Pebble in the Sky – Isaac Asimov

Although written in the same style as the forgettable The Currents of Space, this novel has a better story. A 62 year old retired tailor from 20th century Chicago is transported to a future earth so poor that citizens are euthanized at 60. His arrival and subsequent actions change the world. If you want to read Asimov (and you should), read the Robot books or Foundation instead.

Incidentally, this particular cover uses one of my favorite pieces of art of all time, by the late Peter Elson.

The Currents of Space – Isaac Asimov

Typical Asimov fare, in which our hero Rik is mindwiped and abandoned. Naturally, the information in his mind which he can no longer remember will bring down the reigning world order and so on. Not one of Asimov’s best, with an annoying lack of descriptions for environments and so on.

Gridlinked – Neal Asher

In many cases, when an author tries to tackle an utopian future, in which large parts of humanity are without want (if there is such a thing) and live a very good life, the effort falls flat. During the first fifty pages or so, I was indeed worried. Things soon looked up, however. First of all, there is trouble in paradise, both internal and external. Secondly, there are cool people, such as our hero, superagent Ian Cormac. Thirdly, there are cool gadgets, like self-aware shuriken. Interestingly, most of human society is controlled by AIs, probably since they seem to be doing a better job than humans ever did.

In an unforgettable exchange, it is explained that AIs have the power of self-determination since it is programmed into them.  On the other hand “biologicals” do not, because they have biological imperatives to breed and so on. I thoroughly enjoyed this one, even though the ending left me a bit puzzled. What the heck was going on there?

A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky – Vernor Vinge

Vernor Vinge thinks big, strange and different.

A Fire Upon the Deep. Hi-tech meets lo-tech in a story with some rather interesting takes on physics and sentience. Don’t be surprised it you don’t understand anything for a hundred pages or so. It gets easier. A fantastic view of the universe, and amazing aliens. A great journey.

A Deepness in the Sky. Chronologically a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep but apart from being in the same universe and having one character who appears in both they are completely unrelated. Interstellar travel is slow, and sometimes plans take decades to come to fruition. A mission to a mysterious star finds fascinating aliens who live on a planet with some pretty extreme climate. The mission itself is subverted by tyrants. The novel follows both the aliens and the humans as they both struggle towards the climactic conclusion: Contact!

Marooned in Realtime – Vernor Vinge

This novel is published both as a singleton and in the omnibus edition Across Realtime together with its prequel The Peace War.

The sequel to “The Peace War” jumps 50 million years into the future. The 300 remaining humans travel forward through the eons with Bobbles, the invulnerable stasis fields introduced in “The Peace War”. One of them is left behind. The only remaining cop in the world must solve the mystery of why she had to die marooned in “realtime” while the rest jumped ahead in time. This book is absolutely fantastic. The factional disputes, the feeling of disconnection, the sheer human suffering of losing everything you ever knew, is portrayed masterfully. It delves deeply into the question of what should we, as humans, really do with our lives and our race. Some wish to recreate the human race now that enough people are simultanously “in realtime” (not in stasis). Some with to travel forward through the eons and see what awaits at the end of the universe. Some, it would seem, want to continue the nationalist struggles of a long-lost past. What a ride!

The Peace War – Vernor Vinge

This novel is published both as a singleton and in the omnibus edition Across Realtime together with the sequel Marooned in Realtime.

The “Peace Authority” has stopped war by encasing warring factions in impenetrable force fields known as “bobbles” created by the “Bobbler”. Then all high technology was banned. Fifty years later, the inventor of the Bobbler leads a revolution.

Vinge skillfully describes the human condition in this very odd future world. While most humans are poor, the Peace Authority has set itself up as a sort of benevolent dictatorship, but it has stagnated technologically. The Tinkers, under the ad-hoc leadership of Paul Naismith, inventor of the Bobbler, have advanced electronics well beyond those of the Authority. The Authority’s blind spot is that it cannot believe the Tinkers are so advanced when high energy applications are banned.

There is a little of everything here. A coming of age story, love lost and hope for its resumtion, honor, loyalty, betrayal. Vinge uses the plot device of the bobbler and the bobbles to great effect, and meticulously exhausts the implications of the technology’s effect on humanity.

