Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void – Mary Roach

In this curious non-fiction volume, Mary Roach explores an aspect of space travel that is normally glossed over: the human inside the machine. She starts by explaining why engineers find humans the trickiest part of their spaceships, and goes on from there through impact experiments on cadavers, body odor research (really!), what happens to humans if they lie still for weeks on end, the horrors of space food, the even greater horrors of going to the potty in space and various other subjects.

If this sounds boring, think again. Not only is the subject matter surprising and fascinating, but Ms. Roach’s writing is infused with an extremely entertaining dry wit. Throughout her research and her many interviews with scientists, astronauts and even interns involved in space travel and its accessory activities, she seems to find the humor in every situation. To be fair, it is hard not to see the humor but she describes it so well. A couple of selected gems:

“Safeguarding a human for a multiaxis crash is not all that different from packing a vase for shipping. Since you don’t know which side the UPS guy’s going to drop it on, you need to stabilize it all around.”

“The staff played hot potato with my call until someone could locate the Person in Charge of Lying to the Press. The PCLP said that the room that houses the base archives is locked. And that only the curator would have a key. And that Holloman currently has no curator. Evidently the new curator’s first task would be to find a way to open the archives.”

I recommend this book even if you are not particularly interested in the space program. It is a great read about what it really takes to put people in space.

The Sprawl Trilogy – William Gibson

The Sprawl Trilogy consists of:

  • Neuromancer
  • Count Zero
  • Mona Lisa Overdrive

Gibson invented the cyberpunk subgenre with this plot-wise loosely connected series of books and he revitalized SciFi in the process. His sparse, cool prose and his approach to characterization mark the writing of many of his successors, probably chief among those Neal Stephenson.

His descriptions of cyberculture have aged well, since he was wise enough not to be too specific about hardware and software. He himself attributes this to the fact that he had never owned a computer at the time, although that is, in typical Gibson fashion, probably far too modest a justification. Another interesting fact is that these novels were written in the mid eighties, but illustrate many of the advances in computer technology which scientists and engineers are striving towards today in 2010. Whether his ideas on man-machine interfaces are simply the result of some very good thinking, and whether he inspired a generations of computer wiz kids is, of course, open to debate.

His work remains one of the pinnacles of SciFi, and his ability to distill the essence of something into a single, cool sentence remains, perhaps, unrivaled.

The Wreck of the River of Stars – Michael Flynn

The cover looks magnificent. Flynn is back with a near future tale mirroring the twilight days of the age of sail. “The River of Stars” has long ago furled it’s magnetic sail in favor of a more modern engine. The past glories of the ship are almost forgotten as she plies her trade as a tramp freighter. But an engine failure forces a difficult decision. Her crew want to use the sail to save the ship in a last tribute to her old days of glory.

Incidentally, the story is set in the same universe as the Firestar series, with quite a few inside references sprinkled around for the avid Flynn fan.

It took me more than a month to read this book. Flynn’s prose is unusually fine, but it takes a long time to get through it. The title says it all, I guess, and the ending is more or less foretold from the beginning. This novel concentrates on the characters and their interactions. Long gone are the glory days of The River of Stars, and her crew is made up of a collection of misfits and losers who cannot find another berth. The Captain dies in the very first chapter, and things go downhill from there. Gradually the flawed crewmembers dance out their dance of death, and maybe they know their fate all along, which makes the drama even stronger.

I should point out that this book is intensely psychological, and does not, despite the setting, move very fast at all. Descriptions of feelings and motivations and interactions are drawn out almost to breaking point. It is a tribute to Flynn that he manages to hold the reader’s interest. So be warned, this is not a light summer read, but its majesty will captivate you.

Firestar Series – Michael Flynn

Near future SciFi has seldom been done better. Flynn takes us on an epic journey only hinted at in the humble beginnings of the first book. A millionairess has a hidden fear, almost an obsession. She is afraid that an asteroid has the potential to wipe out humanity by striking the Earth. While her fear is no doubt well founded, it takes extreme expressions in her, and she uses her fortune to build up a huge aerospace industry. The series consists of:

  • Firestar
  • Rogue Star
  • Lodestar
  • Falling Stars

What really makes this series great is the variety and richness of the many characters (from the second book, a Dramatis Personae is thankfully provided). The antagonisms and alliances flow over decades as Flynn deftly describes human nature, and the many things which make up its facets. Many novels have (too) many characters, but in almost all cases the majority are not fully fleshed out and threedimensional. Flynn’s wonderful character are these things. They have a past, motivations, goals and aspirations.

