Absolution Gap (Revelation Space III) – Alastair Reynolds

In the last book of the Revelation Space trilogy, humanity is in disarray as the Inhibitors ravage space. But there is a glimmer of hope, a young child named Aura seems to have a connection with entities that can help. As the story unfolds on the refugee world of Ararat, and the religious pilgrimage destination Moon of Hela, tired remnants of humanity must make fateful decisions about how to approach the resources presented to them. Who can be trusted?

This is a long and sprawling book, and it feels rather ponderous. Mr. Reynolds’s prose is as engaging as ever, but many digressions, tangents, and diversions are overlong. The obsession with Scorpio’s mortality, the machinations of the Quaicheist church, the extensive details on the madness of Quaiche himself, to name a few things, are explored somewhat excessively at the expense of moving the story forward. For much of the novel, it feels as if nothing is really moving, or perhaps things are moving as slowly as one of the cathedrals on Hela. The Inhibitors themselves seem like a distant threat, so it is hard to work up a real sense of dread for them, even if the survival of humanity itself is at stake. As a conclusion to the trilogy, it is somewhat unsatisfying, even if the personal journeys of the characters come to a conclusion.

Sixteenth Watch – Myke Cole

The Coast Guard is called in to deal with a dispute turned violent between Chinese and American miners on the Moon. Soon, the Navy shows up, and things escalate.

I lots interest after a few pages, and could not get past the prologue. It all seemed very bland. Also, the constant footnotes with definitions of basic nautical and military terms were disruptive and gave a condescending impression.

Frontier – Patrick Chiles

Humanity’s presence in space is expanding, and with it come geopolitical interests. The United States spaceship Borman is dispatched to assist two billionaire explorers with whom contact has been lost. Meanwhile, a vast conspiracy to disable space assets is unfolding. As the Borman herself runs into trouble, the People’s Republic of China enters the fray.

As in the earlier Farside set in the same universe, Mr. Chiles expands the scope of the story beyond a mere rescue mission into a technothriller set in space. The protagonists are easy to root for, though they fall into stereotypes rather too readily. The Chinese crew members are almost laughable cardboard cutouts. The story is well crafted, with a good pace apart from an excess of expository dialogue in the first half, and the political tensions eminently plausible.

At the End of the Journey (Black Tide Rising VIII) – Charles E. Gannon

Following the events in At the End of the World, Alvaro and the now augmented group continue towards their mission, penetrating the Guiana Space Centre launch facility at Kourou in French Guiana in order to prevent the rapid deterioration of GPS. There’s just one catch, Kourou is overrun with infected.

Like the first book in the couplet, this provides decent action without much originality or depth. It is easy to root for the protagonists and to mourn their losses. A quick and easy read if you enjoyed the rest of the series.

At the End of the World (Black Tide Rising VII) – Charles E. Gannon

Geeky late teenager Alvaro is sent off on a long sailboat cruise, more akin to a youth camp. He joins a motley group of peers on the Crosscurrent Voyager, an oceangoing ketch. The captain is an enigmatic and dour Englishman, with a past in the special forces. The group is mid-journey in the Southeastern Pacific at the time of The Fall. As the world descends into zombie-fed apocalypse, the captain decides to press past Cape Horn to South Georgia Island, hoping for a temporary respite.

While the novel is reasonably entertaining if you enjoyed the previous books in the series, there is not much originality on display. The concept of teens left alone in a crisis is well utilised. However, these youngsters seem unusually rational and insightful for their age. A fun diversion with some action thrown in.

Artifact Space (Arcana Imperii I) – Miles Cameron

Patrician family scion Marca Nbaro is on the run from “The Orphanage”, a cruel school for those without protectors in The City. She is not only running away from the Orphanage, which she betrayed for good reason, but also towards the merchant marine of the mercantile society of the Directorate of Human Operations (DHC). She is indeed trained as a Midshipper, hurrying to join the company of the greatship Athens before she is caught. The ship is ready to depart on a four-year voyage of trade, culminating in contact with the enigmatic aliens dubbed Starfish. It takes Nbaro some time to adapt to the fact that her crewmates on the Athens aren’t sadistic predators or victims, but mostly courteous and helpful professionals. As she slowly integrates and drops her guard along the voyage, vast conspiracies aimed at destabilising the very DHC begin to unfold.

