"Out of the Sun" by Ben Bova (1984)
"Sarko glanced at Colt, then went on, 'General, it's only a matter of time before laser weapons make manned aircraft obsolete. They'll shoot down anything in the sky with the speed of light. What we've seen here today is just the beginning - the equivalent of the first fliers of World War I shooting at each other with revolvers.'"
"It wasn't until the twentieth century that a new understanding of light replaced the wave theory. But the wave theory was extremely valuable. It explained not only light but many other things as well."
A couple of Ben Bova's other books have been reviewed here already. Check his name in the sidebar if you're interested in reading more. I'll also be reviewing another of his novels, Orion, in the near future. His biographical details aside, he's one of the better-researched science fiction authors.
This book is really two books, or rather a story followed by a lengthy essay. The story, "Out of the Sun," is a Cold War thriller following a scientist as he tries to discover the cause of several plane crashes. It's not a very scientific science fiction story, and most of the action hinges on whether a certain kind of laser can or cannot damage a certain kind of metal. It also feels like something that belongs more to the 60s than to 1984, the year in which this story was supposedly written. I have the feeling that Bova dusted it off for later publication, and that it took form much earlier.
Weirdly enough, the second half of this book is an essay titled "The Amazing Laser," detailing the history of the laser from Galileo to the mid 80s. It's a well-written tour of developments in that field, even though it seems to have been written in support of Reagan's "Star Wars" defense initiative.
Yet I can't help but wonder - how many people felt tricked by this book? The front and back covers say nothing about the essay, and if you weren't looking carefully you'd also miss the minuscule mention of it on the title page. How many people were expecting ray guns and rocket ships, only to find themselves confronted by discussions of electromagnetism and stimulated emission? I'm guessing a lot of readers opted out of the second half, likely feeling deceived by the publisher.
If you're working your way through Bova's bibliography, you'll certainly end up reading this one. If not, I wouldn't bother. The concepts employed in the story have been done better elsewhere, and the essay covers material presented more effectively in any number of textbooks.
"Mindhopper" by James B. Johnson (1988)
"Coyote" by Allen Steele (2002)
"Slow Apocalypse" by John Varley (2012)
"Distress" by Greg Egan (1997)