Archive for the ‘Sci-Fi’ Category

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

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Set firmly between the films Revenge Of The Sith and A New Hope, James Luceno’s Catalyst features as a prequel to the latest movie in the Star Wars franchise, Rogue One. While some of the finer details may have been lost on me, a casual Star Wars fan, those more invested in the universe will, no doubt, find much to explore.

And, this is what I enjoy so much about shared world, tie-in works of fiction; they can be enjoyed by nearly everyone. Catalyst (much like The Force Awakens) captures the essence of the original trilogy of films released in the late 1970’s. A healthy dose of political intrigue mixed with a massive, far reaching universe, all tied together with the fight between good and evil.

Catalyst focuses on the emergence of the Death Star and the machinations behind its inception, much of it revolving around Galen Erso. Though trying to remain neutral in the war between Separatists and Republic, his genius and its value makes him a pawn in the growing conflict as the Empire begins to emerge. Ostensibly rescued from imprisonment by Orson Krennic, a driven and determined member of the Empire, Erso, along with his wife Lyra and daughter Jyn, swap one prison for another.

Krennic is ruthless in his pursuit for success in the new order of things. Erso is a mere cog, albeit an important one, in realising a weapon so powerful that Emperor Palpatine won’t be able to deny Krennic’s significance. What follows is a compelling game of strategy as Krennic attempts to manoeuvre players to his whim, especially keeping the pacifist Erso working on his energy project while using the data to construct the Death Star’s massive laser system.

The novel really picks up the pace in the last quarter as Moff Tarkin discovers that he is also being played by Krennic and begins his own campaign. Similarly Lyra, with the help of Has Obitt, another pawn, go off script. It is here that so many threads begin to coalesce into the bigger Star Wars picture. Rebel alliances form, the faceless Empire, epitomised by the Death Star, takes shape whilst the battle lines between good and evil are drawn on both a personal and intergalactic level.

Though the idea of the Force and the Dark side are writ large throughout Star Wars, it’s also the individual decisions that are so important and James Luceno does a great job of putting such obstacles in the way of his characters. Erso must choose between his family and his research; Krennic between his desire for status and honesty; Has Obitt between smuggling and selfishness, and rebellion and selflessness.

Catalyst is an absorbing novel that manages to consider both the intergalactic universe of Star Wars as well as the individual, all rendered against the background of the imposing Death Star. Whatever type of Star Wars fan you may be, Catalyst is a great read.

Review copy
Published by Century

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The Shield is Earth’s only defence. Rendering the planet invisible from space, it keeps humanity safe – and hidden. The exceptional minds of the Actives maintain the shield; without them, the Shield cannot function.

When an Active called Tobe finds himself caught in a probability loop, the Shield is compromised. Soon, Tobe’s malady spreads among the Active. Earth becomes vulnerable for the first time in a generation.

Tobe’s assistant, Metoo, is only interested in his wellbeing. Earth security’s paramount concern is the preservation of the Shield. As Metoo strives to prevent Tobe’s masters from undermining his fragile equilibrium, humanity is left dangerously exposed…

Savant is an extraordinary book, wonderfully written. It’s unique (and quite possibly one of the best novels I’ve read this year). It’s sci-fi at its most human whilst it’s concern is the human condition dealt with in such a sci-fi setting that it’s almost an enigma. It’s thoughtful and thought provoking.

The setting is slowly sketched out in small ways – there’s no major info dump, no big exposition. We are just there, watching and learning about this future Earth and it’s strange new culture. Academies cater to great minds and, in turn, each ‘master’ is served by companions, assistants and students. Some of these intellectuals are so brilliant that their very being helps to power a shield which protects the planet. However, none of the greater questions are ever really answered.

What we have is a very personal drama, played out on scale that, on one hand, affects the global community whilst, on the other, concerns only Tobe and Metoo. The ‘action’ for what it is, is based within an incident room type setting and suffers no less for it. CCTV-esque operators monitor minds and are themselves observed within a system called ‘Service’. Tobe’s digression into the maths of probability sets off a series of chain reactions within Service, forcing beaurocratic decisions and machinations to react in ever greater yet decreasing ways.

It’s thrilling and intriguing to read. These individuals caught in a system, and a system caught up in its own methodology all trying to deal with a problem that is really like a ghost in the machine. It’s a curious and charming world Nik Abnett has created, and the story of the relationship between Metoo and Tobe is delicately woven. The interaction between the global network of Service and the individual produces a brilliant dichotomy on which to base their narrative.

Savant is a hard book to pin down (and put down). It’s like some of the great sci-fi movies of the 1970’s with their weirdly retro-futuristic settings and their considered approach to the genre. At its heart is a simple story but, in itself, it’s a complex journey into the human mind.

Review copy
Published by Solaris Books

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They took everything — killed his wife, enslaved his daughter, destroyed his life. Now he’s a man with nothing left to lose … and that’s what makes him so dangerous.

This is a tale of revenge and attrition; of just how far a man will go to avenge the loss of his loved ones when all he has left is grief fuelled anger. Yet, it is also a thoughtful consideration of what happens when that violence becomes too much; when, amongst all the blood and death, the initial reasonings become lost and only insanity is left; and, whether one’s humanity can ever be regained.

Set in a post-apocalyptic landscape twelve years removed from the event, Wolves is a brutal journey full of gunsmoke, survival and retribution. A hugely atmospheric read, DJ Molles has blended the feeling of the Wild West with post-disaster mentality. It’s a cruel, gritty world where a man can be slaughtered for a drink of water. Technology has reverted to farming, horses and homesteading communities. But, there’s a dark side – the slavers plying their trade mercilessly.

