Ballistic (The Palladium Wars II) – Marko Kloos

Under the threat of an unknown aggressor, the system slowly moves towards war again. Aden finds himself unwittingly embroiled in a terror plot and again at the mercy of the Rhodian military, running into Dunstan. Idina struggles with insurgency on Gretia.

The series is still on a slow burn, but Mr. Kloos’s characters are engaging to read about, and just spending time with them is nice.

Aftershocks (The Palladium Wars I) – Marko Kloos

Five years after waging a system-wide war of aggression, the planet-nation of Gretia is still under occupation by the victorious powers. Prisoner of war Aden Jansen, a former elite soldier from the losing side, is released from captivity on Rhodia, and must start rebuilding his life. On Gretia itself, Idina, a sergeant with the peacekeeping forces, contends with increasing violence. Dunstan, a military spaceship captain, sees an increase in piracy and other events. Finally, on Gretia, young corporate scion Solveig is being groomed to take over the Ragnar corporation.

The dialogue and the fast-paced action scenes are on point. The four narratives don’t really meet in the first instalment of the series, but it works anyway, as Mr. Kloos progressively illustrates out the political and social layout of the Gaia system. A great start.

Machine Vendetta (Prefect Dreyfus Emergency III) – Alastair Reynolds

The final book in the trilogy concludes the arc that started in Elysium Fire. A lone prefect dies under mysterious circumstances, and her legacy turns out to be more mysterious still. A rogue faction within Panoply attempts to capture the Clockmaker and Aurora distributed artificial intelligences, which up to now have been more or less balancing each other out. Their capture effort has unintended and disastrous consequences.

The characters are stellar and Mr. Reynolds’s writing is solid as ever, but the plot feels weak and the pacing slow, making the book a slog in parts.

Termination Shock – Neal Stephenson

As with many other of Mr. Stephenson‘s books, it is difficult to summarise this one in a brief paragraph, as there are several rather disparate threads. The main ones involve the Queen of the Netherlands being invited to a secret meeting involving a geoengineering project in Texas to cool the planet, thus counteracting climate change. Another thread is about a Sikh youth from Canada who finds himself entwined in geopolitical strife in the Himalayas. And yet another threat is about a US Army veteran who is on a crusade against marauding wild boar in Texas. Counseling the Queen is an interesting character with Indonesian and Chinese origins. As events unfold and the climate does indeed start changing, clandestine climate wars silently begin, while on the India-China border, performative war is already happening.

Some books manage to change your view of the world. This is one of them. As climate change pushes humanity into an uncertain future, Mr. Stephenson explores some of the possibilities. One of the key takeaways is that stability is an illusion. Don’t hold on to thiings, material or otherwise, if doing so is harmful to your wellbeing. This was as true for Dutch colonists in Indonesia during World War Two as it is for those holding on to their houses in the face of repeated catastrophic weather events. A captivating read, beautifully written in Mr. Stephenson’s trademark ironic tone.

Escape Orbit (Eccentric Orbits II) – Patrick Chiles

At the end of Frozen Orbit, Jack Templeton went into hibernation on board the Magellan and launched himself towards the outer reaches of the solar system, in a quest to reach a mysterious object with a strong gravity well. Meanwhile, former crewmate Traci Keene is back on earth in bureaucratic hell. Eventually Jack reaches the object, which is much more mysterious than he suspected. And a rescue mission involving Traci is launched.

While a serviceable sequel to Frozen Orbit, the novel suffers from a less engaging setting. Frozen Orbit was real deep space adventure. Escape Orbit has too little deep space and too much bureaucratic machination. The real action doesn’t start until well into the second half of the book. The AI elements are interesting but not groundbreaking.

Earthside (Quantum Earth II) – Dennis E. Taylor

In the immediate sequel to Outland, our heroes continue to deal with the aftermath of the Yellowstone eruption, and the challenges of setting up a colony in the alternate timeline of Outland. Given that the majority of the existing inhabitants of “Rivendell”, as the refuge has been named, are of university age, a sudden influx of older refugees creates significant tension. The older generation feels that they should take over what they see as an amateur operation run by youths. Additional subplots include a sociopathic killer, and research to find other potential timelines that might offer escape hatches or resources.

