the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘science fiction

slow bulletsSlow Bullets, by Alastair Reynolds

published June 2015

where I got it: purchased new

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After a few sluggish, slow reads, it was such a pleasure to pick something up and be sucked in right away. At just shy of 200 pages, Slow Bullets is a fast read, and paced absolutely perfectly. Not a moment feels slow, nor does anything feel rushed.  Other than the first segment, Scur is telling her story to someone, someone who knows how her story ends. It’s as if she’s an aged grandmother telling the neighborhood kids about what happened once upon a time. The person she’s talking to knows the sordid details, but the reader will have to wait until Scur gets to those details in her own time. Don’t worry, she will. Eventually, she’ll tell you everything.

 

Scur was a soldier in an interstellar war, and just as a ceasefire is being announced she’s been captured by the opposing side. Captured by a sadist, he shoots a slow burrowing bullet into her leg. When it reaches her heart, she’ll die.

 

Instead, she wakes up on a prison ship. The situation is pretty bleak – one crew member is still alive, the ship’s AI has gone wonky, and no one seems to be in control.  Remember the cult sci-fi movie Cube?  The first half of Slow Bullets feels quite a bit like that – with people asking what they did to deserve being on the prison ship, trying to figure out where they’re going, trying to find out if they will ever see their families again, trying to understand how to fix the ship’s computer.

 

So, what are a few hundred bloodthirsty soldiers aboard a prison ship to do? This is a ship with no captain, no functioning navigation, and they planet they are orbiting doesn’t look familiar.

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this alien shoreThis Alien Shore by C.S. Friedman

published in 1998

where i got it: paperback swap

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I’ve been hearing about C.S. Friedman’s This Alien Shore for a number of years now. Thanks to paperback swap (which sadly is no longer free) I was able to get a copy.  At over 500 pages, this book is not a fast read. It’s not a fast read for other reasons, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

 

I loved the premise of the novel. Earth has developed deep space travel, allowing us to colonize as many planets as we can find. But there’s a price. The travel changes our DNA, causing certain genes to reassert themselves, giving entire colonies what many Terrans define as physical and or developmental birth defects. At a time when Earth glorified genes that were free of any type of defects, we learn our path to the stars is rife with them. Contact was cut off from the colonies, forcing the newly planetbound to survive if they could.

 

This Alien Shore takes place hundreds of years later.  Many of the colonies have thrived, turning genetic concerns to their own advantage. Called “variants”, the story is populated with “aliens” who are humanoid in shape, but physically, mentally, and socially completely alien to Terrans. It lets Friedman have fun aliens without having to worry about what an alien looks like. One such genetic defect allows humans to pilot through the dangerous subspace ainniq. Their secrets are held close, allowing their Guild to hold a monopoly over space travel.  Earth is seen as a backwards and ignorant backwater.  (maybe it’s just me, but I fould it impossible to avoid comparing this novel to Dune. I hear “space travel guild that holds a monopoly over travel and holds the secrets of their travel abilities secret”, and all I can think is Spacing Guild!)

 

There are two intertwining plot lines in This Alien Shore – a shiny loud one that thinks it is the main plot, and a quiet one that isn’t interested in your attention but in the end is the more interesting.  Let me unpack that a little, because my reaction to how these plotlines are treated was actually more interesting than the actual plots.

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Aurora KSRAurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

On bookstore shelves: July 7 2015

where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (thanks Orbit!)

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As science fiction fans, we can easily list novels, movies, or TV shows that focus on the design, building, and eventual launch of a colony or generation ship.  The unquantifiable hope that goes into such a project, the reasons it is being built and launched, the wonder around what we’ll find when it arrives where it’s going. The end of the movie or TV show is typically the launch of the ship, people’s tearful goodbyes, the successful launch.  There are also the stories of people on board such a ship, people who have no connection whatsoever to the families and scientists who left a blue planet. But what of the last chapter of this story? What happens when the ship gets where it’s going, and the people onboard say “ok, now what?”.  What happens when life has become a destination instead of a journey? Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora is that story.

