The Path of Duty (Siobhan Dunmore II) – Eric Thomson

Commander Dunmoore and the Stingray are dispatched to the arse end of space and get stuck with convoy duty. There is mystery afoot as a freighter is found abandoned, and other ships from the same company seem involved in shady operations. While seeking answers, Stingray stumbles on a top-secret Navy operation at a backwater planet, and the Admiral in charge is a real character.

While the first book in the series was a rather conventional beginning, the story in this one is more “out there”, and there are strong hints regarding a wider arc to the series. Not quite as punchy as the first book, but the action and dialogue remain top notch.

No Honor in Death (Siobhan Dunmore I) – Eric Thomson

Commander Siobhan Dunmoore has recently had a battleship shot out from under her. Her daring successes in previous engagements have not endeared her to the establishment, which sees her as hotheaded and impulsive. Her mentor assigns her to Stingray, an obsolete frigate rumoured to be jinxed. Her predecessor was dismissed under mysterious circumstances, and the crew is none too welcoming. Dunmoore must both resolve the situation with a hostile and cowed crew, and also engage the enemy while on patrol.

While the enemies are humanoid aliens and the action is set in space, the setting shows clear signs of inspiration from the naval conflicts of Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars, and perhaps also from fictional heroes like Horatio Hornblower and Honor Harrington (the latter books themselves inspired by the former). While there is clearly a wider universe, the action is tightly focused on Commander Dunmoore, giving the feel of a submarine story. The allusion to the submariner tradition of a indicatingclean sweep with a broom makes this connection clear. The players are isolated while on patrol, and must resolve the internal conflicts on the ship while fighting their external enemies. These external enemies are not only the alien Shrehari, but the powers within the navy and society that would have them fail, and the figurative ghost of their former sociopathic captain.

While the setting and story are perhaps somewhat unoriginal compared to what has come before, Mr. Thomson is skilled at dialogue and interpersonal relationships, making this an engaging novel with excellent pacing.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O – Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland

Harvard linguist Melisande Stokes is approached by government operative Tristan Lyons with a request to translate a large number of ancient documents, once she has signed a non-disclosure agreement. As she works through them she notices a large number of references to magic. It turns out that magic actually existed until 1851, when the continued progress of technology led to its disappearance. Things take a mysterious turn when they try to build a chamber within which magic can work in the present day, and a surviving witch contacts Melisande via Facebook. In short order, the shadowy “Department of Diachronic Operations” is born, using magic to travel back in time and change history. As the bureaucrats get involved, events immediately veer off in unexpected and undesired directions.

The backbone of the narrative is Melisande’s “Diachronicle” (trust a linguist to pun on a top-secret technical term) where she describes her adventures with D.O.D.O. Large chunks, however, are diary entries and letters by other characters, as well as transcripts from messaging apps, wiki entries and so on. The contrasting styles, and frequent clues as to relative technical ability given by the “author” of specific passages, makes D.O.D.O and its denizens come alive, as if the reader is a fly on the wall during secret operations, meetings, and time travel.

The premise is clever, and more than a bit silly. However, the treatment of the entire situation by the government bureaucracy is most certainly not. And that is one of the important themes of this book. The intersecting shenanigans of bureaucrats, academics and operatives working together make for hilarious passages of dry humour, while at the same time the reader is appalled at the lack of common sense of bureaucrats who spend too little time in the real world. Even the use “official-ese” can change perceptions, and perception is a very important part of this story, on several levels.

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.

Irontown Blues – John Varley

Chris Bach is a private detective with a sidekick named Sherlock. Sherlock is a genetically enhanced bloodhound with significant intelligence. They live in one of the vast habitats under the Lunar surface. Due to Post Dramatic Stress Disorder, Bach has retreated into a pseudo-fantasy world based on noir films and novels. He wears a fedora, and lives in “Noirtown“, a neighbourhood designed around the aesthetic of the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. One day, as befitting the stereotype, a mysterious “dame” walks into his office. She needs someone found.

