Forever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and Space – John W. Young with James R. Hansen

John Young was undoubtedly the most experienced astronaut of NASA’s early era, active from the days of Gemini, through Apollo and the Space Shuttle. He walked on the Moon, commanded the first test flight of the Space Shuttle and didn’t retire from NASA until he was seventy-four. He was legendary for his soft-spoken demeanour, coolness under pressure and later in his career, for not being afraid to speak truth to power on issues of mission risk.

His memoir is laid out in a straightforward chronological fashion, starting with early life and following him throughout his career in the Navy and at NASA. While he is most well known for his missions, his time as head of the Astronaut Office and then as a sort of senior and independent safety inspector within NASA, make up large parts of the narrative. There is also ample space dedicated to the Challenger and Columbia accidents, with extensive technical detail.

For any NASA and space buff, the memoir is interesting reading. However, it is a bit of a slog. The style is quite dry and self-effacing, much as the man himself. Descriptions of missions mostly chronicle events without poetic embellishments. This is in stark contrast with, for example, the memoirs of Gene Cernan, Gene Krantz and Mike Mullane, which in their different ways speak much more passionately about the subject matter. The book feels long-winded in many parts, with sections which are just listing various mission achievements, seemingly for completeness’ sake. The most readable bits are where Mr. Young manages to convey his considerable technical expertise to illustrate an issue concisely, such as when he discusses his testimony before the Rogers Commission, investigating Challenger.

I strongly felt that more decisive editing could have made this a more readable book, but then again, I also felt that Mr. Young’s particular voice came through loud and clear.

Alien Stripper Boned from Behind by the T-Rex – Stix Hiscox

The protagonist is an alien stripper with three breasts that shoot lasers. One night while working, she meets a T-Rex. Sexual shenanigans ensue.

The premise is purposefully silly and the writing is over-the-top bizarre erotica. If not taken too seriously, it is a rather entertaining story.

(The companion story “Half-Man, Half Horse, All Love” is nowhere near as good.)

A Voyage Through Air (The Queen of Dreams III) – Peter F. Hamilton

Following immediately after The Hunting of the Princes, the final volume of the trilogy takes our protagonists to the realm of air, where rocky islands drift weightlessly in a vast ocean of air, and ships ply between the, dodging storms and monsters. Taggie, Jemima and the others are in a race with time to find Myrlin’s Gate in the hope it will end the looming conflict between dark universe peoples, and bring peace to the realms.

The last book is a breathless, almost relentless race against time. But Mr. Hamilton doesn’t lose track of character development. Taggie, Jemima, Lantic and Felix especially grow change during their adventures. There are several gems among secondary characters as well, especially the flamboyant Captain Rebecca. While the books have all the trappings of fantasy, Mr. Hamilton’s science fiction roots are showing, especially in this last book. The worldbuilding is imaginative, whimsical and awe-inspiring.

The Hunting of the Princes (The Queen of Dreams II) – Peter F. Hamilton

After the somewhat standalone narrative of The Secret Throne, Taggie and Jemima are back in England. After a series of assassination attempts against royals, they must face a threat not only to the First Realm, but to all the realms. The adventure takes them to the occupied Fourth Realm, where winter and evil reign.

The second book in the series is more complex and more exciting than the first, as if Mr. Hamilton is becoming more comfortable with the fantasy medium. The story is both engaging and thought provoking, as characters of supposed integrity find their beliefs and ethics challenged when confronted with adversity.

The Secret Throne (The Queen of Dreams I)

Taggie and Jemima are pre-teen sisters, sent off for the holidays to their apparently eccentric father who lives somewhat distant from modern society. Quite suddenly, he is kidnapped by dark forces. And the sisters discover that they are heirs to a dynasty in a very different realm.

Mr. Hamilton’s prose is as tight as ever, even when he is writing for tweens and young adults. The characters are engaging, complex and imperfect. The plot is fine, but unfortunately rather linear and predictable. A good read, but Mr. Hamilton’s efforts to make things more approachable for his expected audience have not quite worked out.

Side note: My ten-year-old daughter adored this book.

 

The Alexander Inheritance – Eric Flint, Gorg Huff & Paula Goodlett

A modern cruise liner is transported back to the beginning of the “Time of the Diadochi“, after the death of Alexander the Great, when his successors fought over his splintering empire.

