The Singularity Trap – Dennis E. Taylor

Asteroid mining newbie Ivan Pritchard and the crew of the Mad Astra seem to have made the strike of a lifetime. But there is a mysterious artifact close by. When the crew investigates, Ivan triggers an ancient alien booby trap, and is changed into… something else.

The story is cleverly constructed and moves along briskly. I couldn’t put it down. While rather tightly focused on a small cast of characters, the scope quickly expands, encompassing broad themes of existence, self and societal viability. Fundamental questions about the Drake Equation and the Great Filter are asked, but without detracting from the enjoyable nature of the narrative. Unlike many authors who dabble in mysterious alien artifacts and “what do they want with us?”, Mr. Taylor manages to pull off a plausible and logical conclusion that does not smell of Deus ex Machina. The signs of ecological catastrophe on Earth, initially giving the impression of being just window dressing, also contribute to the urgency of the situation presented.

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.

Elysium Fire (Prefect Dreyfus Emergency II) – Alastair Reynolds

Some time after the events in The Prefect/Aurora Rising, a new crisis is brewing in the Glitter Band. Random citizens are having their brains “fried” by their electronic implants. As Dreyfus and the other Panoply operatives investigate the links between victims, they find links to an old and very distinguished Yellowstone family.

While a solid and enjoyable novel, this one lacks the panache of “The Prefect”. The mystery feels contrived and doesn’t lead to any sort of even half-epic conclusion. That being said, Mr. Reynolds’s prose is a pleasure to read as usual, and the characters are interesting and engaging.

The Prefect AKA Aurora Rising (Prefect Dreyfus Emergency I) – Alastair Reynolds

The Prefect was republished as Aurora Rising in order to identify it more as the beginning of its own series than as tied to the Revelation Space series. The series do share the same Universe, though this book is set in a much earlier era.

The setting is the Glitter Band, a swarm of thousands of orbital habitats around the planet Yellowstone. Tom Dreyfus is a prefect for Panoply, a police force tasked with ensuring voting rights are respected, including investigating and punishing voting fraud. The habitats of the Glitter Band are as varied as they are many, from tyrannies to utopias to all manner of strange types of government. An investigation into voting fraud leads Dreyfus and his small team to a flaw in the voting system, and then all hell breaks loose.

While the setting is hard science fiction, the plot is in large part police procedural, and the characters could have been picked from any group of archetypal police investigators and functionaries. Dreyfus himself is the stereotypical dedicated detective with a tragic past. His assistants Thalia and Sparver are, respectively, the spunky and energetic young tech whiz and the stoic, solid sidekick. His boss Aumonier is the classic experienced police chief. The trope works very well for the novel, allowing the reader to immediately grasp relationships while navigating a completely new and strange world. The plot starts as a relatively simple police mystery, but as events unfold, the magnitude of the crisis becomes vast, encompassing the entire system. The ghosts from Dreyfus’s past, and indeed society’s past, come back to haunt the present, with some clever twists.

The vignette Open and Shut, available for free on the publisher’s website, serves as an epilogue for the novel.

Sleepover – Alastair Reynolds

Sixty-year old Gaunt, a billionaire in his previous life, is woken up from the hibernation he entered in order to sleep his way to a future where medical technology would have evolved towards clinical immortaliy. But the future is not what he expected. He finds himself on a massive platform in the Southern Atlantic Ocean, as part of a caretaker crew for billions of sleeping humans.

This short story started as notes for a novel, and has a very interesting premise. As post-apocalyptic scenarios go, it is certainly one of the most original I have read. Mr. Reynolds’s masterful prose makes the whole thing flow smoothly.

The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past I) – Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem takes place in the People’s Republic of China, mainly in the present day. However, the story is rooted in events that took place during the Cultural Revolution.  In that troubled time, a young physics student named Ye sees her father, a professor of physics, killed by revolutionaries as a result of a struggle session. She is then sent to the country to work as a logger, before eventually ending up at a mysterious radio facility known as “Red Coast”.

