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The Reference Library by Don Sakers

As long as people have been around, we’ve told tales of exploration and discovery. One imagines a group of Homo habilis gathered around the fire spinning yarns about bold adventurers who dared to climb the hills and venture into adjacent valleys, and the wonders they found there. From Pharaoh Necho’s Phoenician sailors to Saint Brendan and Marco Polo, real and imaginary journeys of discovery have long had a hold on humanity’s imagination.

Science fiction is no exception. If there’s one type of story that’s most characteristic of SF, it’s the exploration tale. Even before SF was thought of as a distinct genre, Verne and Wells took readers flying to the Moon, voyaging under the sea, hitching rides on comets, and traveling off to the distant future. In those days maps of the world still had huge blank spots, and readers devoured stories of mysterious islands, lost worlds, and the hidden cities of deepest Africa. In fact, I believe that this shared spirit of exploration and discovery explains why an earlier generation of SF readers were almost as enamored of Tarzan as of John Carter, and enjoyed Quartermain’s adventures almost as much as Professor Challenger’s.

In the fullness of time, as Earthly frontiers closed and Hugo Gernsback worked his magic, science fiction established its identity. The writers of this new genre worked their will on the “exploration and discovery” story, giving it a particularly science-fictional twist.

This twist was simple: in science fiction, we don’t just care what happens to voyagers on their journey—we also care how they get there. Taking a cue from Verne and Wells, a science fiction journey of discovery attempts to create a plausible technology for getting to new, exciting destinations.
Thus came about the familiar SF concept of the “space drive”—a specific technology that could propel and maneuver vessels into and through space. More often than not, these technologies were based on the best science of the day.

For journeys to the Moon and elsewhere within the Solar System, rockets were the most popular method. In fact, between the late 1920s and the 1960s, there was a burgeoning subgenre of “first trip to the Moon” stories, almost all of them based on real-world and theoretical advances in rocketry. Before Apollo, just about every SF writer of any prominence at all penned at least one “trip to the Moon” tale.

There were, of course, other ways to get into space and explore the Solar System. Refinements of rocketry, such as ion, plasma, or fusion drives and laser-assisted launch systems, were just the tip of the iceberg. Peruse the pages of Astounding/Analog and you’ll find light sails, mass drivers, catapults, gravitational assist, space elevators, and steam power, propulsion by black hole . . . Poul Anderson even propelled a spaceship with beer!

Expanding beyond the Solar System, unless you want to travel by generation ship, more exotic methods are necessary. Antigravity and E. E. “Doc” Smith’s reactionless drive are handy, but SF voyagers have also used Bussard ramjets, antimatter propulsion, cosmic wormholes, and transmission via radio waves. Then of course, there are nearly infinite varieties of faster-than-light gimmicks, ranging from various warp drives to hyperspace shortcuts to technologically produced stargates. Some really advanced species can move their minds through space without the need for technology at all.

(Want a fun parlor game? Try to name at least six stories that use each one of the gimmicks above.)

Even when space drives have little (if any) justification in current science, rigorous science fiction demands that they operate in a believably rational fashion, according to self-consistent rules that the author imposes. We don’t have to know how to build Captain Presto Whizbang’s magneto-gravitic stardrive, but we do need to know that it behaves like technology, with consistent limitations and abilities. We need to be confident that when Whizbang’s ship is surrounded by space pirates in Chapter 16, he won’t get away by pressing the previously unmentioned magical “Teleport To Earth” button.

Of course, all this focus on the technology behind the journey doesn’t make a story. SF writers still have to provide all the age-old elements of an exploration tale: wonder, excitement, adventure, suspense, character, meaning. It’s just that science fiction, as with so many things, adds a special extra dimension to the story.

Going Interstellar
edited by Les Johnson and Jack McDevitt
Baen, 416 pages, $7.99 (paperback)
Baen E-books: $6.00 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-4516-3778-6
Genre: Original Anthology

 

Going Interstellar

Exploration and discovery are alive and well in current science fiction. Jack McDevitt, a Nebula winner who needs no introduction in these pages, joins with Les Johnson, Deputy Manager of NASA’s Advanced Concepts Office, to bring us eight short stories and four nonfiction articles, all based on the best current physics ideas for travel between the stars. Analog readers will feel particularly comfortable in this volume.

