Book Review: Children of Time – by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Children of Time is a book I had known about for a long time but never decided to read. One of my – somewhat illogical – reasons was that it deals a lot with spiders. I don’t like spiders at all. You should have seen me on my walk this morning when I went out before 6:00 am, apparently the first walker in my neighborhood. I ran right into a spider web between my house and a tree that obviously was just woven over night. I did the incredible spider dance, frantically brushing my face and body to get rid of any nasty that I might have picked up. Yes, I don’t like spiders at all.

My son-in-law, also an avid science fiction reader, recently mentioned that the book Children of Time was one of his favorite science fiction stories of all time. That was enough to put me over the edge and I finally read it. It’s a big book with a print length of 608 pages, but it’s even a bigger book content-wise.

There are four main themes in this story that are woven together to create this plot.

  • Theme 1 – Earth is being destroyed and polluted by humans to the point where it becomes uninhabitable
  • Theme 2 – Humans leave in generation ships
  • Theme 3 – Terraforming technology
  • Theme 4 – Evolution and uplift

As you might imagine, every one of these themes is a complex subject for a novel, but putting four into the same book seems impossible. Yet, the author accomplished just that.

For Theme 1, this is an epic story. Humanity has achieved travel to the stars. The solar system is populated with colonies and terraforming technology. The first starships have left to explore other star systems. But at home on Earth, humans have polluted the planet to the point where is no longer livable, and various factions, including religious ones, are starting to go to war over resources. Eventually, humanity self-destructs, not only physically, but a computer virus (a little far fetched) disables all automated systems it can reach. Only the farthest-away space ships have a chance to evade the virus. Eventually, a few thousand years go by, and that world is known as the “Old Empire.” A new generation of humanity rises from the ashes and again ascends to space travel. Their level of technology is well below that of the Old Empire, and much of their frontier work is comprised of finding and salvaging Old Empire technology. Usually they find it in orbiting hulks of ancient space stations. These new humans are now spreading again to the stars in search of planets they can terraform.

For Theme 2, there is no magic technology that overcomes the speed of light, so the starships only travel at a fraction of the speed of light, making journeys take decades or even centuries. Since humans can’t live that long, they are put to sleep cryogenically and the ships operate robotically and wake  humans only when they arrive at their destinations, or when there is a problem or a decision to be made.

I love generation ship stories, enough that there is an entire category that labels them in this blog. You can select it on the Categories dropdown on the right. This is a pretty good generation ship story.

For Theme 3, it always strikes me as odd that the Earth is so polluted and destroyed, it can’t be lived on, but some dead ice planet light years away can be terraformed so human life can sustain itself. Is it really easier to terraform an alien environment than to rekindle the Old Earth? Maybe not, but it sure makes for a good foundation for a story about star travel.

For Theme 4, this is a book about evolution, and more importantly, uplift, the process where one species helps another along in evolution to develop sentience. In this story, a human-developed virus is released into nature with the intent of helping apes become intelligent and sentient. Humans intended to create a slave race. However, things did not go as planned, there were no apes for the virus. But there were spiders. Over time, as the spiders became more and more intelligent, they became sentient, rose to be the dominant species on their planet, developed civilization, technology and eventually space travel.

Imagine if spiders became as smart as humans? What would their dwellings look like? What kind of society would they build? How about their cities? What about wars and weapons? How would they communicate?

And now imagine humans landed on the planet of the spiders. What would the spiders think of them? And how would the humans view the spiders? Would they be able to communicate?

Children of Time is a good uplift story. However, it does not come close to the works of  the master of uplift, David Brin. If you are interested in this subject, I recommend you read Sundiver, Book 1 of the Uplift Saga, to get you started. I do not have a ready review of that, since it’s been too long ago that I read those books, but I found them utterly fascinating.

I am glad I read Children of Time and I made it past my fear of spiders, at least for the book. I am still killing them when I see them in the house, though.

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 Space-Born – by E.C. Tubb

Here is a generation ship story that could have been something, but unfortunately, it was not much of anything.

First, look at the cover above! It has nothing to do with the story, nothing at all. Of course, you don’t know that when you first pick up a book. As the trite saying goes, “thou shalt not judge a book by its cover.” Covers don’t matter much anymore in the age of digital delivery, when you don’t see the book laying around or on the shelf anymore. So why do covers still matter to me? I subscribe to the opposite: “Thou art entitled to judge a cover by its book!”

