Reviewed in the United States on November 3, 2021
One of things I like about this book, and clearly some other reviewers don’t , is that the captain (Excubitor or EX) is a woman. And very human. Her leadership style, like people in the real world, is to rely on her friends and a few trusted subordinates for advice and guidance. Then decides, then leads. And yes, has doubts and questions her own decisions. That’s actually how many successful people, male and female, lead in the real world. And it tends to work better than the strong loner type. But it isn’t, apparently, what at least some readers are looking for in a SciFi protagonist.
Takes a little while to get going, but it doesn’t stop accelerating, and by the time you hit halfway the plot is going warp speed (obvious reference intended).
Larger political / social setting is filled in via flashbacks a d different characters’ perspectives. Which is always more interesting than a bland narrator filling the reader in whenever it’s needed. And enough is explained either ahead of or after rather than right at the time to make it interesting.
The author definitely learned some Latin and/or studied ancient Rome. Kudos for that.
Two demerits for bad math - the surface of a sphere does not scale linearly with radius - and for not understanding the Newtonian mechanics of objects in space - ships do not require engines to keep moving in space. Which is kind of baffling, given the author used both special and general relativity as plot devices. How does one get the advanced physics at least a little right, only to fall down on the basics?
Bad cosmology…. really bad. The plot hinges on the universe (not the galaxy, the entire universe) having not just a border, but a circular one. Forget the flat Earth society, this is the flat Universe society - the entire universe forms a plane. Not a sphere, not a hyperboloid. A disc. With an edge! Look out Terry Pratchett, your ideas have been stolen, switched to a SciFi setting and expanded...
I was going to say that 3 minutes of reading the Wikipedia entry on the shape of the universe would have cleared this up for the author (and the test readers, and the editor…) but I have the bad feeling that the author (and maybe the test readers, and maybe the editor) read about the topology of the universe potentially being flat, hyperbolic, or spherical, and that experiment indicates it’s probably flat, and then decided that the probable flat topology of the universe, meaning zero curvature in spacetime, must mean flat in the everyday 2-dimensional paper map sense. So the whole thing is a disc, right? Sigh.
There is also no sense of mass or scale.
Forgive me for ranting on this one, but I feel I must. The characters go inside a giant 70km diameter alien sphere, then another sphere, and at the heart of it all is a 10m diameter cylindrical chamber. I think cylindrical, if that’s what the author means by “open circular”.
They fill this chamber with the hydrogen from “four dozen, meter-and-a-half-tall compressed hydrogen tanks”. Which they carried in, under normal gravity. So at maybe 200 atmospheres, that’s about 5 tons of hydrogen. And the fusion reaction from this quantity of hydrogen is supposed to generate enough 'dark energy' to counteract the collapse of at least this local edge of the universe? Sigh. But a sharp-eyed editor or test reader must’ve caught this, so one of the characters points this out and in swoops our friend, deus ex machina, and we then get… a "hydrogen duplication machine". And then “spacial compression” gets added in for good measure.
Of course. Why shouldn’t we have free duplication of matter. Near-instantaneous, too, as far as I can tell.
The whole reason the (very large) alien device isn’t working, producing energy via hydrogen fusion at stellar scale, is because it is out of hydrogen fuel to power the fusion reaction. So the team carries in cylinders of hydrogen, which is then replicated by the machine… et voila we suddenly have a star’s worth of hydrogen to use. I think. It’s a little unclear how much duplication and spacial compression is going on.
The mass of the sun is about 2 x 10^30 tons. Which in the story just got “replicated”, in minutes, from 5 tons of hydrogen.
Didn’t it cross anyone's mind (the author, the editor, the test readers…) that if you can increase a quantity of matter by a factor of 10^30 in minutes, why would you ever need to burn hydrogen in a fusion reaction? At that point you’ve just posited the most amazing energy source anyone could ever want. Creating stable matter is the most energy-consuming transformation we know of. Hate to state the obvious, but the ratio between mass and its energy equivalent, i.e. the amount of energy you’d need to make it, is the speed of light, squared. You know, E=mc^2? To create 1 kg of mass, one would need
1 kg * ( 3 x 10^8 m/s ) ^2 = 9 x 10^16 kg m^2/s^2 = 9 x 10^16 Joules.
That’s pretty much the quantity of energy produced by every power plant on Earth, added together, for an entire day. To ‘make' 1 kg of matter.
And in this story, the machine just did exactly that - in mere minutes - for… 10^33 kg worth of hydrogen.
That’s 10^50 J of energy in minutes. Call it 100 seconds. That’s 10^48 Watts. 1 followed by 48 zeroes. Of Watts.
For comparison, the sun puts out 3.8 x 10^26 Watts.
So… the author just posited the near instantaneous, harnessed output of approximately 10^22 stars… yes that’s 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars… in order to create the hydrogen the alien device needs to produce the power of... 1 star.
What a wonderfully efficient process! Why didn’t I think of that?
Ok, so maybe, even though it’s supposed to be “how a star is made” it’s not actually at stellar scale, and we’re just looking at a more ordinary quantity of hydrogen. Fusion at the 10m scale, we’ll posit. Even then, we’ve gone from 48 cylinders that together have about 350 cubic meters of volume… to a cylinder that’s 10m by 10m (we’ll guess the height, it’s not stated), which would be about 800 cubic meters. So we’ve just doubled the volume. The pressure at the center of the sun is 10^11 atmospheres. So… 800 cubic meters of hydrogen at 10^11 atmospheres… say we start at room temp (273 K). Ideal gas law gives about… 3.6 x 10^15 moles needed to achieve that pressure. And 1 mole of hydrogen (H2) masses 2g. So we’re talking 7.2 x 10^12 kg.
So we started with ~ 5000 kg of hydrogen and now have… 7 x 10^12 kg of hydrogen. In minutes. Due to the “hydrogen duplication machine”. That’s still manufacturing matter. That would require 6 x 10^29 Joules of energy. Assume 100 seconds. Heck, assume 1000 seconds. That’s 6 x 10^26 Watts. That’s the output of the sun.
So we have a machine that can output the power of the sun, in order to ‘duplicate’ hydrogen, in order to turn around and fuse that hydrogen, throwing away 99.6% of the available mass energy in the process.
If we’re going to posit a mass-energy converter… why in the world(s) not just run it in the other direction? Convert just a small amount of the available mass to energy, and use that to power the dark-energy producing part of the device?
I’m not even going to talk about this author’s idea of dark energy. It’s just wrong.
And yet, despite all the cringingly, achingly bad physics, childlike cosmology, and even bad basic math…. I enjoyed the book. Despite the plot being so very predictable. Despite the author’s screenwriting background being abundantly clear (deep, difficult personal challenges are brought in to serve the plot at a moment’s notice - just like on TV).
And yet… and yet…. I find myself ordering the next book in the series.
That says something about this author’s ability to tell a compelling story. Predictable. Bad science. Obvious plotlines. Yet I want to know more. Care enough about these characters to want to read more about them.
Well done to accomplish that.