Category Archives: Sci Fi

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Hodder & Stoughton | 2018 (24 July) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky ChambersThe Exodus Fleet left Earth centuries ago. Its goal is to find the perfect planet on which to settle, to continue life as it was lived on Earth but with new found hope for the future. But this mission is now almost a meaningless myth. Many people have left the fleet to start new lives and colonies on other planets. For them the journey had reached its end. But still the Exodus Fleet sails on, now become the stuff of legend. Colonists feel nostalgia for it. It has a Utopian quality – life aboard the Fleet is by no means ideal but everyone is fed, housed and nurtured, all a far cry from the quality of life on some of these frontier worlds.

Tessa’s brother Ashby left the Fleet years before, becoming captain of that most famous of vessels, the Wayfarer, but Tessa has stayed behind on the Fleet to raise her children, one of whom lives in absolute dread of what might happen if the very small shell that protects life inside from the cold vastness of space outside should crack. Isabel is an Archivist, whose role is to induct new spaceborns into the ways of life aboard the Fleet. She also confers with the Hermagian, fascinated alien observers of humanity who can intermediate between humans and the other species of the Galaxy so that one can be at ease with the other. And then there are the youngsters: Sawyer whose ancestors left the Fleet generations ago and who now wishes to return, to be cared for and accepted; and Kip who has lived aboard the Fleet all of his life and needs to try something new. Eyas’ life aboard the Fleet is an extraordinary one – she lovingly turns the corpses of her fellow travellers into compost so that life will be renewed and the Fleet will never need to stop.

We spend time with each and more of these wonderful people, whether people or alien, in Record of a Spaceborn Few, the third novel in Becky Chambers’ extraordinary and gorgeous and immensely loveable Wayfarer space opera series. The stories are loosely connected in time and with the occasional crossover character (Tessa’s brother in this case) but each novel stands alone while throwing yet more light on this stunning universe.

If you’ve read The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and/or its follow up A Closed and Common Orbit, then you don’t need me to tell you how fantastic Becky Chambers’ writing is, equalled only by her imagination and storytelling genius. Record of a Spaceborn Few continues the trend and is at least as fabulous as Small Angry Planet.

Once more we’re in a spaceship environment but it’s grown here to become a world of its own, allowing Becky Chambers to explore grand themes about the nature of space exploration itself, of the future of mankind, of the relationship between the generations, the role of humanity in a larger community of space travelling species, and, most poignantly, whatever it is that ties people to their homeworld Earth. And when is it time to stop and feel solid ground beneath one’s feet once more, or perhaps for the very first time?

There is such warmth and compassion here. We’re presented with the stories of so many memorable people, the chapters moving between them, and we care deeply. There are moments of great sadness, of action, of danger, and love. I cried and I smiled. This novel, just like the two that preceded it, is a book to savour, to relish every page and every person who gives it life. I can only hope that there is more to come from the Wayfarer universe. It’s a place where I want to spend much more of my time.

We are the Exodus Fleet. We are those that wandered, that wander still.

Other reviews
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet
A Closed and Common Orbit

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Drop by Drop by Morgan Llywelyn

Tor Books | 2018 (1 July) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

Drop by Drop by Morgan LlywelynIn the small American town of Sycamore River something strange is happening. When Nell Bennett tries to withdraw money out of the Sycamore and Staunton Mercantile Bank cashpoint, her card isn’t just chewed, it turns to mush. And then the pens in the bank begin to ooze. You could almost laugh it off but reports on the TV suggest that these random occurrences aren’t limited to Sycamore River or indeed to the United States. In the weeks to come people will look back and know that this was the time when the Change began – when plastic around the world, bit by bit, drop by drop, began to melt.

Drop by Drop is a wonderful book and curiously not at all what I was expecting from its description. It does indeed tell the tale of what happens to a small town when plastic disappears from life, as well as hinting at the repercussions of this phenomenon in a wider volatile world, but this is essentially a novel about how the people of Sycamore River face this challenge and do their best to overcome it. The fact that the Change doesn’t happen at once but is instead an evolving situation really adds something very intriguing to the story.

