Space tethers, Iranian scientists, Japanese tech wizards, NORAD, the CIA: Orbital Cloud has all this and more. Fujii gives us 500-plus pages of complex calculations, brilliant technological counterterrorism strategies, and a plot that accelerates with the speed of a space tether's terminal apparatus zooming off into space at 17.7 km/s.
But (I hear you asking) would a person (such as myself) who shivers at the mere word "calculus" enjoy such a book? And my answer is absolutely. For this is one of Fujii's strengths: the ability to draw the reader in with a gripping tale of international intrigue and spies spying on other spies that is built upon a foundation of accurate orbital mechanics. It doesn't matter if you can or can't follow each and every discussion about networks or cosmic velocity, because the bigger picture—foiling a plot to destroy every satellite and space station orbiting the Earth—is something any reader can get excited about. Just as in Gene Mapper, Fujii's previous novel translated into English, advanced technology mixed with a mystery with global implications makes for a brilliant piece of speculative fiction.
Orbital Cloud asks us to think broadly about who controls what gets put into orbit and what that tells us about individual nations' strategies for dominating the space industry and future space exploration. Resources, weapons, and space tourism are among the considerations that twenty-first-century politicians, engineers, intelligence agencies, and militaries must grapple with in humanity's endless squabbles with itself over which country will dominate the others.
Fujii bookends this story with two images of Earth from space that, in their impressive contrast, highlight just how advanced technology has come since the dawn of the Space Age: the Earthrise image (taken by Apollo 8) and an eighty-thousand-camera light-field image that projects a picture of 3-D Earth in real time. The years that have passed between when each image was taken are years in which the U.S., Russia, Japan, China, and other nations have succeeded in launching satellites into orbit and establishing space stations, as well as constructing a massive GPS network that many of us now take for granted. Without the satellites orbiting our planet that we can't see with the naked eye (usually), we would feel lost (literally and figuratively). Fujii recenters us within the confines of our corner of the cosmos, asking us to think about our planet as a blue-green ball with a halo of satellites and space debris, at the mercy of ourselves.
What starts off as some strange data from the second stage of a rocket named SAFIR 3, launched by Iran, quickly escalates into a scramble to diffuse a plot to bring down every satellite in orbit. At the heart of this conflict is the development of a previously untested technology: the space tether: "Constructed [out] of two devices tethered together, this spacecraft revolved in orbit like a pair of dancers holding hands and could more around freely without using any propellant" (184). The implications for space exploration and satellite launches are staggering, and when a brilliant Iranian scientist (Jamshed Jahanshah), working with nothing but his brain, a pen, paper, and a calculator, theorizes about how one might construct a space tether, his thesis ultimately falls into North Korea's hands and becomes the pet project of a disgruntled Japanese space engineer named Ageha Shiraishi.
The brilliant Shiraishi, once a diligent JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) engineer and detector of software bugs, has become a bitter enemy of all nations that have dominated Earth's orbit and shut out countries like North Korea and Iran from participating in space exploration. Disgusted with JAXA's bureaucracy and its directors' lack of interest in his ideas and solutions, Shiraishi goes to work for North Korea, ultimately developing a plan to use the revolutionary space-tether technology developed by Jahanshah to clear orbit and thus make way for other nations to leap into space. He calls this plan the "Great Leap For the Rest of the World."
The plan, though, is to make this catastrophe look like an accident—at least, at first. North Korea, fearing a backlash from other nations like the U.S. and Japan, doesn't want to claim responsibility for the destruction of these satellites and space stations. Shiraishi is happy to come up with all of the angles for making this plan work: surreptitiously surrounding the second-stage SAFIR 3 rocket with a "cloud" of space tethers, corrupting translation engines when North Korea's leader gives a speech about space, and generally throwing intelligence agencies into a panic. At one point, he visualizes what the plan unfolding perfectly would look like:
Shiraishi imagined the hordes of tethers that composed the Cloud scattering in different directions and swarming on the satellites. The satellites would be struck by the terminal apparatuses of the space tethers at low relative velocity and cease to function or even spin out of control, dragging a tail of plasma with them as they fell into the atmosphere. Space stations, telescopes, GPS, communications satellites, weather observation satellites, reconnaissance satellites. All of the orbital infrastructure in an instant, and radioactive-material-filled satellites would cause widespread chaos when they rained down on the Earth. So be it. (352)
It wouldn't just be inanimate objects facing destruction, though. A new orbital hotel, financed by the billionaire Ronnie Smark, is due for a test run, in which Smark himself and his journalist daughter Judy will live for a few days and promote their space-tourism business. Since the Wyvern Orbital Hotel isn't equipped to deal with orbital terrorism, the impact of the space tethers would rip it to shreds, killing the Smarks and any hope of space tourism in the near future.
