Dark Victory (Dark Victory I) – Brendan Dubois

Ten years after the Creepers attacked Earth and decimated the population, the United States is reduced to a nineteenth century existence. Any significant use of power or radio results in an orbital strike. Creepers roam the landscape in almost impregnable exoskeletons, burning and killing. Randy Knox is a sixteen year old Sergeant in the New Hampshire National Guard. He has been in the service four years. A veteran soldier with several kills under his belt, but also a teenager who attends school and thinks about girls a lot. One day, Randy receives orders to escort a government emissary to the capital.

While flirting with the Young Adult genre, this feels like a more mature tale. Mr. Dubois has woven an intense story full of action, courage and desperate choices. Randy is a hero, but an imperfect one, prone to brusque outbursts and impatience. A young man hardened by years of bitter warfare. This makes him much more realistic than the more typical young adult protagonist. A great read.

Tau Zero – Poul Anderson

The sublight colony starship Leonora Christine, powered by a Bussard Ramjet, is damaged while passing through a small nebula.  The decelerator mechanism is disabled and cannot be repaired unless a region of empty space is reached. The crew elects to continue accelerating in order to find a refuge. Due to the effects time dilation as the ship claws ever closer to the speed of light, ship time and outside time become increasingly disconnected. As the months and years pass on board, eons pass outside.

Tau Zero is an acknowledged science fiction classic. Some parts have not aged too well, in particular the 1960s social mores and optimistic view of the human races’ collective rationality. Some of the content also feels a bit like padding, most likely because it started out as a short story. However it remains a well executed hard science fiction story which manages to bring home the insignificance of individuals, and even of humanity itself, when confronted with the almost unimaginable vastness of time and space.

Anathem – Neal Stephenson

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.

Dust (Silo III) – Hugh Howey

Dust picks up where Shift left off. It is now clear that the status quo cannot be maintained, at least in Silo 18. Solo and Juliette are re-united as tragedy unfolds around them. The path to sustainable survival is uncertain. Meanwhile in Silo 1, Charlotte and Donny wrestle with trying to help Juliette over sporadic radio links and under constant threat.

Despite having some issues with pacing, this is a satisfying conclusion to the series. It is nowhere near as ponderous as Shift since there is more actually happening to replace the overlong internal monologues. The narrative moves towards a conclusion that, if not a happy ending for all, at least gives hope for the future.

Shift (Silo II) – Hugh Howey

Like Wool, the second volume in the Silo series started as a set of linked novelettes. The narrative begins hundreds of years before the events in Wool, with Donald, a newly elected US Representative, being brought onto the Silo project. This is before the apocalyptic events leading to the occupation of the silos, and gives background on how it all came to be. Donald is an unwilling accomplice in the control of the subsidiary silos as he slowly realizes how he, and the entire complex, has been manipulated, with conspiracy nested inside conspiracy aimed at a mysterious goal. Another section deals with how Solo from Wool came to be alone in his dying silo for decades.

While Wool was, despite its dark setting, a story of hope and searching for a better future, Shift contains very few bright points. The parts about Solo and his solitary descent into quasi-madness are especially bleak. Donald struggles with his conscience, his desire for revenge, his realization that even knowing the truth is not going to make things better. While the mental battles were well written, I felt that this book could have been trimmed to make it a bit less of a slog at times.

Wolf Moon (Luna II) – Ian McDonald

Following after the events of New Moon, the Corta Helio business empire is shattered, with the remaining family members scattered about the Moon seeking safety, solace, or escape into drug-induced oblivion. The Suns and McKenzies now rule the Moon’s business dealing. But Lucas Corta plans revenge.

Just like the first book, this one is a triumph of storytelling and characterisation. Where the first one was slow to start, this one hits the ground running as there is no need to establish the world. As cataclysmic events continues to unfold, the reader is starkly reminded that business is indeed war. The contrast with Earth also shows in an interesting way how new societies can seem utterly strange to old ones, even after only a few generations.

Milk Run (Smuggler’s Tales From The Golden Age Of The Solar Clipper I) – Nathan Lowell

On her graduation day at the merchant marine academy in Port Newmar, Natalya Regyri is framed for murder. Along with her friend Zoya, she escapes to “Toehold Space”, a clandestine network of stations not regulated by the central authorities.

This book starts a new series in the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper universe. As in the other books, there is no dramatic action. In his afterword, Mr. Lowell takes almost condescending pride in pointing out that he tells stories of ordinary working men and women. This installment starts off well, but the second half is bogged down in overlong, tedious discussions on inventory management. On the bright side, the dialogue is snappily written, and keeps things going even when during the umpteenth crew meeting to dissect the fine points of shipboard logistics software.

