Reviewer Steve Moore: Steve is a full-time writer and ex-scientist. Besides his many technical publications, he has written six sci-fi thrillers (one a novel for young adults), many short stories, and frequent comments on writing and the digital revolution in publishing. His interests also include physics, mathematics, genetics, robotics, forensics, and scientific ethics. Follow Here for his WEBSITE.
Author: Joanne Elder
Author: Joanne Elder
In the old days of sci-fi, many of the subgenres were ill defined. The two basic genres, science fiction and fantasy, could often be found in the old magazines, but cyberpunk, militaristic sci-fi, and so forth were either not invented yet or were being created. Sci-fi was often divided into hard sci-fi and space opera. The first referred to novels like Hoyle’s The Black Cloud—in other words, novels that didn’t stray too far from known science and technology. The second, like Doc Smith’s Lensman series, stretched the scientific extrapolations to their limit. As a boy, I didn’t pay much attention to the difference—all these books stretched my imagination.
Here we have a new entry into what is the next step in evolution beyond hard sci-fi and space opera. It is both a new sci-fi subgenre and a combination of two genres, sci-fi and thrillers. Asimov’s The Naked Sun can be called a sci-fi mystery, for example, so why not sci-fi suspense and sci-fi thrillers? The latter simply means that the author gathers up all the elements that are employed by thriller authors (Lee Child, Barry Eisler, David Baldacci, and so forth—take your pick) and puts them in a futuristic setting. My own novels are sci-fi thrillers—The Midas Bomb is more thriller than sci-fi and Sing a Samba Galactica is more sci-fi than thriller—but that’s the genre that classifies my work. While I often include dystopian elements too, Ms. Elder doesn’t, unless you classify her portrayal of the Draco prison as dystopian (see below).
Spectra is both sci-fi and thriller then, and what a thrill ride it is! Her protagonists jump over one physical or psychological hurdle after another following the best thriller tradition. Moreover, there is enough sci-fi, both hard sci-fi and space-operatic arias, to make the avid sci-fi reader smile. Let’s examine the thriller elements of the story first.
Dean pilots exploratory starships. He and five others visit a planet called Cryton that reportedly has rare mineral deposits. There they meet and intermingle with intelligent entities formed of pure energy that propagate a sense of well being. On their return, they make a pact to keep the existence of the entities a secret since the interaction with human beings is damaging to them. However, Ivan, the villain in the story, and Dean’s co-pilot, Kevin, liked the taste of super powers they acquired from the interaction, so they begin to eliminate the rest of the crew while they exploit the energy entities.
Ivan has become leader of a new accelerator complex. After Roger and Annie, two of the Cryton crew, are eliminated, a new hire, a particle physicist named Laura, overhears Ivan plotting with Kevin on how to eliminate Dean’s wife Karen, another crewmember. Ivan and company frame Laura for industrial espionage at the super secret accelerator facility. They also frame Dean for Karen’s murder. Dean and Laura end up in the prison colony on Draco with life sentences. What follows is expected, perhaps, but the details are full of exciting action and suspense as Dean and Laura finally redeem themselves and Ivan receives his just punishment (there’s a twist there that’s fun).
So much for the thriller action. For the sci-fi, I was also impressed. The accelerator scenes reminded me of Hogan’s The Genesis Machine—plausible extrapolations of current science. The exploratory mining operation after the crew reaches Cryton was also interesting. Annie’s demise was gruesomely portrayed and left me with a heavy heart—I rather liked her, even more than Laura. While the ecosystem on Draco seemed a bit simple, I loved the creatures’ descriptions. The hard life in the prison colony reminded me of the beginning of Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Note that Hogan’s book is hard sci-fi while Heinlein’s is more thriller. Ms. Elder succeeds in combining the two genres in excellent fashion.
A subtheme I liked is an old interest of mine, scientific ethics. Some of us will remember the old B movies in Saturday matinees where aliens capture human beings and do all sorts of nasty things to see what makes us tick. There are some people (unfortunately, they can vote) who even believe they were abducted by aliens who performed experiments on the abductees (this was the main story arc of the now defunct TV show The X-files). Here the author turns this upside down and has human beings experimenting on the aliens. Ivan seems like a recombinant reincarnation of Josef Mengele and Slobodan Milosevic. That he uses an accelerator as a tool for his enterprise is smart and original writing.
I have two nits that I hate to pick, but here they are. The first is that I was often confused about where I was. Lyra, where the accelerator can be found, is a real constellation. Draco, where Dean and Laura were in prison and where Uncle John lives, is another real constellation. Each of these constellations has many component stars but they are generally only close in right ascension and declination, not in terms of real distance. For example, Vega, the brightest star in Lyra, is only 25 light years away from Earth, while beta Lyra is 881 light years. However, astronomers have found that there are stars in the constellation Lyra that have known planets orbiting them. Pick one to unknit this nit. Or, simply assume that what Ms. Elder really means is that some star associated with each constellation, as seen from Earth, has a planet that takes the name of the constellation. Whatever gets you through the night.
The other nit I have to pick is more one of taste, I suppose. Author Elder spends a great deal of time both in the preface and in the text discussing the theory of the entities and how they might relate to the human aura. She even gives a list of references. To me, this implies an agenda. There’s nothing wrong with this, but (1) if either theory or experimental data is controversial, the agenda detracts from the fictional voyage; and (2) the agenda also removes some of the book’s aura of mystery, where the reader might stop and ask himself, “Gee, does this possibly have validity?” Only two of the references at the end clamor to me to be read, namely the UCLA project report (which obviously has no independent and external referees—project reports at best have internal referees), and the New Journal of Physics article (refereed, but the journal is more speculative than your average physics journal). I don’t mean to imply that the science here is incorrect. I can’t and won’t make that judgment call. I just wonder, why the detail? Hard sci-fi based on extrapolation and conjecture is OK, but I would bypass details corresponding to an overt agenda for the reasons I’ve already mentioned.
As I said, these nits
represent minutia and barely detract from an action-filled sci-fi
thriller. Once I read beyond the first pages of this novel, I was
thoroughly engrossed and tempted to read far into the night. This is
excellent sci-fi—your old space opera taken to the next
evolutionary level. I recommend that you download it now for your
spring and summer reading. I’m anxiously waiting for the sequel.
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