Review: Sam Gunn Omnibus, Ben Bova (2007)

I read this book years ago, and then I read it again, and again, and just recently… you guessed it, again! Sam Gunn Unlimited is the culminated tales of a 21st Century scoundrel, pioneer, visionary, conman, lothario, hero and villain, the man who single handedly (with a lot of help from a lot of people.. umm…) dragged mankind kicking and screaming from Earth and out into the Solar System, and maybe beyond?

Sam Gunn is the focus oh the book, but he’s not the protagonist, the story really follows a news reporter born and raised on the moon as she learns about the mysterious loved and loathed figure of a man, a former astronaut, operator of the first space hotel, the man who took commercial passengers into orbit for the first time, a cruise liner captain sailing the outer belt for asteroids, this larger than life figure, who was really short, a man who chased and was chased by women in amazing adventures.

See, what I just did there is what most of the characters in the book do, allow Sam Gunn to overshadow everything. In fact, Jade is a fascinating character in her own route, an outsider in a nation of outsiders, the first space orphan, she can never go to Earth due to a genetic condition, but through force of will, she jumps careers from manual labour on the moon’s surface to that of a reporter, giving her the resources, (with some corporate wranglings), to really dig into Sam Gunn and get people to tell her their stories of the greatest reprobate in the Solar system.

Jade’s story sets up the framing device Sam Gunn’s story, she interviews people and then the story switches to those people’s narratives, as unreliable a narrator as you could possibly want, making each story seem personal, but sometimes inconsistent. Perspective is everything, and it’s fascinating.

I mentioned that Sam Gunn even in absence, tends to overshadow everyone, but as with Jade that doesn’t mean the characters, the story tellers, Jade’s supporters and antagonists, they’re nearly all rich, you learn their histories, their hopes, their dreams, their fears, and their shames.

Sam Gunn’s life itself, is a story of an entrepeneur trying to make it rich on the new frontier, every step of the way he’s trying to push that frontier a bit further out so that he can net the profits while everyone else plays it safe and follows in his work. As is a common theme in Ben Bova’s stories, the corporations are the main antagonist in the story, they’re constantly trying to trick, cheat, or outright threaten our eponymous hero, but don’t worry Sam isn’t really a hero, as he’s more than happy to try and trick, cheat, and threaten them.

I love the scope of this book, it covers the preternaturally long life of Sam Gunn from his early days in NASA, until it catches up to the stories’ being told about him by Jade. There’s some fascinating discussions on the legal, ethical, and logistics of future space travel and colonisation. It has a fantastic finish, which leaves you wanting more from the cast of characters that come together at the end.

Literally the only thing I would change about this magical collection of stories is to embed more into the Grand Tour series, however as history is in places significantly different, and I think (off the top of my head), only one characters crosses over into Sam Gunn’s universe, I can see why it’s an independent story.

And one last note to add, and I’ll preface by saying this isn’t paid advertising, my most recent go through with Sam Gunn I did via Audible, where they had a tremendous multi-cast recording, so as you broke off into each of the different narrators it was a different voice, which really embedded the feel of the novel in a way single-voice recordings ever could. Really made you consider the biases, and the untrustworthy elements of the narrator. So I’d highly recommend if you want to experience Sam Gunn yourself, and you don’t have the time to sit down and read the whole thing, check out the Audible version. (Also it’s the Omnibus version, I previously only had the Sam Gunn Unlimited, which didn’t have the last few stories.. so that was a pleasant surprise to find out there was more to the story).

Story Telling… I Admire: Babylon 5

I’ve already mentioned how much I admire Dune, and aspire to that level of writing, so since I’m crap at reviewing, we’ll talk about what I admire about my favourites. Another one my all time favourites series, this time  a TV one, is Babylon 5, created by J. Michael Straczynski back in the 90’s.

So let’s talk about that.

A Bit of History (for those don’t remember the 90’s… which is increasingly more and more adults – darn time!)

Back in the 90’s, and in decades before that, the majority of television shows (though not all by far), were episodic, with arcs focused on that episode, and you could probably air many episodes out of order with little to no effect on the stories being told. Most of Star Trek is like this, and it’s fine – it’s what we expected, nay what we thought we wanted.

However J. Michael Straczynski while in the shower, combined two story ideas he’d been playing with a big space opera and a story taking place aboard a dinky little space station. The big space opera would be too big, and too expensive to make in a TV show, while an episodic TV show set aboard a space station wouldn’t have much life, just a few seasons. His eureka moment in the shower was that in combining the two, you could have a five year story that saw a universe at war, and peace, have politics and a consequences play out, and punctuate some action and fallout on the station to contextualise the space opera, without having to invest too significant parts of the budget for space battles.

