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.

 

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.

Castaway Odyssey (Boundary V) – Eric Flint & Ryk E. Spoor

Victims of the same accident that stranded the Kimei family in Castaway Planet, Sergeant Campbell and four boys ranging from almost adult to eight years old find themselves adrift in a damaged shuttle.

This instalment is an improvement over the previous one. It is still overly corny at times, but the lack of a family as protagonists makes the interpersonal dynamics more interesting.  The dialogue is so littered with overly rational behaviour and humble apologies it is hard to suspend disbelief.

The Alexander Inheritance – Eric Flint, Gorg Huff & Paula Goodlett

A modern cruise liner is transported back to the beginning of the “Time of the Diadochi“, after the death of Alexander the Great, when his successors fought over his splintering empire.

The premise is a fine idea, but unfortunately the story suffers from being set in a very messy historical time. Dozens of players are rapidly introduced, leading to just as rapid confusion. While the story does gel somewhat around the characters of Roxane and Euridyce, it is hard for the reader to get to grips with the wider political situation. Where the book shines is when dealing with the culture shock of people from ancient civilisations being suddenly introduced to things like steam engines, refrigeration and modern views on gender equality. There is a wide ranging discussion of slavery which manages to be quite interesting.

This book is part of the wider Assiti Shards Universe, though it can be treated as a singleton.

Strange Dogs (The Expanse VI½) – James S.A. Corey

In this short story set on the colony world of Laconia, a young girl tries to bring her dead little brother back to life. Things get weird.

While it is well written and a quick read, I wasn’t particularly captivated with the story in this slice-of-life from a colony world in the Expanse Universe.

Milk Run (Smuggler’s Tales From The Golden Age Of The Solar Clipper I) – Nathan Lowell

On her graduation day at the merchant marine academy in Port Newmar, Natalya Regyri is framed for murder. Along with her friend Zoya, she escapes to “Toehold Space”, a clandestine network of stations not regulated by the central authorities.

This book starts a new series in the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper universe. As in the other books, there is no dramatic action. In his afterword, Mr. Lowell takes almost condescending pride in pointing out that he tells stories of ordinary working men and women. This installment starts off well, but the second half is bogged down in overlong, tedious discussions on inventory management. On the bright side, the dialogue is snappily written, and keeps things going even when during the umpteenth crew meeting to dissect the fine points of shipboard logistics software.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth – Chris Hadfield

AnAstronautsGuideToLifeOnEarthChris Hadfield is a man’s man. Test pilot, astronaut, commander of the International Space Station, guitarist, and most importantly endowed with the perfect Canadian Pilot mustache. This book is part memoir, part advice text, part space exploration tome.

I have long admired Colonel Hadfield. His videos from the International Space Station were inspirational and he is the perfect ambassador for the astronaut profession. Despite his many and often spectacular achievement, he embodies a quiet competence and work ethic without braggadocio. Everything I have seen and read with and about him gives the impression of a pleasant, hardworking and cheerful man who stays cool in a crisis.

Hadfield’s “nice guy” character may indeed be the reason for the weakness of his book. The tone is so earnest as to almost be off-putting. He couldn’t be more politely Canadian if he tried. (He even self-deprecatingly touches on the Canadian national character in the book.) Unlike Mike Mullane’s snarky and often hilarious Riding Rockets, this astronaut memoir feels rather plain vanilla.

Having said that, Hadfield’s story is well worth telling, and the message of hard work and striving for excellence without letting (possible) failure define you is inspirational. The theme of the book is not so much about space as about what we can do to define our lives and careers in a meaningful way.

Despite its shortcomings, for fans of astronautics this is an interesting read. I found the the insights into the charming traditions of the Russian Space Program particularly interesting.

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Rescue Mode – Ben Bova & Les Johnson

RescueModeThe year is 2035, and the first manned mission to Mars is getting underway.
During the long transit, disaster strikes and our heroes must find a way to survive.

While the story itself is engaging in an adventure novel kind of way, the prose is not. Much of the dialogue feels written to explain things to the reader. It makes the characters look clueless about the systems and concepts they should be experts on. It is also rather corny most of the time.

The social sensibilities are very old fashioned. Males taking the lead and feeling protective about women even if those women are highly trained astronauts. The technology doesn’t feel very futuristic either. In a nutshell, the book is set in 2035, but feels like 2015, or maybe 1965.

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Trial Run (Fault Lines I) – Thomas Locke

TrialRunA research team based based in Switzerland has discovered a way to disconnect the mind from the body and project it to other places and times, even into the future. They call it an “ascent”, and it allows access to secret information hidden away in vaults, as well as knowledge of future events. Clandestine elements of the US government have gotten their hands on this research, and are working to subvert it for their own purposes. Meanwhile, a graduate student named Trent Major is seemingly visited by his future self in vivid dreams. The future self gives him information allowing him to perform research breakthroughs.

Mr. Locke has written a tightly plotted thriller, in style reminding me more than a little of Michael Crichton. It does unfortunately leave the reader in the dark about the nature of the ascent for what seems a frustratingly long time. Once revealed, the ascent process, which is central to the plot, is always frustratingly close to pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo. The parameters of the process are never clearly defined and it is difficult to establish what is or is not possible in terms of plot.

