Category Archives: Sci Fi

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

Borough Press | 2017 (15 June) | 752p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Rise and Fall of DODO by Neal Stephenson and Nicole GallandMelisande Stokes is a lecturer in ancient and classical languages at Harvard University when she is offered a curious job by government secret agency operative Tristan Lyons. It’s likely that Mel would have taken the job anyway thanks to her patronising, arrogant and irritating boss, but it turns out to be simply perfect. Mel is given a number of ancient and more recent documents to translate as part of a test. The texts come from all six continents and from every era and they all attest to one thing – that magic is real. Or rather magic used to be real. The documents also reveal that magic died in the summer of 1851, killed by the Great Exhibition of London.

Mel’s job, should she choose to accept it, is to join a top secret government project, D.O.D.O., otherwise known as the Department of Diachronic Operations. It has one mission – to develop a device that will allow its operatives to travel back in time to save magic and alter history. After all, what government wouldn’t want to have magic at its beck and call? Unfortunately, meddling with the past can have a rather adverse and unpredictable effect on the present, especially when so much depends on MUONs – Multiple-Universe Operations Navigators, better known to you and me as witches.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is quite simply spectacular. It’s almost impossible to describe or to pin down. There’s a distinct science fiction feel to bits of it – it is, after all, a novel about time travel and the descriptions of how it works are both sciencey and deliciously unfathomable. That is indeed the point. This classified government agency likes to blind us by science at the same time as confounding us with acronyms. But the science is powered by magic which is also powered by science. There is a rational scientific explanation for everything. I think. Or maybe there isn’t. I’m not sure the witches care very much.

I’m not a reader of fantasy or anything to do with magic normally but this novel absolutely enchanted me, in the same way that The Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter has done. It presents an incredible and seductive mingling of science and fantasy, of alternate universes, broken futures, impossible conundrums and, my favourite, the temporal paradox. All of this on top of some brilliantly visualised journeys into the past, especially late Elizabethan London and 13th-century Constantinople. These are places teeming with the most fascinating and intriguing personalities, notably the witches but there are also lots of others, and it’s particularly fun watching them deal with an unfamiliar future or past.

The missions into the past are fantastically complicated! This is not surprising considering the tangled knot of D.O.D.O. bureaucracy and it all adds up to a wonderfully elaborate and varied bunch of plots as different people pursue their different goals and get into all kinds of trouble. This adds drama and, now and again, tragedy but it also adds a great deal of humour. The humour of The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is lightly done, often the result of the absolute absurdity of a situation or the preposterousness of trying to impose officialdom on potential chaos. There is also a lesson to be learned – don’t underestimate people from the past. They might not know how to operate a mobile phone but they – and I include Vikings in this – are not stupid.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is over 740 pages long but not once did this feel like too much. On the contrary, it quite often felt like too little! There is so much going on. There is so much potential for more to go on. I loved the characters, especially Erszebet. And it is all written absolutely beautifully and in the most intriguing manner. It’s told in a multitude of ways – journal entries, letters, emails, government documents, memos – and they work together brilliantly. At the end is a very handy glossary of acronyms (as defined by POOJAC – the Policy on Official Jargon and Acronym Coinage). As for the premise of this fabulous, clever, witty book, it is ingenious and only equalled by its execution. Neal Stephenson’s previous novel Seveneves was one of my top reads of 2015. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (or TRAFODODO) will do at least as well in my 2017 list. Do not miss it!

Other reviews

The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu

Head of Zeus | 2017 (18 May) | 447p | Review copy (and bought copy) | Buy the book

The Wandering Earth by Cixin LiuWhen I devoured the Three-Body Problem trilogy by Cixin Liu, I discovered an author who gives me everything that I want from science fiction. There is a beautiful melancholy to his vision of the distant past, the present and the future, and he fills it with the most enormous, jawdropping ideas. All of this was confirmed and more by The Wandering Earth, an anthology of ten (or eleven if you’re reading certain earlier ebook editions) glorious stories written by Cixin Liu over the last twenty years.

