Larson has crafted a novel twist on alien contact as well as solving the dilemma of advanced technology within a society temporally close to our own. In Swarm, alien vessels with alien advanced technology, but no aliens arrive on Earth and begin selecting, rather brutally, human candidates to pilot the ships in anticipation of future conflict with another alien enemy.
Our hero is a college computer scientist who is the most successful at deciphering a functional interaction with the alien artificial intelligence powering the spacecraft. The bulk of the tale revolves around bootstrapping a military response to a malevolent alien invasion by what appears to be a machine intelligence, intent on wiping out humanity in order to use Earth as a source of raw materials.
While some of the approaches to dealing with the alien invaders are contrived (and not well thought out), it's clear that Larson is setting up the opening salvo in what appears to a larger and longer story arch that will eventually introduce humanity to a more enlightened view of galactic politics (and lots of interstellar warfare as well).
The writing is tight and the reading is well done making for an overall easy listening experience.
Enoch the Traveler is a short story based in a biblically themed universe that respects a scientific basis for laws of nature as opposed to vague, ill-defined mystical magical powers. In this universe (and there are multiple iterations - the multiverse), Heaven and its celestial inhabitants exist as a corporate, bureaucratic, mundane "adjustment bureau: like entity keeping things moving along.
In this tale, Enoch, the biblical character, is a vagabond wanderer who accidentally becomes involved with a blissfully ignorant human, Violette. The story is a series of short, dangerous and exciting adventures as Violette is exposed and comes to appreciate her new reality in a Dorothy in Oz style rendition. The sci-fi elements are muted with a few odd gadgets as well as restrained attempts to explain theological aspects in scientific terms.
Narration is in the style of a performance, rather than a more straightforward reading. There are multiple narrators, one for each unique character along with background sound effects which can either be enhancing or distracting depending on preferences. This is a short, quick listen, best absorbed in a single sitting.
On the Steel Breeze is the 2nd installment of Alastair Reynolds' Poseidon's Children trilogy. While the focus is still with the Akinya clan, this is the next generation with Chiku Akinya, Sunday's child splitting herself into multiple entities and sharing memories. This trick allows Reynolds to craft two simultaneous stories, one in our solar system and the 2nd on a "holoship" heading towards a distant star system. Improvements on rejuvenation technology permit this story to be technologically advanced relative to Blue Remembered Earth.
Basically, an alien artifact around a distant star has spawned a caravan of holoships, hollowed out asteroids transporting millions of humans to what is expected to be a newly formed world. Mysteries surrounding the alien artifact around Crucible drive the plot with both Chikus doing all the digging while avoiding the nefarious interference of an artificial machine intelligence with vague, ill-defined motives.
Sadly, while the writing is engaging with excellent pacing and solid character development, there are serious deficits that render much of the action inscrutable at times. For example, the holoships take off for Crucible and use their supply of slow down fuel to achieve more speed and arrive quicker, but without a way to insert into orbit on arrival. The politics on the holoship and the caravan as a whole are inadequately detailed and so the prohibition on research to figure out a way to slow down simply doesn't make sense. As with the 1st installment, the fascination with aquatic biological engineering doesn't fit with an outer space themed environment. Also, Reynolds liked the character of Eunice so much that he created a machine intelligent clone of her, hidden away on the holoship overseeing intelligent elephants which made little sense other than adding some dramatic action scenes and a setup for volume 3. Finally, the denouement with a pseudo-computer virus resetting Earth, seemed a bit like the TV Batman series with a unique, one time utility belt day-saving gadget.
The narration is well done with an excellent range of voices, with appropriate tone and mood. The musical interludes that separate the different Chikus was also much appreciated. Finally, one observation, not a criticism, just an observation: the story has the sense that Reynolds took a bet, a dare, or even a voluntary challenge to write a story where every major character (even including the elephants and machines) is female.
