Critical Mess

Provocative science can’t rescue clunky sci-fi novel by Daniel Suarez

Surprisingly, for a book in a series committed to telling an optimistic story of how humanity gets its start in space, Daniel Suarez’s Critical Mass focuses mainly on the absolute mess we are making down on Earth.

Though having very little in common with Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock, Suarez’ series agrees with Stephenson’s assessment that the world is doomed, that governments cannot or will not move fast enough to save it and our only hope is the successful intervention of some well-intentioned billionaire. Suarez takes us into deep space, in search of a solution.

Where Delta-v, the first book in the series, followed explorers to the distant asteroid Ryugu, Critical Mass finds those successful explorers-cum-deep space miners first back on Earth, then out near the moon. And where eccentric crypto billionaire Nathan Joyce drove the plot in person at the outset, here his proxies must carry out his visionary plans for a human future.

Critical Mass

Unfortunately for Suarez, if we ever had belief in the vision and the capabilities of billionaires it is all-but gone. The book starts to test our credulity with its premise of a selfless, visionary billionaire and strains it further when Joyce’s adventurers continue to succeed as far as they do. Even by the book’s own standards, the series of dependent successes necessary to reach the next plot point, is incredible.

That implausibility hardly matters though. Critical Mass is a clunky novel that wants to talk about how to establish new political realities out in space, beyond dysfunctional geopolitics. The title comes from the two significant hurdles the adventurers must overcome. First, any significant space power needs literal mass of materials to build real estate and, to avoid using up prohibitive energy in bringing it up the gravity well, they must find a critical mass of that material in space.

Second, to maintain enough equilibrium between the major Earth powers an independent space power needs to have a critical mass of economic power so it can strike out on its own and, powered by a crypto-driven stock exchange (SBF!), become an independent entity. There’s a moving refugee backstory to the man who makes it to space to set up the actual system.

In general, though, feelings and relationships matter far less in this sequel than they did in Delta-v—which started with an American Idol-type competition to find astronauts, followed by a Real World-type situation where the successful candidates all had to live together in a tiny, dangerous space for several years. In Critical Mass, protagonist James Tighe (pronounced “Tie,” but usually just called J.T.) just needs to push through a series of unlikely events to save himself, his friends, Joyce’s project and, incidentally, the entire planet.

With his novels Influx and, the best-selling Daemon in movie development, Suarez is one of today’s science fiction writers hoping to be the marquee name behind tomorrow’s next technothriller blockbuster. Critical Mass has some thought-provoking ideas, and – especially as J.T. and friends break into an Indian rocket launch — some exciting and deliberately cinematic action, but this is not the work to make Suarez the next Michael Crichton.

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Dan Friedman

Dan Friedman is the former executive editor of the Forward and the author of an ebook about Tears for Fears, the 80s rock band. He has a PhD from Yale and writes about books, whisky and the dangers of online hate. Subscribe to his newsletter.

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