Guest Reference Library
by Sean CW Korsgaard
Happy New Year, Analog readers!
By the time you’re reading this, it should be the last couple of weeks of 2022, or perhaps the first few weeks of the 2023, and in either case, hopefully in the mood for some new books to add to your reading lists for the new year ahead.
The half dozen books I bring before you will take you from the depths of the Pacific Ocean to the lunar Sea of Serenity, and from cyberspace to deep space. They include stylistic throwbacks, love letters to speculative fiction’s golden years, and new entries into well-loved subgenres that go in bold new directions. And as always, a mix of authors that should be very familiar to Analog readers, some that might be new to you, and some who were new to me as well.
I also tried to offer some interesting contrasts with these books as well. We have a pair of books by NASA scientists, two novels about alien intelligences discovered beneath Earth’s oceans, two tales of heroes seeking to redeem themselves for past mistakes, and even two alternate histories set in the 1970s. Yet for any similarities in concept, the places they go and routes they take could not be more different, and each left me with a unique impression by the end.
May these books help you start some interesting new journeys of your own throughout the year to come.
Caezik Science Fiction & Fantasy, 476 pages, $26.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $9.99
Series: Apollo Rising 1
Genre: Alternate History, Space Race, Hard SF, Military SF, To The Moon
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As disastrous as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been, sparking global tensions not seen since the fall of the USSR, it’s certainly been conveniently timed for several recent works of science fiction to deliver new twists on Cold War-era technothrillers by swapping out flashpoints like the Fulda Gap or the 38th Parallel for points around the Solar System.
While these have ranged from books like Chris Hadfield’s The Apollo Murders and Patrick Chiles’ Eccentric Orbits series, to Apple TV’s For All Mankind, one of the newest to join this trend, Sidewise Award winner Alan Smale’s Hot Moon, brings a style and perspective to the trend that’s wholly unique in its attention to detail and storytelling approach.
The year is 1979. The Soviets beat the U.S. to the Moon, landing a single cosmonaut two months ahead of Apollo 11; as a result the U.S. has redoubled its investment in the Apollo Program and manned space exploration, intent to win the marathon to space if they beat the Soviets in the sprint. To fund this, the U.S. had to pull out of Vietnam years ahead of our own timeline, and a more popular President Nixon escapes the scandals that otherwise would have forced his resignation. Here Watergate is just an upscale DC hotel. Ronald Reagan is president now, one term ahead of schedule, and as Soviet troops invade Afghanistan, the Cold War enters its most belligerent phase in years.
Amidst all of this, astronaut Vivian Carter, the commander of Apollo 32, is headed to the Moon for what should amount to a photo-op, followed by some exploration of the volcanic Marius Hills region of the Moon. Instead, she and her fellow astronauts aboard Columbia station find themselves under fire, arriving to lunar orbit just in time for a surprise Soviet attack on American space stations and bases across the Moon. Vivian and her crew escape a Soviet attack on the Columbia before the Soviets capture the station; they arrive on the lunar surface just in time to warn a NASA scientific post of the coming Soviet attack, and now must rise to the challenge of leading an improvised resistance against the invaders.
Shifting from multiple viewpoints across both sides of the conflict, Hot Moon offers a thrilling and engaging story of war, political intrigue, and individual derring-do that also never loses sight of the world created or science and history behind them. As mentioned before, while not the first novel to apply old Cold War thriller formulas to science fiction, the novel twist to the formula here might well be: This is not a war story that also has some hard science thrown in, this is a hard science story that happens to have a war happening right in the middle of it.
Anybody who loves the Apollo-era of space exploration will adore the lovingly crafted vision of some of the more ambitious plans for post-Apollo space exploration that here got its chance to go far beyond six missions to plant the flag and test a few rovers. Here the orbital space and surface of the Moon is home to several Skylab orbital habitats, complex Lunar Module bases, and mass drivers, including astronauts permanently stationed on the Moon, as opposing cosmonauts residing in Zvezda bases.
One exciting thing about an alternate history like Hot Moon is that with most of America’s Apollo-era plans now declassified—and with any competing Soviet plans released during glasnost or when the USSR fell—we have some realistic vison of what competing American and Soviet exploration and colonization of the Moon would look like. It’s a vision striking enough to make the war that threatens to bring it crashing down especially palpable.
