998. ISBN 2-07-051437-4.
A free electronic edition of this text is available from Project Gutenberg. This classic adventure is endlessly adaptable: you may prefer a translation in English, German, or Spanish. The 1959 movie with James Mason and Pat Boone is a fine flick but substantially departs from Verne's story in many ways: of the three principal characters in the novel, two are rather unsympathetic and the third taciturn in the extreme—while Verne was just having his usual fun with Teutonic and Nordic stereotypes, one can see that this wouldn't work for Hollywood. Rick Wakeman's musical edition is, however, remarkably faithful to the original.

April 2004 Permalink

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.

February 2017 Permalink

Vinge, Vernor. Rainbows End. New York: Tor Books, 2006. ISBN 978-0-812-53636-2.
As I have remarked upon several occasions, I read very little contemporary science fiction, apart from works by authors I trust to deliver thoughtful and entertaining yarns. This novel is an excellent example of why. Vernor Vinge is a former professor of mathematics, a pioneer in envisioning the advent and consequences of a technological singularity, and serial winner of the most prestigious awards for science fiction. This book won the 2007 Hugo award for best novel.

And therein lies my problem with much of present-day science fiction. The fans (the Hugo is awarded based on a vote of members of the World Science Fiction Society) loved it, but I consider it entirely devoid of merit. Now authors, or at least those who view their profession as a business, are well advised to write what the audience wants to read, and evidently this work met that criterion, but it didn't work for me—in fact, I found it tedious slogging to the end, hoping it would get better or that some brilliant plot twist would redeem all the ennui of getting there. Nope: didn't happen.

Interestingly, while this book won the Hugo, it wasn't even nominated for a Nebula, which is chosen by professional writers, not the fans. I guess the writers are closer to my stick-in-the-mud preferences than the more edgy fans.

This is a story set in a 21st century society on the threshold of a technological singularity. Robert Gu, a celebrated poet felled by Alzheimer's disease, has been cured by exponentially advancing medical technology, but now he finds himself in a world radically different from the one in which his cognition faded out. He has to reconcile himself with his extended and complicated family, many of whom he treated horridly, and confront the fact that while his recovery from dementia has been complete, he seems to have lost the talent of looking at the world from an oblique angle that made his poetry compelling. Further, in a world of ubiquitous computing, haptic interfaces, augmented reality, and forms of social interaction that seemingly come and go from moment to moment, he is but a baby among the plugged-in children with whom he shares a classroom as he attempts to come up to speed.

Then, a whole bunch of stuff happens which is completely absurd, involving a mischievous rabbit which may be an autonomous artificial intelligence, a library building that pulls up its columns and walks, shadowy intelligence agencies, a technology which might be the key to large-scale mind control, battles between people committed to world-views which might be likened to an apocalyptic yet trivial conflict between My Little Pony and SpongeBob, and a “Homeland Security” agency willing to use tactical nukes on its own homeland. (Well, I suppose, the last isn't so far fetched….)

My citation of the title above is correct—I did not omit an apostrophe. The final chapter of the novel is titled “The Missing Apostrophe”. Think about it: you can read it either way.

Finally, it ends. And so, thankfully, does this review.

I have no problem with augmented reality and the emergence of artificial intelligence. Daniel Suarez's Daemon (August 2010) and Freedom™ (January 2011) limn a future far more engaging and immeasurably less silly than that of the present work. Nor does a zany view of the singularity put me off in the least: Charles Stross's Singularity Sky (February 2011) is such a masterpiece of the genre that I was reproached by some readers for having committed the sin of spoilers because I couldn't restrain myself from citing some of its many delights. This can be done well, but in my opinion it isn't here.

November 2012 Permalink

Wade, T. I. America One. Fuquay-Varina, NC: Triple T Productions, 2012. ASIN B00AOF238I.
If you can get over the anger and resentment over having your pocket picked of US$3.97 (Amazon price at this writing) for a laughably bad book (easily one of the worst I've read since I started this list in 2001, and perhaps the worst: only The New Paradigm [December 2005] comes close), scorn for reviewers at Amazon who collectively awarded it four stars in sixty reviews, and approach it obliquely with the right sense of ironic detachment, like enjoying a disaster movie, knowing it's only fiction, this may be one of the funniest science fiction novels of recent years, but bear in mind it's funny because you're laughing at the author.

The first warning of what is to come is the prefatory “Note from the Author” (emphasis in the original).

