Category Archives: Sci-Fi

Black Holes

Edited by Jerry Pournelle

Black Holes

I first read this book when I was a teenager. Jerry Pournelle himself wasn’t new to me but most of the other contributors were and I was impressed by the various approaches to the subject of Black Holes. Having re-read it again thirty years later I found myself still as impressed by the mix of stories and essays. You don’t often get fact and fiction sitting side-by-side and I find the concept both interesting and informative. Good science fiction (as this collection is) contains as much fact as fiction, but the addition of real ideas and discussions of concepts really opened my eyes as a teenager. 

Most of the pieces in the book were written in the mid to late 70s, with just one dating from 1968. Like all sci-fi of the time, it can seem a little dated with talk of tapes and such like, but the core concepts behind each story are as relevant today as they were then. Stephen Hawkins gets a mention in one of the articles, crediting him with being approaches to responsible for our notions of Black Holes and singularities. 

Revisiting a book from your past can often be disappointing, our memories often coated in that ever present rose coloured tint, but in this case I was far from disappointed. Black Holes is a great collection and a very enjoyable read. 

Authors included in this collection are Larry Niven, Poul Anderson, Charles Sheffield, Robert Forward, R Bretnor, Gail Kimberly, Grant Carrington, George Zebrowski, Mildred Downey Broxon, Dian Girard, Michael Bishop, Peter Dillinger and Greg Bear. 

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon is a Harsh Mistressby Robert A Heinlein

It is 2075 and the Moon (Luna) is a former penal colony. Now the citizens want their independence and are prepared to fight for it. 

I suppose that in 1966 when the book was first published, the idea of a permanent colony on the Mohon seemed not just possible, but probably. With the space race in full swing and the first Moon landings on the horizon, all was to play for. It’s a shame the reality didn’t quite live up to the promise of those pioneering days. 

But putting that aside, what we have here is a tale of political intrigue, revolution and sociological change. In Heinlein’s Luna colonies, relationships are both free and complicated in a world where men outnumber women several-fold. But as always, writers are limited by their own experiences, even Sci-Fi writers like Heinlein. It seems that in 1966 even the most fantastic plots did not envisage a world where men and women could expect equal opportunities. The female lead, Wyoming Knott, is n the face of it a strong and independent character, but in fact, she is no more than a hook to hang the books romantic thread onto.

Luna’s struggle for independence from Earth draws a great deal from history and comparisons between it and America’s fight against Imperialism are easy to draw. 

If I sound overly critical of the book, I don’t mean to. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is an excellent example of how good science fiction can be. The science is believable and grounded. The problems faced by those having to adjust to the Moon’s lower gravity adds a level of believability so often overlooked. 

Heinlein is undoubtedly a mast of the genre, but he is also an excellent storyteller. The characters and plot are well structured and the pace consistent and relentless. And whilst there is a dated feel about some elements of the book, it stands up pretty well in my opinion. 

 

The Man in the High Castle

The Man In The High Castleby Philip K Dick

Having seen and enjoyed Amazon’s adaptation I felt I really ought to read the book it was based on. The only reason I have left it so long was that I am not exactly a fan of Philip K Dick’s work. I have read several of his works before and found them somewhat difficult to get into. I find his style sits uncomfortably with me and the plots a little lacking in substance. This may be down to poor selection on my behalf, but I can only comment on what I have read. 

The Man in the High Castle is not the first of Dick’s novels to be adapted for the screen. In fact, these adaptations have resulted in some of the most popular Sci-Fi movies of all time, so he must be doing something right.

For me, The Man In The High Castle was a little disappointing. In many ways, it was what I expected in terms of style and plot, but when compared against the TV series, it came a very poor second. All the elements are there, as are the characters, but for me, the big difference between the two, and the reason I prefer the series to the book, is the action or lack of it. The idea behind the book is a whopper – the Allies lost the Second World War and now America is split between Germany and Japan. There is a finely balanced détente between these two new superpowers that is treated by political upheavals within the Reich and the publication of a novel describing a very different world in which the German and Japanese axis lost. 

I have seen and read a number of “What if…” style books over the years and I have to say that Dick’s paints one of the most believable pictures of an alternative post-war history. The Man In The High Castle has a great plot and does a wonderful job of presenting some interesting ideas, but for me, there is a lack of depth to both the characters and the plot. 

I would still recommend the book to anyone who has seen the TV series. It contains a lot more information about the world beyond the American states and some background to the political situation that is well worth knowing. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, the book offers an interesting insight into what might have been. 

 

Gateway

By Frederik Pohl 

GatewayFrederik Pohl has an enviable reputation in the Sci-Fi community. His seven decades as a writer and editor brought him many awards and plaudits from critics and fans alike. Gateway has become one of his best-remembered novels, and for a very good reason. The premise behind the story is simple and ingenious. It is the story of one of a new breed of prospectors, men and women venturing into the unknown in search of wealth, much like the prospectors of the old west during the Gold Rush. 

