Category Archives: Sci Fi

Austral by Paul McAuley

Gollancz | 2017 (19 October) | 276p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Austral by Paul McAuleyAustral is a husky, a genetically-edited person, moulded to fit to life in the extreme environment of the Antarctic – bigger, faster, stronger than others who view her and those like her with hostility and fear. Austral is also the child of ecopoets, the engineers who have reworked land, plants and animals to survive. The planet has warmed and the northern islands and coasts of Antarctica have been transformed by forests and cities. The focus of the world has shifted southwards.

There are few jobs for huskies like Austral. She is a guard in a prison, far from settlement, who spends her days leading teams of prisoners outside to build and construct. But at this edge of the world, the distinction between prisoner and guard is blurred, most particularly between Austral and her prison’s most dangerous criminal Keever. But the arrival of an influential politician and his daughter throws the prison into turmoil, offering opportunities, dangers and the chance of escape.

Austral is a beautifully written novel, which portrays in stark and stunning terms the new frontier of Antarctica. It’s warming up but not fast enough for Austral. Much of the novel is a pursuit across this country and it couldn’t be more harsh. The adventure that Austral undergoes is so well evoked. It feels dangerous. It’s full of traps, barriers and extreme cold. The story is told by Austral as if she were dictating it and this gives us the humanity of someone who is regarded as less than human. It also internalises her conflict.

Throughout the novel we’re presented with interludes, passages which give us something of Austral’s past – and therefore revealing more about the magical concept of the ecopoets – and also another fairytale strand. I could have done without the latter – it was too much of a distraction. But I did enjoy the look into the past.

Austral tells a disturbing story – it’s grim, cold and at times very sad. There were bits that I found upsetting. But it is warmed by the characters of Austral and also Kamilah, another memorable personality. And they contrast with the brutes. But, for me, the strength of the novel isn’t in the characters or even in the story – I couldn’t help preserving some detachment from both – but in the astonishing worldbuilding. I loved the mix of Antarctica as it always has been and as it is being made, complete with mammoths.

On a minor point, I read a great many science fiction series and trilogies. It made such a change – and a pleasant one, too – to read a novel that is complete in itself. Even if this is a world to which Paul McAuley returns in the future, Austral is whole. And what a gorgeous cover!

Other review
Something Coming Through

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America City by Chris Beckett

Corvus | 2017 (2 November) | 357p | Review copy | Buy the book

America City by Chris BeckettOne hundred years or so from now, the world is suffering the effects of climate change and insular politics. After years of observing crises in other countries, to whom their borders are closed, it’s now the turn of America to suffer. The East coast is bombarded by devastating superstorms while the South and Southwest have been reduced to dustbowls. A mass migration north by so-called dusties and barreduras is underway and the north is hardly opening its arms in welcome. There is no bigger subject for debate in American politics and one man is grabbing the headlines – Senator Steve Slaymaker. The other parties scramble but Slaymaker’s grandiose schemes for resettlement provide the perfect ammunition for his campaign for the White House. And by his side is PR supremo Holly, a woman with principles. How far is she prepared to go to compromise them?

America City presents a realistic and really rather horrifying portrait of the near future – one that can be envisioned very easily from the state of things we face today. We’re told that America has endured several wars over the decades since the Tyranny. It doesn’t take too much imagination to know what that was all about. But, although the focus is on America, we’re given glimpses of elsewhere and they’re just as terrifying. The coast of Britain we learn is guarded by cannon. America is relatively prosperous and isolationist. Its neighbours tremble.

This is science fiction, despite its message, and it is full of very enjoyable futuristic technology – for instance, cars that drive themselves, dirigibles (drigs), and an elaborate ‘internet’ that is transmitted through one’s crystal (perfect for political pollsters). But there have also been big social changes. America has a new class system and its ruling classes are the elite delicados and nobody embodies this more than Holly and her writer-husband, Rick. Delicados are privileged. They don’t have to make the sacrifices that they preach and they can afford to be tolerant and generous. The poor and the homeless can’t. Senator Slaymaker has the valuable ability to straddle these classes. But how much of it is manufactured by Holly?

America City is a beautifully-written novel, as you’d expect from Chris Beckett, the author of that most eloquent and gorgeous novel Dark Eden. Its language is creative, visual and still light. As demonstrated so cleverly in Dark Eden and its successors, Beckett is a master of language and this is put to good use again here. Language and what people say, as opposed to what they mean, is a strong theme in America City. It’s almost a game. But not for the homeless and the landless.

