Angels & Demons – Dan Brown

The story is mainly set in Rome. A mysterious new weapon of mass destruction stolen (ok, maybe not so mysterious to SciFi buffs). A plot to destroy the Vatican. An ancient conspiracy. Signs and portents everywhere. A well rounded and intelligent hero. A spectacular climax.

I went in expecting a good thriller, but this book hooked me. I couldn’t put it down, and described it to someone as “literary crack”. The imagination displayed by Dan Brown in the creation of his intricate plot is nothing short of astounding. The way he weaves in real historical facts and artifacts to create suspense and thrills is a rare gift. This books also contains the best treatment of the science vs. religion debate as a theme since “Contact“. The downside of the novel is that it is too weighted towards being a page-turner. Despite the subject matter, there seems little depth to the narrative, which serves only to carry the reader to the next exciting situation.

One thing that annoyed me is that Brown should have let an Italian proofread some of his brief conversations in that language. He is never totally off the mark, but sometimes it just sounds wrong.

Star Dragon – Mike Brotherton

A long distance probe has captured footage of a mysterious moving object in the accretion disc of a collapsed star. It seems to be an energy being. An exploration spaceship travels across the stars to capture this interstellar phenomenon, dubbed a “Star Dragon”. The story played out against the background of the mission is a psychological drama starring the five human and one AI crewmembers of the ship. Adding to the poignancy of their fate is the fact that the ship travels close to the speed of light to SS Cygni, a binary system 245 light years from earth. The trip is only a subjective 2 years for the crew, but when they return five hundred years will have passed on Earth. They have to abandon their entire existence in order to go hunting the mysterious Star Dragon.

This is a very strong story which manages to escape the technobabble trap of many such efforts. The characters are few but strongly threedimensional, each seeking his or her own place in the universe. With technological progress moving fast, they all have to contend with their doubts about what place they will have in the future. Contrasted with medical immortality, this becomes a serious issue. Will the future have a place for the individuality of humanity, or are we doomed to be replaced by AIs that are better than we? And if that happens, will we transcend to a utopian existence free of want? Is that where we want to go? Star Dragon is cautiously optimistic, and yet raises many important questions about our future. It s a vast universe and eternity is a long long time. Who knows what we will find?

The Rock Rats – Ben Bova

Part two of the Asteroid Wars. I used to keep coming back to Bova and his Grand Tour of the Solar System. Maybe I’m just a sucker for near future tales of men and women trying to tame the solar system. This book made me stop. It is just plain boring. Amanda may be beautiful but she and the other characters feel about as emotional as puppets. Furthermore, I simply don’t buy the story. After slogging through about half the book, I gave up.

Venus – Ben Bova

One again, a planet book from Bova and part of his Grand Tour of the Solar System. This one is not quite as good as Jupiter but heroism and high adventure abound. Bova is seemingly attempting to tie many of his works together, just as Asimov did near the end of his career. Neither effort seems particularly well executed, as it is rather difficult to bend old novels into new meanings. Still, Venus as a standalone s not bad.

Jupiter – Ben Bova

Although I am getting a bit bored with the titles in Bova’s “Grand Tour of the Solar System“, Jupiter is pretty cool, with the crew having to live in an oxygenated liquid in order to cope with the crushing pressures of Jupiter’s atmosphere. Luckily, the question, of, erhm, human waste in such a system is not examined too closely.

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 Sam Gunn Omnibus – Ben Bova

The Sam Gunn stories are now published in one omnibus edition. They really bring out the best in Bova. His hero Sam Gunn is a sort of space entrepreneur/adventurer, presumably inspired by explorers from human history such as Columbus and Shackleton. I also believe that Sam Gunn is Ben Bova’s alter ego, or the man he wishes he was. Lighthearted and thoroughly enjoyable, I recommend Sam Gunn to any fan of near future stories and space exploration.

To Save the Sun; To Fear the Light – A.J. Austin & Ben Bova

In To Save the Sun, humans rule a vast empire. It is discovered that the Sun is dying. A lethargic entity, the empire arrives at the consensus that humanity will evacuate the Solar System and move to other solar systems in the empire. One woman, however, feels that saving the sun would be both a symbolic gesture worthy of humanity, and a way to get humanity moving towards a common goal, as well as developing new technology. In short, a way to drive change in a society which has become too comfortable with the status quo, and in which progress has become a distant concept. The sequel is simply a continuation of events, but the first book can be read as a standalone. Unfortunately, both books feel rather unfocused on both the central story and the central theme. The main characters are not really fleshed out the way they could be. Since I very much like the thematic concepts, I was rather disappointed. It is, however, still an adequate read.

As on a Darkling Plain – Ben Bova

Mysterious Big Dumb Objects have been found on Titan. It appears that they have been placed there by the “Others”, who will return to threaten mankind. Although somewhat disjointed and lacking focus, I nevertheless enjoyed this story of mankind under an unknown threat. The novel is vaguely connected with the Orion series.

