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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Orbital Cloud

Fujii Taiyo

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To purchase Orbital Cloud

Title: Orbital Cloud
Author: Fujii Taiyo
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 520 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Orbital Cloud - US
Orbital Cloud - UK
Orbital Cloud - Canada
  • Japanese title: オービタル・クラウド
  • Translated by Timothy Silver

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Our Assessment:

B : reasonably entertaining mix of science fiction and international thriller

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Orbital Cloud is set in the near future, the bulk of the novel taking place over only a few days in December, 2020 (bookended by a Prologue and Epilogue that extend the range slightly, from 2015 to 2022). What appears to be the major event happening at that time -- "the biggest space event of the year", the launch of an 'orbital hotel' by a billionaire entrepreneur who is, along with his daughter, along for the ride -- turns out to pale in significance compared to something it will eventually encounter on its way. A clever engineering feat has made possible the creation of 'space tethers', small-scale but very useful -- and, it turns out, very powerful when deployed on large enough a scale -- devices. It turns out there are a lot of these already in orbit, but because they are so small pretty much no one had noticed; it also turns out that the power responsible for putting them in orbit has nefarious intentions .....
       Fujii presents the story in chapters that are further divided into sub-chapters centered around different loci and different groupings of people. One is Tehran, where Jamshed Jahanshah, the mind behind the space tethers, conducts his rudimentary experiments in a world largely cut off from the world at large (and about to be more cut off: during the course of the story, the government essentially closes off all access to the internet). Kazumi Kimura, a web designer who runs a 'Meteor News' web service, and Akari Numata, a brilliant young IT free spirit, start out in Tokyo, but their talents and knowledge eventually lead them to Seattle. Teams from NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command), JAXA (the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), and the CIA (you know ...) also get involved, and there is some movement, meeting, and overlap among all these groupings of people.
       More isolated but still relevant is Ozzy Cunningham, whose internet-wealth has allowed him to make himself comfortable on his very own island in the Seychelles -- where he plays around with a very fine telescope (and has his own man Friday). And then there's Ronnie Smark, Ozzy's entrepreneur friend whose latest project is the space hotel and who launches himself into space to test it out with his daughter, Judy, a journalist who reports from on-site (including then in space).
       Finally, there are the bad guys: ex-JAXA man Ageha Shirashi, a brilliant engineer who is responsible for the orbiting space tethers (and a whole lot more), and his (new) handler, femme very fatale Chance Park. And, yes, Shirashi and Chance are working for North Korea, which is behind all this.
       The first to spy something fishy in space is Ozzy, and he chooses to sensationalize it -- calling the unusual force he sees doing things that shouldn't be possible in orbit the 'Rod from God'. Still, that's enough to get the interest of some other folks -- such as Kazumi and NORAD. It takes a while for them to figure out what's really going on here -- to identify the space tethers, and what the hell they might be, and how they work -- but it soon becomes clear that these orbiting strings could be ... problematic.
       The constant shifting back and forth around the globe (and into space, aboard the floating hotel) certainly helps keep the action moving, but it also makes for a very busy novel -- Fujii has maybe overdone it a bit with so many poles. The different knowledge (and expertise) of the various characters at their different locations does make things interesting -- and, helpfully, there are a variety of threats generally hovering near. The quite effective North Korean agents, for one, and those space tethers themselves, for another. Throw in a bit of student unrest and government clampdown in Iran and some first-class (indeed, perhaps a bit too good to be true ...) secret service work from ... well, basically all the secret agents, from Chance to the CIA to one or two unexpected ones, and it makes for a thriller that manages to sustain at least some tension over almost all its 500-plus pages. And just in case there aren't enough twists, it turns out that bad guy Shirashi is related to one of the people whose expertise is needed to thwart him .....
       The idea of the space tethers is pretty neat -- as is the tension between the possibilities of using them for good or evil. Fujii's science fiction tale is almost entirely low-orbit -- rather than deep space -- but he covers this fascinating terrain well, including all the issues of the objects circling up there, and the dangers of debris. The science -- from the telescope work to the tethers and the functioning of the space hotel -- is quite well-presented, Fujii's fascination with low and high tech and their possibilities fully paying off here. It's all a bit geeky -- and there's a lot of it, as Fujii enjoys explaining even somewhat peripheral stuff -- but it is colorfully enough presented. (Well, OK, Judy is a pretty annoying journalist-type, and her blogging-standard reports a bit disappointing -- but it at least allows for an occasional tonal shift in the book, so there's that.) Fujii's nod to basic, sometimes almost amateur, science -- Jahanshah making do with whatever little he can get his hands on, Kasumi's natural maths abilities, Ozzy's amateur telescopy (admittedly with one hell of a telescope)-- is a nice touch too.
       The North Korean expertise -- both domestic (including in the form of fingerprintless Chance) and imported -- is impressive too. Their plot -- for a 'Great Leap' -- is also interesting -- though it seems unrealistic that things would change by 2020 and they would actually care at all about international reaction to what they could do. There are even some social-political issues, including the idea that only the wealthy powers are able to take advantage of the new space frontier, with the North Korean's plans a way to possibly redress that (or also possibly to make a real mess of everything ...).
       There's a hell of a lot going on in Orbital Cloud -- so much that the 'orbital cloud' of the title only comes into view about four-fifths of the way into the novel. Quite a few of the thriller elements are unrealistic -- not least the idea that, well into the story, almost everyone aside from the characters in the book appears underwhelmed by what's going on: "Not a single organization anywhere currently sees the space tethers as a threat" (when in fact there'd surely be alarm bells and calls to action, at least on high governmental level, everywhere). And while Fujii's take on bureaucracies is amusing -- there's a lot about organizational hierarchies, and how they get in the way of action (especially when it's needed fast) -- it also seems, given some of these circumstances, a bit exaggerated and unlikely.
       Fujii tries, and does, a great deal, and that does give the book considerable appeal: there's good science, decent thrills, geopolitics, glimpses of all sorts of organizations and institutions, from internet start-ups to NORAD, as well as the dynamics in a variety of unusual social situations (especially in isolated/cut-off locales -- an island, a hotel in space, an Iranian university, a spy hideaway). One also has to appreciate his attention to detail -- down to presenting the dateline of the sections taking place in Iran according to the Persian calendar.
       Fujii's writing can't quite keep up: a lot here is too basic and hackneyed, and many of the interesting ideas and situations he brings up are dealt with too simplistically. And while there are high-action scenes, the thriller elements aren't developed as fully as they might be; the thriller-part of the book is definitely not Fujii's strength (but at least he's on much more solid ground with the geeky science stuff that fills the novel). So, yes, this remains B-level fiction -- but with enough of interest, and enough to enterain, to make for a decent sci-fi thriller read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 March 2017

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Orbital Cloud: Reviews: Fujii Taiyo: Other books by Fujii Taiyo under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Fujii Taiyo (藤井 太洋) was born in 1971.

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© 2017 the complete review

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