As with many other of Mr. Stephenson‘s books, it is difficult to summarise this one in a brief paragraph, as there are several rather disparate threads. The main ones involve the Queen of the Netherlands being invited to a secret meeting involving a geoengineering project in Texas to cool the planet, thus counteracting climate change. Another thread is about a Sikh youth from Canada who finds himself entwined in geopolitical strife in the Himalayas. And yet another threat is about a US Army veteran who is on a crusade against marauding wild boar in Texas. Counseling the Queen is an interesting character with Indonesian and Chinese origins. As events unfold and the climate does indeed start changing, clandestine climate wars silently begin, while on the India-China border, performative war is already happening.
Some books manage to change your view of the world. This is one of them. As climate change pushes humanity into an uncertain future, Mr. Stephenson explores some of the possibilities. One of the key takeaways is that stability is an illusion. Don’t hold on to thiings, material or otherwise, if doing so is harmful to your wellbeing. This was as true for Dutch colonists in Indonesia during World War Two as it is for those holding on to their houses in the face of repeated catastrophic weather events. A captivating read, beautifully written in Mr. Stephenson’s trademark ironic tone.
At the end of Frozen Orbit, Jack Templeton went into hibernation on board the Magellan and launched himself towards the outer reaches of the solar system, in a quest to reach a mysterious object with a strong gravity well. Meanwhile, former crewmate Traci Keene is back on earth in bureaucratic hell. Eventually Jack reaches the object, which is much more mysterious than he suspected. And a rescue mission involving Traci is launched.
While a serviceable sequel to Frozen Orbit, the novel suffers from a less engaging setting. Frozen Orbit was real deep space adventure. Escape Orbit has too little deep space and too much bureaucratic machination. The real action doesn’t start until well into the second half of the book. The AI elements are interesting but not groundbreaking.
In the immediate sequel to Outland, our heroes continue to deal with the aftermath of the Yellowstone eruption, and the challenges of setting up a colony in the alternate timeline of Outland. Given that the majority of the existing inhabitants of “Rivendell”, as the refuge has been named, are of university age, a sudden influx of older refugees creates significant tension. The older generation feels that they should take over what they see as an amateur operation run by youths. Additional subplots include a sociopathic killer, and research to find other potential timelines that might offer escape hatches or resources.
While the second installment is still entertaining, it doesn’t have nearly the same punch as the first book. Mr. Taylor skillfully weaves the plot, but some of the elements seem tacked on as filler. It lacks a definite direction, and seems more like an extended coda for the first book.
University engineering students Mike and Bill are approached by physics students who need their expertise to continue experimenting with quantum tunneling and parallel universes. The experiments turn out to be more successful than expected, opening up a big can of worms. They can now open portals to alternate timelines, with different conditions, for example, one where dinosaurs did not go extinct, and one, which they name “Outland”, where mammals are prevalent but humans seem absent. A pastoral paradise of sorts. Meanwhile, Erin, a geology student, and Mike’s girlfriend, is caught up in unprecedented events at the Yellowstone caldera, which seems poised to erupt, potentially causing widespread destruction. Due to university politics, the quantum tunneling team decide to clandestinely move their research off-campus, while disassociating themselves with the university funding stream. What started as an academic project becomes a get-rich stream, and then rather unexpectedly morphs into an escape hatch for refugees.
The concept and usage of the portals is very well realised, with a slew of interesting applications that have to be improvised as conditions “Earthside” change dramatically. The adventure story parallels to Stargate SG-1 are obvious, and references by the characters themselves. While the protagonists are likable and it is easy to root for them, they are not very three-dimensional. On a side note, this is very much the young white American apocalypse, even if one of the main characters is Indian. I suppose it can be explained away since the setting is a university in Nebraska. That criticism aside, I found this to be a real page-turner just like his other books, with Mr. Taylor’s fast-paced plotting and the constant witty snark highly entertaining.
The third installment of the series sees Chip and Pete in charge of their respective toddler daughters as their wives go out. An outing to see “old man” (Nikola Tesla) quickly turns nasty as Chip’s daughter Gigi inadvertently creates a paradox that threatens the multiverse.
This is by far the weakest of the three books. The books were never meant to be hard science fiction with internal consistency, but the meandering plotlines and repeated deus ex machinas quickly lost me. The recurring theme of Chip and Gigi’s love for each other lends a great deal of heart to the book, as does, again, Chip’s voice as the narrator. Pete’s adorable badass great-aunt is also a great addition. However, in the end, there was no feeling of dramatic tension, even with the ostensible stakes. While this final (?) installment ties up many of the threads, it was not a satisfying conclusion.
