BooksOfTheMoon

Mission Critical

By Jonathan Strahan

Rating: 4 stars

I liked the idea of this anthology: of things going wrong, and going wrong quickly, and the people who have to deal with those situations and comes out the other side. There’s a lot to enjoy here. It displays its mission statement with a strong first story, This is Not the Way Home by Greg Egan, involving a space tourist trapped on the moon when contact with Earth disappears. This is followed up with a very different take on the idea in Rescue Party by Aliette de Bodard, set in her Xuya universe. This one posits the idea that people can be removed from society and “stored” to be used as living memory banks, if their cultural impact or worth is judged to be more important than their individual liberty, and the rescue party that comes to help the protagonist.

Other highlights include John Barnes’ The One Who Was There, which sort of snuck up on me. You start off thinking that the protagonist is a journalist who’s never been to Ethics, only interested in the story around the Saturn system, before it expands and shows you something much more nuanced. I enjoyed this a lot by the end. Then there’s Mutata Superesse, a fun first-person story with a rapid-response soldier/paramedic dashing in to rescue some colonists who’re in over their heads, and spinning some yarns as they go. The Fires of Prometheus is a story about first responders dealing with someone who just wants to die on Io, but the rules won’t let them leave him alone. It’s a poignant piece with some nuance to it.

I don’t think there’s any particularly bad stories in here, although some worked better than others. Some of the misses for me included Hanging Gardens about attempts to terraform Mars, and the children who get caught in it; Genesong which was just a bit grim, involving a pirate attack that kills almost everyone on a ship that was capturing an asteroid to bring back to a terraformed Venus; and while it’s not exactly bad, Cyclopterus isn’t the story I would have chosen to end the collection with, set in a post-climate change planet, where the megacorps are still intent on wringing all the profit they can out before it all collapses.

Strahan has a good eye for pulling the right stories into his themed anthologies. If you like a a bit of disaster-porn, you can’t go wrong with this one.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781085806
Publisher: Solaris
Year of publication: 2019

Entropic Angel: And Other Stories

By Gareth L. Powell

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve not read an awful lot of Powell’s work, but when I saw this special edition on offer, I thought I’d give it a go, based on having read Embers of War and Light Chaser. And I’m rather glad that I did. I enjoyed this collection a lot, there’s a lot of interesting ideas and settings, and some great writing too.

There’s a couple of far-future end of the universe stories: Sunsets and Hamburgers postulates two humans resurrected at the end of time, and encouraged to have children, despite hope seeming lost; while The Redoubt features two humans given the opportunity of a million lifetimes, to travel the universe until the end of time.

I loved the basic idea of the title story, which involves these winged creatures seeking out sources of energy – power stations, wind turbines and the like, and increasing the entropy within them until they fail and break. There’s a lot packed into a short space here and I enjoyed the stuff that was left unsaid as much as what as said.

There are a few linked stories as well – Fallout and The New Ships both set in an England after an alien ship crashed in the West Midlands, irradiating most of the area and what people do to survive. And then there’s The Last Reef and Flotsam with a setting of a solar system in which AIs go post-Singularity, but most of which turn inward as they ramp up their evolution and burn out.

Eleven Minutes was probably one of my favourites in the collection, in which two squabbling Nasa technicians running night shift duty on a Mars rover see something in the camera that they really don’t expect.

There’s a few stories that didn’t work as well for me – Lift Up Your Face isn’t really SF, but I didn’t really get it much at all; while This is How You Die features a pandemic and the second person voice, neither of which I’m particularly fond of in stories.

But all in all, this is a strong collection from a pretty consistently good writer.

