Just Add Water

By John Dodd

Rating: 4 stars

Chief engineer Mara Logonova has been woken up early as her colonisation ship has developed faults that the automated systems can’t resolve. But something is clearly wrong with the AI and they seem to be in orbit of a planet. Mara has to revive some trusted crew to help her figure out what’s wrong, while avoiding the ever-present watchful AI.

The premise here of the human crew being “deconstituted” to dust and being revived by, as the title says, just adding water (it’s more complex than this, but that’s it in a nutshell) is pretty absurd, but I sort of love it. Neater than cryo-freezing or generation ships, and without the need to raise a whole generation if fertilised embryos are used. It’s very silly, but has a lovely internal logic.

This is a tightly paced novella, with few wasted words, and a sting in the tail, which I didn’t see coming. It’s fast-paced and doesn’t outstay its welcome. The characters are likeable (especially the perfectly tailored quartermaster in the three-piece suit!) and the plot keeps you engaged. Good fun.

Book details

ISBN: 9781913387457
Publisher: Luna Press Publishing
Year of publication: 2021

Meru (The Alloy Era, #1)

By S.B. Divya

Rating: 3 stars

Jayanthi is a young woman living in a post-capitalist world where humans now live in tune with nature and the world around them, and try not to extract resources and abuse it. Her parents are post-humans, known as alloys, who are anthropologists who have chosen to live on Earth, but she’s fascinated by the new habitable planet Meru that has been discovered and which could support a human colony, except that humans are prohibited from doing so by their ancient compact with the alloys. But Jayanthi gets permission to travel to Meru as part of an experiment to see if she can live there without contaminating the planet. She travels with an alloy pilot named Vaha, someone who is still living with zir parent’s disappointment in zir.

There’s quite a lot to unpack here. I veered between finding this future world utopian and dystopian. A world with high technology and nobody going hungry, but where ambition is discouraged and humans are prevented from most space travel and the sorts of scientific experimentation that might lead to new discoveries and having their name recorded for posterity in the repository of knowledge that they call the Navid. Genetic manipulation is commonplace, using a combination of designing and randomness (which is how Jayanthi ended up with sickle cell disease), although it seems that alloys have much more control over this than humans do.

I didn’t really find Jayanthi that compelling a character. Her motivation seemed a little all over the place. Vaha is much more interesting to me. Zie spent zir whole life disappointing zir parent, who eventually abandoned zir in disgust, something which is shocking to the reader, and which left Vaha with a crushing inferiority complex. Putting these two together leads to a rather weird romance, which is almost buried under all the politicking. Throw in an amnesia plot and it feels a bit soapy.

There’s a lot to enjoy here. The world-building, the relationship between the human and alloy societies, the people who live on the edges of the society. But for all that, it didn’t entirely work for me. I struggled to put myself into the mindset of this human society where everything is considered conscious and worthy of protection, even non-living things. I couldn’t really work through the implications of that mindset. It feels like you’d spend your life metaphorically hunched over, trying not to take up any space, and apologising for every step.

An interesting constructed universe, but I’ll not be jumping to seek out the sequel.

Book details

Publisher: 47North
Year of publication: 2023

The Draco Tavern

By Larry Niven

Rating: 3 stars

I love a good sci-fi pub, whether that’s Callahan’s place, the White Hart, or the Ur bar. So I was glad to add another one to the list (thanks to the good people at File 770 for the recommendation). The Draco Tavern is run by Rick Schumann, and caters to the aliens who visit Earth after first contact and the humans who want to talk to them. While it’s perhaps not as cosy as Callahan’s, or the White Hart, it’s certainly an interesting place, where many tall tales are told. Whether that’s the the one where an alien gives Rick the secret to building an artificial intelligence; or the one where a priest engages two of them in a discussion about god; or the one where a human makes a wish off an alien bioscientist.

The stories are very short, more vignettes than anything else, but Niven is great at the form, and he’s able to sketch a great little idea in that short space and he’s great at spinning stories out of the cultural conflict that inevitably arises when two (or more) very different cultures collide.

It might not have the heart of Callahan’s, or the shaggy dog stories of the White Hart, but it’s still a great collection for dipping in and out of. I wouldn’t mind popping in to Draco’s for a drink and to eavesdrop in on some conversations.