Red Lightning (Thunder and Lightning II) – John Varley

The sequel to the wonderful Red Thunder does not disappoint. A generation after the events of Red Thunder, the children of Ray Garcia and Kelly Strickland are growing up on Mars. An unexplained impact in the Atlantic and a consequent tsunami to dwarf all previous tsunamis are catalysts for the action. But this is not a disaster novel. It’s a novel about how Ray Garcia-Strickland grows from just another teenager into a man. Told strictly in Varley’s favored first person, we see the world through the eyes of an adolescent who wants to be a man but hasn’t quite figured out how yet. The tone is authentic and as usual Varley delivers on his characters. Thoroughly well imagined and believable, they feel like old friends by the end.

Varley’s novels, and especially the Red Thunder series, leave me with a feeling of well being after every section I read. The characters are so likeable and authentic it makes me want to be with them, in their world. Add to that the long section set in a fascism-leaning America logically and quite frighteningly extrapolated from today’s fear of terrorism as a convenient excuse for governmental power grabbing (the historical parallels are remarkably sinister), and it makes for a great novel.

Red Thunder (Thunder and Lightning I) – John Varley

RedThunderFor some odd reason I had never read Varley, an author who was first published in 1977, before I picked up this book. After this experience, I realized my mistake. Red Thunder makes some rather preposterous assumptions in order to underpin a story. A decade or two from now, two lower class Florida youngsters dream of going to space. They and their girlfriends accidentally run into (actually run over) an ex astronaut who has fallen from grace. Said ex astronaut has a quasi autistic genius cousin who has accidentally invented an immensely efficient and cheap form of energy generation/propulsion. Seeing as the Chinese are on their way to being first to Mars and the American expedition will not only be second, but may well have an accident on the way, this motley crew builds a spaceship.

Appalled yet? Most authors would have made a hash of this and turned out unreadable drivel. But Varley concentrates on the people aspect. The whole thing becomes an excellent, funny and exciting coming of age story.

 

Contact – Carl Sagan

This novel is the story of a radio astronomer who manages to detect a signal from space, and what happens after. The scope is large, but Sagan keeps it going smoothly forward to the incredible conclusion. The discussion of science versus religion is well done, and lacks the bitter antagonism which could easily have creeped in. Fills you with a sense of wonder like few other books, and while it makes you feel small in the Universe, it nevertheless manages to convey a message of hope and love.

I also loved the movie. It was faithful to the spirit of the book, but given the time constraints it did not delve into the interesting details of the book. Also, it glosses over the important and very engrossing religion vs. technology discussion.

One of my favorite novels.

Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Chasm City – Alastair Reynolds

Scary in it’s placing of humanity firmly at the bottom of the Universe’s pecking order, this series of books contains some pretty big concepts. Worth reading just for the descriptions of cultures and aliens. Watch out though, Reynolds is not afraid of making the Universe a scary place. I refused to read Redemption Ark close to bedtime. I would just lay awake and shiver at the thought of how huge the universe is, and how short-lived and fragile we are.

  • Revelation Space – Cool, pure SF. The last few chapters give an inkling of what is to come in future installments, but the story also stands well by itself.
  • Redemption Ark – The sequel to Revelation Space, in which many questions are, err, resolved, or then again maybe not. Several hundred years in the future, the Inhibitors are back after eons, Their objective seems to be to eradicate sentient life. Scary scary scary.
  • Chasm City – The schizo prequel to Revelation Space, which scales back quite a bit from the epic back story and gives up a very convoluted plot of a man and his quest for identity. Good reading but does lose itself a little in the identity crisis of a very screwed up psyche.

There is a sequel to Redemption Ark, called Absolution Gap, but I have never gotten around to it. While I am sure it is great, I am also sure it won’t be very cheerful.

