by Don Sakers
Science fiction has seen many different methods of faster-than-light travel, from generic hyperspace and warp drives to wormholes and matter transmission. In the main, authors approach FTL through one of two major metaphors. For our purposes here, I’m going to refer to these approaches as “hop-in-the-car” and “take-the-train.”
In the “hop-in-the-car” metaphor, travelers have near-complete freedom. They can depart from (almost) anywhere and travel to (almost) any destination. If any constraints exist, they usually involve gravity wells (i.e. you can’t enter hyperspace too near a planet), speed limitations, or other minor limitations (e.g. avoiding dense nebulae).
With the “take-the-train” metaphor, on the other hand, travelers can only depart from and travel to specific locations . . . as with stations on a rail line. Whether those locations are wormholes, star gates, teleporters, or something else entirely, they constrain freedom and often help shape interstellar history and politics.
(I’ll admit that these metaphors aren’t perfect—trains can stop between stations, while cars on most freeways can only enter and leave at designated interchanges. Nevertheless, I think the basic models are useful.)
To be sure, some FTL systems combine features of both. In TV show Babylon 5 (1994–98), most starships entered and left hyperspace through specific “jumpgates” . . . but larger ships could generate their own entrances and exits anywhere. Again, in the various Stargate series (1994-2018) the titular “stargates” generally had fixed positions, but were occasionally carried and operated on conventional starships that entered and departed hyperspace at will.
Neither metaphor is inherently superior; writers tell good stories using either or both. However, the take-the-train system—due to the constraints it imposes—has a greater impact on the structure of a story, and thus is more interesting. So for the duration, let’s take the train.
The basic idea may date back to Russian philosopher-scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935), who seems to have written about doorways to other worlds around 1880. Incidentally, among Tsiolkovsky’s other ideas were modern rocketry, the generation ship, space stations, and human settlement of the galaxy.
Magical doorways and other portals have long been staples of fantasy, perhaps most famously in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871). Possibly the first SF story to deal with the concept was “The Meteor Girl” by Jack Williamson (Astounding, March 1931), in which a scientist uses a fallen meteorite to open a window in the fabric of space-time in order to rescue the woman he loves from a distant shipwreck.
E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series (beginning with “Galactic Patrol,” Astounding, September 1937–February 1938) featured “hyperspatial tubes” that were essentially paired interstellar or interdimensional portals.
In A.E. Van Vogt’s “Secret Unattainable” (Astounding, July 1942) a German scientist created a wormhole that connected his lab to arbitrary points elsewhere in the universe. By 1955, Robert A. Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky interstellar teleportation gates carried Earth colonists to distant planets. In Clifford Simak’s Way Station (1963), a human became caretaker of the Earth terminus of an alien interstellar gate system.
In 1968, such interstellar portals received a catchy name that stuck: Star Gate. The term appeared that year in separate works by Andre Norton (Star Gate) and Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey). Stephen Robinett gets credit for the now-familiar formation “stargate” (“Stargate,” Analog, June/August 1974, under the pseudonym Tak Hallus). The aforementioned Stargate movie and TV series cemented the term in the popular imagination.
Interstellar teleportation was further explored in works such as Harry Harrison’s novel One Step From Earth (1970), while Jack Williamson returned to the concept in a pair of novels written with Frederik Pohl (Farthest Star, 1975, and Wall Around a Star, 1983).
Wormholes are another popular variation. The term was coined by real-life physicist John A. Wheeler (1911–2008). Joe Haldeman introduced faster-than-light travel through a network of wormholes associated with black holes in his Forever War stories (starting with “Hero,” Analog, June 1972). Wormholes played specific roles in such works as Carl Sagan’s Contact (1985), Roger MacBride Allen’s The Ring of Charon (1990), Pohl and Williamson’s The Singers of Time (1991), and The Algebraist by Ian M. Banks (2004).
The “Alderson Drive,” based on an interstellar network of wormholes, is part of the background of Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium series (starting with “A Spaceship for the King,” Analog, December 1971�–February 1972). The peculiarities of the system played key parts in A Mote in God’s Eye (1974) and sequel The Gripping Hand (1993), both by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.
