Best Novel finalist review: Daniel Suarez’s Critical Mass offers persuasive, realistic SF thriller about private space industrialization

 

By Charlie Morrison and Michael Grossberg

A courageous band of astronaut-entrepreneurs strive to address Earth-based problems through commercial space-industrialization projects in Critical Mass, nominated for the next Prometheus Award for Best Novel.

Adding to the suspenseful drama, set mostly off the Earth and around the solar system, the resourceful heroes of this fast-paced sci-fi thriller must achieve their ambitious and unprecedented goals amid Cold War tensions, shifting global political alliances and the shortsighted opposition of Earth governments.

Daniel Suarez, the 2015 Prometheus Best Novel winner for his sci-fi-laced techno-thriller Influx, has established a reputation as a master at depicting plausible next-generation technology in a series of best-selling near-future sociopolitical thrillers.

In Critical Mass, Suarez weaves his admirable passion for commercial space development with his informed understanding of the great harm and threats to human progress that can be caused by expansive, obtrusive, abusive and/or corrupt government.

PROGRESS THROUGH ENTREPRENEURSHIP

Against the odds – and often against serious obstacles imposed by Earth politicians more interested in power and control than in fostering freedom and innovation – a valiant crew risk their lives in an unsanctioned private and secretive asteroid-mining project.

While struggling to complete their mission, the resilient band of solar-system-traveling astronauts strive to save two stranded crew members.

With an impressively high level of granular detail and degree of engineering expertise unusual in even many hard-SF novels, Suarez convincingly portrays both the human drama and scientific complexities in a series of daunting challenges.

Among them: solving the manifold problems and overcoming the deadly dangers of commercial asteroid-mining, building the first orbiting solar-power satellite and refinery, creating infrastructure for human operations on the moon and establishing the first spin-gravity station in deep space.

Whew! That’s a lot to achieve, or to pack into one novel, but Critical Mass overall is a fast read and a propulsive thrill ride with interesting plot twists.

Prometheus-winning author Daniel Suarez (Creative Commons license)

WHO ARE THE REAL BAD GUYS?

With too many other contemporary sci-fi novels framing entrepreneurs and laissez-faire capitalism as the bad guys (inevitably cliched) while uncritically viewing expansive government as somehow the automatic source of goodness and progress, Suarez refreshingly offers a dramatically different perspective enriched by his wiser understanding of economics, history and politics.

In Critical Mass, brimming with libertarian themes, governments are shown as largely wishing to restrict human action, individual choice and human possibilities, while the protagonists want to expand.

Moreover, at some risk to their own safety, the central band of space engineers and scientists admirably try their best to avoid killing, even in self-defense or when it would be easier and less costly toward achieving their goals.

That private, peaceful and cooperative behavior – both exemplary and representative of how most people most of the time strive to work together to achieve goals in free or largely free markets and societies – stands in marked contrast to the historic tendencies of many governments and other bad actors to destroy goods and kill people – often “for their own good” or for the sake of some misconceived ideal or misbegotten ideology or religion.

Suarez tends to largely portray government as the antagonist in Critical Mass, not only stifling private efforts setting up a space station in free space, but also shortsightedly acting for the sake of power rather than doing what’s best for the people on Earth.

Worse, the novels shows governments misleading people through censorship and propaganda to demonize private space development or outright deny its very existence; or covertly supporting State-sanctioned violence and crime – all to delay, undermine, or halt the commercialization of space.

In this era of misinformation (often spread by governments) and suppression of politically incorrect facts or reasonable alternative views, that sub-theme seems sadly all too timely.

While the space entrepreneurs hope to use the resources mined from an asteroid to fuel the development of space-based industry, Earth governments want to seize (i.e. legally steal) the resources to hold in reserve against a future need to wage war with other governments.

Countering stale anti-market and pro-State rhetoric demonizing the profit motive, the story shows private enterprise doing good for humanity even while making money.

A PLAUSIBLE SCENARIO FOR PRIVATE MONEY

Especially to freedom-loving sf fans knowledgeable about the historic dangers of government fiat money and the potential benefits of free-market alternatives, Suarez’s credible portrayal of a functional and stable private currency created outside the reach of Earth governments will be especially interesting.

Gold coins historically have emerged as one form of stable money

So will the novel’s insights into how advanced technology, along with its private, encrypted safeguards and potential for decentralization, might keep legacy interests in check, without entrenched interests taking over and undermining worthy projects. Here Suarez explores the importance of “the rule of law and trust necessary for business in frontier territory like deep space.”

Meanwhile, the plausible financial ecosystem Suarez envisions – emerging from an encrypted new private currency protected from State takeovers by decentralized distribution and computer backups among multiple satellites beyond Earth – is one specifically designed to be independent of political control, with participation and ownership stakes granted only to people and businesses that contribute assets.

How important is the new private money system to the novel and its characters? Very!

Ramon Marin, one of the plucky spacefarers, is a South American, born in Venezuela and likely aware of the authoritarian history and related recurrent tendency toward runaway inflation from massive government printing of unbacked paper money in Argentina and other South American countries. Motivated partly by that background cultural mindset and partly by his deep investment in and commitment to the project, Ramon risks his life during a massive solar flare to preserve specialized computer systems maintaining the new blockchain-based money.

