Recent Reads: Ben Bova, Able One

Able1

 

Ben Bova, Able One. Tor, 2010, 369 pp. ISBN 978-0-7653-6358-9

Rating: 6 out of 10

 

 

As I told the audience at WorldCon75, Ben Bova is one of my favorite authors. I won’t say that he’s the most exciting or literary SF author around, because he isn’t. However, his books have a constant quality and invariably provide an interesting and entertaining read. Some time ago, I checked my book collection for lacunae and noticed that I missed Able One, a novel published in 2010. It’s out of print, but I obtained a used copy through Amazon and recently got around to reading it. I was not disappointed.

As usual, Bova delivers a gripping story. This one is set in a very near future. That, of course, always poses the risk that current events may overtake the extrapolation used in the novel. And indeed it happens here, too, but not in a way that distracts too much from the narrative. An important part of the story is played by North Korea, after the death of Kim Jong-il. Kim indeed passed away about a year after this book was published, but the civil strive mentioned in the book did not take place and, instead, Kim was succeeded rather seamlessly by his son, Kim Jong-un. Of course, the civil strive described by Bova might still come about, if something were to happen to the current supreme leader.

The novel begins when a dissident faction of the North Korean Army launches a missile that puts a nuclear warhead into a geostationary orbit and subsequently explodes it. The resulting electromagnetic pulse destroys all but the most hardened military satellites that orbit the Earth and as a result, many essential services shut down. This, of course, brings immediately to mind the recent test by North Korea of its first intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-15, even though an intercontinental ballistic missile will probably not be able to reach geostationary orbit. Indeed, in the book the North Koreans are helped by either the Russians or the Chinese to accomplish this feat. Similarly, they obtain nuclear warheads from the same source, which is a bit surprising, because in reality North Korea already had performed two nuclear tests (in 2006 and 2009), before this book was published.

The destruction of so many satellites leads to interruption in major services, most notably the breakdown of the GPS system and communications, including the Internet. Electrical power goes down in many places, too, as it depends on intricate balances between different power grids, whose coordination depends on fast and secure communications. In addition, because the weather satellites are down, accurate weather forecasting becomes completely impossible. All this has, of course, serious consequences for the people depending on these services. This brings me to one of the major weaknesses of this book. Several subplots are started at this point of the narrative: A jumbo jet in trouble because the navigation system is down, a family lost in a blizzard, a woman trying to buy pecans, and more. However, those subplots are mostly left dangling and we never learn, for example, what the fate of that troubled jumbo jet is.

Meanwhile in Alaska, ABL-1, a modified 747 with on-board an experimental laser system designed to shoot down ballistic missiles in the early stages of their launch trajectory, is ready for a test flight when orders come in from the Pentagon to fly in the direction of Japan and North Korea. In fact, the North Koreans have two more intercontinental ballistic missiles set up, and it is feared that these will be fired against the United States mainland in an attempt to start a nuclear war. I won’t go into more detail about the plot and how the mission develops, except to say that during its flight, ABL-1 needs to be refueled in flight and gets severely damaged by enemy fire.

These latter details were rather similar to a book that, by happenstance, I read just before Able One. This was Two Hours To Doom (published in the USA with the considerably weaker title Red Alert) by Peter Bryant (a pseudonym of Peter Bryan George) and originally published way back in 1958. Fatale CommandoThe reason I came to read such an old and relatively obscure book was that while inserting some recently-acquired books into my collection, I stumbled upon it and realized that I didn’t remember ever having read it. My copy is in Dutch (Het fatale commando), meaning that I must have bought it before I left the Netherlands back in May 1984. It is well possible, therefore, that I read it over 33 years ago and completely forgot all about it. After re-reading it, I looked it up in Wikipedia and discovered to my surprise that it apparently had served as inspiration for Stanley Kubrick‘s 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Of course, it’s also very long ago that I saw that movie, but I remember enough of it to be surprised anyway. Where the movie is a comedy, albeit a dark one, the book is deadly serious (and there is no “Dr. Strangelove” anywhere in the book, neither by name nor by character).

