Islands Of Space by John W. Campbell
[This book is available for free download from Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/20988 ]
This is the story of the designing and test flight of the first FTL spaceship. The ship is based on a number of new developments by this small group. The test flight takes them to a couple of points in our galaxy, then out into intergalactic space and to another galaxy.
I suspect most people would consider this to be hard SF, although I have mixed feelings about that. It certainly fits the stereotype of hard SF as having lots of tech talk and not much characterization. Campbell spends time describing incidents that required a creative solution using the laws of physics. There are lots of mind-boggling extreme tech and a lot of talk about how it supposedly works. I'm not so sure about the plausibility of some of the supposed tech, and there is such a tall heap of these new technologies I found it harder to take it seriously.
One should give Campbell points for the scientific aspects of the book considering the original short story was written in 1930 and the book version came out in 1956. (The short story was written when he was only 20 years old.) But its age doesn't improve its hard SF feel. One consequence of its age is that computers are only mentioned in one place - their absence in numerous devices and tasks we would expect them seems odd. There are also antiquated terminology, such as "nebula" and "universe" used to refer to galaxies.
Part of my reaction to the book is that it reminded me of young adult books where the kids build a rocket and fly it to Mars. In this case the main characters are not quite as young as space cadets and include a professional scientist and mathematician. The characters also come from wealthy families and are associated with a large corporation that deals in technology. In this sense, their building of the starship was not as silly as the rocket construction in a young adult book such as Red Thunder. On the other hand, in Islands Of Space, they build a longer list of higher tech gizmos of a far-fetched nature. These differences aside, there is a parallel aspect between Islands Of Space and this type of YA book.
They invent a long list of technologies and devices, including intergalactic FTL, gravity effect reducers, invisibility, anti-matter energy systems, two new kinds of beam weapons, two new kinds of metals made out of photons, etc. Somehow these super-nerds are also athletic, come from rich families and decide to make their own intergalactic spaceship and fly it themselves. Oh yes, and have learned telepathy (that works between species) from the people of Venus.
Not only do they invent new areas of science one after another, from start to finish it only takes two years to build their starship using these previously unknown materials and incorporating all these previously unknown technologies. All together, it was a bit much for me.
After they "reinvent science" in the initial part of the book, we move on to another type of story that I associate with young adult books - the travelogue of the journey to other places. (Certainly this sort of story isn't limited to young adult. And I have fond memories of reading Galactic Derelict as a youth. I'm just saying this contributed to my mental conception of the book.)
By the final part of the book, the spaceship has become disoriented in intergalactic space so that they are unsure which galaxy is the Milky Way. They decide the easiest way to solve this problem is to fly to the most convenient galaxy, find a planet with a technological civilization and ask them for astronomical help in locating our galaxy. However, it turns out that where they stop to do this there are two worlds having an interplanetary war. When the first planet in the system they stop at responds to their presence with military force, they conclude that an interplanetary war is in progress and that their best move would be to go visit the other world involved in the war (?). Again, this kind of naive thinking in an adventure story reminds of YA stories.
Perhaps in considering how much this book will appeal to you, it would be helpful to ask yourself how much fond memories you have of these kinds of young adult SF stories, and to what extent you'd like to re-live them in a somewhat more grown-up presentation.
Many of the new technologies cooked up by the protagonists were unconvincing to me. However, most of these were of a nature that I can't really say whether or not they are in fact excluded by our current understanding of science. There is one example I will discuss. They have two materials "lux" and "relux". The book describes these as two types of "metal" made from photons packed tightly enough so that they are held together by their gravitational attraction.
As far as particle interaction is concerned, gravity is much weaker than the other forces of nature. In order to have particles held together by gravity it is necessary to have the mass and density in the neighborhood of that in a neutron star. As best as I understand it, the material of neutron stars is not something you can make a foot-thick ship hull out of and expect it to neither try to contract into a sphere nor cease to be such a material because there isn't enough of it concentrated in one place.
That is in a neutron star where atomic matter has been converted into neutrons. Photons are another thing. It is in the nature of photons to travel in a more-or-less straight line at light speed (at least in "normal" space-time). As far as I understand it, the only "material" in which the photons are prevented from flying away at light speed is a black hole. Photons can even escape from the gravity of a neutron star. I've read SF in which microscopic black holes were used in place of particles or atoms to make new materials, but that is not what we are talking about here. This story is suggesting photons as the building blocks for something that would have to have attributes of a black hole, yet at the same time be a material that could be used like a metal in various shapes and sizes - and would not eat up all matter around it.
Since photons have no rest mass, it presumably isn't possible to hold stationary photons together using gravitational attraction of stationary photons. For photons, mass and gravitational interaction means movement. For photons to move at their speed only within a relatively small, closed area would require space-time to be warped into a closed area such as is the case with a black hole.
Ten years before the short story was written, scientists used a solar eclipse to observe the bending of light by the Sun's gravitational field. How great a gravitational field would be required to cause a certain degree of curve in the path of photons was understood at least for photons passing near a gravitational source. However, when the book was written scientists had still done little to study black holes and similar conditions. Perhaps, this is more a reflection of the state of physics at that particular point in time.