While the second installment is still entertaining, it doesn’t have nearly the same punch as the first book. Mr. Taylor skillfully weaves the plot, but some of the elements seem tacked on as filler. It lacks a definite direction, and seems more like an extended coda for the first book.

Outland (Quantum Earth I) – Dennis E. Taylor

University engineering students Mike and Bill are approached by physics students who need their expertise to continue experimenting with quantum tunneling and parallel universes. The experiments turn out to be more successful than expected, opening up a big can of worms. They can now open portals to alternate timelines, with different conditions, for example, one where dinosaurs did not go extinct, and one, which they name “Outland”, where mammals are prevalent but humans seem absent. A pastoral paradise of sorts. Meanwhile, Erin, a geology student, and Mike’s girlfriend, is caught up in unprecedented events at the Yellowstone caldera, which seems poised to erupt, potentially causing widespread destruction. Due to university politics, the quantum tunneling team decide to clandestinely move their research off-campus, while disassociating themselves with the university funding stream. What started as an academic project becomes a get-rich stream, and then rather unexpectedly morphs into an escape hatch for refugees.

The concept and usage of the portals is very well realised, with a slew of interesting applications that have to be improvised as conditions “Earthside” change dramatically. The adventure story parallels to Stargate SG-1 are obvious, and references by the characters themselves. While the protagonists are likable and it is easy to root for them, they are not very three-dimensional. On a side note, this is very much the young white American apocalypse, even if one of the main characters is Indian. I suppose it can be explained away since the setting is a university in Nebraska. That criticism aside, I found this to be a real page-turner just like his other books, with Mr. Taylor’s fast-paced plotting and the constant witty snark highly entertaining.

Roadkill – Dennis E. Taylor

Jack Kerrigan has been expelled from MIT for something he did not do, and now he’s back in the small rural midwestern town where he grow up, working in his father’s general store. On a delivery run, he hits something with his pickup truck. But he can’t see it, as it is invisible. It turns out that Jack has hit an alien wandering across the road. As things unravel, Jack and his friends find themselves embroiled in a plot involving aliens meddling in humanity’s future, as well as the interstellar political implications.

While the premise itself, apart from the starting incident, is not terribly original, the story is great fun. An adventurous romp with many funny moments and often hilarious dialogue. The dynamic between the three childhood best friends turned young adults is fabulous, elevating the story from what the tired “aliens among us” to something much more engaging.

How It Unfolds (The Far Reaches I) – James S.A. Corey

Ray Court is part of an experimental programme, in which his mind, and those of the other programme members, will be scanned and sent out to candidate planets in the galaxy. Machines will construct habitats and then copies of Ray and the others, scattering humanity amongst the stars.

The concept of this novelette is simple, but the execution is both clever and thought-provoking. Complicating things, Roy’s ex-wife is also one on the programme, and he believes he may be able to win her back in “another life”. Multiple copies of Roy and the others end up in different circumstances, with different biomes, and their choices are sublty or greatly different. The story rapidly grows from small personal themes to awe-inspiring and humbling ones involving the deep future.

Critical Mass (Delta-V II) – Daniel Suarez

In the sequel to Delta-V, James Tighe and his companions are back on Earth, trying to figure out how to save their two friends still stranded on asteroid Ryugu. A relatively simple problem requiring an increasingly complex plan involving bootstrapping a space economy by building a mass driver on the Moon. The mass driver can launch resources extracted from the Lunar regolith at a fraction of the cost of launching them from Earth, enabling construction of a rescue ship. National and corporate interest on Earth try to get in on the economic and geopolitical frontier, while humanity and Earth suffers increasingly acute social and economic issues due to worsening climate change.