That same devotion to realism and hard science is on full display during any combat scenes as those competing visions come to blows too. There is a lot of focus not only on the impact and action, but on the science behind it—one that stuck in my mind from early in the novel is a breakdown for how an AK-47 could continue to fire in a vacuum. Where most novels might focus more on the action, Hot Moon never steps too far away from the science of it all, and there are also detailed lunar maps and blueprints for some of the crafts and bases that appear throughout the novel.
That dedication to hard science and attention to the detail shouldn’t be a surprise. While Alan Smale made a name for himself with alternate history fans with his Clash of Eagles trilogy, following a surviving Roman Empire exploring North America, he is an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, so the hard science in Hot Moon is as rock solid as the storytelling.
Hot Moon is an immaculately rendered thriller whose vision of an alternate history for manned space flight is as vivid and exciting as the battle over the control of its future, and I recommend it highly.
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Three Miles Down: A Novel of First Contact in the Tumultuous 1970s
Tor Books, 272 pages, $26.99
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $13.99
Genre: Underwater/On the Sea SF, Alternate History, SF Mystery, First Contact, Alien Beings
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Despite being another work of alternate history set in the 1970s, Three Miles Down couldn’t offer a starker contrast with Hot Moon. Harry Turtledove, another one of the masters of the alternate history genre, here delivers something more akin to early Clive Cussler novels of nautical espionage.
The year is 1974, and the eyes of the nation are on the Cold War and the unfolding Watergate scandal. Jerry Stieglitz is a grad student, marine biologist, and Analog contributor who is set to both marry his fiancé and turn in his thesis on whale communication in a few weeks. At least until some gentlemen from several three letter agencies come knocking at his door with a job opportunity—join the crew of the Glomar Explorer on a top secret mission to recover a Soviet submarine from the bottom of the north Pacific.
In exchange for putting off his thesis and his wedding until the ship returns from its mission, he’ll get a staggering sum of money and a chance to do field work with whale song while aboard the vessel. Even as a self-described “long-haired egghead,” Jerry is more than happy to sign on to an extended voyage aboard a ship full of CIA operatives, RAND Corporation suits, and roughneck divers.
It’s only when the Glomar Explorer leaves port that other shoe drops, and Jerry is let in on the actual purpose of the recovery mission, not the wrecked Soviet submarine, but an alien spacecraft that might have had a hand in sinking the Russian vessel. Jerry was brought on board this mission largely because he has the right background to come up with potential outcomes of first contact, but even he couldn’t anticipate the competing visions and outcomes that begin to clash—or how his own principles and ideals could well put him in the crosshairs.
All of that before President Richard Nixon and Soviet intelligence get involved.
Three Miles Down starts with a very slow burn where we get to know our characters and get to explore some of the real-world tech used aboard the Glomar Explorer, before transitioning into a political espionage thriller that tags in a first contact story for the climax. It’s Three Days of the Condor meets Contact, through the lens of some well-loved vintage issues of National Geographic, and the result is a strange, enjoyable mashup.
Turtledove also effortlessly captures the feel for the era, one where the hippie movement is in its final spurts of relevance, the Vietnam War has entered its final stages and its veterans have begun struggling for identity, and where the fallout from Nixonian politics and related scandals was on the minds of all Americans and began to lay the groundwork on fault lines we’re still dealing with today. There was a lot more to the ’70s than just bad disco and worse fashion, and even as someone who wasn’t alive for this decade, there is a vibrancy to the setting in Three Miles Down, especially as those competing factions and fault lines begin to flare up in the latter half of the novel.
I’ll admit I have lot of affection for Jerry as a budding protagonist caught in the middle of it all, as an idealistic young scholar and aspiring science fiction author thrust into a scenario straight out of one of his favorite genre magazines and struggling to do the right thing. The novel also wears its love for classic Golden Age science fiction on its sleeve, from Jerry killing time by reading Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson paperbacks, to author Jerry Pournelle himself appearing later on as a character involved in the proceedings.
If there is a flaw to be had with Three Miles Down, it’s that some of the most intriguing possibilities introduced by the novel’s concept—first contact throwing gasoline on the political firestorm that was the 1970s—have only begun to be touched on by the final pages. That, and despite being billed as a work of alternate history, we’ve yet to see how the massive butterfly effect from first contact really might play out.
Despite this, Three Miles Down remains a clever combination of several genres that stands on its own, and I hope that we’ll see more from in the future.
