Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Golden State by Ben H. Winters

Century | 2019 (24 January) | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book

Golden State by Ben H. WintersThe laws of Golden State require a certain kind of enforcer and Laz Ratesic, in his 50s, a veteran of the special police, is one of the best there is. Perhaps there has been only one better – Charlie, Laz’s brother. Laz is a Speculator. He can detect lies, just from an inflection in the voice or from the smallest movement of a face muscle and from them he can construct the truth. It’s an extraordinary skill and a vital one, too, because in Golden State to lie is illegal. Telling just one lie can result in years of imprisonment or even exile into whatever it is that lies outside the confines of Golden State. Nobody knows what’s out there. Like the past, it’s not knowable and isn’t to be questioned. But nobody wants to go outside.

Laz believes in his job. He’s proud that he’s so good at it. He believes it’s for the common good. But just because people can’t lie, it doesn’t mean that other crimes can’t be committed and one day he is sent on a case that will change everything. With a young partner to teach in tow, Laz is sent to investigate the suspicious case of a man who has fallen from a roof to his death. Nothing about the death makes sense, not least the discovery of an actual work of fiction, which tells a story – a lie. But that’s just the beginning.

I’m a big fan of Ben H. Winters’ novels – I loved the apocalyptic trilogy, The Last Policeman – and so I was very keen to read Golden State. This time we’re taken to a dystopian city in the future. It’s a place that reminds us of California, although nobody in Golden State would have heard of such a name. The powers that be strongly believe that that Golden State is held together by truths and so everybody greets each other, not with a pleasantry, but with an irrefutable truth. Truth is almost a religion, depositories of truths are regarded as temples.

There is some fascinating worldbuilding at work here. Ben H. Winters describes the different areas and public buildings of the state so vividly. We see people going about their everyday lives – Laz particularly cares about food – and it almost seems normal until you realise how small this world is, how unquestioning it is, and how susceptible to manipulation it is. People watch CCTV instead of normal television; a novel is non-fiction; all one’s thoughts, deeds and transactions are written up in one’s Day Book. I was so intrigued to learn what remained beyond Golden State but that is a speculation forbidden to all in Golden State but Speculators.

Laz is a strange one. You’d have thought that he would be difficult to warm to, he’s such an enthusiastic agent of the dystopian state. And there is such unkindness, not to mention barbarism, in the sentences that are handed down to people who utter a lie or, through illness, are unable to fathom the truth. Yet I did like Laz very much, especially as the novel goes on and he starts to question the tiny world around him.

I must admit that I did get a little lost with the actual case itself. It’s complicated and, as you’d expect with conspiracies, little can be taken at face value. There is also a twist which I didn’t really care for. Having said all that, everything around the case really did appeal to me, especially the way in which it all ends. I love Ben H. Winters’ ideas. How he can create fearful worlds or situations and put people into them who could seem ordinary but become exceptional. And if you haven’t read The Last Policeman trilogy yet, do!

Other reviews
The Last Policeman
Countdown City (The Last Policeman 2)
World of Trouble (The Last Policeman 3)

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The Eternity War: Exodus by Jamie Sawyer

Orbit | 2018 (29 November) | 482p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Eternity War: Exodus by Jamie SawyerExodus is the middle book in Jamie Sawyer’s trilogy The Eternity War and it picks up exactly at that jawdropping moment where Pariah left off. So do read Pariah first. This review assumes that you’ve done just that.

Lieutenant Keira Jenkins leads a team of SimOps (Simulation Operatives), her Jackals. These men and women make suicide missions their speciality. They transition into ‘skins’, organic and enhanced bodies that can fight and die as supersoldiers, time after time, while their vulnerable bodies stay safe in their tanks. Each violent death, though, leaves a painful stigmata on their real bodies. Life such as this takes its toll. But the Galaxy is in crisis. After a time of peace between humans and the alien Krell, war has once again broken out, inflamed by a disease that is transforming the Krell into something even more terrible, horrifying and lethal. The pot is being stirred. Old enemies presumed defeated are back while there is a new group to fear – the terrorist Black Spiral network. Jenkins’ Jackals are vital for the survival of the Alliance but, in order to learn the truth about the true nature of the threat, they must first survive the horrific prisons of the Directorate.

