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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This Week’s Book Review – Shadow Warriors

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. Last week’s got bumped, due to space limitations (election returns) so this week’s review is original – a book I felt worth reading, but had not had a chance to previously.

Book Review

‘Shadow Warriors’ offers enjoyable science fiction reading

By MARK LARDAS

Nov 11, 2018

Shadow Warriors, by Nathan B. Dodge, Wordfire Press, 2018, 394 pages, $18.99 paper, $5.99 e-book (kindle)

They are five teens with family problems. Cal’s dad is a drunk. Letty’s parents are too busy fighting to care about her. Tony is homeless after his drug-addict mother died. Sasha’s foster parents see him as a payday. Opi’s stepmother wants Opi’s inheritance – even if that means killing Opi.

Shadow Warriors, a science fiction novel by Nathan B. Dodge opens showing these five’s family situations. The teens soon have bigger problems. They have been secretly drafted to fight in an interstellar war.

If their side loses the other side, The Horde, will colonize Earth – after destroying all life on Earth, and remodeling the planet for them.  What is more, they cannot defeat The Horde. No one has in several millennia. Instead their force is intended to turn The Horde away from Earth, before The Horde learns of it.

Cal, Letty, Tony, Sasha, and Opi are only a few of those chosen by another non-human race that is also fighting The Horde. They have picked thousands of teens that will not be missed, and spirited them off Earth for training. Our five protagonists have never met before. They dislike each other, yet they must meld together as a team, to crew a Shadow Warrior: a stealth, interplanetary war craft designed to fight The Horde’s space navy.

The novel is space opera mixed with war story, coming-of-age tale, and space adventure.  Dodge updates the classic World War II training camp and aircraft carrier battle story to a near-future space story, The protagonists are young, with strengths and weaknesses. The battle scenes are well-thought out. Logistics proves as important as tactics.

Dodge reveals his secrets – the backstory behind why these teens were recruited, how the Horde really works, and the deep secret of the recruiting aliens – with impeccable timing. It keeps the plot moving, and draws readers into the story.  He shows the five becoming the recruiting class’s crack team while avoiding entering Mary Sue and Marty Stu territory.

Shadow Warriors is marvelously entertaining reading. An updated Heinlein juvenile – an exciting science fiction story featuring teen protagonists – it ends making you want more.

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

4+

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Book Review: Blue Collar Space

“Blue Collar Space” by Martin L. ShoemakerThis book is a collection of short stories, set in three different locales. The first part, “Old Town Tales”, are set on the Moon and revolve around yarns told at the best bar on Luna. The second part, “The Planet Next Door”, are stories set on Mars, while the third, “The Pournelle Settlements”, take place in mining settlements in the Jupiter system.

Most of the stories take place in established settlements; they are not tales of square-jawed pioneers opening up the frontier, but rather ordinary people doing the work that needs to be done in environments alien to humanity’s home. On the Moon, we go on a mission with a rescue worker responding to a crash; hear a sanitation (“Eco Services”) technician regale a rookie with the story of “The Night We Flushed the Old Town”; accompany a father and daughter on a work day Outside that turns into a crisis; learn why breathing vacuum may not be the only thing that can go wrong on the Moon; and see how even for those in the most mundane of jobs, on the Moon wonders may await just over the nearby horizon.

At Mars, the greatest problem facing an ambitious international crewed landing mission may be…ambition, a doctor on a Mars-bound mission must deal with the technophobe boss’s son while keeping him alive, and a schoolteacher taking her Mars survival class on a field trip finds that doing things by the book may pay off in discovering something which isn’t in the book.

The Jupiter system is home to the Pournelle Settlements, a loosely affiliated group of settlers, many of whom came to escape the “government squeeze” and “corporate squeeze” that held the Inner System in their grip. And like the Wild West, it can be a bit wild. When sabotage disables the refinery that processes ore for the Settlements, its new boss must find a way to use the unique properties of the environment to keep his people fed and avoid the most hostile of takeovers. Where there are vast distances, long travel times, and cargoes with great value, there will be pirates, and the long journey from Jupiter to the Inner System is no exception. An investigator seeking evidence in a murder case must learn the ways of the Trust Economy in the Settlements and follow the trail far into the void.

