Archive for the ‘Sci-Fi’ Category

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I read Kieran Shea’s debut and it was a definite hit. Similarly, Off Rock has all the panache, creativity and excitement but this time packaged up as a classic crime caper set in a far future, space mining facility. There’s a good natured vibe to the book that keeps the fun ratcheted up high even when the action truly kicks off.

Jaded and complacent, Jimmy Vik, is fairly set in his ways, working for various mining companies that exploit the material rich outer reaches of space. He’s bounced around, lived the maxim of ‘work hard, play hard’ and is now getting to that stage in life where he’s stuck with his lot and doesn’t care one way or the other. That is until he discovers a seam of gold, missed by the company scans and ripe for the taking. To Jimmy, it’s the chance to start everything afresh regardless of the very severe and life threatening punishment that comes with appropriating the mining company’s property.

It sets in motion a series of events, bluffs and double crosses as Jimmy is stiffed by his accomplice, Jock. An indebted gambler with a huge criminal cartel on his case, Jock takes little time stitching up Jimmy. Off Rock has, to my mind, the feel of the Ocean’s Eleven movie as each actor brings to the story another complication. Setting up the main heist story for the first half of the book, things quickly unravel as Jock puts his own plan in motion. Sure enough, Jock the fixer is greasing wheels and doing deals. But, the cartel have eyes on him and are determined to get the account settled or, more accurately, terminated. Add in to the mix Jimmy’s ex-girlfriend and supervisor, who is far from stupid and tough to boot, the gold has gone from a sure thing to a hard sell.

Off Rock is, from start to finish, a brilliantly fun read. It hits all the right notes of a caper as everyone scrambles to get their slice of the pie. Jimmy, as hard as he tries, continues to blunder into obstacles, and it looks like he’ll be lucky to get out alive. Off Rock is a strikingly impressive feat of writing from the characters and banter to the plot and conclusion. When all is said and done, this is a book that will keep you thoroughly entertained and leave you with a smile on your face.

Review copy
Published by Titan Books

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I’m a fan of all different flavours of science fiction and fantasy but there is something to be said for plausibility that truly gives a novel weight. Worldbuilding that recognises an internal logic is a praiseworthy quality and, though there might be aliens and space travel and all things fantastic, plausible actions and actors can often take a book from being good to being great. Netherspace by Andrew Lane and Nigel Foster does exactly that.

A ensemble cast of characters set in a future where multiple alien species have made contact with Earth and traded unimaginably sophisticated technology, Netherspace never relinquishes the very human characteristics that gives this book its depth. The two main protagonists, ex-army sniper and current assassin Kara and celebrated, rebellious artist Marc, make an interesting duo as they are coerced into a mission of epic proportions. Their bond, produced through a kind of mind-share technology, allows each to understand the other intricately and work together in unison; an important ability when dealing with aliens with whom communication is basically impossible.

Trade has occurred and humans have been gifted the means to travel huge distances across the universe by using Netherspace. It’s a way of slipping through realspace but it comes at a cost – the aliens demand a human life for every Netherspace drive. Kara and Marc, though ostensibly sent out to rescue a kidnapped group of colonists, are there to find out why. Why a human life for a drive? Where does the technology really derive from? And, most importantly, what is happening in Netherspace?

The story is set between the two groups, the colonists and the rescue team, led by Marc, Kara and pre-cog psychic Tse. Both groups must struggle to understand the aliens and Netherspace whilst simultaneously trying not to impose human ideas, emotions and motivations upon them. It’s a concept reiterated throughout the book: an alien is completely unknowable and there is no common ground upon which to base communications. Bizarre and frustrating, each group must still find their way towards comprehending the situation.

Separated by time and space, as the two groups near each other, I suddenly realised there was a tension growing in the plot that I hadn’t truly recognised. It grows into a mystery that has far reaching implications and, as the start of a new series, sets up some very interesting problems for the next book to resolve. Netherspace is a complex and considered book which has, at its core, a believable logic, sensible and real actors, and a mystery that will leave you waiting for the sequel.

Review copy
Published by Titan Books

The authors of Netherspace will post a guest blog on the 26th May all about space travel, so be sure to check it out.