Book details

ISBN: 9781910935392
Publisher: NewCon Press
Year of publication: 2017

Prime Deceptions

By Valerie Valdes

Rating: 4 stars

The second book in the adventures of Captain Eva Innocente picks up about six months after the first, with the crew of La Sirena Negra now picking up missions from Eva’s sister, Mari, to harass The Fridge, the organised crime ring that Eva thought had kidnapped Mari and forced her to work for them to pay her ransom in the first book. Now the group that Mari works for offers them a mission to find a missing scientist (and also, coincidentally, the brother of new engineer Sue, who was also kidnapped by The Fridge). Unfortunately, the trail leads Eva to the site of her greatest failure, and something she’s been running from for years.

I enjoyed this book a lot. It’s fast-paced, full of action, and a lot of fun. Eva is a great protagonist: hot-headed, always preferring to look after she leaps, and full of enough angst to satisfy a gaggle of emos. The rest of the crew are still not as well-developed, although there was a slightly delightful geek romance going on (which self-absorbed Eva obviously didn’t catch on to until way later than she should have). I was disappointed that although Leroy made an appearance, it was more a cameo than anything else. He had a really interesting background that I would have loved to see explored in more detail.

I was also a bit disappointed that the amorous emperor from the first book pretty much disappeared in this one, hand-waved away with a one-line explanation. After his return at the end of the last one, I thought he’d play more of a part here. Oh well, that still left plenty for the crew to get their teeth into.

In the last book, we had a pop-culture reference in the shape of Portal guns. Valdes goes one better here, by introducing evil Pok√©mon (there’s another one later one, but given the glee I felt when I figured it out [much later than I should have!], I’ll not spoil it for viewers at home).

This is a really fun series. I don’t speak Spanish at all, but I’m happy to treat the Spanish language stuff as set dressing, something that adds atmosphere without necessarily needing to go into it in great detail (at least I hope not, since I rarely reached for Google Translate). There’s another book in the series coming, and I look forward to spending more time with Eva, Vakar and the rest of the crew of La Sirena Negra.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356514437
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2020

Light Chaser

By Peter F. Hamilton

Rating: 4 stars

Amahle is a Light Chaser, the pilot of a starship that makes a long, slow circuit around human space, at nearly the speed of light, carrying trade and information between worlds, coming to each planet in her circuit roughly every thousand years. But a name keeps coming up again and again, and with it a conspiracy as deep and ancient as human spaceflight.

I’m guessing that the pace of this cracking belter of a space opera must come from Powell. This is sort the sort of idea that Hamilton would make a door-stop trilogy (at least) out of. Despite the brevity, we get a good thumbnail sketch of this interstellar human meta-civilisation, as Light Chasers are rare and many planets are stuck at different stages of civilisation, whether this is age of steam, feudalism, all the way up to post-scarcity. What Amahle uncovers leads her to wonder at why these various societies are as static as they are.

Amahle is engineered for longevity, and her relativistic travel basically puts her outside of all human societies, other than her peers (none of whom make an appearance here). Even by her relative standard, she’s probably hundreds (maybe thousands) of years old. From the point of view of the outside world, she’s timeless. And yet, even her enhanced human mind can’t hold that many memories, so she’s resigned to the old constantly making way for the new, losing more of herself with every planet she visits.

There’s also a mystical strand that runs through the story, with the idea of reincarnating souls and (literally!) star-crossed lovers destined to meet across many lifetimes, which is a bit weird but it fits.

I went through a Hamilton phase in my 20s, where I read everything I could get hold of (although I’ve not read anything by him in probably a decade now). I’ve not read as much Powell, but this is a neat fusion of the two, not really feeling like either but a solid third voice. It’s a very enjoyable light space opera that breezes through different human societies in pages, where it could have spent whole chapters (or even books) in them, racing towards its finale at breakneck speed. A lot of fun to read.

Book details

Publisher: Tordotcom
Year of publication: 2021

Cage of Souls

By Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rating: 2 stars

Shadrapar is the last remaining city on Earth, with the remnants of humanity having retreated behind its walls. Stefan Advani wears many hats, but the most important one when we meet him is that of prisoner. Taken away from Shadrapar, to the Island, the brutal prison where all the city’s outcasts are exiled.

