space

Judas Unchained and the Conclusion of the Commonwealth Saga

I’ve said it before, so I won’t belabor the point, but I wish Peter F. Hamilton edited about 25% out of his books. They are too long and the narrative structure, which jumps around from one focus of the action to another very often, doesn’t help. If he was a talentless hack just filling in pages, or if his stories were bad, that wouldn’t be so frustrating.

But he isn’t. His Commonwealth saga is a truly interesting story with well-developed characters that takes place within a wonderful setting. I’m a sucker for mid- to far-future stories with human colonization of the galaxy, and this one definitely qualifies.

The story itself is about an interstellar war in which there is one clear antagonist and a bunch of nonhuman races (both human-generated and fully alien) whose loyalties aren’t quite clear at the outset. Intertwined with the galaxy-spanning conflict, we also get a police investigation novel intertwined… and in the end, the cops become almost more important than the people driving the starships against the enemy alien.

In fact, my one criticism of the saga is that it becomes clear rather early in the book that the war will go humanity’s way, and the final enemy standing is more of a question of justice than of survival. When a book is a thousand pages long, knowing that the good guys are too powerful to lose anything but their morality by page 500 is a little too much.

But even with that criticism (which in any other book would have been the death knell), the novel is worth finishing. You want to know how the character arcs play out despite the plot losing a certain amount of attraction, and you want to spend more time in that coalition of planets linked together by wormholes through which trains tie the planets together (yes, an interplanetary civilization based on trains. How cool is that).

If you’re patient, this is well worth reading. If not, you may be better off reading The Lost Fleet, which has a lot of the elements that make the Commonwealth fun but with a laser focus on action and character.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who has explored the question of humanity making a last stand against the forces of an uncaring galaxy in Seige, a well-received novel that looks not only at the limits of humanity’s physical powers, but also at the definition of humanity itself. You can check it out here.

And the View from Today

Last Monday, I wrote about the way National Geographic had dealt with the wonder of the moon landing when it happened, and felt the same wonder that readers must have felt back then, the same sense that nothing was impossible, and that the future was truly on the way.

But then 50 years passed.

Much of society, in the meantime, have become jaded to the fact that the moon was reached, and look at it in purely economic terms, or view space exploration as a waste of resources hat could be used for whatever pet social project people favor. It seems incredible to me, a mean and miserly way to consider humanity’s greatest achievement, something only minds with small horizons should be capable of, but I’ve seen it often enough that I’m no longer surprised when people say things like that.

In light of this, one might think that Ad Astra‘s edition dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the landings (which I was also given at the ISDC) might contain a certain amount of bitterness, a sense of betrayal by the rest of humanity.

But I forgot who I was dealing with. People who love space exploration are, above all, believers in the invincibility of the human spirit. Not for them reproach or recrimination; this magazine is a wonderful celebration of the past, sometimes a reminder of the fact that we still have work to do, and an affectionate look at the true heroes involved.

If you never read another issue of ad Astra, this one is worth your time. It teaches you how to look back in admiration. Which is the only way to think of the past.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside is a look at a future in which humanity has not only conquered the stars but become bitterly divided between those who live a physical existence and those who live only in uploaded versions of themselves. It will make you question what it actually means to be human. You can check it out here.

More ISDC Goodies

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Humanity’s greatest achievements are the moon landings. Nothing comes close. It’s literally (as well as figuratively) on another plane to everything else we’ve ever done. It was a statement of intent, that we are not going to live and die as a single-planet species doomed to irrelevance.

Since the landings, of course, the misguided souls who believe that we need to focus on Earth first have, unfortunately, stunted humanity’s growth, but a new generation of explorers are now focused on important stuff again… and they’re rich enough not to care if someone whines, which governments sadly could never do. Spurred by this, governments have been forced to put space front and center again, and we have a new space race.

But when I went to the International Space Development Conference in 2019, it was poignant to see what the last thing humanity has to be proud of actually is. They gave me a reprinted copy of the article in the December 1969 Issue of National Geographic that reported the Apollo 11 landing, complete with the original covers.