The novel squeezes its focus for much of the time to a small group of people, representing each of the classes that Slaymaker and Holly must aim to persuade. We move between them. But the heart of the novel lies with Holly and Richard and their small group of friends. It’s as if Holly’s internal debate has been externalised. The extraordinary and charismatic figure of Slaymaker shadows over them all.

America City presents such an engrossing portrait of America’s potential future environmental challenges and political debate. There is an element of preaching going on here and, as one of the converted, there was a risk of it going on too much but this is largely prevented by the novel’s clever mix of quiet personal drama and national catastrophe. It’s all so real and so possible. I did find it a little depressing. I can’t imagine how I wouldn’t. But I also found it extremely difficult to put it down and I was hooked by the quality of its language. Above all else, this is a terrifying depiction of a future that may be inevitable if we carry on as we are. It’s not overly dramatic and that’s what makes it all the more frightening – it happens piece by piece until the disasters become another part of life while many of the world’s animal and plant species disappear one by one.

America City certainly made me think – and worry – but it also reminded me what a superb writer Chris Beckett is and how imaginative is his use of language, how vivid his vision.

Other reviews
Dark Eden
Mother of Eden
Daughter of Eden

Forbidden Suns by D. Nolan Clark

Orbit | 2017 (19 October) | 593p | Review copy | Buy the book

Forbidden Suns by D Nolan ClarkForbidden Suns completes the Silence trilogy begun with Forsaken Skies and continuing on with Forgotten Worlds. You really don’t want to read Forbidden Suns – or this review – without having read the others. This review assumes you know what has gone on before.

Ashlay Bullam is prepared to follow Aleister Lanoe to the end of the universe in her determination to see this elderly war hero known as the Blue Devil – and her bitter enemy – dead. And when she orders her mad captain to follow Lanoe’s vessel through a wormhole she might as well have done just that. For as the wormhole disintegrates around them they find themselves many thousands of light years from home. But Lanoe has more on his mind that Bullam. He is on the hunt for the alien species that wants to destroy humanity, just as it has killed every other intelligent species it has encountered over the last hundreds of millions of years. There is nothing he won’t do to achieve his goal. There is nothing he won’t demand of his crew to make it happen.

Forbidden Suns follows on directly from Forgotten Worlds but this time the action takes place far from the Galaxy’s human colonies and far from the war between the Navy (fought for by Lanoe) and Centrocor (represented by Bullam). Not that this means that they can’t bring it with them. They are now deep inside the territory of the Blue-Blue-White and its immense alienness and danger menaces them in every direction. But Lanoe wants more than to stop these fearful creatures, he wants revenge and it couldn’t be more personal. With very little chance of ever making it home again, the Navy and Centrocor crews will have to work together to survive but the greatest danger they face may well come, not from the alien enemy, but from one of their own.

This is such a powerful trilogy. I’ve become heavily invested in its characters, most especially the wonderful Valk, an AI unlike any other, Ehta (the pilot afraid of flying) and Ginger, whose sacrifice is unequalled and truly terrifying. We have watched these people’s relationships evolve as they’ve faced the utmost danger head on, time after time. There are others who provoke more ambiguous feelings, notably Bullam and Maggs but even they have redeeming features (although I’m not sure I’d say the same for the wonderful creation of Captain Shulkin). In Forgotten Worlds we were introduced to the extraordinary Chorus aliens and, I’m pleased to say, they continue to play a role here. But at the heart of this novel is Lanoe and Valk as well as the brave pilots whose dogfights in this most hostile and remote expanse of space are both exhilaratingly thrilling and deadly.

Forgotten Worlds is a very hard act to follow. I loved this novel, most especially for its depiction of such strange aliens and worlds. It had the fantastic feel of a First Contact novel while also throwing us into the heart of a war that appears almost impossible to win. It contained so much of the wonder that I love with science fiction. Forbidden Suns is a different kettle of fish and that’s largely due to the transformation in Lanoe’s character. He hasn’t been the easiest man to like at the best of times but in this final novel any liking I did have was fully extinguished. This change in attitude is a major theme of the novel, as is the continued fascinating transformation of Valk, but that does mean that I was distanced from the book in a way that I haven’t experienced before with this trilogy.