The most immediate comparison that came to mind when I read the blurb for this book was Clarke‘s The City and the Stars, but Shadrapar is no Diaspar. A more fitting comparison might be to Jack Vance‘s Dying Earth series. It’s got that sort of vaguely mythological feel to it, a mix of high and low technology, and a grime embedded by building on countless previous civilisations that have risen and fallen on the planet since our day – so long past that even myths of our time have been lost.

But Tchaikovsky’s world is far more depressing than that of either Clarke or Vance. Stafan’s world is just the Island, where the Marshal rules with a rod of iron, under the mostly absent Governor. He rules through fear, killing merely as an example; throughout the whole book we never see him betray any emotion other than hatred. Alongside him, is Gaki. A fellow prisoner, but one that Stefan fears as much as the Marshal. He doesn’t do much beyond scare Stefan for most of the book, until the end when his true psychopathy becomes clear.

Amongst the pain and grime of the Island, there are little elements of hope. Stefan befriends a warden named Peter, who is kind to him throughout his life on the Island, and he makes a few friends amongst fellow prisoners, but these are pinpricks in the misery and hopelessness that the book is steeped in for much of its length.

The book offers flashbacks to Stefan’s life prior to the island, and we get to see both Shadrapar and its Underworld. The city is corrupt, with the elite chasing each other’s debt and mutilating themselves for fashion. And the Underworld has its factions and its poverty, but it seems to have a sort of energy to it that the city proper hasn’t.

And then there’s the ending.

Spoiler

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that ends with the vast majority of the remaining human race killed off, and off-screen, at that! The book is vague about the remaining number, but seems to come down on the side of it not being a viable population to recover from. So Tchaikovsky basically makes the Human race extinct. And yet… it’s not entirely hopeless. The web-children may not be a direct genetic successor, but they are our inheritors, the ones who will use Stefan’s mind-power knowledge and maybe create something better.

I mean, that’s bare scratchings of hope – basically burn it all down and start again from scratch, in the hope that it’ll be better. Humanity has had its chance, and it’s been found wanting. Not my idea of hope, but not as bitter an ending as I’d feared.

So yeah, Tchaikovsky is an accomplished writer, very capable of creating vivid characters, worlds and scenes. But he also seems to be a pretty dark writer. Between this and Bear Head, I think I’m putting his books down and walking away.

Book details

A Psalm for the Wild-Built (Monk & Robot, #1)

By Becky Chambers

Rating: 4 stars

Sibling Dex is a monk whose vocation is to travel the lands and listen to people’s problems – a sort of travelling therapist. But they feel dissatisfied with their life, and so begin a journey that will take them out of the human lands, into the wild spaces that were given over to nature, and to where the robots retreated when they gained consciousness. They meet one such robot, Splendid Speckled Mosscap, and begin a conversation.

Dex is an interesting character, aware that something’s not quite right but unable to identify it and change it themselves. Mosscap is a very different personality entirely, curious about everything and delighting in the world around it. It doesn’t show up until about a third of the way through the book (until then we’re learning about Dex and the world of Panga in which they live, where humans try to tread lightly through the natural world), but livens up every page thereafter.

The book is optimistic and hopeful; portraying a world where humans realised the damage they were doing during the oil-burning “Factory Age” and made a conscious effort to stop. They use their technology in a very different way now, and although I can’t quite see how we’d get there from here, it’s definitely something to strive towards.

Like all of Chambers’ writing, this story is kind and humane, and a pleasure to read. I might grumble about the cost of novellas, but that won’t stop me from snapping up the next one as soon as it’s available.

