The Outside – Ada Hoffmann

Dr. Yasira Shien works as a scientist on a revolutionary reactor, emplaced on a space station in orbit around the planet Jai. Something goes horribly wrong and many people die as “The Outside” encoraches on reality, destroying the station. An Angel of Nemesis, a vindictive AI goddess, forces Yasira to go on a mission to investigate. It would appear that Yasira’s mentor, Dr. Talirr, has been tampering with reality. And she must be stopped.

What starts as an interesting story with a fascinating setting unfortunately far too quickly turns into a slog. Yasira is an interesting character. Autisic, self-doubting, immensely intelligent, and initially very much unaware of what she has unleashed. Akavi, an “Angel”, agent of one of the AIs who have anointed themselves as gods, is less intricate, with simpler motivations, but often more entertaining to read about than Yasira, whose seemingly endless internal monologue is ineffective at holding the reader’s attention.

Unfortunately, the interesting setup, with The Outside and the contention that reality is lie, never leads to a real payoff and the reader is left wondering what exactly happened. The Outside and its interactions with reality might as well be magic, however much they are portrayed in technological terms. What is left of the central premise is meandering ramblings that, while well written, are, in the end, both unsatisfying and seemingly lacking in real meaning or explanation.

Walking to Aldebaran – Adrian Tchaikovsky

Astronaut Gary Rendell is lost in the “crypts”, a dark labyrinth full of horrors. He has been wandering them for an indeterminate amount of time, and is evidently slowly going mad. Through flashbacks, Gary tells the reader about the mysterious artefact which houses the crypts, and how he came to be there.

Mr. Tchaikovsky uses first person narrative to tell the story as if Gary is speaking directly to the reader. In fact, on multiple occasions Gary specifically “speaks” to the reader. This makes the denouement of the narrative quite visceral, as the reader slowly realises why Gary is so despondent. An aura of doom suffuses the story, and the final twist is, if not entirely unexpected by that point, still heartbreaking.

And Shall Machines Surrender – Benjanun Sriduangkaew

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.

On to the Asteroid (Space Excursions II) – Travis S. Taylor & Les Johnson

A billionaire industrialist launches an automated mission to an asteroid, aiming to redirect it into a Lunar orbit for future extraction of minerals. The propulsion system malfunctions before completing the redirection maneuver, and now the asteroid is heading for impact with Earth. A desperate repair mission is launched.

The story is excellent. High stakes, interesting technical solutions, lots of hardcore space action, and a high pace. Unfortunately, and just like the previous book, it is let down by atrocious dialogue and cardboard cutout characters. The dialogue is especially cringeworthy. I did enjoy it because despite these negatives, it is a great yarn, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re a real space buff.

Atmosphaera Incognita – Neal Stephenson

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.

Aurora – Kim Stanley Robinson

Over a hundred and fifty years into their voyage, the inhabitants of a generation starship are only a decade out from the Tau Ceti star system. Despite the massive size of the ship, delicate ecological cycles have been slowly deteriorating over the decades. After arrival, more serious problems crop up with the colonisation effort. The issues are so severe that the colonists are faced with deciding whether to stay, or attempt a return to Earth. Both options are fraught with risk.

While the novel ostensibly chronicles the life of a single inhabitant, Freya, it is also fair to say that the AI running the ship is as much a protagonist. Ship, as it prefers to call itself (or is it themselves) develops over time under the ministrations of Freya’s mother Devi, and much of the novel deals with the emergence of its consciousness. Indeed, many pages are spent debating the nature of consciousness and sentience. Is Ship truly sentient? Can a purportedly sentient being even know if it is sentient?

A lot of time is also spent on the suitability attempting to colonise other star systems, or even other planets in the Solar System. Mr. Robinson’s ultimate answer to this question is rather surprising, but hopeful in its own way.

The narrative feels somewhat impersonal, as if the reader is kept at a distance from the protagonist and even the action. This seems to be a conscious choice on the part of Mr. Robinson, given that the story is told in the voice of Ship itself, even as Ship’s understanding of language and humans develops. An interesting narrative device, and finely implemented.

River of Night (Black Tide Rising VII) – John Ringo & Mike Massa

The sequel to The Valley of Shadows follows Tom Smith, Risky, Astroga and the rest after their escape from New York. The plan is to establish a settlement with adequate defenses, and also very importantly electrical power. However, a band calling itself Gleaners, set up by a scruple-deprived man called Harlan Green, has similar plans. And they lack the morals of Tom’s group.

The zombies are still around in this installment, but they act more like nuisance monsters than a major threat. Fittingly, the biggest danger to humans is other humans. There is some fine action as always, with a major set piece battle capping the book.