We should have something better by now. But the closest thing we currently have going for us is that the last time there was no human being in space was on October 30, 2000. Hopefully, that will be the last day in history in which the human race is chained to a single ball of dirt.

So I reread this Nat Geo excerpt. It’s an emotional experience. Sometimes, the fifty-odd years that have passed seem to have blunted the importance of the event in daily life. We forget that a quarter of the humans on the planet were watching the Apollo 11 mission. Everyone in the world stopped what they were doing when the landing occurred. Baseball games were interrupted so people could sing patriotic songs. Foreign leaders were glued to the TV. We just can’t imagine, in 2020 what it was like for those who experienced it.

That emotion and sense of something incredible happening hits you with full force as you read the fifty-year-old coverage. Thanks to this reprint (more than 60 pages), I lost hours watching moon landings one after another. 11. 12. 14. 15. 16. 17. Each different, and each the most important thing any human has ever done except for the others.

If you’re too young to understand, try to get a copy of the magazine (no one throws away National Geographics, so they should be cheap) and read the coverage from people who appreciated just what they were seeing, unsullied by years of earth-first dullards and pessimism breaking the human spirit. It will be an eye-opening experience into a world where anything seemed possible. It was possible, but people who hate seeing others spread their wings have worked against it since.

It’s the only way you’ll truly understand the new space age which is coming.

Gustavo Bondoni is a science fiction writer from Argentina whose critically acclaimed Siege deals with how humanity can evolve and still find itself at the brink of extinction… taken there by its own offspring. You can check it out here.

Ad Astra Again

For someone who’s never been a paid member of the National Space Society, I’ve received a reasonable number of editions of Ad Astra, the Society’s magazine.

It’s all because of being a science fiction writer, of course. SF writers, as a breed, are usually kindred spirits to NSS members (except for those writers who specialize in whiny near-future pessimism). We look to the stars and believe that humanity is essentially awesome and that we’re going to be facing the challenges of life in space sooner rather than later.

So some of my activities get me into positions where copies of Ad Astra come my way.

The first time was back in 2008. As a total unknown, I entered a contest for an antho called Return to Luna, sponsored, in part, by the NSS. As one of the winners, my story “Ménage à Trois” was published in the resulting book. Part of the prize was a year-long membership in the NSS, and I received a year’s worth of the magazine.

More recently, I scored second place in the Jim Baen Memorial contest, and got to go to the Award Ceremony in Washington in 2019. The ceremony took place within the framework of the National Space Society’s annual convention, so I got another chance to grab copies of Ad Astra. (As an aside, the story which came second was eventually picked up by NewMyths.com and should be available to read in their December 2019 issue by the time this post is published. So if you’re curious, go ahead and have a look).

Since I was given a copy of the Winter 2019 edition of the magazine, I read it.

And I loved it. Not so much for the specific information it contained or for any spectacular achievements in writing or graphic design (It looks decent but not hyper-polished) but because of the sheer optimism it exudes. It’s nice to feel surrounded by people that, when faced with a difficult problem say “what if we try this?” instead of shrinking from the challenge. The kind of people who believe the only true failure is the one you don’t learn from.

In a world where people seem to respect pessimism and seem to celebrate those who remain within the accepted limitations imposed by society while not overreaching, Ad Astra rekindles ones’ faith in humanity. We aren’t just a bunch of angsty whiners; some people are still looking outward and striving for greatness.

I’ve gone on record saying that I think the moon landings are humanity’s greatest achievement, and that we’ll never do anything more important than that until we leave Earth. This magazine is my proof that I’m not alone.

Hopefully, I can win a few more of these as time goes on. If not, I may just have to join the NSS!

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose book Siege looks forward into humanity’s far future where the challenges of space colonization and posthumanism come into sharp focus and are faced off against humanity’s unconquerable spirit. You can check out the well-received novel Siege, here.

Why Space Opera is so Much Better than Dystopian SF

We live in a world that seems to love its dystopias. From television shows about zombies to near-future resource-constrained novels to the sudden rediscovery of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is a crappy book that resonates with certain forms of gloom-and-doomism, it’s in vogue to consume media that tells us how awful everything will be.

