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Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

 

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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The picture above shows a piece of the demolished Death Star crashed into an ocean on some planet. I always like pictures of crashed space ships (or in this case huge space stations) on some planet, hidden by clouds and mist and off in the distance. Star Trek had a few shots of spaceships sitting on the ground from time to time, and Star Wars does the same. And that shot, and a few of the scenes that come along with it, were the most interesting and enjoyable part of the movie.

This movie is rated only 53% on the Tomatometer. We went to see it because we had seen the other eight Star Wars movies over the last 42 years, and “we just can’t stop now” even though everyone said there isn’t much to go and see. The Star Wars series is an epic, and in such, it shaped my entire life of enjoying science fiction.

So what about The Rise of Skywalker?

  • I don’t know what the title means. I didn’t see any Skywalker rising.
  • There aren’t any decent aliens. All the aliens have only cameo roles in the background, mostly lasting a fraction of a second, not enough to enjoy them. The few aliens that speak are the trite humanoids, as usual. Whatever happened to the classic bar scenes?
  • Sword fights. What’s with the light sabers in every Star Wars movie? I get it. Wars waged by huge fleets of thousands of advanced battle ships miles long in size with weapons that can destroy planets are ultimately solved by two young people and their swords. The sword fights are always boring. Nobody ever gets hurt, they just go on and on, and I simply find myself waiting for them to be over. This is the case in every Star Wars movie. Half of this movie seems to be sword fights.
  • Stealing from the classic theme of Independence Day, where the alien mothership is attacked and defeated by pilot jockeys in fighter jets, the same thing happens in this movie: A thousand ships suddenly materialize in the sky over this planet where the entire battle cruiser fleet is for some reason suspended, and they, by their sheer numbers, eliminate the battle cruisers.
  • Then there is the invincible emperor, who has magical telekinetic powers, that are eventually matched by one Jedi with two swords. Deus ex machina.

There was no story that I cared about. There was no plot that I could follow. There were no characters that I could empathize with. There was no technology or space travel gear that was interesting. The movie makers just packed as much Star Wars legacy and as many characters into two hours and twenty minutes that they could to make a bang ending to the series.

But I think it fizzled.

After all, where was Jar Jar Binks? (backstory here)

 

 

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Genesis is the first book of the author’s First Colony series. The story starts about the year 2200 on earth when humanity decides that it needs to send its first colony to the stars. Mankind pools its resources, builds a massive starship the call the ark, and recruits about 300,000 of its best and brightest for the one-way journey of 80 years. The travelers sleep in stasis, which means they are not conscious during the journey.

The protagonist is Conner Gates, a colonel in the special forces, who leads his squad on some of the most dangerous missions in the solar system. Through a series of unexpected events, he ends up as an unwitting stowaway on the ark. He is portrayed as a know-it-all expert of all trades and therefore wholly unrealistic and cartoon-like. Conner is just not acting like a real person would.

The story plays entirely on an alien planet hundreds of years in the future, but what is actually going on is pretty much military training nonsense that could be happening anywhere on earth.

The book is crafted in a way that the author is building a world for a series of books that can have stories take place in that world. He spends a lot of time on the minutiae of military training of special forces recruits, which fits the plot, but is overdone considering the larger epic he is trying to create. The last 10 percent of the book is very different from the main work and is presumably only there to set the stage for the next book in the series.

I don’t know why the book is called Genesis, and I can’t find anything on the cover that actually relates to the story.

In the end, while it was an interesting read, it wasn’t interesting enough for me to spend the time to read the next book in the series. There are eight, by the way. I am stopping at one.

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I download the Amazon “free samples” of books before I buy. If I can’t make it through 5%, then I put the book aside, no damage done. I don’t even track it. Most of those are quickly forgotten. But when I make the buying decision, I commit myself to reading the book. I still have a way out though: I can abandon it and put it under the category “Books (not finished reading).” I still review those books, but I don’t give them a rating as I don’t think it would be fair. However, I still have thoughts about the book that I want to share with readers, and possibly reasons why I abandoned the book. So I write reviews.

