Archive for the ‘Sci-Fi’ Category

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Ren Warom’s Escapology is an amazing stylistic amalgamation of cyberpunk and anime, told at breakneck speed. As debut novels go, this is a extremely polished, hugely inventive and seriously intense rollercoaster ride for the imagination. Starting off at full throttle, there’s a lot going on in Escapology including an intriguing plot, stunning worldbuilding and a cast of complex, individual characters.

In a future where most of humanity resides in orbiting hubs above the Earth, where the ocean has overrun the land and where humanity coexists in real life and in the ‘slip’, a virtuality just as important as reality, the Gung is of central importance to the planet. It’s populated by a mix of shady underworld gangsters and Fails, and the rich and those termed Pass, useful members of society with a clean psychological evaluation. Escapology follows Shock, a Haunt and one of the best at hacking the Slip for information, and Amiga, a Cleaner for one of the more powerful gangsters ruling the Gung.

It’s here that things intersect so brilliantly; the action is all-out anime violence, both physical and virtual whilst the worldbuilding has strong roots in the cyberpunk genre. Shock is a well considered and very complicated character whose history shapes so much of the story. Through him we get to understand what the Slip is and how it runs, what a Haunt is capable of along along with the myriad hustlers, hackers and collectives that work in the virtual ocean of information, but, most importantly, the importance of each person’s avatar. Amiga, on the other hand, offers us a different look at the underworld, the physical one where gangsters and criminals run operations without mercy. Life is cheap and the Gung is a city of mile high skyscrapers, synthetic food, and a scrabbling, desperate population.

So much of Escapology is about power and control and, in the end, it boils down to Shock. The most beaten down, drug addled, cowardly victim imaginable but the toughest, hardiest and almost noble character out there; forced into a mission to break that which contains the Slip his courage and guile are impressive. Both he and Amiga are the downtrodden, each reacting differently to the adversity which respectively shaped them into introverted hacker and unstoppable killer. As their stories intertwine both must open themselves up to those things they’d turned their backs on; power and control, then, is not wielded over others but is about finding the keys to a true self.

Atmospheric writing, brutal action and the stunning imaginative visualisations of a broken world all wrapped up in an innovative and intriguing future history. Escapology has so much to offer as the characters develop under the pressure of the plot. I’ve hardly scratched the surface with this review but, believe me, if you are a fan of cyberpunk or just impressive sci-fi, this is a definite winner.

Review copy
Published by Titan Books

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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 humanities 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 humanities 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 ideologies 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

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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

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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

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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

Continuing the tradition of rounding up my best reads of the year, I’m going to do my utmost to pick some of the top books from a heap of excellent work I’ve had the pleasure to review. It’s taken some serious beard stroking and moustache twiddling but here goes…

I’ve read some great horror stories this year, two of which really stood out – Nod by Adrian Barnes and A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. Though very different both were psychological thrillers that picked away at the fabric of reality, personality and what grounds us in truth. Pleasingly, the shock and terror of each novel was produced alongside excellent writing and superb characters, making them both very memeorable books.

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu was one of my top fantasy novel reads, in close contention with Brian McClellan’s The Crimson Campaign. A brilliant setting made even more enjoyable by the distinct and well defined protagonists, The Grace of Kings managed to mix political intrigue, epic battles and an original, atmospheric world. It’s quality fantasy in every sense.

When it comes to top notch, awesome fantasy, Joe Abercrombie consistently serves up some of the very best. His short story collection, Sharp Ends, set in his First Law universe was, without a doubt, sheer brilliance. New characters were introduced, older actors had their origin stories told and the whole world he’s built is weaved together with exceptional skill. Hugely enjoyable, Sharp Ends is a big, bold barnburner.

Whilst I admit I’m a fan of action, adventure and gritty battle based fiction, I’ve had the chance to read some intelligent and mindful science fiction this year. Savant by Vik Abnett epitomised that. Unique worldbuilding, a slightly retro yet original tone and an engaging story revolving around mathematics and companionship, this was a standout novel in my year.

Featuring a very different yet equally enthralling maths based concept, Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit is an amazing novel. Distinctive and innovative, Yoon Ha Lee’s inspired setting brings a new vibe to sci-fi. As I said in my review, ‘It’s a stunning piece of creativity that melds futuristic ideas of technology and the feel of an epic space opera with the ephemeral and magical vibe of pure fantasy’.

Finally, the self-published novel from Malcolm F Cross, Dog Country, proved to be another highlight. A thought provoking look at geo-political warfare, Dog Country is a brilliantly written piece of military sci-fi. Genetically modified, humanoid, dog soldiers fighting in a crowdfunded revolution whilst, simultaneously, trying to find their place in a society that created yet rejected them. Great characters, a clever concept and an even better plot.

I’ve also watched a few decent films but hats off to Mad Max:Fury Road. Though time has been a precious commodity this year (my wife and I still haven’t started season 7 of TWD) I did manage to catch Westworld and the sixth series of The Walking Dead – I will have some posts on that very soon.

