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 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.

 

The Gods of Sagittarius – Eric Flint & Mike Resnick

In the future, humanity is part of an interstellar society. A security expert is tasked to escort a scientist as he investigates a murder with seemingly paranormal aspects. Meanwhile, an alien seeks vengeance for the extermination of her religious sect. Unlike the science-rooted humans, the alien knows that magic is real.

The novel is space opera with a large degree of comedy. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the overwrought dialogue and interactions very funny. The story isn’t very entertaining either.

 

Saturn Run – John Sandford & Ctein

In the second half of the 21st Century, American astronomers detect what can only be an alien starship making rendezvous with an object hidden among the rings of Saturn. The starship then departs the Solar System. This sparks a race to Saturn between the US and China in order to secure any alien technology which can be found.

The tone of the story is more thriller than sense-of-wonder science fiction, showing Mr. Sandford’s crime write roots. And it is indeed a good thriller of a story. The characters are imperfect and well fleshed out, if perhaps rather stereotypical, especially the Chinese ones. The “games people play” are intricate and interesting. An unfortunate aspect of the novel is that it expounds rather too much at length on the science and technology involved in the missions. While it is certainly neat content for the scientifically interested reader, the infodumps have a tendency to interrupt the otherwise fine pacing.

Dark Matter (Star Carrier V) – Ian Douglas

Dark Matter continues the Star Carrier story some time after Deep Space. A new and massive alien artifact has been discovered, hinting at a population even more powerful than the Sch’daar. The conflict between the USNA and the Confederation continues. Now Admiral Grey gets a new mission.

Unfortunately, just as in Deep Space, the infodumps have taken over the asylum. The characters can’t seem to have three lines of consecutive dialogue, barring over-the-top and overlong combat communications chatter, without being interrupted by the author with a long and typically pointless exposition on physics, politics or futurism… Even more irritating is how Mr. Douglas repeats the same explanation of background, or even earlier plot points, with astounding regularity. I got about two thirds of the way through by skimming through the infodumps. Then there was a passage explaining who Stephen Hawking was and I had enough. What happened to the Ian Douglas who wrote really quite engaging military scifi? Even the first three books in this very series were pretty good.

Red Vengeance (Dark Victory II) – Brendan Dubois

The second book picks up directly after Dark Victory. After the surprising events at the end of the first book, Randy is seconded to a regular army unit. And it seems that the Creepers are hunting him specifically.

While not quite as good as Dark Victory, this is a fine continuation of the story. It does raise more questions about the motivation of the Creepers, but there are clearly more books coming.

Dark Victory (Dark Victory I) – Brendan Dubois

Ten years after the Creepers attacked Earth and decimated the population, the United States is reduced to a nineteenth century existence. Any significant use of power or radio results in an orbital strike. Creepers roam the landscape in almost impregnable exoskeletons, burning and killing. Randy Knox is a sixteen year old Sergeant in the New Hampshire National Guard. He has been in the service four years. A veteran soldier with several kills under his belt, but also a teenager who attends school and thinks about girls a lot. One day, Randy receives orders to escort a government emissary to the capital.

While flirting with the Young Adult genre, this feels like a more mature tale. Mr. Dubois has woven an intense story full of action, courage and desperate choices. Randy is a hero, but an imperfect one, prone to brusque outbursts and impatience. A young man hardened by years of bitter warfare. This makes him much more realistic than the more typical young adult protagonist. A great read.

Pushing Ice – Alastair Reynolds

In the second half of the 21st Century, the ship Rockhopper is the base for a crew of hardcore ice miners. Much like the crew of the Nostromo in Alien or the workers of the Deep Core in The Abyss, these are not space heroes but no-nonsense blue-collar worker types. The company sucks them dry but they get the job done.

Janus, a small inner moon of Saturn, is observed to be moving out of its orbit, seemingly of its own power. Rockhopper is the only ship close enough to intercept what can only be alien artifact. As it nears Janus, Rockhopper is caught in a gravitational field from which it cannot escape, carrying it along for years until it reaches a vast alien artifact soon dubbed The Structure.

Mr.  Reynolds anchors the narrative on two strong women, Bella Lind and Svetlana Barseghian; fast friends who fall out as they disagree on how to deal with the challenges faced by the marooned crew of the Rockhopper. The novel jumps smoothly between discrete events, sometimes separated by decades.

