Review of “The Frozen Sky: A Novel,” by Jeff Carlson

Several months ago I reviewed the short story The Frozen Sky, by Jeff Carlson. I loved it, and in an email to the author called it”a hard science-fiction that’s worthy of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. Recently, Jeff has published an expanded version of the story with the same name as a novel. Here’s my take.

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The novel is composed of roughly three sections. The first is largely identical to the short story, a description of a critically wounded astronaut attempting to escape from aliens on the moon Europa. Jeff’s original contribution is to have a narrator so badly damaged — blind, crippled, and bleeding — but possessing a space suit capable of both locomotion and artificial intelligence. The suit’s ability to “auto-attack” is placed aside the seemingly unthinking, untalking, and uncaring aliens — called starfish — who likewise appear to be incapable of sight, intelligence, or warmth, and whose reaction to the wounded astronaut is auto-attack.

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This section survives intact in the novel. As in the short story, it is amazing.

The second section is an extended description of politics between the European Space Agency, the Brazilian Space Agency, scientists on the moon Europe, and various others. This is by far the weakest section of the novel, and the long time it took me to finish the novel was due almost entirely to this portion.

As I told Jeff during my reading of the book, if I had been involved with the meetings that had gone into launching such a complex mission to an alien moon, I’d be willing to just nuke the starfish and get on with the original objectives. I wasn’t being entirely facetious. I work in corporate research & development, where my discovery of new things works hand-in-hand with furthering practical objectives. I am responsible for two major research efforts, and am familiar with the amount of “political?” work it takes to get many people with many different interests in agreement with a research direction. But the actions and thoughts of the characters in The Frozen Sky during this section did not appear realistic to me.

In my interview with the author, he said:

It’s my humble opinion that many people are stupid, inconsiderate, unimaginative, delusional, self-centered, greedy, or cruel. Heck, a lot of the time they’re some combination of all of the above.

I think human motivation is more complex and ambiguous than this. So it was more difficult for me to understand the actions of the characters than of the starfish, or of the AIs.

The last section of The Frozen Sky is a return to form. The last portion is the story of the ESA’s attempt to communicate with a group of starfish, which involves empathy with an alien intelligence. Basic assumptions — but not obvious ones — are shown to be incorrect, and the writing’s fast pace caries the reader along.

The weakness of the middle section of The Frozen Sky keeps me from being able to recommend the book. I loved the short story (read the review and buy it), and the last portion is enjoyable. Indeed, the last section could easily make a great short story, whether or not the author kept the same characters from early on. But my unusual position of being an applied researcher meant that passages that involved corporate politics did not have verisimilitude, and so hard to be trudged through.

On his blog, Jeff has an awesome collection of photos of the Jovian system, with captions and explanations.

I read The Frozen Sky in the Nook edition.