Salvation Lost (Salvation Sequence II) – Peter F. Hamilton

In the second book of the trilogy, the full scope of the Olyix’s treachery against humanity becomes apparent, and horrific scenes unfold on an Earth under siege. It is a desperate fight to save as much and as many as possible while keeping open the possibility of ultimate victory, even if it takes thousands of years. The protagonists of the previous volume, now clearly recognised to the reader as the “Saints” so revered by the humans in the far future, scramble to enact a plan that, much as it seems crazy, is perhaps the only rational one. Meanwhile, in the far future, the youngsters from Juloss have traveled light years to preparing a lure for the inevitable arrival of the Olyix. Doubts remain in both times about the possibilities of success.

This is very much that second instalment in a trilogy where everything goes south. It was not quite as engaging as the first book, perhaps because out of necessity so much is setup for the final book. That being said, it is still a very enjoyable read, with new characters being introduced, and new challenges. The themes of despair and sacrifice are expertly infused in the narrative.

Salvation (Salvation Sequence I) – Peter F. Hamilton

Through the use of portals that connect locations at arbitrary distances through quantum entanglement, human society has transformed. Walking to a city on another continent has become as easy as walking to the grocery store. The riches of the Solar System are readily available due to the easy of transporting goods, people, energy, and information. Humanity has expanded to nearby star systems, which, once reached by a starship carrying a portal, are “just one step away”, as the Connexion company slogan goes. While most of humanity live in the dominant “Universal” culture, rather similar to a modern democracy, a significant number live in the “Utopial” culture, an effort aimed at creating an egalitarian post-scarcity society.

A crashed alien starship has been found, and an assessment team of experts is dispatched to investigate. For security reasons, they are cut off from network or portal contact, and must take ground transport, by now a very archaic concept, for the last leg of the journey. During this period, the backstory of the individual protagonists is told in extensive flashbacks, practically novellas in themselves. These flashbacks also serve to paint the backdrop for the current story by filling in details on historical developments. In some ways the entire first book is a prologue for what is to come.

A parallel story thread runs in the far future, on the world of Juloss, where human youngsters are being trained to fight an interstellar war against an implacable enemy. The world is mostly an abandoned ruin as most inhabitants have fled out into the wider galaxy already, leaving only the trainees and their trainers until they, also, will depart.

In classic Hamilton fashion, the scope is epic, with societal changes being driven by technological innovations in interesting directions. The characters feel real and interesting. The prose flows in the author’s signature style, making it easy to devour long chunks in one sitting.

Like many Hamilton novels, this is the first in a series of volumes that form one overarching story. For this reason, most of the story threads are hanging at the end of this volume, the first of three.

Worlds (Worlds I) – Joe Haldeman

Marianne O’Hara grew up in New New York, one of multiple “Worlds”, large orbital habitats supporting hundreds of thousands of people. The Worlds are varied, socially liberal, and very different from the less progressive Earth. Marianne is sent on a one year study trip to Earth, to immerse herself in Earth culture and society. While in “Old” New York, enrolled at NYU, culture clash sets in quickly, and she is exposed to the awful realities of American society. The larger story involves how the Worlds are inexorably moving towards independence. They provide energy and materials to Earth, mostly America, in return for specialised goods, and hydrogen. The discovery of hydrogen deposits in space precipitates the problem, as Earth powers see their influence slipping away.

This book has aged badly, mostly due to its depiction of life in New York and other places on Earth. This is a New York stuck in the seventies, with rampant violent crime, prostitution around Times Square, muggings and rapes. In contrast, O’Hara’s “free love” upbringing leans heavily on late 60s tropes. The technology is all tapes and recordings and long distance phone calls. The development of nations in the world is very much seen from a late seventies lens, for example the merger of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

The characters are well fleshed out, especially the protagonist. Seeing this Earth from a foreigner’s lens paints an ugly picture, which is presumably what Mr. Haldeman intended. The use of narrative devices such as diary entries, phone call transcripts and letters is interesting but can sometimes feel disjointed.