Other train-like faster-than-light networks inform the background of many works, including C.J. Cherryh’s Morgaine Cycle (1976–1989); The Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold (beginning with Shards of Honor, 1988); The Hyperion Cantos series by Dan Simmons (1989–1999); The Thousand Cultures series by John Barnes (1992–2008); David Weber’s Honor Harrington series (beginning with On Basilisk Station, 1992); Pat Murphy’s There and Back Again by Max Merriwell (1999); and Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth series (starting with Pandora’s Star, 2004).
In media, besides Stargate and Babylon 5, wormholes played a big part in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993–1999), Farscape (1999–2003), and the movie Interstellar (2014). And, of course, we can’t leave out the network of “time holes,” defects left over from Creation, that allowed movement through space and time in the movie Time Bandits (1981).
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A Star-Wheeled Sky
Brad R. Torgersen
Baen, 371 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Nook: $8.99; Kindle: $7.55 (e-book)
Series: Waywork 1
Genre: Gates Between Worlds, Psychological/Sociological SF, Space Opera
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Brad R. Torgersen is no stranger to Analog readers. He’s been publishing short fiction since 2010, with many pieces appearing in these pages—most recently the novella “Purytans” in the July/August 2016 issue. His Chaplain’s War trilogy (The Chaplain’s Assistant, The Chaplain’s Legacy, and The Chaplain’s War) brought a unique perspective to military SF.
In A Star-Wheeled Sky, it’s about a thousand years since humanity discovered the Waywork: an ancient stargate network, long abandoned by the aliens who constructed it. Emigrants from Earth dispersed to all the 56 gates—called Waypoints—and established a number of independent Starstates. Over the centuries, Earth, which lies far off the Waywork, was lost and all but forgotten.
In time, two Starstates emerged as the most powerful. Constellar is a semi-democratic oligarchy ruled by a few powerful families. Constellar is opposed by Nautilan, a brutally-efficient totalitarian dictatorship. While the two aren’t yet formally at war, it’s only a matter of time.
With tensions ramping up, the totally unexpected occurs: a new Waypoint appears, out beyond the borders of Constellar and Nautilan. A new Waypoint could lead to anything—to ancient technologies, the secrets of the Waywork, perhaps even the Builders themselves.
Both Starstates waste no time in dispatching missions to claim and explore the new node.
From Constellar, three individuals race against time to reach the new Waypoint first. Garsina Oswight is a daughter of one of the ruling families, headstrong and fearless. Wyodreth Antagean, son of an interstellar shipping magnate, has his military reserve commission activated so he can take three of his father’s ships on the mission. And Zuri Mikton, sixty-year-old admiral shuffled off to a safe do-nothing command after losing a major battle, suddenly finds herself in command of what might be the most important mission in history.
From Nautilan comes Golsubril Vex, tyrant, whose first order after the discovery of the new Waypoint was “assemble an overwhelming force.” Commanding an implacable military machine, Vex intends to take the Waypoint for Nautilan . . . no matter what the cost.
Torgersen provides readers with a high-concept, action-filled story that’s firmly grounded in the real humanity of his characters. What might have been a formulaic military SF novel is actually a profound journey of discovery for some unforgettable people. It’s hard to imagine an Analog reader who wouldn’t enjoy A Star-Wheeled Sky.
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T. Eric Bakutis
SF Productions, 407 pages, $14.99 (trade paperback)
Kindle: $3.99 (e-book)
Genre: Adventure SF, Psychological/Sociological SF, SF Mystery
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Hard on the heels of his noir SF thriller Supremacy’s Shadow (reviewed here in the September/October 2018 issue), T. Eric Bakutis is back with a noir-flavored SF police procedural that’s built on the sort of psychological and sociological extrapolation that one associates with classic Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth.
In a near-future San Diego, rookie Detective Cowan Solo and his older, more experienced partner Detective Jeb Forrester are police officers in the Cybercrimes Investigation Division. As the story opens, they’ve come to the offices of a company called Ventura Visions to investigate the first mass shooting in twelve years.
