Book Review: Time Traders – by Andre Norton

Time Traders

Time Traders is  really two books in one. The first half is Time Traders. The other half is Galactic Derelict. The book could have stopped after the first half, and Galactic Derelict could have been a sequel. With the exception of one, the protagonists are the same. A group of agents who time travel for the U.S. government, chasing Russian time travelers who are on to some alien technology that they think will give them an advantage in the game for balance of power in the world.

I had never heard of Andre Norton when I discovered this book by accident on an Amazon search. It cost $0, so it was not a difficult buy. Andre is actually quite a good writer, and she wrote a lot of fantasy and then later science fiction books.

In Time Traders, she packed too much stuff into one book: Time travel, alternate history, by traveling into the past of human civilization, international intrigue (the Russians vs. the United States – of course, this is copyright 1959, so that makes sense), interstellar travel, aliens of all types, most significantly humanoids, mystery weapons, computer and robot controlled machinery (using tapes), hyperspace travel, and on the list goes. In the end, nothing really gets resolved.

I felt like the author had a tool chest of neat stuff available in 1959, and she wanted it all packed into one book. That made the story disconnected, choppy and somewhat hokey. Then I found there a sequel, but I am not interested.

Norton is a good writer, but her subject matter is just not interesting enough to me. No more Andre Norton.

Rating - One and a Half Stars

Book Review: World Without Stars – by Poul Anderson

World Without Stars

In the distant future, when starships are commonplace and can jump to any place in space instantaneously, and humans are virtually immortal, a starship captain takes a trip into intergalactic space. He wants to be the first to take up trading with an alien race that originated on a planet orbiting a red dwarf star 230,000 light-years away from our galaxy.

But the jump goes wrong and the ship crash-lands on another planet around that star. To have any chance to make it off the planet, they have to cooperate with the local intelligent races.

There are no stars in the sky in intergalactic space. The Milky Way, 230,000 light years distant, spans about 20 degrees in the sky and is considered a ‘god’ by the locals.

But as expected, communicating with aliens isn’t as simple as it sounds, and much can go wrong.

World Without Stars has thought-provoking concepts, like instantaneous starship travel – well almost instantaneous. The ship has to match relative velocities with the target area, generally a solar system. The velocities can be significant percentages of light speed, so attaining them takes time and energy.

Anderson, however, does not deal with the concept of relativistic space travel in this book. Rather, a good half of the story deals with esoteric and anthropomorphic concepts related to alien races, their own rivalries and their views of outsiders. In other words: alien politics. If found the intrigues boring very quickly. Yes, they were supposedly aliens, but reading the stuff seemed like we were dealing with Neolithic humans and their petty squabbles with each other. I ended up skimming over many chapters. I don’t think I missed anything.

I wanted to find out how they would eventually get off the forsaken planet. Unfortunately, a deus ex machina came and bailed them out, and then the book was over.

Not Anderson’s best, not at all.

Rating - One and a Half Stars

Movie Review: Interstellar

InterstellarCooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a reluctant farmer and former pilot and engineer somewhere in the Midwest, maybe Iowa. The Earth is breathing its last breaths and everyone knows that within another generation or two, it won’t be habitable anymore.

His precocious and science-minded 10-year-old daughter, Murph, thinks there is a ghost in her room and on her bookshelves. One day, during a dust storm, she detects binary patters in the sand that collected on the floor in her room. When they figure out the patterns are GPS coordinates, they get in the truck for a trip.

What they find at the end of that road trip is something neither of them could have possibly expected. It would soon changes both of their lives drastically.

It is my self-imposed policy not to write reviews that spoil the movie, and in this case, I find that a very difficult task. So I’ll stop right here talking about the plot or the story, but rather tell you what was in it for me – and what may not be in it for many other viewers.

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, Interstellar is a huge science fiction epic with all the components that I love about science fiction. The problem with this film, if that actually is a problem, is that the viewer needs to have a solid background in a number of science fiction and science concepts to be able to understand the plot. The plot depends on those concepts. Viewers without that experience and knowledge would likely be lost and would not put the story together.

