A Prayer for the Crown-Shy (Monk and Robot II) – Becky Chambers

With Dex’s ostensible quest to the Hermitage in the wilderness completed, they and the robot Mosscap venture into human lands, where a robot has not been seen in generations. They are met everywhere with curiosity and wonder as Mosscap asks anyone he meets what they “need”. But the answers are not what it is expecting.

As in the first novella, the characters are on quests that lead them to unexpected places. The second book bookends the story neatly, with the robot as a stranger among humans, while the first book was about the human as a stranger in the wilderness. The story further explores how wonder at the nature of the Universe and existence seem universal regardless of what form consciousness takes. The reader is left feeling happy and full of ponderings.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built (Monk & Robot I) – Becky Chambers

On the moon Panga, human society is a well-ordered, pleasant, and supportive idyll. Part of a monastic order, Sibling Dex finds themselves yearning for something more, something wild. They obsess over cricket sounds. They abandon the order to become a “tea monk,” traveling around Panga, dispensing tea in return for listening to people’s concerns, fears, and thoughts. A sort of traveling therapist, shoulder to cry on, or friend-on-call. But the wild still calls to Dex, who decides to strike out into actual wilderness. Here he encounters a robot. But robots haven’t been seen in many generations, after they were freed and subsequently left human society entire to live in the wild.

This novella isn’t one of great action or momentous events, but instead an exploration of what it means to be human, and in a wider sense to be alive at all. The interactions between Dex and the robot Mosscap are sublime, as they traverse from awkward metting to awkward companionship to tentative friendship, all the while discussing and debating what it means to be natural versus manufactured, and the purpose of existence. A feel-good story that makes the reader sense a deeper meaning.

On the Steel Breeze (Poseidon’s Children II) – Alastair Reynolds

PoseidonsChildren2OntheSteelBreezeAfter the events in Blue Remembered Earth, the stars are open to humanity. The mysterious alien artifact Mandala, on the planet Crucible twenty-eight light years away, becomes the destination for a swarm of huge spaceships constructed from hollowed-out asteroids. Chiku Akinya is the daughter of Sunday Akinya, one of the protagonists of the first book. She has undergone an unusual procedure, creating two clones of herself and implanting neural machines that synchronize memories. Chiku is three individuals, but also one through the shared memories. One copy, known as Chiku Red, departs to recover great-grandmother’s lost spaceship, fast leaving the vicinity of the Solar System. Another, Chiku Green, joins the asteroid ship exodus on its way to Crucible. The last, Chiku Yellow, remains on Earth. The latter two are the main protagonists. As the distance between Chiku Green and Chiku Yellow increases, so does the communication lag, and the story jumps decades forward in time to keep the rhythm, skipping seamlessly between the two to emulate their shared memories.

Even more than in the first book, the main theme is about the nature of intelligence. Can machine and organic intelligences co-exist? Another major theme is the nature of aging. As life extension is more and more perfected, senescence becomes a rare thing, to the point the withholding of anti-aging procedures is used as a punishment for one of the characters. How does this affect humans?

Unfortunately, this installment suffers from the same issues as the first book. The book seems overlong and the pace is ponderous. The story itself is not very powerful, serving more as a backdrop to a philosophical discussion.


Blue Remembered Earth (Poseidon’s Children I) – by Alastair Reynolds

PoseidonsChildrenIBlueRememberedEarthThe story is set in the second half of the 23rd Century. Mankind has colonized Mars and the Moon, and has expanded industrial concerns into Trans-Neptunian space. Earth, long ravaged by climate change and pollution, is slowly recovering. In most of human society, the “Mechanism”, a sort  of benevolent big brother, and compulsory neural implants have practically eradicated violence and crime. Robots and proxies (advanced telepresence), are everywhere. The Akinya family from Tanzania has been instrumental in the expansion into space, or more accurately the family matriarch, Eunice Akinya, a legendary deep space explorer and pioneer industrialist. As the book starts, Eunice has just died. For the last sixty of her one hundred and sixty years, she has been living in enigmatic isolation in the Winter Palace, a habitat orbiting the Moon. As the family gathers to scatter her ashes, a loose end appears. A previously unknown safe deposit rental on the Moon. Geoffrey Akinya, one of Eunice’s grandchildren, is reluctantly roped into retrieving the contents. What he finds will start him and his sister Sunday off on a treasure hunt to the remote wilderness of the Moon, then to Mars, and beyond.