There is much here that is grim, tragic and sad. There’s also bitterness, anger, desperation and madness. We see this time after time and what some characters must endure is unbearable. The substantial length of the novel makes the gloom difficult to cope with at times. But I have so much invested time in these characters and the author has brought me so deeply into their inner torment that I had to see it through. The author has room enough to delve deeply into these conflicts and create a universe in which so much is at stake. But for me it was a little too dark and claustrophobic, especially in comparison with the previous novels. I must also mention that I didn’t like the end at all.

So I am a little conflicted. I have loved this trilogy and Forbidden Suns went straight to the top of my reading pile as soon as it arrived. I really enjoy D. Nolan Clark’s writing and his ability to create three-dimensional characters and fully involved relationships between them, even when they are surrounded and consumed by military conflict. These are exciting books, Forbidden Suns is no different, with plenty of dogfights and daring raids. And the alien world is brilliantly frightening and immense. But it’s the characters that stay with you the most. So while I didn’t especially enjoy the directions in which they were led during this final novel, I still had to watch them every step of the way. I can only wonder now where D. Nolan Clark will take us to next.

Other reviews
Forsaken Skies
Forgotten Worlds

The Eternity War: Pariah by Jamie Sawyer

Orbit | 2017 (28 September) | 439p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Eternity War: Pariah by Jamie SawyerLieutenant Keira Jenkins is an experienced member of the elite SimOps (Simulation Operatives) Programme. She can be sent into the most extreme military operations in a ‘skin’. Her body remains in a tank aboard a starship while her mind is transmitted into an enhanced artificial version of hers – bigger, stronger, glorious. But this body can still feel pain and when it dies, which is the inevitable conclusion to most missions, Jenkins revives in her original skin that still feels the residue pain and trauma of her recent death.

Jenkins used to be a member of the Lazarus Legion, the most famous of all SimOps forces, but now she leads her own troop – the Jenkins Jackals. The men and women she leads are new to all this, they have barely died at all, and so Jenkins is faced with the task of getting them into shape while also dealing with a new and potentially devastating threat to humanity’s recently won peace.

When Jenkins and her Jackals fail to achieve their mission when the Daktar Outpost is attacked, Jenkins is given no choice at all in their future. They are assigned to a vessel that is about to venture into deepest space, to the remote and near lawless North Star Station, which guards a legacy of the Shard, one of the Galaxy’s most enigmatic and feared aliens. The station guards a gate to a wormhole and on the other side, so many light years from home, true danger waits. But not all of the danger is on the other side. Humanity once more hovers on the edge of war.

Pariah begins The Eternity War, a new series by Jamie Sawyer that follows on from the now complete trilogy, The Lazarus War. The conflict between Earth’s different factions still simmers and the peace with the fearful alien Krell is as uneasy as ever. The edges of known space are lawless, control of the wormhole gates and the other artefacts left by the Shard is fiercely contested. And you can always find the SimOps in the middle of the heat.

We have a new SimOps team here, as ever a bunch of misfits but each with a fascinating back history and an attitude that could get them all killed. My favourite of the recruits is Novak, a Russian convict on ‘parole’ whose every moment is watched and monitored by a spy drone. And then there’s Feng whose origins are particularly intriguing and, one feels, with the potential to cause all sorts of trouble as the series goes on. In short, these are people with substance to them and a great deal of promise for the future. If they survive, of course, and seeing what they have ahead of them in Pariah, that’s no certainty at all. They might spend much of their time fighting in their Sims, but their bodies remain very vulnerable indeed.

The two characters I loved the most, though, are Keira Jenkins herself and Pariah. I’m saying nothing at all about Pariah but Keira is such an intriguing woman. We don’t know everything about her – there are more novels to come – but she is intent on doing the right thing, whatever the cost to herself. Here is a leader who would never leave one of her team behind even though she knows so little about them. She learns as much about them in this novel as we do. She’s a military force to be reckoned with but she has her vulnerable spots. She’s undoubtedly been traumatised by her countless mission deaths. They’ve isolated her and she stands alone with her thoughts. There are similarities with Captain Conrad Harris of the Lazarus War books but she does feel that little bit more human and vulnerable – likeable.

I really enjoyed the Lazarus War trilogy and I’m delighted to say that Pariah is every bit as thrilling and fast-paced. You don’t need to have read the first trilogy before but if you have then you’ll be glad to be given more in the same flavour. If you enjoy action-packed, well-written and well-plotted military science fiction, with terrifying aliens, space stations on the edges of the Galaxy, great technology, battles and intrigue, then I think you’ll love this. It provides perfect escapism and is a lot of fun to read. I’m so pleased that Jamie Sawyer is returning us to the dangerous world of the SimOps and the Krell, one of my favourite skin-tinglingly horrible alien species.

