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.

Forever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and Space – John W. Young with James R. Hansen

John Young was undoubtedly the most experienced astronaut of NASA’s early era, active from the days of Gemini, through Apollo and the Space Shuttle. He walked on the Moon, commanded the first test flight of the Space Shuttle and didn’t retire from NASA until he was seventy-four. He was legendary for his soft-spoken demeanour, coolness under pressure and later in his career, for not being afraid to speak truth to power on issues of mission risk.

His memoir is laid out in a straightforward chronological fashion, starting with early life and following him throughout his career in the Navy and at NASA. While he is most well known for his missions, his time as head of the Astronaut Office and then as a sort of senior and independent safety inspector within NASA, make up large parts of the narrative. There is also ample space dedicated to the Challenger and Columbia accidents, with extensive technical detail.

For any NASA and space buff, the memoir is interesting reading. However, it is a bit of a slog. The style is quite dry and self-effacing, much as the man himself. Descriptions of missions mostly chronicle events without poetic embellishments. This is in stark contrast with, for example, the memoirs of Gene Cernan, Gene Krantz and Mike Mullane, which in their different ways speak much more passionately about the subject matter. The book feels long-winded in many parts, with sections which are just listing various mission achievements, seemingly for completeness’ sake. The most readable bits are where Mr. Young manages to convey his considerable technical expertise to illustrate an issue concisely, such as when he discusses his testimony before the Rogers Commission, investigating Challenger.

I strongly felt that more decisive editing could have made this a more readable book, but then again, I also felt that Mr. Young’s particular voice came through loud and clear.

Tide of Battle – Michael Z. Williamson

Short story and essay collection. The fiction runs the gamut from entries in the author’s Freehold Universe, to Victorian fantasy, and a rather interesting novella set in an alternate Bronze Age, pitting sentient humanoid felines against mind-controlling dinosaur-like reptiles. The essays contain some amusing musings on rifle technology, as well as very inappropriate, and often hilarious, cocktail recipes.

While I don’t always agree with Mr. Williamson’s political views, even in his fiction, he offers insightful political and social commentary with a great deal of thought and research behind it. There is a short passage about how his views have developed in the two decades since he published Freehold. This passage provides tantalising glimpse of an interesting mind which does not deny the impact of new data.

Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers III) – Becky Chambers

In the first two Wayfarers books, the Exodan fleet is an mentioned as background, but now Ms. Chambers takes us on a deep dive into Exodan culture. The great generation ships of the fleet launched centuries prior, as humanity fled a dying Earth. They eventually made contact with the Galactic Commons, and collectively make up a very different human society compared to the Martian one which remained in Sol System and eventually colonised other star systems. The novel follows a few Exodans in what are almost separate short novelettes loosely intertwined.

As with the two previous books, there is no strong plot. Rather, an exploration of interpersonal relationships and a deep dive into a very particular society. Nevertheless, the reader is drawn in, and how! Starting with the often mundane everyday activities of the protagonists, Ms. Chambers weaves a sublime web exploring the nature of existence, meaning and emotional attachment. The funeral scene in particular is a powerful piece of writing which left this reader in tears of both joy and sadness. Key to the stories is how the characters develop and move forward, pushed by both their environment and their own internal motivations.

Saints (Monster Hunter Memoirs III) – Larry Correia & John Ringo

In the third and final Monster Hunter Memoirs book, Chad finds a great evil lurking under New Orleans, which might explain the unusual density of supernatural events in the city. He suspects this might be why Saint Peter sent him back to Earth after his death. A showdown approaches.

Saints wraps up the series, but the teasing final sentence opens up to more adventures in perhaps not a direct sequel but another spin-off. While there are some rambling tangents, Ringo’s prose is as always filled with great action scenes and bone-dry humour.

River of Bones (Destroyermen XIII) – Taylor Anderson

After taking and holding Madagascar in Deadly Shores (IX) and Straits of Hell (X), and conclusively dealing with Kurokawa in Devil’s Due (XII) the Alliance is preparing to finally land in Africa. It is a race against time, as Grik leader Esshk has been able to breed, train and equip his “Final Swarm” in only a few years, and is planning a breakout along the Zambezi River. If the Final Swarm reaches the ocean and manages to scatter, the rapid breeding of the Grik will eventually create an almost insurmountable numerical advantage. Unfortunately, the Allied invasion force is not quite ready. Russ Chapelle takes the USS Santa Catalina at the head of tiny task force up the river, in order to block passage until reinforcements can arrive. It is a desperate race against time.

On the American Front, the story advances only slightly, as New United States forces prepare to join the fight and the League of Tripoli makes overtures towards the Dominion.

Mr. Anderson continues to focus on one front at a time, which works to the series advantage. Most of this installment is taken up by the events in and around the Zambezi. The battles are real nail-biters, in large part because the author has managed to convey the catastrophic consequences of defeat. Even after driving the Grik back all the way from Balkpan and across a vast ocean, our heroes still find themselves with their back agains the wall.

