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.

Sleepover – Alastair Reynolds

Sixty-year old Gaunt, a billionaire in his previous life, is woken up from the hibernation he entered in order to sleep his way to a future where medical technology would have evolved towards clinical immortaliy. But the future is not what he expected. He finds himself on a massive platform in the Southern Atlantic Ocean, as part of a caretaker crew for billions of sleeping humans.

This short story started as notes for a novel, and has a very interesting premise. As post-apocalyptic scenarios go, it is certainly one of the most original I have read. Mr. Reynolds’s masterful prose makes the whole thing flow smoothly.

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.

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 – 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.

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.

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.

Revenger – Alastair Reynolds

Fura Ness and her sister are adolescents on a little planetoid, growing up under an overprotective widowed father whose business fortunes are poor at best. They escape from home to make money crewing on a ship plying the spaceways for treasure left over from fallen civilizations. But on their first journey, things go horribly wrong. Fura vows revenge on the pirate captain who destroyed her life.

The style of this novel verges on Young  Adult, and the story itself, while enjoyable, is nothing that stands out. The setting, however, is fascinating and inventive. The star system is full of wordlets and space habitats, having been “occupied” at least thirteen times over millions of years by various empires and polities. The current civilization sustains itself partly on picking up loot from asteroids protected by periodically inactive force fields. The loot can be anything from decorative items to ancient and powerful weapons. I was somewhat disappointed that more aspects of this setting were not explored, especially the mysterious origin of the “cuoins” used as currency.

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 toxi 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

Slow Bullets – Alastair Reynolds

SlowBulletsIn the final days of a devastating war, the conscript soldier Scur is captured and tortured for sport by a war criminal. She is left for dead but manages to survive. She is on her way home, in hibernation on a starship, but on awakening discovers that the ship is malfunctioning and in orbit around an unknown planet. It turns out that thousands of years have passed and human civilization has fallen. On the ship, factions of “dregs”, criminals and misfits from the war, must now make peace.

A dark, melancholy tone pervades this novelette. It is soon clear that Scur is writing down for posterity her memoirs of the difficult time that defined her life. While hope remains, indeed must prevail, she knows that she will not see the dreams of her band come to fruition in her lifetime. More interesting is the fact that those who remain are the outcasts and misfits; those that the rest of civilization wanted out of sight. As so often with Mr. Reynolds, the vastness and frightening nature of the Universe makes the reader feel small and frightened. By gradually unfolding the story through the memory of Scur, the scary truth is only slowly revealed, but the fact that it is a scary truth is always hinted at.

Full disclosure: My copy was kindly provided by Tachyon Publications.

4Rosbochs

Strands of Sorrow (Black Tide Rising IV) – John Ringo

BlackTideRising4StrandsofSorrowThe fourth and last book in Black Tide Rising sees the beginning of major zombie clearance on the US mainland, with the retaking of some large coastal bases, and planning for the re-establishment of proper civilization beyond survival. Given the clearance of the bases, more and more surviving higher officers start to appear, some of whom are unable to adapt to the “new military”.

Throughout the series, Ringo has approached the zombie problem from a logical perspective. Once the survivors have gotten through the initial collapse of society and achieved a modicum of organization, ridding the world of all those zombies becomes a logistical issue. While the discussions on said logistics are interesting per se, they do not an action novel make. Furthermore, given that what action is now relatively safe for our heroes, there is not a huge amount of tension. Mr. Ringo is as always a very funny author so the novel is still a page turner, but sadly the subject matter and the way it is treated makes this one less engaging than most of his works. The novel also verges further into “preachy” about the military and the right wing than even the author’s usual, and that part got old fast.

3Rosbochs

 

Insurgent (Divergent II) – Veronica Roth

Divergent2InsurgentImmediately following the events in Divergent, Tris and Four escape the city to the Amity compound. However they must soon return in order to deal with the Erudite threat. The faction system is broken beyond repair, but what will come after?

After the promising start with Divergent, this book was a serious disappointment. The conceptual simplicity that worked in the first book turns against itself as the story becomes more complex. The many twists and turns seem put in there to create events for their own sake, without a clear direction to the story. While the parts where Tris has to confront her own fate are still gripping, they are lost in the white noise of a confused plot. It felt as if I was reading a badly written action TV series episode. Just as in Divergent, there are interesting themes of social structure and change in this book, but they too are lost in the noise.

On a side note, I was continually irritated at the slapdash way in which guns and tactics are portrayed. I’m not expecting Ms. Roth to be an expert on weaponry, but a little research would have gone a long way. Even a beta reader with a modicum of knowledge could have polished those bits and explained what words like bullet, clip and chamber actually mean. I also felt that a faction like Dauntless could perhaps be expected to have better tactics than a bunch of eight-year-olds attacking a tree fort.

2½Rosbochs

Divergent (Divergent I) – Veronica Roth

Divergent1DivergentIn a post-apocalyptic Chicago, humans are divided into five factions. Amity grows crops and pursues simple happiness and friendship. Candor resolves disputes and pursues honesty. Abnegation helps people, rules without seeking power, and pursues selflessness. Erudite pursues knowledge. Dauntless defends the city, keeps order and pursues bravery. Many have no faction, and are second class citizens. When a faction member turns sixteen he or she must choose a faction, with an aptitude test for guidance. Most stay with their own faction, but some transfer. Beatrice is a young Abnegation. After her test results show her to be Divergent, that is not showing aptitude for any faction and rather too independent-minded for her own good, she chooses Dauntless. Most of the book is about her initiation into Dauntless, on the surface a half-mad group of daredevils who believe in bravery before anything. But trouble is brewing among the factions. While the faction system has kept the peace for generations, tensions have inevitably grown, and are about to release.

