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Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

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 than 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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camelot_30k_cover

Camelot 30K is about humans encountering alien life for the first time.

In 2009, humanity discovers a signal from a planetoid way beyond the orbit of Neptune, about 35 astronomical units out in the Kuiper belt. It then takes another two decades to develop and deploy a catapult system capable to send human explorers to the planetoid they have named Ice. During the time of preparation, humans develop a method of translation between the two languages. When the first six explorers arrive on Ice, they find a world very different from Earth. First, the ambient temperature is 30° Kelvin, or about minus 240° Celsius. Forward is a physicist, and he uses a set of low-temperature chemistry to establish the unique life forms that could live in that environment. The aliens are called keracks. They are very small, just a few centimeters long, have 10 legs and are shrimp-like in appearance. They have a thorax and an abdomen, a single large eye globe on their heads, antennas for radio communications, and a large war claw for fighting.

Humans have a body temperature of 37°C. To keracks, who have a body temperature of about minus 200°C, humans are first huge (since the keracks are the size of shrimp) and second glowing hot, so hot, that there is no way of the two species actually having any physical contact without destruction to both organisms. To mitigate that, robotics experts have developed micro robots in the shape of keracks, which are controlled by humans from immersion pods. Think about the pods used by the humans in the movie Avatar. They brought two of those robots along, so working in shifts, the six human explorers keep controlling the robots from their base about 30 kilometers away from the kerack city they are exploring.

As the humans get to know the keracks better and better, they keep finding out more about their mysterious body chemistry, and their culture, until they finally realize the danger they are in.

This hard science fiction book by Robert Forward came out in 1993, before the Internet, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it projects a few decades into the future from its point of view, which, of course, for me reading it in 2016, is already in the past. 2009, when Camelot 30K starts, is some 15 years in Robert Forward’s future. Then most of the action plays around 2030 when humanity finally reaches Ice.

There are a few cute “predict the future technology twists” in this book. For instance, the humans bring along a “Lookman,” which is a tablet-like computer with a video screen that they can interact with by touching the screen. On the Lookman they have manuals, books, references, encyclopedia and the like. Basically Forward is describing the iPad which of course did not exist even in concept in 1993, but there was the Sony Walkman that we all know which came out in the late 1970s, a gadget Forward would have known and has obviously used to derive his concept for the Lookman.

The fascinating hard science fiction speculations by Robert Forward notwithstanding, I found Camelot 30K a very boring book. Nothing much happens beyond hard science speculation. If you are a physicist or chemist with an interest in science fiction, great. But for me, an average reader, there was not enough going on in the story to keep me satisfied. I also found it hokey that the kerack culture was oddly reminiscent of England in the age of the knights. The agrarian feudalism, the King Arthur-like battles, including jousting, not by horses and knights, but by kerack (shrimp) warriors on top of their heullers (large caterpillar-like creatures they domesticate and ride in battle and for transportation in general). The parallels between European culture 500 years ago and an alien culture based on chemistry at minus 200°C  on a planetoid in the Kuiper belt seemed just too unlikely for me to just accept and move on.

Keracks are humans in shrimp bodies with human problems and human troubles to solve.

In contrast, I loved Robert Forward’s book Dragon’s Egg. I should read that again and review. But then, I think I no longer have the hardcopy after my latest purge of my books. Oh well.

Rating - One and a Half Stars

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arrival

 
Twelve giant mysterious alien space craft the shape of avocado halves land in different areas of the globe. Mankind, as you would expect, goes crazy and in the frenzy escalates itself to the edge of global war. The American landing takes place in Montana. American Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) is in charge of the makeshift tent army base at the ship. Since communications with the aliens is crucial, he recruits Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a renowned linguist, and Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a world-famous physicist, as the team leaders in their fields. Backed by a team of military specialists, they enter the vessel. They learn quickly that physics as we know it does not hold true. For instance, as soon as they are inside the ship and make contact with its surface, artificial gravity allows them to walk up vertical walls.

And then they meet the aliens.