The author is not an expert in the field of space travel. The author is only a storyteller.

Even though hundreds of hours of Internet research were done to write this story, many might find the scientific description of space travel lacking, or simply not 100 percent accurate. The fuels, gases, metals, and the results of using these components are as accurate as the author could describe them.

Should the reader, at this point, be insufficiently forewarned as to what is coming, the author next includes the following acknowledgement:

The Author would like to gratefully thank Alexander Wade (13), his son, for his many hours of research into nuclear reactors, space flight and astro-engineering to make this story as close to reality as possible for you the reader.

which also provides a foretaste of the screwball and inconsistent use of capitalisation “you the reader” are about to encounter.

It is tempting here to make a cheap crack about the novel's demonstrating a 13 year old's grasp of science, technology, economics, business, political and military institutions, and human behaviour, but this would be to defame the many 13 year olds I've encountered through E-mail exchanges resulting from material posted at Fourmilab which demonstrate a far deeper comprehension of such matters than one finds here.

The book is so laughably bad I'm able to explain just how bad without including a single plot spoiler. Helping in this is the fact that to the extent that the book has a plot at all, it is so completely absurd that to anybody with a basic grasp of reality it spoils itself simply by unfolding. Would-be thrillers which leave you gasping for air as you laugh out loud are inherently difficult to spoil. The text is marred by the dozens of copy-editing errors one is accustomed to in self-published works, but more in 99 cent specials than books at this price point. Editing appears to have amounted to running a spelling checker over the text, leaving malapropisms and misused homonyms undetected; some of these can be amusing, such as the “iron drive motors” fueled by xenon gas. Without giving away significant plot details, I'll simply list things the author asks the reader to believe which are, shall we say, rather at variance with the world we inhabit. Keep in mind that this story is set in the very near future and includes thinly disguised characters based upon players in the contemporary commercial space market.

