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 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.

 

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.

 

Strange Dogs (The Expanse VI½) – James S.A. Corey

In this short story set on the colony world of Laconia, a young girl tries to bring her dead little brother back to life. Things get weird.

While it is well written and a quick read, I wasn’t particularly captivated with the story in this slice-of-life from a colony world in the Expanse Universe.

Milk Run (Smuggler’s Tales From The Golden Age Of The Solar Clipper I) – Nathan Lowell

On her graduation day at the merchant marine academy in Port Newmar, Natalya Regyri is framed for murder. Along with her friend Zoya, she escapes to “Toehold Space”, a clandestine network of stations not regulated by the central authorities.

This book starts a new series in the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper universe. As in the other books, there is no dramatic action. In his afterword, Mr. Lowell takes almost condescending pride in pointing out that he tells stories of ordinary working men and women. This installment starts off well, but the second half is bogged down in overlong, tedious discussions on inventory management. On the bright side, the dialogue is snappily written, and keeps things going even when during the umpteenth crew meeting to dissect the fine points of shipboard logistics software.

Revenger – Alastair Reynolds

Fura Ness and her sister are adolescents on a little planetoid, growing up under an overprotective widowed father whose business fortunes are poor at best. They escape from home to make money crewing on a ship plying the spaceways for treasure left over from fallen civilizations. But on their first journey, things go horribly wrong. Fura vows revenge on the pirate captain who destroyed her life.

The style of this novel verges on Young  Adult, and the story itself, while enjoyable, is nothing that stands out. The setting, however, is fascinating and inventive. The star system is full of wordlets and space habitats, having been “occupied” at least thirteen times over millions of years by various empires and polities. The current civilization sustains itself partly on picking up loot from asteroids protected by periodically inactive force fields. The loot can be anything from decorative items to ancient and powerful weapons. I was somewhat disappointed that more aspects of this setting were not explored, especially the mysterious origin of the “cuoins” used as currency.

Babylon’s Ashes (The Expanse VI) – James S.A. Corey

theexpanse6babylonsashesNemesis Games saw Earth attacked and crippled. Billions are dead after Marco Inaros and the Belter Free Navy landed an unimaginably cruel and perhaps fatal blow on the Inner Planets. Medina Station, the key to the colonies opened in Abaddon’s Gate, is also locked down by the Free Navy. Babylon’s Ashes is about the aftermath. Earth led by the incomparable Avasarala, The Mars Congressional Republic and those factions of the Outer Planets Alliance unwilling to accept Inaros’s guidance must now pick up the pieces and strike back before human civilization passes a point of no return towards a new dark age.

Well written as always, Nemesis Games is a pretty depressing read for the most part, but how else could it be with humanity shattered and billions dying of starvation and exposure? The glimpses of light from the efforts of James Holden and the others on the “good” side are heartbreaking and poignant and at the same time encouraging and heartening, as the authors probably intended. The inner doubts and struggles of the characters, in particular Michio Pa, show the reader how politics writ large is still made up of the decisions of individual actors. And as usual any scene with Avasarala involves her stealing the show. How awesome is this character?

4Rosbochs

A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers II) – Becky Chambers

wayfarers2aclosedandcommonorbitThis novel is set just after the enchanting The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, but none of the main characters have carried through. The story is about Sidra, the newly minted AI from Wayfarer, who has been illegally housed in a human looking “body kit”. In parallel, it is about Pepper, the tech who helped Sidra “escape”, and the peculiar way in which Pepper grew up.

At it’s core, this is a story about what it means to be a person. What sets humans apart from a sentient artificial intelligence, if anything? There is also a strong theme of family and its meaning. It is written with the same charm and wit as the first book, leaving the reader with a warm and fuzzy feeling at the end.

