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Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

A young widow hires Greyson Travers, a private detective, to investigate the suicide of her husband. Since she does not believe her husband would commit suicide, she thinks it was murder, but she has no proof. Travers has a great reputation for solving crimes, so she hires him to figure out what happened.

What she does not know, of course, is that Travers is a time traveler. Rather than figuring out what might have happened, he simply goes back to the time and place of the crime and watches it happen. What could be simpler?

He quickly realizes that the crime is much more complicated than it appears, and there are other time-traveling criminals involved.  He quickly finds himself ensnared by the mob and some very dangerous characters who use time travel to commit crimes.

Greyson Travers is the son of Ben and Mym Travers of Van Coops’ In Time Like These series of books, all of which I found highly readable. It is not necessary to read those books before enjoying Time of Death. It stands alone, and the author slowly introduces the concepts of time travel of the In Times Like These universe without it getting in our faces.

I have read all of those books, and if you’re interested, here is a summary of my reviews. You can click on the titles to jump right to them.

Nathan Van Coops Agent of Time Fiction Time Travel 2 Dec 13, 2020
Nathan Van Coops The Warp Clock Fiction Time Travel 3 Oct 9, 2018
Nathan Van Coops The Day after Never Fiction Time Travel 2 Jan 2, 2017
Nathan Van Coops The Chronothon Fiction Time Travel 3 Dec 3, 2016
Nathan Van Coops In Times Like These Fiction Time Travel 3 Oct 31, 2016

Time of Death is basically a murder mystery and it deals with a heist.

There was only one issue I had with the plot. The mob figures in the story have the ability to travel in time, but they organize this weird heist to collect cash from a casino. Seriously, if I were a time traveler, it would be so much easier to get rich, without hurting anyone, without cheating anyone else. Why not go back to 1980 and buy some Apple stock? Then come back to 2022 and enjoy the fruits of that decision. Oh well, there would be no murder mystery then.

I enjoyed all of Nathan Van Coops’ books, and I rated them all between 2 and 3 stars. They are always very readable and fast-paced. Time of Death is a fairly short book and a quick, fun read.

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Jupiter’s moon Europa is widely thought to have the conditions to support life, particularly when we discovered a vast ocean of liquid water below the moon’s solid crust of ice.

When unmanned probes return data suggesting that single-celled life exists, Earth sends a mission to to Jupiter to explore. Six astronauts embark on the mission. They eventually land on Europa and conduct “moon walks.” As it happens, an alien environment hosts surprises that they cannot have expected, and things start going wrong very fast.

Europa Report is a hard science fiction story on a low budget.

The space scenes during the journey, the realistic-seeming set in the space ship (see picture above of a cockpit cam), and the various extra-vehicular activities are neat to watch. The movie is trying to remain within the realm of today’s science, with not too much fiction. And that works.

The movie is not as satisfying to watch as I expected it to be.

It gets a solid one star in my ratings.

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A crew of three astronauts takes off on a mission to Mars. Shortly after takeoff they discover there is a stowaway on the ship, somehow stuck in the life support system. After they get him out and discuss the situation, they figure out that they can’t turn around anymore (interplanetary orbital mechanics) and – this is worse – there are not enough resources (water, food and mostly air) on the ship to sustain a 4th person for the duration of the trip. There is not much in this movie that makes sense. There are some pretty interesting special effects, particularly during the EVA, which had me fascinated. But that was all.

Don’t bother.

 

 

*** Warning Spoilers ***

How did the stowaway get into the innards of the life support system? And not make a peep all the way through launch preparations and launch?

Why did they not use tethers during the EVA? Rule number 1, use tethers at all times.

Why did they not tether the canister?

Why did they not wait out the solar storm before going back for the second canister? What was the rush?

Seriously, a couple of canisters of oxygen will make a difference between four people living and dying on a two-year journey?

How were they going to land on Mars? There was no lander in sight. If there had been, they could have used the lander to return to Earth, right?

Who designs a two-year mission that has zero margin of reserve oxygen, so that one small extra canister the size of a scuba bottle, makes the difference between life and death?

