Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Book Review: Live Free or Die, by John Ringo

This is a good old fashioned hard science fiction novel. Hard SF is difficult to do well. I've read lots of hard SF that was bad. It generally contains stuff like this:

"Hey professor, are we ready to head off to Alpha Centauri?"
"We certainly are. As you know Bob, we've made remarkable breakthroughs in interstellar travel thanks to work done in the early 21st century by JPL and its dedicated team of scientists such as..."

Bad SF uses its characters as mouthpieces to provide infodumps. At the other end of the spectrum, soft SF and space operas are essentially fantasy stories that take place in the future or in outer space. They seldom go into great detail about how their superior technology actually works. The Star Wars movies are space opera; the films don't explain how lightsabers work or go into much detail about what "hyperspace" is and how it allows them to travel faster than light. Star Trek is soft SF; once in a while an episode will focus on some technical problems the crew is facing, always solved with technobabble.

Hard SF is speculative about science as we currently know it. It takes currently existing technology or what we know about physics in the 21st century and extrapolates it further, whether by decades or centuries. It's difficult to do well, and even if the author fails, he failed while attempting something great. Live Free or Die isn't great but it's a fun read.

Humanity's first contact with extraterrestrial life comes when the Glatun federation builds a "gate" inside our solar system that allows any other species in the galaxy to travel to earth via other gates. The Glatun only want peaceful trade. The Horvath, on the other hand, show up and declare that humanity works for them now. We are to turn over our precious metals or face annihilation. Enter Tyler Vernon a crusty old computer tech, who accidentally discovers a resource on earth for which the Glatun will pay handsomely. Vernon becomes the richest man on earth and uses his newfound wealth to begin constructing weapons that will enable humanity to shake off Horvath rule.

Even the aliens use technology that is reasonably extrapolated from what we currently have. The Glatun, for example, have implants in their brains that basically give them access to the extraterrestrial version of Google. Vernon's crowning achievement is a new space station the size of the Death Star. To acquire the necessary power to mine asteroids for precious metals, his company builds an array of solar powered lasers. Throughout the novel is a 1940s-50s style can-do attitude. The Horvath have seemingly invincible superiority, but we won't go down without a fight.

The dialogue and infodumps can be dry in places, but it succeeded in filling me with a sense of wonder and optimism about what humanity can achieve. As we're living through the self-inflicted fall of Western civilization, I need all the good escapism I can get.

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