Fly me to the Moon.


Between July 16, 1969 and December 7, 1972, NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) managed to land six missions on the Moon.  Apollo 13 was, of course, famously aborted when an on-board explosion crippled the vehicle and the astronauts relied on the lunar module as a lifeboat for their return.  With the successful completion of the Apollo 17 mission, manned exploration of the Moon came to an end, but 41 years later authors are still chronicling the missions, speculating about the future of man’s conquest of the moon and writing alternate history based on speculation about lunar missions.

I was born just shortly before the last Apollo mission, so missed the excitement involved with lunar exploration.  As a child I witnessed the Space Shuttle program from inception to eventual retirement and have always held the exploration of space in great regard.  Lately, lunar missions (either real or speculative) have been on my mind, so today’s post is dedicated to three books regarding the Moon, one historical and two speculative.

Rocket Men-Craig NelsonRocketMen

Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Viking Press

Publication Date: June 30, 2009

First on the list is Rocket Men by Craig Nelson, a biography of the United States space program, culminating in a description of Apollo 11, the first manned mission to the moon.  From the closing days of the Second World War, Nelson traces the history of manned space flight to NASA’s defining achievement of a man on the Moon.  It’s a fascinating look at the race between the United States and the Soviet Union, one in which the Soviet Union took an early lead and the United States focused their efforts to catch and surpass their cold war foes, eventually culminating in the Apollo program.  I’m only about half way through but find myself captivated by his account of the formation of NASA and their counterparts in the Soviet Union.  I feel confident in recommending Nelson’s biography of the program (after all, I already know how it ends) for anyone who has an interest  in the subject.  Looking around on the internet, Nelson has been criticized for a few technical errors in his account, but, like most of the populace, I’m not a rocket scientist and a few quibbles do not detract from a wonderful account of the early days of space-flight.

Back to the Moon-Travis S. Taylor and Les Johnson


Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Baen Books

Publication Date: December 27, 2011

Back to the Moon is a nice piece of speculative fiction by Les Johnson and Travis Taylor, who also wrote a neat novel (with John Ringo) about the invasion of Earth by a multitude of Von Neumann machines in the 2008 novel, Von Neumann’s War. Back to the Moon tells the a story of the near future in which the United States has finally refocused the mission of NASA on returning to the Moon.  Using a modified vision of the Constellation Program, the United States has once again embarked on a manned moon mission, but they have competition from the private sector in the form of a Virgin Galactic inspired space-plane/lunar orbiter by the name of Dreamscape.  Gary Childers, president of Space Excursions, is an entrepreneur in the mould of Richard Branson and also interested in bringing the experience of space flight and lunar excursions to the common man (well, those who can afford the fee).  Space Excursions is also interested in beating NASA to the Moon, although they aren’t prepared for a landing.  Meanwhile, China has become the successor of the defunct Soviet Union and is also striving to beat the Americans back to the Moon.

When Childer’s Dreamscape vehicle manages to orbit the Moon in advance of NASA’s efforts, the pilot and civilian crew are astonished to receive a distress signal from a crew of Chinese Taikonauts.  They’ve beaten the Americans to the Moon using stolen technology (ironically, from both NASA and Space Excursions) but flubbed the landing.  Once discovered, it becomes a race against time for NASA to launch a recovery mission before the Chinese succumb to their circumstances.

Now I suppose naysayers could nitpick this novel by calling it a “rah-rah” America first bit of fluff, but I found it a fun, pulpy read.  Taylor knows his stuff, after all, he is an actual rocket scientist, and while I would never describe his work as “literary” in the classical sense, he tells a compelling story in an accessible manner.

Adrift on the Sea of Rains-Ian Sales


Source: Bought copy (Kindle)

Publisher: Whippleshield Books

Publication Date: April, 2012

Adrift on the Sea of Rains, is the first in a quartet of proposed novels by U.K. novelist Ian Sales and can be characterized as both speculative fiction and alternate history.  It concerns a group of astronauts who become stranded on a lunar base after a nuclear exchange by the Soviet Union and United States.  Their only hope for rescue is a salvaged Nazi Wunderwaffe, a “torsion-field” generator that can allow them passage through alternate universes, in hope of finding one where the Earth has not been destroyed.  Complicating their situation is the problem of how to get home in the event they find an Earth to return to.