What Shiraishi hadn't counted on, though, was his equally brilliant niece and protégé, Akari Numata, teaming up with Japan's Meteor News creator Kazumi Kimura to uncover and attempt to foil his plot. When Kazumi notices the strange data coming from SAFIR 3—i.e., a piece of space debris that is accelerating—he realizes that this could be a major story for Meteor News and would boost traffic to his site. Around the same time, Ronnie Smark's investor Ozzy Cunningham, an amateur stargazer living in the Seychelles and surrounded by a ton of high-end advanced observational equipment, notices the same strange behavior. In an attempt to gain some prestige, Ozzy decides to nickname the strangely accelerating rocket "the Rod From God" and uploads the data and images to his blog, the Seychelles Eye. From there, all hell breaks loose.
The CIA and NORAD immediately become involved and scramble to figure out why the rocket is behaving so strangely and what they can do to stop it (if it is indeed a weapon). Simultaneously, Kazumi and Akari are whisked away from their co-working space in Shibuya, Japan, by two JAXA officials (one of which is actually a Chinese spy), just in time to escape the North Koreans that are after them to stop them from figuring out Shiraishi's plan. Kazumi, Akari, two CIA officials, and people from NORAD converge on a hotel room in Seattle and set up a command center to monitor the three orbital clouds that they ultimately identify.
Half the world away, the JAXA officials (having seen Kazumi and Akari off safely) descend on the Tehran Institute of Technology to confront Jahamshah and figure out his role in the space tether deployment. Stunned that someone has stolen his ideas and then put them into practice using technology unavailable to him, Jahamshah agrees to work with the Seattle team to uncover the plot hatching in orbit.
As the tension builds and officials within NORAD and the CIA start looking into ways to shoot down SAFIR 3, Shiraishi and his North Korean handler are holed out in an abandoned warehouse just a few miles away from the command center, monitoring the progress of SAFIR 3 (accelerating because of the space tethers) and waiting for the wholesale destruction to begin. Having witnessed the oppressive bureaucracy of Japan's aerospace agency and feeling abandoned by the world as a whole, Shiraishi dedicates himself to giving North Korea, Iran, and the countries of Africa the chance to make their own way into space, something they couldn't do so long as the superpowers were patrolling it.
And yet, as Sekiguchi, the Chinese spy posing as a JAXA official, argues once they find Shiraishi in the warehouse, the result will only be chaos:
"Most of the new projects will just be poor imitations of what the developed countries are already doing. The engineers you'll 'save' will be stuck reinventing the wheel with fewer resources and worse technology." "You're wrong," Shiraishi snarled. "I'll feed them fresh ideas, better ones. The space tether is just the beginning." (430)
It is Kazumi who ultimately tries to bring Shiraishi into the fold, explaining that "the space tether is enough to excite anybody. It's a dream come true. It deserves to be used for more than orbital terrorism … Shiraishi-san, come with me. I want the whole world to learn what you can do." I won't spoil the rest of the book for you, but suffice it to say that Shiraishi and Jahamshah, two of the world's most brilliant minds, are tragically locked in circumstances beyond their control that even the most advanced technology and sympathetic admirers can't extract them from.
Interspersed in this story of orbital warfare and strategy are blog posts written by Judy Smark up in the space hotel. At one point, she refers to Earthrise in an effort to remind everyone that war and constant bickering seem silly on a planet that we all must share:
"The portrait of the Earth, Earthrise, that we imagine when we think about our planet was a photograph taken by Apollo 8 as they made their way to the moon. In the Cold War era, when we were at each other's throats with nuclear weapons, that frail image of our home in the solar system floating in the blackness of space had the power to bring us all together." (262)
Fujii gives us a lot to think about in Orbital Cloud, drawing on contemporary issues of terrorism, space exploration, and the unceasing competition over resources and influence. And as with any technology, its use—for good or for ill—will depend on who controls it and for what reasons. Far from simply wanting to destroy things, Shiraishi firmly believed that he was doing something right by trying to give certain nations a shot at space. Without the brilliant theorizing, strategizing, and technological know-how of the Japanese creators of Meteor News, Shiraishi would have had free rein to reshape the world.
With a large cast of characters, several locations, and a complicated set of plans, Orbital Cloud had to be this long. And yet, Fujii leaves open the possibility for subsequent books, having set the stage for more stories about space-tether technology and international intrigue. And while I found myself wishing at times that the characters had been more thoroughly developed, I also realize that that was not the point of this story. Rather, the ways in which human beings use their brains and the technology that those brains come up with—these were the true main characters. Fujii challenges us to look into the future and consider how the Earth as a whole will confront space exploration and the possibilities of colonization and resource extraction on other planets. Orbital Cloud is the speculative fiction for the twenty-first-century that I look forward to reading.
[…] read two of them at Lightspeed and Unfit Magazine). I have reviewed Gene Mapper on this site and Orbital Cloud on Strange Horizons, and “Violation of the TrueNet Security Act” is one of my favorite […]