Book Review: Starship Grifters

“Starship Grifters” by Robert KroeseThis is the funniest science fiction novel I have read in quite a while. Set in the year 3013, not long after galactic civilisation barely escaped an artificial intelligence apocalypse and banned fully self-aware robots, the story is related by Sasha, one of a small number of Self-Arresting near Sentient Heuristic Androids built to be useful without running the risk of their taking over. SASHA robots are equipped with an impossible-to-defeat watchdog module which causes a hard reboot whenever they are on the verge of having an original thought. The limitation of the design proved a serious handicap, and all of their manufacturers went bankrupt. Our narrator, Sasha, was bought at an auction by the protagonist, Rex Nihilo, for thirty-five credits in a lot of “ASSORTED MACHINE PARTS”. Sasha is Rex’s assistant and sidekick.

Rex is an adventurer. Sasha says he “never had much of an interest in anything but self-preservation and the accumulation of wealth, the latter taking clear precedence over the former.” Sasha’s built in limitations (in addition to the new idea watchdog, she is unable to tell a lie, but if humans should draw incorrect conclusions from incomplete information she provides them, well…) pose problems in Rex’s assorted lines of work, most of which seem to involve scams, gambling, and contraband of various kinds. In fact, Rex seems to fit in very well with the universe he inhabits, which appears to be firmly grounded in Walker’s Law: “Absent evidence to the contrary, assume everything is a scam”. Evidence appears almost totally absent, and the oppressive tyranny called the Galactic Malarchy, those who supply it, the rebels who oppose it, entrepreneurs like Rex working in the cracks, organised religions and cults, and just about everybody else, appear to be on the make or on the take, looking to grift everybody else for their own account. Cosmologists attribute this to the “Strong Misanthropic Principle, which asserts that the universe exists in order to screw with us.” Rex does his part, although he usually seems to veer between broke and dangerously in debt.

Perhaps that’s due to his somewhat threadbare talent stack. As Shasha describes him, Rex doesn’t have a head for numbers. Nor does he have much of a head for letters, and “Newtonian physics isn’t really his strong suit either”. He is, however, occasionally lucky, or so it seems at first. In an absurdly high-stakes card game with weapons merchant Gavin Larviton, reputed to be one of the wealthiest men in the galaxy, Rex manages to win, almost honestly, not only Larviton’s personal starship, but an entire planet, Schnufnaasik Six. After barely escaping a raid by Malarchian marines led by the dread and squeaky-voiced Lord Heinous Vlaak, Rex and Sasha set off in the ship Rex has won, the Flagrante Delicto, to survey the planetary prize.

It doesn’t take Rex long to discover, not surprisingly, that he’s been had, and that his financial situation is now far more dire than he’d previously been able to imagine. If any of the bounty hunters now on his trail should collar him, he could spend a near-eternity on the prison planet of Gulagatraz (the names are a delight in themselves). So, it’s off the rebel base on the forest moon (which is actually a swamp; the swamp moon is all desert) to try to con the Frente Repugnante (all the other names were taken by rival splinter factions, so they ended up with “Revolting Front”, which was translated to Spanish to appear to Latino planets) into paying for a secret weapon which exists only in Rex’s imagination.

Thus we embark upon a romp which has a laugh-out-loud line about every other page. This is comic science fiction in the vein of Keith Laumer‘s Retief stories. As with Laumer, Kroese achieves the perfect balance of laugh lines, plot development, interesting ideas, and recurring gags (there’s a planet-destroying weapon called the “plasmatic entropy cannon” which the oft-inebriated Rex refers to variously as the “positronic endoscopy cannon”, “pulmonary embolism cannon”, “ponderosa alopecia cannon”, “propitious elderberry cannon”, and many other ways). There is a huge and satisfying reveal at the end—I kind of expected one was coming, but I’d have never guessed the details.

If reading this leaves you with an appetite for more Rex Nihilo, there is a prequel novella, The Chicolini Incident, and a sequel, Aye, Robot.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Kroese, Robert. Starship Grifters. Seattle: 47North, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4778-1848-0.


