Review: Mission to Methone by Les Johnson

Mission to Methone by Les Johnson
Tradepaper: Baen, 978-1-4814-8305-6, $16.00, 298pp, February 2018
Paperback: Baen, 978-1-4814-8388-9, $7.99, 407pp, March 2019

It’s an ordinary day in the life of Chris Holt, as he leads a project for Space Resources Corporation, an asteroid mining company, until he’s informed that the asteroid his tiny solar-sail spacecraft have been set up to examine is artificial. His life suddenly becomes extraordinary as he goes from a meeting with the boss to a meeting with the President to a journey out to the artificial object. And all this is still only the beginning.

The geopolitical situation in 2065 is a strange one. Russia has joined the EU, China is a more or less civil rival of the US, India is another world power and a secretive and almost insanely pugnacious one, and there is a Caliphate in the Middle East which is almost what you’d expect from the abortive Caliphate of the early twenty-first century, except it has nukes from Pakistan.

The first half of the story involves a US/EU/Japanese ship and a Chinese one (the Indian ship failed) racing to the artificial “asteroid” with a Caliphate nuke hot on their heels. Holt and the gang find out (as we have seen in the prologue and will learn more about in a handful of lower-case roman numeral chapters distributed through the book) that the alien ship is, in a sense, the body of an AI which has been badly damaged in a war between Makers and Destroyers (those who would preserve sentient life in the galaxy as a natural resource and those who would destroy it as a threat). The commanding officers of the two ships try to work together to save the alien vessel but the gambit to block the missile with the American ship fails. Before the damaged alien is destroyed, it gives them plans for a fusion rocket and coordinates for another journey.

It turns out that the coordinates point to Methone, a satellite of Saturn. A tale of a second space adventure with a US/EU/Chinese ship and an Indian one follows, while, back on Earth, the geopolitical situation becomes apocalyptically dangerous with occasional nukes going off on Earth as harbingers of WWIII. What will become of the two ships? What will be discovered at Methone? Will WWIII be averted? The second half of the story provides the answers.

Speaking of halves, through the first half, I didn’t think I was going to like this. There are three main problem areas and one seems nitpicky, but it was so pervasive that it really made it hard to engage. It may be a symptom of this being the author’s first solo novel and may improve over time. Though the writing aims for a nice, straightforward plainness, there are many, many examples of either awkward writing or conceptual awkwardness. You can take my word for it to save time or see this footnote [1] for specifics. Aside from specific weirdness, there’s just a general sense of stiffness or statements that are obvious or things that don’t ring right. As a couple of examples which are weaker out of context than in a flow of much of the same, Holt’s thoughts about his commanding officer are delivered by narrative voice which says, “Chris could tell that she was wishing she was the one to walk in an alien starship and actually talk to an extraterrestrial, but it wasn’t getting in the way of her professionalism.” And, earlier, Holt says to a White House bigwig, “I don’t know what agency or organization you represent, but your ignorance and ill-informed suggestions are counterproductive,” and, at the end of the paragraph, he astutely observes, “Shit, I bet I just made an enemy.

That last introduces one of the other problems, which is the characterization, especially of Holt. He is described by the alien AI as “the human with the thinking anomaly” and thinks of himself as a “type A personality.” I had to laugh when, again via narrative voice, he reflects that “getting along was hard work and sometimes he failed” because I hardly ever saw him succeed. As a perhaps autistic or otherwise atypical person, this may all be understandable but he’s much like a dramatic Sheldon Cooper without the depth and generation of sympathy such a drama needs. His passion for astronomy, exemplified by some backstory regarding his childhood telescope, comes through and he actually is astute when he thinks that people who manipulate others for personal gain are “assholes” and that he’s doesn’t want to be “that kind of asshole,” but he still is a kind of asshole. Further, other characters who are intended to be unpleasant obstructions like Fuji (as part of the first crew) and Janhunen (as part of both crews) are overdone or lacking in other dimensions. More importantly, a crewmember warns against anthropomorphizing the alien AI, noting that it “may sound human and speak English, but it is far from being human.” This is as it should be but, aside from its timescales and capabilities (often ruthless capabilities) it doesn’t really seem sufficiently alien most of the time. The humans can hardly be blamed for anthropomorphizing it.

The third problem involves both the current political scenario of 2065 and the extremely simplified distorted history the AI takes us through. If someone had written science fiction in the 1980s about official US policy being to undercut NATO and the US intelligence agencies in favor of a Russian dictator and to engage in economic warfare against Canada, it would have been prophetic, but also would have made for preposterous reading. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction should be plausible. And, in this, I just don’t buy a Caliphate (though we’ll see what happens now that the US has screwed up Iraq and is on the verge of screwing up Afghanistan) or the cozy relationship between the US and China when China still seems to be a “communist” dictatorship whose only change in 45 years has been to engage in “infamous” genetic engineering to make tall, strong, genius taikonauts. Unfortunately, I do more or less buy the possibility of the India depicted in this book.