This is a novel driven by a large cast of fabulous characters. We’re given the time to get to know so many of the inhabitants of this small town, especially the people who work in the bank and their families, scientists, vets, retired people, people keeping quiet about what their jobs actually are, newspaper publishers, and then there’s their offspring. So many lives and I became caught up in them all. I love Morgan Llywelyn’s writing, the way that he makes each character, whether male or female, young or old, individual and unique. Some are likeable, others are far from it, but they’re all interesting, and they’re doing all sorts of incredible things during the Change – you either adapt or you don’t. And some do fall by the wayside and occasionally in the most unexpected ways.

This is a science fiction novel, though. It’s set at some point in the near future. People rely on their AllCom’s for communication, cars are self-driving, but generally life is as we know it. In fact there is a general nostalgia for the old days (when cars had less plastic in them and all of your data wasn’t stored on a device that could melt into useless sludge in just a moment). I liked the fact that many of the characters in Drop By Drop are older, not that this makes all of them wiser.

There’s a message in here clearly as we’re shown what life can be like when plastic oozes out of our lives. How it can be catastrophic, apocalyptic even. So perhaps it’s time we found alternatives? But there’s nothing preachy about the message. This is a thoroughly entertaining and absorbing read from start to finish. This is the first in a trilogy and I can’t wait for the next book, which is set up very well indeed.

Gate Crashers by Patrick S. Tomlinson

Tor | 2018 (1 July) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

Gate Crashers by Patrick S TomlinsonThe Magellan or ‘Maggie’ is Earth’s first vessel to travel deep out of our solar system. It’s taken decades for them to reach this far, every year out another sacrifice for its captain and crew who will not see their families alive again. The only real time constant they have is a method of communication with Earth that is so advanced, it’s almost beyond their understanding. But otherwise Captain Allison Ridgeway and her crew are on their own. And then they discover the artefact fixed in space. It’s clearly non-human. It has unintelligible inscriptions on it. It’s just what the crew of Maggie has been after – the answer to that question asked by the people of Earth since time began: Are we alone in space? No, we’re not. Oh dear.

The technology of the artefact is extraordinary and, when Earth hears about it, the powers that be want to understand it, to recreate it, to make it their own. And so another vessel joins Maggie, this time using alien technology to reach the Maggie almost at once. As new and old spacefaring technology collide and they all finally realise the significance of this enigmatic, powerful artefact, survival becomes paramount. It appears that Earth has rather annoyed the creators of the artefact, it’s trodden on some toes and kicked off a rumpus that could have catastrophic consequences. The people of Earth might mean well but perhaps the rest of the universe can’t be bothered.

The premise of Gate Crashers is so fantastic, I couldn’t wait to read it. It fully delivers. I love a space romp with mysterious artefacts, even more so when they bring about that first contact with enigmatic aliens. But what makes Gate Crashers unusual and particularly successful is that here we have a science fiction novel that is full of humour and actually makes me laugh. This is really unusual! I’m a huge fan of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novels and any attempt at humour in space since then has fallen flat for me. Gate Crashers clearly has the feel of a homage to Hitchhiker’s, while also going for the fans of the genial and wonderfully easy going spacefaring novels by Becky Chambers, but it also works in its own right. There are plenty of jokes here aimed at those who’ve read a lot of science fiction but, more than that, Gate Crashers is such an entertaining and warm space adventure with moments in it that made me roar with laughter.

The characters are fantastic, whether they’re human or not. Gung-ho Maximus Tiberius isn’t somebody you’d forget in a hurry, however much you might try, while the efforts of ‘Maggie’ to fit in with her crew are poignantly entertaining. It’s just as well that the aliens are in two or three or four minds over what to do with these humans. I really enjoyed the first contact element of the novel, especially when we realise what a bad job the humans are making of it. But the aliens we encounter here are an entertaining mix of species, all with their own issues and concerns, and some downright horrible and frightening. Suddenly the universe feels very big indeed.

There might be humour here but there’s also action and drama and the moments after the artefact is brought inside the Magellan are particularly tense. This is hugely exciting and it becomes even more so when we discover the meaning of the artefact. I think my jaw may have dropped.