Explicitly inspired by mercantile Venice of the Middle Ages, and European voyages along the Silk Road, the great adventure of the Athens and her crew paint a gorgeous backdrop for the characters and story. Trade stops are lavishly described in generous tangents without removing the reader from the story. The development of Nbaro’s character is profound and interesting, with the Athens populated by an eclectic and entertaining cast of supporting characters.

Pattaya Youtuber: And Other True Stories from Thailand – Walt Gleason

The seven short stories in this collection about Westerners in Thailand range from the sordid to the humorous. Several are cautionary tales featuring culture clash, drug use, and girlies bars.

The stories themselves are quirky, with an often interesting take through the viewpoint of both jaded and more innocent visitors to Thailand. Unfortunately, they somewhat lack in hooks to draw the reader in and rely too much on rather unsurprising twists. The prose, structure, and often even the spelling, could have been significantly improved with some professional editing. A vaguely interesting and quick read for those interested in the subject matter, but not much further.

Private Dancer – Stephen Leather

In 1990s Bangkok, thirty-seven-year-old British travel journalist Pete walks into Zombie, a go-go bar in the infamous Nana Plaza red-light district. Dancing naked on the stage is Joy, a twenty-one-year-old girl from Isaan, the poorest region of Thailand. Pete is immediately smitten. He barfines Joy, and from that moment on they are drawn into a passionate relationship which they both misunderstand. Joy sees Pete as someone who can take care of her and her family financially. Pete is attracted to Joy the bar girl, but he also wants Joy the innocent and cute girl he can spend the rest of his life with. Despite being able to act all cutesy, whether Joy can fit into the latter stereotype is an open question. Pete doesn’t like that Joy sleeps with other foreigners for money, but he seems unwilling to commit to the relationship fully, wanting her to wait until he can figure stuff out. Joy does not see the problem with constantly asking for money from Pete, as being well-off confers status, and besides, she has no sense of fiscal responsibility, spending money as soon as she gets it. Under the cynical eye of friends, relatives, and acquaintances on both sides of the cultural divide, Joy and Pete dance around each other, love, argue, fight, and reconcile, in a vicious and tragic cycle.

The novel is a fascinating study of cross-cultural communications and interaction. Despite spending a long time in the country, and speaking some Thai, Pete misunderstands Joy’s point of view from the start. His jaded friends more or less correctly point out that as a bargirl, Joy is only interested in him as a means of financial security, and how can he expect a girl who has sex for money to be trustworthy. On the other hand, Joy does not understand why Pete is being so obtuse and often feels offended about him trying to control her, with his apparent view that he should “save” her from sex work, something that has been extremely lucrative for her. She is clearly fond of him but fondness and love do not mean the same things for her as they do to him. Growing up in abject poverty, and working as a sex worker since she was a teenager, she sees love as a man taking care of her financially, and she in return taking care of him. Romantic emotional attachment is not necessary for her, or perhaps more accurately is not bound to some Western ideal of star-stricken lovers. She seems quite ready to confer her affections to someone who treats her well and brings her security, though it is hinted that Pete is indeed special to her. Pete, a blundering water buffalo by Thai cultural standards, misinterprets Joy’s loving behaviour as that of a Western girl. But in Thai culture, the subtext is supremely important. A person may be smiling and positive, but the real meaning of their behaviour is tucked away in a complex set of cues readily accessible only to those with the background to interpret them.

The tragic core of the story is that Joy and Pete really do love each other, in their own ways, but seem unable to resolve their differences and move on to a future together. This despite the often unexpectedly helpful and understanding advice from Pete’s Greek Chorus of friends, a collection of “old Thailand hands”.

