Islands in the Sky

January 5, 2014
Stanley Schmidt

Islands in the Sky is a collection of short articles from Analog, discussing the scientific, technical and economic background of space colonization. It's edited by Stanley Schmidt (editor of Analog) and Robert Zubrin (astronautics engineer and writer), the latter of whom I already knew as the writer of The Case for Mars (which I'll review here later). Schmidt states on the back cover blurb that this isn't science fiction, but "things we can do".

Unfortunately, this is its major failing: If read as a straight-faced, sober presentation on space colonization, the chapters about interstellar aliens, hypothetical "negative matter" and similar highly speculative topics seem absurd. On the other hand, if read as a collection of science fiction idea fuel, the chapters arguing the industry benefits of space colonization and the highly "down-to-earth" (if you will excuse the pun) treatment of Mars issues seem pedestrian and dull.

There are lots of figures. Unfortunately, nearly all of them are so poorly done that they look like the hellish spawn of a particularly abominable MS Paint session, and they confuse more than they aid.

There were three chapters I found compelling: Inward Ho, Colonizing the Outer Solar System and Islands in the Sky. The first and last chapters are the worst: They tackle economic issues, and are written in infuriatingly patronizing language. The latter one inadvertently seems to make the case that capitalism won't take us to the stars (I say inadvertently, since the author is, of course, a libertarian). It also mentions, in passing, the possibility of sticking all the annoying unemployed people on a starship and sending them off into space (incidentally, given the kind of drive systems you'd need on a starship, this would be equivalent to handing them a high-yield hydrogen bomb and telling them to fuck off).

Most of the book was best described as "meh". Robert L. Forward writes well (as always), but his chapters seemed oddly out of place. There was some good Mars material by Zubrin - but it appears to be condensed material from The Case for Mars.

Not exactly a waste of time, but there are much better books both on space fact and on science fiction. This tries to be both, and unfortunately doesn't do either convincingly.

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