Huxley, our protagonist, is all but dead when he meets Jay in the desert of the wastelands. And, so begins, an uneasy partnership based on vengeance, one that sees them taking the horror and pain inside them to the very people who caused it, supported it or endorsed it. Along the way, the two form a rag-tag band of freed slaves and other survivors, cutting a murderous path into the burgeoning society built on the back of the slave trade.

However, the purpose of their revenge is soon cast adrift as the murdering and havoc takes on its own meaning. Huxley realises that he has become unrecognisable to the memory of those very people he seeks retribution for.

In fits and starts, the contrast between Huxley and Jay becomes more obvious. Huxley can’t give up his memories of his wife and daughter, slowly understanding that to lose the idea of them would be to give up the very grounding of his being; it is a fate worse than death.

One the one hand, Wolves is a fantastic post-apocalyptic tale of unbridled revenge; of adrenaline fuelled shoot-outs and vicious fury in the best wild-western-esque setting. On the other, it is a quiet consideration of how memory, especially of family, makes us human, giving us compassion and empathy for our fellows. When everyone has lost something, all becomes unhinged. Yet, sometimes there is a way back as Wolves poetically and unobtrusively shows.

Review copy
Blackstone Publishing

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Another first for me as I review both the book and the audiobook of Revenger by Alastair Reynolds. Check out the blurb below..

The galaxy has seen great empires rise and fall. Planets have shattered and been remade. Amongst the ruins of alien civilisations, building our own from the rubble, humanity still thrives. And there are vast fortunes to be made, if you know where to find them…

Captain Rackamore and his crew do. It’s their business to find the tiny, enigmatic worlds which have been hidden away, booby-trapped, surrounded with layers of protection – and to crack them open for the ancient relics and barely-remembered technologies inside. But while they ply their risky trade with integrity, not everyone is so scrupulous.

Adrana and Fura Ness are the newest members of Rackamore’s crew, signed on to save their family from bankruptcy. Only Rackamore has enemies, and there might be more waiting for them in space than adventure and fortune…

This has been billed as a Young Adult science fiction novel and, whilst it isn’t the usual hard sci-fi of Alastair Reynolds, that takes nothing away from story. It’s still brilliant, big idea stuff and, as ever with Reynolds, the worldbuilding is wonderful, creating a universe both far futuristic and alien with equal measure. Hints and ideas come together to form a fantastical picture, mixing space ships and pirate lore to produce an engrossing setting.

Written as an account of events by the younger sister Fura Ness this is a tale that will engage readers of all ages. Signing on board the ‘Monetta’s Mourn’ in an attempt to change the fortunes of their family, the siblings are soon caught up in all manner of trouble. Whilst the crew they’ve joined are a hardened bunch, there’s a difference between expeditioners and pirates and Fura gets to see the truth of it first hand.

Her sister taken hostage and herself left on a broken ship with only dead crew mates for company, Fura begins a transformation that will see her put everything aside to seek her vengeance. There’s something that harks back to Treasure Island here but there’s also something darker and edgier at its heart.

The cadence of the story, the slang and colloquial language, the hints of a much greater conspiracy and the immediate threats all combine into a gripping page-turner. Fura is an uncompromising character but it isn’t until the final chapters that things really become clear. Revenger is a tale of retribution and in no short measure; the idea so cleverly woven into Fura’s narrative is how that desire for vengeance warps a person in ways that make them closer to their enemy, closer to the dark, than they ever expected to be.

Alastair Reynolds is a fantastic novelist and his first foray into YA fiction is nothing short of incredible.

Audio book review

This is the first audio book I’ve listened to and it was an interesting exercise. The narrator chosen is clearly skilled at acting as she gives voice to the numerous characters that Fura encounters. Though some sounded different to how I imagined them, I’m positive this is only an issue as I chose to read Revenger first.

Listening to the book offers a different perspective on the story – a slower, more considered one. The ensemble of actors come to the fore slightly more yet the pace of the tale remains, slowly dragging you deeper into Revenger with each chapter.

Personally, I felt that the audio version didn’t do enough justice to the change within Fura that felt so obvious in the book. This is a tale of revenge; of total and absolute vengeance. Fura does everything it takes to find her sister, including some fairly extreme measures. From the teenage girl she was, at the end of the story she has become furious, unhinged to some degree and unwilling to give any quarter, reshaped mentally and physically to the point that her own sister struggled to recognise her. That is what makes Revenger such a fantastic read. In the end, Fura is closer to her enemies than she’d like to admit yet it isn’t something she’d change. Audio version or book, the last chapter of Revenger is a bombshell of a conclusion.

Review copy
Published by Gollancz

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Children of the Cull by Cavan Scott brings together two characters from the original Afterblight books; namely Si Spurrier’s lead from The Culled and Rebecca Levene’s earnest but bonkers scientist from Kill or Cure, reviewed here. Once again entrenched within a research facility, Jasmine, however, isn’t struggling with her addictions this time. Instead, she’s running experiments and tests on a group of children in what seems, at first, to be compassionate circumstances but soon unravels to reveal a more sinister purpose.

Meanwhile, the soldier is staking out the facility in question, observing a series of failed, amateur attacks. He ends up embroiled with the would-be raiders, hiding his true purpose but using their numbers to achieve his end. Much like Kill Or Cure, this novella slowly peels away the veneer to expose the darkness at its heart.

Scott does a brilliant job, retaining the voice of Jasmine, the research scientist whose ‘cure’ results in a less than stable mental state. Interspersed by the story of the nameless soldier who is desperately trying to find her, the book brings both together in a blistering conclusion. The action is expertly paced and there are a number of plots at play that make for a truly engaging read.

Review copy
Published by Abaddon