A brilliant "biopunk" novel set in Thailand, in the post-petroleum age where genetic engineering has unleashed plagues on crops and people alike, and Thailand maintains its independence by preserving its sacred heritage seedbanks, untouched by Western "calorie companies."
The main characters are Anderson Lake, an undercover "calorie man" (which makes him a bad guy, basically, though he does have his occasional redeeming moments), and Emiko, the Windup Girl, a genetically-engineered "new person." However, there are several other POV characters in the book.
This is a pretty glum view of the future, and some of the technological changes struck me as unlikely, but for the most part, it was a convincing dystopia. The only problem was that none of the characters were entirely sympathetic (except Emiko, who was flat, personality-wise), and with the shifting POVs in each chapter, it's hard to get engaged with any of them. Only towards the end do all their separate storylines come together.
Also, be aware that there are a couple of viscerally described rape scenes, and the portrayal of Thailand (and other Asian cultures) is rather off-puttingly exotifying.
Nevertheless, for the story alone, it's still one of the best SF books I've read in years.
A Midsummer's Night Dream has more physical comedy than most of Shakespeare's plays, and you're missing out if you don't see Oberon and Titania and the rest of the fairy court, so I wasn't sure how enjoyable this purely audio presentation would be. But it's a delight. Oberon and Titania are otherworldly, and sound effects make it clear what's going on to make up for the lack of visual cues.
This is a comedy about two pairs of youths, one in love and the other couple both in unrequited love. Their flight into the fairy woods, a well-intentioned fairy king (and a not so well-intentioned Puck), a troop of actors, and a quarreling fairy royal couple, all collide in a funny, magical fantasy that gets untangled with a happy ending, unlike Shakespeare's other famous play about star-crossed lovers.
Definitely a great way to experience this play, although still better on stage.
The Dreaming Void is the start of a new trilogy that takes place in the same universe as Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained, but thousands of years later. Like those books, it's a huge, epic space opera full of powerful aliens, amazing tech, and galaxy-threatening perils, and like those books, I found it packed with Big Ideas and should-have-been intriguing characters that never really thrilled me.
Given my similarly lukewarm feelings about Iain Banks, Alastair Reynolds, and Charles Stross, I am starting to think that British SF just doesn't do it for me.
In The Dreaming Void, there are numerous factions at work in the human Commonwealth, centuries after the great war with the alien Primes that almost wiped it out. It's governed by a sort of collective AI/post-human network known as the Advanced Neural Activity, while humans are somewhat divided in how trans-human/post-human/enhanced/immortal they want to be.
At the center of the conflict in the story is the Void, sitting at the center of the galaxy and swallowing stars at a sedate-by-human standards pace, but rapidly enough to significantly shorten the galaxy's lifespan on a cosmic scale. While the Void is kind of like a black hole in that nothing that enters it can escape, humans have apparently disappeared into the Void before and supposedly, according to dreams shared by a messianic figure named Inigo, survived there. Then Inigo disappears, and his billions of followers undertake a pilgrimage to the Void. This upsets a number of alien races, including the Raiel, who believe that messing with the Void could cause it to enter an "expansion" phase in which it begins growing and swallowing up the galaxy at a dramatically faster pace.
There are a lot of characters all engaged in separate subplots, not all of whom seem to bear directly on the central threat. While you don't need to have read Pandora's Star or Judas Unchained first, there are many references to events in that book, and several returning characters. (Humans, thanks to uploads, rejuvenations, and stasis fields, can now have lifespans measured in centuries or even millenia.) In particular the return of the Javert-like Paula Myo will no doubt be greeted with applause by fans of the first two books, and the constant references to Ozzie Isaacs suggest he's almost certain to appear again, probably at the series climax. But there's also a subplot about a young ex-waitress named Amarinta and her many love affairs, in which Hamilton carries on that fine sci-fi tradition of trying to write imaginative sci-fi sex and just making me want to skip ahead to the intrigue and the aliens.
