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.

Saturn Run – John Sandford & Ctein

In the second half of the 21st Century, American astronomers detect what can only be an alien starship making rendezvous with an object hidden among the rings of Saturn. The starship then departs the Solar System. This sparks a race to Saturn between the US and China in order to secure any alien technology which can be found.

The tone of the story is more thriller than sense-of-wonder science fiction, showing Mr. Sandford’s crime write roots. And it is indeed a good thriller of a story. The characters are imperfect and well fleshed out, if perhaps rather stereotypical, especially the Chinese ones. The “games people play” are intricate and interesting. An unfortunate aspect of the novel is that it expounds rather too much at length on the science and technology involved in the missions. While it is certainly neat content for the scientifically interested reader, the infodumps have a tendency to interrupt the otherwise fine pacing.

Castaway Odyssey (Boundary V) – Eric Flint & Ryk E. Spoor

Victims of the same accident that stranded the Kimei family in Castaway Planet, Sergeant Campbell and four boys ranging from almost adult to eight years old find themselves adrift in a damaged shuttle.

This instalment is an improvement over the previous one. It is still overly corny at times, but the lack of a family as protagonists makes the interpersonal dynamics more interesting.  The dialogue is so littered with overly rational behaviour and humble apologies it is hard to suspend disbelief.

Anathem – Neal Stephenson

On the world of Arbre, which is very much like our own, Fraa Erasmas is an Avout, a young member of the Edharian order at the Concent of Saunt Edhar. Avout like him retreat for years, decades and longer into Concents, which are somewhat similar to medieval convents, but instead of being focused on religion they are focused on science. The Avout stay in the Concents in order to study and understand the physical world, unaffected by what happens in the Saecular world outside, and also because of historical events that make the Saecular world uncomfortable with giving the Avout too much power. The story begins at Apert, a regular opening of the gates. In Erasmas’s case Apert occurs every ten years since he is in the Decenarian part of the Concent. Soon after apert, Erasmas and his colleagues discover a mysterious object in orbit, and the efforts by the power that be to hide this knowledge from the Avout. What follows is a meandering quest to find the truth.

Anathem is a difficult book to describe because there is so much going on. While the story itself is not very complex, it takes us on myriad tangents and discussions. The nature of the Concents, places where Avout can concentrate on finding the truth in a rational scientific manner, means that the Avout are encouraged to engage in Dialog, structured debates. These are recounted at length in the book and the reader must pay attention to what are in essence intellectual discussions on the nature of truth, while at the same time absorbing the extensive fictional mythology and history of the world of Arbre, not to mention dozens of words in a made up vocabulary. The first third of the story is fairly narrow in its scope, but then suddenly events instigate major changes in the lives of Erasmas and his colleagues. The conclusion involves some very strange happenings indeed.

Anathem is an exploration of many themes and concepts, most notably deep time and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. It is also the story of a young man who wants to do the right thing by his mentor, a motivation that leads him down many unexpected roads. Erasmas’s fate is further complicated by the fact that, perhaps inevitably for a young man of his age, he is hopelessly in love with a girl. This last facet in particular helps the reader connect to the protagonist, even as the young Fraa has to explore things which will strain even his strong grasp on analysis of the natural world.

Grand Central Arena (Grand Central Arena I) – Ryk E. Spoor

GrandCentralArenaPilot Ariane Austin joins the crew of the first manned ship to attempt to break the lightspeed barrier. The first “jump” takes them to a large enclosed space containing a model of the solar system.

The characters are bland and too quickly introduced. They are all great at their jobs except for the one who is blatantly foreshadowed to have a hidden agenda. The technobabble is grating.

I really tried but I couldn’t finish this one.

1½Rosbochs

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

Escape from Earth – Allen Steele

Escape from EarthOur hero is a teenager who once dreamed of being an astronaut, but his life in a small town is not conducive to such dreams. His father was killed in Iraq, his mother is working two jobs and his older brother is a petty criminal. Life isn’t looking to go anywhere. Then one day he has a weird encounter…

This short story is solidly in the young adult camp. Not especially inspired but at least hits the right teen wish fulfillment note.

2Rosbochs

Shooting the Rift – Alex Stewart

ShootingTheRiftSimon is the son of a naval officer on a world with Victorian gender roles, except the gender roles are reversed with males being the inferior gender. He is a screwup and has just been kicked out of University, much to the disappointment of his family. He ends up on a merchant spaceship with the Commerce Guild, where his skills as a hacker get him into and out of trouble at regular intervals.

