Artifact Space (Arcana Imperii I) – Miles Cameron

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

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

Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys – Michael Collins

Michael Collins was Command Module Pilot during Apollo XI, the NASA mission that included the first Moon landing. He did not himself land, but kept lonely vigil in Lunar orbit as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their famous landing. As is common with astronaut biographies concerning the early NASA era, this one also begins with an early career in the military. Mr. Collins was an accomplished test pilot, who was accepted by NASA on his second attempt, joining the third group of astronauts. He also flew on Gemini X, performing a spacewalk and perfecting docking manoeuvres.

Mr. Collins’s book stands out from other similar autobiographies I have read, in that it is written in the author’s own voice, as he explicitly states. His love for the English language, perhaps a product of rather a classical education, shines through in poetic passages, and even some poetry. This is not the voice of a clinical and technical test pilot, even though there is a fair amount of technical detail. This is the voice of a poet who lays bare his troubles, annoyances, fears and tribulations like no other astronaut I have read, elevating the text from documentary to something that seeks a deeper significance. We see the inner Collins, or at least more of the inner Collins that I really expected. Other astronauts are treated candidly, and sometimes with a brutal honesty about what the author sees as their character weaknesses. There is no bitterness in these passages, merely observations from a man who long since has gotten over the time when such concerns perhaps seemed all-encompassing.

The epilogue is particularly interesting to read today, almost fifty years after publication. Without rancour and with a great deal of patience, Mr. Collins laments the myopia of politicians, the ongoing damage to our fragile planet, and the general short-sightedness of humanity. He also takes issue with the perceived, but fictitious, conflict between resources devoted to space exploration, and spending on “problems at home”. With only a few detail changes, this chapter could have been written today, as humanity seems to have progressed no further, and such debates continue.

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

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

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

To Be Taught, If Fortunate – Becky Chambers

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

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

Ready Player 2 (Ready Player One II) – Ernest Cline

Some years have passed since the events of Ready Player One. Wade is the richest man in the world, but he is not doing well. After the High Five gained control of Gregarious Simulation Systems, Wade found a new message from Halliday, revealing the existence of a neural interface system allowing the user to experience the Oasis simulation “directly” in the brain, without the need for visual, aural, and haptic devices. This changed the world, again, but also led to Samantha breaking up with Wade. She thought it was a terrible idea to implement. He is now a recluse, spending all his time in his enormous mansion, and twelve hours a day logged into the Oasis via his neural interface rig.

At this point, Wade’s problems amount to no more than the self-inflicted emotional suffering of a billionaire who made poor personal life choices. However, a new threat looms. An AI left behind by Halliday appears, threatening the Oasis and everyone logged in to it.

I must confess to being ready for disappointment with this book. How could Mr. Cline possible put the protagonist in straits that felt authentically dire when all his dreams were fulfilled at the end of the first book? I should not have worried. It all comes crashing down, and just when you think matters can’t get worse, they do. What follows is another treasure hunt with high stakes, but the emotional underpinnings are quite different from the egg hunt in the first book. It also reveals some dark secrets from the past.

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.

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 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.

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.

Monster Hunter Guardian (Monster Hunter International VII) – Larry Correia & Sarah A. Hoyt

While Owen, Earl and most of the rest of the hunters are on their mission on Severny Island, as told in Monster Hunter Siege, Julie Shackleford is taking care of her and Owen’s toddler son Ray. An evil mythical creature known as Brother Death has taken an interest in Ray, since his ancestry on both sides imbues him with powerful magic. Through deception and violence, Brother Death kidnaps Ray, and Julie must set off to retrieve him safely.

The novel is an enjoyable diversion from the main stories of the series. Julie Shackleford certainly deserved a story told from her perspective, giving a rather different perspective to that of Owen, or even Earl, who had his own story in Monster Hunter Alpha. The action is, as usual, fantastic. Fully Mission-Impossible-worthy, extended set pieces dominate the book. On the flip side, Julie is a much more serious character compared to Owen, so the trademark humour is rather toned down. Unfortunately, it has been replaced by an excess of Europe-bashing and stereotyping. It’s all well and good to make fun of other cultures, but the thinly veiled tone of superiority by an American visitor is almost cringeworthy at times.

Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers III) – Becky Chambers

In the first two Wayfarers books, the Exodan fleet is an mentioned as background, but now Ms. Chambers takes us on a deep dive into Exodan culture. The great generation ships of the fleet launched centuries prior, as humanity fled a dying Earth. They eventually made contact with the Galactic Commons, and collectively make up a very different human society compared to the Martian one which remained in Sol System and eventually colonised other star systems. The novel follows a few Exodans in what are almost separate short novelettes loosely intertwined.

As with the two previous books, there is no strong plot. Rather, an exploration of interpersonal relationships and a deep dive into a very particular society. Nevertheless, the reader is drawn in, and how! Starting with the often mundane everyday activities of the protagonists, Ms. Chambers weaves a sublime web exploring the nature of existence, meaning and emotional attachment. The funeral scene in particular is a powerful piece of writing which left this reader in tears of both joy and sadness. Key to the stories is how the characters develop and move forward, pushed by both their environment and their own internal motivations.

Saints (Monster Hunter Memoirs III) – Larry Correia & John Ringo

In the third and final Monster Hunter Memoirs book, Chad finds a great evil lurking under New Orleans, which might explain the unusual density of supernatural events in the city. He suspects this might be why Saint Peter sent him back to Earth after his death. A showdown approaches.

Saints wraps up the series, but the teasing final sentence opens up to more adventures in perhaps not a direct sequel but another spin-off. While there are some rambling tangents, Ringo’s prose is as always filled with great action scenes and bone-dry humour.

Farside – Patrick Chiles

In the sequel to Perigee, Polaris Spacelines has started to establish tour service around the Moon. On one such flight, an incident occurs, leaving the spacecraft missing. The situation soon escalates dramatically.

Unlike the more neatly contained story of Perigee, Farside takes a more dramatic and ambitious turn. The prose and characterisations also feel more confident and engaging, as the novel escalates from a relatively low key science fiction accident story to a competent geopolitical thriller.

Also compared to Perigee, the technical accuracy has much improved. I will permit myself a tiny nitpick: “Taxi into position and hold” is outdated air traffic radio phraseology and no longer used.

Saturn Run – John Sandford & Ctein

In the second half of the 21st Century, American astronomers detect what can only be an alien starship making rendezvous with an object hidden among the rings of Saturn. The starship then departs the Solar System. This sparks a race to Saturn between the US and China in order to secure any alien technology which can be found.

The tone of the story is more thriller than sense-of-wonder science fiction, showing Mr. Sandford’s crime write roots. And it is indeed a good thriller of a story. The characters are imperfect and well fleshed out, if perhaps rather stereotypical, especially the Chinese ones. The “games people play” are intricate and interesting. An unfortunate aspect of the novel is that it expounds rather too much at length on the science and technology involved in the missions. While it is certainly neat content for the scientifically interested reader, the infodumps have a tendency to interrupt the otherwise fine pacing.

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.

 

Ignition!: An informal history of liquid rocket propellants – John D. Clark

Ignition was written by one of the scientists working on rocket propellants from the 1940s to the 1970s. Back when there was a Cold War on, meaning missiles of various varieties, and a Space Race on, meaning rockets of various varieties.

The text stretched my high school chemistry to its breaking point, and then broke it. While I won’t pretend to understand much of the actual science, I was drawn in by Dr. Clark’s bone-dry prose and hilariously understated anecdotes, as well as his humourously cynical view of government research projects. When asked how to handle a certain unstable explosive compound, he writes “I recommend a good pair of running shoes”. The period described was a golden age for propellant research, and government agencies were throwing around silly money to projects with little or no chance of success, in the hope that something would stick. In that way it is very much a sideline commentary on a time where mankind went from Earthbound to Spacebound; a time when science and technology were the answer. Just a bit more research and we can crack just about anything.

