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Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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Mankind has discovered the secret to “faster than light travel” or more specifically, teleportation. It is possible for humans to enter a small machine and be transported to distant worlds instantaneously. The technology is called the Levant-Meyer Translation or LMT for short. It consumes an enormous amount of power. In addition, the travelers only stay out a certain amount of time, before they are pulled back to point of origin. This is called the slingshot effect. The machine can calculate how long and how far the travelers will go.

Using this method, there is a special Agency of Extraterrestrial Development that recruits and trains “Tamers,” young people of superior intelligence, technical and military skills, to first visit other worlds, explore them, and then possibly start colonizing them. Jacque Lefavre is such a tamer.

During his first trip they discover a nonsentient alien animal that, when touched, allows reading of other people’s minds. They call them mindbridges or bridges for short. Using those bridges, the humans also encounter the first sentient alien race, called the L’vrai. They are ancient, star-traveling, and apparently extremely hostile to humans. They do not use the LMT technology, but they have star travel at relativistic speed, and humanity discovers that they are encroaching closer to the human home world, currently hanging around Sirius, just 8.6 light years away.

Earth has to move fast to prepare for this threat.

Mindbridge is an entertaining science fiction story, but not in the class of other Haldeman’s books. My favorite was The Accidental Time Traveler, which I read and reviewed over 10 years ago and gave 4 stars. Of course, Haldeman’s most famous book is The Forever War, which I actually read twice. I liked the concepts of Mindbridge, but some of the implementation and plot content seemed awkward and contrived to me.

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Most of my reviews start with a brief overview of the book, perhaps a few sections of quotes, while making sure I don’t include any spoilers. Then I talk about how I felt about the book and why I rated it a certain way. If I can relate it to similar books I have read and reviewed, I might draw the parallels and provide cross references.

I can’t do that with The Three-Body Problem. It is too different from anything I have read before. I have to attack this one from an “out of the box” viewpoint. It is definitely the first time I ever read a book by a Chinese author. It is fairly well translated by Ken Liu, and he even has a section in the book at the end where he talks about his efforts translating it. I have a lot of experience with how language changes your thinking, even the person that you are, from studying multiple languages, English being my third one. I also have several years of Japanese, both writing, reading and speaking under my belt. Although my Japanese is very, very rusty, I have experienced how an eastern language results in very different thinking from that of the Romance and Germanic languages.

I know nothing of Chinese, but reading this book has me inspired to pick up Chinese 101 and see where it leads me.

The Three-Body Problem starts in the early 1960s in the midst of the Chinese cultural revolution, when scientists and other educated people were vilified, persecuted and often publicly executed. It follows a young female scientist who witnesses the brutal killing of her father and is subsequently hauled off into a remote research station where she would presumably spend the rest of her life. Alas, the cultural revolution changed faster than people could age, and quickly modern China arose all within the lifetimes of young people born in the 1940s and 1950s. The book gives an in-depth insight into the Chinese soul, their views on class status and particularly education and science.

But it is a science fiction book. The three-body problem is a mathematical problem that arises from trying to predict the orbital motions of three bodies – three stars. Our sun is a single star, and our eight planets have circled the star now more or less stably for over four billion years. We have a stable solar system. But not all star systems are single stars. Many star systems are binary systems, and there may be planets orbiting one of the stars, or perhaps both, and the second star can have severely destabilizing gravitational influences on the planet. We don’t actually know enough about planets in binary star systems, but we have pretty good mathematical models that can predict what happens.

But things change entirely when you add a third star. The fate of any planets in such a system is what one might call chaotic. And yet, the nearest star system to our own is that of Alpha Centauri, which consists of Alpha Centauri A and B, a binary system, and Proxima Centauri, a third star a bit further away from the other two. As unlikely as it may seem, the premise of The Three-Body Problem is that an intelligent civilization far advanced technologically from our own has developed in the Alpha Centauri system, and humans have made contact.

As that, The Three-Body Problem is a first contact novel.

