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Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

Right after reading Quantum Space, I picked up Quantum Void. The characters were so fresh in my mind that I went right from Book 1 to the sequel.

The reader is back with Daniel Rice, the White House science staffer who has become a national science celebrity due to his front-line dealings with Core, the alien cyborg technology we got to know in Quantum Space. With us also is Nala Pasquier, one of the world’s foremost particle physicists, and Marie Kendrick, the NASA scientist come alien technology specialist.

The book is divided into two main sections. First we follow four humans traveling to an alien planet 350 light years away and making first contact with the two alien intelligent species living there. To do that, they use space compression achieved by creating four-dimensional “bubbles” which, as a side effect, compress three-dimensional space. This technology makes space travel obsolete. “Beam me up, Scotty” has become reality.

The second part of the book deals with Nala and her colleague Thomas being involved in a major science accident at Fermilab. The two get “sucked” into a four-dimensional vortex and find themselves alive and well, kind of, on the “other side.” Now they have to figure out how to get back.

Quantum Void does a great job with its “first contact” with aliens story. Here are, for a change, truly alien aliens, and at least to me that makes the story seem real and plausible. I can overlook the unlikeliness that the aliens manage to give Marie a device that puts images into her brain. How did the aliens figure out how human brains work and how they could interface to them? It reminded me of Nelf Rings, a story with a similar alien artifact that does magic to human brains. But well, it’s science fiction, isn’t it?

I truly enjoyed the illustrations of what three-dimensional space would look like from the 4th dimension. There were some stretches that seemed a bit far-fetched, like pealing three-dimensional objects out of three-dimensional space, their primary way to get food and supplies when they needed it. But the writing of messages on three-dimensional objects using a pen from the 4th dimension was described brilliantly.

I realize, as I write this review, you must think I am nuts that I enjoy spending my time reading this crazy stuff. It sure sounds crazy when you read this review, doesn’t it, four-dimensional bagels and all.

But to this time-travel nut and 4th dimension connoisseur, it’s pure joy.

So I now wait for Quantum Time, Book 3 in the series. (I just realized I missed Book 0). Hurry up and write, Douglas.

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Three astronauts, two Russians and one American, are leaving the International Space Station in a Soyuz capsule. They spent months in orbit and all three are glad to be able to return home. All goes according to plan, until a minute or two after the capsule enters the top of the atmosphere, it vanishes. Ground based radar loses contact. To an observer, the contrail streaking across the Kazakhstan sky ends abruptly with a flash of light. Neither the Russian space agency nor NASA have any idea what happened.

Dr. Daniel Rice, one of the staffers to the White House science advisor, is called to investigate what might have happened. Fermilab, the facility in Illinois where quarks were discovered, seems to have the technology and scientists who might have insight into the phenomenon, so that’s where the investigation starts.

Daniel discovers a world of high-tech, quantum physics, and, most important of all, the 4th dimension. He is racing against the clock since he knows that the Soyuz capsule’s life support can’t keep three humans alive and breathing for much longer than a day. But government bureaucracy and corporate greed cause obstructions and challenges. In his quest to save three humans, he encounters a world way beyond his wildest expectations.

I like solid science fiction stories, where the science is big, the fiction is credible and plausible, and fantasy is kept to a minimum. The 4th dimension plays a huge, crucial role in the plot of Quantum Space.

I have been fascinated with the 4th dimension all my life. As a youth, I read about Hinton’s cubes in a quest to understand the 4th dimension, to comprehend it. I have collected and read a variety of books on the subject, from Abbott’s Flatland, all the way to artsy coffee table books like Fourfield. A tesseract is a four-dimensional cube. My readers with a mathematical or physical background will immediately know what a tesseract is and will have certainly marveled at what one would look like. Others that have not encountered this strange and wondrous object will probably have a hard time even understanding what it might be. I am of the first kind, and I have even written code, projecting a tesseract into three dimensions and projecting that onto a two-dimensional computer screen, in an effort to visualize it. I rotated the tesseract over its four different axes so it’s easier to visualize what such an object would look like. Since all graphics software renders only in three dimensions, I could not use off-the-shelf software and had to write my own transformation matrices implementing the 4th dimension to accomplish the task.

Why am I telling you all this in a book review? Because you have to have thought about the 4th dimension and you have to be fascinated with it to understand and appreciate the book. Douglas Phillips gets it and with Quantum Space he wrote the book that I have always wanted to read. He says on his website that he is writing the books he has wanted to read but didn’t find. What a great motivation!

Well, Douglas, you found a kindred spirit here, and I thoroughly enjoyed Quantum Space.

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Scotty, a nine-year-old boy, and his dog, can’t wait to run down to the beach upon arriving at their parents’ summer house on Nantucket. They are never seen again, until they mysteriously reappear 16 years later.