  • Our intrepid entrepreneur, shortly after receiving his Ph.D., moves his company and its 100 employees to Silicon Valley, where Forbes projects it will “double its workforce every month for the foreseeable future.” Well, Silicon Valley is known for exponential growth, but let's work this out. What's the “foreseeable future” to Forbes? Twelve months? Then, starting at 100 and doubling monthly, there would be 204,800 employees at the Silicon Valley campus. Twenty-four months? Then you'd have more than 838 million employees, more than two and a half times the population of the United States. This would doubtless be a great boon to the fast food joints on El Camino, but I'm not sure where you'd put all those people.
  • The Hubble Space Telescope is not used to search for asteroids. Such searches are performed with wide-field, Earth-based telescopes as used by the various Spaceguard projects. Provisional names for newly-discovered asteroids are in a form different than that used by the author, and the year in the name is inconsistent with the chronology of the novel.
  • Observations of the asteroid are said to have been made through “the most powerful telescope possible”, which revealed fine surface detail. Well, I don't know about the most powerful telescope possible, but the most powerful telescopes in existence are not remotely capable of resolving such an object at the distance cited as more than a dot of light. And all of those telescopes have objective mirrors, not lenses.
  • If one were to hitch a ride on a bomber, one would not “sit on top of tons of bombs”. Bombers do not carry bombs inside the crew compartment, but in an unpressurised bomb bay, where hitching a ride would be suicidal.
  • Plutonium-238 (used in radioisotope thermoelectric generators) is not “reactor-grade” since it would be useless in a fission reactor. And nobody calls generators which use it “reactors”, nor are they “car-sized”.
  • “EMPs, powerful Electric Magnetic Pulses” are not “produced by sun flares in deep space”. Electromagnetic pulses are most commonly produced by nuclear weapon detonations interacting with the Earth's atmosphere. And “sun flares in deep space” just doesn't make any sense at all: solar flares occur, as you might guess, on the Sun.
  • Now we come to the first instance of the humble element hydrogen being used as a kind of talisman which makes all things possible. We're told that the space station hull will be shielded by pouring liquid hydrogen into a honeycomb carbon structure which will then be sealed at the factory on Earth. Now what do you think will happen once that structure is sealed with liquid hydrogen inside? Right in one—bang! Without cryogenic cooling, liquid hydrogen, regardless of pressure, will flash to gas at any temperature above its critical point of 33° K, blowing the laminated panel apart. In any case, a thin shield composed of carbon and hydrogen would be as effective against heavy primary cosmic rays as a paper bag.
  • Next come the “electromagnets” made from a “powerful rare-earth magnetic material called neodymium”. Neodymium is used to make permanent magnets, not electromagnets. Here is the first instance of the author's not comprehending the difference between magnetism and gravitation: the magnets will create “a small gravity field that is about fifteen to twenty percent of what we are used to on earth”. As will become clear later, he's not talking about using magnetic boots, but rather creating artificial gravity, which is utter nonsense.
  • The liquid argon thermal insulation is ridiculous. It would blow apart the panels just like liquid hydrogen, and in any case, while gaseous argon has low thermal conductivity, in liquid form convection would render it useless as an insulator. Further, the author believes in the naïve concept of the “temperature of space”. A vacuum has no ability to transport heat, so the temperature of a body in space is determined by the balance between the heat absorbed from the Sun and other bodies and generated internally versus heat radiated away into space.
  • Space station panels are said to “receive a covering of a silver silicon-plastic-like photovoltaic nanofilm paint an inch thick for solar-energy absorption.” Here it appears the author, who has no concept of how photovoltaic panels work, is trying to dazzle the reader with a sufficient number of buzzwords to dull critical thought. Photovoltaic cells should absorb as much sunlight as possible in a thin layer. A material which required a layer “an inch thick” would not only be wasteful of weight, but so inefficient as to be laughable. Solar cells must have an anode and cathode to extract the electricity, and cannot be applied as “paint”.
  • A Cessna 172 does not have a “joystick”, but rather a control wheel, and no airplane uses its “rudder pedals to bank left or right”. Rudder pedals are used to yaw the aircraft, not control bank angle.
  • How probable is it that Maggie's private pilot flight instructor would happen to be son of a retired three-term U.S. senator?
  • The shuttle craft has three forms of propulsion: hybrid rocket motors for initial acceleration, “hydrogen thrusters” (again, with the hydrogen—more to come) to get into orbit and maneuver, and ion drive motors using xenon gas for propulsion in space. Now, as becomes clear from numerous references in the novel, the author is not talking about rocket motors burning liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, but rather has gotten the curious (and clueless) idea that somehow hydrogen, by itself, can provide high performance propulsion. Sure, you can use hydrogen as the working fluid in a nuclear thermal rocket, but that's not what we're talking about here. Further, xenon thrusters produce such low thrust that they would be utterly incapable of performing the exploits they are claimed to do here.
  • The author says “her wings expand like one of the old X-51s”. I presume he means the X-15 (whose wings did not “expand”), not the X-51 Waverider, which is not old and has only vestigial wings.
  • No aircraft has an aileron on its tail; it's called a “rudder”.
  • Why would Maggie need to buy a car to get from California to the Air Force Academy in Colorado? Couldn't she take the bus or a plane? Are cadets even allowed to have personal cars?
  • Maggie is said to have been trained by the Air Force initially to “fly an old C-47”. These aircraft were retired from Air Force service long before she began her career.
  • It's the United States Marine Corps, not “Corp”. This isn't a typo, as it appears on multiple occasions.
  • There is no “European Space system”. It's the European Space Agency.
  • There is no reason at all to expect to find radium on an asteroid. With its longest-lived isotope having a half-life of 1601 years, all radium found in nature is the product of decay of other elements, and will never be found in more than trace quantities.
  • The author uses “control dash” for spacecraft control panels and “windshield” for the windows in deep space vehicles. His spacecraft are not, as best I can determine, equipped with running boards or rumble seats.
