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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Sid Meier’s Memoir!: A Life in Computer Games – Sid Meier

Legendary computer game designer Sid Meier‘s memoir is a heartfelt love letter to a life in computer gaming. The designer of Civilization not details the trials of designing and publishing games through his multi-decade experience of the industry. More importantly, it delves deep into discussions on what is important for a game to be enjoyable. Thankfully, this is not a technical treatise delving deep into the programming. Instead, it focuses on the effects of game mechanics on the experience. Mr. Meier also widens the scope of the discussion, by sharing his thoughts on the nature of art in general.

The book is mostly chronological, with frequent flashbacks to various events of childhood and adolescence. Mr. Meier has a self-deprecating style which shows through here as it does in his games. His recipe for success seems deceptively simple. Figure out what people enjoy, and make games that are enjoyable. Several humorous anecdotes about player and playtester feedback illustrate his point.

Deep Navigation – Alastair Reynolds

A collection of Alastair Reynolds novelettes and short stories, a few of which also feature in Beyond the Aquila Rift. The anthology is a mix of everything from post-apocalyptic tales to deep deep future wonders.

As ever, Reynolds impresses with his mastery of the short fiction genre. The often mind bending concepts are always refined into their significance on people. This makes them resonate strongly with the reader.

Lights in the Deep – Brad R. Torgersen

An anthology of some of Mr. Torgersen’s short stories and novelettes.

I was especially impressed with the bookend stories, Outbound and Ray of Light. Both are post-apocalyptic tales, but infused with a strong sense of hope. The rest are all fine stories as well.

The author is a self-avowed fan of an earlier, less disillusioned era of science fiction. And it shows, in all the best ways. The stories are clearly inspired by classic Orson Scott Card, Larry Niven and Joe Haldeman. But they are not simple rehashings. The ideas are fresh, the characters feel real, and the themes are well developed.

Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? – Graham Allison

In this non-fiction treatise, Harvard international relations expert Dr. Allison analyses the brewing great power contest between the United States and China. He starts with the work of classical historian Thucydides, who argued that the Peloponnesian War in the 4th Century BC was an almost inevitable consequence of a rising power challenging the status quo embodied by a the dominating power at the time. Dr. Allison uses a variety of similar situations in history, including the lead up to World War One, as well as the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, to discuss the consequences of such conflicts, and how they can be avoided.

The book is a fascinating look into how powers may find war unavoidable, even though it is against their interests, if they do not take action to move beyond attempting to maintain the status quo. There is also an in-depth discussion about the fundamental differences between Chinese and Western culture, importantly including the concepts of governance. Unfortunately, these particularities and differences do not seem well understood in the West.

The Span of Empire (Jao III) – Eric Flint & David Carrico

Caitlin Kralik leads an exploration fleet looking for new allies against the Ekhat. In a bold move, they travel to another galactic arm, finding a civilisation xenophobic and isolationist to the extreme. Making peaceful contact proves tricky. Meanwhile, the Ekhat are plotting the final destruction of the Jao.

Just like in the earlier books, the characterisations of varied races that have found a way to work together is excellent. The various mannerisms of the Jao, the Lleix, and now the Khûrûsh, are fascinating and intricate. While this is clearly military science fiction, the characters are at the forefront at all times. The poetic nature of the Khûrûsh is mentioned as an analogue to Japan prior to the Meiji Restoration. They Khûrûsh also reminded me of Klingons, but of course many aspects of Klingon culture are modeled after Japanese stereotypes.

The extensive parts of the novel that dealt with the Ekhat, while well written, were not nearly as good a read, and the resultant actions did not seem to affect the protagonists beyond the basic outline. The fundamental “unsanity” of the Ekhat was clearly on display, however.

Sadly, K.D. Wentworth died of cancer after writing a few chapters of this book. Mr. Carrico ably took on the task.

Winds of Wrath (Destroyermen XV) – Taylor Anderson

Following immediately after the events of Pass of Fire, Winds of Wrath first describes the final battle against the Grik. Somewhat unexpectedly, the story then carries on to the American front, as the Allies move towards the very heart of the Dominion, and must deal with the modern League expeditionary force in the Caribbean.

The writing, battle scenes, and character descriptions are as good as ever in the series, and it was a pleasure to read the book. I was unfortunately disappointed by how rapidly Mr. Anderson decided to wrap up the series. Plot threads landed at logical and satisfying conclusions, but it all felt rather rushed, as if the material for two or even three books was mashed into one. Major events involving major characters were often given a two-sentence flashback as the story rolled right on past them. The death toll also seemed particularly high, even by the standards of this series, but not for the right reasons. It was almost as if Mr. Anderson decided that since the final battles were so important, many of the main characters had to die arbitrarily in order for the stakes to seem high enough. The interlude on the home front seemed tacked on for dramatic effect and did not add to the story at all.