The premise is a fine idea, but unfortunately the story suffers from being set in a very messy historical time. Dozens of players are rapidly introduced, leading to just as rapid confusion. While the story does gel somewhat around the characters of Roxane and Euridyce, it is hard for the reader to get to grips with the wider political situation. Where the book shines is when dealing with the culture shock of people from ancient civilisations being suddenly introduced to things like steam engines, refrigeration and modern views on gender equality. There is a wide ranging discussion of slavery which manages to be quite interesting.

This book is part of the wider Assiti Shards Universe, though it can be treated as a singleton.

Dust (Silo III) – Hugh Howey

Dust picks up where Shift left off. It is now clear that the status quo cannot be maintained, at least in Silo 18. Solo and Juliette are re-united as tragedy unfolds around them. The path to sustainable survival is uncertain. Meanwhile in Silo 1, Charlotte and Donny wrestle with trying to help Juliette over sporadic radio links and under constant threat.

Despite having some issues with pacing, this is a satisfying conclusion to the series. It is nowhere near as ponderous as Shift since there is more actually happening to replace the overlong internal monologues. The narrative moves towards a conclusion that, if not a happy ending for all, at least gives hope for the future.

Shift (Silo II) – Hugh Howey

Like Wool, the second volume in the Silo series started as a set of linked novelettes. The narrative begins hundreds of years before the events in Wool, with Donald, a newly elected US Representative, being brought onto the Silo project. This is before the apocalyptic events leading to the occupation of the silos, and gives background on how it all came to be. Donald is an unwilling accomplice in the control of the subsidiary silos as he slowly realizes how he, and the entire complex, has been manipulated, with conspiracy nested inside conspiracy aimed at a mysterious goal. Another section deals with how Solo from Wool came to be alone in his dying silo for decades.

While Wool was, despite its dark setting, a story of hope and searching for a better future, Shift contains very few bright points. The parts about Solo and his solitary descent into quasi-madness are especially bleak. Donald struggles with his conscience, his desire for revenge, his realization that even knowing the truth is not going to make things better. While the mental battles were well written, I felt that this book could have been trimmed to make it a bit less of a slog at times.

A Window into Time – Peter F. Hamilton

awindowintotimeYoung teen Julian has perfect recall. He finds school difficult because “the stupids” like to bully him. He starts having visions about the life of a man, and becomes obsessed with finding him while he mulls the philosophical implications of time travel and mortality.

Told in the first person, this novella is cleverly crafted and flawlessly told.

5Rosbochs

Family Matters (Greg Mandel) – Peter F. Hamilton

familymattersThis short story (actually more of a novella in length) is set after the Greg Mandel books. Mandel is not the protagonist, but nevertheless has a starring role.

A C-list celebrity is found dead in mysterious circumstances. Psi-cop Greg Mandel is brought in to consult. At the same time, a real estate developer is caught up in a shady deal.

This is a fun read from Mr. Hamilton’s early years, and there is no requirement to have read the Mandel books beforehand.

4Rosbochs

 

 

A Night Without Stars (Chronicle of the Fallers II) – Peter F. Hamilton

chronicleofthefallers2anightwithoutstarsTwo hundred and fifty years after the events in The Abyss Beyond Dreams, Bienvenido society has been profoundly changed. The planet has been exiled from the Void to a star system outside any galaxy, perhaps because the inhabitants “misbehaved”. It orbits the lonely star together with a scattering of other planets with a similar fate, some with extant species, others sterile. After Slvasta’s revolution, society follows an oppressive model similar to Stalinism. The state rules and the secret police is its enforcer, feared by all, but mostly by “Eliters”, those who have working macrocellular clusters, stemming from certain genetic traits inherited from the Commonwealth thousands of years previously. The Eliters are downtrodden but defiant. Bienvenido is still under attack by the Faller trees, now slowly being chipped away at by regular space missions to destroy them one by one with nuclear bombs.

Several characters from the first book remain, still working towards a solution to the Faller incursions, which are getting worse despite claims to the contrary by the regime. Nigel may be gone but another famous Commonwealth character steps onto the scene in these desperate times.

While the first book had a definite ending, and this one introduces new protagonists with new character arcs, it is also very much a continuation and conclusion to the series. Mr. Hamilton uses his customary skill in weaving all the threads together into a rousing and satisfying finale, as well as an epilogue that will have long time fans smiling beatifically.