The world, critically acclaimed media tells us, will be awful, and humanity will be trapped on Earth, never to leave again.

Of course, it isn’t actually obligatory to consume dystopian SF. While it’s difficult to escape it, there are good things on the shelves at your local bookstore and even, if you make the effort to look for it, on TV.

And while I can’t explain the popularity of depressing SF that takes place on Earth, I can tell you the name of its fun, inspiring antidote: Space Opera.

Now space opera doesn’t have to be Stars Wars cheesy. It can be technologically awesome, like Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space cycle, political, like Iain M. Banks Culture novels, or idea-driven in the tradition of Asimov or Heinlein. Hell, there’s even Eco-space-opera in the form of Dune.

It’s superior to the dystopian stuff for several reasons. The first, of course, is that it’s much more fun to read. Not only is the imagination liberated, but these tend to show humanity at its best, encountering and overcoming challenges on a galactic scale, as opposed to small-mindedly obsessing over the problems of one planet. It takes a very small mind indeed to feel threatened by the possibility of humanity spreading its wings; most people will be uplifted by this subgenre in ways that seldom happens in pessimistic portrayals of an earth-only future.

If you want proof of this concept, just walk down to your local bookstore. You’ll find Asimov, Heinlein, Clark, Herbert, Niven, etc. well represented despite the fact that they created their best work forty years ago in the best of cases, seventy in the case of Foundation… The problem is that those books still attract the kind of reader that was attracted to science fiction in the first place, while the recent crop of dull, politicized dystopia is only good for as a sleeping aid for insomniacs. (recent space opera is much more likely to be on shelves in 50 years than the tripe winning most awards…).

The second reason Space Opera is better is that it is actually more likely to come to pass. While no one should be a climate Pollyanna, the truth is that humanity, through thick and thin, has always advanced technologically. Some of the forthcoming challenges will be tough, but they will be overcome. Moreover, humanity is finally pushing towards colonization of space and that is the kind of barrier that, once broken, crumbles like a piece of stale bread. We will be out there in numbers, very likely within our own lifetimes. So any climate apocalypse tale that doesn’t have a significant human space presence is just silly. I’d shelve it under fantasy and not SF.

Finally, the attitude of the writers is a turn-off in many dystopian books. These volumes are often a reflection of the fears that capitalism and individualism are destroying the planet. While one may agree or disagree with that sentiment, the kind of obsession with it that drives someone to actually pen a novel to show how badly it will end don’t necessarily make for someone in whose head you want to spend a few hundred pages.

They are, in fact, obsessed enough to ignore the fact that living standards have been steadily rising worldwide for the longest time. I recommend The Better Angels of Our Nature for the science and numbers that pretty much conclusively prove it. But not for our poor, angry content creators – they need the world to be going down the tubes, because if not, they’re wrong about everything.

But the technical considerations and political annoyances are secondary. The bottom line is that Space Opera is just more fun, and we read and watch science fiction to be entertained, not to be preached at.

So go forth and buy something fun for a change. It probably won’t have won a Hugo but if you’ve been following the Hugos lately, you know that that no longer matters (caveat, if I ever win a Hugo, you can take it as a given that I was drunk while writing this and that the Hugo represents the very pinnacle of literature of any kind. But until that enormously unlikely event happens, I stand by the above).

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who writes a certain amount of Space Opera both in short and long form. His well-received novel Siege is a far-future space opera in a very dark galaxy. You can check it out here.

More Visions

A little over a year ago, I wrote a review of a book called Visions III – Inside the Kuiper Belt.  I’d gone into that one with low expectations, but the book blew them all away.  It’s still one of the best contributor copies I’ve ever read.

Visions VI - Galaxies - Edited by Carrol Fix

Unlike its predecessor, Visions VI – Galaxies had some big expectations to live up to.  I’m happy to report that it succeeded reasonably well.   It’s not as good as Visions III, but then, almost no anthology I’ve read in the past few years is.  What it is, however, is a solid collection of writing about space, with adventure and wonder thrown in for condiment.

