Skip to main content

Galllowglass (SF) - S. J. Morden ****

All fiction has to take liberties with the realities of space travel, but some handle it better than others, and S. J. Morden has gone further than anyone else I can remember in pinning down the detail to make this space-based thriller feel particularly gritty and realistic. The storyline has two key themes: the runaway and asteroid mining. The central character Jaap (Jack) Van der Veerden is an ultra-privileged young man who is determined to escape the clutches of his controlling parents, who through pretty much limitless expenditure intend to live forever, meaning he can apparently never escape their clutches and financial control.

He gets away with the SF equivalent of running away to join the circus - running away to space. Luckily, although he has no practical experience, he does have the theoretical knowledge to be an astrogator and gets a position on a dodgy expedition to retrieve a mineral-rich asteroid. I find it impossible to believe that Morden wasn't inspired by the Robert Heinlein's juvenile classic Starman Jones, where the central character, Max Jones, runs away  to space to escape his difficult family and, despite not being qualified, ends up as an astrogator who saves the day. Here, despite only having the theory, Jack is also the one to mean the difference between life and death.

Morden manages an excellent balance between the nitty-gritty detail of staying alive in the harsh conditions of space, while trying to get a partly rubble asteroid moving, with enjoyable tension and action. Usually, there's a danger that a book that goes into some of the technical detail of space travel will lack narrative drive, but this remains a real page turner. And there's a huge third act twist that makes Jack's life even more complicated and brings in a massive problem that may be insuperable.

All this is very well done, and deserves five stars, but there was a third element that was grafted on, which hadn't got the opportunity to work with the plot and just feels very artificially placed. The storyline is set against an Earth in 2069 facing the drastic impact of uncontrolled climate change. That in itself is not a problem, although it plays hardly any role in the plot, other than a reason for some irrational behaviour by one character. But every chapter begins with a lengthy climate change quote, initially from deniers then giving the scientific viewpoint. It feels as if the author cares about climate change and shoehorned it into a story that had very little to do with it. I care about climate change too - but I wouldn't bring it into a piece I was writing about quantum physics, say.

In the end, this is a minor irritation, but one that is sustained throughout the book by the chapter openers. However, that didn't stop me really enjoying the actual storyline and the expertise with which Morden handles it - noticeably better than his already promising previous novel One Way. I'll certainly be back for more of his writing.

Paperback:

Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under