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

Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse I) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanse1LeviathanWakesA few hundred years from now, humanity has colonized the Solar System. Mars and Earth (the “Inner Planets”) are the developed juggernauts of society, with Earth crowded by a population of thirty billion. The rest of humanity lives on various moons and asteroids (the “Outer Planets”), hollowed out or domed for habitation. Tension between the Inner Planets and the fringe has been constant for centuries, with the fringe being gouged on taxes and kept cowed by the massively powerful Mars-Earth combined navies.

The story is told from the viewpoint of two characters, freighter officer Holden, born on Earth, and Ceres police officer Miller, born and raised on Ceres itself. Holden’s ship is attacked for (initially) undetermined reasons and along with a few other survivors he is now a fugitive from powerful interests. Miller is asked to investigate the disappearance of one Juliette Andromeda Mao, scion of a rich family who left the fold to hang with the semi-terrorist Outer Planets Alliance, a group dedicated to independence from the Inner Planets. Miller’s search soon leads him to an encounter with Holden, as they both try to figure out who is inciting a shooting war between the Outer Planets and the Inner Planets. More importantly, what is the terrible plague that found Julie Mao; who is trying to use it and for what purpose?

The plot moves along quickly, with kick-ass action scenes worthy of a blockbuster movie. Miller’s slow descent into madness is contrasted with Holden’s transformation from naive boy scout to cynical player. The divergence of Inner Planet and Outer Planet society is finely described with tidbits sprinkled throughout the book; a story of frontier society trying to define itself. The supporting cast is wonderfully fleshed out, avoiding stereotypes and developing relationships realistically. The story itself twists in unexpected directions, with a grandiose “couldn’t see that coming” ending. Great space opera!

4½Rosbochs

Armored – Edited by John Joseph Adams

This anthology of short stories deals with armored fighting suits (mecha, what have you) from many different perspectives. Some stories are pure action, while others delve deep into sentient machines and man-machine interfaces. There’s even romance.

The stories range from excellent to passable. And there is quite a bit of thought-provoking stuff.

Robots and Empire – Isaac Asimov

On the “Spacer” planet of Aurora, the woman Gladia’s life is a long succession of days filled with ennnui. Despite being descended from the first humans to settle other planets, her society is stagnating. Spacers live long, empty lives. Robots run all menial work and intricate rules of conduct control much of life. Into this drops D.G. Baley, descendant of Elijah Baley of The Caves of Steel and The Robots of Dawn (when Gladia met Elijah). Baley is a “Settler”, part of a new wave of colonizers from Earth who are much more dynamic than the Spacers, and are overtaking them in influence. The Settlers oppose the Spacers. He asks Gladia to come with him to help investigate a mystery. Meanwhile, powerful men plot the defeat of the Settlers.

This is the last Robot novel by Asimov. It is part of his efforts to unify the Robot series with the Empire/Foundation series. Asimov has great ideas as usual but I found the writing hopelessly tedious. The fact that the Spacers are amazingly annoying people, haughty, self-centered and stuck up, does not help matters. I kept thinking that if I met Gladia I would have wanted to slap her. She is constantly bitching and moaning about trivialities.

As usual with Asimov, there is almost only dialogue and very little actual action. That is not a bad thing per se, but here it has been taken to an absurd extreme. Robot Daneel and Robot Giskard spend page after page discussing events (such as there are) in excruciating detail. No eventuality or possibility is left undiscussed. One character, on two separate occasions, refuses to listen to something he needs to hear until he is convinced that he needs to hear it. Both times it is a 5-10 page ordeal. I know Asimov is trying to make the point that Spacer society is stagnating and is stuck with all these rules, but it makes reading very boring. Overall, that would be the word to describe this novel: boring.

I made it two thirds in before giving up.

To Save the Sun; To Fear the Light – A.J. Austin & Ben Bova

In To Save the Sun, humans rule a vast empire. It is discovered that the Sun is dying. A lethargic entity, the empire arrives at the consensus that humanity will evacuate the Solar System and move to other solar systems in the empire. One woman, however, feels that saving the sun would be both a symbolic gesture worthy of humanity, and a way to get humanity moving towards a common goal, as well as developing new technology. In short, a way to drive change in a society which has become too comfortable with the status quo, and in which progress has become a distant concept. The sequel is simply a continuation of events, but the first book can be read as a standalone. Unfortunately, both books feel rather unfocused on both the central story and the central theme. The main characters are not really fleshed out the way they could be. Since I very much like the thematic concepts, I was rather disappointed. It is, however, still an adequate read.

Nightfall – Isaac Asimov & Robert Silverberg

An expansion of an earlier story with the same name by Asimov. Very interesting novel about a planet with six suns. This astronomical oddity results in a world that (almost) never knows night, and has never seen the stars. Astronomy is all about calculating the orbits of the suns. An astronomer figures out that night is going to fall soon, for the first time in 2049 years. Chaos and madness follow.

The Ugly Little Boy – Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg

An expansion of an earlier story by Asimov in which scientists retrieve a Neanderthal child from the past. A nurse feels empathy for the boy and helps him escape. Competently written, but mostly interesting due to the questions it raises about scientific ethics. Published as “Child of Time” in the UK.

