Walking to Aldebaran – Adrian Tchaikovsky

Astronaut Gary Rendell is lost in the “crypts”, a dark labyrinth full of horrors. He has been wandering them for an indeterminate amount of time, and is evidently slowly going mad. Through flashbacks, Gary tells the reader about the mysterious artefact which houses the crypts, and how he came to be there.

Mr. Tchaikovsky uses first person narrative to tell the story as if Gary is speaking directly to the reader. In fact, on multiple occasions Gary specifically “speaks” to the reader. This makes the denouement of the narrative quite visceral, as the reader slowly realises why Gary is so despondent. An aura of doom suffuses the story, and the final twist is, if not entirely unexpected by that point, still heartbreaking.

Atmosphaera Incognita – Neal Stephenson

Real estate agent Emma reconnects with school friend Carl, who is now a billionaire. Carl wants to build a tower twenty kilometres tall, and he drafts Emma into the project.

The sheer scale of the project described is staggering, and the technical challenges are excellently described. Despite the necessity for such detail, Mr. Stephenson manages to steer this novella away from being a technical treatise, focusing on the human and the personal. A delightful tale of hubris and triumph.

Beyond the Aquila Rift: The Best of Alastair Reynolds – Alastair Reynolds

This massive collection contains most of Mr. Reynolds’s short stories and novelettes, which have formerly appearaed in other publications. Some are set in the Revelation Space universe, but most are standalone. Thousandth Night is a prequel of sorts to House of Suns. It is by far the weakest of the entries, overlong and tedious like most of the book it connects with. The average standard is very high, as one would expect from Mr. Reynolds. Most deal in some way with the nature and meaning of existence, as well as the spectre of deep time. In Mr. Reynolds’s worlds, faster than light travel is impossible, so it may take thousands of years to travel between stars, making any sort of coherent and stable interstellar society almost impossible. Vainglory, and the charming Zima Blue, are their hearts commentaries on the nature of art and legacy.

As ever with this author, the prose is polished, the characters are deep and interesting, and the concepts are often awe-inspiring. A nice read in parts and as a whole.

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.

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.

On the Steel Breeze (Poseidon’s Children II) – Alastair Reynolds

PoseidonsChildren2OntheSteelBreezeAfter the events in Blue Remembered Earth, the stars are open to humanity. The mysterious alien artifact Mandala, on the planet Crucible twenty-eight light years away, becomes the destination for a swarm of huge spaceships constructed from hollowed-out asteroids. Chiku Akinya is the daughter of Sunday Akinya, one of the protagonists of the first book. She has undergone an unusual procedure, creating two clones of herself and implanting neural machines that synchronize memories. Chiku is three individuals, but also one through the shared memories. One copy, known as Chiku Red, departs to recover great-grandmother’s lost spaceship, fast leaving the vicinity of the Solar System. Another, Chiku Green, joins the asteroid ship exodus on its way to Crucible. The last, Chiku Yellow, remains on Earth. The latter two are the main protagonists. As the distance between Chiku Green and Chiku Yellow increases, so does the communication lag, and the story jumps decades forward in time to keep the rhythm, skipping seamlessly between the two to emulate their shared memories.

Even more than in the first book, the main theme is about the nature of intelligence. Can machine and organic intelligences co-exist? Another major theme is the nature of aging. As life extension is more and more perfected, senescence becomes a rare thing, to the point the withholding of anti-aging procedures is used as a punishment for one of the characters. How does this affect humans?

Unfortunately, this installment suffers from the same issues as the first book. The book seems overlong and the pace is ponderous. The story itself is not very powerful, serving more as a backdrop to a philosophical discussion.