Mission control was completely absent and it appears that only the commander talked to them on her headphones. Nobody else ever communicated with them.

 

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Trident’s Forge is Book 2 in Tomlinson’s series Children of a Dead Earth. Just yesterday I reviewed Book 1 here.

I wasn’t going to read the sequel, since the original book, a generation ship story, wasn’t all that exciting. However, the author roped me in with a few teaser chapters at the end of Book 1 and I read it anyway.

In Trident’s Forge, we meet the characters from The Ark again about three years after landing on the planet they call Gaia orbiting Tau Ceti. Mankind has gained a tenuous foothold. But on another continent on the planet, there is already a sentient race, they call them the Atlantians.

These aliens are slightly larger than humans, but humanoid with a head, two arms and legs, and very pliable, seemingly boneless bodies. It’s kind of strange that the author didn’t do a better job of describing how the aliens look. In my mind, they were simply big, gangly humans from the Bronze age.

Trident’s Forge is a First Contact story, albeit not one of the better ones I have read. The aliens are just like humans, with the same emotions, feelings, even reflexes. Other than looking a little different, and speaking a different language, they are just humans in costumes, and as a result, not very intriguing as aliens.

The story is another conspiracy story. Humanity has brought its worst attributes with them, including the greed of the elite class that will do anything to get rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else, including an entire sentient race. It’s a fast-moving story, quite readable, but unfortunately not very memorable.

I won’t be reading Book 3, even through I thumbed through the teaser chapters. There are too many other books on my reading shelf, and there is too little time left.

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Mankind discovers a black hole heading directly into the solar system. Humanity faces complete obliteration as a result. Using all the world’s resources, they build a massive starship to send on its way to Tau Ceti, where a habitable planet was found that should be suitable for humans. The Ark, as the ship is called, travels at about 5% the speed of light. This means it will take almost two and a half centuries to bridge the gap of 12 lightyears. The Ark is truly a generation ship. All of the 50,000 people who were chosen to leave Earth would never see their destination but live out their lives on the ship. Entire new generations will be born, live their lives, and die, never seeing their destination. Imagine living on a ship now that left Earth at about the time of the American Declaration of Independence. That would be the timeframe.

The story starts just before arrival at Tau Ceti. Bryan Benson is a retired sports hero. He now works as a detective. After a crew member goes missing, he eventually discovers that a murder has taken place. As he digs deeper, he finds that there appears to be a conspiracy involving the most powerful people on the ship that could jeopardize the entire mission and possibly annihilate the last living members of the human race, the 50,000 souls living on the Ark.

I picked up this book because I love generation ship stories. I have read and reviewed five books about generation ships in this blog (you can find the reviews by selecting “Generation Ships” in the categories dropdown.

I enjoyed the description of the ship and its technology, but had a hard time picturing it in my head. The author does not do a very good job describing things.

The Ark is actually Book 1 of a series of three books titled “Children of a Dead Earth.” I didn’t think I’d go for the second in the series, but the publishers cleverly put the first few chapters into the end of this book, and it pulled me in. See my review of Book 2 next.

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The year is 3235. Adem is a trader who has lived the majority of his life on a small starship, named Hajj. After the ruin of Earth, mankind has populated a handful of exoplanets, some more successfully than others. Starships connect the planets traveling at almost the speed of light. To go from one star to another, say a dozen lightyears away, will therefore take a bit more than the 12 years, since we must accommodate time for acceleration and deceleration. Due to the effects of relativity, while such a journey will take 12 years, from the point of view of the occupants of the ship, only a few months go by.

Adem is a young man of marriageable age. It is common for families to arrange marriages. They pick out an eligible couple on a planet, pay them handsomely to have a daughter who will eventually marry into the family. Adem picks his future bride, Hisako, before she is even conceived, let alone born. They make a deal, pay Hisako’s parents a life-changing amount of money, and Adem returns to the ship and embarks on another trading trip to one of the planets. The time spent on that trip, relative to Adem, will be less than two years. By the time he comes back, two years older, his unborn bride will have grown up, gone through school, graduated from university and be ready to join him as his 24-year-old wife.