The City in the Middle of the Night almost became a Book (not finished reading). It was truly hard work for me to stay with it. It’s a fairly large book (5907 locations), so it was a slog.

In the far future (approximately the year 2500 plus on Earth) a number of earth city states build a space ship to leave for another planet. They call it the Mothership, and it’s a generation ship. The journey takes long enough so only the great-grandchildren of the people leaving will actually be alive when they arrive. The City in the Middle of the Night plays on the target planet many centuries after they arrived. The Mothership, while still in orbit, has lost contact with the colonists, all the space shuttles are defunct, most technology is lost, and the people have devolved to a feudalist society similar to what we had in Europe during the dark ages around the years 500 to 1000. There are just two main cities where most of the population live. Xiosphanti hosts a highly regulated society where everything people do is structured by the government. Argelo is a bustling trader city where everything goes but resources are scarce and crime is out of control.

But that’s not the major point of the book. The planet is a tidally locked planet, similar to how earth’s moon is tidally locked, and the same side always faces the earth. Their sun is a bright, hot sun, so bright, that any exposure to direct sunlight is instantly deadly to humans. The day side of the planet is constantly baked by the sun, and any water on that side is always boiling. The night side is completely dark and always frozen. Humanity has to live entirely on a narrow ring along the terminator, just below the horizon of the day, so there never is any direct sunlight. Within just a few kilometers they can go from bright daylight and  warmth near the day side to arctic condition on the border of the night side. Notwithstanding what weather conditions on such a planet on the border between day and night would consist of, and whether it could allow for sufficient stability for humans to live, such a narrow band where life can exist is pretty challenging, and it would shape everything about the lives of the people there. As is turns out, there are “monsters” that live in the night, and any human that ventures too far in that direction has perished – which has been going on for centuries.

I now have told you everything that I found interesting about the book. As it turns out, with so much potential, the story is pretty much about four young women, Bianca, Mouth, Alyssa and Sophie, the protagonist, and their relationships with each other, and their adventures. Take away the deadly sun on a tidally locked planet, take away that they live in a devolved society many centuries after landing from an interstellar generational journey, the story is about four girls making their way in a tribal, brutal society where everyone has to fend for herself. The characters are not well developed, the psychobabble made my eyes roll, and nothing about their feelings and responses is credible. And it goes on for an entire book. Here is just one page:

Seeing Bianca depressed makes me feel soft inside, like my bones are chalk. I sit down next to her, careful not to mess up her dress. Her curved neck looks so slender.

Neither of us talks. I’m not good at breaking silences.

“I don’t even know why you would want to be friends with me,” she says.

I get up and fetch the teapot from down the hall, and a few moments later I’m pouring hot tea into a mug, which I press into Bianca’s hands. “Warm yourself up,” I say in a soft voice. Bianca nods and takes a big swallow of the acrid brew, then lets out a long sigh, as though she realizes she’s back where she belongs. We keep stealing the teapot for our own dorm room, because hardly anyone else uses it, but some busybody always sneaks into our room when we’re out and reclaims the flowery globe for the common room, where it technically belongs.

“Warm yourself up,” I say a second time. By the time the tea is gone, Bianca’s bouncing up and down and cracking jokes again, and I’ve almost forgotten that I never answered her question about why I want to be her friend.

— Anders, Charlie Jane. The City in the Middle of the Night . Tom Doherty Associates. Kindle Edition.

Just. Very. Boring.

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Humanity has created an empire that spans many stars and planets in the nearer galactic neighborhood. Jeff is the executive officer on a warship with a crew of ten. The ships have faster-than-light travel capability. They emerge near their targets at speeds close to the speed of light, unleash their planet-destroying bombs and then, hopefully, speed up again into hyperspace to escape. But the defenses are just as lethal, and Jeff’s ship is the only one of a squadron of five that survives the attack, albeit seriously damaged.

