Sex and Violence in Zero-G: The Complete “Near Space” Stories, Expanded Edition – Allen Steele

This expanded edition contains all previously published Near Space short stories and novelettes. The stories range from action to reflection, from joy to melancholy. The stories are presented chronologically, starting from the beginning of the Near Space timeline, in more or less the present era, and ending with the advanced colonised solar system of Mr. Chicago.

As he mentions in the introduction, Mr. Steele has been labelled a “Space Romantic”, and this is rather accurate. His stories are infused with an infectious sense of wonder about space exploration in the near future. His focus on the working stiff rather than the movers and shakers gives rise to interesting reflections and themes. Having read all or some of the Near Space long fiction is not a pre-requisite for reading this collection, though it will fill in some of the background.

The Flowers of Vashnoi – Lois McMaster Bujold

While investigating inconsistencies with a test site where gene-engineered bugs decontaminate the nuked Vorkosigan Vashnoi zone, Ekaterin Vorkosigan stumbles across some strange inhabitants.

An all too brief visit with the Vorkosigan family. Even with something as brief and uncomplex as this novella, Ms. McMaster Bujold nails it as usual.

 

Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

SevenevesIn a very near future, the Moon is destroyed, suddenly and without warning. Within a few days, scientists figure out that the seven pieces will impact each other again and again, breaking into ever smaller pieces until after two years the process reaches a sort of critical mass. Then, so many large meteors will impact the Earth’s atmosphere that it will broil, annihilating all life on Earth in an event named the “Hard Rain”. Desperate measure are implemented to launch as many people as possible into space before the end. It is estimated that it will take 5000 years until the Hard Rain abates and Earth can be made inhabitable again.

Seveneves is a very long novel divided into three parts. Part one details events from the destruction of the Moon to the Hard Rain. Part two chronicles the struggle for survival after the Hard Rain and the nadir of human population, as well as the momentous decisions at this point. Part three jumps five thousand years into the future, with Earth being repopulated and the human race split into seven races. It is an epic story focusing on themes of resilience, survival and most of all what it is that makes us human. What are the traits that make us who we are? What drives us to conflict, cooperation, competition and rationality? Seveneves asks the question: Can such traits be altered in the human race through genetic tinkering, and what would happen if they were?

In the beginning of part three, there is a feeling of disjointedness with the rest of the story, but after a while this somewhat separate story with entirely new characters starts feeling like an appropriate bookend to parts one and two, with a perspective on ancient events down the long lens of history, and with the results of the experiment at hand.

The text is littered with info-dumps, mostly about space technology. Detailed explanations about orbital mechanics and the physics of free-falling chains abound. I personally found this content very interesting, but I can understand that not all would. The prose flows easily from page to page, filling the reader with a real desire to find out what will happen on this great odyssey. For it is truly an odyssey, an epic of monumental proportions drawing the entire human race, with all its history and heritage, down to a single point, literally a single room, and then chronicling its resurgence.

4½Rosbochs

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen – Lois McMaster Bujold

VorkosiganGentlemanJoleandtheRedQueenThree years after the death of Aral Vorkosigan at the end of Cryoburn, Cordelia is still serving as vicereine of Barrayar’s Sergyar colony. Feeling a desire to have more children, she starts the gestation of embryo’s combining previously frozen ova and sperm from her and Aral. She also makes an unexpected offer to Aral’s former aide and now commanding Admiral of the Sergyar fleet, who also happens to have a very deep involvement with the family.

Any new Vorkosigan Saga novel is cause for loud squeals of delight from yours truly. True to form, Ms. McMaster Bujold delivers masterful prose and exceptional dialogue, leaving me chuckling on almost every page, and frequently re-reading selected passages.

There is not much action in this novel. It is really “just” about romance and moving on with life. I was conflicted as to whether this was necessarily a weakness. I certainly enjoyed it despite the lack of anything really happening. Ms. McMaster Bujold could write about the weather and still keep me entertained.

There’s also the matter of the somewhat blatant retcon of previous events, inserting a key character where before there was none. I’m willing to forgive the author for this one as well.

Perhaps the only key weakness of the novel is that it may be a hard read for anyone not at least vaguely familiar with the Vorkosigan Saga. Looking at in an uncharitable light, it is full of shameless fanservice. But fans should love it. I, for one, savoured every moment.

4Rosbochs

The Vital Abyss (The Expanse III½) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanse3.5TheVitalAbyssThis short story set in the The Expanse universe features one of the protomolecule research team scientists as the protagonist. It details how the protomolecule was initially investigated, then unleashed on Eros, and the aftermath.

