Fatherland – Robert Harris

In this classic alternate history novel, Germany won the Second World War. The premise is very interesting, of course, but it is only the background as Harris weaves an interesting tale of crime in an alternate Berlin of the nineteen sixties. It provides interesting insights about what can happen when a totalitarian society on a war footing must in the end “settle down” and become a nation at peace. And then there is that deep, dark, covered-up secret that nobody wants to talk about: The Holocaust.

 

Fallen Dragon – Peter F. Hamilton

This novel is about a young man whose illusions are shattered in a cruel society. He runs away from home to become a mercenary. The story jumps back and forth between his youth and his part in plundering a colony world during his career as a corporate soldier. He is sick of the society he lives in, and gets that rarest of things, a second chance.

There is much else going on too, including a legacy left by ancient spieces, and Hamilton’s views on what to do with societal immortality. Although I felt it to be awesome in the scope of the macrostory, the main characters are easily within our reach, and the unexpected ending may well bring tears of joy to your eyes.

The Greg Mandel Series – Peter F. Hamilton

Consisting of:

  • Mindstar Rising
  • A Quantum Murder
  • The Nano Flower

These three loosely connected novels share the same protagonist, Greg Mandel. He is a psychic former soldier who now works as a sort of private investigator/mercenary. Greg comes into contact with a billionaire named Julia Evans, a very interesting characted in herself.

Although they can be read as straightforward SciFi crime novels, there is much more depth here. The location, a post ecodisaster England recovering from climate change is a fascinating place. Add to that a brave new kind of capitalism that has superseded rabid socialism, and the social commentary becomes top notch. Highly recommended.

The First Immortal – James L. Halperin

This story about how cryonics succeed follows a small group of people “through” cryogenic freezing to the society evolving in the aftermath of its success. The subject matter is very interesting and the book raises some fascinating questions. Unfortunately the writing itself is not particularly inspired.

Forever Peace – Joe Haldeman

In the bleak future depicted in this novel, the USA and nations allied to it fight a seemingly endless low grade war against a loose coalition of other countries and organizations. Sound familiar? Terror and lies are the norm on both sides. The US uses “Soldierboys”, robots under remote control by soldiers that are “jacked in” (neurally connected) to them from a remote location. The concept of neural jacking is central to the novel, with its effects and side effects explored at length. The USA controls “nanoforge” technology, which allows very cheap manufacture of goods and food. This has created an economic divide not only towards non-allies, but towards the people of the USA. A quasi-socialist system where the populace need not work but then only gets the bare minimum has been instated. On the other hand, the draft is in place, and pretty much everyone has to do five years. The story itself follows one Soldierboy operator, starting with the battlefields of Central America. It quickly moves on from there, to the issues with his girlfriend, who does not have a neural jack. In the second half, however, the protagonist and others attempt to stage a coup in order to end war for good.

This is a follow-up, but not a sequel, to the more famous The Forever War. The Vietnam reaction present in that novel is clear here as well. However, instead of exploring the soldier himself, Forever Peace looks at the social construct of a state that has become an end unto itself. The military-industrial complex is all powerful, and religious and other organizations fight for control of the state, and thus the nanoforges and the people.

Unlike The Forever War and Forever Free, this novel was not nearly as well plotted. The first half is excellent, with a clear direction and a good evolution of the characters. The second half introduces a host of new characters and is too much chase when contrasted to the excellent first half. It is unfortunate, since the degeneration into action thriller does not serve well the excellent and intriguing concepts Haldeman uses to shape his world. A decent read, but I was disappointed with the second half. I was especially annoyed at the whole “saving the Universe” part, which was a cool concept to begin with, but by the end felt contrived and unnecessary.

The Lost Fleet: Courageous – Jack Campbell

By this, the third book in the Lost Fleet, the series is losing steam. What’s worse, it’s losing the plot. While the battles are still very nicely done, the backstory is wearing quite thin. Nothing much happens to move the plot forward. The fleet continues to struggle on in its quest to reach alliance space. Captain Geary continues to struggle on his quest to retain command in the face of insubordinate subordinates. Geary continues struggle to figure out his relationship with Senator Rione. Nothing new to see here. Move along. I was happy with the second book being a middle book, but at some point something radical or conclusive will have to happen. I was so fed up after Courageous I may not care enough to read the next installment.

Note that Jack Campbell is a pen name for John G. Hemry.

