Cheshire, CT USA | Member Since 2013
Big-idea grand space opera follows in the final quarter of this novel, the majority of which is set in a closer future, juggling problems and wonders that are nearly at hand. Both segments are brimming with more concepts than can be absorbed in one reading, and I spent a lot of moments pausing my reading to trace a modern trend to the logical extrapolation Brin had. The world he paints is connected to ours in quite believable ways, and experiencing it in this story feels like a "Cliff's Notes" summary of all the latest science and tech developments spun forward several years. One can't help but feel that Brin spends a lot of time reading science journals, then thickly gathering all the most promising and fascinating discoveries into his stories.
The characters and plot events, while interesting, are not so memorable as the ideas being introduced. They feel like transparent vehicles for delivering grand theories on life in the cosmos, and how it will eventually look when encountered, given the dual challenges of vast distances and epochs separating civilizations. Two things that are done well in this novel are: reminding us of the truly insignificant scale of our place and moment in the universe, and illustrating many of the pitfalls surrounding us. Species extinction and civilization passing are taken as nearly unavoidable eventualities, and yet the tone here is not at all cynical, rather a celebration of diversity in the unfolding renaissance Brin sees us entering into.
This book is a spiritual, if not narrative, sequel to Haldeman’s 1975 “Forever War”. Both novels won the Hugo & Nebula, and explore the theme of war’s futility, although from different perspectives and in separate story-worlds. Readers expecting a continuation of Forever War’s interstellar conflict or relativistic time dilation effects, will see that instead this story features a strictly terrestrial struggle between the wealthy nations, fueled by effortless nano-factory produced plenty, and the struggling excluded masses. The earlier novel, written in the immediate post-Vietnam days of an antagonistic welcome for returning veterans, further exaggerated the alienation of the protagonist with a fish-out-of-water situation that placed the character hopelessly out of touch with his own century. Here, in the 1998 novel, one senseless war is supplanted by an invisible one to end all wars, as the protagonist discovers a pacification treatment that involves sharing one of the military’s tightest-held tools with all of humanity to bring individuals together into a community incapable of violence outside of self-defense. Haldeman uses SF technology as vehicle to explore the age-old thought that ‘if we only walked in our enemies shoes for a day’. At the same time, the greatest opponent to this peace movement is one of religious zealots who inexplicably seem to want death and destruction for its own sake. I felt that not enough insight was given to their internal motivation, even when the narrative was told in first person perspective of one these characters. This left them a bit too archetypical and cartoon-evil for me. On the human-scale drama of this story, there is a compelling relationship that is shown conquering the challenges of race, age, military-civilian differences, then ‘jacked’ vs natural minds until it is thoroughly proven to be unshakable. There are also some notable thriller scenes and a number of high-tech asymmetric warfare scenes as well. Absent, sadly, are any aliens or Space Opera tropes or any references to advanced climate change expected over the coming century (CliFi).
Like a lot of threequels, this read isn’t for those who haven’t already digested the previous installment novels. Not only do many of the background conflicts and events rely on an understanding of those books, but the history between the major characters is found there, too. This is no criticism, however. A lot of series these days try too hard to be a ‘big tent’ for an expanding readership, that early chapters drag with exposition and ‘catch-me-up’ material. If Tolkien felt compelled to do this, he would have needed another hundred pages. I personally prefer when authors treat the reader with enough respect to trust us to remember (or re-read) important previous material- that’s what all the fan Wikis are for, right?
No, my peeve with this story is that it starts off extremely promisingly, with a collection of characters and motives that are all appealing, both new and returning, with those in the latter category having undergone substantial personal evolution between novels. They are drawn together and undertake a hero’s journey in the form of an expedition into hostile alien territory, further outside of human space than anyone has ever traveled before. And then, with this spectacular set up, the remainder of the story devolves into a finger-pointing mystery among the characters to uncover the infiltrator in their midst. This would have been welcome in a moderated dosage; a sideplot that allows the greater focus to move on to more wondrous, alien, Space Opera, big concepts. However, the story really spiraled into one betrayal after another, and while this kept the tension and action quite high, I feel like it missed an opportunity to accomplish both of those things more engagingly using external threats. It’s possible I feel this way only because of how stupendous the epilogue was in this regard, and it reminded me of all the things that later half of the story proper missed. While this bodes well for my enjoyment of the 4th installment novel, Marauder, it did cause my attention to drift at moments.