While Delta-V is a more straightforward space thriller, the sequel expands the context, posing important questions such as how to prevent space from becoming just another exploited colonisation boundary for the powerful, while most of humanity remain have-nots. The pace is slower, but the payoff ties it all together. The protagonist as something of a naif in context is a nice detail, illustrating how most people live their lives, even lives doing great things, with little understanding of the bigger picture.

Fall or, Dodge in Hell – Neal Stephenson

Billionaire video game designer and tech magnate Richard “Dodge” Forthrast dies while having a routine surgical procedure. Unbeknownst to his family and friends, he has long since signed up for cryopreservation, then probably forgotten about it. His will contains detailed instructions about possible reanimation when the technology exists. As it turns out, waking the dead in a computer-generated virtual reality seems to be the way forward. After many power struggles and discussions, Dodge finally wakes in a primitive computer-generated world, soon starting to shape and mould it to his desires. At first a trickle, and then a flood of other dead begin to join him, many with their own ideas about the virtual afterlife, in conflict with Dodge’s own.

There are some significant connections to other works by Mr. Stephenson. Richard Forthrast and his adoptive daughter Zula are prominently featured in Reamde, whilst Enoch Root was a character in Cryptomonicon, as well other works. Those were good novels. This is not. After a promising start, most of the action moves to the virtual world, and it is really boring. From Dodge’s initial efforts to shape the world to his desires, to his building of a pantheon with himself as the prime god, to his downfall at the hands of a rival, it is mainly a tedious slog to read. The final part is written as fantasy, and is slightly better, but by this point I just wanted it to be over, and skimmed large parts.

The concept itself is very interesting, and I had high hopes the plot would continue along the lines of the first quarter. However, the shift to the virtual world kills all interest in the main characters, and for that matter in the concept itself. At that point, it’s just a creation myth that has no need for its own backstory. It is a real shame, because there are so many interesting ideas to explore at depth, not least the societal impact of humans being able to live on, in a certain form at least, after death. The ending is mildly satisfying, but the journey to get there is not, especially as this book, while not overly long by Stephenson standards, is a solid tome by any other.

Holdout – Jeffrey Kluger

Astronaut Walli Beckwith is conducting an experiment on the International Space Station when an imminent collision leads to an evacuation order. Walli, however, refuses to leave, for reasons unknown to her two crewmates. As they return to Earth, she remains as the sole occupant on a damaged station. Meanwhile, in the Amazon, her niece is conducting aid work in response to a humanitarian crisis. The Brasilian government is ruthlessly chasing native populations from their lands in order to make space for industrial farming and deforestation. The Amazon is on fire.

The plot soon evolves into a very competent action-thriller. Most impressively, Mr. Kluger does not take any drastic shortcuts on realism; events are solidly underpinned by existing science and technology. The characters do feel a bit flat, unfortunately, but this is a page-turner nonetheless.

The Apollo Murders – Chris Hadfield

In an alternate history, the Apollo program flies one more mission, the all-military Apollo 18. At the last minute, the mission parameters change as the Soviet Union launches a spy space station equipped with cameras capable of unprecedented resolution. The astronauts are tasked with disabling it before departing Earth orbit for the Moon.

This is a technothriller with a solid grounding in the technology of the time. The technical details are accurate, hardly surprising as the author is a former astronaut. The plot itself is rather far-fetched, but plausible, and exciting in itself, especially for the space exploration buff. Unfortunately, the plot is often bogged down with overly complex sequences of events as one or another character seeks an advantage or makes a complicated plan. The characters themselves, a mixture of historical figures and fictional ones, are not very nuanced, and sometimes relationship events seem to be created purely without much story purpose. For example, the protagonist’s romance with one of the scientists seems tacked on unnecessarily.

That was Now, This is Then (Temporal Displacement II) – Michael Z. Williamson

In the sequel to A Long Time Until Now, a new displacement occurs, with a neolithic youth appearing in modern day Afghanistan. The same team as before is contacted for a new mission, but not all are keen to go. A pair of scientists are added, much to the dismay of the future humans, who would rather not see too much technology transfer as this could lead to timeline disruption.

