The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

Clare and Henry are star-crossed lovers who meet occasionally. Henry is an inadvertent time traveler, dropping into Clare’s life at what from her perspective are predetermined times.

I made it about a quarter of the way in. The novel is well written. The characters are likable, nuanced, and intense. The trauma of their present and past lives is apparent. Unfortunately, I found the whole narrative rather boring. While the time travel aspect is central to the story, the events depicted came off as very bland. Put another way, apart from the time travel aspect, the lives of Clare and Henry didn’t interest me one bit.

Through the Storm (Transdimensional Hunter II) – John Ringo & Lydia Sherrer

Raven’s adventures in the augmented reality game Transdimensional Hunter continue. Meanwhile, her high school life brings new trauma as she navigates what for her is the very uncomfortable real world of relationships and fame.

While fairly entertaining and an easy read, the second installment doesn’t really bring anything new to the table besides new expressions of teenage angst. Hints at a larger narrative, with Raven being groomed for foreshadowed events, are prominent. Perhaps in a future installment, the story will move forward in a more decisive manner.

Termination Shock – Neal Stephenson

As with many other of Mr. Stephenson‘s books, it is difficult to summarise this one in a brief paragraph, as there are several rather disparate threads. The main ones involve the Queen of the Netherlands being invited to a secret meeting involving a geoengineering project in Texas to cool the planet, thus counteracting climate change. Another thread is about a Sikh youth from Canada who finds himself entwined in geopolitical strife in the Himalayas. And yet another threat is about a US Army veteran who is on a crusade against marauding wild boar in Texas. Counseling the Queen is an interesting character with Indonesian and Chinese origins. As events unfold and the climate does indeed start changing, clandestine climate wars silently begin, while on the India-China border, performative war is already happening.

Some books manage to change your view of the world. This is one of them. As climate change pushes humanity into an uncertain future, Mr. Stephenson explores some of the possibilities. One of the key takeaways is that stability is an illusion. Don’t hold on to thiings, material or otherwise, if doing so is harmful to your wellbeing. This was as true for Dutch colonists in Indonesia during World War Two as it is for those holding on to their houses in the face of repeated catastrophic weather events. A captivating read, beautifully written in Mr. Stephenson’s trademark ironic tone.

Escape Orbit (Eccentric Orbits II) – Patrick Chiles

At the end of Frozen Orbit, Jack Templeton went into hibernation on board the Magellan and launched himself towards the outer reaches of the solar system, in a quest to reach a mysterious object with a strong gravity well. Meanwhile, former crewmate Traci Keene is back on earth in bureaucratic hell. Eventually Jack reaches the object, which is much more mysterious than he suspected. And a rescue mission involving Traci is launched.

While a serviceable sequel to Frozen Orbit, the novel suffers from a less engaging setting. Frozen Orbit was real deep space adventure. Escape Orbit has too little deep space and too much bureaucratic machination. The real action doesn’t start until well into the second half of the book. The AI elements are interesting but not groundbreaking.

Earthside (Quantum Earth II) – Dennis E. Taylor

In the immediate sequel to Outland, our heroes continue to deal with the aftermath of the Yellowstone eruption, and the challenges of setting up a colony in the alternate timeline of Outland. Given that the majority of the existing inhabitants of “Rivendell”, as the refuge has been named, are of university age, a sudden influx of older refugees creates significant tension. The older generation feels that they should take over what they see as an amateur operation run by youths. Additional subplots include a sociopathic killer, and research to find other potential timelines that might offer escape hatches or resources.

While the second installment is still entertaining, it doesn’t have nearly the same punch as the first book. Mr. Taylor skillfully weaves the plot, but some of the elements seem tacked on as filler. It lacks a definite direction, and seems more like an extended coda for the first book.

Outland (Quantum Earth I) – Dennis E. Taylor

University engineering students Mike and Bill are approached by physics students who need their expertise to continue experimenting with quantum tunneling and parallel universes. The experiments turn out to be more successful than expected, opening up a big can of worms. They can now open portals to alternate timelines, with different conditions, for example, one where dinosaurs did not go extinct, and one, which they name “Outland”, where mammals are prevalent but humans seem absent. A pastoral paradise of sorts. Meanwhile, Erin, a geology student, and Mike’s girlfriend, is caught up in unprecedented events at the Yellowstone caldera, which seems poised to erupt, potentially causing widespread destruction. Due to university politics, the quantum tunneling team decide to clandestinely move their research off-campus, while disassociating themselves with the university funding stream. What started as an academic project becomes a get-rich stream, and then rather unexpectedly morphs into an escape hatch for refugees.