Ransom Stephens' The God Patent is a unique sub-genre of sci-fi. There's no actual science fictional elements as much as an attempt to create a fictional universe where current science aligns more closely with religion. Two young engineers on a whim submit two patent applications that basically outline a computer neural net that displays free will and an energy extraction method that parallels the big bang. These concepts are interpreted by the religiously inclined to mimic the creation of a soul (the neural net) along with the conversion of spiritual energy to usable energy in the real world (the bang). Much attention is paid to attempting to harmonize story concepts to the existing understanding of physics.
At the same time, the story mostly concerns itself with the two engineers as we follow one life on the upswing and the other in a grand mal death spiral. Along the way, are the ambulance chasing lawyer, religious zealots, an atheistic scientist, and the Einstein level wunderkind. The plot is engaging with a good flow and realistically portrayed characters along with a reasonable insertion of corporate, government, and media suits. Sadly, none of the characters are endearing by the end, but probably the only bit of sci-fi is the cosmic justice and universal irony. One can just imagine the impetus for the tale was a late night, substance enhanced party with undergraduate physics majors taking a bet on hypothesizing alignment between science and religion.
The narration is well done with a solid range of voices for both genders as well as young and old.
The Stars, Like Dust is the 2nd installment Asimov's Empire series, but sufficiently loosely connected to be a standalone rendition. Briefly, the tale takes place in the far distant future with current Earth history a distant memory. Star travel has been mastered and planetary systems are largely settled with humanoid intelligent life. Earth and the rest of the local inhabited worlds are under the tyrannical rule of distant overlords.
The plot revolves around a young man whose father, a fellow of considerable economic significance, has been murdered. The son embarks on a journey to discover the truth which leads to political intrigue and hints of rebellion. The sci-fi elements are limited to interstellar travel, a "radiation" bomb which was probably the concept for neutron bombs, and "massometers" which can detect gravitational fields. While all this seems rather simplistic, this was released in 1951.
The narration is excellent with a solid range of voices, appropriate pacing, and good tone and mood. While the story is short by current sci-fi standards, the plot is still quite engaging and rich in complexity.
Stross' Neptune's Brood is set in the same universe, but further into the future as Saturn's Children. Humans have come and gone multiple times. but their robot creations have carried on, recapitulating human ambitions and drive with regard to exploration, settlement, and establishment of organizational structure throughout the galaxy. Stross explores the financial requirements necessary to support interstellar colonization and development as well as the resulting potential for fraud, corruption, and get-rich-quick schemes, including a variant of the classical Ponzi scheme. The story concerns a lowly bank examiner for a large money center bank who also happens to have a hobby focusing on archaeological accountancy (basically digging up long forgotten financial transaction to collect any leftover booty). Her travels take her on an adventure that is engaging and entertaining as well as thought provoking.
The sci-fi elements are mostly android abstractions with multiple unique and clever implementations that allow robots to survive in strange environments. Stross also explores the impact of longer (centuries) survival times. The various plot twists and turns are largely unexpected with a varied cast of anthropomorphic robots that make up a wonderful cast of characters ensemble.
The narration is very well done with a solid range of characters that correctly captures nuance and subtlety.
Xom-B offers a unique combination of zombies and robots inhabiting a world after mankind has been eliminated. Freeman is a new breed of robot designed as the next step in evolution by a splinter group of robots that emerged from the "grind" which represented the emancipation of robot AI's. The tale gradually unfolds with the backstory of mankind's demise and the "rise" (or fall) of the machines along with Freeman's raison d' etre for existence. With fast paced action, filled with robot zombie hordes, the story climaxes with interesting plot twists and a new iteration of intelligent life on Earth.
The sci-fi elements consist mainly of a dystopic future with advanced, humanoid robot AIs fighting zombified robots. Ultimately, this is a tale defining humanity and the indomitable human spirit by focusing on non-humans.
The narration is well executed with a solid range of voices.
