Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Starship Samudram, by Saurabh Dashora - 4 Stars

I’d like to congratulate the author on writing a very strong science fiction thriller about space travel and exploring Titan, with a mystery element, credible engineering, imaginative scenes, all that’s best and worst of humanity and a deft touch of je ne c'est quoi which gives the book its character and makes the reader feel like they’ve survived a journey with the surviving crew. This book would transfer well to other media because it has got proactive characters, inspiration and emotion with quite visual elements in a spacey exploration setting where they can also react to and be terrified by the creepy unknown. If you consider the success of franchises like Alien or imaginative trips like Interstellar, Starship Samudram would fit well into the mainstream entertainment pack and I can imagine it doing quite well.

What’s the story about? Well, a near-future Earth has been having problems in the form of the Water Wars (squabbling over resources) and that’s driven humanity into space, just as hardship and desperate conditions force a vine to adapt and thrive, these humans have been pushed out of their comfort zone and are making the most of a difficult time. Some have thoughts of becoming independent from Earth and it’s military hierarchies, echoing the experience of Earth’s own population movements when they bedded down and became self-aware after the age of exploration.

The Captain of the largest star ship ever built, an Earth-appointed leader, is a sort of (now settled down) former ruthless military conqueror. Doh! Typical moronic human thinking – you find someone whose main skill is taking lives and you put them in charge of everyone’s lives. Humans always repeat this mistake, but why? Will we still be doing it in the future? Let’s kick the humans, they’re so stupid. There’s also a rebel leader, identity withheld, who stirs up a revolutionary level of anger about social inequality on-board. It seems the military junta have fenced off parts of the ship into distinct classes, so the underclass get the worst living conditions and no panoramic view, just like steerage passengers on old liners. Confident in their own ruthless strength to keep order, clampdowns happen and the guards have disproportionate power over civilians. You always come out on the wrong side of history by doing that. It’s when the crew start encountering alien bio-contamination that the walls of the firm little boxes start to melt and collapse, literally.

The problem, as always, is getting your story noticed. At some point the human race is sure to put together a mission to land people on Titan (unless they go to Enceladus first, to check out and use the liquid water under its southern pole) and that’s the point when this story will become topical. Are Saturn’s moons topical or popular subjects beyond the scientific community? Well, we’ve all heard of Saturn itself, the flamboyant rings and the Cassini Division but do we care enough about its sixty-two moons? The answer is perhaps “no” if you consider that we haven’t even bothered to name nine of them. Perhaps after this they’ll call one Saurabh? I’m going to, just to see if anyone ever corrects me.

What’s so special about Titan? It’s nitrogen-rich, just like Earth (yes, we actually do breathe a gas which is poisonous in isolation), it has dried up river beds and lakes consisting of hydrocarbons which, with a clever bit of chemistry, could be used as fuel – if you could in parallel release oxygen from the water/ice on Enceladus to burn it in. The ice on Titan is no good because it’s made from methane. Then, of course, there’s the problem of whether it’s worth the candle because the fuel made might be less than the fuel consumed to complete the voyage between moons and the drilling. It has potential to consider though.

When I looked at my scribbles for the review of this book, it came out all wrong because I had noted a few errors and inconsistencies which cumulatively suggested I didn’t enjoy the story, which is completely wrong and not the reflection I wanted to paint. I hope what I’ve said above is food for thought, shows the potential of this story and reads as a recommendation if you’re the imaginative sort who likes a good tale. Give it a go even if you are only into the natural features of Titan, such as water falls of methane, mysterious geometric megaliths, the problem solving of terraforming and/or otherwise dying pretty quickly when you take your helmet off. Going crazy from long-haul space travel is also a field of legitimate scientific enquiry.

Having said all that (and if you did read this far down), the reasons why I deducted a star from the rating were the following minor annoyances. Actually, please don’t read this review any further because it’s all fairly pedantic and I’d feel sick if I thought these observations had put anyone off reading a decent and likeable story from a capable writer of science fiction with a toolkit of entertainment skills that deserve to be recognised. I liked it, I really did.

………………

There are many cases of “Atleast”, one word, which suggests the author made a global replace error. Talking of the global replace function, I want to change equipments to equipment and evidences to evidence throughout, as those popped up in several places and were distracting from the flow. There are a few unnecessary question marks in statements (not questions), e.g. “Had he been there, the effect would have been greater?” “Did a short course on hacking long back?” There are two instances of an unnecessary “not”, as in: “No landings will take place until the leader of the Brotherhood is not caught.” These glitches could all be fixed in ten minutes by re-uploading a replacement version of the e-book, so it’s not a big deal.

It said they didn’t need a biologist for the away mission because there was nothing there for them to study, but had previously said the lake contained organic matter, so obviously there is.

The author is certainly a peaceful fellow because there are gaps in his knowledge of a particular weapon. Why put a laser scope on a shotgun (range 45 yards, no curve in trajectory), unless you just want to shine a light around with no performance benefit and tell your opponent exactly where you are? Why would a shotgun work anyway in an environment without oxygen (necessary for the propellant to combust and expand)? Shotguns don’t fire bullets, they fire shot (tiny pellets). This is probably explicable if the author says he was talking about a different weapon held by someone standing behind the person with the shotgun, but that’s not made clear. I tend to think that if you’re outside on Titan you must have a space suit on, so the only thing you need to do to make someone dead is create a small puncture, so an air gun would work better as there’s no combustion, even a potato peeler or a pencil. Okay, so The Potato Peeler of Doom doesn’t sound that impressive if you happen to find yourself browsing in a gun shop but it would actually work better, until someone invents a shot gun with a sharp end. Then again, on Titan all you really have to do to finish someone off is wait long enough. That’s why the story needed the essential angle of terraforming.

In Chapter 6 there’s a topographical map made from photographs, not scans. The human race moved past photographic technology in space well before the year 2,000 so I hope these are scans that the crew are just affectionately using the old name for, like photo-copiers are really scanners but we stick to the name of the previous technology because we like it. Scans are digital, so can be scaled up or down like a vector calculation without loss and they can also be enhanced by logical pixel-filling or removing algorithms to sharpen fuzzyness, be combined, manipulated and linked to databases, whereas photos cannot unless you have a lot of drawing pins and lots of bits of old string handy.

There’s no explanation of why the hawk ship that attacks Samudram has wings. There’s absolutely no need to have an aerofoil or aerodynamic shape when there’s no air, unless it also operates in planetary atmospheres (which is possible but wasn’t described). This has to be given the benefit of the doubt thought because a hawk-like space ship is cool and people would probably choose that anyway, for aesthetic value. An alien observing the design though would conclude that the species which made it came from a planet with a thick atmosphere, so there’s a clue about their cultural influences and perhaps even their historical predators and fears.

No, the greatest force in the Universe is not gravity; which is actually classified as the weakest force in the Universe. You can be stronger than the pull of a whole planet by simply blowing a feather up in the air.

I hope you don’t take any of those complaints too seriously because I am saying that you should read this book and one day real astronauts will be following in its footsteps. One day our space-borne colonies really will realise they are so far from home that they don’t need the old green and blue, one day we’ll devise a more sensible system for selecting our leaders and one day, maybe not too long from now, we really will name a moon Saurabh.

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