Worlds (Worlds I) – Joe Haldeman

Marianne O’Hara grew up in New New York, one of multiple “Worlds”, large orbital habitats supporting hundreds of thousands of people. The Worlds are varied, socially liberal, and very different from the less progressive Earth. Marianne is sent on a one year study trip to Earth, to immerse herself in Earth culture and society. While in “Old” New York, enrolled at NYU, culture clash sets in quickly, and she is exposed to the awful realities of American society. The larger story involves how the Worlds are inexorably moving towards independence. They provide energy and materials to Earth, mostly America, in return for specialised goods, and hydrogen. The discovery of hydrogen deposits in space precipitates the problem, as Earth powers see their influence slipping away.

This book has aged badly, mostly due to its depiction of life in New York and other places on Earth. This is a New York stuck in the seventies, with rampant violent crime, prostitution around Times Square, muggings and rapes. In contrast, O’Hara’s “free love” upbringing leans heavily on late 60s tropes. The technology is all tapes and recordings and long distance phone calls. The development of nations in the world is very much seen from a late seventies lens, for example the merger of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

The characters are well fleshed out, especially the protagonist. Seeing this Earth from a foreigner’s lens paints an ugly picture, which is presumably what Mr. Haldeman intended. The use of narrative devices such as diary entries, phone call transcripts and letters is interesting but can sometimes feel disjointed.

All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders

Teens Patricia and Laurence go to the same school. They could not be more different in background and interests, but they do have two things in common. They are both very odd, and they are both severely bullied. As a young child, Patricia had a surreal experience in which she talked to birds. Or maybe she was just dreaming. Laurence is attempting to develop a self-aware computer in his bedroom closet. Their parents are completely unable, even actively unwilling, to connect with their children. The two youngsters find solace and friendship in each other; kindred spirits despite their seemingly diametrally opposed ways of seeing the world. Eventually, Patricia ends up going to witch school, and Laurence is set on his path to tech whiz stardom.

Years later, the two reconnect in San Francisco. The world is by now in a bad place, with looming eco-catastrophe and global tensions. A feeling of the end times permeates the zeitgeist. Patricia’s realm of magic and Laurence’s dabbling in hypertechnological machinery on the fringes of known science seem completely incompatible. And yet the two protagonists stumble towards each other, sometimes bouncing off each other’s misunderstandings and prejudices. But all the while inexorably building a friendship of trust and commitment.

The novel is full of strange events, which Ms. Anders skillfully describes in a matter of fact prose full of clever and delightfully unexpected turns of phrase. Patricia’s sometimes dreamlike experiences and Laurence’s Silicon Valley free-flow tech world are both strange, and magical, and antagonistic, and they both connect to the world in their own ways. Shining through the sometimes weirdness of the novel’s events and narrative is a story of two imperfect people trying to get on in life. In a metaphor of growing up, they somewhat inevitably end up in the middle of grand events that they wish they could control better, and realise that those who came before them didn’t really know what they were doing either.

Just as much as I enjoyed the book, it is clear that many others will dislike it strongly. It does not seem a novel to which you can be indifferent. And that is a large part of its charm.

Lights in the Deep – Brad R. Torgersen

An anthology of some of Mr. Torgersen’s short stories and novelettes.

I was especially impressed with the bookend stories, Outbound and Ray of Light. Both are post-apocalyptic tales, but infused with a strong sense of hope. The rest are all fine stories as well.

The author is a self-avowed fan of an earlier, less disillusioned era of science fiction. And it shows, in all the best ways. The stories are clearly inspired by classic Orson Scott Card, Larry Niven and Joe Haldeman. But they are not simple rehashings. The ideas are fresh, the characters feel real, and the themes are well developed.

Castaway Resolution (Boundary VI) – Eric Flint & Ryk E. Spoor

With the two castaway groups on Lincoln united, the struggle for survival against a hostile planet continues. Meanwhile, on the nearest colony, stragglers from the initial accident have shown up. This leads an accident investigator to a remarkable discovery. A previously hidden star system, and a faint hope that the castaways might have survived.

The final book in this second Boundary trilogy brings the story to a satisfying conclusion, but the corniness of the dialogue and interaction remain. Everyone is still almost comically rational and humble.

