The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers I) – Becky Chambers

TheLongWayToASmallAngryPlanetRosemary is on the run. From what is not initially known. She joins the crew of the Wayfarer, a vessel that builds stable wormholes in space. The crew is a motley mix of characters, both humans and of other species. As the Wayfarer travels on a long mission, Rosemary and the rest of the crew face various trials.

Written like that, the story seems rather banal, and in truth the story is not the reason one should read this novel. In fact, the story is almost a series of interconnected episodes, aimed almost uniquely at highlighting and celebrating what is important in the book: The relationships between the characters, and how these make them grow and change. It is easy to see in the crew a more mellow but somehow also more colourful version of the protagonists of Firefly.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (I love the title) is a delightful novel. Surprisingly unpretentious in a genre typically dominated by big concepts, it takes the reader on a journey with characters that are relatable and easy to like. I found myself smiling more often than not while reading, and frequently wished that I could sit in the garden on the Wayfarer, just hanging out with the crew.

4½Rosbochs

Great North Road – Peter F. Hamilton

GreatNorthRoadIn the early 22nd Century, a body is found in the river Tyne in the northern English city of Newcastle. The murdered man is a North, one of hundreds of clone brothers in the immensely powerful and rich North family. But which one? Detective Sid Hurst is assigned to lead what soon becomes a massive investigation. Earth and its colonies are linked through instantaneous travel gateways, with undesirables and jobless shunted out to the colonies. Massive corporate interests loom over society. Taxation is so high that everyone has “secondary” accounts, a deep grey economy of bribes and favors shadowing what is reported to the government. As Sid investigates, the mystery of the dead North deepens, leading finally to a geophysical expedition looking for clues in the far-flung jungles of the world St. Libra, where mysteriously there is no animal life at all, only plant life.

Great North Road is a singleton book, but still retains Hamilton’s customary “big brick” format at over twelve hundred pages. The characters are many and the plot complex. The backdrop is detailed, with a rich backstory spanning decades. Strange societies and interesting people abound. Unlike most of Hamilton’s works, however, this one is very firmly grounded thematically in the contemporary world. Earth in the early 22nd Century seems stuck in a rut. There are technological advancements over today, certainly, but not as many as one would think. And definitely nothing that has changed the paradigm. The economy is still very much dependent on oil, albeit an artificial variant produced by genengineered algae. Government bureaucracy is powerful, massive, overwhelming and nonsensical. The ultra-rich are disconnected from normal society. The “failed capitalism” theme is powerful, a bit like that seen in the news today. Is this really the best way forward for society, or are humans meant for something more? And yet, forces are conspiring to break out from this path. Hope, as always, is a strong theme for Hamilton. And unlike in his big series, he manages to tie it all up neatly in the end.

4½Rosbochs

Conquistador – S.M. Stirling

John Rolfe, a WWII veteran, inadvertently opens a portal to an alternate timeline in his Oakland, California, basement. He and his old war buddies proceed to conquer this version of the Earth. In the other timeline, Alexander the Great lived to a ripe old age and the white man never arrived in America. The most advanced civilizations are still technologically in the middle ages. The “Gate” remains open, allowing Rolfe and his new nation to secretly smuggle precious metals to the original timeline (they know where to find it easily by using maps from our timeline) and manufactured goods to the other timeline. The “Gate Secret” is very tightly held.

But all is not well in paradise. A faction fight in the alternate timeline spills over into ours, and two Fish and Game Warden find themselves caught up in the middle, then exiled through the gate. They must now team up with the “good” alternate timeline faction (Rolfe’s granddaughter, for one) to defeat the evil faction.

I enjoyed “Conquistador”. It is adventure pure and simple. The action scenes are masterful. The setting, as well as the social, economic and ecological discussions are both entertaining and intriguing. However, I do think that Stirling could have delivered a better plot. The ending is rather abrupt, and some of the moral issues prominent in the first half of the book (is the whole idea of conquering a new world and setting yourselves up as a benevolent dictatorship really a good thing?) are conveniently dropped by the wayside at the end. And then there are the characters. Likeable as they may be, our heroes are a little too perfectly intelligent, likeable and generally extremely fit and good looking. While I am a sucker for happy endings, I still found it a little bit too happy and perfect and neatly tied up, even though the very last page does open the door for sequels.

Coyote Frontier (Coyote III) – Allen Steele

Book three in the Coyote series, this novel takes us once more to the colony planet Coyote. But there’s a new twist. Earth has developed a technology for instantaneous travel between stars, meaning close contact with Earth is possible once more. Coyote seems like paradise to inhabitants of Earth wracked with overcrowding and catastrophic climate change. Will the budding Coyote Federation be able to withstand the onslaught? The original colonists have grown middle aged and responsible, but now their children rebel. It is a classic dichotomy. The old and wise versus the young and energetic. Steele plays to his strength in character creation and development, making this perhaps the most enjoyable of the Coyote books.

Unlike the two previous books, this one is not a collection of previously written short stories with interlude pieces. However, Steele has still kept some of that feel. The narrative changes pace, viewpoint and even style between sections. But the episodes are less self contained than before. This effect still takes some getting used to, but it works well.

The epilogue, after the action proper has been concluded and loose ends tied up, is a bit surprising. We are left dangling after a momentous first contact. Said first contact is described in Steele’s novel Spindrift. Blatant plug? Perhaps. But it also reminds us that the story of the colony is still unfolding.

Manhattan in Reverse – Peter F. Hamilton

This short story collection contains mostly previously published material, among others the stellar “Watching Trees Grow“, which it was a pleasure to re-read. There are three more standalones, one of which is a very short vignette. The last three stories are set in the Confederation Universe, with the two longer ones featuring investigator extraordinaire Paula Myo. (The third is Blessed by an Angel.) Myo is a very interesting character and could easily be the protagonist of a novel two of her own. Hamilton’s treatment of clinical immortality and crimes committed in an environment with such is stellar as always.

I was left wanting more.

The Commonwealth Saga – Peter F. Hamilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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