Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny

The crew of a colony ship has set itself up as the Hindu pantheon, lording it over the descendants of their former passengers by controlling access to superior technology and enacting laws forbidding progress. This works well for a long time, until the Buddha appears.

A deep novel which is sometimes difficult to fathom, it is nevertheless considered a science fiction classic for good reason. The way in which Zelazny uses technology as a metaphor for spirituality is masterful.

Manhattan in Reverse – Peter F. Hamilton

This short story collection contains mostly previously published material, among others the stellar “Watching Trees Grow“, which it was a pleasure to re-read. There are three more standalones, one of which is a very short vignette. The last three stories are set in the Confederation Universe, with the two longer ones featuring investigator extraordinaire Paula Myo. (The third is Blessed by an Angel.) Myo is a very interesting character and could easily be the protagonist of a novel two of her own. Hamilton’s treatment of clinical immortality and crimes committed in an environment with such is stellar as always.

I was left wanting more.

Woken Furies – Richard Morgan

The third Takeshi Kovacs novel is just as violent and X-rated as the previous installments. Morgan has not lost his gift for film noir cool and deep cynicism. So far so good. However, while Altered Carbon was a tightly written masterpiece and Broken Angels had an intriguing plot device, Woken Furies is much less focused. Sometimes it seems like Morgan is just taking the reader on a guided tour of Kovacs’ old stomping grounds on our hero’s native Harlan’s World. Granted, the guided tour is very very good, and Morgan’s prose flows smoothly, but some plot elements deserved more attention and it all seems a bit contrived. For starters, more could have been done with the duplication of Kovacs.

Broken Angels – Richard Morgan

Takeshi Kovacs is back in a new sleeve. This sequel to the incredible Altered Carbon puts Takeshi in the middle of a little war. The plot is not as strong as the one in Altered Carbon. While the previous novel is a film noir/detective story, this one learns more towards a Clarke-esque sense of wonder story. Unlike Clarke, however, it is focused of the failures of humanity to leave its flawed past of violence and greed behind. The characters are very strong and the prose is top notch. Still, it left me with a feeling that Mr. Morgan tried to stick a story around a thought he had, and the revelations at the end are a bit too construed to add coolness to the plot.

Still, if you like action filled cyberpunk, you will enjoy it.

The Collapsium – Will McCarthy

Humanity has discovered Collapsium and Wellstone, substances that have made possible immensely powerful computers, teleportation and even immortality. “Faxes” allow the creation of any conceivable thing, from food to servitor robots to spaceship components. “Fax gates” allow teleportation and even duplication of people. The inventor of said substances, Bruno de Tovaji, is now living in self-imposed exile on his own asteroid in the Oort Cloud. Here he conducts experiments aimed at “seeing” the end of time. One day he receives a visitor, the Queen of the Solar System, who is also his former lover. Apparently there is trouble in paradise. A grandiose ring around the sun, aimed at reducing communication lag among disparate locations, is under construction. But it is slowly falling into the sun. This starts a long series of adventures aimed at putting an end to what turns out to be the scheming of a mad saboteur.

I had high hopes for this book after the first fifty or a hundred pages. Interesting universe, grand designs, all the stuff you could find in a good Larry Niven yarn. Unfortunately it all became very tedious as the story went on. And on. And on. I kept waiting for the really interesting stuff to start but it was all a bit petty and small. Yawn.

This is hard science fiction. Very hard. The science content is all in there. And yet I often felt as if the author was plucking solutions to his problems out of thin air. One of the basic principles of science fiction is that and author must stay within constraints that he creates within his universe. Unfortunately, McCarthy keeps coming up with new ideas that neatly solved the posed problems. McCarthy also completely misses the opportunity to explain his society or give a decent guided tour of something apart from deep space structures. What is London like nowadays anyway? Surely a page or two exploring these things would have served the story well, and made it a bit less sterile. And that’s the main gripe I have with this book. It is all a bit sterile and bland. Mankind’s achievements are falling apart around him and de Towaji is pondering his love life. Seriously…

Fallen Dragon – Peter F. Hamilton

This novel is about a young man whose illusions are shattered in a cruel society. He runs away from home to become a mercenary. The story jumps back and forth between his youth and his part in plundering a colony world during his career as a corporate soldier. He is sick of the society he lives in, and gets that rarest of things, a second chance.