It is also quite remarkable how Flynn manages to weave together the many strands of his story into one whole, making this more than just a massive work of Science Fiction. It is, in fact, a story about ordinary people who, each in his or her own way, faces extraordinary personal and professional challenges in a changing society.

My only, very small, gripe with the series is how it loses a bit of steam in the third book. However, seen as a whole, the entire story is outstanding.

And yes, the last two covers are horrible and have very little to do with the books. Pah!

The Course Of Empire (Jao I) – Eric Flint & K.D. Wentworth

This is truly an undiscovered gem of a novel. Almost discreetly thrown out there, it will unfortunately be missed by many readers thinking it just one more of Baen’s (admittedly mostly excellent) military scifi offerings. It is much much more than that.

The story draws closely on the history of the English occupation of India. The Jao conquered Earth twenty years ago in their struggle to hold ground against the powerful and enigmatic Ekhat. Since then, Earth has suffered under an abusive Jao viceroy. Humans still do not understand the Jao and their complex society. Most Jao see humans as lesser beings to be used up in the war against the Ekhat. But things change as a new Jao commander of ground forces arrives with fresh ideas. Meanwhile, the Ekhat are closing in and the mysterious Jao faction known as The Bond of Ebezon watches closely, ready to intervene.

The book is a page turner with plenty of action, but I did struggle with the alien Jao in the beginning. They are not written to be easily understandable. Flint and Wentworth have made them complex and truly alien without succumbing to the temptation of explaining their quirks and affectations in human terms. It’s a bit of a hump but well worth conquering. The Jao are fascinating creatures that misunderstand humans as much as humans misunderstand them. Not since Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye have I encountered aliens that are truly alien and not just humans looking different.

Flint & Wentworth masterfully take the reader from simple beginnings and purposeful confusion to understanding and enlightenment. This journey parallels that of the main protagonists, both Jao and human. Excellent!

The Raj Whitehall Series (I-VIII) – David Drake, S.M. Stirling & Eric Flint

The human galactic federation is in ruins, and the worlds have devolved to various levels of barbarism. On the planet Bellevue, which is at about the early nineteenth century in development, a young officer named Raj Whitehall and his friend venture into the catacombs under the capital. There, they find an ancient battle computer named Center. With Center’s help, Raj must unite the planet and enable humanity to retake the stars. The story is at least somewhat based on that of the Byzantine general Belisarius.

The first seven novels are written by Drake and Stirling. The last one by Drake and Flint. David Drake writes very detailed outlines, while his collaborators write the actual text.

The first five novels are a set and deal with the conquest/unification of Bellevue. They are nowadays published in two volumes, known as Warlord and Conqueror:

  • The Forge
  • The Hammer
  • The Anvil
  • The Steel
  • The Sword

After finishing the conquest of Bellevue, the personalities of Center and Raj are imbued in computers that are sent to other worlds with launched asteroids. This scenario has infinite permutations as human worlds at various levels of development can be written about. The first of these follow-up novels is:

  • The Chosen

It is a great singleton set on a world with early twentieth century technology. Finally there is the two volume story consisting of:

  • The Reformer
  • The Tyrant

Here, we take a serious step “back in time”, as the planet Hafardine is at about Roman Empire level in it’s technology. The Tyrant is rather different in style from the others due to being penned by Flint. However, his trademark dry humor meshes well with the overall thrust of the series.

This is great military SciFi, with excellent battlescenes and great characters, not to mention a dose of dry humor. Very highly recommended.

Xenocide – Orson Scott Card

Technically this is the second sequel to Ender’s Game, but in actuality Ender’s Game is pretty much a singleton with a spin-off. Xenocide picks up directly where Speaker for the Dead left off. The Lusitania fleet is still bearing down on our heroes, and the question of how to ensure the survival of Pequeninos, Buggers and humans dominates the book. The secondary plot on the planet Path could have been skipped altogether from a story point of view, but psychology is never boring with Card, and so it’s good, if sometimes long-winded reading.

Xenocide is rather slow in the first two thirds, and it took me a long time to get through it. The last third speeds up as the story reaches it’s climax. For a while I though Card would lose it with his theory of the universe, but it all works out rather neatly in the end. Well, life is a mess for Ender, but that seems to be his lot in life.

The ending neatly sets the stage for the sequel Children of the Mind. Just like in Speaker for the Dead, a lot is left unresolved.