3½Rosbochs

Cibola Burn (The Expanse IV) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanse4CibolaBurnFollowing the events in Abaddon’s Gate, humanity has access to a thousand worlds connected by The Hub left behind by the protomolecule builders. The Outer Planets Alliance holds The Hub as a sort of way station. On the planet Ilus, Belter refugees have set up a lithium mining operation. However the UN has given the exploration charter for the world to Royal Charter Energy, a large corporation. While the Belters have been building a hardscrabble life, an RCE expedition to claim and explore the world has slowly been making its way to Ilus. The name itself is the first political issue of many, as RCE calls the world New Terra. Some of the Belter colonists take direct action against the perceived thread, destroying the first RCE shuttle to attempt a landing; killing several RCE staff and scientists. The UN and OPA send Holden and the crew of the Rocinante in to mediate. And from there, things go rapidly downhill.

In trademark The Expanse style, things start calmly and slowly, only to accelerate into a furious page-turning crescendo of action by the end of the novel. The world of Ilus/New Terra is not what it seems, and humans are messing with forces they can only barely comprehend. The crew of the Rocinante have matured into a closely knit team, and I can’t help comparing them to the crew of the Firefly. I even kept seeing Amos as Jayne. They trust each other to get the job done, without any doubts or hesitation. While not quite as strong as the previous installment, and somewhat ponderous in the first half, this yet another great read in the series.

4½Rosbochs

Abaddon’s Gate (The Expanse III) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanseIIIAbaddonsGateFollowing the events in Caliban’s War, the protomolecule shoots itself off into the far reaches of the Solar System, well beyond the orbit of Neptune. It forms a large ring. As it turns out, the ring is a gate to another place far away from the Sun. Mars, Earth and the Outer Planets organize expeditions to study the gate. Meanwhile, the sister of Julie Mao, the mysterious woman from Leviathan Wakes, has decided to disgrace James Holden, who along with the crew of the Rocinante, is also on his way to the gate. Needless to say, things rapidly go south, with the large multinational fleet of research and warships trapped beyond the gate in a mysterious “slow zone” which limits the speed of ships. And then things go south some more as internal fighting breaks out between various factions.

Just as in the previous books, the story is told via viewpoint characters, with excellent characterization. There is deep examination of motivation and personality without it getting in the way of the action. In some ways, the book, just like its prequels, reads like an action blockbuster, especially the last third of it. But it is deeper than that, showing the authors’ insight into human nature, society and politics. The world is granular and consistent, with little things like how Belters and Earthers think alike fully developed and really affecting the actions of the characters. The stakes are high and the situations often desperate. I couldn’t stop reading because the authors kept putting our heroes in situations that seemed impossible while the fate of humanity was on the line; a real skill.

5Rosbochs

Spider Star – Mike Brotherton

SpiderStarThe inhabitants of an extrasolar colony accidentally triggers a weapon system built into the star they orbit. With the help of archaeological records evidence, they can trace its creation back to an ancient race that inhabited the system. An expedition is sent to the mythical “Spider Star” in order to find a solution. The journey itself takes years, and when they arrive, everything is so very alien.

The premise is intriguing and fascinating. The plot itself is not half bad. Unfortunately the characters are uninspired cardboard cutouts and the read itself is fantastically dull. I really wanted to like this book but after about reading about two thirds of it I couldn’t bring myself to continue.

2Rosbochs

 

Demon (Gaea III) – John Varley

Demon jumps ahead another 20 years after Wizard. Robin has returned to her home in the coven habitat. Chris has remained on Gaea, and is slowly turning into a creature more and more like a Titanide (a centaur race native to Gaea). Cirocco is still around, but no longer does Wizard work. Gaby is dead, but keeps returning to Cirocco in dreams. Gaea has gone completely nuts, prancing about as a 15 meter Marilyn Monroe while making and screening movies in her own bloodthirsty fashion. Meanwhile, back on Earth, the final war has begun. Humaniy is destroying itself in nuclear fire. Not in one big conflagration, but in a staggered series of bursts. Refugees flock to Gaea, who has provided transportation but no regulation. Newcomers are robbed and enslaved by some of the humans already there. Amidst the chaos, Robin returns, together with her 19 year old daughter Nova and her newborn son Adam. She had to leave the women-only coven since she had a son, and both children seem to be Chris’, despite the two never having had relations. Gaea’s trickery again. It is soon clear that the final confrontation with Gaea is at hand, with Cirocco reluctantly at the helm of the forces arrayed against the mad habitat mind.

