Monday, August 13, 2012

Review of The Asteroid by M. R. Cates

"Night before last." she began, "I imaged this asteroid...."
My friend and co-worker of over thirty years, Mike Cates, recently published his first book, The Asteroid.  My review on Amazon is below plus some additional comments.

This riveting, fast paced book, like all good science fiction, explores what it is to be human, what lies in the future for us, and how we are to deal with the unknown that looms ahead. Many of us presume that technology will continue to progress and coupled with the knowledge that there is an immense cosmos out there, we long to engage it to answer the question "Are we alone?" This book delves into that mystery.

There was something about the book that called to my mind the 1960's television science fiction show "The Outer Limits". The twenty years prior to that included spectacular technology advances that changed how we viewed ourselves and oriented us to the future and the implications of technology. The advances included the development of the atomic bomb and atomic power, rocket science that placed people into orbit, and television to communicate and stimulate speculation about our future world and worlds that could be. I was a kid caught up in this excitement and The Outer Limits (OL) fed the thirst for such. While the book happily evoked some of those same feelings and memories of wonder, it lacked the gloom and foreboding of OL which quite often was critical of the human race and its antics. The pessimistic, dystopian visions of OL, 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451 have their place and might rightly be considered an important part of the Spiritual Formation of present society. The Asteroid, on the other hand, is positive and the reader has a sense of this. We are provided with the author's view of how humans can be good natured and act rationally when confronted with the unknown and can work cooperatively, unselfishly to everyone's benefit. Oh that we could solve our problems today without the guile, subterfuge, resentment and spite that is an attribute of our current politics. The guileless main character is guided by curiosity and wonder and is a role model in that regard. 

The setting is the present and as a previous reviewer, Bill Coghlan has said, the physics is consistent and believable. Too often today's movies are indulgent and undisciplined in this regard. Here, technology is essential to the plot but it is realistic and understated, if anything. A key role is played at one point by the creative use of an optical fiber. The author is probably one of the few scientists on the planet to have worked with fiber optics continuously since the 1970's. Nevertheless he gives only the necessary amount of technical detail. It fits in a vital way rather than intrudes on the narrative.

The author draws on his scientific and technical interests to construct the story. Some of the main characters were raised in Texas, as was he. He spent a year at a French national laboratory in the 1970's and one wonders in what ways that influenced his creation of a prominent role for a French graduate student and the love by everyone of the main characters for that greatest of blessings, sharing wine and food among friends. He chose a woman as his protagonist and this is one crucial way he deviates from his own experience. This requires creativity and instincts to work. And it does.

Young women and men are involved. So yes, part of the story concerns love interests. I kept imagining how I thought things would develop between them and this held my attention. And I'm not letting you in on any secrets.  You will have to read it yourself.

Favorite quote: "Weapons were to her the ultimate symbols of human stupidity."

There are many issues and themes touched upon in the final chapters that will be beneficial as a starting point for further medication: the role of light in bringing knowledge, the nature of consciousness, what other kinds of beings may exist, how human beings may be a blessing to the cosmos and the relationship between meaning and pleasure. Curiously, given his love for music, there was but one reference I recall to music and its importance. Perhaps the next book will involve that important aspect of life.

Bacteria plus Balok, an alien of a famous episode of Star Trek.
Finally, I ran across a list of laws of good science fiction writing at The most important were that the story must 1) be good science, 2) have a sense of wonder, 3) make the world better and 4) be fun. I think this book succeeded in all of these.


Appropo to this topic and review is a timely article by Phil Plait whose blog, Bad Astronomy, I find myself reading increasingly more often. It is titled Will We Find Life in Space? And the photo to the right came from that article.

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