4½Rosbochs

A Night Without Stars (Chronicle of the Fallers II) – Peter F. Hamilton

chronicleofthefallers2anightwithoutstarsTwo hundred and fifty years after the events in The Abyss Beyond Dreams, Bienvenido society has been profoundly changed. The planet has been exiled from the Void to a star system outside any galaxy, perhaps because the inhabitants “misbehaved”. It orbits the lonely star together with a scattering of other planets with a similar fate, some with extant species, others sterile. After Slvasta’s revolution, society follows an oppressive model similar to Stalinism. The state rules and the secret police is its enforcer, feared by all, but mostly by “Eliters”, those who have working macrocellular clusters, stemming from certain genetic traits inherited from the Commonwealth thousands of years previously. The Eliters are downtrodden but defiant. Bienvenido is still under attack by the Faller trees, now slowly being chipped away at by regular space missions to destroy them one by one with nuclear bombs.

Several characters from the first book remain, still working towards a solution to the Faller incursions, which are getting worse despite claims to the contrary by the regime. Nigel may be gone but another famous Commonwealth character steps onto the scene in these desperate times.

While the first book had a definite ending, and this one introduces new protagonists with new character arcs, it is also very much a continuation and conclusion to the series. Mr. Hamilton uses his customary skill in weaving all the threads together into a rousing and satisfying finale, as well as an epilogue that will have long time fans smiling beatifically.

5Rosbochs

The Abyss Beyond Dreams (Chronicle of the Fallers I) – Peter F. Hamilton

chronicleofthefallers1theabyssbeyonddreamsLaura Brandt is in stasis as her dynasty is journeying outside the Commonwealth to set up a new society. The Commonwealth is thriving, but the enigmatic and sinister Void casts its shadow as it continues to expand, devouring the galaxy sun by sun. Through happenstance, the Brandt fleet is caught in the Void, trapped in proximity to a planet surrounded by what look like huge orbiting trees, but which house a terrifying alien race.

Thousands of years later, on the planet, now known as Bienvenido, a young soldier called Slvasta is patrolling after a Faller incursion, as yet again “eggs” from the orbiting Trees have fallen. Many generations after colonization by the crippled Brandt fleet, society is at a low industrial level. The eggs are biological weapons which attract and consume humans. Slvasta survives an encounter but loses an arm, leading to his reassignment to the capital. Here, he and his girlfriend Bethaneve set in motion events that will transform Bienvenido society, with more than a little nudging from Nigel Sheldon, who entered the void on a mission to the planet Querencia (from the Void trilogy) but was waylaid to Bienvenido.

This book is the first of two in the series. The larger story of the Void and the Commonwealth is continued from Commonwealth Saga and the Void Trilogy, but the story on Bienvenido is relatively self-contained. Unsurprisingly for a Hamilton book, the hundreds of pages fly by, populated by vivid characters and settings. While some might find it disappointing that Mr. Hamilton is focusing on stories set in societies that are not representative of the super-high-tech Commonwealth, I find that he could write any story and I would still read it. Bienvenido is a fascinating setting, and its detachment from greater human society makes the story all the more poignant.

4½Rosbochs

The Player of Games – Iain M. Banks

Culture2ThePlayerofGamesJernau Gurgeh is the best game player the Culture has ever seen. (For clarity, these games are analogous to the board games of today. He writes scholarly papers on them. He takes parts in tournaments. He lives and breathes games. However, he is somewhat bored. The Culture is a post-scarcity society, with no want, death, suffering or exploitation. Winning at games is a purely intellectual pleasure. However there are civilizations outside the Culture. Gurgeh is contacted by Special Circumstances, a branch of “Contact”, the Culture’s organizations for dealing with newly contacted civilizations. It seems that in the barbaric Empire of Azad, a monumentally complex game is used to control appointments to government offices, even so far as to decide who becomes emperor.

