Archive for March, 2017

IMG_5899.JPG

Alex Lamb’s debut novel, Roboteer, is a fascinating read; big worldbuilding, big ideas and what feels to be the start of a new voice in space opera/hard science fiction. Set in a far future where Earth has been united under a pseudo-religious, political dictatorship whose aim is to subjugate humanities colonies on other planets and in other star systems, the conflict rests on Earth’s scarcity against the colonies technological superiority. It’s a manufactured war: the colonies are defending themselves whilst Earth promotes bizzare, almost racist ideologies.

Told through the eyes of three different characters, we get to see much of Earth’s political elite as well as the colony homeworld Galatea. Will Kuno-Monet is the eponymous Roboteer, a genetically modified human, designed to control and understand robots and computer systems; Ira Baron-Lecke is a Galatean starship captain who heads up covert missions into enemy territory; Gustav Ulanu is an Earther, a general but a scientist first, and one who has discovered ancient alien technologies. It is with Gustav that the story hinges for his discovery unlocks a set of parameters that will change the whole of humanity’s fate.

Soon both factions are vying for control of the alien relics but it is Will who makes the first meaningful contact. The revelations he is exposed to change everything he knows about his race, the universe and humanity’s place within it all. Yet, these aliens (or rather those behind the ruins) are testing humans and the consequences are dire. So begins an epic journey as Will must convince not only his crew mates but also his enemies that the ancient artefacts they have discovered are lures; the survival of humanity rests on how they proceed to use that technology – whether for warfare or for advancement.

It’s a great concept and there are some interesting discussions about what makes us human, what those limits might be where technology and modification is concerned, and how blind, unquestioning ideology does not constitute knowledge. There’s really little concern that Will and his crew won’t succeed but the journey there is fascinating. Amazing ancient alien ruins, complex political landscapes and intense space warfare abound, along with some unreliable yet semi-altruistic extraterrestrial intelligence. Alex Lamb achieves both good science and good fiction, creating big, believable sci-fi.

A brilliant cast of actors and a superbly crafted set of futuristic ideas makes Roboteer a highly enjoyable read. The worldbuilding and creations the author explores are exceptional and my only caveat was that we didn’t get to look further into the Earth he sketches out nor some of the more interesting concepts behind the colonies. But, as the start of a trilogy, here’s hoping.

Review copy
Published by Gollancz

IMG_5861.JPG

If you’ve ever read any of Gavin G. Smith’s work before, you’ll understand why his latest offering jumped to the top of the reading pile. First, I’m going to give you the blurb that hooked me and then try to review the book without giving too much away..

1987, THE HEIGHT OF THE COLD WAR. For Captain Vadim Scorlenski and the rest of the 15th Spetsnaz Brigade, being scrambled to unfamiliar territory at no notice, without a brief or proper equipment, is more or less expected; but even by his standards, their mission to one of the United States’ busiest cities stinks…

World War III was over in a matter of hours, and Vadim and most of his squad are dead, but not done. What’s happened to them, and to millions of civilians around the world, goes beyond any war crime; and Vadim and his team – Skull, Mongol, Farm Boy, Princess, Gulag, the Fräulein and New Boy – won’t rest until they’ve seen justice done.

Reading the synopsis reminded me of all those 1980s survivalist/post-apocalyptic pulp novels I read as a kid. I’m not going to lie, it excited me and the opening gambit certainly lived up to expectations. Gavin G. Smith knows his way around the fast paced, ballet of violence that an action novel requires. Special Purposes: First Strike Weapon is wild. Adrenaline fuelled fire fights against gut wrenching odds are packed into a story that manages to remain grounded and considered despite the full-bore craziness of a post-apocalyptic background.

The squad led by the protagonist Vadim are a fantastic cast and the banter and comraderie is brilliantly wrought. The fact that Smith is able to include some moral philosophising amongst the blood bath battles is impressive, adding yet another layer. It’s the best of survivalist pulp fiction added to a strong plot and exceptional writing.

Special Purposes: First Strike Weapon is pure, unapologetic, full-throttle, action packed awesomeness. Beginning to end, the atmospheric ride is an absolute firestorm. There’s so much more to say but I don’t want to spoil anything too much. Safe to say, Vadim and his squad end up as both enemy and protector in a world gone mad. Plus, there’s the all out slaughter of a group of racist, neo-nazi, war re-enactors which is just the icing on a brutal cake of an exceptional book. Obviously, the author had too much fun and I hope, somehow, he revisits this world again.

Review copy
Published by Abaddon Books

IMG_5851.JPG

Alastair Reynolds’ Slow Bullets is a novella of epic proportions. Though his earlier books were hard sci-fi in every sense, this work has a fairly simple premise and is written using a straightforward first-person narrative. However, in no way does this stop the novella from being full of intriguing ideas or a setting both sublime and awe inspiring. It’s as though Reynolds’ writing prowess is such that he is able to delineate his work, sketching complex worlds without resorting to complicated machinations.

Because, what begins as a tale of revenge, albeit in a setting discombobulating for our protagonists, evolves into something disconcertingly tangled. After a ceasefire is announced, bringing a halt to a vast and terrible war, Scur (our narrator) is captured and subjected to a terrible torture. Left for dead, she continues to fight for survival. Yet, when she wakes it is on a huge spaceship; she doesn’t know how she got there or why. But, quickly, it becomes apparent that the ship is malfunctioning and its cargo of passengers are still divided by the conflict.

Scur takes control of the situation in the only way she knows the soldiers will understand, bringing about a tense sort of peace. Soon, she and her companion, Prad, a technician on the ship, discover more worrying truths. The ship is slowly degrading, losing its functions and memory yet, more importantly, is the fact that they have been adrift in space for centuries. Everything they knew is gone. Unachored, this transport full of soldiers and civilians, both good and bad, must find a way to survive but also save the history, knowledge and culture of their lost worlds.

