BooksOfTheMoon

The Revisionists

By Thomas Mullen

Rating: 2 stars

Zed, going by the alias Troy Jones, is a time traveller, sent back to ensure that dissidents from his own time don’t save civilisation now, thereby preventing his own “Perfect Present” from being formed. But what is Zed keeping from himself, and how are a corporate lawyer, a washed-out spook and a foreign diplomat’s maid involved?

While the book zipped along at a reasonable pace, I’m afraid that I didn’t enjoy reading it very much. I didn’t like either Zed or Leo, the former spy. The former doesn’t question either his society or his mission until very late in the book, and the later seems to just get off on leveraging what little power he has left against people who are just trying to make a stand against corruption.

Neither the lawyer, Tasha, nor the maid, Sari, have much in the way of power, and they’re manipulated, threatened and attacked by others, primarily men. It’s ugly but the book seems to just shrug its shoulders and say that that’s the way of things. It made me pretty angry at times, it wasn’t hugely subtle, well, about anything, really. The parallels between the present and the (really obviously dystopian) future were pretty clear from the get-go.

Towards the end of the book, when the book really starts pushing the idea of Zed as an unreliable narrator it gets a bit more interesting, especially as the threads start to come together a bit, but for me it wasn’t worth the effort.

Book details

ISBN: 9781444727654
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Year of publication: 2011

Refined: Supervillain Rehabilitation Project

By H.L. Burke

Rating: 3 stars

The fourth, and final, book in the Supervillain Rehabilitation Project series takes place some months after the last – with Prism still unable to properly access her light-based powers, and Aidan still struggling to adapt to having returned from effectively being dead. A villain has found out that Fade is the son of a long-disappeared sable hitman named Syphon, and repercussions for Prism, Fade and the whole team follow. And they’re not helped by a new SVR recruit foisted upon them by the powers that be.

It felt like there was more melodrama in this book than in previous ones – a long-lost father; someone struggling to admit their feelings for a colleague; someone keeping a secret that could put others in danger – but it was still an enjoyable read. The new recruit – Voidling – was initially someone I thought who wasn’t going to be hugely interesting, but her story arc surprised me by not going where I thought it would at all.

The main arc of the story is about redemption and forgiveness, as Syphon tries to atone for his past. He’s also not the character that I was expecting from a supervillain hitman, but that’s for the best. If anything, I think he was maybe too sympathetic and his past whitewashed a bit.

I was surprised by the lack of consequences from some of Fade’s actions from the last book. They were briefly mentioned at the start but then disappear from the story. That’s a bit disappointing, but Fade’s over-protectiveness/controlling thing from the last book has also been toned down, which is something.

There was more Tanvi in the book than the last one, which is always cheering, as she’s such a fun character, if a bit angsty here. There was less Bob, alas, but we can’t have everything.

It’s been a fun series, steeped in superhero tropes but happily playing around with them. The end of the book (and the series) sees a lot of change, and it felt like a good ending.

Book details

Year of publication: 2021

The Aliens Among Us

By James White

Rating: 3 stars

I’m very fond of James White’s Sector General stories, but I’ve not read much of his wider work. This collection contains one story set on Sector General itself, another that might be in the same universe and a selection of others.

The Sector General Story, Countercharm is, to my mind, one of the weaker stories in the collection, as it feels a bit dated in terms of sexism and there’s a throwaway homophobic joke which doesn’t sit well. But also, the setup – in which Conway has to cope with an alien “educator tape” in his mind with no help whatsoever from the station’s psychological team, even when it could possibly be a danger to others – doesn’t really make any sense to me.

Of the other stories, To Kill or Cure was a fun story set in Ireland, where a military search and rescue crew stationed in ‘Derry finds a crashed flying saucer; Red Alert is a tense thriller where we follow an alien invasion as they enter Earth’s solar system; and Tableau is a story story about the horror of war and how it should be memorialised.

