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

 

Arkwright – Allen Steele

Arkwright(Fictional) great science fiction Nathan Arkwright started his career during the Golden Age of Science Fiction, and now he is is dying. In the course of his long career and long retirement, he has seen humanity go from being optimistic and visionary, dreaming of a bright future among the stars, to altogether more introverted and seemingly lacking in outward ambition. He decides to start a foundation with the aim of sending forth humanity among the stars.

The novel is episodic, with the first part retrospective on Arkwright himself, starting way back before WWII. Here, Steele has woven Arkwright’s life into that of the science fiction at the time, including encounters with many of the luminaries of that era. The whole thing is wonderfully meta.

Further episodes are about future generations, descendants of the man himself, as they deal with challenges faced by the Arkwright Foundation while constructing and launching the starship Galactique. The last episode delves more deeply into the future.

While the message is clear (“The Future is what we make of it.”), the novel is not preachy. The starship project is epic, but Mr. Steele makes it about the people involved and their personal dramas and tribulations. The feel of the novel is reminiscent of early Clarke, with its epic scale and sense of destiny. A great read.

4½Rosbochs

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

Armada – Ernest Cline

ArmadaZack Lightman is a typical teenager living in a small town in Oregon. He is about to graduate high school. He works part time in a vintage video game shop. He plays the hit space combat game “Armada” quite a bit, with a player ranking of sixth worldwide. He also plays the companion ground combat game Terra Firma, but is nowhere near as good as his friends. The whole world seems to be playing these games. Then one, day, an Earth Defense Alliance shuttle looking just like in the games turns up at Zack’s school to pick him up for duty. Apparently the alien invaders are real and the games are a training simulation.

Like in his debut novel Ready Player One, Mr. Cline plays heavily on nostalgia and homages to the pop culture of the eighties. The story itself is heavily influenced by The Last Starfighter, which is also is referenced in the text. However in this novel the element feels somewhat forced.

The book is a fun romp and a lighthearted read. However it feels rushed and unfinished. The reader is left with the impression that there is so much left to say about these characters, but the story moves on rails, far too rapidly tracking towards what is a predictable conclusion despite the too obvious twist.

3½Rosbochs

 

Trial Run (Fault Lines I) – Thomas Locke

TrialRunA research team based based in Switzerland has discovered a way to disconnect the mind from the body and project it to other places and times, even into the future. They call it an “ascent”, and it allows access to secret information hidden away in vaults, as well as knowledge of future events. Clandestine elements of the US government have gotten their hands on this research, and are working to subvert it for their own purposes. Meanwhile, a graduate student named Trent Major is seemingly visited by his future self in vivid dreams. The future self gives him information allowing him to perform research breakthroughs.

Mr. Locke has written a tightly plotted thriller, in style reminding me more than a little of Michael Crichton. It does unfortunately leave the reader in the dark about the nature of the ascent for what seems a frustratingly long time. Once revealed, the ascent process, which is central to the plot, is always frustratingly close to pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo. The parameters of the process are never clearly defined and it is difficult to establish what is or is not possible in terms of plot.

Many characters are introduced at the start, but I found it difficult to keep track of them until about halfway through the book. Certainly there is some confusion as to which characters are actually the protagonists. Some of these characters are secretive in their profession and this trait seems to spill over into their descriptions. Others are cookie-cutter caricatures of their professional personas. I had a hard time feeling empathy for any of the characters, with the possible exception of Shane and Trent. Character development and description is rather forced. And how many times do we need to be reminded that Charlie Hazard is a combat veteran and security specialist?

A final nitpick is that objects are frequently prefixed with “the” on the first description. For example, “the trio of electric carts” suddenly appears but it has never been discussed before.

While it has imperfections, and was somewhat confusing at the start, the story certainly sped up in the second half, even into page-turner territory.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Revell in exchange for my honest review.

 

3Rosbochs

 

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

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

 

 

 

Rainbows End – Vernor Vinge

RainbowsEndElderly Robert Gu wakes as if from a long, dreamy haze, cured of his Alzheimers. He was a renowned poet and academic, but now must learn to explore a new world. It is the current connected world run wild. Almost everyone “wears”, meaning wears smart clothes and contact lenses. Through these means and ever present connectivity, overlays and information hemmed in only by imagination allow people to connect and interact in ways that were impossible previously. Robert Gu is initially confused, but soon haltingly learns to embrace things. Soon, though, he is unwittingly caught up in a world-spanning conspiracy.

The world-building in this novel is fabulous. Mr. Vinge has cleverly extrapolated on current trends to bring us the nightmare of any Internet luddite, and the wet dream of those who live online. The consequences portrayed are a mixed bag, some expected and some not. They are all interesting, however. The device of having an elderly person “travel forward in time”, as it were, allows us to experience the new world through fresh eyes.

While I loved the bits where Robert Gu must come to terms with the new reality, the overall story itself felt messy and weak. There were some interesting ramifications but I kept thinking that this novel would have been better as a novella with the technothriller bits weeded out.

