A Tunnel in the Sky

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The Near Earth Mysteries
by Martin L. Shoemaker

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted September 7, 2020
Edits & Addendum on September 9

1: The Last Dance / 2: The Last Campaign

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The Last Dance was published last November, but I got the ebook through Amazon's First Reads program the month before that. With so many other books on my TBR pile I put it off…until Net Galley offered an ARC of its sequel, which comes out next month. Both Amazon and Goodreads identify it as the Near Earth Mysteries #1, but it could have also been #1.4, or alternately called "The Chronicles of Nick Aames." It's not really a novel, but rather what is known as a fix-up, collecting previous stories and tying them together with framing sequences. As far as I've been able to determine, only three of them had previously seen print, all in Analog, with no indication if the others are new or had been written earlier but not accepted for publication.

Nicolau Aames is a member of the International Space Corps, veteran of the second Mars landing, the Bradbury 2 mission. He later serves as captain of the Aldrin Express, a "cycler" that continuously travels between Earth and Mars, using gravity assist maneuvers around Earth, never stopping, never landing on either planet or docking at any orbital facility. Shuttles from Earth, Mars, and Farpoint Station (at the Lagrange 2 point) ferry passengers, equipment, and other freight to and from the cycler. The ship is named for the man who proposed such a vehicle, Buzz Aldrin, whom the author met at a space conference after being a finalist in a writing competition. The winner of that contest could not attend, but requested that Shoemaker read his acceptance speech. The cycler concept was originally presented by Aldrin in 1985, with "Cyclic Trajectory Concepts," which you can read in a downloadable pdf offered by the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. The shuttles to and from Mars intersect the Aldrin on its outbound journey, after which it travels well beyond the red planet before losing its acceleration and beginning its return to Earth. By that time Mars is past Aldrin's trajectory, so there is no transfer between them on the cycler's inbound journey. A second cycler is in the planning stages, to be named Collins, which would intersect with Mars on its inbound path, allowing for a shorter time period for scientists and explorers to stay on Mars. I'm assuming a previous ship had been named Armstrong, but if so that was well before Nick Aames career began, and it was not a cycler.

The framing story is from the perspective of Park Yerim, an Inspector General of the System Initiative. Her promotion to full IG status comes immediately upon her orders to catch the shuttle to the Aldrin from Farpoint. If she misses that shuttle it will be eighteen months before the next opportunity to rendezvous with the cycler. Captain Aames has been accused of not complying with orders from the Admiralty, and Park is tasked with deposing Aames and other witnesses to determine if he should be court martialed. Several others from the Admiralty, and another ISC astronaut, are on the same shuttle, so Park hears several opinions of Aames long before she meets him. Aames was not unknown to her. Everyone knew of his heroics (and some knew of his insubordination) during the Bradbury 2 mission, after which he was on desk duty for several years before he took the captaincy of the Aldrin. Park needs to get a measure of the man before she confronts him directly, so she conducts interviews with other crew members, many of whom had a long association with Aames. The first to tell one story about him is the ship's medical officer, who served with him on the Bradbury 2 mission. "Racing to Mars" appeared in Analog in September 2015, but it wasn't the first Aames story. That was 2013's "Murder on the Aldrin Express," which comes about halfway into this book. I won't give details about either story, especially not "Murder," but I will say that title is incorrect in two particulars. Most of the stories, and the interstitial comments, concern the rigid nature of Aames' command style. He is known as a harsh disciplinarian, relentlessly driving his subordinates in both training exercises and official duties. A high percentage of those serving under him request transfers, but those that remain boast the highest efficiency ratings in all of the ISC.

Since this is a random collection of stories told out of sequence, and written at different times, it is uneven. I'm not sure if any were re-written for this publication, but the style differs due to various narrators, and in some cases the stories are related second-hand, something told to them by others. I rated this 4 stars on Goodreads, while a few of the segments might warrant a higher score. One thing that works well is that we learn about Nick long before we find out the actions that brought on the investigation. The number of previous times he had been insubordinate, bending the rules when it suited him, paints a picture of a man intent on doing what is right (at least as he sees it), of discovering the truth, without regard to how that shakes up the establishment. He drove his subordinates hard, but once he had built a team he could trust, he was fiercely loyal them. In regards the out of order sequence, the last of the flashbacks to Nick's previous life, "The Last Dance," was the earliest, when he was just a teen in Alabama. He came from a family that had no respect for him, which resulted in him being very insular, not caring about friends, only in doing whatever it took to overcome that past. Nick is not a character easy to like, in some cases not even easy to respect, no matter how many others his life touched do respect him.