Book details

All the Names They Used for God: Stories

By Anjali Sachdeva

Rating: 3 stars

I honestly can’t remember where I heard about this collection of short stories, but I’d heard good things and decided to give it a go. There was certainly a lot of quotes at the front of the book praising it – eleven pages worth, in fact, which made me raise an eyebrow and wonder if the lady doth protest too much.

Of the nine stories, over half have some tinge of SFF to them, whether it’s an alien invasion, a mermaid, or mind control. But the genre element is rarely to the fore. It’s usually something to force the characters to think or act in some way. Like the mermaid in Robert Greenman and the Mermaid, where it acts as the (somewhat traditional) siren that lures the sailor from his wife and his happiness, as he becomes obsessed with her. Or the alien overlords in Manus with their ridiculous accents and their insistence of the taking of human hands and replacing them with artificial ones, and what resistance looks like in such a society.

I suspect you might get on with Killer of Kings much better if you know who the “John” who’s the protagonist is. I had to wade about half way through before I had enough clues to be able to google it and come up with John Milton, of Paradise Lost fame.

Mostly, I felt that this collection was worthy. I could see the author trying very hard to Make A Point and I’m sure that a lot of people react well to that. I like plots and light, fluffy stories. These were generally quite melancholy, open-ended and more interested in characters than plots. And generally characters that I didn’t necessarily feel much engagement with, at that.

So, worthy, character-driven fiction. I was hoping for fiction that made my mind explode (really, I was hoping for another Ted Chiang, but that sort of lightning doesn’t strike more than once), but I don’t begrudge the time I spent with the collection.

Book details

ISBN: 9780525508687

Descendant Machine

By Gareth L. Powell

Rating: 4 stars

This book returns us to the Continuance fleet about fifty years after the events of Stars and Bones, this time following another navigator – a young woman by the name of Nicola Mafalda – whose trust in her Vanguard scoutship, the Frontier Chic is severely dented by the severe measures it takes to keep both of them alive after an unexpected attack. Some months after this, the Chic comes to her with a mission, one that involves an old flame of hers, and which she can’t turn down. This leads her into a plot to reactivate a giant machine that’s been dormant for millennia, or longer, something that could have terrible ramifications for the galaxy.

I enjoyed this book a lot. It seems that half a century in the Continuance makes a lot of difference. It feels more self-assured now, and they’ve run into many more alien species and are taking part in a loose galactic society. Nicola fits well into this new, more assured Continuance, or she did until the event that leaves her hiding out in a cottage half way up a simulated mountain. She’s a great protagonist, and most of the book is told from her point of view, with occasional deviations to the Chic and one or two others.

Powell does scale well. He showed this in Stars and Bones with the scale that was going on there. In this one, he introduces megaships that dwarf even the arks of the Continuance; mechanisms that require whole stars to power them; and a galaxy turned almost entirely into computronium. And yet, he manages to keep the scale at a human size as well, with the focus being on Nicola and the people around her. Her friends, her rivals, her lovers, the ones she trusts with her life and the ones she’d give her life to protect.

So a huge amount of fun, with a lot of fantastic world-building, and a climax that doesn’t descend into ultra-violence. Powell has created a fantastic sandbox of a world here and he’s enjoying playing in it. In the best possible way, this reminded me of Iain M. Banks Culture novels. It’s got the same scope for telling stories, without needing them to be connected. I look forward to whatever he does with it next.

Book details

ISBN: 9781789094312

The Birthday of the World and Other Stories

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Rating: 4 stars

This volume collects eight of Le Guin’s longer short stories, most of them set in the Ekuman shared universe. Most of the stories share an anthropological theme, with an outsider’s eye on the societies we encounter.

Coming of Age in Karhide explores adolescence in Gethen, the world of her novel The Left Hand of Darkness and ins and outs of sexuality in a world where gender-fluidity is part of their biology. There’s not much of a plot, but Le Guin is just having fun exploring the world through the eyes of its natives, rather than a rather biased Terran.