The Conspirators was fun heist/escape story and it’s almost a shame that The Scavengers was in the this collection because it was similar enough to one of the other stories that I guessed the twist early. The final story, Occupation: Warrior introduces us to Colonel Dermod, a familiar name from Sector General, but in a very different circumstance, as he tries to win a staged war.

The overarching theme of the collection is humanist and peaceful, telling stories about disparate groups working together for the greater good and the horrors of when dialogue breaks down and war and conflict break out. It’s a message that resonates with me, and one that is still too rare, especially in the speculative fiction genres. These stories feel very much of their time, but the genuine warmth of the author shines through them.

Book details

ISBN: 9780708882580

Snapshots from a Black Hole and Other Oddities

By K.C. Ball

Rating: 3 stars

K. C. Ball is an author I’m unfamiliar with, but I got this collection as part of a Humble Bundle and it’s a good one. It’s a very heterogeneous collection: the author is happy to turn her hand to pretty much any genre and she makes a good go of it. As always, some stories work better for me than others (for a start, I’m not a horror fan, so those weren’t generally fun for me) but there are some gems in the collection.

The title story is interestingly told from an AI perspective and leaves a haunting image in the mind. There are (attempted) alien abduction stories, zombie stories, ghost stories, (kind of) time travel stories and more. My favourite in the collection is probably Flotsam about a disaster in low Earth orbit that happens to a small crew, trying to clean up orbital waste. I like the characters, the believable actions of the corporation and the solution.

There are author’s notes at the end of the book (although I might have liked to have these after each story, while the story is still fresh in my mind, rather than all collected at the end) which are an insight into the author’s mind while she was writing.

The collection shows a talented and versatile author who passed away too young. I will look out for other of her work.

Book details

ISBN: 9780984830114
Publisher: Hydra House Books
Year of publication: 2012

A Tale Of Time City

By Diana Wynne Jones

Rating: 4 stars

This is a book I first read and loved as an early teenager, or maybe slightly younger. I got it out of the library and read it several times, but this is the first I’ve read it as an adult. I was fairly confident that it would still hold up, though, as Diana Wynne Jones rarely lets me down. And I was right, this is an enjoyable time travel tale that’s still very readable as an adult. It tells the story of Vivian Smith, who is kidnapped as she gets off the train after being evacuated to the country during WW2 and taken to Time City – which exists outside of time and space. She finds her kidnappers are kids, of ages with herself and ends up taking part in an adventure to save Time City from destruction.

The plot here is pretty twisty and certainly doesn’t talk down to its audience. Jones sometimes isn’t great at pulling all her threads together at the end of a story, but this one ties together neatly. It might have been nice if there had been clues scattered throughout about the identity of the villain, so that it didn’t come entirely out of the blue, but that’s a minor quibble.

The worldbuilding is well done, and Time City feels very real, as does the way it uses its status to become wealthy and powerful. Vivian is an intelligent protagonist and it’s fun to explore Time City with her. Her kidnappers, Jonathan (who’s around the same age as her, but with an attitude) and Sam (a few years younger, and a bit of a brat) also feel real, as their half-term boredom drives them on the adventure to “save Time City.”

So this is a fun story that still holds up, over a quarter of a century after I first read it. The action and characters are strong, and, for me, there’s a strong element of nostalgia, but I think that even without that, I would have enjoyed this.

Book details

ISBN: 9780749704407
Publisher: Teens
Year of publication: 1990

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (Wayfarers, #4)

By Becky Chambers

Rating: 5 stars

I was in two minds about whether I wanted to read this as soon as I got it. On the one hand, I’ve adored every Wayfarers book so far, but on the other, this is the last book in the series and when I finish it, it’ll be over. But I’m really glad that I did, it’s a fine way to end a wonderful series.

Three disparate aliens all stop at an interstellar hub, between legs of their journey, and while they’re there, an accident traps them there for a while, and these three strangers, and their host, end up getting to know each other better than they had intended.

