April 20, 2018

Review: The Genius Plague by David Walton

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Could we be too smart for our own good? We recent finished a real page-turner, a near future science fiction thriller in an all too plausible future reality. The Genius Plague by David Walton out late last year from Pyr Books is a tale of a fungal spore out of the Amazon jungle, taking over humanity. Tales of strange mental feats and a rare and indecipherable tribal language emerges from South America and catches the attention of NSA cryptolinguist Neil Johns. The spore not only boosts the intelligence of its hosts, but encourages them to take the necessary steps to ensure its own survival and propagation… even at the expense of the human hosts themselves. The CIA and U.S. military are dispatched to deal with the threat, and promptly become infected, as hosts for the fungal spores disseminate it with crop dusting aircraft.

Sound far-fetched? Well, there’s good evidence to suggest that lots of our own behaviors are largely motivated by our own bacterial gut flora. A zombie-like brain parasite will cause ants to climb to the top of a tall blade of grass and wait for the fungus to split its carcass open, spreading more spores. toxoplasma gondii in the gut of your average feline is another great example, as it will cause mice to become attracted to the smell of cat urine, causing the cat which generated said urine to consume the hapless mouse, and well, the cycle of life continues. Rabies is another grizzly example of a virus that hijacks the mind of its host for its own nefarious ends, all to ensure its survival own. And heck, addiction itself in humans is a sort of symbiosis: have a pleasant narcotic effect on the human brain, and those brains will find ways to propagate you and assure that you will survive and thrive. Perhaps, just such an infection is out there in the jungle, awaiting human contact. Neil’s brother Paul, a mycologist (one who studies fungus) barely survives an infection on an exploratory stint in the rain forest, and later becomes a champion for the fungus itself. The idea is enticing even to Neil, as their father suffers from Alzheimer’s, and the spore seems to, at first, bring back the man they thought they had lost themselves. But as the fungus begins to win over converts, a larger threat looms, as the solution may be to enslave what’s left of humanity itself in order to preserve it. We’ll stop short of any further spoilers there, but we will say that the book climaxes with a great showdown at the home of the United States nuclear weapons stockpile at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, one with a horrific vision for the possible future of mankind. There’s a great story on the science of evolution in The Genius Plague as well, one that makes it all the more terrifying: the fungus itself isn’t intelligent; its just learned a great new strategy from the standpoint of its own survival, to make sure humans want to keep you around. Neil later realizes that the only way to defeat the fungus may be to convince it (in the minds of the infected) that it’s own survival depends on hiding rather than thriving, another common evolutionary tactic.

Be sure to read The Genius Plague for the vision of an all too real apocalyptic thriller.

Review: Beyond Earth by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix

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What’s next in space exploration? We are literally at a crossroads now at the end of the second decade of the the 21st century, a time of crisis and opportunity. Sure, technology has come a long way, as we all carry exponentially more computing power in our pockets than was used to take humans to the Moon.

We also seem, however, to be stalled in low Earth orbit, as the moving goal post of humans on Mars always seems 20 years away…

We read an interesting road map that just might show us the way to get space exploration rolling again. Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix out from Pantheon Press is an exciting look at what could be. Both authors draw off of their respective and extensive backgrounds in space exploration technology and the very latest developments and innovations in space flight.

And this sort of optimism is coming none to soon. Already, the gap between the end of the U.S. Space Shuttle program and the promise of SLS—another moving goal post—is longer than the transitional span between the final Apollo era mission (The Apollo-Soyuz test project) and the launch of space shuttle Columbia on STS-1. The James Webb Space Telescope is facing yet another delay, and one by one, our eyes in the outer solar system are going dark, as Cassini, Juno and New Horizons all wrap up their respective missions. And while it’s true that NASA is set to receive another budget boost in 2018, we’re stuck in a flip-flop loop from going to Mars, then the Moon, then back again with every change of administration.