In the present, a Nanotechnology expert called Wang is drawn into a web of intrigue surrounding a mysterious group called Frontiers of Science, made up of scientists with an initially unclear goal. He also starts playing a virtual reality game called “Three-Body Problem”, which deals with a planet where the sun has an irregular and unpredictable cycle, leading to great difficulties for the civilizations that rise and fall on it, as they have to deal with eras of extreme heat and extreme cold with no forewarning.

The story is somewhat interesting as long as the mystery is unveiling, but once things are laid out it is rather predictable. Having the protagonist, Wang, fumbling in the dark makes for a decent mystery, but once the much higher real stakes are revealed, his methodical discovery feels tedious.

The prose is filled with long infodumps. Every now and then some backstory must perforce be presented, but even the more interesting infodumps are intrusive on the pacing, and slow things down overmuch.

There is a tendency for Mr. Liu to take a somewhat condescending tone, presenting fictional constructs as facts with explanatory statements including words like “obviously”. If such “facts” came from a character, things would feel different, but this way it makes for a heavy-handed omniscient narration, which doesn’t fit well with Wang’s cluelessness. Eventually finding out that Ye has been “in the know” from the beginning does not make things better. (Granted, some of this feeling may be due to the clearly different literary style found in Chinese tradition.)

Rather disappointingly, I felt as if the novel took an inventive and very clever premise and then squandered it on a rather boring plot with an unspectacular outcome.

Note: I read the excellent English translation from Mandarin Chinese.

 

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.

Gunpowder Moon – David Pedreira

In a post-climate disaster future, the superpowers have begun mining the Moon in large scale. Life on the frontier is rough and fraught with danger. However, old rivalries have not disappeared. Disillusioned American mining chief and veteran Dechert is confronted with the mysterious murder of a miner, while the powers that be seem dead set to go to war with the Chinese.

Dechert’s outlook is bleak. He has seen the elephant and exiled himself to the Moon in order to escape the ghosts of his comrades from his military days. But war is coming to the Moon and Dechert cannot escape it. He is a beautifully written protagonist, wavering between abject fatalism at the inevitability of repeating history and self-aware naive idealism about this new frontier being a new beginning for mankind. He is firm on one thing: doing his utmost to protect his people, something which he was unable to do during in the past despite his best efforts.

The novel plays out like a good thriller, showing a small slice of larger events, but it is the personal aspect that really shines.

 

Zero Limit – Jeremy K. Brown

Caitlin Taggart is stuck on the Moon, unable to get home to her daughter on Earth, after international tension has led to a travel ban for Moonborn like her. She works as a regolith miner. She is offered an illegal asteroid mining job for a chance to get home. On the job, things go very wrong for Caitlin and her crew, with consequences that threaten Earth itself.

Leaving aside the handwavy physics poorly suited to a hard science fiction story, I found this novel unengaging. Apart from the well developed protagonist, the rest of the characters seem like cardboard cutouts, with actions dictated by “plot reasons”. While the scope of the story is ambitious, and the flashback scenes are well written, the whole thing doesn’t gel.

Farside – Patrick Chiles

In the sequel to Perigee, Polaris Spacelines has started to establish tour service around the Moon. On one such flight, an incident occurs, leaving the spacecraft missing. The situation soon escalates dramatically.

Unlike the more neatly contained story of Perigee, Farside takes a more dramatic and ambitious turn. The prose and characterisations also feel more confident and engaging, as the novel escalates from a relatively low key science fiction accident story to a competent geopolitical thriller.

Also compared to Perigee, the technical accuracy has much improved. I will permit myself a tiny nitpick: “Taxi into position and hold” is outdated air traffic radio phraseology and no longer used.

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach – Kelly Robson

On a future Earth only just recovering from massive ecological disaster and plague, the technologically advanced but environmentally constrained remnants of humanity dwell in overground habs and underground “hells”. Information technology and augmented reality is pervasive. A form of granular capitalism controls the economy, with contracts and debts giving structure. In this context, fluvial restoration specialist Minh is given an opportunity to gather data on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, by traveling back in time to ancient Mesopotamia.

