Book Review: Planetary: Earth

“Planetary: Earth”, Dawn Witzke, ed.This is the fourth book in the publisher’s Planetary Anthology series. Each volume contain stories set on, or figuring in the plot, the named planet. Previous collections have featured Mercury, Venus, and Mars. This installment contains stories related in some way to Earth, although in several none of the action occurs on that planet.

Back the day (1930s through 1980s) monthly science fiction magazines were a major venue for the genre and the primary path for aspiring authors to break into print. Sold on newsstands for the price of a few comic books, they were the way generations of young readers (including this one) discovered the limitless universe of science fiction. A typical issue might contain five or six short stories, a longer piece (novella or novelette), and a multi-month serialisation of a novel, usually by an established author known to the readers. For example, Frank Herbert’s Dune was serialised in two long runs in Analog in 1963 and 1965 before its hardcover publication in 1965. In addition, there were often book reviews, a column about science fact (Fantasy and Science Fiction published a monthly science column by Isaac Asimov which ran from 1958 until shortly before his death in 1992—a total of 399 in all), a lively letters to the editor section, and an editorial. All of the major science fiction monthlies welcomed unsolicited manuscripts from unpublished authors, and each issue was likely to contain one or two stories from the “slush pile” which the editor decided made the cut for the magazine. Most of the outstanding authors of the era broke into the field this way, and some editors such as John W. Campbell of Astounding (later Analog) invested much time and effort in mentoring promising talents and developing them into a reliable stable of writers to fill the pages of their magazines.

By the 1990s, monthly science fiction magazines were in decline, and the explosion of science fiction novel publication had reduced the market for short fiction. By the year 2000, only three remained in the U.S., and their circulations continued to erode. Various attempts to revive a medium for short fiction have been tried, including Web magazines. This collection is an example of another genre: the original anthology. While most anthologies published in book form in the heyday of the magazines had previously been published in the magazines (authors usually only sold the magazine “first North American serial rights” and retained the right to subsequently sell the story to the publisher of an anthology), original anthologies contain never-before-published stories, usually collected around a theme such as the planet Earth here.

I got this book (I say “got” as opposed to “bought” because the Kindle edition is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers and I “borrowed” it as one of the ten titles I can check out for reading at a given time) because it contained the short story, “The Hidden Conquest”, by Hans G. Schantz, author of the superb Hidden Truth series of novels (1, 2, 3) and Ratburger.org member, which was said to be a revealing prequel to the story in the books. It is, and it is excellent, although you probably won’t appreciate how much of a reveal it is unless you’ve read the books, especially 2018’s The Brave and the Bold.

The rest of the stories are…uneven: about what you’d expect from a science fiction magazine in the 1950s or ’60s. Some are gimmick stories, others are shoot-em-up action tales, while still others are just disappointing and probably should have remained in the slush pile or returned to their authors with a note attached to the rejection slip offering a few suggestions and encouragement to try again. Copy editing is sloppy, complete with a sprinkling of idiot “its/it’s” plus the obligatory “pulled hard on the reigns” “miniscule”, and take your “breathe” away.

But hey, if you got it from Kindle Unlimited, you can hardly say you didn’t get your money’s worth, and you’re perfectly free to borrow it, read the Hans Schantz story, and return it same day. I would not pay the US$4 to buy the Kindle edition outright, and fifteen bucks for a paperback is right out.

Witzke, Dawn, ed. Planetary: Earth. Narara, NSW, Australia: Superversive Press, 2018. ISBN 978-1-925645-24-8.

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Book Review: The Dawn of the Iron Dragon

“The Dawn of the Iron Dragon” by Robert KroeseThis is the second volume in the Iron Dragon trilogy which began with The Dream of the Iron Dragon. At the end of the first book, the crew of the Andrea Luhman stranded on Earth in the middle ages faced a seemingly impossible challenge. They, and their Viking allies, could save humanity from extinction in a war in the distant future only by building a space program capable of launching a craft into Earth orbit starting with an infrastructure based upon wooden ships and edged weapons. Further, given what these accidental time travellers, the first in history, had learned about the nature of travel to the past in their adventures to date, all of this must be done in the deepest secrecy and without altering the history to be written in the future. Recorded history, they discovered, cannot be changed, and hence any attempt to do something which would leave evidence of a medieval space program or intervention of advanced technology in the affairs of the time, would be doomed to failure. These constraints placed almost impossible demands upon what was already a formidable challenge.

From their ship’s computer, the exiled spacemen had a close approximation to all of human knowledge, so they were rich in bits. But when it came to it: materials, infrastructure, tools, sources of energy and motive power, and everything else, they had almost nothing. Even the simplest rocket capable of achieving Earth orbit has tens to hundreds of thousands of parts, most requiring precision manufacture, stringent control of material quality, and rigorous testing. Consider a humble machine screw. In the 9th century A.D. there weren’t any hardware stores. If you needed a screw, or ten thousand of them, to hold your rocket components together, you needed first to locate and mine the iron ore, then smelt the iron from the ore, refine it with high temperature and forced air (both of which require their own technologies, including machine screws) to achieve the desired carbon content, adding alloying metals such as nickel, chromium, cobalt, tungsten, and manganese, all of which have to be mined and refined first. Then the steel must be formed into the desired shape (requiring additional technologies), heat-treated, and then finally the threads must be cut into the blank, requiring machine tools made to sufficient precision that the screws will be interchangeable, with something to power the tools (all of which, of course, contain screws). And that’s just a screw. Thinking about a turbopump, regeneratively cooled combustion chamber, hydraulically-actuated gimbal mechanism, gyroscopes and accelerometers, or any of the myriad other components of even the simplest launcher are apt to induce despair.

But the spacemen were survivors, and they knew that the entire future of the human species, driven in the future they had come from to near-extinction by the relentless Cho-ta’an, depended upon their getting off the Earth and delivering the planet-busting weapon which might turn the tide for their descendants centuries hence. While they needed just about everything, what they needed most was minds: human brainpower and the skills flowing from it to find and process the materials to build the machines to build the machines to build the machines which, after a decades-long process of recapitulating centuries of human technological progress, would enable them to accomplish their ambitious yet utterly essential mission.