Running through the book are Inigo's dream chapters, which are the saga of a young man named Edeard on a barely-post-medieval world within the Void. It is implied that these people are descendants of the human explorers who first entered the Void, but Edeard's story reads more like a traditional epic fantasy, in which psychic powers replace magic, and Edeard is of course the Chosen One. Despite realizing at an early age that he is far more powerful than all the other telepathic and telekinetic humans on his world, he watches his village get wiped out by bandits, then travels to the big city and becomes a member of the constabulary, where naturally he learns that everything is corrupt and he can't really make a difference — until he unleashes his spectacular abilities.
Oddly, despite reading like fantasy rather than SF, and taking place completely parallel to the main plot, I found Edeard's chapters the most interesting ones in the book.
There is plenty left hanging at the end of this whopper of a book, and it was just enjoyable enough for me to maybe want to continue the trilogy, but it just didn't grab me. A lot of it seems like rehashing the Pandora's Star duology. Sure, one would expect some of those events to be mentioned, but it's over a thousand years later — even in a super-technological society with functional immortals, I think Hamilton could have made the Commonwealth more different from its previous incarnation than it is. There is also a sameness to Paula Myo chasing cultists and nefarious agents around the galaxy trying to figure out which faction, human or alien, is really up to what. And while theoretically, a void at the galactic core threatening to expand and swallow the whole galaxy should feel like an existential threat, there is, at least not yet, none of the sense of impending doom we got when the Primes were on the verge of exterminating humanity in Judas Unchained.
This book has some notoriety among Heinlein's legions of critics for being a "reverse racism" story in which a group of white people (and their one black house-servant) are blasted thousands of years forward in time by a nuclear war, and find themselves in a future ruled by black overlords, served by an underclass of subservient whites.
Farnham's Freehold is actually not that bad, nor is the narrative message as ham-fisted as I expected; Heinlein was a progressive for his time, and notwithstanding all those people who claim he was a libertarian, less plausibly, a "right-winger," or absurdly, a fascist, he was clearly trying to make a positive statement about freedom, self-determinaton, and racial coexistence. The story is more complex than some of the more inflammatory reviews give it credit for — most of the characters, white and black, are decent by their own standards but flawed in various ways, and no one is made out to be inherently better or villainous by virtue of their race.
That said, it's understandable that a novel written in 1964 about blacks imposing chattel slavery and racial supremacy over whites — and literally ranching them for food — might be seen as a somewhat less than elevating contribution to the genre today.
As a story, this was okay, but not one of Heinlein's best (though certainly not his worst either). Hugh Farnham is a typical Heinleinian omni-capable Everyman, aided and assisted by a typical Heinleinian woman (hot, willing, smart and capable but knows her place and likes it) as they try to escape from the dystopian nightmare they have found themselves in. Actually, as dystopias go, none of the characters in the book are treated particularly badly, a point made repeatedly by their "Charity"/master, and refuted effectively by Farnham when he points out what the "King's Charity" really means. Like most Heinlein novels, there is food for thought here, and a decent amount of adventure, and a lot of nubile fourteen-year-old sex slaves (who the main character of course is too noble to take advantage of).
Interesting but dated, and not what I would recommend to someone new to Heinlein, but if you like his other, better works, Farnham's Freehold will probably entertain you.
A fantastic sci-fi epic in the tradition of Simmons's Hyperion Cantos. In Ilium, as in the Hyperion books, Simmons really shows off his knowledge of classical literature. He obviously knows the Iliad and the Odyssey inside and out, but the author (through his characters) also fill this book with literary and historical references to Shakespeare, Proust, and a dozen other sources. It's ingenious and it made me to resolve to finally get around to reading the Iliad myself once I've finished this series.
Set in the 40th century, Ilium is a retelling of the Ilium. Kind of. We begin with "scholic" Thomas Hockenberry, who was an early 21st century classics professor revived by the Olympian gods in the 40th century to monitor the ongoing Trojan War — which is taking place on Mars.
"Wait, what?" you are thinking. The "gods" are creatures of super-science, using unimaginable powers of quantum manipulation and nanotechnology to take on the roles and attributes of the classical Greek deities. And not just the big names either — while all the old familiar gods like Zeus and Athena and Aphrodite of course figure heavily into the plot, Simmons, through his educated protagonist Hockenberry, encounters scores of minor named gods and heroes as well.