In the same way that the previous book in the series, Record of a Spaceborn Few, was mostly a book about humans, this one is mostly a book about aliens. One human does have a cameo part, and Ashby (captain of the Wayfarer, of course) haunts the book through his partner, Pei Tam, who’s on her way to see him when she gets stuck. The other aliens are Roveg, an arthropod Quelin, and Speaker, a bird-like Akarak, with Ouloo, a Laru, as their host, along with her child, Tupo.

The others all start the book wary of Speaker, which confused me until I remembered that the pirates who attacked the Wayfarer in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet were Akaraks. We learn more about them in this book, and why they have a right to be as angry as they sometimes seem, although Speaker is adorable. I think the exiled Roveg is possibly my favourite character though. He designs virtual environments (sims), is jovial, and is a bit of an aesthete.

The themes are typical of the Wayfarers series: optimistic and humanistic (if that isn’t a chauvinistic term for a book about aliens). We know that the interstellar civilisation of the Galactic Commons isn’t perfect – their treatment of the Akaraks and the ongoing war between the Aeluons and the Rosk is proof of that, and it’s no spoiler to say that although Pei is a cargo captain, the cargo that she mostly carries is weapons. But on an individual level, people are people and most of them just want to do the right thing. This is summed up best by Ouloo, at the end of a tense scene between two of the others.

This is a slow-burn of a book, that builds its relationships slowly as the three visitors who start off regarding the others as aliens start to see them as people on an emotional level, not just an intellectual one. It didn’t have the instant appeal of Small Angry Planet but it’s a lovely book and one that I will definitely return to. I’m sad that Chambers is wanting to leave the Wayfarers universe behind, but I’m excited to see what she creates next.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473647664
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Year of publication: 2021

Exhalation

By Ted Chiang

Rating: 5 stars

Ted Chiang isn’t a prolific author, but that means that every new story is a big deal. This collects his most recent stories and it’s an astoundingly good collection. I try to avoid hyperbole for the most part, but this is one of the best set of stories that I’ve read in a very long time. Of the nine stories collected, six were either award-nominated or award-winners. That is an astonishing ratio and the stories really live up to it. They’re almost platonic ideals of science fiction: taking a single “what if? and running with it. What if there was a device that effectively made human memory perfect? What if young earth creationism was right after all? What if you could talk to other versions of yourself in parallel universes?

The title story, Exhalation is a discussion of thermodynamics and the ultimate end of the universe through the medium of air-powered sentient robots, one of whom auto-dissects himself in order to find out how his brain works. The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate is a wonderful story about time travel wrapped in a fable told in the style of the Arabian Nights. The Lifecycle of Software Objects is the longest work in the book. It’s a novella about raising an artificial intelligence. The story tells of next generation virtual pets some of whose owners get very attached to them, and keep them running for years, running into decades. In the notes at the end, Chiang notes that humans take constant interaction and 15-20 years before they become mature, why should that be different for AI? It’s a great story, tying the lives of the humans into that of the AIs that they’re raising. There’s a few short pieces as well, usually written for specific things, such as The Great Silence, a piece about the forthcoming extinction of parrots, with a killer last line that choked me right up.

A friend gave me her copy of Chiang’s previous collection, Stories of Your Life and Others because she felt that he wasn’t good with characters and characterisation. This is something I fundamentally disagree with (we didn’t quite fall out over it, and I’m glad I was able to give her copy of the book a good home), and this book has some wonderful characters. Ana, the protagonist of The Lifecycle of Software Objects is really interesting in her obsession; Dr Dorothea Morrell, the archaeologist in Omphalos, whose faith is tested; and most complex and interesting of all is Nat from Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom, someone who’s trying to leave her past behind her and whose brush with alternate universes help her come to terms with herself.