Beyond Earth looks at the overall big picture, and what new players like SpaceX and their Mars or Bust vision might mean. I particularly like how the book flips from one chapter to the next between a future science fiction narrative versus modern science reality—there’s enough idea to provide sci-fi fodder here for any budding writer.

The core tenet, however driving Beyond Earth is not Mars, but a much more distant goal: the case for colonizing Saturn’s large moon, Titan. The authors correctly point out that the large moon has an atmosphere thick enough that bulky pressure suits aren’t needed… and dense enough that a wing suit equipped human could fly. There’s lots of methane and ethane fuel just lying around on the surface, and lots of available carbon for us carbon-based lifeforms. The chief problems presented by Titan are its chilly temperatures and immense distance from the Sun. Big problems for sure, but not insurmountable.

We still maintain that we need to start practicing with a self sustaining colony in Antarctica… a harsh but still much human-friendlier location than anywhere in the solar system.

The book also delves into real ideas for exotic virtual particle drives, ships that begin with a thrust gentler than a puff of air but eventually build up to enormous velocities. And while such a system might still be very much on the drawing board. Spacecraft such as NASA’s Dawn mission at Ceres used a similar Xenon-fueled ion drive to build up a small but dependable thrust.

be sure to read Beyond Earth to get a look at where 21st century space exploration may (hopefully) be headed.

Dating Artemis: An Astronomical Sci-Fi Mystery Solved?

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I love it when a hard science fiction book presents an astronomical mystery.

I came across just such a mystery reading Artemis, the latest science fiction novel out late last year from Andy Weir.

Artemis presents the story of Jasmine Bashara, a young girl trying to make her way in the first settlement on the Moon. Artemis is a thriving town, built around Earth tourism at the Apollo 11 Sea of Tranquility landing site.

We won’t introduce any spoilers here; suffice to say, if you like some hard science blended into your fiction, you’ll love Artemis. Like The Martian, Artemis also seems to be near-future science fiction, both culturally and technologically. We say “near” as in something that’s plausible over the next half-century or so. Also like The Martian, Artemis doesn’t peg the exact date when the events transpire… or does it? As an amateur astronomer and avid sky watcher, I noticed a few clues that just might pin down the exact future date of the tale.

Dating the Martian

Weir puts lots of research into his novels. With The Martian, he states that if you can work out the Hohmann transfer windows between the Earth and Mars needed for the Ares III mission to rescue and return Mark Watney back to Earth, then you could pin down the date in the 2030s when the events in The Martian transpired.

Is there a similar puzzle in Artemis? Well, I think there could be, based on you key celestial sights mentioned in the book.

Artemis runs on Kenya Time, as missions headed to the Moon depart from the equatorial country, taking advantage of its maximum rotational boost eastward and its favorable laws encouraging space companies to set up shop there. Kenya Time is Universal Time, +3 hours.

The most conspicuous objects in the sky as seen from the Apollo 11 landing site are the Sun and the Earth. “Daytime” on the Moon lasts about two weeks from sunrise to sunset… but the Moon is locked with one hemisphere turned perpetually Earthward, so the Earth would never set. Instead, Earth would go through phases like the Moon does as seen from the Earth, as it slowly circles a spot high in the sky due to the rocking nutation and libration motion of the Moon.

Earthrise as seen from Apollo 8 in orbit around the Moon. Credit: NASA

The phases you see from the surface of the Moon, however, are opposite to what you see on the Earth. This means when the Moon is Full from the Earth, Earth is at New as seen from the Moon. Likewise, waxing versus waning phases are reversed.

Artemis gets these phases right where it makes mention of them. On their own, however, one cycle of phases is pretty much like another… even making mention of something like an eclipse wouldn’t really pin the date down, as several lunar and solar eclipses happen, every year.

We get a possible lead, however, from the following passage when the protagonist checks her Earth-phase watch:

”Lene checked her wristwatch. ‘Ten thirteen a.m…and there’s currently a half-Earth, by the way. It’s waxing.’”