Gate Crashers is a hugely entertaining space romp! It’s undoubtedly well-written and witty with some laugh out loud moments to treasure. Humans might be flawed but they’re not the only ones and so the result is a warm, humorous and thrilling look at what might lie in store for mankind once it breaks free of the solar system. I can’t wait!

I’m delighted to post my review as part of the blog tour. You can find other stops on the tour here:

Monday, June 25 Sci Fi Chick
Tuesday, June 26 Books, Bones & Buffy
Tuesday, June 26 Espresso Coco
Wednesday, June 27 Civilian Reader
Thursday, June 28 Bibliosanctum
Friday, June 29 For Winter Nights
Saturday, June 30 Just a World Away

Shelter by Dave Hutchinson

Solaris | 2018 (14 June) | 304p | Review copy | Buy the book

Shelter by Dave HutchinsonIt’s almost a hundred years since the Sisters, a fragmentary asteroid, hit Earth. Much of the planet was overwhelmed. Those who survived the initial impacts, with their floods and fires, then had to endure the Long Autumn, a time of famine and starvation, brutality and cruelty. Finally, it’s drawing to an end. Earth is beginning to recover. But everything that was once taken for granted is gone. The past is now something to be scavenged.

At last the rains that have deluged southern England are beginning to dry. But most people haven’t been further than a day’s horse ride in their entire lives. Rumours, though, are moving between the communities of isolated farmers and small towns. Oxford, for example, is a no-go area, although nobody is really sure why. There’s a foreign fleet moored off the coast but nobody knows why it’s there, and there are boats moving silently through the flooded Somerset Levels. West and East are no longer connected by land. There is talk of a tyranny in Kent that is drawing people to it. Elsewhere, it’s the daily struggle for survival that consumes the mind.

Shelter by Dave Hutchinson, the author of the compelling near-future Europe novels, is the first of the shared universe Tales of the Aftermath series which will be continued by Adam Roberts later this year. Dave Hutchinson is such a fine writer. His prose is bleakly beautiful and his characters carry their doom within their souls. In Shelter, Dave Hutchinson continues what he does so well.

The setting of Berkshire and Oxfordshire during the apocalyptic aftermath is painted brilliantly. This is my neck of the woods and I loved to see it portrayed in such unusual style. It made me take another look at the world around me and imagine it all ravaged. This feels real. It’s frightening, alien and terrifyingly possible. This book frightened me.

The characters have so much to suffer through. Shelter isn’t an easy book to read, at least for me, largely because its people have had to compromise to survive to such an extent that possibilities of a future hope now seem destroyed. We meet quite a large group of characters scattered across this region. Time is needed to get to know them all as we move from one community to another and discover the harsh reality of each. At times we might feel liking for one or other of them and then that empathy is smashed on the rocks. There are moments here that shocked me, one in particular, so much so that I had to put the book down for a day or two.

While I admire so much the vision and prose of Shelter, and relish its Oxfordshire and Berkshire setting, I found the novel too grim for me. The behaviour of most of these people is so ugly. The Long Autumn has robbed them of their humanity. Perhaps there is hope now that the weather is settling and the past is beginning to be forgotten but for many salvation is an unimaginable dream. So while I appreciated elements of Shelter, not least its power and bleak beauty, I found it hard to read. But, if you enjoy a compelling apocalyptic tale and can cope with characters who appear to have no mercy left in them, then I think Shelter could be for you. Dave Hutchinson continues to be one of the most exciting and soulful writers of contemporary science fiction.

See David’s review at Blue Book Balloon.

Other review
Acadie

Adrift by Rob Boffard

Orbit | 2018 (7 June) | 371p | Review copy | Buy the book

Adrift by Rob BoffardIn distant space, a small group of tourists board the shuttle Red Panda for a swift tour to look at the nearby spectacular Horsehead Nebula. This sort of tour is a must for the many travellers, honeymooners and once-in-a-lifetime tourists who visit the luxurious space station Sigma Hotel. It’s perfectly routine. Nothing should go wrong, which is just as well for Hannah, the tour guide. This is her very first day on the job and she wants to impress the rather grouchy and enigmatic vodka-swilling pilot Volkova. Unfortunately for everyone, just a few minutes into the trip a devastating catastrophe unfolds before their eyes. An unidentified ship emerges from the nearby jump gate and destroys the space station, killing thousands of men, women and children. Only those aboard the Red Panda survive, shocked. The attacking ship knows this. It will find them and it will kill them.