It is a measure of the dullness of this book that the day after I put it down, I couldn’t remember the name of the main character. The gender reversal would have been more interesting if there had been anything to it but the reversal. The dialogue is flat and even the supposedly “controversial” gene modified characters are uninspiring. I kept waiting for the story to go anywhere but nothing seemed to be happening. Despite a concerted effort after half the book I never picked it back up.

2Rosbochs

Angel of Europa – Allen Steele

AngelofEuropaAfter a serious accident early in the first Jupiter expedition, Otto Danzig was put into medical hibernation to allow him to heal. Now, months later and at Jupiter, he has been woken up to investigate the possible murder of two crew members while exploring the subsurface ocean of Europa.

The nicest thing I can say about this story is that it is a a short story so at least I didn’t have to put up with it for very long. The concept and plot are fine, but the characters and cultural mores are cringe-worthy. I have accused Mr. Steele of this before, but his characters are all too often solidly middle-class American prudes from the 1950s, even if they are from other countries, eras and cultures. What is worse, characters from other cultures are caricature-like, written like sloppy stereotypes. Case in point, the antagonist in this story is a sexy French woman, and of course she acts like the American stereotype of a sexy French woman. Apart from that, it seems this story was sent to the publisher without some needed polish and revision. The whole thing isn’t nearly as tight as it could be.

2Rosbochs

 

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

V-S Day – Allen Steele

V-SDayIn this alternate history novel, Nazi Germany is building Silbervogel, Eugen Sänger‘s proposed “antipodal bomber”, in an attempt to firebomb New York during WWII. Learning about the work from spy efforts, a US team led by Robert Goddard builds a counter-weapon, an American suborbital interceptor.

For a fan of the history of astronautics, this novel is a treat. While in reality Nazi Germany focused its rocketry efforts on the A-4 rocket, better known as the V-2 ballistic missile, it is not a big stretch to imagine how efforts could have gone towards Silbervogel instead. Steele mixes real people and fictional events in a very plausible “what if?” of history.

4Rosbochs

 

Castaway Planet (Boundary IV) – Eric Flint & Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary4CastawayPlanetThe Kimei family is on a colony transport when an accident during a lifeboat drill leaves them stranded on an uninhabited planet. Through happenstance, the Bemmie “Whips” Harrater, best friend of second daughter Sakura, is with them. Deprived by an accident of most of their supplies, they have to survive on a hostile world.

While it is billed as the fourth volume in the Boundary Series, this novel has almost nothing to do with the preceding three, though they feature marginally as historical fact. While I did mildly enjoy the struggles of the Kimei family, I found the writing verging wildly into corny far too often. The story is predictable and bland. Certainly not on par with the fun in previous volumes.

2½Rosbochs

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

All You Need Is Kill – Hiroshi Sakurazaka

AllYouNeedIsKillKeiji Kiriya is a draftee in the ongoing war against the alien Mimics. In his first battle, he is killed after only the first few minutes. He finds himself back in his bunk, seemingly transported back in time to the morning before. As the story continues, and no matter what he does, he keeps getting killed about thirty hours into the time loop, and then being returned to his bunk. Stuck in the cycle but with memories of each loop intact, he decides to become a better fighter so he can win the battle.

The first-person perspective lends itself well to the story, as the reader feels empathy for Keiji’s ordeal, both initially as a draftee in a seemingly hopeless war, and later as a victim of the time loops. He does not want to fight at all, almost a stereotypical apathetic young man with “no goals in life”, and he must transform himself from victim to pro-active initiative taker. While the action is excellent, and the story well crafted, the timey-wimey bits unfortunately become ponderous and over-complex as the novel progresses. A somewhat simplified view of the time loops would have kept the pace up.

The novel is the basis for the movie Edge of Tomorrow.

4Rosbochs

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time – Dava Sobel

LongitudeLongitude is the story of an unlikely genius, John Harrison. Self-trained clockmaker, he solved the problem of determining longitude on ships during the second half of the 18th Century. Determining longitude is trivial today with GPS, but for hundreds of years it was a big problem and inaccurate navigation was the death of thousands of sailors. There was even a Longitude Prize to be awarded for the man who could solve the issue.

In itself, the creation of the Harrison timepieces is a fascinating bit of science history. However, the real prize here is the political backstabbing at the highest levels of the contemporary British science community. The problem at hand was that various methods for longitude determination competed for primacy. Harrison, the relatively undistinguished watchmaker, found it hard to compete with the villain of the story, or in the author’s words the anti-hero. This man was Nevil Maskelyne, who seems to have been a bit of a bastard. To be fair, however, Maskelyne made significant contributions to navigation. Luminaries like Edmond Halley and Sir Isaac Newton also feature prominently.