The protagonist shows a bleakly callous worldview. He is certainly not a sympathetic person. However, while reading his view is shown to be insidiously seductive.

4Rosbochs

The Left Hand of Darkness (Hainish Cycle IV) – Ursula K. LeGuin

TheLeftHandofDarknessThe Left Hand of Darkness is part of the Hainish Cycle, but very much as a standalone novel. Humanity is scattered among dozens of worlds. The planet Gethen, also known as Winter, was colonized by humanity many thousands of years previously. Contact was then lost and has only recently been re-established, with the Ekumen, a sort of federation of worlds, sending an envoy to bring the world into the fold. It is through the eyes of this envoy that most of the story is told. The humans on Gethen show curious sexual characteristics, spending most of their time as androgynous non-sexual beings, then entering a period of estrus once a month, at which point they become either dominantly male or female. This changes gender politics entirely, in fact eliminating them completely. On Gethen, people are judged on ability, with gender not entering into the equation.

While the premise is interesting, the novel has two problems. First and foremost, it may have been rather progressive when it was published in 1969, but nowadays the exploration of the human sexuality issue that is at the core of the novel is both dated and non-subversive. The world has moved on and the novel has aged badly because of it. Secondly, it is rather dull. I never felt that I cared either way for the envoy or his mission, or if the two depicted nations on Gethen would go to war. The characters are dull and the world is dull. The stakes are nominally high, but the setting is washed out and feels dead to the reader. I gave up about a third of the way in.

1½Rosbochs

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

 

 

Great North Road – Peter F. Hamilton

GreatNorthRoadIn the early 22nd Century, a body is found in the river Tyne in the northern English city of Newcastle. The murdered man is a North, one of hundreds of clone brothers in the immensely powerful and rich North family. But which one? Detective Sid Hurst is assigned to lead what soon becomes a massive investigation. Earth and its colonies are linked through instantaneous travel gateways, with undesirables and jobless shunted out to the colonies. Massive corporate interests loom over society. Taxation is so high that everyone has “secondary” accounts, a deep grey economy of bribes and favors shadowing what is reported to the government. As Sid investigates, the mystery of the dead North deepens, leading finally to a geophysical expedition looking for clues in the far-flung jungles of the world St. Libra, where mysteriously there is no animal life at all, only plant life.

Great North Road is a singleton book, but still retains Hamilton’s customary “big brick” format at over twelve hundred pages. The characters are many and the plot complex. The backdrop is detailed, with a rich backstory spanning decades. Strange societies and interesting people abound. Unlike most of Hamilton’s works, however, this one is very firmly grounded thematically in the contemporary world. Earth in the early 22nd Century seems stuck in a rut. There are technological advancements over today, certainly, but not as many as one would think. And definitely nothing that has changed the paradigm. The economy is still very much dependent on oil, albeit an artificial variant produced by genengineered algae. Government bureaucracy is powerful, massive, overwhelming and nonsensical. The ultra-rich are disconnected from normal society. The “failed capitalism” theme is powerful, a bit like that seen in the news today. Is this really the best way forward for society, or are humans meant for something more? And yet, forces are conspiring to break out from this path. Hope, as always, is a strong theme for Hamilton. And unlike in his big series, he manages to tie it all up neatly in the end.

4½Rosbochs

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance – Lois McMaster Bujold

In the latest book set in the Vorkosiverse, Miles is conspicuously absent barring an amusing cameo. The protagonist is instead Miles’s cousin and close friend Ivan Vorpatril, a favorite secondary character in many of the earlier books. Ivan is mostly known for his somewhat overbearing mother, social secretary to the Emperor, his high birth but unwillingness to get close to the corridors of power, and his many successive girlfriends, none serious. While on the planet Komarr assisting the Chief of Military Operations on an inspection, now Captain Ivan Vorpatril receives an unexpected and unwelcome visitor, Byerly Vorrutyer, a part-time spy and old acquaintance of Ivan’s who specializes in ferreting out corruption in Barrayaran high society. Byerly leads Ivan to investigate a young lady on the run from a hostile  takeover in Jackson’s Whole, the definition of a Machiavellian society. Unsurprisingly, things blow up in Ivan’s face and he is found saddled with the young lady as a bride in order to protect her from both local security forces and outsystem bounty hunters. What follows when Ivan takes her back home to an encounter with his mother, and subsequently when parts of the young lady’s past resurface, makes for a caper of epic proportions.

