Tag Archives: Science Fiction

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
The Sudden Appearance of Hope
The End of the Day


Time Was by Ian McDonald

Tor | 2018 (24 April) | 144p | Review copy | Buy the book

Time Was by Ian McDonaldEmmett Leigh is a used book dealer and one day in London he finds something that catches his imagination – a love letter from one soldier to another, written during the Second World War, hidden away in a book of poetry. Emmett is determined to find out everything he can about Tom and Ben and it takes him on a trail of bookshops and collections in England and further afield. What he finds seems impossible – photos taken during other wars and times, including World War I, and Ben and Tom look no different. Emmett has to accept that these two men are time travellers, lost in time, searching for one another, using the letters in copies of this book of poetry as a map.

Time Was is a novella and, as a result, skims the surface of a story that has the most intriguing premise – lovers cast out into time by a wartime scientific experiment that went very wrong indeed. On one level, it’s a gay love story that is both touching and tragic, and on another it’s a science fiction tale of time travel and wartime experiments. Both are equally appealing but I’m not sure that the story completely makes up its mind over which way to go. It is, though, exquisitely written. Ian McDonald writes so beautifully, filling this little book with poetic prose.

I loved the setting for much of the story which is in Shingle Street, Suffolk. I love books set in places that I’m fond of and I adore this area. The author captures it perfectly and it presents such an evocative backdrop to Ben and Tom’s story. Mostly, though, this is the story of Emmett, a man who has problems in his own relationships.

I thoroughly enjoyed the way that the story ends. I can’t say that I understood it completely but I loved how the strands came together. I am a huge fan of Ian McDonald’s Luna science fiction series. I will always seek out his writing. Time Was wasn’t quite what I was expecting but it certainly resonates and it most definitely haunts.

Other reviews
Luna: New Moon
Luna: Wolf Moon

Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel

Michael Joseph (US: Del Rey) | 2018 (US: 1 May; UK: 3 May) | 336p | US and UK review copies | Buy the book: UK/US

Only Human by Sylvain NeuvelOnly Human concludes the Themis Files, a trilogy that began with the superb Sleeping Giants. You really need to have read the first two novels first – and why would you not? Giant robots! Aliens! – and this review assumes that you have and don’t mind hearing bits about what has gone before.

Ten years have passed since the events of Waking Gods and they have been momentous years, not least for Dr Rose Franklin, Vincent and his daughter Eve. They’ve spent the time on the homeworld of the alien creators of the giant robots. And this planet is different in every single way and not just because its inhabitants are blue and hairless. This is a world that cannot make up its mind about what to do with these human – and helpless – interlopers. And this forms one strand of Only Human – the life of our humans on this alien planet and how each of them responds to it in a different way. Eve, just a child when she arrived, is bound to be shaped the most by what happens.

The other strand follows Rose, Vincent and Eve after they return to Earth – to Russia – and find their own homeworld distinctly changed and extremely troubled. Countries now have a far better way to annihilate one another – two giant robots which are built for war. Rose is determined to help the world find peace but she must also help those she loves to do the same.

Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel US ednOnly Human continues the narrative style of the previous two novels, comprising mission logs and interviews. This does mean that we lose some of the wonder of the alien planet as we ‘see’ it only through the dialogue of our humans and, not surprisingly, descriptions are few and far between, but it does add an immediacy to the narrative as well as build on the personalities of Rose, Vincent and Eve. It certainly adds colour. I loved the voice of the Russian interrogator Katherine in particular. Some moments are very funny and witty.

I didn’t find the narrative technique as successful this time and I think this is partly an inevitable consequence of the fact that we have lost key characters along the way. I missed the voice of one in particular enormously. But the other reason is because the mission logs from the alien planet don’t seem especially plausible, that they’re there to continue the narrative style of the previous books even though they don’t seem real. I couldn’t understand how or why these logs were recorded. They also meant that we missed out to some extent on understanding the inhabitants of this strange place. I really like the linguistic touches, though, and the problems of communication and the inevitable misunderstandings.