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.

Monster Hunter Guardian (Monster Hunter International VII) – Larry Correia & Sarah A. Hoyt

While Owen, Earl and most of the rest of the hunters are on their mission on Severny Island, as told in Monster Hunter Siege, Julie Shackleford is taking care of her and Owen’s toddler son Ray. An evil mythical creature known as Brother Death has taken an interest in Ray, since his ancestry on both sides imbues him with powerful magic. Through deception and violence, Brother Death kidnaps Ray, and Julie must set off to retrieve him safely.

The novel is an enjoyable diversion from the main stories of the series. Julie Shackleford certainly deserved a story told from her perspective, giving a rather different perspective to that of Owen, or even Earl, who had his own story in Monster Hunter Alpha. The action is, as usual, fantastic. Fully Mission-Impossible-worthy, extended set pieces dominate the book. On the flip side, Julie is a much more serious character compared to Owen, so the trademark humour is rather toned down. Unfortunately, it has been replaced by an excess of Europe-bashing and stereotyping. It’s all well and good to make fun of other cultures, but the thinly veiled tone of superiority by an American visitor is almost cringeworthy at times.

A Peace Divided (Confederation VII) – Tanya Huff

During an archaeological dig on a remote planet, clues to a possible weapon against the plastic aliens discovered in The Heart of Valor. A mercenary team composed of both Confederacy and Primacy races arrives and takes the in situ scientists hostage. Torin and her team of Wardens are joined by a Primacy team, partly composed of old acquaintances from the prison planet in Valor’s Trial, and tasked to resolve the situation.

While the story itself is entertaining, and moves the greater arc forward, the details are a mess. Too many characters from too many alien races appear, introducing myriad interactions. Ms. Huff does an excellent job at characterisation and humour, but it was too much for this reader to keep track of. The main thrust of the plot is lost amongst an excess of complications.

An Ancient Peace (Confederation VI) – Tanya Huff

After the events in The Truth of Valor, which can be thought of as a bridge book between two subseries, Torin and some of the veterans from her service in the Marines, as well as her partner Craig, are set up as roving agents for the Justice Department. They are given a mission to chase down graverobbers attempting to fence ancient weapons of the H’san, nowadays a peaceful spieces but immensely powerful.

Ms. Huff’s trademark humour and adeptness at interpersonal relationship shine through in what is the start of a new trilogy in the confederation universe. Torin struggles with her new civilian identity, but finds her place as the leader of a small, dedicated team.

Forever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and Space – John W. Young with James R. Hansen

John Young was undoubtedly the most experienced astronaut of NASA’s early era, active from the days of Gemini, through Apollo and the Space Shuttle. He walked on the Moon, commanded the first test flight of the Space Shuttle and didn’t retire from NASA until he was seventy-four. He was legendary for his soft-spoken demeanour, coolness under pressure and later in his career, for not being afraid to speak truth to power on issues of mission risk.

His memoir is laid out in a straightforward chronological fashion, starting with early life and following him throughout his career in the Navy and at NASA. While he is most well known for his missions, his time as head of the Astronaut Office and then as a sort of senior and independent safety inspector within NASA, make up large parts of the narrative. There is also ample space dedicated to the Challenger and Columbia accidents, with extensive technical detail.

For any NASA and space buff, the memoir is interesting reading. However, it is a bit of a slog. The style is quite dry and self-effacing, much as the man himself. Descriptions of missions mostly chronicle events without poetic embellishments. This is in stark contrast with, for example, the memoirs of Gene Cernan, Gene Krantz and Mike Mullane, which in their different ways speak much more passionately about the subject matter. The book feels long-winded in many parts, with sections which are just listing various mission achievements, seemingly for completeness’ sake. The most readable bits are where Mr. Young manages to convey his considerable technical expertise to illustrate an issue concisely, such as when he discusses his testimony before the Rogers Commission, investigating Challenger.

