Worms to Catch – Guy Martin

Mr. Martin’s third memoir continues to detail his doubts and tribulations over whether he should continue road racing. While he ponders that question, he manages to break the world speed record on a Wall of Death, finish the grueling Tour Divide ultra-distance bicycle race, and as usual spanner some trucks.

If you enjoyed the previous books, you will like this one. Mr. Martin bares his soul to the reader in refreshingly frank way. He doesn’t try to make himself look better than he is, and he freely admits that he can re-evaluate opinions and even change his mind completely on things. As we all should when circumstances change, I suppose.

When You Dead, You Dead – Guy Martin

Lorry mechanic, motorcycle racer and speed demon Guy Martin writes about his most eventful year to date. Including discussions about his inner chimp, Brian, and whether he should continue to race motorcycles.

An entertaining and interesting read, just like the first book. Behind the aw-shucks exterior is an intelligent, passionate and driven man who is still discovering what it is that makes him tick.

The Medusa Chronicles – Stephen Baxter & Alastair Reynolds

In this authorized sequel to Arthur C. Clarke’s novella A Meeting with Medusa, Mr. Baxter and Mr. Reynolds explore what happens to Howard Falcon after his fateful adventure in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter.

Back in the 1960s, at the height of the Space Race, an asteroid on a collision course with Earth is discovered. This dramatically changes the course of history, as international cooperation is required to deflect it. In turn, this leads to a golden age of space exploration. Machine intelligence is explored, but the machines eventually rebel against their masters, leading to centuries of conflict.

This is indeed a chronicle, as Falcon finds himself the often unwilling puppet of great powers during pivotal historic events. The authors pay homage to Mr. Clarke’s “sense of wonder” style, but adapt it to more modern readers. The naked technological optimism displayed in Clarke’s works, more typical of the mid 20th Century, is still there, but not without dark sides. The ending also has clear thematic and tonal similarities to 2001 and 2010.

The Outside – Ada Hoffmann

Dr. Yasira Shien works as a scientist on a revolutionary reactor, emplaced on a space station in orbit around the planet Jai. Something goes horribly wrong and many people die as “The Outside” encoraches on reality, destroying the station. An Angel of Nemesis, a vindictive AI goddess, forces Yasira to go on a mission to investigate. It would appear that Yasira’s mentor, Dr. Talirr, has been tampering with reality. And she must be stopped.

What starts as an interesting story with a fascinating setting unfortunately far too quickly turns into a slog. Yasira is an interesting character. Autisic, self-doubting, immensely intelligent, and initially very much unaware of what she has unleashed. Akavi, an “Angel”, agent of one of the AIs who have anointed themselves as gods, is less intricate, with simpler motivations, but often more entertaining to read about than Yasira, whose seemingly endless internal monologue is ineffective at holding the reader’s attention.

Unfortunately, the interesting setup, with The Outside and the contention that reality is lie, never leads to a real payoff and the reader is left wondering what exactly happened. The Outside and its interactions with reality might as well be magic, however much they are portrayed in technological terms. What is left of the central premise is meandering ramblings that, while well written, are, in the end, both unsatisfying and seemingly lacking in real meaning or explanation.

Walking to Aldebaran – Adrian Tchaikovsky

Astronaut Gary Rendell is lost in the “crypts”, a dark labyrinth full of horrors. He has been wandering them for an indeterminate amount of time, and is evidently slowly going mad. Through flashbacks, Gary tells the reader about the mysterious artefact which houses the crypts, and how he came to be there.

Mr. Tchaikovsky uses first person narrative to tell the story as if Gary is speaking directly to the reader. In fact, on multiple occasions Gary specifically “speaks” to the reader. This makes the denouement of the narrative quite visceral, as the reader slowly realises why Gary is so despondent. An aura of doom suffuses the story, and the final twist is, if not entirely unexpected by that point, still heartbreaking.