I’m not a big reader of short stories generally but my eyes were recently opened by Alastair Reynold’s collection Beyond the Aquila Rift. The Wandering Earth confirms my better-late-than-never opinion that there can be just as much to love about a science fiction short story or novella as there is about a brickbook, which is what I traditionally go for. The majority of the stories here are about fifty pages long, with chapters, and are more than long enough to pull the reader into the most extraordinary of times and places.

The collection kicks off with the story that gives the anthology its name, ‘The Wandering Earth’ and it is absolutely fantastic! Earth knows that the Sun will die in a thousand years or so, in a burning flourish that will destroy the inner planets of the solar system and eradicate all life and possibilities for life on Earth. The generations who live under this foreboding decide to do the seemingly impossible. They will turn Earth into a starship. It will travel through the Galaxy to find a new home, its inhabitants surviving deep below the surface, never seeing or experiencing daylight. It is an extraordinary story – there are moments in it that made me sit up and my jaw drop – and it sets the theme for the rest of this collection.

Ideas and themes recur through the stories – first contact, the creation of life on Earth, the end of that life (globally and on a more intimate level), the distant past of dinosaurs and ants, exploration within the very core of the planet, judgement on how well humanity has done, sacrifice for the good of the Earth. There is a sadness to many of these stories as men and women are faced with the demise of life by a variety of methods, but they must also face the natural end of a single life. Even Gods must die in the end. But this sadness is counteracted by the wonder that comes through knowing that we are not alone in the universe or indeed on this planet – just as other civilisations travel through the universe, there are other species on our own planet who deserve consideration. Humans can look at existence with a limited perspective but these stories suggest we open our eyes.

I love the way that, even though each of these stories stands alone, some of them make reference to others – names and people occasionally recur, ideas pop up more than once, such as the suggestion that the Earth is just one of several identical Earths that were created at the same time and will inevitably fight for supremacy.

There are amazing wondrous moments in The Wandering Earth, such as the description of a fall through the centre of the Earth, a micro-Earth, an alien eating a human to see whether the species is tasty enough to keep it alive – for food, an extraordinary dispersal of wealth, the construction of a new sun, the beauty of a flower. I couldn’t read these stories fast enough. I couldn’t imagine where they would take me next.

As well as the hardback, I also bought the kindle version and it’s worth mentioning that this turned out to be an older version, with different translations and with an additional story (‘Of Ants and Dinosaurs’, which is a marvellous story and I wish it were in the hardback). I’ve been told that this is currently being replaced but it did cause me some confusion as you can imagine! For the time being, these two editions are not the same book. Certainly, the hardback is a thing of beauty and its translations are wonderful. So praise galore must go to translators Ken Liu, Elizabeth Hanlon, Zac Haluza, Adam Lanphier and Holger Nahm.

If you’ve never read Cixin Liu before then this would be a great place to start. And hopefully, after reading it, you will be inspired to take a look at this wonderful writer’s masterpiece, the Three-Body Problem trilogy which is now complete and ready for the taking.

Other reviews
The Three-Body Problem
The Dark Forest
Death’s End

Iron Gods by Andrew Bannister

Bantam Press | 2017 (18 May) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

Iron Gods by Andrew BannisterThe Spin is a vast artificial galaxy of suns and planets, constructed so long ago by an unknown, long gone alien species. More recently, relatively, the Spin has witnessed many millennia of human history, during which time humans on certain planets have evolved into something a little different, whereas others continue on a path of war, industry, business and exploitation that began longer ago than anyone knows on a forgotten planet called Earth. Much of life occupies the Inside, in what has become known as the Hive. This is a vast expanse of enslaved colonies. Millions live in miserable servitude. Few escape, but Seldyan does, along with her small group of friends. They steal one of the very last legacy spaceships with an AI that has been dormant for 8000 years. Until now.

