Book Review: Mission One – by Samuel Best

Jeff Dolan works for a private space firm as an astronaut. The CEO is a young entrepreneur, and his general manager a shrewd operator. There are also other private competitors. NASA is only a shadow of its former self. Now they are on the way to the Saturn moon Titan. It’s a race.

Shortly after departure from earth, a terrible technical accident occurs putting the entire mission in jeopardy. They manage to salvage the ship and continue to go to Titan. Eventually they figure out there was sabotage and the company apparently is putting more value on the mission than their lives.

Once they get to Saturn, they quickly discover that “something” is already there, something apparently not man-made.

Mission One is a first-contact story.

Generally I love first-contact stories, but this one has so many flaws, it didn’t work for me.

*** Some spoilers after this ***

The company’s CEO is being blackmailed by the general manager, who basically hires a swat team and takes over the company at gunpoint. That’s just not how business  works. The writer apparently has not worked in an entrepreneurial company.

The spaceship has a limited amount of fuel. Fuel is being calculated all the time in this story, particularly after the malfunction. But it seems to be all about what they call “major burns” which suck away all the fuel. So they are planning on coming home from Titan with one major burn left in the tank. Somehow they never seem to care about deceleration. The ship goes to Titan in record time but does not seem to have to decelerate there. The ship uses up its last major burn coming home from Titan. How does it slow down when it gets to the halfway point?

You might say that’s not so important. I agree, it could be excused, if the ship were to be a Starship Enterprise-type ship with basically magic technology. But this story presents itself as a science-based science fiction tale, but its science does not hold water whatsoever. In contrast, Andy Weir does a great job in The Martian and Project Hail Mary in that regard.

Another plot component is related to the distance between Saturn and Earth, which is currently around 88 minutes. It varies widely depending on the position of the two planets in their orbits. However, no matter how far, it’s a long time and you can’t have any real-time communication. However, conveniently, once they are within reach of the alien artifact in orbit around Titan, they have instantaneous communications between Earth and the ship in orbit around Titan. Somehow, the artifact makes this possible, and nobody seems to be surprised about that. Again, magic technology that just does not make sense in this context.

Overall, there is nothing wrong with using magic technology to build a plot, if it’s done right. In this case, it just never made sense and I felt that the magic was too distracting to be convincing, and it constantly reminded me that I was reading a book. I never got into the book.

Book Review: Time Tunnel: The Twin Towers – by Richard Todd

The story starts in the morning of September 10, 2001 in New York City. Kyle Mason, a major in the Special Forces, has just married Padma Mahajan, who works on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center. She is an investment banker for Cantor Fitzgerald. They are staying in a hotel in SoHo, and out their window they can see the Twin Towers. Padma leaves to get Starbucks, while Kyle takes a shower. When he gets out, a mysterious figure appears in the mirror behind him.

Vignettes reach back to 1947 when supposedly UFOs crashed in Roswell, New Mexico. There are episodes of the story in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and through the years, culminating in 2008 when a handful of brilliant scientists, sheltered and covered by the U.S. Army in Area 51, finally develop a working time machine.

Richard Todd is a good story teller and he creates credible characters, with good realistic dialog, and a fast-paced plot. I enjoyed reading this book until the last sentence, at which time I decided to buy Book 2 of the 3-book series.

 

Book Review: The Sentinel – by T. M. Haviland

About a hundred years in our future, around 2124, there is a small permanent human settlement on Mars, and permanents space stations in Earth orbit and on the moon are a reality.

The hunt for rare minerals to feed the needs of technology has intensified, and there are companies mining in Antarctica, under several kilometers of ice, using robotic mining equipment for prospecting.

In this endeavor, a mining team finds what they think is a peculiar meteor that must have been there for more than 10 million years, which is at least how long that part of Antarctica has been covered by thick glaciers.

As they study the object, however, they find anomalies that they can’t explain, and they gradually come to the realization that they are dealing with an alien artifact.