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Tachyon Publications, 290 pages, $17.95
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $9.49
Genre: Cyberpunk, Technothriller, SF Mystery, Artificial Intelligence
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I’ve loved the cyberpunk subgenre since I snagged a copy of Snow Crash out of a public library sale bin as a teen, yet too many of the modern swings at the subgenre are missing something. It’s not simply a matter of so many staples of cyberpunk that are now background noise in daily life either, be it the omnipresence of the internet, leering international mega corps, or oppressive surveillance. In true punk culture fashion, too much modern cyberpunk has fixated on the aesthetics so that they’ve lost track of that original streak of rebellion that really gave it that spark. Neon, cybernetics, and leather clothing are fun, but simply put: it’s not cyberpunk without that punk spirit.
The Extractionist has that punk spirit, with gusto. The sophomore effort from author Kimberly Unger, following her debut, Nucleation, a splendid little technothriller that was a finalist for the 2022 Compton Crook Award, has all the stuff that fans of classic cyberpunk love—heroes in over their heads, corporate espionage, government conspiracies, and lots of twits and turns along the way.
Eliza May works as our titular extractionist, an expert on programming and navigating the fully immersive virtual reality space known as the “Swim,” which in her case largely consists of pulling reckless clients’ digital personas out of sticky situations that nearly entirely center on porn simulations, online gambling, or various other vices. Scut work, for someone like May, a former programmer involved in creating some of the systems used in the Swim, who has a very impressive and experimental implanted computer system in her head and a system of bots and artificial intelligences that report to her, including a particularly cheeky AI assistant named Spike.
That unique background and equipment is what earns her a very lucrative government job. A covert operative named Mike Myamoto is caught behind digital enemy lines, and his agency’s own efforts to extract his online persona have failed—while they can unplug him from the Swim manually, doing so would erase any of the data Mike has collected on the corporation he was investigating. May’s mission is to succeed where others have failed and guide him (and his data) back home, and she takes the task for the puzzle as much as the payday.
No sooner does she take the assignment than it starts to go very wrong, very quickly. Hostile forces, both human gun-toting thugs in the real world and AI malware in the Swim, chase her across both sides of the Pacific, the agency that hired her isn’t giving her the full story, and if while she can’t trust Mike entirely, he is convinced they can’t trust his bosses. Time is running out, and the list of enemies grows longer by the minute. Eliza wanted more excitement, but she may have stumbled onto way more than she bargained for.
The plot of The Extractionist moves a mile a minute once it gets going, and doesn’t slow down until the climax. It’s an exciting read that’s very hard to put down, filled with some wild curveballs thrown along the way.
A big part of what makes the novel so compelling is Eliza. She’s street-savvy with a rebel streak, as the subgenre demands, but with some interesting twists too. She’s never outright cynical like so many cyberpunk heroes are, and seems to genuinely enjoy piecing together the unfolding mystery she’s stumbled into. We get some intriguing details about Eliza’s background dropped throughout the novel—one that sticks out is her having done some dangerous experiments with nanotech that got her blackballed from most of the tech field—that combine for great flavor I hope we see explored more in the future. A great work of cyberpunk needs a great protagonist, Hiro or otherwise, and Unger has crafted a terrific one in Eliza May.
Another highlight is the virtual world of The Extractionist; the Swim feels uniquely developed and fleshed out in a way so many riffs on the Metaverse don’t. It didn’t surprise me to learn that Unger has a few decades of game design experience under her belt, and has worked extensively as part of various design teams for VR headsets. She’s created a rather unique entry into the cyberpunk canon with The Extractionist, and I hope we haven’t seen the last of it.
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Against All Odds
Jeffery H. Haskell
Aethon Books, 408 pages, $28.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $0.99
Series: Grimm’s War 1
Genre: Military SF, Space Opera, SF Thriller
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While not the first work of military science fiction or space opera to shape its universe and conflicts around the War on Terror, army veteran and Dragon Award-nominated author Jeffrey Haskell might have delivered one of my favorites with Grimm’s War and Against All Odds. Here we have a book that captures the shifting allegiances and support, unclear mission and uncertain rules of engagement, and with the memories of Kabul’s fall still lingering, the desire for redemption. And better yet, delivered a damned entertaining book while doing it.
The novel opens with young lieutenant Jacob Grimm taking charge to save his ship during a sneak attack only to have his heroics turn to horror when the enemy vessels turn out to have also been filled with a cargo of refugees, many of them children. Disgraced to his command which nearly strips him of his commission, and personally disgusted and haunted by his actions, Grimm has resigned himself to serving out what remains of his career in ignominy.
