Irontown Blues – John Varley

Chris Bach is a private detective with a sidekick named Sherlock. Sherlock is a genetically enhanced bloodhound with significant intelligence. They live in one of the vast habitats under the Lunar surface. Due to Post Dramatic Stress Disorder, Bach has retreated into a pseudo-fantasy world based on noir films and novels. He wears a fedora, and lives in “Noirtown“, a neighbourhood designed around the aesthetic of the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. One day, as befitting the stereotype, a mysterious “dame” walks into his office. She needs someone found.

Set in the “Eight Worlds” Universe some time after Steel Beach, the novel sports two very interesting, and very different, protagonists. Bach develops from his past trauma, shown in flashbacks, through his present low, and on to his maturity. More daring by Mr. Varley is to write almost half the narrative in the voice of his canine companion Sherlock. While the concept had the potential to fall flat, it is skillfully delivered, and Sherlock is fully developed as a character, albeit a rather peculiar one. The plot itself is somewhat bare-bones, but with characters like this, it has little impact on the quality of the novel.

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.

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.

Gunpowder Moon – David Pedreira

In a post-climate disaster future, the superpowers have begun mining the Moon in large scale. Life on the frontier is rough and fraught with danger. However, old rivalries have not disappeared. Disillusioned American mining chief and veteran Dechert is confronted with the mysterious murder of a miner, while the powers that be seem dead set to go to war with the Chinese.

Dechert’s outlook is bleak. He has seen the elephant and exiled himself to the Moon in order to escape the ghosts of his comrades from his military days. But war is coming to the Moon and Dechert cannot escape it. He is a beautifully written protagonist, wavering between abject fatalism at the inevitability of repeating history and self-aware naive idealism about this new frontier being a new beginning for mankind. He is firm on one thing: doing his utmost to protect his people, something which he was unable to do during in the past despite his best efforts.

The novel plays out like a good thriller, showing a small slice of larger events, but it is the personal aspect that really shines.

 

Zero Limit – Jeremy K. Brown

Caitlin Taggart is stuck on the Moon, unable to get home to her daughter on Earth, after international tension has led to a travel ban for Moonborn like her. She works as a regolith miner. She is offered an illegal asteroid mining job for a chance to get home. On the job, things go very wrong for Caitlin and her crew, with consequences that threaten Earth itself.

Leaving aside the handwavy physics poorly suited to a hard science fiction story, I found this novel unengaging. Apart from the well developed protagonist, the rest of the characters seem like cardboard cutouts, with actions dictated by “plot reasons”. While the scope of the story is ambitious, and the flashback scenes are well written, the whole thing doesn’t gel.

Farside – Patrick Chiles

In the sequel to Perigee, Polaris Spacelines has started to establish tour service around the Moon. On one such flight, an incident occurs, leaving the spacecraft missing. The situation soon escalates dramatically.

Unlike the more neatly contained story of Perigee, Farside takes a more dramatic and ambitious turn. The prose and characterisations also feel more confident and engaging, as the novel escalates from a relatively low key science fiction accident story to a competent geopolitical thriller.

Also compared to Perigee, the technical accuracy has much improved. I will permit myself a tiny nitpick: “Taxi into position and hold” is outdated air traffic radio phraseology and no longer used.

Artemis – Andy Weir

Jazz Bashara lives on Artemis, the only city on the Moon. She works odd jobs, but her main source of income is smuggling goods to Artemis.  It is a small town and Jazz has a deservedly poor reputation. One day, she is offered a chance to make a lot of money. Just one caper…

Following up the massive success of The Martian is a high bar. Mr. Weir seems to have completely ignored any real or implied expectations, and written Artemis much as he did his previous novel. He spent a long time meticulously researching the science behind his Moon city, and constructing a plausible, logical place to set the narrative. The world building is sometimes a bit intrusive, but for a hard science fiction fan, it remains interesting throughout.

Jazz is an interesting protagonist. She is a something of a loser. At the start of the novel, she hasn’t yet managed to lose the eyeroll attitude of a teenager who thinks the adults are out to get her. She does not always make the right choices, but her heart is in the right place. Her backstory is perhaps a bit too stereotypical, what with the hard-working, disappointed father, but it works.

Mr. Weir’s trademark dry humour and sarcasm are present throughout the prose, especially in the dialogue, making this a fun book that pulls the reader along easily.

Wolf Moon (Luna II) – Ian McDonald

Following after the events of New Moon, the Corta Helio business empire is shattered, with the remaining family members scattered about the Moon seeking safety, solace, or escape into drug-induced oblivion. The Suns and McKenzies now rule the Moon’s business dealing. But Lucas Corta plans revenge.

