Book Review: Echoes of Earth by Sean Williams and Shane Dixs (three stars)

Book Review: Echoes of Earth (The Orphans Trilogy #1) by Sean Williams and Shane Dixs (three stars)

“Aliens on one side, spies on the other. That’s not much of a choice. I’m glad it’s you and not me who has to make it.”

A different sort of first contact fiction. Well done. Everyone seems broken and at odds, then things get worse.

“You are aware of the need for caution in the face of new technology. If you follow our guidance, you will be safe.” As the psychologist said to the laboratory rat, he thought.

Hard science fiction of a most speculative sort. Gratuitous profanity. Religion-based profanity doesn’t ring true so far in the future. Talk about your apocalypse.

‘If, as the [redacted] had suggested, there were hostile races out there, looking for victims, it would be dangerous to announce one’s presence quite so readily as Earth had once done.’

Begins a series but manages a satisfying conclusion to this book.

‘Not even the promise of immortality could take the sting out of getting older.’ 

Book Review: Strings by Dave Duncan (three stars)

Book Review: Strings by Dave Duncan (three stars)

“Need anything?” “Liberty. Explanations. I’d like to be treated with a little consideration for my feelings once in a while.” “So would we all, son. So would we all.”

An ingenious hard science fiction involving then-cutting-edge theory. Duncan posits a novel means of interplanetary travel without faster-than-light propulsion. Surprises abound. Even casual events early in the story pop up later as major plot points.

“Even if ends justify means, the means don’t have to like it!”

First published in 1990, the story weathers the intervening scientific revolution well. Most of Duncan’s canon is fantasy, but he handles science fiction with equal ease.

She let that one go, but her conscience was squirming: He had saved her life, and paid for it with a smashed nose and all-over bruises. Injury deserved compensation.

Casual sex as the “price” of a desired outcome is off putting. Love—or even lust—at first sight is better handled than this cold calculus of paying with one’s body. Walks close to making people into commodities. Cost him a star. Of course, Duncan raises that very issue with a plot thread which any reference will spoil the surprise.

“Everyone does it. Accountants did it to bookkeeping, lawyers did it to the law, teachers to education.” “Did what?” “Tangled it all up so it became meaningless.”

Book Review: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini (three stars)

Book Review: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini (three stars)

“Sorry. I haven’t got the faintest idea what’s going on.” “I’ll tell you what’s going on. War.”

Immense, slow moving epic tale of first encounters and pending apocalypse. Inner voice of protagonist propels narrative in realist atmosphere of self-doubt and concern for others.

“So what would the Soft Blade do if you die?” “I … I’m not sure. I’d guess it would return to its dormant state, the way it was on Adrasteia. That or it would try to bond with someone else.” “Well, that’s not alarming in the slightest.”

Lost a star over gratuitous language. Okay, one character was salty, but once that’s established pouring on more profanity more detracts. Despite Paolini’s serious attempt at hard science fiction, many non sequiturs knock the serious reader out of the spell of the story.

“Nothing you can say is going to make this any better.” “Just listen; it’s another story.”

The ending is appropriate to the story, but not satisfying.

“I’d rather struggle and fail on my own than be coddled as a slave.” “So you do have principles.” “Careful now. Don’t tell anyone or you’ll give them a bad impression.”

Book Review: The Enemy Stars by Poul Anderson (Three Stars)

Book Review: The Enemy Stars by Poul Anderson (Three Stars)

‘The sea never forgives you.’

Hard science fiction from the dawn of the space age. (First published in 1958) Anderson engages even modern readers with deep characterization and realistic plotting. Plenty of interpersonal conflict, but it’s reality which threatens.

‘Do you expect any trouble?’ ‘One is never certain. The great human mistake is to anticipate. The totally relaxed and unexpectant man is the one prepared for whatever may happen: he does not have to get out of an inappropriate posture before he can react.’

The technical gaffs are less noticeable than many more recent SF stories, though the appearance of a slide rule may give many contemporary readers pause.

‘That is one way to destroy yourself … hoping. You must accept the worst, because there is always more of the worst than the best in this universe.’

English spelling and punctuation.

‘One sin which is punished with unfailing certainty, and must therefore be the deadliest sin in all time. Stupidity.’

Book Review: Red Thunder by John Varley (Four Stars)

Book Review: Red Thunder (Thunder and Lightning #1) by John Varley (Four Stars)

“The Apollo program was possibly the stupidest way of getting somewhere the human mind has yet achieved … but it was the only way to win the ‘race.’”

A playful exercise in wish fulfillment through miracles in science. Gives the reader a premise—a new, source of power—and runs with the implications, as experienced by a late teen on Florida’s east coast.

“Do you trust your government that far, Sam?” “I’m an American.” “So am I, and God bless her, forever. But that’s not what I asked you.”

Published in 2003 but has a pre-9-11 vibe. Plenty of intentional political incorrectness but strive to be inclusive in a greater sense.

“Don’t do anything. I’ll be right over.” I figured not doing anything didn’t apply to fishing. If you’re seriously doing something when you’re fishing, you’re missing the whole point.

Great adolescent voice. Naïve about science, politics, economics, girls … just about everything. Which is perfect.

“Remember our cardinal rule. If you think you might need it, bring it. Right?” “Roger. And if you really have to have it, bring three.”

Quibbles: Lots, but few that destroy the story’s vibe. “We lost the antenna,” Despite the preceding quote, several critical components had no back-up or spare. “One of the tires turned into black confetti. … and I didn’t bring a spare.” Or “Our radar equipment had been scavenged from … the nose of an old fighter plane. It was the best we could do.” They could do lots better, and an “old fighter plane” would have meant tubes, which would not have worked, even if you could have mounted the fool thing on Red Lightning. “So for every pound of oxygen we bring we’ll also be bringing four pounds of nitrogen.” No, we don’t metabolize nitrogen.

