My life in outer space

Posts tagged “unobtainium

Miners in The Sky – Murray Leinster (1967)

Miners In The Sky

‘Dunne was a crystal miner among the stars until he discovered the biggest strike in space.

Drifting through the rings of Thothmes with a mysterious lady stowaway, the lonely hunter soon realised that every miner in this golden mist was out to get him – and the treasure.

Even as bloodshed spreads across the sky, eyes both inhuman and unseen watched, waiting to close in…’

Blurb from the Sphere 1968 paperback edition.

The Unobtainium in this novel is Abyssal Crystals, found in the rings of gas giants and created under such pressure that they are strong enough to rip diamonds apart. They are immensely valuable and – amongst other things – are used as power conductors in space vehicles.
Dunne is a miner of the rings of Thothmes and has just discovered a rich vein on one of the rocks that drift through the rings. Returning to Outlook, the mining post and leaving his partner behind to guard the find, he discovers that his partner’s sister has turned up demanding to see her brother. When Dunne’s ship is blown up he deduces that someone is after his claim. Borrowing a lifeboat he sets off to rescue his partner, not realising that the sister has stowed away on board.
Someone is trying to kill them. Is it because the other miners suspect they have discovered the legendary Big Rock Candy Mountain, a semi-mythical rock packed with Abyssal Crystals? Or is it the Gooks, the never seen aliens of the miners’ tales who kill the unwary or take them off into the depths of the gas giant?
Leinster conjures up the setting of the Rings very well and manages to establish a sense of scale in a system of rings where a mountain sized rock can be easily lost and never found again.
Presumably based on the lawless American West in the days of The Gold Rush, complete with a rather quaint attitude to women, it’s a short but workmanlike novel with an intriguing setting.


God Emperor of Dune – Frank Herbert (1981)

God Emperor of Dune (Dune Chronicles, #4)

The fans of ‘Dune’ and indeed the fans of Frank Herbert fall into two camps. There are those who are desperate for ever more tales of the universe in which Arrakis and its intricately structured interstellar society exists. Indeed, the likes of Kevin J Anderson and Brian Herbert are still churning out new ‘Dune’ material nearly fifty years after the first novel was published. Then there are those who feel ‘less is more’ and that ‘Dune’ should have been left as a quite extraordinary stand alone novel, undoubtedly a classic and arguably one of the top ten SF novels of the 20th century.
To be fair to Herbert, ‘Dune Messiah’ and ‘Children of Dune’ were not simply ‘more of the same’. They were stylistically pushing the boundaries of the first novel, but even so, lacked much of the complex structure and rich colour of the original.
This, the fourth novel, takes us three thousand years into the future. Young Leto, the son of Muad’dib. has entered into a symbiotic relationship with the larval forms of the giant sandworms. Having been encased within their bodies he has been slowly transformed over centuries until he is physically more worm than man.
Leto, being not only prescient but possessed of the memories of all his ancestors, is a difficult creature to assassinate, although people keep trying.
Where this novel fails is that the narrative is for the most part centred around Leto, and Leto is not a creature who is that mobile. Now and again he goes out on a cart, but not often enough.
Consequently there is a continual succession of scenes where characters are summoned to the Emperor’s presence, at which they have long – often meaningless – discussions, since Leto operates through the medium of riddles, or oblique comments which his guests and servants are expected to decipher.
Arrakis has been terraformed and there is now only one small desert left in which ‘Museum Fremen’ are allowed to dwell.
There is a shortage of spice – the ‘unobtainium’ that bestows longevity and gives the Guild starship pilots their ability to navigate hyperspace.
The Ixians, the Tleilaxu (who have provided a new Duncan Idaho for the Emperor after he killed the last one) and the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, are all suspicious of each other.
As with ‘Dune Messiah’ there is a sense of doomed Shakespearean inevitability about it all, particularly in view of the fact that Leto can – to a certain extent – see the future and knows what is going to happen.
There are some interesting points made both obliquely via the narrative and through Leto’s conversations and journals about politics and religion. However, Herbert is covering old ground here since ‘Dune’ had already examined quite subtly and in exquisite detail the complex overlapping boundaries of religion and government.
One would have to clarify, having said all that, that this is not a bad novel. It’s just not a good Frank Herbert novel. Herbert was a writer whose name figures largely in the pantheon of SF saints but, like Anne McCaffrey and Fred Saberhagen, seems to be doomed to be remembered for one book that spawned an industry of sequels and franchise, leaving his other work sadly neglected.

