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.
With the two castawaygroups on Lincoln united, the struggle for survival against a hostile planet continues. Meanwhile, on the nearest colony, stragglers from the initial accident have shown up. This leads an accident investigator to a remarkable discovery. A previously hidden star system, and a faint hope that the castaways might have survived.
The final book in this second Boundary trilogy brings the story to a satisfying conclusion, but the corniness of the dialogue and interaction remain. Everyone is still almost comically rational and humble.
Several months after the events of Skyward, the defiant humans of Detritus have gained a foothold on the orbital platforms surrounding the planet. Hyperdrive is a still a mystery, so they’re strategically stuck, with little intelligence about the Superiority which is keeping the humans trapped. One day, a mysterious ship carrying a previously unknown humanoid alien crash lands on Detritus, and Spensa must quickly set off on a covert infiltration mission she is ill-prepared for, to the enemy settlement of Starsight, a major Superiority settlement.
The bones of the story are fine, and carry the main arcs of both Spensa herself and the conflict forward. However, the books seems to drag for much of the middle. Interesting events occur but the pace is off, with perhaps too much exposition about Superiority politics and how they have led to this. The final section picks up, however, with a satisfying and action-filled conclusion.
Spensa Nightshade is the daughter of a traitor. In a pivotal battle, her father, an accomplished fighter pilot, inexplicably turned on his comrades. And her family have been branded ever since. Exiled in the caverns of the planet Detritus, the remnants of humanity fight a seemingly unwinnable war with the enigmatic Krell, who regularly launch incursions from a shell of debris closing off the stars from view.
At seventeen, it is time for Spensa to find a profession, and she has always known what she wants to be. A fighter pilot, like her father. Despite almost insurmountable obstacles set in front of her because she is the daughter of a traitor, she might just get her wish.
Spensa is a rebellious teen, lashing out at everyone, but stubborn, brave, hardworking and determined. An interesting protagonist that the reader is almost immediately rooting for. Her inner and outer journeys as the novel progresses are arduous and nuanced. The worldbuilding is excellent and believable. The same can be said for the technological aspects. While the aerospace technology and battles are rather fanciful, they are well thought out and internally consistent. There is no deus ex machina saving the day, but a logical and well-constructed plot. Mr. Sanderson builds up tension brilliantly, with the final battle a breathtaking climax.
Young nun Sister Josephine is confined to her convent, her life unremarkable and regimented. She was orphaned as a young child, even her birth name taken from her. Any semblance of individuality and freedom was beaten out of her through physical and mental abuse. She has now accepted that this will be her life. Almost. Until one day, a member of the Church’s warrior class comes to the monastery. And everything changes.
This short story is intense. The desperation of a soul about to lose herself is keenly fell but the reader, making the explosiveness of the denouement that much more impactful.
Orfea arrives at the Dyson Sphere Shenzhen, a utopia run by AI. She is attempting to migrate there to escape a turbulent past, but manages to enter under false pretences. She is soon contacted, unexpectedly, by an AI she knows well, and by an old colleague and lover who is a candidate for Haruspex. The Haruspex construct is a melding of a human body and an AI mind, part of a social experiment of sorts being conducted by the AIs running Shenzhen.
Ms. Sriduangkaew plays language like a virtuoso, masterfully constructing passages which flow effortlessly while conveying meaning precisely. The setting draws heavily on Chinese culture and traditions, but even the reader unfamiliar will have no issues following. The crux of the story centres on complex issues regarding machine intelligences, and their relation to the humans from whence they once came. Not an easy thing to weave into a novella with so much action, and this is where the piece falters slightly. On the other hand, the author feels no need to handhold the reader through tedious exposition, and said reader must step up and go along for the ride.
Real estate agent Emma reconnects with school friend Carl, who is now a billionaire. Carl wants to build a tower twenty kilometres tall, and he drafts Emma into the project.
The sheer scale of the project described is staggering, and the technical challenges are excellently described. Despite the necessity for such detail, Mr. Stephenson manages to steer this novella away from being a technical treatise, focusing on the human and the personal. A delightful tale of hubris and triumph.
Harvard linguist Melisande Stokes is approached by government operative Tristan Lyons with a request to translate a large number of ancient documents, once she has signed a non-disclosure agreement. As she works through them she notices a large number of references to magic. It turns out that magic actually existed until 1851, when the continued progress of technology led to its disappearance. Things take a mysterious turn when they try to build a chamber within which magic can work in the present day, and a surviving witch contacts Melisande via Facebook. In short order, the shadowy “Department of Diachronic Operations” is born, using magic to travel back in time and change history. As the bureaucrats get involved, events immediately veer off in unexpected and undesired directions.