5Rosbochs

The Abyss Beyond Dreams (Chronicle of the Fallers I) – Peter F. Hamilton

chronicleofthefallers1theabyssbeyonddreamsLaura Brandt is in stasis as her dynasty is journeying outside the Commonwealth to set up a new society. The Commonwealth is thriving, but the enigmatic and sinister Void casts its shadow as it continues to expand, devouring the galaxy sun by sun. Through happenstance, the Brandt fleet is caught in the Void, trapped in proximity to a planet surrounded by what look like huge orbiting trees, but which house a terrifying alien race.

Thousands of years later, on the planet, now known as Bienvenido, a young soldier called Slvasta is patrolling after a Faller incursion, as yet again “eggs” from the orbiting Trees have fallen. Many generations after colonization by the crippled Brandt fleet, society is at a low industrial level. The eggs are biological weapons which attract and consume humans. Slvasta survives an encounter but loses an arm, leading to his reassignment to the capital. Here, he and his girlfriend Bethaneve set in motion events that will transform Bienvenido society, with more than a little nudging from Nigel Sheldon, who entered the void on a mission to the planet Querencia (from the Void trilogy) but was waylaid to Bienvenido.

This book is the first of two in the series. The larger story of the Void and the Commonwealth is continued from Commonwealth Saga and the Void Trilogy, but the story on Bienvenido is relatively self-contained. Unsurprisingly for a Hamilton book, the hundreds of pages fly by, populated by vivid characters and settings. While some might find it disappointing that Mr. Hamilton is focusing on stories set in societies that are not representative of the super-high-tech Commonwealth, I find that he could write any story and I would still read it. Bienvenido is a fascinating setting, and its detachment from greater human society makes the story all the more poignant.

4½Rosbochs

Wool (Silo I) – Hugh Howey

Silo1WoolOriginally published as five linked novelettes, which is why this is also known as “Wool I-V”, this novel is set in a large, vertical underground habitat known as the Silo. The inhabitants are unaware of the outside world apart from the desolate and poisoned terrain they can see on cameras set at the top level of the Silo, which just breaches ground level. The worst crime in the Silo is talking about going outside. The punishment for this is being sent out for “cleaning”, which involves being put into a protective suit and cleaning grime off the lenses of the cameras. After a few minutes the suit fails and the criminal dies in the toxi atmosphere. However, even the cowed inhabitants of the Silo have questions. What happened outside? Who built the Silo? Why is the IT department so mysterious and secretive? Juliette, a woman from the “down deep” engineering levels follows her instincts and stumbles on secrets buried for generations.

Wool starts unassumingly. Silo society is working relatively harmoniously, the vertical design cleverly engineered to ensure social stratification and a lack of unity across departments. However Mr. Howey is not afraid to throw large wrenches in the works for the protagonist as she starts on her odyssey to find the truth. While the second half sometimes drags on a bit, this is a fine piece of post-apocalyptic fiction, and unlike that in some other such “set piece” oeuvres, the setting itself feels well-thought out and plausible.

4Rosbochs

I am Pilgrim – Terry Hayes

IAmPilgrimScott Murdoch is the most secret of secret agents for the US government, until he exits the “business” and writes the ultimate book about investigative techniques; under a pseudonym of course. Then, while trying to lead a “normal” life, he is consulting the New York police on a murder investigation when his past life comes back to grab him. There is a massive threat to the United States and he is the man to deal with it.

There is a lot to like about this novel. First and foremost, it is a page-turner in the early Tom Clancy class. Despite the significant heft of the book, the narrative runs off with the reader. The first third is full of flashbacks, and even flashbacks within flashbacks, fleshing out our hero’s backstory and legend (both literally and figuratively). Murdoch tells his own story while the antagonist, a modern day, more intelligent, creepier Bin Laden, moves in parallel to enact his sinister strike on the soft underbelly of the United States.
I was on tenterhooks until the end, but the novel falls over in its overuse of action and spy movie tropes. Writing about computers straining and operators pounding on keyboards is silly in a screenplay and laughable in a novel. Action set pieces, while quite good, are always a flirting with Mission Impossible.

And yet, there is something deeper which this novel does well. Murdoch’s background as a loner and his shadow life as an agent resonate with the hidden world where protecting the innocent means setting aside conventional rules of morality. While these themes are by no means original, the manner in which they are written is at least thought provoking. Our hero is no white knight by any means. His motives are admirable, but he himself readily admits that his methods are not pretty. Perhaps I am reaching, but this may be the author’s attempt to explain why the world can only be safe if there are brutal men willing to do violence on behalf of the citizenry.