I strongly felt that more decisive editing could have made this a more readable book, but then again, I also felt that Mr. Young’s particular voice came through loud and clear.

Alien Stripper Boned from Behind by the T-Rex – Stix Hiscox

The protagonist is an alien stripper with three breasts that shoot lasers. One night while working, she meets a T-Rex. Sexual shenanigans ensue.

The premise is purposefully silly and the writing is over-the-top bizarre erotica. If not taken too seriously, it is a rather entertaining story.

(The companion story “Half-Man, Half Horse, All Love” is nowhere near as good.)

A Voyage Through Air (The Queen of Dreams III) – Peter F. Hamilton

Following immediately after The Hunting of the Princes, the final volume of the trilogy takes our protagonists to the realm of air, where rocky islands drift weightlessly in a vast ocean of air, and ships ply between the, dodging storms and monsters. Taggie, Jemima and the others are in a race with time to find Myrlin’s Gate in the hope it will end the looming conflict between dark universe peoples, and bring peace to the realms.

The last book is a breathless, almost relentless race against time. But Mr. Hamilton doesn’t lose track of character development. Taggie, Jemima, Lantic and Felix especially grow change during their adventures. There are several gems among secondary characters as well, especially the flamboyant Captain Rebecca. While the books have all the trappings of fantasy, Mr. Hamilton’s science fiction roots are showing, especially in this last book. The worldbuilding is imaginative, whimsical and awe-inspiring.

The Hunting of the Princes (The Queen of Dreams II) – Peter F. Hamilton

After the somewhat standalone narrative of The Secret Throne, Taggie and Jemima are back in England. After a series of assassination attempts against royals, they must face a threat not only to the First Realm, but to all the realms. The adventure takes them to the occupied Fourth Realm, where winter and evil reign.

The second book in the series is more complex and more exciting than the first, as if Mr. Hamilton is becoming more comfortable with the fantasy medium. The story is both engaging and thought provoking, as characters of supposed integrity find their beliefs and ethics challenged when confronted with adversity.

The Secret Throne (The Queen of Dreams I)

Taggie and Jemima are pre-teen sisters, sent off for the holidays to their apparently eccentric father who lives somewhat distant from modern society. Quite suddenly, he is kidnapped by dark forces. And the sisters discover that they are heirs to a dynasty in a very different realm.

Mr. Hamilton’s prose is as tight as ever, even when he is writing for tweens and young adults. The characters are engaging, complex and imperfect. The plot is fine, but unfortunately rather linear and predictable. A good read, but Mr. Hamilton’s efforts to make things more approachable for his expected audience have not quite worked out.

Side note: My ten-year-old daughter adored this book.

 

The Alexander Inheritance – Eric Flint, Gorg Huff & Paula Goodlett

A modern cruise liner is transported back to the beginning of the “Time of the Diadochi“, after the death of Alexander the Great, when his successors fought over his splintering empire.

The premise is a fine idea, but unfortunately the story suffers from being set in a very messy historical time. Dozens of players are rapidly introduced, leading to just as rapid confusion. While the story does gel somewhat around the characters of Roxane and Euridyce, it is hard for the reader to get to grips with the wider political situation. Where the book shines is when dealing with the culture shock of people from ancient civilisations being suddenly introduced to things like steam engines, refrigeration and modern views on gender equality. There is a wide ranging discussion of slavery which manages to be quite interesting.

This book is part of the wider Assiti Shards Universe, though it can be treated as a singleton.

Dust (Silo III) – Hugh Howey

Dust picks up where Shift left off. It is now clear that the status quo cannot be maintained, at least in Silo 18. Solo and Juliette are re-united as tragedy unfolds around them. The path to sustainable survival is uncertain. Meanwhile in Silo 1, Charlotte and Donny wrestle with trying to help Juliette over sporadic radio links and under constant threat.