  • Solar arrays on space stations become “solar dragon-fly antennas” in the author's nomenclature.
  • We're told that the radioisotope thermoelectric generator (which the author variously calls a “nuclear battery” and “nuclear reactor”) containing one pound of plutonium-238 will be adequate to power a derelict Russian space station with multiple modules like Mir. Let's see, shall we? The Mir core module solar arrays initially produced 9 kW of electricity. Generation capacity was added as additional arrays were launched on subsequent modules, but offset by degradation of older arrays. But clearly 9 kW was required to operate the base station. The thermal power output of a pound of plutonium-238 is around 250 watts, but conversion of this heat to electricity has never exceeded an efficiency of 7% in any generator. Assuming this optimistic figure, the generator would produce 17.5 watts of electricity, substantially less than the 9000 watts required.
  • A “small set of hydrogen batteries” power the shuttle prior to launch. Not fuel cells, as no mention of liquid oxygen is made. Just magical hydrogen again. Is there anything it can't do?
  • Oh, and now there appears to be a “rear liquid nitrogen thruster” on the shuttle. How does that work—spewing liquid nitrogen out through a nozzle? You'd do better with Diet Coke and Mentos. If you're counting, we're now up to four separate propulsion systems on the shuttle, each with its own unique propellant.
  • Don't want to be too ambitious, at least at the outset. “There will be eReaders all over the ship with every bit of practical knowledge about agricultural [sic], human, and animals ever known; they will also be loaded with star charts, planetary systems and every asteroid and planet's history and whereabouts within our solar system. I don't believe we will leave our own system on our first journey.…”. But what the heck, we may decide to take a jaunt over to Alpha Centauri just for fun—after all, we have hydrogen thrusters!
  • I don't believe even fighter jocks would consider it appropriate to refer to two Air Force flight officers as “girl pilots”, as the author does.
  • How to accomplish the orbital two-step key to the mission without being detected? No problem: they have a “Cloaking Device” which hides the ship from radar “[m]uch like a black hole”. It's probably magnetic, with hydrogen. Not mentioned is the detail that space, from low Earth orbit to geosynchronous orbit, is under constant optical surveillance which the cloaking device would not impede, and could easily detect and track an object the size of the shuttle.
  • Both the Russian space station and the International Space Station are said to be in equatorial orbits. In fact, Mir was and the ISS is in an orbit with 51.6° inclination.
  • The author does not appear to have the vaguest idea how orbital mechanics works. In fact, from what he has written, I can't figure out how he thinks it might work. Cartoon physics has its own zany kind of consistency, but this makes Road Runner cartoons look like JPL mission planning. My favourite among a long list of howlers is when they decide to raise the orbit of the Russian space station from low Earth orbit to geosynchronous orbit. Set aside the enormous delta-v this would require and the utter inadequacy of the shuttle's propulsion system (oh, wait, I forgot about the hydrogen thrusters!), let's consider the maneuver. After docking with the space station, the shuttle burns the hydrogens to “increase her orbital speed by approximately 500 miles an hour”. Then, an orbit later, the shuttle points its nose “outward into space by three degrees” and the same burn is made. This is said to increase speed from 11,000 miles an hour (far below orbital velocity) to 14,000 miles an hour (still below orbital velocity). Two more inane burns allow, at their completion, the station to “climb away from earth on an ever-widening orbit of 900 miles per day”. Got that? No additional burns; no additional delta-v, and the station continues to spiral outward from the Earth to ever increasing orbital altitude. There is much, much more, all as idiotic, but I won't belabour the point further.
  • The coordinates of the asteroid are said to be fed to the team every twelve hours by an insider. In fact, orbital elements for asteroids are available to the general public and can be used to calculate the position of asteroids for years into the future.
  • The C-5 Galaxy transport plane is said to be a Boeing product; it was in fact built by Lockheed.
  • The tankers which refuel the C-5 are said to be in one place a KC-125 and later in the same sentence a KC-25. Neither plane exists. Clearly KC-135 was intended.
  • There is no reason to go through the rigmarole of using the C-5 to transport the secret cargo. There are commercial freighter jets which could carry a cargo of that size without the need for in-flight refueling.
  • The concept of dumping nuclear waste into the Sun further reveals utter ignorance of orbital mechanics. It seems the author believes (or would like the reader to believe) that once you're “in space”, all you have to do is “unload the stuff in the direction of the sun” and if falls straight in and goes poof. In fact, it is very difficult to impact the Sun, since you have to cancel the entire orbital velocity of the Earth, which is around 100,000 kilometres per hour, or about three times the delta-v needed to reach low Earth orbit.
  • Weightlessness is equally described as a quasi-magical state like being “in space”. When preparing to burn the shuttle's engines for an orbital adjustment, the pilot tells the crew “You will not feel the burn since we are now weightless.”
  • Always have a backup plan! “Our last resort is that we could go to Mars and begin mining there in 2016.” Never mind that we don't have any vehicle suitable for atmospheric entry and landing, nor a way to get back from the surface. But we have hydrogen thrusters!
  • When the xenon thrusters are activated, it is said “they continuously propelled the craft forward, its acceleration always increasing.” So, the author does not understand the difference between velocity and acceleration. What's a derivative among rubes?
  • Just when you thought things couldn't get more absurd, we arrive at the one by three mile asteroid only to discover that it has a gravitational field 70% as strong as the Earth's. Now, with any material known to science, the gravitational field of such a small body should be negligible. How can this possibly be the case? Magnetism, of course.
  • Those with the most cursory acquaintance with the U.S. government may be surprised to learn that mission of the National Security Agency (NSA) is not limited to cryptography and signals intelligence but to “always be sure that there are no hidden agendas in large projects”, or that the Federal Reserve is charged with detecting those “bringing illegal contraband into the country”, or that to inspect any facility on “U.S. occupied land” a congressman doesn't “need a search warrant. Members of Congress never do…”.