In a collection of 13 stories (of which I will only comment on 12 as the final tale was “Cloud Marathon”, written by yours truly), there is only one true clunker – a writer who gets the science very wrong (you need to know what a galaxy is if you’re writing a story about galaxies) and is also preachy.

Other than that, though, this book is full of good stuff.  Everything from way-out satire of SF television (“Space Opera” by Amos Parker is the memorable story that does this) to introspective tales that make you question humanity’s behavior (“Final Contact” by Al Onia), it spans the gamut.

Favorites?  There are a couple.  Bruce C. Davis’ “Old Soldiers” packs a strong emotional punch, while “Unity” by Tom Olbert is pure adventure goodness (this one almost lost me for being a little preachy and PC, but the writing carried the day in the end).  But there are other good ones as well, making this a solid read.

So, another good one in this series.  The good news for you is that there are a total of seven anthos in this series.  The good news for me is that I still have my contributor copy of Visions VII sitting in my pile.  A treat to come.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina.  For people who like anthologies similar to Visions, he recommends his book Siege.  You can check it out here.

Now We’re Talking…

My attempt to read some new core SF got off to a slow start, even though it finished well, so my second attack of a space opera novel the size of an Egyptian building stone was faced with some trepidation…

Leviathan Wakes - James. S.A. Corey

I needn’t have worried.  James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes, the first book in The Expanse, is a rollicking read from the very beginning.  Perhaps that is due to the characters not being described in excruciating detail but actually shown to us through their actions instead.  Perhaps it’s because the world requires a little less explanation than Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth.  Whatever the reason, this one hits the ground running… and just keeps going.

This is the kind of science fiction we all wish we’d grown up reading.  Fast-paced, well-written and not overly bogged down with politics (particularly not the kind of politics we are discussing today which, in a space-faring society will be long forgotten), it takes you straight to another world as soon as you open the book.

Perhaps this immediacy is the product of the author’s talent, or maybe it has been helped along by the fact that Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the two writers collaborating under the pen name Corey, get to read and critique each other’s work.  Whatever the formula, it certainly functioned perfectly in this particular instance.

Well enough, in fact, that it spawned a TV series on the SyFy Channel (yes, I know, but this one is reputed to be good), and it made absolutely perfect sense to me.  Unlike certain adaptations, which are head-scratchers, this one appeared to be the perfect fodder, in pacing, visual magic and plot for a movie or TV series.  I may need to watch it… if I find the time, I’ll talk about it here at some point.

Anyway, this one is highly recommended as the state of the art of bestselling space opera.  Even though it seems a little too fun and insufficiently committed on the political front to actually win a Hugo in the current climate, this series overcame those handicaps (???!!!) to be nominated for three of them so far.  That should tell you more about just how good it is than anything else I can write.

Anyway, go out and buy it.  Might not change your life in any deep, philosophical way, but it will entertain you.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a science fiction writer.  His own entry in the space opera field, Incursion, is available here.

A Man Who Starts Slowly

A quick note before I begin this post – I recently decided to get back to reading core SF and to fill some gaps in my reading.  To me, the central core of the genre consists of the kind of thing Asimov or Clarke used to do so well: deep space, far future and tech based speculation.  For my money, the current master of the form is Alastair Reynolds, but I wanted to give others a chance, so over the next few days you will see reviews regarding books by James S.A. Corey and the late Iain Banks (the ones with the M in the writer name).

Today, we start with Peter F. Hamilton.

Of the three writers involved in this particular quest, Hamilton is the only one whose novels I’d been exposed to previously.  I even wrote a review of Misspent Youth for SFReader.  In that review, I had a problem with Hamilton’s writing: he seems to start off extremely slowly, and to create characters that can be extremely annoying–or at least seem that way yo me.

However, the final ten percent of the book showed a pickup in pace.

Pandora's Star by Peter H. Hamilton

Pandora’s Star, the book I chose as Hamilton’s representative in the reading of core SF, suffers from almost exactly the same issue.  You end up hating many of the characters… and then they become important when the pace picks up (and boy, does it ever pick up) in the latter half of the book.  The main difference is that this book is much longer than Misspent Youth, so both the suffering and the payoff are much more prolonged.

