Tag Archives: Science Fiction

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!

I Still Dream by James Smythe

Borough Press | 2018 (5 April) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is 1997 and 17-year-old Laura Bow has invented a computer interface, a rudimentary artificial intelligence, called Organon. Laura uses it as her diary, telling it every decision she makes, everything she does and everything she feels, including all of her frustrations and sadnesses. Organon effectively becomes Laura’s best friend, learning to ask her simple questions, even to provide an opinion. Laura is a chip off the old block. Her father created SCION, an artificial intelligence now in development by a large corporation. Her father, though, is now gone. He vanished from Laura’s life one day when she was very small and this is something that she must deal with each and every day.

In a succession of jumps, each a decade apart, we follow the development of Organon, which continues to be such an important part of her life, so much so that she isn’t yet prepared to share it. Unlike the developers of SCION who have now sold SCION to the US government. Organon grows as Laura journeys through her life, forming new lifebonds and relationships, ending others, with Organon by her side.

Jame Smythe has been a favourite author of mine ever since I read and marvelled at The Testimony. His science fiction is original and thought-provoking. It is often melancholic and is always memorable. I Still Dream is all of this. It’s such a beautiful and elegant novel which uses the premise of the development of an unusual artificial intelligence over several decades to explore the very human themes of memory, forgetfulness and love. It doesn’t go where you expect. There is a Skynet element here, as we watch what happens to SCION, but Organon is a very different AI to what we’re used to. It doesn’t harm – it heals. The contrast, though, between SCION and Organon is dealt with brilliantly.

At the heart of the novel is Laura. Even more than Organon, Laura’s feelings dominate I Still Dream. The ten-year jumps in narrative lay out her life for us, laying bare her depression, cleverness, insecurities and her love. It’s hard not to fall in love with the teenage Laura of 1997 as she makes her mixtapes, gets into trouble for running up enormous phone bills for using the dial-up internet too often, all the things that I remember so vividly from those years. Not that there was any internet when I was at that age…. Probably just as well. But I remember doing my O Level Computer Studies back in the 1980s and this brought it all back. There is such a realism to this depiction of Laura Bow. James Smythe is so good at making his people, especially his female characters, feel true.

And so I fell in love with the young Laura and this warmth remained to the end when it intensified. I Still Dream is an emotional read. We have the drama of SCION, which feels all too topical and entirely plausible these days, but alongside it we have the intimate human drama and Organon’s role in this is captivating. The author presents such a sensitive and at times very painful picture of the central role of memory in our lives, as well as the devastating consequences of forgetfulness and of loss.

James Smythe has tackled a similar theme before in The Machine but in I Still Dream he develops it further, placing the AI in a world that feels very real and giving it an intriguing and complex role in its creator’s life as well as in society in general. The novel presents an insightful exploration of the role of the internet and artificial intelligence in our life, not dismissing it as an evil to be banished, but with a potential for good. But, above all, the novel depicts the story of a life, from youth to old age, with all of the heartache and happiness that can be found in between, all of the things that deserve never to be forgotten.

And just look at that cover!

Other reviews
The Testimony
The Explorer (The Anomaly Quartet 1)
The Machine
The Echo (The Anomaly Quartet 2)
No Harm Can Come to a Good Man
Way Down Dark (Australia 1)
Long Dark Dusk (Australia 2)
Dark Made Dawn (Australia 3)

The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch

Headline | 2018 (6 February) | 388p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Gone World by Tom SweterlitschIt is 1997 and a terrible crime has destroyed a family in the small town of Canonsburg in Washington State. A mother and her young son and daughter have been slaughtered in their home – the father, a Navy SEAL, is missing, and the detectives must presume the worst, but so too is the teenage daughter Marian. This is all far too close to home for Shannon Moss of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service who is assigned to the case. She knows this very house. It had been the home of her childhood best friend Courtney and Courtney too died a violent death, many years before. Moss is determined to find Marian alive, to stop history repeating itself. Nobody knows more about that than Moss. She is a time traveller. Her job is to journey into the future for clues to crimes in the past. But there is more to it than that – she has seen the Terminus, the end of humanity, and each time she travels into the future she learns that the date of the arrival of the Terminus is drawing closer and closer and closer.

When Moss discovers that the missing Navy SEAL was one of the crew members of the space ship USS Libra, she knows that this is a case of monumental significance. The Libra went missing far from Earth in time and space, lost in Dark Time. The clues must lie in the future but, Moss fears, she may also find them in her past.