The parallels between the two books are easy to see. In both cases a large plane gets hit by enemy fire while it is on a desperate mission: nuclear war and the end of life on Earth as we know it looms. Another common point is that the motives and thinking of the opposing parties do not receive much attention. But there the similarities end. In Able One, the mission is to prevent nuclear war (by trying to destroy the North Korean missiles when they get launched). In Red Alert, the mission of the B-52 bomber Alabama Angel is to drop two nukes on Soviet targets as a retaliation for a supposed attack on the US (which unbeknownst to the crew actually never happened). Both stories are gripping and like Able One, Red Alert is very readable, even nowadays. Of course, Red Alert does not try to extrapolate into the future and doesn’t run the risk of being overtaken by current events like Able One. Instead, however, the plane’s defenses, the fact that no intercontinental ballistic missiles are operational yet (although their deployment is imminent), and other military and political details make that the book, even while it was clearly not intended that way, reads like a historical novel.

In the end, Bova turns out to be the better writer. Even though character development is not his strongest point, the people in his novel are clearly more rounded and fleshed-out than the rather flat and interchangeable characters in the otherwise competently written Red Alert. Both books are worth a read: Able One because it provides a few hours of entertainment and Two Hours To Doom because it gives an excellent idea of the mindsets of American military and politicians during a critical period of the Cold War.

Advertisements

Recent Reads: John Varley, Thunder and Lightning series

red thunderred lightningrolling thunderdark lightning

John Varley, Red Thunder. Ace Books, 2003, 411 pp. ISBN 0-441-01162-4

John Varley, Red Lightning. Ace Books, 2006, 351 pp. ISBN 978-0-441-01488-0

John Varley, Rolling Thunder. Ace Books, 2008, 376 pp. ISBN 978-0-441-01772-0

John Varley, Dark Lightning. Ace Books, 2014, 341 pp. ISBN 978-0-425-27408-8

Rating: 9 out of 10

John Varley has been one of my favorite SF authors for a long time. He’s not hugely productive: his website lists 13 novels and 6 short-story collections in a career spanning 40 years since the publication of his first novel, The Ophiuchi Hotline. His books have invariably been highly original, coming up with surprising concepts and gadgets every couple of pages. He also has a keen sense of humor and a penchant for composing phrases that stay with you for years. My favorite is the opening line of Steel Beach: “‘In five years, the penis will be obsolete’, said the salesman.” (Personally, I would have phrased this slightly different: “‘In five years’, the salesman said, ‘the penis will be obsolete’.” Judge for yourself which version you prefer…) Besides being a gifted author, Varley is an avid fan of Robert A. Heinlein, one of my favorite authors.

Varley’s Thunder and Lightning series consists of 4 novels and is an homage to Heinlein’s juvenile novels. In consequence, the main characters of each novel are all adolescents. The series is a feast of memories for any Heinlein enthusiast. Almost any personage bears the name of one of Heinlein’s most famous characters. The first novel in the series, Red Thunder, introduces us to Manny Garcia and his best friend Dak. Mannie is fascinated by space travel but has little hope of eventually becoming an astronaut, as his family is poor and he spends most of his time that he is not in school helping his family run a more or less dilapidated business, the Blast-Off Motel, close to Cape Canaveral. Early on, the friends meet a former astronaut, Travis Broussard, and his brilliant physicist cousin, Jubal. And on it goes. For example, the protagonist of the third novel, Rolling Thunder, is Manny’s granddaughter, Podkayne, and those of the fourth novel, Dark Lightning, are the twins, Cassie and Polly. Of course, there are many more and probably also some that I didn’t recognize because I read the relevant Heinlein novel too long ago. That is also the reason that I recently (re-)read all four volumes of this series. I had originally bought the first volumes when they appeared and read them at the time. For some reason I didn’t buy the fourth volume, Dark Lightning, when it came out in 2014 and only recently became aware of my omission. However, when the book arrived and I started reading it, I soon realized that I didn’t remember much more than rough outlines of the previous three novels, so I stopped reading and (re-)read the whole series in the space of a little bit more than a week. It was an exercise that I can heartily recommend!

In principle, the four books can be read independently, but in my experience the series makes much more sense when they are read in close proximity. The story is in the best traditions of the Golden Age and Heinlein’s proclivity for private initiative as opposed to (usually inept) government action is faithfully maintained. The action starts with a space race between China and the United States to be the first to land on Mars, which the US is losing. Badly, in fact, because the propulsion drives of their space ship blow up before Mars is even reached. Enter Manny and his friends, who, armed with a drive based on limitless energy (an invention of Jubal), build a spaceship on a shoestring budget of $1 million, using second-hand space suits and an old railroad tanker car. And although they start building only after the American and Chinese missions have already been launched and are well underway, the continuous propulsion that Jubal’s limitless energy source makes possible, allows them to arrive on Mars first, before the Chinese. Basically as an afterthought, they rescue the survivors of the US mission on their way home.