Building Harlequin’s Moon – Larry Niven & Brenda Cooper

Niven is at his best in collaboration, and this is no exception. Building Harlequin’s Moon is is a story in many layers. The main plot line is about the first interstellar starship, escaping a Sol System full of renegade AIs and nanotech, escaping to reclaim humanity. But there is a malfunction and the starship is stranded in a barren star system partway to its goal. More antimatter is needed to refuel the ship, and the colonists refuse to use nanotech due to their belief that nanotech leads to evil. The only option is to spend sixty thousand years (yes it’s a long time but they can extend their lifespans indefinitely) building a habitable moon out of smaller ones, and then populating it with flora, fauna, humans, and then finally industrializing and constructing a huge collider to make antimatter. Rachel is a “Moon Born” “Child”, basically a slave to the goal of ultimately fueling the ship. But what no colonist counted on was that the Children are human too, and once the cogs in the plan are live humans, you have to look them in the eye. The titanic endeavor is ambitious in the extreme, but is it worth the cost to their souls?

On another level, the story is about Rachel, from her rather innocent teenage years to her coming of age as a leader of her people. And on yet another level, it’s about what makes us human. Our values, our biology, our goals?

The rather slow style of the book suits the story well, and events are followed in a careful fashion as we move, never too fast, through the action.

Building Harlequin’s Moon is full of wonderful three dimensional characters. Niven & Cooper ensure that even the most seemingly irrational and heartless protagonist is well understood by the reader as they delve deeply into her motivations. This novel shows humans at their best and worst, and it is impossible not to be entranced by the adventures of Rachel, Gabriel and the others. This is quite simply a masterpiece.

Ringworld and The Ringworld Engineers – Larry Niven

Arguably Niven’s best solo novels, as well as the ultimate BDO (Big Dumb Object) story. Great adventure in an incredible setting with trademark Niven “quirky characters”. They’re not perfect but the sense of wonder created is second to none.

Interestingly, the premise of The Ringworld Engineers, that the Ringworld is unstable, was figured out by physicists after the first novel was published. At the 1971 World Science Fiction Convention, MIT students were chanting “The Ringword is unstable!” Hence why our heroes need to fix the problem.

Falling Free – Lois McMaster Bujold

Not, technically, a Vorkosigan novel since no Vorkosigan family member is so much as lurking in the background, it is nevertheless set in the Vorkosiverse, though, about two hundred years before Miles’ birth. The story is about the origin of the quaddies, humans genetically engineered for work in free fall, whose most striking adaptation is the replacement of their legs with arms (and hands). Leo Graf is an engineer and teacher assigned to the habitat where the quaddies are being “reared”. The corporation he works for intends to use them for free fall work, thus avoiding the costly planetside leaves necessary to ensure good health for normal humans. The thousand quaddies are young, the oldest only just out of adolescence, and are being treated like children, with no voice in their future. Legally, they are the property of the corporation, even as they live their lives, work hard, even procreate. As artificial gravity is invented, the quaddies become instantly obsolete, the need for free fall work decreasing dramatically. They are no longer cost effective for the company, which orders the experiment terminated, meaning sterilization and confinement to barracks (read, prison) on a planet. For the free fall adapted quaddies, gravity wells are an unnatural, dangerous and generally terrible environment. At this point Graf rebels and plans the exodus of the quaddies, away to make their own lives.

This is one of the best novels I have ever read. The characters, “normal” and quaddie alike are well rounded, interesting, authentic. Bujold quickly manages to turn the quaddies from freaks into just “different humans” in the mind of the reader. The plot is excellently constructed, with disparate elements and personalities meshing well to create an engaging whole with many page turner moments.

The illustrations of morality are particularly poignant. The company brass thinks of the quaddies as little more than animals. Creatures to be disposed of when their usefulness has run its course. Leo Graf and some of the other staff, on the other hand, sees them as people, as children to be protected. The parallels with slavery are obvious, but more clever is the message that corporate leaders often have a lack of scruples making them morally little better than the slave-masters of previous centuries. A brilliant read.

This novel is collected in the “Miles, Mutants & Microbes” omnibus.

The Wreck of the River of Stars – Michael Flynn

The cover looks magnificent. Flynn is back with a near future tale mirroring the twilight days of the age of sail. “The River of Stars” has long ago furled it’s magnetic sail in favor of a more modern engine. The past glories of the ship are almost forgotten as she plies her trade as a tramp freighter. But an engine failure forces a difficult decision. Her crew want to use the sail to save the ship in a last tribute to her old days of glory.