There are two types of people in this future. The “closed circuits” are unaugmented citizens, hidden away in their secure enclaves. “Clear circuits” like Cowan and Forrester are implanted with Personal Brain Assistants—PBAs—which allow them to access enormous processing power, view augmented realities, and even control their own thoughts and memories. In addition, no one with a PBA can hurt or kill another human being.
Cowan assumes that the killer was a closed circuit. But upon reconstructing the crime, the detectives find an illegal, black-market PBA. The killer wasn’t acting on her own: her body was controlled through the illicit PBA by another person entirely—puppeted, in the jargon of the book.
Cowan and Forrester are off on a search for the real killer. Along the way they face a decadent underworld of homicidal gamers, orgasmic algorithms, Russian gangsters, and the international conglomerate that controls the world.
A fun thriller, to be sure . . . but the real meat of Loose Circuit is Bakutis’s portrayal of the use and implications of the PBA technology. It’s pure quill extrapolative, speculative SF, taking the central idea and running with it. The PBA changes everything from social structures to cuisine (most food is bland, because your PBA can make everything taste like bacon).
It’s an unfamiliar world, yet one that’s worked out in detail. Bakutis is the perfect guide, doling out necessary nuggets of information in just the right time and pace to keep the reader from getting lost. There’s an awful lot of jargon and future slang, but don’t worry—it all feels natural.
John W. Campbell, Jr. used to say that an ideal SF story should read like a contemporary story published in a magazine from the future. Loose Circuit is very much in that tradition.
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Talos Press, 303 pages, $15.99 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $11.99 (e-book)
Genre: Short SF Collections
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Rich Larson is another name that should be familiar to Analog readers. He’s something of a short fiction phenom, with nearly a hundred stories published since his debut in 2012. You can find his work all over the place: nearly every SF magazine and webzine out there, as well as numerous “Best of the Year” anthologies. He’s appeared frequently in Analog, most recently with the short story “Smear Job” in the November/December 2018 issue. Larson’s first novel, Annex, appeared in 2018.
Tomorrow Factory is Larson’s second collection, after Datafall (2012), and it’s a definite treat. The collection includes no less than 23 stories, most of them fairly short. The only one from Analog is “Razzibot,” which appeared in the March/April 2018 issue. The rest originally appeared in a wide variety of venues.
These stories span the range of science fiction, from cyberpunk to SF noir, from space opera to transhuman tales, from Thailand to Europa. Larson’s style borders on the literary, but not to the point of distraction. For all the fine lyrical language, Larson is first and foremost a storyteller.
It’s hard to pick favorites from such a delightful assortment. “Ghost Girl” is the story of a police officer’s quest for a spectral young woman in a cyberpunk junkyard in near-future Burundi. In “Your Own Way Back,” teenage Elliot hosts the personality and memories of his grandfather until a new body can be cloned for the old man. “Dreaming Drones” features an AI embodied in an android shell and learning to dream.
If there’s a common denominator to these tales, it’s fairly ordinary people living with what seem to us to be unusual technologies. One is reminded of Connie Willis or Clifford Simak. There’s a melancholy atmosphere to many of the stories, a feeling of struggling in the grip of distant, powerful forces beyond one’s control. Yet the tales don’t descend into ennui or despair—the endings may not be happy ones, but they’re definitely satisfactory.
In olden days, oral storytellers would spin yarns in the village market; Tomorrow Factory is the modern equivalent.
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eSpec Books, 287 pages, $16.95
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $2.99 (e-book)
Series: The Shardies War 1
Genre: Alien Beings, Military SF
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What to say about Bud Sparhawk? He writes darn good science fiction, both short pieces and a few novels. He’s been at it for more than a quarter of a century. He’s a fixture in these pages, most recently with the short story “Downsized” in the November/December 2017 issue.
One of the (many) things that Sparhawk does well is to take old, familiar forms and mine them for deeper meanings. Shattered Dreams is a perfect example.
When the cargo hauler Provence is attacked by crystalline aliens, Lieutenant Pino Silva barely manages to pilot the ship to safety. With the bridge crew dead and the ship crippled, Silva takes command and makes for the colony world Morrow with the news that war has come from an unknown and unexpected foe.
