Tag Archives: sf

Permafrost

40048442.jpgAlastair Reynolds.

Time travel.

It’s just such a winning combination.

And the thing is, this is the author who as far as I can remember refuses to use FTL in his stories. So for him to write a time travel story means that there won’t be any Delorean zipping around. Instead, there’s a short but relatively serious discussion about WHAT, exactly, can be ‘sent back’ through time, and a very clever example of what it might mean to change things in the past – what impact that might have on the future.

The story, naturally enough, dips in and out of the time stream. It starts in the past and goes to the future and moves between them beautifully, gradually building up a picture of what has happened for the future to be as it is, and the choices that people make that have an impact ‘upstream’. The slow unfolding is horrific and brilliant.

I liked the characters, I was horrified by the world, and I was intrigued by the method of time travel. This is a fabulous novella.

Shadow Captain

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me at no cost by the publisher, Hachette. The trade paperback (which is lovely) is out now; smaller paperback in September.

I mean. HELLO. New Alastair Reynolds! I was so happy to get this to review. So hi, if you don’t know me I’m a massive fangirl, keep that in mind as you read I guess?

This is the sequel to Revengerfrom about three years ago. You probably want to read that before reading this because it sets up the sister relationship that’s at the heart of the story, between Adrana and Arafura (now Fura), as well as the horror in which Bosa Sennen is held throughout the… well, world is the wrong word, but you know what I mean. The area in which the book is set. And that’s the other thing that the first book sets up: that these books are set many, many thousands of years in our future, and they live in the Congregation – which is our solar system having been dismantled and the stuff of the planets used to construct an uncounted number of smaller worlds. Also, civilisation has not been continuous throughout that time; humanity has swelled and fallen over that time, inhabiting more or fewer world, having more or less connections between the worlds, and with technology progressing or lapsing. Which is what allows for the many ships who travel between the worlds to visit the now-uninhabited ones and find ‘treasures’ which may or may not work for them, dating back to previous civilisations.

I guess it’s like modern Britons or Libyans trying to make the Roman aqueducts work.

Anyway, if you haven’t read Revenger I highly recommend it – clearly – as a space opera with deep roots in nautical adventures (including in the language, it’s all coves and sails and broadsides), starring a defiant young woman having mad adventures.

Spoilers for Revenger below this…

Continue reading →

Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water

image.pngThis novella was sent to me by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost. It will be available from 21 May.

Vylar Kaftan’s novella opens with Bee scrambling through darkness, which is pretty much all she can remember doing.  The official blurb reads:

All Bee has ever known is darkness.

She doesn’t remember the crime she committed that landed her in the cold, twisting caverns of the prison planet Colel-Cab with only fellow prisoner Chela for company. Chela says that they’re telepaths and mass-murderers; that they belong here, too dangerous to ever be free. Bee has no reason to doubt her—until she hears the voice of another telepath, one who has answers, and can open her eyes to an entirely different truth.

You can guess from the blurb that things are not as they seem, but you can’t guess the twists and turns of the plot – well, I couldn’t anyway.

The attitudes towards telepaths are a very interesting part of the story; as someone who grew up reading McCaffrey’s Tower& the Hive series (every. single. one), I’m always fascinated by whether ESP stuff ends up being celebrated, abused, shunned, or whatever. So that was something I enjoyed here.

Overall, though, I did not love this story, and I can’t put my finger on why not – which is a deeply unsatisfying thing to say in this review, I know, and I’m sorry. I think it’s partly around the pacing. For all that I am a big fan of fast-paced stories, I think this was a bit too fast; I didn’t feel like I got to know Bee before things changed, and then they changed again, and I was left feeling a bit cold towards her fate. There was also a lack of world-building that meant I didn’t quite get some of the actions of the characters other than Bee.

For all that, though, Kaftan has written a story with heart that confronts the issue of how humans react to difference. I did like Bee, and felt that her reactions – especially when feeling lost in the world – were beautifully realistic.

Altered Carbon

images.jpegI first read Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon not long after it was published. I’ve read a few of his other books, too, and I really like his style. For reasons of “I have too many other books on my pile”, I haven’t got around to reading the rest in the series… although having been reminded of the book by the Netflix series, I’m going to remedy that this year. I’ve just re-read Altered Carbon itself.

Because my memory was fuzzy, I went into the show with only a vague memory of characters and plot. Which was good, actually, because it meant that I got to be surprised by plot twists and be immersed in the world-building.