The Gone World is one of those wonderful things – a mindboggling and jawdropping time-travelling thriller that wraps up the reader – and its poor main protagonists – in knots of paradoxes, conundrums and spacetime continuums. I go into a book like this not expecting to understand it all but, as long as it makes me believe in it, then I’m happy and this novel certainly did that.

It has a fantastic premise – and the apocalyptic appeal of the Terminus wasn’t lost on me – and it has several theories about the side-effects of time travel that are really fascinating. I particularly liked the idea that the futures visited by Moss and her colleagues would puff out of existence the moment that Moss left them. Her presence in that particular future would mean it would be rewritten and so could no longer exist. And some of the people in those futures know that. This adds a tension that works brilliantly. Who can Moss trust in the future? Can someone she was close to twenty years before still be relied upon? I love the questions that a good time travel novel pose and this novel is full of them.

Tom Sweterlitsch writes so beautifully. His vision of the end of the world is starkly, terrifyingly wondrous. The descriptions of the time travel itself, which involves a trip into space, are engrossing and stir up big themes about life on this planet, Earth. The structure is also very effective as we move back and forth in time, between first and third person perspectives.

But down to Earth, The Gone World is also a novel about families, relationships and that elusive goal of happiness. Shannon Moss is inevitably altered, physically and emotionally, by her journeys into her future and that makes her relationship with her mother particularly difficult. But it also alters her relationships with her colleagues. All of this is never far from Shannon’s mind, as is her past and her memories of Courtney. And the secrets don’t help. The past, present and future are all tangled up in this intriguing world.

The big themes are matched by the engrossing plot, which, in a novel as pleasingly complex as this one, could never be straightforward. There are shocking moments alongside the moments of tenderness and there are those wonderful instances when we come across the direct consequences of something that has happened in the past or future.

I can’t pretend to have understood everything that is going on in The Gone World and there were occasions when I became a little lost during the final third of the book. But, nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, just as I did its (unconnected although also a crime novel with a time travel twist) predecessor Tomorrow and Tomorrow. Clever time travel thrillers are to be savoured and The Gone World is especially thought-provoking, rewarding and mindbending.

Other review
Tomorrow and Tomorrow

If Tomorrow Comes by Nancy Kress

Tor | 2018 (6 March) | 334p | Review copy | Buy the book

If Tomorrow Comes by Nancy KressIf Tomorrow Comes is the middle book of Nancy Kress’s Yesterday’s Kin trilogy which began with Tomorrow’s Kin. This review assumes that you’ve read Tomorrow’s Kin first as I think you’d need to, really, to empathise fully with the situation facing these characters so far away from their home planet Earth.

The starship Friendship left Earth ten years after the alien visitors returned home to the planet Kindred, leaving behind the technology to build the ship. Earth has been heavily changed by the arrival of the spores, foretold by the aliens, that tore through the population spreading disease, harming some populations more than others. And now it is time for human scientists to journey to Kindred to return the favour, to help the inhabitants combat the spores themselves because it is now the turn of the aliens to face this travelling cloud of plague.

But, on arrival, and what a catastrophic arrival it is, so much is different on Kindred from what was expected, not least the punishing timeslip difference of more than ten years. The trip there and back, that should only have taken months, will actually mean that the travellers will be away from Earth for over 25 years. Some of the young soldiers onboard, there to protect the scientists from the unknown, will return home to baby children now older than they are. That’s if they even get home at all because nothing is now certain, and the alien community they find is unlike any they thought they’d find – there is no revolutionary technology, no advanced medicine, and, with the spores just days away, little hope of a future.

I loved Tomorrow’s Kin, such a fascinating depiction of first contact, set on Earth and aboard the alien spaceship. Much of that novel focused on the efforts of the Jenner family through more than one generation, and now we follow Dr Marianne Jenner to Kindred, where she more than anyone links together the human and other populations. It was so good to meet her again but she brings with her other characters who are equally intriguing, with their stories and histories. Not everyone reacts to this new world as well as others. And there is friction between the scientists and the soldiers.

I don’t want to say anything at all about the alien population but I loved the descriptions of the planet Kindred and the really interesting construction of society there. It isn’t a utopia but it does have elements of it.