People in the 9th century were just as intelligent as those today, but in most of the world literacy was rare and even more scarce was the acquired intellectual skill of thinking logically, breaking down a problem into its constituent parts, and the mental flexibility to learn and apply mind tools, such as algebra, trigonometry, calculus, Newton’s and Kepler’s laws, and a host of others which had yet to be discovered. These rare people were to be found in the emerging cities, where learning and the embryos of what would become the great universities of the later Middle Ages were developing. And so missions were dispatched to Constantinople, the greatest of these cities, and other centres of learning and innovation, to recruit not the famous figures recorded in history (whose disappearance into a secret project was inconsistent with that history, and hence impossible), but their promising young followers. These cities were cosmopolitan crossroads, dangerous but also sufficiently diverse that a Viking longboat showing up with people who barely spoke any known language would not attract undue attention. But the rulers of these cities appreciated the value of their learned people, and trying to attract them was perilous and could lead to hazards and misadventures.

On top of all of these challenges, a Cho-ta’an ship had followed the Andrea Luhman through the hyperspace gate and whatever had caused them to be thrown back in time, and a small contingent of the aliens had made it to Earth, bent on stopping the spacemen’s getting off the planet at any cost. The situation was highly asymmetrical: while the spacemen had to accomplish a near-impossible task, the Cho-ta’an need only prevent them by any means possible. And being Cho-ta’an, if those means included loosing a doomsday plague to depopulate Europe, well, so be it. And the presence of the Cho-ta’an, wherever they might be hiding, redoubled the need for secrecy in every aspect of the Iron Dragon project.

Another contingent of the recruiting project finds itself in the much smaller West Francia city of Paris, just as Viking forces are massing for what history would record as the Siege of Paris in A.D. 885–886. In this epic raid, a force of tens of thousands (today estimated around 20,000, around half that claimed in the account by the monk Abbo Cernuus, who has been called “in a class of his own as an exaggerator”) of Vikings in hundreds (300, probably, 700 according to Abbo) laid siege to a city defended by just two hundred Parisian men-at-arms. In this account, the spacemen, with foreknowledge of how it was going to come out, provide invaluable advice to Count Odo of Paris and Gozlin, the “fighting Bishop” of Paris, in defending their city as it was simultaneously ravaged by a plague (wonder where that came from?), and in persuading King Charles (“the Fat”) to come to the relief of the city. The epic battle for Paris, which ended not in triumph but rather a shameful deal, was a turning point in the history of France. The efforts of the spacemen, while critical and perhaps decisive, remained consistent with written history, at least that written by Abbo, who they encouraged in his proclivity for exaggeration.

Meanwhile, back at the secret base in Iceland, chosen to stay out of the tangles of European politics and out of the way of their nemesis Harald Fairhair, the first King of Norway, local rivalries intrude upon the desired isolation. It appears another, perhaps disastrous, siege may be in the offing, putting the entire project at risk. And with all of this, one of those knock-you-off-your-feet calamities the author is so fond of throwing at his characters befalls them, forcing yet another redefinition of their project and a breathtaking increase in its ambition and complexity, just as they have to contemplate making new and perilous alliances simply to survive.

The second volume of a trilogy is often the most challenging to write. In the first, everything is new, and the reader gets to meet the characters, the setting, and the challenges to be faced in the story. In the conclusion, everything is pulled together into a satisfying resolution. But in that one in the middle, it’s mostly developing characters, plots, introducing new (often subordinate) characters, and generally moving things along—one risks readers’ regarding it as “filler”. In this book, the author artfully avoids that risk by making a little-known but epic battle the centrepiece of the story, along with intrigue, a thorny ethical dilemma, and multiple plot threads playing out from Iceland to North Africa to the Dardanelles. You absolutely should read the first volume, The Dream of the Iron Dragon, before starting this one—although there is a one page summary of that book at the start, it isn’t remotely adequate to bring you up to speed and avoid your repeatedly exclaiming “Who?”, “What?”, and “How?” as you enjoy this story.

When you finish this volume, the biggest question in your mind will probably be “How in the world is he going to wrap all of this up in just one more book?” The only way to find out is to pick up The Voyage of the Iron Dragon, which I will be reviewing here in due course. This saga (what else can you call an epic with Vikings and spaceships?) will be ranked among the very best of alternative history science fiction, and continues to demonstrate why independent science fiction is creating a new Golden Age for readers and rendering the legacy publishers of tedious “diversity” propaganda impotent and obsolete.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Kroese, Robert. The Dawn of the Iron Dragon. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2018. ISBN 978-1-7220-2331-7.

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This Week’s Book Review – Noir Fatale

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

‘Noir Fatale’ a collection of short stories linked by the theme

By MARK LARDAS

May 18, 2019

“Noir Fatale: The Dark Side of Science Fiction and Fantasy,” edited by Larry Correia and Kacey Ezell, Baen, 2019, $25

Cherchez la femme — look for the woman. The phrase defines one sub-genre of noir mystery fiction.

“Noir Fatale: The Dark Side of Science Fiction and Fantasy,” edited by Larry Correia and Kacey Ezell, explore that sub-genre in science fiction and fantasy.

The book is an anthology, a collection of short stories linked by the theme. All are original, written for this collection. The authors are an all-star cast. Besides stories written by the two editors, Baen regulars David Weber, Griffin Barber, Sarah Hoyt, Mike Massa, and Robert Buettner contributed, as did Steve Diamond, Laurell Kaye Hamilton, Alistair Kimble, Patrick M. Tracy, Christopher L. Smith and Michael Ferguson. Hickley Correia, Larry Correia’s daughter kicks in a story too. Its quality testifies to heredity rather than nepotism justifying its inclusion. It’s a marvelous short piece set in Tokyo incorporating Japanese mythology.

Marvelous is a good word to describe all of the stories in the book. They’re split between science fiction and fantasy. Even within those categories the stories are diverse. There’s hard science fiction (in one story literally vacuum-hard), alternate history, and space opera. Fantasy includes urban fantasy, classic fantasy, and mixtures in between.

Weber’s story is set in his Honorverse, during the time of the People’s Republic of Haven. Larry Correia adds a story to his Hard Magic setting.

A broad range of story styles is presented, too. Some, such as Smith and Ferguson’s “Ain’t No Sunshine,” Kimble’s “A String of Pearls, and Hoyt’s “Honey Fall” are classic noir, whether set in the 1930s through 1950s or set in the far future. Others are like Barber’s “A Women in Red” and Tracy’s “Worth the Scars of Dying” are dark fantasy tales. World War II forms the setting for Massa’s “Three Kates” is equally dark.

Yet there are delightfully light tales in the mix as well. These include Hamilton’s urban fantasy “Sweet Seduction,” and Buettner’s “The Frost Queen” an unexpected love story.