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Future Space Travel

Let’s assume that we’re using a drive that doesn’t rely on controlled explosions. Make the control mechanisms as complex and high tech as you like, but you still only get forward momentum by making something go bang. So what does that leave us? Space sails? Nice idea – and originally a science fiction one (sigh) – but impractical. Space isn’t empty, a cloud of dust could wreak havoc and the sail would have to be so large it could take days to reach the damage. The sail enthusiasts have said repair-robots. When there’s a technical problem, someone always says robots. When there’s sexy but unsound idea – like a space sail – the human reaction is to add more and more tech to try and make it work. Humanity is programmed never to admit mistakes.
​NASA’s said to be working on two drives: “Alcubierre”, that distorts space; and the “EM”, that provides a better, stronger form of propulsion by using microwaves reflecting back and forth to (somehow) produce an asymmetric forward impulse. Which is good because the idea that humanity will be confined to the Solar System forever is just so wrong it hurts. Surely the universe couldn’t be so cruel? But this does open up a major problem: where do we build whatever craft will take us to the stars? Or even to the outer planets? Do we set up a vast manufacturing facility on the moon? Or conveniently discover anti-gravity (after figuring out what gravity actually is, as opposed to what it does) so we can build on Earth then float the craft into space?

​Actually we do neither. Nor do we set up a Navy Yard (sorry, Star Trek) in Earth orbit (or, as implausibly in J.J.Abrams’s reboot, somewhere in Kansas – how did they get the Enterprise up into space from there? And why?) Aside from the technical problems – did someone say ‘robots’? – mining and transporting the necessary raw materials requires machines and space craft so huge that building them would take years and consume most of our natural resources.

​The solution is hinted at in Netherspace. It’s not totally original, the late and wonderful Iain M. Banks began the idea, but we tarted it up some.

​Turn asteroids into spacecraft.
​Hollow them out, fix up living quarters, add a space drive – the Alcubierre space warp or NASA’s EMdrive – and away you go, protected from radiation and collisions by several hundred feet of rock. Because spacecraft do not need to be streamlined. They do not have to look pretty. All they have to do is take humans safely from point a to b (and we are reminded of the old cartoon in which a middle-aged businessman is talking to a car salesman, saying: “I want something that will get me from a. to c. without b. knowing.”) Okay, you may have to smooth them out to get a sensible centre of gravity. Spin them to increase that gravity. Still far, far easier than trying to build a cruise liner in space. And there are hundreds of thousands of them, all shapes and sizes, parked up in orbit and not that far from this very planet. Bit like a used car lot, really.

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Ubo is an unsettling book; from its impressive yet disturbing cover art to its complex and relentless exploration of humanity’s capacity for violence. Though there is some quite visceral horror throughout, it is that sense of disturbance, pervading the entire text and constantly scratching away in the background, that powers the story and captures the imagination.

Daniel doesn’t know where he is nor why he is being subjected to the terrifying mind experiments he is forced to experience. The only thing he has in common with the other prisoners is a shared nightmare, or hallucination, of being abducted by a large cockroach like creature, borne away from his life to a ruined, crumbling world. The discombobulating nature of the protagonist’s situation mirrors the reader’s own perturbed understanding of the story. Like Daniel, we are trying to work out what these experiments mean and why he and the other captives have been chosen. Yet, we are also tasked with understanding the place Daniel has found himself in, the giant insects guarding him and the worrying decay surrounding everything.

It’s a dark and terrifying world where Daniel is used daily as a vessel of consciousness to experience some of the most depraved and psychotic people in history. Via some strange technology, Daniel rides inside the minds of these killers and dictators, sharing and almost becoming them as they carry out awful acts. The horror of witnessing Jack the Ripper’s murders, for example, is compounded by being caught up in the mind of the madman. The unhinged hunger for violence, the crazed, incomprehensible desires are relentlessly disturbing. Yet, what is more unsettling? The narratives of these criminals or the mental violence perpetuated against Daniel and his fellows as they are forced to be conduits for understanding hatred and aggression on such an unprecedented, unfiltered scale?

Amongst these dual mysteries, the plot unfolds in ever more bizarre and scary ways. As ever in my reviews, I don’t like to give too much away or spoil the impact of the book. Suffice it to say that, with the theme of violence at its heart, it isn’t surprising that the world Daniel finds himself in is as equally unbalanced as the experiments. As a meditation on aggression, brutality and psychotic hatred, Ubo is a savage, relentless look into how violence pervades human history, even (or especially) when those perpetuating it are doing it for the greater good. Steve Rasnic Tem has created a sci-fi horror of impressive proportions with an ending that is horrific, uplifting, apocalyptic and optimistic, all in equal measure. A brutal book that is impossible to put down.

Review copy
Published by Solaris Books

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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 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

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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!