This is the debut SF novel for Simon Pick and is set against a grim backdrop of politics in America. Given recent events, readers might think that the book is less far-fetched than the author intended when he started writing it 4 years ago.
The premise of the book is that the American people have been disenfranchised by politics, with the winner of the presidential race essentially being chosen at random according to whichever big businesses have funded their campaigns the most. These random elections are seen as anti-democratic – so an alternative is put in place, allowing (even encouraging) the people to end a presidency by force and trigger a fresh election. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence systems get on with the real business of government, without all the emotional turmoil that humans brings.
There are aspects of Groundhog Day in the story, in that the turnover of presidents is frequent (many last only a few days) and we repeatedly experience the fake election, investiture and then untimely death of each presidential candidate. By the end of the book, this unnervingly starts to become a new normal – the candidates themselves well know that their presidential term signals the end of their life and many have elaborate plans of how to bow out.
One of the repeated scenes is the assignment of a robot bodyguard to look after the president. The robots have artificial intelligence and impressive specifications in terms of movement and cognitive ability. In theory, having one or more such robots would be sufficient to protect the president from a lone attacker – but we see that amendments to the constitution allow the presidents sufficient free-will to override their own safety. This loop-hole limits how much physical protection the robots can give.
There are a few characters who run through the book – the permanent staff of the White House. The main ones are Archer (the technologist) and Jim (a sort of Chief of Staff), who disagree on how to deploy the robots to prolong the life of the presidents (among other things). Once the robot program is terminated, one senses that Archer will rebel, though the reader is left in suspense about what he has in mind.
Recent events in America make this dystopian book a good read.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
Disclaimer: the author works in the same department as me, but I had to buy my own copy (!) and the opinions in this review are my own.
This SF novel is another from the SF Masterworks series. Whereas the last SF book that I read – Book Review: The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu) – was a sublime piece of work, this book begins with quite ridiculous characters. The main protagonists are Winston Niles Rumfoord and Malachi Constant. Rumfoord, caught by the spirit of adventure, has flown his spacecraft into a “chronological-synclastic infundibulum”, leaving him distributed throughout the solar system, materialising on Earth every 59 days. Able to see the past and future, he hatches a dastardly plan to colonise Mars, invade Earth and found a new religion. Malachi Constant’s father made a fortune by investing in stocks and shares, following a secret recipe for stock-picking that never failed him. Consequently, Malachi inherited vast wealth – but he had no relationship with his father and spends life partying to excess.
I nearly wrote off this book after the early chapters, but the plot develops and the journey of Malachi Constant from Earth, on to Mars (part of the great military build-up to the war) then to the beautiful crystal caves of Mercury are a work of great imagination. There are even parallels with The Three-Body problem, in that we sense the influence of the alien world Tralfamadore in the behaviour of the characters. One of my favourite parts was when Salo (a Tralfamadorian stranded on Venus) read replies to his message home, written in stones on the surface of Earth at what is now known as Stonehenge: “Replacement part being rushed with all possible speed”.
This book won’t be to everyone’s taste (I’m not sure it was to mine!) but, being published in 1959, it’s a work full of the glories of space travel and a terrifying plot of how a rogue individual can control the destiny of our planet.
This book won the 2015 Hugo Award for best novel and is one that I would recommend to Science Fiction fans. The story starts during China’s Cultural Revolution and witnesses restrictions on research and philosophy, to the extent that when the main character’s father (an academic) does not conform, he is publicly flogged and murdered. The daughter, Ye Wenjie, goes on to serve the country doing hard labour, but is recognised and recruited for a top secret monitoring mission. At Red Coast Base, a huge satellite dish is receiving and transmitting messages – although the purpose is shrouded in mystery. Ye Wenjie starts work as a technician, but her intellect and application make her indispensable and following a period of re-habilitation, she is able to do some research more fitting to her potential.
Without giving away too much, the Three-Body Problem of the title refers to a planetary system with three suns. The system is unstable, resulting in intermittent chaotic/stable periods for the nearby planet, Trisolaris. We meet this system through a sophisticated online game, played by another academic, Wang Miao. He sees a series of foremost physicists losing their minds and committing suicide – could this be due to the impact of the game, or is there a more serious disconnect between established, universal laws of theoretical physics and their application in a world such as Trisolaris? He teams up with Shi Quiang, a well-connected police detective, to infiltrate the masterminds behind the game and find out the truth.
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.
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.
This book is set in the early days of the space race. Scientists have assessed the risk of previously unknown organisms being released on Earth (either alien bacteria brought back to Earth by rockets or Earth-bound organisms changed by exposure to the environment of space). The result is Wildfire – an underground facility with multiple levels of increasing levels of sterilisation, in which the scientists would research any such contaminated material.
The plot is that a satellite has indeed brought back some terrible disease that has killed many people in the vicinity by solidifying their blood. This include two soldiers sent to retrieve the satellite – but there are two survivors, a baby and an old man. The scientists are summoned to the Wildfire bunker to investigate the nature of the disease and the book tells the story of their tests and endeavours as if from a retrospective.
Reviews of this book frequently admit that the reader was convinced that the story was true – I had that impression too, particularly given the fake acknowledgements to those ‘who encouraged me to tell the story accurately and in detail’ at the start of the book and the heavily academic bibliography at the end.
This book follows the same template as the other Lost Fleet books that I’ve read. We travel with Captain “Black Jack” Geary on Dauntless, the flag ship of his fleet, as he attempts to steer his people home after a damaging series of battles. This episode is more optimistic, the fleet is performing well in battle and Geary’s efforts to bring a humane change in culture to the personnel is succeeding (they rescue stranded enemy civilians who had been abandoned on an outpost planet). However, he still faces the growing threat of hidden enemies within the leadership who are still trying to overthrow him. Geary confronts the fact that he cannot continue to court Co-President Victoria Rione now that his growing feelings for Captain Tanya Desjani are obvious to everyone in his crew.