“Noir Fatale” is a book that will charm both noir fans, and general science fiction and fantasy readers. Correia and Ezell have created a captivating mix of stories.

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

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Book Review: Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves

“Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves” by Fenton WoodThis is an utterly charming short novel (or novella: it is just 123 pages) which, on the surface, reads like a young adult adventure from the golden age, along the lines of the original Tom Swift or Hardy Boys series. But as you get deeper into the story, you discover clues there is much more going on than you first suspected, and that this may be the beginning of a wonderful exploration of an alternative reality which is a delight to visit and you may wish were your home.

Philo Hergenschmidt, Randall Quinn, and their young friends live in Porterville, deep in the mountain country of the Yankee Republic. The mountains that surround it stopped the glaciers when they came down from the North a hundred thousand years ago, and provided a refuge for the peace-loving, self-sufficient, resourceful, and ornery people who fled the wars. Many years later, they retain those properties, and most young people are members of the Survival Scouts, whose eight hundred page Handbook contains every thing a mountain man needs to know to survive and prosper under any circumstances.

Porterville is just five hundred miles from the capital of Iburakon, but might as well be on a different planet. Although the Yankee Republic’s technology is in many ways comparable to our own, the mountains shield Porterville from television and FM radio broadcasts and, although many families own cars with radios installed by default, the only thing they can pick up is a few scratchy AM stations from far away when the skywave opens up at night. Every summer, Randall spends two weeks with his grandparents in Iburakon and comes back with tales of wonders which enthrall his friends like an explorer of yore returned from Shangri-La. (Randall is celebrated as a raconteur—and some of his tales may be true.) This year he told of the marvel of television and a science fiction series called Xenotopia, and for weeks the boys re-enacted battles from his descriptions. Broadcasting: that got Philo thinking….

One day Philo calls up Randall and asks him to dig out an old radio he recalled him having and tune it to the usually dead FM band. Randall does, and is astonished to hear Philo broadcasting on “Station X” with amusing patter. It turns out he found a book in the attic, 101 Radio Projects for Boys, written by a creative and somewhat subversive author, and following the directions, put together a half watt FM transmitter from scrounged spare parts. Philo briefs Randall on pirate radio stations: although the penalties for operating without a license appear severe, in fact, unless you willingly interfere with a licensed broadcaster, you just get a warning the first time and a wrist-slap ticket thereafter unless you persist too long.

This gets them both thinking…. With the help of adults willing to encourage youth in their (undisclosed) projects, or just to look the other way (the kids of Porterville live free-range lives, as I did in my childhood, as their elders have not seen fit to import the vibrant diversity into their community which causes present-day youth to live under security lock-down), and a series of adventures, radio station 9X9 goes on the air, announced with great fanfare in handbills posted around the town. Suddenly, there is something to listen to, and people start tuning in. Local talent tries their hands at being a DJ, and favourites emerge. Merchants start to sign up for advertisements. Church services are broadcast for shut-ins. Even though no telephone line runs anywhere near the remote and secret studio, ingenuity and some nineteenth-century technology allow them to stage a hit call-in show. And before long, live talent gets into the act. A big baseball game provides both a huge opportunity and a seemingly insurmountable challenge until the boys invent an art which, in our universe, was once masterfully performed by a young Ronald Reagan.

Along the way, we learn of the Yankee Republic in brief, sometimes jarring, strokes of the pen, as the author masterfully follows the science fiction principle of “show, don’t tell”.

Just imagine if William the Bastard had succeeded in conquering England. We’d probably be speaking some unholy crossbreed of French and English….

The Republic is the only country in the world that recognizes allodial title,….

When Congress declares war, they have to elect one of their own to be a sacrificial victim,….

“There was a man from the state capitol who wanted to give us government funding to build what he called a ‘proper’ school, but he was run out of town, the poor dear.”

Pirates, of course, must always keenly scan the horizon for those who might want to put an end to the fun. And so it is for buccaneers sailing the Hertzian waves. You’ll enjoy every minute getting to the point where you find out how it ends. And then, when you think it’s all over, another door opens into a wider, and weirder, world in which we may expect further adventures. The second volume in the series, Five Million Watts, was published in April, 2019.

At present, only a Kindle edition is available. The book is not available under the Kindle Unlimited free rental programme, but is very inexpensive.
Wood, Fenton. Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2018. ASIN B07H2RJK8J.
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Book Review: The Code Hunters

“The Code Hunters” by Jackson CoppleyA team of expert cavers exploring a challenging cave in New Mexico in search of a possible connection to Carlsbad Caverns tumble into a chamber deep underground containing something which just shouldn’t be there: a huge slab of metal, like titanium, twenty-four feet square and eight inches thick, set into the rock of the cave, bearing markings which resemble the pits and lands on an optical storage disc. No evidence for human presence in the cave prior to the discoverers is found, and dating confirms that the slab is at least ten thousand years old. There is no way an object that large could be brought through the cramped and twisting passages of the cave to the chamber where it was found.

Wealthy adventurer Nicholas Foxe, with degrees in archaeology and cryptography, gets wind of the discovery and pulls strings to get access to the cave, putting together a research program to try to understand the origin of the slab and decode its enigmatic inscription. But as news of the discovery reaches others, they begin to pursue their own priorities. A New Mexico senator sends his on-the-make assistant to find out what is going on and see how it might be exploited to his advantage. An ex-Army special forces operator makes stealthy plans. An MIT string theorist with a wide range of interests begins exploring unorthodox ideas about how the inscriptions might be encoded. A televangelist facing hard times sees the Tablet as the way back to the top of the heap. A wealthy Texan sees the potential in the slab for wealth beyond his abundant dreams of avarice. As the adventure unfolds, we encounter a panoply of fascinating characters: a World Health Organization scientist, an Italian violin maker with an eccentric theory of language and his autistic daughter, and a “just the facts” police inspector. As clues are teased from the enigma, we visit exotic locations and experience harrowing adventure, finally grasping the significance of a discovery that bears on the very origin of modern humans.

About now, you might be thinking “This sounds like a Dan Brown novel”, and in a sense you’d be right. But this is the kind of story Dan Brown would craft if he were a lot better author than he is: whereas Dan Brown books have become stereotypes of cardboard characters and fill-in-the-blanks plots with pseudo-scientific bafflegab stirred into the mix (see my review of Origin), this is a gripping tale filled with complex, quirky characters, unexpected plot twists, beautifully sketched locales, and a growing sense of wonder as the significance of the discovery is grasped. If anybody in Hollywood had any sense (yes, I know…) they would make this into a movie instead of doing another tedious Dan Brown sequel. This is subtitled “A Nicholas Foxe Adventure”: I sincerely hope there will be more to come.