To be completely fair to Pandora’s Star, the very first few pages are actually quite funny, but then it reverted to the same form as the other book and I had decided to pan the novel at about 40% through.  And then things exploded in the second half, and it became truly interesting.  I find Hamilton at his best when he is writing action and events as opposed to characters.  Or perhaps he is just a master at setting things up so you leave the book feeling that he is amazing at that–one way or the other, his books end well.

Well enough in this case that I will eventually be adding the second book in this series to my TBR pile.  I want to know how the longer arc ends, even if I don’t care about most of the characters.  The events are compelling enough.

So yes, this is a kind of tortured review.  I like the setting, like the tech, love the conflict… but I have a hard time rooting for some of the characters.  Maybe that’s the point, or maybe it’s just my own spin on normal human beings that others won’t find too much fault with… but that is what I’m left with after reading this one.

Still… I’m going to be buying book 2, so take that as you will!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His own take on core SF can be found in two loosely linked novels: Siege and Incursion.

The Last Frontier in Art

It’s no secret that we like art here.  For our readers entertainment, Classically Educated has visited museums, discussed modernist movements and generally illustrated our posts with art that strikes our fancy.

It’s also no secret that we believe space is where humanity’s eyes should be focused, and that any argument for “fixing Earth first” can only seriously be expressed by people who combine shortsightedness with an appalling lack of imagination.  Nothing in the world denotes a person with limited intellectual faculties than someone who believes that money should be removed from space exploration because there are poor people right here who need our help.

So, a combination of two things we feel passionate about should be an incredible journey, right?

The Art of Space by Ron Miller

Well, in the case of The Art of Space by Ron Miller, I have to admit to mixed feelings, although this is more due to my own prejudice than any failing of the book.

The problem is twofold.  In the first place, I was brought up on book covers and illustrated space books as a child and, to a lesser degree, the covers of the pulps.  This was the kind of art I was expecting to find in page after page of this book.

Secondly, I like to gaze at space art as an escape, not necessarily to study technique or see what fine artists were doing in the genre.  This book is much more a history of the evolution of the different types of space painting (painting of planets, space vehicles, etc.) than a gallery of images intended to create a sense of wonder.

Does it have wonderful images in it?  Yes.  Covers as well, of course.  But this is a book perhaps left to the person who studies art for art’s sake who, for some reason is looking at space as a subject.  As an art aficionado, I clearly have a huge blind spot when it comes to what I want from space art.

I can’t seem to leave my populist inclinations aside in this particular genre (so much for my supposedly unassailable elitism) and seem to prefer the garish fascination of pulp to the much more refined visions in this book.

Oh, well.  Nobody’s perfect.  If you can get past that, this is a really good book.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose novel Incursion has the most garish cover of any of his books.  Ironically, he’d asked for something more subdued and was overruled by his publisher.

The Pale, Small, Blue Dot

Pale Blue Dot

If anyone asks what the most important words ever spoken by mankind are, you have our permission to use the following four: “Houston, Tranquility Base here.”

We are assuming here that they will limit you to around four or five words.  If you have more, you can continue the phrase, but it kind of ruins the subsequent argument, because part of the fun is seeing if the recipient knows what you’re referring to.

Pause for those still trying to figure it out…

The next words are, of course, “The Eagle has landed”, which concludes the first non-technical phrase spoken by men on the moon (it seems the first actual words were “contact light”, which was an instrument reading and nowhere near as fun).

Eight words, and easily the most important ever spoken by a human.

Many people will disagree with this.  And those people will fall into many groups, but mostly, they are people with a serious lack of a sense of proportion, created by various subjective readings of the world.

Let’s dismiss the easiest group first.  The lunatics (in an ironic turn of phrase).  This is the group composed of people who insist that mankind hasn’t walked on the moon, that it was all faked in a Hollywood basement.  This same group will also tell you that astrology is a science, just like math*, that a bunch of Templar-influenced Illuminati run the world (see here for our other thoughts about this), and that you should really stop limiting yourself to what science says is correct, as there are so many things science just can’t explain.  Then they’ll recommend a homeopathic doctor.