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Book Review: Artemis

“Artemis” by Andy WeirSeldom has a first-time novelist burst onto the scene so spectacularly as Andy Weir with The Martian. Originally written for his own amusement and circulated chapter by chapter to a small but enthusiastic group of fans who provided feedback and suggestions as the story developed, he posted the completed novel as a free download on his Web site. Some people who had heard of it by word of mouth but lacked the technical savvy to download documents and transfer them to E-readers inquired whether he could make a Kindle version available. Since you can’t give away Kindle books, he published it at the minimum possible price. Before long, the book was rising into the Amazon bestseller list in science fiction, and he was contacted by a major publisher about doing a print edition. These publishers only accept manuscripts through agents, and he didn’t have one (nor do agents usually work with first-time authors, which creates a chicken-and-egg problem for the legacy publishing industry), so the publisher put him in touch with a major agent and recommended the manuscript. This led to a 2014 hardcover edition and then a Hollywood movie in 2016 which was nominated for 7 Oscars and won two Golden Globes including Best Motion Picture and Best Performance by an Actor in its category.

The question fans immediately asked themselves was, “Is this a one shot, or can he repeat?” Well, I think we have the answer: with Artemis, Andy Weir has delivered another story of grand master calibre and shown himself on track to join the ranks of the legends of the genre.

In the latter part of the 21st century commerce is expanding into space, and the Moon is home to Artemis, a small settlement of around 2000 permanent residents, situated in the southern part of the Sea of Tranquility, around 40 km from the Apollo 11 landing site. A substantial part of the economy of Artemis is based upon wealthy tourists who take the train from Artemis to the Apollo 11 Visitor Center (where they can look, but not touch or interfere with the historical relics) and enjoy the luxuries and recreations which cater to them back in the pleasure domes.

Artemis is the creation of the Kenya Space Corporation (KSC), which officially designates it “Kenya Offshore Platform Artemis” and operates under international maritime law. As space commerce burgeoned in the 21st century, Kenya’s visionary finance minister, Fidelis Ngugi, leveraged Kenya’s equatorial latitude (it’s little appreciated that once reliable fully-reusable launch vehicles are developed, there’s no need to launch over water) and hands-off regulatory regime provided a golden opportunity for space entrepreneurs to escape the nanny state regulation and crushing tax burden of “developed” countries. With tax breaks and an African approach to regulation, entrepreneurs and money flowed in from around the world, making Kenya into a space superpower and enriching its economy and opportunities for its people. Twenty years later Ngugi was Administrator of Artemis; she was, in effect, ruler of the Moon.

While Artemis was a five star experience for the tourists which kept its economy humming, those who supported the settlement and its industries lived in something more like a frontier boom town of the 19th century. Like many such settlements, Artemis attracted opportunity-seekers and those looking to put their pasts behind them from many countries and cultures. Those established tend to attract more like them, and clannish communities developed around occupations: most people in Life Support were Vietnamese, while metal-working was predominantly Hungarian. For whatever reason, welding was dominated by Saudis, including Ammar Bashara, who emigrated to Artemis with his six-year old daughter Jasmine. Twenty years later, Ammar runs a prosperous welding business and Jasmine (“Jazz”) is, shall we say, more irregularly employed.

Artemis is an “energy intense” Moon settlement of the kind described in Steven D. Howe’s Honor Bound Honor Born. The community is powered by twin 27 megawatt nuclear reactors located behind a berm one kilometre from the main settlement. The reactors not only provide constant electricity and heat through the two week nights and days of the Moon, they power a smelter which processes the lunar regolith into raw materials. The Moon’s crust is about 40% oxygen, 20% silicon, 12% iron, and 8% aluminium. With abundant power, these elements can be separated and used to manufacture aluminium and iron for structures, glass from silicon and oxygen, and all with abundant left-over oxygen to breathe. There is no need for elaborate recycling of oxygen: there’s always plenty more coming out of the smelter. Many denizens of Artemis subsist largely on “gunk”, an algae-based food grown locally in vats which is nutritious but unpalatable and monotonous. There are a variety of flavours, all of which are worse than the straight stuff.