The Spin now contains massive habitations in space, constructed from thousands and thousands of ships tethered together, most notably Web City – a construction filled with vice, chaos and what could be described as making the best of things. But not far from Web City, something strange has appeared in the sky – a giant green star. It appeared instantly and near it is another curious object – an eyebrow-shaped path of destruction.

Something is up with the Spin. It has grown lazy and slipped into forgetfulness. Trade and travel are fading. But it appears that it might be about to be woken up.

Iron Gods follows Creation Machine but, apart from the fact that they both take place within the Spin, there is little to connect. They take place many years apart. And so you can most definitely read one without the other, although I think that Creation Machine would make a good place to start.

This is a complicated story, moving from Inside to Outside, mostly following Seldyan’s escape to Web City and beyond but also following Vess, the man tasked by the Hive to find out how Seldyan managed to escape. It is his infiltration of the Hive and its treatment of him that I found a little harder to follow. We are taken to some dark places – there are skin-creeping moments – and I was repeatedly pleased to be restored to Seldyan’s adventure on the outside.

Seldyan is a great character. She and all of the members of her team have been terribly damaged by their childhood and early adulthood in the Hive and we revisit some of this through flashbacks, bringing us closer to these troubled souls. And I grew to care for Seldyan quite deeply. She is immensely courageous and loyal. She must suffer greatly as she becomes caught up in the struggle that divides Web City.

The aspect of Iron Gods that I enjoyed the most are its fantastic descriptions of incredible things – giant forests, strange habitats, enormous spaceships, peculiar worlds, curious aliens. I love this sort of thing and can’t get enough of it in science fiction. Andrew Bannister brought these wonders to life. As mentioned, I did struggle with elements of the complex story. It left me behind on a few occasions, but I caught up in time to enjoy the fantastic conclusion – the glorious creation of the Spin made the effort well worthwhile.

Other review
Creation Machine

Forgotten Worlds by D. Nolan Clark

Orbit | 2017 (25 May) | 589p | Review copy | Buy the book

Forgotten Worlds by D Nolan ClarkeForgotten Worlds is the second novel in D. Nolan Clark’s trilogy The Silence. While I think you’d have no trouble reading Forgotten Worlds as a standalone science fiction deep space adventure (one of my favourite things), I’d definitely recommend that you give yourself a treat and read Forsaken Skies first. This review assumes you’ve had the pleasure.

Commander and veteran Aleister Lanoe has won a heroic victory against the alien force that threatened the human colony of Niraya with annihilation. But Lanoe is in no doubt that it is merely a temporary reprieve. The aliens will return and their target will be not just Niraya but every living human soul across the Galaxy. Somehow, Lanoe must locate the alien’s homeworld and destroy it once and for all. To do that, Lanoe needs the support of the Navy’s admiralty but these are no ordinary times. The Navy’s war against Centrocor is angrier than ever and Centrocor will stop at nothing to gain the knowledge (and therefore the advantage) that Lanoe and his second in command Tannis Valk have about the aliens, the first that mankind has ever encountered.

And so Lanoe and Valk, and their small military team – some known to us for better or worse and some new – must escape the deadly force of Centrocor while pursuing their own mission. An unknown source has sent the Navy a message of hope along with a map. Lanoe sets off, unaware of the terror and danger ahead as well as the nature of their astonishing destination. Nothing will ever be the same again for Lanoe or for humanity. If he – and it –
survives, that is.

I was a huge fan of Forsaken Skies and I couldn’t wait to read its sequel. Forgotten Worlds takes off where the other one ended and is every bit as thrilling, exciting and as fast as its predecessor, if not more so. At about 600 pages, Forgotten Worlds is not a short novel but the pages fly through the fingers. This is one of those brilliant books where ‘Just one more chapter….’ before bed turns into a very late night indeed! Almost every chapter ends at a point that I could not put down as the story magnifies and explodes into the type of wondrous science fiction that I cannot get enough of.