 

By the tone of the opening chapters, it’s easy to assume that Devi will be our main character.  She is a head engineer of a generation ship hurtling towards the Tau Ceti system, possibly the only person who really understands how the ship works, how to fix what breaks, and why the farms are dying. Whoever built and supplied the ship couldn’t have known what challenges it would face hundreds of years down the line.  Early in the story, Devi demands that the ship’s interface, later known as “Ship”, write a narrative account of the colonist’s journey. Ship doesn’t understand that humans have a finite life span, and Devi only has so much time to teach Ship about how to write a story. Ship is never taught about characterization, subtlety, or romances that burn slowly.  One of my favorite things about Aurora was watching Ship evolve.

 

While Ship is recording everything it can think of (which is what you are reading, by the way), Devi’s daughter Freya comes of age.  She overhears a heartbreaking conversation about island genetics and potential, yet grows up to be a prophet of sorts. Prophet is a terrible word, but it seems to fit. Later in her life, everyone comes to Freya for answers, assuming that since she is Devi’s daughter, of course she knows everything Devi knew.  Freya does, after all, have access to Ship’s vocal interface.

 

And when the ship arrives at it’s destination, then what? What happens then is the big idea of Aurora, it is what readers will dissect and argue over. There is so much I want to say here, about genetics and bacteria, and central nervous systems, and evolution, and so much more, but I can’t, because it would be a spoiler. The big question that goes with that big idea is “Is this novel optimistic or pessimistic?”  Is this a hopeful novel or a sad one?

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superpositionSuperposition, by David Walton

published April 2015

Where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (Thanks Pyr!)

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Imagine a fast paced thriller mashed up with a quantum physics book for a layperson. Now throw in family dynamics, a suspensful murder mystery/police procedural, and an unexplainable monster.  That’s Superposition. Ignore the terrible cover art, this is a pretty good book.

 

For such a short and ultra fast book, I liked how Walton developed the characters, especially Jacob and his family. Through conversations with Jacob’s wife Elena, and their kids, we immediately know a lot about the particulars of their family situation (one of these details becomes incredibly important later). As he spends more time with his daughter Alessandra, it was fascinating to watch him realize he might not be the amazingly perfect father he always thought he was. I won’t go as far to call the book heavy on “feels”, but Walton crams a ton character development into very little space. Other characters too, are quickly given depth – his friend Jean’s marital issues, his brother in-law Marek’s deep seated morals and loyalty. This is a science driven thriller, yet it read like a character driven novel. that’s a good thing.

 

To get the story off and running, Jacob’s old co-worker Brian randomly shows up at his house one night, terrified. Trying to prove a point, Brian shoots Elena, who suffers no ill effects.  The next thing Jacob knows, he’s on trial for Brian’s murder. Brian had been alive the evening he shot Elena, found dead the next morning in his lab, was seen alive that afternoon, and then was never seen again.  Jacob’s family has also disappeared, will he soon find himself on trial for their murders too?

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three bodyThe Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu

published in November 2014

Where I got it: purchased new

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This review contains minor spoilers.

 

I had a very tough time getting into The Three Body Problem.  In the first half of the novel, it’s hard to tell what’s going on, who or what is important to pay attention to. There are certainly interesting and important things that happen (and which are explained at the end), but I couldn’t understand how any of the dots were connected.

 

The story starts during China’s Cultural Revolution.  Professors, scientists, academics, anyone who is seen to be under the influence of western thoughts are persecuted and often psychologically tortured to the point of suicide. Ye Wenjie watches as her physicist father is murdered by teenaged Red Guards. Guilty by association, Wenjie is sent to the frontier to be politically rehabilitated through manual labor. A talented scientist herself, she is recruited to be part of the secretive Red Coast Base.  It will be years before anyone is allowed to talk about what happened at Red Coast.