Bujold is in super form here. The little ironies woven into descriptions and conversations made me chortle with pleasure and re-read certain passages over and over. The decision to explore the character of Ivan is an inspired one. He was always known to have a spine, even though he lacked the propensity of his cousin Miles to bash people over the head with it. His growing intimacy with Tej after their sudden wedding is marvelously portrayed, sweet without romantic comedy movie cheesiness, as are the complex family dynamics on both sides. This novel was a great pleasure to read for this Vorkosigan fan, and it should also be easily accessible for new readers.

The Persistence of Vision – John Varley

This short story collection showcases Varley at his most Varley. Not a lot of action, but quite a bit of character driven plotting. Light reading but nevertheless enjoyable and in some cases thought provoking. I did find it uneven, and some of the stories were maybe a little bit too focused on just showcasing the Eight Worlds Universe. The title story, “The Persistence of Vision”, is a departure and a wonderful tale of identity seeking.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon (Council Wars IV) – John Ringo

Book four is about a showdown of sorts, as both sides jockey for control of a ship full of fuel coming in from the outer solar system. The fuel is destined for the reactors powering the council’s interests. As usual, Herzer is in the thick of it. And oh yeah, there are orcs in space, but nothing much is really made of that.

This may be the last book, but the conclusion isn’t unambiguous. The story is rather simplistic. While Ringo is always entertaining, the epic dimension is missing. If you liked the first three books, you’ll enjoy this, but I still felt that it was a bit phoned in.

Against the Tide (Council Wars III) – John Ringo

Book three in the series is a dramatic improvement from the disappointing Emerald Sea. Ringo takes us back to the main action of the war, where a battle for control of the Atlantic (ahem, “Atlantis”) is brewing. The UFS Navy is in terrible shape, so the Queen sends Edmund (with Herzer in tow) to take over and sort it out before New Destiny tries to invade.

Good, clean fun in other words. Plenty of action, laughs and horrible puns. For example the SEAL team is made up of humans changed into seal-form. If you enjoyed There Will be Dragons, you will enjoy this.

Emerald Sea (Council Wars II) – John Ringo

The sequel to There Will be Dragons has a big disconnect from the earlier novel, as the setting changes and the storyline moves forward a few years between the books. It seems Mr Ringo had an idea about underwater action and aircraft (ahem, dragon) carriers and went with it. It’s all good fun for a fast read, but hardly what I would call profound. If you like the other Ringo novels, you’ll probably enjoy this one. Dark humor, cool action scenes and likeable characters.

The short story at the end, “In A Time of Darkness”, is about one of adversary Paul Bowman’s concubines. While it has a part in the macrostory it mostly serves as filler.

There Will Be Dragons (Council Wars I) – John Ringo

This is the first volume in Ringo’s vision of a fallen utopia. Mankind is free of want and ill-timed death. People can do what they wish with their long lives. But there is trouble in paradise. The council that rules the “Net”, the information system that provides for mankind, has fallen out in factional disputes that lead to war. Mother, a watchdog AI, does not interfere very much after the fall, but certain restrictions apply. For example, the amount of explosive force that can be applied is limited, making firearms well nigh impossible, as well as high energy industry. Society is back at a very early industrial level. The struggle in the beginning is just survival. but the war is far from over…

Great fun and entertainment in Ringo’s trademark style.

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days – Alastair Reynolds

This small format hardcover (almost as small as a paperback) contains two novellas: Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days. Both are set in the Revelation Space universe. Diamond Dogs is much less epic than his novels, being more of an idea piece. Although Reynolds’ prose is tight and elegant as ever, some of the passages seem just a bit too stilted. I think the short length of each novella (only about 110 pages) may be cramping the author’s distinctive style.

Even so, Reynold’s universe is still a very cold, enigmatic and frightening place which cares not a jot for humanity. I expected him to solve the riddle of Diamond Dogs, but Reynolds has chosen to let the artifact therein serve a more sinister purpose. Very elegant and more than a little spooky. Turquoise Days is more of a vehicle to give interesting tidbits of information on the Pattern Jugglers (an alien life form). Although the main character is engaging, and the story well rounded, Diamond Dogs is definitely stronger the stronger of the two.

Saturn’s Race – Larry Niven & Steven Barnes

As in so many of Niven’s later works, there is a great backstory, but the novel falls short of the mark. A large offshore colony is dabbling in genetic engineering. There is a great feeling of hope that mankind will have a bright future. Needless to say, this doesn’t happen. Not very good, but it has some cool ideas and settings.