As we learn later, Scotty was abducted by a UFO. The aliens have a noble mission to save humanity from complete destruction due to a massive cosmic calamity, and abducting human children is part of that mission.

I was looking forward to a nice alien story, but I was disappointed. The aliens are called the Vallic and they are 97 percent energy. Viewed by a human they are simply faint blue outlines – of humanoid structure. I was disappointed because, like in so many science fiction books, here are aliens that are humans in costumes.  Not only are they humanoid, they have males and females, and the voices of the females are softer and they have – breasts. To top it off, they speak English. McGinnis is a creative author, with great ideas. Why couldn’t he have been a little more creative with the aliens?

The story employs some interesting concepts, but it was just too crude and simple for me. The author is actually a pretty good story teller, he moves the plot along, but there are too many of these “oh seriously?” moments sprinkled throughout, I never got fully immersed in the story. He kept reminding me that this was not real, with unbelievable fabrications (like aliens in human form who speak English), cardboard characters, caricatures of government officials, crazy magic-like science, and flat and boring protagonists. I was never immersed in the world he created.

I was going to blast the author for using the cutesy word “ginormous” a number of times. I really thought that was a made-up word. Before I complained, though, I looked it up, and sure enough, it’s in the dictionary, with its synonym humongous.

I stayed with it to the end, only to be disappointed that there was no resolution, no end. The book ended from one paragraph to the next, where the author tells us to wait for the next book in the series. I hate books with no ends, especially when I read one where I don’t know there won’t be an end because the author is planning a series all along. My bad.

Sorry, I won’t be reading the next one. After reading this whole book I am just not interested enough in finding out what happens next.

But I did learn that ginormous is an English word, not just slang.

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Christoph Wilder is an airline captain licensed to fly the huge double-decker Airbus A380. On a trip from New York to Europe, the plane flies through a volcanic ash cloud that air traffic control didn’t know was there. All four engines die, and the huge plane becomes a glider over the icy North Atlantic. By sheer steel nerves and drawing on deep experience, he manages an emergency landing in the U.K. Everyone is saved, except for one elderlyt man who dies of cardiac arrest during the commotion.

But the airline is worried about negative publicity and grounds him. In order to continue flying, he takes on a job with a top-secret German government research project, flying an A380 built out to be a time machine. During the maiden voyage, when they are just planning on testing the equipment, things go horribly wrong and they end up in Germany in 1939, the day before the assassination attempt on Hitler in Munich.

Very quickly their time travel adventure turns into an apocalyptic nightmare with seemingly no way out, where the future of humanity is at stake.

Peterson is a German writer, and the locales and the characters are all German, which I actually found refreshing, since pretty much all science fiction I read is American. The German backdrop and story line was a nice change.

I was critical of the book, because the trip through the volcanic ash cloud and the aftermath took a full 25% of the book, before the interesting story even started. I made a note of that to mention it in my review, since I felt the whole thing could have been left out completely without affecting the plot in any way. So it was a slow start, but the story kept getting more and more interesting, and I kept reading. I forgave the author for the rookie start and let it go.

But then there was the ending, which surprised me completely and tied it all together. In fact, the ending was so good that I changed my expected rating of the book from two to two and a half stars.

A quick read, and a good addition to my time travel library.

 

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In the not too distant future, when there are still countries like China, Russia, Finland and the United States on Earth, humans have figured out how to build faster than light ships. The ships use the “bubble drive” which basically creates a bubble of hyperspace around the ship that moves forward taking with it all inside. Using the bubble drive, a ship can travel 30 light years in perhaps eight or nine months. With this technology, humans have started sending expeditions to other stars. There are outposts on planets with names like Xanadu, Mu and Atlantis.

In those places, people discovered artifacts of an ancient and very highly developed intelligent race, called the Nelf. The artifacts are estimated to be three to five million years old, are completely indestructible and resistant to human exploration by any means, including high energy weapons. By sheer coincidence, one mummy corpse of a Nelf is found, so humanity can form a picture. Nelf are about the size of a small elephant, with twelve legs. Eight legs are used for walking, spider-like, and four “in the front” are used like arms, each with four fingers.

By accident, humans found Nelf rings, which fit over a human arm above the elbow, and once there, cannot be removed. They eventually figure out that the rings are brain interfaces which open up immense powers through access to Nelf technology.

Nelf Rings is a long book, 750 pages, way too long. Typical for many science fiction novels, it jumps around to different locales and viewpoints, and it does that so much that I found it very hard to keep track of who is who, and what is happening where. There are many different smaller subplots with different characters that seem to have no connection with each other. Each subplot if fully of petty human intrigue that simply gets boring after a while.