Ms. Robson drops the reader directly into the deep end of a fully realised world. The sensation is rather dizzying at first, perhaps mirroring how young research assistant Kiki feels about coming of age. The story and themes of this novella are well realised, and leave the reader wanting to read more about this fascinating world.

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.

All These Worlds (Bobiverse III) – Dennis Taylor

In the last book of the trilogy, things are coming to a head in the conflict with the Others. At the same time, Bob continues to live in android form among the Deltans, something of a hermit from his own kind.

Mr. Taylor does not lose steam at the end; rather the opposite. This volume brings things to a satisfying conclusion while continuing the thematic exploration of humanity, mortality and the nature of loss. There is also significant discussion on the duty of an individual to society. Is a Bob, or any other individual for that matter, honour bound to serve humanity just because he or she has the ability?

We Are Many (Bobiverse II) – Dennis E. Taylor

By now a well-established presence, the Bobs tackle issues large and small. The human race has all but annihilated itself in Sol system, and the Bobs must help. At the same time, the looming threat of the powerful others must be prepared for. The group continues to grow and diversify, in interesting ways.

The Others are the large, looming threat, but the story really shines in Original Bob’s interaction with the stone age Deltans. Mr. Taylor has hit his stride with the story, as each of the short chapters brings interesting developments. Interactions with humans, which some of the new Bobs have started calling ephemerals, bring challenges and solid exploration of themes. Is immortality something to wish for, or does it just involve “spending immortality doing chores”, to quote one character?

We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (Bobiverse I) – Dennis Taylor

Bob Johansson has just sold his software company and signed up for cryopreservation when he gets run over by a car and is killed. Over a hundred years later, his mind is resurrected in an electronic matrix by the theocratic government of North America. A very volatile cold war is on between the handful of superpowers on Earth. Bob is tasked with crewing a ship which will colonise other star systems. As his departure date approaches, the war heats up, and things start diverging from the plan rapidly.

This novel took me by surprise. It starts in fairly conventional fashion, but some way through the originality of the premise becomes apparent. Bob is not only a cryopreserved human resurrected into an unexpected situation, he is capable of cloning his mind into other “Bobs”. The personality differences and interactions between the Bobs is used to good effect in order to conjure interesting themes of existence, soul and uniqueness. The complex relationship that the Bobs develop with humanity are equally well explored. What does an original intelligence really owe its creators?

The fact that Bob is endowed with a geek’s personality and a dry sense of humour helps the accessibility of the narrative. Good fun.

 

Children of Time – Adrian Tchaikovsky

A planet orbiting a distant star is seeded with life in a grand experiment. Soon after, back in our solar system, the “Old Empire” collapses in civil war, and human civilisation falls, almost to extinction. Thousands of years later, the ark ship Gilgamesh, carrying hibernating refugees from the poisoned and dying Earth, arrives at the seeded planet. Lacking supervision from those who started the experiment, a race of spiders has risen to sentience, and built its own grand civilisation on the one speck of lush green that humans could use as a new beginning.

Mr. Tchaikovsky’s opus divides its time between the desperate humans on the Gilgamesh, trying to find a place to settle before their ship gives up the ghost, and the evolving spider society on the planet. A story about sentient spiders might seem silly, but the author skillfully makes the arachnids come to life. Their society and technology is nothing like that of humans, but the primal struggle for survival is still very much in evidence. In fact, after only a brief while I started enjoying the spider chapters more than the human chapters, though this may be due to the humans acting in general as selfish and somewhat irrational refugees in a desperate situation.

Themes of loss and revival are strong, as well as the not so subtle lesson of history repeating itself by those who do not study history. The historian protagonist lives the tragedy strongest, given that in these dying days of humanity the very reasons for the race’s near-extinction are ignored, with decision makers blithely trundling towards their own doom, almost seeming afraid to take a step back and look at the big picture. A marvellous novel.