Regardless of what one thinks about the political scenario, after back-to-back infodump chapters in 16 and 17, the story does begin to take off with the second mission, pitting those nations against each other in a thriller-like fashion which, after seeming like a distraction in the first part, comes to produce an interesting counterpoint to the activities in space with immensely powerful entities much as the movie 2010 did it. I know it’s not a real popular movie and I’ve forgotten how closely it hews to the book, but I love the movie and this book found that vein of earthly and astronomical scopes and excitement which had me carried away despite myself. The problems don’t go away, but they do finally get drowned out by the velocity and power of events.

Finally, the story does make an important point about humanity needing to develop a space-faring civilization (because, as it says on page 14, if we stay here, “some virus might wipe us out”) and, by focusing on Holt’s loneliness and showing how that can drive even AIs insane and indicating that our species is also alone but may not have to be, all its nuts and bolts of de Broglie transmitters and solar gravity lenses [2] has a human interest. I can’t recommend this for all readers but if you are like me and enjoy stories with near-future tangible spaceships and aliens you may enjoy it as much as I ultimately did or if you aren’t like me in the sense of being bothered by the occasional writing lapse, you may like it even more.

With the last Baen book I read, I congratulated the staff on excellent proof-reading but can’t say the same for this one because, when it rains, it really pores. There are some things like “vision-related” not having its hyphen (43) but the two that really stuck out were “poured” (7) and “pouring” (363) when “pored” and “poring” were intended.

[1]Examples of awkward writing:

  • The lowercase roman numeral chapters are focused exclusively on the alien AIs in flashback, yet include things like Saturn being “breathtaking” (149) and a probe that’s “about the same size as a schoolbus,” (204) which don’t immerse one in an alien AI perspective.
  • A character says, “Look at the surface. It’s damaged. Severely damaged. And the damage is extensive.” (121) This is technically not repetitive so much as, “Statement. Emphasis. Scope,” but it reads like DamageDamageDamage.
  • A character says, “Given the collegial atmosphere among our colleagues…” (215)
  • One character says “I never dreamed I would get to see something so beautiful in person” and another replies, “Neither did I, but I always dreamed of it.” (224) If the first had said something like “I never seriously thought” it would work.
  • We’re told that an alien avatar (repeatedly described as a gelatinous sort of “beach ball” (e.g., 369, 372) which does not have the intended effect for anyone who has seen Dark Star) “enveloped [Holt] like a hot knife sliding into butter.” This is precisely backwards but that’s understandable as butter rarely envelops a hot knife.
  • And the winner: a character is speaking to an audience and educates them about Saturn’s moon, “Methone, pronounced mi-THOH-nee.” (171)

Examples of conceptual awkwardness:

  • Holt determines the age of the artifact by the “size of the dust layer, the pitting from the occasional micrometeoroid strike” (28) when that should probably be the “depth” of the dust layer and I wonder how you can determine the age of something by its abrasions when you don’t know what it’s made of: strikes would be rare, regardless, but would have a greater effect on a weak material than a strong one. Speaking of determining the age of things, a single reference is made to a CEO having “the best anti-aging treatments his wealth could buy” and, though he’s seventy-one, he “looked more like a man in his mid-thirties.” (17) Only a few pages later, Holt thinks a woman could be “no more than thirty-five years old” and wonders “how someone so new to the political scene” could be in her position,” (31) when the natural thought might be that she’s been rejuved just like Holt’s boss.
  • The alien says, “Send Chris only,” (272) and a half-dozen pages later, when Chris and another arrive, the alien observes that “Two were not summoned,” and Chris replies, “You did not prohibit anyone from accompanying me.” While it may be true that the alien AI didn’t vaporize the second man, it sure lets Chris get away with some obvious sophistry. But that may figure, since the alien AI isn’t the most logical: it needs repairs made, time is of the essence, there are several people it could get to help… and it attempts to explicitly summon a single worker? Worse, when the alien AI first attempts to get the humans to help and they decide to block the incoming nuke with one of their ships (122), it doesn’t tell them that “it knew the missile contained multiple warheads,” (138) before the humans get one of their ships blown up to no purpose.
  • The caliphate plots to slow the American ship enough for the Indians to catch up, but it’s vitally important that the Indians not actually beat the Americans to Methone. So they come up with a plan. (182) When it’s implemented, we get the “You can’t fire me–I quit!” (or “an attempt to defuse the reader’s incredulity with a pre-emptive strike”) when we’re told “it was just short of amazing that one of the returning miners was actually a Caliphate sympathizer–a sleeper agent.” (191) Worse, the plan essentially ends the American mission until they exercise great ingenuity and come up with an alternative that will get them there just about three days ahead of the Indians. Just like the Caliphate wanted. But the Caliphate could not have known that!

[2] One thing that really bugs me (though, on the bright side, it gives the book a “classic SF” feel), is that there’s no nanotech to speak of. I figure the goop used to fix Holt’s arm is some other sort of alien magic but if it is nanotech, that’s even worse because then it does exist but is not generally deployed. On the flipside, there are nice notes about quantum computing re-establishing Moore’s law and how discovery of an alien artifact causes tech stocks to crash and a nice (well, awful, of course) assassination of someone using a disease genetically tailored for one.