The book was in my reading library, and I had started working on it some years ago, but abandoned it, finding it hard to read. Then recently a colleague recommended it to me out of the blue, and that motivated me to pick it up again and work through it. It takes some time to get used to the Chinese way of thinking. I found many differences, but I also found many surprising commonalities. Modern Chinese do not appear all that different from modern Americans. The story is complex, there are many side plots, not all of them necessary. That made some of the sections seem bloated and unnecessary to me. There is also no end, it just finishes abruptly, setting up for the sequel.

Overall, The Three-Body Problem is a science-heavy science fiction work, which speculates much about physics at the particle level, and what a vastly advanced scientific society could do to humankind, should it want to do it harm.

Yes, first contact is not pleasant or rewarding with the denizens of Alpha Centauri.

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Somewhere in the countryside in Texas, far away from civilization where you need a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, there is a mysterious cave. Professor Hopper, an archeologist, is on the trail of his parents who disappeared decades ago, and he ends up finding their hippie van outside a cave. He looks inside, and behind a shimmering, liquid-looking wall, he sees a cowboy, seemingly frozen in mid-step. He ventures beyond the shimmering barrier and the cowboy comes to life and walks away from him into the cave. Hopper freaks out, and quickly backs away out of the cave. He walks back to his vehicle and finds it overgrown with shrubs, covered with dust, and the battery completely dead. He was in the cave for only a few seconds, but it looks like years have passed for his vehicle outside. It takes him a while to figure out that time passes very slowly inside the cave. Then he goes back in.

Meanwhile, a few of his students know where he went and they come after him to help him when he is reported missing. They find his vehicle and the rope he used to lower himself into the cave. But the rope was cut. Since they brought their own climbing gear, they decided to go in after him. Of course, they quickly find out that something is very wrong with the cave.

This is an interesting time-dilation story and it has a few good plot twists and special effects. But it unravels quickly, and with every minute it goes on, the plot becomes weirder and less credible, until the film is just a special effects calamity at the end. The dialog is mostly inane, and the acting stilted and not fitting the situation. This story has a lot of potential, but it was not realized and I feel that the film was, in the end, pretty much a waste of time. You don’t need to bother with this one at all.

 

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It’s 1985 in St. Petersburg, Florida. Rookie Special Agent Stella York is one of the first female FBI agents, and she does not have the support of her peers or her superiors. Yet, the case she is put on is completely baffling.

Two dead men are found in a van that crashed into a power pole, yet the power pole does not show any damage, while the van is totaled. The van is a GMC model nobody has ever heard of in 1985. Furthermore, the license plate expiration sticker shows “10.”

One of the dead men’s fingerprints are an exact match with those of a prison guard at a local prison – which is impossible. Then, during a chase on I-275 North, she witnesses the gory death of a suspect in a car accident, yet, she runs into him very much alive a day later. Nothing makes sense, until one of the witnesses opens up to her and tells her that she’s dealing with time travelers. From the chronological point of view, events seem to happen out of order.

Agent York is losing all her professional credibility when she approaches her superiors with her theory.

Agent of Time plays in Nathan Van Coops’ universe of the In Times Like These, a series of books I have read. See the reviews here:

In Times Like These

The Chronothon

The Day After Never

The Warp Clock

More specifically, Agent of Time plays within the In Times Like These story. I have read prequels to successful books before, and they are usually entertaining, because I know the world that comes after the prequel ends. But I have never read a book that plays “within the original story.”

If you have read the hugely famous Harry Potter series of books, you will understand what “Muggles” are. In Harry Potter, the action takes place among people who are involved in magic: wizards, sorcerers, and the like. Everyone knows that magic is real, and understands its rules. Muggles are the regular people, like you and I, who do not have magical talents and in almost all cases do not believe in magic and do not know it’s going on all around us – well – at least in the Harry Potter universe.

In Nathan Van Coops’ books, the action takes place among people who routinely travel in time. They take it for granted, and they use it creatively. But the rest of us, the time-Muggles, have no idea time travel is possible, it’s happening, and it’s routine for some people. Agent of Time plays parallel to the story of In Times Like These, but it is told from the point of view of time-Muggles like Stella York. What would it look like if there were time travelers amongst us, doing their things, and what would it be like if there were time traveling criminals?

You don’t need to have read In Times Like These to understand Agent of Time, but you will enjoy it MUCH more if you have. I would recommend that you read In Times Like These first, then read Agent of Time, and you’ll have the best experience.

