BooksOfTheMoon

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

Machine (White Space, #2)

By Elizabeth Bear

Rating: 4 stars

Dr Brookllyn Jens is a rescue specialist on an ambulance ship operating out of Core General – the biggest and best equipped hospital in the Synarche. She’s currently got a mystery on her hands regarding an ancient generation ship off course and with a missing crew, and a modern ship attached to it, with its crew in hibernation. Bringing them back to Core General sets her investigating a bigger mystery that could crack open everything she’s worked her life for.

The first book in this series involved space pirates and the philosophy of government and social order. This one involves space rescues and a deep dive into the nature of faith, especially faith outwith religion. This series shows that Bear is a master at packing in big ideas in entertaining ways.

I’ve been a big fan of James White’s Sector General stories for years, so a book so obviously inspired by them was an obvious choice for me (Bear talked about this in an article about it, and again in the author’s note at the end of the book). I loved all the little callbacks to Sector General (from the giant but oh-so-polite flying bug as the protagonist’s best buddy [he even liked spaghetti!], to the name of the administrator of Core General’s oxygen sector). One of the things that I really love about White’s work was that it was non-violent. The heroes were medics, working to save lives, not shooting blasters indiscriminately. We see that here too, as Llyn and her team work selflessly to save the crew of the generation ship – including the badly damaged shipmind.

Of course, there’s a dark secret lurking in the heart of Core General, and when Llyn eventually discovers it, it shakes her to her core. It makes her question the thing that she’s dedicated her life to and, indeed, the only thing that she’s ever had faith in. This was nicely built up, through Llyn’s PoV over the course of the novel, and the inevitable reveal is as heartbreaking for the reader as it is for Llyn.

Goodlaw Cheeirilaq, the giant preying mantis of a police officer from the previous book, is the only character from that book to have a major appearance in this one, although Singer does turn up as well. I was sort of disappointed not to see Haimey (although I can see that it might have been difficult to get her in), but Connla ended the last book working as an ambulance pilot for Core General, so I was disappointed that he didn’t show up, even as a cameo.

The mystery in the book held my attention well. I really liked Llyn as the protagonist and Core General is a wonderful setting, a worthy successor to Sector General. I’m sure there are more stories to be told in the Synarche, and I hope that we get to see them.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473208773
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2020

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Oxford Time Travel, #2)

By Connie Willis

Rating: 4 stars

Ned Henry is suffering from time lag from too many drops into the past too quickly. Taking pity on him, his supervisor offers him a couple of weeks in the nineteenth century, just as long as he does one simple task first. It’s just a shame that Ned’s too time-lagged to remember what that was. And if he doesn’t, the whole of history could unravel.

I’m really glad I read Doomsday Book before I read this. Not because it needs it – there’s almost no connection between the two books other than the setting and the character of Mr Dunworthy – but because if I’d read them the other way around, I would probably get shellshock at the drastically different tones the two books have. The former is a serious, quite dark at times, tome about survival and plague, while this is a jaunty romantic comedy. And while, the former was good, this is good and enjoyable to read too.

Three Men in a Boat is explicitly referenced, as Ned spends time in a boat on the Thames (yes, with a dog) but it reminded me more of P. G. Wodehouse‘s farces. There’s definitely something of the Awful Aunt about Lady Schrapnell and the star-crossed lovers really need Jeeves to sort them out.

Detective fiction of the era (Christie, Sayers etc) are referenced as well, and the trope of the first crime actually turning out to be the second crime. This is something that resonates at the end, when resident boffin TJ drops something that could change how we view the whole set of what’s just happened. It’s a nice little coda to the story, to suggest that the universe is not only weirder than we think, but weirder than we can believe.

Once I got past the awful Lady Schrapnell and Ned was safely in the Victorian era, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It was fairly gentle, and although the stakes were theoretically quite high, it never felt like history was in any real danger – and this isn’t a bad thing, it let me enjoy Ned and Verity’s adventures in the Victorian era, complete with eccentric professor, ex-colonel, domineering matriarch, scatterbrained friend and highly competent butlers. A rocking great read that never felt nearly long as its actual 500+ pages.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575113121
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2013

Nevertheless, She Persisted: Flash Fiction Project

By Diana M. Pho (editor)

Rating: 4 stars

This is a good little collection of fiction where a number of authors write a flash piece around the quote “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” It’s an unsettling quote and all the authors take a good stab at “persisting”. Obviously, some stories work better for any individual than others, and for me the contributions by Maria Dahvana Headley about the first American non-human astronauts, and Charlie Jane Anders’ story about a woman who creates an unauthorised AI stand out in the “fun” mode.