Be that as it may, for me, it was like Christmas of Science Fiction. It was all there.

Four and five dimensional spaces, tesseracts, and the phenomena a traveler along those dimensions might experience are central to the plot. A being that is able to travel in the fifth dimension, assuming time is the forth, can roll time back and forth at will. Some of that happens in this movie.

I loved the realistic feeling of the interstellar space ship Endurance. The ship is basically a wheel that rotates at a speed of 5.6 times a minute to create an approximately earth-like gravity for the crew.

[credit: Karl Tate, Infographics Artist]
At one point, there is an explosion on the ship and it starts spinning wildly out of control while nobody is on board. The crew is in a lander and their only chance of survival is to approach the spinning ship and match its rotation exactly, making the lander effectively spin like a top, while it slowly approaches the docking pad. I loved that scene. Matching velocities and rotations of independently spinning objects in space in one of my favorite space travel concepts. I can’t get enough of them.

Then there was time dilation. The Endurance had a crew of four. One stayed behind on the ship, while the other three went down to a planet in one of the landers. As it turns out, the planet was really close to a black hole, where gravity, time and space are sharply curved, causing the experience of time to change. One hour on the surface of the planet is equal to seven years on earth. If such a space traveler has any interest in coming home and seeing his family again, he can’t spend more than a few hours on that planet, lest they all be dead and gone. When they landed, things didn’t quite go right and they were delayed. When they eventually got back to the ship, their crew mate waiting for them for the few hours they were gone had aged 23 years.

There was Cooper Station, a huge generation ship, basically a spinning cylinder with human habitats inside of it, reminiscent of the Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama spacecraft.

There were a few hokey concepts too. For instance, the thought that we could ruin our own Earth in just a few decades from now so badly that an alien planet in another galaxy might be a better option seems very farfetched. But I could live with that.

I got a kick out of the ship’s robot, Interstellar‘s own version of R2D2, except really weird, too large and like a metal slab or a smart gravestone, that had me chuckle a few times.

And the music, the sound track, is superb: Hans Zimmer the greatest in the music business today. He gives another brilliant use of music to accentuate the drama.

Overall, watching Interstellar for me was just a lot of fun, one scene after the other. Science fiction came to life here, just like it should.

Rating: **** (out of four) – science fiction doesn’t get any better than that – and don’t go if you’re not into that stuff. You won’t “get it.”


If you want to understand the various timelines, storylines, and general movie concepts, click on this link. It does an excellent job filling in the blanks if you watched the movie but didn’t get one thing or another.

Book Review: The Dark Beyond the Stars – by Frank M. Robinson

Dark Beyond the StarsThe Astron is a starship sent by the governments of Earth with a mission to find other life, and hopefully intelligence, in the universe. The ship is about 500 meters long with habitat for a crew of 900 people in three main cylinders, each holding life support, educational facilities, habitats, hydroponics, and anything else a crew might need that leaves the earth knowing they themselves won’t come back. When the ship leaves, it’s the shining result of human technology. Gleaming bulkheads, stainless steel fixtures, chrome embellishments, artificial reality  enhancements, libraries, gymnasiums, and of course a full complement of scientific equipment. Since the mission is to discover life, they carry a huge hanger with landers, rovers, space suits and  ny equipment they might need to explore planets.

The story starts about 2,000 years after the ship has left the Earth. Over 100 generations have lived and died. Imagine being born in a world that is a spaceship that has been traveling for 2,000 years, with all knowledge of 100 generations of ancestors living their entire lives on the ship. After 2,000 years, the Astron is no longer a gleaming beacon of high technology. It’s bulkheads are rusted and caked with dirt. Dust and grime covers all surfaces. The smell of oil and human sweat permeates the air. Two of the three habitat cylinders have been abandoned for more than a thousand years, cannibalized and shut off. The crew is only about 300 people. Resources are scarce. When something breaks, they have to resort to cannibalizing something else to try to fix it.  Equipment no longer functions, spacesuits fall apart during missions, tethers break. They have visited 1,500 planets and have not found as much as even microscopic signs of life.

