BooksOfTheMoon

The Godel Operation

By James L. Cambias

Rating: 4 stars

Another discovery from Scalzi’s Whatever, I thoroughly enjoyed this far-future space opera about a droid and his boy, as they gallivant around a solar system turned into a Dyson Swarm and filled with trillions of inhabitants, both meat and machine.

Zee is an inhabitant of a habitat in Uranus orbit who makes friends with Daslakh, a mech fellow inhabitant who is much older than it seems. (Aside: in Hindi, “daas lakh” means ten hundred thousand, aka one million. I wonder if that’s deliberate or just a coincidence?) Through a series of improbable events, Zee ends up chasing after, and then finding, an imaginary former lover, and then on the trail of, a legendary ancient weapon that could change the face of the solar system.

I loved the setting here, which Cambias calls The Billion Worlds, with uplifted animals, humans, cyborgs and frighteningly powerful AIs, all coexisting (relatively) peacefully. It’s a more or less post-scarcity society, with energy being the system-wide currency. I really liked Daslakh, who is the first person narrator of the story. It makes it clear early on that it’s an unreliable narrator but also takes the mickey out of itself by repeatedly claiming to be “old and cunning” and then doing something simple and obvious.

The flashbacks showing us the cat and mouse escapades of two rival AIs who were on opposite sides of a war in ancient System history span thousands of years, as they repeatedly try to out-manoeuvre each other, and you can see them changing over the millennia, as the story slowly ties together with the present. I especially liked the glimpse of the faded magnificence of Kasaleth habitat, and would love a story set there in its glory days. You could tell a really cool Agatha Christie-style murder mystery there.

This was a really fun story, with a setting that’s huge with lots of space for more stories. And, indeed, the author has said that he intends to write more in the setting. I look forward to reading them.

Book details

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

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

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

Children of Ruin (Children of Time #2)

By Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rating: 4 stars

After receiving signals from another world that may be part of the diaspora of fallen Earth, the Portiids and Humans of Kern’s World launch an expedition towards the distant star. There, they find something that the terraforming team that had launched at about the same time as Avrana Kern had stirred up and which may have been best left buried.

So this book is to octopodes, octopi, octopuses, what Children of Time was to spiders. One of the terraforming team that comes to the worlds later known as Nod and Damascus is fond of the creatures and harbours hopes of uplifting them. The cephalopods have the advantage of not having to start from scratch, and are able to build on the technology that their human creators left them, creating a civilisation that expands to fill their solar system, to the wonder of the Humans and Portiids that find them.

What I loved about this book was just how alien the octopus mind was. Tchaikovsky extrapolated from modern octopuses and the way that the tentacles have almost their own sub-mind to create a very different way of thinking for his creatures. At times I struggled to comprehend such a way of thinking, where the surface, conscious, level is all emotion and reaction (the what), while the logic and maths (the how) is left to the tentacles, without the seat of consciousness necessarily being aware of what was going on.

Communicating with such creatures is necessarily difficult, but Tchaikovsky manages to both describe the difficulty and the way that the gap is bridged in a strong, and interesting, way.

One of the more unexpectedly interesting characters in the book was Avrana Kern, who is something between the operating system for all Portiid technology and grumpy old mentor. We see multiple instances of Kern, running different systems, and get somewhat inside her ant-filled head (I still love ants as computing substrate). The complexity of a thinking AI that is aware of how much it has lost in terms of ability to feel emotions is fascinating.

Spoiler
And that epilogue! A true co-operative interstellar civilisation. It raised goosebumps as I was reading it. And can we get a book about corvids next, please?

A worthy sequel to Children of Time, with lots of great ideas and characters. Also a great attempt at writing a non-human sentient species that isn’t just humans with lumpy foreheads.

