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Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now the Jesuits want to know that happened.

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

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

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

See the entire post here for reference.

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

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

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

In der Kürze liegt die Würze.

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

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

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

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

It didn’t work.

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

 

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The Warp Clock is the fourth book in what I now call the Ben Travers Series of books. The others were:

In The Warp Clock, Ben Travers comes back with a vengeance.

After the so-so The Day After Never, which ventured into foo-foo time travel, Van Coops is back with a time travel thriller about time travel all the way.

A group of convicts and criminals has banded together in a set of remote timestreams using decommissioned time gates from the Chronothons. They are working on changing history mostly with the objective of enriching themselves, but under the pretense of making the world a better place. They are kidnapping historical figures, like Hitler and Genghis Khan, putting them into an arena a-la-Colosseum and making them fight each other for their lives, to the pleasure of the onlookers. It’s not a happy world. Ben and Mym, and their daughter Piper, are trapped in this nightmare of a world from which they can only escape through a tricky sequence of – you guessed it – time travel jumps that make your mind bend.

It’s all worth it. The book is written in the first person present tense, which gives it a rapid-fire feeling. The action drives forward from sentence to sentence, giving it a truly breathless pace.

Of course, there is also Dr. Quickly and a cameo appearance of Cowboy Bob in Montana and his housekeeper Connie. The old band is back together.

I would not recommend reading this book out of order. If you’re interested in the Ben Travers series, you really need to start with In Times Like These, where Time Travel 101 is the course and anchors are the lesson. Then work your way up. The Warp Clock, as the first book, would likely leave you confused or lost.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spoiler Alert

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Enjoy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is how the author describes to outbound trip:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough! You get the idea.

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

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

Zero Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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