And Shall Machines Surrender – Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Orfea arrives at the Dyson Sphere Shenzhen, a utopia run by AI. She is attempting to migrate there to escape a turbulent past, but manages to enter under false pretences. She is soon contacted, unexpectedly, by an AI she knows well, and by an old colleague and lover who is a candidate for Haruspex. The Haruspex construct is a melding of a human body and an AI mind, part of a social experiment of sorts being conducted by the AIs running Shenzhen.

Ms. Sriduangkaew plays language like a virtuoso, masterfully constructing passages which flow effortlessly while conveying meaning precisely. The setting draws heavily on Chinese culture and traditions, but even the reader unfamiliar will have no issues following. The crux of the story centres on complex issues regarding machine intelligences, and their relation to the humans from whence they once came. Not an easy thing to weave into a novella with so much action, and this is where the piece falters slightly. On the other hand, the author feels no need to handhold the reader through tedious exposition, and said reader must step up and go along for the ride.

On to the Asteroid (Space Excursions II) – Travis S. Taylor & Les Johnson

A billionaire industrialist launches an automated mission to an asteroid, aiming to redirect it into a Lunar orbit for future extraction of minerals. The propulsion system malfunctions before completing the redirection maneuver, and now the asteroid is heading for impact with Earth. A desperate repair mission is launched.

The story is excellent. High stakes, interesting technical solutions, lots of hardcore space action, and a high pace. Unfortunately, and just like the previous book, it is let down by atrocious dialogue and cardboard cutout characters. The dialogue is especially cringeworthy. I did enjoy it because despite these negatives, it is a great yarn, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re a real space buff.

Atmosphaera Incognita – Neal Stephenson

Real estate agent Emma reconnects with school friend Carl, who is now a billionaire. Carl wants to build a tower twenty kilometres tall, and he drafts Emma into the project.

The sheer scale of the project described is staggering, and the technical challenges are excellently described. Despite the necessity for such detail, Mr. Stephenson manages to steer this novella away from being a technical treatise, focusing on the human and the personal. A delightful tale of hubris and triumph.

Monster Hunter Guardian (Monster Hunter International VII) – Larry Correia & Sarah A. Hoyt

While Owen, Earl and most of the rest of the hunters are on their mission on Severny Island, as told in Monster Hunter Siege, Julie Shackleford is taking care of her and Owen’s toddler son Ray. An evil mythical creature known as Brother Death has taken an interest in Ray, since his ancestry on both sides imbues him with powerful magic. Through deception and violence, Brother Death kidnaps Ray, and Julie must set off to retrieve him safely.

The novel is an enjoyable diversion from the main stories of the series. Julie Shackleford certainly deserved a story told from her perspective, giving a rather different perspective to that of Owen, or even Earl, who had his own story in Monster Hunter Alpha. The action is, as usual, fantastic. Fully Mission-Impossible-worthy, extended set pieces dominate the book. On the flip side, Julie is a much more serious character compared to Owen, so the trademark humour is rather toned down. Unfortunately, it has been replaced by an excess of Europe-bashing and stereotyping. It’s all well and good to make fun of other cultures, but the thinly veiled tone of superiority by an American visitor is almost cringeworthy at times.

Aurora – Kim Stanley Robinson

Over a hundred and fifty years into their voyage, the inhabitants of a generation starship are only a decade out from the Tau Ceti star system. Despite the massive size of the ship, delicate ecological cycles have been slowly deteriorating over the decades. After arrival, more serious problems crop up with the colonisation effort. The issues are so severe that the colonists are faced with deciding whether to stay, or attempt a return to Earth. Both options are fraught with risk.

While the novel ostensibly chronicles the life of a single inhabitant, Freya, it is also fair to say that the AI running the ship is as much a protagonist. Ship, as it prefers to call itself (or is it themselves) develops over time under the ministrations of Freya’s mother Devi, and much of the novel deals with the emergence of its consciousness. Indeed, many pages are spent debating the nature of consciousness and sentience. Is Ship truly sentient? Can a purportedly sentient being even know if it is sentient?