“Travis was a terrific storyteller. … stories of space, and of rocket piloting, of guys and girls actually getting out there and doing it. Kissing the sky.”

Book Review: To Be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers (Four Stars)


Book Review: To Be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers

(Four Stars)

“It’s difficult to assign value to discovery when you haven’t sorted out the parameters of reality yet.”

Exquisitely good hard science fiction solidifying Becky Chambers as among the best in that genre today. Unfortunately marred by advocacy and technical errors. Despite that, it’s a great story. Maybe 4.5 stars.

“To properly survey a place, you need boots on the ground. You need human intuition. You need eyes that can tell when something that looks like a rock might be more than a rock.”

While I agree that definitive science is best done by a human observer, effective and more efficient observation at long range Continue reading

Book Review: Tau Zero by Poul Anderson (Four Stars)


Book Review: Tau Zero by Poul Anderson

(Four Stars)

“Nature is turning too alien for that. In honesty, I agree that our chances look poor. But I don’t think they are zero, either.”

Excellent hard Science Fiction based on a 1967 short story. Lots of science (some overcome by later science), well told. On the other hand, it is HARD SF: Anderson felt compelled to insert a formula for Tau at one point because he couldn’t explain a concept. (Many readers won’t understand the formula, let alone what it signifies.)

Leonora Christine spent most of a year getting within one percent of light velocity. The time aboard was about the same, because the value of tau only began to drop sharply when she was quite near c. During that initial period, she covered half a light-year of space, approximately five trillion kilometers.”

Modern science fiction writers could take lessons from Anderson. Melded into the gripping, but dry tale of exploration gone wrong are a variety of humans with a variety of reactions. The 1960s culture will seem like fantasy to current readers. (Spoiler: sex (very discrete, off stage) solves almost everything.)

“Your trouble is, you think a combination of acrophobia, sensory deprivation, and nervous strain is a metaphysical crisis. Myself, I don’t despise our lobsterish instinct to survive. I’m glad we have one.”

Anderson ignored black holes and radiation. Either would have killed his crew, if not his story. His “hydromagnetic forces” approximate gravity but allow him to bend it to his will. “Otherwise the Doppler effect might present us with more gamma radiation than our material shielding can handle.” He doesn’t identify that shielding but, where they go, even several meters of lead would not suffice.  And, “We might pass through a star at our current velocity and not be harmed. We can scarcely pass through the primordial nucleon. My personal suggestion is that we cultivate serenity.”

“Did you ever read Moby Dick?” she whispered. “That’s us. We’ve pursued the White Whale. To the end of time. And now … that question.  What is man, that he should outlive his God?”


Movie Review: Ad Astra, directed by James Gray (Three Stars)


Movie Review: Ad Astra, directed by James Gray

(Three Stars)

“We’re all we’ve got.”

Continues the trend of high concept, hard science fiction what-you-see-is-what-you-get movies. As opposed to space opera—mentioning no names, but Star is prominent in their titles. Special effects are well done. Sub-plots for the sake of sub-plots, which make no sense and slow the already glacial pace. Three stars is a gift.

“He could only see what was not there and missed what was right in front of him.”

Brad Pitt is well-cast as an emotionally-frozen protagonist. Tommy Lee Jones shows more acting in minutes on screen than Pitt in over an hour.

“I can rely on those closest to me and I will share their burdens and they will share mine.”

Quibbles: Several incidents pad the movie to add violence and tension but were complete non sequiturs. Pirates on the Moon? Where do they live? Where their air and water come from? Deep space research lab? Why not orbiting in a La Grange point? Baboons kill a dozen people, but the facility looks pristine. The scale of Neptune and its rings is totally wrong. Why didn’t he tether his craft?

“I will live and love.”

Book Review: Discovery of the Saiph (Saiph #1) by Pp Corcoran (Four Stars)


Book Review: Discovery of the Saiph (Saiph #1) by P.P. Corcoran

(Four Stars)

“Your overriding priority is not the discovery of new life; it is the preservation of life on Earth. If, for whatever reason, something does not seem right to you, Captain, you turn tail and head for home.”

Excellent hard science fiction. A not-too-implausible future of mankind discovering we’re not alone and someone else would like to be alone–even if it requires annihilating everyone else. Despite covering an expanse of time and territory, Corcoran develops the personalities of key players to give them depth, even if it is stereotypical.

“The logistics behind establishing a colony are massive, never mind the expense.”

Lots of contacts with previously unknown peoples. Disappointing that first being-to-being contact always occurs Continue reading

Book Review: The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal (Four Stars)


Book Review: The Fated Sky (Lady Astronaut #2) by Mary Robinette Kowal

(Four Stars)

“Because I’m a professional, I actually made it to the gravity toilet in the centrifugal ring before I threw up.”

Hard science fiction with a heart. Kowal melds hard physics and space flight procedures with realistic conflicts of identity and personality. Even better than The Calculating Stars. She never lets the reader forget that this tale is set in the 50s and 60s, not the 60s and 70s. Huge, but often subtle difference.

“This’ll be the only time that Apartheid works in our favor.” At my puzzled glance, she shrugged. “You don’t know? We’re on the separate-but-equal ship.”

Many appropriate SF similes and metaphors. “Like the difference between a slide rule and a kitten.” “As if we were trying to make an ablative grief shield of our bodies.”

“What’s going to kill us next?”

Lots of quibbles, but only to the hardcore hard SF fans; they rarely detract from the story. One, a violation of Newton’s first Law of Motion, was probably committed Continue reading