With the still unresolved Dominion War, and the looming threat of the League of Tripoli, the Destroyermen series doesn’t seem to be moving towards a conclusion any time soon. If the quality remains this high, that can only be a good thing.

 

 

Sex and Violence in Zero-G: The Complete “Near Space” Stories, Expanded Edition – Allen Steele

This expanded edition contains all previously published Near Space short stories and novelettes. The stories range from action to reflection, from joy to melancholy. The stories are presented chronologically, starting from the beginning of the Near Space timeline, in more or less the present era, and ending with the advanced colonised solar system of Mr. Chicago.

As he mentions in the introduction, Mr. Steele has been labelled a “Space Romantic”, and this is rather accurate. His stories are infused with an infectious sense of wonder about space exploration in the near future. His focus on the working stiff rather than the movers and shakers gives rise to interesting reflections and themes. Having read all or some of the Near Space long fiction is not a pre-requisite for reading this collection, though it will fill in some of the background.

The Flowers of Vashnoi – Lois McMaster Bujold

While investigating inconsistencies with a test site where gene-engineered bugs decontaminate the nuked Vorkosigan Vashnoi zone, Ekaterin Vorkosigan stumbles across some strange inhabitants.

An all too brief visit with the Vorkosigan family. Even with something as brief and uncomplex as this novella, Ms. McMaster Bujold nails it as usual.

 

Elysium Fire (Prefect Dreyfus Emergency II) – Alastair Reynolds

Some time after the events in The Prefect/Aurora Rising, a new crisis is brewing in the Glitter Band. Random citizens are having their brains “fried” by their electronic implants. As Dreyfus and the other Panoply operatives investigate the links between victims, they find links to an old and very distinguished Yellowstone family.

While a solid and enjoyable novel, this one lacks the panache of “The Prefect”. The mystery feels contrived and doesn’t lead to any sort of even half-epic conclusion. That being said, Mr. Reynolds’s prose is a pleasure to read as usual, and the characters are interesting and engaging.

Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA – Amy Shira Teitel

This is the story of how the American space program came to be. Starting with humble experiments in the early 20th century, continuing with the German rocketeers of the 30s and 40s, and developing into the advanced US military programs in the 50s.

Ms. Teitel is a space historian and producer of the popular YouTube channel Vintage Space, in which she presents short segments focusing on particular bits of space history. The subject matter of this book is fascinating, and not only because it is not as popular as the early NASA period from the formation of the agency to the end of the Apollo Program, which is documented and described in hundreds of books and documentaries. The story of the German rocketeers before and during World War II reads almost like a thriller.

Ms. Teitel lays out the subject matter clearly, mostly avoiding confusion by periodically reminding the reader of myriad programs and initiatives with repeated mentions of names. Given the very intricate events and relationships of the post-war US rocket launch initiatives, this is no small feat.  While clarity is achieved, a history should focus on bringing people and events to life. This one fails to really grip the reader and would probably not be very an interesting read to the non-enthusiast. A more in-depth focus on a changing society, or a deep dive into technology, or character analysis of particular figures and their motivations, would have made the whole thing more engaging and less bland. Put bluntly, the story told lacks the ability to provoke passion in the reader because there is little depth presented. Many parts read like an encyclopedia entry.

The prose could use some polish, perhaps with stricter editing. There is an overuse of “as well” and “also”. Too many sentences start with conjunctions, making for a sometimes jarring rhythm in the text. The decision to use purely US/Imperial units without conversions even in footnotes makes the text less accessible to readers from most of the world.

The subtitle is somewhat misleading. While the Soviet space program is frequently featured, there is no in-depth analysis of that side, and information on the adversary serves mostly as background to the US program.

The Prefect AKA Aurora Rising (Prefect Dreyfus Emergency I) – Alastair Reynolds

The Prefect was republished as Aurora Rising in order to identify it more as the beginning of its own series than as tied to the Revelation Space series. The series do share the same Universe, though this book is set in a much earlier era.

The setting is the Glitter Band, a swarm of thousands of orbital habitats around the planet Yellowstone. Tom Dreyfus is a prefect for Panoply, a police force tasked with ensuring voting rights are respected, including investigating and punishing voting fraud. The habitats of the Glitter Band are as varied as they are many, from tyrannies to utopias to all manner of strange types of government. An investigation into voting fraud leads Dreyfus and his small team to a flaw in the voting system, and then all hell breaks loose.

While the setting is hard science fiction, the plot is in large part police procedural, and the characters could have been picked from any group of archetypal police investigators and functionaries. Dreyfus himself is the stereotypical dedicated detective with a tragic past. His assistants Thalia and Sparver are, respectively, the spunky and energetic young tech whiz and the stoic, solid sidekick. His boss Aumonier is the classic experienced police chief. The trope works very well for the novel, allowing the reader to immediately grasp relationships while navigating a completely new and strange world. The plot starts as a relatively simple police mystery, but as events unfold, the magnitude of the crisis becomes vast, encompassing the entire system. The ghosts from Dreyfus’s past, and indeed society’s past, come back to haunt the present, with some clever twists.

