By L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (review is of the print)
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: November 2015
Themes: / space opera / military sci-fi / alien artifacts / science fiction /
You can’t militarize space. This one rule has led to decades of peaceful development of space programs worldwide. However, increasing resource scarcity and a changing climate on Earth’s surface is causing some interested parties to militarize, namely India, the North American Union, and the Sinese Federation.
The discovery of a strange artifact by Dr. Alayna Wong precipitates a crisis. What appears to be a hitherto undiscovered comet is soon revealed to be an alien structure on a cometary trajectory toward the sun. Now there is a race between countries to see who can study and control the artifact dubbed the “Solar Express” before it perhaps destroys itself.
Leading the way for the North American Union is Alayna’s friend, Captain Christopher Tavoian, one of the first shuttle pilots to be trained for combat in space. But, as the alien craft gets closer to its destination, it begins to alter the surface of the sun in strange new ways, ways that could lead Alayna to revolutionary discoveries-provided Chris can prevent war from breaking out as he navigates among the escalating tensions between nations.
This is an unusual book to review, since it feels unstuck in time. On the one hand, it reads like a mid-20th-century science fiction adventure, with heroic pilot and astronomer successfully solving space problems. On the other hand, it earnestly points a century ahead, to a world built from concerns very prominent in 2015.
Solar Express is about an object hurtling across the solar system during the year 2114. Two main characters engage with it, and with each other. The astronomer, Alayna Wong-Grant, works in a lunar observatory by herself, and discovers what seems like a comet. The pilot, Chris Tavoian, is tasked with exploring it. Much of the novel’s dramatic power comes from the interaction of these three, who nearly never touch each other.
The setting looms large. The world of 2114 is dominated by an East Asian polity, the Sinese republic (I think), in competition with a rising India and a sidelined North American entity (the US plus Canada, maybe including Mexico). The 21st century saw climate change occur, along with several bad wars, so there’s a touch of post-catastrophe in the staging. 2114 also sees Sinese-Indian competition rise to the brink of war, which should have added more dramatic punch to the novel than it actually did.
I began these notes by mentioning older sf, because my reading was haunted by many ghosts. Arthur C. Clarke’s great Rendezvous with Rama hovered over every page, as a humans try in vain to make sense of a cryptic alien artifact headed towards the sun. The super-competent pilot felt like a time traveler from the 1940s or 50s, as he successfully lands a plumb assignment, conducts geopolitical analysis, pilots expertly, investigates an alien machine, deals with foreign forces, deals with them again, and survives physical extremity.
That competence actually dragged down the middle third of Solar Express for me. It seemed like Tavoian’s explorations occurred at a snail’s pace, with a lot of repetition (performing similar tasks, writing to people in order to describe what we’ve just seen) and very slow progress.
The world-building wasn’t as successful as it could have been, as I noted above. For one we get too many historical observations from main characters discussing the present. People have a fondness for early 21st century history, which doesn’t make a lot of sense in that world – i.e., there’s no sense that people are history obsessives personally (as in many Poul Anderson stories) or culturally (check Harrison’s Centauri Device for an example) (57, 67, 130, 156, 232). Example: “Or [a person] believes that God in on their side. Like the Taliban in Pakistan seventy years ago.” (130) That’s an awkward reach to the reader. Imagine if a novel taking place in the present had characters in daily life – not historians – constantly referencing the War of 1812. Some of the non-narrative documents do a better job, including a kind of news + scandal sheet and selected articles.
Speaking of history, the world’s rush to war was a powerful context for the alien express, again reminding me of Arthur C. Clarke (2010 this time), but it played out oddly. The great powers confrontation is set up nicely about a 100 pages in, then ratchets up too slowly, with too much repetition (India threatens to use killer missiles, the North American president advises calm). We don’t get much insight into the crisis and its logic, perhaps because of our two-character focus.
