Tuesday, October 7, 2014

"Portal" by Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor

(cover image from Amazon.com)

Portal (2013) is the third, and presumably final, volume of a SF trilogy by Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor. (The other two books in the series are Boundary and Threshold.)

In my review of the latter book, I noted that I enjoyed both volumes, but I kept thinking I should have liked them better. The story was great, but I found the characters less than completely appealing. And that's probably why it's taken me awhile to get around to reading this one.

But Portal is the best of the three, and a fine conclusion to the story. Partly, that's because it's not really character-based (so the characters aren't especially important in this one), and partly, it's because it starts in desperate circumstances, with a dozen characters marooned on Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter.

I thought the first two books started slowly - mostly because the characters never really grabbed me. But in this case, we already know the characters, and the focus of the book is on survival. Right from the start, they're in a great deal of danger, stuck with a wrecked ship on a hostile moon.

Another reason why I liked the book is because it reminded me - in a good way - of the classic science fiction of decades ago. The survivors are mostly scientists, and they have that same "can do" attitude of capable engineers which I always enjoyed in classic science fiction.

If there's a problem, you know they're going to find a solution. They're all very capable, they use their training and their minds, and they never give up. I like that!

No, I never object to capable characters. I like capable characters. My problem with the first two books was that they didn't seem particularly appealing - all being super-achievers without any significant problems at all. Indeed, they were so perfect at everything, they were almost supermen. (Why couldn't a superior engineer be a bad cook? Joking about the food would have at least made them seem human. But no, they're gourmet cooks, too.)

But that doesn't come up so much in this book. After all, we already know the characters. (Admittedly, I had a little trouble remember who was who, since it's been three and a half years since I read Threshold, but that wasn't particularly important.) And the fact that they're very capable at their jobs just makes sense. In fact, it would have been hard to believe if they hadn't been superbly capable in their own specialties.

And the characters were appealing in this book not just because of their "can do" attitude, but because, as scientists, they never stopped doing science. Even in desperate circumstances, they couldn't all stay busy all the time. And they were stranded in a location where no human being had ever been before.

So of course they're going to want to investigate. Scientists want to learn. They were all smart enough to understand priorities, but while working on the solutions to their immediate problems, they still wanted to do scientific research. That kind of attitude did make them appealing.

Madeline, the intelligence agent, was still pretty much an unbelievable super-hero, but I could shrug that off. And of course they're going to succeed, they're going to survive - most of them, certainly. That was never in doubt. It is fiction, after all.

But it was great fun watching them do it. Furthermore, the book - indeed, the whole trilogy - was fundamentally optimistic. This isn't just a survival story, but a story of discovery, too. Could our solar system have such wonderful surprises waiting to be discovered?

Well,... probably not. But the possibility is always there. And with science, with new technologies, and with determination, we could find out. The journey will be valuable enough in itself, whatever we discover.

Note: My other book reviews are here.

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