They were doing this in the early days of the CGI revolution, now everyone with a some 3d program, and a video editing suite can put together a fleet on fleet battle, in HD or even 4k, with some time and patience.

Side note: I actually wonder if they could make Babylon 5 these days, the restrictions of budget and technology helped to create something amazing, but there aren’t the same limiting factors, you can do whole series in front of blue screens without much need for a set, you don’t need expensive physical models, and people are already trying to make CGI people a thing, so you might not need pricey actors either.

So, what is Babylon 5?

So back to the idea – a small contained space, operating as a space UN of sorts. It ties together smaller character driven stories and a grand epic. The factions have unique motivations to them which drive them, hurt them, and so on, and actions for against a faction has consequences for those factions and the over arcing plot.

I’m trying not to get into spoilers, but you have plots involving a character or characters place and interaction with their own state, you have law and order plots, including local (on the station), internal (with the one of the nations of the galaxy), and international, (with multiple nations involved), you have siege and attack plots, Revolutions, enslavement, spies, survivor stories, medical dramas, but also a sense of magical plots, magical tests and quests, mystical items, after life stuff, and I’m not so be with this yet, then you have interpersonal plots with romance, buddy cops, noir detectives, comedies, arguments and misunderstandings. Basically it has everything.

“But!” I hear you shoot, Star Trek has all of that – and you’re right, but except on DS9, it didn’t add to anything it was just adventure of the week.

Now DS9 was doing something similar, but it didn’t feel as in depth, it was more focused, where as Babylon 5 went in a hundred, but coherent, didn’t directions but brought it back together. What DS9 did do though was better communicate the world was ending and the war stories were just more intense, that’s where the budget differences came in I think. Babylon 5 was more cohesive, and the building blocks all lead to how it ends (taking season 4, not 5 in fairness).

So What Is It I Admire, And Can Learn

So ultimately what I admire is the ability to balance personal and grander story telling. Now it is probably easier in hundreds of 45 minute episodes than writing a novel, but when you look at each series, (1 through 4 anyway), they are beautifully balanced.

Where I fail is I get lost in scenes, specifically dialogue ones, I get stuck in circles, the dialogue in Babylon 5 is what carries the story, and it’s not as punchy as a Sorkin series, but still all the important dialogue is focused, and delivers three things each time, the characters personal feelings and motivations, exposition to explain the current situation, and the plan – what actions do the characters intend to do.

I like that, and I think ultimately that’s what I want to learn, and it doesn’t matter if it’s on screen or on a page I think it’s a good way to do dialogue. It will definitely help to have three things before writing dialogue scenes:

  • History
  • Motivation
  • Plan

Doesn’t matter what the plan is, it’s not the plot of the story, it’s just what the characters intend – actually that’s not true, it does matter, because for the dialogue to be important, whatever the characters decide will drive the plot, it’s just a matter of whether they succeed in their intentions, or are denied by another factor.

Also just to mention, as with Dune, I could go through a lot more, but I wanted to pick an element that is of particular interest to me right now.

Daily Flash Fiction Challenge 41: The Wolf’s Time

This is the 41st in a series of 365 Flash Fiction stories I’m writing. You can find out more about the challenge here.

The Wolf’s Time, by Jonathan L. Lawrence, 11th January 2012

Word count: 651

Theme: sci fi, apocalypse again, final hope, terrible sacrifice, space colonies, destroyed world

The story:

“It’s been a long time coming Professor,” the admiral said.

“Yes but time is why we’re here, Admiral Benson,”the Professor said dismissively. He loathed working with the military, but no one else would fund his research. The Professor was James Lupe, formerly of the Masterson University of Deep Space Technologies and Research on Colony 18. He was considered an expert on the principles that under pinned modern faster than light engines.

“So have you succeeded Professor? Or has fourteen billion credits been washed away?” the admiral asked, this was all a pipe dream to him, what was done was done, but those more senior than him felt otherwise. The admiral was a tall broad man, in his late middle ages, a veteran of many battles, though currently his black hair was taking heavy losses from the encroaching grey.

“In simple terms,” having been warned repeatedly about talking in nonsense, “Yes. I have completed humanity’s first, and only faster than time drive.”

“Tell me more,” the admiral said taking a seat, steeling himself against the torrent of jargon he expected.