The Skylark of Space (Skylark #01) – EE ‘Doc’ Smith (1928)

The Skylark of SpaceThe Skylark of Space by E.E. “Doc” Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

‘Brilliant government scientist Richard Seaton discovers a remarkable faster-than-light fuel that will power his interstellar spaceship, The Skylark. His ruthless rival, Marc DuQuesne, and the sinister World Steel Corporation will do anything to get their hands on the fuel. They kidnap Seaton’s fiancée and friends, unleashing a furious pursuit and igniting a burning desire for revenge that will propel The Skylark across the galaxy and back.

The Skylark of Space is the first and one of the best space operas ever written. Breezy dialogue, romantic intrigue, fallible heroes, and complicated villains infuse humanity and believability into a conflict of galactic proportions. The Amazing Stories publication of The Skylark of Space in 1928 heralded the debut of a major new voice in American pulp science fiction and ushered in its golden age. Legions of interstellar epics have been written since that time, but none can match the wonder, dazzle, and sheer fun of the original. The commemorative edition features the author’s preferred version of the story, the original illustrations by OG Estes Jr., and a new introduction by acclaimed science fiction writer Vernor Vinge.’

Blurb from the 2001 Bison Books commemorative edition..

It’s difficult to date this book with any accuracy since Smith began it in 1915, finished it in 1920, had it published in Amazing Stories in 1928, published as a book in 1946 at least and subsequently revised for republication in 1958.
The Bison books commemorative edition – which reprints the 1958 edition complete with a couple of typos – is a marvellous treat which includes illustrations from 1947 (OG Estes Jr.).
This edition also contains a scholarly introduction by Vernor Vinge in which he explains the presence of a co-author , Mrs Lee Hawkins Garby, whom Smith enlisted for the magazine version and the 1946 book edition to make the female characters more credible.
It would be churlish to suggest that none of the characters are credible by today’s standards, but in 1928 it was a rarity to see female characters at all. One can compare this book to Campbell’s ‘Islands in Space’ which consists of a suspiciously similar plot (notably in its basic premise, and the plot devices of being trapped by the gravity field of a dead star and intervening in a war between two humanoid societies) but one in which women are so conspicuously absent that one feels Campbell was trying to make a point.
Richard ‘Dick’ Seaton is working with a solution of platinum and an unknown metal and discovers it to be (once his copper steam bath has flown out of the window and off into space) the secret to the production of limitless energy, the metal solution having the power to release the atomic energy of copper without producing radiation.
(Vinge points out that the concept of ‘unknown element with amazing powers’ became such a common device with SF authors that it was christened with the genre name of ‘unobtainium’).
In partnership with his old friend – millionaire M Reynolds Crane – he builds a ship, powered by the mysterious metal ‘X’ and some bars of copper.
In the meantime another ruthless scientist, Marc DuQuesne (who has to be evil since he has a French name) has stolen some of Seaton’s solution, has built a ship of his own and kidnapped Dick’s girlfriend Dorothy and a woman called Peggy. Due to some judicious kicking on the part of feisty Dorothy, DuQuesne is knocked against the controls and the ship hurtles off across the universe.
Seaton and Crane race to the rescue of course, which results in all five of them having to work together to save themselves and attempt a return to Earth.
Two things which may seem alien to contemporary readers is the apparent willingness to assist in the genocide of an alien race who are the enemies of a race the humans have befriended, and the odd notion of ‘honour’ which commits DuQuesne to working with the others having promised not to do them harm. He does qualify this by saying that he will escape if he gets the chance, but even so, by modern standards this ‘honourable code among men’ in this context seems very odd indeed.

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Spin State – Chris Moriarty (2003)

Spin State

‘From a stunning new voice in hard science fiction comes one of the most thrilling debut novels in years. Welcome to a post-human universe of emergent AIs, genetic constructs, and illegal wetware, where survival can be only a state of mind. Welcome to.


UN Peacekeeper Major Catherine Li has made thirty-seven faster-than-light jumps in her lifetime – and has probably forgotten more than most people remember. But that’s what backup hard drives are for. And Li should know; she’s been hacking her memory for fifteen years in order to pass as human.

