This book explores what might happen if an alien civilisation were to come to Earth, their technological knowledge being so far in advance of humankind that there’s no point in military resistance. In fact, the alien political and social engineering is so masterful that there’s no long-lived resistance of any kind. Fortunately, they use their abilities for good, eradicating wars and bring prosperity to all. It seems to be a utopia – everyone is free to explore whatever they want. However, exploration into space is prohibited until one human manages to stow away on a ship back to the mother planet. He gains a fresh perspective, both on humanity’s role in the galaxy and also the fate of the planet when he returns to Earth.
The frustration of this book is that the Overloads turn out to be less powerful that it first appears, they are not the premier, master-race in the galaxy, but themselves report to an Overmind. Their role is indeed benevolent, but both their own future and that of mankind are limited. As per the title of the book, the end of childhood is in sight whilst the Overload guardians watch over the humans, looking out for signs of the beginning of the end.
Suppose an alien craft was detected in the solar system, something like Oumuamua, little understood with a strange trajectory. Would the United Nations investigate it or just blow it up as a threat? That’s where we begin the story in this book – the options are narrowed down because only one spacecraft is close enough to be able to intercept the object (named as Rama), and the United Planets agree to gather as much information as possible. As you would expect, there are disagreements with the approach and Mercury in particular thinks destruction is the way to go.
The story concentrates on the strange geography of the craft – 50km long on its axis, 20km across and rotating every 4 minutes. Yet it has an ocean around the centre of the axis, cities spread out across the plains and few clues as to the nature of the constructors of the craft. It’s a great book, full of ideas that must have been mind-blowing when written in 1973.
This summer Danny Bent (author of this book) visited my firm to give a talk. He related some humorous tales from his life experience to bring home his positive attitude to life – he’s been voted one of the happiest 100 people in the UK, so he’s worth listening to. As part of his session, he orchestrated a group rock/paper/scissors challenge in which I reached the final (!) – my prize was a copy of this book.
The book is Danny’s story of how he came to co-organise One Run for Boston after the Boston marathon bombings in 2013. Not only did the relay run across America raise a lot of money, it provided a focus and support network for many of the victims.
Our charity bookshop had a rather nice hardback edition of this thriller from Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon/Tom Hanks series, and I’m glad I bought it.
Here, we see Langdon as a mentor to a brilliant student, Edmond Kirsch, who has become a successful entrepreneur in the world of technology. And whereas Langdon has sometimes lacked depth, in this book his relationship with the beautiful Ambra Vidal (fiancee to the Prince Regent of Spain) is more nuanced than I expected. The book demonstrates the spread of social media and its ability to rapidly set the agenda. Even better, there’s a science fiction element to it in the form of Winston, an AI agent built and employed by Kirsch as his assistant.
There are also some quintessential Dan Brown moments, such as the hidden symbology in the Fedex logo, the history of the ampersand and, my personal favourite, the answer to I + IX (it’s 10 or 12, depending on your point of view).
The premise of the book is that Kirsch has made a great discovery about the origin and future of the planet – how did life on Earth begin and what is its destiny?
I bought a nice soft-back edition of this Jack Reacher thriller some time ago, but it was well worth re-reading. There has long been a gap in Reacher’s history – how did he go from being an elite investigator in the Military Police to travelling around America as a loner? This book fills in the gap and is one of the best in the series.
Reacher is assigned to go to Carter Crossing to shadow the town’s police department in their investigation of a murder. Although he’s supposed to be incognito, the police chief, beautiful Elizabeth Deveraux, unmasks him immediately. No matter, because the two develop a very close relationship working on the investigation together. The author plants seeds of doubt about Deveraux – perhaps she has a hazy past, taking revenge on former boyfriends? Could this murder, and two others of similarly beautiful young women, be her revenge after she was dumped by Captain Reed Riley, son of a US Senator? A side plot is that, sometimes the cover-up is worse than the crime. In this case, Reacher wants to know why local militia were employed to defend the military base outside the boundary – leading to the senseless murder of a journalist and the brother of one of the murder/rape victims. He confronts Colonel Frazer of military liaison at his office in the Pentagon – did he authorise the cover-up to protect his investment made building relationships with the Senator?
I always enjoy the Reacher books where he teams up with locals to solve the case – and as a bonus, this book features Reacher’s favourite Sergeant, Frances Neagley.
