Sex and Violence in Zero-G: The Complete “Near Space” Stories, Expanded Edition – Allen Steele

This expanded edition contains all previously published Near Space short stories and novelettes. The stories range from action to reflection, from joy to melancholy. The stories are presented chronologically, starting from the beginning of the Near Space timeline, in more or less the present era, and ending with the advanced colonised solar system of Mr. Chicago.

As he mentions in the introduction, Mr. Steele has been labelled a “Space Romantic”, and this is rather accurate. His stories are infused with an infectious sense of wonder about space exploration in the near future. His focus on the working stiff rather than the movers and shakers gives rise to interesting reflections and themes. Having read all or some of the Near Space long fiction is not a pre-requisite for reading this collection, though it will fill in some of the background.

Elon Musk: Inventing the Future – Ashlee Vance

Elon Musk is looking more and more like the real life Tony Stark, minus the super-powered metal suit. Self-made billionaire, innovating industrialist, visionary and working hard to save the future of the human race. Mr. Vance’s biography draws on thousands of hours of interviews with Musk, his family, his friends, his colleagues and his peers. It takes the reader from Mr. Musk’s beginnings as an awkward wunderkind to the not so distant past of early 2015. Since then, SpaceX has gone from triumph to triumph with ever increasing ambition, and Tesla seems on the verge of following.

The biography gets up close and personal with Musk, declining to gloss over the man’s less pleasant character traits. By all accounts he can lack empathy and is not overly concerned with coddling people. His goals are overarching and he has little patience with people who get in his way.

Even before reading this book, I had noticed a disconnect between how normal people in industry try to analyse Musk and how he actually behaves. Musk’s goals are far more long term than building successful companies. His business empire is a means to an end, not the vehicle of his chosen legacy. It is somewhat baffling that he has repeatedly and clearly stated his goals (most notably removing dependency on fossil fuels and colonising Mars to ensure humanity’s long term survival) but most people either don’t take him seriously (he’s dead serious) or try to judge him as if he were a normal person (he isn’t).

As recently as yesterday, Mr. Musk outlined his refined vision for Mars colonisation. What was interesting is that the competition is now starting to pay attention, coming up with (rather staid) ideas of its own. Ten or fifteen years ago, Musk was a weird guy with weird ideas whom the establishment could ignore. Today, his continued success at delivering on his spectacular promises has already engendered deep shifts in the areas of energy production, the automotive industry and the space launch industry. The competition is imitating and scrambling to catch up, but this was Musk’s goal all along. He always knew that Tesla wouldn’t kill all the other car manufacturers. His goal was to make all cars electric, not to have them all branded Tesla.

For the reader who wants to delve deeper into the thinking behind Musk’s ideas, I highly recommend Wait But Why’s series of excellent in depth articles.

Rescue Mode – Ben Bova & Les Johnson

RescueModeThe year is 2035, and the first manned mission to Mars is getting underway.
During the long transit, disaster strikes and our heroes must find a way to survive.

While the story itself is engaging in an adventure novel kind of way, the prose is not. Much of the dialogue feels written to explain things to the reader. It makes the characters look clueless about the systems and concepts they should be experts on. It is also rather corny most of the time.

The social sensibilities are very old fashioned. Males taking the lead and feeling protective about women even if those women are highly trained astronauts. The technology doesn’t feel very futuristic either. In a nutshell, the book is set in 2035, but feels like 2015, or maybe 1965.

3Rosbochs

Nemesis Games (The Expanse V) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanse5NemesisGamesThe new worlds discovered in Abaddon’s Gate and opened in Cibola Burn are the new frontier of human expansion. By consequence, there is no longer a need to settle minor bodies like asteroids and live “on the float” like the Belters. This group was already emarginated and seen as exploited by the powerful planetary hegemonies of Earth and Mars. Now their entire raison d’etre as a culture is being threatened. Even Mars is feeling the pressure, as people leave its underground warrens for the opportunity to live in the open air on a new colony planet.