“There’s not much to say, the drive itself is completed, the navigation system to handle it is just been put together now. Then we’ll fit it to the ship. It should be ready for its maiden voyage next week.”

“Oh,” the admiral said surprised.

The ship was ready to fly, but there were no pilots qualified, the next six months were taken up by recruiting, training, and briefing a small cadre of pilots to under take the experimental mission.

Then it was the time for the big event, the super fast ship had its finishing touches added, the pilots were ensconced. The pilots strapped themselves in and made ready to depart from the space station.

“Ladies and gentlemen, my fellow pilots, I am envious of the opportunity you have today. For two and a half centuries man has been using faster than light drives, compared with the vessel you are now in control of, they were walking slowly. I’m sure you are all aware of the risks of today’s mission, but steel yourselves, stay true and know you’re making a better future for us all.” The admiral cleared his throat, “Any words for humanity before you launch Commander?”

The commander in the seat behind the pilot and his navigator switched his comms to transmit, “Know we do this, not for our own glory, not for the glory of anyone nation, and not for the detriment of any one nation, but for the betterment of all humanity.

“We’re coming home Earth, we’re coming home,” he finished bitter sweetly, remembering the devastated remains of humanity’s mother planet.

“Commander, this is mission control, you are cleared for launch, god speed Rising Grace.”

“Acknowledged mission control,” the commander said, then he turned to the pilot, “You have the words Lieutenant Harvinder, have at it.”

The pilot acknowledged and brought the ship around, then he pushed the throttle, and for a brief moment everyone felt crushed into their seats before a dampening field rose to meet the challenge of the rapid acceleration.

Back on the station the admiral and the Professor watched as the ship accelerated away, and then rapidly blurred out of sight as it beached the light basket. After that they could only watch the subspace sensors track the craft, and as it broke the eighth light barrier it went out of range.

“When will we know?” Admiral Benson asked.

“I don’t know that we will, Admiral,” the Professor said, “Maybe we’ll feel it wash over us, maybe we’ll feel nothing. I’m hoping for the latter.”

Out there, beyond the sight of anyone alive, the Rising Grace receded from the known universe, vanishing away from time as we know it. It’s mission celebrated by thousands, yet none would ever truly understand the what the mission was, and the consequences the Admiral spoke of.

Time slipped away.

Daily Flash Fiction Challenge 25: The Fisherman’s Son

This is the 25th in a series of 365 Flash Fiction stories I’m writing. You can find out more about the challenge here.

The Fisherman’s Son, by Jonathan L. Lawrence, 26th December 2012

Word count: 876

Theme: father and son, bonding, learning the ropes, the paths of our fathers, sci fi, civilian sci fi

The story:

“Okay, let’s just fix that right there, shall we?” the captain said with fatherly tenderness.

Jack just looked at him, he was eight but didn’t say much. This was the first time his father had taken him out on his old boat.

“Fix that line!” the Captain shouted down to the deck. Jack looked out over the railing, down below men scattered around fixing cables in place.

“All set for star drive, Captain,” the first mate said.

“Course set?” Captain asked his first mate.

“Alpha Centauri, on the slow route,” the first mate confirmed.

“The word is go,” the captain said, then turned to his son, “Okay I want you to hold on to this handle, it’s going to be a bumpy, and it’s always scary the first time you go to star drive.”

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Daily Flash Fiction Challenge 18: Crewing the Spaceways

This is the 18th in a series of 365 Flash Fiction stories I’m writing from 2nd December 2012 until the 1st December 2013. It’s intent is to keep me writing throughout the year, and not just in November. you can find out more about the challenge here.

Crewing the Spaceways, by Jonathan L. Lawrence, 19th December 2012

Word count: 773

Theme: sci fi, star ship, memoirs of a space pirate, the small details, exploring a point, understanding

The story:

“Right, you take the left bank of the cooling systems, I’ll take the right,” the engineer, Chief Rawlings said to his young apprentice.

“What I don’t understand,” the apprentice, John Bernard started.

“What you don’t understand could fill a billion volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannia,and still need an extra forest for more paper,” the engineer said snappily.

“I’m sorry I said anything,” John said, feeling embarrassed. It was his first day on the job, and only his third hour into the shift, and Captain Arsené Frassin had already called duty stations to alert, there was something going on, not that anyone would tell John what. ‘For a pirate ship, sorry privateer ship, they were as tight lipped as any military star ship,’ he thought to himself.

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