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.

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.

Persepolis Rising (The Expanse VII) – James S.A. Corey

Thirty years after Babylon’s Ashes, Earth has rebuilt, while humanity has spread across the thirteen hundred worlds beyond the gates. Comparative peace prevails. The Outer Planets Alliance has morphed into the Transport Union, which despite its own best efforts at trying not to be political, is effectively a governmental organisation. Led by Camina Drummer, Fred Johnson’s former chief of staff, the Union controls trade from Medina Station in the centre of the gate network. The crew of the Rocinante has spent decades together, carrying cargo, prisoners and messages for the Union.

One day, an old enemy re-emerges from Laconia system, where the renegade elements of the Martian fleet have spent thirty years in isolation, their doings unknown to an otherwise occupied human society. The now immensely powerful Laconians have been preparing for this moment, and they make a grand entrance.

The authors’ choice to move the narrative forward by three decades is jarring at first, but soon shows itself to be inspired. While there are no doubt plenty of stories to tell of the intervening period, having a new and powerful antagonist upset the apple cart is a more engaging story. (Nothing says the authors can’t return to the past in future novels and short stories, either.) This instalment is a real nail-biting page-turner, and one of the best books in an already excellent series. More good things should come along in the next book, as the end of this one leaves many things unresolved.

 

Artemis – Andy Weir

Jazz Bashara lives on Artemis, the only city on the Moon. She works odd jobs, but her main source of income is smuggling goods to Artemis.  It is a small town and Jazz has a deservedly poor reputation. One day, she is offered a chance to make a lot of money. Just one caper…

Following up the massive success of The Martian is a high bar. Mr. Weir seems to have completely ignored any real or implied expectations, and written Artemis much as he did his previous novel. He spent a long time meticulously researching the science behind his Moon city, and constructing a plausible, logical place to set the narrative. The world building is sometimes a bit intrusive, but for a hard science fiction fan, it remains interesting throughout.

Jazz is an interesting protagonist. She is a something of a loser. At the start of the novel, she hasn’t yet managed to lose the eyeroll attitude of a teenager who thinks the adults are out to get her. She does not always make the right choices, but her heart is in the right place. Her backstory is perhaps a bit too stereotypical, what with the hard-working, disappointed father, but it works.

Mr. Weir’s trademark dry humour and sarcasm are present throughout the prose, especially in the dialogue, making this a fun book that pulls the reader along easily.

Castaway Odyssey (Boundary V) – Eric Flint & Ryk E. Spoor

Victims of the same accident that stranded the Kimei family in Castaway Planet, Sergeant Campbell and four boys ranging from almost adult to eight years old find themselves adrift in a damaged shuttle.

This instalment is an improvement over the previous one. It is still overly corny at times, but the lack of a family as protagonists makes the interpersonal dynamics more interesting.  The dialogue is so littered with overly rational behaviour and humble apologies it is hard to suspend disbelief.

Forged in Blood (Freehold) – Michael Z. Williamson (ed.)

This short story collection set in the Freehold Universe has an interesting twist. It follows the wanderings of a sword from prehistoric times to the far future, as she passes from owner to owner, sometimes by chance, sometimes by design. We also get to visit with Kendra Pacelli of Freehold and Ken Chinran of The Weapon and Rogue, taking up their stories years after the events in the original books. Neat.

The stories, some by Mr. Williamson himself, but by other authors, are all of high quality, with one glaring exception. The connecting device of the sentient sword, fleshed out with brief interludes by Mr. Williamson, works really well in connecting the stories and making the collection feel like whole.

Dark Matter (Star Carrier V) – Ian Douglas

Dark Matter continues the Star Carrier story some time after Deep Space. A new and massive alien artifact has been discovered, hinting at a population even more powerful than the Sch’daar. The conflict between the USNA and the Confederation continues. Now Admiral Grey gets a new mission.

Unfortunately, just as in Deep Space, the infodumps have taken over the asylum. The characters can’t seem to have three lines of consecutive dialogue, barring over-the-top and overlong combat communications chatter, without being interrupted by the author with a long and typically pointless exposition on physics, politics or futurism… Even more irritating is how Mr. Douglas repeats the same explanation of background, or even earlier plot points, with astounding regularity. I got about two thirds of the way through by skimming through the infodumps. Then there was a passage explaining who Stephen Hawking was and I had enough. What happened to the Ian Douglas who wrote really quite engaging military scifi? Even the first three books in this very series were pretty good.

The Alexander Inheritance – Eric Flint, Gorg Huff & Paula Goodlett

A modern cruise liner is transported back to the beginning of the “Time of the Diadochi“, after the death of Alexander the Great, when his successors fought over his splintering empire.

The premise is a fine idea, but unfortunately the story suffers from being set in a very messy historical time. Dozens of players are rapidly introduced, leading to just as rapid confusion. While the story does gel somewhat around the characters of Roxane and Euridyce, it is hard for the reader to get to grips with the wider political situation. Where the book shines is when dealing with the culture shock of people from ancient civilisations being suddenly introduced to things like steam engines, refrigeration and modern views on gender equality. There is a wide ranging discussion of slavery which manages to be quite interesting.

This book is part of the wider Assiti Shards Universe, though it can be treated as a singleton.