With this as a backdrop, our heroes of the Rocinante is on hiatus on Tycho Station while the ship is being repaired. On cue Amos, Alex and Naomi are called away to handle matters originating in their past. For most of the story, the crew is split up, which makes for an interesting exploration of the individual characters.

And then the big boom happens. An extremist Belter faction attacks Earth. Our heroes must survive alone, and find some way to reunite.

The wider political situation continues to develop, ensuring that the protagonists are not just living out adventures in a static world. The backstories of the characters are interesting in themselves. The exploration of Naomi’s past, delving into some rather dark territory, is especially gripping. Another very enjoyable installment.

4½Rosbochs

Red Planet Blues – Robert J. Sawyer

Untitled-2Alex Lomax is a private investigator in New Klondike, a frontier town on Mars. The place is a bit of a dump, existing only due to the rush on ancient Martian fossils, and Lomax is its stereotypical gumshoe. One day, a beautiful woman walks into his office. She is a “transfer”, a human who has transferred her consciousness into a cyborg body.

The story and setting are a deliberate homage to classic noir detective films and novels. The world-building is solid, and it is a enjoyable and almost wistful reading about New Klondike’s dome and the business of “transfers”. Mr. Sawyer takes the idea of the noir detective to the limits of its stereotype, skirting deadpan satire. Naturally the protagonist is broke and has an overdue tab at a seedy bar that he frequents. Naturally the local police department is corrupt and lazy. The first half of the book is good fun. Unfortunately the second half degenerates into a confusing mess of myriad double-crosses and plot twists, taking the novel from a pleasant pastime to an often irritating morass.

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 Lady Astronaut of Mars – Mary Robinette Kowal

TheLadyAstronautofMarsSixty-three year old Elma lives in retirement on Mars with her ailing husband. She is famous for being an Astronaut on the first Mars expedition back in the 1950s. She years to go back into space, but when she is offered her dream mission she must choose between in and staying with her husband through his last year of life.

The concept is simple and the story is short. This could easily have been a bland tale, but it is written with a poignancy and sensitivity that elevate it greatly. The first person voice sucks us into Elma’s inner turmoil in a skillful way.

4Rosbochs

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

The Martian – Andy Weir

TheMartianEarly on during the third mission to Mars, the crew has to leave prematurely during a storm. Mark Watney is hit by flying debris, specifically an antenna, and carried away from the others. The rest of the crew have no choice but to leave him behind. He is presumed dead due to his bio-monitor being disabled by the impact. But he’s not dead. And now he has to survive on Mars with no communications and limited resources until, somehow, he can be rescued.

From the very first page, I could not put this book down. It grabs the reader instantly and leads him on a long and arduous journey with Watney. Most of the book is written as log entries by Watney himself, and that’s what really makes it shine. “Watney’s” entries reflect his character, which is that of a wise-cracking, self-deprecating, profane, laugh-out-loud funny smartass who is forced to become MacGyver on a planet that, as he puts it, is constantly trying to kill him. Even chemistry becomes funny when written like this, and the almost flow of consciousness style allows frequent and often hilarious tangents. After a log entry about how he will need to use his botany skills and experiment supplies to grow food, the next day’s entry simply reads, “I wonder how the Cubs are doing”. This personal voice makes Watney feel like a real person, not a superhuman hero, and it makes the reader connect with him viscerally. I can’t remember the last time I’ve laughed so often while reading a book, which is not bad considering that it is a story about a man who is an inch away from dying from the first page to the last.