The author kindly let me read a pre-publication manuscript of this novel. The Kindle edition is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Coppley, Jackson. The Code Hunters. Chevy Chase, MD: Contour Press, 2019. ISBN 978-1-09-107011-0.

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This Week’s Book Review – Moon Tracks

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.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

Readers of all ages can enjoy ‘Moon Tracks’

By MARK LARDAS

Apr 16, 2019

“Moon Tracks,” by Travis S. Taylor and Jody Lynn Nye, Baen, 2019, 256 pages, $24

What will life be like on the first lunar settlement?

“Moon Tracks,” a science fiction novel by Travis S. Taylor and Jody Lynn Nye, explores that question. A story around the first moon buggy race around the moon, it’s a sequel to “Moon Beam,” a novel about the Bright Sparks.

These teenagers star in a science-oriented reality video show produced on the moon at Armstrong City. At 7,000 people, it’s the largest lunar city. Led by Dr. Keegan Bright, the Sparks do science and engineering on the moon for an audience on Earth and moon.

Billionaire philanthropist Adrienne Reynolds-Ward has offered $1 million for the winners of an 11,000-kilometer race around the circumference of the moon by a crew of four racers. Twenty-six teams from Earth have entered racers. Of course, the Bright Sparks are entering the race.

They’re building Spark Xpress. Although the hometown team, and the best and brightest on the moon, their competitors are the best and brightest from Earth. The Sparks have to finish their entry to race it. Then they have to beat the other teams. While the race is to the swift, it’s also to the most reliable.

The teenage Sparks end up being too optimistic in their development schedule, and must make up lost time to complete Spark Xpress on time. They do this largely due to the newest Spark, Barbara Winton. Her talents at improvisation and organization, honed on the family’s farm get the Sparks past this challenge.

The race proves as challenging. The moon’s terrain is hostile and unforgiving. An additional obstacle is provided by TurnTables, a social media game, broadcasting music. Rare hard-to-find tracks are spotted along the course proving a Lorelei luring teams into misfortune. A real-life accident involving Dr. Bright forces the Sparks to mount a rescue, endangering race participation.

“Moon Tracks” is a young adult novel, but in the sense Heinlein defined how he wrote juvenile — write the best story you can with teenaged protagonists. Taylor and Nye have written an exciting story which readers of all ages can enjoy.

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

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Book Review: The Powers of the Earth and Causes of Separation

“The Powers of the Earth”, by Travis J. I. Corcoran(Note: This is novel is the first of an envisioned four volume series titled Aristillus. It and the second book, Causes of Separation, published in May, 2018, together tell a single story which reaches a decisive moment just as the first book ends. Unusually, this will be a review of both novels, taken as a whole. If you like this kind of story at all, there’s no way you’ll not immediately plunge into the second book after setting down the first.)

Around the year 2050, collectivists were firmly in power everywhere on Earth. Nations were subordinated to the United Nations, whose force of Peace Keepers (PKs) had absorbed all but elite special forces, and were known for being simultaneously brutal, corrupt, and incompetent. (Due to the equality laws, military units had to contain a quota of “Alternatively Abled Soldiers” who other troops had to wheel into combat.) The United States still existed as a country, but after decades of rule by two factions of the Democrat party: Populist and Internationalist, was mired in stagnation, bureaucracy, crumbling infrastructure, and on the verge of bankruptcy. The U.S. President, Themba Johnson, a former talk show host who combined cluelessness, a volatile temper, and vulpine cunning when it came to manipulating public opinion, is confronted with all of these problems and looking for a masterstroke to get beyond the next election.

Around 2050, when the collectivists entered the inevitable end game their policies lead to everywhere they are tried, with the Bureau of Sustainable Research (BuSuR) suppressing new technologies in every field and the Construction Jobs Preservation Act and Bureau of Industrial Planning banning anything which might increase productivity, a final grasp to loot the remaining seed corn resulted in the CEO Trials aimed at the few remaining successful companies, with expropriation of their assets and imprisonment of their leaders. CEO Mike Martin manages to escape from prison and link up with renegade physicist Ponnala (“Ponzie”) Srinivas, inventor of an anti-gravity drive he doesn’t want the slavers to control. Mike buys a rustbucket oceangoing cargo ship, equips it with the drive, an airtight compartment and life support, and flees Earth with a cargo of tunnel boring machines and water to exile on the Moon, in the crater Aristillus in Mare Imbrium on the lunar near side where, fortuitously, the impact of a metal-rich asteroid millions of years ago enriched the sub-surface with metals rare in the Moon’s crust.

Let me say a few words about the anti-gravity drive, which is very unusual and original, and whose properties play a significant role in the story. The drive works by coupling to the gravitational field of a massive body and then pushing against it, expending energy as it rises and gains gravitational potential energy. Momentum is conserved, as an equal and opposite force is exerted on the massive body against which it is pushing. The force vector is always along the line connecting the centre of mass of the massive body and the drive unit, directed away from the centre of mass. The force is proportional to the strength of the gravitational field in which the drive is operating, and hence stronger when pushing against a body like Earth as opposed to a less massive one like the Moon. The drive’s force diminishes with distance from the massive body as its gravitational field falls off with the inverse square law, and hence the drive generates essentially no force when in empty space far from a gravitating body. When used to brake a descent toward a massive body, the drive converts gravitational potential energy into electricity like the regenerative braking system of an electric vehicle: energy which can be stored for use when later leaving the body.

“Causes of Separation” by Travis J. I. CorcoranBecause the drive can only push outward radially, when used to, say, launch from the Earth to the Moon, it is much like Jules Verne’s giant cannon—the launch must occur at the latitude and longitude on Earth where the Moon will be directly overhead at the time the ship arrives at the Moon. In practice, the converted ships also carried auxiliary chemical rockets and reaction control thrusters for trajectory corrections and precision maneuvering which could not be accomplished with the anti-gravity drive.