But what does humanity do with something it does not understand? Try to destroy it.

As you might expect, that starts off a chain of events that may not be stoppable.

The Sentinel is a speculative fiction book that tells a story. The characters are simple and one-dimensional, and much of the plot is fairly predictable.

I enjoyed reading it to a point, but I would probably not clamor to read more books by this author.

Banning Books – Comments by Author Jeff Zentner

Here is a meme on banning books by Jeff Zentner

 

I do not know who actually put this list of books together, but I found it inspiring.

  • Gone with the Wind – by Margaret Mitchell: Reviewed on June 15, 2011, 4 stars
  • As I Lay Dying – by William Faulkner: I read this book about 20 years ago, should write a review, but can’t remember enough about it. Need to re-read.
  • Beloved – by Tony Morrison
  • Catch 22 – by Joseph Heller: I have tried to read this several times and could never get through. I need to try again. I have it in hardcopy on the shelf behind me.
  • Brave New World – by Aldous Huxley
  • The Color Purple – by Alice Walker
  • Death of a Salesman – by Arthur Miller
  • Catcher in the Rye – by J. D. Salinger: Reviewed on March 19, 2009, 4 stars – I have read this book two or three times over the years.
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – by J. K. Rowling
  • Howl – by Allen Ginsberg
  • A Light in the Attic – by Shel Silverstein
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – by Mark Twain
  • James and the Giant Peach – by Roald Dahl
  • The Joy of Sex – by Alex Comfort: Boy, I did check that book out when I was a young man.
  • Lord of the Flies – by William Golding
  • Native Son – by Richard Wright
  • Of Mice and Men – by John Steinbeck: I have read this book but too many years ago and therefore no review
  • Portnoy’s Complaint – by Philip Roth
  • The Sun Also Rises – by Ernest Hemingway
  • The Pentagon Papers – by Office of the Secretary of the Defense, 1971
  • Sophie’s Choice – by William Styron
  • Slaughterhouse Five – by Kurt Vonnegut: I tried to read this a few times and never got into it.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird – by Harper Lee: Read several times long ago.
  • Ulysses – by James Joyce: I can’t read Ulysses and I can’t read Ulysses Take Two.

So here is my reading list. Let’s get to work!

Book Review: Time of Death – by Nathan Van Coops

A young widow hires Greyson Travers, a private detective, to investigate the suicide of her husband. Since she does not believe her husband would commit suicide, she thinks it was murder, but she has no proof. Travers has a great reputation for solving crimes, so she hires him to figure out what happened.

What she does not know, of course, is that Travers is a time traveler. Rather than figuring out what might have happened, he simply goes back to the time and place of the crime and watches it happen. What could be simpler?

He quickly realizes that the crime is much more complicated than it appears, and there are other time-traveling criminals involved.  He quickly finds himself ensnared by the mob and some very dangerous characters who use time travel to commit crimes.

Greyson Travers is the son of Ben and Mym Travers of Van Coops’ In Time Like These series of books, all of which I found highly readable. It is not necessary to read those books before enjoying Time of Death. It stands alone, and the author slowly introduces the concepts of time travel of the In Times Like These universe without it getting in our faces.

I have read all of those books, and if you’re interested, here is a summary of my reviews. You can click on the titles to jump right to them.

Nathan Van Coops Agent of Time Fiction Time Travel 2 Dec 13, 2020
Nathan Van Coops The Warp Clock Fiction Time Travel 3 Oct 9, 2018
Nathan Van Coops The Day after Never Fiction Time Travel 2 Jan 2, 2017
Nathan Van Coops The Chronothon Fiction Time Travel 3 Dec 3, 2016
Nathan Van Coops In Times Like These Fiction Time Travel 3 Oct 31, 2016

Time of Death is basically a murder mystery and it deals with a heist.

