Flying Upside Down – Duke Nukem

An extremely irreverent book about flying as a contract pilot in Mainland China. Everything from living conditions, to pay, to punitive schemes for minor infractions, to hair-raising transcripts of conversations with air traffic control, management, and first officers. The structure is loose, mainly made up of anecdotes and redacted emails from company officials.

The book is self-published and free to distribute. It is also full of grammatical and orthographic errors, with a structure that barely deserves the moniker. The tone is joking, sarcastic and exasperated, often to excess. The formatting goes from passable to awful. The content, though, is fascinating and horrifying in equal measure. The non-pilot would probably not find it very interesting, as it is full of jargon and addresses the unique aspects challenges of the profession.

Children of Ruin (Children of Time II) – Adrian Tchaikovsky

A generation after the conclusion of Children of Time, an exploration ship leaves Kern’s World, arriving some time later, by means of sublight travel and crew hibernation, at a star system that appears to harbour life. Unbeknownst to the mixed Portiid and Human crew, millenia previously a terraforming mission arrived from Earth’s fallen Old Empire. Catastrophe befell that mission, leaving behind a spacefaring race of intelligent, uplifted octopi, as well as an ancient alien virus.

The premise involving uplifted octopi is ambitious, even more so than the premise of uplifted spiders in the first novel. The distributed intelligence of an octopus is very alien to the reader, and Mr. Tchaikovsky makes a concerted effort to convey this. Unfortunately for the story, this makes decision making by the characters frequently confusing, contradictory, and transitory, as this is the nature of the sentience of the depicted octopi. While clever, it takes the reader somewhat out of the story. As in Children of Time, the spectre of deep time weighs heavily on the story, bringing themes of legacy, of connection between intelligences, and of the meaning of existence.

Permafrost – Alastair Reynolds

In the not too distant future, a cascading ecological apocalypse has ended all food production. Humanity is down to stored rations, and there is no future. Mathematician Valentina Lidova is recruited to a remote research facility, where scientists are attempting practical time travel into the past, with a twist.

Mr. Reynolds’s fluid style makes the narrative of this bleak novella shine despite the grim setting and themes. The concept of inertia as history is changed, as well as the fact that characters’ memories are altered mid-paragraph due to chances, makes things potentially quite confusing for the reader, but that is not a problem here.

Moon Rising (Luna III) – Ian McDonald

The third and final (?) book in the Luna series sees Lucas Corta fight for the future of the Moon as an entity independent from Earth interests. He also seeks revenge for the destruction of the Corta business empire at the hands of the Mackenzies. His son Lucasinho is severely injured, and the object of a three-way custody battle. The now four remaining dragons rapidly make and break alliances in order to come out on top of a new order which looks more and more contentious.

The world building continues to be fabulous. However, the plot is less focused than in the previous two instalments. That being said, the threads are rather neatly wrapped up in a satisfying conclusion, while leaving room for future novels in the series.

How Apollo Flew to the Moon – W. David Wood

A technical overview of the Apollo program, from hardware to missions, set at a level suitable for the interested layman. The author wisely starts discussions from first principles, from a basic explanation of orbits to the intricacies of stellar navigation.

The book is extremely well researched and clearly written. Mr. Wood has sprinkled the text with actual radio chatter and interviews with the protagonists. This elevates the chapters from a dry, textbook style discussion into something far more real.

A must read for any space program enthusiast.

Tiamat’s Wrath (The Expanse VIII)

Laconia’s hegemony seems insurmountable, and yet the scattered remnants of the Rocinante’s crew fight on. Holden is a prisoner on Laconia itself. Amos is missing in action after leaving for a secret mission on Laconia. Naomi lives in a tiny transport container, smuggled from ship to ship and system to system, aboard larger vessels as she coordinates the efforts of the Underground. Alex and Bobbie fight a guerrilla war on a captured warship.

The sense of despair is palpable when the book begins. Is the struggle futile because it seems unwinnable? Or is it worth fighting for a just cause even if it just means eventual defeat? Whilst the greater struggle continues, the authors cleverly make it about the family of the Rocinante, and how their underground war has brought them sorrow because they cannot be together. The familiarity and closeness of family have been replaced with isolation and brooding.

There are shades of The Empire Strikes Back about this novel. Our heroes are on the run and must persevere, while the enemy seems almost invincible. The family of the Roci is destined to reunite, but they will not be the same people as when they separated.