I loved both the book and the show. This post contains spoilers for both, because I want to compare them.

I had heard some people complaining that the tv show was more simplistic than the books – which didn’t surprise me, although I couldn’t recall if I agreed. Having now re-read the book (and watched the show, um, twice), I disagree. Yes, the show has reduced some of the complexities, but in other ways it introduces more, and different, complexity. The two are actually quite different. It made me think of a film or tv show and its reboot: there are characters in common, and similar or identical plot beats, but with definite differences – perhaps to account for when it’s made, or directors’ stylistic differences, or whatever.

So the show is, I think, more racially diverse. (See this article for some good points on that topic and also some good points about the violence against women, which would be a whole other post for me and is covered here pretty well. DON’T READ THE COMMENTS.) It changes Kristin Ortega to be of Mexican(ish?) descent – in the book she’s described as having cheekbones courtesy of a Native American ancestor, which is weird and maybe racist? I’m Australian, I’m not sure of the nuance there – but otherwise doesn’t mention her appearance. (More on Ortega later.) The show makes Elliot and his family black – which is interesting but also changes the plot somewhat, since the whole point of why Bancroft wanted to have sex with Elizabeth Elliot is a physical similarity to his wife (who is white and blonde in both). Quellcrist’s physical appearance isn’t mentioned in the book, as far as I noticed, nor the race of other Envoys, so having at least some of them be not-white was positive.

What I think is the most stark difference between the two is the emphasis on family. In the book, we learn that Takashi had a difficult home life, but very little detail. We see that Laurens and Miriam Bancroft have a fairly distant relationship, and that Elliot loves his family, but they get little interaction on the page. In the show, though – what a difference. I adore the fact that Ortega’s family gets so much time (although I am a bit cranky about her being made so much shorter than Riker/ Tak, since in the book they’re almost of a height; I did enjoy the actor in the role, though). The familial argument about whether it’s a good idea to re-sleeve Grandma for a family celebration puts the whole issue of Catholics’ opposition to stacks etc into great relief. I also just love how MUCH Ortega we get in the show, even though she is clearly obsessed with getting her boyfriend back and clearing his name (which I do understand). In the book, she really is just there as suspicious support for Tak. Even her mum gets a bit of character development! That’s so cool!

Tak’s family also gets a great deal more depth – and maybe that’s coming from the other books, I’ll find out soon. But seeing his relationship with his sister, and then making Reileen be that sister grown up, is deeply intriguing. I wasn’t entirely convinced by her motivations in the show, although towards the end it started making a bit more sense… but it’s still a really interesting difference. It’s not like the Reileen in the book has much more character depth, so it’s a change not a loss.

The Elliots are far more present in the show than in the book – Vernon Elliot has zero to do with Tak and his mission in the book, unlike the show where he becomes an unwilling and not very helpful assistant. And we never meet Lizzie in the book; she’s just mentioned as waiting to be re-sleeved. So I love that she gets to have a hand in her own vengeance (much as I disapprove of violent vengeance in the real world…). The book has Ava Elliot be re-sleeved in a white body, but still female, while in the show she’s given a white man’s body. Part of the point of Tak’s training is that re-sleeving happens so often it’s meant to be straightforward, but that’s not the case for most humans – especially when they haven’t chosen it. What I was impressed by in the show is that although Vernon Elliot is initially bewildered and maybe horrified by the body his wife has been shoved into, he does come to grips with it and they do share intimate moments. And to my eyes, it’s not shown to be homophobia or transphobia, but more about that very specific experience of an unexpected body for his wife. (Trans folk etc should feel free to point out where I’ve missed stereotypes and so on, because I wouldn’t be surprised if I have.)

Even the Bancrofts, dirty Meths that they are, get more family exploration in the show. We don’t ever meet a Bancroft child in the novel, but two of them feature in the show and the son is a significant bit-part.

Perhaps the most intriguing change with Tak is his relationship with Quellcrist Falconer – and again, maybe this is coming from the later books, but it’s definitely not in this first one. It humanises him in a way that I think is really fascinating, since he commits such dreadfully violent acts and is himself subjected to terrible violence. Visually, to have a contrast with his time with Quell I found quite affecting. I think I have more sympathy for TV-Tak than I do with book-Tak, because there’s more emotional depth to hook into.