Destiny’s Road – Larry Niven

On a distant colony planet, a boy grows up wondering why the original colony ship departed many generations ago, at the same time scorching a road into the distance with its fusion drive. No knows where the road leads. The planet has a shortage of potassium and an upper class distributes what turns out to be potassium in exchange for their ruling status.

The ideas underlying the story are very clever. Unfortunately the story itself is confusing and hopelessly. I could barely finish the book. Given the neat premise, I wish Niven would have written an outline and contracted some other author to write the actual book.

Note: This is set in the same universe as The Legacy of Heorot and Beowulf’s Children, but there is no connection between the stories beyond that.

Flux – Stephen Baxter

As he did in Raft, Baxter plays with an idea in this novel. Heavily modified humans have colonized the mantle of a neutron star. The micro story taking up most of the novel is rather pedestrian, but the setting is magnificent. The macro story is about the fulfillment of a long lost purpose. Fun idea but not such a fun read.

The Ugly Little Boy – Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg

An expansion of an earlier story by Asimov in which scientists retrieve a Neanderthal child from the past. A nurse feels empathy for the boy and helps him escape. Competently written, but mostly interesting due to the questions it raises about scientific ethics. Published as “Child of Time” in the UK.

The Draka Series – S.M. Stirling

The series consists of four novels, though the first three are now published in one omnibus entitled The Domination.

  • Marching through Georgia
  • Under the Yoke
  • The Stone Dogs
  • Drakon

The series can really shake you up. It is set in an alternate history in which the Crown Colony of the Cape (what later became modern day South Africa) becomes a powerful nation. This “Domination of the Draka” is utterly elitist and wishes to subjugate all other races to the white master race. It is also fiercely expansionist. At the time of our own timeline’s Second World War, the Domination drives a wedge between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany by invading through the Caucasus. The Domination then proceeds to conquer all of Europe and Asia (except for India), adding these territories to its African holdings. These events are detailed in the first book. The second book is about a spy expedition into Draka territory by the “Alliance for Freedom”, basically what is left of the free world (America and India). It is not quite as good as the rest of the series, and on rereading I have skipped over it completely as it is not essential to the story. The third book is about the final showdown between the two powers. The Alliance is more powerful in technology and the physical sciences, while the Domination, mostly thanks to a scruple free approach to human experiments (they’re just serfs, after all) is very advanced in genetics and bioengineering. The Draka win the war, and the “free” humans mount a last-ditch escape for a precious few to a nearby solar system.

Drakon is a change of pace. In a Draka future, the master race experiments with portals into alternate timelines. A Draka (daughter of the protagonists from The Stone Dogs) is stranded in one of these timelines (our own) and attempts to subjugate it to her will. This novel is much smaller in scope than the other three, but it remains a great read.

The scary thing about the Draka books is that you can easily find yourself rooting for “the bad guys”. These aren’t Hitler’s Nazis. The Draka want an ordered society and a life which does not use up the Earth’s resources without replenishing them. They do not see their use of “serfs” as immoral and they are not given to pettiness. Only ruthlessness. So apart from spinning a great yarn, Stirling is trying to tell us that many would choose the Draka way of life if they had the chance (well, the chance to be Draka). The Draka create an earthly paradise after their victory, and the average standard of living and intelligence of ALL men, including serfs, actually improves after the Draka victory. The series is controversial in this manner and really makes you think about some big issues. It is also a great military science fiction read.

Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Chasm City – Alastair Reynolds

Scary in it’s placing of humanity firmly at the bottom of the Universe’s pecking order, this series of books contains some pretty big concepts. Worth reading just for the descriptions of cultures and aliens. Watch out though, Reynolds is not afraid of making the Universe a scary place. I refused to read Redemption Ark close to bedtime. I would just lay awake and shiver at the thought of how huge the universe is, and how short-lived and fragile we are.

  • Revelation Space – Cool, pure SF. The last few chapters give an inkling of what is to come in future installments, but the story also stands well by itself.
  • Redemption Ark – The sequel to Revelation Space, in which many questions are, err, resolved, or then again maybe not. Several hundred years in the future, the Inhibitors are back after eons, Their objective seems to be to eradicate sentient life. Scary scary scary.
  • Chasm City – The schizo prequel to Revelation Space, which scales back quite a bit from the epic back story and gives up a very convoluted plot of a man and his quest for identity. Good reading but does lose itself a little in the identity crisis of a very screwed up psyche.

There is a sequel to Redemption Ark, called Absolution Gap, but I have never gotten around to it. While I am sure it is great, I am also sure it won’t be very cheerful.