Set in the “Eight Worlds” Universe some time after Steel Beach, the novel sports two very interesting, and very different, protagonists. Bach develops from his past trauma, shown in flashbacks, through his present low, and on to his maturity. More daring by Mr. Varley is to write almost half the narrative in the voice of his canine companion Sherlock. While the concept had the potential to fall flat, it is skillfully delivered, and Sherlock is fully developed as a character, albeit a rather peculiar one. The plot itself is somewhat bare-bones, but with characters like this, it has little impact on the quality of the novel.

Tide of Battle – Michael Z. Williamson

Short story and essay collection. The fiction runs the gamut from entries in the author’s Freehold Universe, to Victorian fantasy, and a rather interesting novella set in an alternate Bronze Age, pitting sentient humanoid felines against mind-controlling dinosaur-like reptiles. The essays contain some amusing musings on rifle technology, as well as very inappropriate, and often hilarious, cocktail recipes.

While I don’t always agree with Mr. Williamson’s political views, even in his fiction, he offers insightful political and social commentary with a great deal of thought and research behind it. There is a short passage about how his views have developed in the two decades since he published Freehold. This passage provides tantalising glimpse of an interesting mind which does not deny the impact of new data.

River of Bones (Destroyermen XIII) – Taylor Anderson

After taking and holding Madagascar in Deadly Shores (IX) and Straits of Hell (X), and conclusively dealing with Kurokawa in Devil’s Due (XII) the Alliance is preparing to finally land in Africa. It is a race against time, as Grik leader Esshk has been able to breed, train and equip his “Final Swarm” in only a few years, and is planning a breakout along the Zambezi River. If the Final Swarm reaches the ocean and manages to scatter, the rapid breeding of the Grik will eventually create an almost insurmountable numerical advantage. Unfortunately, the Allied invasion force is not quite ready. Russ Chapelle takes the USS Santa Catalina at the head of tiny task force up the river, in order to block passage until reinforcements can arrive. It is a desperate race against time.

On the American Front, the story advances only slightly, as New United States forces prepare to join the fight and the League of Tripoli makes overtures towards the Dominion.

Mr. Anderson continues to focus on one front at a time, which works to the series advantage. Most of this installment is taken up by the events in and around the Zambezi. The battles are real nail-biters, in large part because the author has managed to convey the catastrophic consequences of defeat. Even after driving the Grik back all the way from Balkpan and across a vast ocean, our heroes still find themselves with their back agains the wall.

With the still unresolved Dominion War, and the looming threat of the League of Tripoli, the Destroyermen series doesn’t seem to be moving towards a conclusion any time soon. If the quality remains this high, that can only be a good thing.

 

 

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 Flowers of Vashnoi – Lois McMaster Bujold

While investigating inconsistencies with a test site where gene-engineered bugs decontaminate the nuked Vorkosigan Vashnoi zone, Ekaterin Vorkosigan stumbles across some strange inhabitants.

An all too brief visit with the Vorkosigan family. Even with something as brief and uncomplex as this novella, Ms. McMaster Bujold nails it as usual.

 

Elysium Fire (Prefect Dreyfus Emergency II) – Alastair Reynolds

Some time after the events in The Prefect/Aurora Rising, a new crisis is brewing in the Glitter Band. Random citizens are having their brains “fried” by their electronic implants. As Dreyfus and the other Panoply operatives investigate the links between victims, they find links to an old and very distinguished Yellowstone family.

While a solid and enjoyable novel, this one lacks the panache of “The Prefect”. The mystery feels contrived and doesn’t lead to any sort of even half-epic conclusion. That being said, Mr. Reynolds’s prose is a pleasure to read as usual, and the characters are interesting and engaging.

The Prefect AKA Aurora Rising (Prefect Dreyfus Emergency I) – Alastair Reynolds

The Prefect was republished as Aurora Rising in order to identify it more as the beginning of its own series than as tied to the Revelation Space series. The series do share the same Universe, though this book is set in a much earlier era.

The setting is the Glitter Band, a swarm of thousands of orbital habitats around the planet Yellowstone. Tom Dreyfus is a prefect for Panoply, a police force tasked with ensuring voting rights are respected, including investigating and punishing voting fraud. The habitats of the Glitter Band are as varied as they are many, from tyrannies to utopias to all manner of strange types of government. An investigation into voting fraud leads Dreyfus and his small team to a flaw in the voting system, and then all hell breaks loose.

