Category Archives: Sci Fi

The Warehouse by Rob Hart

Bantam Press | 2019 (13 August) | 484p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Warehouse by Rob HartPaxton worked hard for years so that he could build his own business but all of that was destroyed by the Cloud, the most powerful company in the world, which sells everything to everyone (with the exception of certain forbidden books). And now Paxton has been reduced to working for the Cloud to survive. He’s one of the lucky ones. It’s a competitive business getting a job and even when he has it he discovers it’s not that easy to hang on to it. This is a world of colour-coded jobs, of stars awarded and taken away, of lengthy days, all monitored and controlled by the smartwatch on their wrists.

Paxton finds himself in a blue jumper, that means he’s security, the last job he wanted. But it could be worse. His fellow new recruit Zinnia is working in the warehouse and there she must risk her life to fulfil orders in time. The two of them are drawn together. Paxton falls in love warily and carefully. Zinnia, on the other hand, wants something and Paxton is the man to help her, whether he likes it or not. Because the creator of the Cloud, Gibson Wells, the richest and most powerful man in the USA, is about to visit.

The Warehouse, set in the not too distant future, is a timely and thought-provoking dystopian thriller. It doesn’t take the biggest imagination to work out which company is suggested by the Cloud and that does make it all the more believable and possible, and that is a terrifying thought. The American government barely exists, if it does at all. Cloud has bought out all of its services. Robots have been removed from factories. Human labour does it all now. This might mean almost everyone has a job but they’ve lost far more than they’ve gained. And then there are the ones who live outside the protected walls of the Cloud cities. They’re left to fry in the brutal sun.

Rob Hart creates a fascinating and troubling dystopian world. Plenty of time is spent on the worldbuilding and it’s vivid, stark and relentless. Chapters alternate between Paxton and Zinnia as they battle life every single day. This is reflected rather cleverly in the structure of the prose at intervals through the book. By contrast we have occasional chapters narrated by Gibson Wells, a man who has everything except what he needs the most – his health. In these final weeks he reflects on his life and the great ‘gifts’ he has bequeathed to men and women. He’s a monster who speaks with a reasonable voice, fully confident in his worth – such a man is to be feared.

There are some intriguing glimpses of an outside world in decay. Hardly anyone flies now, travel is too expensive, the world is hot and scorched, the seas have risen to claim towns. People shop themselves into oblivion, the skies are controlled by the Cloud’s drones. It’s grim but it’s also compelling stuff.

This is an espionage thriller and it is at times as exciting as it is chilling however I did have my issues with the novel. Personally, I thought it rather laboured the point, going on too long, with unconvincing, flat characters and an unsurprising twist. I really didn’t care for Zinnia and wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to or not. Her ruthlessness seems little better than Gibson’s. It is, though, an entertaining dystopian thriller, and the star of it is, for me, its thorough and disturbing worldbuilding. It’s a frightening thought – it doesn’t take long for people to accept what is very wrong to be right.

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To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Hodder & Stoughton | 2019 (8 August) | 160p | Review copy | Buy the book

To Be Taught if Fortunate by Becky ChambersIt is the 22nd century and Ariadne O’Neill is flight engineer aboard the spacecraft Merian. She and her three crew mates have travelled, as part of the Lawki Program, to explore four habitable worlds in a solar system several light years from Earth. Each of these worlds challenges, delights, frightens and astounds the crew members as they come into contact with other life forms and reflect upon the role of humanity among the stars. Messages from home, which take fourteen years to reach them, are rare and vital, until the day they stop.

Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer novels are such a joy to read, full of the wonder of space exploration, yet feeling so real due to their stunning depiction of characters, both human and not, and the beautiful, witty writing. There was no way I wasn’t going to read To Be Taught, If Fortunate (another curious title from this fabulous author). The difference this time, apart from the pretty big fact that it isn’t part of the Wayfarer series but stands alone, is that To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a self-contained novella, of about 140 pages.

The story is told by Ariadne, as a message or a report that will be sent home to Earth and sections cover each of the four worlds, from the moment when she and the others awake from years of ‘torpor’, their sleeping state in which they travelled to this far destination. Everything is described in mesmerising detail and, once more, Becky Chambers displays her knowledge and depth of research. There is plenty of science to marvel at and, in my case, occasionally be baffled by, as we approach hard science fiction territory, and it is pleasingly fascinating.

Each of the environments they land on is distinct and the descriptions of what they find there are marvellous as the crew settle to their task of cataloguing life forms, not all of which are easy to fathom. But there is more more to these pages than that. This is also a philosophical tale about the role of humanity in the universe, its insignificance, its danger to life around it, its need for society, its need of purpose.