5Rosbochs

 

 

 

Blue Remembered Earth (Poseidon’s Children I) – by Alastair Reynolds

PoseidonsChildrenIBlueRememberedEarthThe story is set in the second half of the 23rd Century. Mankind has colonized Mars and the Moon, and has expanded industrial concerns into Trans-Neptunian space. Earth, long ravaged by climate change and pollution, is slowly recovering. In most of human society, the “Mechanism”, a sort  of benevolent big brother, and compulsory neural implants have practically eradicated violence and crime. Robots and proxies (advanced telepresence), are everywhere. The Akinya family from Tanzania has been instrumental in the expansion into space, or more accurately the family matriarch, Eunice Akinya, a legendary deep space explorer and pioneer industrialist. As the book starts, Eunice has just died. For the last sixty of her one hundred and sixty years, she has been living in enigmatic isolation in the Winter Palace, a habitat orbiting the Moon. As the family gathers to scatter her ashes, a loose end appears. A previously unknown safe deposit rental on the Moon. Geoffrey Akinya, one of Eunice’s grandchildren, is reluctantly roped into retrieving the contents. What he finds will start him and his sister Sunday off on a treasure hunt to the remote wilderness of the Moon, then to Mars, and beyond.

The concept of making the African continent prominent is an interesting one. Today, the common western view of Africa is that of a lost continent continually ravaged by poverty, war and disease. In this book, Africa has become a center of high civilization, and Swahili is one of the lingua francas of humanity. The setting is intricately designed, with robots, proxies and neural interfaces prevalent. This brings about some interesting aspects of the “what is consciousness” discussion, as advanced autonomous machine intelligences are one of the potential futures envisaged. On the other hand, the group known as the “Pans” sees evolution of humans themselves as the way forward, in order to avoid humans becoming sessile with proxies doing the exploration and the discovery.

The story itself is not the strongest part of this book. It is adequate enough though, and the characters follow its meanderings more as a way to explore the nature of humanity and consciousness than to actually get to the payoff at the end.

This is a long book, and while I don’t mind per se, it is rather ponderous. Mr. Reynolds writes with a smooth and easily read style but I still think the book could have been shorter. The protagonist Geoffrey is rather interesting; initially an unwilling actor in events who is slowly drawn in until he drives them.

3½Rosbochs

Rolling Thunder (Thunder and Lightning III) – John Varley

In the sequel to Red Thunder and Red Lightning, we yet again skip ahead a generation, this time to Podkayne, granddaughter of Manny and Kelly. Martian born and bred, she is drafted (as all are) into service with the Martian Navy. The book starts by ridiculing Earthies (those who live on Earth) as generally helpless and whiny. It is hard to find too much fault in that assesment, but more about that later. As is sometimes the case with Varley, he writes more chronicle than anything else, and thus we follow the meanderings of Podkayne. It isn’t until the second half that things really start to happen. By then a very gloomy post-9/11, post-Katrina view has settled onto the book. If it weren’t for cheery Podkayne, this would not be a very cheerful book. In the end, the protagonists make a big decision, and there is a happy ending, of sorts.

While Red Thunder was a very positive book, and Red Lightning was at least mildly optimistic, Rolling Thunder paints a very bleak picture of Earth’s future, with billions dead and the planet rendered uninhabitable. Certainly the catastrophes depicted are not man made (unlike in Red Lightning) but it is clear that mankind had already started the processt”. Podkayne is a serviceable protagonist, but she is no Manny or Ray from the previous books. The end, and I won’t give away the surprising development there, feels a bit too much as if Varley wanted to tie up the loose ends any which way. I do love reading Varley, and this was, as always, entertaining. His voice is mesmerizing and his insights into human character are always interesting and novel. However I do feel that this was not on par with most of his work. Or perhaps he just gave me a bit too much of the blues.

One Day on Mars (Tau Ceti Agenda I) – Travis S. Taylor

The entire plot is set, not entirely unexpectedly, during one day on Mars. The United States is now a Solar System wide government that even extends to a few extrasolar colonies. However, a nation of separatists exists in a “reservation” on Mars. On this day, the separatists attack the United States. The book follows the military actions, and the unexpected plan of the separatists.