The romance was gently handled, as each character has a lot on their plate. Besides their major work, each faces a family crisis at a distance. Astronomer and pilot have a geeky correspondence habit of exchanging political quotes with each other, the tenor of which reveal a grumpy, rather conservative outlook, which just lightly interacts with the rest of the plot.
And yet I enjoyed myself. I love stories of space adventure, and was fascinated by how this one played out. I wanted to see the alien artifact, to learn how the Sinese were responding, and what the heck was going on with the sun. Again, like a mid-20th-century sf novel, I was engaged.
As a work of hard science fiction, Solar Express is unapologetic. Like The Martian this novel zeroes in on science and technology challenges, from air filtration to spectroscopy to cleaning up lunar dust to the details of orbital mechanics. Check the jaw-dropping opening paragraph, which is a kind of dare or gauntlet hurled at the reader, starting off with a nearly 300-word first line about the physical and administrative (!) details of the moon base. Or read how the title first appears:
But by the time this object nears Mercury, it will be traveling at somewhere in the range of sixty lays per second, accelerating to as high as 250 by the time it reaches perihelion… a real solar express. (142)
Modessit does well pedagogically on this front, giving us detailed information, incremental developments, discussions, and solutions, while not stooping so low as to introduce many concepts.
So…. recommended as a fun read for people interested in hard sf and/or with a love of mid-20th-century space adventure stories. Not recommended for people who don’t read science fiction.
Posted by Bryan A.
Filed under: Audio Drama, New Releases, Podcasts, Recent Arrivals
Talked about on today’s show:
Jenny’s the only woman in the kitchen, many audiobooks by Roald Dahl, The Twits, no Leo Laporte, The Witches, Boy and Going Solo (nonfiction), “piece of cake” (aeronautical term?), maybe we need a kid reviewer, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Other Animal Stories, (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: Roald Dahl – screenplay, Ian Fleming – novel), (it wasn’t black and white), You Only Live Twice, Jenny got her grabby hands on The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two (Fairyland #3) by Catherynne Valente and read by Catherynne Valente, play sample here, should authors narrate their own audiobooks? (didn’t Stefan Rudnicki want to narrate John Crowley’s Little, Big?), Jesse again mentions the mystery/science fiction novel Golden Fleece by Robert J. Sawyer, ‘Radium age sf’ books (Jesse was saying dreamscapeab.com, but I think it’s hilobrow.com?), Theodore Savage by Cicely Hamilton, “monoculture is bad”, (downpour.com is another alternative), Marvel: Spider-Man Drowned in Thunder by Christopher L. Bennett from Graphicaudio in 5.1 surround sound! (how do you sample that?), The Watchmen motion comic (link), “can’t you do 5.1 in dvd?” Luke wonders, Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson, |READ OUR/SETH’S REVIEW|, conservative women, “magic indistinguishable from science”, Luke’s cut of The Way Of Kings, the ‘Jesse’ unit, paper books, Six Pack o’ Strange Tales by Michael Faun, Caddyshack, The Goliath Stone by Larry Niven and Matthew Joseph Harrington, The One-Eyed Man by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. is science fiction, cover controversy, Paul’s Sfsignal interview with L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (has cover), The Lost Prince by Edward Lazellari, Canada is one-way, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher, “Reimagined in glorious iambic pentameter”, Star Wars Uncut video collaboration, some text from the Shakespeare Star Wars, Shakespeare is written in blank verse, duh, Joss Whedon can do the movie, Golden Age full cast audio drama (link), infecting dreams, Lumosity brain games and training, The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane by Robert E. Howard includes The Hills Of The Dead, is Solomon like Dresden?, Out Of Time’s Abyss by Edgar Rice Burroughs read by David Stifel, The War Of The Worlds: Global Dispatches edited by Kevin J. Anderson, it’s purely an English invasion, Ender’s Game Alive: The Full-Cast Audioplay by Orson Scott Card (out 10/22/2013), Stefan Rudnicki talked about it on Functional Nerds, Republic Of Thieves by Scott Lynch isn’t out yet (out 10/22/2013), talking like Bane from The Dark Knight Rises, The Circle by Dave Eggers, tech thrillers, is Gravity science fiction?,The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin, 2012, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s critical tweets about Gravity, she cried in space wrong, Kaleidoscope by Ray Bradbury, Superheroes! Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of Comic Book Culture by Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser, Germany says no more, The Year’s Top Short SF Novels 3 Edited by Allan Kaster from Infinivox, Bleeding Edge By Thomas Pynchon is a tech thriller maybe, Star Trek Aurora is sexualized (sounds like Joe Haldeman’s Star Trek books), don’t get mad Paramount, Luke has to eat, Paul Weimer tweets photos.