Jamie Sawyer is a master of military science fiction pageturner thrillers! His first trilogy, The Lazarus War, named after the legendary SimOps leader Lazarus (aka Conrad Harris), a man who had risen from the dead more often than anyone else, first took us into the world of the Alliance, the Directorate, the Krill and the other aliens that exist in the shadows. Jenkins had been a member of the Lazarus Legion but now she leads her own unit and this new trilogy is every bit as action packed as the first.

Exodus is the middle novel but it tells an exciting story in its own right before laying the groundwork for the conclusion. The action never lets up and so the pages race through the fingers as Jenkins’ Jackals tackle baddies left right and centre, in prisons, planets, spaceships and other stranger places. Some of what they face is enormously brutal, the stuff of nightmares, particularly towards the beginning of the novel, but a big reason why this all works so well is because we’re so invested in the characters.

The Jackals are such a varied bunch – Novak, the man imprisoned for life who is working off his sentence; Zero, the young woman rescued from desperation by Lazarus as a child; Lopez, the rebellious daughter of one of the most important politicians in the Alliance; Feng, a renegade Directorate clone soldier; and then there’s Pariah – I’m not going to say anything about Pariah… But Keira Jenkins has now firmly established herself as my favourite. There are other characters we’ll meet here that will delight anyone who’s read Jame Sawyer’s novels before. But the people I’ll remember the most are the utterly appalling Directorate military who stamp their book on the book at its very beginning.

This is fast, military science fiction. It doesn’t explain how things work and it doesn’t spend pages on character development – there simply isn’t time, there isn’t a moment to waste as Jenkins’ Jackals plunge from one death trap to another. It’s an exhilarating, fun adventure, with a great bunch of baddies to hate, some loathsome aliens to fear and some fine heroes to get behind. All set in space! Excellent. And book three promises to be the most explosive of them all.

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

Xeelee: Redemption by Stephen Baxter

Gollancz | 2018 (3 August) | 422p | Review copy | Buy the book

Xeelee Redemption by Stephen BaxterAlthough Xeelee: Redemption is the seventeenth novel in Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee sequence, it’s also the second and final part of Baxter’s reimagining of Xeelee history which began with Xeelee: Vengeance. I’ve dipped in and out of the Xeelee books but I’d certainly recommend that, even if you’ve read none of the others, that you read Vengeance first. This review assumes that you’ve had the pleasure.

The events of the previous few years have altered life on Earth forever, perhaps even ending it for good, as Michael Poole led the planet’s desperate and drastic action to avoid annihilation. It’s now time for Michael to take his convoy of three star ships on the most ambitious of journeys – they are on their way to the centre of the Galaxy where an anomaly has been observed. The Xeelee Belt is an immense structure of unknown purpose. Michael expects to finds answers there regarding the origins and purpose of the Xeelee. Just getting there will be a miraculous achievement in itself but what they find there will be extraordinary.

But that’s just one part of the wonder. The other is time itself. Due to the astonishing speeds with which Michael’s ships will travel and the even faster speeds at which the Belt rotates, time will be distorted on a scale that is almost incomprehensible.

I love the ways in which Stephen Baxter views and describes the universe around us. His vision is spectacularly ambitious. Some of his ideas make me sit up straight in my seat and I marvel at the wonders that he makes possible. He does this yet again in Xeelee: Redemption. There are distinct sections in the book that are each differently and wonderfully fascinating. One is due to the nature of the Virtuals – the artificial projects of a personality that can be flung into existence by their ‘Template’ on a whim, only later to be reabsorbed into that Template’s memories. The existence of a Virtual is limited but one of Poole’s Virtuals will be different. He even has his own name, Jophiel, and it is Jophiel who forms the heart of this novel, not his Template Michael Poole. One of the ships in the convoy is run by Virtuals and they, too, have a desire to live independent, meaningful lives. Whether they’ll be allowed to do so is another matter.

But, with no doubt at all, the most marvellous elements of this novel are the gobsmacking descriptions of the Xeelee Belt and the time shifts that result from such journeys across aeons of time and space. We encounter the extraordinary side effects of this time after time as mankind is demonstrated to play such an insignificant role in the evolution and devolution of the universe. The fate of the Earth continues to haunt this second novel as just one of the many memorable and jawdropping ideas that we’re presented with.