A curious change that I’m still trying to think through is the change from having the hotel be the Hendrix to one themed around Edgar Allan Poe. The Hedrix’s avatar is rarely a Jimi Hendrix lookalike (not until near the end, in fact), so I don’t think this is a case of erasing a black character. Perhaps the creators of the show thought that the AI of a Poe-hotel would be more likely to get into the spirit of an investigation? I have no idea. Also, the show creates the AI poker scenes and arguments from whole cloth, which I think is deeply interesting… and perhaps fits into the notion of family being a connecting theme across the episodes…

Finally, the book doesn’t have the Hello Unicorn! backpack, which is clearly a problem. (I found this article while looking for a picture.)In-The-Time-of-Battle-Unicorn-Backpack-Is-There-v3.png

Spots the Space Marine

Unknown.jpegWith apologies to the author and editor and publisher, but this title was incredibly off-putting. I think I got this as part of a bundle of women writing SF; there is no way I would ever have bought it, thanks purely to the title – I figured it was going to be something about a dog?

Anyway. The title is accurate to the story when you get reading, but I don’t think that’s a defence. So let me assure you: this is not a story about a dog trying to be a soldier. In fact, the spots refer to a cat (which I found very odd, but whatever).

The other thing you should know going on is that this is not written like a regular novel. It’s more like a play script: it’s almost entirely dialogue, with a note for who’s speaking but rarely any information about how they’re speaking. There are italicised comments about the actions happening around some of the dialogue, but it’s very sparse compared to most narratives. There’s even some bits that are described as montages, hammering the film-like nature home. If this is not going to be your thing, definitely don’t go here.

This is a military SF novel: you also don’t want to read it if you don’t like Stormship Troopers-level killing rate of the alien enemy. There is a LOT of killing. Mostly the deaths are robot-esque, mindless bug-ish aliens, but still – it got pretty overwhelming. So again, may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

The titular Spots has just been transferred to a new outfit to help out with an ongoing war against these alien bugs. She’s not really physically ready for it, and only just ready mentally. The outfit she’s joined is desperately low on numbers, and is facing increasing problems from the alien threat that no one had really expected in this area. So there’s friction with her joining them; there’s friction from lack of sleep and overwhelming stress; there’s friction because there’s an alien ally on base that not everyone trusts. There’s a lot of angry people going around.

One thing I found interesting was that I often lost track of who was male or female, with the exception of Spots, who is a mother. The characters go by call-signs that have nothing to do with their own names, so every now and then there’s some comment about she or he and I was surprised by who it referred to. Also, from passing comments, it’s clear that the soldiers are from a mixture of races, although I’m not sure there was a mixture of nationalities – exactly who was sponsoring this military was unclear.

I enjoyed this more than I had expected; I started reading it because I wanted to either read it or just clear it off my to-be-read ebook pile. While I didn’t love the high body-count, I was intrigued by the dynamics between many of the characters, and amused by the **** for the profanity.

The Fated Sky

Unknown.jpegDon’t be like me: if you think you might like to read The Calculating Stars, just buy this at the same time. Because otherwise you’ll get to the end of the first and you’ll be forced to cry NOOOO and shake your first at the sky because you can’t go immediately on to this.

Trust me on this. (Also I can’t believe I didn’t review Stars when I read it. Oops.)

Elma York is a scientist and a pilot. There’s a dreadful catastrophe on Earth in 1952, and from that point history is different from our history, because humanity’s attempts to get to space happen much, much faster, from necessity rather than hubris or curiosity.

York is female, and Jewish. It’s the female bit that leads to most of her personal difficulties; it seems to me that Kowal pulls no punches when it comes to laying out the sexism of the 1950s and 60s. I often found it distressing to read about. And it’s not only that which is distressing. There’s also the racism: York herself, while not actively racist, is complicit in the systemic racism of her time because so often she simply isn’t aware of the experiences of the not-white folks around her. And her attempts to ‘help’ are often blundering. I do like that Kowal shows York learning from her mistakes – sometimes because she is actively shown what she has done, or what society has done; sometimes she thinks her way there personally. She’s certainly never perfect, though – she’s a product of her times.

And then, in terms of things that can be hard to read about, York also suffers from anxiety. Although I do not myself suffer from it, it was reading about this that perhaps affected me most. The way it physically affects her, and the way those around her react, and the reasons for it existing or being exacerbated. Kowal writes about it exquisitely (said the person for whom it is largely unfamiliar, so take that into account).

I really feel like these books are perfect for 2018.