Just like the first book, this one is a triumph of storytelling and characterisation. Where the first one was slow to start, this one hits the ground running as there is no need to establish the world. As cataclysmic events continues to unfold, the reader is starkly reminded that business is indeed war. The contrast with Earth also shows in an interesting way how new societies can seem utterly strange to old ones, even after only a few generations.

The Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America’s Race in Space – Eugene Cernan with Don Davis

On 14 December, 1973, Gene Cernan re-entered the Lunar Module Challenger after the third and final moonwalk of Apollo 17, the final Apollo Moon Mission. It was the culmination of a lifetime’s aspirations, first as a US Navy Pilot, then as an Astronaut. This is his story, told in his own words.

Mr. Cernan comes across as a straight talker with a rock-solid work ethic; a conservative in the traditional sense. When he wrote this memoir, he gave the impression of being long past any point where he needed to impress anyone.  His account is frank and does not mince words about anyone, including himself. While Cernan will never be remembered like Neil Armstrong, Apollo 17 had much more value from a scientific standpoint. It had the longest stay on the surface, the longest space walks, the longest distance traversed, the heaviest load of samples and the speed record for the lunar rover (unofficial).

A great book for any fan of the space race, or even flying in general.

In a sad coincidence, Mr. Cernan passed away on 16 January of this year, while I was in the middle of reading his book.

Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

SevenevesIn a very near future, the Moon is destroyed, suddenly and without warning. Within a few days, scientists figure out that the seven pieces will impact each other again and again, breaking into ever smaller pieces until after two years the process reaches a sort of critical mass. Then, so many large meteors will impact the Earth’s atmosphere that it will broil, annihilating all life on Earth in an event named the “Hard Rain”. Desperate measure are implemented to launch as many people as possible into space before the end. It is estimated that it will take 5000 years until the Hard Rain abates and Earth can be made inhabitable again.

Seveneves is a very long novel divided into three parts. Part one details events from the destruction of the Moon to the Hard Rain. Part two chronicles the struggle for survival after the Hard Rain and the nadir of human population, as well as the momentous decisions at this point. Part three jumps five thousand years into the future, with Earth being repopulated and the human race split into seven races. It is an epic story focusing on themes of resilience, survival and most of all what it is that makes us human. What are the traits that make us who we are? What drives us to conflict, cooperation, competition and rationality? Seveneves asks the question: Can such traits be altered in the human race through genetic tinkering, and what would happen if they were?

In the beginning of part three, there is a feeling of disjointedness with the rest of the story, but after a while this somewhat separate story with entirely new characters starts feeling like an appropriate bookend to parts one and two, with a perspective on ancient events down the long lens of history, and with the results of the experiment at hand.

The text is littered with info-dumps, mostly about space technology. Detailed explanations about orbital mechanics and the physics of free-falling chains abound. I personally found this content very interesting, but I can understand that not all would. The prose flows easily from page to page, filling the reader with a real desire to find out what will happen on this great odyssey. For it is truly an odyssey, an epic of monumental proportions drawing the entire human race, with all its history and heritage, down to a single point, literally a single room, and then chronicling its resurgence.

4½Rosbochs

New Moon (Luna I) – Ian McDonald

LunaINewMoonOver several decades, the Moon has developed from harsh frontier to thriving colony. The “Five Dragons”, five industrial dynasties, control the Moon under the aegis of the Lunar Development Corporation. There is no criminal law or civil law, only contract law, and everything is negotiable, including air, water, life and death. It is techno-anarchy or the furthest extreme of capitalism.

The Corta family was the last one of the Five Dragons to attain this lofty status, its company Corta Hélio monopolizing helium extraction and trade. They are seen as upstarts and cowboys. The founder of the dynasty, Adriana Corta, came to the Moon with nothing and now oversees a vast industrial empire. Her children are on the verge of inheriting the corporate reins, and their children in turn are being rich kids in an environment where rich kids can wallow in stylish decadence. But war is brewing as old grudges rise to the surface.

New Moon is an intricate tale set on a world that feels vibrant, alive and full of stories. Mr. McDonald’s world-building is spectacular in its detail and vividness. From the technical guts of Lunar cities to the socioeconomic and cultural consequences of the ultra-capitalist negotiation economy; from the cultural backgrounds of the Lunar immigrants and how they have interacted to create a new, uniquely Lunar culture, this story draws the reader into an immersive environment. The characters behave not simply as people from the Earth today who have been dumped into a science fictional setting, but as people “of the future”. There are many characters and many, many intrigues, but every scene feels immediate and alive. The tale deftly moves from the intimate to the epic and back again, tying the two scales together with the attitudes and experiences of the characters.