They manage to find a nearby object they think is an asteroid and perform an emergency landing on it. As they approach, they realize it’s not an asteroid, but a giant alien ship with a diameter of 600 miles. Having no choice, they land on it and are admitted inside.

The ship’s artificial intelligence speaks flawless English. It claims it has been intercepting human media transmissions for centuries and has had the opportunity to learn the languages and the cultures. The ship promises to take them home, but the journey would take six months, due to the limitation of the hyperspace travel capabilities of the vessel. The crew takes this opportunity to explore the ship.

It does not take long before they discover the first of them killed in a most gruesome manner. As they search further, they find ancient secrets of horror that threaten not only them, but all mankind.

The Dark Ship is the second book by Phillip Peterson I have read. The other was Flight 39. Peterson writes originally in German and his books are translated. The translations are good and I see no reason why I’d want to read his books in the original German. Peterson knows how to tell a story.

In the case of The Dark Ship, which is much more of a hard science fiction book than Flight 39 was, I was distracted by the fairly lax application of building a reality. Most of the technology applied seemed magic, and I am not talking about the alien technology.

The human space ships seem to travel at relativistic speeds on their missions between hyperspacial jumps, yet there seems to be no effect of time dilation on human society. The fact that a crew would return home decades after it left for a mission is completely ignored. It’s not necessary for the plot in this case, but it just made the story unreal. When the ships travel near planets and stars at speeds approaching the speed of light, there is no mention of how the ships protect themselves from the space dust and other debris that would be intensely thick near a planetary system, making such speeds impractical or impossible.

On a smaller scale, they use seemingly magical military space suits with apparently endless energy supplies. Since the inside of the dark ship is dark everywhere, they rely on their flashlights or headlamps for light, and those, too, seem to be powered with endless power supplies. I could go on and on with examples like this. None of those examples take away from the story line, but for me they made the experience unreal and there is too much deus ex machina going on for it to seem realistic.

The story itself revolves around the crew finding the truth about the alien ship and its ancient mission. To do that, they go on a journey to the interior of the ship. Remember, at a diameter of 600 miles, it’s a 300 mile journey – on foot. That means there are lengthy passages of corridors and more corridors that the crew has to travel down with not much going on to move to plot forward. That makes the book somewhat of a tedious read.

In summary, The Dark Ship is a reasonably entertaining science fiction story, but not one I would want to read again or one that would entice me to read more books by this author.

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Evelyn Slater is a young British astronaut on the International Space Station in the near future in 2036. She is a mission specialist with a psychology degree who is assigned to command the first spacecraft specifically designed to capture and destroy low earth orbit debris. During the first mission out with her Russian pilot Yuri, they encounter an artifact they immediately recognize as alien. When she eventually returns to earth, Evelyn leads a team of scientists who study the alien device.

The Visitor is a first contact science fiction story that plays largely in today’s world. It speculates about the response of our international community when it discovers that there truly are aliens. Xenophobia, religious hate and bigotry get the masses riled up.

The author writes in a stilted style. He does not show the story, he tells the story. It’s not clear why he picked a woman as the protagonist. It would have worked just as well with a man, and he would likely have been able to portray the male thinking a little bit better. The Visitor is described as a “hard science fiction” story, but it did not strike me as very hard. I enjoyed the detailed descriptions of life on the space station. He must have had access to first hand information. Otherwise, the story is weak and, frankly, not very interesting. All the characters are flat and colorless. Nothing seems real or realistic. Reading The Visitor, I was constantly aware of the fact that it was just the author’s way to communicate his political and philosophical views, thinly wrapped into a shallow plot.

At the end, he sets it up for a sequel, and I don’t think I am interested enough to read it.