There is much else going on too, including a legacy left by ancient spieces, and Hamilton’s views on what to do with societal immortality. Although I felt it to be awesome in the scope of the macrostory, the main characters are easily within our reach, and the unexpected ending may well bring tears of joy to your eyes.

The First Immortal – James L. Halperin

This story about how cryonics succeed follows a small group of people “through” cryogenic freezing to the society evolving in the aftermath of its success. The subject matter is very interesting and the book raises some fascinating questions. Unfortunately the writing itself is not particularly inspired.

The Digital Dead – Bruce Balfour

In the setting for novel, one can get an implant that takes a snapshot of the brain at death (a little like in Altered Carbon). This snapshot is transferred to the databanks of the company Elysian Fields and a sort of electronic heaven. So the dead are not really dead. Looks promising, but my first question is: If these dead can be “alive” why don’t they just implant their cybernetic consciousnesses into cyborgs and roam free? This question is answered, but not really to anyone’s satisfaction.

The story is rather complex, with a host of characters being introduced in the first eighty pages or so. It remains complex for most of the novel, but without ever really coming into focus. The driving threat feels abstract and the actions of the characters are rather erratic.

The writing is average. Many good ideas are competently presented, but there is no sign of prose virtuosity. The author tries a bit too hard with the near future clichés, such as “Brooks Armani”, or the worst one yet: “President Schwarzenegger”. Not because it is implausible, but because it is so uncool. His descriptions of locales are formulaic and boring and I found myself skimming through them.

I was left dissatisfied. I could barely work up the energy to finish the book, and it took a long time. Balfour has some great ideas, but does not present them nearly well enough.

Steel Beach – John Varley

This novel is set in Varley’s “Eight Worlds” Universe. It is the story, almost the chronicle, of Hildy Johnson, who also made an appearance in “The Golden Globe”. Steel Beach is the story of how Hildy Johnson didn’t commit suicide. That’s putting it crudely since the actual story is full of wonderful detail and nuance.

Hildy Johnson lives on Luna (the moon), a utopia with very long (perhaps even infinite) life, no real need to work and unprecedented personal freedom. Ironically, this personal freedom comes from having a very advanced Central Computer (the “CC”) run basically everything. Every citizen has a personal interface with he CC and can ask for any information at any time. Sex changes and other surgerical procedures are effortless and painless. Subcultures of all sorts thrive as people pursue what they really want to do. For example, large “Disney’s”, basically theme parks where you can even live, provide their inhabitants with life as it was in, say, an idealized Texas in the late 1800s. So life is pretty good. There’s just one problem: Hildy (who starts the novel as a man and ends it as a woman) keeps trying to commit suicide. The CC has noticed a rash of suicides and is trying to do something about them. He dragoons Hildy into helping him. Little does either know where this will land them or the rest of Luna.

The novel is about this, and much more. It is an exploration into what makes us human. Why do we live, exactly? What do we live for? Hildy is faced with the issue of having more or less infinite life ahead of him but no understanding of what he/she must do with it. The unbridled consumerism of Luna is not enough to give him/her purpose. And so he is endlessly seeking. Steel Beach is a wonderful exploration into the nature of humanity. But it is neither lecturing nor boring. The first person exposition is witty, whimsical, at times laugh out loud funny, while remaining insightful and interesting. I loved this book.