The narrative moves back and forth between Lanoe and his team and the Centrocor force on their tail, led by Bullam, a woman with the type of illness that makes her entirely unsuited to travel in space, and Captain Shulkin, surely the most inhuman human of the novel. As human takes on alien, there is much in this novel about the nature of mankind in all its variety and here we see so many sides to it, from Captain Shulkin to Lieutenant Maggs (oh, yes, he’s back) to Tannis Valk, the most fascinating AI that I have encountered in science fiction for years. Everyone here is suffering under the most incredible duress and it affects people in different ways, including Lanoe himself. In particular, I loved the development and change in the characters of Lanoe’s newest pilots, Bury and Ginger.

But while the story moves between Lanoe and Centricor, time is increasingly spent with Lanoe as his ship makes its extraordinary journey through wormholes to a destination they could never have imagined. I’ll say nothing about this other than to say that here we have the types of alien I want to read about. They are not like you and me. And the sense of wonder that D. Nolan Clark creates as we move through strangeness reminded me repeatedly of Baxter and Hamilton.

Forgotten Worlds is packed full of drama and thrills with dogfights in space scattered throughout. And we also have the movement of huge spaceships into the atmospheres of planets. You can almost hear the scream of metal as it is twisted out of shape. The novel takes its time to describe the environments and worlds encountered but it is never at the expense of the book’s tremendous pace.

Forgotten Worlds is such fun to read! its science is fascinating yet accessible and it makes no great demands on the reader, insisting instead that he or she sits down and enjoys the adventure, eyes wide open to the shocks and wonders in store along the journey. The novel ends at a good point but how I long for Forbidden Suns!

Other review
Forsaken Skies

From Darkest Skies by Sam Peters

Gollancz | 2017 (20 April) | 328p | Review copy | Buy the book

From Darkest Skies by Sam PetersIt is five years now since the death of Alysha, the wife of agent Keona Rause. Also an agent, Alysha was blown up on a night train as it made its way across their home world of Magenta. Rause doesn’t understand why Alysha was on that train. It wasn’t for passengers. She and a small group of other people had smuggled themselves aboard and they were blown up by a bomber, later caught. He can only assume that Alysha was following leads to a case. But whatever it was, the knowledge died with her and, besides, Rause was forcibly removed from investigations into the bombing, sent to Earth on a secondment for five years. That ended in disgrace when the alien artefact he had been guarding was stolen almost from under his nose. Rause is now back in Magenta, suffering from the terrible increase in gravity, getting used to the endless pummelling of Magenta’s rain, and investigating the death of one of the planet’s very few golden socialites. But Rause has an itch he has to scratch – why was his wife on that train?

Rause is not entirely alone. After his wife’s death, he had her memories and digital presence uploaded into a physical walking, talking ‘shell’. Its intelligence is also incorporated into his ‘Servant’, the AI that everyone carries around inside their brain, easing their way through life. But Liss, as he calls it/her, is completely illegal. And whether Liss is a help or hindrance is another matter entirely as Rause works through his feelings for a wife he mourns and her reconstructed digital presence which he struggles to understand.

The premise of From Darkest Skies is an extremely compelling one, combining some of the familiar ideas of crime fiction with the wonder of its science fiction setting on Magenta, complemented by some intriguing technology. Magenta is an extraordinary planet, named for the violet hue its land and water derives from its ‘organic rock-eating purple alien dust’. It is both beautiful and hostile, as too is its appalling weather which batters the plant with killer winds and painful, stabbing rain for days on end. But the story of how humans reached Magenta is one of the most fascinating things of all about From Darkest Skies. The novel is overshadowed by the enigmatic Masters, the alien race that altered Earth in terrible ways from which it can never recover before disappearing as mysteriously as they arrived. Their intent seemed to be to move humans across the Galaxy, giving them the technology to move freely, while leaving others hopelessly stranded. But why?