The author’s seeming desire to tie things up in a neat little bow at the end also bugged me. Things are just a bit too tidy, at odds with the theme of the book which is that no one ever leaves the secret agent world.

4Rosbochs

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth – Chris Hadfield

AnAstronautsGuideToLifeOnEarthChris Hadfield is a man’s man. Test pilot, astronaut, commander of the International Space Station, guitarist, and most importantly endowed with the perfect Canadian Pilot mustache. This book is part memoir, part advice text, part space exploration tome.

I have long admired Colonel Hadfield. His videos from the International Space Station were inspirational and he is the perfect ambassador for the astronaut profession. Despite his many and often spectacular achievement, he embodies a quiet competence and work ethic without braggadocio. Everything I have seen and read with and about him gives the impression of a pleasant, hardworking and cheerful man who stays cool in a crisis.

Hadfield’s “nice guy” character may indeed be the reason for the weakness of his book. The tone is so earnest as to almost be off-putting. He couldn’t be more politely Canadian if he tried. (He even self-deprecatingly touches on the Canadian national character in the book.) Unlike Mike Mullane’s snarky and often hilarious Riding Rockets, this astronaut memoir feels rather plain vanilla.

Having said that, Hadfield’s story is well worth telling, and the message of hard work and striving for excellence without letting (possible) failure define you is inspirational. The theme of the book is not so much about space as about what we can do to define our lives and careers in a meaningful way.

Despite its shortcomings, for fans of astronautics this is an interesting read. I found the the insights into the charming traditions of the Russian Space Program particularly interesting.

3Rosbochs

Podkayne of Mars – Robert A. Heinlein

PodkayneofMarsPodkayne is a girl from Mars in her late teens. Mars is a bit of a frontier planet, and she has dreams of venturing further afield. Together with her younger brother Clark, she goes along with her uncle, a powerful Senator, on a journey towards Venus and Luna aboard the luxurious liner Tricorn. Intrigue awaits.

Published in 1962, there is some debate on whether this novel should be considered one of the Heinlein Juveniles or not. I would say it is somewhere in transition territory, still passable as Young Adult fiction but definitely starting to explore more adult themes than its predecessors. The publishers were apparently not entirely pleased by this, and Heinlein even had to rewrite the ending before publication to make it less dark, though many current editions include the original ending as well.

The story is told from Poddy’s perspective. She has ambitions to break into the male dominated industry of spaceship flight crews. She wants to be treated as an equal in those respects, but she is certainly aware of how to make men do her bidding through manipulations. The sexual dynamics are rather dated, even though Heinlein was a progressive thinker on the subject in his day. The story is somewhat banal, but Poddy’s sassy and irreverent narration saves it from being boring. The setting also cleverly avoids most things that would date it, ensuring it does not age as badly as most SF of the time. The one thing that cannot be avoided is the view that Mars and Venus would be in any way inhabitable by humans, views that were refuted completely in the years following publication. However I was happy to squint at those details, treating Mars and Venus as “the way they should have been” in more innocent Universe.

3½Rosbochs

 

Earthbound (Marsbound III) – Joe Haldeman

Marsbound3EarthboundAfter the massive cliffhanger at the end of Starbound, our heroes are stuck on Earth. The Others have stopped all electrics and electronics from functioning. Civilization is collapsing and things are generally looking grim.

Compared to the previous two volumes, the concluding book is nowhere near as good. The premise is clever and intriguing, but it devolves quickly into a story about how to survive the end of civilization. The epic storyline dealing with the Others and what place humanity will have in relation to them, which has been the main thrust of the plot in the first two books, is almost completely ignored. Spy makes a couple of appearances, but what they mean is never explained. Much of the story seems rather random. The monumental deux ex machina at the end is simply adding insult to injury. If you’ve read the first two books, by all means read on to find out what happens with Carmen in the end, but also be thankful the book is short.

2½Rosbochs

 

Starbound (Marsbound II) – Joe Haldeman

Marsbound2StarboundIn the sequel to Marsbound, Carmen and Paul, along with a few other human and Martian crew members, are tasked with an interstellar exploratory mission to the presumed home planet of the Others. Despite the “free energy” discovered in the previous book, the trip will take years, skimming the speed of light. But do the Others appreciate the intrusion? And what do they really want?