The vignette Open and Shut, available for free on the publisher’s website, serves as an epilogue for the novel.

Sleepover – Alastair Reynolds

Sixty-year old Gaunt, a billionaire in his previous life, is woken up from the hibernation he entered in order to sleep his way to a future where medical technology would have evolved towards clinical immortaliy. But the future is not what he expected. He finds himself on a massive platform in the Southern Atlantic Ocean, as part of a caretaker crew for billions of sleeping humans.

This short story started as notes for a novel, and has a very interesting premise. As post-apocalyptic scenarios go, it is certainly one of the most original I have read. Mr. Reynolds’s masterful prose makes the whole thing flow smoothly.

The One: A Cruise Through the Solar System – Eric Klein

BJ is an IT troubleshooter in New York City. After a job well done, he receives a raffle ticket and wins the grand prize of a cruise through the solar system. On board, he soon meets the captain’s daughter Faye and the pair take a liking to each other. They are inseparable through adventures and misadventures on various planets and moons.

Most of this novel reads like a combination of travelogue and brochure. There is not much action beyond the tours that the protagonist and his inconceivably compatible-at-first-sight girlfriend take. Not-so-subtle hints of conspiracy are dropped and near the end of the story, an unlikely plot is hatched by nefarious elements. The whole thing is cute, the characters likeable, but it is altogether too banal; the homage to Heinlein, in particular, The Number of the Beast, and the 1933 version of King Kong too contrived.

After the predictable conclusion, one-fifth of the text is dedicated to appendices, including (seemingly) every bit of background the author researched or created about the cruise ship, the science, the political topology, and various other bits. This section detracts greatly from the text itself and gives a self-serving impression, as if the author felt the need to show off his own cleverness instead of letting the story speak for itself.

The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past I) – Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem takes place in the People’s Republic of China, mainly in the present day. However, the story is rooted in events that took place during the Cultural Revolution.  In that troubled time, a young physics student named Ye sees her father, a professor of physics, killed by revolutionaries as a result of a struggle session. She is then sent to the country to work as a logger, before eventually ending up at a mysterious radio facility known as “Red Coast”.

In the present, a Nanotechnology expert called Wang is drawn into a web of intrigue surrounding a mysterious group called Frontiers of Science, made up of scientists with an initially unclear goal. He also starts playing a virtual reality game called “Three-Body Problem”, which deals with a planet where the sun has an irregular and unpredictable cycle, leading to great difficulties for the civilizations that rise and fall on it, as they have to deal with eras of extreme heat and extreme cold with no forewarning.

The story is somewhat interesting as long as the mystery is unveiling, but once things are laid out it is rather predictable. Having the protagonist, Wang, fumbling in the dark makes for a decent mystery, but once the much higher real stakes are revealed, his methodical discovery feels tedious.

The prose is filled with long infodumps. Every now and then some backstory must perforce be presented, but even the more interesting infodumps are intrusive on the pacing, and slow things down overmuch.

There is a tendency for Mr. Liu to take a somewhat condescending tone, presenting fictional constructs as facts with explanatory statements including words like “obviously”. If such “facts” came from a character, things would feel different, but this way it makes for a heavy-handed omniscient narration, which doesn’t fit well with Wang’s cluelessness. Eventually finding out that Ye has been “in the know” from the beginning does not make things better. (Granted, some of this feeling may be due to the clearly different literary style found in Chinese tradition.)

Rather disappointingly, I felt as if the novel took an inventive and very clever premise and then squandered it on a rather boring plot with an unspectacular outcome.

Note: I read the excellent English translation from Mandarin Chinese.

 

Alien Stripper Boned from Behind by the T-Rex – Stix Hiscox

The protagonist is an alien stripper with three breasts that shoot lasers. One night while working, she meets a T-Rex. Sexual shenanigans ensue.

The premise is purposefully silly and the writing is over-the-top bizarre erotica. If not taken too seriously, it is a rather entertaining story.

(The companion story “Half-Man, Half Horse, All Love” is nowhere near as good.)

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries I) – Martha Wells

The titular “Murderbot” is a robot charged with the defence of a survey expedition on an alien planet. The murderbot has hacked her (his?) governor module and is secretly no longer constrained by her programming. Nevertheless, in a crisis situation, she helps her survey expedition and wins their trust.

This novella is an interesting take on sentient created life. The murderbot, telling the story in the first person, has a humorous narration style, with dry wit used to lay bare questions of purpose in life, and the need for companionship, or not. Unfortunately, the story itself sometimes stumbles into tediousness due to a clumsy use of contrived technological constraints used to anchor plot points.