Deep Navigation – Alastair Reynolds

A collection of Alastair Reynolds novelettes and short stories, a few of which also feature in Beyond the Aquila Rift. The anthology is a mix of everything from post-apocalyptic tales to deep deep future wonders.

As ever, Reynolds impresses with his mastery of the short fiction genre. The often mind bending concepts are always refined into their significance on people. This makes them resonate strongly with the reader.

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.

Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? – Graham Allison

In this non-fiction treatise, Harvard international relations expert Dr. Allison analyses the brewing great power contest between the United States and China. He starts with the work of classical historian Thucydides, who argued that the Peloponnesian War in the 4th Century BC was an almost inevitable consequence of a rising power challenging the status quo embodied by a the dominating power at the time. Dr. Allison uses a variety of similar situations in history, including the lead up to World War One, as well as the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, to discuss the consequences of such conflicts, and how they can be avoided.

The book is a fascinating look into how powers may find war unavoidable, even though it is against their interests, if they do not take action to move beyond attempting to maintain the status quo. There is also an in-depth discussion about the fundamental differences between Chinese and Western culture, importantly including the concepts of governance. Unfortunately, these particularities and differences do not seem well understood in the West.

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.

Winds of Wrath (Destroyermen XV) – Taylor Anderson

Following immediately after the events of Pass of Fire, Winds of Wrath first describes the final battle against the Grik. Somewhat unexpectedly, the story then carries on to the American front, as the Allies move towards the very heart of the Dominion, and must deal with the modern League expeditionary force in the Caribbean.

The writing, battle scenes, and character descriptions are as good as ever in the series, and it was a pleasure to read the book. I was unfortunately disappointed by how rapidly Mr. Anderson decided to wrap up the series. Plot threads landed at logical and satisfying conclusions, but it all felt rather rushed, as if the material for two or even three books was mashed into one. Major events involving major characters were often given a two-sentence flashback as the story rolled right on past them. The death toll also seemed particularly high, even by the standards of this series, but not for the right reasons. It was almost as if Mr. Anderson decided that since the final battles were so important, many of the main characters had to die arbitrarily in order for the stakes to seem high enough. The interlude on the home front seemed tacked on for dramatic effect and did not add to the story at all.

I have loved this series from the first book, and while I enjoyed this final instalment, and it gave me closure, so to speak, it was also something of a letdown to see things get wrapped up in such a rushed fashion.

Starsight (Skyward II) – Brandon Sanderson

Several months after the events of Skyward, the defiant humans of Detritus have gained a foothold on the orbital platforms surrounding the planet. Hyperdrive is a still a mystery, so they’re strategically stuck, with little intelligence about the Superiority which is keeping the humans trapped. One day, a mysterious ship carrying a previously unknown humanoid alien crash lands on Detritus, and Spensa must quickly set off on a covert infiltration mission she is ill-prepared for, to the enemy settlement of Starsight, a major Superiority settlement.

The bones of the story are fine, and carry the main arcs of both Spensa herself and the conflict forward. However, the books seems to drag for much of the middle. Interesting events occur but the pace is off, with perhaps too much exposition about Superiority politics and how they have led to this. The final section picks up, however, with a satisfying and action-filled conclusion.

Skyward (Skyward I) – Brandon Sanderson

Spensa Nightshade is the daughter of a traitor. In a pivotal battle, her father, an accomplished fighter pilot, inexplicably turned on his comrades. And her family have been branded ever since. Exiled in the caverns of the planet Detritus, the remnants of humanity fight a seemingly unwinnable war with the enigmatic Krell, who regularly launch incursions from a shell of debris closing off the stars from view.

At seventeen, it is time for Spensa to find a profession, and she has always known what she wants to be. A fighter pilot, like her father. Despite almost insurmountable obstacles set in front of her because she is the daughter of a traitor, she might just get her wish.

