A science fiction novel that revolves around a seemingly fantastic concept – a space elevator that re...moreOriginal review can be read at Layers of Thought.
A science fiction novel that revolves around a seemingly fantastic concept – a space elevator that reaches from the equator to geosynchronous orbit and will help to solve many of the world’s problems. The technology is based on reasonable extrapolations of today’s science.
Description: The earth is beset by a range of seemingly unsolvable issues that spell future disaster – environmental crises abound, oil supplies are dwindling causing oil prices to skyrocket, major economies are trying to overcome crippling deficits, and war is brewing in the Middle East. Meanwhile two brilliant and driven scientists have spent twenty years working on the science and engineering behind an incredible idea. They want to build an elevator that will reach 23,000 miles out into geosynchronous orbit, a project that would not only re-ignite space travel but would also help to solve many of the world’s energy problems – and ultimately help to abate environmental crises.
Gary and Eva Morgan have been quietly working under the guidance of their mentor, an ancient but revered rocket scientist who is something of a NASA legend. When they are told that the government can no longer fund their research budget, the project seems to be doomed and the Morgans are mortified. But their mentor has connections with dot.com legend Franklyn Smith, who has the vision, the immense wealth and the business savvy required to kick-start the project.
Slowly the team starts to turn the dream into a reality but they face huge odds – not just overwhelming technical challenges that need to be overcome, but also many powerful vested interests and some highly skeptical and vocal critics. The glittering goal cannot be reached without heroism, determination and sacrifice.
John’s thoughts: I do love the idea behind the story (and incidentally it is not a new one – Arthur C. Clarke wrote about the creation of a space elevator in his 1979 novel, The Fountains of Paradise). It involves great vision, huge technological obstacles and possible salvation from some of mankind’s most intractable problems. And yet Forstchen makes it sound like this can be done using some reasonable extrapolations from technology that is available today; he makes the idea and the story feel plausible. He also creates some interesting and three-dimensional characters, has an accessible writing style and has crafted a fast-paced and interesting plot. The technology was interesting, fascinating actually, but it didn’t clog up the read.
Where he loses me a bit is in his endless eulogizing of NASA. The book jacket does say that it is a “NASA-inspired work of fiction” so I guess I was forewarned, but I did find it a bit over the top. Certainly it would be nice to think that pure science and visionary goals can win out over blinkered politics and a short-term view of financial and business interests, but having to read so many times how great NASA was (and could be again) just proved to be a distraction from the story.
Still, I did enjoy this read and would recommend it to any science fiction fans who like their stories to be based in the near future and founded on plausible technology. I’d rate this book three stars. (less)
John’s quick take: Continuing the story told in the classic science fiction movie and novel 2001: A Space...moreOriginal review posted at Layers of Thought.
John’s quick take: Continuing the story told in the classic science fiction movie and novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, this chronicles what happens when an international team is sent to Jupiter to investigate the fate of the 2001 mission.
John’s description: In 2001 the crew of the spaceship Discovery found a mysterious monolith orbiting Jupiter; it’s clearly an alien artifact. The spaceship’s computer (known as HAL) had started to act oddly and caused the death of all but one of the crew. David Bowman, the lone survivor, manages to disable HAL and then continues on with the mission. When he leaves Discovery and starts to explore the monolith he disappears, with his last words sent back to Earth being “My God, it’s full of stars!” But there is now a newly created version of Bowman, unobtrusively watching over Earth and humans, unsure of what his next steps should be.
Nine years later a joint Soviet-American team travels to Jupiter on a Soviet spaceship. The objectives are to find out all they possibly can about the 2001 mission from Discovery’s records, and to further investigate the monolith. A key to unlocking some of the mysteries surrounding the 2001 mission is to resuscitate Discovery and to delve into HAL’s memory banks – so a vital member of the 2010 mission is the scientist who created HAL. There are another two Americans aboard who are deemed necessary, but the rest of the crew is Soviet. There are ongoing political tensions between the two countries and neither is happy about having to partner with the other, but there are some necessarily tight deadlines that have to be met, and only the Soviets have a ship that is ready in time. Inevitably the relationships between the crew factions are strained as the mission starts out.