So much is packed into these few pages and, as is usual with me with a good novella (and the reason why I read so few of them), I wanted much, much more. I needed more time to consider its conclusions and so its ending did leave me a little dissatisfied. Nevertheless, To Be Taught, If Fortunate is excellent. It’s clever, feels real, is full of awe, and yet tells the story of four very human, very normal men and women, whose genetics have been temporarily modified to enable years of life in space, but whose minds and hearts remain fallibly human.

I look forward to reading every word that Beck Chambers publishes and I love the enormous boost to science fiction that her original, clever, heartfelt, witty stories contribute.

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

Record of a Spaceborn Few

The Undoing of Arlo Knott by Heather Child

Orbit | 2019 (1 August) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Undoing of Arlo Knott by Heather ChildArlo Knott discovers, in the most appalling and traumatic circumstances, that he has an astonishing skill, almost a superhuman gift – he can reverse his last action; he can actually turn back time. This ability transforms Arlo’s life in every way and his personality undergoes a whirlpool of emotions, life choices and decisions, as he uses this skill for all kinds of purposes. As he learns to manipulate his talent, Arlo realises just how many ways there are in which he can use it to get rich or, perhaps more importantly to him, to win admiration and respect. But then he also considers its wider uses and his responsibilities – that he can use it to save lives, to become a hero. But what Arlo wants more than anything is to love and be loved and it’s there that sadness lies as he discovers what is genuinely important and the reality of his insignificance to change what matters.

The Undoing of Arlo Knott is a truly extraordinary novel. In big ways it’s speculative science fiction as we watch Arlo manipulate time and recent events for various reasons. All of which raises the huge question of what would we do if we could undo an event, reverse an action or word that we regret, save someone we love. But how much would you change? How far back would you go? Where would you draw the line as life’s knots grow increasingly complex and entangled?

There is so much going on in this novel. It’s absolutely packed with life as Arlo explores every aspect of his gift while still being traumatised by the event that triggered it and yet still trying to make a future for himself. The Undoing of Arlo Knott is extremely entertaining and lively as Arlo pursues so many personas, some of them outrageous. And all the time he is watched by those he loves and cares for.

Arlo Knott dominates the novel, as you’d expect, and we grow close to him as he tells his story in his own words. But there are other significant characters, too, each of whom plays an important role in Arlo’s life as he explores his relationship with them and tries to help them. But sometimes in helping you can make things worse. Some things cannot be undone. Arlo is an appealing character as he discovers the many different consequences of undoing an act and realises how dangerous, terrifying and whimsical life really is.

And so the novel investigates relationships and the nature of love in so many forms. Arlo’s family is fascinating. They’re almost just out of reach. Arlo defines himself by love and with it comes guilt. Heather Child explores this with such sensitivity and insight.

This is a brilliantly written and clever novel. It shocks and amuses and it has so many twists and unexpected developments. I love speculative fiction and with The Undoing of Arlo Knott we see the genre at its very best.

Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

Solaris | 2019 (11 July) | 800p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Wanderers by Chuck WendigOn 3 June, in the small rural town of Maker’s Bell in Pennsylvania, fifteen-year-old Nessie gets out of bed, leaves her home and starts to walk. Shana soon tracks her little sister down but nothing she does can wake Nessie up. Then their father joins them. If they try and restrain Nessie she becomes agitated and dangerously, frighteningly distressed but still she doesn’t wake. Nessie is the first of the sleepwalkers, soon she is joined by others. They stop for nothing – they don’t rest, they don’t eat, they just walk. They are the Flock, watched over by their worried friends and loved ones, the Shepherds, who walk alongside them – a growing community on the move. But where are they going? And why?

Benji Ray is just one of the scientists and doctors trying to find out the answers. He used to work for the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), fighting ebola, until he was fired. But now he has been selected by Black Swan, an AI of sorts, developed by Benex-Voyager to help tackle disease by predicting its behaviour; to watch new diseases hop from species to species in a series of events that Black Swan can foresee. And it wants Benji.

Others, too, are drawn to the walkers; some see them as angels, others as demons. Society can’t cope with the walkers. It can’t understand them. Order starts to collapse. It is a time for evil men to thrive, especially those who say they are servants of God. And all the time the Flock walks resolutely on, completely unaware of the growing danger around them.

Wanderers is one of those rare novels that becomes such a part of your life when you read it that you feel different for it. It’s 800 pages long and not a page is wasted. I wanted to read it as soon as I heard about it and I bought and started it on the day it was published. I was lucky to find a limited signed and numbered first edition! It’s a beautiful hardback, which is also physically so easy to read – each page feels like it’s been given room to breathe. I loved it very much. I looked forward to reading it in every free moment I had and I was so sorry to finish it.