Now, that’s a little more specific… converting 10:13 AM Kenya Time to 7:13 Universal Time we just need to reverse the phase, and find when there’s a waning Last Quarter (half) Moon seen from the Earth around the same time.

Combing through the Astro-Pixels listing of Moon phases for the 21st century for Last Quarter Moons that will fall on 7:13 UT plus or minus one minute , I came up with the following possibilities:

August 30th, 2021 (it’s not likely that there’ll be a lunar outpost in just over three years!)

August 9th, 2099 (more likely).

Earth on August 9th, 2099 as seen from the surface of the Moon. Credit: Stellarium.

Of course, a few caveats are in order. Phases such as New, Full and Quarter are only instants in time. You could look up at the Moon (or the Earth, from the surface of the Moon) several hours one either side of Quarter phase and it would still appear pretty much half-illuminated. I own a Casio watch that shows the current phase of the Moon, for example… but it would be hard to pin down the exact moment of the Full or Last Quarter Moon with just the watch display alone.

Our very own “Moon phase watch…” photo by author.

Is the passage a true “tell” planted by the author? Maybe, maybe not. There are other methods the author could’ve used that are even more exact. Transits of Mercury and Venus across the face of the Sun, for example, are also visible from the surface of the Moon. On November 12th, 2190, for example, Mercury will transit the Sun, just hours from a solar eclipse… and if you’re visiting the Apollo landing site on November 13th, 2236, you can see Mercury transit the face of the Sun, during an eclipse:

Perhaps, future celestial phenomena will make their way into an Artemis sequel?

Read more original hard science-fueled tales by Dave Dickinson.

 

Book Review: The Castle in Cassiopeia by Mike Resnick

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There’s nothing like the swashbuckling action of jumping from one globular cluster to another. We recently came across just such a fast-moving tale, with The Castle in Cassiopeia by Mike Resnick, the latest in his Dead Enders saga out from Pyr Books. [Read more...]

Review: Blockbuster Science by David Siegel Bernstein

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So. The future is now. Is it what you expected? As a child of the 1970s, 2017 seemed like an imaginably far off date. Heck, 2000 seemed impossibly remote, a year straight out of science fiction. And while we’re not vacationing on Phobos and traveling via teleporter just yet, we are all carrying computers in our pocket, and everything is finally made of plastic. [Read more...]

Review: Raining Fire by Rajan Khanna

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There’s one small plus to the current worldwide wave of jingoistic nationalism currently sweeping the world: dystopian science fiction is sure to do really well. Science fiction tends to reflect the hopes and fears of contemporary society, and you can often chart the swing from a shiny white, Star Trek outlook, to a fighting over gasoline, Road Warriors doomsday vision by the fiction we create and consume.

One fine new addition to the dystopian genre is this past summer’s Raining Fire by Rajan Khanna. Out now from Pyr Books, Raining Fire features a horror vision world wracked by a global pandemic, which has reduced humanity to squabbling tribes. Airships and floating city tech provides a backdrop for a brutal drama of slavery and Feral humans driven insane and violent by disease, a sort of steampunk world thrust forward into a desperate future vision.

It’s against this formidable world that we meet Ben Gold, an airship pilot with nothing left to lose. Already stripped of his airship, his allies and his friends, Ben is definitely looking for payback. He also lost Miranda, the only true love of his life, and the story is speckled with diary and journal entries from her that gradually paints a picture of what has come before.

In the end, Ben must face off against the Cabal, a group of sinister scientists (why are scientists always sinister in scifi tales?) and the Valhallans, who are wreaking continent-wide havoc from the flying city of Valhalla.

A high functioning alcoholic, Ben is the archetypal reluctant hero, a man who’s drinking hasn’t quite caught up to him… yet. Raining Fire has lots of action, and is a great portrayal of a man pushed past the edge.

Be sure to read Raining Fire as a great addition to modern dystopian science fiction!

There’s lots more dystopian science fiction to be had… here are some of our faves:

-Earth Girl: This was a gem of a story a out few years back. Imagine getting exiled to the worst place of all: living back on ancient Earth.