You’re Going to Mars – Rob Dircks

Paper Farris has grown up in Fill City One, an industrial complex extracting goods and fuel from a monumental landfill. She is third generation, her grandmother having signed the family into indentured servitude for eight generations. Meanwhile, an eccentric triillionaire is funding a manned mission to Mars, and offers one spot to the winner of a reality show. To gain a spot on the show, a contestant must participate in a lottery, the tokens for which are in the form of a Scarab. But even if could get hold of one, “Fillers” such as Paper may not leave their cities.

Mr. Dircks has crafted an interesting and fun adventure. Paper Farris is a likeable heroine who is easy to root for, flaws and all. The world is clearly a dystopia, and the reasons it became one are a clear commentary on developments in today’s world. The science and technology elements were something of a let down. While some handwaving was needed to incorporate the McGuffin, a minimum of changes would have made the rest of the techie bits far more realistic.

The Span of Empire (Jao III) – Eric Flint & David Carrico

Caitlin Kralik leads an exploration fleet looking for new allies against the Ekhat. In a bold move, they travel to another galactic arm, finding a civilisation xenophobic and isolationist to the extreme. Making peaceful contact proves tricky. Meanwhile, the Ekhat are plotting the final destruction of the Jao.

Just like in the earlier books, the characterisations of varied races that have found a way to work together is excellent. The various mannerisms of the Jao, the Lleix, and now the Khûrûsh, are fascinating and intricate. While this is clearly military science fiction, the characters are at the forefront at all times. The poetic nature of the Khûrûsh is mentioned as an analogue to Japan prior to the Meiji Restoration. They Khûrûsh also reminded me of Klingons, but of course many aspects of Klingon culture are modeled after Japanese stereotypes.

The extensive parts of the novel that dealt with the Ekhat, while well written, were not nearly as good a read, and the resultant actions did not seem to affect the protagonists beyond the basic outline. The fundamental “unsanity” of the Ekhat was clearly on display, however.

Sadly, K.D. Wentworth died of cancer after writing a few chapters of this book. Mr. Carrico ably took on the task.

Century Rain – Alastair Reynolds

In Paris in 1959, private investigator Wendell Floyd is retained to look into the mysterious death of an American woman. In a parallel story thread set hundreds of years in the future, archeologist Verity Auger comes upon a strange map of twentieth-century Paris, with missing details. Is this the same Paris as the one in her history?

The parts of the story set in 1959 Paris, clearly inspired by Casablanca, read somewhat like the plot of a classic detective noir film. The old flame. The gumshoe detective. The uncomfortable relationship with the police. The rain. It is utterly charming and nostalgic. The parts of the story set in the future are pure Reynolds. Unfortunately, they don’t always mesh well. Mr. Reynolds has come up with a fantastic premise, but perhaps due to the setup, the conclusion feels somewhat forced, though the actual ending is quite satisfying. I felt as if the book was perhaps overlong, and some plot aspects which were not revealed until the last third, seemed overly complex.

Nevertheless, Mr. Reynolds’s marvelous prose and rich, three-dimensional characters are always enjoyable.

Then Will the Sun Rise Alabaster – Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Young nun Sister Josephine is confined to her convent, her life unremarkable and regimented. She was orphaned as a young child, even her birth name taken from her. Any semblance of individuality and freedom was beaten out of her through physical and mental abuse. She has now accepted that this will be her life. Almost. Until one day, a member of the Church’s warrior class comes to the monastery. And everything changes.

This short story is intense. The desperation of a soul about to lose herself is keenly fell but the reader, making the explosiveness of the denouement that much more impactful.

Frozen Orbit – Patrick Chiles

The unexpected firing of Russian missile defence systems at what turns out to be a spacecraft returning from the outer solar system sets off alarms at NASA. Two years later, the Magellan II mission to Pluto sets off to unravel the mystery.

The story is ambitious, casting threads back in history to the end of the Cold War, with a top secret Soviet space project as bonkers as it seems weirdly plausible, making it a fantastic hook for the story. The protagonists are the four crewmembers on the spacecraft Magellan, finely crafted and believable, down to their intelligent and meandering debates on (and with) AI, and regarding the meaning of life. The technical aspects are nicely lacking in logic holes, a must for a novel of this kind.

