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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

River of Gods (India 2047 I) – Ian McDonald

RiverofGodsIndia one hundred years after nationhood is divided into multiple states. The monsoon has failed in the past several years, heralding an impending war over water between Bharat and neighbouring Awadh. Bharat is not a signatory to the international Hamilton accords limiting the intelligence of AIs, choosing instead to allow some development and self-police through its Krishna Cops. Bharat is a haven for datacenters but there is always the risk of a rogue AI ruining everyone’s whole day. Meanwhile, AIs are the actors in India’s premiere soap opera Town and Country, which harbours deeper complexities than anyone imagines.

The world of River of Gods is immensely detailed, chaotic and complex. Reading the first third of the book leads the reader into massive culture shock as he is forced to navigate the storylines of multiple complex characters. The characters are many. Tal, the “neut”, who has surgically eschewed gender and risks persecution by a mob too easily turned to violence. Mr. Nandha, a Krishna Cop bound to his duty. Lisa Durnau, a cosmologist who researches the structure of universe, only to find that the reality is far more intriguing and disturbing. Thomas Lull, Durnau’s mentor, who is sought out by a mysterious woman who knows everything about everyone and can control machines with her mind. Vishram Ray, the scion of a powerful family who escaped to be a comedian in Scotland and has now been forced back into the family business. And many more major and minor.

It is sometimes tough going through the first half of the book, as there seems to be no real story, but as the novel progresses the plotlines become more defined and come together. The underlying theme is the nature and meaning consciousness and intelligence, or “the meaning of life,” if you will.

The final triumph of understanding is deeply rewarding to the reader. Having said that, I did feel that the book was overlong and that some of the secondary plotlines could have been culled, no matter how much Mr. McDonald’s dazzling prose is a pleasure to read.

4Rosbochs

Armored – Edited by John Joseph Adams

This anthology of short stories deals with armored fighting suits (mecha, what have you) from many different perspectives. Some stories are pure action, while others delve deep into sentient machines and man-machine interfaces. There’s even romance.

The stories range from excellent to passable. And there is quite a bit of thought-provoking stuff.

The Ship who Sang – Anne McCaffrey

Why this book was such a huge success is quite beyond me. Actually a mildly serialized collection of short stories, it is about a living ship. The brain of a woman was implanted in it. Sappy feelings… Space opera at its worst, blech… Yawn… Spare me… The utter boredom…

Gridlinked – Neal Asher

In many cases, when an author tries to tackle an utopian future, in which large parts of humanity are without want (if there is such a thing) and live a very good life, the effort falls flat. During the first fifty pages or so, I was indeed worried. Things soon looked up, however. First of all, there is trouble in paradise, both internal and external. Secondly, there are cool people, such as our hero, superagent Ian Cormac. Thirdly, there are cool gadgets, like self-aware shuriken. Interestingly, most of human society is controlled by AIs, probably since they seem to be doing a better job than humans ever did.

In an unforgettable exchange, it is explained that AIs have the power of self-determination since it is programmed into them.  On the other hand “biologicals” do not, because they have biological imperatives to breed and so on. I thoroughly enjoyed this one, even though the ending left me a bit puzzled. What the heck was going on there?