This is when United Systems Alliance Navy comes to him with a chance for redemption—one that even comes with a massive promotion to Lt. Commander. All he has to do is take charge of the Interceptor, a decades old destroyer whose systems are woefully outdated at best and actively failing at worst, where the morale and discipline of its 136 crew is nonexistent, and protect and patrol the Zuckabar star system. It’s a mission that desperately needs to be done—and if the Navy has their way, by a ship and an officer they can both afford to lose.
With a long-awaited chance of redemption now in hand, Grimm wastes no time attempting to clean house both on the Interceptor and in Zuckabar, running afoul of an XO more concerned with covering her own ass than anything about the ship, a corrupt local governor openly flaunting the United Systems, and pirates, smugglers, and spies that grow bolder with every move. Complicating things even among his own crew is his reputation as a potential war criminal, and to make matters worse, something behind the scenes in Zukcabar threatens to bubble over into full-scale civil war, with Grimm and his crew right in the middle of it all.
To his command, the Interceptor and its crew are disposable, and to their foes, they’re all targets. But damn the odds, Jacob Grimm will see his mission through.
While tales of disgraced soldiers seeking redemption are nothing new to the subgenre, it’s the execution that gives this book its charms. The year is 2931, and humanity remains alone in the universe, and hopelessly divided into various competing factions. Yet for all the Great Game geopolitics being played out by different interstellar factions, nearly every faction in Zuckabar is more concerned with making a buck or making it home and dread the growing conflict even as it becomes inevitable. The action when it happens is intense, graphic, and often terrifying, and as the story builds towards the climax, the pace picks up and the stakes keep getting higher. Haskell deserves a lot of credit for really tackling the complexity of life in conflict zones and combat, as well as how people deal with the aftermath.
Characters though, are what makes or breaks great military science fiction, and here is where Against All Odds really shines. Lt. Commander Jacob Grimm is a wonderfully complex character, his desire to do whatever it takes to redeem himself is balanced out by the dread and guilt over his past actions and fear he might cross the line again. As a former enlisted man myself, I immediately gravitated to Marine Lance Corporal Jennings, whose gung ho fearlessness is equal parts upbringing—incredible strength and endurance from being raised on a high gravity world—and desire to prove her height and gender make her no less dangerous or dependable in a firefight. Even the XO Kimiko Yuki, who could have easily been a generic neglectful officer for Grimm to butt heads with, instead is given a chance to show what made her abandon her duties, and root for her to step up to them again.
If there is a complaint to be had with Against All Odds, it would be with the villains, which are alternatively a wafer-thin stand-ins for the Russians and fundamentalist groups like ISIS, which is a shame. To the novels credit, the factionalism mentioned before helps—no one group is entirely good or bad, including Grimm’s own crew—but characters this memorable and a tale this compelling deserves a foe just as memorable to lock horns with.
Jacob Grimm and the Interceptor may yet get that chance. Since Against All Odds dropped last April, a further three books in the series have been released, with a fifth due out sometime this year. If you get as immediately hooked on this series as I did, you’ll be glad for there being plenty more Grimm’s War stories to come, and both the series and author Jeffrey Haskell should be on every military sci-fi fan’s radar.
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The Mountain in the Sea
MCD Books, 464 pages, $28.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $14.99
Genre: Underwater/On the Sea SF, Biological SF, First Contact, Artificial Intelligence, Exploration & Discovery
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Of all the strange and wild ways that life and intelligence has appeared on Earth, few have proven perhaps more alien than cephalopods, especially the octopus. They possess nine brains, including one in each tentacle, three hearts, no bones, and a level of intelligence capable of solving puzzles, using tools, and even escaping aquarium enclosures. There’s just something about these undulating mollusks that strikes an alien and often terrifying chord in the human psyche, so little wonder that some of the earliest visions of hostile alien life in our genre, be it HG Wells’ Martians or HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, were heavily inspired by the octopus.
Ray Naylor’s The Mountain in the Sea offers the latest in that proud tradition, with one very exciting twist: they are not the ones seeking to snuff out all other intelligent life on Earth—we are.