Just why the gods are reenacting the Iliad on a terraformed Mars is not made clear by the end of this volume, but the heroes — Achilles, Hector, Paris, Odysseus, etc — are also as epic as the gods, thanks to both nanotech enhancements and literal interbreeding between gods and mortals, just like in the myths.
Hockenberry and his fellow scholics are basically embedded journalists for the gods, but although they all know how the Iliad ends, they have been forbidden by Zeus to tell any of the other gods. The gods know that the scholics know how Homer said the story is supposed to end, but they've been forbidden to ask the scholics. So they continue playing their games with mortal lives.
And then Hockenberry is recruited by one of the gods for a clandestine mission to kill another god. And with the "magic artifacts" he's been given, he's able to change a key event. And suddenly we're not in the Iliad anymore. And Hockenberry, who's now a dead man as soon as the gods catch up to him, decides to change the story completely.
This would be a pretty awesome story all by itself, but in fact Hockenberry is only one of three main protagonists. There are two other subplots which eventually merge into the Iliad on Mars. A pair of "Moravecs" — a race of sentient robots built by post-humans before they disappeared, now living out among the moons of Jupiter — is on a mission of their own. Not having paid much attention to the inner system for generations, they discovered a lot of dangerous quantum manipulation and advanced terraforming on Mars. When they go to investigate, their ship is shot down... in orbit, by a bearded man in a chariot throwing a lightning bolt at them.
Mahnmut and Orphu, the only two survivors, try to make it across Mars, aided by mysterious "Little Green Men" who seem to be creations of neither early humans nor the gods. The two robots, whose dialog is kind of reminiscent of R2D2 and C3PO, if C3PO were a Shakespeare scholar and R2D2 were fond of Proust, add a bit of comedy relief to the story, but eventually have a role to play in the climactic confrontation between gods and mortals.
Finally, there are the last surviving humans on Earth, a tiny population of laborless dilettantes with little to do but go to parties and play musical beds. Their world has been created by the long-gone post-humans, who created teleportation networks around the world, set up a system in which all remaining humans are carefully population-controlled and do not have to work or want for anything. They are granted perfect health until their "fifth twenty," when they report for exterminationascension to the outer rings, Logan's Run-style. But as Eloi-like as the remaining human race may be (they are actually called "Eloi" by one of the old-time humans they later meet), the spark of curiosity hasn't completely died in all of them. A few set off on an unplanned adventure, and discover truths about their world... and that there are Morlocks.
Ilium is so rich in world-building and has such a tangled plot that there were occasional bits that lost me — I am still not sure of the role of Caliban, the Little Green Men are just strange, and we don't yet have an answer to the question of why super-advanced godlike beings have resurrected the entire cast of the Iliad on a terraformed Mars. But hopefully those questions will be answered in the second book, which I will be reading soon.
I downloaded this from Audible this morning and listened to it while shoveling snow, wishing I had a clockwork automaton to do that for me.
Philip Pullman's Clockwork is a fairy tale set in Germany in (presumably) the 19th century, in a world where clockwork devices can be made so intricately precise that they can, if constructed by a particularly ingenious clockmaker, pass for little boys. There are elements of Pinocchio, Faust, and any number of Hans Christian Andersen fables in this story that actually weaves three stories together.
There is Franz, the storyteller who entertains the townspeople with fabulous and hair-raising stories, until he ends up invoking someone who shows up in the tavern while Franz is telling a tale about him.
Karl, the clockmaker's apprentice, approaching the day of the end of his apprenticeship where his great creation will emerge from the town clock tower, has a big problem: he hasn't actually created anything. So of course he is pulling his hair out and swearing he'd do anything to get out of this mess, and you know where that leads in fairy tales.
Finally, there is the story of the proud and arrogant prince and his pretty, fashionable wife, in need of an heir. When their only son dies stillborn, the prince goes looking for a replacement, and procures a clockwork boy.
Everything wraps up with the bad getting more or less what they deserved, the good living happily ever after. Pullman is a good storyteller, especially when he stays concise and doesn't drag trilogies off the rails in the final book (*cough* The Amber Spyglass *cough*). Clockwork really is just a modern fairy tale, so don't expect any brilliant subversion or some kind of steampunk twist.