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Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut in the nearer future, a time when trips to the Moon and to Mars are routine and humanity has started venturing farther out, mining the asteroid belt, and reaching for the gas giants. When Earth is suddenly bombarded by massive and destructive power surges from a mystery energy source at the planet Neptune, McBride is recruited to help. As it turns out, the only person who ever traveled to Neptune was his own father, a decorated astronaut who was the first to reach Jupiter, then Saturn, and finally embarked on a mission to the edge of the solar system, to Neptune, presumably to seek out alien intelligence in the universe. But when he arrived, he and his crew perished and were never heard from again – or were they?

NASA suspects that the elder McBride near Neptune is still alive and has something to do with the power surges that threaten to destroy the earth. In order to communicate with him, NASA recruits his son, Roy McBride, because they think the father is likely to respond to the son. And thus he goes on a long journey.

Ad Astra is the Latin expression for “to the stars.” There nothing about stars in this movie, other than neat special effects of space travel. The entire movie and the ludicrous story that does not make any sense just seem to be an excuse to string together some interesting and effective special effects.

I watch pretty much every “large” science fiction movie because I am interested in space travel and humanity in the future. So I enjoyed the movie, even though it insulted my intelligence every few minutes along the way. There is so much wrong with this story, it’s hard to know where to start.

Warning: Significant Spoilers Below – even though I don’t think they’ll really interfere with your enjoyment of the movie, since it’s such a weak plot anyway.

First the basic premise: NASA recruits Roy for the top secret mission to travel to Mars, via the Moon, to send a message to Neptune to his father, with the option to eventually fly out to Neptune to stop the threat to the Earth. The journey to the moon is equivalent to an airline ride coast to coast for us. It’s all routine. But when they arrive on the moon, for some odd reason, they have to travel by rover overland to another base from where the rocket to Mars is launched. But there are now pirates on the moon, and they prey on travelers and attack them by rover. Everyone is in spacesuits and they are shooting each other up, like in a western, but rather than riding horses, they ride rovers in space suits. I wonder what the pirates are trying to gain. The whole chase is just a useless filler that takes up 5 or 10 minutes of movie time and adds nothing to the story.

Along the way to Mars, there is a mayday call from a research vessel, and the ship stops to try to help. I will spare you with what happens on that research vessel. It again has nothing to do with the movie other than adding some special effects footage and scary scenes. The problem is, how did the chemical rocket they were riding to Mars stop along the way, line up with the stranded vessel and match trajectories so they can board via space suit? And then start up again going on to Mars. The trip to Mars is supposed to take a few days, so the stopping and starting along the way would have taken massive amounts of acceleration that no human could possibly endure. But, it’s a movie, I guess.

Once Roy arrives on Mars, he is guided into a secret sound-proof room where he records a message to his father that is then sent to Neptune via a laser beam. After sending the second message, it appears there is a response. That is quite odd, since Neptune is about four light hours away from Mars, so the round trip of a message would take eight hours. You would not stand there waiting for it. But that’s what it looks like they are doing. Then they decide to send Roy back to Earth because they think he is not psychologically ready to continue with the mission. So explain to me why Roy bothered to travel to the Moon, get attacked and almost killed by pirates, then on to Mars, just to record a message? He could have recorded that message in his living room on Earth and they could have sent it to Neptune.But, it’s a movie, I guess.

He eventually forces his way onto the ship that travels on to Neptune. The trip will take 79 days. Again, massive accelerations and speeds are required to make that happen, and it’s not clear how the simple chemical rocket technology they have accomplishes that. As we observe him on his journey, there are some convenient shots of the ship right in front of Jupiter first, and then a bit later of Saturn, as if the outer planets were all lined up in a straight line and the ship would travel from one to the other. As it is, the planets are spread out all over the solar system, often on different sides of  the sun, and a rough alignment only happens every few centuries. It seems to have happened for Roy’s journey.

Neptune has a thin set of rings. Roy put his craft in an orbit right above the plane of the rings, so he has to conveniently dive through the rings to get to the craft of his father. I enjoy thinking about floating in the rings of Saturn, and I wrote this entire post about that. So I enjoyed that scene, even though it was way too contrived. I also got a kick out of how Roy decided to return to his craft through the rings after he loses his shuttle. He uses a sheet metal panel to protect himself against impact of ring particles as the dives through. Then he finally gets back and collides with his own craft due to their velocities not being matched very well. Good scene there.

