the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘space opera

51FDYgEMAsL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_This Gulf of Time and Stars by Julie Czerneda (Reunification #1)

publishes Nov 3rd, 2015

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

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If you’ve been following Julie Czerneda’s writing career, the phrase “a new Clan Chronicles novel!” is music to your ears. I discovered Czerneda through her Species Imperative trilogy, and quickly fell in love with her invitingly conversational  writing style, her characterization, and the way she writes alien species. Seriously, this woman is the ultimate master of writing convincing alien species. Formally trained as a biologist, Czerneda’s plots touch on evolution,  biology, ecology, and how it’s all related.  She’ll introduce you to an alien civilization and then prove their population isn’t living on their planet of origin, she’ll give a species a strong evolutionary process and then prove that it doesn’t quite work as planned. It’s true, physics and math will get us to the stars, but it’s biology that will give us the answers to whatever and whoever we find living out there.

I think the biggest question surrounding This Gulf of Time and Stars is can readers new to this series jump in here? The answer is it depends on the reader. If you don’t mind feeling a little in the deep end (some of my favorite authors have thrown me into the deep end, to fantastic results – looking at you China Mieville and Iain M. Banks!), or you’re willing to take 5 minutes to do a little research by reading Czerneda’s informative and entertaining Big Idea post over at Scalzi’s Whatever, you’ll do fine. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers to have everything explained right off the bat, you may prefer to start earlier in the series. Generally speaking, Czerneda is the kind of author who simply doesn’t explain things right away – part of her character’s journeys involves discovering for themselves what’s going on, and how, and why. and when I say “discovering for themselves”, I don’t mean coming of age (although some of her novels would qualify as coming of age), I mean discovering genetic secrets and information that  could tear apart an entire society and species. We’re talking big picture here.

This review does have SPOILERS for the first books in the series, and some SPOILERS for This Gulf of Time and Stars.

Here’s the very quick and dirty background of the series, the characters, and the world, in which I have grossly simplified everything in the name of brevity:

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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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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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kassa gambitThe Kassa Gambit, by M.C. Planck

published in 2012

where I got it: borrowed

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If you enjoyed the TV show Firefly, or have been enjoying the James S.A. Corey Expanse series (Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, etc), then The Kassa Gambit is for you.

 

Starting off with a bang,  the crew of the Ulysses exit node space in the Kassa system to find mines and missiles waiting for them. Luckily, Captain Prudence Falling has a smart crew, and a freighter ship that’s got some hidden additions.  They outsmart the missiles, land on Kassa to learn the entire planet has been bombarded by a mysterious enemy that showed up out of nowhere, bombed the crap out of the place, and left without a word.  When the government patrol boat Launceston enters the system, Falling helps them through the mine fields, and doesn’t want to stick around long enough for the Launceston’s League Agent Kyle Daspar to use his governmental powers to commandeer her ship too.  She’s interested in helping the people of Kassa rebuild, but under her own terms, not those of the League.

 

Daspar has secrets of his own, and one of them is that he’s intensely suspicious and paranoid.  The mission he’s really on isn’t the one he’s talking about, and for a while he’s convinced that Falling is an agent out to kill him.  What changes his mind is the way Falling treats her long term crew members. She’s tolerant of Garcia’s crassness and alcoholism, and she’s maternal and protective towards Jorgun, who is an idiot savant. Jorgun can program the nav computer faster and more accurately than an AI, but he’s got the mental development of a five year old. Falling knows Jorgun’s skills, and she also knows how others would treat him, and what the League would do with him if they got their hands on him. When not running Nav, Jorgun is happy doing jigsaw puzzles, playing games, and watching cartoons. He’s the ship’s gentle giant.

 

As the Kassa investigation continues, a crashed alien ship is found, and Prudence and Kyle follow different tracks towards the answers.  Their paths cross again, and there is some obvious chemistry growing between the two of them. They are both physically attracted to the other, but they mutually agree that the timing couldn’t be more inconvenient.  They do decide to work together to uncover the mystery of what attacked Kassa.  Prudence has an augmented ship and knows the shipping lanes and node jumps like the back of her hand, and Kyle has the government connections to get their all information they could possibly need. Now it’s just a matter of putting all the pieces together.

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cibola burnCibola Burn, #4 of The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey

published  June 2014

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

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The first three books in the Expanse series were a complete yet open ended space opera, with a very definite change in where the story could have gone at the end of book 3.  Now, in book 4, we’re exploring story arc those changes.  The ring that opened at the edge of our solar system allows our ships to travel through any one of a thousand gates. On the other side of each gate is an empty solar system, all with at least one habitable planet. But all the planets are empty, there’s no one to be found. Who built the gate system, and where did everyone go?