The concept and usage of the portals is very well realised, with a slew of interesting applications that have to be improvised as conditions “Earthside” change dramatically. The adventure story parallels to Stargate SG-1 are obvious, and references by the characters themselves. While the protagonists are likable and it is easy to root for them, they are not very three-dimensional. On a side note, this is very much the young white American apocalypse, even if one of the main characters is Indian. I suppose it can be explained away since the setting is a university in Nebraska. That criticism aside, I found this to be a real page-turner just like his other books, with Mr. Taylor’s fast-paced plotting and the constant witty snark highly entertaining.

Gigi Make Paradox (Where the Hell is Tesla III) – Rob Dircks

The third installment of the series sees Chip and Pete in charge of their respective toddler daughters as their wives go out. An outing to see “old man” (Nikola Tesla) quickly turns nasty as Chip’s daughter Gigi inadvertently creates a paradox that threatens the multiverse.

This is by far the weakest of the three books. The books were never meant to be hard science fiction with internal consistency, but the meandering plotlines and repeated deus ex machinas quickly lost me. The recurring theme of Chip and Gigi’s love for each other lends a great deal of heart to the book, as does, again, Chip’s voice as the narrator. Pete’s adorable badass great-aunt is also a great addition. However, in the end, there was no feeling of dramatic tension, even with the ostensible stakes. While this final (?) installment ties up many of the threads, it was not a satisfying conclusion.

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.

Roadkill – Dennis E. Taylor

Jack Kerrigan has been expelled from MIT for something he did not do, and now he’s back in the small rural midwestern town where he grow up, working in his father’s general store. On a delivery run, he hits something with his pickup truck. But he can’t see it, as it is invisible. It turns out that Jack has hit an alien wandering across the road. As things unravel, Jack and his friends find themselves embroiled in a plot involving aliens meddling in humanity’s future, as well as the interstellar political implications.

While the premise itself, apart from the starting incident, is not terribly original, the story is great fun. An adventurous romp with many funny moments and often hilarious dialogue. The dynamic between the three childhood best friends turned young adults is fabulous, elevating the story from what the tired “aliens among us” to something much more engaging.

Time Trials – M.A. Rothman & D.J. Butler

Linguist and Egyptologist Marty Cohen has been pushed out of academia for spurious reasons and now runs a custom furniture store. An old colleague begs him to come to a new dig in Egypt where very curious writing has been found. At the dig, Marty and a few of the team are transported back to pre-dynastic Egypt. But things take an even stranger turn as mythical creatures turn out to exist, at least in this version of the past.

The novel is a serviceable and enjoyable Alternate History adventure, especially if you have some interest in Ancient Egypt history. It never becomes really epic, focusing instead on the dynamics of the small group of time travelers.

How It Unfolds (The Far Reaches I) – James S.A. Corey

Ray Court is part of an experimental programme, in which his mind, and those of the other programme members, will be scanned and sent out to candidate planets in the galaxy. Machines will construct habitats and then copies of Ray and the others, scattering humanity amongst the stars.

The concept of this novelette is simple, but the execution is both clever and thought-provoking. Complicating things, Roy’s ex-wife is also one on the programme, and he believes he may be able to win her back in “another life”. Multiple copies of Roy and the others end up in different circumstances, with different biomes, and their choices are sublty or greatly different. The story rapidly grows from small personal themes to awe-inspiring and humbling ones involving the deep future.

Critical Mass (Delta-V II) – Daniel Suarez

In the sequel to Delta-V, James Tighe and his companions are back on Earth, trying to figure out how to save their two friends still stranded on asteroid Ryugu. A relatively simple problem requiring an increasingly complex plan involving bootstrapping a space economy by building a mass driver on the Moon. The mass driver can launch resources extracted from the Lunar regolith at a fraction of the cost of launching them from Earth, enabling construction of a rescue ship. National and corporate interest on Earth try to get in on the economic and geopolitical frontier, while humanity and Earth suffers increasingly acute social and economic issues due to worsening climate change.

While Delta-V is a more straightforward space thriller, the sequel expands the context, posing important questions such as how to prevent space from becoming just another exploited colonisation boundary for the powerful, while most of humanity remain have-nots. The pace is slower, but the payoff ties it all together. The protagonist as something of a naif in context is a nice detail, illustrating how most people live their lives, even lives doing great things, with little understanding of the bigger picture.