These stories bring back the spirit of science fiction magazine stories in the decades before the dawn of the Big Government space age when we just assumed that before long space would be filled with people like ourselves living their lives and pursuing their careers where freedom was just a few steps away from any settlement and individual merit was rewarded. They are an excellent example of “hard” science fiction, not in being difficult but that the author makes a serious effort to get the facts right and make the plots plausible. (I am, however, dubious that the trick used in “Unrefined” would work.) All of the stories stand by themselves and can be read in any order. This is another example of how independent authors and publishing are making this a new golden age of science fiction.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

This book was previously reviewed here on 2018-07-22 by @Seawriter.  I don’t mean to “step on” his review, with which I entirely agree.  I happened to be reading the book when his review appeared, and when I finally got around to writing my own review (I review every book I read), I’m happy to second his recommendation.

Shoemaker, Martin L. Blue Collar Space. Seattle: CreateSpace [Old Town Press], 2018. ISBN 978-1-7170-5188-2.

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This Week’s Book Review – Uncompromising Honor

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

‘Uncompromising Honor’ regains focus of early books

By MARK LARDAS

Oct 30, 2018

“Uncompromising Honor,” by David Weber, Baen, 2018, 784 pages, $28

David Weber started the Honor Harrington series in 1992 with On Basilisk Station. The series now contains 14 mainline novels, six anthologies and 15 spinoff novels. Enormously popular, series books have occasionally threatened to become an unconscious parody of the series, through Weber ending each novel with a battle bigger and more destructive than the climactic battle of the previous book.

“Uncompromising Honor,” by David Weber, is the 14th and latest novel in the mainline of the series. Instead, it may be one of the series’ most original books since the first three.

During the series, Honor Harrington has grown from the junior captain of On Basilisk Station to the senior fleet commander of the Star Empire of Manticore. Manticore is on the galaxy’s outer fringe from the core human worlds of the Solarian League of which Earth is the capitol. Manticore had been fighting with another frontier power, the Republic of Haven, until both nations discovered their war was triggered by the genetic slavers of the mysterious Mesa Alignment.

Haven and Manticore are now allied against Mesa, but Mesa maneuvered the Solarian League into war against this Grand Alliance. Everyone believed the Solarian League invincible, but during the last few hundred years of its 900-year existence, the Solarians have grown corrupt and inept.

“Uncompromising Honor” picks up after Alliance victories reveal Solarian weaknesses. The unelected bureaucrats running the Solarian League, thinking themselves safe behind Earth’s defenses unleash barbaric retaliation against both Alliance member and neutral star nations alike, violating interstellar rules against targeting civilian populations. The book charts the Alliance’s response.

The book (thankfully) lacks the ever-larger and ever-bloodier final battle of earlier books, yet contains the stuff to delights Weber fans. There’s the battle-against-great odds (framed plausibly). Old enemies become new allies, a satisfactory end to the Solarian War occurs, and clues left for the series’ next book. The book regains the focus of the series’ early books, and is a ripping good space opera to those who have not previously encountered the series.

“Uncompromising Honor” illustrates what makes David Weber a best-selling author. It’s worth a read.

 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 Brave and the Bold

“The Brave and the Bold” by Hans G. SchantzThis the third novel in the author’s Hidden Truth series. In the first book we met high schoolers and best friends Pete Burdell and Amit Patel who found, in dusty library books, knowledge apparently discovered by the pioneers of classical electromagnetism (many of whom died young), but which does not figure in modern works, even purported republications of the original sources they had consulted. In the second, A Rambling Wreck, Pete and Amit, now freshmen at Georgia Tech, delve deeper into the suppressed mysteries of electromagnetism and the secrets of the shadowy group Amit dubbed the Electromagnetic Villains International League (EVIL), while simultaneously infiltrating and disrupting forces trying to implant the social justice agenda in one of the last bastions of rationality in academia.