Despite having some issues with pacing, this is a satisfying conclusion to the series. It is nowhere near as ponderous as Shift since there is more actually happening to replace the overlong internal monologues. The narrative moves towards a conclusion that, if not a happy ending for all, at least gives hope for the future.

Shift (Silo II) – Hugh Howey

Like Wool, the second volume in the Silo series started as a set of linked novelettes. The narrative begins hundreds of years before the events in Wool, with Donald, a newly elected US Representative, being brought onto the Silo project. This is before the apocalyptic events leading to the occupation of the silos, and gives background on how it all came to be. Donald is an unwilling accomplice in the control of the subsidiary silos as he slowly realizes how he, and the entire complex, has been manipulated, with conspiracy nested inside conspiracy aimed at a mysterious goal. Another section deals with how Solo from Wool came to be alone in his dying silo for decades.

While Wool was, despite its dark setting, a story of hope and searching for a better future, Shift contains very few bright points. The parts about Solo and his solitary descent into quasi-madness are especially bleak. Donald struggles with his conscience, his desire for revenge, his realization that even knowing the truth is not going to make things better. While the mental battles were well written, I felt that this book could have been trimmed to make it a bit less of a slog at times.

A Window into Time – Peter F. Hamilton

awindowintotimeYoung teen Julian has perfect recall. He finds school difficult because “the stupids” like to bully him. He starts having visions about the life of a man, and becomes obsessed with finding him while he mulls the philosophical implications of time travel and mortality.

Told in the first person, this novella is cleverly crafted and flawlessly told.

5Rosbochs

Family Matters (Greg Mandel) – Peter F. Hamilton

familymattersThis short story (actually more of a novella in length) is set after the Greg Mandel books. Mandel is not the protagonist, but nevertheless has a starring role.

A C-list celebrity is found dead in mysterious circumstances. Psi-cop Greg Mandel is brought in to consult. At the same time, a real estate developer is caught up in a shady deal.

This is a fun read from Mr. Hamilton’s early years, and there is no requirement to have read the Mandel books beforehand.

4Rosbochs

 

 

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

Wool (Silo I) – Hugh Howey

Silo1WoolOriginally published as five linked novelettes, which is why this is also known as “Wool I-V”, this novel is set in a large, vertical underground habitat known as the Silo. The inhabitants are unaware of the outside world apart from the desolate and poisoned terrain they can see on cameras set at the top level of the Silo, which just breaches ground level. The worst crime in the Silo is talking about going outside. The punishment for this is being sent out for “cleaning”, which involves being put into a protective suit and cleaning grime off the lenses of the cameras. After a few minutes the suit fails and the criminal dies in the toxic atmosphere. However, even the cowed inhabitants of the Silo have questions. What happened outside? Who built the Silo? Why is the IT department so mysterious and secretive? Juliette, a woman from the “down deep” engineering levels follows her instincts and stumbles on secrets buried for generations.

Wool starts unassumingly. Silo society is working relatively harmoniously, the vertical design cleverly engineered to ensure social stratification and a lack of unity across departments. However Mr. Howey is not afraid to throw large wrenches in the works for the protagonist as she starts on her odyssey to find the truth. While the second half sometimes drags on a bit, this is a fine piece of post-apocalyptic fiction, and unlike that in some other such “set piece” oeuvres, the setting itself feels well-thought out and plausible.

4Rosbochs

I am Pilgrim – Terry Hayes

IAmPilgrimScott Murdoch is the most secret of secret agents for the US government, until he exits the “business” and writes the ultimate book about investigative techniques; under a pseudonym of course. Then, while trying to lead a “normal” life, he is consulting the New York police on a murder investigation when his past life comes back to grab him. There is a massive threat to the United States and he is the man to deal with it.