-The Hunger Games: A classic… true story, the wife and I both read the books after we saw the first movie, a very rare occurrence. We usually feel that seeing the movie let’s us off the hook (think Lord of the Rings) from saying we’re going to get around to actually reading the books… someday.

-Stand on Zanzibar: A trip of a book, straight out of the groovy 1960s.

-1984: Everything you need to know about the 20th century, in one book.

-The Crossing: Blood of the Lamb: A scary world to contemplate.

And speaking of scary dystopian fiction, be sure to check out Hulu’s amazing adaptation of A Handmaid’s Tale… this one’s all the more frightening because it hits so close to home and the current political climate. I think I’d much rather live in a future with ravaging airships than a world with the brutal and callous repression of personal liberties depicted in the series.

Review: The Forgotten Genius of Oliver Heaviside

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Quick: who was the father of modern electrical theory? Talk about the early age of electricity and names such as Thomas Edison, James Maxwell and Nikola Tesla come to mind… all of these pioneers deserve their due, sure, but chances are, you have never heard of Oliver Heaviside.

The Forgotten Genius of Oliver Heaviside: A Maverick of Electrical Science by Basil Mahon seeks to change that, and presents the life story of the man who’s life work gave birth to modern electrical engineering. [Read more...]

Review: No Humans Allowed

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“Your droids,” says the unnamed bartender in a famous sci-fi flick, “they’ll have to wait outside.”

Perhaps, cyber-discrimination is a pressing social issue in a “galaxy, far, far away…” But what if those protagonists ever manage to turn in table on humanity? [Read more...]

Review: Being in the Shadow by Dr. Kate Russo

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Headed to the August 21st total solar eclipse? You could do well to listen to those who have stood in the shadow of the Moon before. Like many other umbraphiles (those who chase after eclipses), we’ll be headed northward to greet the Moon’s shadow two short lunations from now as it races across the contiguous United States from coast-to-coast for the first time in nearly a century.

This will be the first total solar eclipse for us, and the celestial spectacle is sure to mint a whole new generation of eclipse chasers… but what is totality really like? Dr. Kate Russo’s Being in the Shadow gives us a glimpse of how the November 13th, 2012 eclipse unfolded through the testimonies of several individuals who share their experiences leading up to, during and after the eclipse. These aren’t astronomers, scientists or even veteran eclipse chasers: rather, these are all eclipse neophytes who, for one reason or another, decided to witness the event. These testimonies offer a unique perspective on the eclipse. They also give you a sense of what so many other eclipse chasers reiterate: it’s hard to describe the eclipse experience, a “false dawn” at midday where reality turns on its head.

These stories also underscore two key facets of a total solar eclipse that are sure to come into play this August: 1. getting into the path of totality is a must for the true experience. We saw the 1994 annular solar eclipse from the shores of Lake Erie, and can attest that a 99% eclipsed Sun is still pretty darned bright. And 2. While all safety precautions need to be undertaken during the partial phases of a solar eclipse, you can indeed look at totality (the solar corona is about twice as bright as a Full Moon). Often, the public gets bombarded with “don’t look at the Sun” messages leading up to an eclipse, to the point that people hide inside and shutter their windows. But if you fail to see the ethereal glow of totality, you’re missing the key climax of a total solar eclipse.

Being in the Shadow is an essential read leading up to the Great American Eclipse. I’d also recommend Dr. Russo’s Total Addiction. And us? We’ll be waiting for the shadow of the Moon in Columbia, South Carolina on August 21st, a fine display of hubris owing the the possibility of clouds on a summer afternoon, we know… hey, we’ll have our trusty Fiat handy, ready to dash down (or up) the path as needed on eclipse day. And then just seven short years later April 8th, 2024, the United States gets another total solar eclipse crossing from the southwest to the northeast, right over my hometown of Presque Isle, Maine… where will you be?

