This Week’s Book Review – To Clear Away the 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.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.... [Read More]

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What the … Flix?

“Another Life” (Netflix series)On July 25, 2019, a new science fiction television series, Another Life, was released on the Netflix streaming video service.  As Netflix often does with their own productions, the entire series was released at once, as opposed to one episode per week as on broadcast television.  I get most of my news about events in science fiction from Twitter, where I follow a collection of independent science fiction authors and fans whose opinions I have come to respect.  There have been relatively few comments about the new series, but they have been curiously bimodal: some people like it and others hate it, with very few in the middle.  A couple of nights ago I had a pile of tedious system administration tasks to do which took a lot of time but relatively little concentration, so I put it on to have a look for myself.  I was astonished by what I saw…or rather heard.

The story is, from what I’ve seen, banal, and although they seem to have science advisors on tap which keep them from tripping over pesky things like confusing planetary systems with galaxies and the like, there are other inanities such as instantaneous communication over light-year distances and the need for suspended animation on a faster than light ship.  Almost every male (including a computer-emulated hologram) with the exception of one political twit seems to have a dumbeard™, and nobody on this ship sent for first contact with mysterious aliens seems to have a rank or title.... [Read More]

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Book Review: Island of Clouds

“Island of Clouds” by Gerald BrennanThis is the third book, and the first full-length novel, in the author’s “Altered Space” series of alternative histories of the cold war space race. Each stand-alone story explores a space mission which did not take place, but could have, given the technology and political circumstances at the time. The first, Zero Phase, asks what might have happened had Apollo 13’s service module oxygen tank waited to explode until after the lunar module had landed on the Moon. The present book describes a manned Venus fly-by mission performed in 1972 using modified Apollo hardware launched by a single Saturn V.

“But, wait…”, you exclaim, ”that’s crazy!” Why would you put a crew of three at risk for a mission lasting a full year for just a few minutes of close-range fly-by of a planet whose surface is completely obscured by thick clouds? Far from Earth, any failure of their life support systems, spacecraft systems, a medical emergency, or any number of other mishaps could kill them; they’d be racking up a radiation dose from cosmic rays and solar particle emissions every day in the mission; and the inexorable laws of orbital mechanics would provide them no option to come home early if something went wrong.... [Read More]

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This Week’s Book Review – Final Frontier

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

The Moon can make for entertaining science fiction

By MARK LARDAS... [Read More]

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Book Review: The Man in the High Castle

“The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. DickThe year is 1962. Following the victory of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II, North America is divided into spheres of influence by the victors, with the west coast Pacific States of America controlled by Japan, the territory east of the Mississippi split north and south between what is still called the United States of America and the South, where slavery has been re-instituted, both puppet states of Germany. In between are the Rocky Mountain states, a buffer zone between the Japanese and German sectors with somewhat more freedom from domination by them.

The point of departure where this alternative history diverges from our timeline is in 1934, when Franklin D. Roosevelt is assassinated in Miami, Florida. (In our history, Roosevelt was uninjured in an assassination attempt in Miami in 1933 that killed the mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak.) Roosevelt’s vice president, John Nance Garner, succeeds to the presidency and is re-elected in 1936. In 1940, the Republican party retakes the White House, with John W. Bricker elected president. Garner and Bricker pursue a policy of strict neutrality and isolation, which allows Germany, Japan, and Italy to divide up the most of the world and coerce other nations into becoming satellites or client states. Then, Japan and Germany mount simultaneous invasions of the east and west coasts of the U.S., resulting in a surrender in 1947 and the present division of the continent.... [Read More]

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Book Review: Schild’s Ladder

“Schild's Ladder” by Greg EganGreg Egan is one of the most eminent contemporary authors in the genre of “hard” science fiction. By “hard”, one means not that it is necessarily difficult to read, but that the author has taken care to either follow the laws of known science or, if the story involves alternative laws (for example, a faster than light drive, anti-gravity, or time travel) to define those laws and then remain completely consistent with them. This needn’t involve tedious lectures—masters of science fiction, like Greg Egan, “show, don’t tell”—but the reader should be able to figure out the rules and the characters be constrained by them as the story unfolds. Egan is also a skilled practitioner of “world building” which takes hard science fiction to the next level by constructing entire worlds or universes in which an alternative set of conditions are worked out in a logical and consistent way.

