Degrading Orbits by Bradley Horner: What comes next for the Star-Crossed Axel and Helen

Degrading OrbitsDegrading Orbits

by Bradley Horner
Series: Darkside Earther, #2

Kindle Edition, 225 pg.
Read: November 12 – 13, 2018

So, in each of the three books by Horner that I’ve read, he throws his readers deep into a technologically-enhanced future that requires a very specialized vocabulary. The books are chock full of what I’ll be calling SF hooptedoodle, which is cool — it can be intimidating at times, it can be overwhelming at times, but it suits his fiction well. Now, in Darkside Earther (this book’s predecessor), Horner told a sweet teen love story surrounded by SF hooptedoodle. Degrading Orbits, on the other hand, frequently feels like a swamp of SF hooptedoodle with a little bit of a human story here and there.

This is all about the fallout from the climatic events from Darkside Earther, how Axel’s parents are trying to save him, the Ring, and their careers (not necessarily in that order). They do this by putting Axel under the care of a security team to protect, heal and train him into being what his parents need him to be.

The biggest part of this protection and training takes the form of cutting off all communication with Helen and the rest of his friends and former life. Axel obviously doesn’t want this, but is unable to do anything else.

Thankfully, Helen, his friends and the large gaming community they’re part of are busy trying to hack into his brain — among other things. We don’t get to see most of what they’re up to, but we do get to hear summaries of it in the brief moments that Axel and Helen get to spend communicating. And it sounds very promising.

My biggest problem with this book is that Helen and Axel have practically zero agency — what they do has almost no impact at all on the events of this novel. And the events of the novel aren’t affected all that much (with one exception) by anything Axel does. Now, it’s pretty clear that what they did do in this novel will have huge impact on what’s to come. But here it was less useful than using a piece of crabgrass to pick a deadbolt. I know that’s how things have to go sometimes, but it’s more than frustrating in a novel.

I liked these characters going in and was looking forward to seeing how they recovered from the previous book. So I was a little disappointed in this one, but I do have every confidence that this was necessary to set up a great finale. I’m looking forward to being proven right. In the meantime, I had enough fun watching Axel get put through his paces and Helen trying to save the day. I even enjoyed trying to suss out what was going on with the SF hooptedoodle.

In the end, while this didn’t work for me as much as I wanted it to, I still enjoyed it and am looking forward to seeing how Horner wraps up this trilogy — I’m sure that this book set up things for that conclusion in such a way that the things that I wasn’t crazy about in Degrading Orbits won’t be as prominent in it. It’s a good book, even with my quibbles — but it could’ve been a little better.


3 Stars


Darkside Earther by Bradley Horner: A Sweet Story of First Love Wrapped in a SF Shell

Darkside EartherDarkside Earther

by Bradley Horner
Series: Darkside Earther, #1

Kindle Edition, 221 pg.
Read: September 1 – 3, 2018

I really didn’t think it could get any better than this.

But as with all tales of happiness, there’s always a floating cloud of crap over our heads just waiting for the touch of gravity to send it falling.

Axel is a not a typical teen, but he’s not a-typical. Hundreds years in the future, he lives on a massive space station in orbit above Earth. His parents are people of influence and importance on the station, and he’s being raised to join them. But that’s not at all what he wants. He’s a middling student, at best, all he really wants to do is make art and fall in love — hopefully with one particular girl from his classes. Maybe play a few video games (they’re far more immersive than anything we can possibly come up with — and are called something else, but they’re essentially what I used to play on an Intellivision).

Helen doesn’t have his artistic inclinations or abilities, but she shares his political apathy, his love of video games, his odd sense of humor and other interests (I was tempted to say that she shares his obsession with her appearance, but that’s not entirely fair to her). Her family is historically (and currently) a pretty Big Deal on Earth. Her immediate family is on this space station in part to work on behalf of the people on Earth. I don’t have as strong of a sense of her as I do Axel — at least not one I could express. That’s primarily on me — but it’s also part of the book, it’s Axel’s story, and we know him much better.

The book begins spending a little time with their courtship after setting the stage — it’s very easy to get caught up in the happiness and forget about that floating cloud of crap. Then they hit a pretty major road-bump — and then just when you get caught up in their clever ways around their obstacles, life for everyone on the station plunges into chaos.

Some bar owner once said, “it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of … little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world” with an eye to the horrors of World War II around him. Axel and Helen have a bigger conflict, and more suffering, around them — and their problems are even smaller in comparison. But that won’t stop you from being drawn to their plight (and their joy, determination, and courage, too). What these two (and their friends) go through is enough to derail relationships, families, movements — and while you’d understand why both of them would bail on their romance, you can’t help but root for these crazy kids.

It would’ve been understandable, and so very easy, to turn the parents into the villains of the piece — even just one set. But Horner resisted that, and even has Axel realizing they’re all just doing what they think is right and best — even if that’s diametrically opposed to what their children want/believe.

