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.

Black Triumph (Dark Victory III) – Brendan Dubois

Following the events of Red Vengeance, now Lieutenant Randy Knox is captured by the alien Creepers. What he finds in Creeper captivity is horrific in many ways, with human living as weird prisoners, typically without defined parameters for their captivity, and no prospect of change.

While the book does provide a conclusion to the Dark Victory series, the whole thing goes out with a whimper. Much of the action seems unrelated to the main story, only serving to vaguely illustrate the fact that the Creepers are aliens, and as such do not have easily fathomable behaviours or motivations. This turns the novel into a bit of a slog, in sharp contrast to the previous books.

In the first two books, the Creepers were a faceless evil. Once the evil is explained, it comes out as rather anticlimactic, with an ending that feels tacked on and unsatisfactory.

The Windup Girl – Paolo Bacigalupi

Bangkok in the 22nd century. In a post-hydrocarbon economy, rising oceans are kept at bay by seawalls and pumps. Genetic engineering has unleashed disastrous mutations, regularly generating deadly plagues. The world would starve except for the powerful American calorie companies, selling rice and grain to the world; sterile so that the customer remains dependent. Calories are everything, with humans and modified elephants generating power stored in springs for use in everything from ceiling fans to scooters. Gone is the old “Expansion economy”. Skyscrapers, deprived of the ease of powered elevators, have become slums.

The Kingdom of Thailand seems to have retained a seed bank from before the collapse; an invaluable treasure in a world where crops regularly fail and succumb to ever-evolving blights. Undercover as a Western industrialist, “Calorie Man” Anderson Lake is on a mission to find it and unlock its secrets. Meanwhile, the Thai Environment Ministry and Trade Ministry clash. One protects the crops and people from outside influence, while the other seeks outside contacts. It is a natural rivalry, and in this fierce, bleak and cruel future, the rivalry frequently degenerates into violence.

Emiko is a Japanese “windup girl”, a genetically created “New Person”, an artificial but fully sentient pseudo-human created to aid the aging Japanese population. She is reviled by the Thais, who see her as an abomination and would gladly kill her on sight. Abandoned by her master when he returned to Japan, she must now work in a brothel, shown off as a perverse oddity. She was created to aid humanity, but ironically humanity’s creation is the unexpected chaos element which inadvertently lays waste to the best-laid plans. On the nose, perhaps, but an excellent metaphor.

The world-building is stupendous, deep and intricate. While the reader can certainly poke holes in the logic of the technological infrastructure, in particular the ubiquitous ultra-powerful springs, and the ecosystem sending energy into them, these work well as a plot device. The restricted first-person perspective of the chapters forces the reader to immerse himself in the world and its bleak, fatalistic nature.

The heritage and tropes of past colonialism and its perhaps inevitable resurgence as the world once again grows more connected is a strong theme. Are certain cultures more prone to imperialist ambitions? What are the costs and benefits for cultures with natural resources to open up to those who seek to exploit them? What is the cost of internal division in the face of external pressure? Can either party learn from past mistakes, or are they just fueling a spiral into destruction?

The novel is full of astute and insightful observations of Thai and Chinese culture, as well as the behaviour of Westerners in East and Southeast Asia. An oftentimes depressing read, but a very impressive novel that stays with the reader for a long time.

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.

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.

 

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.

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.

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.

Red Vengeance (Dark Victory II) – Brendan Dubois

The second book picks up directly after Dark Victory. After the surprising events at the end of the first book, Randy is seconded to a regular army unit. And it seems that the Creepers are hunting him specifically.

While not quite as good as Dark Victory, this is a fine continuation of the story. It does raise more questions about the motivation of the Creepers, but there are clearly more books coming.

Dark Victory (Dark Victory I) – Brendan Dubois

Ten years after the Creepers attacked Earth and decimated the population, the United States is reduced to a nineteenth century existence. Any significant use of power or radio results in an orbital strike. Creepers roam the landscape in almost impregnable exoskeletons, burning and killing. Randy Knox is a sixteen year old Sergeant in the New Hampshire National Guard. He has been in the service four years. A veteran soldier with several kills under his belt, but also a teenager who attends school and thinks about girls a lot. One day, Randy receives orders to escort a government emissary to the capital.

While flirting with the Young Adult genre, this feels like a more mature tale. Mr. Dubois has woven an intense story full of action, courage and desperate choices. Randy is a hero, but an imperfect one, prone to brusque outbursts and impatience. A young man hardened by years of bitter warfare. This makes him much more realistic than the more typical young adult protagonist. A great read.

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.

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.”

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

New Moon (Luna I) – Ian McDonald

LunaINewMoonOver several decades, the Moon has developed from harsh frontier to thriving colony. The “Five Dragons”, five industrial dynasties, control the Moon under the aegis of the Lunar Development Corporation. There is no criminal law or civil law, only contract law, and everything is negotiable, including air, water, life and death. It is techno-anarchy or the furthest extreme of capitalism.