Call me old-fashioned, but I want my book covers to relate to the story – somehow. And this does not.

“The Ship” in this story is a giant egg-shaped vessel that spins on its center axis. Inside the decks are arranged in concentric circles, the outermost decks being the “lowest” ones with an artificial gravity due to the centrifugal force of about 2g. In the center, around the axis, is No-Weight, since there is no spin at all. The decks between No-Weight and the lowest decks are under progressively stronger g-forces. Look at the cover above and now tell me how this spaceship might resemble the actual ship in the story.

The ship left Earth about 300 years ago with 5,000 souls on board. It is on a journey to the star system of Pollux, which is one of the main stars in the constellation of Gemini, where earthbound research has found that there is a high likelihood of several habitable planets. Pollux is about 33 light-years away. At a speed of about 1/10th of the speed of light, the journey should take about 300 years.

The inhabitants of the ship are born, grow up, choose careers that are needed to maintain the ship and its small society, and once they reach a certain age around 40, they are old enough that they need to make room for the next generation. In a society that is stagnant and cannot grow in size for 300 years, where resources are absolutely limited and where there is no room for error and no possibility of replenishment,  it’s clear that absolute discipline is necessary to maintain a stable society and a healthy population.

The problem is: a computer decides who has to die when, and the “psych police” then executes the candidates, basically by murdering them, and making it look like they died by accidents. And here lies my problem with this story.

As I said above, the ship left Earth about 300 years ago. That would be like us living in an enclosed environment where 14 generations before us lived and died, since about the year 1720. That puts things into perspective. Would you not think that in 300 years they would have devised a method of maintaining a stable society that includes some form of natural death and does not rely on systematic and institutionalized murder? And would you not think that the population might have figured out what’s going on and worked on a better solution?

Be that as it may, this is the central conflict of the book, and a twist at the end makes the whole thing a bit more palatable than it was for me through 90% of the book. So it went from half a star to one-and-a-half stars in my rating.

It is, after all, a generation ship story, and I have a search category for this in my blog, and I always read them when I come across them.

Book Review: Lungfish – by John Brunner

In my quest for generation starship stories, I read another Joachim recommendation, namely Lungfish by John Brunner. This is really a novella of just 38 pages, albeit in very small print, the middle story in the book Entry to Elsewhen by John Brunner. I checked the other two stories Host Age and No Other Gods But Me, but I didn’t find interest.

Lungfish takes place in a starship on its way to Tau Ceti (I wonder why all these generation ships pick Tau Ceti as the destination?). The trip takes about 40 years or so. The ship has room for about 2000 people. As soon as the ship leaves, new babies are born of course. After a few years, the population of the ship consists of “Earthborn” and “Tripborn” members. The Tripborn have never walked on a planet. The only reality they know is the inside of a spaceship. As they grow up and mature, the Earthborn gradually die and when the ship is close to arriving at Tau Ceti, there are only 250 Earthborn left, with about 1800 Tripborn.

What the original planners didn’t count on was that the Tripborn didn’t quite turn out the way they expected. Having never known life on a planet, in the open, they had no interest in arriving or landing.

Now what?

This is a short novella I was able to read in a few hours, and I found it an enjoyable and definitely somewhat different generation starship story.

Book Review: Seed of Light – by Edmund Cooper

I recently highlighted this cover as an example of hokey science fiction cover art in the classic science fiction time of the mid 20th century. Meanwhile I have read this book and many thoughts about it are tugging me this way and that. It’s a fairly thin, small book of only 160 pages, but the type is very small. This was printed in 1959. In a more modern format there would probably be about 350 pages or so.

When reading Seed of Light, I realized again – and I tend to keep forgetting this fact – that I really don’t like reading “classic science fiction.” What I mean by classic is probably that it was written somewhere between 1930 and 1975. I tend to enjoy the more modern works of Orson Scott Card, Stephen Baxter, John Scalzi and contemporaries.