The backbone of the narrative is Melisande’s “Diachronicle” (trust a linguist to pun on a top-secret technical term) where she describes her adventures with D.O.D.O. Large chunks, however, are diary entries and letters by other characters, as well as transcripts from messaging apps, wiki entries and so on. The contrasting styles, and frequent clues as to relative technical ability given by the “author” of specific passages, makes D.O.D.O and its denizens come alive, as if the reader is a fly on the wall during secret operations, meetings, and time travel.
The premise is clever, and more than a bit silly. However, the treatment of the entire situation by the government bureaucracy is most certainly not. And that is one of the important themes of this book. The intersecting shenanigans of bureaucrats, academics and operatives working together make for hilarious passages of dry humour, while at the same time the reader is appalled at the lack of common sense of bureaucrats who spend too little time in the real world. Even the use “official-ese” can change perceptions, and perception is a very important part of this story, on several levels.
This expanded edition contains all previously published Near Space short stories and novelettes. The stories range from action to reflection, from joy to melancholy. The stories are presented chronologically, starting from the beginning of the Near Space timeline, in more or less the present era, and ending with the advanced colonised solar system of Mr. Chicago.
As he mentions in the introduction, Mr. Steele has been labelled a “Space Romantic”, and this is rather accurate. His stories are infused with an infectious sense of wonder about space exploration in the near future. His focus on the working stiff rather than the movers and shakers gives rise to interesting reflections and themes. Having read all or some of the Near Space long fiction is not a pre-requisite for reading this collection, though it will fill in some of the background.
Fans of Mr. Steele will enjoy this collection. The stories vary dramatically in tone and theme, but the quality is characteristically solid. The author’s affection for American mid-20th Century culture helps bring colour to the collection, and a hint of nostalgia.
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.
Victims of the same accident that stranded the Kimei family in Castaway Planet, Sergeant Campbell and four boys ranging from almost adult to eight years old find themselves adrift in a damaged shuttle.
This instalment is an improvement over the previous one. It is still overly corny at times, but the lack of a family as protagonists makes the interpersonal dynamics more interesting. The dialogue is so littered with overly rational behaviour and humble apologies it is hard to suspend disbelief.
On the world of Arbre, which is very much like our own, Fraa Erasmas is an Avout, a young member of the Edharian order at the Concent of Saunt Edhar. Avout like him retreat for years, decades and longer into Concents, which are somewhat similar to medieval convents, but instead of being focused on religion they are focused on science. The Avout stay in the Concents in order to study and understand the physical world, unaffected by what happens in the Saecular world outside, and also because of historical events that make the Saecular world uncomfortable with giving the Avout too much power. The story begins at Apert, a regular opening of the gates. In Erasmas’s case Apert occurs every ten years since he is in the Decenarian part of the Concent. Soon after apert, Erasmas and his colleagues discover a mysterious object in orbit, and the efforts by the power that be to hide this knowledge from the Avout. What follows is a meandering quest to find the truth.
Anathem is a difficult book to describe because there is so much going on. While the story itself is not very complex, it takes us on myriad tangents and discussions. The nature of the Concents, places where Avout can concentrate on finding the truth in a rational scientific manner, means that the Avout are encouraged to engage in Dialog, structured debates. These are recounted at length in the book and the reader must pay attention to what are in essence intellectual discussions on the nature of truth, while at the same time absorbing the extensive fictional mythology and history of the world of Arbre, not to mention dozens of words in a made up vocabulary. The first third of the story is fairly narrow in its scope, but then suddenly events instigate major changes in the lives of Erasmas and his colleagues. The conclusion involves some very strange happenings indeed.
Anathem is an exploration of many themes and concepts, most notably deep time and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. It is also the story of a young man who wants to do the right thing by his mentor, a motivation that leads him down many unexpected roads. Erasmas’s fate is further complicated by the fact that, perhaps inevitably for a young man of his age, he is hopelessly in love with a girl. This last facet in particular helps the reader connect to the protagonist, even as the young Fraa has to explore things which will strain even his strong grasp on analysis of the natural world.
Curt Newton grew up on the Moon, raised in seclusion by artificial life forms. His parents were killed when he was a child, and now he seeks revenge.