With Dex’s ostensible quest to the Hermitage in the wilderness completed, they and the robot Mosscap venture into human lands, where a robot has not been seen in generations. They are met everywhere with curiosity and wonder as Mosscap asks anyone he meets what they “need”. But the answers are not what it is expecting.
As in the first novella, the characters are on quests that lead them to unexpected places. The second book bookends the story neatly, with the robot as a stranger among humans, while the first book was about the human as a stranger in the wilderness. The story further explores how wonder at the nature of the Universe and existence seem universal regardless of what form consciousness takes. The reader is left feeling happy and full of ponderings.
On the moon Panga, human society is a well-ordered, pleasant, and supportive idyll. Part of a monastic order, Sibling Dex finds themselves yearning for something more, something wild. They obsess over cricket sounds. They abandon the order to become a “tea monk,” traveling around Panga, dispensing tea in return for listening to people’s concerns, fears, and thoughts. A sort of traveling therapist, shoulder to cry on, or friend-on-call. But the wild still calls to Dex, who decides to strike out into actual wilderness. Here he encounters a robot. But robots haven’t been seen in many generations, after they were freed and subsequently left human society entire to live in the wild.
This novella isn’t one of great action or momentous events, but instead an exploration of what it means to be human, and in a wider sense to be alive at all. The interactions between Dex and the robot Mosscap are sublime, as they traverse from awkward metting to awkward companionship to tentative friendship, all the while discussing and debating what it means to be natural versus manufactured, and the purpose of existence. A feel-good story that makes the reader sense a deeper meaning.
Jack Kerrigan has been expelled from MIT for something he did not do, and now he’s back in the small rural midwestern town where he grow up, working in his father’s general store. On a delivery run, he hits something with his pickup truck. But he can’t see it, as it is invisible. It turns out that Jack has hit an alien wandering across the road. As things unravel, Jack and his friends find themselves embroiled in a plot involving aliens meddling in humanity’s future, as well as the interstellar political implications.
While the premise itself, apart from the starting incident, is not terribly original, the story is great fun. An adventurous romp with many funny moments and often hilarious dialogue. The dynamic between the three childhood best friends turned young adults is fabulous, elevating the story from what the tired “aliens among us” to something much more engaging.
Linguist and Egyptologist Marty Cohen has been pushed out of academia for spurious reasons and now runs a custom furniture store. An old colleague begs him to come to a new dig in Egypt where very curious writing has been found. At the dig, Marty and a few of the team are transported back to pre-dynastic Egypt. But things take an even stranger turn as mythical creatures turn out to exist, at least in this version of the past.
The novel is a serviceable and enjoyable Alternate History adventure, especially if you have some interest in Ancient Egypt history. It never becomes really epic, focusing instead on the dynamics of the small group of time travelers.
Ray Court is part of an experimental programme, in which his mind, and those of the other programme members, will be scanned and sent out to candidate planets in the galaxy. Machines will construct habitats and then copies of Ray and the others, scattering humanity amongst the stars.
The concept of this novelette is simple, but the execution is both clever and thought-provoking. Complicating things, Roy’s ex-wife is also one on the programme, and he believes he may be able to win her back in “another life”. Multiple copies of Roy and the others end up in different circumstances, with different biomes, and their choices are sublty or greatly different. The story rapidly grows from small personal themes to awe-inspiring and humbling ones involving the deep future.
In the sequel to Delta-V, James Tighe and his companions are back on Earth, trying to figure out how to save their two friends still stranded on asteroid Ryugu. A relatively simple problem requiring an increasingly complex plan involving bootstrapping a space economy by building a mass driver on the Moon. The mass driver can launch resources extracted from the Lunar regolith at a fraction of the cost of launching them from Earth, enabling construction of a rescue ship. National and corporate interest on Earth try to get in on the economic and geopolitical frontier, while humanity and Earth suffers increasingly acute social and economic issues due to worsening climate change.
While Delta-V is a more straightforward space thriller, the sequel expands the context, posing important questions such as how to prevent space from becoming just another exploited colonisation boundary for the powerful, while most of humanity remain have-nots. The pace is slower, but the payoff ties it all together. The protagonist as something of a naif in context is a nice detail, illustrating how most people live their lives, even lives doing great things, with little understanding of the bigger picture.
Jason Asano, an Australian with a Japanese parent, is magically summoned to a different world, and finds himself, without warning, naked, in a cage. After much initial confusion, and after escaping a cult that is trying to use him as a blood sacrifice, he makes some friends and starts establishing a name for himself as a beginning “adventurer” in the city of Greenstone. The world in which he has landed works, at least for him, like a role-playing game, inclusive of magical storage, character statistics, attributes, and ranks.