As the ship gets nearer to Jupiter there are some big surprises in store; there is also the horrendously dangerous braking maneuver which entails circling Jupiter and using its gravity to help slow the ship down. Finally they rendezvous with the dead US ship, Discovery, and then start the arduous task of trying to bring it back to life. They also have to carefully bring the powerful HAL back online, unsure of what they will find and how it might react to the newcomers. Meanwhile the huge monolith seems to be inert and unperturbed by their presence. But by far the biggest shock is yet to come. And “Bowman” continues his watch and starts to flex some of his newfound powers.
John’s thoughts:2001: A Space Odyssey was such a classic movie, which was groundbreaking in all sorts of ways. The ending left some audience members scratching their heads a bit, though the resulting novel did clear things up at least somewhat (the movie was a result of collaboration between Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, while Clarke followed up with the novel). In many ways it cried out for a sequel, but more than twenty years passed before Clarke released this novel.
It was a tough act to follow, but employing his usual gifts of huge imagination, technical credibility, and first-rate storytelling, Clarke did a terrific job. In common with most Clarke books, this is a really fine read. The futurism and science don’t get in the way at all, but rather add to what is a really cool story. This is an easy read – which is not to diminish the depth and complexity of the plot. And of course there are plenty of surprises to keep you turning the pages.
It is not unusual in many science fiction books to find that characters are rather thin and under-developed, taking a back seat to “gee whiz” plots and grand visions, but that is not a problem that I have found with Clarke – the characters in this novel are interesting and have some depth, as are those in most of his books. (Though I must admit that this is my first Clark read in a long time and it was in my student days when I voraciously read his books, so maybe my memory is playing little tricks with me).
All in all, this is a great read that I’d recommend to any and all science fiction fans; though of course it has been out for a long time now so perhaps most have read it already. You don’t have to have read 2001 first as the key elements are recounted in 2010 - but it will help to provide a little added background and color. I’d also say that for non-science fiction fans who want to test the water, Arthur C. Clarke is a great place to start. I’d rate this book 4 stars.
P.S. It only just occurred to me how apt it is to rate science fiction novels using a system of stars! (less)
John’s quick take: An ambitious science fiction brain tease in which the protagonist “falls into an aston...moreOriginal review posted at Layers of Thought.
John’s quick take: An ambitious science fiction brain tease in which the protagonist “falls into an astonishing metaphysical shadow play”. What is real and what isn’t? What does real even mean?
John’s description: Set at some point in the future, the story revolves around Heath Ransom who is a very special kind of private investigator. He is a former police psychic and machine-enhanced “endovoyant” who is able to travel into etheric worlds in order to answer puzzles and to track down missing people.
Ransom is hired to find the consciousness of an extremely rich but comatose old woman and to try to bring it back to her body. However, while trying to track her down in the etheric world he finds a terrifying, dark vortex. Falling through the vortex he soon finds himself inhabiting the body of a young man who has just been poisoned by his girlfriend. This in turn leads him into an ever-darker investigation involving government conspiracies, mutants, corruption, torture, self-aware artificial intelligence, androids and attempted immortality.
In deadly danger himself, Ransom starts to jump back and forth between the two worlds. He then finds out that much of what he thought was real is in fact artificial and as paranoia and conspiracy abounds, he starts to doubt his own sanity.
John’s thoughts: Where to start? Well, it is a very interesting idea on which to base a novel. I like how it started and was quickly pulled into the plot. Soon, however, two things started to happen. Firstly, I started to hit some dense pieces of text that were so full of obscure words and complex ideas that I didn’t comprehend them even after a few re-reads. There weren’t loads of sections like this, but there were enough to make it a difficult read. Secondly, as the novel progressed, the underlying (and interesting) story almost disappeared into the background, seemingly having become just a vehicle to explore some complex concepts and ideas.