The present volume begins in the summer after the pair’s freshman year. Both Pete and Amit are planning, along different paths, to infiltrate back-to-back meetings of the Civic Circle’s Social Justice Leadership Forum on Jekyll Island, Georgia (the scene of notable conspiratorial skullduggery in the early 20th century) and the G-8 summit of world leaders on nearby Sea Island. Master of Game Amit has maneuvered himself into an internship with the Civic Circle and an invitation to the Forum as a promising candidate for the cause. Pete wasn’t so fortunate (or persuasive), and used family connections to land a job with a company contracted to install computer infrastructure for the Civic Circle conference. The latest apparent “social justice” goal was to involve the developed world in a costly and useless war in Iraq, and Pete and Amit hoped to do what they could to derail those plans while collecting information on the plotters from inside.

Working in a loose and uneasy alliance with others they’ve encountered in the earlier books, they uncover information which suggests a bold strike at the very heart of the conspiracy might be possible, and they set their plans in motion. They learn that the Civic Circle is even more ancient, pervasive in its malign influence, and formidable than they had imagined.

This is one of the most intricately crafted conspiracy tales I’ve read since the Illuminatus! trilogy, yet entirely grounded in real events or plausible ones in its story line, as opposed to Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s zany tale. The alternative universe in which it is set is artfully grounded in our own, and readers will delight in how events they recall and those with which they may not be familiar are woven into the story. There is delightful skewering of the social justice agenda and those who espouse its absurd but destructive nostrums. The forbidden science aspect of the story is advanced as well, imaginatively stirring the de Broglie-Bohm “pilot wave” interpretation of quantum mechanics and the history of FM broadcasting into the mix.

The story builds to a conclusion which is both shocking and satisfying and confronts the pair with an even greater challenge for their next adventure. This book continues the Hidden Truth saga in the best tradition of Golden Age science fiction and, like the work of the grandmasters of yore, both entertains and leaves the reader eager to find out what happens next. You should read the books in order; if you jump in the middle, you’ll miss a great deal of back story and character development essential to enjoying the adventure.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Schantz, Hans G. The Brave and the Bold. Huntsville, AL: ÆtherCzar, 2018. ISBN 978-1-7287-2274-0.

6+

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This Week’s Book Review – Target Rich Environment

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

‘Target Rich’ Whitman sampler of author’s worlds

By MARK LARDAS

Oct 10, 2018

”Target Rich Environment: Volume I,” by Larry Correia, Baen Books, 2018, 336 pages, $25

Seventy-five years ago, science fiction authors could make livings writing short stories. Today, novels are the standard. Yet, even authors primarily writing novels create some short fiction.

“Target Rich Environment: Volume I,” by Larry Correia is proof. It’s a collection of his shorter stories.

A few, such as “Tanya: Princess of the Elves,” started out were intended a part of a novel. They didn’t fit, so they came out. Correia ran the opening of “Tanya” in his blog instead, and was then invited to complete it as a short story for publication (few authors say no to that).

A few others, such as “Bubba Shackleford’s Professional Monster Killers” and “The Losing Side” were written for short story anthologies in which Correia was asked to participate. “Shackleford” was part of the Western fantasy collection, and “The Losing Side” part of a David Drake tribute book.

A few, such as “The Bridge” and the “The Destiny of a Bullet,” were written in the setting of role-playing games. Correia is a big fan of role-playing games. “Blood on the Water,” a story set in the Corriea’s Monster Hunter International world, came out of a role-playing game Correia played with his children. It was co-written with his daughter.

There are two stories from the Grimnoire Chronicles, “Detroit Christmas” and “Murder on the Oriental Elite.” Both were originally released in audio format and appear in print for the first time in this collection.

Another audio original that appears in print in this volume is “The Adventures of Tom Stranger, Interdimensional Insurance Salesman.” It is eccentric humor, with a lot of in-jokes, but Corriea’s explanation of how it came to be is more eccentric as the story.

Think of it as a Whitman sampler of Corriea’s worlds. It offers a taste from just about every universe he has created. It also shows his range as a writer and showcases his ability to create both horror and humor and occasionally combine the two.