As a military science fiction action book, this is a pretty good one. Stuffed with action scenes involving futuristic weapons like shape-shifting robots (think Transformers that can become fighter plane, robot, tank), the book drags you along at a furious pace. So far so good. The backstory, filled in over the course of the novel, is interesting, telling how the United States has become ever more detached from its original ideals of true democracy and representation. The president runs instant polls to figure out how to deal with crises instead of making decisions on his own. The separatists don’t shy away from atrocities. They also decry the current United States, and see themselves as defenders of the freedom of individuals to make their own choices. One thing that bugged me was the sub-par editing, especially in the first half of the book. There is an excess of spelling and grammatical errors, as well as some poor style. This is especially irritating given Baen Books’ typically high standards in that department.

In the Courts of the Crimson Kings (The Lords of Creation II) – S.M. Stirling

In the somewhat free-standing sequel to The Sky People, Stirling takes us to a Mars inspired by the work of Burroughs and the “science” of Percival Lowell. The arid and cold planet is nevertheless inhabited by close relatives of humans. Our hero, one of the U.S. team based on Mars, travels to a lost city on an archeological expedition. But the Martian head of the expedition team is more than she seems. Soon people are out for their heads as they are embroiled in the thick of Martian politics.

Stirling is masterful at characterizing alien cultures. Even minor dialogue lines are steeped in a deep imagined tradition. It is a pleasure to read, especially as Stirling’s unobtrusive understated humor pervades the prose. This tale of a Mars that never was but that dreamers really wished for is a great adventure yarn.

Boundary (Boundary I) – Eric Flint & Ryk E. Spoor

The title “Boundary” refers to the K-T Boundary, an event 65 million years ago in which a large number of species, most famously including the dinosaurs, became extinct, probably due to the impact of a meteor. A group of paleontologists find a very strange fossil grouping, with bizarre anomalies including what look like bullets. The fossil sits right on the Boundary, meaning it is from the time of the event. A little later, the first mission (unmanned) to Mars’ moon Phobos reveals an abandoned, and ancient, alien base. The space program is accelerated to allow a large scale manned mission to Phobos and Mars.

This is the kind of adventure novel that I really love. Engineering, science, fun characters, and a great plot. A journey of discovery with a good sprinkling of old fashioned sense of wonder. It is not without its flaws, however. The dialog is often stilted. There is no deep exploration of interpersonal relationships as the characters mesh far too well. Love and friendship sprout in neat couplings and groups. I enjoyed this book a lot, but it could have had a bit more depth.

The Mars Trilogy – Kim Stanley Robinson

Consisting of:

  • Red Mars
  • Green Mars.
  • Blue Mars.

This series on the colonization of Mars is spectacularly wide ranging and epic. It is very well written and researched. While it is enjoyable, my big gripe is that Mr. Robinson leaves no stone unturned. He wants to explore so many things that the main push of the story gets lost. Or maybe this is less of a story and more of a chronicle. But even so, there is too much stuff going on. Admittedly most of that stuff is interesting but the whole thing just too ponderous.

A Martian Ricorso – Greg Bear

This short story is about Mars “the way it once was”, with canals and Martians. An expedition with three crewmembers has landed and finds itself in the way of hordes of “Winter Troops”, a new breed of Martians that feeds off the remnants of the fallen civilization that created the canals.

Told as journal entries, this story isn’t anything special. If it had been any longer I would probably not have finished. it.

Birth of Fire – Jerry Pournelle

If you can get past the vintage seventies feel of the book, this is a decent and rather simple story about a young convict who comes to Mars and later leads a freedom fight. Oh, and he also finds love and belonging, of course.

A Rose for Ecclesiastes – Roger Zelazny

In this classic short story, a mercurial genius poet linguist is on Mars as part of an expedition. He delves deep into the mythos of the ancient (and still existing) Martian civilization.

Zelazny’s story is astonishing in its beauty. The use of Book of Ecclesiastes to illustrate the ennui felt by the Martians is genius. The prose is masterful and gorgeous. It is not a long story, but it lingers.

The full text can be found here.