Thursday, 25 June 2015

Book Review | Crashing Heaven by Al Robertson


With Earth abandoned, humanity resides on Station, an industrialised asteroid run by the sentient corporations of the Pantheon. Under their leadership a war has been raging against the Totality—ex-Pantheon AIs gone rogue.

With the war over, Jack Forster and his sidekick Hugo Fist, a virtual ventriloquist's dummy tied to Jack's mind and created to destroy the Totality, have returned home.

Labelled a traitor for surrendering to the Totality, all Jack wants is to clear his name but when he discovers two old friends have died under suspicious circumstances he also wants answers. Soon he and Fist are embroiled in a conspiracy that threatens not only their future but all of humanity's. But with Fist's software licence about to expire, taking Jack's life with it, can they bring down the real traitors before their time runs out?


***

Seriously satisfying cyberpunk action meets thoughtful moral philosophy with a dash of detective noir and a supersized side of striking science in Crashing Heaven—the year's best debut to date, and make no mistake.

A pivotal part of its deceptively accessible premise is that the tale occurs in a world where gods (of a sort) walk among men. As the well-read will be aware, this is not a new notion; on the contrary, there have been any number of tremendous takes on the topic, even if we restrict our recollection to iterations of late—highlights like Robert Jackson Bennett's brilliantly built City of Stairs and N. K. Jemisin's hot-under-the-collar Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. So what makes this one worth writing home about? Why, the presence of a puppet, if you please!

Folks, meet Hugo Fist: a virtual ventriloquist's dummy designed by the pawns of the Pantheon—an assortment of incarnate corporate gods who represent the culmination of capitalism—to lay waste to the Totality: the rogue AIs that have taken over most of the solar system. Most of the solar system... but not all—not Station, the industrialised asteroid humanity has called home since poor planet Earth gasped its last.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Book Review | Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds


A vast conflict, one that has encompassed hundreds of worlds and solar systems, appears to be finally at an end. A conscripted soldier is beginning to consider her life after the war and the family she has left behind. But for Scur—and for humanity—peace is not to be.

On the brink of the ceasefire, Scur is captured by a renegade war criminal, and left for dead in the ruins of a bunker. She revives aboard a prisoner transport vessel. Something has gone terribly wrong with the ship.

Passengers—combatants from both sides of the war—are waking up from hibernation far too soon. Their memories, embedded in bullets, are the only links to a world which is no longer recognizable. And Scur will be reacquainted with her old enemy, but with much higher stakes than just her own life.


***

It was a long war. A hard war. A sprawling war between hundreds of worlds, in which millions of lives were lost... and for what?

For all the usual reasons, really. Power. Pennies. Practicalities. Politics. But at bottom, words were what caused the war between the Central Worlds and the Peripheral Systems: the words of two essentially identical texts, precious as they proved to people on both sides of the divide.

But now the war is over.
There was a problem, though. The skipships were the only way to send messages as faster than light speeds, so it took time for the news to spread. To begin with, not everyone believed that the ceasefire was real. Even when neutral peacekeepers came in to our system, the fighting continued. (p.10)
Scurelya Timsuk Shunde, the not-entirely-reliable narrator of Alastair Reynolds' new novella, is a soldier captured after the close of this conflict by a man who takes pleasure in other people's pain.

For a time, Orvin is content to torture her, but as peacekeepers close in on his position, he shoots Scur with a slow bullet—a dog tag with onboard storage—that he's modified to make as horrible as possible:
"Normally there's not much pain. The medics use a topical anaesthetic to numb the entry area, and the slow bullet puts out another type of drug as it travels through your insides. It goes very slowly, too—or at least it's meant to. Hence the name, of course. And it avoids damaging any vital organs or circulatory structures as it progresses to its destination, deep enough inside your chest that it can't be removed without complicated surgery. But this one's different. It's going to hurt like the worst thing you've ever known and it's going to keep burrowing through you until it reaches your heart." 
"Why?" 
Orvin let out a little laugh. "Why not?" (pp.14-15)
Scur doesn't expect to survive this evil ordeal, but she does. Just.