This is a novel with a political message. It presents a warning about the dangers facing our planet when countries refuse to understand one another. Full out war is on the cards and we’re left in no doubt as to the responsibility of the world’s powers to reach a compromise with those they cannot understand. And the same goes for the relationship between humans and aliens. How can one trust or forgive when mistakes can cost millions of lives? We hear about the segregation of people on Earth – all people are rated for the purity of their blood. There is similar xenophobia on the alien world. I think in part this is over-laboured when some subtlety might have made a more effective, less preachy message, but it’s a fascinating portrait of a possible future.

As this completes the trilogy, a reader must hope for resolution and I really did like the way in which Only Human ended. I don’t think that the third novel is as successful as the previous two but judged as a whole this is a fantastic trilogy and I have loved it. The giant robots are so hard to resist and they are certainly scene stealers. I love stories of first contact, alien encounters and strange distant worlds and we have all of this here and I lapped it up. I can’t wait to see where Sylvain takes us to next – it could be absolutely anywhere.

Other reviews
Sleeping Giants
Waking Gods

From Distant Stars by Sam Peters

Gollancz | 2018 (19 April) | 439p | Review copy | Buy the book

From Distant Stars by Sam PetersFrom Distant Stars follows on directly From Darkest Skies and so please be aware that this review assumes you don’t mind knowing what happened before to our hero, Inspector Keon.

It’s five years since Alysha, Inspector Keon’s wife, died in a terrorist bomb and the artificial intelligence copy of Alysha (called Liss) that Keon had created – extremely illegally – has gone and he presumes it lost. Keon’s finally almost ready to move on with his life here on the strangely inhospitable planet of Magenta. There is nothing more to hold him back. But when prisoner Jared Black is assassinated in a secure hospital, along with the three guards questioning him, Keon realises that he’s embarking on a case that will throw everything he holds certain into chaos. The past refuses to stay buried.

There’s more to this case than meets the eye and it seems to focus on a scientific expedition to Magenta’s north pole. A discovery has made – a potentially alien vessel has been found buried in ice. It has great significance and people are prepared to kill for it.

From Distant Stars follows on From Darkest Skies, and I don’t think you’d want to read one without the other, but it is also in many ways self-contained. Keon had reached a resolution of sorts but now he’s faced with the brutal truth that he can never let it sleep and so his curious relationship with both Alysha and Liss continues. But Keon has also built up relationships with his fellow officers – there is one he is particularly close to – but this isn’t easy when his mind is always distracted by the past. I really felt for Keon as he tries to do what’s best when he is still so overwhelmed by grief and the confusion of what actually happened to his wife. Having the voice of Liss in the background doesn’t help. The novel is mostly narrated in the first person by Keon and so there’s no escaping the trauma in his mind and the feelings of such sadness.

There is a great deal going on in From Distant Stars. There are so many competing clues and confusions. Nobody can be trusted and the enigma of the mysterious buried object hangs over everything like a menacing, yet very tantalising, shadow. You do need to keep your wits about you as identities come and go. I knew that we would get to see the bigger picture in the end and so I did my best to keep up.

I did have a couple of issues. I think that the novel could have been a little shorter and also there was some repetition in language and in deed. But this is largely compensated for by the marvellous worldbuilding. I love the descriptions of Magenta – what an appalling planet, with its hurricane winds and lethal rain drops. I really enjoyed exploring this world. I also liked the use of technology, particularly the ‘Servants’, or personal AIs. They did seem extremely vulnerable to the enemy, though, and they’re continually being turned on and off.

The most fascinating thing for me in these books is the concept of the Masters, the alien species that laid such waste to Earth and scattered mankind among the stars before disappearing as mysteriously as they arrived. Everything about the Masters has me gripped and I would have loved to have learned more about them. However, the apocalyptic edge to these books is very effective.

Overall, From Distant Stars is a very enjoyable sequel with a great mystery at its heart and I did like trying to work it out. There is also a resolution here that does feel satisfying. Inspector Kreon is a wonderful creation and what the poor man has to go through here…. there can’t be much of him, inside or out, that isn’t terribly bruised. And what I liked perhaps the most, the intrigue, is there from the very first page and stays with us right until the end.