3Rosbochs

 

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

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

ReadyPlayerOneThe year is 2044. Human civilization is hanging on by a thread. Recession, energy crisis, disillusionment, unemployment, starvation and poverty have reigned for decades. The only escape most people have is in a massive interactive simulation, the OASIS. The OASIS is also where most people work, a virtual universe with everything from shopping malls to space monsters. Thirteen year old Wade has grown up in a slum and has nothing to show for himself but being a geeky kid with some computer skills when OASIS co-founder and creator James Halliday dies, leaving his entire multi-billion dollar fortune and control of his company to the winner of an elaborate and mysterious quest throughout the OASIS. During the next five years, Wade becomes one of millions of “gunters”, short for “egg hunters”, trying to crack the quest and win the prize, fittingly an “Easter Egg”. This mostly involves ridiculously extensive research into the pop culture of the nineteen-eighties, Halliday’s favorite decade, to the point that Wade can recite every line of dialogue of every popular movie of the day, sing along to every hit song, and win at every old arcade game. He also knows the most obscure details of Halliday’s life. Then one day, Wade makes a breakthrough.

Ready Player One is a fast-paced, exciting, page-turning thrill-ride which proudly displays its early Cyberpunk roots. As Wade progresses on his quest, he encounters both allies and rivals. In particular, a large and ruthless multinational corporation is aiming to take control of the OASIS by running an entire division of gunters and battling for the prize. The majority of the action takes places in the OASIS, providing a stark contrast to the bleak and impoverished world outside. In the real world, people are jobless and homeless, and even debt slavery is often a better option than freedom since at least it provides room and board. In the virtual world, the poor but skilled can be wizards and warriors, paladins for justice or evil villains. The virtual world affects the real one in worrying ways, however, and domination of the real one is very much tied to winning the battle for the virtual one. For our recluse hero, this is a shocking and painful realization. He is mighty in the OASIS, but really only a geeky and powerless kid in the real world. The transformation of Wade’s real self to match the heroism of his avatar is the true underlying quest in the book.

It is clear Mr. Cline did a lot of research on eighties pop culture himself. The entire novel is one big orgy of fanservice, specifically aimed at those fans who grew up in the eighties. As an avid consumer myself of John Hughes movies, old computer games and era music, it pushed all the right buttons. The question this: can a person who is not at least casually versed in eighties pop culture truly appreciate it? I would say yes. Even without understanding the myriad pop culture references, it is a great adventure novel, and an excellent metaphor for our despondent times. Just be prepared for the massive geek-outs.

5Rosbochs

OceanSpace – Allen Steele

This novel is about a monster in the depths of the ocean. Somewhat stereotypically, the setting is a big underwater construction. An entertaining read but nothing memorable.

Rude Astronauts – Allen Steele

This is a collection of short stories and articles. Steele’s has a journalistic style and tends to describe the actual “normal people” protagonists of an event as opposed to the powers that be. He is seldom grandiose, but his stories tend to be very crisp and relatable. The articles are from Steele’s time as a science reporter in Florida.

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.

Antarctica – Kim Stanley Robinson

This book reprises much of the feel the Mars Trilogy. Once again, this is a story about grass roots insurrection, freedom and societal evolution. But no real plot, or did I miss it again? I derived my enjoyment purely from my interest in Antarctica. It is forgettable otherwise.

The Gold Coast – Kim Stanley Robinson

This is one of three novels in a set that examines three possible future Californias, specifically Orange County. The Gold Coast is the dystopic one of the set. While it has some very interesting imagery, it failed to capture my interest.

 

Saturn’s Race – Larry Niven & Steven Barnes

As in so many of Niven’s later works, there is a great backstory, but the novel falls short of the mark. A large offshore colony is dabbling in genetic engineering. There is a great feeling of hope that mankind will have a bright future. Needless to say, this doesn’t happen. Not very good, but it has some cool ideas and settings.

The Emperor of Mars – Allen Steele

Jeff, a contract worker on Mars, is told that his parents, his fiance and his unborn child have died. He cannot return home for another eighteen months. He descends into a special form of insanity.

While he has written several good novels, Steele is at his best in the shorter forms, and this novelette is no exception. In fact it won the Hugo Award in its category in 2011. This story is both charming and interesting.

End in Fire – Syne Mitchell

This is a rather neat and tidy near future thriller about the crew of a space station and how they survive a limited nuclear war. Left to fend for themselves, they must make their way back to Earth before their station fails around them.

The story has few characters but a lot of plot twists. It is certainly engaging although sometimes you have to squint hard in order not to see the gaping holes in the plot. For example, I had a hard time believing that all the spacecraft reconfigurations and trajectory calculations were as easy as described. Mitchell’s prose is a bit stilted (this is an early work by the author) but the novel does have a certain ability to keep the reader hooked. Vaguely enjoyable but definitely not memorable.