If this weren't enough, at the very end the author springs a cliffhanger which puts everything achieved in the entire novel in doubt. If you loved this novel, you'll be delighted to know that there are three sequels already available. I shall certainly not be reading them.

Something like this actually could have worked if the author had cast it as a neo-golden-age story of space travel in which an intrepid band set out for space defying the powers that be and conventional wisdom along the lines of John Varley's Red Thunder (July 2012). But by pretentiously trying to cast it as a realistic techno-thriller, the result is risible. Readers are willing to indulge thriller-writers the occasional implausible gadget to advance the plot, but when you have a howler which violates laws of physics known since Newton and taught in high school every few pages, the result is not thrilling but just silly. It's as if a writer published a western in which revolvers held 600 shots, fired with range of 5 km and 1 cm accuracy, and everybody rode horses which could gallop at 250 km/hour for 12 hours straight (but, you see, they're getting special hydrogen hay!).

Why spend so much time dissecting a book like this? Because it's fun, and it's the only way to derive enjoyment from such a waste of time and money. If you're wondering why the U.S. space program is in such a parlous state, it may be enlightening to read the four- and five-star reviews of this book on Amazon, bearing in mind that these people vote.

This book is presently available only in electronic form for the Kindle as cited above.

September 2013 Permalink

Weir, Andy. The Martian. New York: Broadway Books, [2011] 2014. ISBN 978-0-553-41802-6.
Mark Watney was part of the six person crew of Ares 3 which landed on Mars to carry out an exploration mission in the vicinity of its landing site in Acidalia Planitia. The crew made a precision landing at the target where “presupply” cargo flights had already landed their habitation module, supplies for their stay on Mars, rovers and scientific instruments, and the ascent vehicle they would use to return to the Earth-Mars transit vehicle waiting for them in orbit. Just six days after landing, having set up the habitation module and unpacked the supplies, they are struck by a dust storm of unprecedented ferocity. With winds up to 175 kilometres per hour, the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), already fuelled by propellant made on Mars by reacting hydrogen brought from Earth with the Martian atmosphere, was at risk of being blown over, which would destroy the fragile spacecraft and strand the crew on Mars. NASA gives the order to abort the mission and evacuate to orbit in the MAV for an immediate return to Earth.

But the crew first has to get from the habitation module to the MAV, which means walking across the surface in the midst of the storm. (You'd find it very hard to walk in a 175 km/h wind on Earth, but recall that the atmosphere pressure on Mars is only about 1/200 that of Earth at sea level, so the wind doesn't pack anywhere near the punch.) Still, there was dust and flying debris from equipment ripped loose from the landers. Five members of the crew made it to the MAV. Mark Watney didn't.

As the crew made the traverse to the MAV, Watney was struck by part of an antenna array torn from the habitation, puncturing his suit and impaling him. He was carried away by the wind, and the rest of the crew, seeing his vital signs go to zero before his suit's transmitter failed, followed mission rules to leave him behind and evacuate in the MAV while they still could.

But Watney wasn't dead. His injury was not fatal, and his blood loss was sufficient to seal the leak in the suit where the antenna had pierced it, as the water in the blood boiled off and the residue mostly sealed the breach. Awakening after the trauma, he made an immediate assessment of his situation. I'm alive. Cool! I hurt like heck. Not cool. The habitation module is intact. Yay! The MAV is gone—I'm alone on Mars. Dang!

“Dang” is not precisely how Watney put it. This book contains quite a bit of profanity which I found gratuitous. NASA astronauts in the modern era just don't swear like sailors, especially on open air-to-ground links. Sure, I can imagine launching a full salvo of F-bombs upon discovering I'd been abandoned on Mars, especially when I'm just talking to myself, but everybody seems to do it here on all occasions. This is the only reason I'd hesitate to recommend this book to younger readers who would otherwise be inspired by the story.

