This Week’s Book Review – Frozen Orbit

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.

Book Review

‘Frozen Orbit’ is science fiction at its best

By MARK LARDAS

Jan 25, 2020

“Frozen Orbit,” by Patrick Chiles, Baen Books, 2020, 336 pages, $16

The United States is sending a manned space expedition to Pluto. Not to put the first humans on Pluto but because they’re not the first humans to reach Pluto.

“Frozen Orbit,” a science fiction novel by Patrick Chiles, starts with this. The time is the very near future. Magellan, with a four-astronaut crew, is heading to the outer planets.

Magellan, a reusable nuclear-powered spacecraft, was originally to be sent to Jupiter on its first mission. Other outer planets were to be visited on subsequent flights. Then NASA officials learned the Soviet Union secretly sent a three-man expedition to Pluto in 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed.

The Soviets launched it secretly because their Arkangel spacecraft was powered by nuclear bombs and could trigger a nuclear war. It was kept secret because something the cosmonauts discovered proved so dangerous the Russians destroyed the return capsule as it approached Earth landing years later, long after the crew’s death.

Magellan’s mission is to find out what that discovery was.

As with his previous novel “Farside,” Chiles builds a story blending a plausible but unlikely scenario, hard science fiction and an entertaining and gripping plot. Could the Soviets have secretly launched a manned mission to Pluto? The technology of the Arkangel mission is rooted in 1960s technology, and the 1980s Soviets were paranoid and grandiose enough to attempt Chiles’ scenario.

Chiles nails the atmosphere of a NASA-run human spaceflight mission in the 21st century, the jargon of the mission controllers and astronauts, and the bureaucratic infighting characterizing today’s NASA.

He packages everything in an entertaining story, one that compels readers to keep reading to learn what comes next. The scenario and background don’t overwhelm the story. Rather they are the scaffolding on which a gripping tale is formed.

Readers experience the wonder the astronauts feel on a remarkable voyage, groan as the Earth goes crazy as the expedition progresses, and thrill to a powerful conclusion.

“Frozen Orbit” is science fiction at its best — a novel that could have fit its 1950s and 1960s silver age, updated to the current century.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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9 thoughts on “This Week’s Book Review – Frozen Orbit”

  1. John Walker is blurbed on the back cover.

    About Farside by Patrick Chiles:
    “The Situations are realistic, the characters interesting, the perils harrowing and the stakes could not be higher.”  — John Walker, Ricochet.com

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  2. This is a great novel, which I finished a couple of weeks ago and haven’t yet gotten around to reviewing (WordPress system administration, incessant attacks on the site, and 4200 word Saturday Night Science posts will do that to you).  There is a shout out to Seawriter in the acknowledgements, “Not long after that, Galveston Daily News reviewer Mark Lardas recommended that book [Farside—JW] to Toni Weisskopf at Baen, and here we are.”, explaining how the author made the transition from independent publishing to one of the big science fiction houses.

    These days, you always worry about the big New York publishers forcing in a lot of politically-correct and diversity dross into a manuscript, but thankfully that didn’t happen here.  The production quality is excellent, with very few typographic errors or quibbles with the science.  The one major goof I noticed isn’t central to the plot.

    [spoiler title="Goof"]In chapter 2, astronomers are said not to have detected Arkangel’s nuclear pulse drive because they confused its detonations with “gamma ray bursts which were thought to be confined within the galactic plane”.  This statement is correct, and clever, but unfortunately the ecliptic (in which plane Arkangel’s trajectory would be near for most of its boost phase) is inclined 62.6° with respect to the galactic equator (plane of the main disc of the Milky Way galaxy).  Thus, the ship’s detonations would be near the ecliptic and far from the galactic plane, and thus highly anomalous based on the expectations for gamma ray bursts in 1991.[/spoiler]

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  3. Thanks, Seawriter! I have come to rely almost completely on Ratburger for reviews to find worthy new SF works – honest reviews of the worthiness of the material, as opposed to the amplitude of the virtue-signaling of the reviewer…

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  4. Is the latest Amazon KindleWhite a good device?  It’s in my cart, but I can’t pull the trigger without some advice, and there’s no better source than Ratville!

    Excellent review, as usual, Seawriter.

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  5. Trinity Waters:
    Is the latest Amazon KindleWhite a good device?  It’s in my cart, but I can’t pull the trigger without some advice, and there’s no better source than Ratville!

    Excellent review, as usual, Seawriter.

    I have an old Kindle DX, which I liked & used for several years. For about the past 5 years now, I have been using a 7″ Kindle Fire HDX as a reader. I have seen many good reviews of the Paperwhite and it has now come down in price but is still more than the Fire. What I like about the Fire, in addition as its occasional usefulness for web browsing or video watching, is the fact that I can change the color of the text. At night, I reverse black/white, so that the text is white and the background is black. This seriously reduces the brightness of the screen and, I think, reduces or eliminates the dreaded blue-spectrum light reported to interfere with sleep. The 7″ fire is less expensive than the Paperwhite by around $30 – 40. For what it is and the quality (and durability), I find it well worth the price; that is rare nowadays. Sorry I have no first hand knowledge of the Paperwhite.

    The main weakness of the Fire is poor readability in bright light.

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  6. John Walker:
    These days, you always worry about the big New York publishers forcing in a lot of politically-correct and diversity dross into a manuscript, but thankfully that didn’t happen here.  The production quality is excellent, with very few typographic errors or quibbles with the science.  The one major goof I noticed isn’t central to the plot.

    Baen isn’t really a New York publisher. It is located in the Carolinas.

    And your goof is only a goof only if you assume scientists always refuse to take the path of least resistance. I kind of felt they realized it was anomalous, but decided that was more likely than someone setting off atomic bombs in orbit. (I actually worked with NASA scientists in that era, so that seemed the likely explanation to me.)

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  7. Seawriter:
    Baen isn’t really a New York publisher. It is located in the Carolinas.

    I was going by the address on the copyright page, which is:

    Baen Publishing Enterprises
    P.O. Box 1403
    Riverdale, NY 10471

    Riverdale is a neighbourhood in the Bronx, which is part of New York City.

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  8. John Walker:

    Seawriter:
    Baen isn’t really a New York publisher. It is located in the Carolinas.

    I was going by the address on the copyright page, which is:

    Baen Publishing Enterprises
    P.O. Box 1403
    Riverdale, NY 10471

    Riverdale is a neighbourhood in the Bronx, which is part of New York City.

    Their printer is in New York, and they use the address for business reasons. Their editorial offices are in Wake Forest, NC.

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