The characters are well fleshed out, and there author uses the setting to delve into issues of post-traumatic stress, separation, obligations of marriage, and other things common in deployments. The conflict in the book is not about an external enemy, but rather about the challenges faced by individuals. Much of the book has to do with the strictures and traditions of organisations, and it helps that Mr. Williamson can make discussions on logistics and camp setup interesting reading.

The Sins of Our Fathers (The Expanse IX½) – James S.A. Corey

After the collapse of the gate network, humanity’s worlds are isolated. On a backwater planet, Filip Inaros must deal with a bully who is trying to bend a small settlement to his will, even if it comes with a high personal price.

In a fitting coda to The Expanse, Filip must come to terms with what he did in the name of his father. His act may be small on the cosmic scale, but for him it is significant.

Leviathan Falls (The Expanse IX) – James S.A. Corey

The Laconian Empire is in disarray as its leader, Winston Duarte, has disappeared. Colonel Aliana Tanaka, a particularly cold, and coldly effective, servant of the Empire, is tasked to find him. Meanwhile, the crew of the Rocinante races to stay ahead of Laconian forces. The fabric of reality is tearing as intruders from outside the Universe try to reassert control.

The final instalment of The Expanse is in many ways a fond farewell to the crew of the Rocinante and their associates. Even those no longer alive, like Avasarala and Bobbie Draper, are mentioned and celebrated. While Leviathan Wakes was about a family, a crew, coming together, this book is about how all good things must end, and the family, the crew, eventually sees its members going their separate ways. A solid ending to the series.

Inhibitor Phase (Revelation Space IV)

Along with a few thousand other refugees from the Wolves, or Inhibitors, Miguel de Ruyter has quite literally carved out a life on the airless world of Sun Hollow. Humanity’s starfaring civilisation is lost, and the remains hide in the shadows, hoping not to be noticed. Sun Hollow’s inhabitants do not really have a plan beyond surviving the morrow; this is a bleak and rough existence. A ship has entered the system, and Miguel must intercept and destroy it at great risk to himself, for even potentially friendly humans may be Wolves in disguise. Out of this encounter emerges Glass, a mysterious woman who steals Miguel away to a reckoning with a past he has purposefully forgotten, and with humanity’s only hope of escaping extinction.

Published almost two decades after the Revelation Space trilogy, this serves as something of an epilogue. Human civilisation has waned into blackness, and there is an accepting despair about things. Not even the Ultras travel between stars anymore, because even small emissions could lead the Wolves to the door, and there is no weapon that can combat them.

The concepts of Miguel and his past self reintegrating, and of Glass herself and her connection, are superbly intriguing. Unfortunately though, the novel is far too long. Many pages are spent on meandering explorations of the sense of self, or the sense of other-self. While the quest for a weapon to fight back against the Wolves is interesting in itself, this excessive length detracted very much from my interest, and I struggled to finish the book.

A Change of Plans – Dennis E. Taylor

Earth is dying, and a desperate interstellar colonisation program is in progress. As the starship Ouroboros reaches its target system, it is soon apparent that the planet has undergone a catastrophic event in recent history, transforming it from a balmy Earth-like planet, to a frozen desert. The crew must leave the colonists and return, as per their contract and family obligations. The colonists are faced with an uncertain future and take matters in their own hands.

This is an entertaining short story, with strong characters and a clever, unexpected conclusion.

Light Chaser – Peter F. Hamilton & Gareth L. Powell

Amahle is the captain and sole occupant of the starship Mnemosyne. She is a “light chaser”, travelling on a thousand-year loop to inhabited star systems, the scattered colonies of humanity. She brings “memory collars”, to be worn by selected people and their descendants, until she returns on her next loop to collect them. These gather the life experiences of the wearers for her employers at the end of the loop to enjoy as entertainment. The human worlds are at varying degrees of technological development, but societies seem oddly stable, to the point of stagnation. It eventually dawns on Amahle that things are not as idyllic as they seem.