Watney is stranded on Mars with no way to communicate with Earth, since all communications were routed through the MAV, which has departed. He has all of the resources for a six-person mission, so he has no immediate survival problems after he gets back to the habitation and stitches up his wound, but he can work the math: even if he can find a way to communicate to Earth that he's still alive, orbital mechanics dictates that it will take around two years to send a rescue mission. His supplies cannot be stretched that far.

This sets the stage for a gripping story of survival, improvisation, difficult decisions, necessity versus bureaucratic inertia, trying to do the right thing in a media fishbowl, and all done without committing any howlers in technology, orbital mechanics, or the way people and organisations behave. Sure, you can quibble about this or that detail, but then people far in the future may regard a factual account of Apollo 13 as largely legend, given how many things had to go right to rescue the crew. Things definitely do not go smoothly here: there is reverse after reverse, and many inscrutable mysteries to be unscrewed if Watney is to get home.

This is an inspiring tale of pioneering on a new world. People have already begun to talk about going to Mars to stay. These settlers will face stark challenges though, one hopes, not as dire as Watney, and with the confidence of regular re-supply missions and new settlers to follow. Perhaps this novel will be seen, among the first generation born on Mars, as inspiration that the challenges they face in bringing a barren planet to life are within the human capacity to solve, especially if their media library isn't exclusively populated with 70s TV shows and disco.

A Kindle edition is available.

November 2014 Permalink

Wells, H. G. The Time Machine. London: Everyman, [1895, 1935] 1995. ISBN 0-460-87735-6.
Now available online at this site.

May 2002 Permalink

Wells, H. G. The Last War. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, [1914] 2001. ISBN 0-8032-9820-X.
This novel was originally published in 1914 as The World Set Free. Only the title has been changed in this edition.

September 2002 Permalink

Wells, H. G. Mind at the End of Its Tether and The Happy Turning. New York: Didier, 1946. LCCN 47-002117.
This thin volume, published in the year of the author's death, contains Wells' final essay, Mind at the End of Its Tether, along with The Happy Turning, his dreamland escape from grim, wartime England. If you've a low tolerance for blasphemy, you'd best give the latter a pass. The unrelenting pessimism of the former limited its appeal; press runs were small and it has rarely been reprinted. The link above will find all editions containing the main work, Mind at the End of Its Tether. Bear in mind when pricing used copies that both essays together are less than 90 pages, with Mind alone a mere 34.

July 2003 Permalink

White, James. All Judgment Fled. New York: Ballantine, 1969. ISBN 978-0-345-02016-1. LCCN 70086388.
James White was a science fiction author, fan, and fanzine editor in Northern Ireland. Although he published 19 novels and numerous short stories, he never quit his day job to become a professional writer: apart from a few superstar authors, science fiction just didn't pay that much in the 1950s and '60s. White was originally attracted to science fiction by the work of “Doc” Smith and Robert Heinlein, and his fiction continues very much in the Golden Age tradition of hard science fiction they helped establish.

In the 1960s, one of the criticisms of science fiction by “new wave” authors was that it had become too obsessed with hardware and conflict, and did not explore the psyche of its characters or the cultures they inhabited. In this book, the author tells a story in the mainstream of the hard science fiction genre, but puts the psychology of the characters on centre stage. Starting with a little smudge of light on an astronomer's time exposure, follow-up observations determine the object was maneuvering and hence could not be an asteroid. It settles into an orbit 12 million miles outside that of Mars. Spectral analysis reveals it to be highly reflective, probably metal. A Jupiter probe is diverted to fly by the object, and returns grainy images of a torpedo-shaped structure about half a mile in length. Around the world, it is immediately dubbed the Ship.

After entering solar orbit, the Ship does nothing: it neither maneuvers nor emits signals detectable by sensors of any kind. It remains a complete enigma, but one of epochal importance to a humanity just taking its first steps into its own solar system: a civilisation capable of interstellar travel was obviously so far beyond the technological capability of mankind that contact with it could change everything in human history, and were that contact to end badly, ring down the curtain on its existence.

Two ships, built to establish a base and observatory on the Martian moon Deimos, are re-purposed to examine the Ship at close range and, should the opportunity present itself, make contact with its inhabitants. The crew of six, divided between the two ships, are a mix of square-jawed military astronaut types and woolier scientists, including a lone psychologist who finds himself having to master the complexity of dynamics among the crew, their relations with distant Prometheus Control on Earth which seems increasingly disconnected in its estimation of the situation they are experiencing first hand and delusional in their orders for dealing with it, and the ultimate challenge of comprehending the psychology of spacefaring extraterrestrials in order to communicate with them.