Most of the book is about the trip itself, and the psychological challenges of living for years in a confined space while hurtling towards what the crew thinks is probably doom. The last part sees humanity confronted once again with the judgment of the mysterious Others. These aliens seem to see humanity as somewhere between clumsy child and dangerous but manageable pest. The fact that humanity is hopelessly outclassed, and can only use its action to prove intent, gives an interesting perspective, as does the fact that the human emissaries feel that those who sent them out really don’t understand the problem. The ending is a massive cliffhanger, leading directly to the third and final book.

Haldeman does not disappoint, with his trademark unexpected but internally consistent logical plot twists. His characters, this time described from three different first person viewpoints, are flawed and realistic, down to little marital niggles that most would rather keep hidden even from themselves.

4Rosbochs

The Accidental Time Machine – Joe Haldeman

TheAccidentalTimeMachineIn the not-too-distant future, MIT graduate student Matt Fuller has just completed a graviton generator for his professor. He tests it and it disappears, only to reappear a second later. Further experimentation shows that the generator has, quite by accident and unexplainably, acquired the ability to jump forward in time. Matt figures out a way to go with it. There’s a catch, though. Every jump is longer than the previous one in a geometric progression, and Matt calculates that the jumps will very soon be hundreds of thousands of years long, then millions, and ever growing. Wanting to escape his personal circumstances at the time, Matt starts jumping forward.

As usual with Mr. Haldeman, the tale takes an unexpected turn somewhere down the line, in a good way. Matt travels to future societies both regressed and far progressed from our current one. This is not uniquely a touristic exploration of possible futures, however. At the core there lies a logically carved out path, interestingly ambiguous in its treatment of predestination and free will. The personal story and growth of Matt, a down-on-his-luck and rather lazy graduate student, adds a charming and personal dimension to the tale, and ensures that despite the subject matter, the novel is softer than the rock-hard science fiction of classics like The
Time Machine
or A World Out of Time.

4½Rosbochs

 

The Hemingway Hoax – Joe Haldeman

A cTheHemingwayHoaxollege professor and Hemingway enthusiast becomes embroiled in a scheme to forge Hemingway’s lost early manuscripts. So far, a fairly ordinary story. But then things turn unexpectedly into a journey across parallel universes.

Solid work from Mr. Haldeman, but nothing of particular note. The first two thirds are rather enjoyable, but the ending left me somewhat disappointed.

3Rosbochs

Marsbound (Marsbound I) – Joe Haldeman

Marsbound1MarsboundCarmen Dula is nineteen years old when she moves to the Mars base with her family on a five-year assignment. She is an intelligent, level-headed (remote) college student who falls in love with the pilot. The journey and stay present challenges large and small, both regarding survival itself and getting along with the other residents. Then one day she wants to spend some time alone and unwisely takes a walk outside without a buddy. She falls into a hole and is rescued by a Martian.

Wait, what? I did not see that twist coming. I thought this was going to be about colonizing Mars. I suppose I should have read the blurb which blatantly alludes to it. As so often happens with Haldeman, the familial way in which his first-person protagonist speaks to the reader lulls us into a sense of false security about where the story is going to go. What starts out small and almost ordinary balloons out or proportion in unexpected directions as suddenly this everyman (or in this case everywoman) has to make decisions that affect the entire human race.

4Rosbochs

Camouflage – Joe Haldeman

CamouflageAn alien winds up on Earth and spends millions of years roaming it as a shark until one day in the 1930s it decides to take the form of a human. It spends the following decades learning about humanity and growing as a person. In an interleaved plot line, in 2019 an ancient alien artifact is found in the Pacific Ocean and a marine salvage company investigates.

The growth of the alien as a human is very well written, from tentative and often disastrous beginnings to a finding of true purpose and even love. The descriptions of humanity from the alien’s often uncomprehending viewpoint are fascinating, in particular the part during the Bataan Death March, where the worst of humanity is on display.

3½Rosbochs

 

 

Work Done for Hire – Joe Haldeman

WorkDoneforHireA veteran and struggling writer receives a dream contract for a movie novelization. Soon after, a sniper rifle is delivered to his doorstep and he is blackmailed into accepting a contract to murder a still unnamed victim. He goes on the run with his girlfriend.

I was sorely disappointed by this book. While it is competently written, the story is just a bland chase. The ending is anticlimactic and the “twist”, well, isn’t. The interleaved chapters with the novel the protagonist is writing are vaguely interesting but mostly seem like filler without ulterior purpose.

1½Rosbochs