By 2064, the lunar settlement, called Aristillus by its inhabitants, was thriving, with more than a hundred thousand residents, and growing at almost twenty percent a year. (Well, nobody knew for sure, because from the start the outlook shared by the settlers was aligned with Mike Martin’s anarcho-capitalist worldview. There was no government, no taxes, no ID cards, no business licenses, no regulations, no zoning [except covenants imposed by property owners on those who sub-leased property from them], no central bank, no paper money [an entrepreneur had found a vein of gold left by the ancient impactor and gone into business providing hard currency], no elections, no politicians, no forms to fill out, no police, and no army.) Some of these “features” of life on grey, regimented Earth were provided by private firms, while many of the others were found to be unnecessary altogether.

The community prospered as it grew. Like many frontier settlements, labour was in chronic short supply, and even augmented by robot rovers and machines (free of the yoke of BuSuR), there was work for anybody who wanted it and job offers awaiting new arrivals. A fleet of privately operated ships maintained a clandestine trade with Earth, bringing goods which couldn’t yet be produced on the Moon, atmosphere, water from the oceans (in converted tanker ships), and new immigrants who had sold their Earthly goods and quit the slave planet. Waves of immigrants from blood-soaked Nigeria and chaotic China established their own communities and neighbourhoods in the ever-growing network of tunnels beneath Aristillus.

The Moon has not just become a refuge for humans. When BuSuR put its boot on the neck of technology, it ordered the shutdown of a project to genetically “uplift” dogs to human intelligence and beyond, creating “Dogs” (the capital letter denoting the uplift) and all existing Dogs to be euthanised. Many were, but John (we never learn his last name), a former U.S. Special Forces operator, manages to rescue a colony of Dogs from one of the labs before the killers arrive and escape with them to Aristillus, where they have set up the Den and engage in their own priorities, including role-playing games, software development, and trading on the betting markets. Also rescued by John was Gamma, the first Artificial General Intelligence to be created, whose intelligence is above the human level but not (yet, anyway) intelligence runaway singularity-level transcendent. Gamma has established itself in its own facility in Sinus Lunicus on the other side of Mare Imbrium, and has little contact with the human or Dog settlers.

Inevitably, liberty produces prosperity, and prosperity eventually causes slavers to regard the free with envious eyes, and slowly and surely draw their plans against them.

This is the story of the first interplanetary conflict, and a rousing tale of liberty versus tyranny, frontier innovation against collectivised incompetence, and principles (there is even the intervention of a Vatican diplomat) confronting brutal expedience. There are delicious side-stories about the creation of fake news, scheming politicians, would-be politicians in a libertarian paradise, open source technology, treachery, redemption, and heroism. How do three distinct species: human, Dog, and AI work together without a top-down structure or subordinating one to another? Can the lunar colony protect itself without becoming what its settlers left Earth to escape?

Woven into the story is a look at how a libertarian society works (and sometimes doesn’t work) in practice. Aristillus is in no sense a utopia: it has plenty of rough edges and things to criticise. But people there are free, and they prefer it to the prison planet they escaped.

This is a wonderful, sprawling, action-packed story with interesting characters, complicated conflicts, and realistic treatment of what a small colony faces when confronted by a hostile planet of nine billion slaves. Think of this as Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress done better. There are generous tips of the hat to Heinlein and other science fiction in the book, but this is a very different story with an entirely different outcome, and truer to the principles of individualism and liberty. I devoured these books and give them my highest recommendation.  The Powers of the Earth won the 2018 Prometheus Award for best libertarian science fiction novel.

Corcoran, Travis J. I. The Powers of the Earth. New Hampshire: Morlock Publishing, 2017. ISBN 978-1-9733-1114-0.
Corcoran, Travis J. I. Causes of Separation. New Hampshire: Morlock Publishing, 2018. ISBN 978-1-9804-3744-4.

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This Week’s Book Review – Today I am Carey

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.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Today I Am Carey’ rare thought-provoking novel

By MARK LARDAS

Mar 19, 2019

“Today I am Carey,” by Martin L. Shoemaker, Baen, 2019, 336 pages, $16

What defines life? What’s the difference between something truly alive and something which is a clever simulation of life?

“Today I am Carey,” is a science fiction novel by Martin L. Shoemaker. It examines those questions.

Medical Care Android BRKCX-01932-217JH-98662, created by MCA laboratories, is a caretaker robot. Leased by the family of Mildred Owens, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, its job is to comfort Mildred, look after her, provide her with companionship, and help her with her needs. It has the capability to physically emulate different members of her family: her late husband Henry, her son Paul and his wife Susan, her granddaughter Anna, and the various human nurses who care for Mildred.

BRKCX-01932-217JH-98662 has become self-aware, and has begun wondering what that means. It’s a sophisticated android with the latest neural networks and sensory feedback systems, and has developed consciousness.

Its developers realize something special has happened. The designer, Dr. Zinta Jansons begins exploring the implications, as the android continues caring for Mildred. When she finally dies, it has become part of the family. The Owens family purchases the android, purportedly to look after their daughter Millie, but in reality because they cannot part with it. The android is quickly named Carey, and ceases to emulate people.

The book follows Carey and the Owens family through the years in a series of short chapters, all presented through the point of view of Carey. Both family members and Carey mature. His primary charge becomes an adult, eventually with children of her own. Carey discovers he must redefine his existence and purpose over time. He experiments by taking a job. He travels and learns more about the world. Eventually, he discovers that being alive means making hard choices, including whether to live or die.

“Today I am Carey” is a rare novel. While entertaining, it goes beyond simple entertainment. Shoemaker examines the question of what it means to be alive. Despite being written about a robot, the book is about people and the meaning of individuality. Lyrically written using simple language, this story will leave readers pondering its implications.

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

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This Week’s Book Review – All the Plagues of Hell

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.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘All the Plagues of Hell’ is filled with plot twists, confusion, romance and battles

By MARK LARDAS

Feb 19, 2019

“All the Plagues of Hell,” by Eric Flint and David Freer, Baen Books, 2018, 432 pages, $25

There are few better pure storytellers than Eric Flint and David Freer. Individually they’re entertaining. Together, the result is splendid.

“All the Plagues of Hell,” by Eric Flint and David Freer is the latest novel in the Heirs of Alexandria fantasy series. Set in the middle of the 15th century, it’s alternate history. In this world magic works.

This book centers on Count Kazimierz Mindaug, a long-standing series villain. A Lithuanian nobleman, he fled Lithuania after a failed attempt to kill its leader, Duke Jagiellon (possessed by the demon Chernobog). Mindaug took shelter in Hungary serving the evil King Emeric of Hungary and Countess Elizabeth Barthody. Both were killed earlier in the series. Mindaug escaped, but their destruction left Mindaug with no protector against Chernobog, vengefully pursuing Mindaug.