Finally, when the movie is over, somehow Roy has to travel back to Earth. To do that, he invokes a Deus ex Machina technique: he uses a nuclear explosion to propel him. Somehow the three dimensional vector between the nuclear explosion and his ship is perfectly aligned so the ship travels through the 2 billion miles plus back to Earth and hits it exactly. Yeah, sure!

As you can see, this is a movie for people that do not understand science, know nothing about space travel, and just want to see neat special effects. They might enjoy this

For the geeks, like me, Ad Astra is just silly and a waste of a good opportunity. All that money and technology could have made a good movie and a good story instead.

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In the 26th century, Earth is a polluted wasteland. For hundreds of years, humanity’s situation has devolved, scientific progress has been retrograde, culture has stagnated, and government is utterly corrupt. A small number of giant “megacorporations” run things. Under their thumbs are governments, government agencies, and all of the people. The gap between the privileged and the destitute has grown immensely. The megacorporations do what is good for them and their shareholders, and they have no qualms about annihilating thousands or millions of people, if they are in their way. The people live in utmost poverty and need, eking out a living by planting, salvaging and living off the land.

The desperate live on the depleted Earth, which by then is the least attractive place to live. The lucky and fortunate ones live on the moons of the gas giants or in space in general.

James Griffin-Mars is a Chronman, a highly trained specialist, one of an elite few, who have the technology to travel in time. ChronoCom is a government agency that regulates time travel. Strict time laws are in force, intended to prevent accidents, time paradoxes and intended or accidental changes of history.

Chronmen are usually deployed by the agency to salvage. Since technology development has devolved, the most interesting and valuable technologies are hundreds of years in the past. The Chronmen are dispatched to jump to a time and place just before some known disaster, and take away valuables, either machinery, artwork, documents, books, anything of value to salvage before the disaster wipes it out anyway. The majority of progress in the 26th century does not come from invention and innovation, but from salvaged loot from the past.

Chronmen lead very dangerous lives, and most do not last very long. James is on the brink of burnout when he takes on one last mission, where the payoff is so high, he can retire when he completes it. During the mission he gets to know Elise, a young female scientist on an oceanic platform in 2097 where his mission is to save some technology hours before the platform explodes and sinks into the ocean, killing all people aboard. When the disaster strikes, and he has captured the loot, without actually planning for it, he takes Elise home with him, more than 400 years into the future. Of course, bringing anyone back from the past violates the first time law. This forces James and Elise to become fugitives on the wasted Earth, trying to survive in the wilderness, undetected by the government trying to hunt them down. In the process of saving themselves, the opportunity to save the planet arises and gives hope not only to the two of them, but to all humanity.

Time Salvager is a story about a dystopian future, think Orwell’s 1984 on steroids. Graphic descriptions of the squalor most of humanity lives in are contrasted by the high-tech excesses of the elite. Transformer-like technology abounds and gives soldiers and agents superhuman capabilities. Reading Time Salvager is like watching a superhero movie, where the heroes are indestructible due to the magical technology and the power it gives them.

At a time when the income gap between poor and rich is widening, climate change is daily sensational news, corruption of government is rampant and abuse of power is becoming acceptable and normal, reading Time Salvager is a strong reminder of how bad it can get. It’s not a pleasant read, but entertaining nonetheless, and definitely thought-provoking.

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A Reddit user has posted a list of science fiction books that he considers his top 15 list. You can click on he link to see the details. My daughter, who knows I read a lot of science fiction, sent me the list. She suggested I open a post and say that I have spent the last 50 years reading nothing but science fiction, and here is my list….

A cursory glance revealed that I have a completely opposite view on some of his books, specially the first two, and I agree with many of them. I made a list of the books below, showing my ratings (zero to four stars) if I have reviewed the books, and commenting on those I have read but did not review. Note, I have “only” reviewed every book I have read since 2007, so there are about 40 years of reading where I only have vague memories of the results, and there is not enough time to read them all over again just to do a review. Ah, so little time!