From Darkest Skies raises lots of questions, about the Masters, about Alysha, about the murdered socialite and about life as a whole on this unfriendly yet striking planet of Magenta. Sam Peters makes the reader want to know the answers every bit as much as Rause who is barely holding on. I liked Rause very much indeed. I felt for his plight. And I also cared for his fellow agents, some of whom he’d known before and others he hadn’t. They are a colourful bunch, likeable yet crotchety. But who wouldn’t be crotchety on this strange planet?

Sam Peters blends crime and science fiction well. The plotting is excellent and so too is the use of technology. It’s not overplayed but it is intriguing. This is a future society, one shaped by the Masters, apocalypse, the media (social and otherwise) and by a powerful sense of distance from Earth, a distance that is brought home every minute of the day by the unrelenting force of gravity. We’re familiar with walking, talking AIs but I did find Liss pleasingly unusual and unknowable. I really felt for Rause. My only issue would be the difficulty I had remembering some of the unusual names.

From Darkest Skies is a debut novel and it is a fine one. I would definitely welcome another novel set in this enigmatic world of Magenta and the Masters – there is so much more I want to know about both – but I’ll be very happy to go wherever Sam Peters takes us next.

Cold Welcome (Vatta’s Peace I) by Elizabeth Moon

Orbit | 2017 (13 April) | 434p | Review copy | Buy the book

Cold Welcome by Elizabeth MoonAdmiral Ky Vatta is on her way back to her home planet Slotter Key as a hero. The war is over and Ky, more than anyone, was responsible for the victory. It’s a bittersweet moment. Ky left Slotter Key in disgrace as a cadet years before but she’s told things are different now. Her great aunt is Rector of the planet, responsible for its forces, and the Commandant who expelled her is the one to greet her, ready to make peace and welcome home this great war hero. So all goes well until a saboteur crashes Ky’s shuttle, hurling it into the roughest of seas, close to the most hostile of the planet’s continents, abandoned and failed by its terraformers.

With most of her fellow officers murdered, it’s up to Ky to save the remaining shuttle crew and passengers, aware that her enemies may turn up to finish the job, long before rescue can arrive. But the immediate problem is to survive as this unwelcoming planet does its worst. Some of its secrets, though, are about to be revealed.

Cold Welcome is, I’m afraid to say, the first novel by Elizabeth Moon that I’ve read, but the premise of this one instantly appealed to me. I loved the sound of a disaster story set in space, in the same way that I was drawn to Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust and Andy Weir’s The Martian. I’m fascinated by the bravery and resourcefulness of individuals who fight to survive against all odds in the most volatile of environments, and space is as hostile – yet alluring – as it gets.

Much of Cold Welcome deals with Ky’s efforts to bring her fellow survivors together on sea and on land and it’s thrilling stuff, not least because Ky has to be as suspicious and alert as she is capable in a crisis. I really enjoyed these sections. Without giving anything away, what they discover on this planet is extraordinary. But I couldn’t help finding it all a bit of a coincidence because the shuttle could have crash landed anywhere on the planet. The novel becomes something else during its second half, perhaps losing my attention a little bit, but I’d be interesting in discovering more about what they found.

But not all of the action takes place on the planet. We also follow the – extremely drawn out – plans of Ky’s nearest and dearest (especially Rafe Dunbarger) to put together a rescue mission. It’s in these sections that we become aware of the wider troubling political situation as people scramble for control now that the war is over.

Winning the peace looks like it could be even more difficult than winning the war, as testified to by Cold Welcome being just the first novel in a new series, Vatta’s Peace. The book does have a satisfactory conclusion but it’s clear that it’s leading on to more. I think if you’ve read the Vatta’s War books, as I haven’t, then you would get more from Cold Welcome than I did. You may feel more of an attachment to Ky and her family and partner than I felt. You also might have more patience with the author’s style, which I did feel rambled a little. But, as I say, I suspect these issues were mostly because I went in to this as a newbie when there is an awful lot of back history which I couldn’t pick up on, even though it’s not necessary for understanding and enjoying the actual story. Which I did, very much.