The author repeats exposition, sometimes a number of times. For example, Nelf “doors” are activated by touching three points on a surface at the same time. Remember they have four arms. Humans can only do this by using two arms and one knee at the same time. Then a solid surface becomes “liquid” and actually pulls the user through to the other side. For an observer, this looks like the person is stepping into a solid wall. This process of discovery and going through such doors must be described in detail ten different times as the story shifts to different people. I understand that they are different people every time, but I am the reader, I already know how the doors work, so let’s get on with the story.

My estimate is that this book is twice as long as it would need to be to convey the same story. There are even entire subplots that get much attention, but in the end do not contribute to the story at all, other than be entertaining. One such story follows a ship on a mystery planet when somehow the women in the crews get distracted by an aroma they follow, which is so compelling that they actually lick the walls where a certain fungus or lichen grows. This makes them pass out, and when they come to, they are extremely horny. The author describes this as a form of testosterone saturation similar to what happens to adolescent human males, only worse. The subplot gets a surprising amount of coverage in the book, and eventually it fizzles out and we never hear from the all these horny women again. If a reader can figure out why this entire section was even there, I stand to be corrected. It went way over my head.

Another fixation this author seems to have is with female physical beauty. There are surgically enhanced females in this story, who are so perfect, that somehow every male that even comes near them goes stupid, loses his train of thought, or speech, and can’t keep his eyes of them. The author keeps describing them as stunning even in military fatigues or baggy clothes. This is recurring dozens of times in the story. It feels almost like the author is a teenage boy who just discovered girls.

There are numerous subplots that vaguely contribute to the “universe” the writer wanted to create, but overall they were not strong enough to convince me. Many faded out.

I found other structural problems with the book. There is no clear protagonist, no one person to follow and get used to. People come, become important figures for a few pages, and eventually they disappear. I never could identify with anyone, which makes for a dry and text-book-like read.

There was also no end I could discern. Nothing came together in the end, no conflict was resolved, no happily ever after characters rode off into the sunset. The major conflict, namely what would the powers that be on Earth do with the immense capabilities of Nelf technology, never really gets resolved.

It feels like the writer, after pounding out 750 pages, got tired of the book and wrapped it up in a few paragraphs deus-ex-machine style.

Spoiler Alert

We never meet Nelf. They appear to be a highly advanced race that left technology all over the galaxy and disappeared without a trace millions of years ago. We don’t find out anything about them, except what some of their technology can do, we don’t find out where they went, and we never meet one – which would have been cool.

Overall, Nelf Rings is an interesting science fiction speculation that never goes anywhere and that I’ll likely soon forget I ever read.

 

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A suicidal eccentric American billionaire industrialist accidentally crosses paths with a disembodied alien intelligence he calls Ell.  The two team up.

Through complex space/time machinations he is able to download his 70-year-old self into his 10-year-old body of his youth. Through a large portion of the book we accompany him reliving his life a second time around, trying to make changes to the way it went the first time.

He ends up inventing a time/space travel machine. Eventually he uploads his own identity into a machine and starts becoming a disembodied intelligence himself. Ah, eternal life!

For my taste, there was too much psychobabble about disembodied intelligence, but in the end, I enjoyed reading the book, it was quite well-written, and I must say that it’s required reading for anyone interested in the time travel genre.

Enjoy!

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About a year ago I read A Time Before Time, and I said it was the worst book I had ever read.

But Mission in Time is definitely worse. Usually I don’t rate books I don’t finish reading, just to be fair, but this one gets a zero, even though I didn’t get past 25% into the book. By that time, I could not stand it anymore.

A Time Before Time was a time travel book where an astronaut, due to an accident, ends up landing in the Wild West. Mission in Time is a time travel book where two astronauts, due to a malfunction, end up landing off the coast of Massachusetts in 1774. Do those two plots sound similar?

Mission in Time is really bad for other reasons than A Time Before Time, so it warrants discussion here.

The author places two 21st century astronauts into a credible setting just before the revolutionary war in Massachusetts. The story is about how a person with knowledge and experience of today would be able to modify the outcome of the historic events of those days. Since I didn’t read past 25%, I actually don’t know how it ends, and whether the two hapless astronauts ever make it back. I don’t really care enough about them to find out and keep reading.

There are actually a number of excellent and very entertaining time travel stories in which the protagonists end up in the 19th century. Examples are John A. Heldt’s books The Mine and The Show. There is also Hollie Van Horne’s Reflections of Toddsville. Another is Seldon Edwards’ The Little Book. And of course the classic Time and Again and From Time to Time by Jack Finney are probably some of the best in this genre. I gave both Finney books four stars. You should read them.

In all these time travel books we experience how the protagonists get along in the past and enjoy their journeys. How they actually get there, and back again, is not all that important. It just happens through some fictional mechanism, and we accept it.

In Mission in Time however, Richard Scott spends the first five chapters of the book coming up with a “scientific” process that gets the astronauts displaced in time. And that’s where the problem lies. The “scientific” way is so flawed, so obviously silly, it’s distracting and insulting to the reader’s intelligence.