There was only one issue I had with the plot. The mob figures in the story have the ability to travel in time, but they organize this weird heist to collect cash from a casino. Seriously, if I were a time traveler, it would be so much easier to get rich, without hurting anyone, without cheating anyone else. Why not go back to 1980 and buy some Apple stock? Then come back to 2022 and enjoy the fruits of that decision. Oh well, there would be no murder mystery then.

I enjoyed all of Nathan Van Coops’ books, and I rated them all between 2 and 3 stars. They are always very readable and fast-paced. Time of Death is a fairly short book and a quick, fun read.

Book Review: The Vanishing Half – by Brit Bennett

The author of The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett, at age 32, is younger than my youngest child. She apparently grew up in Oceanside, California, which is about 30 minutes down the road from where I have lived for a lot longer than 32 years. Home.

Brit Bennett is an African American woman. For the remainder of this post I will no longer say African American, but use the terms “colored” or “black” or “dark” just as she uses those terms throughout the book.

The story starts in the early 1960s, and is about the Vignes twins, Desiree and Stella, who grow up in Mallard, Louisiana, a very small town in the country, almost entirely black, but the light version of black. So light, indeed, that the twins pass as white when they are out of their environment. As the twins grow up, they try to break away from the yokes of their ancestry, and each twin has her own way. Desiree is the outgoing one. Stella is the quiet one. When they move into New Orleans to get jobs, one day, Stella disappears. She is never seen again. Even private investigators can’t find her.

And that’s all I am going to tell you about the story, because you’ll need to read it for yourself.

The Vanishing Half is about racism in America, and it shows, without ever lecturing or judging, what it is like to be a colored person in our country. The subtle insinuations and the basic assumptions that we all have about black people come to life. As we experience this story, the absurdity of it all becomes obvious. The book deals not just with racism but also transgender issues, always nonchalantly, without getting in our face.

As I read The Vanishing Half, following the twins, their parents, their lovers, the fathers of their children, and their children, through their lives, I felt like I got to know them all intimately, and when the book was finally over, and I flipped the last page, I knew I’d miss the characters. I wanted it to continue. It is that kind of book.

And my awareness of what it’s like to be black in America was hugely elevated.

Brit Bennett, as such a young woman, has written a very wise book, and I will surely pick up her next ones.

And you should pick up this one.

Book Review: Trident’s Forge – by Patrick S. Tomlinson

Trident’s Forge is Book 2 in Tomlinson’s series Children of a Dead Earth. Just yesterday I reviewed Book 1 here.

I wasn’t going to read the sequel, since the original book, a generation ship story, wasn’t all that exciting. However, the author roped me in with a few teaser chapters at the end of Book 1 and I read it anyway.

In Trident’s Forge, we meet the characters from The Ark again about three years after landing on the planet they call Gaia orbiting Tau Ceti. Mankind has gained a tenuous foothold. But on another continent on the planet, there is already a sentient race, they call them the Atlantians.

These aliens are slightly larger than humans, but humanoid with a head, two arms and legs, and very pliable, seemingly boneless bodies. It’s kind of strange that the author didn’t do a better job of describing how the aliens look. In my mind, they were simply big, gangly humans from the Bronze age.

Trident’s Forge is a First Contact story, albeit not one of the better ones I have read. The aliens are just like humans, with the same emotions, feelings, even reflexes. Other than looking a little different, and speaking a different language, they are just humans in costumes, and as a result, not very intriguing as aliens.

The story is another conspiracy story. Humanity has brought its worst attributes with them, including the greed of the elite class that will do anything to get rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else, including an entire sentient race. It’s a fast-moving story, quite readable, but unfortunately not very memorable.

I won’t be reading Book 3, even through I thumbed through the teaser chapters. There are too many other books on my reading shelf, and there is too little time left.