This was okay. Nothing exceptional or memorable, pretty much the epitome of "commercial fiction." If you want an LAPD detective story, here is an LAPD detective story.
Harry Bosch (yes, his real name is Hieronymus, his mother, who we learn later was a prostitute, liked the Dutch painter - oho, characterization!) is a child of institutions. He grew up in the system (see: mother, prostitute), then joined the Army and did a tour in Viet Nam as a "tunnel rat," then became a cop. But even though he got as far as homicide detective, he's "not one of the family." His superiors don't like him because he doesn't "get along to go along." He got suspended and investigated by Internal Affairs, who still doesn't like him, because he thinks he's a "one-man army."
Yeah, we've seen this character before. Connelly even lampshades it lightly with a mention that Bosch made some money when Hollywood did a TV show based on a few of his cases.
So, we've got the Cop Who Doesn't Go Along With the System, which means of course he always digs deeper when his bosses don't want him to. In this case, it's a fellow tunnel rat from his 'Nam days who turns up dead in a tunnel over the Mulholland Reservoir that brings Harry into a case that turns out to involve a bank job (digging tunnels under the bank, naturally) and skullduggery among the various species of rats who escaped Viet Nam.
The plot is well constructed enough, with a few twists that are mostly plausible, aside from some rather large coincidences. Harry is antagonized by IA, and there's an assistant police chief who is almost a parody as the representative of highly political police brass getting in the way of Harry Bosch solving crimes. He hooks up with a lady FBI agent who is integral to the plot; their one-nighter leads to expressions of as much sentiment as a flat character like Bosch can manage.
Basically, Bosch has very little personality beyond what you could summarize on an index card. This is also true of all the other characters. The Black Echo is a set of generic crime thriller archetypes going through their paces in the story. The Hollywood setting is likewise very routine, exercising every trope you expect in an LA noir story.
It was a decent listen, and I might pick up another Harry Bosch story some time when I want a relatively mindless LA cop story, but it doesn't even begin to invest me in the characters or the setting the way some other series, like say, Hillerman's did, and the writing is merely workmanlike.
The narrator was very well suited to this story, though, handling the grizzled cops, the burnouts, and even the female FBI agent with very realistic voices, even capturing the sound of people speaking on the phone.
I tend to skip around a lot between series - it's rare nowadays that I go straight from one book in a series to the next. But I happened to pick up Caliban's War and Abaddon's Gate together during one of Audible's frequent 2-for-1 sales, and I enjoyed the second book in the Expanse series so much that I just went straight into the third.
Abaddon's Gate picked up where Caliban's War left off: the alien protomolecule has been building a massive alien ring in the outer solar system, to unknown purposes, and the fact that no one has a clue what it's doing or what the consequences of interfering with it will be does not prevent fools from rushing in. Earth and Mars are determined not to let the other be the only one to claim... whatever might be claimed, and so they have both parked fleets around the ring, studying it while watching each other warily. Meanwhile, the Outer Planets Alliance wants to flex their muscles, so they send the Behemoth — formerly the Nauvoo, a two-kilometer generation ship built by Mormons to carry mankind's first interstellar colony, the OPA salvaged it after the events of Leviathan's Wake and has now retrofitted it as a gigantic, scary battleship which is entirely for show, since if it ever fires its massive weapons, it will probably fall apart. But it looks darn impressive, so they send it out to join the posturing Earth and Martian fleets.
Three human fleets standing off against one another, all ready to shoot each other if anyone does something funny, while they try to figure out what the big alien artifact built by a species that was seeding the galaxy before Earth had finished cooling is doing. What could go wrong?
Well, for starters, you could throw Jim Holden into the situation. Holden and his ship, the Rocinante, are sent to the ring by plot contrivance, which of course puts him in the center of the action when things start happening. Holden, now famous throughout the solar system for always telling the truth no matter how many wars it starts, becomes the first witness to the alien ring's true purpose, with a little guided tour by a returning character from book one.