A Peace Divided (Confederation VII) – Tanya Huff

During an archaeological dig on a remote planet, clues to a possible weapon against the plastic aliens discovered in The Heart of Valor. A mercenary team composed of both Confederacy and Primacy races arrives and takes the in situ scientists hostage. Torin and her team of Wardens are joined by a Primacy team, partly composed of old acquaintances from the prison planet in Valor’s Trial, and tasked to resolve the situation.

While the story itself is entertaining, and moves the greater arc forward, the details are a mess. Too many characters from too many alien races appear, introducing myriad interactions. Ms. Huff does an excellent job at characterisation and humour, but it was too much for this reader to keep track of. The main thrust of the plot is lost amongst an excess of complications.

An Ancient Peace (Confederation VI) – Tanya Huff

After the events in The Truth of Valor, which can be thought of as a bridge book between two subseries, Torin and some of the veterans from her service in the Marines, as well as her partner Craig, are set up as roving agents for the Justice Department. They are given a mission to chase down graverobbers attempting to fence ancient weapons of the H’san, nowadays a peaceful spieces but immensely powerful.

Ms. Huff’s trademark humour and adeptness at interpersonal relationship shine through in what is the start of a new trilogy in the confederation universe. Torin struggles with her new civilian identity, but finds her place as the leader of a small, dedicated team.

Beyond the Aquila Rift: The Best of Alastair Reynolds – Alastair Reynolds

This massive collection contains most of Mr. Reynolds’s short stories and novelettes, which have formerly appearaed in other publications. Some are set in the Revelation Space universe, but most are standalone. Thousandth Night is a prequel of sorts to House of Suns. It is by far the weakest of the entries, overlong and tedious like most of the book it connects with. The average standard is very high, as one would expect from Mr. Reynolds. Most deal in some way with the nature and meaning of existence, as well as the spectre of deep time. In Mr. Reynolds’s worlds, faster than light travel is impossible, so it may take thousands of years to travel between stars, making any sort of coherent and stable interstellar society almost impossible. Vainglory, and the charming Zima Blue, are their hearts commentaries on the nature of art and legacy.

As ever with this author, the prose is polished, the characters are deep and interesting, and the concepts are often awe-inspiring. A nice read in parts and as a whole.

Ark Royal (Ark Royal I) – Christopher G. Nuttall

The Ark Royal is the oldest starship in the Royal Navy. A relic of the past, still ostensibly on active duty but in reality parked with most of her systems shut down with a caretaker crew. Her captain is a drunk and most of the crew consists of those whose careers took a wrong turn. After a surprise attack by previously unknown aliens, however, Ark Royal is reactivated, rearmed and re-equipped with starfighters for a desperate delaying action.

While the premise is decent, the telling is not. The characters are cardboard cutouts, lacking any traits that might make them interesting. The story is littered with boring infodumps. A lot of telling and not enough doing as the logic of conflict with the armaments at hand is explained, and any uncertainties expounded on at length, as if to ensure that the reader will be able to judge the arduousness of any subsequent action.

I didn’t even make it a third of the way through before I gave up.

The Valley of Shadows (Black Tide Rising VI) – John Ringo & Mike Massa

In Under a Graveyard Sky, Faith and Sophia spend some time on Manhattan helping out their uncle Tom Smith. This book is the full story of how Tom and his security team at a major Wall Street bank handled the zombie apocalypse, from the first reports to the total collapse of civilisation.

Far from just filling out the story of a side character, Mr. Ringo and Mr. Massa tell a compelling story, firmly establishing Tom Smith as a major protagonist in his own right. While he naturally shares character traits with his brother Steve, he is not a carbon copy.

The story takes place against the backdrop of Wall Street, and the authors have really captured the feeling of the environment. Investment bankers tend to be smart, driven, and analytical. The response to a zombie apocalypse is rational, but also mired in internal politics. Inevitably, the situation devolves, meaning more action and less analysis, but that is not a bad thing. The action scenes are excellent and some of the ZAMMIEs (Zombie Apocalypse Moments) are hilarious.

House of Suns – Alastair Reynolds

Six millions years previously, Abigail Gentian, scion of an influential and rich family, made one thousand clones of herself and infused each one with her personality and memories. Since then “Gentian Line” has travelled the Milky Way at sublight speeds, exploring, experiencing and helping civilisations. Every two hundred thousand years, the “shatterlings” of Gentian Line come together in a grand reunion, to share experiences and memories, and to remember their lost.

Purslane and Campion are two shatterlings who, despite strong taboos against it, have fallen in love and travel together. They are thousands of years late for the coming reunion. Once they arrive, they find that the Line has been attacked for unknown reasons, and decimated.