Book Review: The Ark – by Patrick S. Tomlinson

Mankind discovers a black hole heading directly into the solar system. Humanity faces complete obliteration as a result. Using all the world’s resources, they build a massive starship to send on its way to Tau Ceti, where a habitable planet was found that should be suitable for humans. The Ark, as the ship is called, travels at about 5% the speed of light. This means it will take almost two and a half centuries to bridge the gap of 12 lightyears. The Ark is truly a generation ship. All of the 50,000 people who were chosen to leave Earth would never see their destination but live out their lives on the ship. Entire new generations will be born, live their lives, and die, never seeing their destination. Imagine living on a ship now that left Earth at about the time of the American Declaration of Independence. That would be the timeframe.

The story starts just before arrival at Tau Ceti. Bryan Benson is a retired sports hero. He now works as a detective. After a crew member goes missing, he eventually discovers that a murder has taken place. As he digs deeper, he finds that there appears to be a conspiracy involving the most powerful people on the ship that could jeopardize the entire mission and possibly annihilate the last living members of the human race, the 50,000 souls living on the Ark.

I picked up this book because I love generation ship stories. I have read and reviewed five books about generation ships in this blog (you can find the reviews by selecting “Generation Ships” in the categories dropdown.

I enjoyed the description of the ship and its technology, but had a hard time picturing it in my head. The author does not do a very good job describing things.

The Ark is actually Book 1 of a series of three books titled “Children of a Dead Earth.” I didn’t think I’d go for the second in the series, but the publishers cleverly put the first few chapters into the end of this book, and it pulled me in. See my review of Book 2 next.

Book Review: The Light Years – by R.W.W. Greene

The year is 3235. Adem is a trader who has lived the majority of his life on a small starship, named Hajj. After the ruin of Earth, mankind has populated a handful of exoplanets, some more successfully than others. Starships connect the planets traveling at almost the speed of light. To go from one star to another, say a dozen lightyears away, will therefore take a bit more than the 12 years, since we must accommodate time for acceleration and deceleration. Due to the effects of relativity, while such a journey will take 12 years, from the point of view of the occupants of the ship, only a few months go by.

Adem is a young man of marriageable age. It is common for families to arrange marriages. They pick out an eligible couple on a planet, pay them handsomely to have a daughter who will eventually marry into the family. Adem picks his future bride, Hisako, before she is even conceived, let alone born. They make a deal, pay Hisako’s parents a life-changing amount of money, and Adem returns to the ship and embarks on another trading trip to one of the planets. The time spent on that trip, relative to Adem, will be less than two years. By the time he comes back, two years older, his unborn bride will have grown up, gone through school, graduated from university and be ready to join him as his 24-year-old wife.

Needless to say, complications arise.

I love stories about time dilation. Haldeman’s The Forever War is a book I read twice for that reason, as it works the effects very well into the plot. The Light Years is all about the effects of time dilation and it illustrates many fascinating concepts. However, the author is using too much magic science to make it happen. As an example, the starships in The Light Years travel at more than 99% of the speed of light. This is necessary for the plot to have the significant time dilation effects. However, he never even tries to explain how the ships accomplish that. They just do, never mind that it takes infinite energy for an object to reach lightspeed. There is also no attempt to explain where the fuel comes from to generate this energy, or how the ships protect themselves from interstellar dust.

The author tells the story from the viewpoints of the two protagonists, Adem and Hisako, in alternating chapters, each titled with the name of the character. I have seen this done before in other books and it can work well, but it didn’t do that here. Adem’s chapters were written in the third person, just from his viewpoint, while Hisako’s chapters were written in the first person, with Hisako directly telling the story. This threw me off throughout the book, and it was unnecessary. The third person worked a little better – it usually does – so I would have just changed Hisako’s chapters and the result would have been a more readable, better book.

In the end, if you are interested in time dilation, you have to read The Light Years, the non-science parts notwithstanding. We observe human life on several planets. Obviously, traders live thousands of “normal” years as they go on their journeys, and they can never come back “home” to any place, as it will have aged decades.

It’s a fun, speculative read.