The mission is to have the astronauts travel a couple of years into the future. To do that, they are sent on a spaceship away from earth, and the theory is that the closer to the speed of light they travel, the more they are displaced into the future. Any science fiction fan will know that time dilation theoretically makes that possible. As a ship approaches the speed of light, time slows down on the ship, and relative to the earth left behind, the occupants age more slowly. The “twin paradox” is described in many science fiction stories, and the result is that the travelers who come back have aged more slowly, so their counterparts on earth have aged faster and are therefore older. So yes, the concept to traveling some distance into the future is valid and somewhat plausible.

However, in their trip, something goes wrong with the ship, and eventually the ship exceeds the speed of light. They were taught that if that happened, they would travel to the past, but since it had never been done before, they would not know how far into the past. This travel into the past, requiring a spaceship traveling faster than light, is a concept totally unfounded in physics. The author makes that up to explain how the astronauts eventually end up in the past. He could have just come up with a magic wand that transported them Harry Potter-style, the story would have been five chapters shorter, and actually much better. The reader would not have been distracted by the weird physics.

This is how the author describes to outbound trip:

Once free of gravity and the atmosphere, the neutrino accelerator took over. At first the weak propulsion of the neutrinos was negligible, but in outer space there is no atmosphere, which means no resistance. As the neutrino emissions continued, the ship gradually increased speed. Each second it was going faster than the previous second. After awhile we were really moving. When we’d been in space for about four months (Earth time) we were moving at 90 percent of the speed of light. As I’ve already explained, that was supposed to take us approximately two years into the future by the time we had returned to Earth.

Scott, Richard. Mission in Time: An incredible time-travel journey (p. 26). Winter Island Press. Kindle Edition.

To accelerate from zero to approximately the speed of light at 1g (one gravity) takes approximately a year. This is pretty simple to calculate. To be at 90 percent of the speed of light after 4 months, they would have to have accelerated at about 3g constantly. He describes the little spacecraft they were in:

Our cabin was about seven feet across and 12 feet from front to back. We could leave our seats, but because we were in space we couldn’t even walk in those 12 feet inside the cabin. We could float and pull ourselves about, which we did a lot, but that relatively confining cabin often felt more like a prison cell than the inside of a vehicle that was taking us somewhere to an unknown destination.

Scott, Richard. Mission in Time: An incredible time-travel journey (p. 29). Winter Island Press. Kindle Edition.

It does not sound like there was acceleration going on, just floating. But here it get really interesting:

We were nearing the terminus ad quem and waiting for the side thrusters to go into action. We needed to come to almost a complete stop before the side thrusters were activated. Here’s what blew my mind as we neared that stopping point. At that spot in space we were approximately 1.4 light years from Earth. That’s 8.4 trillion miles. The human mind can’t deal with distances like that. We couldn’t see our Sun from where we were. Not with the naked eye anyway. To put things in perspective, after traveling 1.4 light years from home, we were still in our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

Scott, Richard. Mission in Time: An incredible time-travel journey (pp. 26-27). Winter Island Press. Kindle Edition.

There are so many things wrong here I can hardly list them all.

First, he says they need to come to a complete stop in order to turn around. That spot in space was at 1.4 light years from Earth. If it took them 4 months to accelerate to light speed at 3g, to slow down to a complete stop and turn around and go back to Earth will take another 4 months at 3g acceleration, before they are stopped relative to Earth and can start going back, accelerating again to light speed for 4 months and decelerating again. Reading the author’s explanation sounds like the ship just stopped and the magic side thrusters turned it around to go back.

Then he says they couldn’t see the Sun from where they were? Really? They were 1.4 light years out, that’s about a third of the way to Alpha Centauri. From that point in space, the sun would still be by far the brightest star in the sky. But then, in the section below he states they saw Alpha Centauri, the closest star to Earth, and it was the biggest of them all – even though then it was still 2.6 light years away.

As we neared the final third of our trip back to Earth of an earlier time, we came closer than humans have ever come to many of the stars that I had seen through telescopes when I was younger. Off in the distance we saw an amazingly bright 61 Cygni, which is 11 light years from Earth, but appeared huge to us from our position in space. Again we saw a huge-looking Sirius, the brightest star in the sky when you’re looking at it from Earth. Then we saw Alpha Centauri, the closest star to Earth. To us, it was the biggest of them all.

Scott, Richard. Mission in Time: An incredible time-travel journey (p. 29). Winter Island Press. Kindle Edition.

So 61 Cygni, 11 light years from Earth, was suddenly “huge” when they were 1.4 light years closer to it, that’s assuming 61 Cygni is anywhere near the direction of Alpha Centauri.

Enough! You get the idea.

The first five chapters of the book are full of nonsense like this that the author sounds like he is trying to pass off as physics. But it’s just that, nonsense. The author should have had the two men hit by lightning as they walked the streets of Boston on a summer night and transported them to 1774 that way. It would have been a much better story, and the author would have maintained some semblance of credibility.