 

The Lost Fleet: Fearless – Jack Campbell

Campbell is back with the second installment in the Lost Fleet series, in which “Black Jack” Geary continues to fight internal and external enemies to get the fleet home. Part of the fleet defects, leaving Geary with an even greater shortage of ships. But by the story expedient of being unpredictable, he continues to fight on. The internal struggle is interesting, as Geary realizes how powerful he can become politically if he brings the fleet home.

This was very much a middle book. No resolution. I have no problem with Campbell’s rather short (by today’s standards) novels but this one could easily have been amalgamated with “Dauntless“.

Note that Jack Campbell is a pen name for John G. Hemry.

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless – Jack Campbell

This is solid military SciFi. The premise is that an attack fleet from the “Alliance” finds the century old survival pod of legendary commander John “Black Jack” Geary, with the man himself hibernating inside. Just after that, the fleet is stranded in “Syndic” space after being soundly defeated in an ambush. All the flag officers have been imprisoned and shot, so by virtue of time in rank, Captain Geary is now in command of the “Lost Fleet”. But in the century of his absence, two interesting developments have occured. First, he is seen as a legend; a larger than life hero viewed by the personnel now under his command as a savior. Secondly, the long war has led to high rates of attrition, loss of command know-how, and acceptance of atrocities. To add spice to the mix, many of the surviving captains are not happy about the new regime. And now the fleet has to fight its way home.

The prose is straightforward, with the point of view character always Geary himself. He is tired and sick from his long hibernation, baffled and angered by the ruthlessness and incompetence the fleet, and frustrated at the idiocy of many of his commanders. The novel (first in a series) is a study in leadership, and the necessity to perform both the right actions and use the right words in order to ensure loyalty. Beyond that, it is a fun and fast paced little book. It doesn’t hold immense depth, but if you like military SciFi, you’ll probably enjoy it.

Note that Jack Campbell is a pen name for John G. Hemry.

Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein

This classic novel tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised on Mars, by Martians. He is brought “back” to Earth and soon whisked away by a nurse and a reporter. He can perform seemingly miraculous feats of bodily control, telekinesis, and more. He ends up at the house of Jubal Harshaw, author, professional cynic and bon vivant; a man who surrounds himself with three secretaries to take down prose or poetry at any time. “Mike” Smith, the “Man from Mars”, after an education at the hands of Jubal, goes out into the world, spreading his ideas about sharing, love and “grokking” under the guise of a new religion.

Stranger in a Strange Land is widely acclaimed as a genre classic, and I cannot help but agree. The evolution of Smith from uncommunicative quasi-cripple with the blank mind of a baby to mental giant with a huge following is masterfully described. Jubal Harshaw (Heinlein’s “ideal” alter-ego, perhaps?) is equally interesting as a character, with his honest modesty but sharp intellect and wisdom. The book is VERY heavy on the dialogue and rather light on the action. The risk an author takes with an reliance on dialogue is that the whole things becomes rather boring and long-winded. Such is not the case here. The characters talk about interesting things as wide ranging as religion, politics, art, jurisprudence and morality. Furthermore, they actually learn stuff and develop as people as they do so. They do not merely talk to support the action. Their talking IS the action. The view of females is somewhat rooted in the 50s and 60s but even so Heinlein was being rather “modern” in his views. The views expressed are very interesting, especially since Heinlein doesn’t take the obvious (for scifi) route of dismissing religion as nonsense. THAT really intrigued me. The way he manages to meld religion into Smith’s “message” is mindblowing. This is not the lightest of reads but I must recommend it. It is both interesting and entertaining but most importantly it makes the reader think long and hard about the accepted truths of our society.

The Night’s Dawn Trilogy; A Second Chance at Eden – Peter F. Hamilton

The trilogy itself consists of:

  • The Reality Dysfunction
  • The Neutronium Alchemist
  • The Naked God

There are also two ancillary volumes:

  • A Second Chance at Eden – short story collection
  • The Confederation Handbook – reference volume

In the USA, each volume of the trilogy was published in two parts, as evidenced by the thumbnails.

The Night’s Dawn trilogy is a huge story spanning over 4000 pages, in truth one massive multi-volume novel. It tells of a great evil that befalls the otherwise mostly peaceful but very interesting and multifaceted Federation. Everything changes as mankind faces its true self. As the external threat starts to seriously damage the foundations of civilization, the large differences between various human and alien factions make for an interesting backdrop to the struggle. Actually it is very difficult to describe Night’s Dawn in a few short sentences. The scope is quite breathtaking, there are many characters and the writing is impeccable. The only nagging complaint is the far too rapid conclusion. Hamilton seems to have been in a hurry to tie things up. Some might feel the ending is a bit of a cop-out. But in my opinion whatever you think of the ending, the journey is certainly worth it.