Needless to say, complications arise.

I love stories about time dilation. Haldeman’s The Forever War is a book I read twice for that reason, as it works the effects very well into the plot. The Light Years is all about the effects of time dilation and it illustrates many fascinating concepts. However, the author is using too much magic science to make it happen. As an example, the starships in The Light Years travel at more than 99% of the speed of light. This is necessary for the plot to have the significant time dilation effects. However, he never even tries to explain how the ships accomplish that. They just do, never mind that it takes infinite energy for an object to reach lightspeed. There is also no attempt to explain where the fuel comes from to generate this energy, or how the ships protect themselves from interstellar dust.

The author tells the story from the viewpoints of the two protagonists, Adem and Hisako, in alternating chapters, each titled with the name of the character. I have seen this done before in other books and it can work well, but it didn’t do that here. Adem’s chapters were written in the third person, just from his viewpoint, while Hisako’s chapters were written in the first person, with Hisako directly telling the story. This threw me off throughout the book, and it was unnecessary. The third person worked a little better – it usually does – so I would have just changed Hisako’s chapters and the result would have been a more readable, better book.

In the end, if you are interested in time dilation, you have to read The Light Years, the non-science parts notwithstanding. We observe human life on several planets. Obviously, traders live thousands of “normal” years as they go on their journeys, and they can never come back “home” to any place, as it will have aged decades.

It’s a fun, speculative read.

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Earthbound is the third in Haldeman’s “bound” trilogy. The first two were Marsbound and Starbound, which I have recently reviewed. I gave them only two stars and one star respectively, and usually I would not read any more books of a series that I rated so poorly. But I made an exception with Earthbound, because I wanted to know what happened next.

In Marsbound, the protagonists traveled to Mars, found Martians, came back to earth orbit quarantine, discovered an alien race with seemingly godlike powers, and were attacked by these aliens.

In Starbound, a group of seven humans and two Martians were sent to the star of the aliens, 25 lightyears away, as ambassadors for the human race. They got there and came back, but not much happened otherwise.

In Earthbound, the group that came back from traveling to and from the alien star for more than 50 years, who had aged only a few years due the time distortion factor that applies at relativistic speeds, found itself stranded on a military base in California. The evil aliens had turned off everything electric in the world. It’s not explained how they did that, and it’s certainly not clear what alien reasoning has made them do that, other than they don’t like other races who can become dangerous by acquiring technology. So Earthbound is really not a science fiction story anymore, but an Armageddon tale of survival in a world that has been thrown back to the technology of the 1800s, however, with a supply of guns and ammunition available in the late 2100s.

Nothing much happened in Earthbound otherwise.

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Starbound picks up where Marsbound stopped. Humanity has decided to send a starship to Wolf 25, the home world of The Others.

The starship uses the “free energy” concept provided by The Others through the Martians to create a matter – anti-matter reaction engine. However, for that it needs reaction mass, which it obtains from a large ice asteroid. The asteroid is large enough to provide mass to travel the 25 light years to Wolf 25 and back with mass to spare. The ship accelerates at 1g all the way to the half-way point, at which time it will have reached more than 90% of the speed of light, when it turns around and then decelerates for the second half of the trip. Due to the relativistic speed, the crew will only age 6 years during the more than 25-year journey.

They should be able to meet The Others, and come back, all over the course of a little more than 12 years in their own lives, while more than 50 years will have passed on Earth.

Along the way, unexpected events change their plans and the “meeting” with The Others is not quite what they expected.

While the premise is exciting, and the first journey of a crewed trip to another star could be exciting, the author does not take advantage of the opportunity. There are conceptual problems with the plot, and the story-telling is stilted.

There are some concepts that just don’t make sense. For instance, the ship accelerates at 1g for half the trip. However, anyone studying relativity and doing the pretty simple math will realize that, from Earth’s frame of reference, if you’re accelerating at a constant rate of 1g, then you would reach near the speed of light in about one year. Why keep accelerating after that, particularly when there is a significant plot point about the Martians really suffering in the 1g Earth-standard gravity. They could have turned the engine off after one year, and they would arrive only very marginally later, after turning the engine on for braking again one year out. The whole thing just didn’t add up.

