Critical Mass [a review]
I have a love-hate relationship with the genre of "science fiction." On the one hand, I love it because it can represent the best of humanity's ability to dream and imagine the future. On the other hand, it can be such a broad genre that publishers are willing to call anything sci-fi that has even the most minimal "science vibe." There's very little that could be called "science" in Marvel movies, Star Wars, etc., but they're still considered sci-fi even though they're more "space fantasy" than anything.
Daniel Suarez's new novel, Critical Mass, the follow-up to his 2019 Delta-V, is delightfully science-y to the extent that I'd almost categorize it as "eng-fi" or something. He clearly takes great joy in thinking through the question, "How could human beings plausibly get a foothold in space?" Delta-V begins to answer that question with, "asteroid mining," but his new novel follows upon that by trying to imagine what a sustainable space-based resource economy might look like.
One of my favorite sci-fi series, The Expanse by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, sits in a similar spot in that it realistically depicts what a multi-planetary human civilization could look like. One of the things I've always wished for was a sort of "prequel series" to The Expanse that details how humans get from Point A (now) to Point B (a couple hundred years in the future where human beings are eking out lives on rocks in space). I'm happy to say that Suarez's books largely fill that gap for me, and I hope that he keeps it going.
One weakness of Critical Mass is that he sometimes spends so much time on the science and engineering problems at hand that the plot and characterizations suffer. Indeed, I found the first handful of chapters (that are largely about the characters and their lives back on earth) to be rather stilted and slow going. But when they finally get up into space, it's clear that Suarez is getting to the part that he's really interested in.
Another weakness of the plot (at least in my opinion) is how much Suarez makes of blockchain technology. Cryptocurrencies and NFTs figure prominently, and it feels rather obvious that the book was mostly written before the massive crypto crashes of 2022. At one point he tries to distance his use of NFTs from the laughingstock they've become by saying something to the effect that they've matured quite a bit since the silly uses of the early 21st century. The overall effect of crypto in the book, though, is that it simply makes it harder to suspend disbelief.
All that said, I did enjoy the book on its own terms. I've read better plots and I've connected with more richly-detailed characters, but the appeal of the book (for me) was simply the engineering curiosity Suarez puts down on paper. I found his depiction of a fledgling space economy to be for the most part compelling and plausible!
DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.