There is a lot to like about this novel. First and foremost, it is a page-turner in the early Tom Clancy class. Despite the significant heft of the book, the narrative runs off with the reader. The first third is full of flashbacks, and even flashbacks within flashbacks, fleshing out our hero’s backstory and legend (both literally and figuratively). Murdoch tells his own story while the antagonist, a modern day, more intelligent, creepier Bin Laden, moves in parallel to enact his sinister strike on the soft underbelly of the United States.
I was on tenterhooks until the end, but the novel falls over in its overuse of action and spy movie tropes. Writing about computers straining and operators pounding on keyboards is silly in a screenplay and laughable in a novel. Action set pieces, while quite good, are always a flirting with Mission Impossible.

And yet, there is something deeper which this novel does well. Murdoch’s background as a loner and his shadow life as an agent resonate with the hidden world where protecting the innocent means setting aside conventional rules of morality. While these themes are by no means original, the manner in which they are written is at least thought provoking. Our hero is no white knight by any means. His motives are admirable, but he himself readily admits that his methods are not pretty. Perhaps I am reaching, but this may be the author’s attempt to explain why the world can only be safe if there are brutal men willing to do violence on behalf of the citizenry.

The author’s seeming desire to tie things up in a neat little bow at the end also bugged me. Things are just a bit too tidy, at odds with the theme of the book which is that no one ever leaves the secret agent world.

4Rosbochs

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth – Chris Hadfield

AnAstronautsGuideToLifeOnEarthChris Hadfield is a man’s man. Test pilot, astronaut, commander of the International Space Station, guitarist, and most importantly endowed with the perfect Canadian Pilot mustache. This book is part memoir, part advice text, part space exploration tome.

I have long admired Colonel Hadfield. His videos from the International Space Station were inspirational and he is the perfect ambassador for the astronaut profession. Despite his many and often spectacular achievement, he embodies a quiet competence and work ethic without braggadocio. Everything I have seen and read with and about him gives the impression of a pleasant, hardworking and cheerful man who stays cool in a crisis.

Hadfield’s “nice guy” character may indeed be the reason for the weakness of his book. The tone is so earnest as to almost be off-putting. He couldn’t be more politely Canadian if he tried. (He even self-deprecatingly touches on the Canadian national character in the book.) Unlike Mike Mullane’s snarky and often hilarious Riding Rockets, this astronaut memoir feels rather plain vanilla.

Having said that, Hadfield’s story is well worth telling, and the message of hard work and striving for excellence without letting (possible) failure define you is inspirational. The theme of the book is not so much about space as about what we can do to define our lives and careers in a meaningful way.

Despite its shortcomings, for fans of astronautics this is an interesting read. I found the the insights into the charming traditions of the Russian Space Program particularly interesting.

3Rosbochs

Podkayne of Mars – Robert A. Heinlein

PodkayneofMarsPodkayne is a girl from Mars in her late teens. Mars is a bit of a frontier planet, and she has dreams of venturing further afield. Together with her younger brother Clark, she goes along with her uncle, a powerful Senator, on a journey towards Venus and Luna aboard the luxurious liner Tricorn. Intrigue awaits.

Published in 1962, there is some debate on whether this novel should be considered one of the Heinlein Juveniles or not. I would say it is somewhere in transition territory, still passable as Young Adult fiction but definitely starting to explore more adult themes than its predecessors. The publishers were apparently not entirely pleased by this, and Heinlein even had to rewrite the ending before publication to make it less dark, though many current editions include the original ending as well.

The story is told from Poddy’s perspective. She has ambitions to break into the male dominated industry of spaceship flight crews. She wants to be treated as an equal in those respects, but she is certainly aware of how to make men do her bidding through manipulations. The sexual dynamics are rather dated, even though Heinlein was a progressive thinker on the subject in his day. The story is somewhat banal, but Poddy’s sassy and irreverent narration saves it from being boring. The setting also cleverly avoids most things that would date it, ensuring it does not age as badly as most SF of the time. The one thing that cannot be avoided is the view that Mars and Venus would be in any way inhabitable by humans, views that were refuted completely in the years following publication. However I was happy to squint at those details, treating Mars and Venus as “the way they should have been” in more innocent Universe.

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