Another massive plot hole is that the entire premise is that the limit of the speed of light affects all races, including The Others. They can’t travel any faster than anyone else. However, somehow they are able to cause terrible destruction to humanity seemingly instantaneously, as the plot of the story will tell.

Yes, you may say this is science fiction, and the author has to right to make up the technology. But this does not work if on one side the author goes to great lengths building a world around the limitations and effects of general relativity, but on the other hand seems to break those rules in deus ex machina fashion all throughout the plot.

Finally, let’s talk about the crew. Humanity sends seven humans and two Martians as the world’s ambassadors to another star to meet a known very hostile race. Leaving the two Martians alone, the human crew consists of two married couples. The first are Carmen Dula and Paul Collier of Marsbound. The other are Meryl and Moonboy, the two xenologists of Marsbound. Then apparently to make things interesting, they add a triad (marriage of three) with two male “spies” and their mutual wife, Elza, who is a medical doctor who also happens to be a nymphomaniac. This causes all sorts of friction as she sleeps her way through the crew within the first few weeks. Why in the world would humanity set up a team of star travelers who would be cooped up in a spaceship tin-can for 12 years and not make sure there will be sexual stability for the journey? I assume it’s for plot purposes, so there is plenty of sex sprinkled into the story. I might add that the sex really does not work in this story.

The author also applies a strange concept of using three different narrators, switching between chapters. One is Carmen, the other in Namir, one of the spies, and the third is Fly-in-Amber, one of the Martians. I don’t see why that was necessary, as it didn’t add anything to the story as far as I could tell. But it was confusing, since I had to figure out who was talking every time a new chapter started with the protagonist speaking in the first person. He could have put the name of the narrator into the chapter title and made it a little more straightforward.

Starbound is a tale with a lot of possibilities, but those are completely wasted. Haldeman is a good story teller, and I enjoy his novels, but this one is just too poorly crafted and constructed, with a far-fetched a plot that I simply was not able to buy into.

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It’s late 21st century on Earth. There is now a space elevator in the Pacific off the Galapagos Islands that allows humans to reach space in a two-week elevator ride, rather than a 12-minute rocket blast. There is a Hilton hotel midway in the balance point of the elevator.

Carmen Dula is a 19-year-old girl traveling to Mars with her family as part of a group of scientist colonists, adding to the 100 or so people already living on Mars.

The story tells about the ride on the space elevator in great detail and much more elaborately than I have read in any other science fiction story. The reader will understand space elevators after this. Then it tells of the months long journey on a spaceship to Mars, the landing there, and the integration of the new colonists with the existing people there.

Carmen is not necessarily an obedient young woman. One night she defies all colony rules, as well as all common sense, and leaves the station in a spacesuit all alone, telling nobody where she went. Sure enough, she has an accident many kilometers away from the base, and believes she is about to die – when she gets rescued – by Martians.

At this point, the story took a completely different turn from what I expected, having read The Martian by Andy Weir recently. Weir stays with current technology in his book and does not venture into a speculative technological future. Haldeman stretches things here.

Moderate Spoiler Below

As it turns out, the Martians in this book are a race artificially created by “The Others” to keep an eye on humanity. Some 30,000 years ago, The Others visited the solar system, found early human hunter gatherers and decided that they could easily evolve into a space-traveling race. They put an outpost on Mars to monitor Earth, which took no effort at all for 30,000 years, until the humans started broadcasting in the early 20th century. Then they got busy and started learning human culture and languages simply from humanity’s broadcasts.

The Others are a highly advanced race which lives in a silicon-based environment embedded in liquid nitrogen. Their metabolism is more than a 100 times slower than that of humans, so there is no way for them to communicate with humans directly. However, they have created artificial sentinels that can translate between the thoughts of the others and humans.