Book Review: A Place Called Freedom – by Ken Follett

Twenty-one-year-old Mack McAsh and his twin sister are trapped working in the coal mines in Scotland in 1766. Coal miners work under the harshest possible conditions. The men go to work early in the morning and labor in the mines, picking the coal from assigned spots deep underground. The women and children then haul the coal on their backs up rickety staircases in the shafts. All day long. Every day except Sunday. Miners also have no way out. Often, through complex laws, they become lifelong slaves of the mine owners.

Lizzie Hallim is noble-born and therefore has a very different kind of life. However, while the miner’s oppression is simple, the fate of a noblewoman out of favor can be complex and just as brutal.

Mack escapes this fate and tries to make it on his own, first by escaping to London, then, through circuitous ways to the New World, a plantation in Virginia.

A Place Called Freedom follows these protagonists on their journey to escape injustice during a time of revolution. They are searching for a better life, a simple life, but above all, a life of freedom.

Bookreview: Earthbound – by Joe Haldeman

Earthbound is the third in Haldeman’s “bound” trilogy. The first two were Marsbound and Starbound, which I have recently reviewed. I gave them only two stars and one star respectively, and usually I would not read any more books of a series that I rated so poorly. But I made an exception with Earthbound, because I wanted to know what happened next.

In Marsbound, the protagonists traveled to Mars, found Martians, came back to earth orbit quarantine, discovered an alien race with seemingly godlike powers, and were attacked by these aliens.

In Starbound, a group of seven humans and two Martians were sent to the star of the aliens, 25 lightyears away, as ambassadors for the human race. They got there and came back, but not much happened otherwise.

In Earthbound, the group that came back from traveling to and from the alien star for more than 50 years, who had aged only a few years due the time distortion factor that applies at relativistic speeds, found itself stranded on a military base in California. The evil aliens had turned off everything electric in the world. It’s not explained how they did that, and it’s certainly not clear what alien reasoning has made them do that, other than they don’t like other races who can become dangerous by acquiring technology. So Earthbound is really not a science fiction story anymore, but an Armageddon tale of survival in a world that has been thrown back to the technology of the 1800s, however, with a supply of guns and ammunition available in the late 2100s.

Nothing much happened in Earthbound otherwise.

Book Review: Starbound – by Joe Haldeman

Starbound picks up where Marsbound stopped. Humanity has decided to send a starship to Wolf 25, the home world of The Others.

The starship uses the “free energy” concept provided by The Others through the Martians to create a matter – anti-matter reaction engine. However, for that it needs reaction mass, which it obtains from a large ice asteroid. The asteroid is large enough to provide mass to travel the 25 light years to Wolf 25 and back with mass to spare. The ship accelerates at 1g all the way to the half-way point, at which time it will have reached more than 90% of the speed of light, when it turns around and then decelerates for the second half of the trip. Due to the relativistic speed, the crew will only age 6 years during the more than 25-year journey.

They should be able to meet The Others, and come back, all over the course of a little more than 12 years in their own lives, while more than 50 years will have passed on Earth.

Along the way, unexpected events change their plans and the “meeting” with The Others is not quite what they expected.

While the premise is exciting, and the first journey of a crewed trip to another star could be exciting, the author does not take advantage of the opportunity. There are conceptual problems with the plot, and the story-telling is stilted.

There are some concepts that just don’t make sense. For instance, the ship accelerates at 1g for half the trip. However, anyone studying relativity and doing the pretty simple math will realize that, from Earth’s frame of reference, if you’re accelerating at a constant rate of 1g, then you would reach near the speed of light in about one year. Why keep accelerating after that, particularly when there is a significant plot point about the Martians really suffering in the 1g Earth-standard gravity. They could have turned the engine off after one year, and they would arrive only very marginally later, after turning the engine on for braking again one year out. The whole thing just didn’t add up.

Another massive plot hole is that the entire premise is that the limit of the speed of light affects all races, including The Others. They can’t travel any faster than anyone else. However, somehow they are able to cause terrible destruction to humanity seemingly instantaneously, as the plot of the story will tell.