The story deals with a particular subset of Thai society, the dark world of sex work and related crime, and is not necessarily representative of Thai culture as a whole. That being said, it is a case study in cultural misunderstandings, many of which regularly occur in the wider interactions between Thais and Westerners. Some book critics suggested, rather seriously, that this book should be given out for free to young tourists arriving in the country, and it is easy to see why.

The use of multiple narrators with varying backgrounds works extremely well for the narrative. Some old Thailand hands are cynical almost beyond belief about Thailand, but you can see their point of view. Others, especially Joy’s older sister, are also cynical almost beyond belief about foreigners, but again, you can see their point of view. Pete and Joy typically see the same events in completely different ways. The narrators’ understanding of events is often incomplete, jaded, and even perhaps unreliable, but it all weaves a complex web of what, in the end, is a story of two lovers that the reader would love to end up together.

Blindsight – Peter Watts

In a not too distant future, Siri Keeton is a synesthesist, a trained observer who neither judges not suggests. His professional aim is to be the chronicler of events, the dispassionate eye of posterity. Years have passed since “Firefall”, a still-mysterious event in which extraterrestrial intelligence interacted with Earth without obvious intent, or even obvious meaning. As part of a small crew, Siri has hibernated for years to arrive at a massive planet in the Oort Cloud. Here, they must confront the mystery of an entity that calls itself Rorschach. On a deeper level, the crew faces questions of what it means to be human, or even sentient. The answers are no longer obvious once faced with this alien life that does not seem to conform to any human-centric norm.

While there is no shortage of action sequences, these are not the central impetus of the narrative. Mr. Watts takes the reader on an exploration of the crew’s personalities; the cranky biologists, the split-personality linguist, the duty-bound soldier, and the calculating leader; all through the eyes of Keeton, and as a backdrop to an exploration of sentience and intelligence. It also becomes increasingly clear that Keeton may not be seeing things in an entirely rational or reliable fashion. Out at the very edge of human exploration, in an environment of uncertainty and danger, the veneer or civilization slowly wears away, revealing truths that are as uncomfortable as they are sincere.

As a first contact scenario, the novel certainly breaks new ground, with a central conceit about life that is both controversial and alarming. The alien is nothing like us, and its mode of existence brings into question the very nature of humanity, and of life.

Delta-V – Daniel Suarez

Extreme cave diver James Tighe has just returned from an accident-plagued expedition when he is invited to an interview with eccentric billionaire Nathan Joyce. The latter is planning a mining expedition to an asteroid, and is recruiting suitable candidates. A rigorous selection process follows. The expedition is shrouded in secrecy, with layer within layer of intrigue at every step.

The novel is solid near-future science fiction, elevated beyond the pure adventure aspects by an intricate, if somewhat implausible, technothriller foundation. It seems somewhat beyond belief that thousands of people could keep such a large project a secret for so long, especially given the money involved. The space travel aspects are well developed and quite plausible. The inclusion of secondary characters based on NewSpace luminaries such as Musk, Bezos, Branson and Bigelow is rather entertaining and provides a connection to what, in the real world, is shaping up to be a fierce competition for the space economy. The protagonists themselves, unfortunately, are not very well rounded, down to their stereotypical backstories. That being said, they are easy to root for, throughout their tragedies and triumphs.

Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys – Michael Collins

Michael Collins was Command Module Pilot during Apollo XI, the NASA mission that included the first Moon landing. He did not himself land, but kept lonely vigil in Lunar orbit as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their famous landing. As is common with astronaut biographies concerning the early NASA era, this one also begins with an early career in the military. Mr. Collins was an accomplished test pilot, who was accepted by NASA on his second attempt, joining the third group of astronauts. He also flew on Gemini X, performing a spacewalk and perfecting docking manoeuvres.