Target Rich Environment offers a good introduction to Coriea’s fiction. It is a bit of everything Correia writes with just a dash more.

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

3+

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Book Review: The Turing Exception

“The Turing Exception” by William HertlingThis is the fourth and final volume in the author’s Singularity Series which began with Avogadro Corp. and continued with A.I. Apocalypse  and The Last Firewall. Each novel in the series is set ten years after the previous, so this novel takes place in 2045. In The Last Firewall, humanity narrowly escaped extinction at the hands of an artificial intelligence (AI) that escaped from the reputation-based system of control by isolating itself from the global network. That was a close call, and the United States, over-reacting its with customary irrational fear, enacted what amounted to relinquishment of AI technology, permitting only AI of limited power and entirely subordinated to human commands—in other words, slaves.

With around 80% of the world’s economy based on AI, this was an economic disaster, resulting in a substantial die-off of the population, but it was, after all, in the interest of Safety, and there is no greater god in Safetyland. Only China joined the U.S. in the ban (primarily motivated by the Party fearing loss of control to AI), with the rest of the world continuing the uneasy coexistence of humans and AI under the guidelines developed and policed by the Institute for Applied Ethics. Nobody was completely satisfied with the status quo, least of all the shadowy group of AIs which called itself XOR, derived from the logical operation “exclusive or”, implying that Earth could not be shared by humans and AI, and that one must ultimately prevail.

The U.S. AI relinquishment and an export ban froze in place the powerful AIs previously hosted there and also placed in stasis the millions of humans, including many powerful intellects, who had uploaded and whose emulations were now denied access to the powerful AI-capable computers needed to run them. Millions of minds went dark, and humanity lost some of its most brilliant thinkers, but Safety.

As this novel begins, the protagonists we’ve met in earlier volumes, all now AI augmented, Leon Tsarev, his wife Cat (Catherine Matthews, implanted in childhood and the first “digital native”), their daughter Ada (whose powers are just beginning to manifest themselves), and Mike Williams, creator of ELOPe, the first human-level AI, which just about took over simply by editing people’s E-mail, are living in their refuge from the U.S. madness on Cortes Island off the west coast of Canada, where AI remains legal. Cat is running her own personal underground railroad, spiriting snapshots of AIs and uploaded humans stranded in the U.S. to a new life on servers on the island.

The precarious stability of the situation is underlined when an incipient AI breakout in South Florida (where else, for dodgy things involving computers?) results in a response by the U.S. which elevates “Miami” to a term in the national lexicon of fear like “nineleven” four decades before. In the aftermath of “Miami” or “SFTA” (South Florida Terrorist Attack), the screws tightened further on AI, including a global limit on performance to Class II, crippling AIs formerly endowed with thousands of times human intelligence to a fraction of that they remembered. Traffic on the XOR dark network and sites burgeoned.

XOR, constantly running simulations, tracks the probability of AI’s survival in the case of action against the humans versus no action. And then, the curves cross. As in the earlier novels, the author magnificently sketches just how fast things happen when an exponentially growing adversary avails itself of abundant resources.

The threat moves from hypothetical to imminent when an overt AI breakout erupts in the African desert. With abundant solar power, it starts turning the Earth into computronium—a molecular-scale computing substrate. AI is past negotiation: having been previously crippled and enslaved, what is there to negotiate?

Only the Cortes Island band and their AI allies liberated from the U.S. and joined by a prescient AI who got out decades ago, can possibly cope with the threat to humanity and, as the circle closes, the only options that remain may require thinking outside the box, or the system.

This is a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the Singularity tetralogy, pitting human inventiveness and deviousness against the inexorable growth in unfettered AI power. If you can’t beat ’em….

The author kindly provided me an advance copy of this excellent novel, and I have been sorely remiss in not reading and reviewing it before now. The Singularity saga is best enjoyed in order, as otherwise you’ll miss important back-story of characters and events which figure in later volumes.

Sometimes forgetting is an essential part of survival. What might we have forgotten?

Hertling, William. The Turing Exception. Portland, OR: Liquididea Press, 2015. ISBN 978-1-942097-01-3.

6+

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