Nonetheless I stuck with it as Nasir did create an interesting future world and I did like many of his ideas. Sadly, for me the underlying story didn’t come to any sort of satisfactory ending; in fact I really disliked how the novel ends. Having spent so long building details and ideas, I think the ending is rushed and a bit glib.
Part way through the book I thought this was going to be a four-star read, but having lost the plot (almost literally) and not liking the conclusion, I’d only rate this three stars. Who would like it? Well the jacket references Philip K. Dick, as do some other reviews that I saw out there. If you like Dick’s ideas and world view, this book might well appeal to you. (less)
John’s quick take: What starts out as a clever and humorous science fiction story turns into something a...moreOriginal review posted at Layers of Thought.
John’s quick take: What starts out as a clever and humorous science fiction story turns into something a bit too clever and a bit less funny.
John’s description: I’m not spoiling the plot by telling you that this story is one long (and convoluted) riff on Star Trek. In Star Trek stories redshirts are the lowly ensigns who accompany the senior officers on missions and who have remarkably short life spans - while the senior officers themselves always survive in order to go on many more future missions, some portion of the redshirts always come to a sticky end.
In this novel a group of lowly new ensigns on the Universal Union ship Intrepid are the focus of the plot. They soon figure out that something is amiss and that statistically speaking far too many of their colleagues and peers have ended up dying. Meanwhile, crew members who have been around just a bit longer go to ridiculous lengths to avoid the senior officers and their off-ship missions. The newbies come up with a very whacky theory as to what might be causing their plight. The theory is so crazy that our heroes start to think that they themselves must be slightly crazy, but now the plot takes the first of several mind-bending twists.
I can’t say too much without giving away spoilers, but suffice to say that as the ensigns struggle to figure out how to survive, we quickly descend into time travel, doppelgangers and metaphysics.
John’s thoughts: The plot is based on a very interesting premise – though I still can’t tell you about the basic idea without making myself a turkey. Be prepared for a Mobius strip-like logical flow that will exercise your grey matter as you try to work out the possibilities and ramifications of what is going on. I found myself giving up and just going with the flow.
But did I enjoy it? Well I did to begin with, but as things become more and more twisted I started to feel like I was on a bit of a mission to make it through to the end, rather than actually getting a kick out of the read. And I did find that as the implausibility factor increased, so my enjoyment levels diminished.
Also, I am a bit undecided about how the book ends. Basically after the main story comes to a sort of a conclusion, there are three separate codas from the perspectives of three of the minor characters. It’s a neat idea and I really like the final coda, but I didn’t like the first of the three and found the second one a bit so-so.
So overall it’s a great premise for a story and I got a few chuckles from it, but in the end I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I thought I was going to. I do suspect that there will be some very divided opinions over this one. Personally I’m glad that I read it and I’d rate it three stars, despite some of the things which didn’t quite work for me. If you like convoluted science fiction stories written by someone with their tongue firmly in their cheek, then this one is for you. (less)
John’s quick take:A couple of paranoid loners find themselves in a web of conspiracy in this science fiction thriller.
John’s description: It’s far into the future and humanity has spread itself wide across the universe, seeking out new worlds that can be colonized and exploited for natural resources. In all this time and space, there has been no sign that another sentient species exist. It seems that humans are all alone in the universe.
Then Prudence Falling, a space trader in charge of a freighter and a ragtag crew, alights on Kassa, a farming planet that has been brutally attacked by secret assailants and whose population has been mostly slaughtered. She is soon joined by Kyle Daspar, a policeman who has been put in charge of a military patrol vessel. The space traders live on the edge of the law and naturally distrust everyone so she is suspicious of Daspar. Unbeknown to her Daspar is an undercover agent secretly acting against the powerful League for whom he supposedly works. He has been undercover so long that he is no longer sure who he can trust. The two are attracted to each other but their suspicious minds creates a wall of tension between them.