After the undeniable SF pedigree of the earlier two novels in the series, this entry felt entirely too devoted to politics and diplomacy, although still enjoyably so. The smirky protagonist (found in all of Scalzi’s books, as far as I know) brings a dry humor to the narrative. In this series, the character is named John Perry, and along with his wife and fellow former soldier, Jane Sagan, find a way to avert disaster for underdog humanity in a hostile universe. The pair are bit too idealized, however, and would be more interesting with some character flaws or blind spots. Another missed opportunity I noted was that while the novel is full of plenty of alien species and characters, there are practically no descriptions of their appearance, physiologies, or philosophies. They could all very conceivably stand-in for humans in all their nationalities and factions, operating from some non-SF setting. The cookie-cutter approach reminds me of the TV aliens in Star Trek, ironically something Scalzi quite successfully lampooned in 2012’s “Redshirts”. For this level of multi-layered strategic diplomacy, one could just as easily have picked up a thriller from the current NYT bestseller list in the Fiction aisle, but as a SF fan, I would have liked to see something more exotic from the characters, settings, motives, etc. A final criticism is one I’ve spotted in other Scalzi books: An overuse of the verb “said” in dialog. After a string of several, my ear was straining for some variety. Where the novel succeeds, however, is in the moderate humor and clever solutions to the tough spots the characters find themselves in. There are some very satisfying ‘back from the brink’ moments here, and on the strength of the earlier novels in the series, I’m willing to continuing reading the series after this bridge book.
There seems to be an uncomfortable amount of bashing the Russian Revolution in the themes found here. A brittle authoritarian monarchy with a deep distrust of post-industrial technology is confronted by an external visitor that turns everything in their society on its head with a deluge of free information. When undercover agents from a freer, more liberal and technologically advanced society insert themselves into the military response, it’s hard not to think of cold war cat-and-mouse thrillers. To make the parallels completely undeniable, Stross has loaded the Soviet-style civilization (ironically named the New Republic) with Eastern European surnames. There’s not a lot of surprises in the plot, however, as the adversaries are so overwhelmingly mismatched. The rigid commanders of the New Republic refuse to realize this, so the reader is treated to a very rapid illustration of a society entering into a technological singularity. Here, I was reminded a bit of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels where the practically omnipotent Culture society often comes into well-meaning conflict with it’s mortal neighbors. There were also some intriguing possibilities brought up regarding FTL travel and its implications on Causality, as well as some practical economic effects resulting from cheap nano fabricators. Separately, a lot of these ideas are explored in other Space Opera books, but they came together nicely here and serve as a reminder of what foundations must be in place before certain technologies safely come into a society’s grasp.
In this trilogy-capper, true to the title, when the characters aren’t engaged in life-and-death battles, they’re gearing up for such fights. Somehow the defeated tyrannical forces of the previous installments have regrouped enough to once again pose an existential threat to the unbeatable anti-hero, Alan Saul- ‘The Owner’. His overpowered infallibility is paired with an increased detachment from human-scale relationships in this novel, so Asher has wisely spread the burden of the POV protagonist flag to other, more relatable characters. Another welcome development is that a few of the previously antagonistic ‘villains’ undergo some transformation and serve more redeemed roles. The story structure is a fairly straightforward build-up to inevitable conflict, although there’s some clever tactical twists that are rewarding to watch unfold. The only theme I identified was a continuation from the rest of the series: violent revenge will visit the guilty.
This exploration of digital consciousness is heavier on the philosophy than hard SF, although enough near-future exposition and tech is provided to support the premise: supercomputers allowing for digitization of living minds. Once that platform is established, Egan is free to play with all the high concept questions that result from a physics-free playground subject to will and desires. In the virtual environments that these uploaded consciousnesses inhabit, every sensation and perception can be modified to the individual’s tastes, as can those tastes and indeed- the individual’s own personality. The story’s drama comes, in part, from characters altering their very selves to accommodate circumstances. Additional moral questions come into play when system-generated additional personalities are introduced to provide community, and when intelligent life evolves from scratch in the VR and begin to seek their own origin. When these intelligences come into conflict with one another, or with the outside world, where the same computer resources are in demand for improving life for the billions of our reality, additional dilemmas ensue. All in all, the novel does a great job extending the trope and giving it the full examination it deserves, although it’s a bit weak on the characters or action.
A satisfyingly rich worldscape is presented, so dense that it’s possible to immediately get disoriented and be tempted to walk away from this book, but for readers who opt to enjoy the ride cresting on the top of the fast-moving waves, and not worrying too much about the depths below, there’s a terrific thrill in store. While there is a recognizable whodunnit mystery plot at it’s core, the juiciest bits are all the posthuman concepts introduced. Or rather, never formally introduced: Rajaniemi’s style is to drop ideas, reference backstory, factions, etc conversationally on the reader as if you were as familiar with all of it as the citizens of the story. This can sometimes take many dozens or even hundreds of pages to gather enough exposition (often inferred from context) to explain, making this book a good candidate for a multiple-read approach in order to fully appreciate- perhaps with a glossary or wiki near at hand. Fortunately, it also has plenty of fast-paced action sequences and consistently well-crafted language to make a re-read welcome. The central theme is reminiscent of Plato’s Cave: In a society where every thought and every personality is digitized and mediated by ubiquitous personal encryption, what constitutes reality, ownership, freedom, or memory? In this utopia, personal privacy is so highly regarded that conversations, interactions, and even observations of an individual can be erased from all memories if that individual desires- even retroactively. Of course, such a system becomes an immediate target for corruption, so plenty of dramatic possibilities here.