Incidentally, the story is set in the same universe as the Firestar series, with quite a few inside references sprinkled around for the avid Flynn fan.

It took me more than a month to read this book. Flynn’s prose is unusually fine, but it takes a long time to get through it. The title says it all, I guess, and the ending is more or less foretold from the beginning. This novel concentrates on the characters and their interactions. Long gone are the glory days of The River of Stars, and her crew is made up of a collection of misfits and losers who cannot find another berth. The Captain dies in the very first chapter, and things go downhill from there. Gradually the flawed crewmembers dance out their dance of death, and maybe they know their fate all along, which makes the drama even stronger.

I should point out that this book is intensely psychological, and does not, despite the setting, move very fast at all. Descriptions of feelings and motivations and interactions are drawn out almost to breaking point. It is a tribute to Flynn that he manages to hold the reader’s interest. So be warned, this is not a light summer read, but its majesty will captivate you.

Firestar Series – Michael Flynn

Near future SciFi has seldom been done better. Flynn takes us on an epic journey only hinted at in the humble beginnings of the first book. A millionairess has a hidden fear, almost an obsession. She is afraid that an asteroid has the potential to wipe out humanity by striking the Earth. While her fear is no doubt well founded, it takes extreme expressions in her, and she uses her fortune to build up a huge aerospace industry. The series consists of:

  • Firestar
  • Rogue Star
  • Lodestar
  • Falling Stars

What really makes this series great is the variety and richness of the many characters (from the second book, a Dramatis Personae is thankfully provided). The antagonisms and alliances flow over decades as Flynn deftly describes human nature, and the many things which make up its facets. Many novels have (too) many characters, but in almost all cases the majority are not fully fleshed out and threedimensional. Flynn’s wonderful character are these things. They have a past, motivations, goals and aspirations.

It is also quite remarkable how Flynn manages to weave together the many strands of his story into one whole, making this more than just a massive work of Science Fiction. It is, in fact, a story about ordinary people who, each in his or her own way, faces extraordinary personal and professional challenges in a changing society.

My only, very small, gripe with the series is how it loses a bit of steam in the third book. However, seen as a whole, the entire story is outstanding.

And yes, the last two covers are horrible and have very little to do with the books. Pah!

Back to the Moon (Space Excursions I) – Travis S. Taylor & Les Johnson

The story is set in the 2020s. NASA is finally returning to the Moon using the (now canceled) Orion/Altair hardware. Meanwhile, a private company is sending tourists around the Moon and the Chinese are up to something. The first mission back to the Moon turns in to a daring rescue.

I’m a big space program buff so I’m a sucker for this kind of book. The story itself is a decent adventure/thriller. The engineering is well described, as would be expected since Dr. Taylor works with NASA Huntsville and Les Johnson is a NASA physicist. Unfortunately the prose is quite stilted, especially during the first third. The characters are stereotypes, especially the Chinese. Unfortunately the Chinese are also the wrong stereotype. They feel like reruns of Cold War era Soviets with a dash of “Asian” thrown in. The story does pick up in the second half and there are some nice thrills for the space buff. If you aren’t interested in the space program particularly you should give this a pass. It isn’t a bad book per se but could have used an author with a smoother prose style.

The Mote in God’s Eye – Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

Arguably the best story about first contact ever written. A ship comes careening into a human system. The pilot is dead, and strange, and it has apparently traveled for years at sublight speeds to get there. Even more strange is the fact that the ship hardly seems enough to sustain it. Two ships are dispatched to a star system hidden inside a nebula to contact the aliens. The society of “Moties” they find is very strange, and very fascinating, almost as fascinating as the creatures themselves. What they fail to realize is that the truth behind Motie society is deeply disturbing and will be a danger to all humanity.

It has aged very slightly due to the its being written in the seventies, but this hardly detracts from the magnificence of this novel. Manages to capture the essence of encountering the truly alien, and how humans have a hard time not placing their own values and prejudices on that which they do not understand.