While better than Wizard, this one also left me unsatisfied. Varley simply isn’t that good at writing about military matters, and it shows. There are some surprising developments, but the surprise ending was too unexpected, and not supported very well by the story that went before it. I’m all for surprise endings, but this one felt as if it was hardly connected to the rest of the book. Decent Varley but only for the die-hard fan. It’s a shame that this series went downhill after Titan.

 

Wizard (Gaea II) – John Varley

Wizard picks up about 80 years after the events in Titan. Cirocco is now a Wizard for Gaea, meaning she’s a troubleshooter. Gaby is sometimes her sidekick, and sometimes just does freelance work. They are both paid with extended lifespans. Since Titan, plenty of humans have emigrated to Gaea. There is a limited quota for free trips, and through this program, two new travelers, both prone to periodic seizures, arrive in Gaea. One is Chris, a rather shy and geeky young man from Earth. The other is Robin, who comes from an ultra-radical sect of witches (in the Wiccan sense) living in a habitat on the far side of the Moon. The sect is made up entirely of women, and holds men to be evil. Robin has never met a man, and has some strange conceptions about them. As they arrive, Gaea tells them that she can cure their ailments, as long as they do something heroic. They join up with Cirocco and Gaby on a circumnavigation of the habitat wheel. The wizard and her sidekick have a hidden agenda, though. Gaea is becoming ever more senile and crazy, and the two are looking for allies in a coming war against her.

The adventures of Chris and Robin make for a coming of age tale of sorts. The scenery is still wondrous, and Varley has added much to the richness of his world. The prose is excellent and the characters are rich and alive. Despite all that, I was still somewhat disappointed. The story sets up the next and final book (Demon), and develops the characters, but the plot isn’t that interesting. There seems to be little sense of where the story is headed. While this is often the case in long sections of many Varley books, in this one there weren’t any other really stellar bits to compensate. Varley is never bad, but it was an ultimately unsatisfying read.

Titan (Gaea I) – John Varley

Varley’s Big Dumb Object story, and the first in his Gaea trilogy. The first expedition to the Saturn System encounters an enormous spinning habitat (Gaea). As they approach, the ship is captured and destroyed. Some undetermined amount of time later, the expedition members, including Cirocco Jones, the Captain, emerge quite literally from the ground at various points on the outer rim of the habitat. They have all changed somehow, some having acquired new skills (such as being able to talk to some of the denizens of Gaea), some being depressed, some introverted. Cirocco Jones and what for all intents and purposes is her sidekick, Gaby, set off on a quest towards the center of the habitat to find some answers. Since Gaea is spinning, the center is “upwards” in their frame of reference.

A common misconception about this book is that it book is fantasy. It certainly does have some fantasy tropes, but is firmly in the science fiction section. The world building is ingenious and entertaining. Varley is excellent at characters and character interation, and so his Gaea, not unexpectedly, serves as the backdrop for character development and conflict. The ending is, as usual with Varley, both somewhat unexpected and viscerally satisfiying, even if in this case it also has to serve as a setup for the next two books in the trilogy. All in all a good read, but not stellar Varley.

Sun of Suns (Virga I) – Karl Schroeder

This novel certainly has a very cool and well imagined setting. A hollow sphere the size of a small planet, filled with air. In the center is Candesce, a fusion powered artificial sun. Dotted around the place are lesser artificial suns. Around the suns low G human civilizations cluster for warmth, building giant wooden wheels to create their own gravity strongly tainted by coriolis force. Weather systems are logical extensions of the environment, with convective currents driving everything from icebergs to clouds to whole civilizations around the place.