Mr. Collins’s book stands out from other similar autobiographies I have read, in that it is written in the author’s own voice, as he explicitly states. His love for the English language, perhaps a product of rather a classical education, shines through in poetic passages, and even some poetry. This is not the voice of a clinical and technical test pilot, even though there is a fair amount of technical detail. This is the voice of a poet who lays bare his troubles, annoyances, fears and tribulations like no other astronaut I have read, elevating the text from documentary to something that seeks a deeper significance. We see the inner Collins, or at least more of the inner Collins that I really expected. Other astronauts are treated candidly, and sometimes with a brutal honesty about what the author sees as their character weaknesses. There is no bitterness in these passages, merely observations from a man who long since has gotten over the time when such concerns perhaps seemed all-encompassing.

The epilogue is particularly interesting to read today, almost fifty years after publication. Without rancour and with a great deal of patience, Mr. Collins laments the myopia of politicians, the ongoing damage to our fragile planet, and the general short-sightedness of humanity. He also takes issue with the perceived, but fictitious, conflict between resources devoted to space exploration, and spending on “problems at home”. With only a few detail changes, this chapter could have been written today, as humanity seems to have progressed no further, and such debates continue.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (Wayfarers IV) – Becky Chambers

In the fourth and final Wayfarers book, three travellers from different species are temporarily stuck at a quaint waystation along with the owner/operator and her son. There has been an accident and no ships can arrive or depart, nor is outside communication possible, for a few days while the situation is resolved. Each individual has his or her own backstory and ethnic peculiarities, slowly being uncovered as they become acquainted. Those lasting friendships of a disparate group sharing an ordeal are formed, along with the inevitable friction.

Though there isn’t much actual action, the novel is charming and the characters are endearing. Interestingly, there are no humans amongst the protagonist, and only a brief cameo to show the flag. The mother-son relationship of Ouloo and teenage Tupo feels resoundingly authentic, with its rapid swings between hilarity, love, frustration, and exasperation. This book leaves the reader with a faint smile and a sense that even if the world has problems, these can be solved with some politeness, understanding, humour, and plenty of cake.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate – Becky Chambers

Ariadne and her three crewmates wake at a distant star system after years of transit in slumber aboard the starship Merian. Their multi-year exploration and survey mission takes them to different worlds in the system, each with its individual features and biome. They have dedicated their lives to this mission, for when they return to Earth they will be decades older, and over seventy years will have passed back home. They are a family of sorts, with intermeshing sexual relationships and a strong bond in their motivations. Some time into their mission, news updates from Earth stop arriving. As they are left in limbo, Ariadne and the others must more carefully examine the ethics and significance of not only the mission itself, but also of humanity’s place in the Universe.

Written in Ms. Chambers’s by now trademark gorgeous contemplative prose, the plot is acted out as much in Ariadne’s inner dialogue as in actual action. The drama is intimate, personal, and thoughtful, making the ending that much more poignant. The characters are likeable, pleasant, and very human in their different ways. The lack of interpersonal strife is an interesting narrative challenge, which the author handles with seeming ease. A delightful read.

Project Hail Mary – Andy Weir

A man wakes up alone, in a room, groggy and without memories of who he is or why he is there. A medical robot is tending him. It eventually comes to light that he is Dr. Ryland Grace, a high school science who was previously a leading researcher in the field of alien life. Such life was purely speculative until the sun started slowly fading, something that will in time lead to the death of all or most life on Earth.

Grace finds himself deeply involved in Project Hail Mary, a no expense spared global effort to find a solution. Years later, in orbit around a distant star, Grace, finds an ally in his quest. But this ally is not human.

In some ways, it is easy to draw parallels to The Martian. An impossible mission. A snarky and clever protagonist who overcomes difficult challenges. Interesting science problems. But the scope of the story, and the stakes, are both much greater. Project Hail Mary certainly has the same page-turner quality and charming snark as The Martian, making me laugh out loud on multiple occasions. The ending added unexpected gravitas to the story and was a beautiful coda.

The alien is cleverly imagined and imbued with a charming personality despite being so very alien. The fact that the alien’s environment adds to Grace’s challenges doesn’t hurt. How relatively easily communications is established stretches plausibility, but on the other hand, the process is both clever and charming.

