BooksOfTheMoon

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)

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch #1)

By Ann Leckie

Rating: 5 stars

The soldier who goes by the name of Breq is in the final stages of plotting revenge when she comes across Seivarden Vendaai, lying naked and dying in the snow. Why she stops to help him is something even she doesn’t know, but he becomes entangled in her own life and the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance.

I really rather loved this book. Breq is something more and something less than human. Her body was once human, but killed and reanimated. Her intelligence is artificial, being the last remaining component of the starship Justice of Toren, trying to make sense of and work with a single body rather than the resources of thousands of its ‘ancillaries’.

Although Breq (or Justice of Toren) is very much the hero of the piece, the book never shies away from the fact that it was a military ship involved in the invasion and subjugation of many civilisations and planets. It’s done terrible things in its time, but in some ways this is a redemption story as well, with Breq trying, in her own way, to make up for her own past actions.

Breq is also a fascinating protagonist. Being part of an AI with multiple bodies, we get a first person narrative, but from multiple points of view, which gives us both the intimacy of a first person narrator, but also the traditional omniscient narrative, as Justice of Toren is seeing all these things at the same time.

At first in the book, I felt a bit thrown off-balance and it took a while to work out why. It was because all the characters that Breq met seemed to be female. It took a while for this to sink in. If they had been male I wouldn’t have even noticed. As far as I’m concerned, this is a good thing – it makes me aware that despite my best efforts, I still have in-built preconceptions, and helps me to try and break through them. In fact, in the story, it’s more interesting than that. The language that Breq thinks in doesn’t make distinction between genders, and the pronoun that she uses is ‘she’ for everyone (and finds it difficult to tell the difference between genders, as the outward signs vary so much between cultures).

Come to think of it, I have no idea if Breq is male or female. She’s referred to as ‘she’ by other characters, but I, think, always in the Radch language, so it’s entirely possible that she’s actually male.

The world-building in the story is really good as well. The civilisation of the Radch, to which JoT belongs, has been expanding for a millennium and eventually met its match with an alien species, and is forced to sue for peace. The Lord of the Radch has, like the ancillaries, thousands of bodies, spread through many star systems, so can always be personally present as the ultimate form of law and justice, meaning that the ‘centre of power’ is always fairly near by, rather than being some distant Rome, and that mind across multiple bodies is played in interesting ways.

So an awful lot in there to think about and digest, but also a really fun space opera with a twist. One of the reasons that I read this book when I did is that it was published in 2013 and I get to nominate and vote in the 2014 Hugo awards. From all I heard, this might be a contender for nomination. From my point of view, it most definitely is.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356502403
Publisher: Orbit UK (Little, Brown Book Group)
Year of publication: 2013

Noumenon

By Marina J. Lostetter

Rating: 4 stars

A macguffin is discovered in space at just the right time: the world is increasingly united and peaceful. So with resources to spare, a convoy of nine ships, collectively known as Noumenon, is launched to investigate. Even with FTL, this mission will take several generations to complete, so the crew is carefully chosen and then cloned for the duration of the mission to preserve skills and abilities over the duration.

I really enjoyed this story. We start on Earth, after the discovery of the macguffin (a weird star) and the planning phase of the mission. From then on, we revisit the convoy at various points in its history, as the the society changes in ways both envisioned by its designers and ways that weren’t. Throughout, the Inter Convoy Computer (ICC) watches over the crew, and several of the segments in the book are from ICC’s point of view.

One thing that I think the book never fully addressed was the idea that we are defined by our genes. This is patently untrue: two identical twins can have very different personalities. The idea that a clone of a person will have their aptitudes and skills, even with education and training being bent in a specific direction, seems dodgy to me. And then we get to a point where several gene lines are discontinued entirely, because one of the clones of the line has done something that the convoy society disapproves of (whether that’s mental health issues or attempted mutiny). This seems an odd decision given that there’s a closed gene pool to start with, with specifically defined roles, and, as I say, an individual is more than their genes. I do wish the book had addressed this more.

But that’s one issue in an otherwise excellent book that spans many human lifespans but still spends enough time at each stop to make us care about each individual, as well as the society of the convoy as a whole.

Book details

ISBN: 9780008223397
Publisher: HarperVoyager
Year of publication: 2017

Double Contact (Sector General, #12)

By James White

Rating: 4 stars

Without necessarily meaning to be, this is the last Sector General novel. White was ill when he was writing it, and its publication ended up being posthumous. This novel sees Senior Physician Prilicla and the crew of the Rhabwar answering multiple distress calls from the same location and finding a botched first contact operation. Prilicla and his comrades have to not just save their patients, but undo the damage that’s been done.

Like the rest of the series, this is a peaceful, one might say pacifist, space opera (although there is a “misunderstanding” that leads to a siege at one point). White was passionate about non-violence and uses his characters to repeatedly make the point that peaceful contact and co-operation is best for everyone. There’s a wonderful quote towards the end of the book:

“War, he thought sadly as he looked down at the terrified casualty, was composed mostly of hatred and heroism, both of them misplaced.”

There’s a nod back to Star Surgeon as Prilicla deliberately puts hostile patients in the same ward as other patients to show that they mean them no harm, and the constant correction of the “Etlan war” to the “Etlan police action” amused me.

And Prilicla finally gets promoted to Diagnostician! As the last act of the last book in the series, it feels really fitting. And the last sentence in the book hammers home White’s philosophy one more time: “One does not give orders to a Sector General Diagnostician.” – spoken by a senior marshal of the Monitor Corps, again making the point that the military (sorry, police) is subservient to the healers.

Sector General itself, alas, only gets a cameo at the start of the book. Goodbye you “shining beacon in space”, you’ve been an inspiration to us all.

Book details

ISBN: 9780812568608
Publisher: Tor Science Fiction
Year of publication: 1999

The Goodall Mutiny

By Gretchen Rix

Rating: 1 star

I did not enjoy this book at all. It’s about an officer and a bunch of her subordinates abandoned as half their spaceship is jettisoned by the captain. We’re introduced to Lieutenant Joan Chikage as she’s searching for escaped beetles, and it never starts making more sense after that. Chikage is neurotic, completely out of her depth, unable to command her crew and undermines her own authority all the time. Her internal monologue doesn’t exactly help the reader sympathise with her either.

There’s a huge amount left unexplained here, and stuff that just doesn’t make any sense. This should have been an intriguing mystery, but it’s left completely open at the end, with no sense of closure or any questions answered. There’s a sequel, which may answer some questions, but I just don’t care. It was just bloody-mindedness that kept me going through this book and I have no desire to read more about Chikage or her universe.

Book details

Publisher: Rix Cafe Texican
Year of publication: 2016

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