Pushing Ice – Alastair Reynolds

In the second half of the 21st Century, the ship Rockhopper is the base for a crew of hardcore ice miners. Much like the crew of the Nostromo in Alien or the workers of the Deep Core in The Abyss, these are not space heroes but no-nonsense blue-collar worker types. The company sucks them dry but they get the job done.

Janus, a small inner moon of Saturn, is observed to be moving out of its orbit, seemingly of its own power. Rockhopper is the only ship close enough to intercept what can only be alien artifact. As it nears Janus, Rockhopper is caught in a gravitational field from which it cannot escape, carrying it along for years until it reaches a vast alien artifact soon dubbed The Structure.

Mr.  Reynolds anchors the narrative on two strong women, Bella Lind and Svetlana Barseghian; fast friends who fall out as they disagree on how to deal with the challenges faced by the marooned crew of the Rockhopper. The novel jumps smoothly between discrete events, sometimes separated by decades.

The enigma of The Structure is disturbing on many levels, but before being able to even hope to probe it, the small contingent of humans must ensure their very survival. And so, in an isolated corner of an alien place they know nothing about, humans must thrive despite their factional nature and penchant for disagreement. Despite its often intimidating scope, this novel is a joy to read. Ingeniously plotted, epic in scope, and yet intimate in its exploration of humanity.

Perigee – Patrick Chiles

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

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

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

Revenger – Alastair Reynolds

Fura Ness and her sister are adolescents on a little planetoid, growing up under an overprotective widowed father whose business fortunes are poor at best. They escape from home to make money crewing on a ship plying the spaceways for treasure left over from fallen civilizations. But on their first journey, things go horribly wrong. Fura vows revenge on the pirate captain who destroyed her life.

The style of this novel verges on Young  Adult, and the story itself, while enjoyable, is nothing that stands out. The setting, however, is fascinating and inventive. The star system is full of wordlets and space habitats, having been “occupied” at least thirteen times over millions of years by various empires and polities. The current civilization sustains itself partly on picking up loot from asteroids protected by periodically inactive force fields. The loot can be anything from decorative items to ancient and powerful weapons. I was somewhat disappointed that more aspects of this setting were not explored, especially the mysterious origin of the “cuoins” used as currency.

Babylon’s Ashes (The Expanse VI) – James S.A. Corey

theexpanse6babylonsashesNemesis Games saw Earth attacked and crippled. Billions are dead after Marco Inaros and the Belter Free Navy landed an unimaginably cruel and perhaps fatal blow on the Inner Planets. Medina Station, the key to the colonies opened in Abaddon’s Gate, is also locked down by the Free Navy. Babylon’s Ashes is about the aftermath. Earth led by the incomparable Avasarala, The Mars Congressional Republic and those factions of the Outer Planets Alliance unwilling to accept Inaros’s guidance must now pick up the pieces and strike back before human civilization passes a point of no return towards a new dark age.

Well written as always, Nemesis Games is a pretty depressing read for the most part, but how else could it be with humanity shattered and billions dying of starvation and exposure? The glimpses of light from the efforts of James Holden and the others on the “good” side are heartbreaking and poignant and at the same time encouraging and heartening, as the authors probably intended. The inner doubts and struggles of the characters, in particular Michio Pa, show the reader how politics writ large is still made up of the decisions of individual actors. And as usual any scene with Avasarala involves her stealing the show. How awesome is this character?

4Rosbochs

Angeleyes – Michael Z. Williamson

angeleyes-9781476781860_hrAngie Kaneshiro is a Freehold-born high tech vagabond. She crews on commercial vessels trading between the various polities in Williamson’s Freehold Universe. She likes to dance, have sex and see new places. Then the Freehold War breaks out and things turn ugly fast. After barely escaping a major accident on a space habitat, she volunteers with the Freehold covert forces, acting as a guide for a group of elite special forces on covert missions.

Angie’s secret war is terrifying and gut-wrenching. She repeatedly puts her life at risk, is tortured, loses friends and has to kill innocents to protect herself and her team. As the novel progresses, it transforms from the chronicle of a fun-loving, easy going but streetwise woman to a much darker place as Angie sees her grip on sanity crumble away until there is only the mission first, and survival second. This transformation echoes the descent of the war for the Freehold from resistance to an unjustified aggressor to resorting to mass murder in order to survive.

Like The Weapon and Freehold, this book depicts the horrific effects of war on those who fight it without diminishing their heroism and bravery. The personal cost of killing innocents is very high, and in the end it all seems so wasteful.

Side note: There’s a lot of rather graphic sex in this book. In my view, it was not put there to titillate the reader, but because Williamson wanted to show that Freehold society is very matter-of-fact about such things, and more importantly because a female character can love sex without having to be a slut.