I loved the descriptions of Slotter Key and its harsh environments. I am such a fan of adventure stories set in cold wastelands and this certainly fits the bill. I also really enjoyed the hints that there is more to this planet’s development than its history books might suggest. Cold Welcome is packed full of adventure and intrigue and I look forward to seeing how the series will develop.

Survival Game by Gary Gibson

Pan | 2016, Pb 2017 | 343p | Review copy | Buy the book

Survival Game by Gary GibsonSurvival Game completes Gary Gibson’s Apocalypse Duology that began with Extinction Game. This means you definitely need to have read Extinction Game first, although each book could stand alone if you force it to. This review assumes you know what happened in the previous novel.

In a universe of alternate Earths, scientist Katya lives on an Earth dominated by the Russian Empire. It has her in its cruel power, holding her family hostage, while she attempts to uncover the secrets of a mysterious artefact, the Hypersphere. It is believed that the Hypersphere was created by the Stage-Builders, or Syllogikos, an ancient civilisation that built the first transfer stages which opened doorways between the parallel Earths. It is suspected that the Hypersphere could prove to be an even more powerful conduit but there’s a snag – it’s broken. But the authorities have learned of the existence of a second sphere, intact this time, on another Earth, one that is controlled by America. Katya is ordered to travel there in disguise as a scientist from that other Earth’s Soviet Russia. Once there she must use all means to bring the Hypersphere back to her own Earth, where the Tsar has his own plans for it. Katya has no choice.

Survival Game returns us to the alternate American base on Easter Island, the home of the Pathfinders, individuals who each survived, completely alone, their own Earth’s apocalypse. Their mission is to explore the other Earths to search for artefacts that can help explain the reasons for the apocalypses which have plagued most of the parallel Earths, wiping out the Syllogikos. Jerry Beche is once more our guide to these worlds as he is tasked with helping the science team to discover the secrets of the Hypersphere. But what he and Katya learn has devastating consequences, the very worst.

From its explosive and thrilling opening chapter, Survival Game immediately throws us into the heart of the action, into the conflicts of these alternate Earths where everything seems familiar in some ways and yet so different in others. On the Earths that have survived, democracy has suffered the most, both in the alternate Americas and the alternate Russias. But the transfer stages take us to other Earths that are utterly horrifying and plagued with the terrible legacies of apocalypse and it is on these worlds that Katya and Jerry must fight for their lives while also discovering, in the most vivid and immediate ways, the horror of what the Syllogikos faced in their final days.

I am a huge fan of Gary Gibson’s novels and have read a fair few over the years – Final Days remains one of my most loved novels of all time. While I don’t think that this Duology is Gary Gibson at his best – it lacks some of the wonder and vision that I find in the others, having more of an action movie feel about it – I can’t fault it as a science fiction thriller. It has some enticing (and some terrifying) ingredients – the ends of worlds, monsters, traitors and spies, mysterious artefacts, villains, intrigue and a splash of romance – and these keep the pages flying through the fingers.

The novels complement each other well. They contain separate stories but the larger picture continues to increase in size and clarity, and new characters work well with the old. It was great to meet Jerry Beche again, although Katya more than stands her own against him. There is some fantastic worldbuilding as we travel to devastated haunted dead worlds. Its ending is thoroughly satisfying while allowing room for Gary Gibson to return to this universe – or universes – in the future. But what I enjoyed most of all about Survival Game is the utterly compelling story of the Syllogikos and the apocalypse that ended them. In these sections in particular Gary Gibson demonstrates wonderfully his brilliant storytelling and extraordinary imagination which will always make me read every novel he writes.

Other reviews
Angel Stations
Stealing Light (Shoal Trilogy I)
Marauder (Shoal Universe but standalone)
Final Days
The Thousand Emperors (Final Days II)
Extinction Game