[Applicants for the two giveaway copies of THE SAVAGE TALES OF SOLOMON KANE should leave a comment with a verifiable factoid about Robert E. Howard (as well as an email address) – the two most interesting factoids, as selected by Jesse, will receive their prizes by mail.]
Posted by Tamahome
Filed under: New Releases, Podcasts, Recent Arrivals
The SFFaudio Podcast #229 – Jesse, Jenny, Tamahome, and Paul Weimer talk about NEW RELEASES and RECENT ARRIVALS.
Talked about on today’s show:
Tam is back, Haruki Murakami, Kafka On The Shore, magic realism, Japan, kafkaesque, surrealism, 1Q84, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, pretty books, Chip Kidd, rice paper, Requiem by Ken Scholes, Julie Davis, Tor, magic staff, earth in the future, The Steel Remains, “oh crap this is the future”, Gene Wolfe, Happy Hour In Hell by Tad Williams, Bobby Dollar, The Dirty Streets Of Heaven, urban fantasy, demoness tangling, Lankhmar, urban fantasy => a certain kind of fantasy, noir/detective => hardboiled, Otherland, Luke Burrage, cats, “the Walter Jon Williams effect”, MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood, mostly dystopian, Oryx and Crake, quasi-humans, The Year Of The Flood, genetic engineering, racoon-pigs, storytelling mode, listening at 2X speed, competitive debate, Margaret Atwood’s preview of a review of Doctor Sleep by Stephen King, a sequel to The Shining, Atwood’s weakness for horror and terror, “because he’s Stephen King”, Will Patton, “don’t judge me people”, is there a stigma in literary circles?, Zoomer magazine’s profile of Margaret Atwood as “Queen Of The Nerds”, Twitter, tweetalong?, a genuine literary reputation, poetry, Orson Scott Card, does it matter?, dystopia, Dreamscape Audiobooks, The Night Lands by William Hope Hodgson, The House On The Borderlands, a very daunting book, big and ambitious, Lovecraftian?, The Scarlet Plague by Jack London, Earth Abides, class, mainstream post-apocalypse, Alas Babylon by Pat Frank, a toothless grandfather, Drew Ariana, Goslings by J.D. Beresford, plague talk!, The Children Of Men, Y: The Last Man, the newspapers, HiLoBooks, “Radium Age” Science Fiction, Gweek, The Road To Science Fiction, classicism, sexism, barbarism, The Iron Heel, numeracy and literacy, the size of the universe or the age of the Earth, Simon & Schuster Audio, Rivers by Michael Farris Smith, Jenny loves destroying the earth, wiping the slate clean, Fallout, Tobias Buckell, Interrupt by Jeff Carlson, Hunter Davis, Brilliance Audio, simultaneously published with print, Neanderthals, the pronunciations, Robert J. Sawyer, Discover Magazine, literally means not literally anymore, it’s figuratively raining cats and dogs, The Darwin Elevator by Jason M. Hough, Julie Davis, Simon Vance, science fiction thrillers, John Scalzi, plague, space elevator, working for the enemy?, a compressed schedule, writing 2X, a first novel!, military SF, “we’ve complinished everything”, Reflex by Steven Gould, Jumper, the physical audiobook industry (is it mostly for libraries), Paperback Audio, William Dufris, The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, innate teleportation, the Jumper movie, Portal, post-humans, Nightcrawler without the bad smell, BAMFless, The Clockwork Man by E.V. Odle, Ralph Lister, no introductions makes Jesse sad, are there audio previews?, Affliction: An Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter Novel (#22) by Laurell K. Hamilton, The Lord of Opium (Matteo Alacran #2) by Nancy Farmer, The Midnight Heir (Bane Chronicles #4) by Cassandra Clare and Sara Rees Brennan, building on The Hunger Games, Untouchable (Immortals After Dark #8) by Kresley Cole, Robert Petkoff, The Hunt or Capture, the reality TV version of The Hunger Games in The Hunger Games would be very boring, The Truman Show would be a very boring show to actually watch, in fiction the TV shows are without narrative, TVtropes show with an show, Hamlet, William Shakespeare did meta 500 years ago, epic traditional fantasy, traditional epic fantasy marriage, Crown Thief (Tales Of Easie Damasco #2) by David Tallerman, Giant Thief, sword and sorcery, golem or gollum?, Witch Wraith: The Dark Legacy of Shannara by Terry Brooks, Rosalyn Landor, , “Tolkien with the serial numbers filed off”, “its all about the elfstones”, The Lord Of The Rings, questing, trilogy vs. endless series, the Wikipedia entry for Shannara, a magical cataclysm, “a richer broader universe”, Revolution, S.M. Stirling, Robert Jordan, the Dragonlance series, Daniel Abraham, subverting the quest trope, The Eye Of The World, George R.R. Martin, gathering forces and subverting expectations, children’s fantasy, Roald Dahl, Matilda is read by Kate Winslet!, the musical of Matilda, The Twits, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Charlie And The Great Glass Elevator Futurama, Fry and the Slurm factory, Gene Wilder, great character names!, Dickensian names, The BFG, biography, crime, thriller, JFK’s Last Hundred Days: The Transformation Of A Man And The Emergence Of A Great President, Death Angel (Alexandra Cooper #15) by Linda Fairstein, The Kill List by Frederick Forsyth, George Guidall, “now it’s personal”, Penguin Audio, adding heat urgency of character development, adding a baby, Breaking Bad babies, the invisible baby or worse the artificially aging child syndrome, Mork & Mindy, Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson, 30,000 years ago, prehistorical romance, hard edged scientific, Clan Of The Cavebear, Monsters Of The Earth by David Drake, Seanan McGuire, Soldier by Harlan Ellison, The Terminator, The Outer Limits, James Cameron, Philip Wylie, Tomorrow!, John Wyndham, When Worlds Collide, The Answer, nuclear war with angels, The End Of The Dream, The Murderer Invisible.
Posted by Jesse Willis
Here’s a paperbook that arrived at the old PO BOX address just after it closed (they nicely set it aside for me). The press release says it came out in December 2011. I think I heard good things about it. Maybe that was on a podcast, maybe over on SFSignal or from Tamahome (who is always talking about books from the 21st century). The Amazon and Goodread reviews are mixed (with not many seeming to be in the middle).
Based on those it sounds like it has infodumps, politics, and didacticism. That all sounds good to me!
Now where’s the audiobook? The only John C. Wright audiobook I’ve seen is Infinivox’s Guest Law |READ OUR REVIEW|.
Here’s the accompanying press release:
Posted by Jesse Willis
Just posted over at Tor is a new novelette by Brandon Sanderson. Brandon is famous for his fantasy novels, but this is a science fiction tale “of war and sibling rivalry”. Click here to see the story. On the left of that page is a “Listen” link for a live reading by Brandon and his wife.
Posted by Scott D. Danielson