The Apollo Murders – Chris Hadfield

In an alternate history, the Apollo program flies one more mission, the all-military Apollo 18. At the last minute, the mission parameters change as the Soviet Union launches a spy space station equipped with cameras capable of unprecedented resolution. The astronauts are tasked with disabling it before departing Earth orbit for the Moon.

This is a technothriller with a solid grounding in the technology of the time. The technical details are accurate, hardly surprising as the author is a former astronaut. The plot itself is rather far-fetched, but plausible, and exciting in itself, especially for the space exploration buff. Unfortunately, the plot is often bogged down with overly complex sequences of events as one or another character seeks an advantage or makes a complicated plan. The characters themselves, a mixture of historical figures and fictional ones, are not very nuanced, and sometimes relationship events seem to be created purely without much story purpose. For example, the protagonist’s romance with one of the scientists seems tacked on unnecessarily.

That was Now, This is Then (Temporal Displacement II) – Michael Z. Williamson

In the sequel to A Long Time Until Now, a new displacement occurs, with a neolithic youth appearing in modern day Afghanistan. The same team as before is contacted for a new mission, but not all are keen to go. A pair of scientists are added, much to the dismay of the future humans, who would rather not see too much technology transfer as this could lead to timeline disruption.

The characters are well fleshed out, and there author uses the setting to delve into issues of post-traumatic stress, separation, obligations of marriage, and other things common in deployments. The conflict in the book is not about an external enemy, but rather about the challenges faced by individuals. Much of the book has to do with the strictures and traditions of organisations, and it helps that Mr. Williamson can make discussions on logistics and camp setup interesting reading.

The Sins of Our Fathers (The Expanse IX½) – James S.A. Corey

After the collapse of the gate network, humanity’s worlds are isolated. On a backwater planet, Filip Inaros must deal with a bully who is trying to bend a small settlement to his will, even if it comes with a high personal price.

In a fitting coda to The Expanse, Filip must come to terms with what he did in the name of his father. His act may be small on the cosmic scale, but for him it is significant.

Leviathan Falls (The Expanse IX) – James S.A. Corey

The Laconian Empire is in disarray as its leader, Winston Duarte, has disappeared. Colonel Aliana Tanaka, a particularly cold, and coldly effective, servant of the Empire, is tasked to find him. Meanwhile, the crew of the Rocinante races to stay ahead of Laconian forces. The fabric of reality is tearing as intruders from outside the Universe try to reassert control.

The final instalment of The Expanse is in many ways a fond farewell to the crew of the Rocinante and their associates. Even those no longer alive, like Avasarala and Bobbie Draper, are mentioned and celebrated. While Leviathan Wakes was about a family, a crew, coming together, this book is about how all good things must end, and the family, the crew, eventually sees its members going their separate ways. A solid ending to the series.

Inhibitor Phase (Revelation Space IV)

Along with a few thousand other refugees from the Wolves, or Inhibitors, Miguel de Ruyter has quite literally carved out a life on the airless world of Sun Hollow. Humanity’s starfaring civilisation is lost, and the remains hide in the shadows, hoping not to be noticed. Sun Hollow’s inhabitants do not really have a plan beyond surviving the morrow; this is a bleak and rough existence. A ship has entered the system, and Miguel must intercept and destroy it at great risk to himself, for even potentially friendly humans may be Wolves in disguise. Out of this encounter emerges Glass, a mysterious woman who steals Miguel away to a reckoning with a past he has purposefully forgotten, and with humanity’s only hope of escaping extinction.

Published almost two decades after the Revelation Space trilogy, this serves as something of an epilogue. Human civilisation has waned into blackness, and there is an accepting despair about things. Not even the Ultras travel between stars anymore, because even small emissions could lead the Wolves to the door, and there is no weapon that can combat them.

The concepts of Miguel and his past self reintegrating, and of Glass herself and her connection, are superbly intriguing. Unfortunately though, the novel is far too long. Many pages are spent on meandering explorations of the sense of self, or the sense of other-self. While the quest for a weapon to fight back against the Wolves is interesting in itself, this excessive length detracted very much from my interest, and I struggled to finish the book.

A Change of Plans – Dennis E. Taylor

Earth is dying, and a desperate interstellar colonisation program is in progress. As the starship Ouroboros reaches its target system, it is soon apparent that the planet has undergone a catastrophic event in recent history, transforming it from a balmy Earth-like planet, to a frozen desert. The crew must leave the colonists and return, as per their contract and family obligations. The colonists are faced with an uncertain future and take matters in their own hands.

This is an entertaining short story, with strong characters and a clever, unexpected conclusion.