“The Confederation Handbook” reference can be practical to have lying around since there is a lot to keep track of.

The short story collection ”A Second Chance at Eden” is a fine companion to the trilogy. Although only a few of the stories are in the same universe, all of them are gems in their own right. Importantly, though, the title story gives some valuable background on how the Edenist Culture was founded.

These books have particularly gorgeous covers, thought US editions marred this a bit by darkening and altering the colors.

The Commonwealth Saga – Peter F. Hamilton

These two books are simply two volumes of the same novel, dubbed the Commonwealth Saga. With the invention of wormhole technology by straight arrow Nigel Sheldon and eccentric Ozzie Isaacs, traditional space exploration (vacuum, spaceships, all that kind of thing) is all but abandoned. Rail lines running between worlds through wormholes are the only means of interstellar transport, and humanity is rapidly expanding to many planets.

Hamilton seems to have been inspired by Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon when it comes to rejuvenation technology, although there are differences. Practical immortality is available to all but the very poor. Most people pay money into a sort of pension fund which pays for rejuvenation. The more well to do rejuvenate more often, staying forever young. This has brought about a maturing of humanity, where planning is much more long-term. Careers span decades and centuries. The rich can take entire “sabbatical lives”.

These two massive upheavals, longevity and cheap transportation over interstellar distances, have led to an unprecedented period of growth and prosperity for human society. A commonwealth unites the worlds. The Commonwealth is nominally a democracy, but the reins of power are firmly in the hands of dynasties rich enough to own entire planets. A utopia of sorts, but not really a democracy despite outward appearances.

A mysterious stellar event far outside the human sphere of influences forces the construction of a starship. It is the first one ever built. Former astronaut (immortality remember?) Wilson Kime captains the mission, which leads to the escape of the greatest threat humanity has ever faced from its ancient prison. And it soon becomes clear that the escape was not entirely an accident. There are mysterious forces at work inside the Commonwealth.

In the tradition of that other (even more) massive Hamilton opus, Night’s Dawn, this story is a somewhat daunting cornucopia of characters and interweaving subplots. This author can get away with it, since even his explanatory filler is eminently enjoyable. An immensely rich societal backdrop forms the stage for a drama with some very unexpected twists and turns. The most insignificant details come back to haunt the characters in what is obviously a very finely and meticulously crafted story. The end of Pandora’s Star is a massive cliffhanger and the story picks right back up in Judas Unchained, so I would recommend reading the two volumes back to back.

The story is peppered with wondrous things such as the Silfen, an enigmatic race of aliens, and their even more enigmatic forest paths, which lead seamlessly from world to world. Even the enemy is fascinating and an example of a true non-human intellect. There are bizarre, enigmatic and just generally cool characters such as super investigator Paula Myo, slut turned reporter Mellanie Rescorai, the orphan Orion, cult leaders, resistance warriors, criminals and politicians. A tangled web held together elegantly by Hamilton.

The story moves from utopia through gathering storm through all-out chaos and war to a spectacular conclusion, and is finally neatly put to bed in the epilogue. The true genius of Hamilton is that his universe is not populated by 20th Century humans living long lives and using wormholes. Society and its inhabitants are quite different, reflecting the changes in society and culture brought about by technological advances. Motivations, reactions and behaviors are believably described for these “future humans” (and aliens), just as a 17th Century human would behave differently from us.

It should be clear by now that this novel is among the very best I have ever read. Sure, one could criticize the perhaps unnecessarily long road chase in the second volume, or the seeming abandonment of a few supporting characters at the end. But the truth is that it is very very difficult to write something this long, with so many character relationships, and not run into the occasional pacing problem.

So stop reading this and order the books. You will not be disappointed. And if you want more, Hamilton returns to the Commonwealth Universe and many of the characters in the Void Trilogy, set over a thousand years later.

The Void Trilogy – Peter F. Hamiton

A novel in three volumes consisting of:

  • The Dreaming Void
  • The Temporal Void
  • The Evolutionary Void

Like “Night’s Dawn” and the Commonwealth Saga before it, the “Void Trilogy” is not so much a series as one single novel, sprawling over three 1500 page volumes. That’s why it took two months to read. Set over one thousand years after the end of Commonwealth, it reintroduces many of the old familiar characters. While it can be read independently, I would highly recommend that you read Commonwealth first. The background is invaluable.