The premise is interesting, tackling the tricky concept of deep time and societal survival. Is it possible for a planet-bound civilisation, or even an interstellar empire, to sustain its own existence beyond a few tens of thousands of years? And what of consciousness, machine or biological. How can these handle intervals of millions of years, even if many are spent in suspended animation?

Unfortunately, too much of the story depends on reactions to events that happened previously, which are revealed piecemeal in massive and awkward infodumps. The plot will grind to a halt as a character expounds for pages and pages on events of five millions years ago and how they explain the events of last year in perceived time (which perhaps actually happened fifty thousand years ago in actual time). The love story of Purslane and Campion is sweet and tragic and compelling, and that would have made a lovely book. However, the whole edifice is heavily weighed down by having to explain and analyse the effects of deep time and ancient history, making it an ungainly slog only rescued by Mr. Reynolds’s superb prose and flair for illustrating the immense. Ironically, the final chapters are absolutely beautiful and would have been an amazing coda to a less ponderous narrative.

Without Mercy (Siobhan Dunmore V) – Eric Thomson

Captain Dunmoore and the crew of the Q-Ship Iolanthe intercept a distress signal. An abandoned cargo ship, which turns out to house a single survivor. What follows is a chase to find the perpetrators and disentangle their complex scheme.

While Dunmoore and her merry band of naval personnel are still good fun to hang out with, the quality of the narrative is lower than in previous installments. There seems to be no real risk that any of the characters will be killed or even seriously injured. Much of the text consists of the main characters spouting literary and military history quotes in extended banters sessions, showing off how clever they are while their enemies are continually confounded.

Victory’s Bright Dawn (Siobhan Dunmore IV) – Eric Thomson

Siobhan Dunmoore is now in command of Iolanthe, a massive Q-Ship charged with anti-piracy patrol. While returning for resupply, they find the Naval base on the planet Toboso, and the colonial administration facilities, destroyed by orbital bombardment. Many critical supplies have also been pilfered by the raiders. The crew of the Iolanthe sets off on a complex chase to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Mr. Thomson continues to keep the series fresh by, once again, telling a very different story. While lacking in the high stakes of Like Stars in Heaven, there is still plenty of action and banter to keep fans of the series happy. The introduction of many new characters, including the colourful Army contingent, also injects fresh energy. The plot does get rather convoluted at times, requiring overlong and somewhat forced dialogue infodumps.

I must gripe again that, just as in the previous instalment, there is an out of context jibe at leftist thinking for no plot-related reason.

Like Stars in Heaven (Siobhan Dunmore III) – Eric Thomson

Dunmoore and the crew of the Stingray are sent on a long range mission to investigate a possible lost colony of mankind. When they arrive, they find a society that has developed in a rather radical direction.

While I have previously compared the Siobhan Dunmoore series to Horatio Hornblower and Honor Harrington, this instalment felt very much like an extended episode of Star Trek – The Next Generation, in all the good ways. The crew are sent on a mission. Things are not as they seem. Tensions arise. Dramatic conclusion. The structural elements of the story are not necessarily original, but the narrative structure is excellently assembled. The tension in the second half of the book is palpable; the stakes feel very real, and the pages almost turn themselves. Mr. Thomson has found a way to tell a different kind of story in each of the three books so far, and again avoided the temptation to expand the scope of the novel towards the wider universe, confining the action to the crew of the Stingray. The dialogue and pacing are excellent. My one gripe was the rather random snipe at liberal/leftist thinking, which felt like a jarring and misplaced attempt at political lecturing rather than an integral part of the narrative.

The Path of Duty (Siobhan Dunmore II) – Eric Thomson

Commander Dunmoore and the Stingray are dispatched to the arse end of space and get stuck with convoy duty. There is mystery afoot as a freighter is found abandoned, and other ships from the same company seem involved in shady operations. While seeking answers, Stingray stumbles on a top-secret Navy operation at a backwater planet, and the Admiral in charge is a real character.

While the first book in the series was a rather conventional beginning, the story in this one is more “out there”, and there are strong hints regarding a wider arc to the series. Not quite as punchy as the first book, but the action and dialogue remain top notch.

No Honor in Death (Siobhan Dunmore I) – Eric Thomson

Commander Siobhan Dunmoore has recently had a battleship shot out from under her. Her daring successes in previous engagements have not endeared her to the establishment, which sees her as hotheaded and impulsive. Her mentor assigns her to Stingray, an obsolete frigate rumoured to be jinxed. Her predecessor was dismissed under mysterious circumstances, and the crew is none too welcoming. Dunmoore must both resolve the situation with a hostile and cowed crew, and also engage the enemy while on patrol.