Alyssa Wong and Seanan McGuire’s stories are hard-hitting and brutal, while Nisi Shawl and Amal El-Mohtar provide melancholy and eerie stories.

The collection won’t take long to read, each story being only a few pages long, but it’s thought-provoking and definitely worth your time.

Book details

Gideon the Ninth

By Tamsyn Muir

Rating: 4 stars

There’s been some positive buzz around this book on social media which intrigued me, but I was wary that it was the first part of a trilogy, until someone I trust said that it was (mostly) readable as a standalone. I’m glad I did pick it up, as it’s very enjoyable. I especially like the narrative voice of the protagonist, Gideon. She’s fairly young at just eighteen, and something of this immaturity comes across in her voice, in a good way (I laughed much more than I should have done at the “that’s what she said” jokes).

Gideon is an indentured servant of the Ninth House – owing them for her upbringing. She’s been trained as a swordswoman, and when the head of the house, the necromancer Harrowhark, is called to service by the Emperor, she reluctantly follows Harrow as her cavalier. They find themselves along with pairs from the other Houses in a race to unlock the secret of immortality.

There’s something a little And Then There Were None about the way that the groups are taken to an isolated location with a mystery to be unlocked in a race against time, which I enjoyed quite a lot. The necromancer/cavalier pairs from the other houses were distinctive and interesting, from the jovial married couple of the Fifth House to the “terrible teens” of the Fourth to the creepy, sanctimonious Eighth. Maybe the military Second House didn’t get much beyond being uptight military types, but they were probably the exception.

I loved the relationship between Gideon and Harrow, how these two girls who have known and hated each other their entire lives have to start to rely on each other to survive the challenges they’re thrown and how that eventually turns into trust. It’s an old trope, but carried off with aplomb.

The world is classic science fantasy. Although there’s a thin veneer of SF in the form of space travel and genetics, most of the action involves magic and the fights are all sword fights. I’ll handwave it away via Clarke’s Third Law though. There’s enough worldbuilding to keep us interested without drowning us in exposition (although there are more hints in the glossary at the end).

Spoiler
From the moment we find out what Ianthe had to do to achieve Lyctor-hood, we sense that Gideon’s days are numbered. This is a shame, but what a way to go out. There’s scope for her to come back in some form (they never found the body!) and there’s still a number of mysteries around her. As I said above, I enjoyed her narrative voice a lot. I’ll miss her if she’s gone permanently. I mean, I’ll read a book about Harrow, but I’ll be thinking about Gideon.

The epilogue sets up the next book and I’ll be intrigued to see where it goes – it seems to be getting ready to widen the scope an awful lot, from a single isolated mansion to the whole galaxy. I can’t wait to see where the story goes.

Book details

ISBN: 9781250313188
Year of publication: 2020

Stories of Hope and Wonder

By Ian Whates

Rating: 4 stars

This collection follows in the footsteps of Flotation Device: A Charity Anthology in being pulled together quickly near the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in order to raise money for the NHS in the UK. Floatation Device was the local effort of the Glasgow SF Writers’ Circle, while this was edited by Ian Whates of NewCon Press so has access to a much larger range of writers. There are over fifty stories here, comprising nearly a quarter of a million words. In all that, there are bound to be some that work better for an individual taste than others.

There are stories from across genres: lit-fic, SF, fantasy, horror and more. I’m not really a horror fan so those didn’t really work for me, but there were more than enough others to make up for it. There are stories from well-known names including Stephen Baxter, Christopher Priest, Tade Thomson, Lauren Beukes, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Peter F. Hamilton and many, many more. It’s hard to pick out individual stories in such a large collection, read over so long, but I really enjoyed Tchaikovsky’s Wars of Worldcraft (the pun in the title along endeared it to me) and Ian McDonald’s An Eligible Boy, set in the same world as his novel River of Gods.

So if a story doesn’t work for you, just move on, it’s not not like you’re short on choice. And it’s for a good cause.

Book details

Publisher: NewCon Press
Year of publication: 2020

Champion of Mars

By Guy Haley

Rating: 4 stars

It took a while to get into this story, but once I figured out the flow, it was much smoother. It’s a tale told from both ends of history: in the early 22nd century, Dr John Holland is a scientist studying the remains of Mars’ native life, before the terraforming effort wipes it out; while in the far, far future, Mars is dying a second time and the disgraced champion Yoechakenon and his spirit lover Kaibeli are tasked with finding the long-lost Great Librarian of Mars to save it. We also have chapters that cover the future history between these two time periods, as we jump further and further into the future, and see how the two are linked.