I’m whittling my way through my reading pile and have some interesting books lined up. It’s been a good year for reading and I’m looking forward to more reviews and interviews.
Happy reading!

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Returning with a sequel to Crashing Heaven, Al Robertson takes us deeper into his post-Earth ‘world’ with Waking Hell. Exploring the city of Station through the perspective of Leila, years after the events of Crashing Heaven, notions of digital past-life humanity, organic AI civillization and the importance of memory create a fascinating backdrop to the main plot.

Dieter, Leila’s brother, is both a talented programmer and a historical buff. But, he’s just been killed and, in the process, has somehow signed a deal that makes his sister extremely rich. However, Leila is a ‘fetch’; a digital personality made real via the virtual weave that pervades Station. Instantly the deal seems dodgy and Leila quickly discovers that Dieter has signed over his life – real, virtual and everything inbetween. If the money was worrying enough, losing his ability to return as a fetch is totally perplexing.

Setting out to find the truth, Leila finds both powerful allies and deadly enemies in abundance. The truth she uncovers is, indeed, truly frightening. Yet, through all of this, including some exceptionally cool examination of Station, it is the idea of memory that is so important. Memory both as personality and as signifier for the future self. When weapons can attack that data, rewrite the mind, memory becomes a vital commodity.

Waking Hell has its explosive moments but it is a considered and considerate observation into this idea of the mind. Leila as both a fetch and investigator is constantly caught up in memories and trying to untangle the past from the faked. Al Robertson delivers on worldbuilding once again, letting us go further and deeper into Station, the Totality, the Pantheon and its history. The complex weave of organic AI, virtual entities and post-human civillization is brilliant and this is another great story set in its cyberpunk-esque world.

Review copy
Published by Gollancz

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Nik Abnett, author of the excellent Savant was kind enough to answer some questions about her latest novel.

Savant is a unique book – could you explain a little about how it came to be?

NIK: I’d had in mind for a long time to write a book about unconditional love; the sort of constant you find between parents and their children. I didn’t want to write something righteous or proselytising, though, and that’s part of the reason I thought that the SF medium would best suit the theme. Then, I happened to start reading a novel by a friend of mine. I’d bought the book, and got it signed, but when I came to read it, it simply wasn’t my cup of tea. I realised that a lot of contemporary SF leaves me a little cold; much of it seems to be so busy and action-based, and I wanted to read something quieter. It dawned on me that I wanted to write something quieter, too. SF/F is a brilliant medium for all kinds of ideas, because the scope is so endless. Of course, in the end, and in development, the book became about all kinds of things, but it began with that nugget, and I extrapolated as I went along. The original theme may not be transparent in the finished novel, but it’s the kernel from which everything began. In essence, it came to be, because I wanted to write something that I’d enjoy reading.

The setting struck me as retro-sci-fi (like some of those great 1970’s movies) – what was the thinking behind this kind of worldbuilding?

NIK: I’m a child of the seventies, and some of my favourite SF still comes from that period. As children, we are at our most receptive and least inhibited, and I think the stories we read or watch often have the biggest impact on us during that developmental period. I’m not sure I thought about the world-building in isolation. I begin a novel with only a theme to work with, so plot, action and world-building are all a product of the process of writing the book. Much of the world came as an organic response to the characters and situation. Perhaps it’s partly due to the fact that I was at school during the seventies and early eighties, and this novel is set in a college environment. Perhaps it was inevitable that the world-building might, in some small way, reflect my own experiences of that kind of institutionalisation… I could speculate endlessly.

Using a savant, Tobe, as one of your main characters is an interesting choice – especially considering his relationship to Metoo – how challenging was that to write and what inspired that choice?

NIK: It’s always interesting to try to represent characters that are in some way ‘other’. Every time a male author writes a female character, or a woman writer a male character, the same thing applies. I’m not a soldier, a monster, an alien, a man or a child, either, I’m a writer, but it would soon become very dull to write about writers and writing. We give little thought to how otherness is represented until it falls within the spectrum of people who are otherwise very like us. We take much for granted. Readers are less likely to take human others for granted, because we all have a social interest in their welfare, and, sometimes, a fascination with their conditions.

I guess the choice of writing Tobe and Metoo was about the line between the intellectual and the emotional. These two characters are simply at either ends of this spectrum of human experience. Some are more intellectual than emotional, and some the other way around. Tobe and Metoo both represent extreme personalities in their different ways. Was it challenging to write? I guess no more challenging than any kind of ‘other’, and the relationship between these two characters helped enormously. When I was in any doubt, I gave Metoo an emotional, but measured response, while Tobe tended to the intellectual, but irrational. Once I got the rhythm, these two were great fun to write.

Your novel also considers the notion of a political state (a very controlling one); what was the idea behind ‘Service’?

NIK: Initially, Service was simply a mechanism to give Tobe routines; order was key to his welfare. Of course, during the writing of the book, it became much more than that. Tobe’s disintegration into chaos is at the heart of this novel, and it had to be massively dangerous in order to set-up Metoo as his opposite, and for her to fulfil her role. What is more dangerous to the individual than the interference of the state?