Spensa is a rebellious teen, lashing out at everyone, but stubborn, brave, hardworking and determined. An interesting protagonist that the reader is almost immediately rooting for. Her inner and outer journeys as the novel progresses are arduous and nuanced. The worldbuilding is excellent and believable. The same can be said for the technological aspects. While the aerospace technology and battles are rather fanciful, they are well thought out and internally consistent. There is no deus ex machina saving the day, but a logical and well-constructed plot. Mr. Sanderson builds up tension brilliantly, with the final battle a breathtaking climax.

The Cruel Stars (The Cruel Stars I) – John Birmingham

Centuries previously, humanity fought a civil war. As technology progressed, genetic alteration and cybernetic augmentation of the body became commonplace. Humans started transferring consciousness to new bodies, and even to machines, allowing practical immortality. A faction known as The Sturm saw this as abhorrent, fanatically advocating “racial purity” and wishing to exterminate the “mutants” from the human race. The war against The Sturm was won at a terrible cost, and they were exiled, not to be heard from again. Until now.

The protagonists are several, all interesting in their own right, with rich backstories. Each of them could have been the subject of his or her own novel. Naval officer Lucinda Hardy is a successful professional who lifted herself up from abject poverty in a society ruled by an aristocratic elite, and is now unexpectedly in command of the frigate Defiant. Pirate Sephina L’Trel is a charming rogue. Death row convict Booker was a terrorist. Corporate Princess Alessia has lived a sheltered life which is suddenly upended in the worst possible way. And finally archaeologist Frazier McLellan, previously Fleet Admiral McLellan. A most cantankerous, ill-tempered, foul-mouthed, hilarious and very endearing old coot.

The parallels to the Nazi regime and ideas of racial purity are explicitly referenced in the book. The Sturm invasion leads to an existential struggle, as the Sturm use the very characteristics and strengths of mainstream human society against it in their initial surprise attack. Mr. Birmingham has a fine gift for snappy dialogue and humour. I found myself laughing out loud many times, especially during McLellan’s arguments with Herodotus, a former military AI and his companion. Despite some misgivings in the first few chapters, as more and more new characters, seemingly unrelated, were introduced, the story came together well, with rapid, page-turning action sequences.

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.

The Brightest Fell – Nupur Chowdhury

After yet another terrorist bombing in the capital of a fictional country, the prime minister urges young maverick scientist Jehan Fasih to speed up trials of a truth drug. The country is in an uneasy peace after a long civil war, and is also under veiled threat from a larger neighbour. The drug which might give the country a tool to stop the violence and stabilise the situation, but this raises some serious ethical issues, not least of which is the fact that it is untested. Faced with this moral dilemma, Jehan reluctantly engineers the removal of the prime minister.

I did not get very far in this book, as the story or characters singularly failed to hold my interest. Meeting after meeting, with constant infodumps to slog through in order to bring the reader up to speed on the backstory. The character of Jehan was rather interesting, but that was about it.

I was provided with a free review copy by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Agency – William Gibson

Verity, an out of work IT professional, interviews for a job at a somewhat mysterious Silicon Valley startup. After she takes the job, they issue her with a phone, a pair of augmented reality glasses, and earbuds. Once she tries them, it appears she is talking to an advanced emergent AI called Eunice, which the company has discovered and want to develop. Pretty soon, things go off the rails as Eunice explores her independence, brining Verity along for the ride. Meanwhile, from a future London of a parallel universe, independent operators contact Verity. They need to use Eunice in order to prevent a looming nuclear war in Verity’s timeline.

The concepts in this novel are complicated, and the reader must pay close attention, especially in the first third. The prose, as usual for Gibson, is terse and razor-sharp, and while it is masterful, it sometimes feels rather too constrained. The way in which Eunice develops her agency and independence, despite the efforts to stop her, is an interesting take on emergent AI.

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions – Randall Munroe

What If? deals with the absurd questions that Mr. Munroe receives on a section of his website, which is primarily known for hosting his webcomic XKCD. Questions include what would happen to you if you started to rise at the rate of one foot per second and what would happen if the Moon disappeared.

While the questions themselves are absurd, Mr. Munroe works through the logic and maths in a serious way, which results in some surprising insights. His trademark irony and delightfully witty foodnotes make for a very enjoyable read.