 

The people on the Barbapiccola don’t care about where everyone went. They are running out of oxygen and water, and no port will accept a ship of refugees. What choice have they, but to go through the ring and hope for the best? If their ship survives the journey, there will at least be a planet with breathable air and gravity on the other side.

 

Fast forward 18 months, and the “refugees” are now “colonists”, making a life for themselves on Ilus.  Back home, the charter for mining rights to the planet has been awarded to Royal Charter Energy, who sent a provisional government and security to the planet.  The opening scene of Cibola Burn is a small group of terrified and angry colonists blowing up the landing pad on the planet and inadvertently blowing up the provisional government’s landing shuttle. Not the best way to make a first impression, to say the least.

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The more short fiction I read by Aliette de Bodard, the more I like her. It took me longer than it should have to “get it”, but now that I do, I just can’t get enough. Most of her short fiction (or at least most of what I read) takes place in her expansive Xuya Universe, and specifically in its space age, when humanity has conquered the stars.  If you’ve read “Immersion”, or “On A Red Station, Drifting” (both Hugo nominees last year) you’re familiar with the Dai Viet of Xuya, you’ve smelled their pungent food, you’ve been aboard their mind-ships that are someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s aunt, those ships that are painted inside and out with scenes and symbols from mythology, you’ve run your fingers along the slick, slimy, pulsing wall of the ship’s heartroom, you’ve seen how their culture has been attacked by the warlike and aggressive Federation.  There is more than enough space out there, but still we fight for planets, colonies, stations, insisting that there isn’t enough to share.

 

“The Waiting Stars” opens in a graveyard.

 

These are the Mind-ships that were captured by the Federation. Not exactly prisoners of war, the mind ships have been crippled and left to die. Hidden in a dark corner of space, the Federation assumes the graveyard will be forgotten. But how can Lan Nhen forget her great great aunt, The Turtle’s Citadel? Lan Nhen will bring her great aunt’s body home, to be buried properly.

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dune messiahDune Messiah, by Frank Herbert (Dune, book 2)

published in 1969

where I got it: have owned forever.

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Why am I starting with the 2nd novel in this series? The first book in the series,  Dune, was one of my gateway books to science fiction, and I’ve read it so many times in the last 20 years, that I practically know it by heart.  I grew up reading this series. But you may not know Dune by heart.  You may not have grown up with it. It’s okay, I forgive you.  But since I’m not a total jerk, here are some reviews of Dune to get you up to speed (The Founding Fields, Fantasy Book Review, Best Fantasy Books, Looping Wor(l)d, Josh’s Fantasy Novel Reviews ), and if those are tl:dr, here’s the wikipedia cliffsnotes.

My goal is to get through the rest of the series during this year. It’s been a good eight (yikes, ten?) years since I attempted Chapterhouse, so I’m due for a reread of the entire series.  And who knows, maybe I’ll even rewatch the movie and miniseries, and we can talk about that too.

 

Will there be spoilers in this series of blog posts? yes. sorry, ‘tis unavoidable.

Will they wreck your enjoyment of these books? Nope. read ‘em, and you’ll see what I mean.

and as usual, these will be my weird, impressionistic, paint thrown at the wall style reviews.

Dune Messiah  opens with the planning of a conspiracy to dethrone Emperor Paul Muad’Dib Atreides. Before Paul ascended the throne, there had always been an unspoken rule of checks and  balances – the Corrino Emperor ruled of course, but often bowed to the needs of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, and the Spacing Guild. Compromises were made, powers were kept relatively happy, any embarrassments could be swept under the rug of money and power.  If Paul continues his refusal to compromise, he will have to be removed,  and a more suitable (suitable = controllable) person put on the throne.  The conspirators consist of Paul’s wife Princess Irulan,  Scytale the Tleilaxu face-dancer, the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, and Edric the Guild Steersman, representing a cross section of the political parties whose future stability relies on being able to influence and control the ruling family.  The plan they come up with involves nothing more suspect than a gift befitting an emperor.

 

Dune Messiah takes place twelve years after Dune, and we really see the metamorphosis Paul and his family have been forced to go through. Paul rules as Emperor of the known universe, yet he is completely powerless to stop jihadists who kill  in his name.  By allowing his Fremen to call him Messiah, he has given up all personhood, becoming a prisoner of his own success.  Nearly overnight the known universe became a theocracy, and everything that’s happened, everything that will happen, Paul has already forseen.  The future isn’t written in stone, Paul has merely seen all the possible paths, with roads that narrow as events get closer.  He’s the most accidental Emperor ever, and he and his sister Alia sometimes joke about the tragicomedy of their whole situation. A renegade genetic success and his abomination of a sister, ruling the galaxy, what could be funnier?  it’s actually a little depressing, when you think about it.

Everyone in this saga is trapped. It is important to remember that.

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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.