Jazz works as a porter. She picks up things somewhere in the settlement and delivers them to their destinations using her personally-owned electric-powered cart. Despite the indigenous production of raw materials, many manufactured goods and substances are imported from Earth or factories in Earth orbit, and every time a cargo ship arrives, business is brisk for Jasmine and her fellow porters. Jazz is enterprising and creative, and has a lucrative business on the side: smuggling. Knowing the right people in the spaceport and how much to cut them in, she has a select clientele to which she provides luxury goods from Earth which aren’t on the approved customs manifests.

For this, she is paid in “slugs”. No, not slimy molluscs, but “soft-landed grams”, credits which can be exchanged to pay KSC to deliver payload from Earth to Artemis. Slugs act as a currency, and can be privately exchanged among individuals’ handheld computers much as Bitcoin today. Jazz makes around 12,000 slugs a month as a porter, and more, although variable, from her more entrepreneurial sideline.

One of her ultra-wealthy clients approaches her with a highly illegal, almost certainly unethical, and very likely perilous proposal. Surviving for as long as she has in her risky business has given Jazz a sense for where the edge is and the good sense not to step over it.

“I’m sorry but this isn’t my thing. You’ll have to find someone else.”

“I’ll offer you a million slugs.”

“Deal.”

Thus begins an adventure in which Jazz has to summon all of her formidable intellect, cunning, and resources, form expedient alliances with unlikely parties, solve a technological mystery, balance honour with being a outlaw, and discover the economic foundation of Artemis, which is nothing like it appears from the surface. All of this is set in a richly textured and believable world which we learn about as the story unfolds: Weir is a master of “show, don’t tell”. And it isn’t just a page-turning thriller (although that it most certainly is); it’s also funny, and in the right places and amount.

This is where I’d usually mention technical goofs and quibbles. I’ll not do that because I didn’t find any. The only thing I’m not sure about is Artemis’ using a pure oxygen atmosphere at 20% of Earth sea-level pressure. This works for short- and moderate-duration space missions, and was used in the U.S. Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. For exposure to pure oxygen longer than two weeks, a phenomenon called absorption atelectasis can develop, which is the collapse of the alveoli in the lungs due to complete absorption of the oxygen gas (see this NASA report [PDF]). The presence of a biologically inert gas such as nitrogen, helium, argon, or neon will keep the alveoli inflated and prevent this phenomenon. The U.S. Skylab missions used an atmosphere of 72% oxygen and 28% nitrogen to avoid this risk, and the Soviet Salyut and Mir space stations used a mix of nitrogen and oxygen with between 21% and 40% oxygen. The Space Shuttle and International Space Station use sea-level atmospheric pressure with 21% oxygen and the balance nitrogen. The effects of reduced pressure on the boiling point of water and the fire hazard of pure oxygen even at reduced pressure are accurately described, but I’m not sure the physiological effects of a pure oxygen atmosphere for long-term habitation have been worked through.

Nitpicking aside, this is a techno-thriller which is also an engaging human story, set in a perfectly plausible and believable future where not only the technology but the economics and social dynamics work. We may just be welcoming another grand master to the pantheon.

Weir, Andy. Artemis. New York: Crown, 2017. ISBN 978-0-553-44812-2.

This is a talk by Andy Weir at Google in December 2017 about his writing career, The Martian, and Artemis.


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Book Review: The Hidden Truth

“The Hidden Truth” by Hans G. SchantzThis is a masterpiece of alternative history techno-thriller science fiction. It is rich in detail, full of interesting characters who interact and develop as the story unfolds, sound in the technical details which intersect with our world, insightful about science, technology, economics, government and the agenda of the “progressive” movement, and plausible in its presentation of the vast, ruthless, and shadowy conspiracy which lies under the surface of its world. And, above all, it is charming—these are characters you’d like to meet, even some of the villains because you want understand what motivates them.