The enigma of The Structure is disturbing on many levels, but before being able to even hope to probe it, the small contingent of humans must ensure their very survival. And so, in an isolated corner of an alien place they know nothing about, humans must thrive despite their factional nature and penchant for disagreement. Despite its often intimidating scope, this novel is a joy to read. Ingeniously plotted, epic in scope, and yet intimate in its exploration of humanity.

A Night Without Stars (Chronicle of the Fallers II) – Peter F. Hamilton

chronicleofthefallers2anightwithoutstarsTwo hundred and fifty years after the events in The Abyss Beyond Dreams, Bienvenido society has been profoundly changed. The planet has been exiled from the Void to a star system outside any galaxy, perhaps because the inhabitants “misbehaved”. It orbits the lonely star together with a scattering of other planets with a similar fate, some with extant species, others sterile. After Slvasta’s revolution, society follows an oppressive model similar to Stalinism. The state rules and the secret police is its enforcer, feared by all, but mostly by “Eliters”, those who have working macrocellular clusters, stemming from certain genetic traits inherited from the Commonwealth thousands of years previously. The Eliters are downtrodden but defiant. Bienvenido is still under attack by the Faller trees, now slowly being chipped away at by regular space missions to destroy them one by one with nuclear bombs.

Several characters from the first book remain, still working towards a solution to the Faller incursions, which are getting worse despite claims to the contrary by the regime. Nigel may be gone but another famous Commonwealth character steps onto the scene in these desperate times.

While the first book had a definite ending, and this one introduces new protagonists with new character arcs, it is also very much a continuation and conclusion to the series. Mr. Hamilton uses his customary skill in weaving all the threads together into a rousing and satisfying finale, as well as an epilogue that will have long time fans smiling beatifically.

5Rosbochs

The Abyss Beyond Dreams (Chronicle of the Fallers I) – Peter F. Hamilton

chronicleofthefallers1theabyssbeyonddreamsLaura Brandt is in stasis as her dynasty is journeying outside the Commonwealth to set up a new society. The Commonwealth is thriving, but the enigmatic and sinister Void casts its shadow as it continues to expand, devouring the galaxy sun by sun. Through happenstance, the Brandt fleet is caught in the Void, trapped in proximity to a planet surrounded by what look like huge orbiting trees, but which house a terrifying alien race.

Thousands of years later, on the planet, now known as Bienvenido, a young soldier called Slvasta is patrolling after a Faller incursion, as yet again “eggs” from the orbiting Trees have fallen. Many generations after colonization by the crippled Brandt fleet, society is at a low industrial level. The eggs are biological weapons which attract and consume humans. Slvasta survives an encounter but loses an arm, leading to his reassignment to the capital. Here, he and his girlfriend Bethaneve set in motion events that will transform Bienvenido society, with more than a little nudging from Nigel Sheldon, who entered the void on a mission to the planet Querencia (from the Void trilogy) but was waylaid to Bienvenido.

This book is the first of two in the series. The larger story of the Void and the Commonwealth is continued from Commonwealth Saga and the Void Trilogy, but the story on Bienvenido is relatively self-contained. Unsurprisingly for a Hamilton book, the hundreds of pages fly by, populated by vivid characters and settings. While some might find it disappointing that Mr. Hamilton is focusing on stories set in societies that are not representative of the super-high-tech Commonwealth, I find that he could write any story and I would still read it. Bienvenido is a fascinating setting, and its detachment from greater human society makes the story all the more poignant.

4½Rosbochs

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers I) – Becky Chambers

TheLongWayToASmallAngryPlanetRosemary is on the run. From what is not initially known. She joins the crew of the Wayfarer, a vessel that builds stable wormholes in space. The crew is a motley mix of characters, both humans and of other species. As the Wayfarer travels on a long mission, Rosemary and the rest of the crew face various trials.

Written like that, the story seems rather banal, and in truth the story is not the reason one should read this novel. In fact, the story is almost a series of interconnected episodes, aimed almost uniquely at highlighting and celebrating what is important in the book: The relationships between the characters, and how these make them grow and change. It is easy to see in the crew a more mellow but somehow also more colourful version of the protagonists of Firefly.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (I love the title) is a delightful novel. Surprisingly unpretentious in a genre typically dominated by big concepts, it takes the reader on a journey with characters that are relatable and easy to like. I found myself smiling more often than not while reading, and frequently wished that I could sit in the garden on the Wayfarer, just hanging out with the crew.