In the Commonwealth of the 3500s, humanity has split into many groups. Biggest is the split between Advancers, what one might think of as “old fashioned” humans, and Highers, who see their physical existence as a precursor to upload into the machine intelligence known as ANA. Among the Highers, there are several rival factions, from the Accelerators, who wish to speed up human evolution towards the enigmatic goal of transcendence, to the conservative Conservatives. Into this mix is thrust the religion of the Living Dream, born out of the dreams that its founder Inigo had of events inside the Void, a vast, enigmatic and (mostly) impenetrable region in the center of the galaxy. Inigo has dreamed of the life of a man called Edeard in a mysterious city on a planet in the Void. In fact, Inigo’s dreams of Edeard’s life mark a major subplot in the novel, as we follow Edeard from country boy to refugee to city constable in the city of Makkathran. The goal of Living Dream is to start a pilgrimage into the Void and there reach “fulfillment”. The rest of humanity and most alien races are more or less united against it, believing that such a pilgrimage will lead to an expansion of the Void which will engulf the rest of the galaxy, terminating all life.

As usual with Hamilton, the plot is complex, the characters are many, and the descriptions just lovely. The story is certainly gripping. However I did feel that this time, Mr. Hamilton didn’t quite grip me enough. Perhaps I now have too high expectations from him, but Void felt a bit ponderous, especially in the beginning. By contrast, the interludes with Edeard were quite the story in themselves, almost able to stand on their own as a novel. Weird as it may seem, I felt as if the novel wasn’t quite long enough. Some bits were a bit too sketchy, such as the whole Ocisen attack subplot. Yes, it was just a device used by a faction, but even so the complexities were worth exploring further. There was also a bit of a lack of action for much of the novel. People went hither and thither in their starships but there was often precious little actual plot or character development. So I wanted the novel to be longer, but in parts it was too slow? Exactly! The ending, however, was quite gratifying. Hamilton has by his own admission, often had difficulties actually tying things up. But he did it nicely here.

So what’s the verdict? If you have read Commonwealth and enjoyed it, you can’t go wrong by continuing with Void. It is not as good as Night’s Dawn or Commonwealth, but Hamilton at his worst is better than most authors at their best. It is great space opera, and few can write it like he does.

Peter F. Hamilton – The Void Trilogy

Like “Night’s Dawn” and the “Commonwealth Saga” before it, the “Void Trilogy” is not so much a series as

one single novel, sprawling over three 1500 page volumes. Set over one thousand years after the end of

Commonwealth, it reintroduces many of the old familiar characters. While it can be read independently, I

would highly recommend that you read Commonwealth first. The background is invaluable.

In the Commonwealth of the 3500s, humanity has split into many groups. Biggest is the split between

Advancers, what one might think of as “old fashioned” humans, and Highers, who see their physical

existence as a precursor to upload into the machine intelligence known as ANA. Among the Highers, there

are several rival factions, from the Accelerators, who wish to speed up human evolution towards the

enigmatic goal of trancendence, to the conservative Conservatives. Into this mix is thrust the religion of

the Living Dream, born out of the dreams that its founder Inigo had of events inside the Void, a vast

enigmatic and impenetrable region in the center of the galaxy. Inigo has dreamt of the life of a man

called Edeard in a mysterious city on a planet in the Void. In fact, Inigo’s dreams of Edeard’s life mark

a major subplot in the novel, as we follow Edeard from country boy to refugee to city constable in the

city of Makkathran. The goal of Living Dream is to start a pilgrimage into the Void. The rest of humanity,

and most alien races, are more or less united against it, believing that such a pilgrimage will lead to an

expansion of the Void which will engulf the rest of the galaxy, terminating all life.

As usual with Hamilton, the plot is complex, the characters are many, and the descriptions just lovely.

The story is certainly gripping. However I did feel that this time, Mr. Hamilton didn’t quite grip me

enough. Perhaps I now have too high expectations from him, but Void felt a bit ponderous, especially in

the beginning. By contrast, the interludes with Edeard were quite the story in themselves, almost able to

stand on their own as a novel. Weird as it may seem, I felt as if the novel wasn’t quite long enough. Some

bits were a bit too sketchy, such as the whole Ocisen attack subplot. Yes, it was just a device used by a

faction, but even so the complexities were worth exploring further. There was also a bit of a lack of

action for much of the novel. People went hither and thither in their starships but there was often

previous little actual plot or character development. So I wanted the novel to be longer, but in parts it

was too slow? Exactly! The ending, however, was quite gratifying. Hamilton has by his own admission, often

had difficulties actually tying things up. But he did it nicely here.