The second novel, Red Lightning is set a generation later on Mars, which has been colonized and where a now adult Manny owns a hotel, while his mother still manages her motel in Florida back on Earth. If you know Heinlein, you won’t be surprised that one of the subplots involves Earth trying to impose its will on the Martian colonists. The main plot concerns a disaster on Earth, which is struck by an unknown object, and Mannie and his family and friends travel to a Florida devastated by a huge tsunami to search for his mother. During all this, Mannie’s son Ray finds his soulmate and their daughter, Podkayne, is the protagonist of the third novel, Rolling Thunder. The fourth volume is set aboard a generation ship, named Rolling Thunder, and the protagonists are the twin daughters of Podkayne and Jubal, Cassie and Pollie.

I am not going to describe the plots in more detail, so as not to spoil the fun for anybody who has not yet read these books. Suffice to say that there are several original inventions that are vintage Varley. For example, Red Lightning (which starts with one of the shortest opening lines that I’ve ever seen: “Mars sucks”) starts with a vivid description of Ray Garcia-Strickland, Mannie’s son, riding his surf board down from Phobos to Thunder City (yep, there’s a pattern here…), something that is made possible by the low Martian gravity, the thin atmosphere, and Jubal’s limitless energy invention. This space surfing is something many adolescents do and is considered about as safe as ocean surfing in Florida. An added original touch is that many kids cover the underside of their “surf board” (more like an open miniature space craft) with chemicals that burn off during descent, leaving a brightly colored sparkling trail, kind of like a fire cracker.

According to a 2009 interview on Republibot, the fourth volume is the last one in the series, but to me it feels that the story isn’t finished yet. And I, for one, would love to learn how things develop further now that Jubal has invented a drive that permits immediate displacement over stellar distances!

Recent Reads: Walter Jon Williams, This Is Not a Game

TINAG

 

Walter Jon Williams, This Is Not a Game. Victor Orbit, 2010, 461 pp. ISBN 978-1-84149-664-1

Rating: 6 out of 10

 

 

 

 

 

At the recent WorldCon75, one of the guests of honor was Walter Jon Williams. IMG_2459.JPGAlthough I had seen his name before (mainly on Amazon reading recommendations), I had never read anything from this author before. I liked his presence at the meeting and found his remarks insightful and funny, so I decided to buy one of his books, which he graciously signed for me.

This book is the first in a series of four (for now) about a character named Dagmar Shaw. Dagmar works for a company that creates huge multi-player on-line games, that have real-world components, for which she is the responsible operative. I am not into this kind of games at all, so I can’t tell whether this is a thing that already exists or not. However, it is not difficult to imagine that something similar could probably be done with current technology. The recent hype around Pokémon Go comes to mind, for example.

After some initial adventures, one of the protagonists is murdered and the story becomes a whodunit, with Dagmar using the possibilities offered by the game that she’s developing to find the killer. I found the story interesting, but not really fascinating, although there is admittedly quite some suspense at the beginning when Dagmar is caught up in some serious civil unrest. (I won’t go into more detail, to avoid spoilers). However, I would almost not think of this book as science fiction. As I said, the main theme of the book concerns the on-line game with real-life components, and that is not really all that original a thought (not even when taking into account that the book was written about 8 years ago). The story is placed in a world in the near future, but the political and societal background really is only that, background, and instead of the near future, the present could likely have been used without any fundamental changes to the narrative.

The fact that this, in my eyes, barely qualifies as science fiction is the main reason for the low rating that I give this book, but I cannot finish this without pointing to one thing that after a while started to irritate me mildly. The (generally brief) chapters have titles and all start, like the title of the book, with “This is not” (…a rescue, …a Batcave, …a dream, etc). This is slightly funny in the beginning, but by the end of the book, the gimmick runs thin.

In conclusion, I would recommend this book if you’re really into on-line role-playing gaming. If not, then your reading time is probably better spent elsewhere. I’ll give Williams another try and get one of his works that is more obviously science fiction, but will probably steer away from the other volumes in this series.

