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.

A Meeting with Medusa (The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke IV) – Arthur C. Clarke

A collection of stories from the late great Arthur C. Clarke. It is difficult to write a consistent review since the variation in tone, content and length is so large. Some are whimsical, some are epic. Some are short and some are long. Almost all showcase Mr. Clarke’s skill in instilling a sense of wonder. The collaboration with Stephen Baxter, about a world where teleportation is commonplace, was particularly thought-provoking.

The Medusa Chronicles – Stephen Baxter & Alastair Reynolds

In this authorized sequel to Arthur C. Clarke’s novella A Meeting with Medusa, Mr. Baxter and Mr. Reynolds explore what happens to Howard Falcon after his fateful adventure in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter.

Back in the 1960s, at the height of the Space Race, an asteroid on a collision course with Earth is discovered. This dramatically changes the course of history, as international cooperation is required to deflect it. In turn, this leads to a golden age of space exploration. Machine intelligence is explored, but the machines eventually rebel against their masters, leading to centuries of conflict.

This is indeed a chronicle, as Falcon finds himself the often unwilling puppet of great powers during pivotal historic events. The authors pay homage to Mr. Clarke’s “sense of wonder” style, but adapt it to more modern readers. The naked technological optimism displayed in Clarke’s works, more typical of the mid 20th Century, is still there, but not without dark sides. The ending also has clear thematic and tonal similarities to 2001 and 2010.

Walking to Aldebaran – Adrian Tchaikovsky

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

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

On to the Asteroid (Space Excursions II) – Travis S. Taylor & Les Johnson

A billionaire industrialist launches an automated mission to an asteroid, aiming to redirect it into a Lunar orbit for future extraction of minerals. The propulsion system malfunctions before completing the redirection maneuver, and now the asteroid is heading for impact with Earth. A desperate repair mission is launched.

The story is excellent. High stakes, interesting technical solutions, lots of hardcore space action, and a high pace. Unfortunately, and just like the previous book, it is let down by atrocious dialogue and cardboard cutout characters. The dialogue is especially cringeworthy. I did enjoy it because despite these negatives, it is a great yarn, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re a real space buff.

Atmosphaera Incognita – Neal Stephenson

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

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

Aurora – Kim Stanley Robinson

Over a hundred and fifty years into their voyage, the inhabitants of a generation starship are only a decade out from the Tau Ceti star system. Despite the massive size of the ship, delicate ecological cycles have been slowly deteriorating over the decades. After arrival, more serious problems crop up with the colonisation effort. The issues are so severe that the colonists are faced with deciding whether to stay, or attempt a return to Earth. Both options are fraught with risk.

While the novel ostensibly chronicles the life of a single inhabitant, Freya, it is also fair to say that the AI running the ship is as much a protagonist. Ship, as it prefers to call itself (or is it themselves) develops over time under the ministrations of Freya’s mother Devi, and much of the novel deals with the emergence of its consciousness. Indeed, many pages are spent debating the nature of consciousness and sentience. Is Ship truly sentient? Can a purportedly sentient being even know if it is sentient?

A lot of time is also spent on the suitability attempting to colonise other star systems, or even other planets in the Solar System. Mr. Robinson’s ultimate answer to this question is rather surprising, but hopeful in its own way.

The narrative feels somewhat impersonal, as if the reader is kept at a distance from the protagonist and even the action. This seems to be a conscious choice on the part of Mr. Robinson, given that the story is told in the voice of Ship itself, even as Ship’s understanding of language and humans develops. An interesting narrative device, and finely implemented.

Children of Ruin (Children of Time II) – Adrian Tchaikovsky

A generation after the conclusion of Children of Time, an exploration ship leaves Kern’s World, arriving some time later, by means of sublight travel and crew hibernation, at a star system that appears to harbour life. Unbeknownst to the mixed Portiid and Human crew, millenia previously a terraforming mission arrived from Earth’s fallen Old Empire. Catastrophe befell that mission, leaving behind a spacefaring race of intelligent, uplifted octopi, as well as an ancient alien virus.