The captain, obsessed with the mission, wants to break out of the current sidearm of the Milky Way, the one our Earth is part of, and fly across The Dark Beyond the Stars to another arm where he expects that older stars in more dense fields give a better chance for finding life. However, it may take another 3,000 years to cross the Dark before they can explore again, another 150 generations of humans have to live and die only for the journey. Can the Astron even sustain such a trip? The current generation seems to have lost the will for the mission, and mutiny is in the stale air.

Published in 1991, the author only knew about the calculations of the odds of other life in the universe that were prevalent then, mostly based on the famous Drake Equation. He did not benefit from current planet findings in 2013, where astronomers are coming to the conclusion that planets are abundant in the universe and we are finding exoplanets at the rate of several a day. Written today, this novel would have to have a somewhat different premise, but it works with the 1991 angle.

The first 90% of the novel moved a little too slowly for me. The author does not spend much time on hard science fiction. The Astron moves at relativistic speeds between stars, but he never seems to consider acceleration and deceleration. Other than when exercising in a rotating gymnasium, the crew lives in free fall all the time. This would defy the concept of acceleration and deceleration when approaching planetary systems. While the author told of endless and somewhat repetitious crew politics for hundreds of pages, I would have liked more detail about the Astron, and more description of the scientific concepts applied. My anticipated rating of the book was therefore going to be mediocre.

Then plot twists in the last 10% of the book stepped up the action and inspired my imagination, and after I could not put the book down for the last 30 or so pages, I can’t help but increase my rating by half a star.

I love generation ship stories. It’s one of my favorite sub-genre of science fiction. This book is a generation ship story through and through.

Rating: ** 1/2

Movie Review: Gravity


Newton’s laws of motion:

  • First law: When viewed in an inertial reference frame, an object either is at rest or moves at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force.
  • Second law: The acceleration of a body is directly proportional to, and in the same direction as, the net force acting on the body, and inversely proportional to its mass. Thus, F = ma, where F is the net force acting on the object, m is the mass of the object and a is the acceleration of the object.
  • Third law: When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction to that of the first body.

Gravity is the most realistic movie about space and space travel ever. All the romantic notions of smooth flight, with astronauts just hopping outside ships to fix this or that, are thrown out. Remember the movie Armageddon, where Bruce Willis flies his shuttle in space like a commercial jetliner, banking when it makes curves? Utter nonsense. Space has no air, so there is no sound, other than that of your own breathing, your own heartbeat, or the amplified vibrations of bodies you are attached to or are holding on to.

Gravity was directed by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mamá También and the Harry Potter series). The two only actors are Oscar winners Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer on her first shuttle mission. The shuttle has docked to the Hubble Space Telescope for a repair mission conducted mostly by Stone. Veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) is testing a jet pack by flying it in circles around the shuttle and the Hubble, jovially chatting while doing space acrobatics.

Everything is going well and according to plan, until mission control announces that the Russians blew up one of their own satellites, causing a cloud of space debris. Nothing to worry about. Until disaster strikes. Suddenly the two humans inside their space suits find themselves utterly alone.

Being a space nut and science fiction fan, I enjoyed every second of this one hour and 31 minute movie. Seeing the immensity of space as the shuttle drifts upside down 600 kilometers above the earth, nothing but a tiny spec in the vastness of space. There is no up and down in space. At one point I spotted the constellation or Orion behind and below Kowalski, as he floated upside down.

If a body without a propulsion system is untethered and has momentum away from the station, there is no way to get back. If a body tumbles, there is no way to stop the tumbling. The surrounding just endlessly spins around the body. If one body approaches another body at a reasonable velocity, the momentum can be huge and the impact can be extremely violent. Two bodies tethered to each other just make the tether snap constantly, jarring both. And if the two tethered bodies spin about each other, there is nothing to stop that either, until the tether snags on something else.