The Corta family was the last one of the Five Dragons to attain this lofty status, its company Corta Hélio monopolizing helium extraction and trade. They are seen as upstarts and cowboys. The founder of the dynasty, Adriana Corta, came to the Moon with nothing and now oversees a vast industrial empire. Her children are on the verge of inheriting the corporate reins, and their children in turn are being rich kids in an environment where rich kids can wallow in stylish decadence. But war is brewing as old grudges rise to the surface.

New Moon is an intricate tale set on a world that feels vibrant, alive and full of stories. Mr. McDonald’s world-building is spectacular in its detail and vividness. From the technical guts of Lunar cities to the socioeconomic and cultural consequences of the ultra-capitalist negotiation economy; from the cultural backgrounds of the Lunar immigrants and how they have interacted to create a new, uniquely Lunar culture, this story draws the reader into an immersive environment. The characters behave not simply as people from the Earth today who have been dumped into a science fictional setting, but as people “of the future”. There are many characters and many, many intrigues, but every scene feels immediate and alive. The tale deftly moves from the intimate to the epic and back again, tying the two scales together with the attitudes and experiences of the characters.

4½Rosbochs

 

Arkwright – Allen Steele

Arkwright(Fictional) great science fiction Nathan Arkwright started his career during the Golden Age of Science Fiction, and now he is is dying. In the course of his long career and long retirement, he has seen humanity go from being optimistic and visionary, dreaming of a bright future among the stars, to altogether more introverted and seemingly lacking in outward ambition. He decides to start a foundation with the aim of sending forth humanity among the stars.

The novel is episodic, with the first part retrospective on Arkwright himself, starting way back before WWII. Here, Steele has woven Arkwright’s life into that of the science fiction at the time, including encounters with many of the luminaries of that era. The whole thing is wonderfully meta.

Further episodes are about future generations, descendants of the man himself, as they deal with challenges faced by the Arkwright Foundation while constructing and launching the starship Galactique. The last episode delves more deeply into the future.

While the message is clear (“The Future is what we make of it.”), the novel is not preachy. The starship project is epic, but Mr. Steele makes it about the people involved and their personal dramas and tribulations. The feel of the novel is reminiscent of early Clarke, with its epic scale and sense of destiny. A great read.

4½Rosbochs

Rescue Mode – Ben Bova & Les Johnson

RescueModeThe year is 2035, and the first manned mission to Mars is getting underway.
During the long transit, disaster strikes and our heroes must find a way to survive.

While the story itself is engaging in an adventure novel kind of way, the prose is not. Much of the dialogue feels written to explain things to the reader. It makes the characters look clueless about the systems and concepts they should be experts on. It is also rather corny most of the time.

The social sensibilities are very old fashioned. Males taking the lead and feeling protective about women even if those women are highly trained astronauts. The technology doesn’t feel very futuristic either. In a nutshell, the book is set in 2035, but feels like 2015, or maybe 1965.

3Rosbochs

Armada – Ernest Cline

ArmadaZack Lightman is a typical teenager living in a small town in Oregon. He is about to graduate high school. He works part time in a vintage video game shop. He plays the hit space combat game “Armada” quite a bit, with a player ranking of sixth worldwide. He also plays the companion ground combat game Terra Firma, but is nowhere near as good as his friends. The whole world seems to be playing these games. Then one, day, an Earth Defense Alliance shuttle looking just like in the games turns up at Zack’s school to pick him up for duty. Apparently the alien invaders are real and the games are a training simulation.

Like in his debut novel Ready Player One, Mr. Cline plays heavily on nostalgia and homages to the pop culture of the eighties. The story itself is heavily influenced by The Last Starfighter, which is also is referenced in the text. However in this novel the element feels somewhat forced.

The book is a fun romp and a lighthearted read. However it feels rushed and unfinished. The reader is left with the impression that there is so much left to say about these characters, but the story moves on rails, far too rapidly tracking towards what is a predictable conclusion despite the too obvious twist.

3½Rosbochs

 

Trial Run (Fault Lines I) – Thomas Locke

TrialRunA research team based based in Switzerland has discovered a way to disconnect the mind from the body and project it to other places and times, even into the future. They call it an “ascent”, and it allows access to secret information hidden away in vaults, as well as knowledge of future events. Clandestine elements of the US government have gotten their hands on this research, and are working to subvert it for their own purposes. Meanwhile, a graduate student named Trent Major is seemingly visited by his future self in vivid dreams. The future self gives him information allowing him to perform research breakthroughs.

Mr. Locke has written a tightly plotted thriller, in style reminding me more than a little of Michael Crichton. It does unfortunately leave the reader in the dark about the nature of the ascent for what seems a frustratingly long time. Once revealed, the ascent process, which is central to the plot, is always frustratingly close to pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo. The parameters of the process are never clearly defined and it is difficult to establish what is or is not possible in terms of plot.