A lot of time is also spent on the suitability attempting to colonise other star systems, or even other planets in the Solar System. Mr. Robinson’s ultimate answer to this question is rather surprising, but hopeful in its own way.

The narrative feels somewhat impersonal, as if the reader is kept at a distance from the protagonist and even the action. This seems to be a conscious choice on the part of Mr. Robinson, given that the story is told in the voice of Ship itself, even as Ship’s understanding of language and humans develops. An interesting narrative device, and finely implemented.

River of Night (Black Tide Rising VII) – John Ringo & Mike Massa

The sequel to The Valley of Shadows follows Tom Smith, Risky, Astroga and the rest after their escape from New York. The plan is to establish a settlement with adequate defenses, and also very importantly electrical power. However, a band calling itself Gleaners, set up by a scruple-deprived man called Harlan Green, has similar plans. And they lack the morals of Tom’s group.

The zombies are still around in this installment, but they act more like nuisance monsters than a major threat. Fittingly, the biggest danger to humans is other humans. There is some fine action as always, with a major set piece battle capping the book.

At the Edge of Space: The X-15 Flight Program – Milton O. Thompson

The X-15 program ran from 1959 to 1968, with three aircraft exploring high altitude and high-speed flight. The research program contributed a wide range of scientific advances that were instrumental in the development of the Space Shuttle and fly by wire control technology, among other things. The work of flying the X-15 was dangerous and exacting, leading to the death of one pilot and involving numerous emergencies. It remains to this date by far the fastest and highest-flying winged aircraft in history.

Mr. Thompson’s account is matter-of-fact, with few embellishments. (The author does note that he is not a writer.) While it retains a certain flatness of style throughout, the book is nonetheless fascinating for the aviation buff. These men, including a young Neil Armstrong, were exploring the unknown fringes of the flight envelope in an unforgiving aircraft, frequently referred to in the book as “The Bull”. While sometimes the text veers into catalogues of flights with their respective purposes, it is peppered with interesting and funny anecdotes, as well as edge-of-your-seat accounts of in-flight emergencies.

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians I) – Rick Riordan

Twelve-year old Perseus “Percy” Jackson goes to a boarding school because of learning difficulties. And odd stuff keeps happening, such as when he accidentally vaporises one of his teachers while on a field trip. As it turns out, Percy is a demi-god, and soon finds himself in all sorts of trouble with the ancient Greek Pantheon.

The story is clever, and the writing snappy. For a young adult reader, the protagonist is readily identifiable. The idea of using Greek Mythology and applying it to the modern day is inspired. I enjoyed the story, but did find myself annoyed at the sometimes excessive pandering to younger readers and their (perceived) tastes.

Pass of Fire (Destroyermen XIV) – Taylor Anderson

In the fourteenth installment of Destroyermen, the Grand Alliance has finally pushed the Grik up against the wall. The First Allied Expeditionary Force has a firm foothold along the Zambezi downriver from the Grik capital, whilst the army of the Republic of Real People is pushing north to join up. The final assault on Sofesshk is about to begin. Unfortunately, the Grik are well dug in, and rooting them out will take some innovative tactics. Also, just defeating the Grik on the battlefield will not be sufficient. They must be broken politically in order to prevent a retreat and resurgence.

Meanwhile, on the American front, the Second Allied Expeditionary Force is set to assault the Pass of Fire, and will find out the depths to which the Dominion will sink in their exploitation of the populace. League of Tripoli forces loom in the wings, scheming.

There is even more battlefield action than usual in Pass of Fire. And it is the good stuff. Mr. Anderson continues to show a talent for expanding the story, while still moving it forward and closing off plot threads. There is obviously plenty more to come.

The world of Destroyermen is becoming rather complex, with myriad military actions, references to previous events, and many, many ship types. Thankfully, there is a Wiki with maps, ships drawings, characters bios and more.

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.