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Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

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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Yuri Eden wakes up on a starship on mankind’s first voyage to another star, Proxima Centauri, four light-years away. He does not know why he is there, he does not know his destiny, but he knows he is not there by his own free will, and neither are the other 200 or so “colonists” who will be dropped off on an earth-like planet in orbit around the star.

Proxima is the story of forced colonization of an utterly alien world, and the hardships that accompany such an endeavor.

Baxter is a world-builder. He tells the story of first contact with alien life on an alien planet. But he also constructs a political system in the late 22nd century, roughly when Proxima takes place.

I enjoyed the first contact and colonization sections of the book, but I didn’t care about the distracting artificial intelligences and their political machinations, the silly political structure, and the military power structure that seems to dominate society.

It’s like he meant this to be a space opera, but there was too much material, not enough focus, coupled with shallow character building and an almost silly plot, that was distracting from what could have been a good, albeit slightly boring, story of colonization of another star system.

In the end, I enjoyed reading Proxima, but do not have any interest in reading the sequel, Ultima. I don’t care enough for the world Baxter built here, and for its characters.

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hull-zero-three

Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear is a generation ship story. What’s a generation ship, you might ask?

The stars are so far away, with the closest being four light years distant, that it’s nearly impossible to visit other stars with any technology we can imagine. If a ship could travel at a tenth of the speed of light it would take 40 years to travel to the nearest star. So to get anywhere, a ship has to be outfitted so the crew that leaves never arrives. They live their lives on the ship, they have children, and grandchildren, and grand-grandchildren who all live and die on the ship. The generation that finally eventually arrives never knew earth, never lived on a planet, and never experienced the outdoors. Just imagine you live on a ship that arrives on a new planet that you will populate now, and you know that the ship left 240 years ago – when we signed the Declaration of Independence.

There are a lot of things that can go wrong on a journey that lasts centuries.

Hull Zero Three is a story of such a generation ship. A man wakes up busting out of a pod, naked, freezing, wet, and in darkness. He does not know where he is and who he is. The environment is completely alien and very hostile. But he survives, and he slowly finds out who he might be and where he is.

Besides describing the Ship, this novel also deals with the ethical and psychological aspects of sending humans on such trips.

This is not an easy read. You have to be interested in the construction of a space ship. There is a lot of detail that would make no sense to anyone but a science fiction buff. And the generation ship aspect adds yet a different twist.

If you are interested in other generation ship stories, I have compiled a list below with my reviews.

Rating - Two Stars

Generation Ship Novels:

Aurora – by Kim Stanley Robinson

Ship of Fools – by Richard Paul Russo

Non-Stop – by Brian W. Aldiss

Orphans of the Sky – by Robert A. Heinlein

The Dark Beyond the Stars – by Frank M. Robinson

Lungfish – by John Brunner

Seed of Light – by Edmund Cooper

Tau Ceti – by Kevin J. Anderson

Ark – by Stephen Baxter

 

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a-time-before-time

This is absolutely the worst book I have ever read.

I am not sure how I even came to spend $2.99 for this book. It was listed as a science fiction and time travel novel in my Amazon feed. Once I was a couple of chapters into it, and since it was so short, I kept reading it not because it had my attention, but because it was so bad, I kept reading it just to entertain myself.

I am not sure if the author is writing in English as a second language, but he’d better be. Misspellings and grammar mistakes abound. Sometimes extra words are inserted, and other times words are missing. Nobody seems to have proofread this book, let alone edited it.

I read the entire book, and I honestly don’t know what is going on. An astronaut, who likes aviator glasses (we know this because about 5% of the book talk about his glasses) leaves on a journey. It is not clear where to and why. But he has to say good bye to his wife, who goes into cryogenic sleep while he is gone. Somehow the science goes wrong and he ends up in the 1960s somewhere in the American West, and there are some characters they interact with. The astronaut is also a gambler, and he wins some money in Las Vegas. I am telling you, it is really, really bad.

Just to give you a sense, here is the entire chapter 4, where the three astronauts wake up and discover that one of the three of them is dead. You’d think that would tragic? Check for yourself:

Chapter 4

When Liam came to, the ‘balloon’ had split, slowing the ship. He was the only one of the three that were conscious. He sent some messages back to earth. Orbits of other planets were periodically slowing the ship down. His messages were sporadic. He knew that earth would not receive them for years, now, but he sent them, anyway.

He looked up. They were headed towards a planet at full speed. It was their intended destination. The ship had been knocked off course. Liam attempted to wake up his captain. Captain Stewart woke with a start.

Keats had been thrust back in his chair too forcefully. His belt had broken. His neck had broken. He was dead.

‘Stay calm.’ The captain said. Liam was unsure of who he was talking to. ‘We’re still alive. We can make it back.’ He muttered under his breath, before calmly telling Liam some orders. He immediately obliged. The ship yawed and tilted. It was in the pull of the atmosphere, but it was enough. They orbited it and began heading back in the direction of earth.

‘Let’s sleep.’ The captain said, leaving his chair and painfully making his way back to the quarters. Liam sent one more message before following on. ‘We’re going to make it.’ The captain said before closing his pod and freezing himself.

Liam followed on. For a few years there was nothingness. It was the best he’d ever slept.

My rating scheme does not support negative numbers. If I could, I’d give this book a negative 4. But as it is, zero must suffice.

There are sequels to this book. No thank you.

Rating - Zero Stars

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rogue-one-1

The first Star Wars movie, Episode IV, came out in May 1977, almost 40 years ago now. Star Wars permeates our entire popular culture. Rogue One plays just before Episode IV starts. The rebels steal the plans for the Death Star with the help of the daughter of the chief designer. Epic space battles, laser gun battles in the jungle, and, of course, at least one light saber fight with the one and only Darth Vader. None of the original actors participated here, of course. Their story starts about five minutes after Rogue One’s credits begin to roll. Except for two: Grand Moff Tarkin, the Commander of the Death Star, and Princess Leia, both of which had to be digitally recreated, since both are now no longer alive.

A short scene featuring Princess Leia, receiving the disk with the plans for the Death Star at the very end, was digitally recreated. It was eerie, since Carrie Fisher had died just a few days before we saw this movie, yet, here she was in a very short scene, looking the 19 years old she was when she appeared in Episode IV.

One of my friends (JCV) commented that he can’t stand to watch silly science fiction movies with the stilted and inane dialog. I laughed at him. Nobody watches Star Wars for the dialog. Star Wars does not need dialog. You don’t have to listen to a word being said, and you can still enjoy Star Wars.

I love the bar or bazaar scenes where the crowd is full of grungy humans and exotic aliens, all enjoying themselves. I love the views of planets with rings, as they are seen realistically from the ground through the mist and the clouds as they seem to disintegrate in the distance. I love how small spaceships drift close to giant space ships. I love how all the ships seem to be made out of massive battle ship steel hulls, unlike the flimsy aluminum we actually use for space ships, like the shuttle or the Soyuz. And I always laugh that the fighters fly in space just like they fly in the atmosphere, banking into curves, accelerating and decelerating and completely defying all laws of orbital dynamics. Of course, after being conditioned for 40 years that space fighters behave a certain way, whether it makes any sense or not, we can’t change now, and Star Wars remains – well – Star Wars.

Rating - Three Stars

 

 

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