The Shattered Skies (The Cruel Stars II) – John Birmingham

In the sequel to The Cruel Stars, Princess Alessia, Commander Lucinda Hardy, Admiral McLellan, and L’trel make their way into Javan space. Their self-imposed mission is to find more survivors of the Sturm attack. As they arrive in a system where they believe allied forces may be operating clandestinely, they discover that criminal elements aboard a freeport habitat have conspired to capture warship crews. Furthermore, the surviving Javan foces have entered into an uneasy alliance with the corporate Combine. The Sturm is fast approaching, and in the face of this threat Admiral McLellan takes command, while L’trel attempts to rescue the prisoners on the freeport. The makeshift task force soon falls apart in the face of the enemy, and L’trel’s crew seems to have bitten off more than they can chew. Mayhem ensues.

With the main characters now well established, this second installment contains many fine action scenes and stellar dialogue like the first book, while keeping a sharp focus on the characters. Alessia is maturing quickly, under the tutelage of Lucinda, L’trel, and Admiral McClellan. McClellan himself, and his artificial intelligence foil Hero, continue to be as profane as they are hilarious.

Fall or, Dodge in Hell – Neal Stephenson

Billionaire video game designer and tech magnate Richard “Dodge” Forthrast dies while having a routine surgical procedure. Unbeknownst to his family and friends, he has long since signed up for cryopreservation, then probably forgotten about it. His will contains detailed instructions about possible reanimation when the technology exists. As it turns out, waking the dead in a computer-generated virtual reality seems to be the way forward. After many power struggles and discussions, Dodge finally wakes in a primitive computer-generated world, soon starting to shape and mould it to his desires. At first a trickle, and then a flood of other dead begin to join him, many with their own ideas about the virtual afterlife, in conflict with Dodge’s own.

There are some significant connections to other works by Mr. Stephenson. Richard Forthrast and his adoptive daughter Zula are prominently featured in Reamde, whilst Enoch Root was a character in Cryptomonicon, as well other works. Those were good novels. This is not. After a promising start, most of the action moves to the virtual world, and it is really boring. From Dodge’s initial efforts to shape the world to his desires, to his building of a pantheon with himself as the prime god, to his downfall at the hands of a rival, it is mainly a tedious slog to read. The final part is written as fantasy, and is slightly better, but by this point I just wanted it to be over, and skimmed large parts.

The concept itself is very interesting, and I had high hopes the plot would continue along the lines of the first quarter. However, the shift to the virtual world kills all interest in the main characters, and for that matter in the concept itself. At that point, it’s just a creation myth that has no need for its own backstory. It is a real shame, because there are so many interesting ideas to explore at depth, not least the societal impact of humans being able to live on, in a certain form at least, after death. The ending is mildly satisfying, but the journey to get there is not, especially as this book, while not overly long by Stephenson standards, is a solid tome by any other.

Holdout – Jeffrey Kluger

Astronaut Walli Beckwith is conducting an experiment on the International Space Station when an imminent collision leads to an evacuation order. Walli, however, refuses to leave, for reasons unknown to her two crewmates. As they return to Earth, she remains as the sole occupant on a damaged station. Meanwhile, in the Amazon, her niece is conducting aid work in response to a humanitarian crisis. The Brasilian government is ruthlessly chasing native populations from their lands in order to make space for industrial farming and deforestation. The Amazon is on fire.

The plot soon evolves into a very competent action-thriller. Most impressively, Mr. Kluger does not take any drastic shortcuts on realism; events are solidly underpinned by existing science and technology. The characters do feel a bit flat, unfortunately, but this is a page-turner nonetheless.

Into the Real (TransDimensional Hunter I) – John Ringo and Lydia Sherrer

Lynn Raven is a rather reclusive high schooler in a society that encourages virtual interaction. She is overweight and has self-esteem issues. She is also secretly “Larry Coughlin,” one of the top players of Warmonger, an online first-person shooting game, and makes good money playing it. She is contacted by Warmonger’s developers to be part of testing for a new augmented reality (AR) game called TransDimentional Hunter. But this would require her to get out there “in the real”, since the game is played in real locales using virtual reality technology. For Lynn, being visible at all causes anxiety. Things get worse when she has to become part of a team.

This is not a typical John Ringo book, as it is firmly seated in the Young Adult arena. An entertaining romp and coming of age story, with a darker and deeper background story, no doubt to be explored in future installments, being strongly hinted at.