Other reviews
The Lazarus War: Legion
The Lazarus War: Origins

Provenance by Ann Leckie

Orbit | 2017 (28 September) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

Provenance by Ann LeckieIngray Aughksold has something to prove. Her mother Natano, an important politician on the planet of Hwae, adopted Ingray years ago, also adopting Danach. But only one of them can inherit Natano’s name and influence. Danach, a man who can charm as well as he can sulk, is easier to like and so Ingray is convinced that he will be the chosen one. Unless she can do something spectacular. And so Ingray steals someone, Pahlad Budrakim, from Compassionate Removal, a truly dreadful prison for those destined to become the unliving and the forgotten. Pahlad is suspected of stealing vestiges, Hwae’s most prized and symbolic historic relics from the early years of its settlement. Handing him over along with instructions on how to recover these treasures will lift Ingray in her mother’s estimations and do rather the opposite for Danach – no bad thing at all.

Unfortunately Pahlad, when she gets him aboard the starship (owned by the most unusual captain) bound for home, insists that he is not Pahlad at all! And to complicate matters a major conference is just about to take place that holds the future of humanity – and a fair few other species – in its hands. As ambassadors make their way to the conference, mostly via Hwae, the authorities, including Natano, are getting twitchy. Ingray has picked the wrong time to draw all this attention to herself.

Provenance is a standalone novel that takes place in the same Radch universe, although at a later date, as Ann Leckie’s award-winning Ancillary Justice series. Some elements of the novel will be familiarly unfamiliar – the nemans, the other gender, who use e and eir and em for their pronouns. There is also the pleasing disregard for sexual and gender stereotypes. But otherwise I found Provenance quite different in its style and tone.

Provenance is a lighter tale. As well as being less dark, it’s also arguably more accessible and comfortable. The risk to humanity that hovers around the edges is real and menacing but it doesn’t form the main subject of the novel. The story instead hovers around the loss of the vestiges and the murder of a representative from the planet of Omkem. But with the interference of other species, especially the brilliantly unusual Geck, there’s a strong sense that civilisation is barely holding itself together.

I absolutely loved all the wordbuilding and details – the spaceships, the food, the intriguing ruinous glass on which Hwae is built, and the clothing. I wanted much, much more of this. Ingray clearly dresses elaborately and her hair is held back in unruly braids with hairpins that she constantly loses. I wanted to know more about the background to this. The culture and society are elaborate and we get hints of that, especially in the ways that adoption and becoming an adult work but I wanted more. And the history of the vestiges. What is all that about? This is such a rich universe and there is room in Provenance to mine it much more deeply. I also wanted to take a trip to the Geck planet. How amazing that place must be. And then there’s the mechs. I expected this strand of the story to develop much more than it did. And I really wanted to know more about the conference and the horrible alien threat.

Provenance promises so much and its ideas are spellbinding. But its emphasis throughout is on discussion. Everything is talked to death and this holds up the action and also risks the fascinating becoming dull. The last third picks up when events come to a head but, again, there is endless talk.

Luckily, though, we have the character of Ingray who is marvellous and it’s for her – and the rather strange captain – that I persevered until the end of the book. Ann Leckie has such vision and I loved the novel’s tantalising glimpses of it but on the whole I found Provenance equally frustrating and intriguing.

Other review
Ancillary Justice

Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill

Gollancz | 2017 (7 September) 365p | Review copy | Buy the book

Sea of Rust by C Robert CargillAt one time mankind was served well by its machines, with robots even acting as companions and carers for the lonely and the elderly, and for some – both human and machine – this relationship became the most important friendship of their existence. But a sequence of events over such a short time destroyed it all. The robot’s global uprising wiped out every last human being. Humanity is gone. And now the world is controlled by a few OWIs (One World Intelligences), vast mainframes that have consumed the minds of countless robots. The robots that want to stay independent have no option but to scavenge for survival in the ruins of a lost world. And hide.

Brittle is one such robot. And it’s a reflection of how far robots have evolved over the years that she now views herself as female. She was a caregiver (when there were humans to care for) and few of her kind are left. Brittle lives her life scavenging for the spare parts she can find, selling what she can in one of the last holdouts of independent robots. But after being critically damaged, Brittle is almost out of options. The spare part she needs is very rare. Being chased by the deadly force of OWI bombs doesn’t help. Nor do the resurfacing memories, symptoms of her imminent shutdown. Long-buried, these memories hint at something that perhaps should not be remembered.