5Rosbochs

 

A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers II) – Becky Chambers

wayfarers2aclosedandcommonorbitThis novel is set just after the enchanting The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, but none of the main characters have carried through. The story is about Sidra, the newly minted AI from Wayfarer, who has been illegally housed in a human looking “body kit”. In parallel, it is about Pepper, the tech who helped Sidra “escape”, and the peculiar way in which Pepper grew up.

At it’s core, this is a story about what it means to be a person. What sets humans apart from a sentient artificial intelligence, if anything? There is also a strong theme of family and its meaning. It is written with the same charm and wit as the first book, leaving the reader with a warm and fuzzy feeling at the end.

4½Rosbochs

A Window into Time – Peter F. Hamilton

awindowintotimeYoung teen Julian has perfect recall. He finds school difficult because “the stupids” like to bully him. He starts having visions about the life of a man, and becomes obsessed with finding him while he mulls the philosophical implications of time travel and mortality.

Told in the first person, this novella is cleverly crafted and flawlessly told.

5Rosbochs

Family Matters (Greg Mandel) – Peter F. Hamilton

familymattersThis short story (actually more of a novella in length) is set after the Greg Mandel books. Mandel is not the protagonist, but nevertheless has a starring role.

A C-list celebrity is found dead in mysterious circumstances. Psi-cop Greg Mandel is brought in to consult. At the same time, a real estate developer is caught up in a shady deal.

This is a fun read from Mr. Hamilton’s early years, and there is no requirement to have read the Mandel books beforehand.

4Rosbochs

 

 

A Night Without Stars (Chronicle of the Fallers II) – Peter F. Hamilton

chronicleofthefallers2anightwithoutstarsTwo hundred and fifty years after the events in The Abyss Beyond Dreams, Bienvenido society has been profoundly changed. The planet has been exiled from the Void to a star system outside any galaxy, perhaps because the inhabitants “misbehaved”. It orbits the lonely star together with a scattering of other planets with a similar fate, some with extant species, others sterile. After Slvasta’s revolution, society follows an oppressive model similar to Stalinism. The state rules and the secret police is its enforcer, feared by all, but mostly by “Eliters”, those who have working macrocellular clusters, stemming from certain genetic traits inherited from the Commonwealth thousands of years previously. The Eliters are downtrodden but defiant. Bienvenido is still under attack by the Faller trees, now slowly being chipped away at by regular space missions to destroy them one by one with nuclear bombs.

Several characters from the first book remain, still working towards a solution to the Faller incursions, which are getting worse despite claims to the contrary by the regime. Nigel may be gone but another famous Commonwealth character steps onto the scene in these desperate times.

While the first book had a definite ending, and this one introduces new protagonists with new character arcs, it is also very much a continuation and conclusion to the series. Mr. Hamilton uses his customary skill in weaving all the threads together into a rousing and satisfying finale, as well as an epilogue that will have long time fans smiling beatifically.

5Rosbochs

The Abyss Beyond Dreams (Chronicle of the Fallers I) – Peter F. Hamilton

chronicleofthefallers1theabyssbeyonddreamsLaura Brandt is in stasis as her dynasty is journeying outside the Commonwealth to set up a new society. The Commonwealth is thriving, but the enigmatic and sinister Void casts its shadow as it continues to expand, devouring the galaxy sun by sun. Through happenstance, the Brandt fleet is caught in the Void, trapped in proximity to a planet surrounded by what look like huge orbiting trees, but which house a terrifying alien race.

Thousands of years later, on the planet, now known as Bienvenido, a young soldier called Slvasta is patrolling after a Faller incursion, as yet again “eggs” from the orbiting Trees have fallen. Many generations after colonization by the crippled Brandt fleet, society is at a low industrial level. The eggs are biological weapons which attract and consume humans. Slvasta survives an encounter but loses an arm, leading to his reassignment to the capital. Here, he and his girlfriend Bethaneve set in motion events that will transform Bienvenido society, with more than a little nudging from Nigel Sheldon, who entered the void on a mission to the planet Querencia (from the Void trilogy) but was waylaid to Bienvenido.

This book is the first of two in the series. The larger story of the Void and the Commonwealth is continued from Commonwealth Saga and the Void Trilogy, but the story on Bienvenido is relatively self-contained. Unsurprisingly for a Hamilton book, the hundreds of pages fly by, populated by vivid characters and settings. While some might find it disappointing that Mr. Hamilton is focusing on stories set in societies that are not representative of the super-high-tech Commonwealth, I find that he could write any story and I would still read it. Bienvenido is a fascinating setting, and its detachment from greater human society makes the story all the more poignant.

4½Rosbochs

Grand Central Arena (Grand Central Arena I) – Ryk E. Spoor

GrandCentralArenaPilot Ariane Austin joins the crew of the first manned ship to attempt to break the lightspeed barrier. The first “jump” takes them to a large enclosed space containing a model of the solar system.