The Matter of Seggri has a number of Ekumen mobiles across time visiting the world of Seggri, where there is a very unbalanced ratio of male to female births, and the males are sequestered away in their own “castles” and brought out by the dominant female population to provide sex and stud services, and it follows how the society changes after first contact. It’s a fascinating study into the ethics of first contact (different Ekumen visitors make different decisions on whether or not to reveal their origins) and into such an unbalanced society and one way that it could possibly develop.

Unchosen Love and Mountain Ways are both set of the world of O, where the population have (by our standards) very complicated four-way marriages. The former involves a man of the country who falls in love with a man from a craggy oceanside fastness but who struggles to make his way in the village, questioning if love is enough to survive. While the latter involves a remote, mountain village and bending the customs to breaking point for the sake of love.

The world of Solitude is a difficult one. It’s another society where men and women are split along gender lines, with women forming communities, and when boys reach adolescence they’re expelled and have to live off the land, fighting rather than working communally. An Ekumen observer comes to this world to try and understand it, bringing her children with her. Unfortunately for her, her daughter fits in rather too well.

Old Music and the Slave Women is one that I skipped here, because I’ve read it before and found it hard going. I’m not really interested in exploring the horrors of slave-driven societies. If memory serves, it’s a good and powerful story, but not one that I want to re-read.

The title story, The Birthday of the World is one that Le Guin says she doesn’t know if it’s in the Ekumen or not. I could go either way on it. It’s an interesting society where the rulers are literally regarded as gods, with an added dose of incest. There’s prophecy and a military coup and a lot of interest.

The final story, Paradises Lost, is definitely not Ekumen. It’s a generation ship story of the middle generations who are destined to live and die on the ship having never seen Earth and who will be old when the ship reaches its destination. It shows us how the society is constructed and designed to be entirely stable, and how religious influence was controlled, but how a new religion eventually subverts this.

Le Guin is a master at constructing interesting and quirky societies, and she never forgets the place minorities within them, whether those are ethnic, religious or sexual in nature. This is a great collection from a master of the form, with a keen eye for anthropology.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575074798
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2003

Stars and Bones (Continuance #1)

By Gareth L. Powell

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve been burned by Powell’s work before, but this is a new series in a new universe and the premise sounded really interesting. About seventy-five years ago, the human race was evicted from the Earth by a member of a godlike, benevolent alien race, just as we were about to annihilate each other in a nuclear war. The chance opening of a small, experimental wormhole just as the missiles started to fly convinced this “Angel of the Benevolence” that we were worth saving, rather than letting the planet wipe us out and start again. So it built us a fleet of a thousand giant arks and every single human on the planet was transplanted on to them, along with AIs to run them and matter printers to cater to physical want, warned to travel the stars and never to try to settle another planet. Now Eryn King of the scoutship Furious Ocelot has pulled a number of strings to be assigned to a rescue ship after her sister disappeared, but what they find there follows them back and threatens the entire fleet.

There’s a lot of world-building going on here, to construct the world of the Continuance. A universe where sentience does develop, but is mind-bogglingly rare, and worth shattering moons to preserve. Where billions of people live, work, and die on ships really too big to imagine. We could spend a whole series just exploring the arks and their inhabitants, seeing what sort of societies that they’ve made. How would religion, for example, change in these circumstances? We find out that most of the fleet runs on “godless space communism” but that there is a rump of people who have congregated on a minority of ships that insist on maintaining the old order, and have recreated a form of capitalism.

But there’s a plot to be had, so I reluctantly tear myself away from the world-building to the threat facing the Continuance. This goes through several stages, with a number of different genres represented. There’s an Alien-like “it’s in the ducts” stage; body horror; disaster porn; right up to unstoppable galaxy-threatening menace (not to mention deus ex machina). The one thing that I did sort of struggle with was the scale of destruction here. It’s really hard to get your head around arks that hold over a hundred million people in relative comfort, so when a disaster threatens whole ships, it doesn’t have the impact that it should. There was also an issue where people would be introduced to the story, even get PoV chapters, and then be bumped off before we got much feel for them, leaving Eryn the only character who get any real depth.

But the plot really does fly by, throwing so many ideas at you that it doesn’t matter that some of the characterisation is sometimes thin and that not all the ideas stick. From giant arks with networks of wormholes as public transit; to navigators dream-linked to their AI-governed ships; to Dyson spheres; to “a world-swallowing hurricane with the soul of a librarian and the casual supremacy of a god” (such a good line!). Anyone who enjoys strongly plot-driven SF with lots of big ideas will have a great time.