Pass of Fire (Destroyermen XIV) – Taylor Anderson

In the fourteenth installment of Destroyermen, the Grand Alliance has finally pushed the Grik up against the wall. The First Allied Expeditionary Force has a firm foothold along the Zambezi downriver from the Grik capital, whilst the army of the Republic of Real People is pushing north to join up. The final assault on Sofesshk is about to begin. Unfortunately, the Grik are well dug in, and rooting them out will take some innovative tactics. Also, just defeating the Grik on the battlefield will not be sufficient. They must be broken politically in order to prevent a retreat and resurgence.

Meanwhile, on the American front, the Second Allied Expeditionary Force is set to assault the Pass of Fire, and will find out the depths to which the Dominion will sink in their exploitation of the populace. League of Tripoli forces loom in the wings, scheming.

There is even more battlefield action than usual in Pass of Fire. And it is the good stuff. Mr. Anderson continues to show a talent for expanding the story, while still moving it forward and closing off plot threads. There is obviously plenty more to come.

The world of Destroyermen is becoming rather complex, with myriad military actions, references to previous events, and many, many ship types. Thankfully, there is a Wiki with maps, ships drawings, characters bios and more.

Children of Ruin (Children of Time II) – Adrian Tchaikovsky

A generation after the conclusion of Children of Time, an exploration ship leaves Kern’s World, arriving some time later, by means of sublight travel and crew hibernation, at a star system that appears to harbour life. Unbeknownst to the mixed Portiid and Human crew, millenia previously a terraforming mission arrived from Earth’s fallen Old Empire. Catastrophe befell that mission, leaving behind a spacefaring race of intelligent, uplifted octopi, as well as an ancient alien virus.

The premise involving uplifted octopi is ambitious, even more so than the premise of uplifted spiders in the first novel. The distributed intelligence of an octopus is very alien to the reader, and Mr. Tchaikovsky makes a concerted effort to convey this. Unfortunately for the story, this makes decision making by the characters frequently confusing, contradictory, and transitory, as this is the nature of the sentience of the depicted octopi. While clever, it takes the reader somewhat out of the story. As in Children of Time, the spectre of deep time weighs heavily on the story, bringing themes of legacy, of connection between intelligences, and of the meaning of existence.

Permafrost – Alastair Reynolds

In the not too distant future, a cascading ecological apocalypse has ended all food production. Humanity is down to stored rations, and there is no future. Mathematician Valentina Lidova is recruited to a remote research facility, where scientists are attempting practical time travel into the past, with a twist.

Mr. Reynolds’s fluid style makes the narrative of this bleak novella shine despite the grim setting and themes. The concept of inertia as history is changed, as well as the fact that characters’ memories are altered mid-paragraph due to chances, makes things potentially quite confusing for the reader, but that is not a problem here.

Moon Rising (Luna III) – Ian McDonald

The third and final (?) book in the Luna series sees Lucas Corta fight for the future of the Moon as an entity independent from Earth interests. He also seeks revenge for the destruction of the Corta business empire at the hands of the Mackenzies. His son Lucasinho is severely injured, and the object of a three-way custody battle. The now four remaining dragons rapidly make and break alliances in order to come out on top of a new order which looks more and more contentious.

The world building continues to be fabulous. However, the plot is less focused than in the previous two instalments. That being said, the threads are rather neatly wrapped up in a satisfying conclusion, while leaving room for future novels in the series.

Tiamat’s Wrath (The Expanse VIII)

Laconia’s hegemony seems insurmountable, and yet the scattered remnants of the Rocinante’s crew fight on. Holden is a prisoner on Laconia itself. Amos is missing in action after leaving for a secret mission on Laconia. Naomi lives in a tiny transport container, smuggled from ship to ship and system to system, aboard larger vessels as she coordinates the efforts of the Underground. Alex and Bobbie fight a guerrilla war on a captured warship.

The sense of despair is palpable when the book begins. Is the struggle futile because it seems unwinnable? Or is it worth fighting for a just cause even if it just means eventual defeat? Whilst the greater struggle continues, the authors cleverly make it about the family of the Rocinante, and how their underground war has brought them sorrow because they cannot be together. The familiarity and closeness of family have been replaced with isolation and brooding.

There are shades of The Empire Strikes Back about this novel. Our heroes are on the run and must persevere, while the enemy seems almost invincible. The family of the Roci is destined to reunite, but they will not be the same people as when they separated.