While the enemies are humanoid aliens and the action is set in space, the setting shows clear signs of inspiration from the naval conflicts of Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars, and perhaps also from fictional heroes like Horatio Hornblower and Honor Harrington (the latter books themselves inspired by the former). While there is clearly a wider universe, the action is tightly focused on Commander Dunmoore, giving the feel of a submarine story. The allusion to the submariner tradition of a indicatingclean sweep with a broom makes this connection clear. The players are isolated while on patrol, and must resolve the internal conflicts on the ship while fighting their external enemies. These external enemies are not only the alien Shrehari, but the powers within the navy and society that would have them fail, and the figurative ghost of their former sociopathic captain.

While the setting and story are perhaps somewhat unoriginal compared to what has come before, Mr. Thomson is skilled at dialogue and interpersonal relationships, making this an engaging novel with excellent pacing.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O – Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland

Harvard linguist Melisande Stokes is approached by government operative Tristan Lyons with a request to translate a large number of ancient documents, once she has signed a non-disclosure agreement. As she works through them she notices a large number of references to magic. It turns out that magic actually existed until 1851, when the continued progress of technology led to its disappearance. Things take a mysterious turn when they try to build a chamber within which magic can work in the present day, and a surviving witch contacts Melisande via Facebook. In short order, the shadowy “Department of Diachronic Operations” is born, using magic to travel back in time and change history. As the bureaucrats get involved, events immediately veer off in unexpected and undesired directions.

The backbone of the narrative is Melisande’s “Diachronicle” (trust a linguist to pun on a top-secret technical term) where she describes her adventures with D.O.D.O. Large chunks, however, are diary entries and letters by other characters, as well as transcripts from messaging apps, wiki entries and so on. The contrasting styles, and frequent clues as to relative technical ability given by the “author” of specific passages, makes D.O.D.O and its denizens come alive, as if the reader is a fly on the wall during secret operations, meetings, and time travel.

The premise is clever, and more than a bit silly. However, the treatment of the entire situation by the government bureaucracy is most certainly not. And that is one of the important themes of this book. The intersecting shenanigans of bureaucrats, academics and operatives working together make for hilarious passages of dry humour, while at the same time the reader is appalled at the lack of common sense of bureaucrats who spend too little time in the real world. Even the use “official-ese” can change perceptions, and perception is a very important part of this story, on several levels.

The Singularity Trap – Dennis E. Taylor

Asteroid mining newbie Ivan Pritchard and the crew of the Mad Astra seem to have made the strike of a lifetime. But there is a mysterious artifact close by. When the crew investigates, Ivan triggers an ancient alien booby trap, and is changed into… something else.

The story is cleverly constructed and moves along briskly. I couldn’t put it down. While rather tightly focused on a small cast of characters, the scope quickly expands, encompassing broad themes of existence, self and societal viability. Fundamental questions about the Drake Equation and the Great Filter are asked, but without detracting from the enjoyable nature of the narrative. Unlike many authors who dabble in mysterious alien artifacts and “what do they want with us?”, Mr. Taylor manages to pull off a plausible and logical conclusion that does not smell of Deus ex Machina. The signs of ecological catastrophe on Earth, initially giving the impression of being just window dressing, also contribute to the urgency of the situation presented.

Black Triumph (Dark Victory III) – Brendan Dubois

Following the events of Red Vengeance, now Lieutenant Randy Knox is captured by the alien Creepers. What he finds in Creeper captivity is horrific in many ways, with human living as weird prisoners, typically without defined parameters for their captivity, and no prospect of change.

While the book does provide a conclusion to the Dark Victory series, the whole thing goes out with a whimper. Much of the action seems unrelated to the main story, only serving to vaguely illustrate the fact that the Creepers are aliens, and as such do not have easily fathomable behaviours or motivations. This turns the novel into a bit of a slog, in sharp contrast to the previous books.

In the first two books, the Creepers were a faceless evil. Once the evil is explained, it comes out as rather anticlimactic, with an ending that feels tacked on and unsatisfactory.

The Windup Girl – Paolo Bacigalupi

Bangkok in the 22nd century. In a post-hydrocarbon economy, rising oceans are kept at bay by seawalls and pumps. Genetic engineering has unleashed disastrous mutations, regularly generating deadly plagues. The world would starve except for the powerful American calorie companies, selling rice and grain to the world; sterile so that the customer remains dependent. Calories are everything, with humans and modified elephants generating power stored in springs for use in everything from ceiling fans to scooters. Gone is the old “Expansion economy”. Skyscrapers, deprived of the ease of powered elevators, have become slums.