The people aren’t particularly developed. They’re mostly there as witnesses of past, present and future. This is a novel in which ideas and vision rule. No distractions are permitted. This is hard science fiction – possibly, at times, a little too much for me to follow, especially during the latter part of the novel, but, despite this, I loved it. I loved the descriptions. I could imagine it all before me, even if at times I didn’t quite understand it. And some of the ideas we’re shown just stopped me in my tracks. I just can’t praise Stephen Baxter enough. He writes the kind of science fiction I’ll always want to read and which stays with me long after the final page is turned.

Other reviews
Proxima
Ultima
Xeelee: Vengeance
With Terry Pratchett
The Long Earth
The Long War
The Long Mars
The Long Utopia
The Long Cosmos
With Alastair Reynolds
The Medusa Chronicles

Noumenon Infinity by Marina J. Lostetter

Harper Voyager | 2018 (23 August) | 561p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Noumenon Infinity by Marina J LostetterA few days ago I read, devoured and absolutely adored Noumenon by Marina J Lostetter. I immediately went out and bought its sequel, Noumenon Infinity. Hours of spellbound reading ensued. So I can now report that Infinity is not only every bit as good as Noumenon, it is even better. It takes all of those elements of the first book that I loved so much and gives them that extra twist, that extra push – enhancing its sense of wonder to such a degree that I could not put Infinity down. Having said all that, Infinity completes the two-part story begun with Noumenon and so you most certainly won’t want to read it without having read Noumenon first. This review assumes that you’ve had the pleasure and that you don’t mind hearing a little about what has gone on before. If you haven’t read Noumenon yet then STOP what you’re doing and read it right now!

Noumenon Infinity begins where Noumenon left off, with the start of a new voyage by Convoy Seven, still crewed by our familiar set of clones but now with a few new faces to get to know. As they head back to the Web and the Seed, they will learn more about these enigmatic and immense artifacts. And they will be tested to the very limit of what they can endure as the legacy of the past and their responsibility for the future threaten to overwhelm them.

But now we have a second convoy to follow – the mysterious Convoy Twelve, which, launched around the same time as Convoy Seven on its original voyage, disappeared without trace. Now we will learn the truth about what happened to this crew which was never intended to stray far from Earth. And what they have discovered will change everything.

I’m saying no more than that but how I want to because we are taken here into unknown starry distant space territory that cries out for me to shout about it. Both storylines, which alternate throughout this thankfully praise the stars substantial book, are equally brilliant and brilliantly different from one another. Two perspectives of wondrous things and I couldn’t have been more gripped if I tried.

We know some of these characters very well by now, even though we have met them in their different incarnations. We’re so fond of the AI who now is so ancient she is the repository of almost everything in human history. As the personalities evolve, the significance of their past lives grows more important than ever. This is a novel about legacy and identity. But above all else, in my opinion, it is about being an explorer. What drives people to explore the unknown at immense risk to themselves? What drives humanity on? Where are we all heading? What is the alternative to exploration? And if we do explore, where are we actually going? Does it matter if we don’t get there ourselves if our hundred times removed descendent does instead? And what do we do when we get there? So many questions and they’re the biggest questions.

And then you can throw in all those other things I love about science fiction set among the stars – spaceships, distant planets, alien artefacts, AIs, people adapting to life aboard a generation starship, bloodcurdling terror, love, the unknown. All of it described so beautifully and evocatively, with humour and sensitivity, by Marina J. Lostetter, an author who can do no wrong in my eyes.

So now that this mini-series of two books is complete and on the shop shelves, do yourselves a favour and read it. Just like the best of Peter F. Hamilton, these are novels to which I’ll return and I can’t wait to see where Marina J. Lostetter’s imagination will take her – and us – next.

Other review
Noumenon

The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

Tor | 2018 (18 October) | 316p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Consuming Fire by John ScalziIt’s time to return to the Interdependency… thank the stars for that. The Consuming Fire follows directly on from The Collapsing Empire and is the middle book in what I believe will be a trilogy. You really wouldn’t want to read it without having read the opening book and so this review assumes that you’ve done just that and don’t mind learning a little of what has gone before.

Humanity’s vast empire, the Interdependency, is connected by the Flow, rivers through space that link random planets. Starships that are able to generate a protective bubble can travel through the Flow at unbelievable and erratic speeds. But should that bubble fail or if the Flow should collapse, then that ship and its crew would be cast out into the vast void of empty space, never to have contact with any other life again. It’s a terrible fate and now it is one that everyone in the Interdependency must face. There are signs that the Flow is beginning to fail. When it does, colonies that have no means to support self-sustained life will be cut off. This happened over a thousand years ago to Earth, the homeland that is now forever unreachable and barely a memory. The ruler of the empire, Emperox Grayland II, has a mighty struggle on her hands to hold everything together as rivalries amongst the empire’s mighty industrial families raise their ugly heads. War threatens just as the Flow begins to change.