I enjoyed seeing how small an astronaut is outside the International Space Station, a three-dimensional construct the size of the inside of a football stadium. Whenever the astronauts move about, their bodies keep spinning from their own mass and momentum, and every grab for a handhold is critical and every spin or slip can be fatal, either by missing and drifting away, or by puncturing a suit or helmet.

Understanding physics and the basic concepts of orbital dynamics, I loved seeing the reality of space travel unfold realistically in front of me. Anyone who does not understand those concepts, or is not as informed about the current state of space technology, might miss some of the details, but will still enjoy this cliffhanger.

I think I need to go and see this again, this time for the imagery alone.

Rating: ****

Spoiler Alert

Read only after seeing the movie!

This movie quenched my hunger for realistic portrayal of space travel with the current state of technology. But there were a number of things necessary for a realistic plot that didn’t make much sense. These didn’t distract me enough from the movie to get in the way, but I can’t help but mention them here.

The fact that the Russians for some reason blew up one of their own communications satellite seemed odd. At first it was in an orbit that would not harm the space shuttle at 600 kilometer altitude, docked to the Hubble Space Telescope. But then all of a sudden, they announced that all communications satellites were wiped out and that a debris field was approaching the shuttle. Obviously, the debris field must have been at the same orbital plane, but crossing the orbit of the shuttle/Hubble somehow.

Then, after disaster had hit, the solution was for the tethered survivors to hop over to the International Space Station, which was just a few miles away, visible as a bright spot in the neighborhood. Obviously, this implies that the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope are in identical, matched orbits within a few miles from each other, close enough for two tethered astronauts with minutes of oxygen left to cross the gap.

Furthermore, when they find the Soyuz lifeboat with the parachute deployed and must conclude that they can’t use it to deorbit, they decide to make their way to the Chinese Space Station, which is, surprisingly, only about 100 kilometers away, another bright spot, apparently also in an orbit perfectly matched with the International Space Station.

I also found it hard to swallow when Stone flew the Soyuz, which was out of fuel, by using the landing jets, to make to the Chinese station. The craft had just luckily been oriented so the vector of the landing jets pointed directly at the Chinese station. Then Stone was able to cross over using a fire extinguisher as her mobile jetpack, decelerating her enough to match velocities with the Chinese station. Oh my.

Matt didn’t have to die. He was safely tethered to Ryan, and holding her hand, and Ryan was attached to the station via her leg wrapped around a parachute strap. They were stable. The slightest tug would have drifted Matt back toward the station, along with her.

The shuttle with the Hubble, the ISS and the Chinese Space station, all three are in the same orbital school yard, reachable on foot, so to say. But that’s ok, because it was necessary for the plot to work. The imagery and the portrayal of the concepts all make up for it.

Other Blogs

For much more “Bad Astronomy” – here is a great blog post by Phil Plait which supports my criticism but also my premise that you have to go see this movie. Phil is just much more scientific and precise.

Why Can’t I Read “Dune?”

Orson Scott Card gives a great tour of classic science fiction in Goodreads Voice.

Now is the time for me to make a disclaimer.  Frank Herbert‘s Dune is arguably the finest science fiction novel ever written.  And there is space travel in it.  But few people really experience it as a space travel novel.  The intense focus of the book is a single world’s ecology and the people who have learned to adapt themselves to it and the great creatures that live just under its surface.  It’s also a saga of rival royal houses, of history being manipulated by the “witches” of the Bene Gesserit.  If you haven’t read Dune, then you have missed one of the best pieces of literature of the 20th century.

This paragraph of his is inspiring me to pick up the book – again.

Book Review: Starswarm – by Jerry Pournelle

Starswarm is a mediocre story, written solo by Jerry Pournelle. I think his collaborations, particularly with Larry Niven, are much stronger.

