Manifest Destiny

By Barry B. Longyear

Rating: 4 stars

Barry B. Longyear is a name in science fiction that I’d not heard before, but on the strength of this collection of linked stories, I’m certainly going to look out for him in future. In 2032, the United States of Earth passes a Resolve that Man shall be supreme in the Universe and no other considerations shall get in the way of that. What follows are a set of stories and novellas that follow humanity as they try and follow that Resolve, encounter other intelligent life and slowly start to see the error of the Resolve.

The highlight of the book for me was the novella Enemy Mine, which has two soldiers on opposite sides being stranded on an uninhabited planet, with only each other for company and they need to rely on each other for survival. This is a recurring theme in science fiction, but it was executed so well here, with the Human and the Drac both being drawn well and the walls between them slowly coming down.

Savage Planet was also an excellent story, with a group of history teachers being brought in by a mining corporation to cow the native inhabitants into submission by showing them the awesome history of Mankind. The rebellion of the teachers and how they come to turn the situation around with (almost) no bloodshed is carried of with great flair.

A great collection from an author that I look forward to reading more of.

Book details

ISBN: 9781504030113
Publisher: Open Road Distribution
Year of publication: 1980

The Big X

By Hank Searls

Rating: 1 star

Mitch Westerly is a test pilot on the Big X project, testing the fastest aircraft ever built, but somewhere around mach 6 he feels the craft wobble under him, and over the course of the book his project manager pushes him relentlessly to try and repeat the effect that he doesn’t believe exists.

This was more soap opera than anything else, and annoyed me because of it. It also felt very of its time, the social mores of the 1950s feeling quite alien to what we’re used to today in terms of relationships. I didn’t find the characters hugely interesting and the soap opera relationship elements fell flat for me because of it. Probably not one to read again.

Book details

ISBN: 9780722176863
Publisher: Sphere Books
Year of publication: 1959

The Reefs of Space

By Frederik Pohl

Rating: 3 stars

The solar system is ruled by the tyrannical Plan of Man under the Machine, where every human has their place, and if they don’t perform as required, they’re sent to the Body Bank so that they can serve the Plan in another way. Dr Steve Ryeland is a Risk to the Plan, but the Machine needs him to work out the mathematics of a reactionless propulsion drive that will take the Plan out to the mythical Reefs of Space, where the tiny Fusorian lifeforms have created vast habitable areas beyond the orbit of Pluto.

This was a reasonably entertaining space opera in a rather unpleasant dystopian future but with a hopeful ending. The Plan or something like it has appeared in a lot of SF as a solution to a very large population and finite resources. Here, the Reefs are used as a frontier that could potentially act as a release valve for a population that has no more frontiers.

Book details

Publisher: Ballantine Books
Year of publication: 1963

Rogue Star

By Frederik Pohl

Rating: 1 star

This book is set some distance in the future from Starchild, after the Plan of Man has collapsed. Humanity has entered the galactic community (although they’re still regarded as barely civilised) and many humans have joined with a group of sentient stars as parts of a group mind. Andreas Quamodian is a Monitor of the Companions of the Star – not part of the group mind, but working for it and doing what it cannot do. A call from Molly Zaldivar, the woman he loves but who has left him, brings him back to Earth to try and stop an ex-colleague from creating an artificially sentient star – one that could go rogue and try to destroy the whole solar system and beyond.

This was easily the weakest in the ‘Starchild’ trilogy with an incoherent plot, unlikeable characters and poor characterisation. Quamodian spends large chunks of the book running around being a lovestruck buffoon and throwing hissy fits whenever something gets in his way. I didn’t particularly enjoy this one.

Book details

ISBN: 9780234776315
Publisher: Dennis Dobson
Year of publication: 1969


By Frederik Pohl

Rating: 2 stars

Set some time after The Reefs of Space, it seems that the hope expressed for the Reefs have come to nothing. The Plan of Man has tightened its grasp on the solar system and established a space-wall between it and the Reefs so that no person may escape and no ideas may enter. However, a strange and powerful entity calling itself the Starchild has arisen out there and is threatening the very Plan itself.

The Reefs of Space had a fairly hopeful ending; this novel indicates that that hope was misplaced, although it never quite goes into details about what went wrong. It also introduces new elements – the Fusorian microbes from the first book are expanded upon, and we get to see a new side to the universe: the idea that the Fusorians can also inhabit stars and make them sentient. Somewhat more convoluted than its predecessor and not so well structured, this is still a fairly entertaining book.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140031034
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 1965

The Day of Timestop


Rating: 2 stars

Dr Leif Barker, undercover agent for the Cold War Corps of the state of March, is given orders to cremate a woman immediately without any examination. This piques his curiosity and he discovers organs that leads him to suspect the woman as an extra-terrestrial.

I mostly enjoyed this book, with interesting world-building (existing states and power structures were wiped away when the vast majority of the world’s population is destroyed by a genetically engineered virus) and society but the main problem for me came in the first chapter, where the protagonist rapes a woman. This is explained away by the fact that she was an enemy agent who was sent to seduce him, but it still reads uncomfortably and throws a pall on the rest of the book, throughout which Barker is portrayed fairly sympathetically. Probably not one that I’ll go back to.

Book details

Publisher: Lancer Books
Year of publication: 1953

The Player of Games

By Iain M. Banks

Rating: 5 stars

Jernau Gurgeh is one of the best game players in the Culture, but he’s getting bored – until he finds out about the great game of Azad, a game so complex that the empire that created it (also called Azad) has based its entire culture around it. Gurgeh goes to join the game but finds himself a political pawn in a power struggle that will define the fate of worlds.

I love this book; the game of Azad is never explained (probably for the best) but Banks’ love of games shines through. The Culture is already mostly fully formed at this point, despite this only being the second novel set in that universe and that society still thrills me, with its almost limitless power, incredible tech and amazing inhabitants. Even if you’re not a fan of large-scale space opera, there’s a lot here to enjoy, especially in the Azadian empire itself, which is a fascinating place.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841490953
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 1988

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: Travels through My Childhood

By Bill Bryson

Rating: 4 stars

I enjoyed this (somewhat embellished) autobiography of Bill Bryson, about growing up in Des Moines, Iowa in the ’50s. Bryson describes a world seen through the eyes of childhood, a world where everything is shiny and the future is just around the corner. A world where everything is good for you (including cigarettes and radiation), that has traditional locally owned shops (including ones with atomic loo seats) and where things can generally be blamed on Lumpy Kowalksi. Occasionally life outside in Adult World is alluded to, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and some of the less scrupulous activities of the CIA are alluded to, but they never intrude too deeply into Kid World.

The 1950s are a deeply nostalgic time for the US as a whole, they were richer than ever before but hadn’t yet gained the cynicism that wealth brings. It was great time to be growing up, and Bryson guides us through that world in his own warm, beautifully written way in no less vivid detail than in one of his travel books.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552772549
Publisher: Black Swan
Year of publication: 2006

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