First, the nonfiction. Dr. Gregory Matloff, a retired astronomy professor with a list of credentials that itself stretches halfway to the Moon, discusses antimatter starships in one article and fusion drives in another. Dr. Richard Obousy describes a proposal called Project Icarus, a real-world design study for an interstellar spaceship. Finally, Les Johnson gives the lowdown on solar and beamed energy sails.
The roster of SF writers is equally impressive, including such familiar names as Michael Bishop, Ben Bova, Sarah A. Hoyt, Jack McDevitt, and Mike Resnick, as well as relative newcomers Dr. Charles E. Gannon, Les Johnson himself, and Louise Marley.

All of the stories are enjoyable. I found both Bova’s “A Country for Old Men” and Gannon’s “Lesser Beings” to be a particularly interesting pairing: two very dissimilar stories of individual crewmen pitted against much more powerful opponents. Bishop’s “Twenty Lights to ‘The Land of Snow’” is a deliciously different story of an unusual journey set in a decidedly unusual culture (the subtitle is “Excerpts from the Computer Logs of Our Reluctant Dalai Lama”).

Last century there was quite a vogue in SF for “theme” anthologies, in which a number of different authors wrote stories inspired by a specific idea. For a while I was afraid that my own effort, 1990’s Carmen Miranda’s Ghost is Haunting Space Station Three, had killed them off, but fortunately they survived. The really fun thing about these theme anthologies is seeing how writers, starting at the same point, go off in their own different directions. Going Interstellar is an excellent example.


Blue Remembered Earth
Alastair Reynolds
Ace, 512 pages, $26.95 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $12.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-0-441-02071-3
Series: Poseidon’s Children 1
Genre: Hard Science Fiction, Space Opera

 

Blue Remembered Earth

You might be familiar with Alastair Reynolds from his Revelation Space series: five big novels and a number of smaller works that elevate space opera to the status of myth. A typical Reynolds book is a giant-size story with multiple characters and plotlines, full of nanotechnology and transhumans and dozens of alien races, all set against a background of cosmic conflicts that take place across billions of years.

Blue Remembered Earth is the first book in a new series set in a different universe. The series promises to follow one human family through generations and millennia as the race spreads through the stars—and even though this one starts out fairly close to home, you can expect the full Reynolds experience before long.

In 2160, the human race has spread through the Solar System and things are fairly peaceful. On Earth, the two major technological and economic powers are Africa and the United Aquatic Nations, a group of ocean-dwelling transhumans.

Geoffrey and Sunday Akinya are siblings, scions of one of Africa’s leading corporate families. Their grandmother, Eunice, is a legendary explorer and business powerhouse. Geoffrey in particular wants nothing to do with the family business—he’s happier studying migration of elephants.

Then Eunice dies, and Geoffrey and Sunday are off to the Moon to investigate and do damage control. They find that Eunice had made some sort of monumental discovery; across the Solar System she left a string of clues and coded messages. So now they have to find the secret, all the while ducking the attention of Earth’s AI surveillance system.

There’s genetic engineering, human augmentation of various types, vastly extended lifespans, and high-concept technology all over the place. Poor Geoffrey is a thoroughly likable character caught in the power of something that’s far bigger than he is. And in true Reynolds fashion, the focus keeps expanding through time and space as the book progresses.

If you like big, meaty books that make you think—and if you want to get in on the ground floor of the next Alastair Reynolds series—this is the book for you.



Win Some, Lose Some
Mike Resnick
ISFiC Press, 648 pages, $35.00 (hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0-9857989-0-1
Genre: Short Fiction Collection

 

Win Some, Lose Some

Mike Resnick is one of science fiction’s most honored authors. To date he’s won five Hugo Awards, with thirty of his short stories being Hugo nominees. Last August he was Guest of Honor at the Chicago Worldcon. In celebration of this remarkable career, ISFiC Press has put together all thirty of Resnick’s Hugo-nominated stories, along with some extras, in one attractive volume.

Most of these stories appeared in our sister magazine, Asimov’s. They range from drama to humor, long to short, future to past, hard science fiction to magical realism. Here you’ll find the best of the Kirinyaga series: set on a terraformed asteroid inhabited by transplanted Kenyan natives trying the best they can to hold onto their society and traditions in a fast-changing technological world. “The 43 Antarean Dynasties” is an understated fable that should resonate with everyone who travels to a foreign culture. “The Bride of Frankenstein” takes a new look at a familiar monster.