The trope of a human taken from Earth and put in an unfamiliar world is hardly new, but the role-playing wrinkle is interesting. Jason as a character is almost stereotypical of the trope. He was something of a misfit on Earth, and now has the chance and the boldness to shine based on his unconcern for social hierarchy, his innate cleverness, his charm, and his often infuriating wit. Nevertheless, it is hard not to root for Jason, especially given the wry humour infused in much of the dialogue.
In the sequel to The Cruel Stars, Princess Alessia, Commander Lucinda Hardy, Admiral McLellan, and L’trel make their way into Javan space. Their self-imposed mission is to find more survivors of the Sturm attack. As they arrive in a system where they believe allied forces may be operating clandestinely, they discover that criminal elements aboard a freeport habitat have conspired to capture warship crews. Furthermore, the surviving Javan foces have entered into an uneasy alliance with the corporate Combine. The Sturm is fast approaching, and in the face of this threat Admiral McLellan takes command, while L’trel attempts to rescue the prisoners on the freeport. The makeshift task force soon falls apart in the face of the enemy, and L’trel’s crew seems to have bitten off more than they can chew. Mayhem ensues.
With the main characters now well established, this second installment contains many fine action scenes and stellar dialogue like the first book, while keeping a sharp focus on the characters. Alessia is maturing quickly, under the tutelage of Lucinda, L’trel, and Admiral McClellan. McClellan himself, and his artificial intelligence foil Hero, continue to be as profane as they are hilarious.
Billionaire video game designer and tech magnate Richard “Dodge” Forthrast dies while having a routine surgical procedure. Unbeknownst to his family and friends, he has long since signed up for cryopreservation, then probably forgotten about it. His will contains detailed instructions about possible reanimation when the technology exists. As it turns out, waking the dead in a computer-generated virtual reality seems to be the way forward. After many power struggles and discussions, Dodge finally wakes in a primitive computer-generated world, soon starting to shape and mould it to his desires. At first a trickle, and then a flood of other dead begin to join him, many with their own ideas about the virtual afterlife, in conflict with Dodge’s own.
There are some significant connections to other works by Mr. Stephenson. Richard Forthrast and his adoptive daughter Zula are prominently featured in Reamde, whilst Enoch Root was a character in Cryptomonicon, as well other works. Those were good novels. This is not. After a promising start, most of the action moves to the virtual world, and it is really boring. From Dodge’s initial efforts to shape the world to his desires, to his building of a pantheon with himself as the prime god, to his downfall at the hands of a rival, it is mainly a tedious slog to read. The final part is written as fantasy, and is slightly better, but by this point I just wanted it to be over, and skimmed large parts.
The concept itself is very interesting, and I had high hopes the plot would continue along the lines of the first quarter. However, the shift to the virtual world kills all interest in the main characters, and for that matter in the concept itself. At that point, it’s just a creation myth that has no need for its own backstory. It is a real shame, because there are so many interesting ideas to explore at depth, not least the societal impact of humans being able to live on, in a certain form at least, after death. The ending is mildly satisfying, but the journey to get there is not, especially as this book, while not overly long by Stephenson standards, is a solid tome by any other.
Astronaut Walli Beckwith is conducting an experiment on the International Space Station when an imminent collision leads to an evacuation order. Walli, however, refuses to leave, for reasons unknown to her two crewmates. As they return to Earth, she remains as the sole occupant on a damaged station. Meanwhile, in the Amazon, her niece is conducting aid work in response to a humanitarian crisis. The Brasilian government is ruthlessly chasing native populations from their lands in order to make space for industrial farming and deforestation. The Amazon is on fire.
The plot soon evolves into a very competent action-thriller. Most impressively, Mr. Kluger does not take any drastic shortcuts on realism; events are solidly underpinned by existing science and technology. The characters do feel a bit flat, unfortunately, but this is a page-turner nonetheless.
As a young Warrant Officer in the US Army, Mr. Mason spent a year flying helicopters in Vietnam. This memoir chronicles his journey from wet-behind-the-ears newbie to grizzled veteran with PTSD. The perspective is very much that of soldiers who are just doing the job, far from any decision-making. They can see the futility of their efforts, but they still go out and fly, despite their fears, facing daily the horrors of mutilation and death.
Chickenhawk is a seminal book about the Vietnam War experience, and also about flying helicopters in combat. The author uses irony and self-deprecating humour to good effect, describing in starkly clinical terms the compendium of horrors he witnessed. The feelings of helplessness and futility from flying the same missions over and over again with little effect on the war effort, while at the same time the generals and politicians spout empty words claiming success is imminent, are explored not directly, but through the naively portrayed eyes of the narrator. A fascinating read whether you are into aviation or not.