And I would not have written the longest book review ever about one of the worst books I have ever not finished reading.

Zero Stars

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As I have done for pretty much all my life, when a new Star Wars movie comes out, I go see it within the first few days. It is a ritual, a rite, something I do, and I know it’s the same for many of my contemporaries.

As usual with Star Wars, I can’t really follow the plot. There are always people who are on far-away planets who are needed for help with some impossible task and emissaries go to find those people. Then there are the mysterious telepathic connections between the Jedi and his disciples, which transcend time and space. Luke, who is the protagonist of this movie, is not very satisfying as a character. He is the last Jedi, but a burned-out one, a reluctant one, and a lot of the movie’s energy is spent on making Luke just do the right thing. To me, that is not much of a plot.

My favorite and repeated complaint with Star Wars is about its disregard for physics. Spaceships don’t fly, they just wink in and out of ordinary space when they go into lightspeed seemingly without acceleration. Except when it’s the old Millennium Falcon, which seems to have superpowers and always flies like a fighter plane in the atmosphere, pulling tight curves, whether it’s in space or not. Fighters continue to fly like there is air, and orbital dynamics is completely ignored.

My most enjoyable experience with Star Wars is usually its depiction of aliens in ordinary settings. I can think of the classic bar scenes that seem to be customary in all episodes. This time, there is only a short sequence in a casino, where there are a few aliens, but they are all humanoids. It seems the entire Star Wars galaxy has devolved into humans with head masks. I am sure that’s to make production cheap, but it’s trite and uninspiring to me. Why isn’t there ever a real alien that is part of the mainline plot? No, I don’t mean another Jar Jar Binks, who himself was nothing but a human in an amphibious suit.

This episode does not tell much of a story and seems to exist only to set the stage for the sunsetting of the two characters most intimately associated with Star Wars: Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill, of course) and Princess Lea (played for the last time by the late Carrie Fisher). We say our good byes to both of them, amid a story of fireballs of exploding ships, spaceships racing in tight spaces, comical droids, rubber-mask aliens, desert rust-bucket floater-ship races and a Wookie.

There is nothing new in this episode. The franchise has run out of original ideas and every movie is just a collection of old concepts and special effects, rendered on a new stage, in a slightly different story between good and evil.

True to Star Wars legacy, every conflict in the galaxy is eventually resolved by a swordfight between two humans. All the action stops, high-tech weaponry goes silent, armies of star troopers vanish, spaceships float inactively, the crescendo of the music rises, and the light sabers zap out of their handles. Plot resolved. Deus ex machina.

Will I go see the next episode in a year or so?

Probably.

 

 

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Revenger is a science fiction space opera that you can’t take too seriously.

There are swaggering captains on ships with sails, raucous crews of misfits who chase treasures. The world is full of islands with treasures, and if a captain has the right maps, or secret information, he can sail to those islands and get the loot. But there are others that will be on his tail and try to take the prize from him. And there are pirates, who board ships, kill everyone and steal the goods. And that is the story. It could have taken place in the Caribbean in the 1600s, but this story takes place millions, or possibly billions of years in the future.

The Congregation is a swarm of “worlds” circling the Old Sun. Worlds are little planetoids, just a few leagues across. It’s not clear what a league is, but I am guessing it’s around a mile. Inside of the planetoids are “swallowers” which I assume to be miniature black holes that generate just enough gravity for the surfaces to be around one gee. There are also spindle worlds, tube worlds and various other exotic ones. Out of 50 million objects in the Congregation, there are about 20,000 inhabited worlds.

And there are “baubles” which are uninhabited worlds with treasure hidden on them, by whom is not clear. And there are space ships driven by ion drives near objects and light sails in open space. The ion drives are like the outboard motors on our sail ships.

Adrana and Fura Ness are two young girls who run away from home and their overbearing father, sign on with a ship, and very soon realize they are in way over their heads. And so the swashbuckling adventure starts.

I realized pretty soon that this is not a science fiction novel, but a pirate novel, masquerading as a science fiction novel. But I did enjoy it sufficiently to keep reading.

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Stephen King is a master of what-if books.

For instance, his novel Under the Dome is based on this premise: What if a bubble-like, transparent, but completely impenetrable dome a few miles across suddenly was placed over a New England town? Nobody gets in, nobody gets out. What would happen? Then King builds an entire novel around this unlikely, impossible and ridiculous assumption.

In King’s novel The Stand, he speculates that a human-made deadly virus accidentally gets out and kills 99.9999 percent of the population. Only a handful individuals survive. That’s the what-if scenario. Then a novel of well over a thousand pages follows, building an entire world based on that premise.

Stephenson also likes to write what-if novels. Seveneves starts: THE MOON BLEW UP WITHOUT WARNING AND FOR NO APPARENT reason. What would happen if that actually occurred?