I have been fascinated with geography since I was a child, and I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Well-written and without any excessive heft from unnecessary tangents, it should be good reading for everyone, but especially those with even a passing interest in navigation and maritime history.

4Rosbochs

Kris Longknife’s Bloodhound (Kris Longknife X½) – Mike Shepherd

KrisLongknifeX½KrisLongknifesBloodhoundThis  “companion novella” to the Kris Longknife saga is set at the same time as Furious and follows the efforts of Special Agent Foile to assist Kris Longknife in her efforts to stop her grandfather’s trade flotilla.

Note: Shepherd has previously written about our heroine’s great-grandfather Raymond under his real name, Mike Moscoe.

Fine reading assuming have read the Kris Longknife books up to this point.

3Rosbochs

Kris Longknife – Furious (Kris Longknife X) – Mike Shepherd

KrisLongknife10FuriousFollowing the events in Daring and Welcome Home/Go Away, Kris Longknife has been sent to metaphorical Siberia, nominally commanding a squadron of fast attack boats but in reality having to stay out of the way. She has fallen off the wagon and spends her nights consuming large quantities of whiskey. The details of the Voyage of Exploration have been swept under the rug.

Kris’s grandfather, billionaire magnate Alex, has decided to put together a trade fleet to make contact with the enemy at the other side of the galaxy. Oddly, the first half of the book is a caper story with Kris trying to get a face to face with grandpa. The second half is courtroom drama as she must answer for her actions.

I found the story itself to be very disjointed. The whole caper was absurd, though it had its moments of fun. Things picked up considerably in the second half, and I now once again look forward to the next installment. If nothing else, the ending of Furious is a bit cliffhanger.

Note: Shepherd has previously written about our heroine’s great-grandfather Raymond under his real name, Mike Moscoe.

3½Rosbochs

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

Portal (Boundary III) – Eric Flint & Ryk E. Spoor

PortalAfter the debacle at the end of Threshold, our heroes plus the few survivors of the EU ship Odin are marooned on Europa, a moon of Jupiter thought to have a liquid ocean underneath a globe-spanning icecap. The first half of the book focuses mainly on survival, while the second deals with the exploration of the Europan icecap and the obligatory thrilling cliffhanger.

This book is almost a throwback to old school “explore the solar system” science fiction. The struggle for survival itself becomes the subject of examination and discussion, but without becoming boring. The Universe is light and cheery and full of wonder despite its many dangers. The fleshed out characters make things come alive. The dialogue may sometimes be cheesy, but it always feels authentic. Real people don’t always spout cool one-liners, and some real people love horrid puns. The physics are real and well researched; I have learned more about ice behavior in low pressure and temperature than I thought I needed to know, but it was interesting. As with the previous installment, the story was on the light side, especially the conspiracy subplot. Also as with the previous installment, I liked this book more than it probably deserved simply because it is a joy to be with the characters on their fantastic adventures.

4Rosbochs

The Killer Angels – Michael Shaara

TheKillerAngelsIn this Pulitzer winning classic, Michael Shaara tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War from both Union and Confederate sides. This is not a history text however, since Shaara has written it as a novel. Mainly focusing on Union Colonel Chamberlain and Confederate General Longstreet, the pivotal battle and its players come alive on the page.

Beyond the very basics, I didn’t know much about the Civil War before I read this book. Certainly I had little awareness of how people thought at the time, or the deeper underlying motivations leading to  war. Certainly slavery was a big part of it, but it is made quite clear in the novel that the South and the North are societies that work in different ways. Roughly speaking, the North is “modern”, urban, industrialized and with a firm egalitarian ethic, while the South is more “old-fashioned”. The men are “gentlemen”, with notable class differences. The Southerners also believe in much stronger state independence. The North, victorious, strengthened the federal government, a development which is clearly seen in the United States of today. But they all see themselves as Americans. In fact the officers all have many friends on “the other side” (they were in the same army before after all) and there are many thoughts given to the sadness of having had to part, and then to meet on the battlefield as enemies. Are they fighting for loyalty, or for idealism, or just because they are soldiers?

Shaara went back to letters and first hand accounts for his research, and it shows. Sometimes overlong, but quite interesting internal monologues reveal the though processes of the characters. These are not our contemporaries. They are romantic and in our eyes often naive. They cry openly for lost friendship, they revel in life and companionship. They do not hide their emotions in public like we do today.