Lynn Raven is a rather reclusive high schooler in a society that encourages virtual interaction. She is overweight and has self-esteem issues. She is also secretly “Larry Coughlin,” one of the top players of Warmonger, an online first-person shooting game, and makes good money playing it. She is contacted by Warmonger’s developers to be part of testing for a new augmented reality (AR) game called TransDimentional Hunter. But this would require her to get out there “in the real”, since the game is played in real locales using virtual reality technology. For Lynn, being visible at all causes anxiety. Things get worse when she has to become part of a team.
This is not a typical John Ringo book, as it is firmly seated in the Young Adult arena. An entertaining romp and coming of age story, with a darker and deeper background story, no doubt to be explored in future installments, being strongly hinted at.
In an alternate history, the Apollo program flies one more mission, the all-military Apollo 18. At the last minute, the mission parameters change as the Soviet Union launches a spy space station equipped with cameras capable of unprecedented resolution. The astronauts are tasked with disabling it before departing Earth orbit for the Moon.
This is a technothriller with a solid grounding in the technology of the time. The technical details are accurate, hardly surprising as the author is a former astronaut. The plot itself is rather far-fetched, but plausible, and exciting in itself, especially for the space exploration buff. Unfortunately, the plot is often bogged down with overly complex sequences of events as one or another character seeks an advantage or makes a complicated plan. The characters themselves, a mixture of historical figures and fictional ones, are not very nuanced, and sometimes relationship events seem to be created purely without much story purpose. For example, the protagonist’s romance with one of the scientists seems tacked on unnecessarily.
Robin Olds was the consummate fighter pilot. Bold, brave, decisive, inspiring, and impatient with bureaucracy. His career began in World War Two, flying Lightings and Mustangs, and was capped off with a legendary tour in Vietnam, flying Phantoms.
The events recounted are historically very interesting, especially the Vietnam War narrative. Unfortunately, though, Mr. Olds and his co-authors are not very inspiring writers. It is all quite plain, gruff and direct, probably much like the man himself. There is also a lot of fighter pilot jargon that goes largely unexplained, making many passages difficult to decipher. This book could have used an editor, or a helpful collaborating ghostwriter, to make the prose and structure more interesting. It turned into a slog of a read despite content that should have been riveting.
Nearing the end of a long and storied life, “Ah Ma” Su Yi becomes ill, and it is apparent she does not have long to live. The extended family flocks to Tyersall Park, ostensibly to pay their respects, but in many cases to vie for part of the inheritance. Eddie Cheng in particular is scheming deviously to outmanoeuvre the still estranged Nick. Nick himself isn’t particularly interested in inheriting the house, but Rachel convinces him to return home and try to make peace with his grandmother.
The third and final instalment neatly ties up the plot threads, but still holds a few surprises. There are also some particularly hilarious scenes, with Eddie Cheng taking pride of place as the fool. A worthy end to a trilogy that made me smile and laugh.
Rachel and Nick, after having broken with Nick’s family, live happily in New York. But a luxury car accident in London involving the son of a prominent Mainland Chinese politician brings their Asian roots to the forefront again. It turns out that Rachel’s long-lost father is alive and well. In separate developments, Kitty Pong desperately wants to climb the social ladder of Hong Kong society.
While the story is not as focused in this second instalment, Mr. Kwan’s dry with is perhaps even sharper, with plenty of chuckles, and some laugh-out-loud funny scenes. The stakes are higher, but it feels like they are also somewhat more abstract.
Rachel Chu, a Chinese woman who grew up in America, and Nick Young, a Singaporean, are a few years into a relationship while teaching in New York. Nick’s best friend Colin is soon to tie the knot, so he asks Rachel to come to meet his family and tour Asia with him during the summer break. Little does Rachel realise that Nick’s family is one of an elite few, immensely rich, interconnected Singaporean clans. Clans who put family and bloodline above all. Rachel is about to step into a situation she is woefully unprepared for, and Nick seems completely oblivious despite warnings from his cousin.
The novel reads like a love letter to Singapore in some ways, describing in loving and often hilarious details the intricacies of societal ritual, schooling, food, and social events. Nick’s extended family and the network of family connections beyond are scheming, devious, and often plain mean. They commit unscrupulous and cold-hearted acts in the pursuit of longstanding ambitions and goals, plotting over decades to build and maintain their dynasties. Mr. Kwan’s dry wit serves the story exquisitely as it elevates characters with seemingly little connection to reality from mere punchlines into the sublimely tragicomic.
There is a darkness at the core of this story, as Rachel slowly realises that all the family goings-on that Nick sees as normal, are shockingly cruel to someone who, like her, is seen as lacking in the “bloodline” department. That being said, this is, at heart, a romantic comedy, with frequent hilarity and heartwarming moments.