So what’s the verdict? Well, if you have read Commonwealth and enjoyed it, you can’t go wrong by

continuing with Void. It is not as good as Night’s Dawn or Commonwealth, but Hamilton at his worst is

better than most authors at their best. It is certainly great space opera, and few can write it like he

does. 20101123

Forever Free – Joe Haldeman

This is the direct sequel to The Forever War. Twenty years (subjective for our heroes) have passed since the War ended. William and Marygay have settled down on the frigid planet of Middle Finger, which has the largest population of veterans that have not integrated with the “Man” group mind comprising most humans. Like most of the community of veterans, they feel alienated from the rest of humanity, which uses implants to integrate into a mind “Tree”; a group mind where individuals willingly surrender most of their individuality. The Taurans, enemies during the War, have a similar arrangement, and Man (group mind humans) have more in common with them than with the old-style humans. It is a life, but our heroes are not happy with it. They hatch a plan to take a starship forty thousand years into the future by flying a big loop at relativistic velocities. Only ten years subjective will pass on Middle Finger. However soon after departure things start going very wrong for unexplainable reasons and they must get in the lifeboats and return in suspended animation, taking decades to do so. Once back, they discover that everyone is gone, vanished simultaneously and instantaneously.

This is a very different book from the Forever War in some ways. It does not deal with war, for one thing. However the themes of alienation in one’s own society are still there. It grapples with what it means to be human, what it means to be an individual, what it means to be sentient. Without giving away too much of the ending, I will say that it also deals with God, or at least one possible interpretation of God. The ending surprised me but in a good way. It was very thought-provoking. Just as in the Forever War, the characters and plot are finely tuned, flowing nicely. Despite the heavy themes, it is not a heavy read. Recommended but read The Forever War first.

The Forever War – Joe Haldeman

TheForeverWarThis is a classic written in 1975 and I finally got around to reading it. The novel is about William Mandella, a young man drafted into the military when the first interstellar war starts. He is part of the very first group of recruits. The training, under Vietnam War veterans, occurs on a fictional planet so far out from the Sun that the environment is at almost absolute zero. Almost half the recruits die in training. Following that, the men and women are sent towards a distant planet for their first encounter with the Taurans. The important point here, and that which gives the story its name and main plot device, is that since the troops travel at appreciable fractions of the speed of light, much more time passes for those they left behind than for them. They are in transit a few months while decades and more pass on Earth. This is a consequence of general relativity. When Joe returns home, his mother has aged decades. The Earth is dystopian and unrecognizable. Despite his distaste for things military, he dislikes the current Earth more and decides to re-up together with Marygay Potter, the girlfriend whom he met in the service. Next time he returns, wounded, from a mission, centuries have passed, and society has changed even more. Since there are still several years left on his enlistment, he is sent out again, heartbreakingly on a separate assignment from Marygay, both in space and now in time. On this mission, seven hundred years will pass back home.

Mr. Haldeman is himself a Vietnam War veteran, and it shows in the novel. The draftees are disaffected and do not have a personal stake in the war. In fact, they do not understand it. They are just victims. As Mandella’s rank increases with time, he makes good military decisions, but this is not out of some desire to be a hero, or even because he seems particularly interested in the outcome of the war. As he repeatedly explains, he will be lucky to get out of the war alive. It is a matter of probabilities to him, not skill. In the wider perspective, the war itself seems to be an inevitable product of the society in which they live. As the centuries pass, the war gels to permanence, or as the title puts it “forever”. Society and the economy only exist to support the war and the survival of mankind. There are no lofty cultural or artistic goals involved. Mr. Haldeman’s descriptions of battle and military life cooped up in ships for months are gritty, realistic, dark. Death is commonplace both in battle and outside it. People are mourned but the characters are fatalistic about the whole thing. They know that they will die, probably soon and unexpectedly, and their lives are made up of trying to find pleasure and joy even with that knowledge. The military is a faceless machine that grinds on without much more purpose than to exist. The contrast with the caring Mandella and Potter is striking. Mr. Haldeman’s genius, however, is only partly in his setting. The other part, I feel, is that this novel is so readable, so full of (admittedly dark) humor, so “light”, if you will. Even while filled with senseless death, it still makes the reader smile. Perhaps it is because Mandella is so easy to identify with. Despite everything, he has a rather sunny outlook on life. He tries to do his best. He is a nice guy thrust into uncontrollable circumstances and he tries to make the best of things.

This is one of the finest novels that I have ever read.