Thursday, December 2, 2010

Review - The Prometheus Project: Stranded by Douglas E. Richards

Short review: The Resnick kids save the day again by applying basic science principles to the problems they face.

Trapped and stranded
On a far alien world
Get home with science!

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Member Giveaway program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: The Prometheus Project: Stranded is the third book in Douglas E. Richard's Prometheus Project series, although it is labeled a stand-alone volume. The book is aimed at younger readers or what would be called in classic science fiction as "juvenile", but despite having teenagers as its protagonists but not in the purely adventure story way that can be found in some juvenile science fiction, but in the same sense that similar works by writers like Heinlein and Asimov that conveyed basic science to the reader via their storytelling. I have not read the first two books in the series (Trapped and Captured), but this did not impair my enjoyment of this book as sufficient back story exposition is included in the early chapters to fill in the basics of the background of the setting and characters. I would suggest that some of the best praise for Stranded is that reading it makes me want to obtain and read the previous two Prometheus Project books.

The story features Ryan and Regan Resnick, a pair of siblings whose parents are researchers studying a mysterious alien city found underground in Pennsylvania that has been given the name Prometheus. The previous two volumes in the series apparently deal with the Resnick kids discovering their parent's involvement with the study of this city, and the adventures that led them to become attached as junior members of the research team, come into contact with the alien intelligence controlling the city, and gain the power to communicate telepathically with one another. Also apparently covered in previous installments is a transportation system reminiscent of the wormhole generators of Stargate: SG-1 that allows for near instantaneous travel from Earth to distant planets orbiting faraway stars. Ryan and Regan join up with an expedition to one such planet named Isis, located much closer to the center of the Milky Way. The objective of the expedition is to set up instruments to observe astronomical phenomenon in the center of the galaxy and to study the fauna on Isis, which usually completely ignores the human interlopers but reacted quite differently during a previous expedition.

Of course, things go wrong, which sets the adventure of the story in motion. An alien artifact is stolen, a scientist working on the Prometheus Project is shot, and the expedition finds itself stranded on Isis and confronted by some decidedly unfriendly native creatures. Through circumstance, the Resnick kids find themselves called upon to save themselves, their parents, and friends from being marooned thousands of light-years from home, and save Prometheus from being taken over by a gang of ruthless mercenaries. It is the method by which the Resnick kids (and others) go about solving the problems that confront them using the application of science and technology in a clearly explained way that makes this book superior. To a certain extent, the book is thematically similar in this regard to classic works of juvenile science fiction such as Farmer in the Sky, or David Starr, Space Ranger. Richards weaves into the story background lessons on a variety of scientific topics, using Edwin Abbott's Flatland to explain the concept of extra dimensions, or Pavolv's famous experiments with dogs to introduce operant conditioning. Later, like Chekov's gun, these tidbits of scientific information form the basis for overcoming the hurdles faced by the protagonists, demonstrating a realistic, albeit fictional, application of the scientific principles already discussed. As a result, while there is plenty of adventure and fun in the story, it is all rooted in strong scientific fundamentals.

There are a handful of weaknesses in the book. The only one of real substance is that when Ryan and Regan unravel the mystery of the strange behaviour of the creatures on Isis, they make a number of conceptual leaps that are pretty broad and to a certain degree unwarranted to arrive at the correct answer. It would have probably improved the story somewhat to have them try a couple of different solutions on the way to arriving at the correct one, since it would have made their mental gymnastics on the way to solving the problem seem less like a case of serendipitously arriving at the right place based on scanty information and more like a reasoned conclusion. This is not a huge deal, and to a certain extent one can understand that adding a lot more material would have made the book overlong, but a few extra pages of sorting through some alternative possibilities would have, in my opinion, made this element of the story much stronger. In addition, there were a couple of points in the story where the viewpoint seemed to shift from the younger protagonists, from whose perspective much of the story was told, to the adults around them. This, I think, hurts the story, since having the book told exclusively from the perspective of the youthful protagonists would both allow the intended audience to identify with them more, and also make the expository sections in which the adult characters explain things like scientific principles to the kids make more sense. If the writer shifts to the perspective of the adult characters, then the passing of information via expository explanations becomes somewhat gratuitous in feel, and makes them seem more like infodumps than an organic part of the story.

That said, this remains a very good book. With interesting characters, a well-thought out background, and a fun and action packed story that has some real science thrown in for good measure, this is a superior science-fiction story for young readers. An adult reader will probably be reminded of the classic juvenile works of their youth updated with modern technology and sensibilities, while a younger reader will probably love the adventure and might not even notice they were learning something on the way. Anyone who knows a curious kid who likes science fiction would do well to get a copy of this book and hand it to them.

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