Monster Hunter Siege (Monster Hunter International VI) – Larry Correia

In this sixth installment of Monster Hunter International, Owen and the others have a chance to take the fight to the enemy in the Nightmare Realm, as well as attempt to rescue some of the hunters missing in action from the previous book. A major operation follows, but the story retreats from the grander scale of Monster Hunter Nemesis to a more personal struggle for Owen.

The self-deprecating humour and sarcasm from the first books is back with a vengeance and I found myself laughing out loud on many occasions. Good fun.

 

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.

Sinners (Monster Hunter Memoirs II) – Larry Correia & John Ringo

The second book in the series is set in New Orleans, after Chad has had to hastily move from Seattle due to an ill-advised liaison with a young elf. In New Orleans, so many people believe in “hoodoo” that the local MHI branch,  “Hoodoo Squad”, is very busy all the time. Adding to the culture shock for Chad, the population of the city seems as unusual as the monsters.

While the first book was really funny, this one is plain hilarious. The action scenes are superb. However, just as in the earlier installment, there are no real surprises, and we seem no closer to finding out what Chad’s “Divine Mission” is.

Grunge (Monster Hunter Memoirs I) – Larry Correia & John Ringo

“Chad” Gardenier grows up in an academic household, hating his parents. He enlists the Marines as quickly as he can, and is killed in the 1983 Beirut Barracks Bombings. He is sent back to the mortal realm with a mission, and instructions to look for a sign. The sign is “57”. He eventually joins Monster Hunter International as a, you guessed it, monster hunter.

The book, written in memoir form, has all the hallmarks of a John Ringo novel. The hero is self-reliant, really good at what he does, has right-wing political views and is total badass. The prose is infused with Mr. Ringo’s signature dry wit, and the action scenes especially are laugh-out-loud funny.

While it is a fun and easy read, it is disappointing that the story is not very interesting, or surprising. This is a fun little book for John Ringo fans, but it doesn’t have the same high stakes feel as the main Monster Hunter International series. While the journey is entertaining, the outcome is very much predictable.

The Monster Hunter Memoirs series is set in the Monster Hunter International universe, specifically about 30 years prior. While both Mr. Correia and Mr. Ringo are credited as authors, the books are written almost entirely by Mr. Ringo.

Perigee – Patrick Chiles

Polaris Airlines runs the first fleet of suborbital passenger transports, brainchild of industrialist and owner Walt Hammond. Flight 501 is a private charter from Denver to Singapore. Due to a malfunction it becomes stranded in orbit.

This is good clean fun if you like aerospace and a thrilling story. The characters ring true, especially the pilots, engineers and operations staff at the airline. I did sometimes have a hard time telling minor characters apart, since Mr. Chiles’s world is almost exclusively populated by “ordinary white people” straight from Central Casting.

It falls over a bit on the technical details, which is unfortunate since in a technothriller like this the technical details are essential. The explanations are often lacking in the clarity needed for mainstream prose. There are also inconsistencies in the text which should have been caught in editing. For example, one paragraph will mention thin cirrus clouds and afternoon sun, then the next will speak of an aircraft “breaking out of the overcast.”

The Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America’s Race in Space – Eugene Cernan with Don Davis

On 14 December, 1973, Gene Cernan re-entered the Lunar Module Challenger after the third and final moonwalk of Apollo 17, the final Apollo Moon Mission. It was the culmination of a lifetime’s aspirations, first as a US Navy Pilot, then as an Astronaut. This is his story, told in his own words.

Mr. Cernan comes across as a straight talker with a rock-solid work ethic; a conservative in the traditional sense. When he wrote this memoir, he gave the impression of being long past any point where he needed to impress anyone.  His account is frank and does not mince words about anyone, including himself. While Cernan will never be remembered like Neil Armstrong, Apollo 17 had much more value from a scientific standpoint. It had the longest stay on the surface, the longest space walks, the longest distance traversed, the heaviest load of samples and the speed record for the lunar rover (unofficial).

A great book for any fan of the space race, or even flying in general.

In a sad coincidence, Mr. Cernan passed away on 16 January of this year, while I was in the middle of reading his book.

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