Well, you don’t need me to give capsule reviews of each story. They’re all good—among the best work in science fiction over the last twenty years. Each story has a brief introduction by Resnick himself, along with an appreciation by a cross-section of SF writers and editors ranging form Lou Anders to Connie Willis (and everyone in between). The cover, by the legendary Vincent di Fate, brings together elements from many different stories.

Haven’t read Resnick before? This is a great place to start. Already a Resnick fan? You want this book. Know someone who loves Resnick, or likes good stories, or doesn’t believe SF can be meaningful and relevant? Give them a copy.


The Sum of Her Parts
Alan Dean Foster
Del Rey, 278 pages, $15.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $9.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-0-345-51202-4
Series: Tipping Point 3
Genre: Adventure SF, Biological SF, Man & Machine

 

The Sum of Her Parts

After all this heavy reading, perhaps you want something light and quick. Never fear, Alan Dean Foster’s here.

You might remember Dr. Ingrid Seastrom, brilliant biologist, and her companion Whispr, rogue rendered a living shadow by genetic engineers, from the first two books in this series, The Human Blend and Body, Inc. In this brave new world of genetic manipulation and nanotech augmentation, Ingrid and Whispr are on the run. They possess a data thread that bears information important enough for powerful multinational biotech corporations to be after their lives.

In particular, they’re hunted by a brute called Molé, an enhanced killer who’s determined to get to them first. In the course of the first two books Ingrid and Whispr have managed to escape Molé and stay a step ahead of the forces tailing them. Now they’ve come to the end of the line: South Africa’s Namib Desert, and a highly secure research facility that holds the answers they seek.

First, they have to survive the bioengineered dangers of the desert. Then it’s a simple matter of getting past the guards, taking over the lab, and figuring out what it all means—before a frustrated Molé catches up with them and starts dealing mayhem.

A jolly fun adventure, Ingrid and Whispr make a great pair, resourceful and totally sympathetic—you’ll be rooting for them to survive their great adventure. And the payoff is definitely worth it.


The Great Heinlein Mystery
Edward M. Wysocki, Jr.
CreateSpace, 289 pages, $24.95
(trade paperback)
ISBN: 978-1-47741-020-2
Genre: Nonfiction

 

 

The Great Heinlein Mystery

Great Heinlein Mystery? What’s that all about?
In 1941, Robert A. Heinlein wrote a letter to John W. Campbell, Jr. in which he mentioned that a device in one of his stories had inspired a real-life device used by the Navy in World War II (and possibly later). Heinlein said he couldn’t reveal the nature of the device, because it was classified. In a 1955 lecture, Heinlein repeated his claim, along with the statement that the device was still classified so he couldn’t reveal its nature.

On the basis of these clues, Edward M. Wysocki, Jr.—a normal science fiction reader of no real distinction—set out in the 1990s to identify the real-life military contraption that Heinlein had inspired.
As great mysteries go, this one doesn’t seem all that momentous. Yet Heinlein’s status in science fiction, along with the fact that all but one of the stories in question appeared in Astounding, makes the question of minor interest to Analog readers. And that’s all Wysocki needs to tell a fascinating story.

With no formal training in military technology, no budget to speak of, and no legal powers of investigation, Wysocki had to rely on published works, publicly accessible documents, and the memories of the few aging contemporaries still alive. At first, Wysocki had little to work with, but over the years the explosion of information available on the Internet turned out to be his biggest resource. He was able, for example, to track the careers and movements of Heinlein’s Naval Academy classmates, enough so even to deduce when and where particular undocumented conversations took place.

The story is fascinating from beginning to end. After listing all possible alternatives from Heinlein’s stories, Wysocki analyzes naval technology of the time, providing a look at the details of radio and radar engineering that so engrossed SF readers and writers of the period. Along the way, we meet other SF writers, and learn, for example, what L. Sprague deCamp had to do with the evolution of the space suit.

The Great Heinlein Mystery is hardly world-shaking stuff. When Wysocki reveals his answer (for which he presents good arguments), one feels a vague sense of letdown—not because of the answer, but because the book is over.

In this case, as so often with tales of exploration and discovery, the real fun is in the journey, not the destination.

 




That’s it for this time around. Until next time, happy exploring! 

Don Sakers is the author of Dance for the Ivory Madonna and A Rose From Old Terra. For more information, visit www.scatteredworlds.com.

"The Reference Library" Copyright © 2012, Don Sakers

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