A Just Determination – John G. Hemry

The first book in the “JAG in Space” series is a short and neat novel about a young ensign, an incident, and a court martial. Hemry delivers a page turner. Not the heaviest reading, to be sure, but there are depths between the lines. There is in fact quite a decent coming of age story between the covers.

I am always partial to books where I can identify with and feel sympathetic with the characters. Hemry is excellent at making the reader (well, this reader at least) identify with protagonist Paul Sinclair during his struggles on his first deployment. The other crew members of the U.S.S. Michaelson are a mix of good and bad, with wildly varied motivations, just like in real life. Overall, the characters feel well fleshed out, and Hemry is skilled at portraying both them and the action, entirely from young Sinclair’s perspective.

It could perhaps be argued that this novel’s setting is incidental, and that it would have worked just as well on the sea. That may be so, but that does not detract from its appeal. A fine read.

Note: Hemry also writes under the pseudonym Jack Campbell.

State of Fear – Michael Crichton

This is the first Crichton novel I have had a hard time finishing. Somewhere in the middle, I just lost interest. It’s a decent story, but frequently disjointed and muddled. Very much unlike Crichton’s usual very focused style. Thankfully, it does pick up at the end, and Crichton is never really a bad author.

As with all Crichton’s novels, there is a central theme. This time it’s global warning. In an interesting twist, the author takes a dissenting opinion. While the views of characters should never be mistaken for being the same as the author’s, Crichton does make himself quite clear in the afterword. Put simply, he claims there is not enough research to prove global warming one way or another. Interesting. It should be noted that Crichton likes his scholarly afterwords and bibliographies. I have learned to take them with a pinch of salt.

The story revolves around an aging philanthropist, his young lawyer, and a large environmental organization. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that the environmentalist organization intends to influence public opinion by attempting to control natural phenomena. For example, they wish to create a flash flood to focus attention on global warming. Crichton writes characters and their interactions with each other and technology with his usual skill.

It is important to remember the title. I don’t think Crichton wrote State of Fear as a treatise on global warming. The point of the novel (apart from entertainment of course) is twofold: First, instill some healthy skepticism about accepting any “accepted truth”. Secondly, discuss how the “powers that be” need society to fear something in order to keep it in check. A central passage in the book deals with this explictly. With the media as a willing messenger, fear is brought home to the public. Current western society is as safe as it has ever been, and yet people are irrationally fearful of many things. Maybe that’s because they are constantly hammered with wall to wall coverage of murder, war, climate change and assorted doom. It’s not that the Cold War or Global Warming are only in our minds, but the way such phenomena are “sold” to us is full of hyperbole and fearmongering.

Be skeptical. Crichton subtly reminds the reader of this with the last tongue-in-cheek point of his afterword: “Everybody has an agenda. Except me.”

What I really liked was the sheer contrarianism of the whole thing. The environmentalists are portrayed as dissention squashing fanatics. The movement is anything but grass roots, but feeds on a vast mass of donations, much of it from rich but perhaps misguided individuals who need something to do. Those asking for clear, untainted evidence are hung out as traitors to the Earth. No matter how you feel about global warming, it’s an interesting read just for that. As a thriller, though, it is only fair to middling. Crichton has done better.

Prey – Michael Crichton

Crichton takes on nanotechnology in his usual “one-week story” format. Exciting and with some neat tech stuff but not particularly deep. This sort of thing has an irresistible appeal for a geek like me . Genetics, computers, nanotech, all rolled into one. Pity the book isn’t that good.

Timeline – Michael Crichton

A corporation has developed a way to send people back in time. Something weird has happened, so a group of scholars is sent back to investigate. Needless to say, Bad Things happen. Well researched and written, and very hard to put down.

Disclosure – Michael Crichton

You know it’s Crichton when the chapter headings are days (all in same two weeks or so). I keep coming back to Crichton despite his rather formulaic plots. The guy is a dialogue genius, and his dependency on describing what is, at the time of writing, cutting edge technology, is always good for nostalgia.

This book is way better than Crichton’s norm. Really quite a gripping page turner. The movie is pretty good too.

Sphere – Michael Crichton

It’s another BDO (Big Dumb Object) story! Not the best Crichton. An large sphere is found underwater. Divers are sent down to investigate. Strange things happen. Gee, wasn’t this plot copied for Clarke and Lee’s “Cradle“? Anyway, fun for the SciFi and Crichton buff, and probably ok for everyone else. On a side note, the movie is actually pretty decent. Scary in that Alien way.

