Richard's Reviews > Between The Strokes Of Night

Between The Strokes Of Night by Charles Sheffield
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's review
Sep 21, 2011

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bookshelves: bookclub, scifi, scifi-alien-first-contact, scifi-hardscience
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Recommended for: HardSF buffs content with fairly weak sociology.
Read from September 19 to 20, 2011

Between the Strokes of Night deals with the long-term experiences of humanity as a space-faring race. Its central contribution — not a spoiler, since the opens with this exploration — is an intriguing twist on time and space travel, specifically that by adapting the human body to different temperatures, subjective experience can be changed to stretch a human lifespan over many centuries or millennia.

As far as traditional “hard” science fiction goes, Charles Sheffield does a pretty good job of nailing it. That is both good and bad, though. In his introduction, Sheffield makes the point that “if the science in the story is wrong or ridiculous, it’s not science fiction” and while “hard science fiction ought to be hard not because it’s hard to read, but because it’s hard to write,” he still believes that “there’s no reason not to try it the hard way.” The problem here is that Sheffield, like many science fiction traditionalists, don’t grant that endeavor to any sciences but the “hard” sciences (a foolishly misleading term, since the physical sciences are far “easier” in many ways than the others).

The opening of the book provides a painful illustration of why this is a weakness. Even though the story was updated in 2002 (just before the author’s death) to accommodate new developments in cosmology, he left in the hackneyed plot device “nuclear armageddon triggered by nations gone ‘mad’.” Several decades of sociological and psychological research have provided convincing evidence that Mutually-Assured Destruction (MAD, of course) worked — and continues to work — splendidly because of self-interested rationality.

While Sheffield’s characters are much more fleshed out than the cardboard characters of much science fiction, they still show very little psychological depth. Effectively absent are anything but superficially-portrayed anxieties, for example. The social interactions of his characters are very close to idealized androids who mimic human emotions without actually needing to rely on human relationships for stability. Over and over again, he has characters head off to a fate with little concern that they are leaving behind family, friends, or any semblance thereof.

If you enjoy science fiction that focuses tightly on getting physics correct and you can ignore implausibilities in other sciences, then this is an excellent book. Even if you find the latter troubling, it is still enjoyable, since Sheffield’s automatons mimic humanity fairly well — far better than many science fiction pioneers.

(Book selection for the Hard SciFi group [aka the Yahoo hardsf group] for the month of Sptember, 2011. See here for discussion.)
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