Recent Reads: Robert Silverberg, A Time of Changes

ATOC

 

 

Robert Silverberg, A Time of Changes. Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1973, 221 pp. ISBN 0-575-01610-8

Rating: 10 out of 10

 

 

 

“I am Kinnall Darival and I mean to tell you all about myself”. This is the seemingly-innocuous first line of A Time of Changes, a novel that was first published in 1971 as a series in Galaxy. But on the continent of Velada Borthan, on the planet Borthan, this phrase is more obscene than any combination of gutter expressions for human genitalia ever could be. In fact, an autobiography like this is an abomination for the people of Velada Borthan, the epitome of the cardinal sin of “self-baring”, in a civilization where the words “I” and “me” are among the worst, or even the worst, obscenities that one can utter.

Before continuing, perhaps I should explain what led me to return to a novel that I had read many years past and that was first published 46 years ago. Earlier this month I attended WorldCon 75 in Helsinki, Finland (see this), where I had the privilege to meet SF Grand Master Robert Silverberg for the third time. (The other two times were at Confiction, 1990, and Noreascon 4, 2004). The first two times, I had one or two books autographed by Silverberg and I wanted to have at least one more at this occasion. However, it proved extremely difficult to find one of his books in the trade hall. There was only one large bookseller and they didn’t have any of Silverberg’s books. I also went through all the second-hand books displayed by another large book seller, but without any luck. When I was looking through the single bookcase that a seller of game paraphernalia had, I actually bumped into Silverberg himself.

I told him that I was desperately searching for one of his books, but couldn’t find anything, to which he replied that he had found some, but in Finnish. He had bought them, because the publisher had never sent him a copy. I admitted that my Finnish was perhaps not as good as I would like and told him that this was the third time that we met. Like the previous two times, I told him that his books always make me think, one of the biggest compliments that I can give to a writer. At this point, I let him go, although I would have loved to talk with him more. However, a writer of his stature (by far the most accomplished writer present at that meeting, the presence of George R. R. Martin notwithstanding) is much solicited during a meeting like this and I didn’t want to behave like some breathless fan (even though I am…)

IMG_4636
Photo courtesy of Pekka Timonen

Despite my lack of prowess with the Finnish language, I was on the verge of buying some of Silverberg’s books in that (to me) very foreign language when, finally, at a stand having just a handful of second-hand books, I spotted two of his books in English, A Time of Changes being one of them, and in pristine condition at that. Later that afternoon, Silverberg autographed it during his signing session (together with the second book, his short story collection Sunrise on Mercury). While doing so, he noticed the Ex Libris label pasted on the inside of the front cover (see photo). It turned out that this copy had been part of the collection of an acquaintance of his, Sam J. Lundwall, a famous Swedish SF writer and the author of an authoritative history of science fiction, Science fiction: An Illustrated History. So even though I had the book already in my collection (Of course!) it obviously was well worth the 10 Euros that I paid for it!

Well, after that rather lengthy diversion, back to the book. As I didn’t really remember the story, I decided to read it again. That proved to be a rewarding experience: it is surprisingly fresh and hasn’t aged at all. Partly that is because technology does not play any role in the story. Yes, there is space travel and people use phones and ground cars and planes. However, no details are given and the general level of technology of this world is about the same as what we had in the 1950s, without there being much interest in scientific or technological advances. So the most obvious pitfall for science fiction writers, being bypassed by modern technology, is avoided. Of course, one notices that the novel reflects its times (as even future-oriented SF novels almost always do). 1971 was the high point of the flower power and hippie movements and, indeed, the major theme of the book is love (only for a minor part in its romantic sense) and how a certain indigenous psychedelic drug might help people to understand and love each other. It would not be Silverberg’s style to get lost into the more dreamy and mushy aspects of that counterculture, but its influence nevertheless is clearly there.

As mentioned above, the book is written as the autobiography of a person living on this planet in this culture where each person’s mind is their castle, to be guarded from others. Referring to oneself as “I” or “me” is absolutely forbidden and people are forced to refer to themselves as “one” (and reading through the above, this seems to have rubbed off on this one, too…). From this seemingly simple premise, Silverberg explores the ramifications of such an attitude and, in just 200 pages, builds a believable society around the “Covenant”, an ancient document which formalizes the interdiction of “self-baring”, the obscene act of sharing one’s thoughts and feelings with others.