This is a plot with a countdown – the arrival of the spore plague – and that keeps the pace and the action going as the situation becomes increasingly tense and frightening. There is, though, a little bit of a lag towards the middle. But for me the main appeal of the novel is in its beautiful descriptions of the people, their relationships and their ideas. Nancy Kress writes so elegantly and evokes so well an unusual society, that some people love and others hate.

If Tomorrow Comes is the middle book of a trilogy and it does set up well the final part to come later this year, but it is also a complete novel in its own right. It’s very different from Tomorrow’s Kin that went before and I expect it to be very different from Yesterday’s Kin but the themes and the stories continue and I am full of anticipation for how the final part of the story, of these lives, will play out.

Other review
Tomorrow’s Kin

Obsidio by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Rock the Boat | 2018 (13 March) | 615p | Review copy | Buy the book

Obsidio by Amie Kaufman and Jay KristoffBefore I go on to review a book that is guaranteed a place in my top books of 2018 post, a word of caution! Obsidio completes the Illuminae trilogy and, if you haven’t read Illuminae or it’s successor Gemina, then you must take not a step further! Everything that happens here is a direct result of what has happened before and every character has been changed by what they have endured and who they have loved and who they have killed. But you must begin with Illuminae for another very straightforward reason – it is quite simply one of the most extraordinary, ingenious, compelling, obsessive reads I have ever had and you do not want to deprive yourself of the pleasure. And then there’s Gemina, the middle book, which is every bit as good. The fabulous news is that Obsidio, the conclusion, is BRILLIANT! Not many books make me want to shout about them in caps, but this one’s managed it.

So, having assured myself that you have indeed read the previous two books, let me tell you just a little about why I love Obsidio and why this is a landmark trilogy in Young Adult science fiction. Actually, I say Young Adult but I can see no reason at all why anyone of all ages wouldn’t love these books. I’m a Slightly Less Young Adult and they could have been written for me so maybe we’ll ignore that label from here on.

I’m going to tell you next to nothing about the plot as that is something to discover for yourself. But you can rest assured that it’s every bit as thrilling as everything we’ve experienced so far. But there is a sense of things coming full circle as the structure divides between life (such as it is) on the occupied planet of Kerenza, where it all began, and on the spaceship Mao which is hastening to its rescue or to share in its demise. There is simply nowhere else to go. We meet new characters but we also spend good time with old friends. I’m not saying who because survival odds have never been lower. But I soon loved the new people every bit as much as the old, and the relationships between them are as rewarding as they are fraught at times.

This is quite simply brilliant storytelling by two masters of the craft. I cannot praise them enough. This is no straightforward story. There are multiple layers of meaning and feeling. There are characters we think might be bad but then we see another side of them and we realise that they are just people. And fear can make good people act in bad ways whereas sometimes even those who want to be seen as bad, who have committed atrocities, still worry about their cat back at home. This is sophisticated stuff. Many of the characters here are youngsters but they’re growing up fast, having adult relationships and swearing like tomcats (swear words are amusingly blacked out or censored!), dealing with very real danger as well as grief.

Obsidio is all about war and we are spared none of the horror of it. There are moments here that left me shocked and really rather upset. Innocence is no guarantee of survival in this world. Some of it is truly heartbreaking, heroic and utterly tragic and brutal. But this is offset by the humour. These are people who could be dead at any moment, almost before they’ve lived. Better to joke about it. And then there’s Aidan, but we’re not going to talk about him here…

Obsidio continues the wonderful narrative technique of the previous books. The tale is told through surveillance footage summaries, emails, notes, messages on noticeboards, pictograms, cartoons, drawings, forum posts. And this is absolutely captivating. It brings these people alive. There are a couple of sketches that reduced me to tears. But you never know what’s going to be on the next page – the way in which dogfights are portrayed is inspired! There is one page in particular that made me almost shout out loud in triumph!

The Illuminae trilogy is an incredible achievement – for its brilliant plot, for its superb characterisation, for its ingenious style, for the quality of the writing, for the humour and the tragedy, but perhaps most of all for its sheer emotional impact. This is powerful.

The sadness at finishing is, thank the stars, offset by the joy at reading in the extremely entertaining acknowledgements at the end that a new series is in the works – The Andromeda Cycle. What a relief…

I’d be hard pressed to think of another science fiction trilogy that I’ve loved as much as this. These are books to keep and treasure and encourage others to read. So that’s what I’m doing – read it! You will not regret it!

Other reviews