The Apollo Murders – Chris Hadfield

In an alternate history, the Apollo program flies one more mission, the all-military Apollo 18. At the last minute, the mission parameters change as the Soviet Union launches a spy space station equipped with cameras capable of unprecedented resolution. The astronauts are tasked with disabling it before departing Earth orbit for the Moon.

This is a technothriller with a solid grounding in the technology of the time. The technical details are accurate, hardly surprising as the author is a former astronaut. The plot itself is rather far-fetched, but plausible, and exciting in itself, especially for the space exploration buff. Unfortunately, the plot is often bogged down with overly complex sequences of events as one or another character seeks an advantage or makes a complicated plan. The characters themselves, a mixture of historical figures and fictional ones, are not very nuanced, and sometimes relationship events seem to be created purely without much story purpose. For example, the protagonist’s romance with one of the scientists seems tacked on unnecessarily.

Onward, Drake! – Mark L. Van Name (Editor)

Short story collection celebrating the seventieth birthday of science fiction luminary David Drake, by many considered the father of modern military science fiction.

Somewhat in character, Mr. Drake provided the two longest stories for the collection himself. The rest vary from pure tribute, to tuckerization of Mr. Drake himself, to various forms connected thematically somehow. The afterwords provided by the various authors are charming, with insights into how Mr. Drake’s work and personality affected them personally and professionaly.

That was Now, This is Then (Temporal Displacement II) – Michael Z. Williamson

In the sequel to A Long Time Until Now, a new displacement occurs, with a neolithic youth appearing in modern day Afghanistan. The same team as before is contacted for a new mission, but not all are keen to go. A pair of scientists are added, much to the dismay of the future humans, who would rather not see too much technology transfer as this could lead to timeline disruption.

The characters are well fleshed out, and there author uses the setting to delve into issues of post-traumatic stress, separation, obligations of marriage, and other things common in deployments. The conflict in the book is not about an external enemy, but rather about the challenges faced by individuals. Much of the book has to do with the strictures and traditions of organisations, and it helps that Mr. Williamson can make discussions on logistics and camp setup interesting reading.

The Sins of Our Fathers (The Expanse IX½) – James S.A. Corey

After the collapse of the gate network, humanity’s worlds are isolated. On a backwater planet, Filip Inaros must deal with a bully who is trying to bend a small settlement to his will, even if it comes with a high personal price.

In a fitting coda to The Expanse, Filip must come to terms with what he did in the name of his father. His act may be small on the cosmic scale, but for him it is significant.

Leviathan Falls (The Expanse IX) – James S.A. Corey

The Laconian Empire is in disarray as its leader, Winston Duarte, has disappeared. Colonel Aliana Tanaka, a particularly cold, and coldly effective, servant of the Empire, is tasked to find him. Meanwhile, the crew of the Rocinante races to stay ahead of Laconian forces. The fabric of reality is tearing as intruders from outside the Universe try to reassert control.

The final instalment of The Expanse is in many ways a fond farewell to the crew of the Rocinante and their associates. Even those no longer alive, like Avasarala and Bobbie Draper, are mentioned and celebrated. While Leviathan Wakes was about a family, a crew, coming together, this book is about how all good things must end, and the family, the crew, eventually sees its members going their separate ways. A solid ending to the series.

Inhibitor Phase (Revelation Space IV)

Along with a few thousand other refugees from the Wolves, or Inhibitors, Miguel de Ruyter has quite literally carved out a life on the airless world of Sun Hollow. Humanity’s starfaring civilisation is lost, and the remains hide in the shadows, hoping not to be noticed. Sun Hollow’s inhabitants do not really have a plan beyond surviving the morrow; this is a bleak and rough existence. A ship has entered the system, and Miguel must intercept and destroy it at great risk to himself, for even potentially friendly humans may be Wolves in disguise. Out of this encounter emerges Glass, a mysterious woman who steals Miguel away to a reckoning with a past he has purposefully forgotten, and with humanity’s only hope of escaping extinction.

Published almost two decades after the Revelation Space trilogy, this serves as something of an epilogue. Human civilisation has waned into blackness, and there is an accepting despair about things. Not even the Ultras travel between stars anymore, because even small emissions could lead the Wolves to the door, and there is no weapon that can combat them.

The concepts of Miguel and his past self reintegrating, and of Glass herself and her connection, are superbly intriguing. Unfortunately though, the novel is far too long. Many pages are spent on meandering explorations of the sense of self, or the sense of other-self. While the quest for a weapon to fight back against the Wolves is interesting in itself, this excessive length detracted very much from my interest, and I struggled to finish the book.