One of the reasons for this is that the authors usually portray a future that to them is utopian, and to me is distant past. George Orwell first published 1984 in 1949. He went 35 years into the future. Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001 in 1968. He went 33 years into the future. And Cooper wrote Seed of Light in 1959, and it starts playing around 1980, after the world has experienced a nuclear war that devastated the globe and ruined the entire atmosphere.

Humanity built a starship, 100 meters high and 20 meters wide in the shape of a rocket (see the picture on the cover). This starship is launched with a select group of 5 men and 5 women and all provisions and life support they would need for years, or decades, while traveling to another star. The ship is the “seed” of humanity and meant to save a few individuals to keep humanity from complete extinction.

Of course, Cooper didn’t expect computers, digital records, automated controls, and deep space communications. In 1959, the Russians had plans to launch humans into space, but Gagarin didn’t fly until 1961. So Cooper’s spaceship of the 1980s was a rocket based on pre-computing technology. The crew had records on microfiche. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that, but for me it makes the story so contrived, I have a hard time remaining captivated by it and I get distracted analyzing it.

Seed of Light is a great generation starship story, really one of the better ones I remember reading.

However, there are a lot of problems with the book overall. It’s divided into three parts. Part one is about politics on earth between 1960 and 1980, and how the world was ruined. Frankly, I didn’t care, and I forced myself to skim over it. Looking back, the entire part one could have been left out and replaced with a one-page exposition on why the starship was built and why it had to leave earth. There was no connection between all the characters in part one and those in part two. It was boring and irrelevant.

Part two told the story of the first few generations of the star travelers. What would it feel like to be in a tin can 100 meters long and 20 meters wide for decades, knowing that you’d be there for the rest of your life? Then there was the second generation, their children. They were born on the ship. They grew up and were educated on the ship. When they were old enough, they took over running it. They had children of their own. Then the third generation came. Only a few of the first were left. Leaving earth was now a distant legend, nothing more. This went on for 1000 years, 40 generations. Cooper did a good job in part two describing this kind of life and experience.

In part three Cooper no longer told a story but basically lectured. He stopped writing a novel, but simply rambled on about far-out concepts of telepathy, telepathic projection into the future, determinism, faster than light travel, and all the stuff he was obviously interested in. Somehow he needed to fit all this into the story. The entire part three, designed to resolve the plot, ended up being nothing but exposition. There is very little dialog in that section. The whole thing has a feeling of deus ex machina, and the end, while inventive, left me wanting more.

Cooper tried to do too much with this book. He should have thrown out part one and part three, both really irrelevant to the central concept of the generation ship, and built out part two more. I loved reading part two, and worked my way by force through the other stuff.

In the end, I have to say that Seed of Light is a pretty poor book, as novels go, and mostly an opportunity missed, but part two is a must read for anyone interested in generation starships.

Rating: ** (would be one star if part two were not so effective)

Book Review: Ark – by Stephen Baxter

I have read a number of stories about starships to colonize other planets, but all of them are usually in the very distant future. Ark starts in about 2020, and ends in about 2090, in the foreseeable future. I was able to identify with the characters, the technology and the premise made sense.

Ark is the sequel to Baxter’s Flood, a book I have not read. However, I had no trouble picking up the story in Ark independently.  Due to changes in the Earth’s crust, underground water gets pushed up to the surface, rising ocean levels significantly over the course of several decades. By displacing entire countries and continents, the flood puts humanity’s very future at risk. A group of technological visionaries, rich industrialists, ex-NASA officers and politicians get together to conceptualize an interstellar spaceship to take a select crew of 80 humans to colonize another star system and hopefully ensure the survival of the human race.

They know that in order to be able to make this possible, faster than light travel is necessary and even with that, trips will take decades. Against all odds, against all reason, between the years 2020 and 2040, such a feat is actually accomplished and a starship is built. In parallel to the engineering task of building the ship, a select group of 80 “Candidates” are groomed from almost birth on to be the crew. They are selected for their raw abilities, their intelligence, genetic diversity and of course based on political favors. The Candidates are groomed for the mission from early childhood, and they know that eventually they will leave earth in a spaceship, never to return.

The ship is built from twin independent hulls based on the original space shuttle’s external tank. That makes each of the two hulls a cylinder of 40 meters in height and 8 meters in diameter, with cones on both ends. Each hull will provide housing for 40 of the original candidates, who are about 22 years old when they leave. The journey to the first destination is scheduled to take 10 years in total. As they progress, due to plot twists I will not reveal here, a part of the crew ends up on a journey taking much longer, eventually reaching a planet more than 100 light years away after a trip that takes 40 years.