Light Chaser – Peter F. Hamilton & Gareth L. Powell

Amahle is the captain and sole occupant of the starship Mnemosyne. She is a “light chaser”, travelling on a thousand-year loop to inhabited star systems, the scattered colonies of humanity. She brings “memory collars”, to be worn by selected people and their descendants, until she returns on her next loop to collect them. These gather the life experiences of the wearers for her employers at the end of the loop to enjoy as entertainment. The human worlds are at varying degrees of technological development, but societies seem oddly stable, to the point of stagnation. It eventually dawns on Amahle that things are not as idyllic as they seem.

The premise is clever, intriguing, and novel. The novella format suits it perfectly. Amahle is excuisitely characterised as an aloof de facto demigoddess who slowly realises the truth about her existence. Her sense of betrayal is palpable and visceral. The story is not overlong, and superbly edited to maintain momentum.

Absolution Gap (Revelation Space III) – Alastair Reynolds

In the last book of the Revelation Space trilogy, humanity is in disarray as the Inhibitors ravage space. But there is a glimmer of hope, a young child named Aura seems to have a connection with entities that can help. As the story unfolds on the refugee world of Ararat, and the religious pilgrimage destination Moon of Hela, tired remnants of humanity must make fateful decisions about how to approach the resources presented to them. Who can be trusted?

This is a long and sprawling book, and it feels rather ponderous. Mr. Reynolds’s prose is as engaging as ever, but many digressions, tangents, and diversions are overlong. The obsession with Scorpio’s mortality, the machinations of the Quaicheist church, the extensive details on the madness of Quaiche himself, to name a few things, are explored somewhat excessively at the expense of moving the story forward. For much of the novel, it feels as if nothing is really moving, or perhaps things are moving as slowly as one of the cathedrals on Hela. The Inhibitors themselves seem like a distant threat, so it is hard to work up a real sense of dread for them, even if the survival of humanity itself is at stake. As a conclusion to the trilogy, it is somewhat unsatisfying, even if the personal journeys of the characters come to a conclusion.

Blindsight – Peter Watts

In a not too distant future, Siri Keeton is a synesthesist, a trained observer who neither judges not suggests. His professional aim is to be the chronicler of events, the dispassionate eye of posterity. Years have passed since “Firefall”, a still-mysterious event in which extraterrestrial intelligence interacted with Earth without obvious intent, or even obvious meaning. As part of a small crew, Siri has hibernated for years to arrive at a massive planet in the Oort Cloud. Here, they must confront the mystery of an entity that calls itself Rorschach. On a deeper level, the crew faces questions of what it means to be human, or even sentient. The answers are no longer obvious once faced with this alien life that does not seem to conform to any human-centric norm.

While there is no shortage of action sequences, these are not the central impetus of the narrative. Mr. Watts takes the reader on an exploration of the crew’s personalities; the cranky biologists, the split-personality linguist, the duty-bound soldier, and the calculating leader; all through the eyes of Keeton, and as a backdrop to an exploration of sentience and intelligence. It also becomes increasingly clear that Keeton may not be seeing things in an entirely rational or reliable fashion. Out at the very edge of human exploration, in an environment of uncertainty and danger, the veneer or civilization slowly wears away, revealing truths that are as uncomfortable as they are sincere.

As a first contact scenario, the novel certainly breaks new ground, with a central conceit about life that is both controversial and alarming. The alien is nothing like us, and its mode of existence brings into question the very nature of humanity, and of life.

Delta-V – Daniel Suarez

Extreme cave diver James Tighe has just returned from an accident-plagued expedition when he is invited to an interview with eccentric billionaire Nathan Joyce. The latter is planning a mining expedition to an asteroid, and is recruiting suitable candidates. A rigorous selection process follows. The expedition is shrouded in secrecy, with layer within layer of intrigue at every step.

The novel is solid near-future science fiction, elevated beyond the pure adventure aspects by an intricate, if somewhat implausible, technothriller foundation. It seems somewhat beyond belief that thousands of people could keep such a large project a secret for so long, especially given the money involved. The space travel aspects are well developed and quite plausible. The inclusion of secondary characters based on NewSpace luminaries such as Musk, Bezos, Branson and Bigelow is rather entertaining and provides a connection to what, in the real world, is shaping up to be a fierce competition for the space economy. The protagonists themselves, unfortunately, are not very well rounded, down to their stereotypical backstories. That being said, they are easy to root for, throughout their tragedies and triumphs.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate – Becky Chambers

Ariadne and her three crewmates wake at a distant star system after years of transit in slumber aboard the starship Merian. Their multi-year exploration and survey mission takes them to different worlds in the system, each with its individual features and biome. They have dedicated their lives to this mission, for when they return to Earth they will be decades older, and over seventy years will have passed back home. They are a family of sorts, with intermeshing sexual relationships and a strong bond in their motivations. Some time into their mission, news updates from Earth stop arriving. As they are left in limbo, Ariadne and the others must more carefully examine the ethics and significance of not only the mission itself, but also of humanity’s place in the Universe.

