Sunday, January 13, 2013


Micro Adventure #1: Space Attack

Your first mission with ACT takes you to a top secret U.S. space station, where the weapon systems have gone offline, the communications are jammed, and the self-destruct has been set to go off in just 36 hours.  It's up to you to figure out what's going wrong with the ship's software and get to the bottom of a sabotage plot.

This is probably the goofiest book in the series, which is fair enough for the first book.  You have to wonder why the government's first reaction to their software problems is to blame it on alien interference.  Who's running this thing, Arnold Rimmer?  Still, you have to cut them some slack -- it is the first book in the series, so no doubt they were still trying to feel out the tone.

This was one of my favorites when I was a kid.  The descriptions of the space station and the technology are just plain cool, even if there was nothing like sleep accelerators with computer-generated dreams back in the 80s.

In a book this short, characters often don't get a lot of time to leave a lasting impression, but nevertheless, there are some memorable folks in this book.  Tinker has stuck out in my mind all these years.  He's head of a toy company and a mechanical genius, and he brings a slightly puckish, childish attitude to the mission.  Colonel Grace, who seems to be ACT's NASA contact, is loud and amiable, but tough.  And I quite like Dr. Macron, a sort of dottering, absent-minded old man who happens to be a linguistics expert.

The series's concept is well served by the setting, with lots of things for Orion to hack and interact with.  You get the impression that they were really trying to make this series about learning to program and challenging yourself to think like a computer, because nearly every program has some sort of "hacking" element to it.  You're always trying to debug sabotaged software, or you're trying to reprogram something, or you're digging through the code to find a password or something.  In fact, one of the activities doesn't give you a program at all -- it simply challenges you to write a program to decode a numerical ASCII message.  It's really a unique idea, and sometimes I almost wish it was more common in the series, but sometimes it does lead to some kind of forced situations.  For example, the countdown timer on your space shuttle is running in the wrong direction!  If you can't fix it, the shuttle will burn out on the launch pad!  Even as a kid, I didn't really buy that.

But overall, this was a strong start for the series.  It established the important ideas very quickly and neatly, and it gave us the basic formula -- Orion receives a message, decodes it with his computer, and then some ridiculous form of transportation comes along to spirit him away from his ordinary life and into some far-flung adventure.  But it was also kind of typical children's fiction, so there's really not a lot more to say about it.

Next time, Jungle Quest.


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