  1. The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell)My rating 1.5 stars – This book is generally highly rated, but from my review you can tell I had serious issues with it.
  2. Hyperion Series (Dan Simmons) – My rating 2.0 stars – Just a lukewarm book, and I definitely didn’t want to read the next in the series.
  3. The Stand (Steven King) – Not reviewed, but read twice, and with more than 1,000 pages, that’s a feat – I have not reviewed The Stand because I read it long ago. It’s not a science fiction book, but it’s one of my top 10 of all time. I think King wrote a masterpiece with The Stand.
  4. I, Robot (Isaac Asimov) – I have not read these books.
  5. Dune (Frank Herbert) – I have not read the Dune series. I know they are classics, everyone says they are great, but I can’t read them. I cannot get into them.
  6. The Forge of God (Greg Bear) – I have read this book and remember nothing about it. I like Greg Bear books a lot, but I won’t spend the time to read this one again. Probably a good recommendation.
  7. The Forever War (Joe Haldeman)My rating 3.0 stars – I have actually read this book twice in the last eight years. I liked it a lot. I enjoy most of Haldeman’s writing.
  8. Not Alone (Craig Falconer) – I have not read this book, but this recommendation makes me think I should. Getting it onto my list.
  9. The Sirens of Titan (Kurt Vonnegut) – I have not read this book either, but I have now put it on my list.
  10. Nightfall (Isaac Asimov + Robert Silverberg) – I have not read this book, but looks promising.
  11. Old Man’s War (John Scalzi)My rating 3.0 stars – Great read, recommend highly.
  12. Childhood’s End (Arthur C. Clarke) – I read this decades ago and I remember it’s a good book, but that’s all.
  13. Spin (Robert Charles Wilson) – I have not read this book.
  14. Starship Troopers (Robert Heinlein) – I read this book when I was a teenager. I remember I liked it. There is a horrible movie made after this book, which does not do it justice.
  15. Footfall (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle) – I read Footfall a long time ago. It plays in my home area of Southern California, and I knew many of the locations. It’s an epic, and I would be rating it highly if I were reviewing it now.

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It’s been a long few days on the road, and I am on a flight in seat 15E from Chicago home to San Diego. 15E is a middle seat, with not enough space on either side to take out the laptop and do some meaningful work of any type. I have the Bose headphones on, but no music, just noise cancellation. Then the movie Bumblebee starts on the little screen a few seats ahead of me overhead. I see the start and I plug in the headphone cables so I can hear the sound. That’s how I came to watch Bumblebee, a movie rated 93% on the Tomatometer.

It’s 1987. Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) is about to turn 18 and she finds a battered yellow WV bug in a junkyard. She brings home the car and quickly discovers this is not an ordinary WV beetle. It’s a Transformer. And that’s really all I have to tell you about the story.

Transformers are cars that turn into robots. I have never before watched a single Transformer movie, and now I am grateful that I didn’t. Robot battles are boring. I know too much about technology to buy into this myth of indestructible robots that, when it comes right down to it, do their battles with fist fights like two humans would. It quickly turns into endless action scenes of robots throwing each other around, kicking each other, and I can’t get it out of my head that it’s all two guys in robot suits doing the fighting.

The story is predictable and boring. The concept is ridiculous. I don’t know where the ratings come from, but it did nothing at all for me.

It killed 114 minutes of flying time. Now I know I never have to watch another Transformer movie.

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In the year 2019, scientists at the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico searching for extraterrestrial signals, finally succeed. They identify signals from the star Alpha Centauri that are unmistakably artificial. Through clever trials the scientists conclude that the signals are music. Mankind has found another intelligent and technological species.

Alpha Centauri is 4.3 lightyears away, the closest star to our own. A close-knit clique of friends in Arecibo, led by Jesuit priests, decide to launch a human mission in a spaceship to Alpha Centauri. The Jesuits want to meet those other “children of God.”