Upon arrival at the Ship, the mystery only deepens. Not only is there no reaction to their close range approach to the Ship, when an exploration party boards it, they find technology which looks comparable to that of humans, no evidence of an intelligent life form directing the ship, but multitudes of aliens as seemingly mindless as sharks bent on killing them. Puzzling out this enigma requires the crew to explore the Ship, deal with Prometheus Control as an adversary, manage the public relations impact of their actions on a global audience on Earth who are watching their every move, and deal with the hazards of a totally alien technology.

This is a throughly satisfying story of first contact (although as the pages count down toward the end, you'll find yourself wondering if, and when, that will actually happen). It is not great science fiction up to the standard of Doc Smith or Heinlein, but it is very good. The “Personnel Launcher” is one of the more remarkable concepts of transferring crew between ships en-route I've encountered. Readers at this remove may find the author's taking psychology and psychotherapy so seriously rather quaint. But recall that through much of the 1960s, even the theories of the charlatan Freud were widely accepted by people who should have known better, and the racket of psychoanalysis was prospering. Today we'd just give 'em a pill. Are we wiser, or were they?

This work is out of print, but used copies are generally available. The book was reprinted in 1979 by Del Rey and again in 1996 by Old Earth Books. If you're looking for a copy to read (as opposed to a collectible), it's best to search by author and title and choose the best deal based on price and condition. The novel was originally serialised in If Magazine in 1967.

Update: New reprint copies of the original UK hardcover edition remain available directly from Old Earth Books. (2013-01-25 20:16 UTC)

January 2013 Permalink

Whittington, Mark R. Children of Apollo. Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2002. ISBN 978-1-4010-4592-0.
This is a brilliant concept and well-executed (albeit with some irritating flaws I will discuss below). This novel is within the genre of “alternative history” and, conforming to the rules, takes a single counterfactual event as the point of departure for a recounting of the 1970s as I, and I suspect many others, expected that decade to play out at its dawn. It is a celebration of what might have been, and what we have lost compared to the future we chose not to pursue.

In the novel's timeline, an obscure CIA analyst writes a memo about the impact Soviet efforts to beat the U.S. to the Moon are having upon the Soviet military budget and economy, and this memo makes it to the desk of President Nixon shortly after the landing of Apollo 11. Nixon is persuaded by his senior advisors that continuing and expanding the Apollo and follow-on programs (whose funding had been in decline since 1966) would be a relatively inexpensive way to, at the least, divert funds which would otherwise go to Soviet military and troublemaking around the world and, at the best, bankrupt their economy because an ideology which proclaimed itself the “wave of the future” could not acquiesce to living under a “capitalist Moon”.

Nixon and his staff craft a plan thoroughly worthy of the “Tricky Dick” moniker he so detested, and launch a program largely modelled upon the 1969 Space Task Group report, with the addition of transitioning the space shuttle recommended in the report to competitive procurement of transportation services from the private sector. This sets off the kind of steady, yet sustainable, expansion of the human presence into space that von Braun always envisioned. At the same time, it forces the Soviets, the Luddite caucus in Congress, and the burgeoning environmental movement into a corner, and they're motivated to desperate measures to bring an end to what some view as destiny but they see as disaster.

For those interested in space who lived through the 1970s and saw dream after dream dashed, downscoped, or deferred, this is a delightful and well-crafted exploration of how it could have been. Readers too young to remember the 1970s may miss a number of the oblique references to personalities and events of that regrettable decade.

The Kindle edition is perfectly readable, reasonably inexpensive, but sloppily produced. A number of words are run together and hyphenated words in the print edition not joined. Something funny appears to have happened in translating passages in italics into the electronic edition—I can't quite figure out what, but I'm sure the author didn't intend parts of words to be set in italics. In addition there are a number of errors in both the print and Kindle editions which would have been caught by a sharp-eyed copy editor. I understand that this is a self-published work, but there are many space buffs (including this one) who would have been happy to review the manuscript and check it for both typographical and factual errors.