As is the case with the best that SF has to offer, it’s not technology or science that is the most important thing in this book: it’s people. And Silverberg succeeds majestically. Although there is surprisingly little action in this story, still the narrative, consisting mostly of the inner feelings and thoughts of Kinnall, is captivating. By the end of the book, one feels as if one knows the main character intimately. Kinnall has his own style of writing, clearly different from Silverberg’s own usual style. The prose is formal, at times poetic. The ending of the book is open as the reader doesn’t get to know whether or not Kinnall Darival succeeds in his attempt to break the Covenant and open his countrymen to love for one another.  Personally I feel, however, that it is most likely that in the long run he will have succeeded, given the large number of people, many of them important and influential, whom he has converted to his creed of sharing, before finally being captured.

Summarizing, I strongly recommend this captivating, highly-original tale of what it means (or should mean) to be human.

Recent reads: Edmund Cooper, Transit

First edition cover

Edmund Cooper, Transit. Faber & Faber, 1964, 232 pp. ISBN 978-0-4418-2206-5

Rating: 8 out of 10

A while ago I was inserting some books that I had bought over the past year into my collection. That’s no trivial task. My books are arranged first by author, then by title. And there’s a lot of them. I don’t know exactly how many science fiction books I have, but the total length of my bookshelves exceeds 36 meters (about 120 feet). Anyway, at some point I stumbled upon an old pocket, a novel by Edmund Cooper, a British author who passed away prematurely in 1982, only 55 years old. It was a Dutch translation of Cooper’s 1964 novel Transit, with “Universeel Experiment” being the translated Dutch title. According to the cooper_e_universeelexperiment_1971_1_smallnotice on the first page, I had acquired it in 1978 and presumably I read it around that time. Most likely that was the second time that I read it, as I had by then devoured every SF book that our local library had to offer. In any case, I had only a faint recollection of the book: it involved a lot of beach and human relationships that included sex (I had a definite recollection of somebody saying “with our tails between our legs” and being corrected by his female companion: “with your tail between my legs, you’ll mean”). A serious adult relationship including sex was, of course, rather unusual for a science fiction novel of that time.

I also remembered that the story had included something like a competition between Terrans and an alien species, organized by an ancient species overseeing the galaxy, but didn’t really remember any particulars. So I decided to read this book again, almost 40 years after I had bought it (and after having dragged it all over the world through multiple moves, within and between different countries, two of these moves being transatlantic…) At just a little bit over 200 pages (this was long before the time where SF authors would need multiple tomes of 500 pages minimum to get their message across), it didn’t take me long to work my way through it and, I have to say, I was not disappointed.

Sure, there are places where the book shows its age. All four human characters, for example, smoke. And the division of roles is classic: the two men hunt and provide food while the women take care of the camp (and get pregnant). They listen to music using vinyl discs. Those are details, however. Yes, the division of tasks is traditional, but apart from that, the women are smart and full members of the team, something that cannot be said of most SF of that time. In fact, if one would remove those few anachronistic things, the book could have been written just recently. Of course, part of that is because there is hardly any science or technology in the book and what there is, is so advanced that Cooper doesn’t even try to explain things that look like magic (Arthur C. Clarke‘s famous third law).

The story is familiar for a modern reader, because its theme has been explored by several writers (and I even vaguely recall a Star Trek episode with a similar plot, but I may be wrong about that), but this may have been one of the first: a group of Terrans is placed in an unfamiliar environment, in this case a tropical island on a planet in a different solar system, with only minimal resources and tools. On the same island, a group of 4 aliens is dropped at the same time, with a similar lack of resources. Conflict ensues and at the end of the book, it turns out that the winner not only gets to colonize this particular planet, but will come to dominate the whole of our quadrant of the Galaxy.

The story line is rather simple. As I said above, SF novels in those days were not supposed to be too long, so there was no room for secondary characters or secondary story lines. Neither is there any discussion about what drives the other group of aliens, who seem to derive a sadistic pleasure from the suffering of animals or even of the clearly intelligent Terrans. But the story of the four Terrans is interesting enough and the characters are sympathetic, even though only the main character (Richard Avery, a name later used by Cooper as a pseudonym) is fleshed out in more detail. As the story is told through Avery’s eyes, that is to be expected though. Cooper succeeds in bringing Avery to live and, when one of the women miscarries and he has to bury the unborn baby, Cooper’s rendition is touching and almost made me choke up.