 

The narrative jumps between Ye Wenjie’s life at Red Coast and modern day China, where nanomaterials researcher Wang Miao is pulled into a military investigation where he could be the key to stopping a dangerous enemy. Except no one will tell him who the enemy is, or where they are. He’s shown a list of scientists who recently committed suicide, and is exposed to a terrifying countdown that is counting down to, what exactly? Reluctantly, Wang becomes friends with Shi Qiang, the gruff police officer who had originally pulled him into the military meeting. A name on the list of dead scientists catches Wang’s attention, Yang Dong. He’s encouraged to visit Yang’s elderly mother, who turns out to be Ye Wenjie.

 

The connection between Wang and Ye Wenjie is a point of no return. For Ye, everything she’s worked towards is coming full circle. For Wang, he learns of a video game called Three Body, in which the goal of the game (or at least the first level of it) is to predict how long the next stable and chaotic eras will be in an environment in which the laws of orbital mechanics don’t seem to make any sense.  Players who understand what the game truly represents are invited to learn who made the game and why.

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ea_SoftApocalypseSoft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh

published 2011

where I got it: purchased used

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I’m not sure if this is the most recent book I finished,  but this is the book that got me out of the funk I’ve been in lately. I’ve barely been able to concentrate on a book for more than 15 minutes for the last few months, and Soft Apocalypse gently took me by the hand, and led me to a quiet room where there was no e-mail or texts pinging, no phone ringing, and no deadlines I’d missed. As the story was giving me the escape I so desperately needed, it coyly whispered in my ear “I’m going to give you something to care about. And then I’m going to make you watch it die”.

Soft Apocalypse was an experience in enforced escapism. And it was devastating.

And I did so desperately need this experience of escape. This is the book that forced me to put my perspectives back where they belong. Well done Will McIntosh – with your story of a society in denial, you talked me off my own ledge. Well done indeed.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of watching Robin Hobb deconstruct a character beyond the point of  no return (Forest Mage, I’m looking at you), Soft Apocalypse feels a bit like that at times, with McIntosh putting his characters through increasingly harrowing and disturbing events. And since everyone in the book assumes things can’t get any worse, they keep living their lives as if next year, or maybe the year after, everything will start to turn around.  But it doesn’t.  Things just keep getting worse, but so slowly that from day to day people barely notice. Resources slowly become scarcer, people become more afraid of strangers, and the police threaten people more than they help them.

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2015-04-05 20.33.31The Gabble and Other Stories, by Neal Asher (short story collection)

published 2008, Night Shade Edition published 2015

where it got it: received review copy from Night Shade Books (thanks!)

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My first Neal Asher novel was The Skinner, an edgy  space opera that I’ve lovingly described as “magnificently disgusting”.  In that novel, the name of the game is adapt or die, and the denizens of the planet Spatterjay take full advantage of evolutionary opportunities. Even visitors who stick around long enough can watch their bodies change into something not quite human.  The Skinner made me an instant fan of Asher, and I’ve been watching for his titles ever since.

Many of Asher’s novels take place in his Polity Universe, which in a similar fashion to Banks’ Culture novels,  the novels all take place in the same universe, and occasionally characters from one book show up or are mentioned in another, but you can generally jump around in the order the books were published.   Not sure Asher is for you? Not sure you want to dive into a new universe? The Gabble, a short story collection of stores from the Polity will answer both of those questions for you.  If you ask me, you can just answer those two questions with a resounding Yes and be done with it.

What I loved about how Asher does alien planets and aliens is that everything is so damn alien. Why should aliens have two arms, two legs, a head, a nose and a mouth? If that configuration is unique to Earth, it follows that every planet will have a unique configuration based on evolutionary needs, the planet’s unique environs, and any one of a million other variables in how life works. No one we run into is going to look like us, think like us, or communicate like us. There is no gentleness here, no Star Trek style diplomacy.  Some species simply do not communicate with others, and humans are quite tasty.  It might sound harsh, but this is how nature works.   When it comes down to it, we are just animals in a food chain.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.