Writing about a post-scarcity utopia is difficult. There is no real struggle. The interesting stories come about when there are encounters with the world outside the utopia’s borders. In fact the novel is slow and ponderous until the action reaches the Empire of Azad. The protagonist suffers from ennui but the reader is not left with a strong impression of him. He comes alive once the stakes are real, going through a transformation from happy but docile citizen of the culture to vibrant player, both literally and figuratively, with the means to affect society in very significant ways. The metaphor may be in-your-face but it is still well written.

4Rosbochs

In Ashes Born (Seeker’s Tales From The Golden Age of The Solar Clipper I) – Nathan Lowell

SeekersTales1InAshesBornWhile billed as the start of a new series, this book is a direct sequel to the Trader’s Tales From the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper series. The break has its logic in the new direction for the life of our protagonis. At the end of the previous book, Ishmael Wang had achieved his goal of becoming a captain. He is a independently wealthy and does not need to work ever again. This leaves him feeling at loose ends, so he returns to the academy for some soul searching and perhaps the discovery of a new purpose. His very old friend Pip shows up to drag him along in a new venture, and maybe find some closure regarding the events in Owner’s Share.

For fans of the series, this book will feel familiar. Ishmael and Pip may be older and wiser but they remain an entertaining pair. Mr. Lowell has developed a high skill in writing dialogue. The events in this book, as in previous ones, are far from epic, but they are as ever quietly entertaining. And while certainly one could criticize the author for creating a future where culture everywhere is a ludicrously homogeneous American idyll, or for ignoring quite a few logical fallacies in the economic model of society, that would just take away from the fun.

4Rosbochs

Shooting the Rift – Alex Stewart

ShootingTheRiftSimon is the son of a naval officer on a world with Victorian gender roles, except the gender roles are reversed with males being the inferior gender. He is a screwup and has just been kicked out of University, much to the disappointment of his family. He ends up on a merchant spaceship with the Commerce Guild, where his skills as a hacker get him into and out of trouble at regular intervals.

It is a measure of the dullness of this book that the day after I put it down, I couldn’t remember the name of the main character. The gender reversal would have been more interesting if there had been anything to it but the reversal. The dialogue is flat and even the supposedly “controversial” gene modified characters are uninspiring. I kept waiting for the story to go anywhere but nothing seemed to be happening. Despite a concerted effort after half the book I never picked it back up.

2Rosbochs

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen – Lois McMaster Bujold

VorkosiganGentlemanJoleandtheRedQueenThree years after the death of Aral Vorkosigan at the end of Cryoburn, Cordelia is still serving as vicereine of Barrayar’s Sergyar colony. Feeling a desire to have more children, she starts the gestation of embryo’s combining previously frozen ova and sperm from her and Aral. She also makes an unexpected offer to Aral’s former aide and now commanding Admiral of the Sergyar fleet, who also happens to have a very deep involvement with the family.

Any new Vorkosigan Saga novel is cause for loud squeals of delight from yours truly. True to form, Ms. McMaster Bujold delivers masterful prose and exceptional dialogue, leaving me chuckling on almost every page, and frequently re-reading selected passages.

There is not much action in this novel. It is really “just” about romance and moving on with life. I was conflicted as to whether this was necessarily a weakness. I certainly enjoyed it despite the lack of anything really happening. Ms. McMaster Bujold could write about the weather and still keep me entertained.

There’s also the matter of the somewhat blatant retcon of previous events, inserting a key character where before there was none. I’m willing to forgive the author for this one as well.

Perhaps the only key weakness of the novel is that it may be a hard read for anyone not at least vaguely familiar with the Vorkosigan Saga. Looking at in an uncharitable light, it is full of shameless fanservice. But fans should love it. I, for one, savoured every moment.

4Rosbochs

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers I) – Becky Chambers

TheLongWayToASmallAngryPlanetRosemary is on the run. From what is not initially known. She joins the crew of the Wayfarer, a vessel that builds stable wormholes in space. The crew is a motley mix of characters, both humans and of other species. As the Wayfarer travels on a long mission, Rosemary and the rest of the crew face various trials.

