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

Owner’s Share (Trader’s Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper VI) – Nathan Lowell

SolarClipperTales6OwnersShareIn the sixth and final book of the series, Ishmael Wang finds himself, through a series of somewhat contrived circumstances, owner of his own small passenger and cargo ship. He must now turn a profit for himself. An added wrinkle is that one of the crewmen is the heir to the shipping line where he used to work. She has been forced by a codicil in her father’s will to work as a crewmember for a year in order to inherit the company. This adds some unexpected complications.

While most of the book follows the same adventures in normality model as the previous ones, there is a healthy dose  of intrigue, and even some violence, in this last book. Ishmael’s final fate is bittersweet. While part of me wants to applaud Mr. Lowell for not giving our hero a stereotypical feelgood happy ending, part of me wishes he had.

3½Rosbochs

 

A Light in the Dark (Tales from the Deep Dark I) – Nathan Lowell

ALightintheDarkThis novella is set several decades before Ishmael’s adventures in Trader’s Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper. Captain Gunderson and his crew run into a small rock way out in the Deep Dark, leaving the jump engine disabled. They are off the shipping lanes and slowly running out of consumables.

This was enjoyable for the character interactions but nothing groundbreaking. A pleasant diversion.

3Rosbochs

Captain’s Share (Trader’s Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper V) – Nathan Lowell

GoldenAgeoftheSolarClipper5CaptainsShareAfter a decade on the William Tinkerwhere he has progressed from third mate to first mate, Ishmael finally sits for Captain and shortly thereafter receives command of the Agamemnon, a small cargo ship with only eight crew. The Aganemnon  has a bad reputation. It is crewed by troublemakers and misfits, and profits have been abysmal.

Unlike Double Share, this book goes back to the adventures in normality model. The problems with the crew are swiftly and painlessly resolved through the application of some good old fashioned leadership. It is still an enjoyable read because the characters are richly realized, and the pithy dialogue is excellent.

On a side note, it seems rather unrealistic to be shipping things like gases and clay from planetary system to planetary system, unless shipping is ridiculously cheap of course. Having said that, the books aren’t really about the items that are being traded, but rather about shipboard life, so I’m willing to forgive Lowell on this point.

3Rosbochs

Double Share (Trader’s Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper IV) – Nathan Lowell

TradersTalesfromtheGoldenAgeoftheSolarClipper4DoubleShareAfter graduating from the merchant marine officer’s academy, Ishmael Wang starts work as a “boot” Third Mate on the cargo ship William Tinker. He soon discovers that the ship has serious problems, with crew morale dangerously low. The Captain is a recluse who almost never comes out of his cabin, the First Mate is a sociopathic sexual predator and the crew is subject to daily humiliation and assault.

While the first three books of the series are mildly enjoyable, this one ups the ante considerably. Mr. Lowell knows how to write pithy dialogue and describe character dynamics. What was missing was serious conflict in the plot. Nothing momentous really happened in the first three books. Certainly this was by design, as Mr. Lowell did not want his character to be some kind of “chosen one” and have a glorious foretold destiny. However this made for pretty dull stories only held aloft by the interest the reader had in the protagonist. While there are no exploding stars in this book, the gravely dysfunctional crew of the William Tinker makes for interesting reading, especially when Ishmael inevitably starts rebelling against the status quo.

4Rosbochs

 

Full Share (Trader’s Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper III) – Nathan Lowell

TheGoldenAgeoftheSolarClipper3FullShareAfter an accident involving a coronal mass ejection cripples the ship and threatens the lives of the entire crew, Ishmael is set to work investigating why the safety systems failed. He is now fully rated, meaning a higher share of profits, but the officers pressure him into thinking about the officer’s academy.

After the somewhat disappointing Half Share, Full Share finally puts Ishmael and the rest of the crew of the Lois McKendrick in some real danger. Adventures in normality among generally nice people can only go so far and real tension and conflict is required to make things interesting. The end of the book, while again unrealistically portraying Ishmael as catnip for women, at least does so in a fun way that will appeal to the reader. Shameless is the word, but it works.

3Rosbochs

Half Share (Trader’s Tales of the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper II) – Nathan Lowell

GoldenAgeoftheSolarClipper2HalfShare

The second book in the series picks up exactly where Quarter Share left off. Ishmael transfers from the galley to environmental. He also starts to come to terms with women and relationships with such.