While the setting is hard science fiction, the plot is in large part police procedural, and the characters could have been picked from any group of archetypal police investigators and functionaries. Dreyfus himself is the stereotypical dedicated detective with a tragic past. His assistants Thalia and Sparver are, respectively, the spunky and energetic young tech whiz and the stoic, solid sidekick. His boss Aumonier is the classic experienced police chief. The trope works very well for the novel, allowing the reader to immediately grasp relationships while navigating a completely new and strange world. The plot starts as a relatively simple police mystery, but as events unfold, the magnitude of the crisis becomes vast, encompassing the entire system. The ghosts from Dreyfus’s past, and indeed society’s past, come back to haunt the present, with some clever twists.

The vignette Open and Shut, available for free on the publisher’s website, serves as an epilogue for the novel.

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.

The One: A Cruise Through the Solar System – Eric Klein

BJ is an IT troubleshooter in New York City. After a job well done, he receives a raffle ticket and wins the grand prize of a cruise through the solar system. On board, he soon meets the captain’s daughter Faye and the pair take a liking to each other. They are inseparable through adventures and misadventures on various planets and moons.

Most of this novel reads like a combination of travelogue and brochure. There is not much action beyond the tours that the protagonist and his inconceivably compatible-at-first-sight girlfriend take. Not-so-subtle hints of conspiracy are dropped and near the end of the story, an unlikely plot is hatched by nefarious elements. The whole thing is cute, the characters likeable, but it is altogether too banal; the homage to Heinlein, in particular, The Number of the Beast, and the 1933 version of King Kong too contrived.

After the predictable conclusion, one-fifth of the text is dedicated to appendices, including (seemingly) every bit of background the author researched or created about the cruise ship, the science, the political topology, and various other bits. This section detracts greatly from the text itself and gives a self-serving impression, as if the author felt the need to show off his own cleverness instead of letting the story speak for itself.

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.

 

Alien Stripper Boned from Behind by the T-Rex – Stix Hiscox

The protagonist is an alien stripper with three breasts that shoot lasers. One night while working, she meets a T-Rex. Sexual shenanigans ensue.

The premise is purposefully silly and the writing is over-the-top bizarre erotica. If not taken too seriously, it is a rather entertaining story.

(The companion story “Half-Man, Half Horse, All Love” is nowhere near as good.)

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries I) – Martha Wells

The titular “Murderbot” is a robot charged with the defence of a survey expedition on an alien planet. The murderbot has hacked her (his?) governor module and is secretly no longer constrained by her programming. Nevertheless, in a crisis situation, she helps her survey expedition and wins their trust.

This novella is an interesting take on sentient created life. The murderbot, telling the story in the first person, has a humorous narration style, with dry wit used to lay bare questions of purpose in life, and the need for companionship, or not. Unfortunately, the story itself sometimes stumbles into tediousness due to a clumsy use of contrived technological constraints used to anchor plot points.

Gunpowder Moon – David Pedreira

In a post-climate disaster future, the superpowers have begun mining the Moon in large scale. Life on the frontier is rough and fraught with danger. However, old rivalries have not disappeared. Disillusioned American mining chief and veteran Dechert is confronted with the mysterious murder of a miner, while the powers that be seem dead set to go to war with the Chinese.

Dechert’s outlook is bleak. He has seen the elephant and exiled himself to the Moon in order to escape the ghosts of his comrades from his military days. But war is coming to the Moon and Dechert cannot escape it. He is a beautifully written protagonist, wavering between abject fatalism at the inevitability of repeating history and self-aware naive idealism about this new frontier being a new beginning for mankind. He is firm on one thing: doing his utmost to protect his people, something which he was unable to do during in the past despite his best efforts.

The novel plays out like a good thriller, showing a small slice of larger events, but it is the personal aspect that really shines.

 

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.

The Gods of Sagittarius – Eric Flint & Mike Resnick

In the future, humanity is part of an interstellar society. A security expert is tasked to escort a scientist as he investigates a murder with seemingly paranormal aspects. Meanwhile, an alien seeks vengeance for the extermination of her religious sect. Unlike the science-rooted humans, the alien knows that magic is real.

The novel is space opera with a large degree of comedy. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the overwrought dialogue and interactions very funny. The story isn’t very entertaining either.

 

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.

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.