Nick Aames had once said, "What kind of captain worthy of the title would want duty like [the Aldrin] when there are worlds to explore?" And yet he eventually took that position. Why? What would drive a man with such ambition to accept what amounted to mere shuttle duty? How could such a man also instill such fierce loyalty among his crew when none of them claim to be his friend, nor he claim any are his friends, in fact many come close to saying they hate him? In addition to the complex interpersonal relationships, this is also a high concept Hard-SF story, reminiscent of some of the first books I read in the genre. There are call backs to that era, with one character's first name being Anson, Robert Heinlein's middle name, along with the ships named after historical space explorers (and Bradbury). There is also the politics of space, with the Initiative trying to balance the needs of the Admiralty and the ISC, as well as a growing union known as the Space Professionals, all of which affect the private sectors of science and commerce. I can't say how I would have reacted if the stories had been presented as just a collection, in the chronological sequence of their occurence in Nick's life. In some ways I think that would have been preferable…except for Park Yerim, who is just as interesting a character. I hope this is not the last we read about her. I've just glanced at the beginning of the next book, and Nick does appear, but I don't know if it's another story (or stories) from earlier in his career, or if it follows the conclusion of this book. The former might make more sense, but if it's the latter we may get to see (former) Admiral Rosalia Morais again, which I would welcome. I'm interested either way, and The Last Campaign will be my next read.


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Posted September 9, 2020
Thanks to Net Galley for the advance e-book of The Last Campaign, which comes out October 6. I got part of my wish in this second book. It does take place after all the events in the first, and Ex-Admiral Rosalia Morais is not only a prominent character, she is the first person narrator. Park Yerim gets a couple of brief mentions but doesn't make an appearance. Maybe later if this series continues. It is a novel, and it lives up to the series title of Near Earth Mysteries, whereas there were only a couple of mysteries in the stories of The Last Dance. Rosalia and Nick had a troubled past. The story of their meeting and developing relationship was told in "Brigas Nunca Mais," the third story that had previously appeared in Analog. That title was also the title of a song, to which they had danced on numerous occasions. It's Portuguese for "no more fights." Ironic then that they fought on several occasions before and later. They broke off their engagement, both had other relationships, but are now back together on Mars. It is implied that Nick had manipulated things to get off the Aldrin, which is now recognized as an independent political entity and known as Aldrin City. It's not clear if Rosalia lied for him to accomplish that task, or whether she did it out of love, to protect him from prosecution.

There are multiple mysteries, but they all tie into a much larger conspiracy, although it takes a long time to recognize all the threads. Rosalia and Nick are back together, doing independent contract work, planning on starting a Mars survival school, now that the population of scientists and explorers is growing. Maxwell City, named for the commander of the Bradbury 2 mission, boasts a population of more than 50,000. Nick is known as one of the founders, even though he tries to downplay that, since he had been away from Mars for nearly 20 years. In the opening chapter they find the body of a friend who had been missing, unaware that his death would lead to a vast conspiracy. Shortly after that, Anthony Holmes, mayor of Maxwell City, and a man Nick had mentored many years before, asks Nick to become Sheriff, to investigate other mysterious deaths. Nick refuses, wanting to concentrate on creating their survival school business, and is extremely upset when Anthony persuades Rosalia to take the position. Even though Nick adds some much needed evidence, he resents Rosalia for abandoning their dream, and that intensifies when she is frequently thrown together with Marcus Costello, Maxwell City's coroner, and another of her ex-fiancés.

It's such a complex mystery I started seeing parallels to Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, and was even thinking it would end with several threads left dangling, a few characters missing and forgotten. No, everything ties together at the end, and while I can't prove it, I was correct in spotting one of the major conspirators early on. About three-fourths through I started to doubt that, but ended up being correct. Nick and Rosalia save the day, sometimes working together, sometimes apart, but even apart it seems they think much alike and can guess where the thoughts of the other are leading. It's not clear if they've saved the dream of a Free Mars. That will have to wait for further stories, which I definitely want to read. Intricately plotted, intriguing characters, realistic dialog and interpersonal relationships, politics and propaganda, betrayals, greed, and subterfuge, but also cooperation, and dedication to a cause greater than oneself. Rosalia and Nick are no longer the young idealists they once were, but with advanced medical science, it is possible they will live long enough to help transform the face of Mars.


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Martin L. Shoemaker

Last Dance - 11/1/19
Campaign - 10/6/20

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Last Dance

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