I very much enjoyed this near-future space adventure. Like any good technothriller, it was hard to put down. Unfortunately, some plot points, such as the expanded use of the hydroponic garden, went from seemingly very important to unresolved later in the book. This left the reader with some disjointedness, though to clear the overall story was paced very well, with an unexpected but logical ending.

Plus I’ve never heard a pilot call the control column a “joystick”, but now I am nitpicking.

The Wrong Unit – Rob Dircks

In a jarringly paradisiacal dystopian future, the small remaining community of humans lives in Sanctuary, a pastoral habitat maintained by an artificial intelligence named CORE. The humans are protected, controlled and helped by servile robots called “units”. It is a gilded cage where CORE is an absolute ruler. A violent insurrection uses a teleporter to transport a clandestine baby and a servile unit far away. But a mistake has been made. Instead of the selected unit, pre-programmed with valuable information about the long term plan, the wrong unit has been sent. This unit, named “Heyoo” (there’s a joke in there) nevertheless rises to the challenge. Together with baby “Wah” (yes, another joke there), Heyoo embarks on an epic quest to save humanity from its misguided captor.

This novel is an absolutely delight. An epic adventure for certain, with action, suspense and buddy comedy vibes. On a deeper level, it is an interesting twin Bildungsroman. In parallel with Wah’s growth from baby to man, Heyoo develops from rather unsophisticated pre-programmed robot into something new; something aspirationally human. A real person. The even deeper theme is that humanity, compassion and sacrifice can be expressed in many ways.

Where the Hell is Tesla (Where the Hell is Tesla I) – Rob Dircks

Deadbeat Chip lands a job at a warehouse full of desks. In one of the desks he finds Nikola Tesla‘s long lost diary, in which the inventor details a means of travel between multiverse dimensions. There is a portal behind a wall in the hotel where Tesla lived for before he vanished. Madcap hijinks adventure ensues, as Chip and his best friend Pete travel between dimensions, get into trouble, and embark on a heroic quest.

With shades of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and reminiscent in style of Kurt Vonnegut, and Frederik Pohl, the story moves along furiously. The book is narrated almost entirely in the form of emails that Chip is typing to his ex-girlfriend Julie. The style is purposefully casual, giving an everyman’s view of events, peppered with profanity and digressions. Tons of fun.

The Brightest Fell – Nupur Chowdhury

After yet another terrorist bombing in the capital of a fictional country, the prime minister urges young maverick scientist Jehan Fasih to speed up trials of a truth drug. The country is in an uneasy peace after a long civil war, and is also under veiled threat from a larger neighbour. The drug which might give the country a tool to stop the violence and stabilise the situation, but this raises some serious ethical issues, not least of which is the fact that it is untested. Faced with this moral dilemma, Jehan reluctantly engineers the removal of the prime minister.

I did not get very far in this book, as the story or characters singularly failed to hold my interest. Meeting after meeting, with constant infodumps to slog through in order to bring the reader up to speed on the backstory. The character of Jehan was rather interesting, but that was about it.

I was provided with a free review copy by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Agency – William Gibson

Verity, an out of work IT professional, interviews for a job at a somewhat mysterious Silicon Valley startup. After she takes the job, they issue her with a phone, a pair of augmented reality glasses, and earbuds. Once she tries them, it appears she is talking to an advanced emergent AI called Eunice, which the company has discovered and want to develop. Pretty soon, things go off the rails as Eunice explores her independence, brining Verity along for the ride. Meanwhile, from a future London of a parallel universe, independent operators contact Verity. They need to use Eunice in order to prevent a looming nuclear war in Verity’s timeline.

The concepts in this novel are complicated, and the reader must pay close attention, especially in the first third. The prose, as usual for Gibson, is terse and razor-sharp, and while it is masterful, it sometimes feels rather too constrained. The way in which Eunice develops her agency and independence, despite the efforts to stop her, is an interesting take on emergent AI.