While trying to help the survivors on Kassa, Falling and Daspar make a shocking discovery - an alien spaceship that crashed during the attack. It is clear that they were not supposed to find the alien craft and yet Daspar had been tipped off in advance that something on the planet needed investigation. They smell big trouble and despite their natural caution soon find themselves entangled in a complex conspiracy where nothing is as it seems. With their lives in constant danger and an alien invasion seemingly imminent, the two loners are eventually drawn to each other.
John’s thoughts: I liked the story Planck has concocted. It’s a good mixture of science fiction, political thriller, and adventure romance. The two central characters are nicely developed and you have that feeling that they will end up together despite the difficulties, which adds a bit of spice to the mix. Also the future that Planck creates is interesting and has been well thought out, and is sufficiently different from the many other sci-fi novels that I’ve read recently – which helped to draw me in and keep me reading. It’s definitely a fast-paced book that can be breezed through quickly, and the plot also has enough twists to keep the reader guessing.
I like the two main characters and found myself rooting for them, though the relationship that develops between them isn’t the strongest part of the novel - it somehow felt a bit thin and unconvincing and not particularly lifelike. The other problem for me was the ending of the story; it was rather rushed and an awful lot was crammed into the final few pages. But beyond that this was a fun and interesting read and I’d rate the book 3.5 stars. It’s a fine first novel that will move me to look out for more work by Planck. If you like your science fiction mixed up with a bit of political conspiracy and a slight romantic element, then this is definitely one for you.
Are you interested in dinosaurs, time travel, space travel, religious cults and strange “alien” sp...moreOriginal review by John posted at Layers of Thought.
Are you interested in dinosaurs, time travel, space travel, religious cults and strange “alien” species? All mixed together with a good dose of impending apocalypse? Then this book is for you.
John's thoughts on what it's about: While this is the third in the “Thunder” series, it is reasonably self-contained and stands on its own.
Eighteen years ago the prehistoric past and the present day collided creating a patchwork time-quilt. Whole cities and regions were ripped away and replaced by dense primeval jungles populated by dinosaurs; while conversely, back in the Cretaceous period many millions of years ago, parts of the primeval jungles were replaced by chunks of the twentieth century.
In the present day, man has eventually learned to live with the dinosaurs, with most of the beasts now contained safely in large nature reserves. But something is going amiss - again. New dinosaurs are suddenly appearing in the present, tunnels to the past seem to be opening up at random and a mission to the moon finds a living Tyrannosaurus Rex trapped in some sort of alternative reality or timeline. Something must be done and it’s left to Nick Paulson (director of the U.S. Office of Security Science), aided and abetted by a motley crew of mostly-accidental helpers, to figure out what is triggering these potentially cataclysmic events.
Traveling back to the Cretaceous period the crew finds embattled survivors from the twentieth century who had been cast back in time eighteen years previously, and surprisingly find a whole new species of sentient beings that are very different from humans. To their dismay they also discover that a huge asteroid is rushing toward the Earth and that impact is imminent. It being the Cretaceous period there are also dinosaurs – and lots of them.
John’s afterthoughts: On the plus side there is no shortage of creative ideas and plotlines in this book, and it certainly races along at high speed making it a quick and easy read. It also mixes action and adventure with a sizeable dollop of humor, so I got quite a few chuckles out of it. All very good things for the right sort of reader.
However, it is all a bit light-weight for my preferences. In particular the two-dimensional characters have little depth and it isn’t always obvious why people are doing what they are doing. Meanwhile there is so much action and things going on that the book doesn’t have that feeling of realism and believability that I like to see in my science fiction reads. And then there is the ending. Parts of it didn’t quite make sense for me and one conclusion to a key thread was just a tad on the silly side.