The humans aren’t doing too well – being a bellicose race and never trusting others, and within just a few years of learning of The Others humanity does one stupid thing after another to stoke the ire of The Others.

Then they strike.

End of Spoiler

Haldeman likes to tell near-future stories with space travel and relativistic concepts interwoven, and that makes for an interesting read, albeit a far-fetched one. With the story being told by an immature girl at least for the first half of the book, it feels a bit  juvenile at times, and there is a little bit more sex in the story than is necessary to make it succeed. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it and the concepts described, particularly the experience of the space elevator.

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A man wakes up from a coma. He can’t remember who he is, where he is, and why he is there. He is tended to by a robot. He has a scientific mind, and he gradually figures out he must be in a spaceship, since the gravity is 1.5 g, which he determined by timing dropped objects. He is alone. The two companions with him on the ship are long dead and mummified. He figures out he was in an induced coma, probably to escape the boredom of a long journey.

But it gets much worse. After some observations of the stars around him, and the sun, he realizes that the sun is actually not the sun but some other star. Now he knows he is in trouble. The nearest star to the solar system is more than 4 lightyears away, so it must have taken decades to get to where he is. Decades alone in a spaceship.

Gradually, as his memory returns bit by bit, vignette by vignette of flashbacks, he learns his name is Ryland Grace, and he is a scientist sent on a one-way mission to investigate a solution to an existential problem at home: The sun is being drained of energy and the earth is rapidly cooling, Not only does he have to somehow survive alone, lightyears from home, his mission is actually to find a solution to save humanity and transmit his results back via high speed probes. It’s an impossible situation.

Andy Weir, who burst into the science fiction world with his first novel The Martian (which I reviewed here) has done it again. Project Hail Mary is one of the best and most satisfying science fiction stories I have ever read. Andy Weir’s stories play in today’s world, or in the very near future, perhaps just a few years off. All the technology in his stories is our technology today. There is Google and Facebook, there are laptops and iPhones. In near-earth orbit there is the good ol’ ISS. That’s the stuff Andy Weir’s science fiction is made of. He writes as the narrator in the present tense, which gives the story a feeling of rapid action.

Project Hail Mary is a page-turner that kept me riveted to the very end. It gets a solid four stars.

 

 

*** Spoiler Alert ***

I recommend that you do not read beyond this point if you intend to read the book. You should read it first, and then come back here to find out some of the reasons why I think this is one of the best science fiction stories ever, and I’ll also talk about some of the plot holes or flaws of the story (there aren’t many).

By astronomical observations and triangulations he figures out he is at the star Tau Ceti, which is about 12 lightyears from earth. Tau Ceti turns out to be the only star in the local stellar neighborhood that is not afflicted by the energy loss that the sun experiences. All other stars are also dimming. But here it gets interesting. An alien space ship approaches him and starts interacting with him. On board is an alien that is the most interesting, in my opinion realistic and credible alien life. My bone to pick with alien stories is that the aliens are too humanoid, usually about the size of a human, and suited to be in the same atmosphere. This alien comes from a planet in the 40 Eridani star system, which is 16.5 light years from earth. Grace calls them Eridians. The aliens resemble large spiders, the size of a medium-sized dog, with a carapace of about 18 inches in diameter and about 10 inches high. It has five arms, each with “hands” that have three opposing claws. They use the arms or legs interchangeably. They have no eyes and no sense of vision, since their planet is pitch black due to a very thick atmosphere of ammonia. The pressure on their planet is 29 times that of earth. It would crush a human instantly. Their body temperature is 210 degrees Celsius or over 400 degrees Fahrenheit, so extremely hot. Imagine a creature that lives in 29 atmospheres of pressure with a body temperature of twice the boiling point of water, that breathes pure ammonia. There is no way such a creature would be able to survive a minutes in our world. And likewise, we’d burn up within seconds on theirs, and be crushed by the pressure and gravity.

The aliens have no vision, and all communication is via sound and echolocation, similar to whales. When Grace meets the alien, they quickly establish a way to communicate and learn each other’s languages. Over weeks, they build a sufficient mutual vocabulary to actually communicate productively. That done, they get to work on solving the existential problems of both their home worlds.