Many characters are introduced at the start, but I found it difficult to keep track of them until about halfway through the book. Certainly there is some confusion as to which characters are actually the protagonists. Some of these characters are secretive in their profession and this trait seems to spill over into their descriptions. Others are cookie-cutter caricatures of their professional personas. I had a hard time feeling empathy for any of the characters, with the possible exception of Shane and Trent. Character development and description is rather forced. And how many times do we need to be reminded that Charlie Hazard is a combat veteran and security specialist?

A final nitpick is that objects are frequently prefixed with “the” on the first description. For example, “the trio of electric carts” suddenly appears but it has never been discussed before.

While it has imperfections, and was somewhat confusing at the start, the story certainly sped up in the second half, even into page-turner territory.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Revell in exchange for my honest review.

 

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Strands of Sorrow (Black Tide Rising IV) – John Ringo

BlackTideRising4StrandsofSorrowThe fourth and last book in Black Tide Rising sees the beginning of major zombie clearance on the US mainland, with the retaking of some large coastal bases, and planning for the re-establishment of proper civilization beyond survival. Given the clearance of the bases, more and more surviving higher officers start to appear, some of whom are unable to adapt to the “new military”.

Throughout the series, Ringo has approached the zombie problem from a logical perspective. Once the survivors have gotten through the initial collapse of society and achieved a modicum of organization, ridding the world of all those zombies becomes a logistical issue. While the discussions on said logistics are interesting per se, they do not an action novel make. Furthermore, given that what action is now relatively safe for our heroes, there is not a huge amount of tension. Mr. Ringo is as always a very funny author so the novel is still a page turner, but sadly the subject matter and the way it is treated makes this one less engaging than most of his works. The novel also verges further into “preachy” about the military and the right wing than even the author’s usual, and that part got old fast.

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Red Planet Blues – Robert J. Sawyer

Untitled-2Alex Lomax is a private investigator in New Klondike, a frontier town on Mars. The place is a bit of a dump, existing only due to the rush on ancient Martian fossils, and Lomax is its stereotypical gumshoe. One day, a beautiful woman walks into his office. She is a “transfer”, a human who has transferred her consciousness into a cyborg body.

The story and setting are a deliberate homage to classic noir detective films and novels. The world-building is solid, and it is a enjoyable and almost wistful reading about New Klondike’s dome and the business of “transfers”. Mr. Sawyer takes the idea of the noir detective to the limits of its stereotype, skirting deadpan satire. Naturally the protagonist is broke and has an overdue tab at a seedy bar that he frequents. Naturally the local police department is corrupt and lazy. The first half of the book is good fun. Unfortunately the second half degenerates into a confusing mess of myriad double-crosses and plot twists, taking the novel from a pleasant pastime to an often irritating morass.

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The Hemingway Hoax – Joe Haldeman

A cTheHemingwayHoaxollege professor and Hemingway enthusiast becomes embroiled in a scheme to forge Hemingway’s lost early manuscripts. So far, a fairly ordinary story. But then things turn unexpectedly into a journey across parallel universes.

Solid work from Mr. Haldeman, but nothing of particular note. The first two thirds are rather enjoyable, but the ending left me somewhat disappointed.

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Rainbows End – Vernor Vinge

RainbowsEndElderly Robert Gu wakes as if from a long, dreamy haze, cured of his Alzheimers. He was a renowned poet and academic, but now must learn to explore a new world. It is the current connected world run wild. Almost everyone “wears”, meaning wears smart clothes and contact lenses. Through these means and ever present connectivity, overlays and information hemmed in only by imagination allow people to connect and interact in ways that were impossible previously. Robert Gu is initially confused, but soon haltingly learns to embrace things. Soon, though, he is unwittingly caught up in a world-spanning conspiracy.

The world-building in this novel is fabulous. Mr. Vinge has cleverly extrapolated on current trends to bring us the nightmare of any Internet luddite, and the wet dream of those who live online. The consequences portrayed are a mixed bag, some expected and some not. They are all interesting, however. The device of having an elderly person “travel forward in time”, as it were, allows us to experience the new world through fresh eyes.

While I loved the bits where Robert Gu must come to terms with the new reality, the overall story itself felt messy and weak. There were some interesting ramifications but I kept thinking that this novel would have been better as a novella with the technothriller bits weeded out.

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A Light in the Dark (Tales from the Deep Dark I) – Nathan Lowell

ALightintheDarkThis novella is set several decades before Ishmael’s adventures in Trader’s Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper. Captain Gunderson and his crew run into a small rock way out in the Deep Dark, leaving the jump engine disabled. They are off the shipping lanes and slowly running out of consumables.

This was enjoyable for the character interactions but nothing groundbreaking. A pleasant diversion.

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Captain’s Share (Trader’s Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper V) – Nathan Lowell

GoldenAgeoftheSolarClipper5CaptainsShareAfter a decade on the William Tinkerwhere he has progressed from third mate to first mate, Ishmael finally sits for Captain and shortly thereafter receives command of the Agamemnon, a small cargo ship with only eight crew. The Aganemnon  has a bad reputation. It is crewed by troublemakers and misfits, and profits have been abysmal.

