The Wrong Unit – Rob Dircks

In a jarringly paradisiacal dystopian future, the small remaining community of humans lives in Sanctuary, a pastoral habitat maintained by an artificial intelligence named CORE. The humans are protected, controlled and helped by servile robots called “units”. It is a gilded cage where CORE is an absolute ruler. A violent insurrection uses a teleporter to transport a clandestine baby and a servile unit far away. But a mistake has been made. Instead of the selected unit, pre-programmed with valuable information about the long term plan, the wrong unit has been sent. This unit, named “Heyoo” (there’s a joke in there) nevertheless rises to the challenge. Together with baby “Wah” (yes, another joke there), Heyoo embarks on an epic quest to save humanity from its misguided captor.

This novel is an absolutely delight. An epic adventure for certain, with action, suspense and buddy comedy vibes. On a deeper level, it is an interesting twin Bildungsroman. In parallel with Wah’s growth from baby to man, Heyoo develops from rather unsophisticated pre-programmed robot into something new; something aspirationally human. A real person. The even deeper theme is that humanity, compassion and sacrifice can be expressed in many ways.

Where the Hell is Tesla (Where the Hell is Tesla I) – Rob Dircks

Deadbeat Chip lands a job at a warehouse full of desks. In one of the desks he finds Nikola Tesla‘s long lost diary, in which the inventor details a means of travel between multiverse dimensions. There is a portal behind a wall in the hotel where Tesla lived for before he vanished. Madcap hijinks adventure ensues, as Chip and his best friend Pete travel between dimensions, get into trouble, and embark on a heroic quest.

With shades of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and reminiscent in style of Kurt Vonnegut, and Frederik Pohl, the story moves along furiously. The book is narrated almost entirely in the form of emails that Chip is typing to his ex-girlfriend Julie. The style is purposefully casual, giving an everyman’s view of events, peppered with profanity and digressions. Tons of fun.

The Brightest Fell – Nupur Chowdhury

After yet another terrorist bombing in the capital of a fictional country, the prime minister urges young maverick scientist Jehan Fasih to speed up trials of a truth drug. The country is in an uneasy peace after a long civil war, and is also under veiled threat from a larger neighbour. The drug which might give the country a tool to stop the violence and stabilise the situation, but this raises some serious ethical issues, not least of which is the fact that it is untested. Faced with this moral dilemma, Jehan reluctantly engineers the removal of the prime minister.

I did not get very far in this book, as the story or characters singularly failed to hold my interest. Meeting after meeting, with constant infodumps to slog through in order to bring the reader up to speed on the backstory. The character of Jehan was rather interesting, but that was about it.

I was provided with a free review copy by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Agency – William Gibson

Verity, an out of work IT professional, interviews for a job at a somewhat mysterious Silicon Valley startup. After she takes the job, they issue her with a phone, a pair of augmented reality glasses, and earbuds. Once she tries them, it appears she is talking to an advanced emergent AI called Eunice, which the company has discovered and want to develop. Pretty soon, things go off the rails as Eunice explores her independence, brining Verity along for the ride. Meanwhile, from a future London of a parallel universe, independent operators contact Verity. They need to use Eunice in order to prevent a looming nuclear war in Verity’s timeline.

The concepts in this novel are complicated, and the reader must pay close attention, especially in the first third. The prose, as usual for Gibson, is terse and razor-sharp, and while it is masterful, it sometimes feels rather too constrained. The way in which Eunice develops her agency and independence, despite the efforts to stop her, is an interesting take on emergent AI.

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions – Randall Munroe

What If? deals with the absurd questions that Mr. Munroe receives on a section of his website, which is primarily known for hosting his webcomic XKCD. Questions include what would happen to you if you started to rise at the rate of one foot per second and what would happen if the Moon disappeared.

While the questions themselves are absurd, Mr. Munroe works through the logic and maths in a serious way, which results in some surprising insights. His trademark irony and delightfully witty foodnotes make for a very enjoyable read.

