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.

The Outside – Ada Hoffmann

Dr. Yasira Shien works as a scientist on a revolutionary reactor, emplaced on a space station in orbit around the planet Jai. Something goes horribly wrong and many people die as “The Outside” encoraches on reality, destroying the station. An Angel of Nemesis, a vindictive AI goddess, forces Yasira to go on a mission to investigate. It would appear that Yasira’s mentor, Dr. Talirr, has been tampering with reality. And she must be stopped.

What starts as an interesting story with a fascinating setting unfortunately far too quickly turns into a slog. Yasira is an interesting character. Autisic, self-doubting, immensely intelligent, and initially very much unaware of what she has unleashed. Akavi, an “Angel”, agent of one of the AIs who have anointed themselves as gods, is less intricate, with simpler motivations, but often more entertaining to read about than Yasira, whose seemingly endless internal monologue is ineffective at holding the reader’s attention.

Unfortunately, the interesting setup, with The Outside and the contention that reality is lie, never leads to a real payoff and the reader is left wondering what exactly happened. The Outside and its interactions with reality might as well be magic, however much they are portrayed in technological terms. What is left of the central premise is meandering ramblings that, while well written, are, in the end, both unsatisfying and seemingly lacking in real meaning or explanation.

House of Suns – Alastair Reynolds

Six millions years previously, Abigail Gentian, scion of an influential and rich family, made one thousand clones of herself and infused each one with her personality and memories. Since then “Gentian Line” has travelled the Milky Way at sublight speeds, exploring, experiencing and helping civilisations. Every two hundred thousand years, the “shatterlings” of Gentian Line come together in a grand reunion, to share experiences and memories, and to remember their lost.

Purslane and Campion are two shatterlings who, despite strong taboos against it, have fallen in love and travel together. They are thousands of years late for the coming reunion. Once they arrive, they find that the Line has been attacked for unknown reasons, and decimated.

The premise is interesting, tackling the tricky concept of deep time and societal survival. Is it possible for a planet-bound civilisation, or even an interstellar empire, to sustain its own existence beyond a few tens of thousands of years? And what of consciousness, machine or biological. How can these handle intervals of millions of years, even if many are spent in suspended animation?

Unfortunately, too much of the story depends on reactions to events that happened previously, which are revealed piecemeal in massive and awkward infodumps. The plot will grind to a halt as a character expounds for pages and pages on events of five millions years ago and how they explain the events of last year in perceived time (which perhaps actually happened fifty thousand years ago in actual time). The love story of Purslane and Campion is sweet and tragic and compelling, and that would have made a lovely book. However, the whole edifice is heavily weighed down by having to explain and analyse the effects of deep time and ancient history, making it an ungainly slog only rescued by Mr. Reynolds’s superb prose and flair for illustrating the immense. Ironically, the final chapters are absolutely beautiful and would have been an amazing coda to a less ponderous narrative.

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.

A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers II) – Becky Chambers

wayfarers2aclosedandcommonorbitThis novel is set just after the enchanting The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, but none of the main characters have carried through. The story is about Sidra, the newly minted AI from Wayfarer, who has been illegally housed in a human looking “body kit”. In parallel, it is about Pepper, the tech who helped Sidra “escape”, and the peculiar way in which Pepper grew up.

At it’s core, this is a story about what it means to be a person. What sets humans apart from a sentient artificial intelligence, if anything? There is also a strong theme of family and its meaning. It is written with the same charm and wit as the first book, leaving the reader with a warm and fuzzy feeling at the end.

4½Rosbochs