The novel is an homage to pulp science fiction era hero Captain Future, whom Mr. Steele had previously featured in The Death of Captain Future. The story is very much pulp. So much so that I rapidly lost interest and gave up about halfway in.
In a very near future, the Moon is destroyed, suddenly and without warning. Within a few days, scientists figure out that the seven pieces will impact each other again and again, breaking into ever smaller pieces until after two years the process reaches a sort of critical mass. Then, so many large meteors will impact the Earth’s atmosphere that it will broil, annihilating all life on Earth in an event named the “Hard Rain”. Desperate measure are implemented to launch as many people as possible into space before the end. It is estimated that it will take 5000 years until the Hard Rain abates and Earth can be made inhabitable again.
Seveneves is a very long novel divided into three parts. Part one details events from the destruction of the Moon to the Hard Rain. Part two chronicles the struggle for survival after the Hard Rain and the nadir of human population, as well as the momentous decisions at this point. Part three jumps five thousand years into the future, with Earth being repopulated and the human race split into seven races. It is an epic story focusing on themes of resilience, survival and most of all what it is that makes us human. What are the traits that make us who we are? What drives us to conflict, cooperation, competition and rationality? Seveneves asks the question: Can such traits be altered in the human race through genetic tinkering, and what would happen if they were?
In the beginning of part three, there is a feeling of disjointedness with the rest of the story, but after a while this somewhat separate story with entirely new characters starts feeling like an appropriate bookend to parts one and two, with a perspective on ancient events down the long lens of history, and with the results of the experiment at hand.
The text is littered with info-dumps, mostly about space technology. Detailed explanations about orbital mechanics and the physics of free-falling chains abound. I personally found this content very interesting, but I can understand that not all would. The prose flows easily from page to page, filling the reader with a real desire to find out what will happen on this great odyssey. For it is truly an odyssey, an epic of monumental proportions drawing the entire human race, with all its history and heritage, down to a single point, literally a single room, and then chronicling its resurgence.
Our hero is a teenager who once dreamed of being an astronaut, but his life in a small town is not conducive to such dreams. His father was killed in Iraq, his mother is working two jobs and his older brother is a petty criminal. Life isn’t looking to go anywhere. Then one day he has a weird encounter…
This short story is solidly in the young adult camp. Not especially inspired but at least hits the right teen wish fulfillment note.
Simon is the son of a naval officer on a world with Victorian gender roles, except the gender roles are reversed with males being the inferior gender. He is a screwup and has just been kicked out of University, much to the disappointment of his family. He ends up on a merchant spaceship with the Commerce Guild, where his skills as a hacker get him into and out of trouble at regular intervals.
It is a measure of the dullness of this book that the day after I put it down, I couldn’t remember the name of the main character. The gender reversal would have been more interesting if there had been anything to it but the reversal. The dialogue is flat and even the supposedly “controversial” gene modified characters are uninspiring. I kept waiting for the story to go anywhere but nothing seemed to be happening. Despite a concerted effort after half the book I never picked it back up.
After a serious accident early in the first Jupiter expedition, Otto Danzig was put into medical hibernation to allow him to heal. Now, months later and at Jupiter, he has been woken up to investigate the possible murder of two crew members while exploring the subsurface ocean of Europa.
The nicest thing I can say about this story is that it is a a short story so at least I didn’t have to put up with it for very long. The concept and plot are fine, but the characters and cultural mores are cringe-worthy. I have accused Mr. Steele of this before, but his characters are all too often solidly middle-class American prudes from the 1950s, even if they are from other countries, eras and cultures. What is worse, characters from other cultures are caricature-like, written like sloppy stereotypes. Case in point, the antagonist in this story is a sexy French woman, and of course she acts like the American stereotype of a sexy French woman. Apart from that, it seems this story was sent to the publisher without some needed polish and revision. The whole thing isn’t nearly as tight as it could be.
(Fictional) great science fiction Nathan Arkwright started his career during the Golden Age of Science Fiction, and now he is is dying. In the course of his long career and long retirement, he has seen humanity go from being optimistic and visionary, dreaming of a bright future among the stars, to altogether more introverted and seemingly lacking in outward ambition. He decides to start a foundation with the aim of sending forth humanity among the stars.
The novel is episodic, with the first part retrospective on Arkwright himself, starting way back before WWII. Here, Steele has woven Arkwright’s life into that of the science fiction at the time, including encounters with many of the luminaries of that era. The whole thing is wonderfully meta.