Written like that, the story seems rather banal, and in truth the story is not the reason one should read this novel. In fact, the story is almost a series of interconnected episodes, aimed almost uniquely at highlighting and celebrating what is important in the book: The relationships between the characters, and how these make them grow and change. It is easy to see in the crew a more mellow but somehow also more colourful version of the protagonists of Firefly.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (I love the title) is a delightful novel. Surprisingly unpretentious in a genre typically dominated by big concepts, it takes the reader on a journey with characters that are relatable and easy to like. I found myself smiling more often than not while reading, and frequently wished that I could sit in the garden on the Wayfarer, just hanging out with the crew.

4½Rosbochs

The Vital Abyss (The Expanse III½) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanse3.5TheVitalAbyssThis short story set in the The Expanse universe features one of the protomolecule research team scientists as the protagonist. It details how the protomolecule was initially investigated, then unleashed on Eros, and the aftermath.

The protagonist shows a bleakly callous worldview. He is certainly not a sympathetic person. However, while reading his view is shown to be insidiously seductive.

4Rosbochs

Nemesis Games (The Expanse V) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanse5NemesisGamesThe new worlds discovered in Abaddon’s Gate and opened in Cibola Burn are the new frontier of human expansion. By consequence, there is no longer a need to settle minor bodies like asteroids and live “on the float” like the Belters. This group was already emarginated and seen as exploited by the powerful planetary hegemonies of Earth and Mars. Now their entire raison d’etre as a culture is being threatened. Even Mars is feeling the pressure, as people leave its underground warrens for the opportunity to live in the open air on a new colony planet.

With this as a backdrop, our heroes of the Rocinante is on hiatus on Tycho Station while the ship is being repaired. On cue Amos, Alex and Naomi are called away to handle matters originating in their past. For most of the story, the crew is split up, which makes for an interesting exploration of the individual characters.

And then the big boom happens. An extremist Belter faction attacks Earth. Our heroes must survive alone, and find some way to reunite.

The wider political situation continues to develop, ensuring that the protagonists are not just living out adventures in a static world. The backstories of the characters are interesting in themselves. The exploration of Naomi’s past, delving into some rather dark territory, is especially gripping. Another very enjoyable installment.

4½Rosbochs

Armada – Ernest Cline

ArmadaZack Lightman is a typical teenager living in a small town in Oregon. He is about to graduate high school. He works part time in a vintage video game shop. He plays the hit space combat game “Armada” quite a bit, with a player ranking of sixth worldwide. He also plays the companion ground combat game Terra Firma, but is nowhere near as good as his friends. The whole world seems to be playing these games. Then one, day, an Earth Defense Alliance shuttle looking just like in the games turns up at Zack’s school to pick him up for duty. Apparently the alien invaders are real and the games are a training simulation.

Like in his debut novel Ready Player One, Mr. Cline plays heavily on nostalgia and homages to the pop culture of the eighties. The story itself is heavily influenced by The Last Starfighter, which is also is referenced in the text. However in this novel the element feels somewhat forced.

The book is a fun romp and a lighthearted read. However it feels rushed and unfinished. The reader is left with the impression that there is so much left to say about these characters, but the story moves on rails, far too rapidly tracking towards what is a predictable conclusion despite the too obvious twist.

3½Rosbochs

 

Podkayne of Mars – Robert A. Heinlein

PodkayneofMarsPodkayne is a girl from Mars in her late teens. Mars is a bit of a frontier planet, and she has dreams of venturing further afield. Together with her younger brother Clark, she goes along with her uncle, a powerful Senator, on a journey towards Venus and Luna aboard the luxurious liner Tricorn. Intrigue awaits.

Published in 1962, there is some debate on whether this novel should be considered one of the Heinlein Juveniles or not. I would say it is somewhere in transition territory, still passable as Young Adult fiction but definitely starting to explore more adult themes than its predecessors. The publishers were apparently not entirely pleased by this, and Heinlein even had to rewrite the ending before publication to make it less dark, though many current editions include the original ending as well.