Nova – Samuel R. Delany

I first read this book years and years ago as a teenager. I can still remember staying awake half the night, then finishing it the next evening. It is a magnificent grail quest of sorts, complete with manic captain, a demonic enemy, big stakes, a rich and varied past for the characters, and a fabulous setting. The ease with which the prose flows, and the believable and interesting situations and interactions make this one of SciFi’s masterpieces.

The Light of Other Days – Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter

This novel explores a really fascinating concept. What if technology could be developed that let us see any place in space and time, including past, present and future? Society would be transformed. Lying would be impossible.

But Clarke and Baxter take it much much further than that, and the ending is just plain incredible as, without spoiling it too much, humans can finally seek redeption for the crimes of ages past. Read this book.

Voyage – Stephen Baxter

Definitely my favorite Baxter. Unlike most Baxter fare, there is no “big thinking”, no Xeelee, no looming destruction of the universe. It is, quite simply, a novel of what might have been (and very nearly was) if NASA had been allowed to continue in the footsteps of Apollo all the way to Mars. It is written in parallel perspectives, looking at the mission itself as it runs its course, and at the preparations, political wangling and engineering that precede it. The heroine, Natalie York, is followed closely as Baxter explores her long personal journey in parallel with the preparations, as it becomes clear to the reader (and to herself) just how much one has to sacrifice to become an astronaut. The quiet geologist becomes an astronaut and an unwilling hero as she reaches for the ultimate prize of both her professions. Despite being fiction, it is in my opinion one of the best portrayals of the culture and politics of NASA during the Apollo and post-Apollo era.

Baxter did in fact apply to be an astronaut. Unfortunately, he was required to speak a foreign language and thus failed to get in. In Voyage, his love of astronautics and space exploration clearly shows. If you liked the movie Apollo 13, you will enjoy this book.

Encounter with Tiber – Buzz Aldrin & John Barnes

With a name like Buzz Aldrin on the cover I figured I needed to at least give it a shot. The story follows the first human mission to another star, and in flashbacks a human mission to the Moon that found alien artifacts, as well as two alien missions to Earth in prehistoric times.

Unexpectedly, this novel completely blew me away. The story is developed from two angles, human and alien. Interestingly enough, the two sides never meet as such, but impact on each other’s existence in various ways. While the aliens aren’t the most original, the alien characterisation is complex and well written, It is nice to read about well fleshed out characters who have deep, complex personalities on the “other” side. The tech is of course top notch (Buzz Aldrin!), but the real kicker here is the sheer epic scale of the story. After I finished it, I sat staring into empty space for a long time, my mind filled with wonder.

Forever Free – Joe Haldeman

This is the direct sequel to The Forever War. Twenty years (subjective for our heroes) have passed since the War ended. William and Marygay have settled down on the frigid planet of Middle Finger, which has the largest population of veterans that have not integrated with the “Man” group mind comprising most humans. Like most of the community of veterans, they feel alienated from the rest of humanity, which uses implants to integrate into a mind “Tree”; a group mind where individuals willingly surrender most of their individuality. The Taurans, enemies during the War, have a similar arrangement, and Man (group mind humans) have more in common with them than with the old-style humans. It is a life, but our heroes are not happy with it. They hatch a plan to take a starship forty thousand years into the future by flying a big loop at relativistic velocities. Only ten years subjective will pass on Middle Finger. However soon after departure things start going very wrong for unexplainable reasons and they must get in the lifeboats and return in suspended animation, taking decades to do so. Once back, they discover that everyone is gone, vanished simultaneously and instantaneously.

This is a very different book from the Forever War in some ways. It does not deal with war, for one thing. However the themes of alienation in one’s own society are still there. It grapples with what it means to be human, what it means to be an individual, what it means to be sentient. Without giving away too much of the ending, I will say that it also deals with God, or at least one possible interpretation of God. The ending surprised me but in a good way. It was very thought-provoking. Just as in the Forever War, the characters and plot are finely tuned, flowing nicely. Despite the heavy themes, it is not a heavy read. Recommended but read The Forever War first.