I am a huge fan of John Scalzi, such a witty, clever author with an incredible imagination, and I absolutely adored The Collapsing Empire (as I did Lock In and Head On). I couldn’t wait to read The Consuming Fire and it really delivers on what went before. It’s a relatively short novel of just over 300 pages and it’s fast, sharp, fun and packed with thrills as well as characters who stand out a mile, not least because some of them are a little bit naughty, especially the women.

The Consuming Fire picks up a fantastic plot, set against the most brilliantly developed backdrop – the whole future of humanity is under threat and it’s making everybody go wild, especially the rich families that dominate this universe along with the powerful, yet secular church. Despite the role of religion – the Emperox role has its origins in a figure known for her visions sparking off this new faith – this is a society built on solid ground – trade, industry, money, ambition, greed. When Grayland II announces that she’s had visions which predict the calamitous collapse of the Flow, nobody knows how to deal with it. Except with violence and intrigue. I loved this mix of the practical and the spiritual, or the way in which religion has been adapted to fit a greedy society and vice versa. It is an aristocratic society. Everybody seems to be a lord or a lady but there’s nothing that honourable about the majority of them. Yet there is still a nobility here, especially in the figures of the Emperox and the scientist Marce.

And then there’s Kiva. Kiva was the dominating personality of The Collapsing Empire and she does the same here, although she does have competition. But Kiva is outrageous, hilarious and horny. She’s also dangerous. Although could it be possible that there are signs of a heart beating underneath all of that bravado?

The novel is too fast and furious to allow much time to develop our sense of wonder at some of the elements that have the potential to stun in this universe, but there are little glimmers of it, particularly during the second half when we see beyond the Interdependency. These sections are especially brilliant.

I am so desperate to know what is going to happen and there are some enticing hints of it here. The Consuming Fire does have a bit of a middle novel feel about it. It prepares ground for book three – and in such a way that I cannot wait for it! – but it also moves the story along in such thrilling, page-turning fashion. I have to say that I wish it were longer but what there is is golden. Roll on book three!

Other reviews
Lock In
Head On
The Collapsing Empire

Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson

Orbit | 2018 (25 October) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

Red Moon by Kim Stanley RobinsonIt is the mid 21st century and the Moon has been colonised. Although individual nations are not allowed to ‘own’ territories on the Moon, China has made the south pole its own while a much smaller American colony has settled at the north pole. This lunar divide is reflected on Earth as relations between these two superpowers grow increasingly tense. Both countries also have their own problems. China is facing a rebellion, its billion poorest people are finding their voice while its most senior ministers compete for supreme leadership, while America is in the grip of a financial crisis, fed, it is suspected, by China.

The Moon seems such a long way away from the troubles on Earth but it really isn’t. Three people in particular are about to find this out – Fred Fredericks, who is there to install a new communications device in the Chinese colony; Chan Qi, the heavily pregnant daughter of one of China’s most important ministers and also an activist; Ta Shu, a celebrity travel reporter who discovers that befriending Fred on their arrival to this new and strange place might be something he’ll live to regret. After Fred witnesses a murder on the Moon, for which he is suspected, it’s not long before all three are on the run, across the Moon and in China – pawns in power struggles beyond their control. Chan Qi might have more power, though, that she’s been given credit for.

A new novel by Kim Stanley Robinson is always such a cause for excitement and I was thrilled to read Red Moon. Each of his stand alone novels are so different, their vision is enormous, not just for the future of our planet but also for our neighbours in the solar system. Politics also usually plays its role, as it does here, as Kim Stanley Robinson turns his attention to the Moon in our near and possible future.

The story is built around the murder that Fred witnesses at the beginning of the book but the novel is about so much more than that. It essentially tells the tale of journeys, for Fred and Chen Qi and for Ta Shu, and along the way, while running from peril to peril, each will take some time to reflect on the philosophical, social and political state of the world around them, their hopes for its future, and the differences between East and West. They must also contend with personal worries, not least of which is Chen Qi’s pregnancy and Fred’s developing feelings for this young, charismatic woman.