Oh, and never has the phrase “we’re going on an adventure” been so sinister…

Book details

ISBN: 9781509865857

Noumenon Ultra

By Marina J. Lostetter

Rating: 3 stars

You certainly can’t accuse Noumenon Ultra of lacking ambition. Picking up where the last book left off, about a hundred thousand years in the future, it accelerates from there, going ever-further into an unknowably-distant future. We start with the AI, ICC, that has held the Noumenon convoy together for so long waking up from hibernation to find itself about a hundred thousand years in our future, and although its humans have long vacated its ships, there is life within it once more. It eventually learns to communicate with the sentient life of the terraformed world that now bears the name of its convoy and later regains contact with the descendants of its crew, and they all have to work together to solve a problem that could threaten the future of the entire universe.

There’s a lot to enjoy in this book. We pick up characters from Convoy Twelve from the second book, as well as further clones of the crew of Convoy Seven and spend time with the post-humans that most of humanity, other than the remnants of homo sapiens from Convoy Twelve, has now evolved into. We don’t spend as much time as I would have liked with the post-humans, or see more than a glimpse of the way that they interact with their ancestors, but life in the galaxy at large is only tangential to the story being told here.

I enjoyed this book, but I felt it was missing a spark that both the other two books had. While the first one jumped in time quite a lot, there was conflict and drama in each segment. The second one had the parts of the book that followed Convoy Twelve to ground it. While this book had the time jumps from the first and some of the characters from the second, there was little conflict. Everyone was working together for a larger goal, without any great deviation from that or misunderstandings or disagreements on the nature of the work.

In my review of the previous book I complained that there was no closure on the alien megastructures that the convoys had encountered. Hoo-boy is that resolved here. And in an incredibly mind-blowing payoff as well. So while it has a lot of that sensawunda that we often talk about in SF, it’s lacking in the characterisation to truly make it great.

Book details

ISBN: 9780008412852

Empress of Forever

By Max Gladstone

Rating: 4 stars

Vivian Liao is a tech billionaire, on the run after making powerful enemies. As she schemes in the bowels of a Boston server farm to fix her life and make her enemies pay, she’s pulled into a far future ruled by the almost omnipotent Empress. Here, she has to gather together a group to help her survive and somehow stop the Empress from destroying the universe in her ongoing battle against the Bleed.

I loved this book! While I wasn’t entirely sure that a tech billionaire was going to be the most relatable protagonist, Viv is a very fun character. And her fish-out-of-water status helps to ground her. The other characters that eventually form part of her crew are larger than life as well. From the monk Hong, to the tragic pirate queen Zanj. Following them and exploring their world along with Viv is thoroughly enjoyable, as is seeing how they grow and change through their meeting and friendship with the woman from the past. And the mystery of Viv, and her ability to affect the world around her, keeps the book going forward.

The world-building is also excellent. There’s a sense of huge scale and a rich past that we pick up on through the natives of this time. Another thing I liked was that the book does answers questions as it goes, setting up new ones in their place, which helps to keep the pace up and means it never feels too frustrating.

It’s also a standalone book, which is welcome in this era of overwrought trilogies. The book tells its story and then ends. And while there’s scope for more stories in the world, I’d be sort of hesitant about going back, after a very well-suited ending here.

4 1/2 stars (rounded down)

Book details

ISBN: 9780765395818
Publisher: Tor Books
Year of publication: 2019

Noumenon Infinity

By Marina J. Lostetter

Rating: 4 stars

This follow up to Noumenon follows two different plot streams: on the one hand, it follows the fortunes of convoy seven (Noumenon) back to the Web and onwards after its completion; and on the other, it follows the smallest of the convoys, convoy twelve, which was never even supposed to leave the solar system, but a malfunctioning SD drive in an experiment sends it far from home.

This book covers a lot of ideas, and a lot of time. From multiple alien megastructures to a new religion amongst the convey seven crew. Even with a generous page count of over 500 pages, there’s a lot to pack in, with our time being split between the two conveys. The time jumps when we’re following Noumenon also become huge, although we don’t see the major sociological disruptions that we saw in the first book. The changes here are more driven by outside events.

