Saturday, August 13, 2016

Kris Longknife: Daring by Mike Shepherd aka Mike Moscoe

Rating: WORTHY!

My plan to review all eleven of the Kris Longknife series I have - ten of which I read some time ago, continues. This was volume nine and finally we get an entry in the series which truly has a different plot from the previous eight cookie-cutter versions. After a couple of real duds, the author gets back on track and they go after these aliens which the Itechee have encountered to their sorrow. Nothing is known about them, but the expedition discovers they're humanoid, uncommunicative, and ruthless.

So, after dilly-dallying around for the first half of the novel, Kris & crew find themselves not "halfway around the Galaxy" (as the book itself and far too many reviewers assert), but a small fraction of the way around the rim. Given that the galaxy is a hundred thousand light years across, it's 314,000 or so light years around, making Kris & crew's paltry trip of ~2,500 light years less than ten percent of the circumference assuming they actually have been arcing around the rim and not zig-zagging back and forth in the same region.

I was glad that in this volume we get back to the topic raised two or three volumes earlier, wherein the Itechee, an alien race with whom humanity went to war eighty years previously, came to humanity to ask for help in resolving a problem of disappearing Itechee space craft. This move was highly improbable given the comnplete lack of contact between the two species for the intervening near-century, but so are all the stories in this series! Here, the Itechee representatives rejoin Kris & crew and they all set off jumping through one wormhole after another in pursuit of these predictably humanoid aliens. When they encounter evidence of their presence, it's in the form of a thoroughly devastated planet.

In a plot straight out of the original Independence Day movie, a people who seem intent upon destroying every sign of civilization in their immediate vicinity in space turn out to be their quarry. This one planet Kris & crew encounter has been razed to the height of complete destruction. It looks like the major political centers were nuked, other major cities destroyed by impact from meteors, individuals on the ground massacred, and the planet strip-mined for resources.

The poor innocent victims were insectoid, which makes little sense except in that sci-fi writers can't seem to come up with original ideas for aliens without rooting them on one of the major classes of animal life on earth and of these, typically vertebrate ones, such as mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian, or fish, or at a real stretch, insects. The TV show, (Star Trek) Enterprise outdid itself in this regard by having a season arc tied to the Xindi, a civilization consisting of all of these classes!

Of course the retort to that is that it's hard to write a story of alien interaction if we don't anthropomorphize the aliens, so you pays your money and you takes your choice I guess, but there is a large number of classes of life on Earth, many of which are quite literally alien to us, so I'd urge writers to dig a little deeper next time. The problem with Shepherd's aliens is that they're amazingly like insects on Earth, but he claims that some of the sea-going versions they observe have "calcified skeletons" which makes zero sense, since insects have chitin (a derivative of glucose) exoskeletons, not calcium endoskeletons.

Worse than this, he writes that the people on land - the insect people - have been killed by Sarin gas. On Earth, Sarin acts on acetylcholine in the nervous system and even though it breaks down rapidly, it doesn't break down rapidly enough for you to survive even a tiny dose, especially if the dose enters your skin. Vertebrates did not evolve in quite the same way as invertebrates, so the effect of modern versions of these chemicals is debatable, even though the original form of it (Tabun, or GA) was actually developed to control insects.

The problem with Shepherd's depiction of it, though, is that Sarin is a chiral molecule - that is, it has handedness, like humans might be left-handed or right handed, so unless it can fit like a key into the molecular lock in these alien species, it's simply not going to work. Sci-fi author Larry Niven understands this and exploits it in his novel Destiny's Road (from what I understand - I've not yet read that novel), where the planet humans wish to exploit has proteins of the wrong chirality for human digestive systems to make use of.

The chirality of molecules is actually a fascinating facet of chemical science. Note that I am not a chemist and know only what little I've read on this topic, but one interesting example is that right-handed or D-glucose is a sugar than can be processed in the human body, whereas L-glucose cannot. These two "mirror' versions apparently taste the same, and at one time it was thought that L-glucose would make a great sugar substitute. Even diabetics could use it, but it doesn't occur naturally, and it proved far too expensive to manufacture. Another popular example is limonene. D-limonene has a citrus smell, but L-limonene smells like turpentine even though the two molecules are exactly the same other than their chirality! You definitely don't want the manufacturer of your favorite brand of orange yogurt to mix up those two!

But I digress. The story didn't really pick up until about halfway through and then it took a while to really get going to the point where Kris & crew actually encounter the aliens, launch a surprise attach using questionable neutron bombs, and then high-tail it while the aliens chase them and beat up on them. Of course her escape is no more in question than is the destruction of her fleet, so there's no tension. That return journey is rather drawn-out and then inexplicably, they try to arrest Kris on her return to Wardhaven space, which is insane. How they even knew what had happened at that point is a mystery, but I was skimming and skipping boring bits here and there, so maybe I missed it.

The neutron star bombs are questionable not because they were used to literally destroy half the aliens' massive ship and kill what we're told is billions of these savage ruthless aliens, but questionable as to whether such a bomb (each contained a small piece of a neutron star) is even feasible, and even if it is, why is it any more powerful than a nuclear bomb? It made little sense.

Overall though, despite the usual ridiculous and utterly tedious behavior of Kris's crew which was, I'm glad to report minimized here, and despite the utterly irresponsible act of transporting Abby's teen niece into battle - again - this was a definite improvement on the two previous volumes. I am done with this series though, once I've finished the next two because it's so predictable and so lacking in inspiration and inventiveness. This one though, was okay - a worthy read.