I don’t want to spoil either book, so I won’t go into much detail of the plot, but of course humanity’s efforts to reach space and work there are more successful in the books than in real life; otherwise there wouldn’t be two books (AND, so excite, at least two more planned!!) about it. But it’s fair to say that there is no plain sailing – which is as you would expect from Kowal, frankly, and indeed from any early-space-reaching novel attempting verisimilitude.

I love these books with a great passion. They tore at my heart, and made me angry for the way people are stupid for stupid reasons; they made me happy for the fact that there are good people, too, striving to do what is right and sometimes failing but also keeping on going, often in the face of terrible opposition. I love Kowal’s writing and I love the pacing of these stories and I cannot, cannot wait to read more set in this world.

Making the Monster

This was the second book in my birthday haul from my mother this year. The first was… not as good as I had hoped. Happily, this did not fall into the same trap.

The idea behind Harkup’s book is to look into the science that was happening around the time of Shelley writing Frankenstein, to explore what ideas influenced her. I was slightly concerned that this could go down the route that Russ identifies of suggesting Shelley was nothing but a conduit for the ideas of the time, but she does nothing of the sort. She does look into what sorts of things Shelley’s husband, father and friends were into, but only to suggest that this is how Shelley herself could have found out about these things: with Percy interested in electricity, for instance, it makes sense that they may have talked about some of the ideas being discussed by scientists, and so on. So I was relieved that this book is very much about how Mary Shelley herself knew what she did, and how she might have accessed knowledge of galvanism and resurrectionists and all of those other things that are so vital to the development of this story of the modern Prometheus.

As well as being an investigation into the science of the early 19th century, this almost inevitably also becomes a biography of Shelley – where she was when, who she encountered, how different places gave her access to ideas or inspiration, and so on. There’s also a discussion of how popular culture has dealt with the story, and the ways that film versions in particular have percolated through the popular Western mindset – and how these are often quite different from Shelley’s actual story.

Electricity, preservation of flesh after death, skin grafts, the circulatory system, evolutionary theory, blood transfusions, batteries… all of these things were being discussed in the early part of the 19th century and had an impact on Shelley’s writing. This is a fascinating introduction to the science of this period as well as being a fascinating way of thinking about Frankenstein. Harkup also does justice to Frankenstein as a way of interrogating science, and scientists.

I don’t adore Frankenstein – I’ve only read it once – but I really enjoyed this historical context.

The Buried Ark

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Pan Macmillan Australia, at no cost. It’s out now.

This is the sequel to The Silent Invasion, which I’ve previously reviewed. It was excellent, which is why I was excited about getting this to review, and it lived up to expectations – in terms of suspense and character, anyway. I had no idea, and no expectations, about where the plot would go; as it turned out, I wouldn’t have been able to predict it even if I’d tried.

If you haven’t read The Silent Invasion, you should go off and do that. All you need to know is that it’s set in a very familiar Australia, except that spores from Somewhere Else have been infecting and affecting regions of the globe – starting in the tropics and moving to the temperate zones. Flora and fauna are being Changed, and so are humans. In response, in Australia, there are no-go zones and suspicions of people who might be affected. The central character, Callie, is trying to look after her little sister Gracie, who has somehow been infected. The book ends on an epic cliffhanger, hence my excitement about getting this book to resolve it. You really don’t want to read this without reading the first book; but it’s only around 250 pages, and it’s YA so it’s super fast-paced, and it’s definitely worthwhile.

 

Spoilers for those who’ve read The Silent Invasion

So, that cliffhanger! I’d forgotten exactly what had happened, at the end, so I re-read the last chapter before starting this sequel – which was an excellent idea because the first page is basically the next second after the last page of the first. Which I quite like, except it does make me curious about why they are separate books. I guess 500 pages are harder to sell to a YA market? Anyway: briefly things seem like they might be okay for Callie, even though she’s lost Gracie and Matt, but – as I’m sure you kinda expect – things do not eventuate into a happy garden of joy. Whatasurprise. Callie ends up heading back out of the Zone, which then becomes a ‘from frying pan into fire’ scenario. And then… well, it’s a little spoiler, but it’s a frying pan to fire to slowly boiling pot of water scenario: you know, where you don’t realise initially that things aren’t great until the water starts really heating up around you? Yeh. That. Callie meets new people, learns of new ways of trying to deal with the Change, briefly feels like life may actually go ok. Poor Callie.