Terrifying times are to follow for those aboard the Red Panda. With nobody else alive (who doesn’t want to kill them) for light years, and limited food and a frozen water supply, their hours are numbered, even if they weren’t in such danger from this unknown ship. They have to work together for any hope of survival. It won’t be easy. Not everyone on this little shuttle is who they say they are. Survival is unlikely.

I love the premise of Adrift so much – a tiny ship lost in space with almost no supplies and only the resilience of the strangers aboard to rely on. And then there’s the mystery of the attacking ship. Who are they? Why would they commit such an awful act? It sounds exciting and it most certainly is. This is one of the most engrossing books I’ve read for quite a while – it made me miss my bus stop yesterday morning!

The people aboard the Red Panda are a mixed bunch, including a husband and wife and their two young sons, a retired miner, a hotel reviewer, a young married couple, as well as Hannah and Volkova. Everyone has their own story, as well as their own fears and strengths. We see most of them at their best and at their worst but standing out in particular are the boys Corey and Malik Livingstone. I can be driven mad by the portrayal of teenagers in fiction but these two brothers are observed so beautifully by Rob Boffard. Their relationship is believable and Corey especially forms the heart of the book watched over by the 65-year-old Lorinda, a woman who once worked as a miner in space, another wonderful character. At this point, though, I must mention my only criticism of the book and that is the constant reference to Lorinda as the ‘old woman’ (with her aching bones and dodgy teeth) as if that is her identity in life. 65 is hardly a great age. Anyway, I must get over that….. and say again just how much I loved these characters and their interaction with one another. Poor Hannah – this is not the best of first days in a new job.

Adrift is such an exciting book! There are battles, close scrapes, intense peril and fisticuffs, all played out against the majestic backdrop of space. Irresistible. And it is written so well. There is just the right amount of humour but it never gets in the way of the novel’s tension and drama, and the significant role of Corey will also make this book a popular choice for younger readers. It would be such a great introduction to science fiction. Actually, I think that readers of every age will enjoy Adrift.

Rob Boffard is known for his Outer Earth trilogy but I have to say that in my opinion Adrift is much better, with the right mix of drama, characterisation and action. I didn’t want to put it down at all. This is the kind of book that makes you miss bus stops! I can speak no higher praise than that.

Other reviews
Tracer

The Soldier by Neal Asher

Macmillan | 2018 (17 May) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Soldier by Neal AsherOn the edge of human (or Polity) space, in an area bordering the kingdom of humanity’s long-term enemy, the crablike prador, an accretion disc writhes with alien weaponry created by the long-dead and still feared Jain. In an uneasy pact, the Polity and the prador guard the disc, ready to destroy any of the lethal Jain forms that might emerge from it. They have put Orlandine, a curious and almost perfect mix of human and AI, in charge of the defence but someone – or something – else has plans for this alien technology. Angel is a rogue humanoid of immense power. He is looking for the Soldier, a terrifying killer created by the Jain, to complete his personal and deadly plan. There are other strange beings with their own agendas, including the extraordinary The Client, the last remaining member of her species that was wiped out by the prador. And she is hellbent on revenge.

The Soldier is the first of a new trilogy (Rise of the Jain) by Neal Asher but it firmly belongs in his Polity universe. It’s the first book by Neal Asher that I’ve read but I believe it does refer to events that have been mentioned in other Polity novels. I think my lack of Polity knowledge did put me at a bit of a disadvantage because there is very little explanation for what we’re seeing in the early stages of The Soldier. I think there is an assumption that you’ve read the others. Nevertheless, I was quickly caught up in the story and I really enjoyed all of the different beings we encounter, and all of the humans are not as we’d recognise them. This is a future, militaristic universe in which augmentations, both mental and physical, are standard. And some of them are very strange indeed, and not a little terrifying.