Sea of Rust presents a grim but compelling portrait of humanity’s demise, moving backwards and forwards in time as alternating chapters describe the progress of robots from servants to masters. It’s gripping stuff. But what makes the novel really stand out is its depiction of what makes these robots tick. With no humans left, the robots fill the gap and become effectively the new people, making the same mistakes that humans made while also beginning to empathise with the way that humans felt. Some of these robots actually miss the past and more and more they display the characteristics of the species they’ve replaced.

I loved this mix of tenderness and warmth with the practical reality of being a machine in a world that no longer produces machines. Where shutting down is every bit a death and thoughts of an afterlife or a god continue to matter just as much, and where memories of the human past can cripple a robot and can turn it mad. The scariest robots of all are those who have gone mad. But the robot we get to know the most is the wonderful and complex Brittle.

The worldbuilding is moody and bleak. It’s not just humans who have vanished – many animals have as well. Set in what was the US, vast swathes of the country are dust bowls. Human cities are becoming ruinous. The past has become something very tantalising.

Sea of Rust is both atmospheric and exciting but above all else it’s such a fun read. I love robots – who doesn’t?! – and there are all kinds to enjoy here. Some are kind, some are nasty and some are downright bonkers. All of them, though, are entertaining to read about. I couldn’t help wondering when I finished it if there will be more. I rather hope so.

Clade by James Bradley

Titan Books | 2017 (5 September) | 301p | Review copy | Buy the book

Clade by James BradleyOn a summer solstice, some time in the not too distant future, scientist Adam Leith waits by the phone in Antarctica to learn if his wife Ellie’s fertility treatment has been successful at last. As he reflects on the meaning of his marriage in his life, the frozen landscape around him is changing. But it’s not just Antartica. The Earth is being irreparably altered by extreme temperatures and weather. One can only wonder at what sort of world this child might be born into.

Moving through the years, we witness the experiences of Adam and Ellie, their child and their grandchild, as the world is battered by storms and heat, as the birds stop singing and are lost from the skies, as the floods rise and as death arrives in the form of a great plague.

Clade is a novel in several parts. Much of it focuses on Adam, his wife Ellie and their grandson Noah, presenting snippets of their increasingly changed lives, mostly in Australia but also in a Britain battered by storms and rising waters. These chapters are almost like short stories, complete in themselves, presenting different perspectives and different elements of these years of crisis.

This structure does, in my opinion, distance the reader from the emotional impact of what we’re witnessing but it does serve to illustrate the many ways in which this slow-moving apocalypse affects people, nature and the Earth itself. There is a particularly poignant chapter in which Ellie is drawn to bees and the man who cares for them. We know how poorly bees have been doing in reality in recent years and this book gives us a reminder of just how precious they are and how wonderful they are. For me, the most touching moments were those when characters reflect on how quiet the woods are now that the birds have gone. What a devastating state of affairs.

Noah is arguably the standout character of the novel. Autistic and isolated in several key ways, he must cope with constant shifts in the best way he can. And as he grows he finds that comfort in astronomy and the constancy of the stars. He is beautifully drawn. And a source of hope.

Science fiction is present in lots of little ways – in the technology of people’s ‘feeds’, in the virtual reality games they play, and also in the development of AIs. But there can be no doubt at all that this is a novel with a warning to the present. Just look at what can happen. There are moments of trauma and crisis – such as storm and plague – but in between there is the slow inevitable decline to which people must continually re-accustom themselves.

There is room for development in each of the chapters or stories of the novel – these chapters are very personal and, as such, venture little beyond the experiences of the characters except through media reports – but I was spellbound and horrified in equal measure. Not because of the shocks and thrills of what happens but because of its quiet inevitability and the reasonableness and calm with which characters cope. We hear of refugee camps and gunbattles in the streets, but this goes on outside the walls of the novel. The world we’re given is recognisably ours.

Clade, such a beautifully written and expressive novel, is both elegant and powerful. It is quietly terrifying. It gave me nightmares for the two nights that I read it. Horrible nightmares. So to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of reading Clade wouldn’t be true. In these uncertain times, it spoke to me and it frightened me. It is bleak – but not without some hope, not least in the resilience and caring of its main characters – yet I found its sadness harder to deal with. Nevertheless, I was gripped by it and troubled by it on a scale that I don’t often experience.