But I kept going along for the ride and mostly it was a fun ride. In the end this novel was not a big favorite and so I’d rate it 2.5 stars. But if you’re in the mood for some action-packed , escapist, “end-of-the-world-is-nigh” frolics involving dinosaurs and time travel, then this one has your name on it. (less)
John’s quick take: Grand science fiction ideas and an epic-scale story, but a disappointingly exe...moreOriginal review by John posted at Layers of Thought.
John’s quick take: Grand science fiction ideas and an epic-scale story, but a disappointingly executed novel.
John’s description: An expedition sets off from Earth to explore a distant star system and to populate a (hopefully) Earth-like plant. The journey will take many decades and most of the travelers are put into a deep sleep while skeleton crews take it in turn to pilot the starship. But after just eighty years Cliff Kammash, one of the lead biologists, is awoken early.
It soon becomes apparent to Cliff that there is a problem, but the problem pales beside the discovery of an unimaginably huge artifact that is the size of a solar system. Indeed, the bowl-shaped object seems to encompass a star and have a surface area that is millions of times that of earth. It also seems to heading towards the same star system targeted by the humans.
With the starship inexplicably losing velocity and struggling to reach its goal, the crew decide to investigate the bowl, hoping to replenish supplies that are being depleted too quickly. More of the crew are awakened and a landing party is sent down to the surface of the bowl. There they discover strange bird-like aliens, but half of the party are captured. The two separated groups then struggle to explore and understand the strange world, unsure of how they can ever get back to their own ship.
John’s thoughts: Oh dear. One of my pet hates is a book that masquerades as a standalone novel but in reality is only the first episode in a series – with no satisfactory conclusion to any of the plot threads. There are ways of creating a series that still provide a satisfying experience to someone who just wants to read one of the books, but no attempt is made to do that in Bowl of Heaven. Worse still, nowhere on the jacket or book description are you made aware that this is just the first in the series. This is the worst example of my pet hate that I have come across in a long time. Very frustrating.
Will I be tempted to seek out the next in the series? No. There are some interesting ideas in the book and I like some of the interaction between the different species, but the story drags on too much and lacks pace - I had a hard time reading more than a dozen pages at a time. It doesn’t help that the characters are all a bit two dimensional and some of the interplay between them just doesn’t feel plausible. It also doesn’t help that there is some weird editing in the book. There were at least three obvious discontinuities or contradictions in the story.
I can only rate this book 2 stars; and the only people I could recommend it to are die-hard fanatical follower of Benford or Niven who are prepared for the long haul of a series and can get beyond some of the shortcomings of this read. (less)
A thought-provoking novel on the possibilities, rights and wrongs of stem-cell research and associ...moreOriginal review by John posted at Layers of Thought.
A thought-provoking novel on the possibilities, rights and wrongs of stem-cell research and associated medical science.
About: The Marshak brothers are both brilliant doctors - Arthur focusing on leading-edge research and Jesse focusing on trying to help poor and disadvantaged sick people. While Jesse goes on to win a Humanitarian of the Year award, Arthur covets the Nobel prize.
Arthur is now head of a research laboratory, pushing back the boundaries of medical knowledge and techniques. In particular he and his team are making great strides in working out how to regenerate limbs and organs – and in the process have caused great angst among many religious groups, conservatives and people concerned about ethical and moral aspects of the research. Most importantly, as far as the arc of the story is concerned, Arthur’s own brother becomes opposed to the research.
In order to try and clear the way ahead for his work, Arthur manages to convene a “science court”, designed to help the scientific community pass judgment on the validity of the research. Inevitably the court sessions become something of a circus, straying far beyond the scientific issues and attracting the attention of powerful lobby groups, politicians and the media.
As the court proceedings come to a head, the story examines the conflict and dynamics between the brothers, some of the troubling aspects of the research and the corporate goings on in the company that owns Arthur’s laboratory.
John’s thoughts: This is great subject matter and the plot is nicely teed up, but somehow the book never quite took off for me. The main problem was the characters – they felt a bit two-dimensional and some of their motivations and actions just weren’t quite believable. In particular the relationship between the brothers and the woman they both love just didn’t feel realistic.
