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.
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 Unfortunately, it has been replaced by an excess of Europe-bashing and stereotyping.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.
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.
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.