Nemesis – Isaac Asimov

One of Asimov’s later works, and not his best. His prose has certainly become more modern and, dare I say it, refined, since Foundation, but his ideas have not. Not a struggle to get through, but it is not a very original story. There’s a classic roving habitat, impending doom, and some youngsters.

The Foundation Series – Isaac Asimov

The series consists of seven books. In order of internal chronology with original trilogy shown in bold.

  • Forward the Foundation
  • Prelude to Foundation
  • Foundation
  • Foundation and Empire
  • Second Foundation
  • Foundation’s Edge
  • Foundation and Earth

This is truly one of SciFi’s classics. The original trilogy (starting with Foundation) is widely considered to be one of the finest SciFi series ever written. The rest of the books are of equally high quality, except (in my opinion) for Forward the Foundation, which seems more like an attempt to tie up loose ends, something of an obsession with Asimov towards the end of his career. Interestingly enough, the man who is arguably the main character, psychohistorian Hari Seldon, is long dead in most of the books. Few series convey a sense of evolving history as this one does, and at least the original three should be a must read for any Science Fiction fan.

So why not a higher score? Well, I feel that although it is a classic and very good, it did not quite capture my imagination as much as some other books have.

Pebble in the Sky – Isaac Asimov

Although written in the same style as the forgettable The Currents of Space, this novel has a better story. A 62 year old retired tailor from 20th century Chicago is transported to a future earth so poor that citizens are euthanized at 60. His arrival and subsequent actions change the world. If you want to read Asimov (and you should), read the Robot books or Foundation instead.

Incidentally, this particular cover uses one of my favorite pieces of art of all time, by the late Peter Elson.

The Currents of Space – Isaac Asimov

Typical Asimov fare, in which our hero Rik is mindwiped and abandoned. Naturally, the information in his mind which he can no longer remember will bring down the reigning world order and so on. Not one of Asimov’s best, with an annoying lack of descriptions for environments and so on.

Gridlinked – Neal Asher

In many cases, when an author tries to tackle an utopian future, in which large parts of humanity are without want (if there is such a thing) and live a very good life, the effort falls flat. During the first fifty pages or so, I was indeed worried. Things soon looked up, however. First of all, there is trouble in paradise, both internal and external. Secondly, there are cool people, such as our hero, superagent Ian Cormac. Thirdly, there are cool gadgets, like self-aware shuriken. Interestingly, most of human society is controlled by AIs, probably since they seem to be doing a better job than humans ever did.

In an unforgettable exchange, it is explained that AIs have the power of self-determination since it is programmed into them.  On the other hand “biologicals” do not, because they have biological imperatives to breed and so on. I thoroughly enjoyed this one, even though the ending left me a bit puzzled. What the heck was going on there?

The High Crusade – Poul Anderson

A classic, hilarious romp in which invading aliens are defeated by Middle Age knights. The knights take over their ship and don’t stop until they rule the whole alien empire. Completely unserious, and therein lies the charm.

Wild Blue – Steven Ambrose

The late and great Ambrose on USAAF bomber crews flying over Europe during WWII. Very well researched and focusing on the men (and their families) and how the conflict affected them. Enjoyable and worth the read even if you are not into aviation or militaria.

The Return – Buzz Aldrin & John Barnes

After the fantastic Encounter with Tiber, I was hoping that Aldrin and Barnes would pull off another great epic story. In this respect, I was sadly disappointed. The Return is still a good SciFi yarn. It’s a near space, near future story which fictionalizes what I assume to be Aldrin’s hopes for humanity’s return to serious space travel. Worth picking up if you’re into this sort of thing, but nothing very special.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

Until Adams’ untimely demise, this series kept expanding and expanding. I have read up to book four, that is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; The Restaurant at the End of The Universe; Life, the Universe, and Everything and finally So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. While many SciFi fans see this as the be all and end all of satire, I seem to have missed most of their point. Granted, the series is  good, but not quite so ultimately engrossing that I feel the need to read it over and over again. To be quite honest, I find some of the parts quite sad, especially the repeated failures of Arthur Dent to find happiness. I think that this book reflects Britishness in a very unique way, mixing equal parts dry humor and melancholy. Having said all that, definitely read the first two parts. They ARE classics (and now I sound like an English teacher…) If nothing else, you’ll be able to keep up when other SciFi readers reference them.

Encounter with Tiber – Buzz Aldrin & John Barnes

With a name like Buzz Aldrin on the cover I figured I needed to at least give it a shot. The story follows the first human mission to another star, and in flashbacks a human mission to the Moon that found alien artifacts, as well as two alien missions to Earth in prehistoric times.

Unexpectedly, this novel completely blew me away. The story is developed from two angles, human and alien. Interestingly enough, the two sides never meet as such, but impact on each other’s existence in various ways. While the aliens aren’t the most original, the alien characterisation is complex and well written, It is nice to read about well fleshed out characters who have deep, complex personalities on the “other” side. The tech is of course top notch (Buzz Aldrin!), but the real kicker here is the sheer epic scale of the story. After I finished it, I sat staring into empty space for a long time, my mind filled with wonder.