It’s supposed to be a science fiction book, but it’s really not. Kip is a fifteen-year-old boy who was raised in a remote scientific outpost by his uncle. He has a voice in his head that he is not allowed to tell anyone about. Nothing, however, is as it seems and as the story evolves, it’s almost Patterson- or Grisham-like in corporate and political intrigue, big business, and corrupt government.

It just happens to play on Paradise, a planet 40 light years away from earth, in a world where humans inhabit many such alien outposts. There are a few alien intelligent species that have a significant impact on the story. The story is well woven, the plot structured meticulously, and I think that’s what kept me reading. As I lost interest, I kept wanting to know what would happen next, even though the science fiction was watered down, and the story was somewhat aimed at juveniles, since the protagonists are three kids and much of the story is from their point of view.

There is nothing wrong with this book, it’s a good read, but there is also nothing new or fascinating here, so I’ll probably forget it soon.

Rating: **

Book Review: A World Out of Time – by Larry Niven

Aside from the atrocious Kindle editing, I enjoyed this book very much. Larry Niven is at his best. Big engineering, solar-system-sized construction projects,  like Ringworld, travel to the center of the galaxy and coming home three million years later, are all packed into A World out of Time.

Corbell has cancer. In 1970, rather than succumbing to certain death, he allows himself to be frozen in hope that a cure will be discovered in the future, sooner or later, so he can live. Thus starts the journey of a man whose life spans more than three million years on Earth.

When Corbell awakens, he discovers that he is in a different body, that of a convicted criminal, albeit young and healthy. Worse, the government and world he left is gone, and he is a ward of The State,  a worldwide “big brother” autocratic government, reminiscent of Orwell, where there are no human rights. His assignment is to pilot a star ship, seeding other planets for humanity, a task that involves several hundred years of travel without a companion.

When he decides to hijack his star ship and set his own course, things get interesting.

While this is a classic Niven hard science fiction read, there are some things that make this book imperfect. For instance, the period before and on the star ship is drastically different from the period when he arrives back on earth. It’s almost like two different books. Also, sometimes the motives of the  characters just don’t make sense. For example, Corbell hijacks a ship and takes it to the center of the galaxy. I could never quite figure out why he actually went there, other than to help out Niven’s plot to catapult him three million years into the future – due to physics of a black hole. Cleary, Niven wanted to speculate what it was like to fly around a massive black hole, without getting ripped apart and fried, and live to tell about it. While I am interested in this, I’d rather read about it in a science book. In this novel, that segment was the boring part in the middle I had to get over.

I was reminded of Stephen Baxter’s Evolution in the period where Corbell came back and landed on Earth.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book and would definitely recommend it for hard science fiction buffs.

Rating: ** 1/2

Book Review: Lungfish – by John Brunner

In my quest for generation starship stories, I read another Joachim recommendation, namely Lungfish by John Brunner. This is really a novella of just 38 pages, albeit in very small print, the middle story in the book Entry to Elsewhen by John Brunner. I checked the other two stories Host Age and No Other Gods But Me, but I didn’t find interest.

Lungfish takes place in a starship on its way to Tau Ceti (I wonder why all these generation ships pick Tau Ceti as the destination?). The trip takes about 40 years or so. The ship has room for about 2000 people. As soon as the ship leaves, new babies are born of course. After a few years, the population of the ship consists of “Earthborn” and “Tripborn” members. The Tripborn have never walked on a planet. The only reality they know is the inside of a spaceship. As they grow up and mature, the Earthborn gradually die and when the ship is close to arriving at Tau Ceti, there are only 250 Earthborn left, with about 1800 Tripborn.

What the original planners didn’t count on was that the Tripborn didn’t quite turn out the way they expected. Having never known life on a planet, in the open, they had no interest in arriving or landing.

Now what?

This is a short novella I was able to read in a few hours, and I found it an enjoyable and definitely somewhat different generation starship story.