But no memory upgrade can prepare Li for what she finds on Compson’s World: a mining colony she once called home and to which she is sent after a botched raid puts her on the bad side of the powers that be. A dead physicist who just happens to be her cloned twin. A missing dataset that could change the interstellar balance of power and turn a cold war hot. And a mining ‘accident’ that is starting to look more and more like murder…

Suddenly Li is chasing a killer in an alien world miles underground where everyone has a secret. And one wrong turn in streamspace, one misstep in the dark alleys of blackmarket tech and interstellar espionage, one risky hookup with an AI could literally blow her mind.’

Blurb from the October 2003 Bantam Spectra paperback edition.

Set in a society where emergent AIs are campaigning for legal rights; multi-planetary syndicates produce vat-grown designer humans and society is dependent on Bose-Einstein condensate. This is a substance which can be best described as quantum coal. It is the unobtainium available only on Compson’s World, and now a top scientist, seemingly close to discovering how to synthesise the condensate, is dead.
UN Peacekeeper Major Catherine Li is unwillingly posted back to Compson’s World to investigate the death; unwillingly because this is her home world from which she escaped after faking her genetic credentials. She is not a pure human and although all her old records were apparently destroyed, discovery of her true status could destroy her life and career. Her only ally seems to be Cohen, a powerful AI, but his true motives can only be guessed at, and when she begins to uncover a complex conspiracy it seems she can trust no one, not even Cohen.
This is a dark and beautifully written novel, dense with quantum physics yet still accessible to the average reader. Stylistically it is reminiscent of Richard Morgan or Neal Asher but perhaps richer, more textured in terms of characterisation and settings. It’s an impressive debut novel, but one feels that Moriarty might do well in future to move away from the Noir Nouveau mysteries which seem to be the spirit of the age.
Moriarty also includes a useful quantum physics bibliography for those readers who wish to broaden their minds further into the complex world of quantum states.

When Worlds Collide – Philip G Wylie, Edwin Balmer (1932)

When Worlds Collide

‘A runaway planet hurtles toward the earth. As it draws near, massive tidal waves, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions wrack our planet, devastating continents, drowning cities and wiping out millions. In central North America a team of scientists race to build a spacecraft powerful enough to escape the doomed earth. Their greatest threat, they soon discover, comes not from the skies but from other humans.

A crackling plot and sizzling cataclysmic vision have made ‘When Worlds Collide’ one of the most popular and influential end-of-the-world novels of all time.’

Blurb from the 1999 Bison Books edition.

This collaboration from 1932 has been recently reprinted by Bison Books in one of their commemorative editions which includes a foreword by John Varley and the sequel ‘After Worlds Collide’
A courier carrying photographic plates from South African astronomer Professor Bronson to Cole Hendron, his colleague in New York, is offered increasingly alarming sums of money to give exclusive information to various newspapers.
The papers do not have long to wait for the terrible news. A gas giant and an orbiting smaller world are heading in from outer space on collision course with the Earth.
Professor Hendron confirms from the plates that the pair will swing past our world, causing massive earthquakes and tidal waves and then swing round the sun. On the return journey Bronson Alpha will hit the Earth head on.
However, the scientists (hiding behind the not-so-subtle name ‘The League of The Last Days) have a plan to build a ship, carrying a chosen few to the new world of Bronson Beta, which is predicted to break free of its large companion following the collision and take Earth’s place in its orbit.
Most readers will be more familiar with the George Powell movie; a production more or less faithful to the novel, but lacking much of the suspense and sense of wonder of the original.
Despite some examples of what we see from today’s perspective as scientific hokum, the effects of the passing of the large planet are well described and seem accurate enough.
The scenes describing ever-increasing tides invading New York and drowning the streets, leaving the skyscrapers sprouting from the sea are, in an odd sense, quite beautiful. Likewise, the eventual destruction of the Earth viewed from the rocketship by the survivors, provides for the reader a kind of smug satisfaction.
Typically for the times the survivors consist almost entirely of White Americans of the right sort. One South African is of course, white, well built, handsome and courageous. The two remaining aliens – the hero’s Japanese valet and a French scientist – are mere gross caricatures and employed only to provide light relief.
It was however necessary for the writers to attempt to add to the suspense by creating a race against time to produce a metal or alloy capable of containing the forces of a nuclear powered rocket. Eventually this is discovered following the earthquakes and upheaval of the first passing.
A volcanic eruption expelled a molten stream of a hitherto unknown metal from the centre of the earth (an example of ‘unobtainium’) which proves to possess the necessary properties for use in the rocket ship.
There is an attempt to discuss new forms of society and marriage in order that Humanity might multiply on the new world, but the authors never venture far in that direction.