DODO is such a what-if book. What if magic existed? Yes, magic like witches that can cast spells, like turning a man into a frog, or changing the order of playing cards in a deck, Harry Potter kind of magic. It’s a preposterous assumption, and it was enough to turn me off before I even picked up the book. But then, a friend and frequent commenter on this blog (MB) told me to get over the magic part and read DODO anyway. So I did. I did not regret it.

Besides being a book that speculates about magic, DODO is also a time travel book. Time travel is one of my favorite science fiction genres, and it even has its own category in the selector on this blog. If you are ever interested in finding books about time travel, I have a wealth of them reviewed right here.

To expand: What if magic existed and what if witches could send people back and forward in time by casting spells? What would happen in a world of 2017, with iPhones, Google, the Internet, and black-budget arms of the United States government, like D.O.D.O, the Department of Diachronic Operations? Imagine the United States military, with its ridiculous bureaucracy, its totally confusing acronyms and endless procedures manuals getting mixed up in magic!

Tristan Lyons is a major in the United States military. Melisande Stokes is a post-doctoral linguistics expert and renowned polyglot, primarily of ancient languages, like Greek, Latin, Hebrew and many others. Lyons recruits Stokes to help him translate ancient texts that reference magic. Magic seems to have been prevalent in early human history, but has abruptly stopped in the mid 19th century. As the two research, they eventually find that a single event in July of 1851 finally stopped magic worldwide. With the help of a renowned physicist and research of the concept of Schrödinger’s cat, they build a machine inside which magic is possible in the 21st century. Now they just have to find a witch, and they can travel in time.

And travel they do, and problems they create.

DODO is a delightful book in so many aspects. For instance, one of the main protagonist organizations is the Fugger family, one of the wealthiest medieval European banking families. This was fun for me, because I had just read The Richest Man Who Ever Lived a couple of years ago, which chronicles the life of Jakob Fugger, a Bavarian banker from Augsburg who was, in his day, the richest and one of the most powerful men in the world. He told kings what to do, because he had the money to fund the kings. The Fugger family is central in the plot of DODO.

The most remarkable thing about DODO is the completely unconventional and, shall I call it experimental, structure of the book. If a lesser author had tried to pull this off, it would have been a dismal failure. But Stephenson made it work: The format and framework of the book is nothing like I have ever read before. It’s not narrated in the first person or the third person. It is a largely chronological assortment of diaries, emails, internal blog posts, government memos – sometimes heavily redacted, handwritten notes, narratives, translations, Wikipedia entries, and historic references. No one person tells the story. The author does not tell the story, and there is no major protagonist who tells the story. The various documents and excerpts, just posted one after the other, eventually tell the story.

It’s a brilliant, new format that I have never seen done before, and it won’t be applied again.

I would normally have given this book three stars, but the completely refreshing and innovative format, and the fact that Stephenson pulled it off successfully, made me bump this book to four stars. It’s a must-read, not because you like time travel (or magic), but because it’s something that has never been done before and therefore is unique.

Is there an award for unique?

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Tonight, flipping through the movies on Apple, and not finding anything good, we decided to watch Prometheus. It got a 72% on the tomatometer, so I thought it would not be too bad. Very quickly I found myself bored with the inane dialog, senseless plot and cardboard characters. I also recognized some scenes, so I thought I must have seen some of them flipping through channels in the past. However, true to my commitment to myself about reviewing every movie I watch, I persisted all the way through.

Then I came to my computer, chose the half-star icon below and went to find a good picture to use for the review, when I noticed that there was already one titled Prometheus in my directory. Hmmm.

Five seconds and a quick search later revealed that I had watched and reviewed this movie on June 4, 2014. Here is the result, one star that time.

This movie is so bad that I had completely forgotten that I had watched it before, all the way through, and then wrote a full review about it.

Or is it my memory that’s going.

Either way – bad.

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When a nuclear submarine in the Caribbean encounters anomalies with its GPS system, John Clay, a naval investigator is called in to figure out what happened.

At the same time, Alison Shaw, a marine biologist and her small team of dedicated scientists achieve a breakthrough in their attempt to communicate with dolphins.

Eventually the U.S. Navy discovers an artifact on the bottom of the ocean that seems to destabilize the geological balance of the entire planet. That’s when the U.S. government gets involved, and things go sideways very quickly.

Breakthrough is Grumley’s debut novel and the first of a “series” of novels. It’s a science fiction techno-thriller, where the science fiction is very light and superficial, and the thriller part is pretty standard and fairly bland U.S. government intrigue stuff.

There are two areas that interested me specifically, and I want to discuss them.

Spoiler Warning: the following contains minor spoilers which will not impact your enjoyment of the novel, but it is my policy to warn about spoilers.