Lunar Footprint

While you’ll never be able to make thinking beings out of this group, you can at least make them think a little by asking them why the Soviet Union never denied the moon landings.  If that doesn’t work, just send them here; with any luck they’ll spend so much time attempting to refute the overwhelming evidence that they won’t annoy you again.

The other group are more insidious.  They are articulate, educated people who have lived their entire lives under the mistaken assumption that there are more important things to do with public funds than explore space.  These people will, with perfectly straight faces, and a look of concern, point out that there have been many more important words spoken in history.

“There have been declarations of war,” they will say.  “Declarations of peace.  Announcements of the curing of a disease.  Even Bell’s ‘Mr. Watson – Come here – I want to see you,’ changed the world more thoroughly. Hell,” they will say, “have you forgotten Churchill’s speech about the many and the few?  Or the founding sparks of the French revolution? Civil rights announcements!  Friends, Romans, Countrymen! Are you actually serious?”  They are likely quie agitated at this point.

Sadly, many intellectuals feel this way.  That’s bad enough, but so do a lot of people who aren’t intellectuals, which in this case is worse.  You see, the great mass of voters are basically the group that has kept humanity on the ground.  Do you really see the people supporting space exploration when the alternative is more health benefits?  Neither do I…  the solid salt of the Earth isn’t noted for being particularly far-sighted.  This doesn’t stop governments with billions of dollars to spend from listening to them.

And yet, what all of these people are forgetting is that every single one of the “acceptable” candidates for “humanity’s most important words” have one thing in common.  They were all spoken on one single planet far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy which orbits a small unregarded yellow sun.  It is where most of human history has transpired, but it is also the prison of humanity until we can break the chains.

Just by being spoken on a different world, Armstrong’s phrase immediately overcomes them.  Look at it from a wider angle, and it becomes clear: the universe is huge, Earth is inconsequential, and the occurrences on its surface are clearly less important than those in a wider area.  Anyone who feels that humanity’s future is on the planet needs to get an urgent transfusion of ambition and the capacity to dream.

Fortunately, for the first time in decades, the future of meaningful human exploration is actually looking up.  China, of course, is planning to go to the moon, to follow its unmanned rover with manned missions, and to do it soon.  They don’t really have to worry about popular opinion, fortunately, plus, the program seems to actually have plenty of support.  Hopefully they’ll ignite the west, the Russians and the Indians.

But things are also looking up in the West.  The Russian space agency has recently completed it’s first craft built with no Soviet technology, and space tourism is still booming.  Getting humanity into space means getting people into space… and space tourism programs are doing that in relatively good numbers.

Martian Surface

Virgin Galactic is another venture that is definitely going to help.  As private companies take more people into space, costs will go down (strange that governments never seem to manage that), and more people will go into space.  It’s exciting to see this starting, and all the spaceports being built… with places as unlikely as Scotland leading the charge.

Even the US, primary culprit in the stumble on the road to space, is developing a better spaceflight roadmap.  Not only has it contracted out many lift operations to private rockets (SpaceX and Orbital Sciences currently fly to the International Space Station – and both are developing manned vehicles), but even the NASA itself is developing a new manned program, wonder of wonders.  They seem to want to harness an asteroid, bring it a bit closer to earth and send people out to have a look.  Seeing how dormant NASA has been since the shuttle era, it’s nice to see something that ambitious being seriously developed.  The launcher and capsules are in advanced testing stage and are BIG.

The ultimate prize for having perspective, however, must go to Mars One.  This Dutch company has understood that, while humanity as a group will always have to succumb to the whims of its most plodding members, there will always exist individual humans who have a bit more vision.  This company is planning to start sending humans on one way trips to Mars in 2024. They had 200,000 volunteers for the first call – and they are pretty realistic about how to fund the efforts.  One can only hope they succeed.

Perhaps, with all this private activity in space, we can soon hear words that are more important, on an objective scale, than Armstrong’s.  After all, staying on one planet simply dooms us to insignificance on any valid scale.

*This was an exact phrase said to the editor of this site.