The Kingdom of Thailand seems to have retained a seed bank from before the collapse; an invaluable treasure in a world where crops regularly fail and succumb to ever-evolving blights. Undercover as a Western industrialist, “Calorie Man” Anderson Lake is on a mission to find it and unlock its secrets. Meanwhile, the Thai Environment Ministry and Trade Ministry clash. One protects the crops and people from outside influence, while the other seeks outside contacts. It is a natural rivalry, and in this fierce, bleak and cruel future, the rivalry frequently degenerates into violence.

Emiko is a Japanese “windup girl”, a genetically created “New Person”, an artificial but fully sentient pseudo-human created to aid the aging Japanese population. She is reviled by the Thais, who see her as an abomination and would gladly kill her on sight. Abandoned by her master when he returned to Japan, she must now work in a brothel, shown off as a perverse oddity. She was created to aid humanity, but ironically humanity’s creation is the unexpected chaos element which inadvertently lays waste to the best-laid plans. On the nose, perhaps, but an excellent metaphor.

The world-building is stupendous, deep and intricate. While the reader can certainly poke holes in the logic of the technological infrastructure, in particular the ubiquitous ultra-powerful springs, and the ecosystem sending energy into them, these work well as a plot device. The restricted first-person perspective of the chapters forces the reader to immerse himself in the world and its bleak, fatalistic nature.

The heritage and tropes of past colonialism and its perhaps inevitable resurgence as the world once again grows more connected is a strong theme. Are certain cultures more prone to imperialist ambitions? What are the costs and benefits for cultures with natural resources to open up to those who seek to exploit them? What is the cost of internal division in the face of external pressure? Can either party learn from past mistakes, or are they just fueling a spiral into destruction?

The novel is full of astute and insightful observations of Thai and Chinese culture, as well as the behaviour of Westerners in East and Southeast Asia. An oftentimes depressing read, but a very impressive novel that stays with the reader for a long time.

Mort (Discworld IV) – Terry Pratchett

Mort is a smart teenager who doesn’t quite fit in on the family farm. His father takes him to the job fair to find him an apprenticeship. He is finally selected, by Death, the Grim Reaper. Mort learns how to help the dead pass to the other side, how to walk through walls, and other useful skills. He gets to know Death’s daughter (adopted) and the butler. Then Death takes a break for night and Mort does something ill-advised, because, as teenagers are wont to do, he becomes infatuated.

From the very clever premise stems a story about growing into your own self. Mort goes from subservient apprentice shoveling horse dung to young man of principle and action. Disguised behind Mr. Pratchett’s smoothly ironic, deadpan style and many, many hilarious situations is an insightful treatise on the nature of life, death and personal development. The scenes when Death tries out various human activities like fishing or attending a job interview are laugh-out-loud funny, cleverly exposing how most things that humans do are, in fact, quite silly in one way or another.

The Colour of Magic (Discworld I) – Terry Pratchett

On the Discworld, which is a disc-shaped world sat on four gargantuan elephants, which in turn stand on the back of a titanic turtle sculling through the cosmos, the failed magician Rincewind and the tourist Twoflower meet. Shenanigans ensue, some involving sapient luggage.

Mr. Pratchett’s first Discworld novel starts somewhat slowly, but builds a decent head of steam by the end. The plot is not much more than a series of humorous events connected by the desire to make stuff happen to the hapless Rincewind and the clueless Twoflower, and in some strange way it works.

Irontown Blues – John Varley

Chris Bach is a private detective with a sidekick named Sherlock. Sherlock is a genetically enhanced bloodhound with significant intelligence. They live in one of the vast habitats under the Lunar surface. Due to Post Dramatic Stress Disorder, Bach has retreated into a pseudo-fantasy world based on noir films and novels. He wears a fedora, and lives in “Noirtown“, a neighbourhood designed around the aesthetic of the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. One day, as befitting the stereotype, a mysterious “dame” walks into his office. She needs someone found.

Set in the “Eight Worlds” Universe some time after Steel Beach, the novel sports two very interesting, and very different, protagonists. Bach develops from his past trauma, shown in flashbacks, through his present low, and on to his maturity. More daring by Mr. Varley is to write almost half the narrative in the voice of his canine companion Sherlock. While the concept had the potential to fall flat, it is skillfully delivered, and Sherlock is fully developed as a character, albeit a rather peculiar one. The plot itself is somewhat bare-bones, but with characters like this, it has little impact on the quality of the novel.