He flees west, to realms protected by the Knights of the Holy Trinity. They destroy evil magicians and demons. They are hunting Mindaug. Regardless, realms protected by the Knight are safer for Mindaug than other territory, because they keep Chernobog out.

Mindaug cannot use magic. That would draw both Chernobog and the Knights to him. He disguises himself as a book seller to allow him to bring his library and seeks a home in a less perilous climate. He chooses Italy because it’s outside the Holy Roman Empire of the Knights. Along the way he gains two servants (the first to ever serve him willingly) and settles in the Duchy of Milan.

Unknown to Mindaug, who only wants quiet, Milan is about to be attacked. Worse still, a noblewoman in Milan, attempting to gain power is unwittingly unleashing a disease demon, one which will release the plague on the world. The Knights attribute her magic to Mindaug. For once innocent, Mindaug is avoiding magic serving Milan’s Duke as an alchemist developing pyrotechnics.

The Knights are closing on Mindaug, seeking to kill him. Yet he may be the only person able to stop the plague.

“All the Plagues of Hell” is filled with plot twists, misunderstood motives leading to confusion, romance, and battle. Flint and Freer have produced another delightful book.

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

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“The Orville”: Interview with Seth MacFarlane and the Creative Team

The Orville (television series)The Orville”, while not in the “Star Trek” canon, has done much to restore the episodic tradition of the Original Series of Star Trek and its successor, The Next Generation.  What I mean by episodic is that for the most part each episode stands alone and is a self-contained story.  While there may be some two-parters, you don’t have the half-season or longer “story arcs” which have become common in the more indulgent era of cable and binge-watching on streaming services.

“The Orville” doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it is no sense a parody.  There are episodes which explore serious themes such as up-voting and down-voting on social networks.

On 2017-11-16, Seth MacFarlane, creator of the show, star, executive producer, and writer of some of the episodes, and his creative team visited Google for a presentation and question and answer session about the show.  It’s well worth watching, even though there are a few naughty words which wouldn’t make it past the network censors but were apparently fine with the Cultural Marxist commissars at Google.

Note how almost every Google attendee who asked a question began it with “So?”  This is how they show their submission to the collective.

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This Week’s Book Review – Arkad’s World

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.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

“Arkad’s World” is like a curio museum

By MARK LARDAS

Jan 29, 2019

“Arkad’s World,” by James L. Cambias, Baen, 2019, 304 pages, $24

Arkad is the only human on the distant planet of Syavusa. In his mid-teens, he makes a rough existence on the streets of the town of Ayaviz.

This is “Arkad’s World,” a science fiction novel by James L. Cambias.

He has lived on the streets almost as long as he can remember; ever since his mother died when he was a child. His possessions comprise of a blanket he wears, a knife, a data unit retained from his youth, and whatever else he can carry. Then Arkad’s existence suddenly changes.

Three other humans arrive in Ayaviz. Arkad seeks them out. Maybe they will take him to other humans.

They seek Rosetta, a spaceship that left Earth just before the planet was conquered by the Elmisthorn. They’re now domesticating its remaining human inhabitants. Rosetta contains the cultural treasures of Earth, spirited away to preserve them.

Arkad had memories of Rosetta, from when he was a youth. He offers to guide the three humans there. His price is a ticket off Syavusa. The problems are that Rosetta is literally halfway around the world, and Arkad doesn’t remember exactly where it is. Or really even sort of where it is. He doesn’t tell the other humans that.

The four set out to find the spaceship. Their trip becomes an epic worthy of Marco Polo. Syavusa is an odd world, one that doesn’t fit the template of any other inhabited planet. It’s peopled by a weird assemblage of different sentient races. Moreover, those on the planet are the cranks and misfits of their own societies. The planet is like a curio museum.

It has no central government; only individual local societies. Some groups came fleeing the Elmisthorn. The trip is fraught with challenges and dangers. The three off-planet humans don’t know how the Elmithorn will react to the reappearance of Rosetta, which left Earth 50 years earlier, but they suspect it will be hostile.

“Arkad’s World” is a delightful story. It will remind readers of a mix of “Kim,” “Treasure Island,” and “Gulliver’s Travels,” in a new and original setting.

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

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This Week’s Book Review – A Star-Wheeled Sky

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.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘A Star-Wheeled Sky’ marvelous sci-fi entertainment

By MARK LARDAS

Jan 1, 2019

A Star-Wheeled Sky,” by Brad R. Torgersen, Baen Books, 2018, 384 pages, $16

Second novels are frequently worse than the first. It happens so frequently that it’s called the second-novel curse. Brad R. Torgersen defies this curse.

“A Star-Wheeled Sky,” by Brad R. Torgersen, a science fiction novel, the author’s second, offers a fresh take on interstellar conflict.

A millennium before this story takes place, humanity fled a war-ravaged Earth in slower-than-light colony ships. A few reached star systems connected by a faster-than-light transportation network, the Waywork. Node points, called Waypoints, offer instantaneous transportation to another star system in the network. The builders, the Waymakers, abandoned the network long before humans arrived. They remain unknown.

Since human arrival in the Waywork, starstates have emerged. Humanity has filled the once-empty planets. With no other way to grow, one starstate, Nautilian, has set out to conquer the Waywork. Nautilian is totalitarian on a scale that makes Stalin’s Russia seem amateuristic. Its policy if a conquered planet resists is to kill off the entire population and resettle it with inhabitants loyal to Nautilian.

Opposing them is the starstate Constellar. Constellar is an oligarchy, but it has a representative assembly and more freedoms than Nautilian. But, Constellar is slowly losing to Nautilian. Ultimate defeat seems inevitable.

Then a new factor enters the equation: a new waypoint suddenly appears near the boundary of Nautilian and Constellar space. It’s the first new Waypoint to appear, and whomever gets to the new system first can control the Waypoint and own the new system.

Both starstates hastily assemble fleets to explore the new Waypoint. Or rather, since this is a remote boundary for both starstates, they grab whatever they can in order to get their first. After both forces arrive, they discover the system contains a clement planet, one humans can live on without life-support systems. The Waywork has only seven clement planets. Additionally, the planet has a Waymaker artifact which is broadcasting.

Torgersen provides a fast-paced, exciting adventure, pitting two determined and capable opponents against each other. Controlling the system becomes critical, promising victory to anyone who unlocks the Waymakers’ secrets. “A Star-Wheeled Sky” is marvelous science fiction entertainment.