Later—exactly how long later I ain't saying—she awakens in a hibo capsule on a skipship packed full of prisoners of war. Immediately, one wonders: why is she among them? It must be a mistake. Either that or Scur isn't the telling us the whole story...

Friday, 12 June 2015

Book Review | Nemesis Games by James S. A. Corey


A thousand worlds have opened, and the greatest land rush in human history has begun. As wave after wave of colonists leave, the power structures of the old solar system begin to buckle.

Ships are disappearing without a trace. Private armies are being secretly formed. The sole remaining protomolecule sample is stolen. Terrorist attacks previously considered impossible bring the inner planets to their knees. The sins of the past are returning to exact a terrible price.

And as a new human order is struggling to be born in blood and fire, James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante must struggle to survive and get back to the only home they have left.

***

For science fiction fans with more of an interest in kick-ass action than extrapolated mathematical accuracy, The Expanse has been brilliant: a breath of fresh air in a genre with a regrettable tendency to taste stale instead.

And yet, in premise, it isn't particularly original. In each part of The Expanse so far, an expanding cast of roguish do-gooders have broken the rules to do good in a galaxy on the brink of going bad. Add to that drawback the characters—characters who felt familiar from the first, and haven't done much to differentiate themselves since—and the setting, which is essentially the same as a hundred other interstellar sagas.

This, then, is a series that really shouldn't work... but I'll be damned if it doesn't.

A large part of the surprising success of The Expanse springs, I think, from the persistent sense that we've only just scratched the surface—of this milieu, of these men and women, and of the slowly-unfolding overarching story about humanity's spread through the one sprawl to rule them all. What we've got to work with in the interim is good enough for government work, but greatness awaits in the wings, I warrant.

Or I would have done, a book or two back. Over the years, though, that impression has inevitably lessened. And fun as the series has been, it's left me feeling increasingly fatigued, even frustrated, by James S. A. Corey's refusal to to follow through on the awesome promise of his milieu. Since the very beginning, everything about The Expanse has been building towards a confrontation between our species and the protomolecule's masters, but like the coming of winter in A Song of Ice and Fire, that game-changer has been nearly here for so long that the forecast has started to feel false—and it's no closer to actually arriving by the end of Nemesis Games, either.

That's the bad news about this book, in brief. Happily, every other development is for the better.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Book Review | Finders Keepers by Stephen King


"Wake up, genius."

So begins King's instantly riveting story about a vengeful reader. The genius is John Rothstein, a Salinger-like icon who created a famous character, Jimmy Gold, but who hasn't published a book for decades. 

Morris Bellamy is livid, not just because Rothstein has stopped providing books, but because the nonconformist Jimmy Gold has sold out for a career in advertising. Morris kills Rothstein and empties his safe of cash, yes, but the real treasure is a trove of notebooks containing at least one more Gold novel.

Morris hides the money and the notebooks, and then he is locked away for another crime. Decades later, a boy named Pete Saubers finds the treasure, and now it is Pete and his family that Bill Hodges, Holly Gibney, and Jerome Robinson must rescue from the ever-more deranged and vengeful Morris when he's released from prison after thirty-five years.

Not since Misery has King played with the notion of a reader whose obsession with a writer gets dangerous. Finders Keepers is spectacular, heart-pounding suspense, but it is also King writing about how literature shapes a life—for good, for bad, forever.

***

I'm probably preaching to the converted here, but let me let you in on a little secret to some: though books are a big deal to people like you and me, we're outnumbered and undoubtedly outgunned by those folks who wind their way through life without ever really reading. To them, the way we've committed to literature is... quite simply inexplicable.