Like the intrepid prospectors if America’s Wild West, the adventurers of Pohl’s vividly imagined future are out for wealth and, if they can get it, a little glory. The parallels between the two run quite deep, at least at the human level. Those that chose to risk their lives at Gateway do so for many different reasons, but ultimately, they are either running away from something or aiming towards their fortunes. Either way, Pohl’s masterpiece paints a very vivid picture of life on a wild frontier. 

Gateway is an alien construct, it’s the base for hundreds of alien spacecraft. Each has its own pre-programmed destination, the only trouble is, the human flying them can’t read the maps. Nor can they change the destination. It’s like a cosmic lucky dip, some you win, some you lose. Consequently, if you don’t know where you are going or how long it will take, you don’t know how many supplies you need.  

And of course, unlike Earthbound explorers, you can’t take a small detour to replenish your food and water supplies. Trusting yourself to the unknown could mean being sent into a Super Nova, a Black Hole or simply starving to death. 

But there is another side to this story. The book alternates between the narrator, Robinette Broadhead’s past and his present. And for me, that is the really clever part of the book. On the one hand, Pohl gives us a good old-fashioned adventure story complete with heroes, villains, romance and tragedy. On the other, he examines, through a computer psychiatrist, the mixed emotions that inevitably come from daring to stare the universe in the eye and shout “bring it on”. 

As the book approaches its climax, the parallel threads begin to resolve themselves and the reader is made aware of the reasons behind our narrator’s present position.  

Gateway is an imaginative yet simple book that proves beyond doubt how well deserved Frederik Pohl’s reputation is. 

The City of Mirrors (The Passage #3)

The City of MirrorsThe epic Passage trilogy comes to a dramatic and conclusive end in this thrilling final instalment. At over 800 pages, it is quite a read, but well worth the investment in time and the wait. Unlike the first two books, City of Mirrors has more than one narrator and doesn’t follow a single timeline.

The action begins 20 years after the climactic events of book two. With the virals gone it is a whole new chapter for mankind. Just when what’s left of North America’s population begin to believe it is safe to turn off the lights and venture beyond the safety of their Texan compound, the old enemy creeps back. For a new generation of American’s, the virals have become something of a myth, the bogeymen from their parents past. But all legends and myths have are rooted in a truth, and they are just about to find out just how real these particular myths are.

One loose end from the previous two books that I felt needed resolving, was what was happening in the rest of the world whilst North America was being overrun by flesh eating virals. After all, the continent was quarantined at the virals themselves contained within its borders. Thankfully, this and other loose ends are neatly tied up.

After two books bursting with action, City of Mirrors feels a little slow at the start as we are introduced to a new narrator whose tale brings some clarity to the origins of the virals and their actions. It is the story of a man whose obsessions and decisions will bring humanity to the very edge of extinction. But his actions are not born out of hatred but love. Despite the body count and impressive stash of weapons, City of Mirrors is centred around a love story.

Unrequited love, maternal love and all-consuming passions direct the actions of each of the story’s main characters. Justin Cronin has proven himself to be a talented storyteller with a real vision. Bringing this incredible trilogy to a climactic and touching conclusion, City of Mirrors is a captivating and compelling read.

Impact (Outer Earth #3)

Impactby Rob Boffard

The final part of Rob Boffard’s “Outer Earth” trilogy packs just as munch punch as the previous two books. Impact picks up the story immediately after Zero-G’s cliff-hanger ending, with our hero, Riley Hale and he companions drifting away from the Outer Earth space station.

The bulk of the action in the final instalment takes place on a cold and almost barren Earth. Raveg by a nuclear holocaust, the whole planet is swathed in an eternal winter; except for one area centred on Anchorage, where things have started to change.

The pace of Impact is relentless, and the body count just as high as in the previous two books. But now Riley is no longer trying to save the station – that is beyond saving now – this time she is after revenge. There is definitely going to be reckoning, and she knows who is going to come out on top. She also needs to decide who she wants to be with.

Back on Outer Earth things are going from bad to worse. The damage inflicted by the fire fight at the end of the second book has forced the remaining residents into the lonely intact section of the station, but time is running out and there are not enough escape pods for everyone. Who lives and who dies is to be decided by lottery. 

The race to escape the station and Riley’s personal race for revenge and answers can only be won by the kind of daredevil escapades that have become the hallmark of this series. If you like your thrillers full of action then this is definitely a must. A great read that kept me hooked from the very beginning to the climactic end.

Zero-G (Outer Earth #2)

Zero-Gby Rob Boffard 

This is the second part of Rob Boffard’s debut Outer Earth trilogy. In the first book (Tracer) we were introduced to the Outer Earth space station and the storey’s central character, Riley Hale, the tough, independent and resourceful Tracer. 

Whilst I was convinced by the first book of Rob Boffard’s skills as a storyteller, I was a little concerned that the pace and intensity might be slowed down a little. I needn’t have worried. Picking up the story six months after the events if Tracer, Zero-G starts on a high with a hostage situation that tests Riley to the limit, and it doesn’t let up until the cliff-hanger ending 450 pages later.

