Because they are intended for mass consumption, there are few modern science fiction movies or TV shows that really hit the mark for me. Sturgeon’s famous statement about everything being 90% crap seems even more true with mass media. It’s no less true of science fiction books, but there are so many more of those that it’s easier to find good ones. The trick is finding good authors.
Neal Stephenson is one author that usually delivers for me. Ben Bova is another good one, although until recently it was decades since I read his work. Alastair Reynolds, compared to them, is a new entry on the scene. All three write hard SF — my favored flavor of science fiction.
Unfortunately, the last Reynolds books I read was a disappointment.
I’ll get to that, but first let start with Stephenson’s most recent novel and the first Ben Bova novel I’ve read in decades. I enjoyed them both.
Termination Shock (2021), by Neal Stephenson, is set in the near future. So near the story almost isn’t science fiction. Global warming has advanced to the point that, in parts of the USA (such as Texas), an environment suit is necessary to survive being outside during the day.
The story centers on a rogue project by oil industry billionaire, T.R. Schmidt, who builds a giant vertical shell launcher on the Texas-Mexico border. It’s a giant gun that fires large rocket-powered shells into the stratosphere. The shells are loaded with molten sulfur to fuel their rocket motors.
This serves two purposes: The rocket, although inefficient, helps the shells gain the stratosphere and, more importantly, the burning of sulfur creates sulfur dioxide (SO2), which stays in the stratosphere and acts to reflect sunlight.
The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo released 17 megatons of SO2 into the atmosphere, which reduced global temperatures for two years by almost one degree Fahrenheit. Climate scientists have considered the idea of deliberately releasing SO2 to reduce global warming but worry about unexpected side effects.
T.R. decides to use his wealth to go ahead and do it on his own. According to his analysis, multiple gun locations around the world will allow precise control of side effects. And while some nations will experience negative effects, the overall effect is certain to be positive.
He hopes that, by the time the world can react to oppose him, his efforts will have made a noticeable change in the climate proving his project right.
Two main characters are Frederika Mathilde Louisa Saskia (“Saskia”), the Queen of the Netherlands (a country already severely challenged by sea level rise), and Rufus Grant, part-Comanche and full-time exterminator of feral hogs (already a problem in the southern USA and more so in the near future of the book). He meets Saskia when her plane crashes on landing because its landing gear strikes a fleeing giant feral hog that is Rufus’s Moby Dick.
The other main character (T.R. is a more of a supporting character) is Deep “Laks” Singh, a Punjab-Canadian Sikh, who gets caught up in the events. He becomes the almost unwitting tip of the spear that India aims at T.R.’s project in what amounts to an act of war (India fears the project will affect the monsoons critical to agriculture in the Punjab region).
As Stephenson’s Earth-set books usually do, the story spans the globe with locations in Asia (India and Papua), Europe (Netherlands, Venice, Albania), the Middle East, and multiple locations in North America (especially around New Orleans and Texas).
It moves along nicely and kept my interest and engagement throughout. Sulfur, the 10th most common element on Earth, is cheap, and the rocket-gun technology is already within our grasp, so the story is very plausible. As I mentioned, Stephenson usually hits the mark for me (although not always), and I rate some of his books quite highly (Snow Crash is a particular favorite).
Uranus (2020), by Ben Bova, is one of many novels in his Grand Tour (of the Solar system) series. Uranus is the first of an Outer Planets trilogy. I have the next one, Neptune (2021) on hold with the library, but since Bova died in 2020, I don’t know if the trilogy will ever be completed. (I assume the third one would be Pluto.)
I’ll be seeking out as many of the other Grand Tour books as I can find, because I quite enjoyed reading Bova again.
The story takes place on a spinning wheel habitat, called Haven, in orbit around Uranus. It’s the project of a religious idealist, Kyle Umber, who invites “the tired, the sick, the poor” of Earth to a place of spiritual peace and refuge.
His billionaire friend and financier, Evan Waxman, has turned to unfortunate and immoral methods to keep it solvent, and this becomes a key conflict point.
There is also a scientist, Tomas Gomez (from Brazil), who comes to Haven to study Uranus. His goal is to determine why it is the only planet that is completely sterile with none of the signs of life found on all others.
I won’t spoil any of the plot because, well, that would spoil it. Suffice to say that the situation is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off and, of course, it does. I will mention the obvious narrative imperative that it’s Gomez who triggers it. Things were going along “fine” (ha!) until his discoveries bring too much attention from the outside.
I was reminded somewhat of the Near Space books by Allen Steele (which are also called the “Rude Astronaut” books for good reason). One might also call them “Blue Collar Industrial Workers… In Space!” (Hard working; hard playing; hard fighting; hard drinking.)
One reason that it’s easier to find good SF books than movies or TV shows is that there are so many from the last 50–60 years of science fiction. I’ve long thought it tragic that Hollywood wallows in shallow derivative crap and sequels when there are so many outstanding SF novels. Decades of good material. So often I’m reading a book and thinking, “Damn! This would make a great movie!”
I mentioned recently that I finally got around to reading Alastair Reynolds, who has been on my radar for some time. Last year it was Octavia Butler, who blew me away and quickly became one of my favorite authors, SF or otherwise. (See these posts.)
Reynolds and I got off to a good start. I have a soft spot for hard SF, especially when it respects Einstein’s speed of light (no warp drives). I started with, and enjoyed, Revelation Space (2000), which is the first of the four-book Inhibitor Sequence series.
While waiting for the next books in the series to come available at the library, I read House of Suns (2008), which I enjoyed very much.