I have loved this series from the first book, and while I enjoyed this final instalment, and it gave me closure, so to speak, it was also something of a letdown to see things get wrapped up in such a rushed fashion.

Skyward (Skyward I) – Brandon Sanderson

Spensa Nightshade is the daughter of a traitor. In a pivotal battle, her father, an accomplished fighter pilot, inexplicably turned on his comrades. And her family have been branded ever since. Exiled in the caverns of the planet Detritus, the remnants of humanity fight a seemingly unwinnable war with the enigmatic Krell, who regularly launch incursions from a shell of debris closing off the stars from view.

At seventeen, it is time for Spensa to find a profession, and she has always known what she wants to be. A fighter pilot, like her father. Despite almost insurmountable obstacles set in front of her because she is the daughter of a traitor, she might just get her wish.

Spensa is a rebellious teen, lashing out at everyone, but stubborn, brave, hardworking and determined. An interesting protagonist that the reader is almost immediately rooting for. Her inner and outer journeys as the novel progresses are arduous and nuanced. The worldbuilding is excellent and believable. The same can be said for the technological aspects. While the aerospace technology and battles are rather fanciful, they are well thought out and internally consistent. There is no deus ex machina saving the day, but a logical and well-constructed plot. Mr. Sanderson builds up tension brilliantly, with the final battle a breathtaking climax.

The Cruel Stars (The Cruel Stars I) – John Birmingham

Centuries previously, humanity fought a civil war. As technology progressed, genetic alteration and cybernetic augmentation of the body became commonplace. Humans started transferring consciousness to new bodies, and even to machines, allowing practical immortality. A faction known as The Sturm saw this as abhorrent, fanatically advocating “racial purity” and wishing to exterminate the “mutants” from the human race. The war against The Sturm was won at a terrible cost, and they were exiled, not to be heard from again. Until now.

The protagonists are several, all interesting in their own right, with rich backstories. Each of them could have been the subject of his or her own novel. Naval officer Lucinda Hardy is a successful professional who lifted herself up from abject poverty in a society ruled by an aristocratic elite, and is now unexpectedly in command of the frigate Defiant. Pirate Sephina L’Trel is a charming rogue. Death row convict Booker was a terrorist. Corporate Princess Alessia has lived a sheltered life which is suddenly upended in the worst possible way. And finally archaeologist Frazier McLellan, previously Fleet Admiral McLellan. A most cantankerous, ill-tempered, foul-mouthed, hilarious and very endearing old coot.

The parallels to the Nazi regime and ideas of racial purity are explicitly referenced in the book. The Sturm invasion leads to an existential struggle, as the Sturm use the very characteristics and strengths of mainstream human society against it in their initial surprise attack. Mr. Birmingham has a fine gift for snappy dialogue and humour. I found myself laughing out loud many times, especially during McLellan’s arguments with Herodotus, a former military AI and his companion. Despite some misgivings in the first few chapters, as more and more new characters, seemingly unrelated, were introduced, the story came together well, with rapid, page-turning action sequences.

Then Will the Sun Rise Alabaster – Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Young nun Sister Josephine is confined to her convent, her life unremarkable and regimented. She was orphaned as a young child, even her birth name taken from her. Any semblance of individuality and freedom was beaten out of her through physical and mental abuse. She has now accepted that this will be her life. Almost. Until one day, a member of the Church’s warrior class comes to the monastery. And everything changes.

This short story is intense. The desperation of a soul about to lose herself is keenly fell but the reader, making the explosiveness of the denouement that much more impactful.

Frozen Orbit – Patrick Chiles

The unexpected firing of Russian missile defence systems at what turns out to be a spacecraft returning from the outer solar system sets off alarms at NASA. Two years later, the Magellan II mission to Pluto sets off to unravel the mystery.

The story is ambitious, casting threads back in history to the end of the Cold War, with a top secret Soviet space project as bonkers as it seems weirdly plausible, making it a fantastic hook for the story. The protagonists are the four crewmembers on the spacecraft Magellan, finely crafted and believable, down to their intelligent and meandering debates on (and with) AI, and regarding the meaning of life. The technical aspects are nicely lacking in logic holes, a must for a novel of this kind.

I very much enjoyed this near-future space adventure. Like any good technothriller, it was hard to put down. Unfortunately, some plot points, such as the expanded use of the hydroponic garden, went from seemingly very important to unresolved later in the book. This left the reader with some disjointedness, though to clear the overall story was paced very well, with an unexpected but logical ending.

Plus I’ve never heard a pilot call the control column a “joystick”, but now I am nitpicking.

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.

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.

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.