In the first book, I wasn’t convinced by the treatment of genetics as being the overriding factor in personality. This book doesn’t really change that, but doesn’t lean into much either (other than through the new religion, but that’s religion so it gets a free pass in not needing to make sense).

The chapters following convoy twelve occur on a much shorter timespan (months and years, rather than centuries) and start off with an intriguing mystery surrounding Dr Vahni Kapoor, who has a bad habit of disappearing and reappearing sometime later, always near a sundial that contains her AI assistant C.

There are a lot of mysteries that surround both convoys and eventually draw them together, in unexpected ways. One thing that I found disappointing was the lack of resolution on the alien megastructures that both seven and twelve encounter. There’s a throwaway comment/explanation towards the end of the book, but it doesn’t feel appropriate for Big Dumb Objects as impressive as these.

The old-fashioned SF “sensawunda” is here in spades. If you’ve been wanting very large scale space opera, covering huge swathes of time, including Dyson spheres, clones, mysterious missing aliens, mysterious present aliens and more, this is your series.

Book details

ISBN: 9780008223403

Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch, #3)

By Ann Leckie

Rating: 5 stars

Picking up pretty much directly from where Ancilliary Sword left off, the conclusion to Breq’s trilogy again changes the direction of the series a bit, with things that have been rumbling a little in the background coming more to the fore. Breq is now publicly known as the last remaining piece of Justice of Toren and she must move quickly to protect Athoek system from the inevitable attack by Anaander Mianaai.

There’s a lot to love in this book and I pretty much want to just pick up the first book again and read the whole trilogy in one go, although I think I’m going to resist doing that until I make more of a dent in my to-read pile.

I think this book brings Breq’s involvement in the wider story of the Radch to an end. There’s lots more that she could do, of course, but I suspect that she’ll be quite tied up in the aftermath of what happened in Atheok, and its fallout, to take any further part in wider events. And I can’t imagine that there won’t be further events. The story of the Radch and its ruler at war with herself is rich pickings for further storytelling and I look forward to reading it.

As for this one, it was a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. Not just Breq, but those around her got decent character development and all got a chance to do something cool.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356502427
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2015

Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch #2)

By Ann Leckie

Rating: 5 stars

Breq is the last body remaining to an AI that used to be Justice of Toren, a starship with hundreds of ‘ancillary’ human bodies. All that was destroyed and Breq vowed to kill Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch, but has instead found herself made a Fleet Captain, put in command of the Mercy of Kalr and sent to secure a star system as part of an outbreak of civil war.

I loved this book as much as, or possibly more than, its predecessor, Ancillary Justice. That was, in essence, a fairly straightforward military space opera/revenge story. This book keeps the military flavour, but adds deeper political overtones, as Breq has to navigate local system politics, use but not abuse her new power and try and keep an eye on the greater civil war breaking out in the Empire.

One thing that I loved about this book was the fact that the heroine is working for the Emperor. It’s clear that, like all empires, really terrible things have been done in forging it (not least the creation of ancillaries themselves) and Breq is seriously questioning it (something that she couldn’t do as Justice of Toren) and growing as a person at the same time.

The supporting cast are mostly in shadow here. Seivarden returns from the previous book, but spends most of it on the Mercy of Kalr, away from the action. In her place is Lieutenant Tisarwat, a young officer foist upon Breq before the start of her mission.

The convention of being gender-blind continues here, with all characters referred to as ‘she’. I like this because it forces you to confront your own prejudices; for example, in my head the magistrate and tea grower (both positions of power) were male. No reason for this, but they were, before I realised what I was doing. But the gender politics are very much in the background. This is a solid space opera, with a lot of depth to it, and I really look forward to the next (final?) book in the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356502410
Publisher: Orbit UK (Little, Brown Book Group)

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