As in the first book, there is no imminent danger and there are no action scenes. Mr. Lowell has a knack for making ordinary pursuits interesting, but his dialogue flirts with cheesiness rather too often. The second half of the book is a departure. In no time flat, Ishmael goes from normal uncertain eighteen-year old to hunk with perfect pick-up lines. The transformation is too fast and well over the top. To compound the problem, our teenage hero is seemingly the perfect man. He has no flaws and everyone likes him, especially women. Having said that, the characters, cheesy and somewhat unrealistic as they often are, certainly come alive on the page. I did feel a strong bond with the denizens of the SC Lois McKendrick, and I do want to find out what happens to them next.

2½Rosbochs

Quarter Share (Trader’s Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper I) – Nathan Lowell

GoldenAgeoftheSolarClipperIQuarterShareTeenager Ishmael Wang’s mother dies suddenly and as a result he has ninety days before he is booted off the company-owned planet where he lives. One of the few options he has is to join the merchant navy.

This book purposefully eschews space opera staples like aliens, ship-to-ship battles and other disasters for a less spectacular story of hard work and dedication leading to success. While it could have been boring, I found myself rather enjoying young Ishmael’s adventures in normality. The trading between stars brought back fond memories to the hours I spent playing Elite and Frontier: Elite II way back when. Certainly this is not a gripping space adventure, but it is a fun diversion despite the oftentimes wooden dialogue.

3Rosbochs

Abaddon’s Gate (The Expanse III) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanseIIIAbaddonsGateFollowing the events in Caliban’s War, the protomolecule shoots itself off into the far reaches of the Solar System, well beyond the orbit of Neptune. It forms a large ring. As it turns out, the ring is a gate to another place far away from the Sun. Mars, Earth and the Outer Planets organize expeditions to study the gate. Meanwhile, the sister of Julie Mao, the mysterious woman from Leviathan Wakes, has decided to disgrace James Holden, who along with the crew of the Rocinante, is also on his way to the gate. Needless to say, things rapidly go south, with the large multinational fleet of research and warships trapped beyond the gate in a mysterious “slow zone” which limits the speed of ships. And then things go south some more as internal fighting breaks out between various factions.

Just as in the previous books, the story is told via viewpoint characters, with excellent characterization. There is deep examination of motivation and personality without it getting in the way of the action. In some ways, the book, just like its prequels, reads like an action blockbuster, especially the last third of it. But it is deeper than that, showing the authors’ insight into human nature, society and politics. The world is granular and consistent, with little things like how Belters and Earthers think alike fully developed and really affecting the actions of the characters. The stakes are high and the situations often desperate. I couldn’t stop reading because the authors kept putting our heroes in situations that seemed impossible while the fate of humanity was on the line; a real skill.

5Rosbochs

Caliban’s War (The Expanse II) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanse2CalibansWarCaliban’s War is set one year after the events of Leviathan Wakes. The crew of the Rocinante is on contract from the Outer Planets Alliance to hunt pirates. Meanwhile, on Ganymede, the daughter of research botanist Praxidike Meng is abducted just prior to an unexplained assault by both Mars and Earth fleets. Turns out that the deadly protomolecule is loose again. But who set it loose? The Solar System is on the verge of war. Once again, the Rocinante finds itself in the center of things.

This book was fully as good as the first; perhaps even a touch better. The action is excellent and the prose beautiful. The attention to detail regarding the effects of living in the Asteroid Belt or on a moon of Jupiter are wonderfully thought out. For example, Belters nod with one hand since a head nod is not often visible when wearing a helmet. Both the old characters and the new ones stand out in their characterizations, with well-written arcs propelling them forward in the story.

4½Rosbochs

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch I) – Ann Leckie

ImperialRadch1AncillaryJusticeThe story is in two parts, divided temporally. In an earlier time, a living ship and her “ancillaries”, human bodies taken over by the ship’s intellect, serve the Radch, a ruthless empire ruled by an even more ruthless leader. In a later time, what is left of the ship’s intellect, inhabiting a human body, is on a quest to find a mythical weapon in order to exact revenge.

The premise is very intriguing, and the world-building top notch. It is a fascinating society where familial connections are everything and strict obedience mandatory, with dissent punished by death immediately. Outside the Radch, things are looser, and people see the Radch as rather strange, if very powerful.

While the writing is fine, the characterization excellent, and the story intriguing, this book has a serious flaw that prevented me from getting more than a third of the way in. It seems completely devoid of humor. The characters having no sense of humor may be understandable, but unfortunately the writing lacks any twinkle or spark. This makes the whole affair very dull. I can see the skill in the writing but after a while this became a slog which I didn’t feel like continuing.

2Rosbochs