Unfortunately, the aliens followed Provence, and their weapons devastate the colony world. Only a few survive, scattered and unaware of the war taking place across human-settled space.
The aliens, called Shardies, have vastly superior technology and incomprehensible tactics that point to a far different psychology. They seem to be set on exterminating the human race entirely, and the military can do little to effectively oppose them.
It’s a familiar military SF situation, and in another writer’s hands we’d settle in for a nice David-vs-Goliath action yarn. That’s when Sparhawk starts to work his magic, transcending the simple action story.
Studying the Shardies and some of their captured tech, military command approves a drastic plan: to fuse that mysterious tech with mortally wounded volunteer soldiers in the hope of using them as weapons against the Shardies.
But to defeat the aliens, the transformed humans need to understand them, to become them . . . possibly at the risk of their own humanity.
In the Shardies, Sparhawk has created a truly alien race, intelligences that think and act totally different from humans. And in the transformed soldiers, he raises moral questions about identity, the nature of humanity, and the costs of survival. Come for the action, stay for the deep and difficult questions.
One hopes the story of the Shardies War is not yet over.
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A People’s Future of the United States
Edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams
Random House, 410 pages, $17.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $11.99 (e-book)
Genre: Original Anthologies
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In 1980, historian Howard Zinn published A People’s History of the United States, an attempt at a history from the perspectives of the downtrodden, the outcasts, the marginalized, and the powerless. A runner-up for the National Book Award, the book was—and still is—controversial.
Whatever one’s opinion of Zinn’s masterwork, no one can deny that the book made a huge impact.
It was in the spirit of Zinn’s book that editors Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams invited 25 authors to write stories of the future from the same perspectives. The result is A People’s Future of the United States, and I have the feeling that this volume is, at least within the SF world, destined to be as controversial as Zinn’s effort was in the larger world.
Take it as a given that the stories in this anthology all unabashedly stem from the liberal side of the political divide. That might not be to your liking, which is fine. If so, and you don’t need your blood pressure raised, give this one a miss.
Among the 25 authors are a number of today’s big names and up-and-comers: Charlie Jane Anders, Tobias S. Buckell, Tananarive Due, Hugh Howey, N.K. Jemisin, Seanan McGuire, A. Marc Rustad, Catherynne M. Valente, Daniel H. Wilson, and Charles Yu.
As you’d expect, the range of stories is very broad. Some are post-apocalyptic, others are utopian. There are humorous stories, dead serious ones, and not a few that drip with delicious irony.
Some of the tales are not to be missed. N.K. Jemisin’s “Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death” is a sort of allegory with soul food and some vicious genetically-engineered dragons. “By His Bootstraps” by Ashok K. Banker offers a twist on both time travel and alternate history that would be perfectly at home as an episode of The Twilight Zone. And Charles Yu’s “Good News Bad News” is a hilarious look at future headline news, including “SCIENTISTS CONFIRM WE’RE LIVING IN A SIMULATION” and “RACIST ROBOT RECALL.”
I expect we’ll be hearing more about this book. If it’s down your alley, get in on the controversy early. Just please . . . no fair gifting copies to your conservative friends, okay?
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Stories of Fremont’s Children
Edited by Brenda Cooper and Danielle Ackley-McPhail
eSpec, 128 pages, $11.95 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $0.99 (e-book)
Series: Fremont’s Children 4
Genre: Original Anthologies, Transhumanism
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It’s possible that you’re not aware of Brenda Cooper’s Fremont’s Children series. The original trilogy consists of The Silver Ship and the Sea (2007), Reading the Wind (2008), and Wings of Creation (2009). The Silver Ship and the Sea won the 2008 Endeavour Award for distinguished SF/fantasy book written by a Pacific Northwest author.
The series follows six genetically-enhanced children—Alicia, Bryan, Chelo, Joseph, Kayleen, and Liam—who are the last survivors of a war between the Altered (those with genetic enhancements) and the normal humans. Orphaned, the six children were adopted by normals.