4½Rosbochs

 

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

Failure is not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond – Gene Krantz

Failure is not an Option - Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and BeyondThis non-fiction account of the NASA manned space programs from the early days of Mercury through the triumphs of Apollo was written by Gene Krantz, one of the original flight controllers in Mission Control, and probably the best known. While most accounts of the events focus on the astronauts and the spacecraft, Krantz naturally takes us into the world of Mission Control. It is a fascinating “behind the scenes” look at the people and equipment that led and supported the missions. While the astronauts got most of the glory, the truth is that Mission Control saved the day on many occasions.

This is by all accounts a geeky book. The material is often rather technical and having a prior understanding of some of the mechanics involved definitely helps. Just like the author and his former job, it is written with the precision and honesty that Krantz values.

Setting aside for a moment the spectacular achievements of the American space programs in the sixties, I was struck by Krant’s unabashed patriotism. He is a big fan of John Philip Sousa marches and feels great pride when listening to the national anthem. This is not the showy, hollow national love so prominent nowadays, but a true, deep connection. Krantz worked very hard to achieve great things, and he did it predominantly for his country. He gave to his country through blood, sweat and tears. His feelings are those characteristic of a generation past, one that did not show love of country by clicking “Like”, but actually by sacrificing. It smacks of an innocence lost in the late nineteen-sixties, when Americans stopped looking up to their politicians and when they stopped believing they could achieve great things. Krantz does indeed mention this himself in the epilogue. While reading, I found myself growing very fond of Krantz. He could by all accounts be tough as nails, but he feels an affection towards his colleagues that is very different from the empty corporate speak of many of today’s leaders. The world needs more people like Gene Krantz. People who dare to step up and doing the hard things because they feel that they need to be done.

On a side note, it was nice to see the footnotes in line with the text instead of at the end. On a Kindle, following a link to the footnotes is an annoyance.

4Rosbochs

Apollo’s Outcasts – Allen Steele

ApolllosOutcastsJamey Barlowe is a teenager with such weak bone structure that he cannot walk unsupported. This is because he was born on the Moon. He is roused from sleep and hurriedly taken to a space launch facility along with his sisters. The Vice President of the United States has come to power due to the mysterious death of the President. As becomes apparent, she is a bit of a nut and, among other things, wants to imprison Jamey’s space scientist father due to his signing a petition regarding the space program. Jamey and one of his sisters are sent to safety on the massive Moon base Apollo, established to mine Helium-3 for power generation. And so begins Jamey’s adventure, with a looming confrontation with the United States on the horizon.

It dawned on me after a few pages that this was Young Adult fiction. After a few more pages I noticed that it was clearly inspired by Heinlein’s “juveniles”. Not a bad place to start.  The story is a not too complex bildungsroman. Jamey meets girl. Jamey’s best friend meets girl. They have to acclimatize to life on the Moon. They have military training on the Moon. The base is attacked.

It is a lightweight read even for a Young Adult novel, and despite the elaborate Moonbase setting some things kept nagging at me. Despite Steele’s effort to introduce at least some modern trappings, it seemed as if these kids were stuck with current technology and the social mores of the 1980s. Given that the novel takes place in 2097, I think it is safe to assume that there would be more advances than a Moonbase and some cell phone technology that could come on the market in 2014. I also wondered why people still listen to the radio in cars (which at least drive themselves) the way they do today, or why they have landlines. Another point was that Steele confused weight and mass in zero gravity. He might just have been trying to simplify but even Young Adult science fiction should get it right.

2½Rosbochs

The Dahak Series – David Weber

A human pilot finds out that the moon is in fact a giant warship left there by the mutinous crew that turns out to have originall colonized the Earth. Our hero inherits an age old conflict. The premise is way out there, but these three books are good military science fiction, and a great deal of fun. The series consists of:

  • Mutineers’ Moon
  • The Armageddon Inheritance
  • Heirs of Empire

The three books have now been republished in the Empire from the Ashes omnibus.

 

 

Bad Astronomy – Philip Plait

Subtitled ‘Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing “Hoax”‘, this book discusses misconceptions related to astronomy. For example, various false explanations to why the sky is blue are talked about. The first part is about things like tides, eclipses. Then the book moves on to things like astrology and the purported Moon landing hoax. There is also a section on bad astronomy in films.

Philip Plait is an astronomer who also runs the excellent Bad Astronomy website. He has made a name for himself as a rationalist and debunker. His casual and easy style defuses any potential animosity in the text. He dislikes fraudsters and but he does not speak condescendingly about those who merely misunderstand. He also goes out of the way to explain complex physical phenomena in ways that laymen can understand.

It’s a fun book even if you don’t have much interest in astronomy, and I learned quite a bit reading it.