Chiang’s genius comes with teasing out the big questions of life, and presenting them in a thought-provoking and entertaining manner that will stay with you for a long time after you finish the story. Unreservedly recommended to any lover of literature and student of the human condition.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529014495

A Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan, #1)

By Arkady Martine

Rating: 4 stars

It took me an embarrassingly long time to really get into this book, but that’s my fault, not the book’s. I was reading it at the same time as Ted Chiang’s truly astonishing Exhalation and I couldn’t stop thinking about that. And the new Becky Chambers novel had just turned up as well, and I was itching to read that too. But I eventually put those out of my mind and focussed on this, and I’m really glad that I gave it the attention that it deserved.

Mahit Dzmare is the new ambassador from a small, independent system to the mighty Teizcalaan empire. The problem is that nobody will admit that her predecessor was murdered and that she might be next. All this while keeping her own secrets and trying to protect her home from the ravenous jaws of the empire.

By the end, I really enjoyed this book. It’s not the story I was expecting, and it’s not one that I hear discussed very often. A major theme is the draw of the foreign, the empire next door. Teizcalaan is a cultural giant and all the young people from her station absorb its media and culture. Mahit especially so – it’s what makes her a good ambassador. This cultural imperialism and the seduction of the oh-so-civilised Teizcalaanli draw her like a moth to a flame.

This aspect of empire – the cultural imperialism that extends beyond the territorial borders – is a great thread, in amongst the intrigue and politics of palace life. There’s also a larger looming threat beyond the borders that threatens everyone, Teizcalaan and Lsel alike. That one is mostly kept to the background here, but I assume will come to the fore in the next book.

I really like Mahit as a character here. She’s a fish out of water, trying desperately to fit in while knowing that she can’t, but she’s not naive and when she’s given a chance to stop and think, which isn’t nearly as often as she’d like, she’s sharp as a tack. Her Teizcalaanli cultural liaison, Three Seagrass (the names within the empire are all like this, with a number and a random noun. I found it quite disconcerting to start with, but it just serves to be another reminder that the Teizcalaanli are alien) is also great. She’s clever, with a dry wit and is genuinely trying to help Mahit.

I’m struggling to place the influences on the Teizcalaan empire. The imperial bureaucracy and obsession with poetry and literature suggest a Chinese influence, but some of the names (“Teizcalaan”, for a start) suggest Aztec, as do some of the ceremonies, but that’s not a culture I know very much about.

Either way, there’s a compelling story here, that was a great read. A worthy Hugo-winner.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529001594
Publisher: Pan Macmillan Paperbacks
Year of publication: 2019

Far Horizons

By Robert Silverberg

Rating: 3 stars

This is an interesting idea for an anthology, in which Robert Silverberg asked a number of authors to contribute a novella that adds something to a series that they’ve written. And he gets some impressive contributors. Unfortunately, I haven’t read a number of the series’ in question and I found the quality varied, although, of course, YMMV.

We kick off the collection with one of the strongest stories, Old Music and the Slave Women set in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Ekumen. This tells the story of Edsan, attached to the Ekumen embassy on a planet undergoing a full-scale uprising of its slave society against the masters. Le Guin’s characterisation is masterful and understated and her prose sharp and readable. A great opening story.

Next up is A Separate War by Joe Haldeman, set in his Forever War series, which tells the story of Marygay Potter after she was split up from William Mandella towards the end of the war, and her own adventures before they reunited. I don’t remember a huge about about The Forever War but this story is pretty self-contained and I got to like the character of Marygay quite well. I’m not the first to find the sexuality within the Forever War series very weird; the idea of heterosexuality being banned never entirely feels real. But other than that, I enjoyed this story quite a lot.

Orson Scott Card revisits his Ender universe with a fairly slight story called Investment Counselor which tells how Ender met the AI Jane, who is important from the second main book onwards. I don’t think this adds a huge amount to Ender’s story, but it’s fairly light and fun, as Ender comes of age and finds himself trying to untangle the set of trust fund investments set up on his behalf so that he can pay the appropriate amount of tax.

