Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Book Review | Armada by Ernest Cline


Zack Lightman has spent his life dreaming. Dreaming that the real world could be a little more like the countless science-fiction books, movies, and videogames he’s spent his life consuming. Dreaming that one day, some fantastic, world-altering event will shatter the monotony of his humdrum existence and whisk him off on some grand space-faring adventure.

But hey, there’s nothing wrong with a little escapism, right? After all, Zack tells himself, he knows the difference between fantasy and reality. He knows that here in the real world, aimless teenage gamers with anger issues don’t get chosen to save the universe.

And then he sees the flying saucer.

Even stranger, the alien ship he’s staring at is straight out of the videogame he plays every night, a hugely popular online flight simulator called Armada—in which gamers just happen to be protecting the earth from alien invaders.

No, Zack hasn’t lost his mind. As impossible as it seems, what he’s seeing is all too real. And his skills—as well as those of millions of gamers across the world—are going to be needed to save the earth from what’s about to befall it.

It’s Zack’s chance, at last, to play the hero. But even through the terror and exhilaration, he can’t help thinking back to all those science-fiction stories he grew up with, and wondering: doesn't something about this scenario seem a little... familiar?

***

Isn't the world weird?

After decades of dismissal, what was once the preserve of known nerds is now everyone's favourite field. Video games are a cornerstone of contemporary culture. There are characters from comic books wherever you look. The fundamental stuff of science fiction and fantasy has been embraced in a big way by the mainstream, and though there are those who still question the merits of the speculative, even these outliers have had a hard time denying the cultural cache it has accrued in recent years.

Fair to say, then, that geek has never been more chic—a zeroing of the zeitgeist Ernest Cline capitalised on to heartfelt effect in his first novel following the cult film Fanboys. A celebration of all things 80s bolstered by a cannily-characterised protagonist who came of age over its uproarious course, Ready Player One was smart, but it also had a heart.

Armada starts strong, by scratching a great many of the same itches Cline's debut did. It too worships at the altar of this new, nerd-friendly nostalgia. It combines space-based spectacle with a series of intimate interruptions. It's frequently funny and remarkably referential. But there's a but.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Book Review | Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson


Our voyage from Earth began generations ago.

Now, we approach our new home: Aurora.

A major new novel from one of science fiction's most powerful voices, Aurora tells the incredible story of our first voyage beyond the solar system. Brilliantly imagined and beautifully told, it is the work of a writer at the height of his powers.

***

Since the startling Mars trilogy, if not in advance of that, Kim Stanley Robinson has been seen as something of a standard-bearer for science fiction—and quite rightly. Again and again in the sixteen years since said series' completion, he's demonstrated himself capable of combining the very finest in futurism with the crucial components of sterling storytelling so many of his contemporaries unfortunately forget.

Aurora chronicles Robinson's return to science fiction in the first, after the about-turn he took in 2013, but to begin with, it reads distressingly like a retread. Its premise depends upon a generation ship hurtling towards the Tau Ceti system, where the two thousand-some souls aboard plan to carve out a new home for humanity—a notion set in motion by the same sort of environmental catastrophe Aurora's author has explored before, not least in the Science in the Capital saga. After their arrival, these cosmic colonists take on the deceptively complex task of terraforming, much as the men and women of the Mars trilogy did. In the interim, they eke out a existence of subsistence in biomes rather reminiscent of those Robinson detailed in 2312—biomes which our central character slowly explores in the course of a long wanderjahr that isn't dissimilar to the walkabout Shaman started with.

But readers? Read on. Because there's so much more to Aurora.

In a sense, sure, it's a bit of a best of. But the best of Kim Stanley Robinson is arguably the best the genre has to offer, and beyond that, the passage of time and a pinch of patience exposes this thoughtful space opera's primary purpose: to chart the rise of an AI.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Book Review | Underground by S. L. Grey


The Sanctum is a luxurious, self-sustaining survival condominium situated underground in rural Maine. It's a plush bolt-hole for the rich and paranoid—a place where they can wait out the apocalypse in style. When a devastating super-flu virus hits the States, several families race to reach it. All have their own motivations for entering The Sanctum. All are hiding secrets.

But when the door lock and a death occurs, they realise the greatest threat to their survival may not be above the ground—it may already be inside...

***

In this day and age, grave danger is everywhere. Quite aside from the exponential toll of terrorism, there's environmental catastrophe to consider, and so many potential vectors of deadly infection that just counting them could kill you—never mind the nukes pointed at every major population centre on the planet.

That the world will end—and sooner rather than later, some say—is as good as a given. Something's got to give, and when it does, you and your loved ones will want somewhere safe to stay. Somewhere completely sealed against sickness; somewhere with such state-of-the-art security that not even a mouse could get into your house; somewhere so darned deep underground that surviving the bombs that are sure to start dropping is guaranteed to be a breeze.

The Sanctum is that somewhere.