The story is told from Poddy’s perspective. She has ambitions to break into the male dominated industry of spaceship flight crews. She wants to be treated as an equal in those respects, but she is certainly aware of how to make men do her bidding through manipulations. The sexual dynamics are rather dated, even though Heinlein was a progressive thinker on the subject in his day. The story is somewhat banal, but Poddy’s sassy and irreverent narration saves it from being boring. The setting also cleverly avoids most things that would date it, ensuring it does not age as badly as most SF of the time. The one thing that cannot be avoided is the view that Mars and Venus would be in any way inhabitable by humans, views that were refuted completely in the years following publication. However I was happy to squint at those details, treating Mars and Venus as “the way they should have been” in more innocent Universe.

3½Rosbochs

 

Starliner – David Drake

StarlinerRandall Colville is about to undertake his first voyage on the staff side crew of the giant starliner Empress of Earth, largest of her kind and the pride of Earth. He has made his way up from poverty on his desolate homeworld, through a stretch on a “Cold Crew”, the contingent on a starliner that deals with the horrific job of adjusting engines while underway, to his current position of Third Officer. Trouble brews as two of the world-states en route are about to declare war on each other. But the show must go on, and the ship must run smoothly for the rich and powerful in first class.

‘This novel is great fun and an easy read. High adventure in an exotic environment modeled on the classic ocean liners of the early 20th Century. The protagonist is at once naive like a teenager and at the same time deeply scarred by his experiences, making him an interesting viewpoint character.

On a side note, the seed for some of the concepts in the RCN Series, in particular with regards to starship propulsion and class structure in society, are evident in this book.

4Rosbochs

Cibola Burn (The Expanse IV) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanse4CibolaBurnFollowing the events in Abaddon’s Gate, humanity has access to a thousand worlds connected by The Hub left behind by the protomolecule builders. The Outer Planets Alliance holds The Hub as a sort of way station. On the planet Ilus, Belter refugees have set up a lithium mining operation. However the UN has given the exploration charter for the world to Royal Charter Energy, a large corporation. While the Belters have been building a hardscrabble life, an RCE expedition to claim and explore the world has slowly been making its way to Ilus. The name itself is the first political issue of many, as RCE calls the world New Terra. Some of the Belter colonists take direct action against the perceived thread, destroying the first RCE shuttle to attempt a landing; killing several RCE staff and scientists. The UN and OPA send Holden and the crew of the Rocinante in to mediate. And from there, things go rapidly downhill.

In trademark The Expanse style, things start calmly and slowly, only to accelerate into a furious page-turning crescendo of action by the end of the novel. The world of Ilus/New Terra is not what it seems, and humans are messing with forces they can only barely comprehend. The crew of the Rocinante have matured into a closely knit team, and I can’t help comparing them to the crew of the Firefly. I even kept seeing Amos as Jayne. They trust each other to get the job done, without any doubts or hesitation. While not quite as strong as the previous installment, and somewhat ponderous in the first half, this yet another great read in the series.

4½Rosbochs

The Churn (The Expanse III½) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanse3.5TheChurnThe Churn tells the early backstory of Amos Burton, one of our heroes on the Rocinante in Leviathan Wakes and onwards. It is set in the criminal substrate of future Baltimore. Large parts of the city have been submerged by rising sea levels, and it is in general a crappy place to live; a backwater that no one cares very much.

The apathetic attitude of the denizens of Baltimore, and by implication much of Earth, is well portrayed. Most are living on Basic, a sort of dole where they get free (bland) food and basic services but do not have to work. Many are unregistered and have no real identity in the eyes of the authorities. They live their lives without purpose or hope for a better future. And they look upwards at Mars and the Outer Planets with a dreamlike wonder, knowing that they are very unlikely to have a chance at a better tomorrow up there.

3½Rosbochs