Critical Mass: A Novel (A Delta-v Novel)

Image of Critical Mass: A Novel (A Delta-v Novel)
Release Date: 
January 24, 2023
Reviewed by: 

Hard science fiction has a new virtuoso, and Critical Mass is a fine piece of futurism, startlingly entertaining and exceptionally thought provoking.”

When James Tighe, Jin Han, and Priya Chindarkar successfully return to Earth from the asteroid mining ship Konstantin, they vow to rescue the two crewmates they left behind, hundreds of millions of kilometers from home.

However, they discover that international politics, the catastrophic effects of climate change, and money—always money—produce a seemingly endless array of barriers to their rescue mission.

The only possible answer is to have themselves smuggled back into space, build a station on the other side of the moon, and use this facility to construct their own spacecraft.

This seemingly impossible set of tasks is the basis for Daniel Suarez’s sequel to his successful techno-thriller Delta-v (2019). As they navigate the web of political intrigue and tackle each technological challenge, the three space pioneers must combine their personal rescue mission with the demands of the most ambitious space project ever undertaken by the human race.

Critical Mass is hard science fiction at its best, a novel of trans-orbital trailblazing that stirs fond memories of Robert A. Heinlein’s “Future History” stories, Arthur C. Clarke’s tales of technological innovation, and countless articles promoting a futuristic vision of space expansion in Omni magazine.

A self-taught software developer with a successful career as a systems consultant, Suarez has done an excellent job researching his subject matter, which is astonishingly comprehensive in its scope, covering everything from mass-drivers on the lunar surface for harvesting raw materials to the perils of low-gravity plumbing.

Indeed, the sequence in which the team runs through their first trial run with Talos robots, the powerful humanoid telepresence machines they’ll use for remote work on the moon and in extra-vehicular activity, provides an excellent example of Suarez’s lively writing style with its combination of tech, fun, and stress.

Political intrigue leads to several attempts at sabotage, but Suarez hasn’t exploited this element as much as he could have, preferring instead to maintain his focus on the construction of Clarke Station, the technological problems to be solved along the way, and the stress-inducing delays caused to the work that needs to be done on their rescue ship.

Indeed, one constantly wonders, given the presence of potentially hostile international observers and the threat of outside attacks, where the group’s security might be hiding itself. At one point, Tighe comes across a woman sweeping for bugs, but she and her partner work only for the director of systems architecture and are not a factor in the story.

The author’s choice to minimize the thriller side of things in favor of the techno-science side might have been an unwise risk to take, sacrificing suspense and exciting action for extensive technical detail, were it not for the fact that Suarez seems to be an author who can write whatever he wants and have it come out engrossing, nail-biting, and engaging.

Admittedly, though, the lone exception is his explanation of the blockchain-based economic system being developed on Clarke Station, the Cis-lunar Commodity Exchange driven by it, and the crypto-currency and non-fungible tokens greasing the wheels. Suarez wisely kept this chapter to the final third of the novel, otherwise it might have slowed many readers down to a high-gravity crawl, losing more than a few of them in the process.

Nevertheless, this second installment in what promises to be an excellent series is something no sci-fi fan worth their sodium chloride will want to miss.

Hard science fiction has a new virtuoso, and Critical Mass is a fine piece of futurism, startlingly entertaining and exceptionally thought provoking.