4½Rosbochs

Armada – Ernest Cline

ArmadaZack Lightman is a typical teenager living in a small town in Oregon. He is about to graduate high school. He works part time in a vintage video game shop. He plays the hit space combat game “Armada” quite a bit, with a player ranking of sixth worldwide. He also plays the companion ground combat game Terra Firma, but is nowhere near as good as his friends. The whole world seems to be playing these games. Then one, day, an Earth Defense Alliance shuttle looking just like in the games turns up at Zack’s school to pick him up for duty. Apparently the alien invaders are real and the games are a training simulation.

Like in his debut novel Ready Player One, Mr. Cline plays heavily on nostalgia and homages to the pop culture of the eighties. The story itself is heavily influenced by The Last Starfighter, which is also is referenced in the text. However in this novel the element feels somewhat forced.

The book is a fun romp and a lighthearted read. However it feels rushed and unfinished. The reader is left with the impression that there is so much left to say about these characters, but the story moves on rails, far too rapidly tracking towards what is a predictable conclusion despite the too obvious twist.

3½Rosbochs

 

Earthbound (Marsbound III) – Joe Haldeman

Marsbound3EarthboundAfter the massive cliffhanger at the end of Starbound, our heroes are stuck on Earth. The Others have stopped all electrics and electronics from functioning. Civilization is collapsing and things are generally looking grim.

Compared to the previous two volumes, the concluding book is nowhere near as good. The premise is clever and intriguing, but it devolves quickly into a story about how to survive the end of civilization. The epic storyline dealing with the Others and what place humanity will have in relation to them, which has been the main thrust of the plot in the first two books, is almost completely ignored. Spy makes a couple of appearances, but what they mean is never explained. Much of the story seems rather random. The monumental deux ex machina at the end is simply adding insult to injury. If you’ve read the first two books, by all means read on to find out what happens with Carmen in the end, but also be thankful the book is short.

2½Rosbochs

 

Starbound (Marsbound II) – Joe Haldeman

Marsbound2StarboundIn the sequel to Marsbound, Carmen and Paul, along with a few other human and Martian crew members, are tasked with an interstellar exploratory mission to the presumed home planet of the Others. Despite the “free energy” discovered in the previous book, the trip will take years, skimming the speed of light. But do the Others appreciate the intrusion? And what do they really want?

Most of the book is about the trip itself, and the psychological challenges of living for years in a confined space while hurtling towards what the crew thinks is probably doom. The last part sees humanity confronted once again with the judgment of the mysterious Others. These aliens seem to see humanity as somewhere between clumsy child and dangerous but manageable pest. The fact that humanity is hopelessly outclassed, and can only use its action to prove intent, gives an interesting perspective, as does the fact that the human emissaries feel that those who sent them out really don’t understand the problem. The ending is a massive cliffhanger, leading directly to the third and final book.

Haldeman does not disappoint, with his trademark unexpected but internally consistent logical plot twists. His characters, this time described from three different first person viewpoints, are flawed and realistic, down to little marital niggles that most would rather keep hidden even from themselves.

4Rosbochs

A Darkling Sea – James L. Cambias

ADarklingSeaUnder the thick ice crust of the moon Ilmatar, there is a world-spanning cold ocean filled with strange alien creatures, some of them intelligent with primitive technology. A human expeditionary base studies this dark and submerged world under strict non-contact rules. Inevitably, one of the academics tries to get a bit too close. At the same time, a ship from the advanced Sholen race arrives at Ilmatar. The Sholen with to contain human contamination of pristine worlds, and due to internal Sholen politics they attempt to force the humans to leave.

The sub-ice ocean of Ilmatar is richly described through the diverse viewpoints of Ilmatarans, humans and Sholen. Mr. Cambias has managed to make the aliens quite alien in their thinking, especially the Ilmatarans with their immediate sense of experience, tricky relationship with memory and sudden narcolepsy. An adventure novel at heart, this book manages to ride above mere action into more intellectual territory by exploring the relationships between three races with different motivations in an unusual environment. It is also a good first contact novel. I was strongly reminded of the film The Abyss, with its mix of dark underwater milieus and dank submerged base.

4Rosbochs

Marsbound (Marsbound I) – Joe Haldeman

Marsbound1MarsboundCarmen Dula is nineteen years old when she moves to the Mars base with her family on a five-year assignment. She is an intelligent, level-headed (remote) college student who falls in love with the pilot. The journey and stay present challenges large and small, both regarding survival itself and getting along with the other residents. Then one day she wants to spend some time alone and unwisely takes a walk outside without a buddy. She falls into a hole and is rescued by a Martian.