In the reefs of Vietnam’s Con Dao archipelago, a species of octopus has been discovered that has not only a level of hyperintelligence that marks them as sentient but have also shown signs of developing a culture and language. The chief scientist leading first contact efforts, a marine biologist and cephalopod researcher named Dr. Ha Nguyen, understands the implications this kind of new intelligent life means, even as she struggles to bridge the gap in communications with this new alien kind of intelligence. So too does the multinational tech company that controls the islands, DIANIMA, has their own ends with this discovery, hoping this different kind of earthly intelligence might hold some key into their own research into artificial intelligence. Though the two crew members representing the corporation on the island, a drone operator named Altantsetseg and a new kind of android named Evrim, are both officially there to help Dr. Nguyen, their interests do not always align with hers or even DAINIMA’s, especially as Evrim’s programming shows signs of its own evolution.
Yet as the full implications of what possibilities exist with this new intelligence has arisen in Con Dao, forces are more dangerous than DIANIMA and far less altruistic than Dr. Nguyen will seek to inject themselves into the volatile situation and threaten any contact or breakthroughs that might be made. And naturally, nobody thought to perhaps ask these octopi their thoughts on the matter, or what might happen if they turn outright hostile.
The Mountain in the Sea is the debut novel from Ray Naylor, who should be a very familiar name to regular Analog and Asimov’s readers, including nearly a dozen in the latter magazine alone, several of which were included in various Years Best collections. His short stories often touch on a range of international and ecological themes, and it should come as no surprise that his first novel is no different, or that his writing style shines throughout the novel.
The questions and implications raised by the novel are heavy: that other forms of intelligent life has developed on Earth, right below our notice, and not only that of the octopuses in question. The novel cleverly explores intelligence in a range of forms—human, animal, alien, cybernetic and artificial—that is quite often as lyrical as it is thought-provoking. Some of the headier questions and implications are cleverly dropped throughout by means of excerpts from How Oceans Think, a book-within-the-book written by Dr. Nguyen.
The Mountain in the Sea asks questions of consciousness, ecology, and intelligence, both animal and artificial, where the possibilities linger long after you’ve turned the final page. It makes for a brisk, yet beautiful journey that mans of thoughtful science fiction cannot miss.
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A Traveler’s Guide to the Stars
Princeton University Press, 240 Pages, $27.95 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $14.99
Genre: Nonfiction, Hard Science, Space Exploration
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Lastly, for anyone looking to pick up some nonfiction to kick off the new year, you’d be hard pressed to find a better choice than a book covering what it would take to get man to another star system, written by one of the world’s leading scientists actively working to turn science fiction into science fact.
Be it fiction or nonfiction, or his own work with NASA, Les Johnson is one of the brightest minds today when it comes to visions of man’s future in space. Johnson, whose work at NASA has included the Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) Scout and Solar Cruiser missions, as well the recent Artimis-1 mission, mentions that versions of this book were shopped around for nearly a decade. During that time, there was a revolution in private space flight, an explosion in exoplanet discovery, and NASA saw a range of technological and research breakthroughs.
The goal with this book was simple, and he states it in the preface: to create a comprehensive and accessible overview of those recent discoveries and breakthroughs, where mankind stands now in terms of our ability to colonization of space, and the many things still before us before humanity can truly become an interstellar species. On all fronts, I’d say A Traveler’s Guide to the Stars more than succeeds.
Topics covered range from framing the full size and scope of interstellar travel, weighing the advantages of sending robots, people or a combination of both, the different kinds of propulsion systems with the potential to get us to other stars, and and some of the most recent developments with those technologies, including many breakthroughs on solar sail which Johnson himself helped to spearhead. Even smaller topics or challenges often overlooked, such as maintaining contact with Earth, are covered in the impressively comprehensive coverage.
The book doesn’t pull any punches either, and is very frank that much of what it covers is generations, if not centuries away from being possible. The vast distances between time and space are no less daunting no matter how advanced our technology becomes and bridging the void between the stars will likely forever be a generational project. Yet A Traveler’s Guide to the Stars does offer some hope, a fairly firm roadmap just what kinds of technology or discoveries would be required to
Avid readers of Analog’s own Alternate View columns will appreciate the well-sourced data and range of cutting-edge tech and research covered, while more casual readers will find the clear and concise language makes even the headiest concepts easy to follow.
I expect the book will also prove invaluable to many science fiction authors, both as a reference guide for those hoping to write stories centered on interstellar travel, and inspiration from how the book talks about the meaningful impact our genre has on research and development that will help make such travel possible someday.
The journey from fiction to fact must begin somewhere, after all.
Sean CW Korsgaard is a U.S. Army veteran, award-winning freelance journalist, an aspiring author of speculative fiction, and recently joined the editorial staff at Baen Books. He lives in Richmond, Virginia with his wife along with, depending on which you ask, either far too many or far too few books.