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 I will permit myself a tiny nitpick: “Taxi into position and hold” is outdated air traffic radio phraseology and no longer used.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 (Children of Time I) – 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.

Perigee – Patrick Chiles

Polaris Airlines runs the first fleet of suborbital passenger transports, brainchild of industrialist and owner Walt Hammond. Flight 501 is a private charter from Denver to Singapore. Due to a malfunction it becomes stranded in orbit.

This is good clean fun if you like aerospace and a thrilling story. The characters ring true, especially the pilots, engineers and operations staff at the airline. I did sometimes have a hard time telling minor characters apart, since Mr. Chiles’s world is almost exclusively populated by “ordinary white people” straight from Central Casting.

It falls over a bit on the technical details, which is unfortunate since in a technothriller like this the technical details are essential. The explanations are often lacking in the clarity needed for mainstream prose. There are also inconsistencies in the text which should have been caught in editing. For example, one paragraph will mention thin cirrus clouds and afternoon sun, then the next will speak of an aircraft “breaking out of the overcast.”

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

 

 

Grand Central Arena (Grand Central Arena I) – Ryk E. Spoor

GrandCentralArenaPilot Ariane Austin joins the crew of the first manned ship to attempt to break the lightspeed barrier. The first “jump” takes them to a large enclosed space containing a model of the solar system.

The characters are bland and too quickly introduced. They are all great at their jobs except for the one who is blatantly foreshadowed to have a hidden agenda. The technobabble is grating.

I really tried but I couldn’t finish this one.

1½Rosbochs

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

Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

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

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

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

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

4½Rosbochs

River of Gods (India 2047 I) – Ian McDonald

RiverofGodsIndia one hundred years after nationhood is divided into multiple states. The monsoon has failed in the past several years, heralding an impending war over water between Bharat and neighbouring Awadh. Bharat is not a signatory to the international Hamilton accords limiting the intelligence of AIs, choosing instead to allow some development and self-police through its Krishna Cops. Bharat is a haven for datacenters but there is always the risk of a rogue AI ruining everyone’s whole day. Meanwhile, AIs are the actors in India’s premiere soap opera Town and Country, which harbours deeper complexities than anyone imagines.

The world of River of Gods is immensely detailed, chaotic and complex. Reading the first third of the book leads the reader into massive culture shock as he is forced to navigate the storylines of multiple complex characters. The characters are many. Tal, the “neut”, who has surgically eschewed gender and risks persecution by a mob too easily turned to violence. Mr. Nandha, a Krishna Cop bound to his duty. Lisa Durnau, a cosmologist who researches the structure of universe, only to find that the reality is far more intriguing and disturbing. Thomas Lull, Durnau’s mentor, who is sought out by a mysterious woman who knows everything about everyone and can control machines with her mind. Vishram Ray, the scion of a powerful family who escaped to be a comedian in Scotland and has now been forced back into the family business. And many more major and minor.

It is sometimes tough going through the first half of the book, as there seems to be no real story, but as the novel progresses the plotlines become more defined and come together. The underlying theme is the nature and meaning consciousness and intelligence, or “the meaning of life,” if you will.

The final triumph of understanding is deeply rewarding to the reader. Having said that, I did feel that the book was overlong and that some of the secondary plotlines could have been culled, no matter how much Mr. McDonald’s dazzling prose is a pleasure to read.

4Rosbochs

Escape from Earth – Allen Steele

Escape from EarthOur hero is a teenager who once dreamed of being an astronaut, but his life in a small town is not conducive to such dreams. His father was killed in Iraq, his mother is working two jobs and his older brother is a petty criminal. Life isn’t looking to go anywhere. Then one day he has a weird encounter…

This short story is solidly in the young adult camp. Not especially inspired but at least hits the right teen wish fulfillment note.

2Rosbochs

Angel of Europa – Allen Steele

AngelofEuropaAfter a serious accident early in the first Jupiter expedition, Otto Danzig was put into medical hibernation to allow him to heal. Now, months later and at Jupiter, he has been woken up to investigate the possible murder of two crew members while exploring the subsurface ocean of Europa.

The nicest thing I can say about this story is that it is a a short story so at least I didn’t have to put up with it for very long. The concept and plot are fine, but the characters and cultural mores are cringe-worthy. I have accused Mr. Steele of this before, but his characters are all too often solidly middle-class American prudes from the 1950s, even if they are from other countries, eras and cultures. What is worse, characters from other cultures are caricature-like, written like sloppy stereotypes. Case in point, the antagonist in this story is a sexy French woman, and of course she acts like the American stereotype of a sexy French woman. Apart from that, it seems this story was sent to the publisher without some needed polish and revision. The whole thing isn’t nearly as tight as it could be.

2Rosbochs