The premise is clever, intriguing, and novel. The novella format suits it perfectly. Amahle is excuisitely characterised as an aloof de facto demigoddess who slowly realises the truth about her existence. Her sense of betrayal is palpable and visceral. The story is not overlong, and superbly edited to maintain momentum.

Absolution Gap (Revelation Space III) – Alastair Reynolds

In the last book of the Revelation Space trilogy, humanity is in disarray as the Inhibitors ravage space. But there is a glimmer of hope, a young child named Aura seems to have a connection with entities that can help. As the story unfolds on the refugee world of Ararat, and the religious pilgrimage destination Moon of Hela, tired remnants of humanity must make fateful decisions about how to approach the resources presented to them. Who can be trusted?

This is a long and sprawling book, and it feels rather ponderous. Mr. Reynolds’s prose is as engaging as ever, but many digressions, tangents, and diversions are overlong. The obsession with Scorpio’s mortality, the machinations of the Quaicheist church, the extensive details on the madness of Quaiche himself, to name a few things, are explored somewhat excessively at the expense of moving the story forward. For much of the novel, it feels as if nothing is really moving, or perhaps things are moving as slowly as one of the cathedrals on Hela. The Inhibitors themselves seem like a distant threat, so it is hard to work up a real sense of dread for them, even if the survival of humanity itself is at stake. As a conclusion to the trilogy, it is somewhat unsatisfying, even if the personal journeys of the characters come to a conclusion.

Blindsight – Peter Watts

In a not too distant future, Siri Keeton is a synesthesist, a trained observer who neither judges not suggests. His professional aim is to be the chronicler of events, the dispassionate eye of posterity. Years have passed since “Firefall”, a still-mysterious event in which extraterrestrial intelligence interacted with Earth without obvious intent, or even obvious meaning. As part of a small crew, Siri has hibernated for years to arrive at a massive planet in the Oort Cloud. Here, they must confront the mystery of an entity that calls itself Rorschach. On a deeper level, the crew faces questions of what it means to be human, or even sentient. The answers are no longer obvious once faced with this alien life that does not seem to conform to any human-centric norm.

While there is no shortage of action sequences, these are not the central impetus of the narrative. Mr. Watts takes the reader on an exploration of the crew’s personalities; the cranky biologists, the split-personality linguist, the duty-bound soldier, and the calculating leader; all through the eyes of Keeton, and as a backdrop to an exploration of sentience and intelligence. It also becomes increasingly clear that Keeton may not be seeing things in an entirely rational or reliable fashion. Out at the very edge of human exploration, in an environment of uncertainty and danger, the veneer or civilization slowly wears away, revealing truths that are as uncomfortable as they are sincere.

As a first contact scenario, the novel certainly breaks new ground, with a central conceit about life that is both controversial and alarming. The alien is nothing like us, and its mode of existence brings into question the very nature of humanity, and of life.

Delta-V (Delta-V I) – Daniel Suarez

Extreme cave diver James Tighe has just returned from an accident-plagued expedition when he is invited to an interview with eccentric billionaire Nathan Joyce. The latter is planning a mining expedition to an asteroid, and is recruiting suitable candidates. A rigorous selection process follows. The expedition is shrouded in secrecy, with layer within layer of intrigue at every step.

The novel is solid near-future science fiction, elevated beyond the pure adventure aspects by an intricate, if somewhat implausible, technothriller foundation. It seems somewhat beyond belief that thousands of people could keep such a large project a secret for so long, especially given the money involved. The space travel aspects are well developed and quite plausible. The inclusion of secondary characters based on NewSpace luminaries such as Musk, Bezos, Branson and Bigelow is rather entertaining and provides a connection to what, in the real world, is shaping up to be a fierce competition for the space economy. The protagonists themselves, unfortunately, are not very well rounded, down to their stereotypical backstories. That being said, they are easy to root for, throughout their tragedies and triumphs.

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.