Cheshire, CT USA | Member Since 2013
This third novel in the jumping action-filled space opera 'Expanse' series maintains the down-to-earth dialog, humor, and the perspective-hopping narrative structure of its predecessors. Even more so than in those stories, however, we see Newtonian physics elevated to practically an additional character status; half the dangers the Rocinante crew face are acceleration related. The other half are the familiar contests between violent human groups. Although there is a continual alien presence in the background, its role is mostly an indirect one, and that allows for greater human drama. The infrequent moments of conventional Space Opera, jaw-dropping cosmic scale vistas and wonder are incidentally associated with a favorite character, Detective Miller, and promising new characters bring empathic connection with the reader. The most interesting of these is Melba / Clarissa, whose growth and progression is an interesting one to follow, with some rather extreme arcs.
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.
This is the first of the novellas in the “Expanse-iverse” I’ve read, and I have to admit I was a bit disappointed. While the amazing novels are all complex, multi-narrative, loaded with hard SF and trademark dialog, this shorter work was a lot more… terrestrial. The protagonist, teenage chemist David Draper, is fairly archetypical as a nerdy dreamer who falls for the prom queen. However, in this story, she’s a junkie and her boyfriend isn’t the captain of the football team, he’s a drug dealer with a quietly menacing demeanor. Some of the backdrop to the story connects to the larger events of the novels, but very peripherally so. The one crossover character from those books, David’s aunt, Bobbie Draper, is disappointedly underutilized, as she is a fan favorite character who really only has one scene at the climax. The biggest miss for me however, was how completely pedestrian the setting is. One would imagine an author could do a lot of impressive things, setting scenes in a Martian habitat, but here it’s actually very unremarkable, and could be interchangeably substituted for any city. Even the events of the plot could have been written within a contemporary 21st century setting without putting anything out of place. This story really is only recommended for the most devoted Corey fans, but none of these should feel like they’ve missed anything critical if they never get a chance to pick this one up.
This second story in Howey’s Silo trilogy acts as both a prequel and sidequel to the original, 'Wool’, by braiding the separate narratives in alternating chapters. Howey’s writing superpower is to give pleasingly detailed scenes with an economy of words: “Donald raised his finger and asked him to wait” is a perfectly concise sentence to describe an interruption in the characters' dialogue without ITSELF becoming an interruption to the reader’s enjoyment. Unfortunately, the wider canvas for the setting in this novel actually makes it less interesting for me than the claustrophobia of ‘Wool’, although some of the characters are even more intriguing in this installment. The primary narrative follows one of the Silo system’s principal, though inadvertent, architects, Donald Keene, and provides background and insight into how the Silos came to be. As returning readers will already know the tragedy to follow, there is a delicious tension in reading events build to the inevitable downfall. Even so, I felt the mystery built in the original was stronger than answers provided here. The inner turmoils that Donald faces are very believable and engaging, as are those of Jimmy/Solo from another of the various narratives. The bridging narrative from yet a third protagonist, Mission, was probably the weakest, although its heartbreaking happy ending was a wonderfully unexpected twist exploring the nature of memory. Overall, I enjoyed every page, although like the freed prisoner from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, I find myself wishing I could rush back to my earlier ignorance of the Silo lead-up, which held so much more mystical wonder than the perfectly orderly prehistory laid out in ‘Shift’.
When NASA’s secret small team of specialist experts reach the derelict alien BDO (Big Dumb Object) in Arthur C. Clarke’s “Rendezvous with Rama”, the reader got a fabulous tour of soaring wonder and possibility. When it happens here, we instead get the inner monologue of an adolescent girl-crush which is frequently interrupted by some space opera. There is a heavy dose of romance in this debut novel, and a lot of wish-fullfillment that makes far too much of the plot predictable as our protagonist, expert (and civilian) linguist Dr. Jane Holloway, overcomes a series of challenges that stem from the less capable (and military) men that accompany her. I found parallels with Gary Gibson’s “Stealing Light", which also features a heroine in psychic possession of an alien derelict starship, as well as James Cameron’s “Aliens”, which had similar survival-horror action scenes. Here in “Fluency”, Jane is too consistently successful for the dramatic tension to build sufficiently, and the other characters seem accessory. The pacing is greatly improved by a second flashback narrative alternating with the main one, providing both exposition into the mission as well as depth for the character. I felt like the opportunity was missed to create a wildly alien culture, finding instead a slightly varied flavor of humanoid Star Trek style beings, although a wider field of cosmic players is alluded to. Foehner Wells’ forthcoming follow-up novel, “Remanence”, will hopefully delve into these more imaginative possibilities, and downplay or even forego the romance altogether.