Afterparty is a smart, sophisticated tale set in the near future (2030's or so) and offers a compelling perspective on evolving drug use. The premise is the re-emergence of a never commercialized treatment for schizophrenia that has as a unique side effect: a powerful spiritual / mental / emotional sense of connection with God. The story of how a failed biotech drug treatment is re-invented as a semi-religious movement is told by a smart, neuroscientist originally involved with the drug's discovery, but whose subsequent life has been a substance abuse / PTSD nightmare following their business implosion after a murder. Along with a paranoid / neurotic fellow mental hospital inmate who happens to be an ex-national security agent, the heroine delves into the source and reasons for her drug's revival.
The sci-fi elements are fairly benign for a near future tale. Scientifically and pharmacologically, the author is accurate and insightful in crafting an engaging and compelling tale, while at the same time maintaining scientific integrity. Beyond the biological neuroscience aspects, there's also exploration of what constitutes free will at the level of neurons.
The narration is superb, capturing the mood and tone of the tale. There's a solid range of both male and female voices with particular attention to individual peccadilloes.
The Atlantis Plague follows immediately on from where The Atlantis Gene left off. The time dilation effects and name changes have been muted for this installment and so the story is easier to follow. David and Kate are moving in separate tracks for the first half. The plague is racing out of control and Dorian has gone rogue relative to the Imari. The alien intentions are made clear and contain both benign and malignant actions as we learn that two different philosophical approaches have been driving human evolution and development.
Riddle does a fantastic job of creating a riveting plot with multiple twists along the way. Most entertaining is the creative reinterpretation of human history from 70K BC to the present. He weaves the plague of Justinian and the Black death as events that were intentionally engineered to drive human evolution. Kate holds humanity's fate in her hands with her decision on how to finally resolve the current human catastrophe. Lastly, Riddle sets up book 3 with the suggestion of something that even our alien genetic engineers were fearful of.
The narration is excellent with a good range of voices for all characters.
Howey has served up a novel rendition of the post-apocalyptic genre. With much of the explanation for the climatic and geologic conditions left up to listener's imagination, a future world that is little more than a giant sandbox is the starting point. Geographically, the story is set in Colorado which has basically become a desert overlying our distant past. The sparse barely survives by "sand-diving" in an analogous manner to scuba diving hunting for the buried treasure from an ancient civilization. The story revolves around one family with a father gone missing, a mother forced into prostitution to support her family and the children of varying ages, most of whom have gone into diving to make ends meet. Their journey concerns the dawning recognition that there is more to the world than their small patch of sand.
Howey presents credible scenarios where "sand-diving" is accomplished by special dive suits and static electrical charges to vibrate the sand such that movement similar to swimming can be attempted. Deep dives runs into pressure issues analogous to ocean diving. While the story is self contained, Howey has clearly created a future that offers much expansion potential with a great mix of characters.
The narration is quite well done with a great range of voices and pacing that matches the mood and tone of the tale.
A G Riddle's The Atlantis Gene presents a novel reinterpretation of both humanoid evolutionary biology as well as recent historical events. Beginning 70,000 years ago, the notion is entertained that our evolutionary past has experienced some outside, purposeful influence for reasons unknown. An autism researcher and a spy embark on a worldwide travelogue piecing together the present day mystery while uncovering related events from the WWI era.
The science elements are varied with evolution, molecular biology, and the physics of time all mixed together. Equally compelling is the detailed descriptions of tradecraft for the espionage components. Suggestions of aliens or at least distinct intelligent, hominid type creatures is hinted. Differences in the passage of time in various locations creates characters across the long story timeline, but along the way, the 1918 Spanish flu, WWII Nazis, and 9/11 are all integrated into a coherent alternate historical interpretation that bodes bad luck for mankind.
The narration is well done with a good range of voices, female and male as well as ethnic variations. This requires a close listen as the time passage variation creates the same characters with different names in different time periods.
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