Other review
From Darkest Skies

Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller

Orbit | 2018 (19 April) | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book

Blackfish City by Sam MillerIn our near future, perhaps a hundred years from now, much of the world is drowned and the parts that aren’t have been ravaged by war. Qaanaaq is a haven, an immense artificial city floating in the northern Atlantic. It is composed of a series of arms reaching out from a central hub and each arm is packed with humanity – some more packed than others, because the first arm is reserved for the wealthy. And the wealthy don’t have to live in coffin-sized spaces or even just wrapped in a blanket. Qaanaaq is a place where enterprise, or crime, pays and the biggest gangster of all is Qaanaaq’s richest businessman, a man made rich on pharma, technology and software.

One day a stranger arrives at the city, towed through the water in a skiff by a killer whale, a polar bear by her side. Rumours spread about the woman. People are tasked with discovering the truth. For she belongs to a bygone age, a time when humans could be tied by nanotechnology to animals, a practice that was stamped out mercilessly. But with her she brings hope, she pulls people together, they learn more about their society. And never has the city needed help as much as now – there’s a fatal disease going around, the breaks, transmitted largely among the poor, and it carries with it a curse. Those afflicted with the breaks must endure the memories of the person who infected them, and the person who infected them, going back and back and back. This is a city at the limits of its endurance.

Blackfish City is a hauntingly beautiful novel that focuses on the stories of a few individuals whose lives become connected for a whole variety of reasons, including the breaks. As we move between them, a picture is created of the damage that has been done by Qaanaaq. People like Ankit, Kaev and the young Soq are missing something and they’re now finding out just how much.

Qaanaaq is a wonderful creation and we’re given background on it through a series of extracts from City Without a Map, an oral social document and history. Citizens are hooked on it but nobody seems to know who created it. We’re shown many aspects of life in the floating city – its politics, social structure, its underworld, its injustices, all set against the intriguing backdrop of a world that’s been torn apart by war and greed and flood. At times it doesn’t feel a million miles away from where we are now.

I particularly enjoyed the idea of the breaks and its origins. It’s an AIDS-like virus which incites a similar prejudice. One character in particular bridges both rich and poor worlds and I especially liked spending time with him. There is an optimism about him which I appreciated because Blackfish City presents a bleak future. Another element which I loved is the bonding between humans and animals – Sam J. Miller describes this beautifully.

As I’ve mentioned, I did find Blackfish City very dark at times despite the beauty of its prose and its intriguing setting. Its characters, though, are brilliantly curious and odd, even though they can also be vicious and shocking. Blackfish City transported me to another place, one that frightened me while at the same time filling me with wonder at the potential of these descendants of ours.

Before Mars by Emma Newman

Gollancz | 2018 (19 April) | 340p | Review copy | Buy the book

Before Mars by Emma NewmanAfter months of solitary travel, Dr Anna Kubrick has arrived at Mars Principia, the base on Mars run by GaborCorps for the purpose of science, entertainment and making money. Anna will be the base’s new geologist but Gabor wants her there primarily for her ‘hobby’ – Anna is an artist and he believes that her Mars paintings will be priceless. She can also help Banks, Gabor’s very own TV presenter, whose series about life on Mars is so hugely popular. But Anna arrives to find that not all of the small crew are glad to see her. She’s particularly wary of the base’s psychiatrist and that suspicion is boosted when Anna finds a notice in her quarters warning her not to trust her – but the note is written in Anna’s own handwriting. Matters become even more strange when Anna realises that her wedding ring isn’t the one she wore when she left Earth. And then there’s that one human footprint left in a crater that has never been visited by mankind…

Before Mars is the third novel by Emma Newman set in her perfectly created Planetfall universe. Each of the novels stands alone but the main characters in each – fascinating women all – are troubled to varying degrees with mental disorders of different kinds. Anna Kubrick has a history of paranoia and she’s well aware that her increasing suspicion about the base could be easily misconstrued. The novel is written in the first person, with Anna’s voice, and so we’re made keenly aware of her self-doubt, her reasoning and her fear, as she argues with herself about what she is experiencing. This is also a world where everything is recorded and can be re-lived as a ‘mersive’. When life is hard, it’s easy to become addicted to these happier memories.