The characters are bland and too quickly introduced. They are all great at their jobs except for the one who is blatantly foreshadowed to have a hidden agenda. The technobabble is grating.

I really tried but I couldn’t finish this one.

1½Rosbochs

The Player of Games – Iain M. Banks

Culture2ThePlayerofGamesJernau Gurgeh is the best game player the Culture has ever seen. (For clarity, these games are analogous to the board games of today. He writes scholarly papers on them. He takes parts in tournaments. He lives and breathes games. However, he is somewhat bored. The Culture is a post-scarcity society, with no want, death, suffering or exploitation. Winning at games is a purely intellectual pleasure. However there are civilizations outside the Culture. Gurgeh is contacted by Special Circumstances, a branch of “Contact”, the Culture’s organizations for dealing with newly contacted civilizations. It seems that in the barbaric Empire of Azad, a monumentally complex game is used to control appointments to government offices, even so far as to decide who becomes emperor.

Writing about a post-scarcity utopia is difficult. There is no real struggle. The interesting stories come about when there are encounters with the world outside the utopia’s borders. In fact the novel is slow and ponderous until the action reaches the Empire of Azad. The protagonist suffers from ennui but the reader is not left with a strong impression of him. He comes alive once the stakes are real, going through a transformation from happy but docile citizen of the culture to vibrant player, both literally and figuratively, with the means to affect society in very significant ways. The metaphor may be in-your-face but it is still well written.

4Rosbochs

Wool (Silo I) – Hugh Howey

Silo1WoolOriginally published as five linked novelettes, which is why this is also known as “Wool I-V”, this novel is set in a large, vertical underground habitat known as the Silo. The inhabitants are unaware of the outside world apart from the desolate and poisoned terrain they can see on cameras set at the top level of the Silo, which just breaches ground level. The worst crime in the Silo is talking about going outside. The punishment for this is being sent out for “cleaning”, which involves being put into a protective suit and cleaning grime off the lenses of the cameras. After a few minutes the suit fails and the criminal dies in the toxic atmosphere. However, even the cowed inhabitants of the Silo have questions. What happened outside? Who built the Silo? Why is the IT department so mysterious and secretive? Juliette, a woman from the “down deep” engineering levels follows her instincts and stumbles on secrets buried for generations.

Wool starts unassumingly. Silo society is working relatively harmoniously, the vertical design cleverly engineered to ensure social stratification and a lack of unity across departments. However Mr. Howey is not afraid to throw large wrenches in the works for the protagonist as she starts on her odyssey to find the truth. While the second half sometimes drags on a bit, this is a fine piece of post-apocalyptic fiction, and unlike that in some other such “set piece” oeuvres, the setting itself feels well-thought out and plausible.

4Rosbochs

In Ashes Born (Seeker’s Tales From The Golden Age of The Solar Clipper I) – Nathan Lowell

SeekersTales1InAshesBornWhile billed as the start of a new series, this book is a direct sequel to the Trader’s Tales From the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper series. The break has its logic in the new direction for the life of our protagonis. At the end of the previous book, Ishmael Wang had achieved his goal of becoming a captain. He is a independently wealthy and does not need to work ever again. This leaves him feeling at loose ends, so he returns to the academy for some soul searching and perhaps the discovery of a new purpose. His very old friend Pip shows up to drag him along in a new venture, and maybe find some closure regarding the events in Owner’s Share.

For fans of the series, this book will feel familiar. Ishmael and Pip may be older and wiser but they remain an entertaining pair. Mr. Lowell has developed a high skill in writing dialogue. The events in this book, as in previous ones, are far from epic, but they are as ever quietly entertaining. And while certainly one could criticize the author for creating a future where culture everywhere is a ludicrously homogeneous American idyll, or for ignoring quite a few logical fallacies in the economic model of society, that would just take away from the fun.

4Rosbochs

Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

SevenevesIn 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.

4½Rosbochs

Blood in the Water (Destroyermen XI) – Taylor Anderson

Destroyermen11BloodintheWaterFollowing the taking of “Grik City” in Straits of Hell, the Alliance is attempting to both consolidate its foothold on Madagascar and set up for a strike on the Grik heartland. The powerful League of Tripoli is meddling, howerver. On the other front, the Dominion is refusing engagement, but the Allies may be able to bring a new player in to the war on their s
ide.

Despite the fact that this series is now on its eleventh book, it still moves along nicely. Mr. Anderson had not let it bog down into clean-up operations with obvious outcome, and the challenges facing our heroes are as great as ever. This book, like some of the previous installments, is more about setting the stage for future developments and thus doesn’t contain any decisive action, but for fans of the series will still bring satisfaction.

4Rosbochs