Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Star Wars: Darth Plagueis by James Luceno

I got back into playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, and felt the urge to read another Star Wars novel. With the current storyline stalled after the conclusion of the Fate of the Jedi storyline, I turned to this book to satisfy my craving for genre fiction.

Genre fiction (that is, fiction set within a specific shared universe, or genre of a broader class of fiction) is a lot like watching your favorite TV show: it may not break new ground or give greater perspective on the human condition, but it is fun and often not too challenging.

Star Wars: Darth PLagueis is a sort of "prequel" to the Movie Prequels, detailing the activities of Darth Sidious' master. I won't dwell too much on the plot of this book, however.

In terms of writing, I think Luceno is one of the better writers in the Star Wars stable. I had read Labrynth of Evil (a previous Star Wars book) and enjoyed it. But surprisingly, Luceno is one half of Jack McKinnley, pseudonym for the writer of the Robotech series of novels. I had begun reading them in the 6th grade, and sometimes wish I still had them. Although a novelisation of Robotech, in many ways they seemed a bit more adult and sophisticated to my 12 year old mind. I suspect re-reading those books would be a lot like re-reading the Dragonlance Chronicles series: the magic was left behind more than 2 decades ago. Luckily Luceno's writing has evolved.

The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke is one of the old, great luminaries of Science Fiction. As has been eulogized about Ray Bradbury recently, Clarke along with Bradbury, Asimov and Heinlein elevated Science Fiction from the irrelevance of pulp to a serious literary genre. While SF has never really left its pulp origins (witness all of the genre and media tie-in fiction, like Star Wars novels, or Wahrammer 40K), the elevation of works from Clarke as well as his colleagues has uplifted all elements of the genre, in my opinion.

I picked up this book when I started to become interested in the idea of space elevators. Clarke gives a nice summary of the idea (up to 1978, of course), but the recent announcement by a Japanese firm with the intent of building a space elevator (as unrealistically optimistic as that might be from my perspective) made me want to read this book.

Like many of Clarke's books, the excitement and "action" of the prose does not involve conflict or battle, but rather the challenge of scientific and engineering problems. As such, someone looking more for a space opera/action novel might be put off by this, but nonetheless someone with an interest in a bit of hard science, and it's approach in SF will probably enjoy this book.

One interesting element -- and one that didn't seem to really belong in this book -- is an exploration of the idea of (realistic) first contact, in the form of a long-duration space probe. Of course Clarke visited this subject in much greater detail with Rendezvous with Rama, it again appeared here (though with an eventual pay-off in that we meet the actual the epilogue). It didn't seem to fit because it didn't really go anywhere in terms of the space elevator. Other than to suggest the irrelevancy of religion...

The technical description of the elevator is well done, with some illumination on subjects like orbital mechanics, and the like. The "fiction" here is the substance Clarke invented to make his elevator work -- a form of crystal aligned diamond cable. This would seem to be the only real fictional construct of the book (the rest is projections on current technology, including cheaper -- but still costly -- surface-to-orbit spaceflight, and Martian colonization), though like any good SF the advance of science may have made a material that promises the structural integrity needed for a space elevator...

I found the book to be pretty decent, but not one of Clarke's best. Not quite the page-turner that Rendezvous with Rama or 2001 were, or even Songs of a Distant Earth. Still, after the first half of the book, it picked up quite a bit more and became more of a page-turner.