The five stories collected here were of varied quality; unsurprising given that they each had different authors. The shared universe they are set in feels like it was designed by committee, and has a bleak, post-environmental-disaster backdrop, but is otherwise undistinguished from the near-future wrecks I’ve seen elsewhere. The strongest story in the bunch, Karl Schroeder’s “To Hie from Far Celenia,” largely ignores this shared universe in favor of a super-imposed VR one layered on top, which I found a very bold choice, although it may speak unfavorably toward the others.
“In the Forests of the Night” by Jay Lake was the most poetic and eloquently worded story in the collection. It’s imagery was very deliberate and memorable, making it a great choice to begin the anthology, and provide some exposition. By setting the action in the midst of a community which has taken an extreme response to the ecological devastation of the METAtropolis shared world, Lake has the opportunity to show rather than explain what the aftermath looks like. Although the story ends in a confusing resolution, it nonetheless scores well for its other strengths.
The next piece, “Stochasti-City” by Tobias Buckell, has some nice character evolution, and some vision for a renewed future. The protagonist, a war veteran named Reginald getting by on his wits and strength, reluctantly dives into an adventure that ultimately brings some purpose for him. The hero’s journey he undertakes tours various community responses to the crisis, and allows Buckell to explore multiple concepts of sustainability in shortage.
Elizabeth Bear’s “The Red in the Sky is Our Blood” features a subversive society-within-the-society looking for eco-revolution. This theme runs through all the stories, but seems like a contrived way of creating conflict. The establishment society which everyone seems eager to topple is given a voice in the next story, John Scalzi’s “Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis”. The protagonist, Benjy, finds himself defending the city walls from invading barbarians, literally. As in other Scalzi stories, humor features prominently, and the light-hearted tone helped the pacing for the entire collection.
The concluding story, “To Hie from Far Celenia” by Karl Schroeder, envisions people escaping their bleak lives by retreating into VR subcultures. The story really gets interesting when it’s revealed that even within these communities, there are further levels of sub-subcultures operating with their own economies and distributed dynamic borders. The concepts here were the most imaginative of the collection, and provided a strong finish to the bunch. I think I would have liked to read more from this world than the other dystopia-leaning stories that preceded it, and feel like it brought my overall acceptance of the anthology up a notch.
This novel follows closely to the television formula: The Doctor and companion are drawn into a mystery set in modern day London, discover an alien invasion plot, and they (well, HE, really) foil it after a few twists and turns. I don’t consider that bit a spoiler, as any licensed material must necessarily deliver all the characters and settings back unaltered by the conclusion- series authors don’t own, they rent. I’ll agree with other reviewers in pointing out the similarities in the story’s villains with those in the television episode “Waters of Mars”. However, I must defend Cole in saying he wrote three years in advance of that episode’s airing. The areas to truly judge a DW story by, I feel, are the peripheral one-off characters that one wouldn’t expect to see return in any other story. These are the few with which the author can take liberties with and write freely; the portion of the whole which is owned and not rented. Most of those appearing in 'Feast of the Drowned' were unremarkable for me, and none experienced any transformative hero’s journey in this story with the possible exception of the scientist Vida. Her transition from opposition figure to team member by story’s end is not spectacularly different from any other such character conversion from the series. Nor are Crayshaw and the other villains all that dissimilar from other would-be alien invaders of Earth who had the poor luck to attempt their plans on the day that The Doctor happened to be passing through the neighborhood. Like the rest of the crowd, he is prone to monologuing his plan to The Doctor in a moment of perceived victory with raspy voice. I was also underwhelmed with the silver-bullet trope of the conclusion, and expect I’m not the only reader who foresaw it in the early pages of the story. None of the complaints should dissuade series fans from reading the book- it’s very familiarities that make it a weaker story in the wider pool of SF literature are the aspects of it that will make it enjoyable to its established audience of Doctor Who fans.
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