Unfortunately it all quickly becomes rather tedious. The novel attempts to recreate the feel of an adventure novel set in the age of sail. A young man who, years ago, saw his nation conquered and his parents murdered infiltrates the highest levels of the enemy nation command structure. Said enemy nation sends a fleet (yes, cool flying ships) on a pre-emptive strike. And that’s where I called it quits. Despite the cool gadgets, I found the characters less than engaging. I didn’t give a rat’s ass what happened to any of them. After the fabulous premise was well established, it was disappointing to find the story itself so trivial, and the characters so mundane. This story needed a co-author with a better hand at dialogue and characterization, not to mention combat.

A Hole in Space – Larry Niven

This outstanding short story collection mostly contains stories that are set in deep space, as opposed to his other collections where the setting tends to be planetbound. The first is the excellent “Rammer” (which formed the basis for A World Out of Time), in which a man revived from cryogenic sleep is forced to pay his debt to society by going on a centuries long mission to “seed” potential colony worlds. There is also an essay on space habitats, including Niven’s Ringworld concept.

Ringworld’s Children – Larry Niven

In the fourth Ringworld novel, Louis Wu is, as usual, conscripted to do a powerful being’s bidding. In this case it is the Protector Tunesmith.

Ringworld and The Ringworld Engineers are some of the best hard SF books ever written. On the other hand, The Ringworld Throne was an enormous disappointment, and given that I expected to dislike this offering. I was pleasantly surprised. The characters are well defined as usual with Niven, and the story, while not too complex, runs along nicely.

The days of truly epic tales from Niven seem to be over. Nowadays, he writes little idea pieces like this one, or collaborates with other authors. If you enjoyed the first two Ringworld novels, you will like this one. However, I think it would be impossible to read without having first read the other ones, and probably some of the other Known Space stories.

Slow Train to Arcturus – Eric Flint & David Freer

Howard is a farmer in a deeply religious, backward society. One day an alien lands in his tomato plants. This starts his journey to discover that his world is actually one of several enormous spherical colony habitats strung like beads on a string. Each habitat contains a different society, all seemingly extreme in some way. Howard is more or less forced to help the alien, who is an explorer from a nearby star that this slowtrain of habitats is passing.

This combination adventure and pilgrimage tale reminded me a lot of early Niven. There’s the Big Dumb Object, the little explorer in a world he cannot control, the unexpectedly cosmic scale of the whole thing. The novel has some issues, for example many events are a bit too good to be true. Also the middle part seems a bit rudderless, but the ending explains things. Much can be forgiven, however, when there is good adventure to be had and lots of humor to go with it. Not to mention a rather unexpected ending and a valuable message about modern “nanny society” delivered with at least a little subtlety.

The Collapsium – Will McCarthy

Humanity has discovered Collapsium and Wellstone, substances that have made possible immensely powerful computers, teleportation and even immortality. “Faxes” allow the creation of any conceivable thing, from food to servitor robots to spaceship components. “Fax gates” allow teleportation and even duplication of people. The inventor of said substances, Bruno de Tovaji, is now living in self-imposed exile on his own asteroid in the Oort Cloud. Here he conducts experiments aimed at “seeing” the end of time. One day he receives a visitor, the Queen of the Solar System, who is also his former lover. Apparently there is trouble in paradise. A grandiose ring around the sun, aimed at reducing communication lag among disparate locations, is under construction. But it is slowly falling into the sun. This starts a long series of adventures aimed at putting an end to what turns out to be the scheming of a mad saboteur.

I had high hopes for this book after the first fifty or a hundred pages. Interesting universe, grand designs, all the stuff you could find in a good Larry Niven yarn. Unfortunately it all became very tedious as the story went on. And on. And on. I kept waiting for the really interesting stuff to start but it was all a bit petty and small. Yawn.