This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor – Adam Kay

A no holds barred, brutally frank, bloody, tearful, joyous, and hilarious account of life as a junior doctor.

The events, described in short anecdotes, are often somewhat disturbing given how blindly we depend on and trust the medical profession (this very concept is also addressed and deconstructed), but I was nevertheless left impressed with the ethics and selflessness displayed even in difficult situations. While the book is uncompromisingly honest about the failings of the medical profession, it equally is a triumph; a heartfelt homage to those who toil endlessly to save and improve our lives. The understated wit is biting, and I found myself laughing out loud with some regularity. This is truly one of the funniest books that I have ever read. The descriptions of blood-spattered delivery room procedures often made me cringe, which made the laughter even more heartfelt. At the end, I felt drained of emotion, but I was smiling. Mr. Kay’s unrelenting optimism about humanity is charming, and contagious.

How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems – Randall Munroe

How-To tackles seemingly mundane problems like “how to dig a hole”, “how to cross a river”, or how to move house”, but takes them to absurd and hilarious extremes. For example, the moving house chapter includes a calculation of how far you could fly your house if you mounted jet engines to it.

Mr. Munroe is the author of the famous webcomic XKCD, and he brings his unique perspective to this very funny book. One key aspect which makes this book transcend mere humour is that the underlying science is basically sound. While it may not be possible to deploy a field of teakettles to boil a river in order to cross it (yes, that is one of the solutions considered), the consequences of the heating are calculated and described with as much accuracy as possible.

Throne of Glass (Throne of Glass I) – Sarah Maas

The young assassin Celaena Sardothien is serving a life sentence in a forced labour mine when the Dorian, Crown Prince of Adarlan, retrieves her and takes her to the capital. She is to take part in a series of competition with a variety of soldiers, mercenaries, assassins and thieves. The prize is to be appointed Royal Assassin for four years, during which the winner would earn their freedom. Once at the Glass Palace, she is drawn into a web of intrigue, and dark magic is afoot in the bowels of the castle.

This young adult low fantasy tale is rather unevenly paced, and its strong romance traits work against it. Celaena’s story and background, and the bits where there is actually action and intrigue, are quite interesting. The drawn-out sections of love triangle, with trite expositions about feelings, are quite tedious. Celaena is one of those characters who is good at everything, so there is little suspense regarding the final outcome, especially since this book is followed by six more. The hints at her heritage being more than it seems are heavy-handed and far too obvious. Her only redeeming qualities are her temper and her unwillingness to be meek and submissive.

The Menace from Farside (Luna) – Ian McDonald

This novella is set decades before the events in the Luna Series., when the Moon was already on its way to losing its status as a frontier. Cariad Corcorian and her “siblings” are part of an arrangement known as a Chain Marriage. When one parent moves out and another is set to marry their “mother”, the teens and pre-teens decide to give them a wedding gift in the form of a picture next to the first footstep on the Moon. A foolhardy adventure ensues.

The story flirts with Young Adult fiction, but nevertheless displays the hallmarks of Mr. McDonald’s prose. Deep dives into the particularities of character, radical social structures, and a laying bare of the truth behind relationships.

Auberon (The Expanse VII½) – James S.A. Corey

After the events of Persepolis Rising, humanity is subject to Laconian rule. On a prosperous colony planet, the new Laconian governor arrives. Laconians seem themselves as descendants of Sparta. Principle and virtue above all. But the new governor’s steadfast principles are about to collide with the reality of life outside Laconia.

An excellent novella. Instead of being constrictive, the limited length of the work is used to great advantage, focusing on a particular time and place, whilst illustrating a wider issue.

A Meeting with Medusa (The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke IV) – Arthur C. Clarke

A collection of stories from the late great Arthur C. Clarke. It is difficult to write a consistent review since the variation in tone, content and length is so large. Some are whimsical, some are epic. Some are short and some are long. Almost all showcase Mr. Clarke’s skill in instilling a sense of wonder. The collaboration with Stephen Baxter, about a world where teleportation is commonplace, was particularly thought-provoking.

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.