A Peace Divided (Confederation VII) – Tanya Huff

During an archaeological dig on a remote planet, clues to a possible weapon against the plastic aliens discovered in The Heart of Valor. A mercenary team composed of both Confederacy and Primacy races arrives and takes the in situ scientists hostage. Torin and her team of Wardens are joined by a Primacy team, partly composed of old acquaintances from the prison planet in Valor’s Trial, and tasked to resolve the situation.

While the story itself is entertaining, and moves the greater arc forward, the details are a mess. Too many characters from too many alien races appear, introducing myriad interactions. Ms. Huff does an excellent job at characterisation and humour, but it was too much for this reader to keep track of. The main thrust of the plot is lost amongst an excess of complications.

An Ancient Peace (Confederation VI) – Tanya Huff

After the events in The Truth of Valor, which can be thought of as a bridge book between two subseries, Torin and some of the veterans from her service in the Marines, as well as her partner Craig, are set up as roving agents for the Justice Department. They are given a mission to chase down graverobbers attempting to fence ancient weapons of the H’san, nowadays a peaceful spieces but immensely powerful.

Ms. Huff’s trademark humour and adeptness at interpersonal relationship shine through in what is the start of a new trilogy in the confederation universe. Torin struggles with her new civilian identity, but finds her place as the leader of a small, dedicated team.

Ark Royal (Ark Royal I) – Christopher G. Nuttall

The Ark Royal is the oldest starship in the Royal Navy. A relic of the past, still ostensibly on active duty but in reality parked with most of her systems shut down with a caretaker crew. Her captain is a drunk and most of the crew consists of those whose careers took a wrong turn. After a surprise attack by previously unknown aliens, however, Ark Royal is reactivated, rearmed and re-equipped with starfighters for a desperate delaying action.

While the premise is decent, the telling is not. The characters are cardboard cutouts, lacking any traits that might make them interesting. The story is littered with boring infodumps. A lot of telling and not enough doing as the logic of conflict with the armaments at hand is explained, and any uncertainties expounded on at length, as if to ensure that the reader will be able to judge the arduousness of any subsequent action.

I didn’t even make it a third of the way through before I gave up.

The Valley of Shadows (Black Tide Rising VI) – John Ringo & Mike Massa

In Under a Graveyard Sky, Faith and Sophia spend some time on Manhattan helping out their uncle Tom Smith. This book is the full story of how Tom and his security team at a major Wall Street bank handled the zombie apocalypse, from the first reports to the total collapse of civilisation.

Far from just filling out the story of a side character, Mr. Ringo and Mr. Massa tell a compelling story, firmly establishing Tom Smith as a major protagonist in his own right. While he naturally shares character traits with his brother Steve, he is not a carbon copy.

The story takes place against the backdrop of Wall Street, and the authors have really captured the feeling of the environment. Investment bankers tend to be smart, driven, and analytical. The response to a zombie apocalypse is rational, but also mired in internal politics. Inevitably, the situation devolves, meaning more action and less analysis, but that is not a bad thing. The action scenes are excellent and some of the ZAMMIEs (Zombie Apocalypse Moments) are hilarious.

House of Suns – Alastair Reynolds

Six millions years previously, Abigail Gentian, scion of an influential and rich family, made one thousand clones of herself and infused each one with her personality and memories. Since then “Gentian Line” has travelled the Milky Way at sublight speeds, exploring, experiencing and helping civilisations. Every two hundred thousand years, the “shatterlings” of Gentian Line come together in a grand reunion, to share experiences and memories, and to remember their lost.

Purslane and Campion are two shatterlings who, despite strong taboos against it, have fallen in love and travel together. They are thousands of years late for the coming reunion. Once they arrive, they find that the Line has been attacked for unknown reasons, and decimated.

The premise is interesting, tackling the tricky concept of deep time and societal survival. Is it possible for a planet-bound civilisation, or even an interstellar empire, to sustain its own existence beyond a few tens of thousands of years? And what of consciousness, machine or biological. How can these handle intervals of millions of years, even if many are spent in suspended animation?

Unfortunately, too much of the story depends on reactions to events that happened previously, which are revealed piecemeal in massive and awkward infodumps. The plot will grind to a halt as a character expounds for pages and pages on events of five millions years ago and how they explain the events of last year in perceived time (which perhaps actually happened fifty thousand years ago in actual time). The love story of Purslane and Campion is sweet and tragic and compelling, and that would have made a lovely book. However, the whole edifice is heavily weighed down by having to explain and analyse the effects of deep time and ancient history, making it an ungainly slog only rescued by Mr. Reynolds’s superb prose and flair for illustrating the immense. Ironically, the final chapters are absolutely beautiful and would have been an amazing coda to a less ponderous narrative.