Airframe – Michael Crichton

An aircraft encounters severe turbulence and one person dies. At least, that’s what people think happened. The novel follows the investigation by the manufacturer. A “bad” result could mean death for the company

If you are interested in aviation, you should definitely pick this one up. And even if you are not, it is good reading.As usual, Crichton shows how well he can describe corporate environments.

Congo – Michael Crichton

As usual, Crichton serves up a fast paced book in which the plot spans only a couple of days. The ideas are quite fascinating, from the long discussions about what are now very archaic computers to the insightful look into primate psychology. I enjoy Crichton’s work, but his books always leave me wanting more depth.

The Terminal Man – Michael Crichton

The table of contents reveals the traditional Chrichtonian day-by-day format, with the story laid out over four days. The plot is about a man who is implanted with a device that gives pleasure in order to control violent seizures. The man goes on a murderous rampage as he learns to control the pleasurable impulses.

It’s typical Crichton. Briefly entertaining. I find it a lot of fun to read about the technologies, even dated as they are. Crichton is heavily into using very contemporary gadgets and looking into their philosophical implications. So while his novels date fast, they provide an interesting insight into what concerned people at the time of writing.

The Ten Thousand – Harold Coyle

Even though the premise is a bit unrealistic, I really enjoyed this. A German Chancellor who is something of an anti-nuclear weapon fanatic forbids an American division transporting nuclear arms to go through Germany. Said division has to fight their way to the sea. The military stuff is well done, and the characters are truly three dimensional. The title and story are based on Xenophon’s account of the “Ten Thousand” and their march back to Greece in 401-399 BC.

America – Stephen Coonts

Unusually for Coonts, there is almost no flying. This is a vaguely passable technothriller in Tom Clancy style. Still not as polished as it could be, and Coonts fails to make the last half as gripping as the first. Also, I had a hard time believing the motivations and actions of the bad guys. Having said all that, I didn’t want to put it down until the end.

The Intruders – Steven Coonts

Coonts used to fly A-6 Intruders of carriers. This makes him, per definition, a cool guy. Pity that he forgot to throw in a plot in this novel. If you like planes, you will probably enjoy it anyway. Coonts’ hero Jake Grafton meets his wife in this novel. There, I gave half the “plot” away.

 

The Deep Range – Arthur C. Clarke

In the future (as seen from 1957), submersible game wardens herd whales around underwater ranges. The whales are food animals which, along with equally farmed seaweed, have solved the world’s food supply problems. The story is about an ex-engineer on a spaceliner who suffered an accident and gets a new start as a warden.

This book has aged quite badly. While much of Clarke’s space based science fiction can be read with enjoyment today, this one is just plain tedious. So tedious, in fact, that I only got about half way through before giving up. The technology is not really fascinating anymore, but that’s not the problem. There just doesn’t seem to be a story here, and the characters are completely uninteresting.

Time’s Eye – Arthur C. Clarke & Stephen Baxter

Like 2001 and it’s sequels, “Time’s Eye” is driven by the intervention in human affairs by unknowable and very powerful alien beings. In a flash, the Earth is divided up in chunks from different times. A UN helicopter crew from 2037, a British Colonial detachment in Afghanistan, the armies of Alexander the great and Genghis Khan are all shoved together onto the same Earth, in the same general area. Overlooking these humans and their reactions to the discontinuity are reflecting spheres hovering above the ground, inscrutable and silent.

While there is some focus on attempting to solve the mystery of the events which have brought the protagonists to this, the main thrust of the story is rather typical alternate history fare, much like 1632 or Island in the Sea of Time. Frankly this aspect has been done better. I did find, however, that Clarke and Baxter manage to infuse the characters with a sense of their place in time and space. Unlike many other alternate history stories, this one does not revel in, or lose itself in, the practicalities of the events. Sure, the “modern” humans introduce the stirrup and steam engines, but unlike with Stirling (who, to be fair, I much enjoy reading) the alternate history angle does not seem to be the actual point.

Time’s eye shows hints of what the superhuman beings behind the “Eyes” are actually doing. It is cruel indeed, but seen as necessary. So do the means really justify the ends?