Wait, what? I did not see that twist coming. I thought this was going to be about colonizing Mars. I suppose I should have read the blurb which blatantly alludes to it. As so often happens with Haldeman, the familial way in which his first-person protagonist speaks to the reader lulls us into a sense of false security about where the story is going to go. What starts out small and almost ordinary balloons out or proportion in unexpected directions as suddenly this everyman (or in this case everywoman) has to make decisions that affect the entire human race.

4Rosbochs

Camouflage – Joe Haldeman

CamouflageAn alien winds up on Earth and spends millions of years roaming it as a shark until one day in the 1930s it decides to take the form of a human. It spends the following decades learning about humanity and growing as a person. In an interleaved plot line, in 2019 an ancient alien artifact is found in the Pacific Ocean and a marine salvage company investigates.

The growth of the alien as a human is very well written, from tentative and often disastrous beginnings to a finding of true purpose and even love. The descriptions of humanity from the alien’s often uncomprehending viewpoint are fascinating, in particular the part during the Bataan Death March, where the worst of humanity is on display.

3½Rosbochs

 

 

The Prometheus Project – Steve White

The idea behind this novel is simple and rather ingenious. Just after World War II, a mysterious man calling himself Mr. Inconnu plops down on Earth claiming to be from a lost human colony. He warns the US government that aliens pervade the galaxy and that if these should discover Earth in her present state, the planet will become a low status protectorate. Kind of like an Amazon tribe discovered by super advanced Westerners. But Mr. Inconnu brings advanced knowledge, allowing the newly created Prometheus Project to both kickstart human development and fool the aliens into thinking that Earth is advanced enough to merit at least the attention given a barely civilized polity.

But there is a traitor in the Project.

I wanted to like this novel. The central concepts and the plot are well thought out. The beginning is quite entertaining, but once the novelty wears off it starts to get pretty dull. The alien cultures are described in a sense of wonder style that fails to convey a sense of wonder. White is trapped by his own storyline, as multiple infodumps thinly disguised as stilted conversation give the story a clumsy shove in the desired direction. The characters are all one dimensional, even the narrator. I skimmed through the last fifty pages just to find out what happens. I found it a pity that this book turned out less than well, because in essence it is quite a good story.

Galaxy Blues – Allen Steele

This is yet another novel set in the Coyote universe. It is about a defector from the Western Hemisphere Union who makes his way to Coyote. He is then hired/drafted for a trade mission to the aliens discovered in Spindrift.

This is a lightweight tale of adventure and redemption. Very plain vanilla in concept. Competent but nothing more.

 

 

 

 

 

Spindrift – Allen Steele

Spindrift is a spinoff of the Coyote series, dealing with first contact. The ending, where the survivors of the Galileo expedition arrive in Coyote, is already predetermined, if you will, by the epilogue of Coyote Frontier and the prologue of Spindrift itself. To arrive at this conclusion, Steele sends the Galileo and its crew on a voyage to a rogue asteroid hurtling far outside the solar system. This asteroid, dubbed Spindrift, has responded to signals from a SETI search program.

The novel is quite short, and not very much happens. What is worse, it is all very predictable. The characters are taken straight from Central Casting and the spaceship scenes are unsurprising. Even the enigmatic alien artifact is filled with stock puzzles. Setting it within the Coyote backstory is a pretty neat trick if you’ve read the other books. As a standalone, however, the novel is inadequate, far too predictable and sadly formulaic. The only redeeming quality is the way Steele manages to make the reader care for the characters. I genuinely wanted to know what would happen next, and thus reading the book was not a complete loss.

2001 Series – Arthur C. Clarke

This series started as a one-off book released in conjunction with the Stanley Kubrick movie of the same name. The series consists of:

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • 2010: Odyssey Two. (Also made into a film)
  • 2061 Odyssey Three
  • 3001: The Final Odyssey

The first and second books are enthralling. 2061 is more of the same, and thus decent but somewhat pointless as part of the arc. 3001 is an attempt at closing up all the loose threads, and does so in a satisfying way.

For a long time, these books frustrated me because I just didn’t get them. On the surface, they are hard SciFi, but there is quite a bit of existential pondering about the nature of life. When I finally just relaxed and accepted the fact that there are mystical things going on, I realized that this is the whole point. The reader is supposed to be in awe, and there are some things that mankind is not meant to know (yet). Just remember to accept the mystery and embrace the sense of wonder.