Agent of Time is a short book of only 137 pages. It was free on Amazon. I literally read the whole thing in one day, yesterday. The author probably was in a rush to get it out, because it fell kind of short. The ending was somewhat abrupt, probably setting us up for the next Stella York story, the time-Muggle. But it’s a good addition to the series, and Van Coops is still, in my opinion, one of the strongest writers in the genre.

 

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Alex Jacobs (Kyle Gallner) is a washed-out but brilliant cryptographer. When government agents recruit him with an offer he can’t refuse, he finds out that he is being drawn into a world he was not prepared for. His job is to decrypt a message encoded in an American satellite that has been in orbit for apparently a long time, and was definitely not launched by America.

It turns out that the message is from the future and contains a blueprint to build a machine.

Alien Code is a low-budget film with fairly bad acting, awkward special effects, and a very difficult plot to follow. It takes a lot of concentration, and after a while, I just found myself giving up and just enjoyed the ride.

If you want secret message conspiracies, bad men in black, caricatures of government agents, time travel, scientific brilliance stereotypes, it’s all in this movie.

After you’re done watching, you’ll forget about it all quickly.

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United States Air Force Major William Allison (Robert Clarke) is a fighter pilot in 1960. His mission is to fly the X-80, which is actually an F-102/F106 figher, up to 500,000 feet to “the edge of outer space” at supersonic speeds as a first ever.

During the trip, he breaks through a “time warp” and ends up landing on the same airfield, now abandoned and derelict, in the year 2024.

He finds the world destroyed by a plague in 1971, which leaves all humans sterilized and infertile. Most humans are now mutants and devolved, they are deaf-mute, and society lives in underground cities. When they realize the Major comes from a time before the plague, they want him to sire offspring with the only fertile human left alive, the lovely Princess Trirene (Darlene Tompkins).

But the Major has no interest in serving as a stud. He thinks it’s better for him and the world to return to 1960, if that is even possible, and warn his compatriots of the upcoming plague and prevent it altogether, thus altering history.

Beyond the Time Barrier is a really bad movie. Of course, being made in 1960, it was in black and white, and the orchestral sound track is awful. There are no special effects whatsoever. We see the F-102 take off shot in stock footage, then it becomes a plastic model that floats in front of a fake star-studded sky. Imagine Godzilla being represented by a 12-inch plastic toy that hops around in a movie set – that’s how realistic this all looks.

But well, such was the technology in the 1960s, and that’s what science fiction movies were like. I vaguely remember watching a movie like this as a small child, showing a flight to the moon, ten years before that actually happened, and years before President Kennedy’s announced commitment for the Apollo program. I was fascinated when the astronauts stepped out of the rocket that had landed tail first on the moon.

The most fascinating part about Beyond the Time Barrier is how the science fiction crowd of 1960 imagined the far distant future 64 years hence in 2024. You can see some of their musings on the movie poster above. It is entertaining being here in 2020 and writing this review just four years before the target time of 2024, which to them seemed utterly utopian. I wonder what they would have thought of a blogger in 2020 writing about their movie?

The technology they envisioned is nothing like the technology that actually happened. All their “futuristic gadgets” are just crude 1960 technology made out to be incomprehensible. They didn’t anticipate miniaturization of any kind or any computer technology at all for that matter.

I always find it uniquely entertaining to see a movie after the future it predicts has already happened, like watching Back to the Future after the year 2015, the farthest into the future Marty travels, or reading Orwell’s 1984 now, almost 40 years after the envisioned distant future.

And that experience brings Beyond the Time Barrier from zero stars to half a star.

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I like a good hard science fiction story from time to time, so I picked up Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey. It’s the first book of the Expanse series, a whopping eight book series that plays about two hundred years in the future. Humanity has made the leap into space and has colonized the solar system. There are people living in the asteroid belt, called the belters, there are people living on the moons of Saturn and Jupiter, and even farther out in the solar system. The story is a “space opera” with many characters, interesting situations and description of what life would be like for humans living their entire lives on an asteroid, for instance, where the gravity is perhaps one percent that of earth.