Without Mercy (Siobhan Dunmore V) – Eric Thomson

Captain Dunmoore and the crew of the Q-Ship Iolanthe intercept a distress signal. An abandoned cargo ship, which turns out to house a single survivor. What follows is a chase to find the perpetrators and disentangle their complex scheme.

While Dunmoore and her merry band of naval personnel are still good fun to hang out with, the quality of the narrative is lower than in previous installments. There seems to be no real risk that any of the characters will be killed or even seriously injured. Much of the text consists of the main characters spouting literary and military history quotes in extended banters sessions, showing off how clever they are while their enemies are continually confounded.

Victory’s Bright Dawn (Siobhan Dunmore IV) – Eric Thomson

Siobhan Dunmoore is now in command of Iolanthe, a massive Q-Ship charged with anti-piracy patrol. While returning for resupply, they find the Naval base on the planet Toboso, and the colonial administration facilities, destroyed by orbital bombardment. Many critical supplies have also been pilfered by the raiders. The crew of the Iolanthe sets off on a complex chase to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Mr. Thomson continues to keep the series fresh by, once again, telling a very different story. While lacking in the high stakes of Like Stars in Heaven, there is still plenty of action and banter to keep fans of the series happy. The introduction of many new characters, including the colourful Army contingent, also injects fresh energy. The plot does get rather convoluted at times, requiring overlong and somewhat forced dialogue infodumps.

I must gripe again that, just as in the previous instalment, there is an out of context jibe at leftist thinking for no plot-related reason.

Like Stars in Heaven (Siobhan Dunmore III) – Eric Thomson

Dunmoore and the crew of the Stingray are sent on a long range mission to investigate a possible lost colony of mankind. When they arrive, they find a society that has developed in a rather radical direction.

While I have previously compared the Siobhan Dunmoore series to Horatio Hornblower and Honor Harrington, this instalment felt very much like an extended episode of Star Trek – The Next Generation, in all the good ways. The crew are sent on a mission. Things are not as they seem. Tensions arise. Dramatic conclusion. The structural elements of the story are not necessarily original, but the narrative structure is excellently assembled. The tension in the second half of the book is palpable; the stakes feel very real, and the pages almost turn themselves. Mr. Thomson has found a way to tell a different kind of story in each of the three books so far, and again avoided the temptation to expand the scope of the novel towards the wider universe, confining the action to the crew of the Stingray. The dialogue and pacing are excellent. My one gripe was the rather random snipe at liberal/leftist thinking, which felt like a jarring and misplaced attempt at political lecturing rather than an integral part of the narrative.

The Path of Duty (Siobhan Dunmore II) – Eric Thomson

Commander Dunmoore and the Stingray are dispatched to the arse end of space and get stuck with convoy duty. There is mystery afoot as a freighter is found abandoned, and other ships from the same company seem involved in shady operations. While seeking answers, Stingray stumbles on a top-secret Navy operation at a backwater planet, and the Admiral in charge is a real character.

While the first book in the series was a rather conventional beginning, the story in this one is more “out there”, and there are strong hints regarding a wider arc to the series. Not quite as punchy as the first book, but the action and dialogue remain top notch.

No Honor in Death (Siobhan Dunmore I) – Eric Thomson

Commander Siobhan Dunmoore has recently had a battleship shot out from under her. Her daring successes in previous engagements have not endeared her to the establishment, which sees her as hotheaded and impulsive. Her mentor assigns her to Stingray, an obsolete frigate rumoured to be jinxed. Her predecessor was dismissed under mysterious circumstances, and the crew is none too welcoming. Dunmoore must both resolve the situation with a hostile and cowed crew, and also engage the enemy while on patrol.

While the enemies are humanoid aliens and the action is set in space, the setting shows clear signs of inspiration from the naval conflicts of Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars, and perhaps also from fictional heroes like Horatio Hornblower and Honor Harrington (the latter books themselves inspired by the former). While there is clearly a wider universe, the action is tightly focused on Commander Dunmoore, giving the feel of a submarine story. The allusion to the submariner tradition of a indicatingclean sweep with a broom makes this connection clear. The players are isolated while on patrol, and must resolve the internal conflicts on the ship while fighting their external enemies. These external enemies are not only the alien Shrehari, but the powers within the navy and society that would have them fail, and the figurative ghost of their former sociopathic captain.

While the setting and story are perhaps somewhat unoriginal compared to what has come before, Mr. Thomson is skilled at dialogue and interpersonal relationships, making this an engaging novel with excellent pacing.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O – Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland

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.