Emma Newman is so brilliant at worldbuilding. Life aboard Mars Principia is vividly described as is the hostile yet beautiful world of Mars outside the habitat’s walls. I also loved the way in which society back on Earth is presented. This is a near future world in which the level of one’s human rights now depends on one’s salary. An almost communist capitalism controls society. Money is God. The state provides but only to the level that you can afford. And, not surprisingly, control is everything and, just as everything is recorded, so too do AI’s watch over everybody’s decisions. The glimpses of life back on Earth that we’re given tantalise – they’re both normal and so far away.

The importance of the Pathfinder, a being that is so crucial to the series as a whole, continues and this adds such a fascinating level of intrigue and speculation about what lies out there, beyond the solar system. There’s a contrast between hope and resignation, everywhere else and Earth. Mars is somewhere caught in the middle. And it’s up to Anna to try and make sense of it.

Planetfall is such a wonderful book by such a fine writer – it’s beautiful, elegant and also so insightful about the human condition. This is strongly continued in Before Mars. I would certainly suggest that you read Planetfall first but otherwise these are stand alone novels (I have yet to read After Atlas although it’s climbing high on my reading mountain), all throwing light on an extraordinary, emotionally powerful and gently dystopian future. Before Mars finishes in such a way that it strongly suggests another book may be on the way. I really, really hope so.

Other review

One Way by S.J. Morden

Gollancz | 2018 (10 April) | c.380p | Review copy | Buy the book

One Way by S.J. MordenFrank Kittridge is not a man with a future. Serving a life sentence for murder, he is suddenly given an opportunity that won’t see him walking the streets as a free man but it would give him something else – a purpose, hope. Xenosystems Operations has won the contract to build the first permanent habitat on Mars but there’s a catch. Its tender said that it would construct the habitat with robotic technology, a technology that doesn’t exist. Instead, everything must be built by hand and as cheaply as possible, using a workforce that is expendable. XO intends to send eight convicts from its own private prison to do a job that comes with no guarantees of success – and with no ticket home. This will be a one way trip.

These eight astronauts are thrown together with nothing in common but a shared goal to stay alive and out of a dreaded prison called the Hole. But, working together and learning each other’s roles in order to provide back up if needed, they do discover a camaraderie, albeit one that cannot be trusted or relied upon. These are dangerous individuals after all. And that’s not even counting their single guard who seems even worse than they are. This trip will be no holiday.

One Way follows our convict astronauts through their training on Earth and then their first days and weeks on Mars, when they must use all of their ingenuity and skills to pull this habitat together in the face of almost insurmountable odds. And the fact that one of their number dies just hours after their arrival only increases their stress, nervousness and suspicions. When this death is followed by another, it becomes clear that the Martian environment isn’t the only danger they face.

I love novels set on Mars and this one has the added bonus of also being a murder mystery. A small group of individuals in a confined space, with no chance of escape, and a murderer among their number, is a tried and tested format and it works here very well. But, for me, it’s the descriptions of Mars itself and the heroic endeavour to build a life set within this lethal beauty that appeals the most.

There are elements that remind me of The Martian – there’s a lot of nitty gritty detail about building vehicles, transporting objects, putting them together, giving them power and so on. I must admit that there were bits of this that did float over my head. I’m no scientist and I’m not an engineer, electrician or plumber either, so I wouldn’t have been much help myself, but it’s the human effort that I enjoyed.

It’s difficult to warm to characters who were mostly convicts for life for very good reason. Some of the crimes are left vague, just so we don’t hate them too much, but with Frank his crime of murder is given a reason and, as it’s clear he would have no reason to ever do such a thing again, we can warm to him. We follow Frank through much of the novel, listening in to his worries and fears. His need to see his family again is intense and it drives him on. His doubts and anxieties feel very believable. Other characters stayed in the shadows for me but Frank has such a strong presence and identity.

I really enjoyed the claustrophobic feel to One Way as well as the stark beauty of its descriptions of Mars. As soon as I heard about One Way I knew I had to read it and it did not disappoint. And how I love that cover!