Persepolis Rising (The Expanse VII) – James S.A. Corey

Thirty years after Babylon’s Ashes, Earth has rebuilt, while humanity has spread across the thirteen hundred worlds beyond the gates. Comparative peace prevails. The Outer Planets Alliance has morphed into the Transport Union, which despite its own best efforts at trying not to be political, is effectively a governmental organisation. Led by Camina Drummer, Fred Johnson’s former chief of staff, the Union controls trade from Medina Station in the centre of the gate network. The crew of the Rocinante has spent decades together, carrying cargo, prisoners and messages for the Union.

One day, an old enemy re-emerges from Laconia system, where the renegade elements of the Martian fleet have spent thirty years in isolation, their doings unknown to an otherwise occupied human society. The now immensely powerful Laconians have been preparing for this moment, and they make a grand entrance.

The authors’ choice to move the narrative forward by three decades is jarring at first, but soon shows itself to be inspired. While there are no doubt plenty of stories to tell of the intervening period, having a new and powerful antagonist upset the apple cart is a more engaging story. (Nothing says the authors can’t return to the past in future novels and short stories, either.) This instalment is a real nail-biting page-turner, and one of the best books in an already excellent series. More good things should come along in the next book, as the end of this one leaves many things unresolved.

 

Artemis – Andy Weir

Jazz Bashara lives on Artemis, the only city on the Moon. She works odd jobs, but her main source of income is smuggling goods to Artemis.  It is a small town and Jazz has a deservedly poor reputation. One day, she is offered a chance to make a lot of money. Just one caper…

Following up the massive success of The Martian is a high bar. Mr. Weir seems to have completely ignored any real or implied expectations, and written Artemis much as he did his previous novel. He spent a long time meticulously researching the science behind his Moon city, and constructing a plausible, logical place to set the narrative. The world building is sometimes a bit intrusive, but for a hard science fiction fan, it remains interesting throughout.

Jazz is an interesting protagonist. She is a something of a loser. At the start of the novel, she hasn’t yet managed to lose the eyeroll attitude of a teenager who thinks the adults are out to get her. She does not always make the right choices, but her heart is in the right place. Her backstory is perhaps a bit too stereotypical, what with the hard-working, disappointed father, but it works.

Mr. Weir’s trademark dry humour and sarcasm are present throughout the prose, especially in the dialogue, making this a fun book that pulls the reader along easily.

Castaway Odyssey (Boundary V) – Eric Flint & Ryk E. Spoor

Victims of the same accident that stranded the Kimei family in Castaway Planet, Sergeant Campbell and four boys ranging from almost adult to eight years old find themselves adrift in a damaged shuttle.

This instalment is an improvement over the previous one. It is still overly corny at times, but the lack of a family as protagonists makes the interpersonal dynamics more interesting.  The dialogue is so littered with overly rational behaviour and humble apologies it is hard to suspend disbelief.

Tau Zero – Poul Anderson

The sublight colony starship Leonora Christine, powered by a Bussard Ramjet, is damaged while passing through a small nebula.  The decelerator mechanism is disabled and cannot be repaired unless a region of empty space is reached. The crew elects to continue accelerating in order to find a refuge. Due to the effects time dilation as the ship claws ever closer to the speed of light, ship time and outside time become increasingly disconnected. As the months and years pass on board, eons pass outside.

Tau Zero is an acknowledged science fiction classic. Some parts have not aged too well, in particular the 1960s social mores and optimistic view of the human races’ collective rationality. Some of the content also feels a bit like padding, most likely because it started out as a short story. However it remains a well executed hard science fiction story which manages to bring home the insignificance of individuals, and even of humanity itself, when confronted with the almost unimaginable vastness of time and space.

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.

Wolf Moon (Luna II) – Ian McDonald

Following after the events of New Moon, the Corta Helio business empire is shattered, with the remaining family members scattered about the Moon seeking safety, solace, or escape into drug-induced oblivion. The Suns and McKenzies now rule the Moon’s business dealing. But Lucas Corta plans revenge.

Just like the first book, this one is a triumph of storytelling and characterisation. Where the first one was slow to start, this one hits the ground running as there is no need to establish the world. As cataclysmic events continues to unfold, the reader is starkly reminded that business is indeed war. The contrast with Earth also shows in an interesting way how new societies can seem utterly strange to old ones, even after only a few generations.

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.