A stylish, self-sustaining survival condo built hundreds of metres below the bedrock of the great state of Maine, The Sanctum comes complete with a swimming pool, gym facilities, its own medical suite, an elevator, high bandwidth wi-fi, biometric locks, motion sensors and a Grow Your Own garden. In short, it's sure to ensure "pure peace of mind" (p.10) even as the world beyond its barbed-wire bounds goes to hell in a handbasket.

Promises, unfortunately, are only as strong as the person who makes them, and Greg, the mind behind The Sanctum, may have cut a couple of corners in the course of its construction. Precious few of the mod cons he pitched to the five families who bought into the prospective project are fully functional, and an array of them aren't even there: the elevator is an empty shaft, for example, and the medical suite is a metal bed with a nearby supply of band-aids.

But when the apocalypse appears, better, by all accounts, to take some semblance of shelter than none.

Least... you'd think that, wouldn't you?

Friday, 10 July 2015

Book Review | The Hunter's Kind by Rebecca Levene


Born in tragedy and raised in poverty, Krishanjit never aspired to be anything greater than what he was: a humble goatherd, tending his flock on the slopes of his isolated mountain home. But Krish has learned that he's the son of the king of Ashanesland—and the moon god reborn. Now, with the aid of his allies, Krish is determined to fight his murderous father and seize control of Ashanesland. But Dae Hyo, Eric and Olufemi are dangerously unreliable and hiding secrets of their own.

To take Ashanesland, Krish must travel to the forbidden Mirror Town and unlock the secrets of its powerful magic. But the price of his victory may be much greater than the consequences of his defeat, for deep in the distant Moon Forest lives a girl called Cwen—a disciple of the god known only as the Hunter—who believes that Krish represents all that is evil in the world.

And she has made it her life's mission to seek Krish and destroy all who fight by his side.

***

Between City of Stairs, The Goblin Emperor, Words of Radiance, the latest Daniel Abraham and the debut of Brian Staveley, 2014 saw the release of a feast of remarkable fantasies—and whilst I find that playing favourites is a fool's game usually, last year, there was one I loved above all others. The only complaint I found myself able to make about Smiler's Fair was that there wasn't more of it, but with second volume of The Hollow Gods upon us, there is now—and how!

At the heart of Rebecca Levene's first fantasy was the titular travelling carnival: a cultural crossroads whose various visitors were invited, for a prince, to indulge in their unsightly vices. There, they gambled and they drank; there, they fought and they fucked. For centuries, Smiler's Fair was a welcome outlet for wicked impulses, as well as those desires disdained by the lords of the Lands of the Sun and Moon, in a place apart from the populace.

That was before it burned; before it was ravaged by a magical fire that left thousands dead and many more homeless. But it's "best not to cry about what's past. It's only what's coming that matters." (p.39) And what's that, you ask? In a word: war.

Before that sorry state of affairs is declared, The Hunter's Kind has us spend some time with a few new faces, including Cwen. The first hawk among the Hunter's hundreds—an orphan army whose mandate is to defend the people of the sun against the monsters of the moon—Cwen must put aside her principles and lead her lot into conflict when she learns that Yron, her god's eternal enemy, has been reborn.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Book Review | Way Down Dark by J. P. Smythe


There's one truth on the Australia: you fight or you die. Usually both.

Imagine a nightmare from which there is no escape. Seventeen-year-old Chan's ancestors left a dying Earth hundreds of years ago, in search of a new home. They never found one.

The only life that Chan's ever known is one of violence, of fighting. Of trying to survive in a hell where no one can hide. The Australia is a ship of death, of murderers and cults and gangs.

But way down dark—into a place of buried secrets, long-forgotten lies, and the abandoned bodies of the dead—there might be a way to escape.

***

Calling all authors with plans to ply their darker brands in the young adult market: Way Down Dark is like a lesson in how to bring your fiction to a more sensitive sector without sacrificing the parts that made it remarkable.

The sensational start of J. P. Smythe's Australia trilogy is to sinister science fiction what Joe Abercrombie's Shattered Sea series has been to fantasy of the grimdark variety: a nearly seamless segue that doesn't talk down to its audience or substantially scale back the stuff some say is sure to scare younger readers away.

To wit, it doesn't get a great deal more miserable than this—appropriately given the tone and tenor of Smythe's other efforts. Consider the fact that Way Down Dark opens on its main character murdering her own mother a macabre case in point.
It was because she had a reputation. Her reputation meant that I was always left alone, because so many others on the ship were scared of her. Only when she became sick did that change. Not that anybody knew what was wrong with her for sure, but there were rumours. Rumours are nearly worse than the truth, because they get out of control. People started looking at me differently, pushing their luck, sizing me up. They wanted to see just how weak she was now, and how weak I was. [...] Power is everything on Australia. Power is how they rule; it's how they take territory, make parts of the ship their own. But, somehow, our section of the ship stayed free. Somehow—and part of me wants to lay the responsibility at my mother's feet, though I know it can't all have been her doing—we stayed out of it. (p6)
And so a plan is hatched, to keep the three free sections of the ship safe by showing the Lows that Chan and the others under her mother's purported protection should be taken very seriously indeed.

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.