This is my kind of movie. When it was advertised at 100% on the Tomatometer, we went to see it on opening night. It has meanwhile been downgraded to 93%.

There are a lot of things about this movie that I liked, and a few things that I want to criticize.

I loved the soundtrack. It is a perfect match for the movie and its ambiance. I also loved the fact that the aliens are not little green men, or greys, or humanoids at all. The aliens are very, very different from us, which is what I would expect aliens to be like. I also enjoyed that the movie’s central plot relates to the relativity of time, something I am also inherently interested in. It portrays those concepts well and effectively by using them as central drivers of the story.

Here is what I had trouble with, and it’s also related to the central plot of the movie: Communications with aliens. I have written much about alien linguistics over the years. One review titled  Dolphins, Myths & Transformation – by Ryan DeMares is an example.

The fact is: We have aliens right here on our planet: dolphins. They are as intelligent was humans are, as far as we can tell, they have language, and our genomes are basically the same. We have lived with dolphins around us since antiquity. Roman writers talk about dolphins: the Latin word delphinus is the origin of our word for dolphins. And yet, in all these centuries of trying, and in recent decades with powerful computer technology, including the application of neural networks, we have not yet broken the code. We cannot even communicate with dolphins in a rudimentary way. We don’t understand them, and they don’t understand us. We don’t have a dolphin dictionary yet – even though there are many teams working on one now.

Yet, Louise Banks, in a few weeks, figures out a dictionary of rudimentary terms and even a sentence structure that allows her to communicate with the aliens. Their written language is not based on symbols like ours, but concepts projected in inkblot-type rings that are seemingly formed out of an ink-like material. You can see some of the alien “sentences” in the picture at the top of this post, represented by the circular structures pasted on the wall behind Ian and Louise. Not only do the Americans figure out the language, but the Russians, Chinese and a few other countries independently do also. And all of them, within a short time, come to the conclusion that the aliens mean us harm because they’re talking about “weapons.” How the humans figured out a translation between an alien ink cloud and the word weapon, among many other words, is not explained.

The central plot about Arrival is how we communicate, and how our communications affects our lives – and times. Perhaps I know too much about the subject, and therefore it didn’t seem real and believable to me. Perhaps I am overly critical. It just didn’t work.

However, if you simply accept that we’re going to be able to communicate with aliens, while everything else about them remains completely and utterly mysterious – ahem – alien, then you might enjoy this film very much.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

 

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in-times-like-these

The best time travel book of all time is Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. This book is the second best.

Ben, Carson, Blake and Robbie are four young men in their mid-twenties in St. Petersburg, Florida who belong to a softball league and enjoy their games after work. Francesca is one of their friends who likes to play the role of fan and sometimes she comes to the games to watch. On June 10, 2009, they start their game as a thunderstorm rolls in. Soon they get rained out completely. As they linger around the dugout, changing out of their uniforms, getting ready to go home, lightning strikes nearby. A power line whips free with sparks flying off the end. The world of the five friends goes dark.

When they come to a bit later, the world seems different. It’s mid-day. Were they passed out all night? Then they notice that the baseball field is no longer there. Their cars are gone. Everything seems somewhat retro. Within an hour of head scratching and ambling around they finally come to the conclusion that they are in St. Petersburg, Florida, in December 1986. They have the few clothes on their backs, flip flops, no money to speak of. Their cell phones don’t work. Now what?

They have no idea what happened to them, and the rest of the story is about their journey back through time.

The story is told in first person narration by Ben and from Ben’s point of view. First person stories often drive a sense of urgency and action, which works marvelously here. The descriptions are vivid and I have pictures of the scenes and people in front of me. The story is fast-paced and filled with action. And it’s all about time travel. This is not a book where time travel is just another method of getting around, like tracking a trolley to the city, or an airplane to Tokyo, or a time machine to 1955. No, this story does not just “use” time travel, it is about time travel. The mechanics of time travel, its limitations, its amazing possibilities, are central to the plot and the story line, very much like it was with The Time Traveler’s Wife. In Times Like These is not a story that applies time travel as a vehicle, but rather it’s time travel that reveals itself by telling a story.