Written in Ms. Chambers’s by now trademark gorgeous contemplative prose, the plot is acted out as much in Ariadne’s inner dialogue as in actual action. The drama is intimate, personal, and thoughtful, making the ending that much more poignant. The characters are likeable, pleasant, and very human in their different ways. The lack of interpersonal strife is an interesting narrative challenge, which the author handles with seeming ease. A delightful read.

Project Hail Mary – Andy Weir

A man wakes up alone, in a room, groggy and without memories of who he is or why he is there. A medical robot is tending him. It eventually comes to light that he is Dr. Ryland Grace, a high school science who was previously a leading researcher in the field of alien life. Such life was purely speculative until the sun started slowly fading, something that will in time lead to the death of all or most life on Earth.

Grace finds himself deeply involved in Project Hail Mary, a no expense spared global effort to find a solution. Years later, in orbit around a distant star, Grace, finds an ally in his quest. But this ally is not human.

In some ways, it is easy to draw parallels to The Martian. An impossible mission. A snarky and clever protagonist who overcomes difficult challenges. Interesting science problems. But the scope of the story, and the stakes, are both much greater. Project Hail Mary certainly has the same page-turner quality and charming snark as The Martian, making me laugh out loud on multiple occasions. The ending added unexpected gravitas to the story and was a beautiful coda.

The alien is cleverly imagined and imbued with a charming personality despite being so very alien. The fact that the alien’s environment adds to Grace’s challenges doesn’t hurt. How relatively easily communications is established stretches plausibility, but on the other hand, the process is both clever and charming.

Heaven’s River (Bobiverse IV) – Dennis E. Taylor

In a new addition to the Bobiverse series, rifts between posthuman “Bobs” and physical humans are appearing at an alarming rate. And even within the community of Bobs, a schism is underway as a large group starts to insist that Bobs should not interfere with any species. Meanwhile, a Bob named Bender has disappeared. As Original Bob investigates, he discovers a massive structure surrounding a star and housing an alien spieces in an oddly pastoral idyll.

Mr. Taylor continues to explore the implications of a society composed of posthumans, humans, and alien species. What is life? What is a soul? The exploration of the megastructure and its anthropology is delightful, with many amusing episodes where both explorers and natives are thrown off by the conceptual differences in their thinking.

Good Morning, Midnight – Lily Brooks-Dalton

Elderly astronomer “Augie” Augustine is stranded at an observatory in the Arctic after refusing to evacuate. The rest of the staff returned to civilisation amidst rumours of an unspecified global catastrophe. He finds a young, taciturn girl in one of the dormitories, and together they hunker down for the months-long arctic night.

The spaceship Aether has just left the Jovian system, on its way back to Earth. Mission control has mysteriously stopped transmitting, and communications specialist “Sully” Sullivan cannot reach anyone else. Tempers fray amongst the crew as the long transit continues, and it seems more and more likely that they may have nowhere to return to.

The novel is rather contemplative, lingering for long stretches on the mental states and tribulations of the two protagonists. Long flashbacks frame the narrative, as Augie and Sully delve into their pasts, subconsciously seeking to understand what brought them to where they are now. Strong themes of connection, relationships and human nature stand out as the situation grinds the characters down to the core of their personalities. Ms. Brooks-Dalton makes some bold narrative choices when it comes to the resolution, and this powerful novel comes out stronger for it.

The Saints of Salvation (Salvation Sequence III) – Peter F. Hamilton

The concluding book of the Salvation Sequence tells two stories. One is of the “Saints”, who pass into the Olyix Enclave of slow time, and send their signal to humanity. Ten thousand years later, the Exodus Humans attack the enclave. Since times moves much more slowly inside, only a few weeks have passed for the Saints. And that’s just the beginning of the mind-mending time-warping. Yirella’s neutron star civilisation also manipulates time, allowing its inhabitants to live thousands of years whole only a few decades pass outside.

While the Exodus Humans are evolved, they are still quite recognizably like their forebears, the Corpus Humans of the neutron star are something else entirely, extending their consciousness in multiple bodies. This brings about uncomfortable questions around the similarity to Olyix minds. Could the humans be evolving into the very thing that they are fighting?

The entire third volume is a triumphant climax to a finely crafted story, with multiple, complex storylines scattered across thousands of years. The first two books introduced the effects of concepts of portals, wormholes and time manipulation on the story. The third book takes it all to the next level, challenging the reader to follow along on a wild ride through time and space. The temporal-spatial scale and scope of the story are stupendous, but it always comes down to individual characters making important and sometimes heartbreaking choices.