This isn’t technically YA, but it’s YA-friendly. Maybe even MG-friendly, come to think of it. It’s suitable for SF readers of all ages, let’s just say. Horner writes like the best SF writers used to in a way that’s approachable and appealing to all audiences. I wish more did that. I could say a lot about the science of the space station — and the cultures created by it, both in orbit and on the ground; or the politics; or the technology; the human biology . . . basically the SF-ness of it. I’m not going to, because of time, space required — and frankly, the human elements, the characters are what counts.

I wasn’t that sure this book was going to work for me, but I’m glad I gave it a chance, because this thing won me over (pretty quickly, I should add) — it had to be Axel and his way of looking at life that drew me in and then pretty much everything else kept me there. It’s hopeful, almost optimistic (given the harshness of the reality of humanity’s situation, that’s an accomplishment), you can enjoy huge swaths of it. It’s a love story, it’s the beginning of a SF epic, and you will fall under its spell if you give it half a chance. There are some big ideas here, but it’s a pretty small story, where people and their feelings are more important (and more interesting) than conflict, technological wonders, and everything else.


4 Stars

Saul by Bradley Horner


by Bradley Horner
Series: The Great Curve, #1
Kindle Edition, 182 pg.
Read: July 13 – 14, 2017

It just wasn’t fair. This whole fucking situation was downright ironic. The last eighty years had been a non-stop panic about righting all of their ancestor’s wrongs, a comeback after the nearly complete catastrophic dieback right before the turn of the last century.

Hadn’t they’d re-seeded the plains and the oceans? They had tried to make amends, hadn’t they? And apparently, the Earth was just a tiny bit slow on the uptake if this an attempt to punish them, that no, they weren’t forgiven, and no amount of flowers would ever be accepted. It was like the Earth was out to destroy their gardens just because they’d destroyed hers.

It turns out, no matter what kind of political, economic, scientific, or social utopia you create, the natural world around you isn’t obligated to pay attention or cut you some slack.

Saul describes what Saul Rothe goes through in the 28 minutes where the Earth experiences an earthquake more widespread than anyone’s experienced, resulting in devastation I can’t describe. Saul’s basically wrapping up professorial duties for the day, chatting with his wife while she’s at work, checking on his daughter and preparing to go home when the quake hits. Basically, at this point, the infrastructure that humanity depends on fails, all of it.

Saul does everything he can to get to his daughter and ensure her safety, but just before he can, their apartment building collapses with her in it. Saul, who’s been coming from a tower far above throws himself down, following her, doing what he can to save her. Ignoring the wide-scale destruction and suffering all around him (maybe even adding too it unintentionally). To do so, he has to pull out every technological/future science trick he knows, invent a couple of new ones, violate standards, regulations, etc. By doing all this, he becomes a global celebrity and example to others — leading many to mount their own rescue attempts to save those around them from the calamity.

Clarke’s Third Law states, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” We’ve all heard that a million times, and while reading this book, I realized how handy that is for SF writers (I’m sure I’m not the first to realize this). You just imagine a technology impossibly advanced, and you can use it like magic. That’s precisely what Horner does here — and it works out pretty well for him.

Saul does so many things that defy physics (well, as I understand them — apparently, Montgomery Scott was wrong, and you can change the laws of physics), especially time. I had so many notes along the lines of “too much talky-talk, and not enough rescuing here,” only to see that a couple of seconds had passed — part of the tech allows Saul and others to have long conversations about . . . . well, all sorts of things, while he falls, taking no time at all.

The world-building was amazing — it’s very easy to see, from the world he describes, the language he uses (much of which is defined in the very necessary glossary), to the technology, to . . . seriously, everything. There are very few SF novels with as fully-realized worldbuilding as Horner has pulled off here. That said, he could’ve done a better job communicating it all (or even a substantial portion of it all) to his readers. I’m not saying I need pages and pages, or even multiple paragraphs, detailing the history of why object X developed in this way. But a line or two here and there just to fill out our understandings would’ve been nice. Could I follow it enough to stick with the story? Yeah. Could I easily describe it to anyone else? No.

In the end, the SF story just wasn’t my cup of tea — I got it, well most of it, anyway — but I just didn’t like it. The Science was too abstract, too . . . “sufficiently advanced” for me to really enjoy. However, and this is the important part, the story about a father throwing everything he had at saving his daughter — not caring for his health, reputation, safety, future, or society as a whole’s health, future, safety — I absolutely liked. There are going to be scads of people that eat this up — and plenty of people that will muddle through the Science-y bits for the really good characters and story.

Give this a shot folks, it’s worth the effort — and, while I always want to hear what you have to say about a book, I’m extra curious about what others think of this one. Let’s fill up the comment section.


3.5 Stars