Now in all honesty, I haven’t read this book yet.  It’s on my intent to read list, but having perused the first chapter, I have little doubt that it’s going to be a compelling, although possibly dismal, novel.  Ian Sales appears to have taken a more literary road with regard to his writing style and it shows. His characters are maudlin (granted, you would be too if you’d witnessed the destruction of the Earth and faced a slow death on a desolate rock) and somewhat nihilistic. He’s also managed to win the 2012 BSFA (British Science Fiction Award) for short fiction.

I realize I’m not doing justice to his novella in this brief description, but want to inform you of a talent that has recently come upon my alternate history radar.  I hope to give you a more detailed report once able to spend some time with what appears to be an emerging talent.


Von Neumann’s War

Von Neumann’s War :Travis S. Taylor (Baen Books, 2008; 522 pp.)

Man has always seemed to have a fascination with our closest neighbour.  Little green Men from Mars have been a staple of Science Fiction (both literary and film) since, well, forever.  My (and I suspect everyone’s) first experience with this phenomenon was H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898).  Amazing guy…already plotting the destruction of life as we know it at the hands of our Martian neighbours, 71 years before Man landed on the moon.

Since then, the idea of invasion from above has been a staple of written fiction and film.  War of the Worlds was updated to modern times by Douglas Niles (War of the Worlds: New Millenium) and rewritten as an account from the eyes of H.G. Wells by Gabriel Mesta (The Martian War).  In film, there was the classic War of the Worlds and the less than classic remakeMars Attacks spoofed the idea and Harry Turtledove spun the idea on its head with man intruding on Mars (A World of Difference)…although he sets it in an alternate Universe and substitutes the fictional planet of Minerva for Mars.

Now Travis S. Taylor and John Ringo have spun a worthy tale about invasion by our Celestial neighbours in Von Neumann’s War.

A little background…in the near future, astronomers discover that the surface Albedo (how strongly an object reflects light from  a light source such as the sun) of Mars is shifting from the familiar Red spectrum to something much more gray.  Several probes on the planet, such as NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers, have gone disconcertingly silent, raising alarms within both the defense and scientific community around the World.  NASA is tasked with developing a new probe for a fly by in a ridiculously short period of time, but using off the shelf parts and a fair bit of ingenuity, they manage to get a mission underway…only to have it destroyed within seconds of reaching the outer atmosphere of Mars.  Alarmed, both the Military and Scientific communities team up in efforts to prepare for what appears to be imminent (relatively speaking) invasion.  Within months the same effect is observed on the Moon, and with a little help from the Hubble Telescope, the nature of the threat is determined.

Von Neumann machines have come…and they are not friendly.

These self replicating machines have been stripping the Solar System of any metal both to repair and replicate themselves, and it seems that Earth’s turn has come.  Helicopters, jeeps, tanks, jet aircraft; none have any usefulness in combatting such a foe.   So, what to do when you’re facing a nemesis  light years (literally) beyond your technology who eats pretty much any weapon system you might throw at it? 

Well, the answer is…you get innovative pretty damn quick!

That’s much of the fun of this novel…reading the inventive ways in which the protagonists combat an enemy which is essentially invulnerable to any weapon system mankind has created within the last century.  The protagonists become creative with their weaponry…paint ball guns firing plastic explosives…ceramic bullets, aircraft, and engines…advanced laser technology…and frankly, once in awhile…a good old stick. 

So, is it a good book?  Definitely.  Yet there are a few flaws.  The characters have a tendency to come up with the technology needed to combat the machines  in an inordinately short period of time.  Furthermore, the climax of the novel revolves around a “God in the Machine” moment, in which one character (whose back story is nicely ramped up during the course of the novel) finds that “fatal flaw” that delivers the “Hail Mary” moment that kind of irked me.  It’s not even the solution that irks…but rather the swiftness with which the problem is solved.  And finally, it could use a damn good glossary of terms.  DARPA anyone?

However, if you are a Sci-Fi junky looking for your next fix of planetary devastation…then this is the book for you.

(Note:  Travis Taylor has put a lot of thought into the idea of Alien invasion and defense from such.  For further (serious) reading on the subject, try An introduction to Planetary Defense: A Study of Modern Warfare Applied to Extra-Terrestrial Invasion)