Further episodes are about future generations, descendants of the man himself, as they deal with challenges faced by the Arkwright Foundation while constructing and launching the starship Galactique. The last episode delves more deeply into the future.
While the message is clear (“The Future is what we make of it.”), the novel is not preachy. The starship project is epic, but Mr. Steele makes it about the people involved and their personal dramas and tribulations. The feel of the novel is reminiscent of early Clarke, with its epic scale and sense of destiny. A great read.
In this alternate history novel, Nazi Germany is building Silbervogel, Eugen Sänger‘s proposed “antipodal bomber”, in an attempt to firebomb New York during WWII. Learning about the work from spy efforts, a US team led by Robert Goddard builds a counter-weapon, an American suborbital interceptor.
For a fan of the history of astronautics, this novel is a treat. While in reality Nazi Germany focused its rocketry efforts on the A-4 rocket, better known as the V-2 ballistic missile, it is not a big stretch to imagine how efforts could have gone towards Silbervogel instead. Steele mixes real people and fictional events in a very plausible “what if?” of history.
The Kimei family is on a colony transport when an accident during a lifeboat drill leaves them stranded on an uninhabited planet. Through happenstance, the Bemmie “Whips” Harrater, best friend of second daughter Sakura, is with them. Deprived by an accident of most of their supplies, they have to survive on a hostile world.
While it is billed as the fourth volume in the Boundary Series, this novel has almost nothing to do with the preceding three, though they feature marginally as historical fact. While I did mildly enjoy the struggles of the Kimei family, I found the writing verging wildly into corny far too often. The story is predictable and bland. Certainly not on par with the fun in previous volumes.
Alex Lomax is a private investigator in New Klondike, a frontier town on Mars. The place is a bit of a dump, existing only due to the rush on ancient Martian fossils, and Lomax is its stereotypical gumshoe. One day, a beautiful woman walks into his office. She is a “transfer”, a human who has transferred her consciousness into a cyborg body.
The story and setting are a deliberate homage to classic noir detective films and novels. The world-building is solid, and it is a enjoyable and almost wistful reading about New Klondike’s dome and the business of “transfers”. Mr. Sawyer takes the idea of the noir detective to the limits of its stereotype, skirting deadpan satire. Naturally the protagonist is broke and has an overdue tab at a seedy bar that he frequents. Naturally the local police department is corrupt and lazy. The first half of the book is good fun. Unfortunately the second half degenerates into a confusing mess of myriad double-crosses and plot twists, taking the novel from a pleasant pastime to an often irritating morass.
Keiji Kiriya is a draftee in the ongoing war against the alien Mimics. In his first battle, he is killed after only the first few minutes. He finds himself back in his bunk, seemingly transported back in time to the morning before. As the story continues, and no matter what he does, he keeps getting killed about thirty hours into the time loop, and then being returned to his bunk. Stuck in the cycle but with memories of each loop intact, he decides to become a better fighter so he can win the battle.
The first-person perspective lends itself well to the story, as the reader feels empathy for Keiji’s ordeal, both initially as a draftee in a seemingly hopeless war, and later as a victim of the time loops. He does not want to fight at all, almost a stereotypical apathetic young man with “no goals in life”, and he must transform himself from victim to pro-active initiative taker. While the action is excellent, and the story well crafted, the timey-wimey bits unfortunately become ponderous and over-complex as the novel progresses. A somewhat simplified view of the time loops would have kept the pace up.
Longitude is the story of an unlikely genius, John Harrison. Self-trained clockmaker, he solved the problem of determining longitude on ships during the second half of the 18th Century. Determining longitude is trivial today with GPS, but for hundreds of years it was a big problem and inaccurate navigation was the death of thousands of sailors. There was even a Longitude Prize to be awarded for the man who could solve the issue.
In itself, the creation of the Harrison timepieces is a fascinating bit of science history. However, the real prize here is the political backstabbing at the highest levels of the contemporary British science community. The problem at hand was that various methods for longitude determination competed for primacy. Harrison, the relatively undistinguished watchmaker, found it hard to compete with the villain of the story, or in the author’s words the anti-hero. This man was Nevil Maskelyne, who seems to have been a bit of a bastard. To be fair, however, Maskelyne made significant contributions to navigation. Luminaries like Edmond Halley and Sir Isaac Newton also feature prominently.
I have been fascinated with geography since I was a child, and I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Well-written and without any excessive heft from unnecessary tangents, it should be good reading for everyone, but especially those with even a passing interest in navigation and maritime history.