Many characters are introduced at the start, but I found it difficult to keep track of them until about halfway through the book. Certainly there is some confusion as to which characters are actually the protagonists. Some of these characters are secretive in their profession and this trait seems to spill over into their descriptions. Others are cookie-cutter caricatures of their professional personas. I had a hard time feeling empathy for any of the characters, with the possible exception of Shane and Trent. Character development and description is rather forced. And how many times do we need to be reminded that Charlie Hazard is a combat veteran and security specialist?

A final nitpick is that objects are frequently prefixed with “the” on the first description. For example, “the trio of electric carts” suddenly appears but it has never been discussed before.

While it has imperfections, and was somewhat confusing at the start, the story certainly sped up in the second half, even into page-turner territory.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Revell in exchange for my honest review.

 

3Rosbochs

 

Earthbound (Marsbound III) – Joe Haldeman

Marsbound3EarthboundAfter the massive cliffhanger at the end of Starbound, our heroes are stuck on Earth. The Others have stopped all electrics and electronics from functioning. Civilization is collapsing and things are generally looking grim.

Compared to the previous two volumes, the concluding book is nowhere near as good. The premise is clever and intriguing, but it devolves quickly into a story about how to survive the end of civilization. The epic storyline dealing with the Others and what place humanity will have in relation to them, which has been the main thrust of the plot in the first two books, is almost completely ignored. Spy makes a couple of appearances, but what they mean is never explained. Much of the story seems rather random. The monumental deux ex machina at the end is simply adding insult to injury. If you’ve read the first two books, by all means read on to find out what happens with Carmen in the end, but also be thankful the book is short.

2½Rosbochs

 

Starbound (Marsbound II) – Joe Haldeman

Marsbound2StarboundIn the sequel to Marsbound, Carmen and Paul, along with a few other human and Martian crew members, are tasked with an interstellar exploratory mission to the presumed home planet of the Others. Despite the “free energy” discovered in the previous book, the trip will take years, skimming the speed of light. But do the Others appreciate the intrusion? And what do they really want?

Most of the book is about the trip itself, and the psychological challenges of living for years in a confined space while hurtling towards what the crew thinks is probably doom. The last part sees humanity confronted once again with the judgment of the mysterious Others. These aliens seem to see humanity as somewhere between clumsy child and dangerous but manageable pest. The fact that humanity is hopelessly outclassed, and can only use its action to prove intent, gives an interesting perspective, as does the fact that the human emissaries feel that those who sent them out really don’t understand the problem. The ending is a massive cliffhanger, leading directly to the third and final book.

Haldeman does not disappoint, with his trademark unexpected but internally consistent logical plot twists. His characters, this time described from three different first person viewpoints, are flawed and realistic, down to little marital niggles that most would rather keep hidden even from themselves.

4Rosbochs

Marsbound (Marsbound I) – Joe Haldeman

Marsbound1MarsboundCarmen Dula is nineteen years old when she moves to the Mars base with her family on a five-year assignment. She is an intelligent, level-headed (remote) college student who falls in love with the pilot. The journey and stay present challenges large and small, both regarding survival itself and getting along with the other residents. Then one day she wants to spend some time alone and unwisely takes a walk outside without a buddy. She falls into a hole and is rescued by a Martian.

Wait, what? I did not see that twist coming. I thought this was going to be about colonizing Mars. I suppose I should have read the blurb which blatantly alludes to it. As so often happens with Haldeman, the familial way in which his first-person protagonist speaks to the reader lulls us into a sense of false security about where the story is going to go. What starts out small and almost ordinary balloons out or proportion in unexpected directions as suddenly this everyman (or in this case everywoman) has to make decisions that affect the entire human race.

4Rosbochs

The Martian – Andy Weir

TheMartianEarly on during the third mission to Mars, the crew has to leave prematurely during a storm. Mark Watney is hit by flying debris, specifically an antenna, and carried away from the others. The rest of the crew have no choice but to leave him behind. He is presumed dead due to his bio-monitor being disabled by the impact. But he’s not dead. And now he has to survive on Mars with no communications and limited resources until, somehow, he can be rescued.

From the very first page, I could not put this book down. It grabs the reader instantly and leads him on a long and arduous journey with Watney. Most of the book is written as log entries by Watney himself, and that’s what really makes it shine. “Watney’s” entries reflect his character, which is that of a wise-cracking, self-deprecating, profane, laugh-out-loud funny smartass who is forced to become MacGyver on a planet that, as he puts it, is constantly trying to kill him. Even chemistry becomes funny when written like this, and the almost flow of consciousness style allows frequent and often hilarious tangents. After a log entry about how he will need to use his botany skills and experiment supplies to grow food, the next day’s entry simply reads, “I wonder how the Cubs are doing”. This personal voice makes Watney feel like a real person, not a superhuman hero, and it makes the reader connect with him viscerally. I can’t remember the last time I’ve laughed so often while reading a book, which is not bad considering that it is a story about a man who is an inch away from dying from the first page to the last.

5Rosbochs