Orion; Vengeance of Orion; Orion and the Conqueror – Ben Bova

Widely considered to be Bova’s masterpiece, I never really figured out these books (and yet for some reason I read three of them). Our titular hero loses his memory, fights evil as he jumps back and forth in different eras of past and future. These jumps are more or less out of his control. He constantly loses and regains his beloved. The first book is decent, but after that it’s really just rinse and repeat and they blend into each other in my memory. I gave up after book three.

The Exiles Trilogy – Ben Bova

Three books way back when it was published, but nowadays collected in an omnibus, The Exiles Trilogy is about a group of humans on an orbiting habitat and how they are exiled from earth. Engaging and competently written, it has unfortunately aged pretty badly.

Colony – Ben Bova

A very dated tale of an orbiting habitat and of a “perfect man” who lives in it. Nothing remarkable about it, unless nineteen seventies science fiction is really your thing.

Test of Fire – Ben Bova

Although a bit dated, and somewhat simplistic, this rough and ready tale of Martian grassroots insurrection is fun. The coming of age story contained within is, although not terribly original, well written and engaging. If you can look past the nineteen seventies vintage stuff, this will keep you entertained for an evening or two.

Foundation’s Fear – Gregory Benford

Some genius came up with the idea that three different writers should write a new trilogy about Asimov’s Foundation. While I admire the sentiment, I would say that it’s a very tall order. I only got as far as the first book. Correction: I only got as far as the first third of the first book, because I kept falling asleep from boredom. It is utterly dull and as far as I can see there is no story. Go read the excellent original Foundation series instead.

Darwin’s Radio – Greg Bear

I saw the sequel to this one in the bookstore and it intrigued me. So I picked up the first book. It’s all about the “next step” in evolution. Sure it’s been done, but this looked cool.

Unfortunately it was monumentally boring. The main characters are very well described and interesting, but you always feel as if you’re at one remove from the real action. A new chapter will suddenly assume that a lot of things have happened since the last one, but none of that stuff is filled in. This sometimes had me checking if I actually missed a page or something. The biology is very interesting, but there is too much of it, disrupting the flow of the story.

I gave up after about 150 pages. Blech.

Slant – Greg Bear

I am still not entirely sure what this novel is about. It is a near future tale, with few traditional SciFi space trappings. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and my final conclusion is that Bear is writing about societal trends that may appear in the future, in particular the impact of the very rich wanting to live for a very long time. Not nearly as epic as Eon and Eternity, it is nevertheless a solid work.

Eon and Eternity – Greg Bear

Greg Bear can think BIG. Eon is his classic tale of an asteroid that arrives in orbit around the earth. The asteroid is revealed to be simply one endpoint for an endless (?) corridor named The Way. Inside The Way is the city of Thistledown, populated by humans. That human civilization is thousand of years old. Thistledown is the future, and the past. Greg Bear knows how to describe his quantum mechanics, and the non technical reader should not be intimidated. The characters and intrigues of the various factions, as well as the strong characters and fabulous descriptions all combine in a marvelous story.

The sequel, Eternity, is about how mankind must give up it’s manipulation on space-time. After the message of hope brought by the first novel, it is interesting how in Eternity Bear takes humanity back down a notch, not closing the door to the future but simply reminding us that the gods do not take kindly to hubris. And through it all, Bear’s astounding imagination is combined with a gift for good, clear and interesting prose.

Manifold: Time and Manifold: Space – Stephen Baxter

Manifold is not a series per se, but rather different explorations of the theme “Are we alone in the universe?”. In “Time”, a portal is discovered in the solar system, and some fascinating stuff happens related to preserving life and intelligence in the long term. In “Space”, The Fermi Paradox is suddenly reversed, with aliens appearing everywhere and the whole universe is just one big fight for resources, to the point of utter barbarism.

I had some nasty nightmares after these, which is why I will probably never read the third book, “Manifold: Origin”. On a certain level, this is very stuff, but not like a horror movie. It scares me on a very deep level that I can’t rationalize away. The same level that knows that the goody two-shoes future of Star Trek simply is not a realistic vision. Still, I would rather watch Star Trek since I don’t want to wake up screaming in the middle of the night, however good Baxter is. Read the books if you feel you can take it. They are very good and the themes and subjects are both engrossing and fascinating.

Moonseed – Stephen Baxter

This novel starts off rather slowly and without fanfare, with our hero moving to Edinburgh to work on a moon rock. This moon rock is taken out of the lab and lost. It slowly starts to devour the landscape. Weird premise, but Baxter does it well. It’s all about how the humans of today would cope with the Earth literally disappearing under them.

I very much enjoyed how the novel starts small and events snowball into a massive cataclysm by the end. Well worth a look.

Anti-Ice – Stephen Baxter

Steam Age SciFi from Baxter. In the 19th Century, the British discover a pile of stuff in the Antarctic. This stuff releases fabulous quantities of energy when it comes into contact with other stuff. A whole transportation economy develops based on the so-called Anti-Ice. And there is a mission to the moon. Fun!