 

The Trigger – Arthur C. Clarke & Michael Kube-McDowell

This is the story of a device that disables guns and bombs. It all starts out low key. An accidental discovery in a lab. But as with many such discoveries, it soon takes on a life of it’s own, and leads the inventors (and the reader) to many unexpected places.

Interestingly, this book manages not to preach from either end of the gun-control argument. Without becoming less exciting or interesting, it manages to sum up and discuss the entire issue from the aspect of new technological advances. A great book.

Richter 10 – Arthur C. Clarke & Mike McQuay

This book is about earthquakes, but not in the way you think. It’s more about one man, Lewis Crane, and his obsession. This obsession will cost him everything. On the way, we see fascinating glimpses of an evolving society and, oh yes, some earthquakes. Very good stuff.

The Rama Series – Arthur C. Clarke & Gentry Lee

A mysterious giant cylinder is found in space, falling inwards on a trajectory which will take it through the solar system. It is dubbed “Rama”. An expedition is sent to probe it’s contents.

Along with 2001, Rendezvous with Rama is the defining work of Arthur C. Clarke. The book is full of his trademark sense of wonder, and Clarke manages to convey awe at alien things like few others can. The first book is a solo effort. Clarke then teamed up with Gentry Lee to write a sequel trilogy. The whole series consists of:

  • Rendezvous with Rama
  • Rama II
  • The Garden of Rama
  • Rama Revealed

The follow-up trilogy explores and expands on the Rama concept, and puts forward some very interesting ideas on life in the universe, and how ready we as humans really are to inherit the stars (or Eden). It is an epic tale of destiny, focused around the character of Nicole, a hero if there ever was one. Not an action hero, however. Simply an inspiring figure around which the story swirls and flows. Wonderful stuff, and quite awe-inspiring.

The Songs of Distant Earth – Arthur C. Clarke

As usual, Clarke has an interesting premise. Faced with the Sun going nova in the year 3600, humanity launches seed ships with the necessities for creating earth life, including humans. Some of these colonies succeed, including one on the island paradise of Thalassa. After seven hundred years, a manned colony ship with a million frozen humans appears in orbit. The (not frozen) crew of the ship needs water ice in order to rebuild the ablation shield on the ship and continue their journey. The novel describes how the very different groups of crew and inhabitants of Thalassa meet and interact over the course of the colony ship’s stay.

I found the whole thing naive in it’s view of humanity (everybody is unnaturaly wise and kind) and more than a bit a bit dull. While Clarke has many interesting ideas, and I certainly had no problem finishing the book, I found that there was a peculiar lack of tension. Clarke compensates with his mastery of the “sense of wonder” style, but this still isn’t enough to elevate this novel even close to the level of his masterpieces, like the Rama Series or The Fountains of Paradise.

As an interesting footnote, Mike Oldfield recorded an eponymous concept album based on themes from the book. It is one of my all-time favorites.

The Fountains of Paradise – Arthur C. Clarke

A classic from one of the great masters. The book tells the story of the construction of a space elevator on an island closely based on Sri Lanka. The author also took a bit of license and moved it to the equator in order to make things actually work.

While one might think that the story is only about the technical aspects, it delves much deeper into the spiritual past and future of bridge building. For what is a space elevator if not a bridge to the stars? Clarke skillfully blends the past and the future into a marvelous tale. His famous skill sense of wonder is shown off to great effect, and the book leaves you feeling in awe with humanity and the universe.

2001 Series – Arthur C. Clarke

This series started as a one-off book released in conjunction with the Stanley Kubrick movie of the same name. The series consists of:

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • 2010: Odyssey Two. (Also made into a film)
  • 2061 Odyssey Three
  • 3001: The Final Odyssey

The first and second books are enthralling. 2061 is more of the same, and thus decent but somewhat pointless as part of the arc. 3001 is an attempt at closing up all the loose threads, and does so in a satisfying way.

For a long time, these books frustrated me because I just didn’t get them. On the surface, they are hard SciFi, but there is quite a bit of existential pondering about the nature of life. When I finally just relaxed and accepted the fact that there are mystical things going on, I realized that this is the whole point. The reader is supposed to be in awe, and there are some things that mankind is not meant to know (yet). Just remember to accept the mystery and embrace the sense of wonder.