Some of the problems I had:

The Eridians do not know about radiation. They have no vision. There is no light on the surface of their planet. So how did they ever develop astronomy and space travel?

The technology of the Eridians is described as equivilent to that of earth in the 1950s. They have not yet invented the semiconductor or even the transistor and as a result they don’t have computers. However, their materials science is amazing and they can build just about anything from a simple raw material which is stronger than anything humans can build. They have robots. How can you have robots if you don’t have electronic processors?

There is one short episode back on earth where two brilliant scientists hook up and have a sexual relationship. It’s just a few pages of description, it’s pretty awkward and unrealistic, and it has nothing at all to do with the plot. Weir should have just left that part out.

Then there is the way Weir ended up on the mission. That was too dramatic and unrealistic, and he could have written the story without that twist and it would have been more credible. Yes, the amnesia he initially experienced after waking up would not be there, but so what. The story would have worked just as well.

But that’s all I could find that I had issues with. I like the science in this story, and the plot holes I described above are minor enough that I can accept them.

The description and depiction of the alien, however, is superb. The Eridians are the most realistic, credible, exotic and yet totally plausible aliens I have ever read about.

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The only other Brunner story I ever read was Lungfish, and here is my review.

Brunner wrote A Maze of Stars in 1991.

Somewhere, sometime in the distant future, humanity has left its birth world, Earth, and developed a starship with a mission of seeding new planets with humanity. After initial robotic missions, “the Ship” takes a load of humans and seeds about 600 planets in “the arm of stars” or just called “the Arm.”

There are about six hundred thousand stars visited by man, and sixty thousand have planets hospitable to life, six thousand have developed life and six hundred have been seeded with humanity. Only about 60 of those are fairly successful, and most of them are in some state of devolution.

The Ship is artificially intelligent and has become sentient. It’s been about 500 years since the planets were seeded, and the ship is on an endless loop, visiting the planets clandestinely and observing the outcome. The only problem is, the ship’s jumps through hyperspace, called tachyonic space in this book, result in various jumps in time in addition to space. The ship can’t control the time jumps. So it sometimes “remembers” the future of a planet it is visiting, because it has been there “before” which was far in the future.

Are you confused yet? I certainly was.

A Maze of Stars has a solid and interesting premise, basically observing what happens to humanity in adverse conditions, left to its own devices. Each planet is different. The ship visits the planets undetected, and it has this amazing technology that it can project itself as a realistic human being on the planet itself and interact with the people. It can also “remote view” scenes on the planet and be an observer. Finally, it can show such remote viewings to its passengers, sort of like an immersion movie.

One interesting premise is that most of the planets are hyper-concerned about germs, diseases and viruses that might come from other planets that they have no defense against. Much of the inter-planet trade or exchange is therefore blocked by the various planets, and interaction is severely minimized.

All of this sounds very interesting, but Brunner has made it completely boring and a real slog to read. Nothing happens. The ship simply visits one planet with a weird name after another. We observe pointless vignettes of action by cardboard characters that appear in one chapter only to completely disappear in the next. There is no story, there is no plot, there is no common thread, there is no suspense. And when there is an opportunity to make it interesting, Brunner misses it. For instance, he describes weird mutations but does not “describe” them leaving the reader helpless. He mentions exotic extraterrestrial animals, but does not even attempt to describe what they actually look like. And there are no sentient aliens in this story, even among 600 seeded planets – not one intelligent alien culture that has productively interacted with humanity.

A Maze of Stars is full of interesting concepts, each worth a book of its own, but none of them explored in any detail. The printed edition of the book was 393 pages long. I read the Kindle digital version, and it seemed like two volumes of War and Peace back to back – endless. It slowed down my reading and made me thirst for novels that actually have some plot, some story that keeps turning the pages.

 

 

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

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

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

Earth has to move fast to prepare for this threat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

In Times Like These

The Chronothon

The Day After Never

The Warp Clock

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

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

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

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

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

 

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