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

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Book Review: Iron Sunrise

“Iron Sunrise” by Charles StrossIn Accelerando, a novel assembled from nine previously-published short stories, the author chronicles the arrival of a technological singularity on Earth: the almost-instantaneously emerging super-intellect called the Eschaton which departed the planet toward the stars. Simultaneously, nine-tenths of Earth’s population vanished overnight, and those left behind, after a period of chaos, found that with the end of scarcity brought about by “cornucopia machines” produced in the first phase of the singularity, they could dispense with anachronisms such as economic systems and government. After humans achieved faster than light travel, they began to discover that the Eschaton had relocated 90% of Earth’s population to habitable worlds around various stars and left them to develop in their own independent directions, guided only by this message from the Eschaton, inscribed on a monument on each world.

  1. I am the Eschaton. I am not your god.
  2. I am descended from you, and I exist in your future.
  3. Thou shalt not violate causality within my historic light cone. Or else.

The wormholes used by the Eschaton to relocate Earth’s population in the great Diaspora, a technology which humans had yet to understand, not only permitted instantaneous travel across interstellar distances but also in time: the more distant the planet from Earth, the longer the settlers deposited there have had to develop their own cultures and civilisations before being contacted by faster than light ships. With cornucopia machines to meet their material needs and allow them to bootstrap their technology, those that descended into barbarism or incessant warfare did so mostly due to bad ideas rather than their environment.

Rachel Mansour, secret agent for the Earth-based United Nations, operating under the cover of an entertainment officer (or, if you like, cultural attaché), who we met in the previous novel in the series, Singularity Sky, and her companion Martin Springfield, who has a back-channel to the Eschaton, serve as arms control inspectors—their primary mission to insure that nothing anybody on Earth or the worlds who have purchased technology from Earth invites the wrath of the Eschaton—remember that “Or else.”

A terrible fate has befallen the planet Moscow, a diaspora “McWorld” accomplished in technological development and trade, when its star, a G-type main sequence star like the Sun, explodes in a blast releasing a hundredth the energy of a supernova, destroying all life on planet Moscow within an instant of the wavefront reaching it, and the entire planet within an hour.

The problem is, type G stars just don’t explode on their own. Somebody did this, quite likely using technologies which risk Big E’s “or else” on whoever was responsible (or it concluded was responsible). What’s more, Moscow maintained a slower-than-light deterrent fleet with relativistic planet-buster weapons to avenge any attack on their home planet. This fleet, essentially undetectable en route, has launched against New Dresden, a planet with which Moscow had a nonviolent trade dispute. The deterrent fleet can be recalled only by coded messages from two Moscow system ambassadors who survived the attack at their postings in other systems, but can also be sent an irrevocable coercion code, which cancels the recall and causes any further messages to be ignored, by three ambassadors. And somebody seems to be killing off the remaining Moscow ambassadors: if the number falls below two, the attack will arrive at New Dresden in thirty-five years and wipe out the planet and as many of its eight hundred million inhabitants as have not been evacuated.

Victoria Strowger, who detests her name and goes by “Wednesday”, has had an invisible friend since childhood, “Herman”, who speaks to her through her implants. As she’s grown up, she has come to understand that, in some way, Herman is connected to Big E and, in return for advice and assistance she values highly, occasionally asks her for favours. Wednesday and her family were evacuated from one of Moscow’s space stations just before the deadly wavefront from the exploded star arrived, with Wednesday running a harrowing last “errand” for Herman before leaving. Later, in her new home in an asteroid in the Septagon system, she becomes the target of an attack seemingly linked to that mystery mission, and escapes only to find her family wiped out by the attackers. With Herman’s help, she flees on an interstellar liner.

While Singularity Sky was a delightful romp describing a society which had deliberately relinquished technology in order to maintain a stratified class system with the subjugated masses frozen around the Victorian era, suddenly confronted with the merry pranksters of the Festival, who inject singularity-epoch technology into its stagnant culture, Iron Sunrise is a much more conventional mystery/adventure tale about gaining control of the ambassadorial keys, figuring out who are the good and bad guys, and trying to avert a delayed but inexorably approaching genocide.

This just didn’t work for me. I never got engaged in the story, didn’t find the characters particularly interesting, nor came across any interesting ways in which the singularity came into play (and this is supposed to be the author’s “Singularity Series”). There are some intriguing concepts, for example the “causal channel”, in which quantum-entangled particles permit instantaneous communication across spacelike separations as long as the previously-prepared entangled particles have first been delivered to the communicating parties by slower than light travel. This is used in the plot to break faster than light communication where it would be inconvenient for the story line (much as all those circumstances in Star Trek where the transporter doesn’t work for one reason or another when you’re tempted to say “Why don’t they just beam up?”). The apparent villains, the ReMastered, (think Space Nazis who believe in a Tipler-like cult of Omega Point out-Eschaton-ing the Eschaton, with icky brain-sucking technology) were just over the top.

Accelerando and Singularity Sky were thought-provoking and great fun. This one doesn’t come up to that standard.

Stross, Charles. Iron Sunrise. New York: Ace, 2005. ISBN 978-0-441-01296-1.

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Book Review: Losing Mars

“Losing Mars” by Peter CawdronPeter Cawdron has established himself as the contemporary grandmaster of first contact science fiction. In a series of novels including Anomaly, Xenophobia, Little Green Men, Feedback, and My Sweet Satan, he has explored the first encounter of humans with extraterrestrial life in a variety of scenarios, all with twists and turns that make you question the definition of life and intelligence.

This novel is set on Mars, where a nominally international but strongly NASA-dominated station has been set up by the six-person crew first to land on the red planet. The crew of Shepard station, three married couples, bring a variety of talents to their multi-year mission of exploration: pilot, engineer, physician, and even botanist: Cory Anderson (the narrator) is responsible for the greenhouse which will feed the crew during their mission. They have a fully-fueled Mars Return Vehicle, based upon NASA’s Orion capsule, ready to go, and their ticket back to Earth, the Schiaparelli return stage, waiting in Mars orbit, but orbital mechanics dictates when they can return to Earth, based on the two-year cycle of Earth-Mars transfer opportunities. The crew is acutely aware that the future of Mars exploration rests on their shoulders: failure, whether a tragedy in which they were lost, or even cutting their mission short, might result in “losing Mars” in the same way humanity abandoned the Moon for fifty years after “flags and footprints” visits had accomplished their chest-beating goal.