Yes, you may say this is science fiction, and the author has to right to make up the technology. But this does not work if on one side the author goes to great lengths building a world around the limitations and effects of general relativity, but on the other hand seems to break those rules in deus ex machina fashion all throughout the plot.

Finally, let’s talk about the crew. Humanity sends seven humans and two Martians as the world’s ambassadors to another star to meet a known very hostile race. Leaving the two Martians alone, the human crew consists of two married couples. The first are Carmen Dula and Paul Collier of Marsbound. The other are Meryl and Moonboy, the two xenologists of Marsbound. Then apparently to make things interesting, they add a triad (marriage of three) with two male “spies” and their mutual wife, Elza, who is a medical doctor who also happens to be a nymphomaniac. This causes all sorts of friction as she sleeps her way through the crew within the first few weeks. Why in the world would humanity set up a team of star travelers who would be cooped up in a spaceship tin-can for 12 years and not make sure there will be sexual stability for the journey? I assume it’s for plot purposes, so there is plenty of sex sprinkled into the story. I might add that the sex really does not work in this story.

The author also applies a strange concept of using three different narrators, switching between chapters. One is Carmen, the other in Namir, one of the spies, and the third is Fly-in-Amber, one of the Martians. I don’t see why that was necessary, as it didn’t add anything to the story as far as I could tell. But it was confusing, since I had to figure out who was talking every time a new chapter started with the protagonist speaking in the first person. He could have put the name of the narrator into the chapter title and made it a little more straightforward.

Starbound is a tale with a lot of possibilities, but those are completely wasted. Haldeman is a good story teller, and I enjoy his novels, but this one is just too poorly crafted and constructed, with a far-fetched a plot that I simply was not able to buy into.

Book Review: Marsbound – by Joe Haldeman

It’s late 21st century on Earth. There is now a space elevator in the Pacific off the Galapagos Islands that allows humans to reach space in a two-week elevator ride, rather than a 12-minute rocket blast. There is a Hilton hotel midway in the balance point of the elevator.

Carmen Dula is a 19-year-old girl traveling to Mars with her family as part of a group of scientist colonists, adding to the 100 or so people already living on Mars.

The story tells about the ride on the space elevator in great detail and much more elaborately than I have read in any other science fiction story. The reader will understand space elevators after this. Then it tells of the months long journey on a spaceship to Mars, the landing there, and the integration of the new colonists with the existing people there.

Carmen is not necessarily an obedient young woman. One night she defies all colony rules, as well as all common sense, and leaves the station in a spacesuit all alone, telling nobody where she went. Sure enough, she has an accident many kilometers away from the base, and believes she is about to die – when she gets rescued – by Martians.

At this point, the story took a completely different turn from what I expected, having read The Martian by Andy Weir recently. Weir stays with current technology in his book and does not venture into a speculative technological future. Haldeman stretches things here.

Moderate Spoiler Below

As it turns out, the Martians in this book are a race artificially created by “The Others” to keep an eye on humanity. Some 30,000 years ago, The Others visited the solar system, found early human hunter gatherers and decided that they could easily evolve into a space-traveling race. They put an outpost on Mars to monitor Earth, which took no effort at all for 30,000 years, until the humans started broadcasting in the early 20th century. Then they got busy and started learning human culture and languages simply from humanity’s broadcasts.

The Others are a highly advanced race which lives in a silicon-based environment embedded in liquid nitrogen. Their metabolism is more than a 100 times slower than that of humans, so there is no way for them to communicate with humans directly. However, they have created artificial sentinels that can translate between the thoughts of the others and humans.

The humans aren’t doing too well – being a bellicose race and never trusting others, and within just a few years of learning of The Others humanity does one stupid thing after another to stoke the ire of The Others.

Then they strike.