Dolphin Intelligence and Language

The first area has to do with dolphin intelligence and language. This subject has always been one of deep interest to me, and I have literally read dozens of books on the subject. Search for the keyword “dolphin” on this blog and find some of my thoughts on it. Also, select “cetaceans” in the Select a Category dropdown to the right, and you’ll find a lot of related posts.

In this story, a team of researchers has used an IBM artificial intelligence engine to decode a dolphin vocabulary, and after the initial Hello, Yes and No words are discovered, it starts building very quickly. Humans type into the computer, or speak to a voice recognition system, and the system translates the word to a set of dolphin clicks and whistles. When dolphins whistle, the computer detects the words, looks them up in the vocabulary, and speaks them. Voilà, you have a conversation with a dolphin.

This concept is quite well developed in this story, except for the strange beginning, where the supposed breakthrough occurs, and I could not figure out what exactly it was. Supposedly the team had recorded dolphin sounds for years, and they were finally starting to interpret them. There was this huge press conference announcing that they were starting that. I just could not figure out what the breakthrough was, other than they had decided that they would stop collecting sounds and start interpreting them.

I was personally always interested in this field, and I have often had regrets that I didn’t start in this field of research early in my career as a computer programmer. My life might have been very different indeed. Of course, maybe not as successful, since in all those years, unlike in this book, we have NOT yet cracked the code and been successful communicating with the aliens right here on our planet, with our own DNA.

Convergent Evolution

Definition: In evolutionary biology, convergent evolution is the process whereby organisms not closely related (not monophyletic), independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches.

In this story – and here is the spoiler – there are aliens living on the bottom of the Caribbean Sea in air bubbles. How they got there and what they are doing there is not relevant for my point so I won’t elaborate here.

However, the aliens, although they come from another planet around another star, are human, indistinguishable from us. The author explains that convergent evolution will produce identical results even in wildly different environments, as long as the building blocks of nature are the same. We are all “stardust” and made from the same raw materials that heavy elements resulting from supernovae. So the same amino acids seeded many different worlds around many different stars, and the crowning result would be — humans.

That’s where the story lost me. No only were the aliens that evolved on another planet in a different stellar system light years away human, they spoke American English! This was just so out of the realm of feasibility, the book came apart for me at that time.

Here is a novel,  that is partly built on the concept of the challenges of decoding a language of an alien being (in this case a dolphin) and how it took decades of work to make any measurable progress, and then that same novel brings in alien humans that conveniently speak English and are undetected in our social environment.

Regardless of those flaws, I enjoyed the book, I found the concept of language translation intriguing and entertaining, and I read all the way to the end.

 

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After total destruction of the Earth, all that is left of humanity is on one gigantic spaceship, the Noah, en route to Canaan, a planet at another star, so far away that the journey will take more than 1,000 years. The ship is huge. Under a dome the habitat is comprised of cities, countryside and vertical farms. People live in houses, apartments, even skyscrapers. They drive cars, ride in buses and trains. The sky, the sun, the moon, the stars are all simulations. So is day and night, and the seasons. People live ordinary lives, have jobs, go to school, compete for positions, love, hate, fight, and play. All the while the ship moves at relativistic speed toward a new home.

Hana Dempsey is a city planner. She is high up in the social hierarchy. When the story starts, the ship has been traveling for 340 years, with another 700 or so to go. Imagine living your entire life inside a ship, an enclosed system, without any opportunity to ever get out. For us, 340 years ago was 1677, about 100 years before the American Declaration of Independence. That’s how long they have been traveling.

Through Hana’s eyes, we get a snapshot of a civilization in such a “generation ship.” Hana and her friends become suspicious about strange and violent deaths, and they start investigating. Their findings pull them deeper and deeper into very dark secrets that the very ship itself seems to harbor. Their activities set off a revolution and popular uprising that not only threatens their way of life, but the mission itself, and therefore the existence of humanity. Can the uprising be quelled? Can order be restored? Can the ship continue its mission and keep traveling for many, many more centuries?

The author uses the first person present tense method of narration. I seem to find books like this; just recently I read the trilogy on time travel by Nathan Van Coops, who also uses that writing approach. But Ramirez is clumsy with it, and I don’t think it works well. Some of the people use telepathy, as well as thought and memory exchange through brain implants, giving the humans communications methods that are more difficult to follow. It’s hard for the reader to tell if a person is thinking, or speaking, or sending telepathic messages. Sometimes the author also violates the point of view, and while Hana tells most of the story, sometimes he seems to switch to other viewpoints, confusing the reader even more.

The Forever Watch wants to be a hard science fiction book, but there is too much far-out technology that it is almost distracting from the story, and the hard science starts feeling a little hokey at times.

I don’t know why the title of the book is The Forever Watch. I really think there should have been a better title. While I was reading it, I could never remember what the title was. I just kept thinking of the generation ship book. How about The Noah?