In fact, the only major quibble I have with this book is that the other aliens on the island, nicknamed the “Golden Ones”, are completely human-like, despite the fact that they come from a different planet. Of course, it is unlikely in the extreme that aliens evolved  in a different solar system would even remotely look like us. However, the story would be very different if the Golden Ones had looked like, say, an octopus, so I am willing to overlook this.

In all, this book provided several agreeable hours of diversion. After more than 50 years, it is still very enjoyable for a modern reader. And I think I should also mention the excellent translation by the noted science fiction author and editor, Carl Lans, even if he sometimes uses a Dutch that sounds a bit archaic to a 21st century ear.

Recent Reads: Ben Bova, Transhuman

transhuman

Ben Bova, Transhuman. Tor, 2014, 387 pp. ISBN 978-0-7653-6932-1

Rating: 7 out of 10

Ben Bova is a rather prolific writer and one of my favorites. Basically, I just buy any book of his that comes out. Invariably, his books are great fun to read. Transhuman is no exception. Unlike most of Bova’s work, it is a standalone novel that is not part of any series. The story follows Luke Abramson, an elderly scientist of 75-years-old working on telomeres, the capping regions of chromosomes. Telomeres differ in size among people and this fact has generated a lot of interest from scientists in different fields because of several reasons. To start with, it has been observed that people with longer telomeres tend to live longer. With successive cell divisions, telomeres become shorter until they are so short that cell division becomes impossible. Importantly though, it is not clear whether shorter telomeres are just a biomarker of cellular aging or whether shortening actually causes aging. It has been speculated that restoring telomere length might be a way to rejuvenation. However… It has also been shown that telomeres may play a role in cancer; hence, manipulating them is not necessarily benign and may carry significant risks.

When the story starts, Abramson’s granddaughter is dying from an incurable brain cancer. Of course, he is convinced that by shortening her telomeres, he can cure her, because that will force the tumor cells to stop dividing, giving the girl’s immune system the chance to rid her system of any malignant cells. An expected side effect is progeria, a rare disorder in which children age rapidly and die of old age by the time they reach adolescence. Of course, Abramson thinks he can treat this by elongating the girl’s telomeres again, although that has the risk of re-igniting the cancer. Meanwhile, Abramson has been running all over the country: because his daughter and son-in-law, the child’s parents, refuse to let him use their child as a guinea pig, Abramson, convinced of his treatment, has abducted the kid. Conveniently, the physician treating the child decides to run off with him, although initially she is opposed to his experimental treatment and does not really have a good reason to put her whole career in jeopardy. She is also an attractive young woman. Do I really need to add that in the end, she and Abramson end up a couple? Oh, right, he’s 75. No problem! When the fugitive life becomes too taxing, Abramson injects himself with a treatment intended to increase the length of his telomeres and, presto, he starts to look younger and younger.

Bova’s protagonist, Abramson, while working in two of the hottest areas in science (cancer and aging), is described as a kind of lone wolf. Sure, he has some grad students and postdocs, but apart from that does not seem to collaborate with anybody. Needless to say, this is not really the way science works and I don’t think that any scientist working alone with a few grad students will find the cure for cancer, let alone that he would simultaneously come up with a rejuvenation therapy. Worse, Abramson loses his NIH funding, despite the fact that everybody agrees that he’s a brilliant scientist. He then secures funding from a rich benefactor. Nevertheless, his university pushes him to retire, something I find highly unlikely given Abramson’s active funding status (unless this benefactor is not paying any overheads to the university, which I think is unlikely, too). This is not the first time that I have noticed that Bova, although a lot of his novels feature academics, is not really familiar with the way university research works.

Back to the telomeres. Unfortunately for Bova, who at 84 most likely is interested in a treatment that would restore his youth (aren’t we all…), things are quite a bit more complicated than he presents them in his book. Simply elongating or shortening telomeres is unlikely to be a cure for cancer or to reverse the effects of aging. But, one might argue, this is science fiction. We should suspend some of our disbelief in the interest of the story, right? I agree and would be less harsh about the scientific part of this novel, if, for example, the treatment had just been a writer’s gimmick to explore the effects on society of something that cures cancer and significantly expands our life span. Unfortunately, Bova doesn’t go down that path.