As with the first two books in the Expanse series, this one is told through multiple points of view. Sadly, foul-mouthed Avasarala and Martian marine Bobbie Draper are only mentioned in passing in this book; besides Holden we have "Bull," an OPA heavy made to take a subordinate position aboard the Behemoth for political reasons; Anna, a Methodist minister dragged into a ecumenical conference out there in the outer solar system, who provides a slightly more humane and ethical viewpoint than the honorable but stubborn and frequently idiotic Holden; and lastly, Clarissa Mao, sister of the girl Holden tried to save in the first book, daughter of the man Holden helped destroy in the second book, now bent on revenge. Clarissa is initially the villain of the story, determined to destroy Holden and everyone around him no matter what it takes, but as events take shape out beyond the orbit of Uranus, her perspective begins to be altered by a mutiny, an abrupt alteration in the laws of physics, and the most dangerous threat to life on Earth since a meteor wiped out the dinosaurs.
It would be too much of a spoiler to describe the ending, but let's just say the series will apparently be dramatically expanding in scope in book four.
These books are not new landmarks in science fiction literature, but they probably will take their place as modern genre classics, certainly more deserving of popularity than the many redundant military SF series I've been reading lately. While they wouldn't personally be my choice for Hugos, I wouldn't be upset to see one of the Expanse books earn a Hugo. (Leviathan Wakes was nominated but didn't get it, so the series as a whole has probably missed its shot.) Now that they are being made into a SyFy series, it's easy to see how the cinematic aspects are ramping up with each book. Book one had space zombies and a giant ship crashing into Venus, book two had space battles and alien monsters versus space marines, and Abaddon's Gate features metaphysical visitations by aliens, big dumb alien objects, rival space fleets, and a hot Asian chick doing transhuman ninja tricks, so I'm sure it will all look fabulous on cable. I hope. It's good, entertaining space opera and still intelligent enough not to insult the dedicated SF fan. I'm quite curious to see what where the series goes in book four.
In the second book in pseudonymous authorial duo James S.A. Corey's Expanse series, the Rocinante, captained by James Holden, takes on a much stronger Firefly vibe. Holden and his crew begin the book still working for the Outer Planets Alliance, hunting pirates. The alien protomolecule that crashed into Venus last book is still doing....something down there. And a giant Polynesian space marine encounters monsters on Ganymede.
After that, the book alternates between the viewpoints of Holden, angsty idealistic captain who has a knack for getting himself twisted over moral dilemmas where the usual answer is "Shoot the SOB," Bobbie, Martian marine who increasingly finds it hard to tell what side she's on, and is happiest when the solution is "Shoot the SOB," Avasarala, a foul-mouthed grandmotherly UN official who will convince you that politicians aren't always useless, and Prax, whose quest to rescue his daughter, abducted by Evil Scientists for Evil Science, humanizes the Rocinante's political/action space shoot'em-up quest.
Basically, you have a small group of people trying to chase clues and bad guys around the solar system to stop an all-out interplanetary war from breaking out over an alien biological superweapon.
I found Caliban's War to be better than the first book, as the scope is expanded somewhat (and clearly by the end, it's going to expand a lot more) and there isn't so much time spent with "vomit zombies" in space, though the alien horror does still seem to borrow a lot from Alien and other cinematic precursors.
It's not very hard science fiction — it's high adventure, bad marine chicks, alien monsters, space combat, and Firefly-esque banter. A fine series; I'm going straight into the third book.
This is one of those books with a fairly straightforward plot that's a vehicle to say a lot of things about a lot of topics: how much of one's fate is set in childhood, parenting, relationships, the seemingly inescapable crucible of environment, class differences, the media, emotional and physical abuse, stalkers, and of course, child murderers.
The Wicked Girls is set in England, and seems to have been inspired by the murder of James Bulger, a three-year-old boy who was abducted, tortured, and murdered by a pair of ten-year-olds. In The Wicked Girls, the victim and the perpetrators are all girls, and of course, there's more to the story.
Annabel Oldacre and Jade Walker come from opposite sides of the tracks; Annabel's family is upper-class and wealthy, while the Walkers are known throughout their community as the British equivalent of trailer trash. Annabel and Jade by chance strike up a friendship one day, but by the end of the day, a little girl is dead and the two of them soon become the most notorious and hated eleven-year-olds in England.