Book details

ISBN: 9781250236210
Publisher: Tor.com
Year of publication: 2021

Chilling Effect

By Valerie Valdes

Rating: 4 stars

Eva Innocente is the captain of the small freighter La Sirena Negra (or The Black Mermaid for those of us who don’t speak Spanish). After some dodgy stuff in her past, she’s trying to go straight, and then she discovers that her sister has been kidnapped by the ruthless organised crime organisation known as The Fridge. Eva will do whatever she has to to free her sister, and if that means giving up her crew and the life she’s built, then so be it.

This was a fun, if fairly episodic, space opera, with Eva dashing between assignments for The Fridge, inevitably getting into trouble at each stop, and trying to keep everything from her crew for as long as possible. There’s a creepy guy who makes a pass at her at one of these who Eva turns down. Except that he turns out to be an emperor who won’t take no for an answer, and keeps popping up after that with his fleet, trying to add her to his harem. Oh, and there’s psychic cats.

Apart from Eva, the crew of La Sirena Negra don’t get much characterisation, which is a shame, since there’s a lot of potential there, especially for Leroy, who spent years as a “meat-puppet soldier”, with his body being piloted remotely in some unknown war, and who now has PTSD. There’s also Pink, the ship’s medic, who also served with Eva in her shady past, and Min, the pilot, who spends more time linked to the ship than her own body. And then there’s Vakar, the new engineer. He’s the only non-human (other than the cats) on the ship and I don’t think he was really described very much, other than having “pangolin-like” skin and “face-palps”. I’m struggling to picture him at all. His most interesting feature is that his scent changes depending on his mood, something that makes it very hard for him to lie, if you can understand the scents.

Valdes has created an interesting world. As is more usual these days, humans in this universe are johnny-come-latelys, not kings of the hill, and are currently in the process of applying to the current galactic federation (the amusingly named BOFA), not that Eva has much time for politics, between trying to keep her crew afloat and trying to save her sister.

The episodic nature of the story does sometimes feel a bit like going through computer game levels (something only heightened when they come across what can only be described as Portal-guns, although that made me laugh out loud when I figured out what they were).

Despite those minor complaints, there’s some decent twists, and Eva is a lot of fun, with her Mysterious Past and her found-family crew. I’m definitely looking forward to the second book in the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356514420

New Horizons: The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction

By Tarun K. Saint

Rating: 2 stars

I kind of wish I’d enjoyed this collection of short speculative fiction from the Indian subcontinent more than I did. The omens weren’t good when then footnotes for the introduction were almost longer than the introduction itself. And it was long and dry, feeling very much like someone wanted to be able to repurpose it at some point into an academic paper.

There was a mix of old and new stories, with some historical ones, although most were modern. It would have been nice to have some clue as to to the age of each story, actually, since the copyright page listing the stories was incomplete, and some of the ones that were present lacked dates.

The stories themselves were a mixed bag. The editor notes in the introduction that SF isn’t a genre that’s been historically popular in south Asia, but he includes some in here anyway. The opening story, Planet of Terror feels very “Golden Age”, and that’s followed by a satire in which a police inspector goes to the moon, to teach the people of the moon the ways of a modern, efficient police force (i.e. corruption and bribery). A lot of the stories are quite dystopian, which isn’t really my cup of tea, and many of the others feel quite experimental, and what can I say, I prefer more traditional styling in my fiction.

It’s a mixed bag, of course, and I did enjoy some of the stories. These included The Man Who Turned Into Gandhi, a diary of a man who, er, turns into Gandhi, and how he tries to continue living his life; Flexi-time is a gently humorous story about the perils of living your life too regimented and a paean to “Indian time”; and the last story Reunion is a cli-fi piece about the importance of change and adaptability. My favourite story is probably S. B. Divya’s Look Up, about a broken family, one of whom is trying to put her past life behind her with a new start on Mars.