Heaven’s River (Bobiverse IV) – Dennis E. Taylor

In a new addition to the Bobiverse series, rifts between posthuman “Bobs” and physical humans are appearing at an alarming rate. And even within the community of Bobs, a schism is underway as a large group starts to insist that Bobs should not interfere with any species. Meanwhile, a Bob named Bender has disappeared. As Original Bob investigates, he discovers a massive structure surrounding a star and housing an alien spieces in an oddly pastoral idyll.

Mr. Taylor continues to explore the implications of a society composed of posthumans, humans, and alien species. What is life? What is a soul? The exploration of the megastructure and its anthropology is delightful, with many amusing episodes where both explorers and natives are thrown off by the conceptual differences in their thinking.

Don’t Touch the Blue Stuff (Where The Hell is Tesla? II) – Rob Dircks

After the events of Where the Hell is Tesla, Chip is just enjoying life with Julie. But developments are afoot in the multiverse, as a substance soon dubbed the “Blue Juice” starts doing bad things. Chip’s best friend Pete has disappeared. Together with non-nonsense FBI Agent Gina, Chip must once again step forth to save the Universe(s).

Like the first book, this one is almost entirely in the form of emails and memos to Julie. The format works well with Chip’s character and is littered with tangents and verbal double-takes. Another fun romp, even though some of the novelty of the first one is obviously missing.

Factfulness – Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think – Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund

Factfulness was written by a team of Swedish researchers at the Gapminder Foundation. Its aim is to use data to explain the world, and why most people have very skewed impressions about it. By asking targeted questions about infant mortality, education levels, disease, and so forth, the authors open up to discussions about what the world is really like, and where it is going. They also analyze and explain why our instincts often lead us in the wrong direction. A toolkit of sorts is laid out to help the reader be more “factful”.

The late Dr. Rosling first rose to fame with a Ted talk in which he challenged the preconceptions of the audience, using unambiguous and clear data presented in an engaging manner. His infectious enthusiastic manner shines through in the writing. The subject matter is ostensibly rather dry, but the authors make it fun, using interesting anecdotes from aid work around the world to raise questions. The chapters are short and punchy, ensuring the reader doesn’t lose interest.

A book which I would recommend to anyone, as everyone can use some Factfulness in their life.

Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX – Eric Berger

Given unprecedented access to the current and former employees of SpaceX, including Elon Musk, Mr. Berger of Ars Technica tells the story of the first years of SpaceX. The company was a maverick startup that few people in the industry took seriously. A team of scrappy engineers taking on seemingly impossible challenges, unhampered by the bureacratic trappings of established companies. If you needed something done, you did it. If you needed a piece of kit, you bought it. In classic Silicon Valley fashion, Elon Musk hired people he trusted to work hard and get things done, and then let them get on with it, supporting them as needed. Certainly, there were clashes, and setbacks, and mistakes, but the job did indeed get done, and how!

Even knowing much of the story beforehand, reading about the hardships of the early days was fascinating. Reading the words of those actually involved in working insane hours, overcoming monumental challenges, and suffering through long months far from home at the remote Pacific atoll of Kwajalein, makes the story come to life. I had no idea of exactly how tough conditions were, and how many hair-raising situations were dealt with. The fact that SpaceX survived those early years, and went on to become the industry leader it is today, is a testament to power of ideas, and how motivated people can make the seemingly impossible happen.

Good Morning, Midnight – Lily Brooks-Dalton

Elderly astronomer “Augie” Augustine is stranded at an observatory in the Arctic after refusing to evacuate. The rest of the staff returned to civilisation amidst rumours of an unspecified global catastrophe. He finds a young, taciturn girl in one of the dormitories, and together they hunker down for the months-long arctic night.

The spaceship Aether has just left the Jovian system, on its way back to Earth. Mission control has mysteriously stopped transmitting, and communications specialist “Sully” Sullivan cannot reach anyone else. Tempers fray amongst the crew as the long transit continues, and it seems more and more likely that they may have nowhere to return to.