They build a makeshift spaceship using an asteroid and mining equipment and technology that is capable to accelerate to about 90% of the speed of light within a year, making the trip from Earth to Alpha Centauri take about 17 years, including acceleration, deceleration and mid-cruise coasting. However, due to time dilation at relativistic speeds, the crew only experiences eight months of travel. The idea is that they can go to meet the aliens, spend a few years there, and come back, and be five years older, while of course the time on Earth would have advanced almost 40 years by the time they came back.

Eight people go on the journey, four of which are Jesuit priests, the Father Superior also being the captain and pilot. The other four are the young astronomer who found the signal, a young female scientist and a doctor/engineer married couple in their sixties.

They reach their destination, find two coexisting species of aliens, and start communicating with them. Through a series of misunderstandings and accidents, most of the crew perish over the period of a few years, and only the protagonist, Emilio Sandoz, a young priest, eventually returns to Earth in 2060. He is severely injured, seriously distraught and psychologically damaged.

Now the Jesuits want to know that happened.

I read this book as it was recommended to me as a good science fiction book with a focus on philosophy and morality. I welcomed the tip since I love first contact novels, particularly when they are coupled with relativistic space travel concepts. The Sparrow promised to be all that.

I was also intrigued since I had speculated myself about traveling to Alpha Centauri, and what that distance would mean:

If the sun were the size of a red blood cell, which is about seven micrometers in diameter, then the distance to Alpha Centauri would be about 219 meters. That’s a little bit more than the length of two football fields. Ok, let’s picture that. The sun is an invisible speck the size of a red blood cell with the solar system the size of a tangerine. The nearest star and its planets  would be more than two football fields away. Just imagine the massive amount of empty space in all directions, left, right, forward, back, up down of empty space. 

See the entire post here for reference.

The Sparrow edition on my Kindle is 518 pages long. It was first published in 1996. So 2019, the start of the journey, was in the distant future, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program was still in its early stages. No significant exoplanets had yet been found. It was a bit odd to read this book for the first time now, in 2018, when 2019 is just a few weeks in the future.

While this book has earned a lot of awards and acclaim, and gets great reviews, I found it very hard to read and extremely disappointing overall.

All the Jesuit philosophy packed into the story just took up space and bored me. Pages and pages of Emilio dealing with his own celibacy vows while he was lusting for the only eligible young female on the crew didn’t add to the plot in any way, and simply didn’t interest me. This book could have been condensed to about 200 pages, would not have lost any impact, and it would have been a better book.

In der Kürze liegt die Würze.

And then there were the aliens. Two conveniently humanoid species, one evolved from a herd animal, to become the worker and slave race, the other evolved from a carnivore and predator species, both adapted to each other to look like humans with tails. Also, conveniently, they talked human-like languages that the humans could learn quickly, and their social behaviors and customs were like those of exotic human populations, not aliens.

The book’s structure made it difficult to read. There are two leapfrogging lines, one telling the discovery, the journey out, and the stay of the humans with the aliens, starting in 2019. The other starts in 2060, when Emilio returns and follows the enquiry into what happened.

Through this, the reader already knows that the journey does not end well, and the whole book is about finding out what exactly happened. But the narration is so poor and inconsistent, I found it hard to follow. Sometimes it seemed like the protagonist was talking and telling the story, other times the writer used lots of exposition to tell the story. It was always inconsistent and jarring when the switch happened from one mode to the other.

Endless pages about the “philosophy” and “morality” as some readers praised it just seemed like psychobabble to me. The book’s description calls it “deep philosophical inquiry.”  I felt like the author wanted to lecture me with her worldview, which I didn’t care about, and she packaged it into a pseudo science fiction book to make it interesting to me.

It didn’t work.

Reading The Sparrow was work. I finished only because I try to finish every book I start. I am glad I am done. And I will NOT read the sequel, titled Children of God.

 

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