Sixteenth Watch – Myke Cole

The Coast Guard is called in to deal with a dispute turned violent between Chinese and American miners on the Moon. Soon, the Navy shows up, and things escalate.

I lots interest after a few pages, and could not get past the prologue. It all seemed very bland. Also, the constant footnotes with definitions of basic nautical and military terms were disruptive and gave a condescending impression.

Frontier – Patrick Chiles

Humanity’s presence in space is expanding, and with it come geopolitical interests. The United States spaceship Borman is dispatched to assist two billionaire explorers with whom contact has been lost. Meanwhile, a vast conspiracy to disable space assets is unfolding. As the Borman herself runs into trouble, the People’s Republic of China enters the fray.

As in the earlier Farside set in the same universe, Mr. Chiles expands the scope of the story beyond a mere rescue mission into a technothriller set in space. The protagonists are easy to root for, though they fall into stereotypes rather too readily. The Chinese crew members are almost laughable cardboard cutouts. The story is well crafted, with a good pace apart from an excess of expository dialogue in the first half, and the political tensions eminently plausible.

At the End of the Journey (Black Tide Rising VIII) – Charles E. Gannon

Following the events in At the End of the World, Alvaro and the now augmented group continue towards their mission, penetrating the Guiana Space Centre launch facility at Kourou in French Guiana in order to prevent the rapid deterioration of GPS. There’s just one catch, Kourou is overrun with infected.

Like the first book in the couplet, this provides decent action without much originality or depth. It is easy to root for the protagonists and to mourn their losses. A quick and easy read if you enjoyed the rest of the series.

At the End of the World (Black Tide Rising VII) – Charles E. Gannon

Geeky late teenager Alvaro is sent off on a long sailboat cruise, more akin to a youth camp. He joins a motley group of peers on the Crosscurrent Voyager, an oceangoing ketch. The captain is an enigmatic and dour Englishman, with a past in the special forces. The group is mid-journey in the Southeastern Pacific at the time of The Fall. As the world descends into zombie-fed apocalypse, the captain decides to press past Cape Horn to South Georgia Island, hoping for a temporary respite.

While the novel is reasonably entertaining if you enjoyed the previous books in the series, there is not much originality on display. The concept of teens left alone in a crisis is well utilised. However, these youngsters seem unusually rational and insightful for their age. A fun diversion with some action thrown in.

Artifact Space (Arcana Imperii I) – Miles Cameron

Patrician family scion Marca Nbaro is on the run from “The Orphanage”, a cruel school for those without protectors in The City. She is not only running away from the Orphanage, which she betrayed for good reason, but also towards the merchant marine of the mercantile society of the Directorate of Human Operations (DHC). She is indeed trained as a Midshipper, hurrying to join the company of the greatship Athens before she is caught. The ship is ready to depart on a four-year voyage of trade, culminating in contact with the enigmatic aliens dubbed Starfish. It takes Nbaro some time to adapt to the fact that her crewmates on the Athens aren’t sadistic predators or victims, but mostly courteous and helpful professionals. As she slowly integrates and drops her guard along the voyage, vast conspiracies aimed at destabilising the very DHC begin to unfold.

Explicitly inspired by mercantile Venice of the Middle Ages, and European voyages along the Silk Road, the great adventure of the Athens and her crew paint a gorgeous backdrop for the characters and story. Trade stops are lavishly described in generous tangents without removing the reader from the story. The development of Nbaro’s character is profound and interesting, with the Athens populated by an eclectic and entertaining cast of supporting characters.

Blindsight – Peter Watts

In a not too distant future, Siri Keeton is a synesthesist, a trained observer who neither judges not suggests. His professional aim is to be the chronicler of events, the dispassionate eye of posterity. Years have passed since “Firefall”, a still-mysterious event in which extraterrestrial intelligence interacted with Earth without obvious intent, or even obvious meaning. As part of a small crew, Siri has hibernated for years to arrive at a massive planet in the Oort Cloud. Here, they must confront the mystery of an entity that calls itself Rorschach. On a deeper level, the crew faces questions of what it means to be human, or even sentient. The answers are no longer obvious once faced with this alien life that does not seem to conform to any human-centric norm.