There are more women in this novel than I remember from the first, but that may just be my memory; certainly Callie was moving relatively quickly, so she met a lot of people but they haven’t all stuck in my mind. She doesn’t meet that many of her own age, but that makes sense in the context of where she is. There’s one person that really sticks with me, because of his name: Dr Omelas. If you know Ursula Le Guin’s work, that may give you a slight idea about the sort of thing he’s involved with… if you have no idea what I’m referring to, don’t worry, it won’t affect your enjoyment of the story!

If you enjoyed The Silent Invasion, you definitely want to keep reading the trilogy. Go grab this! Support Australian authors!

The Black God’s Drums

image.pngThis novella was sent to me by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost. It will be published on August 21.

As an Australian, I’m sure I only picked up the surface detail of what Clark is doing here in his alternative history of America. That was enough, though, to be both utterly intrigued by the world he’s imagined and to follow this awesome story that I really hope everyone goes out and grabs.

This is alternative history in two senses. One is that there’s airships and some other tech that doesn’t fit with what the nineteenth century actually had; a variation on steampunk I guess. The other is that, partly because of this technology, things went somewhat differently in Haiti after and during the slave revolt there, and when Napoleon tried to reimpose slavery; and, possibly connected to this although that’s unclear, things are also different in the USA: like it’s not the USA. This is post-Civil War, but instead of reconstruction, Confederates and the Union are still separate. Oh, and New Orleans is neutral, and basically seems to be operating as its own city-state.

There’s a lot going on here, and all of that is just background to understanding why our protagonist, Creeper, is trying to find someone to pass along some information to, and then ends up in an unexpected adventure.

This is a beautifully written novella, both fast-paced and with complex enough characters that I cared about them. Creeper is awesome, there are seriously odd nuns (I REALLY want a story about them please and thank you), and the captain of an airship who takes zero nonsense from anyone. Plus a scientist with dangerous knowledge in his head and… yeh, you get the picture. The characters are a multitude of colours and ethnicities and nationalities, as befits New Orleans as a neutral and open port; there’s really interesting discussion about old, African gods being brought to this new world, and what power they might have. This is alternative history that really works: it makes sense (see caveat above re: me and American history), and it challenges modern conservative white notions of what alternative history is; it also just straight-out challenges boring old racism pretty much just by its existence.

I loved it a lot and would be very happy to read more in this world.

Rogue Protocol

9781250191786_FC.jpgYeh. So. Soon after I admitted I was slack about reviewing Artificial Condition, I received the ARC from Tor.com for Rogue Protocol… the third in the Murderbot series. So now I am being A BETTER REVIEWER. But also it doesn’t come out until August 7, sooo… sorry about that. Honest.

If you haven’t read the first two, you really want to. Don’t read this unless you have. SERIOUSLY a former Security bot whose hacked their governance system and is trying to figure out how to live in society and not get shut down or have humans run away from them: WHY HAVEN’T YOU READ THIS YET. Also, the first novella in the series won a Nebula on the weekend, so it’s not just me in love with the whole concept.

Murderbot has managed to get away from the annoying humans whom they ended up helping in their possibly pointless search for justice. Now Murderbot is on their own search for justice, hoping that getting evidence of Evil Deeds to help the person who helped emancipate them will… do some good. Or something. Unsurprisingly, Murderbot ends up having to help more hapless humans in difficult situations. Because Murderbot just can’t help it. I’m a history teacher; I will teach you history if the occasion calls for it. My mother will join committees. Lois Lane will look for the angle, Batman will growl, Han Solo will make a quip. Murderbot will help you in your possibly doomed quest for safety and/or justice. It’s just the way it goes.

A super superficial reading of this series would suggest that Murderbot is searching for their humanity. But that, as I said, is superficial and does Murderbot a disservice: they are not human and are not looking to be human. They are, though, searching for a meaning to their identity, and possibly a way to interact with humans on their own terms. Which may or may not involve compassion, using their skills in useful ways, or killing the people who get in their way.

I love Murderbot and, increasingly, I love the interactions they have with other AIs. I mean the humans are fine and all but it’s the AIs who are really interesting. In the last story, we had ART, as Murderbot termed them; ART was more than they appeared, and had very definite ideas about some things. Here… well. The situation is very different. Miki is a whole other level of difficult to deal with: I think reading this immediately after Artificial Condition is really fascinating in terms of what AI identity means. I can’t wait to see how Murderbot develops after these interactions.

Wells is doing a marvellous job of reinvigorating the entire AI genre. I welcome it.