I didn’t enjoy this as much as Speaker for the Dead. The story is just as good, if not better. However it is quite slow and long winded. Card himself has said this book is maybe his “deepest” work. That isn’t to say it isn’t a great book. It really is. Finally, don’t start with this one. Read the previous two first.

Speaker for the Dead – Orson Scott Card

As in the prequel Ender’s Game, Card puts puts Ender center stage. Ender is now in his mid thirties, but three thousand years have passed (thanks to judicious speed of light travel on his part) and he finds a chance to redeem himself for what he (and the public) sees as the xenocide (murder of alien race) of the “buggers”. History, cruelly revisionist as it often is, has condemned him for saving the human race, and his very name is a curse. Using his real name, Andrew, he travels from world to world as a Speaker for the Dead, a person who speaks the truth about a person after death at their request.

Mankind has found a new alien race, the seemingly primitive “Piggies”. The colonists of the Piggie world Lusitania call them Pequeninos (little children) and this is a powerful hint for the reader. Ender falls into a maelstrom of human suffering spanning generations, while untenable Piggy-xenologer (scholar of aliens) interaction rules and their violation is putting the future of the Piggies and the colonists in doubt.

I enjoyed this book almost as much as Ender’s Game, and it delves much deeper into the human psyche, showing off Cards strength here. While Ender may sometimes be almost annoyingly wise and seemingly unerring, this does not detract from the story. The book focuses very much on human (and piggy) interaction and feelings, and at the end you wonder how a book can be so good with so little essentially happening. It deeply explores questions of humanity and existence, as well as morality and integrity, but without becoming preachy or boring. As with Ender’s Game, Card has yet again penned a masterpiece.

The Light of Other Days – Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter

This novel explores a really fascinating concept. What if technology could be developed that let us see any place in space and time, including past, present and future? Society would be transformed. Lying would be impossible.

But Clarke and Baxter take it much much further than that, and the ending is just plain incredible as, without spoiling it too much, humans can finally seek redeption for the crimes of ages past. Read this book.

Debt of Honor and Executive Orders – Tom Clancy

An older Jack Ryan moves upwards in the chain of command. Debt of Honor is nowaday subtitled “The prelude to Executive Orders”. I think this does it a tremendous disservice. Although it does end in the middle of the story, it is a fully fleshed out novel in it’s own right, and raises some interesting questions about the future of the Pacific region.

Executive Orders is my favorite Clancy. Its amazing mix of high level politics, forced change at the highest levels of the US governemnt (wishful thinking by Clancy, but I do agree with his views on this one) and of course excellent military action make this a book to read over and over.

Patriot Games and The Hunt for Red October – Tom Clancy

Patriot Games was written second, but chronologically the events portrayed occur before The Hunt for Red October. These two novels kicked off a series that continues today, and remain among the best technothrillers ever written. The true passion that Clancy has for his subject matter shows through, and his strong personal belief in the values portrayed by Jack Ryan, widely considered to be his fictional alter ego, make these books among the best I have read,

These are also two of my favorite movies. The films follow the novels quite closely. Of course they abridge, but the essence of the stories is there.

A Man on the Moon – Andrew Chaikin

A simply magnificent portrayal of the Apollo program. Easily accessible even for the non-engineering inclined. Chaikin interviewed a whole host of people from engineers to administrators and of course the astronauts, thus managing to produce what many feel is the definitive account of NASA’s Moon program. A fascinating insight into what actually happened on the American side of the Moon race. Despite its heft it does not feel like a heavy read. The only caveat is that you might have to read it twice since it is packed with information and a bit much to digest in one go.

Voyage – Stephen Baxter

Definitely my favorite Baxter. Unlike most Baxter fare, there is no “big thinking”, no Xeelee, no looming destruction of the universe. It is, quite simply, a novel of what might have been (and very nearly was) if NASA had been allowed to continue in the footsteps of Apollo all the way to Mars. It is written in parallel perspectives, looking at the mission itself as it runs its course, and at the preparations, political wangling and engineering that precede it. The heroine, Natalie York, is followed closely as Baxter explores her long personal journey in parallel with the preparations, as it becomes clear to the reader (and to herself) just how much one has to sacrifice to become an astronaut. The quiet geologist becomes an astronaut and an unwilling hero as she reaches for the ultimate prize of both her professions. Despite being fiction, it is in my opinion one of the best portrayals of the culture and politics of NASA during the Apollo and post-Apollo era.