Twenty-five years later, the two of them are both living under new identities, but under lifelong probationary conditions which include monthly check-ins, and an absolute prohibition against contacting one another ever again.
Jade is now "Kirsty," a journalist, and Annabel is "Amber," a cleaner at a seedy amusement park in a seaside resort town. This reversal in expected outcomes — the girl from the bad family is now an educated, middle-class career woman with a family, while the girl from the posh family is now a weary, friendless cleaning woman — is the first statement the book makes about how the circumstances of one's childhood do not predetermine the outcome.
It turns out that Jade, the girl without a future, was sent to a relatively progressive institution where she was actually given an education, and when she was released on parole, was able to make a life for herself. Meanwhile, Annabel, whom the media had labeled the "dominant" member of the pair, on the assumption that the rich girl must have been pure evil while one could only expect the poor girl to have a broken moral compass, spent her years in juvenile detention in a hellhole. She emerges basically broken and hopeless.
When a serial killer begins killing tourists in Amber's home town, Kirsty comes to cover the story. The two of them run into each other, recognize one another, and the secrets the two of them have kept hidden their entire lives immediately threaten to spill out, no matter how hard they try to avoid each other.
The Wicked Girls has a nicely twisting plot and a range of secondary characters, each of them bringing up other issues, from Amber's emotionally manipulative boyfriend to Kirsty's struggles to support their family with her husband "excessed" out of a job in his mid-40s, the minimum wage workers at the amusement park that Amber has been put in charge of, the abused girl she takes in only to be betrayed, and of course, the media, which just like twenty-five years ago, seizes on lurid details and interviews with unreliable people to construct a narrative that will sell papers and generate moral outrage, whether or not it actually bears any resemblance to the truth.
Watching two women whose lives were destroyed as children try to reconstruct an existence under the constant fear of discovery, even by their own families, and then see it all come unraveled once again, makes this book both a suspenseful psychological thriller and a tragedy even before the climax.
Many reviews of this book refer to Battlestar Galactica, and it's pretty obvious why. A great big obsolete starship has been sitting around collecting the dregs of the fleet, with a washed out alcoholic captain, and then suddenly aliens attack and it turns out the Ark Royal is the only ship that can fight them. Christopher Nuttall obviously really loved BSG. He also seems to really love strategic space combat games and the British Royal Navy, and really hate reporters.
There isn't much fleshed out in this future universe. All the countries of the early 21st century seem to be pretty much intact and similar in their relative power and politics in the future, even though they've all begun colonizing other planets. Humans have yet to encounter intelligent aliens. Then suddenly aliens attack a colony world and wipe it out. The alien ships are armed with plasma cannons, which the shields of all the newer starships cannot withstand, so a multinational defensive fleet is quickly wiped out.
The admiralty decides to send the 70-year-old carrier Ark Royal on a crucial mission because they hope its heavy armor plating, built for a previous era of space warfare, will do better against the alien weapons. This despite the fact that they know the captain of the Ark Royal is a drunkard.
Needless to say, the Ark Royal flies into glorious battle, there is much space combat, Captain Ted proves himself to be a great officer once he puts the bottle down, and also every single female officer about the Ark Royal is apparently sleeping around. (I don't think any woman had a scene without her breasts being described.)
Ark Royal is reasonably entertaining candy for those who like military SF. Accept the premise that starships are just like naval craft, and the British Royal Navy once again rules the "waves," and it's fun to visualize ship counters moving across a hex map as the battles are described. (At times, I could almost hear dice rolling.)
The writing is okay, though like a lot of self-published novels, the lack of polish is evident. Facts are repeated, heck, everything is repeated, and there are a lot of contradictory plot points. The worldbuilding is scant; just as much as is needed to put those ships counters on the map. Being a true SF fan, I don't just want starship combat, I want to know about the aliens, and by the end of this book, even though they have captured a few of them, they still know absolutely nothing about them or why they attacked.
This was not a bad book, but it didn't stand out from the many similar series. If you like space combat, and the idea of an "old school" British navy fighting aliens, or anything Battlestar Galactica-themed, you'll probably like it.
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