The implications are mind-boggling. The original crew members are in their 60ies when they arrive. After they spend their entire childhood and youth planning for a mission, they then spend their entire adult lives inside the ship traveling, year after year.

They also have to procreate. Most of the Candidates have children who are then known as “shipborn”. There is an entire generation of humans that was born inside a 40 meter cylindrical ship, never experienced any other type of environment or life. Another 20 years later even they had children, so there were second generation shipborn people. I imagine what my thinking would be like if I lived in a battered, fragile spaceship, was born there, traveled for decades, and my parents were also born there, without ever knowing any other way of life.

Stephen Baxter’s book Ark deals with the implications of what might happen to humans on this type of journey, their challenges, technical, sociological, ethical, political, procreational and philosophical.

I can marvel about the implications for days, write many pages, but then, that’s what Baxter did, so you just have to read Ark. It’s worth it.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Old Twentieth – by Joe Haldeman

It’s several hundred years in the future on earth. Humans have figured out how to become immortal by using a drug. It has been hundreds of years that anyone has died. Of course, as a result, procreation is strictly controlled.

To create new living space, humanity has outfitted an expedition to another star, Beta Hydrii, about 20 light years away, where a planet that seems very earth-like has been identified. A starship is designed that can accelerate to about one fiftieth the speed of light, a speed at which an object traverses the United States from Los Angeles to New York in one second. Even at that mind-boggling speed, the trip to Beta Hydrii takes 1,000 years.

How do you build a ship, an enclosed eco system, that lasts 1,000 years without some critical component failing? They end up with building five identical ships, basically large cylindrical objects with a diameter equal to the length of a football field or larger. Four of the ships are for habitats for about 200 people each, and the fifth as a tool ship with extra supplies, spare parts and anything else that might fail in the other four. If any of the ships fail, the population of that ship can be moved to another.

Each ship has the rough shape of a soda can and it rotates along the longitudinal axis to generate about one earth gravity in the outermost deck. Gravity decreases as you ascend toward the center. The five ships are arranged in a pentagonal pattern, with about a kilometer on edge. Now try to picture five giant rotating soda cans in a pentagonal pattern only a mile or so apart hurtling away from the sun at a speed that traverses the United States in a second, and doing that for 1,000 years. The ships are connected by shuttles that travel back and forth between them, allowing the occupants to move around.

The ships contain plants, livestock, including goats, chickens, ducks and fish, so in addition to vegetables, there is some animal diet.

The 800 people that embark on the 1,000 year journey certainly don’t think of ever coming back, no matter their immortality. But first, they are stuck in the cans for a long time.

To spend the time, they have a virtual reality machine with them. The machine allows them to immerse themselves in some other environment. Once inside, the occupant or player has no idea things are not real. The machine is connected directly to the brain and it creates an interactive “movie” involving all five senses, basically making the experience indistinguishable from reality.

The protagonist is the engineer in charge of the machine. He discovers some oddities that make him suspicious. Needless to say, some things start going wrong. Eventually it becomes clear that we, the reader, don’t really know what is real and actual, and what is virtual, and neither do the occupants. As  it turns out, the machine has put the majority of the humans to sleep using a drug that basically arrests all body functions. Time stands still while the bodies hang in weightlessness, sleeping the decades and centuries away, waiting for their eventual awakening.

And while most of the “old ones” are sleeping, some of the occupants are allowed to procreate. We get a glimpse of the journey about 100 years into the schedule. The grass and the trees are dead. The livestock gone. The ponds evaporated. There are generations of mothers walking around the ship with children in tow. Many of the newlings have never seen earth. Their entire existence has been inside the pentagon of ships in the interstellar void.

And the thing is all controlled by an apparently sentient virtual reality machine.

I enjoyed reading this book, as you may be able to tell. Haldeman tells a good story. The segments of the story when we observe travelers in the machine to the distant past, in the twentieth century (hence the title) were too long for my taste and I found myself skipping over some of the descriptions. I wanted to go on with the story. But I can handle that in a paperback just shy of 300 pages anytime.