Reviewed by James La Salandra
In simplest terms, speculative fiction—of which science fiction is but one sub-category—can be defined as a genre intent on conjuring answers to “what if” questions. In Energized, physicist and computer scientist Edward M. Lerner employs his technological acumen in weaving a host of such questions into a richly thrilling fictional fabric.
Beginning in the year 2020, Energized presents a world on the brink of chaos. Following the Crudetastrophe—an event which left the majority of the world’s oil irradiated, and therefore unusable—the global economic and power structure has shifted dramatically. The United States, though still among the world’s leading nations, finds itself under the power of Russia’s energy dominance, the latter being one of the only nations still possessing a viable oil supply. Alternative sources of energy are pursued in earnest as rolling blackouts and ever-increasing costs of living wreak havoc upon a struggling populace.
Perhaps the last, best hope for the United States, if not all of humanity, is the unexpected appearance of a Near-Earth Object five years prior to the story’s opening. Having put aside questions of the object’s origins, the United States makes a desperate and bold decision to “collect” the object in Earth’s orbit and mine it for resources. Thus the Earth gains a second moon, Phoebe, a virtual Deus ex Orbita, and the means to the ultimate alternative energy project: Power Satellite One.
The novel’s protagonist, NASA engineer Marcus Judson, finds himself mired in what amounts to a public relations tour, appearing at town hall meetings and conferences in defense of the PS-1 project. The powersat is a massive solar array built almost entirely from materials harvested from the nascent moon. The resulting energy is to be beamed to the surface via powerful microwave transmission, which understandably concerns people across a variety of fields, and well beyond the nation’s borders.
To the average citizen, the difference between “controlled microwave downlink” and “scorching death ray” is slight, if such a difference exists at all; to scientists in several fields, such transmissions—as well as the powersat itself—could greatly interfere with their own research; to subversives known as Resetters, the project is an affront to nature and contrary to the ecologically extreme ideals to which they hold. Add to this the conspiratorial forces that would see the project—and the nation—fail at any cost, and what Marcus initially views as a frustrating and mundane task quickly becomes a geopolitical maelstrom far beyond his ken.
A clear example of hard science fiction, Energized is rife with impeccable technical information, though sometimes to its detriment. The first half of the novel seems, at times, a bit plodding, as it focuses heavily on establishing the politics and science behind the state of world affairs and efforts to rectify the situation. The second half of the novel, however, proves that such attention to detail is not only necessary but worthwhile, as the many layers of intrigue build to a consistently thrilling, fevered pitch that persists throughout the remainder of the story.
The technological advances of the novel’s futuristic setting are credibly born of modern-day convention: characters access computers and the internet wirelessly via datasheets, pliant descendants of current tablets; holographic projection and three-dimensional television—called 3-V here—are frequently referenced; self-driving cars, much like those currently being developed, make a few appearances; even the concept of mining nearby asteroids is now being developed by real world organizations.
Lerner’s characters are just as well developed, deserving of the dramatis personae that prefaces the book. Through subtle inference and overt descriptions, their motivations, attitudes, and pasts are not only believable but integral to the roles they play as the story unfolds. Personal histories and secret alliances come to light in ways that shock, surprise, and delight. The novel is redolent with grief, regrets, and inner conflict, and readers will find even the worst of characters to be deserving of at least a modicum of sympathy.
What if the majority of the world’s oil supply were no longer viable? What if we developed a means of harnessing the sun’s power and beaming the energy down to Earth? What if that energy beam could be hijacked and used for less benign purposes? Readers will find the entirely plausible technical structure of the novel greatly facilitates the exploration of these and many other questions. As the plot unfolds and answers are revealed, so to will the compelling nature of Energized become readily apparent. Whether events like these could or will ever truly come to pass is anyone’s guess; for the time being, the author has provided a realistic glimpse into what shape such circumstances may take, and offered brilliant insight into such problems’ potential solutions. For fans of hard sci-fi, techno thrillers, and ecological fiction, Edward M. Lerner’s Energized is a marvelous exploration of some of the most pertinent “What ifs” of our day.