This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor – Adam Kay

A no holds barred, brutally frank, bloody, tearful, joyous, and hilarious account of life as a junior doctor.

The events, described in short anecdotes, are often somewhat disturbing given how blindly we depend on and trust the medical profession (this very concept is also addressed and deconstructed), but I was nevertheless left impressed with the ethics and selflessness displayed even in difficult situations. While the book is uncompromisingly honest about the failings of the medical profession, it equally is a triumph; a heartfelt homage to those who toil endlessly to save and improve our lives. The understated wit is biting, and I found myself laughing out loud with some regularity. This is truly one of the funniest books that I have ever read. The descriptions of blood-spattered delivery room procedures often made me cringe, which made the laughter even more heartfelt. At the end, I felt drained of emotion, but I was smiling. Mr. Kay’s unrelenting optimism about humanity is charming, and contagious.

How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems – Randall Munroe

How-To tackles seemingly mundane problems like “how to dig a hole”, “how to cross a river”, or how to move house”, but takes them to absurd and hilarious extremes. For example, the moving house chapter includes a calculation of how far you could fly your house if you mounted jet engines to it.

Mr. Munroe is the author of the famous webcomic XKCD, and he brings his unique perspective to this very funny book. One key aspect which makes this book transcend mere humour is that the underlying science is basically sound. While it may not be possible to deploy a field of teakettles to boil a river in order to cross it (yes, that is one of the solutions considered), the consequences of the heating are calculated and described with as much accuracy as possible.

Throne of Glass (Throne of Glass I) – Sarah Maas

The young assassin Celaena Sardothien is serving a life sentence in a forced labour mine when the Dorian, Crown Prince of Adarlan, retrieves her and takes her to the capital. She is to take part in a series of competition with a variety of soldiers, mercenaries, assassins and thieves. The prize is to be appointed Royal Assassin for four years, during which the winner would earn their freedom. Once at the Glass Palace, she is drawn into a web of intrigue, and dark magic is afoot in the bowels of the castle.

This young adult low fantasy tale is rather unevenly paced, and its strong romance traits work against it. Celaena’s story and background, and the bits where there is actually action and intrigue, are quite interesting. The drawn-out sections of love triangle, with trite expositions about feelings, are quite tedious. Celaena is one of those characters who is good at everything, so there is little suspense regarding the final outcome, especially since this book is followed by six more. The hints at her heritage being more than it seems are heavy-handed and far too obvious. Her only redeeming qualities are her temper and her unwillingness to be meek and submissive.

The Menace from Farside (Luna) – Ian McDonald

This novella is set decades before the events in the Luna Series., when the Moon was already on its way to losing its status as a frontier. Cariad Corcorian and her “siblings” are part of an arrangement known as a Chain Marriage. When one parent moves out and another is set to marry their “mother”, the teens and pre-teens decide to give them a wedding gift in the form of a picture next to the first footstep on the Moon. A foolhardy adventure ensues.

The story flirts with Young Adult fiction, but nevertheless displays the hallmarks of Mr. McDonald’s prose. Deep dives into the particularities of character, radical social structures, and a laying bare of the truth behind relationships.

Auberon (The Expanse VII½) – James S.A. Corey

After the events of Persepolis Rising, humanity is subject to Laconian rule. On a prosperous colony planet, the new Laconian governor arrives. Laconians seem themselves as descendants of Sparta. Principle and virtue above all. But the new governor’s steadfast principles are about to collide with the reality of life outside Laconia.

An excellent novella. Instead of being constrictive, the limited length of the work is used to great advantage, focusing on a particular time and place, whilst illustrating a wider issue.

A Meeting with Medusa (The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke IV) – Arthur C. Clarke

A collection of stories from the late great Arthur C. Clarke. It is difficult to write a consistent review since the variation in tone, content and length is so large. Some are whimsical, some are epic. Some are short and some are long. Almost all showcase Mr. Clarke’s skill in instilling a sense of wonder. The collaboration with Stephen Baxter, about a world where teleportation is commonplace, was particularly thought-provoking.