This is hard science fiction. Very hard. The science content is all in there. And yet I often felt as if the author was plucking solutions to his problems out of thin air. One of the basic principles of science fiction is that and author must stay within constraints that he creates within his universe. Unfortunately, McCarthy keeps coming up with new ideas that neatly solved the posed problems. McCarthy also completely misses the opportunity to explain his society or give a decent guided tour of something apart from deep space structures. What is London like nowadays anyway? Surely a page or two exploring these things would have served the story well, and made it a bit less sterile. And that’s the main gripe I have with this book. It is all a bit sterile and bland. Mankind’s achievements are falling apart around him and de Towaji is pondering his love life. Seriously…

Sphere – Michael Crichton

It’s another BDO (Big Dumb Object) story! Not the best Crichton. An large sphere is found underwater. Divers are sent down to investigate. Strange things happen. Gee, wasn’t this plot copied for Clarke and Lee’s “Cradle“? Anyway, fun for the SciFi and Crichton buff, and probably ok for everyone else. On a side note, the movie is actually pretty decent. Scary in that Alien way.

The Rama Series – Arthur C. Clarke & Gentry Lee

A mysterious giant cylinder is found in space, falling inwards on a trajectory which will take it through the solar system. It is dubbed “Rama”. An expedition is sent to probe it’s contents.

Along with 2001, Rendezvous with Rama is the defining work of Arthur C. Clarke. The book is full of his trademark sense of wonder, and Clarke manages to convey awe at alien things like few others can. The first book is a solo effort. Clarke then teamed up with Gentry Lee to write a sequel trilogy. The whole series consists of:

  • Rendezvous with Rama
  • Rama II
  • The Garden of Rama
  • Rama Revealed

The follow-up trilogy explores and expands on the Rama concept, and puts forward some very interesting ideas on life in the universe, and how ready we as humans really are to inherit the stars (or Eden). It is an epic tale of destiny, focused around the character of Nicole, a hero if there ever was one. Not an action hero, however. Simply an inspiring figure around which the story swirls and flows. Wonderful stuff, and quite awe-inspiring.

As on a Darkling Plain – Ben Bova

Mysterious Big Dumb Objects have been found on Titan. It appears that they have been placed there by the “Others”, who will return to threaten mankind. Although somewhat disjointed and lacking focus, I nevertheless enjoyed this story of mankind under an unknown threat. The novel is vaguely connected with the Orion series.

Ring – Stephen Baxter

This is probably the most important novel in the “early Baxter” books of the Xeelee sequence. Michael Poole has opened the universe to mankind with his wormholes. We are introduced to Lieserl, humanity’s sentient probe inside our sun. GUTships ride to the very edge of space and time. One of them carries, ark-like, the seed of humanity. Thousands of subjective years later, it arrives at the Ring, a classic BDO (Big Dumb Object) constructed as an escape hatch from the impending destruction of our universe. Big stuff, and Baxter makes it look easy. The message of hope and the importance of Life expressed here are, I think, Baxter’s greatest hallmarks. A fascinating novel indeed.

Consider Phlebas – Iain M. Banks

Banks is a best selling author of both Science Fiction and regular fiction. His Sci-Fi universe is known as “The Culture”, referring to the main civilization. Being systematic, I started at the beginning with the very first book of this celebrated series. I was sorely disappointed. Although there are space pirates, BDOs (Big Dumb Objects), interstellar intrigue, great characters and some solid action scenes, I failed to grasp the point of the story. For me, it was just plain dull. Your results may vary. The cover is gorgeous though.

Ringworld and The Ringworld Engineers – Larry Niven

Arguably Niven’s best solo novels, as well as the ultimate BDO (Big Dumb Object) story. Great adventure in an incredible setting with trademark Niven “quirky characters”. They’re not perfect but the sense of wonder created is second to none.

Interestingly, the premise of The Ringworld Engineers, that the Ringworld is unstable, was figured out by physicists after the first novel was published. At the 1971 World Science Fiction Convention, MIT students were chanting “The Ringword is unstable!” Hence why our heroes need to fix the problem.