End of Spoiler

Haldeman likes to tell near-future stories with space travel and relativistic concepts interwoven, and that makes for an interesting read, albeit a far-fetched one. With the story being told by an immature girl at least for the first half of the book, it feels a bit  juvenile at times, and there is a little bit more sex in the story than is necessary to make it succeed. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it and the concepts described, particularly the experience of the space elevator.

Book Review: Project Hail Mary – by Andy Weir

A man wakes up from a coma. He can’t remember who he is, where he is, and why he is there. He is tended to by a robot. He has a scientific mind, and he gradually figures out he must be in a spaceship, since the gravity is 1.5 g, which he determined by timing dropped objects. He is alone. The two companions with him on the ship are long dead and mummified. He figures out he was in an induced coma, probably to escape the boredom of a long journey.

But it gets much worse. After some observations of the stars around him, and the sun, he realizes that the sun is actually not the sun but some other star. Now he knows he is in trouble. The nearest star to the solar system is more than 4 lightyears away, so it must have taken decades to get to where he is. Decades alone in a spaceship.

Gradually, as his memory returns bit by bit, vignette by vignette of flashbacks, he learns his name is Ryland Grace, and he is a scientist sent on a one-way mission to investigate a solution to an existential problem at home: The sun is being drained of energy and the earth is rapidly cooling, Not only does he have to somehow survive alone, lightyears from home, his mission is actually to find a solution to save humanity and transmit his results back via high speed probes. It’s an impossible situation.

Andy Weir, who burst into the science fiction world with his first novel The Martian (which I reviewed here) has done it again. Project Hail Mary is one of the best and most satisfying science fiction stories I have ever read. Andy Weir’s stories play in today’s world, or in the very near future, perhaps just a few years off. All the technology in his stories is our technology today. There is Google and Facebook, there are laptops and iPhones. In near-earth orbit there is the good ol’ ISS. That’s the stuff Andy Weir’s science fiction is made of. He writes as the narrator in the present tense, which gives the story a feeling of rapid action.

Project Hail Mary is a page-turner that kept me riveted to the very end. It gets a solid four stars.

 

 

*** Spoiler Alert ***

I recommend that you do not read beyond this point if you intend to read the book. You should read it first, and then come back here to find out some of the reasons why I think this is one of the best science fiction stories ever, and I’ll also talk about some of the plot holes or flaws of the story (there aren’t many).

By astronomical observations and triangulations he figures out he is at the star Tau Ceti, which is about 12 lightyears from earth. Tau Ceti turns out to be the only star in the local stellar neighborhood that is not afflicted by the energy loss that the sun experiences. All other stars are also dimming. But here it gets interesting. An alien space ship approaches him and starts interacting with him. On board is an alien that is the most interesting, in my opinion realistic and credible alien life. My bone to pick with alien stories is that the aliens are too humanoid, usually about the size of a human, and suited to be in the same atmosphere. This alien comes from a planet in the 40 Eridani star system, which is 16.5 light years from earth. Grace calls them Eridians. The aliens resemble large spiders, the size of a medium-sized dog, with a carapace of about 18 inches in diameter and about 10 inches high. It has five arms, each with “hands” that have three opposing claws. They use the arms or legs interchangeably. They have no eyes and no sense of vision, since their planet is pitch black due to a very thick atmosphere of ammonia. The pressure on their planet is 29 times that of earth. It would crush a human instantly. Their body temperature is 210 degrees Celsius or over 400 degrees Fahrenheit, so extremely hot. Imagine a creature that lives in 29 atmospheres of pressure with a body temperature of twice the boiling point of water, that breathes pure ammonia. There is no way such a creature would be able to survive a minutes in our world. And likewise, we’d burn up within seconds on theirs, and be crushed by the pressure and gravity.

The aliens have no vision, and all communication is via sound and echolocation, similar to whales. When Grace meets the alien, they quickly establish a way to communicate and learn each other’s languages. Over weeks, they build a sufficient mutual vocabulary to actually communicate productively. That done, they get to work on solving the existential problems of both their home worlds.

