The Tau Ceti Agenda (Tau Ceti Agenda II) – Travis S. Taylor

The sequel to One Day on Mars takes place a few years after the events of that book. We are rather disconcertingly thrown straight into the action of a new “24“-like tale taking place within a short time span. United States forces are attacking a separatist base in the Oort Cloud. At the same time, the president (Senator Alexander Moore from the previous book) and his family are being attacked by every automaton at Disneyland (no, really). Finally, a secret agent emplaced at the separatist home planet in the Tau Ceti system gets into trouble.

The action (and there is a LOT of action) is fast, furious and for the most part well written. It annoyed me, though, that there was little or no introduction to events. It was all rather confusing at first. The story, once it is revealed, is in fact quite engaging. So it was annoying that there was so much action in the way in the first part. The other thing about this book that bothered me was that far too much space was given to confusing mecha/fighter battlescenes. The abundance of characters and the sheer overdescription of so many aspects soon made me skim through these scenes. They are supposed to be “cool” and “kick-ass” I suppose, and in many respects they are, but I could have done with a few less descriptions of hair raising maneuvers and how many gees the pilots are pulling. Conclusion: mixed bag. Nice action book, not great. Very intriguing macrostory unfortunately muddled by a great many less than relevant action sequences.

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.

Warp Speed (Warp Speed I) – Travis S. Taylor

Our hero, Anson Clemens, invents a warp drive, falls in love with a shuttle pilot, goes to space to try the warp drive and starts World War III, just to name a few things. There certainly is a lot of action, both up close and personal and on the macro scale.

At least in the beginning, the plot of this novel is somewhat similar to The Getaway Special. It also has similarities to The Trigger in that a revolutionary new technology has consequences unforeseen in both type and magnitude. The main character has much in common with the main character of Ringo’s Into the Looking Glass, for which Taylor and Ringo co-wrote the sequels. And then there are the quite overt Heinleinian nods. Taylor should not be thought of as a copycat, however. He simply took his inspiration from some very good places. I was pleased to see the connections, even if I don’t think that all of them were intentional.

The beginning of the book was unauspicious. I felt a vague dislike for the main character and his almost cliché existence (supersmart physicist, mountain biker, karate champion, quirky sense of humor, distracted scientist persona) but that soon passed. Taylor has even been accused of fanservice with Anson Clemens. I will agree with his rebuttal that there are quite a few amazing people out there and that heroes do not tend to be average and that there is a indeed place for real heroes. Anson Clemens and the astronaut Tabitha Ames are definitely such exceptional people. The people surrounding them are equally pretty amazing. This may seem like a bit too much of a coincidence, but I don’t think so. Really smart people will surround themselves with other smart people. If they can work as a team, fantastic things tend to pop out the other end. Just look at the Apollo Program. Was there ever such a large collection of supersmart geeks anywhere? Besides, it’s fiction, and in this case good fiction to boot.

I really liked this book. I stayed up until three in the morning reading it. It is lighthearted and the main character is unpretentious. It is a definite page turner. Finally, it takes off in unexpected directions without feeling random, just like the best John Varley books. After finishing it, I had a big grin on my face.

This is the debut novel by Taylor, a guy who really is a rocket scientist. He has no less than five science degrees in various denominations and flavors.

Von Neumann’s War – John Ringo & Travis S. Taylor

In the beginning of this book, various professional and amateur astronomers notice that Mars is changing color. It is becoming slowly less red and more grey. Eventually, they figure out that it is being consumed by Von Neumann machines. For those who aren’t familiar, these are machines capable of replicating themselves. A team of Very Smart People in Huntsville, Alabama ends up developing the concepts for and leading the defense. If the location sounds familiar, it is the site of the Marshall Space Flight Center and the Redstone Arsenal, some of the premier rocket design locations in the United States. The book starts fast, and gets faster, as a reconnaissance probe is sent to find out more about the Von Neumann “probes” and then these attack Earth. The “motivation” of the probes is interesting. They only kill as a side effect. Mostly they just grab anything metal, including dental braces, cars, metal eyelets out of shoes, dog tags and rebar out of buildings, to make more of themselves. The story focuses on the Very Smart People, and they are quite a fun bunch of rocket scientists.

This is what happens when you combine Ringo, known for fast moving prose and a twisted sense of humor, with Taylor, who can write one heck of a fast moving plot. Hold on tight! Just like in his other works, Taylor’s story creeps up on you. It starts very small and by the end the fate of the world is at stake and the action scenes crowd each other out on the page. The initial alien attack conveniently lands near Paris. I say conveniently because the US can act as the Last Citadel. I suspect it also gave our authors a chance to destroy France. This book is great fun, the science is fascinating and the main characters sound like a group of people I’d like to have a beer with.

Claws That Catch (Looking Glass IV) – John Ringo & Travis S. Taylor

The third mission of the Vorpal Blade, now actually Vorpal Blade Two, has the crew looking for an ancient artifact. Far from stagnating, the plot thickens as a new commanding officer and various crew members enter the mix. The just don’t “get” the Blade and its odd denizens. The ensuing conflicts and madcap hijinks are central to character development.

After finishing this one, I find myself wanting more. As mentioned in the Manxome Foe review, these books are just plain fun. The characters are likeable, the humor is dry and the pages just want to be turned.

Manxome Foe (Looking Glass III) – John Ringo & Travis S. Taylor

During the second mission of the A.S.S. Vorpal Blade, the crew is tasked with a long duration journey in order to investigate what happened to a far-flung research outpost with which contact has been lost. Big space battles with the Dreen ensue, as well as an encounter with an ally.

Just as in Vorpal Blade, the tone is light hearted, with a lot of dry humor pervading the text. No plot development is too hyperbolic for the authors, and therein, in my opinion, lies the charm of the series. It is almost a guilty pleasure. While the physics and logic are unassailable, the attitude is pure sass.

Vorpal Blade (Looking Glass II) – John Ringo & Travis S. Taylor

The sequel to Into the Looking Glass takes up the story more than ten years later. The US is launching its first starship, based on a nuclear submarine and and alien propulsion system. The novel follows the mission. It is an escalation of encounters from very mild to extremely deadly, with quantum physics sprinkled throughout.

Unlike Into the Looking Glass, which I was somewhat disappointed with, I thoroughly enjoyed Vorpal Blade. It is a fun romp with the right doses of humor and action. The characters are engaging, fun and well-written. You really get a sense of being with them on the starship. Fun!

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien

I can’t add very much to what has already been said about these books. One of the remarkable achievements of The Lord of the Rings is that it has firmly made a place for itself in the mainstream, without so much as a deprecating comment about it being fantasy. The Hobbit is more of a children’s book, and not really necessary to read in order to understand the story, but it is still a delightful tale and gives quite a bit of useful background. There are about a zillion different editions, but the complete cycle is composed of:

  • The Hobbit – the Prelude
  • The Fellowship of the Ring
  • The Two Towers
  • The Return of the King

Back to the Moon (Space Excursions I) – 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.