Baxter did in fact apply to be an astronaut. Unfortunately, he was required to speak a foreign language and thus failed to get in. In Voyage, his love of astronautics and space exploration clearly shows. If you liked the movie Apollo 13, you will enjoy this book.

Encounter with Tiber – Buzz Aldrin & John Barnes

With a name like Buzz Aldrin on the cover I figured I needed to at least give it a shot. The story follows the first human mission to another star, and in flashbacks a human mission to the Moon that found alien artifacts, as well as two alien missions to Earth in prehistoric times.

Unexpectedly, this novel completely blew me away. The story is developed from two angles, human and alien. Interestingly enough, the two sides never meet as such, but impact on each other’s existence in various ways. While the aliens aren’t the most original, the alien characterisation is complex and well written, It is nice to read about well fleshed out characters who have deep, complex personalities on the “other” side. The tech is of course top notch (Buzz Aldrin!), but the real kicker here is the sheer epic scale of the story. After I finished it, I sat staring into empty space for a long time, my mind filled with wonder.

Cryoburn – Lois McMaster Bujold

Cryoburn is chronologically placed about six years after Diplomatic Immunity. Miles is sent by Emperor Gregor to investigate a corporation on the planet of Kibou-Daini, where millions of people are cryogenically frozen, hoping to be revived when they can be cured or rejuvenated. As inevitably seems to happen, large corporations (in this case specialized in cryopreservation) have accumulated more power than any nation should feel entirely comfortable with. Miles, as is his wont, stumbles on a whole big conspiracy and, as usual, can’t restrain himself from stretching his official job description of investigator to the very limit. Well, way beyond the limit for that matter.

McMaster Bujold had Vorkosigan fans wait seven long years for a new adventure with Miles. Luckily for me, I only started reading the books in 2008, but the wait for this next installment still felt far too long. Stepping back into the Vorkosiverse and being a fly on the wall while Miles plows through his adventures like a “hyperactive lunatic”, as Dr. Raven Durona so aptly describes it in the book, is a sheer visceral pleasure. Ms. McMaster Bujold has most definitely not lost her touch, mixing humor, an interesting and thought-provoking plot and emotional impact in perfect measure. Her skill at encapsulating emotions within a clever and witty little sentence is peerless. While it felt somewhat sad that only Miles and Armsman Roic were actually on this jaunt, (SPOILER: Mark and Kareen join up at the end) the colorful supporting cast loomed over them in spirit, with many references scattered about like easter eggs for the serious fan.

As usual with her novels, Bujold wrote this one to fit both into the wider series and a standalone, and it works perfectly well as the latter. With Miles flying solo again, it felt like a throwback (perhaps even an homage) to the pre-Memory books, before Miles became got his “adult” job of Imperial Auditor. McMaster Bujold even hints at this in the epilogue, when Ivan wonders what “the old Miles would have said”.

All the books are good, and while this one is not quite as superb as, say, Memory, it still easily proves why McMaster Bujold is one of my very favorite authors.

Shards of Honor and Barrayar – Lois McMaster Bujold

Behind the rather tacky cover is an omnibus edition consisting of McMaster Bujold’s debut novel “Shards of Honor” and its immediate chronological sequel “Barrayar”. The latter won the Hugo in 1992. These chronicle the adventures of Cordelia Naismith from the time she first meets her future husband, Lord Aral Vorkosigan, when she is his prisoner of war. At the end of the “Shards of Honor”, she goes to Vorkosigan’s home planet of Barrayar to become his wife. Barrayar is quite different from her own modern home planet of Beta Colony. It has only recently been rediscovered, and an old system of blood ties, honor, nobility, and plain Machiavellian insanity keep it ticking. Cordelia’s adaptation to Barrayar, and her key role during a civil war, are the subject of “Barrayar”.

The first book, “Shards of Honor”, is decent but not stellar. McMaster Bujold shows an early talent for characterization, describing motivation and personal development. “Barrayar”, on the other hand, is a rich story of adventure and one woman’s fight for herself and her family in the midst of an (to her) insane civil war. I enjoyed it immensely. McMaster Bujold has a knack for describing emotion and motivation that sweeps the reader along as if he is looking right over Cordelia Naismith’s shoulder. As a heroine, Cordelia is perfect. Heroic when need be, but more importantly rational and humble in a world where honor and revenge pull society’s fabric to the breaking point and beyond. Highly recommended.

Shards of Honor

Barrayar