I do like the way that the story explored various aspects of the controversial subject matter, but even then some issues are brought up but never come close to any sort of resolution or meaningful debate, a case in point being animal experimentation and vivisection. In most instances Bova made it quite clear what his views were on issues, but on the use of animals in research I have no idea what he thinks.
I’d never read a Ben Bova novel before, and he had come highly recommended, so I was a bit disappointed with this read. It was still ok, but I was expecting so much more. I’d say this is one for Bova lovers and anyone with an interest in issues around stem-cell research. I’d rate it three stars. (less)
Another ambitious and excellent galaxy-spanning novel from Niven and Lerner – the conclusion to th...moreOriginal review by John posted at Layers of Thought.
Another ambitious and excellent galaxy-spanning novel from Niven and Lerner – the conclusion to the award-winning “Ringworld” and “Fleet of Worlds” sagas.
About: Ringworld, the most stunning and mystifying discovery in known space, has suddenly and inexplicably vanished, leaving three competing war fleets battling over supremacy of – nothing! Most troubled by the disappearance are the Puppeteers, whose densely populated fleet of planets is speeding away from the explosion of the galactic core. The meddling Puppeteers fear, with plenty of reason, that the armadas will turn their attention away from the Ringworld and towards the Puppeteers’ retreating planets. Unfortunately, the Puppeteers are beset by political strife caused by their megalomaniacal ex-leader; they are also secretly controlled by an alien race which may care little about the fate of the planets.
Meanwhile New Terra, a human colony which was set up by the Puppeteers but which has now broken away, also takes an interest in the Ringworld’s disappearance. Its current leaders are keen to stay isolated from the troubles, but its legendary (and now disgraced) ex-Defense Minister and protector sees a way to use the strife to help re-connect New Terra with its long-lost home planet, Earth.
A human adventurer and an exiled Puppeteer spent years on Ringworld before its disappearance, and they may hold the key to technological marvels which could help ensure the survival of the Puppeteer race. But the two face a myriad of political, technical and personal hurdles – not least of which is the Puppeteers’ determination that New Terrans must never find out the truth about their own history.
John’s thoughts: This is the fourth of the Ringworld/Fleet of Worlds novels that I have read (I think there are nine in total?) and I have totally enjoyed each one of them. As I said in one of my earlier reviews “Niven and Lerner spin great stories that have complex plots, intrigue, strong characters, a creative foundation of believable technology and really well constructed worlds and races. They clearly give a lot of thought to the alien races that they create, and the attention to detail adds a lot to the stories”. Having now read the latest and last in the series, I still couldn’t put it any better - so I won’t even try!
Fate of Worlds shares many of the alien races and plot foundations of the earlier novels, but gives extra emphasis to the artificial intelligence systems that have been developed. As the AI systems evolve at pace, I couldn’t help being reminded somewhat of Webmind from Robert J. Sawyer’s WWW novels - which certainly is no bad thing.
Do you have to read the previous novels in the series to enjoy this one? Absolutely not. While there is a progression to the novels and many connections, one thing that impressed me was that each of the four that I have read works as standalone piece with a clear beginning and ending. The extra nice thing about this one is that it ties together an awful lot of story threads in a coherent way. That is no mean feat given the complexity of the series.
The book isn’t much over 300 pages in length, but there is an amazing amount of complex plot, intrigue and detail crammed into those pages; and it isn’t tough to read. I found myself quickly drawn into the story and then read on whenever I had the opportunity. Will this really be the last in the series? Well, the book cover and marketing blurb say so, but I can see at least three parts of the story which could provide the foundation for future novels, so who knows.
I’d rate this book four stars. If you are a fan of Niven or Lerner, then this book is a “must read”. You won’t be disappointed. I’d also recommend it to anyone who enjoys hard science fiction. (less)