Altered Carbon – Richard Morgan

This book blew me away. After five or six pages I was hooked. Very cool cyberpunk/noir in a future where bodies can used (as “sleeves”) almost like clothes (albeit very expensive ones; a normal person can only afford one “extra” body and thus double his lifespan). This naturally raises some rather intriguing philosophical questions about mortality (or the lack of it), but also about how the legal system would work under the circumstances. All this is but a backdrop for a fabulous crime thriller told in the first person. It is clear that Morgan was very much inspired by Blade Runner (down to the robotic voice saying “Cross now. Cross Now. Cross Now” at a zebra crossing). The gloomy, indifferent outlook of our hero is similar, and it is answered by a similar outlook from his surroundings. The onlyshortcoming with this book is that the plot becomes a bit convoluted at times. All in all, a very very nice read.

The Commonwealth Saga – Peter F. Hamilton

These two books are simply two volumes of the same novel, dubbed the Commonwealth Saga. With the invention of wormhole technology by straight arrow Nigel Sheldon and eccentric Ozzie Isaacs, traditional space exploration (vacuum, spaceships, all that kind of thing) is all but abandoned. Rail lines running between worlds through wormholes are the only means of interstellar transport, and humanity is rapidly expanding to many planets.

Hamilton seems to have been inspired by Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon when it comes to rejuvenation technology, although there are differences. Practical immortality is available to all but the very poor. Most people pay money into a sort of pension fund which pays for rejuvenation. The more well to do rejuvenate more often, staying forever young. This has brought about a maturing of humanity, where planning is much more long-term. Careers span decades and centuries. The rich can take entire “sabbatical lives”.

These two massive upheavals, longevity and cheap transportation over interstellar distances, have led to an unprecedented period of growth and prosperity for human society. A commonwealth unites the worlds. The Commonwealth is nominally a democracy, but the reins of power are firmly in the hands of dynasties rich enough to own entire planets. A utopia of sorts, but not really a democracy despite outward appearances.

A mysterious stellar event far outside the human sphere of influences forces the construction of a starship. It is the first one ever built. Former astronaut (immortality remember?) Wilson Kime captains the mission, which leads to the escape of the greatest threat humanity has ever faced from its ancient prison. And it soon becomes clear that the escape was not entirely an accident. There are mysterious forces at work inside the Commonwealth.

In the tradition of that other (even more) massive Hamilton opus, Night’s Dawn, this story is a somewhat daunting cornucopia of characters and interweaving subplots. This author can get away with it, since even his explanatory filler is eminently enjoyable. An immensely rich societal backdrop forms the stage for a drama with some very unexpected twists and turns. The most insignificant details come back to haunt the characters in what is obviously a very finely and meticulously crafted story. The end of Pandora’s Star is a massive cliffhanger and the story picks right back up in Judas Unchained, so I would recommend reading the two volumes back to back.

The story is peppered with wondrous things such as the Silfen, an enigmatic race of aliens, and their even more enigmatic forest paths, which lead seamlessly from world to world. Even the enemy is fascinating and an example of a true non-human intellect. There are bizarre, enigmatic and just generally cool characters such as super investigator Paula Myo, slut turned reporter Mellanie Rescorai, the orphan Orion, cult leaders, resistance warriors, criminals and politicians. A tangled web held together elegantly by Hamilton.

The story moves from utopia through gathering storm through all-out chaos and war to a spectacular conclusion, and is finally neatly put to bed in the epilogue. The true genius of Hamilton is that his universe is not populated by 20th Century humans living long lives and using wormholes. Society and its inhabitants are quite different, reflecting the changes in society and culture brought about by technological advances. Motivations, reactions and behaviors are believably described for these “future humans” (and aliens), just as a 17th Century human would behave differently from us.

It should be clear by now that this novel is among the very best I have ever read. Sure, one could criticize the perhaps unnecessarily long road chase in the second volume, or the seeming abandonment of a few supporting characters at the end. But the truth is that it is very very difficult to write something this long, with so many character relationships, and not run into the occasional pacing problem.

So stop reading this and order the books. You will not be disappointed. And if you want more, Hamilton returns to the Commonwealth Universe and many of the characters in the Void Trilogy, set over a thousand years later.