So the story had promise and I was looking forward to it and possibly the entire series. But as it often goes with space-opera type science fiction, it starts becoming a story of human politics, corruption and foibles, which could play anywhere in any small town. You don’t need to put me on Ceres for that.

I make a serious effort to finish all the books I start reading, but that only goes so far. By the time I got to the 26% point I was so hopelessly bored, I just didn’t want to read any further. If an author does not get me interested in his characters a quarter of the way through a book, I can’t help it. I give up. I won’t be reading any of the other books of this author.

As customary in my blog, I do not rate books that I don’t finish reading (most of the time). If you are interested in some of the others, you can search for “Books (not finished reading)” by selecting that category and you can see them all.

 

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Mankind’s first mission to the stars has arrived at its destination. The trip took 10 years and due to the relativistic speed, dozens of years have gone by on Earth when Captain Jack Harrison and his small crew arrive.

They quickly find out that they are not the first intelligent beings that inhabited the new star system. There is evidence of systematic destruction and extermination.

In their quest to figure out what happened, they quickly become stranded and cut off from their ship. The science mission to explore a new star system quickly turns into a battle for sheer survival against impossible odds.

Prelude to Extinction is actually a good story with a lot of potential, sprinkled with unexpected twists, some of them aided by cosmological concepts like time dilation and distortion. It’s a somewhat hard science fiction story that quickly jumps over the science.

For instance, all the aliens use engines that can accelerate to practically the speed of light in minutes without the crews feeling any acceleration by doing some “alien tech” stuff without any regard to where the energy is going to come from, and how the ships will be protected at these speeds in the relatively crowded spaces of stars systems. I know it’s fiction, but the mixture of hard science fiction in the near future,  sprinkled with impossible technology of aliens millions of years ahead of us, just didn’t work very well for me. I also had trouble understanding that aliens so advanced seem to have nothing better to do than to try to exterminate any other species they come across, which is central to the plot.

But the worst of it is that the crew, the “best and brightest Earth has to offer” consistently act like boy scouts on a field trip at best. The captain constantly has trouble asserting his authority, and his crew of scientists keep making incredible blunders that just make no sense. By making all the human actors in the story morons, whose stupid actions eventually drive the plot along, the entire novel loses its sense of reality.

Prelude to Extinction is obviously a setup for a sequel. But the author really should hire an editor to fix the dozens, perhaps hundreds of typos and grammatical errors in this book, before writing another one.

I am passing on the next ones.

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Trappist-1 is a star system about 39.5 light years away. The star is an ultra-cool red dwarf star in the constellation Aquarius, and it is found to have several earth-like planets with the potential to support life. Humanity sends a starship to explore the system.

The Forerunner One, a starship capable of traveling at half the speed of light, is outfitted with a crew that spends the 78-year journey mostly in cryogenic sleep. At half lightspeed, time on the ship moves 15% slower than it does back on Earth, due to relativistic time dilation.

But while all this is good stuff for a solid science fiction story, it’s not really relevant. As it turns out, the crew arrives at their destination, and without much thought or preparation (would you think?) they land on one of the planets, only to be attacked by the local fauna within a few hours of landing.

The local intelligent species is aviary. They are smaller than humans, about 4 feet tall, skinny, birdlike, and they can fly. The humans call them Avari. They have far superior technology compared to the humans, and within a day of arriving, having traveled most of a century, the humans are driven back to their ship and forced to flee – you get it – back to Earth.

Spoiler Alert:

It turns out that the Avari have technology to cloak themselves and even their ships. So they can be invisible. Two of them sneak on board of the human ship undetected and start wreaking havoc on the way home. Not only that, they breed a hybrid avari-human fetus in one of the females on board. Obviously, this sets things up for a lot of surprises on the trip home.

There is a twist at the end, which makes it clear that the entire book First Encounter is just there to be a setup for a series of books called The Ascension Wars, and this is Book 1.

I didn’t care too much about the writing style, the loose and unrealistic plot, and the shallow character development overall. First Encounter seems a little bit like pulp fiction, or worse, action hero comic book material. If you like light science fiction, this might be reasonable entertainment. But for me, I am done reading this series.

 

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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.

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