The Menace from Farside (Luna) – Ian McDonald

This novella is set decades before the events in the Luna Series., when the Moon was already on its way to losing its status as a frontier. Cariad Corcorian and her “siblings” are part of an arrangement known as a Chain Marriage. When one parent moves out and another is set to marry their “mother”, the teens and pre-teens decide to give them a wedding gift in the form of a picture next to the first footstep on the Moon. A foolhardy adventure ensues.

The story flirts with Young Adult fiction, but nevertheless displays the hallmarks of Mr. McDonald’s prose. Deep dives into the particularities of character, radical social structures, and a laying bare of the truth behind relationships.

Auberon (The Expanse VII½) – James S.A. Corey

After the events of Persepolis Rising, humanity is subject to Laconian rule. On a prosperous colony planet, the new Laconian governor arrives. Laconians seem themselves as descendants of Sparta. Principle and virtue above all. But the new governor’s steadfast principles are about to collide with the reality of life outside Laconia.

An excellent novella. Instead of being constrictive, the limited length of the work is used to great advantage, focusing on a particular time and place, whilst illustrating a wider issue.

A Meeting with Medusa (The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke IV) – Arthur C. Clarke

A collection of stories from the late great Arthur C. Clarke. It is difficult to write a consistent review since the variation in tone, content and length is so large. Some are whimsical, some are epic. Some are short and some are long. Almost all showcase Mr. Clarke’s skill in instilling a sense of wonder. The collaboration with Stephen Baxter, about a world where teleportation is commonplace, was particularly thought-provoking.

The Medusa Chronicles – Stephen Baxter & Alastair Reynolds

In this authorized sequel to Arthur C. Clarke’s novella A Meeting with Medusa, Mr. Baxter and Mr. Reynolds explore what happens to Howard Falcon after his fateful adventure in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter.

Back in the 1960s, at the height of the Space Race, an asteroid on a collision course with Earth is discovered. This dramatically changes the course of history, as international cooperation is required to deflect it. In turn, this leads to a golden age of space exploration. Machine intelligence is explored, but the machines eventually rebel against their masters, leading to centuries of conflict.

This is indeed a chronicle, as Falcon finds himself the often unwilling puppet of great powers during pivotal historic events. The authors pay homage to Mr. Clarke’s “sense of wonder” style, but adapt it to more modern readers. The naked technological optimism displayed in Clarke’s works, more typical of the mid 20th Century, is still there, but not without dark sides. The ending also has clear thematic and tonal similarities to 2001 and 2010.

The Outside – Ada Hoffmann

Dr. Yasira Shien works as a scientist on a revolutionary reactor, emplaced on a space station in orbit around the planet Jai. Something goes horribly wrong and many people die as “The Outside” encoraches on reality, destroying the station. An Angel of Nemesis, a vindictive AI goddess, forces Yasira to go on a mission to investigate. It would appear that Yasira’s mentor, Dr. Talirr, has been tampering with reality. And she must be stopped.

What starts as an interesting story with a fascinating setting unfortunately far too quickly turns into a slog. Yasira is an interesting character. Autisic, self-doubting, immensely intelligent, and initially very much unaware of what she has unleashed. Akavi, an “Angel”, agent of one of the AIs who have anointed themselves as gods, is less intricate, with simpler motivations, but often more entertaining to read about than Yasira, whose seemingly endless internal monologue is ineffective at holding the reader’s attention.

Unfortunately, the interesting setup, with The Outside and the contention that reality is lie, never leads to a real payoff and the reader is left wondering what exactly happened. The Outside and its interactions with reality might as well be magic, however much they are portrayed in technological terms. What is left of the central premise is meandering ramblings that, while well written, are, in the end, both unsatisfying and seemingly lacking in real meaning or explanation.

Walking to Aldebaran – Adrian Tchaikovsky

Astronaut Gary Rendell is lost in the “crypts”, a dark labyrinth full of horrors. He has been wandering them for an indeterminate amount of time, and is evidently slowly going mad. Through flashbacks, Gary tells the reader about the mysterious artefact which houses the crypts, and how he came to be there.

Mr. Tchaikovsky uses first person narrative to tell the story as if Gary is speaking directly to the reader. In fact, on multiple occasions Gary specifically “speaks” to the reader. This makes the denouement of the narrative quite visceral, as the reader slowly realises why Gary is so despondent. An aura of doom suffuses the story, and the final twist is, if not entirely unexpected by that point, still heartbreaking.