The premise involving uplifted octopi is ambitious, even more so than the premise of uplifted spiders in the first novel. The distributed intelligence of an octopus is very alien to the reader, and Mr. Tchaikovsky makes a concerted effort to convey this. Unfortunately for the story, this makes decision making by the characters frequently confusing, contradictory, and transitory, as this is the nature of the sentience of the depicted octopi. While clever, it takes the reader somewhat out of the story. As in Children of Time, the spectre of deep time weighs heavily on the story, bringing themes of legacy, of connection between intelligences, and of the meaning of existence.

Permafrost – Alastair Reynolds

In the not too distant future, a cascading ecological apocalypse has ended all food production. Humanity is down to stored rations, and there is no future. Mathematician Valentina Lidova is recruited to a remote research facility, where scientists are attempting practical time travel into the past, with a twist.

Mr. Reynolds’s fluid style makes the narrative of this bleak novella shine despite the grim setting and themes. The concept of inertia as history is changed, as well as the fact that characters’ memories are altered mid-paragraph due to chances, makes things potentially quite confusing for the reader, but that is not a problem here.

Moon Rising (Luna III) – Ian McDonald

The third and final (?) book in the Luna series sees Lucas Corta fight for the future of the Moon as an entity independent from Earth interests. He also seeks revenge for the destruction of the Corta business empire at the hands of the Mackenzies. His son Lucasinho is severely injured, and the object of a three-way custody battle. The now four remaining dragons rapidly make and break alliances in order to come out on top of a new order which looks more and more contentious.

The world building continues to be fabulous. However, the plot is less focused than in the previous two instalments. That being said, the threads are rather neatly wrapped up in a satisfying conclusion, while leaving room for future novels in the series.

Tiamat’s Wrath (The Expanse VIII)

Laconia’s hegemony seems insurmountable, and yet the scattered remnants of the Rocinante’s crew fight on. Holden is a prisoner on Laconia itself. Amos is missing in action after leaving for a secret mission on Laconia. Naomi lives in a tiny transport container, smuggled from ship to ship and system to system, aboard larger vessels as she coordinates the efforts of the Underground. Alex and Bobbie fight a guerrilla war on a captured warship.

The sense of despair is palpable when the book begins. Is the struggle futile because it seems unwinnable? Or is it worth fighting for a just cause even if it just means eventual defeat? Whilst the greater struggle continues, the authors cleverly make it about the family of the Rocinante, and how their underground war has brought them sorrow because they cannot be together. The familiarity and closeness of family have been replaced with isolation and brooding.

There are shades of The Empire Strikes Back about this novel. Our heroes are on the run and must persevere, while the enemy seems almost invincible. The family of the Roci is destined to reunite, but they will not be the same people as when they separated.

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

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

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

House of Suns – Alastair Reynolds

Six millions years previously, Abigail Gentian, scion of an influential and rich family, made one thousand clones of herself and infused each one with her personality and memories. Since then “Gentian Line” has travelled the Milky Way at sublight speeds, exploring, experiencing and helping civilisations. Every two hundred thousand years, the “shatterlings” of Gentian Line come together in a grand reunion, to share experiences and memories, and to remember their lost.

Purslane and Campion are two shatterlings who, despite strong taboos against it, have fallen in love and travel together. They are thousands of years late for the coming reunion. Once they arrive, they find that the Line has been attacked for unknown reasons, and decimated.

The premise is interesting, tackling the tricky concept of deep time and societal survival. Is it possible for a planet-bound civilisation, or even an interstellar empire, to sustain its own existence beyond a few tens of thousands of years? And what of consciousness, machine or biological. How can these handle intervals of millions of years, even if many are spent in suspended animation?

Unfortunately, too much of the story depends on reactions to events that happened previously, which are revealed piecemeal in massive and awkward infodumps. The plot will grind to a halt as a character expounds for pages and pages on events of five millions years ago and how they explain the events of last year in perceived time (which perhaps actually happened fifty thousand years ago in actual time). The love story of Purslane and Campion is sweet and tragic and compelling, and that would have made a lovely book. However, the whole edifice is heavily weighed down by having to explain and analyse the effects of deep time and ancient history, making it an ungainly slog only rescued by Mr. Reynolds’s superb prose and flair for illustrating the immense. Ironically, the final chapters are absolutely beautiful and would have been an amazing coda to a less ponderous narrative.

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.