The novel is rather contemplative, lingering for long stretches on the mental states and tribulations of the two protagonists. Long flashbacks frame the narrative, as Augie and Sully delve into their pasts, subconsciously seeking to understand what brought them to where they are now. Strong themes of connection, relationships and human nature stand out as the situation grinds the characters down to the core of their personalities. Ms. Brooks-Dalton makes some bold narrative choices when it comes to the resolution, and this powerful novel comes out stronger for it.

The Lesson – Caldwell Turnbull

On an ordinary day, an alien spaceship appears in the sky above St. Thomas. The Ynaa come with medical and energy technology. All they want is to stay a while. But soon, there are complications. The Ynaa do not seem evil, per se, only enigmatic. They are extremely strong, and won’t hesitate to tear a human apart at the slightest provocation. Derrick, a young man who has always looked skyward, wants to bridge the cultural and social divide. He begins working for Mera, the “ambassador” for the Ynaa. Unfortunately, Human resentment towards the Ynaa, continues to fester, and soon desperate people start doing desperate things.

The novel is a not-so-thinly veiled allegory on the victims of colonialism, complete with flashbacks to earlier St. Thomian history. The islanders have been invaded and colonised several times, and the Ynaa, despite being aliens, are in many ways no different to the Europeans who came earlier, with superior weapons and with little regard for individual inhabitants. The characters have their own issues and familial challenges, but for the Ynaa, this is only background noise.

The story is reasonably interesting but perhaps a bit too low key until the final climax. I can understand the intent; show that people can and will have ordinary lives beneath the notice of their oppressors. Unfortunately, for long sections, the narrative is dull and overlong. Nevertheless, a fine commentary on colonialism as seen from the eyes of the colonised.

Ready Player 2 (Ready Player One II) – Ernest Cline

Some years have passed since the events of Ready Player One. Wade is the richest man in the world, but he is not doing well. After the High Five gained control of Gregarious Simulation Systems, Wade found a new message from Halliday, revealing the existence of a neural interface system allowing the user to experience the Oasis simulation “directly” in the brain, without the need for visual, aural, and haptic devices. This changed the world, again, but also led to Samantha breaking up with Wade. She thought it was a terrible idea to implement. He is now a recluse, spending all his time in his enormous mansion, and twelve hours a day logged into the Oasis via his neural interface rig.

At this point, Wade’s problems amount to no more than the self-inflicted emotional suffering of a billionaire who made poor personal life choices. However, a new threat looms. An AI left behind by Halliday appears, threatening the Oasis and everyone logged in to it.

I must confess to being ready for disappointment with this book. How could Mr. Cline possible put the protagonist in straits that felt authentically dire when all his dreams were fulfilled at the end of the first book? I should not have worried. It all comes crashing down, and just when you think matters can’t get worse, they do. What follows is another treasure hunt with high stakes, but the emotional underpinnings are quite different from the egg hunt in the first book. It also reveals some dark secrets from the past.

The Saints of Salvation (Salvation Sequence III) – Peter F. Hamilton

The concluding book of the Salvation Sequence tells two stories. One is of the “Saints”, who pass into the Olyix Enclave of slow time, and send their signal to humanity. Ten thousand years later, the Exodus Humans attack the enclave. Since times moves much more slowly inside, only a few weeks have passed for the Saints. And that’s just the beginning of the mind-mending time-warping. Yirella’s neutron star civilisation also manipulates time, allowing its inhabitants to live thousands of years whole only a few decades pass outside.

While the Exodus Humans are evolved, they are still quite recognizably like their forebears, the Corpus Humans of the neutron star are something else entirely, extending their consciousness in multiple bodies. This brings about uncomfortable questions around the similarity to Olyix minds. Could the humans be evolving into the very thing that they are fighting?

The entire third volume is a triumphant climax to a finely crafted story, with multiple, complex storylines scattered across thousands of years. The first two books introduced the effects of concepts of portals, wormholes and time manipulation on the story. The third book takes it all to the next level, challenging the reader to follow along on a wild ride through time and space. The temporal-spatial scale and scope of the story are stupendous, but it always comes down to individual characters making important and sometimes heartbreaking choices.