There is so much to Wanderers. It contains so many lives and their stories. Chuck Wendig is to be applauded for the sheer quality of the writing, for the complex, multi-layered plot, and for the range of characters that we meet and spend time with. Comparisons have been made to The Stand, and there are similarities but, personally, I think Wanderers is the better book. And that’s saying something because The Stand is one of my favourite books. As too now is Wanderers.

Wanderers is a sophisticated blend of genres, including horror and science fiction. It is also a literary, character-driven journey across America. It’s also an apocalyptic tale of disaster. We see people at their worst and at their best. Dark themes are explored – one scene in particular is pretty shocking. But what I take from it is the sheer wonder of its storytelling and the love I feel for so many of its characters. We see examples of different kinds of families, of loners (how I loved Marcy and Pete), the innocent and the guilty.

Wanderers has a fantastic premise that it more than lives up to from start to finish. There’s a timeliness about its story and its warning, politically, socially and environmentally. The nature of the book’s horror evolves through the novel. It changes and is genuinely frightening.

What drives it on, though, is the fantastic mystery at its heart. Where are the walkers going? What will happen when they get there? On so many levels Wanderer succeeds. It’s a significant novel. But it’s also thrilling, horrifying, emotional, engrossing and is an absolute joy to read.

Other review
Invasive

The Last Astronaut by David Wellington

Orbit | 2019 (25 July) | 364p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Astronaut by David Wellington

Sally Jansen has spent years trying to put the past behind her, never able to stop feeling responsible for the loss of her crewman. Jansen had been Commander of NASA’s mission to Mars. They didn’t make it and one man was lost. NASA’s plans for space exploration were indefinitely shelved. But now, twenty years later, NASA needs its most experienced astronaut once more. An object is heading through the Solar System towards Earth and it is deccelerating, unnaturally. There can be only one explanation. It is alien. NASA rushes to put together a team, to get a vessel into space to explore this entity, now designated as ’21’. NASA isn’t alone. A private company has also despatched a ship. The race is on to make first contact. But with what?

I’m a big fan of First Contact science fiction and I loved the premise of The Last Astronaut, reading it as soon as it arrived. The style takes a bit of getting used to but I soon fell for it. There’s a dispassionate feel, we and the narrator are slightly distanced from events. It’s suggested that what we’re reading comes from a future book, an account of the mission written by David Wellington, and it includes brief extracts and personality introductions. It all supports the sense that this is a critical mission, with everything depending on it.

The crew comprises a bunch of very different personalities and, as is the way with novels set aboard spaceships on potentially suicide missions, there is tension and conflict. Jansen adds something to this. She is blamed for what happened all those years ago and everybody looks at her as if she’s some kind of evil talisman. I wasn’t completely convinced by the characterisation. Jansen is not a reliable commander. She acts impetuously and then lives to regret it, unlike some of her crew. There is something a little stereotypical about the crew, with the computer nerd Sunny Stevens who dreams of becoming an astronaut and the military man Windsor Hawkins. I did hope that the characters wouldn’t develop in the way I predicted but they did. Nevertheless, I was very interested indeed in what they were up to.

I loved the descriptions of 21. Some of what happens there is predictable and familiar, taking us into the world of horror at the expense of science fiction, but it’s thoroughly exciting and I didn’t want to put it down. This is an adventure but it’s also a tale of courage and sacrifice. And at times it’s utterly terrifying.

The Gameshouse by Claire North

Orbit | 2019 (30 May) | 410p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Gameshouse by Claire North

You wouldn’t be able to find the Gameshouse if you went looking for it. But should you need it, should you have what it takes to be a player, or should you have been ruined and enslaved by it, then the Gameshouse will find you. These three novellas have now been combined into one, which is as it should be, and as a whole they build up a picture of the power of the Gameshouse, an institution that has the power to change the fate of nations and control vast numbers of lives.

In Serpent we see the effect of the game on 17th-century Venice politics. Thene has the gift of a natural player and, before she can be inducted into the highest level of the Gameshouse, she must prove herself at a game of cards. But this is no ordinary game and the cards are not at all what you’d expect. Thene must outwit three other players, each of whom has powerful cards to play. The victorious will control Venice’s government, but Thene knows this isn’t the biggest prize. In The Thief we see the power of the Gameshouse on a national level as two players compete in a game of hide and seek across Thailand. Finally, in The Master, a power struggle within the Gameshouse pits country against country, as players manipulate their most prized and most significantly placed pieces around the globe to fight a battle that only one player can win but at a devastating cost.