The concept of making the African continent prominent is an interesting one. Today, the common western view of Africa is that of a lost continent continually ravaged by poverty, war and disease. In this book, Africa has become a center of high civilization, and Swahili is one of the lingua francas of humanity. The setting is intricately designed, with robots, proxies and neural interfaces prevalent. This brings about some interesting aspects of the “what is consciousness” discussion, as advanced autonomous machine intelligences are one of the potential futures envisaged. On the other hand, the group known as the “Pans” sees evolution of humans themselves as the way forward, in order to avoid humans becoming sessile with proxies doing the exploration and the discovery.

The story itself is not the strongest part of this book. It is adequate enough though, and the characters follow its meanderings more as a way to explore the nature of humanity and consciousness than to actually get to the payoff at the end.

This is a long book, and while I don’t mind per se, it is rather ponderous. Mr. Reynolds writes with a smooth and easily read style but I still think the book could have been shorter. The protagonist Geoffrey is rather interesting; initially an unwilling actor in events who is slowly drawn in until he drives them.


One Day on Mars (Tau Ceti Agenda I) – Travis S. Taylor

The entire plot is set, not entirely unexpectedly, during one day on Mars. The United States is now a Solar System wide government that even extends to a few extrasolar colonies. However, a nation of separatists exists in a “reservation” on Mars. On this day, the separatists attack the United States. The book follows the military actions, and the unexpected plan of the separatists.

As a military science fiction action book, this is a pretty good one. Stuffed with action scenes involving futuristic weapons like shape-shifting robots (think Transformers that can become fighter plane, robot, tank), the book drags you along at a furious pace. So far so good. The backstory, filled in over the course of the novel, is interesting, telling how the United States has become ever more detached from its original ideals of true democracy and representation. The president runs instant polls to figure out how to deal with crises instead of making decisions on his own. The separatists don’t shy away from atrocities. They also decry the current United States, and see themselves as defenders of the freedom of individuals to make their own choices. One thing that bugged me was the sub-par editing, especially in the first half of the book. There is an excess of spelling and grammatical errors, as well as some poor style. This is especially irritating given Baen Books’ typically high standards in that department.

Bolos – Created by Keith Laumer

Bolos are huge self-aware robotic battle tanks/mobile fortresses. Throughout a very long history of wars and conflicts, they have served humanity selflessly.

After Laumer’s death, Baen thought to resurrect the Bolos with a series of anthologies featureing a variety of authors. There is some excellent, some good, and some less good, but the overall quality is surprisingly high. It is military SciFi in a very pure form, and many will probably be put off by this. I have read the first four books:

  • Bolos Book 1 – Honor of the Regiment
  • Bolos Book 2 – The Unconquerable
  • Bolos Book 3 – The Triumphant
  • Bolos Book 4 – Last Stand

Robots and Empire – Isaac Asimov

On the “Spacer” planet of Aurora, the woman Gladia’s life is a long succession of days filled with ennnui. Despite being descended from the first humans to settle other planets, her society is stagnating. Spacers live long, empty lives. Robots run all menial work and intricate rules of conduct control much of life. Into this drops D.G. Baley, descendant of Elijah Baley of The Caves of Steel and The Robots of Dawn (when Gladia met Elijah). Baley is a “Settler”, part of a new wave of colonizers from Earth who are much more dynamic than the Spacers, and are overtaking them in influence. The Settlers oppose the Spacers. He asks Gladia to come with him to help investigate a mystery. Meanwhile, powerful men plot the defeat of the Settlers.

This is the last Robot novel by Asimov. It is part of his efforts to unify the Robot series with the Empire/Foundation series. Asimov has great ideas as usual but I found the writing hopelessly tedious. The fact that the Spacers are amazingly annoying people, haughty, self-centered and stuck up, does not help matters. I kept thinking that if I met Gladia I would have wanted to slap her. She is constantly bitching and moaning about trivialities.

As usual with Asimov, there is almost only dialogue and very little actual action. That is not a bad thing per se, but here it has been taken to an absurd extreme. Robot Daneel and Robot Giskard spend page after page discussing events (such as there are) in excruciating detail. No eventuality or possibility is left undiscussed. One character, on two separate occasions, refuses to listen to something he needs to hear until he is convinced that he needs to hear it. Both times it is a 5-10 page ordeal. I know Asimov is trying to make the point that Spacer society is stagnating and is stuck with all these rules, but it makes reading very boring. Overall, that would be the word to describe this novel: boring.

I made it two thirds in before giving up.