Why does Ramon go that far?

“It may seem inconsequential, but a blockchain-based DeFI system like the CCE (the Cislunar Commodity Exchange) is, to me, the key to containing the spread of authoritarianism in space,” Ramon explains to a fellow spacefarer.

“The moment any citizen of an authoritarian regime starts using lunas to invest in the CCE here in orbit, they are no longer bound by centralized authority. They are instead presented with limitless opportunities,” Ramon says. “The market undermines centralized control. The open protocol itself is the authority, and no self-appointed power can control or constrain it, and so individual autonomy prevails in the cosmos – and in the future.”

A SUPERIOR SEQUEL

Set after the events of Delta-V, where part of the asteroid-mining team made it back to Earth, Critical Mass proves to be a superior sequel.

Now battle-scarred and grieving from their life-and-death projects in outer space but still remarkably resilient, remnants of the team wrestle with the rule of law as they face United Nations and other governmental restrictions, sabotage efforts, and other roadblocks to their success in space, which they hope will help save the Earth from environmental catastrophe.

Critical Mass focuses on the team’s efforts to rescue remaining crew-members still at the asteroid while completing other space-based firsts – including building and staffing a space station at the L2 LaGrange point on the far side of the moon, and enriching their own uranium to launch a nuclear-powered spaceship to rescue stranded team members.

The sequel also sidesteps a weakness in Delta-V, an anti-libertarian aspect of its otherwise suspenseful story involving the deceitful and fraudulent behavior of Joyce, the billionaire backer of the team’s space efforts. With Joyce now deceased, the team now stands on a firmer foundation of individual responsibility and ethical integrity.

THE SOBERING REALITIES OF WORKING IN SPACE

To its credit, Critical Mass goes beyond most space-exploration, industrialization and colonization sagas in dramatizing the supremely high risks of working and living outside Earth.

Suarez reminds us just how deadly outer space can be for organisms that evolved on our planet and remain best suited to flourishing within that familiar albeit still-risky environment.

One of the most haunting themes in Suarez’ novel is how much needs to go absolutely right in space, detail by detail, checklist by exhaustive checklist, day by day or even moment by moment. Or else the mission fails – and people die.

Yet, such grim realities are outweighed, Suarez argues, by the manifold possibilities for our species in expanding our industry throughout the solar system.

AN EMPHASIS ON ENGINEERING

Despite the many virtues and wonders of Critical Mass, some readers might wonder if Suarez, so gung-ho to bring his exciting vision of a better future in space into here-and-now reality, might have focused less on making parts of it something of a “how-to” manual and more on making the novel more balanced in its dramatic rhythms and human scale.

Although admirable in its visionary scope and promise of meaningful human expansion throughout the solar system, Suarez’s messianic commitment to space development as a potential path to solve earth-bound challenges (such as climate change and remaining poverty worldwide) can sometimes tend to overpower his characters and psychological drama.

Even if Suarez offers too much engineering detail at times, this novel will be catnip for the more technology-obsessed space-enthusiasts among today’s SF fans.

Moreover, Critical Mass seems thoroughly researched, bolstering its persuasive outline of a very real path for space development, asteroid mining and other projects – all heretofore commonly understood to be mostly still within the realm of science fiction and the distant future.

Reading Suarez’s gripping and persuasive story, one feels more and more that all this might actually happen in the near future – and that this so-called science fiction may become scientific/engineering fact sooner than we imagine.

Postscript: Critical Mass was selected as one of five Best Novel finalists, announced in mid-April, 2024. Reviews of all five Best Novel finalists are being posted on the Prometheus blog)

* Check out the full list of this year’s 17 Best Novel nominees, our ongoing reviews of other Best Novel nominees and the Prometheus Blog’s recent five-part series offering a guide to each nominee with capsule descriptions. Here are the links to Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four and Part Five of the guide to the nominees for the next Prometheus Award for Best Novel.

* Libertarian Futurist Society members, Prometheus-winning and finalist authors and other libertarian sf/fantasy fans are welcome to submit reviews of relevant literature to the Prometheus Awards. Contact Michael Grossberg, one of the Prometheus Blog editors, at bestnovel@lfs.org

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE PROMETHEUS AWARDS:

* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – including the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to all published essay-reviews in our Appreciation series explaining why each of more than 100 past winners since 1979 fits the awards’ distinctive dual focus.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,”an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Watch videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies (including the recent 2023 ceremony with inspiring and amusing speeches by Prometheus-winning authors Dave Freer and Sarah Hoyt),Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.

* Check out the Libertarian Futurist Society’s Facebook page  for periodic updates and links to Prometheus Blog posts.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards and support a cultural and literary strategy to appreciate and honor freedom-loving fiction,  jointhe Libertarian Futurist Society, a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

2 thoughts on “Best Novel finalist review: Daniel Suarez’s Critical Mass offers persuasive, realistic SF thriller about private space industrialization”

    1. Thanks for pointing that out. Just checked the Kindle to search for “Venezuela,” and yes, Marin does answer, when asked “where are you from?” by saying “Venezuela. Originally.”
      We’ll update the review.

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