Next up, David Brin returns to his Uplift universe in Temptation, about a group of uplifted dolphins who had been left behind on a planet while their ship had to flee its pursuers. I have read the (first) Uplift trilogy but it was a very long time ago. I liked the idea that the uplifted dolphins are a very new sentient species though, and that under sustained stress, they’re liable to fall back to pre-sentient behaviours. Brin does a fairly good job of making these non-humans feel relatively alien, too.

Robert Silverberg then adds his own story in his Roma Eternal series, Getting to Know the Dragon, about an alternate history where Rome never fell. An historian living in the Renaissance gets his hands on the personal travel journal of an emperor from a few hundred years earlier, who was the first to circumnavigate the world. Looking back on that period nostalgically, he finds that the reality doesn’t match the rose-tinted glasses. This isn’t a series that I’ve read but it’s perfectly readable, although alt histories aren’t really my favourite genre.

Dan Simmons’ contribution to his Hyperion universe is Orphans of the Helix, which is a story that I’ve read before, in Simmons’ own collection Worlds Enough & Time. Set after the end of the main series, it’s a story that I enjoyed a lot.

Nancy Kress contributes Sleeping Dogs from her Sleepless series, another one that I’m not familiar with. The idea of genetic engineering to remove the need for sleep is interesting, but the idea that it would turn the recipients into immortal supermen seems a bit far-fetched. And this story, about the terrible consequences of doing the same alteration to dogs, left me sort of cold.

The next story is The Boy Who Would Live Forever by Fred Pohl, set in his Heechee series. I’ve only read the first in that series, but this seems to take place somewhere after that, possibly at the same time as a number of the other books, as we see events from the point of view of the eponymous boy as he makes his way to Gateway and has various adventures while bigger things seem to be going on around him. This was really the first story that felt incomplete, like it was a small part of a larger story.

A Hunger for the Infinite by Gregory Benford is a disturbing piece set in an endless war of humans and machines across the galactic core. One of the AIs has been taking “harvested” humans who fell in battle and mutilating them, while keeping them in a sort of horrible half-life, in an attempt to create art. But it’s frustrated because it feels that there should be more to it. It’s an odd story, that I’m not entirely sure I followed, but it was hard to get past the body horror of the Hall of Humans for me.

I skipped Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship That Returned as I’ve read it before in a different collection and didn’t like it.

And finally, we have Greg Bear’s The Way of All Ghosts, set in The Way. I loved Eon but failed to really get into this story. It felt sort of dream-like, and there was a degree of body horror which I don’t like and I still have really no idea what happened at the end.

There’s a number of strong and interesting stories here, but also a number that failed to grab me, whether that’s because I wasn’t familiar with the series they came from or something to do with the writing. A mixed bag, but the strong stories make it worth it.

Book details

ISBN: 9781857239683
Year of publication: 1999

The Calcutta Chromosome

By Amitav Ghosh

Rating: 3 stars

This alt history re-examines the discovery of how malaria is carried and transmitted. It was discovered by Dr Ronald Ross in the 1890s, but this book posits the question of what he he didn’t do it on his own, but was prompted in that direction, by some unknown force?

In the near-ish future, Antar, a worker for the International Water Council, discovers the damaged ID card of a former colleague who was obsessed with Ross and his work, but who disappeared and starts investigating. We spend time with said colleague (L. Murugan), in long flashbacks, as well as some of the people Murugan encounters in that time.

There’s a fair amount of exposition in the book, coming mostly from Murugan, and yet, despite that, it still manages to be confusing and open-ended. It’s very well-written and easy to read, but I had trouble following the layers of the mystery, and I don’t think the end really pulled it together at all. Murugan is eccentric, but quite a likeable character as he powers around Calcutta, scattering people in his wake, trying to solve the mystery.

To be honest, I’m not sure that the top level of the nested structure, with Antar in the “present” added much to the story. I found the lack of closure frustrating, but was kept going all the way through it. Not sure I’d read it again though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781848544154
Publisher: John Murray
Year of publication: 2011

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