I’m a huge fan of Claire North’s unusual, mind-bending speculative thrillers and The Gameshouse is, I do believe, a masterpiece. The fact that it was first published in three disparate parts doesn’t matter at all. Each story is separate and distinct but each influences the others, the same characters appear in two or three of them, and the influence of the Gameshouse itself grows throughout the three parts in a kind of crescendo. It is very clever.

And so too is the prose. It does take a little while to get used to the style, particularly in The Serpent, which is influenced by the manners of 17th-century Venetian society. There are no speech marks in this section, for instance. There is also a very knowing narrative persona to get used to. In all three sections, and especially in the second, the narrator appeals to us as perhaps a fellow wise spectator and player. This did alienate me a little from events in the first part but as that story developed and my jaw dropped further and further, I was captivated. And part two, with the hide and seek, is riveting. Then it becomes much more of an adventure. Claire North does indeed play with us as the book moves between third-, second- and first-person tenses. There are little games to be enjoyed throughout.

Claire North’s writing is clever and original but it’s also very witty and, fittingly for this novel, playful. It’s a joy to read on more than one level and the pages flew through my fingers. There is also pathos. Some tragic stories can be found within. So much is gambled, sometimes on the toss of a coin, so much can be lost. Some pieces have indeed as good as lost their souls. I loved the science fiction feel of parts of this. There’s something inhuman, superhuman, alien about some of these players as they manipulate their mortal pieces, cards or pawns.

The Gameshouse presents a staggering portrait of power, astonishing the reader with the lengths to which players will pursue their games, as well as their (mostly) casual disregard for their enslaved pieces, which they manipulate, manouevre and sacrifice. This is a very, very good book, and every bit as good as the very best of Claire North’s previous books.

Other reviews
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
Touch
The Sudden Appearance of Hope
The End of the Day
84K

Velocity Weapon by Megan O’Keefe

Orbit | 2019 (13 June) | 507p | Review copy | Buy the book

Velocity Weapon by Megan E O'KeefeWhen Sergeant Sanda Greeve’s gunship blew up in the devastating Battle of Dralee in space above the planet of Ada Prime, nobody thinks she can have survived. Only her brother, Biran, had any hope at all. Helpfully, Biran has just graduated as a Keeper, one of Prime System’s elite, one of its Protectorate. He has a voice that must be heard but what he has to say brings him into conflict with his fellow Keepers. What nobody on Ada Prime can possibly know is that Sanda’s evacuation pod survived and she has been rescued by an isolated vessel, whose AI, Bero, tells her a terrible tale, of a war lost, of millions slaughtered, an entire star system dead. Bero and Sanda are alone in the darkness of empty, black space.

And that is all I have to tell you of the story behind Velocity Weapon, a hugely entertaining space opera and the beginning, I believe, of a new series. This substantial novel tells a gloriously twisty tale. It is full of surprises and shocks and we spend much of it in the company of Sanda Greeve, a young woman, barely in one piece, who is suddenly faced with such a grim future. But this is a character who will not let anything get her down. Sanda is resilient, resourceful and hopeful – at least on the surface. She has much to contend with and what she discovers will shock us all.

Sanda is such a fun character! She feels very real. She’s fully developed and has so much sparkle about her. This is such a well-written novel. It’s witty throughout, occasionally light, and often punchy. And Sanda fills it with life. She’s military but there’s much more to her character than that. While Sanda is the most fully developed character in the novel, there are others who are worth our time, including her brother and, in another thread, a smuggler called Jules who is about to discover something she shouldn’t. But the other main character of the book that really leaves their mark is the ship AI Bero. We’re used to starship personalities but Megan O’Keefe has achieved the remarkable by created an original and memorable ship voice. Bero has so many human personality traits. I don’t want to say too much about him but his relationship with Sanda is key to the pleasure this novel gives.

Velocity Weapon is a novel packed with action and mystery. It is an adventure in space and the pages fly by. But there is something really special in its worldbuilding – I love the idea of the Keepers and the mysteries that they almost literally embody. The Prime System itself raises many questions in this first book which one hopes will receive attention in future novels. There is also a tantalising hint of something that happened on Earth in a time not too far from our own. There’s a sense of something incredible waiting for us somewhere among the stars.

Prime society is beautifully and subtly created and depicted. This is a place of rules and strong government or domination, a place of war and rivalry, but there is a surprising ease concerning social roles. Notions of gender, race and sexuality are fluid and subtly integrated into the novel.

Velocity Weapon is a complete and satisfying novel in its own right but it tantalises about what may lie in store. Megan O’Keefe has created a large universe with so much potential. I can’t wait to find out what happens next.