And Shall Machines Surrender – Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Orfea arrives at the Dyson Sphere Shenzhen, a utopia run by AI. She is attempting to migrate there to escape a turbulent past, but manages to enter under false pretences. She is soon contacted, unexpectedly, by an AI she knows well, and by an old colleague and lover who is a candidate for Haruspex. The Haruspex construct is a melding of a human body and an AI mind, part of a social experiment of sorts being conducted by the AIs running Shenzhen.

Ms. Sriduangkaew plays language like a virtuoso, masterfully constructing passages which flow effortlessly while conveying meaning precisely. The setting draws heavily on Chinese culture and traditions, but even the reader unfamiliar will have no issues following. The crux of the story centres on complex issues regarding machine intelligences, and their relation to the humans from whence they once came. Not an easy thing to weave into a novella with so much action, and this is where the piece falters slightly. On the other hand, the author feels no need to handhold the reader through tedious exposition, and said reader must step up and go along for the ride.

On to the Asteroid (Space Excursions II) – Travis S. Taylor & Les Johnson

A billionaire industrialist launches an automated mission to an asteroid, aiming to redirect it into a Lunar orbit for future extraction of minerals. The propulsion system malfunctions before completing the redirection maneuver, and now the asteroid is heading for impact with Earth. A desperate repair mission is launched.

The story is excellent. High stakes, interesting technical solutions, lots of hardcore space action, and a high pace. Unfortunately, and just like the previous book, it is let down by atrocious dialogue and cardboard cutout characters. The dialogue is especially cringeworthy. I did enjoy it because despite these negatives, it is a great yarn, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re a real space buff.

Atmosphaera Incognita – Neal Stephenson

Real estate agent Emma reconnects with school friend Carl, who is now a billionaire. Carl wants to build a tower twenty kilometres tall, and he drafts Emma into the project.

The sheer scale of the project described is staggering, and the technical challenges are excellently described. Despite the necessity for such detail, Mr. Stephenson manages to steer this novella away from being a technical treatise, focusing on the human and the personal. A delightful tale of hubris and triumph.

Aurora – Kim Stanley Robinson

Over a hundred and fifty years into their voyage, the inhabitants of a generation starship are only a decade out from the Tau Ceti star system. Despite the massive size of the ship, delicate ecological cycles have been slowly deteriorating over the decades. After arrival, more serious problems crop up with the colonisation effort. The issues are so severe that the colonists are faced with deciding whether to stay, or attempt a return to Earth. Both options are fraught with risk.

While the novel ostensibly chronicles the life of a single inhabitant, Freya, it is also fair to say that the AI running the ship is as much a protagonist. Ship, as it prefers to call itself (or is it themselves) develops over time under the ministrations of Freya’s mother Devi, and much of the novel deals with the emergence of its consciousness. Indeed, many pages are spent debating the nature of consciousness and sentience. Is Ship truly sentient? Can a purportedly sentient being even know if it is sentient?

A lot of time is also spent on the suitability attempting to colonise other star systems, or even other planets in the Solar System. Mr. Robinson’s ultimate answer to this question is rather surprising, but hopeful in its own way.

The narrative feels somewhat impersonal, as if the reader is kept at a distance from the protagonist and even the action. This seems to be a conscious choice on the part of Mr. Robinson, given that the story is told in the voice of Ship itself, even as Ship’s understanding of language and humans develops. An interesting narrative device, and finely implemented.

River of Night (Black Tide Rising VII) – John Ringo & Mike Massa

The sequel to The Valley of Shadows follows Tom Smith, Risky, Astroga and the rest after their escape from New York. The plan is to establish a settlement with adequate defenses, and also very importantly electrical power. However, a band calling itself Gleaners, set up by a scruple-deprived man called Harlan Green, has similar plans. And they lack the morals of Tom’s group.

The zombies are still around in this installment, but they act more like nuisance monsters than a major threat. Fittingly, the biggest danger to humans is other humans. There is some fine action as always, with a major set piece battle capping the book.