While there is well-deserved respect for this classic, I think it lacks some of the complexity and economy of more contemporary space opera stories. Admittedly, many of those modern works stand on the shoulders of this novel, relying on concepts pioneered here or in Larry Niven’s ‘Ringworld’ when using shorthanded jargon such as ‘orbital’, ‘arkships’, ‘generation ships’, etc. Clarke has created a fantastically mysterious alien artifact that evokes both the reader’s wonder, and frustration. The thoughtfully imagined engineering is very internally consistent, and completely soaring in its wonder and scope. Lacking any apparent passengers, Rama qualifies as one of the genre’s original inscrutable BDO’s (Big Dumb Object), and is the center of the story’s plot and focus. In fact, very little interpersonal drama or secondary conflict appears in the story aside from some brief nationalist sword rattling which never transcends sideshow status. The only tension that ever seems high enough stakes is that provided by Rama itself, and in each case Clarke returns to the theme of cosmic indifference towards microscopic mankind. Likewise, Clarke’s treatment of characters is fairly superficial, allowing just a peppering of distinct personalities to differentiate the cast a bit. For me, the most interesting, yet unexplored of these was Rodrigo, a devout member of the Fifth Church of Christ, Cosmonaut. These “Cosmo Christers’ hold a belief with a xenopomorphic deity, and I feel could bring many questions and dilemmas to this or just about any Space Opera story. However, much like the ‘Simps’ (genetically engineered SuperChimps), they are a concept introduced and then largely ignored in the text. Narratively, the novel is structured to bounce between a first person perspective through protagonist explorer Commander Bill Norton, and third person scenes from the chambers of government, providing some exposition and perspective. All in all, this story gives a thoughtful, slow examination of BDO concepts- rare in more contemporary works- at the expense of drama and characters, and provides helpful historical background to newer genre readers looking to gain perspective and appreciation for the Space Opera libraries.
This military SF piece indeed begins indistinguishably from several other ‘new recruit’ stories it has been compared to (Scalzi’s ‘Old Man’ series, Haldeman’s ‘Forever War’ series). A first-person protagonist, Andrew Grayson is recruited into the Space Military (my generic coinage) and goes on to discover that war is Hell. More so that either of those examples, however, this story pays a more muscular respect to the details of military life, and the author’s soldiering history is apparent. Military jargon and abbreviations abound, and the reader truly is immersed in the life. For the first half of the story, however, this presents a risky problem for the reader; many will be drawn to its realism, but many may become disinterested in the dearth of significant SF material to distinguish it from mainstream fiction.
Around the 60% point of the novel, however, there is a drastic setting change that shifts the balance of tone back into the SF corner while backing away from the military realism. As this portion of the narrative takes place with a naval setting, I’m assuming Kloos’s first-hand knowledge ends with the infantry experience. Details that were thick in the earlier chapters become thinner, and feel abbreviated in the later chapters. Both halves prominently feature a ‘parent-figure’ commanding officer, and both share a can-do-no-wrong, too-good-to-be-true air about them. Sargent Fallon & Lt Commander Campbell are insufficiently flawed characters, I feel, and represent wish-fulfillment. Neither makes any mistakes, and both will go to extremes to defend every individual in their command.
The plot holds plenty of shoot-em-up action throughout, and the slightly exotic settings of the later chapters provide some SF backdrop, but no new SF concepts or questions are ever presented. Thematically, this is a straightforward love story between the protagonist and the military. The appearance of aliens in the story’s climax arc feel like they are mindless targets inserted to simply provide an enemy for the hero, although things are left vague and mysterious enough to possibly have a more complexly-structured sequel where the reader will presumably learn more about the unfolding threat. Still, ‘Terms of Enlistment’ would make a good summer read, and does entertain even if, like a drill sergeant, it doesn’t ask it’s readers to think for themselves.
This well-structured space opera manages to deliver both a engaging character-driven drama as well as some jaw-dropping wonders of an alien BDO (Big Dumb Object). Baxter tells a multi-narrative story from various character perspectives over a lifetime, and divides the action across two star systems.
One protagonist, a press-ganged colonist named Yuri Eden, is dragged across interstellar space to be abandoned on a hostile new world to establish a human foothold along with a scattering of other unwilling exiles. Their story of survival over several decades brutally demonstrates both the dangers of human psychological isolation as well as an unfamiliar and alien environment. There is some interesting and exotic biota, although he keeps it to only three or four varieties, which I was engaged enough to have wanted more. A good deal of research and calculation must have gone into determining what the conditions of such a world must be, and Baxter goes into convincing depth of detail describing weather, geology, etc.
Where I thought the story really shined, however, was in the other main narrative back on the Earth, where a catastrophic conflict is brewing between two power blocks. A physicist named Stephanie Kalinski finds herself caught in between the two as the alien artifacts she’s spent her career studying become the central prize that they are contesting. Neither the miracle alien power source nor the alien wormhole gateway are all that unique in SF literature, but Baxter introduces an unexpected twist when Stephanie’s first encounter with one of the artifacts generates a full-grown twin sister, complete with an altered history and memory of this new character for all but Steph herself, who alone recalls her sister-less past timeline. This mid-story twist came quite unexpected, and is among the many teased mysteries left for the subsequent series installment(s) to further address.
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