We have his usual bone-headed politicians, who just can’t see the importance of things or, when they finally do, get it all wrong. Early on, the US president and her advisers get all up in arms about the life-expansion treatment. If people live till 150, Medicare will go broke! Our pension system will break down! It takes them several hundred pages to realize that if people stay healthy much longer, they don’t need to retire at 65 or 70 any more but can work until they’re 110 or so. Medicare and the pension system are not the problem, of course. What would be a problem is the population explosion that we would face if such treatments became available suddenly instead of very gradually. But that aspect is not even mentioned in this novel.

So the story is flimsy and full of Bova’s trademark clichés: the smart protagonist who sees everything correctly and knows how to deal with all the problems facing him, the people around him that don’t believe him, the bone-headed politicians that don’t see the obvious and only look after their narrow self-interest, the ruthless industrialist who wants to use the invention to make as much profit as possible and to hell  with the consequences, and finally the pretty young woman who falls for our hero in the end. If that all sounds a bit formulaic, well, it is. So, why do I still rate it 7 out of 10? Well, Bova is quite simply an excellent writer. The book kept me captivated and even though it was easy to foresee several turns of the plot, somehow it is comforting to revisit familiar haunts. Altogether, the book provided several hours of simple diversion, not more, not less. And let’s face it, that’s not something that one can say about every book!

Recent Reads: David Weber et al., A Call to Arms

call to arms

 

David Weber, Timothy Zahn, and Thomas Pope, A Call to Arms. Baen Books, 2015, 477 pp. ISBN 978-1-4767-8156-3

Rating: 8 out of 10

 

David Weber is not the guy you go to for deep ideas and thoughts. Weber writes space opera and he does that exceedingly well. This book is another good example of his talents, even though this time he has been assisted by two co-authors. A Call to Arms is the second volume in the Manticore Ascendant series set in his “Honorverse“. This series tells the story of the early Star Kingdom of Manticore and its rise to prominence among the nations of the known galaxy. As with other books in the series produced by Weber, the strongest part of his stories is his description of politics and how decisions are being made.

Although his characters are certainly not interchangeable and individually clearly recognizable personalities, characterization is not always his strongest point. For example, much is made of the fact that the protagonist of this series, Travis Long, yearns for rules and a structured environment. Despite this, Travis seems to be functioning best when things are at their most chaotic and after a while the repeated references to this character trait becomes a bit tiresome. Nevertheless, Weber generally succeeds in making his characters believable, even the “bad guys”, something that many writers usually have the most problems with.

There’s one notable exception to this. This book describes a period in the development of the Star Kingdom where some local politicians try to defund the Navy as much as possible to further their own political goals. Of course, they are shown to be at the wrong side of history when the Kingdom is attacked by mercenaries and only barely escapes being conquered, thanks to the heroic sacrifices of the severely underpowered Navy. When the dust settles down, it turns out that these politicians stick to their positions and continue to work to deny the Navy the funds it needs. Here, Weber fails to make this believable. Faced with the clear-cut evidence that there are dangers to which the Kingdom is exposed and against which it needs to defend itself, one would expect even the most hard-headed idiot to change his position. Instead, Weber’s characters maintain their obviously wrong stance and he fails to make it clear to his readers why on Earth (or, rather, on Manticore) these otherwise not stupid people would do this.

One thing I have come to appreciate more and more was that the names of characters in this series are “normal”. What I mean with this is that we don’t have to deal with the unpronounceable (and almost impossible to remember) names used in his Safehold series or the gimmicky names that he used in his early Honorverse novels (remember the cheesy “Robb S. Pierre”?)

A Call to Arms provides good reading, an engaging story described in a believable way. If you’re allergic to politics, you’d do better to avoid this book, and most of Weber’s other work, too. Weber does not provide high literature, but then, he does not pretend to nor (as far as I can tell) does he even aim to do so. Still, I always look forward to a new book of his, certain that it will provide a number of hours of enjoyable reading and diversion. If I have one quibble with Weber, it is perhaps that lately his story lines seem to slow down more and more, with each new book in his different series advancing the greater story only incrementally.