I really liked the tone of the piece. I liked that the voice of the near future was so different to the far future. The near-future stuff was no-nonsense hard SF, while the far-future felt much more mythic and grand in scope, reminding me of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ Barsoom.

The novel is also concerned with AI and how it will co-evolve with us over the millennia in a symbiotic relationship. Add to that a form of human immortality, as a person’s memories are recorded at death, and later returned (to some degree) to other, newborn bodies at some time in the future, and we have the makings of a love story that spans the ages, as an AI spirit follows the one she chose across time and space.

I’ll confess that I wasn’t sure it was all going to come together, but it did so in the last few chapters, as it tied the whole story together and links Holland’s time to that of Yoechakenon. So a lot of good ideas and some writing that’s very enjoyable to read. It can be a little clunky at times, but I found it worth persevering.

Book details

ISBN: 9781907992841
Publisher: Solaris
Year of publication: 2012

Ancestral Night

By Elizabeth Bear

Rating: 4 stars

This is a thoughtful space opera, that combines action, character and philosophical musings on the balance of the rights of the individual versus the collective. Haimey Dz and her salvage partners find something amazing on the edge of known space, and they have to try and get it back to the Core before pirates catch up with them.

I enjoyed the world building that went on here, especially in regard to the interstellar, inter-species society known as the Synarche. The balance between individualism and society is very much a core concept here, with members of the Synarche, including humans, undertaking “rightminding” to alter their minds such that they will want to be better citizens, all working for the common good. Of course, this isn’t without problems, both with the “clades” that take it too far, becoming introspective cults where they are all programmed to agree with each other (Haimey is a survivor of one of these clades) and those who reject the concept entirely and live on the edges of society, parasitical upon it, and proud of their sociopathy.

Haimey is an interesting protagonist: her past in the clade has damaged her, despite the psychic reconstruction that she underwent after she escaped. One example is that she’s afraid of relationships, so has had her sexuality turned off entirely so that she can avoid them. She mostly avoids thinking about her past, but as the book goes on, is forced to confront it. We don’t get as much insight to her salvage partner Connla, just some tantalising hints about his own troubled past, growing up on a world that fetishises hyper-masculinity, and suppresses their feelings. The AI, Singer, is probably the most balanced of the crew, but even he decided that he wanted to spend his time barely making a living, on the edge of known space. It’s also convenient that he’s a politics geek, making an easy way to fill in the world-building of the society.

I got lost a couple of times as big idea piled on top of big idea – symbiont that lets the host sense and modify gravity; sentient space whales; incredibly ancient spaceship from lost super-civilisation; structure imposed on reality; big dumb smart object outwith the galaxy. Despite this, there’s a lot to enjoy, and hopefully some more of this will be explained in future White Space novels.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473208759

Sentenced to Prism (Humanx Commonwealth, #12)

By Alan Dean Foster

Rating: 4 stars

Evan Orgell is a fixer for his company: he gets sent in to Deal With Things when they go wrong. And now they’ve got a planet that they’re trying to illegally open up for exploitation that’s gone out of contact, so they send Orgell in, equipped with the latest in survival suit technology. What he finds is beyond his imagination and that of the designers of his oh so marvellous suit.

I first read this as a teenager, finding it in the local library, when I was hoovering up whatever sci-fi they had. I loved it for the imagination and cool aliens. Rereading it, I find it a bit clunky, and I’m less taken with the protagonist, but the alien world of Prism is still a magnificent creation. Full of silicon-based life forms, some of the descriptions fall into full-blown horror, as almost everything he meets wants his tasty, tasty rare earth minerals. Orgell is described as an arrogant generalist, very intelligent and able to integrate lots of new knowledge. This is undermined by his actions in the book, where he does display the described arrogance, but less of the intelligence.

The central theme of the book is our over-reliance on technology. That is Orgell’s early undoing, that he assumes that his suit will be able to overcome anything that the alien world can throw at it. He obviously learns this isn’t true, but he unlearns this reliance on technology surprisingly quickly. There’s also discussion about exploitation of natural resources and new lands – bringing to mind how colonisation fared in our world, from the arrival of Europeans in the New World, to the 19th century European empires that decimated cultures around the world.

There’s a lot packed into a book of under 300 pages and while the writing can be a bit clunky, and the protagonist irritating, the plot is sound, the worldbuilding is great and the ecosystem of Prism very neatly thought out.

Book details

ISBN: 9780345319807
Year of publication: 1985

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