Book details

ISBN: 9781789094282
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 2022

Station Eternity (The Midsolar Murders, #1)

By Mur Lafferty

Rating: 4 stars

Mallory Viridian is tired of being a murder magnet – wherever she goes people are killed, and she can’t help but solve them. Trying to get away from it all, following first contact, the sentient space station Eternity agrees to take her in, and she becomes one of only three humans allowed on the station. Until the day that Eternity decides to allow more humans to visit. And then the murders start.

This was a mystery that was a lot of fun, with some great world-building. Humans (i.e. the military), newly introduced to galactic society, are, as usual, terrified and want weapons that will “protect them” from the aliens. The aliens are really interesting, and this is a universe where most races can form symbiotic bonds with other sentients, something that humans don’t seem to be able to do. That symbiosis is important throughout the novel in different ways. The different species are all interesting in their own way, from the rock-like Gneiss, to the insect-like hivemind of the Sundry.

As well as Mallory, our secondary PoV character is Xan, a former soldier who’s been granted sanctuary on Eternity. How his story intersects with Mallory’s is an important facet of the story. And then we have the aliens. They’ve got translator bugs, like the Babel Fish, but more painful (for humans) to have implanted which seem to translate their names to innocuous human names, which is a lovely little touch. And then there’s the point that a universal translator would only translate spoken words – our humans still really struggle on Eternity because they can’t read any of the signs. In all my years of reading science fiction, this is something that I’ve never even considered, but is a really neat touch.

I enjoyed spending time with Mallory and would definitely want to watch her solve another case (although, maybe from afar!).

Book details

ISBN: 9780593098110
Publisher: Ace
Year of publication: 2022

Winter’s Orbit

By Everina Maxwell

Rating: 4 stars

The Iskat Empire is at the heart of a solar system where they rule several of the terraformed planets through a system of treaties and intermarriages. An important renewal event is coming up that will rebind them to the wider galaxy, but Prince Taam has died in a flyer crash, so his widower, Jainan, is quickly rushed into a political marriage with one of the emperor’s more disreputable grandchildren, Kiem, in a bid to keep things running. But then it turns out that Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and Jainan is a possible suspect. The newlyweds must solve the murder and prevent interplanetary war.

This was a fun story of an interplanetary empire in crisis, with a strong romance at its heart. Kiem is thrown right into the arranged marriage on the first page, with no warning and he and Jainan spend the first half of the book circling each other warily. Kiem because he feels Jainan must be grieving, and Jainan because he wants to fulfil his duty but thinks he’s not good enough for Kiem. It’s a punch the air moment when they finally fall into each others’ arms.

The story is told from both Kiem and Jainan’s points of view. We, the audience, are seeing inside Jainan’s head and slowly coming to the realisation that Jainan’s former marriage may not have been as perfect as it seemed, and screaming that Kiem should be able to see this. But, of course, he doesn’t have our luxury of being able to follow his partner’s thoughts on the written page.

Maxwell teases the conspiracy at the heart of the novel for quite some time, and it’s fun to see it slowly be exposed, along with the wider galactic civilisation and how Iskat and its empire fits into that.

A lot of fun, with some great secondary characters as well, particularly Kiem’s aide, Bel, who’s properly of the non-nonsense, hyper-organised variety. There’s a lot to enjoy here, even though I did find myself repeatedly rolling my eyes and yelling “just talk to each other” at the book.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356515885
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2021

Journey Beyond Tomorrow

By Robert Sheckley

Rating: 2 stars

I gave up on this book after about 70 pages, which is disappointing as I’ve got a lot of time for Sheckley and generally enjoy his work (although I do find that he tends to be better at the shorter form than the long). This very much feels like it’s talking about its own time, that being the early 1960s, although obviously the satire on the failures of the justice system depressingly apply as much today as they did half a century ago. But although the satire was on-point, I just wasn’t particularly enjoying the book, and didn’t think it would get better. I did jump forward to the last couple of chapters, and that pretty much confirmed my decision to give up on it was the right one.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575041226
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1987

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