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.

Deep Navigation – Alastair Reynolds

A collection of Alastair Reynolds novelettes and short stories, a few of which also feature in Beyond the Aquila Rift. The anthology is a mix of everything from post-apocalyptic tales to deep deep future wonders.

As ever, Reynolds impresses with his mastery of the short fiction genre. The often mind bending concepts are always refined into their significance on people. This makes them resonate strongly with the reader.

Lights in the Deep – Brad R. Torgersen

An anthology of some of Mr. Torgersen’s short stories and novelettes.

I was especially impressed with the bookend stories, Outbound and Ray of Light. Both are post-apocalyptic tales, but infused with a strong sense of hope. The rest are all fine stories as well.

The author is a self-avowed fan of an earlier, less disillusioned era of science fiction. And it shows, in all the best ways. The stories are clearly inspired by classic Orson Scott Card, Larry Niven and Joe Haldeman. But they are not simple rehashings. The ideas are fresh, the characters feel real, and the themes are well developed.

Castaway Resolution (Boundary VI) – Eric Flint & Ryk E. Spoor

With the two castaway groups on Lincoln united, the struggle for survival against a hostile planet continues. Meanwhile, on the nearest colony, stragglers from the initial accident have shown up. This leads an accident investigator to a remarkable discovery. A previously hidden star system, and a faint hope that the castaways might have survived.

The final book in this second Boundary trilogy brings the story to a satisfying conclusion, but the corniness of the dialogue and interaction remain. Everyone is still almost comically rational and humble.

Century Rain – Alastair Reynolds

In Paris in 1959, private investigator Wendell Floyd is retained to look into the mysterious death of an American woman. In a parallel story thread set hundreds of years in the future, archeologist Verity Auger comes upon a strange map of twentieth-century Paris, with missing details. Is this the same Paris as the one in her history?

The parts of the story set in 1959 Paris, clearly inspired by Casablanca, read somewhat like the plot of a classic detective noir film. The old flame. The gumshoe detective. The uncomfortable relationship with the police. The rain. It is utterly charming and nostalgic. The parts of the story set in the future are pure Reynolds. Unfortunately, they don’t always mesh well. Mr. Reynolds has come up with a fantastic premise, but perhaps due to the setup, the conclusion feels somewhat forced, though the actual ending is quite satisfying. I felt as if the book was perhaps overlong, and some plot aspects which were not revealed until the last third, seemed overly complex.

Nevertheless, Mr. Reynolds’s marvelous prose and rich, three-dimensional characters are always enjoyable.

Frozen Orbit – Patrick Chiles

The unexpected firing of Russian missile defence systems at what turns out to be a spacecraft returning from the outer solar system sets off alarms at NASA. Two years later, the Magellan II mission to Pluto sets off to unravel the mystery.

The story is ambitious, casting threads back in history to the end of the Cold War, with a top secret Soviet space project as bonkers as it seems weirdly plausible, making it a fantastic hook for the story. The protagonists are the four crewmembers on the spacecraft Magellan, finely crafted and believable, down to their intelligent and meandering debates on (and with) AI, and regarding the meaning of life. The technical aspects are nicely lacking in logic holes, a must for a novel of this kind.

I very much enjoyed this near-future space adventure. Like any good technothriller, it was hard to put down. Unfortunately, some plot points, such as the expanded use of the hydroponic garden, went from seemingly very important to unresolved later in the book. This left the reader with some disjointedness, though to clear the overall story was paced very well, with an unexpected but logical ending.

Plus I’ve never heard a pilot call the control column a “joystick”, but now I am nitpicking.

The Menace from Farside (Luna) – Ian McDonald

This novella is set decades before the events in the Luna Series., when the Moon was already on its way to losing its status as a frontier. Cariad Corcorian and her “siblings” are part of an arrangement known as a Chain Marriage. When one parent moves out and another is set to marry their “mother”, the teens and pre-teens decide to give them a wedding gift in the form of a picture next to the first footstep on the Moon. A foolhardy adventure ensues.

The story flirts with Young Adult fiction, but nevertheless displays the hallmarks of Mr. McDonald’s prose. Deep dives into the particularities of character, radical social structures, and a laying bare of the truth behind relationships.

Auberon (The Expanse VII½) – James S.A. Corey

After the events of Persepolis Rising, humanity is subject to Laconian rule. On a prosperous colony planet, the new Laconian governor arrives. Laconians seem themselves as descendants of Sparta. Principle and virtue above all. But the new governor’s steadfast principles are about to collide with the reality of life outside Laconia.

An excellent novella. Instead of being constrictive, the limited length of the work is used to great advantage, focusing on a particular time and place, whilst illustrating a wider issue.