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." 
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.