The battle scenes are excellent, and frightening. The comparative inefficiency of the rifles of the day is shown by the very short ranges and the fact that soldiers often sustain multiple wounds without notably impaired performance. It is combat up close and personal, with regimental commanders right there among their men. Logistics plays a big part, as does morale. A good commander knows not to throw troops who have marched all day straight into battle, in particular without food.

The undoing of the Confederates in this battle was an absence of strategic and tactical vision. As Longstreet remarks to himself, their tactics consist of “we find the enemy, and then we attack.” Longstreet himself is a master strategist, and strongly urges more refined tactics, making the Union army come at them instead of the other way around. It is not until the end of WWI, over fifty years later, that his defensive warfare ideas become mainstream. Lee orders a massed assault on a fortified position partly because of fear that the men will see it as weak to withdraw and attack on another flank. One romantic, glorious, useless, stupid charge that accomplished nothing but break his own army. And thus the tide of the war turned.

4Rosbochs

Tiger by the Tail (Paladin of Shadows VI) – John Ringo & Ryan Sear

PaladinofShadows6TigerbytheTailMike Harmon and his band of Georgian (the country not the state) mountain soldiers are back. This time they are on a training mission in Southeast Asia. One thing leads to another, with the action moving from Indonesia, to Hong Kong, to Phuket and finally to Myanmar.

In this sixth book, Ringo is cooperating with Ryan Sear. While the action is pretty good, compared to the previous books, especially I-IV, it feels a bit color by numbers, a bit like a Bond movie. The sex scenes, while still explicit and edgy, seem more written for shock effect than with reference to actual S&M practices. And apart from one quite brief action scene, there is far too little doubt about the outcome. The Keldara have become supermen, and this is a bit dull.

The perhaps unfortunate thing about a novel with a large chunk set in Hong Kong is that I could pick it apart for accuracy. I understand artistic license and I understand that there will be inaccuracies but in this book it was a bit much. For example a Hong Kong scene is set in Shekou docks, but this is over the border in Mainland China. A simple check on Google Maps would have established that. It detracts from the enjoyment of the novel when the research is so sloppy.

2½Rosbochs

Welcome Home/Go Away (Kris Longknife IX½) – Mike Shepherd

This “companion novella” takes place between Kris Longknife – Daring and the upcoming Kris Longknife – Furious. It is not a fantastic piece but serves as a good way to bring readers up to date. The story focuses on General “Trouble” Tordon, one of Kris’s great-grandfathers, and his involvement in the events on her homecoming from the mission in Daring.

Note: Shepherd has previously written about our heroine’s great-grandfather Raymond under his real name, Mike Moscoe.

Reamde – Neal Stephenson

A former drug smuggler turned Internet gaming magnate. His adoptive niece. A Russian gangster and his bodyguard. A Chinese computer virus writer. A Hungarian hacker. A British spy. An Islamist terrorist. A tea-selling girl from the Chinese hinterlands. These are some of the characters that inhabit Stephenson’s wide-spanning action thriller Reamde. It is almost impossible to briefly summarize the action, but suffice it to say it involves an attempt to extort money from players of a massively multiplayer role-playing game, a band of international terrorists, and a sprawling extended family from Iowa.

This is a big novel, weighing in at over a thousand pages. Due to Stephenson’s detailed and entertainingly understated descriptions, there are two action scenes which easily take up two hundred plus pages each. The action sprawls from the Pacific Northwest to the Chinese port city of Xiamen as several parties initially chase a conspiracy to extort money, then stumble upon something much more serious. The last quarter of the book is one long and convoluted chase scene, a killer payoff if there ever was one.

The many characters are complex, with rich back stories and believable quirks. The personal journey of the girl Zula, unwilling victim of not one, but two sets of abductors, is a fine base for the many branches of the story. She is a complex and strong character with two very different heritages, the first as a refugee from Eritrea, and the second as the adoptive daughter of a rural Iowan family. Her uncle Richard, the (former) black sheep of said family,  is equally interesting, and an archetypal corporate maverick.

While the main story is well paced and fascinating, Stephenson’s genius lies in his description of detail. Like a good comedian, he seeks out the hilarity in what on the face of it are ordinary situations. For example the disorientation felt by Americans in the sprawling Chinese city of Xiamen is brilliantly described, as are the similar sections where foreigners from other countries end up in the backwaters of Washington State and Idaho. Tangents and datadumps are often long, but Stephenson’s ironic and understated style make them both interesting and entertaining. Some parts of the book take place party in the virtual world of T’Rain, a massively multiplayer online game. These sections could easily have been cheesy and impenetrable to those not familiar with such games, but are written in an easy to understand fashion without reveling in geekiness. As such, they are easily accessible even to the game illiterate.