- Also: Read our free e-book 101 Astronomical Events for 2017, for a tale of eclipses, Edison’s Chickens and more.

- Check out 12 Great Eclipses in History via www.listosaur.com

- Eclipse… science fiction? Check out our original tales: Exeligmos, The Syzygy Gambit and Peak Season.

Review: Wilders by Brenda Cooper

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What’s it like to live in a technological bubble?

We recently finished one of the best science fiction books we’ve read thus far this year, and wanted to share it with you in time to make your summer reading list. We’re talking about Wilders: Project Earth Book One by Brenda Cooper, out next week on June 13th from Pyr Books.

Fans of science fiction author Brenda Cooper and this space will recall our reviews of her previous books, The Diamond Deep, The Creative Fire, Spear of Light and Edge of Dark. [Read more...]

Review Starbase Human by Kristine Katheryn Rusch

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What would you do with a Clone Army? Long the dream of many a would be supervillain, just such a possibility is the central plot in this week’s science fiction review.

We’re talking about Starbase: Human, book seven in the Anniversary Day saga by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, out in May 2015 by WMG Publishing. Yes, it’s one of the final books in our review backlog, but we long ago vowed to finish off the entire Anniversary Day saga. [Read more...]

May 5th: Revenge of the Sith

A Sith Lord (?) at the eyepiece.

So, did you survive May the 4th? Yeah, much like Talk Like a Pirate Day, “May the 4th Be With You” is now on its way to crass commercialization. And while there are nerdier days out there to celebrate such as Pi Day (March 14th) or Towel Day (May 25th) commemorating Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, May 4th, has become a time for fans to expound on all things Star Wars. [Read more...]

Review: Quantum Fuzz

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Feeling lost in the world of quantum physics? It has been said that only a few human brains on the planet truly understand the bizarre world on the quantum scale. It is true that it involves a fair amount of “mathiness” to even grasp much more than the basic predictions of quantum physics. [Read more...]

Review: Nebula Awards Showcase 2017

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(release date: May 16th, 2017)

Note: the 2017 Nebula Awards ceremony is held this year on May 20th in Pittsburgh, PA.

What’s up in sci-fi? Every year, all of science fiction-dom holds their collective breath for that most prestigious of Awards: the Nebulas. Along with the Hugo Awards, the Nebulas (Nebulae?) feature the very best of the best for the genre. First awarded in 1965, a historical list of the Nebula Awards reads like a Who’s Who of science fiction, and includes such now iconic classics as Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970) and Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) as past winners. [Read more...]

Review: Spear of Light by Brenda Cooper

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Get set for a romp into a trans-humanist future of epic proportions. We’re talking about this week’s review of Spear of Light by Brenda Cooper, out now from Pyr Books. The sequel to Edge of Dark and the second book in her Glittering Edge duology. Spear of Light brings the battle between humans and the terror world of AIs to an ultimate climax. [Read more...]

Review: Starlight Nights by Leslie Peltier

An astronomy classic!

Did you know that there are oodles of books out on the web for free? And no, we’re not talking about Amazon Prime, but sites such as Project Gutenberg where stuff that’s long since been in the public domain is free to download as a pdf for off-line perusal on ye ole smart phone. [Read more...]

Review: Department Zero by Paul Crilley

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Ever wondered why this reality is as strange as it is? Certainly, the multi-verse idea is one very possible solution, especially in light of the worldwide political wackiness we’ve experienced in 2016.

And former Los Angeles detective Harry Priest (Atticus Pope, or at least, that’s who he thinks he was before the world went strange on him) is about to join the ranks of those who attempt to keep order across multiple dimensions. [Read more...]

Review: Edge of Dark by Brenda Cooper

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Note: This week, we’re hearkening back to ‘Classic Astroguyz’ with a book review. We largely stopped doing reviews since we started traveling long term over this past year, as it’s tough to receive hard cover advance copies… but hey, we can still read pdf versions, and will still conduct reviews of electronic copies. [Read more...]