Fair warning. This is young adult fiction and you have to squint quite a bit to see past the logic holes of the faction system (who keeps those trains running?) but Ms. Roth does not invite us to peer too deeply into the inner workings. In any case that would be missing the point, which is to delve into how humans cannot be so deeply constrained by a society. Who can say at sixteen what he will choose as a lifestyle and vocation for the rest of his life? The background of the factions, and especially of a new faction from the protagonist’s point of view, illustrate how difficult growing up can be if you don’t fit it.

Tris as a young protagonist is rather classic. A girl who finds her inner bravery. However the way she is written in the first person present is excellent, especially the moments of deep terror and fear. Ms. Roth has infused Beatrice with tangible and realistic personal growth.

While it rather light reading, I quite enjoyed this novel.

4Rosbochs

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

 

Islands of Rage and Hope (Black Tide Rising III) – John Ringo

BlackTideRising3IslandsofRageandHopeAfter consolidating through the North Atlantic hurricane season, Wolf Squadron moves on to capture Guantanamo Bay and liberate the Marines trapped there. Our heroes then mow through a few Caribbean islands in search of vaccine production materials, a quest which eventually leads them to an unlikely place.

New Marines means Shewolf has to convince new people that her way is the correct way. Unsurprisingly, taking orders from a thirteen year old Second Lieutenant is hard for those who have not seen her in action. Unfortunately, interpersonal issues, and the organizational tangles stemming from them, take up too large a portion of the book. There are some very interesting discussions on leadership but they too often take the form of infodumps from senior officers, who always seem to have more knowledge than any average person. Having said that, this is Ringo and as usual with him the novel is a page turner, especially the last third where the action really picks up. The humor, also as usual with Ringo, is dry and hilarious.

3½Rosbochs

 

The Accidental Time Machine – Joe Haldeman

TheAccidentalTimeMachineIn the not-too-distant future, MIT graduate student Matt Fuller has just completed a graviton generator for his professor. He tests it and it disappears, only to reappear a second later. Further experimentation shows that the generator has, quite by accident and unexplainably, acquired the ability to jump forward in time. Matt figures out a way to go with it. There’s a catch, though. Every jump is longer than the previous one in a geometric progression, and Matt calculates that the jumps will very soon be hundreds of thousands of years long, then millions, and ever growing. Wanting to escape his personal circumstances at the time, Matt starts jumping forward.

As usual with Mr. Haldeman, the tale takes an unexpected turn somewhere down the line, in a good way. Matt travels to future societies both regressed and far progressed from our current one. This is not uniquely a touristic exploration of possible futures, however. At the core there lies a logically carved out path, interestingly ambiguous in its treatment of predestination and free will. The personal story and growth of Matt, a down-on-his-luck and rather lazy graduate student, adds a charming and personal dimension to the tale, and ensures that despite the subject matter, the novel is softer than the rock-hard science fiction of classics like The
Time Machine
or A World Out of Time.

4½Rosbochs

 

To Sail a Darkling Sea (Black Tide Rising II) – John Ringo

BlackTideRisingIIToSailaDarklingSeaBook two of Black Tide Rising picks up shortly after Under a Graveyard Sky. Wolf Squadron is now well on its way to being a reasonably organized naval military force. Faith “Shewolf” Smith is a legend after initial difficult zombie clearance actions, and her sister Sophia “Seawolf” Smith is not far behind as a boat captain. The story is fairly straight forward and mainly deals with the growing pains of squadron, the formalization of military command over it, and the introduction of new characters.

Unlike the first book, there is no backs-to-the-wall-with-everything-on-the-line combat, nor is the survival of most of the characters really in question. A setup book necessary for the continuation of the series. Having said that, Mr. Ringo’s trademark humor, his lively characters and his knack for snappy dialogue make it a thoroughly enjoyable read. I also loved the emerging anti-zombie mechanical devices.

4Rosbochs

Slow Apocalypse – John Varley

SlowApocalypseA screenwriter living in the Hollywood Hills gets advance warning of a coming disaster, a nanopathogen that renders oil supplies useless. Thinking itself a little mad, he nevertheless stocks up on supplies such as canned food and water. Pretty soon there are gas shortages, and it is clear that society is slowly unraveling while the government is hiding the truth. Things get worse and the small hill community where our hero lives buttons up, barricading the access road to prevent refugees from coming in. Then a massive Earthquake brought on by the destruction of the Los Angeles oil fields hits. Fire, flood and anarchy ensue.

Unlike many post-apocalyptic stories, this one isn’t about a superbly prepared person or group. Our hero is simply a normal person, and he does make mistakes. Varley’s skill at bringing characters to life really shines in this book. The struggle is personal, and those with real power are far away, unknowable, and untrustworthy. The big moral of the story is of course how very dependent the world is on oil. What would happen if all the oil reserves in the world vanished within the space of a few weeks? Society would break down very quickly, especially in big cities dependent on cars like Los Angeles.

4Rosbochs