So, an uneven collection, not to my taste, but I still think it’s important and that there should be more like it. I’ll certainly keep looking out for them, hoping that a different editor has tastes closer to mine.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473228689
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2020

A Quiet Afternoon 2

By Liane Tsui

Rating: 4 stars

I really enjoyed the previous volume of Grace & Victory’s “low-fi” speculative fiction anthology, and am pleased to report the same for this second volume. This one is bigger, with twenty eight stories (although some of the stories are more like flash fiction, only a couple of pages long) where the stakes are low, and the peril is mild. It was definitely a good choice to read this alongside Bear Head, a book that made me pretty anxious and stressed.

Some of the stories are whimsical, like the opener, Sadedali and the Secret Life of Clouds, about a cat and her human making friends with clouds; or The Many Kidnappings of Princess Zania, about a princess who keeps getting kidnapped by a sorcerer, until she figures out what he wants. Some of the stories are melancholy, such as In Case of Emergency, Break Heart, where broken hearts can be replaced by mechanical ones, and if they stop you from feeling, well, that’s a feature, not a bug; or Wings of Memory which is a lovely story about identity, and self, and determination.

I favour the warm, sweet ones over the melancholy ones. Remembering Simulacra, for example, tells of a number of painted concrete dinosaurs who, every night, climb out of the amusement park where they live to a nearby hill to watch the skies in memory of the great fire that killed the creatures they were made in the image of. And I’m always up for a Glasgow story, and Brian Milton’s Rab the Giant Versus the Problem Neighbour is just lovely (full disclosure, I know Brian, and loved the previous story featuring Rab).

In general, a lovely idea for an anthology, with a lot of very pleasant stories; and with a donation from the profit from the book going to charity (as they say, “quiet afternoons are too often a privilege when they should be a right”), I heartily recommend it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780994009760
Publisher: Grace&Victory
Year of publication: 2021

Bear Head

By Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rating: 2 stars

Jimmy Martin is a construction worker on Mars. He’s used to doing a bit of data smuggling in his head to feed his drugs habit, but he’s not used to the data talking back. Jimmy has a fully fledged bear in his mind, and one that wants to talk to the other colonisation effort on Mars. The one nobody wants to admit is there. And Jimmy’s got to along for the ride, whether he likes it or not.

I enjoyed Dogs of War a lot, but I struggled with its sequel. The themes of sanctity of thought and slavery are fully front and centre in this one even more so than its predecessor, this time with added rape. I really hated Jonas Murry, from the first book, but Warner Thomson leaves Murry in his dust. I mean, Tchaikovsky isn’t exactly being subtle here about Thomson’s model here: the empathy-less, narcissistic businessman turned politician, who jumps on whatever right-wing bandwagon is rolling. Every time he turned up, I felt my stress level go up in anticipation of what horror was going to happen to Carole, his PA (and whose PoV we see through in chapters featuring Thomson) and I just wanted to scrub my skin.

This book certainly doesn’t feel as fun as its predecessor. Partly it’s that we don’t get as many bioforms, most of the PoV characters are human (or, at least, humaniform, since the people sent to Mars have been heavily modded to help them survive). Honey, the bear from Dogs of War, is the only Bioform PoV that we get, and she’s older and more worn down than the young, idealistic bear of yesteryear. Jimmy, whose head Honey ends up living in, isn’t exactly a bundle of laughs either. He’s a washed-out, drug-addicted construction worker, mostly there to let other people spout exposition at him.

It’s a depressing, dystopian future that Tchaikovsky has created here, where hard-won freedoms are being eroded, and the Bioforms are finding themselves new targets of old racisms. But it’s the casual way that “Collaring” (basically slavery that makes you permanently loyal to a person or company) is being being promoted by the corporates of this world that depresses me the most. Sure, I can very much believe that rich and powerful people and corporations would jump at a return to slavery, but seeing such an imagined future spelled out is difficult to stomach.

I appreciate the writing and the plot, and the very clever use of the Prisoners’ Dilemma, but despite all that, I felt that this was a slog to read, and didn’t really enjoy the experience.

Book details

ISBN: 9781800241565

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