I toyed a lot with the idea of the State as a controlling factor in my characters’ lives. Everything, as they say, is political. All of our lives are determined by the political decisions and machinations of our leaders, elected or otherwise. Service made the State not only visibly controlling, but it also gave the State a number of faces and personalities.

In contrast to that idea of total control (and spiralling paranoia) is a sense of empathy both from Metoo and certain members of ‘service’ which produces an interesting dichotomy – was that your first intention?

NIK: This was always going to be a novel about people, and essentially character driven. For that to be the case, I think characters always have to be empathic, or at the very least sympathetic. It’s possible to put any amount of data into a computer and come up with an answer, but that answer will never take personalities into account. For Service to feel real, and for the State to have any genuine impact on the story, it all had to be represented by fallible, feeling characters.

I was also enamoured with the action in Savant – the work stations and surveillance of ‘service’; compared to something like Fiefdom, how hard was it to create that kind of tension and atmosphere?

NIK: The tension was all there in my head, once I’d worked out what the novel was going to try to do. Getting that tension onto the page takes a certain amount of disciple to ensure a good build-up. There are a few simple tricks to that in the writing. Repetition is important, and rhythm. A good example can be found in Ravel’s Bolero with its repeated phrasing and increasing tempo. I think it’s also useful to be quite declarative on the page, matter-of-fact; obfuscation pulls focus. The other thing is pacing. Often, writers want to go faster, take shortcuts as the tension builds. I think it’s more useful to add detail, to slow things down, from time to time, to keep the reader hanging, so that the denouement is reached naturally and the story isn’t all over in a rush.

There’s a fantastic positivity and humanity at the heart of Savant – what can we expect from next?

NIK: Thanks. I’m glad you think so… I thought so too. I’ve actually begun writing a companion piece to Savant, working title Seekers. It’s set in space on the other side of the shield, so there’s a chance to find out what the threat to the Earth might actually have been. I didn’t tackle space, spacecraft or aliens in Savant, so it’s a chance to do something about that, although, don’t hold your breath for a more convention shooty-death-kill-in-space experience.

You can find Nik at –

FaceBook: https://www.facebook.com/nicola.vincentabnett
on Twitter: @N_VincentAbnett and @VincentAbnett (with Dan Abnett)
and on my blog: http://www.nicolavincent-abnett.com

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Obelisk, a short story taking the name of this collection, is a fascinating tale considering the efforts of colonisation on Mars. Whilst the practicalities of such an endeavour are always at the forefront, it is the people behind them, managing, pushing, exploring the limits which makes for success and failure. In Obelisk, the relationship between former pilot Wei Binglin and disgraced entrepreneur Bill Kendrick explores what cost progress asks. Both are seeking a form of redemption and yet both get caught in persuing growth, advancements and success. A thoughtful essay both for its backstory of Mars’ colonies and for its reflection of the pioneer spirit.

The next story, Escape from Eden, similarly deliberates on a kind of pioneering spirit but from the opposite side. And, again, partially fills in some backstory – this time for Yuri, one of the protagonists from Proxima. A young man, put in cyrogenic stasis for a century and awoken on Mars, Yuri is not a voluntary colonial. Trapped and bereft of any ties to his place and time, Yuri is a great lens through which we can see just how strange and alien this future has become.

This is a great anthology of work, one I’ll definitely return to. However, I’ve got a reading pile I’m excited to work through plus The walking Dead season 7 to catch up with and the new TV seriesWestworld to continue watching, so expect more rambling reviews soon.

Review copy
Published by Gollancz

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A collection of short stories set in Stephen Baxter’s Ultima and Proxima novels, along with other works, Obelisk is testament to the author’s prowess.

I read Proxima not so long ago and so I was eager to jump in to the related short fiction presented in this book. On Chryse Plain is like a piece of impressive flash art; a self-contained, expressive snap shot of life (produced in Baxter’s universe). Two young Martian settlers are going about their duties, discussing the elder’s imminent arranged marriage. A tourist from Earth crashes into them, causing all three to be stranded out in the dusty plains of Mars. A story of survival that actually focuses on the relationships between these human, yet alien, characters, On Chryse Plain is a clever look at the wider world building at play.

From that very human story, the next in the collection is a frightening imagining of the very alien consciousness of Artificial Intelligence. As Earth struggles under the weight of climate collapse, the emerged AIs have shown just how far from human concerns they are, physically, intellectually and in terms of time scales.

Resurrected from data sources, former cop Philimus is tasked with trying to converse with Earthshine, the smallest of the AIs. Accompanied by a Vatican priest, Philimus must engage in both the real and virtual in an attempt to uncover the meaning behind some data clue. It’s a terrifying encounter.

In A Journey to Amasia, Stephen Baxter touches not only on a dark future of climate change and resource scarcity but also the very alien and different nature of artificial intelligence. A brilliant and considered story.

Review copy
Published by Gollancz