Unlike Double Share, this book goes back to the adventures in normality model. The problems with the crew are swiftly and painlessly resolved through the application of some good old fashioned leadership. It is still an enjoyable read because the characters are richly realized, and the pithy dialogue is excellent.

On a side note, it seems rather unrealistic to be shipping things like gases and clay from planetary system to planetary system, unless shipping is ridiculously cheap of course. Having said that, the books aren’t really about the items that are being traded, but rather about shipboard life, so I’m willing to forgive Lowell on this point.

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Full Share (Trader’s Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper III) – Nathan Lowell

TheGoldenAgeoftheSolarClipper3FullShareAfter an accident involving a coronal mass ejection cripples the ship and threatens the lives of the entire crew, Ishmael is set to work investigating why the safety systems failed. He is now fully rated, meaning a higher share of profits, but the officers pressure him into thinking about the officer’s academy.

After the somewhat disappointing Half Share, Full Share finally puts Ishmael and the rest of the crew of the Lois McKendrick in some real danger. Adventures in normality among generally nice people can only go so far and real tension and conflict is required to make things interesting. The end of the book, while again unrealistically portraying Ishmael as catnip for women, at least does so in a fun way that will appeal to the reader. Shameless is the word, but it works.

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Quarter Share (Trader’s Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper I) – Nathan Lowell

GoldenAgeoftheSolarClipperIQuarterShareTeenager Ishmael Wang’s mother dies suddenly and as a result he has ninety days before he is booted off the company-owned planet where he lives. One of the few options he has is to join the merchant navy.

This book purposefully eschews space opera staples like aliens, ship-to-ship battles and other disasters for a less spectacular story of hard work and dedication leading to success. While it could have been boring, I found myself rather enjoying young Ishmael’s adventures in normality. The trading between stars brought back fond memories to the hours I spent playing Elite and Frontier: Elite II way back when. Certainly this is not a gripping space adventure, but it is a fun diversion despite the oftentimes wooden dialogue.

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The Six Directions of Space – Alastair Reynolds

TheSixDirectionsofSpaceIt is one thousand years since the founding of the Mongol Empire, and it now spans both the Earth and a vast galactic empire. A secret agent is sent to a remote sector to investigate problems with the interstellar transit system used by humanity; a system left behind by an ancient race.

The setting is interesting and the twist is well executed. An entertaining novella.

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Kris Longknife’s Bloodhound (Kris Longknife X½) – Mike Shepherd

KrisLongknifeX½KrisLongknifesBloodhoundThis  “companion novella” to the Kris Longknife saga is set at the same time as Furious and follows the efforts of Special Agent Foile to assist Kris Longknife in her efforts to stop her grandfather’s trade flotilla.

Note: Shepherd has previously written about our heroine’s great-grandfather Raymond under his real name, Mike Moscoe.

Fine reading assuming have read the Kris Longknife books up to this point.

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Welcome Home/Go Away (Kris Longknife IX½) – Mike Shepherd

This “companion novella” takes place between Kris Longknife – Daring and the upcoming Kris Longknife – Furious. It is not a fantastic piece but serves as a good way to bring readers up to date. The story focuses on General “Trouble” Tordon, one of Kris’s great-grandfathers, and his involvement in the events on her homecoming from the mission in Daring.

Note: Shepherd has previously written about our heroine’s great-grandfather Raymond under his real name, Mike Moscoe.

Singularity (Star Carrier III) – Ian Douglas

Book three seamlessly segues from the end of Center of Gravity. Admiral Koenig leads the battlegroup further into Sh’daar territory, towards the enigmatic center of the Sh’daar civilization. Meanwhile Lieutenant Grey’s personal odyssey continues.

I was disappointed with the last book in the trilogy. The action is still good, but it is upstaged by the exploration of the enigma that is the Sh’daar. Wormholes, discussions about transcendence and the evolution of civilizations abound. Douglas has thought the whole thing out quite well and the ending makes sense. Unfortunately it feels as if the more lofty macrostory and themes don’t mix well with the military science fiction setting. Long discussions on the deep future and the deep past of technological civilizations slow the pace down too much. Mind you, these discussions are interesting, but they just don’t fit in well in this book.

On the character side, the developments are not very original, and the dialogue is wooden at best. Grey is a metaphor for humanity itself. Koenig is the consummate military officer. The rest are cardboard cutouts.

Queen of Wands (Special Circumstances II) – John Ringo

The sequel to Princess of Wands sees “Soccermom-osaurus” Mrs. Barbara Everette as an experienced FLUF agent, defending America from evil supernatural and mystic creatures. As in the first book, this one also takes the form of three interlinked stories, the middle one of which is set (sort of) at Dragon*con.

Ringo always delivers thrills and page-turnability. But this time he fell short of the mark. The story is bland. The stakes are nominally high, certainly. but I never felt like I cared that much. The way the author has had to shoehorn belief into some sort of consistent reality makes for too many weird conversations. So a bit of a dud but still eminently readable.