The Shepard crew are confronted with a crisis not of their making when a Chinese mission, completely unrelated to theirs, attempting to do “Mars on a shoestring” by exploring its moon Phobos, faces disaster when a poorly-understood calamity kills two of its four crew and disables their spacecraft. The two surviving taikonauts show life signs on telemetry but have not communicated with their mission control and, with their ship disabled, are certain to die when their life support consumables are exhausted.

The crew, in consultation with NASA, conclude the only way to mount a rescue mission is for the pilot and Cory, the only crew member who can be spared, to launch in the return vehicle, rendezvous with the Schiaparelli, use it to match orbits with the Chinese ship, rescue the survivors, and then return to Earth with them. (The return vehicle is unable to land back on Mars, being unequipped for a descent and soft landing through its thin atmosphere.) This will leave the four remaining crew of the Shepard with no way home until NASA can send a rescue mission, which will take two years to arrive at Mars. However unappealing the prospect, they conclude that abandoning the Chinese crew to die when rescue was possible would be inhuman, and proceed with the plan.

It is only after arriving at Phobos, after the half-way point in the book, that things begin to get distinctly weird and we suddenly realise that Peter Cawdron is not writing a novelisation of a Kerbal Space Program rescue scenario but is rather up to his old tricks and there is much more going on here than you’ve imagined from the story so far.

Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs, but he struck out 1,330 times. For me, this story is a swing and a miss. It takes a long, long time to get going, and we must wade through a great deal of social justice virtue signalling to get there. (Lesbians in space? Who could have imagined? Oh, right….) Once we get to the “good part”, the narrative is related in a fractured manner reminiscent of Vonnegut (I’m trying to avoid spoilers—you’ll know what I’m talking about if you make it that far). And the copy editing and fact checking…oh, dear.

There are no fewer than seven idiot “it’s/its” bungles, two on one page. A solar powered aircraft is said to have “turboprop engines”. Alan Shepard’s suborbital mission is said to have been launched on a “prototype Redstone rocket” (it wasn’t), which is described as an “intercontinental ballistic missile” (it was a short range missile with a maximum range of 323 km), which subjected the astronaut to “nine g’s [sic] launching” (it was actually 6.3 g), with reentry g loads “more than that of the gas giant Saturn” (which is correct, but local gravity on Saturn is just 1.065 g, as the planet is very large and less dense than water). Military officers who defy orders are tried by a court martial, not “court marshaled”. The Mercury-Atlas 3 launch failure which Shepard witnessed at the Cape did not “[end] up in a fireball a couple of hundred feet above the concrete”: in fact it was destroyed by ground command forty-three seconds after launch at an altitude of several kilometres due to a guidance system failure, and the launch escape system saved the spacecraft and would have allowed an astronaut, had one been on board, to land safely. It’s “bungee” cord, not “Bungie”. “Navy” is not an acronym, and hence is not written “NAVY”. The Juno orbiter at Jupiter does not “broadcast with the strength of a cell phone”; it has a 25 watt transmitter which is between twelve and twenty-five times more powerful than the maximum power of a mobile phone. He confuses “ecliptic” and “elliptical”, and states that the velocity of a spacecraft decreases as it approaches closer to a body in free fall (it increases). A spacecraft is said to be “accelerating at fifteen meters per second” which is a unit of velocity, not acceleration. A daughter may be the spitting image of her mother, but not “the splitting image”. Thousands of tiny wires do not “rap” around a plastic coated core, they “wrap”, unless they are special hip-hop wires which NASA has never approved for space flight. We do not live in a “barreled galaxy”, but rather a barred spiral galaxy.

Now, you may think I’m being harsh in pointing out these goofs which are not, after all, directly relevant to the plot of the novel. But errors of this kind, all of which could be avoided by research no more involved than looking things up in Wikipedia or consulting a guide to English usage, are indicative of a lack of attention to detail which, sadly, is also manifest in the main story line. To discuss these we must step behind the curtain.

Peter Cawdron’s earlier novels have provided many hours of thought-provoking entertainment, spinning out the possibilities of first contact. The present book…didn’t, although it was good for a few laughs. I’m not going to write off a promising author due to one strike-out. I hope his next outing resumes the home run streak.

A Kindle edition is available, which is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Cawdron, Peter. Losing Mars. Brisbane, Australia: Independent, 2018. ISBN 978-1-7237-4729-8.

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This Week’s Book Review – The Valley of Shadows

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.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘The Valley of Shadows’ unconventional end-of-days novel

By MARK LARDAS

Dec 11, 2018

“The Valley of Shadows,” by John Ringo and Mike Massa, Baen, 2018, 304 pages, $25

John Ringo wrote “Under a Graveyard Sky,” the first book in the Black Tide Rising Series in 2014, which is a novel about a zombie apocalypse; since then he added three more. Then he invited his author friends to play in his world.

“The Valley of Shadows,” by John Ringo and Mike Massa is the first collaborative novel added to the series.

It takes readers back to the series’ origin. Steve Smith, the father of the family central to “Under a Graveyard Sky” had a brother, Tom. Tom Smith worked as managing director of Security and Emergency Response at Bank of the Americas, a major international bank. He provided back story and part of the action in the first book. “The Valley of Shadows” puts Tom Smith center stage, following his experiences during the opening of the crisis.

Except for the zombie apocalypse background, this isn’t really a science fiction novel. Rather it’s a novel about a business in crisis, in some ways reminiscent of Arthur Hailey’s “Hotel” or “Strong Medicine.” Tom Smith’s job is to keep the bank functioning when the four horsemen take a ride. War and famine affect a bank’s bottom line.

So can pestilence. The book opens with Tom attempting to manage the effect of a potentially disruptive influenza epidemic. These not only affect a bank’s trading; it can disrupt a bank’s ability to trade if employees get sick or quarantined. Except, this turns out not to be a routinely bad influenza epidemic — it’s soon apparent that this is a bio-engineered act of terrorism, and with potential for end-of-the-world devastation.

So Smith reacts. As the crisis jumps worst-case expectations, Smith exercises increasingly unconventional options. He goes beyond securing evacuation sites outside major cities so the bank can continue trading. He hires medical experts to develop vaccines. He enters into increasingly dodgy alliances to keep the bank open: criminal organizations and even municipal governments.

“The Valley of Shadows” is a fast-paced book, building to an exciting climax that is both predictable and unpredictable. Ringo and Massa have written an end-of-the-world novel that is unconventional and entertaining.

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

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