While there is no shortage of action sequences, these are not the central impetus of the narrative. Mr. Watts takes the reader on an exploration of the crew’s personalities; the cranky biologists, the split-personality linguist, the duty-bound soldier, and the calculating leader; all through the eyes of Keeton, and as a backdrop to an exploration of sentience and intelligence. It also becomes increasingly clear that Keeton may not be seeing things in an entirely rational or reliable fashion. Out at the very edge of human exploration, in an environment of uncertainty and danger, the veneer or civilization slowly wears away, revealing truths that are as uncomfortable as they are sincere.

As a first contact scenario, the novel certainly breaks new ground, with a central conceit about life that is both controversial and alarming. The alien is nothing like us, and its mode of existence brings into question the very nature of humanity, and of life.

Delta-V – Daniel Suarez

Extreme cave diver James Tighe has just returned from an accident-plagued expedition when he is invited to an interview with eccentric billionaire Nathan Joyce. The latter is planning a mining expedition to an asteroid, and is recruiting suitable candidates. A rigorous selection process follows. The expedition is shrouded in secrecy, with layer within layer of intrigue at every step.

The novel is solid near-future science fiction, elevated beyond the pure adventure aspects by an intricate, if somewhat implausible, technothriller foundation. It seems somewhat beyond belief that thousands of people could keep such a large project a secret for so long, especially given the money involved. The space travel aspects are well developed and quite plausible. The inclusion of secondary characters based on NewSpace luminaries such as Musk, Bezos, Branson and Bigelow is rather entertaining and provides a connection to what, in the real world, is shaping up to be a fierce competition for the space economy. The protagonists themselves, unfortunately, are not very well rounded, down to their stereotypical backstories. That being said, they are easy to root for, throughout their tragedies and triumphs.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (Wayfarers IV) – Becky Chambers

In the fourth and final Wayfarers book, three travellers from different species are temporarily stuck at a quaint waystation along with the owner/operator and her son. There has been an accident and no ships can arrive or depart, nor is outside communication possible, for a few days while the situation is resolved. Each individual has his or her own backstory and ethnic peculiarities, slowly being uncovered as they become acquainted. Those lasting friendships of a disparate group sharing an ordeal are formed, along with the inevitable friction.

Though there isn’t much actual action, the novel is charming and the characters are endearing. Interestingly, there are no humans amongst the protagonist, and only a brief cameo to show the flag. The mother-son relationship of Ouloo and teenage Tupo feels resoundingly authentic, with its rapid swings between hilarity, love, frustration, and exasperation. This book leaves the reader with a faint smile and a sense that even if the world has problems, these can be solved with some politeness, understanding, humour, and plenty of cake.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate – Becky Chambers

Ariadne and her three crewmates wake at a distant star system after years of transit in slumber aboard the starship Merian. Their multi-year exploration and survey mission takes them to different worlds in the system, each with its individual features and biome. They have dedicated their lives to this mission, for when they return to Earth they will be decades older, and over seventy years will have passed back home. They are a family of sorts, with intermeshing sexual relationships and a strong bond in their motivations. Some time into their mission, news updates from Earth stop arriving. As they are left in limbo, Ariadne and the others must more carefully examine the ethics and significance of not only the mission itself, but also of humanity’s place in the Universe.

Written in Ms. Chambers’s by now trademark gorgeous contemplative prose, the plot is acted out as much in Ariadne’s inner dialogue as in actual action. The drama is intimate, personal, and thoughtful, making the ending that much more poignant. The characters are likeable, pleasant, and very human in their different ways. The lack of interpersonal strife is an interesting narrative challenge, which the author handles with seeming ease. A delightful read.

Project Hail Mary – Andy Weir

A man wakes up alone, in a room, groggy and without memories of who he is or why he is there. A medical robot is tending him. It eventually comes to light that he is Dr. Ryland Grace, a high school science who was previously a leading researcher in the field of alien life. Such life was purely speculative until the sun started slowly fading, something that will in time lead to the death of all or most life on Earth.

Grace finds himself deeply involved in Project Hail Mary, a no expense spared global effort to find a solution. Years later, in orbit around a distant star, Grace, finds an ally in his quest. But this ally is not human.