Falling Free – Lois McMaster Bujold

Not, technically, a Vorkosigan novel since no Vorkosigan family member is so much as lurking in the background, it is nevertheless set in the Vorkosiverse, though, about two hundred years before Miles’ birth. The story is about the origin of the quaddies, humans genetically engineered for work in free fall, whose most striking adaptation is the replacement of their legs with arms (and hands). Leo Graf is an engineer and teacher assigned to the habitat where the quaddies are being “reared”. The corporation he works for intends to use them for free fall work, thus avoiding the costly planetside leaves necessary to ensure good health for normal humans. The thousand quaddies are young, the oldest only just out of adolescence, and are being treated like children, with no voice in their future. Legally, they are the property of the corporation, even as they live their lives, work hard, even procreate. As artificial gravity is invented, the quaddies become instantly obsolete, the need for free fall work decreasing dramatically. They are no longer cost effective for the company, which orders the experiment terminated, meaning sterilization and confinement to barracks (read, prison) on a planet. For the free fall adapted quaddies, gravity wells are an unnatural, dangerous and generally terrible environment. At this point Graf rebels and plans the exodus of the quaddies, away to make their own lives.

This is one of the best novels I have ever read. The characters, “normal” and quaddie alike are well rounded, interesting, authentic. Bujold quickly manages to turn the quaddies from freaks into just “different humans” in the mind of the reader. The plot is excellently constructed, with disparate elements and personalities meshing well to create an engaging whole with many page turner moments.

The illustrations of morality are particularly poignant. The company brass thinks of the quaddies as little more than animals. Creatures to be disposed of when their usefulness has run its course. Leo Graf and some of the other staff, on the other hand, sees them as people, as children to be protected. The parallels with slavery are obvious, but more clever is the message that corporate leaders often have a lack of scruples making them morally little better than the slave-masters of previous centuries. A brilliant read.

This novel is collected in the “Miles, Mutants & Microbes” omnibus.

The Night’s Dawn Trilogy; A Second Chance at Eden – Peter F. Hamilton

The trilogy itself consists of:

  • The Reality Dysfunction
  • The Neutronium Alchemist
  • The Naked God

There are also two ancillary volumes:

  • A Second Chance at Eden – short story collection
  • The Confederation Handbook – reference volume

In the USA, each volume of the trilogy was published in two parts, as evidenced by the thumbnails.

The Night’s Dawn trilogy is a huge story spanning over 4000 pages, in truth one massive multi-volume novel. It tells of a great evil that befalls the otherwise mostly peaceful but very interesting and multifaceted Federation. Everything changes as mankind faces its true self. As the external threat starts to seriously damage the foundations of civilization, the large differences between various human and alien factions make for an interesting backdrop to the struggle. Actually it is very difficult to describe Night’s Dawn in a few short sentences. The scope is quite breathtaking, there are many characters and the writing is impeccable. The only nagging complaint is the far too rapid conclusion. Hamilton seems to have been in a hurry to tie things up. Some might feel the ending is a bit of a cop-out. But in my opinion whatever you think of the ending, the journey is certainly worth it.

“The Confederation Handbook” reference can be practical to have lying around since there is a lot to keep track of.

The short story collection ”A Second Chance at Eden” is a fine companion to the trilogy. Although only a few of the stories are in the same universe, all of them are gems in their own right. Importantly, though, the title story gives some valuable background on how the Edenist Culture was founded.

These books have particularly gorgeous covers, thought US editions marred this a bit by darkening and altering the colors.

Mirror Dance – Lois McMaster Bujold

Miles’ twin brother Mark is back. He manages to infiltrate the Dendarii while acting as Miles. In short order, he is taking a ship on a harebrained mission to Jackson’s Whole in order to free clones doomed to act as replacement bodies for the rich, a procedure which leads to the clones’ brain being dumped. Naturally, it all goes to hell, with Miles chasing after. Miles is shot “fatally” and cryo-frozen, at which point Mark is whisked off to Barrayar to meet the parents for the first time. Meanwhile, Miles’ frozen body is lost.

McMaster Bujold is back in good shape here. The first part of this book is merely good, but the fireworks really fly when Mark ends up on Barrayar. His mother, Cordelia, steals all the scenes she is in. A truly great character who does even better in middle age as a bit player than in the books featuring her as protagonist (Shards of Honor and Barrayar). The parallel plot following the lost (in several senses) Miles is equally engaging. One of the best in the series so far.

This novel is collected in the “Miles Errant” omnibus.