As it is with time travel books, the methods of travel, the triggers, are always different. Sometimes there are machines that make it possible. Sometimes there are natural phenomena that accidentally cause travel. In Times Like These it is science that makes it possible, with limitations. And the limitations are what makes it complicated and very, very dangerous.

For instance, when you travel in time (and I’ll leave it up to you to read about how this can happen), you disappear from the current location and materialize elsewhere, and elsewhen. Since the earth rotates faster than a jet plane, if you were to jump in time by a second into the future, the earth would have moved under you by about a third of a mile. So, you can’t just time travel, you have to space travel also. Since you can’t afford to rematerialize in outer space after a time jump, since the earth moved away from you, you need an anchor, some object that fixes you in place on earth. And that gets tricky. What if you materialize where some other object occupies the space? You would be fused with that other object.

Imagine you materialize in a meadow where there was tall grass. Now the grass would be growing through your feet? It would be very painful indeed.

I don’t want to get too technical in this review, but this is what the book is about. How does a person travel in time safely with these terrible limitations?

There is only one technicality that bothered me somewhat, and it permeates the story. They make extra sure that fusion does not happen. Humans do not suddenly occupy the space of other objects. But air does not seem to matter. The entire technical plot and plausibility seems to ignore the fact that air also is matter, and it needs to take up space. We’re not in a vacuum, even when we’re not co-occupying space with furniture, or buildings, or other people.

But that’s ok. I got over that quickly, immersed myself in a world where time travel was invented, and I thoroughly enjoyed the sheer adventure of it.

There is a sequel, titled The Chronothon, and I am reading it now.

Rating - Three Stars

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time-scouts

Tales of the Time Scouts is time travel story with a great premise. It is also the first of a series of four books.

Due to a scientific accident, time gates have developed all over the world. People walking through these gates end up in different places at different times. The stable gates reappear at predictable intervals, sort of like the Old Faithful geyser. But the intervals are not initially obvious, and the destinations of gates must be explored. To make it worse, gates sometimes are unstable. Walking  through an unstable gate can, of course, be fatal, or fateful. It could be a one-way ticket and you could  be stuck in a dinosaur world with nothing but your pocket knife.

Time Scouts are individuals whose job it is to explore the gates, and document their specifics. A stable gate can then be used for research, trade, and time tourism. It’s possible, with the help of Time Guides, to visit ancient Rome, for instance.

The time portals are like transit stations, you can think of them as train stations or airports, except the departures are going into times, not places.

I have serious issues with the credibility of the main characters. One is Kit Carson, the most famous time scout of all, who is now retired, working as a hotel keeper at Time Terminal 86. From the description and behavior, I have formed a picture of Sam Elliott in my mind for Kit Carson. Margo, a girl barely 18 years old, desperately wants to be the world’s first female time scout. Females have never been used as time scouts, because in almost all societies in the past, in almost all eras, females were at best second-class citizens, and often abused, enslaved and worse. It’s not considered healthy for a female to show up in ancient Egypt, for instance, come up with a credible story and actually survive to return when the gate opens again.

For that reason, nobody is willing to train Margo. Everyone thinks it’s a suicide mission. She vehemently insists on fulfilling this goal. However, she constantly does stupid stuff. When she has to work at learning self-defense, she mopes.  When math is involved, she complains. When book learning comes up, she rebels.  Her behavior just makes no sense. If she were really dedicated to success, after she convinced the most renowned person in the business to train her, why would she keep bickering and sabotaging her own training?

Her juvenile behavior and her inconsistent character traits make for a jarring story line. I found myself constantly annoyed by Margo’s immaturity and stupidity, to the point where I lost interest.

Why the authors chose a hot-looking 18-year-old girl as protagonist for this story I do not understand. The story, the premise, is very promising and thought-provoking. Margo’s character destroys it.

I gave up at about 15% into the book. Perhaps Margo’s role gets better as the story goes on, I’ll never know, and I won’t be reading the sequels.

Not star-rated because I didn’t finish reading the book.

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