Whenever a new large particle collider is proposed, fear-mongers prattle on about the risk of its unleashing some new physical phenomenon which might destroy the Earth or, for those who think big, the universe by, for example, causing it to collapse into a black hole or causing the quantum vacuum to tunnel to a lower energy state where the laws of physics are incompatible with the existence of condensed matter and life. This is, of course, completely absurd. We have observed cosmic rays, for example the Oh-My-God particle detected by an instrument in Utah in 1991, with energies more than twenty million times greater than those produced by the Large Hadron Collider, the most powerful particle accelerator in existence today. These natural cosmic rays strike the Earth, the Moon, the Sun, and everything else in the universe all the time and have been doing so for billions of years and, if you look around, you’ll see that the universe is still here. If a high energy particle was going to destroy it, it would have been gone long ago.... [Read More]

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Book Review: Delta-v

“Delta-V” by Daniel SuarezJames Tighe is an extreme cave diver, pushing the limits of human endurance and his equipment to go deeper, farther, and into unexplored regions of underwater caves around the world. While exploring the depths of a cavern in China, an earthquake triggers disastrous rockfalls in the cave, killing several members of his expedition. Tighe narrowly escapes with his life, leading the survivors to safety, and the video he recorded with his helmet camera has made him an instant celebrity. He is surprised and puzzled when invited by billionaire and serial entrepreneur Nathan Joyce to a party on Joyce’s private island in the Caribbean. Joyce meets privately with Tighe and explains that his theory of economics predicts a catastrophic collapse of the global debt bubble in the near future, with the potential to destroy modern civilisation.

Joyce believes that the only way to avert this calamity is to jump start the human expansion into the solar system, thus creating an economic expansion into a much larger sphere of activity than one planet and allowing humans to “grow out” of the crushing debt their profligate governments have run up. In particular, he believes that asteroid mining is the key to opening the space frontier, as it will provide a source of raw materials which do not have to be lifted at prohibitive cost out of Earth’s deep gravity well. Joyce intends to use part of his fortune to bootstrap such a venture, and invites Tighe to join a training program to select a team of individuals ready to face the challenges of long-term industrial operations in deep space.... [Read More]

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Book Review: The Voyage of the Iron Dragon

“The Voyage of the Iron Dragon” by Robert KroeseThis is the third and final volume in the Iron Dragon trilogy which began with The Dream of the Iron Dragon and continued in The Dawn of the Iron Dragon. When reading a series of books I’ve discovered, I usually space them out to enjoy them over time, but the second book of this trilogy left its characters in such a dire pickle I just couldn’t wait to see how the author managed to wrap up the story in just one more book and dove right in to the concluding volume. It is a satisfying end to the saga, albeit in some places seeming rushed compared to the more deliberate development of the story and characters in the first two books.

First of all, this note. Despite being published in three books, this is one huge, sprawling story which stretches over more than a thousand pages, decades of time, and locations as far-flung as Constantinople, Iceland, the Caribbean, and North America, and in addition to their cultures, we have human spacefarers from the future, Vikings, and an alien race called the Cho-ta’an bent on exterminating humans from the galaxy. You should read the three books in order: Dream, Dawn, and Voyage. If you start in the middle, despite the second and third volumes’ having a brief summary of the story so far, you’ll be completely lost as to who the characters are, what they’re trying to do, and how they ended up pursuing the desperate and seemingly impossible task in which they are engaged (building an Earth-orbital manned spacecraft in the middle ages while leaving no historical traces of their activity which later generations of humans might find). “Read the whole thing,” in order. It’s worth it.... [Read More]

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This Week’s Book Review – My Enemy’s Enemy

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.... [Read More]

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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.... [Read More]

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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.... [Read More]

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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... [Read More]

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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.... [Read More]

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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.... [Read More]

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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.... [Read More]

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