Critical Mass by Daniel Suarez (book review).

The spaceship Konstantin successfully went to the asteroid Ryugu to mine its resources. Most of the crew managed to return home to Earth but only with the sacrifice of the two brave souls who stayed behind. Now the three who made it back are determined to return to space and bring their friends home, too.

Things have moved on while they’ve been away. Climate change is ravaging the world with unpredictable weather and sending economies tumbling and nations to war. Technologies that could send humanity to space are being stifled by tradition and regulation. With governments more concerned with who owns the materials mined in space, will they reach their friends in time?

I did not enjoy this book.

I did not realise ‘Critical Mass’ was a sequel. As I struggled through this book I had hopes of going back to the first in the series and finding it a great space frontier adventure. I will never read that book. I will keep close the few happy moments reading the prologue of ‘Critical Mass’ as the most enjoyable 10 pages in the whole book and, I presume, the series.

The premise is great. I was geared up for a tech thriller with humanity struggling to start expanding into space before Earth is destroyed by climate change. Two astronauts bravely maroon themselves to get the rest of their team home only to find themselves boarded by government forces.

This is not what ‘Critical Mass’ is about. ‘Critical Mass’ is about the team that arrived home safely and their valiant quest to gain venture capital, build a cryptocurrency based economy and have a legal fight with every nation state on the planet to rescue their friends.

Each chapter brings a new dump of information that I should have just skimmed. As interesting as I find the science, there are very few reasons for a fiction novel to need diagrams and tables. Especially right after a main character stops the exposition because he understands since he’s an astronaut. There is so much information and detail. Solar power arrays and rectennas, mass drivers and telepresence robots. Whole chapters devoted to them. Not when these technologies are being used but when they are being considered so everyone can nod and smile and be happy about the efficiency of this new invention, so much more advanced than what they dealt with before. If the information had been woven into a plot it could be fantastic.

The technology that began to take more and more focus was cryptocurrency and I began to feel very sorry for the author. Suarez’ obvious faith in the ability of cryptocurrency to save human civilisation was a sad counterpoint to those fraud indictments on the founder of the crypto-exchange all over the news.

This is a risk with a ‘near-ish’ future story, not everything you predict will follow the path you want. The other technologies Suarez details at length are so much more distant for the everyday non-scientist-non-engineer that they might almost be fiction. Cryptocurrency, which I still don’t fully understand despite the chapters devoted to it here, is a closer technology to most people so any flaws show up much more readily. Perhaps this is why humans in ‘Star Trek’ just didn’t use currency? Because ‘let’s go to space’ is exciting. ‘Let’s go to space and set up a stock exchange’ is not.

More than the info dumps. More than the tables and diagrams. More than anything else I was annoyed by one writing quirk. Just why does every character need to be given both their first and family names at the start of every single chapter? As one chapter begins a group of people walk into a room and it is like reading the text version of an airport announcement. The first two words of the first chapter are a name and that name is of an accountant who barely appears. The first two words of chapter 47 are a name, thankfully of a character who got a decent chunk of screen time. However, 430 pages into a novel I would hope the characters could stand out well enough to not need a name tag but they don’t. Even with their names pummelled into me at the beginning of every chapter they are all ‘that guy’ or ‘the lawyer dude’.

Suarez has written a libertarian drama where enterprising individuals strike back against big government and big money and build a free market utopia free of the corruption of Earth. Clearly, I did not enjoy this book. Perhaps you might. I would rather have read some of the books Suarez references as further reading. The research was well done but, if I wanted to read about facts and technical details, I’ll read some non-fiction.

I can’t think of any books to recommend based on this book. I am, however, going to give ‘The Martian’ by Andy Weir a re-read for that ‘marooned in space’ feel and maybe follow up with ‘A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear’ by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling to learn more about libertarianism.

LK Richardson

December 2022

(pub: Dutton/Penguin Books, 2023. 464 page hardback. Price: $28.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-59318-363-2)

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