There are some fascinating creatures here, including The Client, and I was particularly entertained by Orlandine, who plays such a crucial role. Angel is extremely frightening, not least because of his cold control of others and his taste for torture. But even he is confronted by an internal dilemma that is almost beyond his understanding. But even more frightening than Angel is his wormship which is truly revolting and described so vividly.

The narrative does jump around a great deal, a bit too much for my taste, moving between a whole host of different characters and you need your wits about you at the beginning to keep up with what’s going on, and by whom, especially if you’re not familiar with the other books. Possibly my main issue with The Soldier, though, is that it’s told with little emotion. This is military science fiction with a biotech focus. However, the characters are extremely intriguing and curious, and the descriptions of them, their ships and their worlds are brilliantly done. There are fights and battles galore and there is a very strong sense that the stakes couldn’t be higher. I love stories about ancient alien technology and the Jain are a curious enigma. There is a lot going on. The novel’s pace doesn’t drop for a minute.

There is an awful lot to immerse yourself in with The Soldier and, if you’re read the other Polity novels, then I think you will especially enjoy it.

84K by Claire North

Orbit | 2018 (24 May) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

84K by Claire NorthTheo works in the Criminal Audit Office. It’s his job to decide what a crime is worth, how much a murderer, rapist, thief, embezzler (the worst of crimes) should be charged to atone for his or her crime. Every life has a value, although for many that value is very little indeed, and that life can be paid for – if you have enough money to pay for it. And that is by no means everybody. The majority of people can’t pay for their crimes, even when they’re no real crimes at all, merely a misdemeanour against the financial security of the state. Or, to put it more precisely, against the Company. Because in these days the state is run as a business and nothing, absolutely nothing, is free. The poor who can’t pay are sold into slavery.

Theo gets through life by keeping his head down, seeking obscurity, doing his job well but not too well, never noticeable. But this all changes when he is approached by an ex-lover, Dani, who confides in him that Lucy, her daughter – his daughter – is missing, stolen away by the Company. She begs him to find Lucy. But within no time at all Dani is brutally murdered, by an assassin who pays her fee and walks away. Theo’s pursuit of the truth will take him to the heart of this dystopian world, and it will raise every kind of question about Theo’s own identity and past.

Claire North is one of the most original writers of speculative and science fiction around today. Each of her books is very different from the one that went before and each has so much to say about human nature and the difficulties challenging its survival. 84K is no different. This horrifying near future world is still recognisably our own – this is the way in which it could develop, if there were no Theos to oppose it. This is Capitalism run wild and, as you’d expect, it’s the poor who suffer. And they suffer horribly. This is a novel full of warning.

I did find the structure and style challenging. The narrative hops back and forth between at least three different periods of Theo’s life and we’re given very little notice. This distanced me from Theo. I couldn’t warm to a character that I didn’t really understand and I don’t think I ever got to the bottom of what he is about. There were lots of fascinating and charismatic glimpses but then we were off somewhere else. Lots of characters come and go and it can be difficult to keep track of them. Again, I would be immersed in one thread of life and then I’d be off to another. I did, however, really enjoy Lady Helen. This difficulty, for me, was compounded by the style of the prose. It’s very fragmented, it feels experimental. Sentences are left unfinished, thoughts abandoned, it’s time to move on. It’s undoubtedly clever and serves as a useful tool to reflect the state of Theo’s mind, but I found it tiring to read. This may just mean that I’m less patient as a reader than I should be!

However, the worldbuilding is fascinating. I loved the descriptions of the different regions of England, each of which needs some kind of entry permit. The Cotswolds are particularly difficult to get into. Others are almost no-go areas. There is no area of life that isn’t controlled by Company regulations and costings. The more I learned, the more I wanted to hear. This is engrossing and it’s backed up by the extraordinary level of detail.

84K is hugely ambitious and, at times, quite beautifully bewitching. Claire North wields such power with her words. While this isn’t my favourite of her novels – I loved especially The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and The Sudden Appearance of Hope – there is much here to enthral the reader. I will always look forward to Claire North’s books. She is staggeringly talented. She always challenges me and, while I wasn’t quite up to the challenge this time, I cannot wait to see what future wonders she has in store for us.

Other reviews
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
Touch
The Sudden Appearance of Hope
The End of the Day