April 2011 Permalink

Wolfe, Steven. The Obligation. Los Gatos, CA: Smashwords, 2013. ISBN 978-1-3010-5798-6.
This is a wickedly clever book. A young congressional staffer spots a plaque on the wall of his boss, a rotund 15-term California Democrat, which reads, “The colonization of space will be the fulfillment of humankind's Obligation to the Earth.” Intrigued, he mentions the plaque to the congressman, and after a series of conversations, finds himself sent on a quest to meet archetypes of what the congressman refers to as the six Endowments of humanity—capacities present only in our own species which set us apart from all of those from whom we evolved, and equip us for a destiny which is our ultimate purpose: the Wanderer, Settler, Inventor, Builder, Visionary, and Protector. These Endowments have evolved, driven by the Evolutionary Impulse, toward the achievement, by humans and their eventual descendents, of three Obligations, which will require further evolution into a seventh Endowment.

The staffer tries to reconcile his discovery of the human destiny beyond the planet with his romance with a goo-goo eco-chick who advocates cancelling the space program to first solve our problems on the Earth. As he becomes progressively enlightened, he, and then she realise that there is no conflict between these goals, and that planetary stewardship and serving as the means for Gaia “going to seed” and propagating the life it has birthed outward into the cosmos are a unified part of the Obligation.

When I describe this book as “wickedly clever”, what I mean is that it creates a mythology for space migration which co-opts and subsumes that of its most vehement opponents: the anti-human Merchants of Despair (April 2013). It recasts humanity, not as a “cancer on the planet”, but rather the means by which Gaia can do what every life form must: reproduce. Indeed, Robert Zubrin, author of the aforementioned book, along with a number of other people I respect, have contributed effusive blurbs on the book's Web site. It provides a framework for presenting humanity's ultimate destiny and the purpose of life to those who have never thought of those in terms similar to those I expressed in my Epilogue to Rudy Rucker's The Hacker and the Ants. (Warning—there are spoilers for the novel in my Epilogue.)

In the acknowledgements, the author thanks several people for help in editing the manuscript. Given the state of what was published, one can only imagine what these stalwarts started with. The text is riddled with copy-editing errors: I noted 61, and I was just reading for enjoyment, not doing a close proof. In chapter 6, visiting Evan Phillips, the Builder, the protagonist witnesses a static test of an Aerojet LR-87 engine, which is said to have a “white hot exhaust” and is described as “off the shelf hardware”. But the LR-87, which powered Titan missiles and launchers, has used hypergolic fuels ever since the Titan II replaced the Titan I in the early 1960s. These storable fuels burn with a clear flame. Re-engineering an LR-87 to burn LOX and RP-1 would be a major engineering project, hardly off the shelf. Further, during the test, the engine is throttled to various thrust levels, but the LR-87 was a fixed thrust engine; no model incorporated throttling. In chapter 9, after visiting a Kitt Peak telescope earlier in the night, in the predawn hours, he steps out under the sky and sees a “nearly full Moon … dimming the blazing star fields I saw at Kitt Peak”. But a full Moon always rises at sunset (think about the geometry), so if the Moon were near full, it would have been up when he visited the telescope. There are other factual goofs, but I will not belabour them, as that isn't what this book is about. It is a rationale for space settlement which, if the reader can set aside the clumsy editing, may be seductively persuasive even to those inclined to oppose it.

Update: The copy-editing errors mentioned above have been corrected in a new edition now posted. If you previously purchased and downloaded the Kindle edition, log in to your Amazon account, go to “Manage Your Kindle / Manage Your Devices” and turn on Automatic Book Update. The next time you synchronise your reading device, the updated edition will be downloaded. (2013-08-03 13:28 UTC)

Only the Kindle edition is available from Amazon, but a wide variety of other electronic formats, including HTML, PDF, EPUB, and plain text are available from Smashwords.

July 2013 Permalink

Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. Translated by Mirra Ginsburg. New York: Eos Books, [1921] 1999. ISBN 0-380-63313-2.

March 2002 Permalink

Zubrin, Robert. The Holy Land. Lakewood, CO: Polaris Books, 2003. ISBN 0-9741443-0-4.
Did somebody say science fiction doesn't do hard-hitting social satire any more? Here, Robert Zubrin, best known for his Mars Direct mission design (see The Case for Mars) turns his acid pen (caustic keyboard?) toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with plenty of barbs left over for the absurdities and platitudes of the War on Terrorism (or whatever). This is a novel which will have you laughing out loud while thinking beyond the bumper-sticker slogans mouthed by politicians into the media echo chamber.

February 2004 Permalink