Riley is now a “stomper” – part of the stations security force and her team get embroiled in a conspiracy that ponce again threatens the future of then whole station, where personal animosities become a danger to everyone.

Riley once again finds herself having to make impossibly tough decisions, but her resourcefulness may be the only hope the residents of humanity’s last outpost have to survive.
Outer Earth is not just any orbiting space station. It is the home of the last of humanity after a cataclysmic nuclear war made Earth itself uninhabitable and wiped out all life on Earth. Or did it?

But it is not just the relentless pace that keeps the reader gripped. Rob Boffard’s characters are both larger than life but also comfortingly vulnerable. Each is faced with conflicting loyalties, their decisions impacting on the lives of those closest to them. As Riley Hale is the driving force behind the plot twists and turns, she is not the only one who’s actions ricochet through the station’s population. Greed for power, desperation over resources and blind revenge all play their part on bringing Outer Earth to the very edge of destruction.

I was as gripped by the story as I was by the first. The dual narrative works well and I love the mix of thriller and science fiction. 

The Gods Themselves

The Gods Themselvesby Isaac Asimov

As one of the true giants of Science Fiction, reading any of Asimov’s books for the first time brings with it a certain expectation and, for me, some trepidation.

I have read “classics” before and sometimes found them disappointing. So, as I slowly work my way through the Gollancz Masterworks series, of which this is part, I have learned to keep my expectations realistic as not all books are as good as the critics claim. In this case though I needn’t have worried.

First published in 1972, The Gods Themselves represents a change in style for one of Sci-Fi’s most prolific and best loved writers. Whilst scientific theories remain at the heart of the story, the focus of this book switches between the all-too-human preoccupations of politics and self-preservation and look at a very non-human life cycle. The book is in three parts, each focusing on a separate set of characters.

The first concerns the invention of the Electron Pump, an apparently free and inexhaustible supply of energy that revolutionises humanity. However, not everyone is convinced about the process which involves isotopes with a parallel universe. But is the negative voice driven by something other than science, or is more personal? With the Pump’s inventor seen by the bulk of humanity as some kind of savior, dissension cannot be tolerated and no one wants to consider that this new era for mankind has any kind of price tag attached.

Part two moves to the other side of the exchange. Here Asimov looks at life in a universe where the laws of physics are different from our own. It is this deference that lies behind the Electron Pump. The life forms here are very different from ourselves, but it seems that the desire to survive is just as strong, even if it threatens the very existence of our solar system.

The final part moves to the Moon and continues the seemingly impossible quest for the truth in the face of institutional resistance.
At every turn, self-presentation, greed and an almost ostrich-like denial of anything that throws doubt on the established position question the credibility of those who dare question the Pump and what it has done for humanity.

Isaac Asimov is a respected and much loved writer for a good reason – he is one of the twentieth century’s great visionaries and a damned good storyteller as well. He has avoided the kind of detail that could so easily date a book of this type and period. In fact, I only found one reference (to tape) that could be considered out of place now. It is a reflection of his skill that the book is as relevant today as it was in 1972.

H G Wells Classic Collection I

Classic Collectionby H G Wells

A collection of five of H G Wells’ finest and best known stories: The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The War of the Worlds, The First Men in the Moon and The Invisible Man. Anyone with even a passing interest in Science Fiction will already know these stories; all of them have been made into films or TV series and have influenced several generations of writers.

Wells is often cited as the father of modern science fiction and re-reading these stories is a reminder of just how influential he has been. There have been many books and films with plots that owe a great deal to the stories in this collection. We have alien invasion, genetic manipulation, time travel and first contact sitting alongside some great social commentary.

Wells was not just a visionary, he was also great writer who understood what made people tick. Unlike many modern writers, he avoided getting too wrapped up in the science behind his stories. He hints at processes and theories, but always falls short of offering any concrete science, but considering the age, that is hardly surprising.

This collection highlights the genius of H G Wells and is, above all else, a collection of good stories that have stood the test of time. Granted, some of the language is dated, but these as all but one of the stories is set in the Victorian age, that is hardly surprising.

The Last Survivors (The Last Survivors #1)

The Last Survivorsby TW Piperbrook and Bobby Adair

I purchased this book on impulse based on the plot. Reviews are mixed and not encouraging, but I thought it was worth a try. And I must admit that I can see why it received so much negative criticism. 

The Last Survivors takes two of modern science fiction’s popular recurring themes to create what could be an interesting view of a post-apocalyptic world, but somehow, even using two writers, they have missed the mark.

The idea of civilization trying to recover from a devastating plague which leaves most of the population in a zombie-like state is not an original one. Neither is society’s return to the Dark Ages. I was intrigued by the religious element of the story, making the dark ages throwback almost believable. Unfortunately, the plot itself is a little lame and the characters not fully formed. 

The narrative moves between several characters at such a pace that I found it difficult to follow the individuals and never really invested in any of them.

All that said, I am intrigued enough to add book II to my wish list. Hopefully the plot and characters will be better developed.