The novel moves between the Moon and Earth with poor Ta Shu in particular making frequent trips between the two. But, for me, the very best bits of Red Moon are those set on the wonderfully described Moon. I loved the descriptions of some of its unusual habitats built into its enormous lava tunnels and caves. You must discover these for yourself as I love the joy with which they’re painted for us.

I did find some of the lengthy exchanges between Fred and Chen Qi a little too wearying. There are times when they go on and on and everything stops around them until they’re suddenly warned that they must move on immediately if they’re to escape the latest attack on them. So at times the novel felt like moments of intense action with very weighty sections of quite dispassionate discussion in between. This did make it quite difficult for me to warm to Chen Qi and Fred, while I had no such trouble with Ta Shu, I would also have liked much more of American agent Valerie Tong – her thread of the story was a favourite of mine. Other characters who come and go throughout the book are the mysterious ‘analyst’ and the AI that he’s developing under cover of the all-seeing Great Eyeball of the Chinese government. There is so much here that intrigues and could fill countless extra pages.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels always make me think while making me feel wonder at some of the places and worlds they describe. They are ambitious, at times challenging, and hugely intriguing, with something to say, and Red Moon is all of that, plus some fantastic visions of the Moon’s habitats in which, for a time, one can escape the worries of the outside world. And, just like all of Kim Stanley Robinson’s books, what a brilliant cover!

Other reviews
2312
Aurora
New York 2140

Noumenon by Marina J. Lostetter

Harper Voyager | 2017, Pb 2018 (I read the Hb) | 420p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Noumenon by Marina J LostetterIt is 2088 and much of Earth is relatively prosperous and at peace, looking for humanity’s next adventure, to escape the bounds of the solar system. It will send a number of enormous starship convoys out into space, each carrying more than 100,000 people. But where to send them? Astrophysicist Reggie Straifer might just have an answer for one of them. He has discovered an unusual star that defies the laws of physics. Its name is LQ Pyx.

Convoy Nine is given the mission, designated Noumenon, to travel to the star to discover whether it is natural or alien-made. The journey will take generations, a hundred years or so. The convoy will stay at the star for twenty years and then it will return to Earth to share whatever knowledge it’s discovered. Due to the variations of time on such a journey, a period of centuries for the convoy will be thousands of years for Earth, so who knows what the travellers will find on their return. But these are no ordinary astronauts – each will be a clone. The same sets of donated genes will live their lives over and over again.

If I were to write a recipe of everything that I like in a science fiction novel then Noumenon would be the resulting delicious dish. Astonishing and awe-inspiring objects in space, giant spaceships travelling into the unknown, a mystifying Earth in the distant future, the evolution of society on a generation ship, clones, an intriguing and unusual ship AI. I loved everything about it. The novel makes leaps through the years so in each sizeable chunk we follow a new set of personalities, some familiar to us from previous lives as clones are reborn. The legacy of these past lives is one of the novel’s big themes – are future clones guilty of the crimes of their ancestors because they share the same DNA?

There is such a sense of wonder – something that I crave in science fiction, especially the kind that deals with new worlds and space exploration. Reggie Straifer is driven by this wonder. The first generation of clones unleashed for the first time on their ships are almost giddy with it. But how to maintain that over the decades? And how to deal with the practicalities of living a sustainable existence aboard a starship when space and resources are limited? The way that they do this is agonising. And so the question remains – what do you do when the wonder is gone?

For me, the wonder remained and I was gripped by every stage of this novel. I would have liked more time spent at the anomalous star but there will, I believe, be more answers (as well as more questions, no doubt) in the sequel Noumenon Infinity. What we learn here, though, deeply intrigues and puzzles. But there are other things here just as fascinating as the star and they are wondrous to discover. Noumenon is a complete novel in its own right, sweeping through centuries of time. It sets the stage for the second book but it ends well. It did, though, make me want to read Infinity as soon as I can – I bought it immediately. I love it when a book urges me to buy everything else an author has written.

Noumenon is a rewarding and thrilling space adventure which overflows with big themes and questions about life and what drives people on, whether they’re a human being, an AI or a clone. Our sympathies are engaged repeatedly as we get to know these people, even though many of them are only passing through the story. The descriptions of the star are fantastic! I cannot wait to return in Noumenon Infinity.