Matt Browne,
The Future Happens Twice
(Athena, 2007)

This is a huge book, the first of a trilogy, at 720 pages. It tells the story of the first attempt for humans to travel to another solar system and is set in the United States in the middle of the 21st century.

Dr. Debrya Handsen, a linguistics professor at the University of Minnesota, when she is offered a highly lucrative job for a top-secret project, with almost no job details provided. So, what is the project that requires a linguistics expert?

The Perennial Project is humankind's first attempt to travel to a planet outside our solar system. While the ship's fuel supply will last indefinitely, through collecting hydrogen en route, the voyage will last 42,000 years. A generational ship? It would have to be too big to work. Cryogenic freezing of the travelers? Technology has not reached that point. The answer: send frozen human embryos, to be thawed 18 years before arrival. Who will raise them and train them? Androids! Those androids will need highly complex, human-like skills to properly raise the children, with speech a crucial ability. Hence, the need for a linguistics expert to program the androids.

Why is the government spending huge amounts of money on a project where no one alive will see the end result? The abstract answers are: To move science forward. To spread humanity across the galaxy. But the reason for the project's sense of urgency does not come until about halfway through the book.

Are they going to gamble everything on a project without testing it? That's a lot of money, expertise, manpower and time to risk. How would you even test a project like this? Why is the whole thing kept secret?

The answers to these questions span 720 pages and 42,000 years, starting and ending with Debrya Handsen. The themes covered include ethics, research on embryos, language programming, natural disasters, space travel, brown dwarf stars, politics, colony building, climatology and the psychology of small-group dynamics.

While the book is large and took me quite a while to read, I never lost interest. There is probably more descriptive detail and step-by-step detail than is optimum, but I would rather have that than a book with two-dimensional characters or sparse settings. To the layman, most of the science is pretty reasonable, although one point that worried one character also concerned me, and the answer was not entirely satisfactory: How to build a highly complex machine that will last 42,000 years with no critical failures. (The one near-disastrous mechanical failure that does occur was not a wear-and-tear issue but an unforeseen natural phenomenon with deleterious effects.)

Another concern was lightly dismissed. The level of secrecy around the project was impossible to maintain, given the scope of the project, the money required and the number of people involved. How could some members of Congress not question the huge, hidden appropriations?

As to the one science where I am not a layman, psychology, the book handles that adequately, including both the Earth-bound parts and shipboard behavior. It does take a backseat to linguistics, astronomy, astronautics and engineering, but it was not overlooked, either.

Colony-building has been done many times in stories, with Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy being one of the finest. Space travel has been done many times, including Jack Campbell's Lost Fleet series. Futuristic espionage and government secret-keeping has been done, as in John Scalzi's The Android's Dream. But The Future Happens Twice includes all of that. It yields a book with many storylines that could have collapsed under its own weight, but it did not.

I will read the sequels. The eventually time-span of the story will cover millions of years. Overall, this very ambitious attempt is off to a successful start.

review by
Chris McCallister

21 February 2009

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