I didn’t enjoy Terminal World (2010) quite as much, but it was okay. It mostly seemed like a steam punk book about dirigibles, but it kept my interest. Then I read Century Rain (2004) and liked that more. I thought his novella, Slow Bullets (2015), was worthwhile, too.
So, I was looking forward to Redemption Ark (2002) and the others in the Inhibitors series, but as I read it, I began to find aspects of Reynolds’s writing irritating. For one thing, he never says in 50 words what he can say in 500. He writes some of the most pointlessly over-explained stories I can recall. It’s never a good sign when I start sifting chaff in search of wheat.
There is also that, in this series, his main characters, without exception, are total assholes. That’s not always bad thing if the characters are compelling, but I didn’t find them so. To me they seemed rude, close-minded, monomaniacal, and generally without redeeming qualities.
Revelation Space (560 pages) features Dan Sylveste, a rude, close-minded, monomaniacal scientist so driven to prove his point that he precipitates what looks to be the end of humanity in the galaxy due to the Inhibitors, a machine species dedicated to preventing intelligent space-faring life. (Reminds me of the Berserker series by Fred Saberhagen, although the motivation of the Inhibitors is murky.)
Reynolds has a style where separate plot threads ultimately meet and combine. Here there is a space crew of Ultras (cyber-humans) as well as a former soldier, Ana Khouri (who also appears in books two and three). None of them are particularly likeable, and everyone is keeping secrets.
Redemption Ark (576 pages) centers on Skade and Clavain, two rude, close-minded, monomaniacal Ultras who want to get their hands on some ancient mind-bendingly powerful weapons that were hidden because they were too scary to use (so, yeah, we’ll just hide them in an untended “secret” location; it’ll be fine).
The Inhibitors have shown up and are converting entire moons and a gas giant into a sun-destroying weapon to cleanse Resurgam, the planet that was the focus of book one. Ilia (the Ultra) has the 40 super-weapons on her ship from having successfully raided the cache years ago. Skade and Clavain, from the Yellowstone system detect those weapons (because neutrinos) and head to Resurgam.
Absolution Gap (2003; 565 tedious pages) features Quaiche, rude, close-minded, monomaniacal, religious tyrant; Grelier, his thoroughly unprincipled right hand; and Rashmika Elis, a snotty unlikeable 17-year-old girl. Worse, far worse, I thought the plot was just plain stupid in almost every regard.
One thread resumes the story of Skade, Clavain, and Khouri, but the main thread concerns the religion created by Quaiche. It’s based on how the system’s gas giant, Haldora, sometimes briefly vanishes. (I kept wondering about gravity and why every scientist in creation wasn’t studying it.) The people and visiting pilgrims live on the moon, Hela, in orbit around Haldora. The moon is almost tidally locked, but not quite, so giant mobile “cathedrals” slowly move along the equator to keep the planet directly overhead so the religious can stare at it hoping to see the “miracle” of it briefly vanishing.
There is so much wrong with every aspect of the story that I don’t know where to begin. It’s one where the more you think about it, the stupider it seems. It’s never a good sign when I’m so taken out of a story that I begin taking notes. Here are some of those notes:
Too much quasi-science for a hard SF book. Reynolds leans too heavily on Clarke’s Third Law for my taste. A dash of that is fine, but this book was more preposterous magic than science (including a major time travel violation — information from the future delivered by an “oracle” infant).
Everything new or different is alarming, upsetting, or even nauseating, to the characters. Their reactions never involve joy, wonder, awe, or just being impressed. It’s as if the characters don’t live in their own reality and aren’t used to their own technology.
I’d like to know if Reynolds has a low disgust threshold or is generally squeamish. The giant spaceship infected with a nano-virus that alters it in weird ways causes the walls to weep fluids and the hallways are ankle deep in it. Given the spaceship is four kilometers long, that’s a lot of fluid. Why? What does a nano-virus want with fluid? (There’s a vague handwave to it being influenced by having infected the ship’s captain who is uncommunicative, insane, or perfectly lucid, depending on what the plot requires.)
Reynolds, despite his verbosity, likes keeping the reader in the dark as much as he can. SF is known for reveals, but not every plot beat needs to be a reveal. Not everything characters know needs to be kept from other characters (and the reader). His scenes are often choppy because he cuts away every time there’s anything resembling a cliffhanger, no matter how mild. That got really old, and it broke the flow.
Certain characters are said to be so valuable that they’re necessary to others, but their value is never truly demonstrated. There’s also a weird disconnect between the ruthlessness they show, the general ruthlessness of the era, and deciding one individual is valuable. It’s too plot convenient. (Former soldier Khouri speaks casually of doing political assassinations to ensure their scheme works, but other times is squeamish about killing.)
That’s a key objection I have. Too much plot convenience. Reynolds is driven by what the plot needs, not by anything organic. The novel felt so constructed.
And, OMG, he spends over three pages describing in detail how one of the super-weapons fires. Since the “science” is total bullshit, who cares? It’s like reading several pages describing exactly how Harry Potter does a spell (and equally “scientific”).
All-in-all, the book was a big disappointment. I skimmed and even skipped many pages and came away feeling it didn’t do much for the overall Inhibitors story.
On the other hand, the epilogue gives away what happens next, which makes me wonder if there is any point to reading the fourth book, Inhibitor Phase (2021). I’ve got it on hold and will give it a shot, but… we’ll see. He wrote that one almost 20 years after the first three.
I have a suspicion that Reynolds does better when confined to a single novel. I really did like House of Suns and Century Rain. His Revenger series doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, but I might try the Poseidon’s Children series as a test.
On the other hand, I’m looking forward to diving into Ben Bova and his Grand Tour series. He pretty much qualifies as a Grand Master of science fiction.
Stay in character, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.