Warp Speed by Travis S. Taylor
Cover art by David Mattingly
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Dr. Neil Anson Clemons was born on July 20, 1969, at the very moment the lunar module Eagle set down at Mare Tranquillitatis on the Moon. His first name comes from the commander of that mission, Neil Armstrong, and he shares a middle name with one of the great writers of science fiction, Robert A(nson) Heinlein. So it seems that he was fated from birth to become an astronaut or someone who pushes the boundaries of the scientific and technological possible. Or maybe both.
But when we first meet him, he's in the middle of a Mixed Martial Arts competition -- he's not only a polymath physicist, but also a top-notch athlete. (Some readers have complained that this aspect of his character is improbable, but not only does the author combine similar talents, but the reviewer can think of several other people who combined both top-notch technical minds and athletic skill, including microchip co-inventor and Intel co-founder Robert Noyce).
Except things don't go quite so well at this match, and the next thing our hero knows, he's lying flat on his back with his trainer checking him for concussion and other internal injuries. And yes, he's banged up pretty badly, enough that he's not going to be competing -- or doing any other strenuous activity -- for a while. And although he is well enough to make the trip up to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center for a big conference, he's still a bit strung out on painkillers.
So when gets on the airplane and the seat beside him is taken by a pleasant woman in USAF uniform with the insignia of a lt. colonel, he strikes up a conversation with her. Turns out her name's Tabitha Ames, and she's an astronaut and a single mother. She's riding commercial because she's already got her air hours for the week, and she's quite happy to talk about her experiences and possible strategies for Anson to get his dream of flying into space.
And then they arrive at the conference and everything seems to be going well -- until it's time for Col. Ames to make her presentation. It's bad news -- NASA is cutting the budget for the advanced propulsion research department, the one our hero had hoped would provide funding for his research into theories of warped space, theories that might one day open the door to reactionless drives, even faster-than-light travel to the stars. So he's feeling like crud as he heads home, trying to tell himself that he'll find the necessary grants to fund his research somewhere.
Then he gets home to find a substantial number of messages on his answerbot. The ones from his mother are annoyances -- he can tell her a dozen times the dates of a planned trip and she'll still forget and call him repeatedly, becoming more annoyed each time. But of far more interest are the ones from some colleagues, and the one from Col. Ames.
His grad students have developed a nanomachine which can harvest Casimir Effect energy, a form of zero-point energy -- which means that they may well have solved the energy problem for his space-warping theories. Of course he still needs to find a way to solve the equations for the space-warp and then build an actual device that will be able to warp space.
And Col. Ames -- or Tabitha, as she tells him to call her -- is interested in more in-depth discussion of those theories. While they are running some of the lab apparatus, they see a flash of blue light -- Cerenkov radiation. It's the result of an electron traveling faster than the speed of light in the local medium -- which means that they may have been warping space for the past several days and never knew it. So now they just need to be able to scale things up to a device that can be loaded onto a Space Shuttle orbiter (this novel was written before the 2011 retirement of the three surviving orbiters) in order to run the real experiment outside Earth's gravity well.
That means scaling up their whole setup, including hiring several other people. Two are physics grad students, but one's a former general contractor and all around handyman by the name of Johnny Cache who also happens to know several programming languages. He shows them such things as when it's worth it to salvage something and when one is money ahead to just chuck it and buy a fresh one.
But not everything goes smoothly -- and sometimes it goes anything but. One day there's a horrendous crash from the lab. Anson and Jim run in to find Rebecca drenched in blood. It turns out that their energy-harvesting devices can get into a state in which they're all resonating together in a way that amplifies their power to destructive levels. It's similar to the reason why soldiers never march in step over a bridge.
Finally, with all the technical problems resolved, they're able to put together a working experimental device that will be able to go up. Somebody has to go up with it to do the assembly and final calibration before it's activated, and since Anson invented it, he's the obvious choice. So he's busy with training to prepare himself for the trip.
And then comes the big day, the one he's dreamed and planned for since he was old enough to be aware of the space program. Except things don't go quite as he'd dreamed -- some of it is just changes in procedure since the wild and wooly days of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, and some of it is a thoroughly nasty case of Space Adaptation Syndrome -- space sickness, as it's commonly known. At least by the time they get to the ISS, he's over that misery enough that he can actually enjoy his visit and compare the strategies of the various nations' space programs.
Finally it's time to set up the space-warping experiment. Anson and Tabitha do the EVA to assemble the three modules that will create the spacecraft, and are just finishing the final calibrations when there's a flash behind them. The Space Shuttle orbiter has exploded, killing all aboard.
Not that Anson and Tabitha are in much better shape without their ride home. The ISS can send the Russian Soyuz lifeboat to pick them up and take them home, but they don't have enough oxygen left to survive until it arrives. If they pool their oxygen, one of them can survive -- which means they have to figure out who lives and who dies. Being very much in love, both of them want to save the other, until Anson lays down the law and insists that Tabitha must survive to see to her daughter's upbringing -- and then they realize that they've got a technology that can take them home faster than any Soyuz spacecraft. They just have to recalibrate the warp jump to go straight down to Earth's surface.
Because the effects of interactions with the atmosphere are going to be nasty, Anson aims for the New Mexico desert, hoping that he'll just smash a few cacti. However, he's having to do all the calculations in his head, and doesn't get some of the rotational and frame-dragging effects right. So instead they end up in the pine thickets of Florida, not far from Eglin Air Force Base, creating several large tornadoes in the process.
But their troubles aren't over yet, because the energy collection systems have been knocked awry by the jolt of a hard landing and are going into a runaway resonance that will end in an enormous explosion. They manage to acquire a portable generator big enough to short out all the boards -- but when they arrive to do the deed, they discover that they're not the only people interested in it.
Remember Johnny Cache? Didn't he seem to be a little too good to be true? Turns out he was -- he's sold out to the Chinese, and he was why the Space Shuttle blew up, not anything to do with interactions between the orbiter's systems and the warp-drive experiment. He'd managed to get a bomb planted on the orbiter, timed to explode shortly after the calibration was complete and Anson and Tabitha returned for their flight home -- but because they helped out with a problem on the ISS, the release of the warp drive experiment was delayed just enough to throw the schedule off. Now Johnny needs to eliminate the witnesses and complete his act of treachery.
By this point both Anson and Tabitha are mad -- friends of theirs died because of this man's greed and selfishness, dammit. So they push their bodies to the very limit to fight and prevail -- and then the true battle begins. For although Dirty Johnny didn't manage to steal the spacecraft, he did pass enough to his handlers that they've been able to build a sort of warp-missile. When cities start disappearing, Anson and his loyal circle know it's time to act, and to scrub the world clean of rotten dictatorships.
It's interesting to see how many science fiction homages and in-jokes are scattered through the book. The references to Star Trek and Heinlein's novels are so obvious that it's clearly deliberate homage, but some of the others aren't so certain. Has the author read James P. Hogan's The Genesis Machine, which also involved a major reinterpretation of physics bringing about enormous technological advancements and stopping an incipient war (albeit in a weapon-that's-not-a-weapon techno-Akido way)? And was the building turned into a spaceship deliberately based upon the one in Gordon Dickson's Arcturus Landing, or was that a coincidence?
In any case, it's a great read, and there's even some interesting scientific adventures after the grand battle is joined and successfully fought. I'm hoping that the author will continue writing in this fictional universe and show us some of the other developments of a technology that was admittedly a hasty jerry-rigged solution to a crisis.
Review posted December 22, 2011.
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