Through many adventures and challenges, Fremont’s Children at last manage to find their own place in the universe. Reminiscent of Anne McCaffrey or Theodore Sturgeon, the books are almost-universally called “sweet” by readers who fancy them.
Stories of Fremont’s Children is a sort of companion to the series. It includes stories, story fragments, and poems by Cooper, Danielle Ackley-McPhail, and John A. Pitts. These offer insights and background for the events of the books, and set the stage for the forthcoming book number four, The Making War.
But the funny thing is, this slim volume also makes a good introduction to Fremont’s Children for those who’ve never encountered the series before. It conveys the flavor of the series, and there aren’t any egregious spoilers. If you go with the e-book, the price is right . . . and you just might fall under the spell of Fremont’s Children.
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Edited by Hank Davis and Christopher Ruocchio
Baen, 506 pages, $7.99 (mass market)
iBooks, Nook: $6.99; Kindle: $5.38 (e-book)
Genre: Exploration and Discovery, Reprint Anthologies
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What could be better than a collection of classic SF stories about explorers and pioneers of space? Editor Hank Davis has a talent for picking good mixes of stories from across the history of SF, including both well-known and obscure tales—and here, ably assisted by Christopher Ruocchio, he’s done his usual fine job.
How’s this for a roll call: Poul Anderson (twice), Fredric Brown (also twice), Tony Daniel, Lester del Rey, David Drake, Jeff Grearson, James E. Gunn, Edmond Hamilton, Robert A. Heinlein, Sarah A. Hoyt, Murray Leinster, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Ross Rocklynne, Clifford D. Simak, Theodore Sturgeon, and Manly Wade Wellman.
Nineteen stories by eighteen writers, with publication dates ranging from 1948 to the present. Three first appeared in Astounding and one in Analog; the others appeared in various other magazines including Amazing, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Galaxy, Startling Stories, and Thrilling Wonder.
One of the Poul Anderson stories, “Third Stage,” has not been reprinted since 1962. Two tales (one by Sarah A. Hoyt and Jeff Grearson, the other by Ruocchio) were written for this anthology.
Many of these stories have been overtaken by historical events or improved scientific knowledge. It’s still interesting to see how writers of the past thought about space travel. (It is odd not to see Arthur C. Clarke represented here . . . but perhaps Davis and Ruocchio thought his work already had enough exposure.) Some stories reflect early naive attitudes about the cost and difficulty of crewed spaceflight . . . but a surprising number of them deal with the obstacles and dangers faced by space pioneers.
Definitely a fun book.
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Father of the Bride of Frankenstein
Daniel M. Kimmel
Fantastic Books, 200 pages, $14.99 (trade paperback)
Genre: Humorous SF
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And now, as they say, for something completely different.
Trust Daniel M. Kimmel to identify and explore a previously-neglected niche in the Frankenstein story. In case you’ve forgotten, let me remind you that Kimmel is the author of the film criticism masterpiece Jar Jar Binks Must Die . . . and Other Observations about Science Fiction Movies as well as novels Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood, and the Bartender’s Guide (reviewed in the April 2013 issue) and Time On My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel (reviewed in May/June 2017). The man can’t write a short title to save his life.
Let’s get this out of the way immediately: Kimmel updates the Frankenstein story for the 21st century. The Monster (named Frank) is produced and animated by a clandestine team of scientists at the State University Medical Center. The Bride is a nice Jewish girl named Samantha. And the narrator, Samantha’s father, is quite happy as an ordinary bank loan officer . . . until his daughter brings home Frank and announces that they’re going to get married.
From there, it’s an open question whether Dad will survive the wedding planning, which includes such challenges as Papal disapproval, protesting mobs, Frank’s conversion to Judaism, hospital visits, court proceedings, and a daughter whose extravagant wedding plans show no regard for her father’s bank account balance. . . .
It’s all great fun, and we can be sure no actual monsters were harmed in the writing of this book.
Don Sakers is the author of Five Planes, and A Cosmos of Many Mansions, a collection based on previous columns. For more information, visit www.scatteredworlds.com.
Copyright © 2019 Don Sakers