Another book from the SF Masterworks series, this one traces the adventurous Alvin, a unique individual in the city of Diaspar on Earth. Set a billion years into the future, Diaspar is the only city left, run by AI and repaired into perpetuity by autonomous robots. Yet Alvin feels that something is missing and has a deep yearning to explore beyond the city. He discovers a route to Lys, a community set in countryside far from the city, where the populace has evolved quite differently from those in Diaspar. His destiny is to unify these divided communities and to re-examine the shrouded history that separated them in the first place.
A bit like The Right Stuff, this is a book most people have probably heard of, especially because of the famous film, made in collboration with the author. I knew that the plot involved the finding of black monolith, and a computer called HAL that mutinied against its crew.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the story, though, is that the book was written in 1968 at the dawn of the space age. When Clarke described Extravehicular Activity (EVA), needed by the crew to repair the antenna on their ship, he defined the term used by future astronauts working outside the Space Shuttle or the International Space Station. He described the isolation felt by David Bowman on board, exaggerated because of time lag on communications between Earth and the space craft, and that lag forms part of space exploration experiments carried out today. When Dr Heywood Floyd plugged in his “newspad” to read the world’s major electronic papers, he effectively wrote the specification for today’s electronic tablets, 40 years before the first iPad was released.
There’s a fascinating scene where an alien intelligence has built an environment familiar to Bowman based on television and radio signals received out in space – yet books and magazines lack any content, because only the covers are transmitted. Perhaps the availability today of literature online means that, in a re-write, the aliens would be able to produce accurate re-print of the books.
What a brilliant book this is, split into three parts, each telling the story from a different viewpoint.
First, we hear about the invention of the Electron Pump – a source of limitless energy that transforms life for those on Earth. However, the discovery was not by chance – the invention was only possible with the collaboration of aliens in a parallel universe, with consequences for both universes due to conservation of energy, matter and momentum. The discovery would not even have been made without the personal animosity between two scientists, Hallam (who becomes known as the Father of the Electron Pump) and Denison (the more talented of the two, whose career never recovers). Years later, some scientists discover that the impact on our own universe could be significantly worse and more immediate than originally thought, but it’s heresy to question the wisdom of the pump and their opposition is dismissed.
Second, the story is told from the viewpoint of the aliens. The imagination and storytelling are superb. Asimov describes a totally different familial and societal structure to our own, focussing on the lives of a “Soft” triad and their side of the Electron Pump invention. The triad are Odeen (the Rational), Dua (the Emotional) and Tritt (the Parental). Each has a well-defined role in society – Odeen learns, Tritt bears the children and Dua should socialise with the other Emotionals, absorbing energy from the Sun. Dua is unusual, fighting against the norms of society and yearning to learn instead of sunning herself. Odeen is the top intellect of his generation – and Tritt, too, has far more invention about him than most Parentals. Together, they have huge potential and carry the hopes of the “Hard ones” who tutor the younger generation.
Third, we experience the story from a base on the moon, where Denison migrates in hope of reviving his career. He makes friends with a tourist guide, Selene, who was born on the moon and introduces him to the culture there. As Denison’s research matures, Selene becomes his assistant – they investigate the possibility of a new technique that could counteract the effects of the Electron Pump. Yet, again, Denison finds himself caught in a battle of wits with another scientist, Selene’s boyfriend, who has other plans for the research.
The annual publication of Lee Child’s brand new Jack Reacher thriller is always eagerly awaited. I received a lovely hardback edition of this one (it was purchased in an edition sold by Tesco in the UK, containing an exclusive short story: “The Fourth Man”).
Having read all the Jack Reacher books, I have to say this one isn’t one of the classics – for me, it took too long for the real story to begin. We follow a young, Canadian couple to a country motel following the breakdown of their car and Jack Reacher to the city of Laconia, the town where his father grew up. The motel, though, is not what it seems – the owners trap the Canadians in their room and set up a sinister gathering of like-minded individuals. Meanwhile, Reacher tracks down the location of his father’s family’s home and seeks accommodation – at the same motel. The final showdown is excellent and Reacher has lost none of his deadly skills.
This is a fascinating read, ranging across a variety of topics. What makes a great salesman? Why do are some TV programs so addictive? How do some people remain occasional smokers without ever developing a daily habit? There’s also a chapter on the magic number 150 – how the military, communities and companies have found that once a unit exceeds 150 people you need to split into sub-groups in order to maintain the same levels of cohesion.