In some ways, it is easy to draw parallels to The Martian. An impossible mission. A snarky and clever protagonist who overcomes difficult challenges. Interesting science problems. But the scope of the story, and the stakes, are both much greater. Project Hail Mary certainly has the same page-turner quality and charming snark as The Martian, making me laugh out loud on multiple occasions. The ending added unexpected gravitas to the story and was a beautiful coda.

The alien is cleverly imagined and imbued with a charming personality despite being so very alien. The fact that the alien’s environment adds to Grace’s challenges doesn’t hurt. How relatively easily communications is established stretches plausibility, but on the other hand, the process is both clever and charming.

Heaven’s River (Bobiverse IV) – Dennis E. Taylor

In a new addition to the Bobiverse series, rifts between posthuman “Bobs” and physical humans are appearing at an alarming rate. And even within the community of Bobs, a schism is underway as a large group starts to insist that Bobs should not interfere with any species. Meanwhile, a Bob named Bender has disappeared. As Original Bob investigates, he discovers a massive structure surrounding a star and housing an alien spieces in an oddly pastoral idyll.

Mr. Taylor continues to explore the implications of a society composed of posthumans, humans, and alien species. What is life? What is a soul? The exploration of the megastructure and its anthropology is delightful, with many amusing episodes where both explorers and natives are thrown off by the conceptual differences in their thinking.

Don’t Touch the Blue Stuff (Where The Hell is Tesla? II) – Rob Dircks

After the events of Where the Hell is Tesla, Chip is just enjoying life with Julie. But developments are afoot in the multiverse, as a substance soon dubbed the “Blue Juice” starts doing bad things. Chip’s best friend Pete has disappeared. Together with non-nonsense FBI Agent Gina, Chip must once again step forth to save the Universe(s).

Like the first book, this one is almost entirely in the form of emails and memos to Julie. The format works well with Chip’s character and is littered with tangents and verbal double-takes. Another fun romp, even though some of the novelty of the first one is obviously missing.

Good Morning, Midnight – Lily Brooks-Dalton

Elderly astronomer “Augie” Augustine is stranded at an observatory in the Arctic after refusing to evacuate. The rest of the staff returned to civilisation amidst rumours of an unspecified global catastrophe. He finds a young, taciturn girl in one of the dormitories, and together they hunker down for the months-long arctic night.

The spaceship Aether has just left the Jovian system, on its way back to Earth. Mission control has mysteriously stopped transmitting, and communications specialist “Sully” Sullivan cannot reach anyone else. Tempers fray amongst the crew as the long transit continues, and it seems more and more likely that they may have nowhere to return to.

The novel is rather contemplative, lingering for long stretches on the mental states and tribulations of the two protagonists. Long flashbacks frame the narrative, as Augie and Sully delve into their pasts, subconsciously seeking to understand what brought them to where they are now. Strong themes of connection, relationships and human nature stand out as the situation grinds the characters down to the core of their personalities. Ms. Brooks-Dalton makes some bold narrative choices when it comes to the resolution, and this powerful novel comes out stronger for it.

The Lesson – Caldwell Turnbull

On an ordinary day, an alien spaceship appears in the sky above St. Thomas. The Ynaa come with medical and energy technology. All they want is to stay a while. But soon, there are complications. The Ynaa do not seem evil, per se, only enigmatic. They are extremely strong, and won’t hesitate to tear a human apart at the slightest provocation. Derrick, a young man who has always looked skyward, wants to bridge the cultural and social divide. He begins working for Mera, the “ambassador” for the Ynaa. Unfortunately, Human resentment towards the Ynaa, continues to fester, and soon desperate people start doing desperate things.

The novel is a not-so-thinly veiled allegory on the victims of colonialism, complete with flashbacks to earlier St. Thomian history. The islanders have been invaded and colonised several times, and the Ynaa, despite being aliens, are in many ways no different to the Europeans who came earlier, with superior weapons and with little regard for individual inhabitants. The characters have their own issues and familial challenges, but for the Ynaa, this is only background noise.

The story is reasonably interesting but perhaps a bit too low key until the final climax. I can understand the intent; show that people can and will have ordinary lives beneath the notice of their oppressors. Unfortunately, for long sections, the narrative is dull and overlong. Nevertheless, a fine commentary on colonialism as seen from the eyes of the colonised.

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.