Salvation Lost (Salvation Sequence II) – Peter F. Hamilton

In the second book of the trilogy, the full scope of the Olyix’s treachery against humanity becomes apparent, and horrific scenes unfold on an Earth under siege. It is a desperate fight to save as much and as many as possible while keeping open the possibility of ultimate victory, even if it takes thousands of years. The protagonists of the previous volume, now clearly recognised to the reader as the “Saints” so revered by the humans in the far future, scramble to enact a plan that, much as it seems crazy, is perhaps the only rational one. Meanwhile, in the far future, the youngsters from Juloss have traveled light years to preparing a lure for the inevitable arrival of the Olyix. Doubts remain in both times about the possibilities of success.

This is very much that second instalment in a trilogy where everything goes south. It was not quite as engaging as the first book, perhaps because out of necessity so much is setup for the final book. That being said, it is still a very enjoyable read, with new characters being introduced, and new challenges. The themes of despair and sacrifice are expertly infused in the narrative.

Salvation (Salvation Sequence I) – Peter F. Hamilton

Through the use of portals that connect locations at arbitrary distances through quantum entanglement, human society has transformed. Walking to a city on another continent has become as easy as walking to the grocery store. The riches of the Solar System are readily available due to the easy of transporting goods, people, energy, and information. Humanity has expanded to nearby star systems, which, once reached by a starship carrying a portal, are “just one step away”, as the Connexion company slogan goes. While most of humanity live in the dominant “Universal” culture, rather similar to a modern democracy, a significant number live in the “Utopial” culture, an effort aimed at creating an egalitarian post-scarcity society.

A crashed alien starship has been found, and an assessment team of experts is dispatched to investigate. For security reasons, they are cut off from network or portal contact, and must take ground transport, by now a very archaic concept, for the last leg of the journey. During this period, the backstory of the individual protagonists is told in extensive flashbacks, practically novellas in themselves. These flashbacks also serve to paint the backdrop for the current story by filling in details on historical developments. In some ways the entire first book is a prologue for what is to come.

A parallel story thread runs in the far future, on the world of Juloss, where human youngsters are being trained to fight an interstellar war against an implacable enemy. The world is mostly an abandoned ruin as most inhabitants have fled out into the wider galaxy already, leaving only the trainees and their trainers until they, also, will depart.

In classic Hamilton fashion, the scope is epic, with societal changes being driven by technological innovations in interesting directions. The characters feel real and interesting. The prose flows in the author’s signature style, making it easy to devour long chunks in one sitting.

Like many Hamilton novels, this is the first in a series of volumes that form one overarching story. For this reason, most of the story threads are hanging at the end of this volume, the first of three.

The Doors of Eden – Adrian Tchaikovsky

There exist universes parallel to ours, in which the evolution of life on Earth took a different branch, a different path. And sometimes, rifts and passageways open between these universes. Mal and Lee are unlikely lovers, investigating he paranormal and cryptozoological. They find a portal to another world, and Mal disappears, only to reappear years later in the company of stocky, Neanderthal-appearing companions. Julian Sabreur is a counterintelligence officer working with analyst Alison Matchell, initially protecting the scientist Kay Amal Khan, before their mission spirals out into the unknown. Khan’s work is classified and very much on the edge of science, and she is being drafted into a project far exceeding life on Earth. Lucas is a thug working for a magnate named Rove who seeks to dominate the multiverse, or that part which he can preserve. But Rove plays his cards close, and Lucas is unsure whether those plans involve him if he is no longer useful.

The story is complex and initially rather ponderous as great events are set up for later payoffs. Delightful interludes detail the development of life in various branches of the multiverse, on different Earths. The characters are finely drawn, coming effortlessly alive through Mr. Tchaikovsky’s flowing and irreverent prose. Descriptions are chiselled out of biting British understatement, both amusing and perfectly targeted.

The sheer ambition of the concept is breathtaking, and while Mr. Tchaikovsky does not achieve perfection, the fact that he manages to pull off the narrative at all is impressive in itself.