Some of the problems I had:

The Eridians do not know about radiation. They have no vision. There is no light on the surface of their planet. So how did they ever develop astronomy and space travel?

The technology of the Eridians is described as equivilent to that of earth in the 1950s. They have not yet invented the semiconductor or even the transistor and as a result they don’t have computers. However, their materials science is amazing and they can build just about anything from a simple raw material which is stronger than anything humans can build. They have robots. How can you have robots if you don’t have electronic processors?

There is one short episode back on earth where two brilliant scientists hook up and have a sexual relationship. It’s just a few pages of description, it’s pretty awkward and unrealistic, and it has nothing at all to do with the plot. Weir should have just left that part out.

Then there is the way Weir ended up on the mission. That was too dramatic and unrealistic, and he could have written the story without that twist and it would have been more credible. Yes, the amnesia he initially experienced after waking up would not be there, but so what. The story would have worked just as well.

But that’s all I could find that I had issues with. I like the science in this story, and the plot holes I described above are minor enough that I can accept them.

The description and depiction of the alien, however, is superb. The Eridians are the most realistic, credible, exotic and yet totally plausible aliens I have ever read about.

Book Review: A Maze of Stars – by John Brunner

The only other Brunner story I ever read was Lungfish, and here is my review.

Brunner wrote A Maze of Stars in 1991.

Somewhere, sometime in the distant future, humanity has left its birth world, Earth, and developed a starship with a mission of seeding new planets with humanity. After initial robotic missions, “the Ship” takes a load of humans and seeds about 600 planets in “the arm of stars” or just called “the Arm.”

There are about six hundred thousand stars visited by man, and sixty thousand have planets hospitable to life, six thousand have developed life and six hundred have been seeded with humanity. Only about 60 of those are fairly successful, and most of them are in some state of devolution.

The Ship is artificially intelligent and has become sentient. It’s been about 500 years since the planets were seeded, and the ship is on an endless loop, visiting the planets clandestinely and observing the outcome. The only problem is, the ship’s jumps through hyperspace, called tachyonic space in this book, result in various jumps in time in addition to space. The ship can’t control the time jumps. So it sometimes “remembers” the future of a planet it is visiting, because it has been there “before” which was far in the future.

Are you confused yet? I certainly was.

A Maze of Stars has a solid and interesting premise, basically observing what happens to humanity in adverse conditions, left to its own devices. Each planet is different. The ship visits the planets undetected, and it has this amazing technology that it can project itself as a realistic human being on the planet itself and interact with the people. It can also “remote view” scenes on the planet and be an observer. Finally, it can show such remote viewings to its passengers, sort of like an immersion movie.

One interesting premise is that most of the planets are hyper-concerned about germs, diseases and viruses that might come from other planets that they have no defense against. Much of the inter-planet trade or exchange is therefore blocked by the various planets, and interaction is severely minimized.

All of this sounds very interesting, but Brunner has made it completely boring and a real slog to read. Nothing happens. The ship simply visits one planet with a weird name after another. We observe pointless vignettes of action by cardboard characters that appear in one chapter only to completely disappear in the next. There is no story, there is no plot, there is no common thread, there is no suspense. And when there is an opportunity to make it interesting, Brunner misses it. For instance, he describes weird mutations but does not “describe” them leaving the reader helpless. He mentions exotic extraterrestrial animals, but does not even attempt to describe what they actually look like. And there are no sentient aliens in this story, even among 600 seeded planets – not one intelligent alien culture that has productively interacted with humanity.

A Maze of Stars is full of interesting concepts, each worth a book of its own, but none of them explored in any detail. The printed edition of the book was 393 pages long. I read the Kindle digital version, and it seemed like two volumes of War and Peace back to back – endless. It slowed down my reading and made me thirst for novels that actually have some plot, some story that keeps turning the pages.