The Tranquillity Alternative – Allen Steele

The premise of this alternate history novel is that the USA established a permanent presence on the Moon in the 1960s, even basing nuclear missiles there. History has caught up, though, and an expedition is sent to hand over the moon base to a European corporation, as well as deactivate the missiles. A mini technothriller with some excellent good science fiction elements. Very entertaining and a real page turner.

Orbital Decay; Lunar Descent – Allen Steele

These two near future novels are about workers in Earth orbit and on the Moon respectively. Not spectacular, but solidly enjoyable, especially Lunar Descent. The authenticity of the characters is great. These are not “Roger Ramjet” astronaut heroes, but working class Joes trying to make it work.

Moonrise and Moonwar – Ben Bova

Fairly interesting tale about the colonization of the moon. Although he might not have planned it that way originally, Moonwar kicked off Bova’s “Grand Tour of the Solar System” series. All in all, the Moon books are enjoyable, but not outstanding. The rather bleak ecodisaster future for the Earth often used as a backdrop by Bova is, I think, first portrayed here.

The Golden Globe – John Varley

Another original, intelligent and inventive novel from John Varley. There is no clear plot or clearly defined progression of events. The action is in the first person, with frequent long flashbacks to childhood and early adulthood in the third person. Our hero, Kenneth “Sparky” Valentine, is an itinerant thespian and con man. The setting is Varley’s “Eight Worlds” universe, but the novels in “Eight Worlds” are only very looseky linked so there is no requirement to read them in order.

The story focuses on the figure of Sparky and his personal development. It is one part travelogue, showcasing the wonders of Varley’s Solar System, one part psychological investigation into Valentine’s very complex mind, and finally it is a coming of age story spanning a century (the Candide inspirations are obvious).

Varley manages to make his characters truly alive, and deftly ensures that their reactions and social mores chime well with their surroundings. I am not usually drawn to books without much of a plot, but I found myself fascinated by the unfolding mystery of Sparky as he made his way back to “the Golden Globe”.

Steel Beach – John Varley

This novel is set in Varley’s “Eight Worlds” Universe. It is the story, almost the chronicle, of Hildy Johnson, who also made an appearance in “The Golden Globe”. Steel Beach is the story of how Hildy Johnson didn’t commit suicide. That’s putting it crudely since the actual story is full of wonderful detail and nuance.

Hildy Johnson lives on Luna (the moon), a utopia with very long (perhaps even infinite) life, no real need to work and unprecedented personal freedom. Ironically, this personal freedom comes from having a very advanced Central Computer (the “CC”) run basically everything. Every citizen has a personal interface with he CC and can ask for any information at any time. Sex changes and other surgerical procedures are effortless and painless. Subcultures of all sorts thrive as people pursue what they really want to do. For example, large “Disney’s”, basically theme parks where you can even live, provide their inhabitants with life as it was in, say, an idealized Texas in the late 1800s. So life is pretty good. There’s just one problem: Hildy (who starts the novel as a man and ends it as a woman) keeps trying to commit suicide. The CC has noticed a rash of suicides and is trying to do something about them. He dragoons Hildy into helping him. Little does either know where this will land them or the rest of Luna.

The novel is about this, and much more. It is an exploration into what makes us human. Why do we live, exactly? What do we live for? Hildy is faced with the issue of having more or less infinite life ahead of him but no understanding of what he/she must do with it. The unbridled consumerism of Luna is not enough to give him/her purpose. And so he is endlessly seeking. Steel Beach is a wonderful exploration into the nature of humanity. But it is neither lecturing nor boring. The first person exposition is witty, whimsical, at times laugh out loud funny, while remaining insightful and interesting. I loved this book.

Back to the Moon – Travis S. Taylor & Les Johnson

The story is set in the 2020s. NASA is finally returning to the Moon using the (now canceled) Orion/Altair hardware. Meanwhile, a private company is sending tourists around the Moon and the Chinese are up to something. The first mission back to the Moon turns in to a daring rescue.

I’m a big space program buff so I’m a sucker for this kind of book. The story itself is a decent adventure/thriller. The engineering is well described, as would be expected since Dr. Taylor works with NASA Huntsville and Les Johnson is a NASA physicist. Unfortunately the prose is quite stilted, especially during the first third. The characters are stereotypes, especially the Chinese. Unfortunately the Chinese are also the wrong stereotype. They feel like reruns of Cold War era Soviets with a dash of “Asian” thrown in. The story does pick up in the second half and there are some nice thrills for the space buff. If you aren’t interested in the space program particularly you should give this a pass. It isn’t a bad book per se but could have used an author with a smoother prose style.