Amidst all this, Scur finds her tormentor. And, it is here that the narrative begins to unravel, revealing differing perspectives against the backdrop of a dying spaceship, lost memories and a civilisation destroyed by an unimaginable enemy. Slow Bullets questions that which anchors identity, whether personal or cultural, producing an atmospheric consideration of the human condition. Once again, Alastair Reynolds has produced a fascinating work of fiction that grips the imagination.

Review copy
Published by Gollancz

IMG_5823.JPG

I was pleasantly surprised by Rogue One for a number of reasons. Set a decade or so after the events of Catalyst, this latest offering in the Star Wars universe is, somehow, unique whilst simultaneously dovetailing into the events of A New Hope (what we older folk would know as Star Wars). It’s exceptionally well put together and, in no way, feels contrived. What it does is create a brilliant ensemble cast of characters all the while detailing their struggles against the threat of the Empire.

When I say struggles, I mean truly terrible hardships, crushing personal loss and unflinching sacrifice. And when I say threat, I mean a vast, cruelly efficient machine prepared to destroy all opposition. Whilst Star Wars may be considered as a simple dichotomy between good and evil, Rogue One looks into the implications of this conflict, throwing up some interesting reflections on an insurgent rebellion trying to combat a larger, better supplied and politically homogenous force.

I digress though. Rogue One continues the story of the manipulated genius Galen Erso and his tormentor, Orson Krennic. Recaptured and widowed, Galen is forced into completing his work on Krennic’s super weapon. However, the scientist had the foresight to set in place safety procedures for his daughter Jyn. It is through Jyn that we discover more about the universe at large, the rebellion and those fighting against the Empire. Effectively orphaned, she is saved by Saw Gerrera, an uncompromising freedom fighter; its an upbringing that leaves her a fierce, hardened survivor.

Yet, though she has tried to lose herself, hiding away from her past and the rebellion, her importance sets her on a course straight to the heart of the Death Star. Saved from prison, Jyn is sent on a mission to talk to Saw in the hope that he will help the rebels locate Galen Erso. Accompanying her is Cassian Andor, a spy and ardent rebel, along with K-2, a reprogrammed Imperial droid. As soon as the companions reach Saw’s home world, Jedha, things really kick off.

Erso had sent a young pilot, an Imperial deserter, to Saw with a message that he had sabotaged the Death Star. But, Saw has fallen out with the rebel leaders whilst Jyn is no fan of either parties. However, the Empire is hot on their heels and soon Jyn, Cassian along with the pilot, Bohdi, as well as two Guardiams of the Whills, Chirrut and Baze, are fighting for their lives. It is this nucleus that forms Rogue One; from faith, hatred, need and vengeance, hope for a better future is forged.

Jyn and her allies are unable to convince the fractured and complex union of the rebellion that her father has secreted a way for them to defeat the Death Star amongst its schematics and plans. They take fate into their own hands and embark on mission to retrieve the plans and give the universe a chance to free itself from the tyranny of the Empire. Each character has their own motivations, each makes their own choices and it’s a frantic conclusion to an accomplished story.

This isn’t simple sci-fi in my book; it’s gritty and heartfelt. Rogue One shows just how brave the rebels were and just what the Death Star meant for the universe. It’s about sacrifice, redemption and belief against all odds, and it’s a brilliant slice of Star Wars action adventure.

Review copy
Published by Century

IMG_5764.JPG

February has been a busy month with the added bonus of a serious ramp up in my grappling and fitness training. So, life equals hectic; reading equals slow progress. However, that has allowed me to thoroughly enjoy and consider the latest book for review.

Stephen Baxter clearly knows his way around the work of H.G. Wells. From the alliteration of the title to the structure of the novel, The Massacre of Mankind is a worthy and excellent sequel to The War of the Worlds. Expanding on that first novel, Baxter sets his narrative 14 years later, using the Walter Jenkins character as a way to introduce a new protagonist, accompanied by an ensemble cast of interesting actors.

It’s a seamless sequel in my opinion. Yet, it’s also a brilliant extension. Baxter builds an enthralling alternative reality; Germany is still expanding its empire but WW1 doesn’t, for obvious reasons, occur. England, equally, is similar yet irrevocably different due to the first invasion. The second Martian excursion is more of an armada this time, however, and, once again, England is the target.

What follows is an occupation. Though Britain has become a politically militarised society, obsessed with the idea of protecting itself from alien intrusion. Unfortunately, the Martians are equally prepared and have learnt from their first attempt to invade Earth. Humans are no match; the army and navy is smashed and England becomes the headquarters for a larger, approaching force.

Baxter takes his time here. The occupying Martians dig in for years before attacking the rest of the planet allowing for a large set piece, trench warfare type scene. Many peripheral characters are introduced as well, including Churchill, H.G. Wells and a young Hitler along with enslaved creatures from Venus. There’s a lot at play but it isn’t until the last quarter of the book that things really get going.

As every country and continent is invaded, humans galvanise together but it’s up to our protagonist, Julie Elphinstone, to find the solution. Appealing to the ancient Jovians for assistance changes the game and, suddenly, the Martians retreat. It’s a deux machina recognised in the narrative but that isn’t the end of the matter.

Baxter’s a brilliant writer, without a doubt. The atmosphere of early 1920’s England and America is fantastically reproduced with believable characters and an even more believable alternate history. Though a slow burn in the beginning, there’s many rich rewards to be had as the plot comes to it’s unsettling conclusion.

Review copy
Published by Gollancz