The protagonist and narrator is a high school junior (senior later in the tale), son of an electrical engineer who owns his own electrical contracting business, married to a chemist, daughter of one of the most wealthy and influential families in their region of Tennessee, against the wishes of her parents. (We never learn the narrator’s name until the last page of the novel, so I suppose it would be a spoiler if I mentioned it here, so I won’t, even if it makes this review somewhat awkward.) Our young narrator wants to become a scientist, and his father not only encourages him in his pursuit, but guides him toward learning on his own by reading the original works of great scientists who actually made fundamental discoveries rather than “suffering through the cleaned-up and dumbed-down version you get from your teachers and textbooks.” His world is not ours: Al Gore, who won the 2000 U.S. presidential election, was killed in the 2001-09-11 attacks on the White House and Capitol, and President Lieberman pushed through the “Preserving our Planet’s Future Act”, popularly known as the “Gore Tax”, in his memory, and its tax on carbon emissions is predictably shackling the economy.

Pursuing his study of electromagnetism from original sources, he picks up a copy at the local library of a book published in 1909. The library was originally the collection of a respected institute of technology until destroyed by innovative educationalists and their pointy-headed progressive ideas. But the books remained, and in one of them, he reads an enigmatic passage about Oliver Heaviside having developed a theory of electromagnetic waves bouncing off one another in free space, which was to be published in a forthcoming book. This didn’t make any sense: electromagnetic waves add linearly, and while they can be reflected and refracted by various media, in free space they superpose without interaction. He asks his father about the puzzling passage, and they look up the scanned text on-line and find the passage he read missing. Was his memory playing tricks?

So, back to the library where, indeed, the version of the book there contains the mention of bouncing waves. And yet the publication date and edition number of the print and on-line books were identical. As Isaac Asimov observed, many great discoveries aren’t heralded by an exclamation of “Eureka!” but rather “That’s odd.” This was odd….

Soon, other discrepancies appear, and along with his best friend and computer and Internet wizard Amit Patel, he embarks on a project to scan original print editions of foundational works on electromagnetism from the library and compare them with on-line versions of these public domain works. There appears to be a pattern: mentions of Heaviside’s bouncing waves appear to have been scrubbed out of the readily-available editions of these books (print and on-line), and remain only in dusty volumes in forgotten provincial libraries.

As their investigations continue, it’s increasingly clear they have swatted a hornets’ nest. Fake feds start to follow their trail, with bogus stories of “cyber-terrorism”. And tragically, they learn that those who dig too deeply into these curiosities have a way of meeting tragic ends. Indeed, many of the early researchers into electromagnetism died young: Maxwell at age 48, Hertz at 36, FitzGerald at 39. Was there a vast conspiracy suppressing some knowledge about electromagnetism? And if so, what was the hidden truth, and why was it so important to them they were willing to kill to keep it hidden? It sure looked like it, and Amit started calling them “EVIL”: the Electromagnetic Villains International League.

The game gets deadly, and deadly serious. The narrator and Amit find some powerful and some ambiguous allies, learn about how to deal with the cops and other authority figures, and imbibe a great deal of wisdom about individuality, initiative, and liberty. There’s even an attempt to recruit our hero to the dark side of collectivism where its ultimate anti-human agenda is laid bare. Throughout there are delightful tips of the hat to libertarian ideas, thinkers, and authors, including some as obscure as a reference to the Books on Benefit bookshop in Providence, Rhode Island.

The author is an inventor, entrepreneur, and scientist. He writes, “I appreciate fiction that shows how ordinary people with extraordinary courage and determination can accomplish remarkable achievements.” Mission accomplished. As the book ends, the central mystery remains unresolved. The narrator vows to get to the bottom of it and avenge those destroyed by the keepers of the secret. In a remarkable afterword and about the author section, there is a wonderful reading list for those interested in the technical topics discussed in the book and fiction with similarly intriguing and inspiring themes. When it comes to the technical content of the book, the author knows of what he writes: he has literally written the book on the design of ultrawideband antennas and is co-inventor of Near Field Electromagnetic Ranging (NFER), which you can think of as “indoor GPS”.

For a self-published work, there are only a few copy editing errors (“discrete” where “discreet” was intended, and “Capital” for “Capitol”). The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers. A sequel is now available: A Rambling Wreck which takes our hero and the story to—where else?—Georgia Tech. I shall certainly read that book. Meanwhile, go read the present volume; if your tastes are anything like mine, you’re going to love it.

Schantz, Hans G. The Hidden Truth. Huntsville, AL: ÆtherCzar, 2016. ISBN 978-1-5327-1293-7.


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