What they don't know—and what we, the enlightened, indubitably do—is that great writing can change lives. Great writing like the work of one John Rothstein, creator of Jimmy Gold, the real American hero at the heart of The Runner trilogy. On the basis of those books, a legion of readers "judged Rothstein to be one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century, right up there with Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Roth." (p.85)

Morris Bellamy, a twisted little twentysomething whose mom doesn't love him enough in the late 70s of Finders Keepers' first chapters, is one of said series' dyed-in-the-wool devotees—right up until he slaughters its author.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Book Review | Day Four by Sarah Lotz


Four days into a five day singles cruise on the Gulf of Mexico, the ageing ship Beautiful Dreamer stops dead in the water. With no electricity and no cellular signals, the passengers and crew have no way to call for help. But everyone is certain that rescue teams will come looking for them soon. All they have to do is wait.

That is, until the toilets stop working and the food begins to run out. Then, when the body of a woman is discovered in her cabin, the passengers start to panic. There's a murderer on board the Beautiful Dreamer... and maybe something worse.

***

Got an appetite for good food? Hungry for some unforgettable fun?

If you answered yes to those questions, then Foveros Cruises is beside itself with excitement to invite you to spend a week on the sparkling seas aboard The Beautiful Dreamer—a once in a lifetime opportunity to get to know North America's number one psychic, Celine del Ray.

That's not all this holiday has to offer, either:
Soak up the sun during one of our many exciting excursions, where you can shop till your drop at our many concessions, snorkel in turquoise seas, horse-ride along beautiful beaches, and enjoy al fresco dining on our fabulous private island. 
Sounds like a fine way to spend a few days, doesn't it? Folks: don't be fooled. The Beautiful Dreamer might be a luxury liner, but Day Four describes a holiday from hell—and not just because of the bad buffet.

The first three days of the cruise are "relatively uneventful." (p.3) The ship makes a few stops in a few choice spots. The holidaymakers get to stretch their legs. They're well fed, and entertained in the interim. The WTF only hits the fan on day four, when a fire ravages the engine room, stranding The Beautiful Dreamer at sea.

The next thing the three thousand-some souls aboard know, the power goes out, taking access to the internet with it—and for some reason the radio also stops responding. Essentially, every thread connecting the ship to the world as we know it is suddenly severed.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Book Review | Seveneves by Neal Stephenson


What would happen if the world were ending?

When a catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb, it triggers a feverish race against the inevitable. An ambitious plan is devised to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere. But unforeseen dangers threaten the intrepid pioneers, until only a handful of survivors remain...

Five thousand years later, their progeny—seven distinct races now three billion strong—embark on yet another audacious journey into the unknown, to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth.

A writer of dazzling genius and imaginative vision, Neal Stephenson combines science, philosophy, technology, psychology, and literature in a magnificent work of speculative fiction that offers a portrait of a future that is at once extraordinary and eerily recognizable. He explores some of our biggest ideas and perplexing challenges in a breathtaking saga that is daring, engrossing, and altogether brilliant.

***

You certainly can't judge a book by its cover, but its first sentence, I find, can be tremendously telling—and so it is with Seveneves, the latest doorstopper of a novel to bear Neal Stephenson's name, and his greatest since Cryptonomicon in 1999.

It starts simply: with eleven ordinary words arranged in such a straightforward way that the eye absorbs them almost automatically. It's only when the significance of said sentence registers that the eye tracks back to take in its content more carefully. Still, it takes a few seconds to make sense, for as easy to read as these words may be—as indeed is the entirety of Seveneves—their meaning is a world away from mundane.

This is a sentence so shocking, so appalling, that the brain demands a double-take. But even a second look later, the song remains the same:
The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason. (p.3)
In this way, the extraordinary and extraordinarily complex content belied by the seeming simplicity of Seveneves is revealed, and the fate of something like seven billion human beings is sealed.

In short, Seveneves startling first sentence sets the tone for much of what's to come, but in a novel approximately a thousand pages long, there's just so much to come that it's hard to know where to start, and when to stop. I won't be giving the game away, that much I can say. Nobody's going to hold it against you, however, if you opt to stop reading this review right now—so long as you immediately start reading Seveneves instead.