As you can see, I think the book has its flaws, and some reviewers have called it a tedious read. However, if you are into the sub-genre of generation ships, like I am, it is a book you must read, and you will enjoy. It is full of unique ideas and concepts, and while the author completes the story and makes The Forever Watch as standalone novel, there is ample opportunity for a sequel.

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Jack Kildare is a British-American space shuttle astronaut who flies the very last mission of the space shuttle in 2011. Skyler Taft is a young astronomer who works observation shifts at the Mauna Kea observatories in Hawaii. One night, by pure luck, he observes a phenomenon near Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, that can only be interpreted as activities of an alien ship in orbit around that moon. And thus, Jack and Skyler’s fate start getting intertwined.

Soon, all of earth is abuzz about the mother of all discoveries, or MOAD, as it’s colloquially called. The nations of earth work together to build an interplanetary spaceship to take a crew of eight astronauts to Europa to check out the aliens. As in any large “government” project costing hundreds of billions of dollars and requiring international cooperation, there is much intrigue, international politics, posturing and, yes, even murder, to make it all work.

The book is subtitled a first contact technothriller and that’s what attracted me to it. I usually like “first contact” stories.

What I didn’t expect was that the majority of the 400 pages was really about earth’s international politics, including the Russians, the Chinese and other nations, all banding together to build something that had never been built before. This book is not a technothriller. It’s a political thriller, and not a very convincing one at that, with a technology umbrella story.

I expected some alien story, some humanity meets alien yarn, but I got mostly yawns slogging through intrigue on the streets of Beijing, and in the halls of NASA in Houston, and in Baikonur. At the end, all I saw was the spaceship leaving earth orbit.

That’s when I realized I was reading Book 1 of a series, and I felt cheated. It was just not what I expected. The writing and plotting also was not good enough to lead me to believe that Book 2 and Book 3 would be any more satisfying, so I’ll pass and move on to another author.

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Cady McCall is an iOS game programmer who just struck it rich by publishing a hit game which she sold to Apple. As she walks home alone from a meeting at night in Seattle, she is followed and then mugged. A rescuer comes along just as she passes out.

When she wakes up, she is in a moldy and dirty room in London in the 1880s, with a man named Titanic Smith, a U.S. Marshal from the Wild West.

As the two try to figure out what happened to them, they have a number of adventures in time, with one trip even to ancient Rome.

A Girl in Time is a time travel adventure story, and that’s how I came across it. The first third of the book was hard to read for me. The author, an experienced writer of many other books, mostly in the genre of alternative history, uses too many trite clichés that I found distracting. I have this pet peeve about meals always being “washed down” with a couple of beers. Here is another example:

They did not return to her apartment. Not this time. Instead they caught a cab to the Alexis Hotel after she’d grabbed a couple of adjoining rooms on Expedia.

Who “grabs” a room?

Also, the author applies a strange point of view switch, that, if it were executed correctly, could work quite well.

For instance, Cady is a 2016 American hip girl in her early twenties. And she speaks and thinks like one. Smith is a 19th century U.S Marshal from the West. He has a folksy way of talking and thinking. The author switches between the two points of view and gets into the heads of the protagonists, so we hear them thinking, but the switch occurs randomly inside paragraphs or chapters, which results in occasional confusion. Who is telling the story?

Generally, when an author does this, he works using alternate chapters with different view points, and it’s pronounced and clear. Now we’re seeing the story from Cady’s point of view, now from Smith’s.

A little editing of the books structure could have fixed this.

Now here is the cool part, if you’re still reading: About 40% into the book, Smith and Cady land by accident in Seattle in 2019, and a different 2019 it is.

Donald Trump is now president for life. The United States has become a dystopian fascist country. Homeland Security agents are executing brutal raids on citizens, reminiscent of the Gestapo in East Germany. People get arrested for criticizing the government. They get sent to “the Wall” to perform forced labor. Here is Cady talking:

“Oh, you mean when I rescued you from the fucking Fourth Reich run by an angry Cheetos demon and its talking peehole?”

I got a kick out of the Fourth Reich episode, since I found it so timely. I cannot tell when Birmingham released A Girl in Time; the book oddly lacks a copyright page. He must have written it before Trump was elected, and he simply played on the theme. We’re obviously not a dystopian fascist country yet, but some of the things being done now are very scary and Birmingham predicted them in this novel.

Some Amazon reviewers blasted the writer for letting his political views come through and using the book to lecture. For me, it was the opposite.

As far as time travel adventures go, this is a so-so book and I am not sure I’ll be interested in reading the sequel when it comes out – but I might.

As far as the sequence on Trump, it made this book, and therefore, even though I would have only given it a two-star rating, I bumped it up by half a star. It will probably boost Trump’s ego when he finds out he is a character in a novel, even though not a flattering one.

Trump, the angry Cheetos demon!

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