November 10th, 2015 by nicklavitz

Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch Book 3)

The Imperial Radch series is funnel-like. It starts with an eye-opening vision of a civilization ruled by an all-powerful distributed leader, and shows us this through the eyes of the final fragment of a destroyed ship, the last ancillary of the Justice of Toren, betrayed by her ruler in a civil war of a monumental and complex nature, dealing with loss and a crisis of identity on a tragic scale. What vistas, what scope!

As we follow Breq and discover her predicament, her self-imposed mission and the universe in which it all takes place, we are given vast horizons to contemplate. Her mission takes her all the way to Anaander Mianaai, ruler of the Radchaai (or at least one part of her), and there we discover the details of the civil war, the split within Mianaai herself.

In the second book, the funnel narrows. We are taken to Athoek Station, where Breq, now wearing the Mianaai surname, takes control of a politically complex situation, but compared to the war raging in the universe at large, we know that what happens here is a storm in a teacup. Athoek is not critical to the ongoing civil war. Important perhaps, a staging point for future conflict, perhaps, but not the turning point. This gives us an opportunity to examine more closely the social and political consequences of the civilization Ann Leckie has invented for us. This is well done in the second book, which explores the social mores, complex emotional states and intricate rules of conduct of the Radchaai in great detail.

I was hoping that the third book would broaden the scope again, giving us the vistas glimpsed in the first tome once more, and showing us the conclusion of the war into which Breq, her ship and her crew have been entrained.

In fact, we are still at Athoek, and the narrative takes a philosophical turn. Leckie has always liked exploring the societal consequences and complex mannerisms engendered by the culture she has imagined, but here we go into full-on obsessive mode with deep analyses of the internal emotional states and moral convictions of various individuals, all witnessed through the all-seeing connected awareness of our main protagonist. This is a universe in which making tea in the wrong china set can cause such offense that it leads to a depression that needs medication from a professional doctor, and I’m barely exaggerating.

Breq looks very tough in large part because everyone around her is either visibly falling apart or hiding their emotional fragmentation behind vast reserves of stoicism. Every sentence spoken is a minefield, every politeness is a potential insult to a third party, every act a move on a moral and emotional chessboard of ever-increasing complexity, but often of little real consequence. The absence of a supporting influence is enough to cause characters to fall apart emotionally to the point where they must be sedated. This went a little far for me.

Unfortunately, most of this matters little to the physical reality of Athoek system. Athoek, in turn, matters little in the overall scheme of the civil war. Either the very real, very military strategies at play will work in Breq’s favour, or they will not, and Breq rolls the dice on her military decisions with far more recklessness than (s)he manifests in her/his delicate management of interpersonal relations.

So much of the book is internal dialogue explaining the consequences of this or that on someone’s emotional state that it implies the individuals in the story are more important than the civilization tearing itself apart in the background. The civil war unfortunately only serves as a backdrop to the narrative. Don’t misunderstand me, it is interesting to explore how such convoluted social rules lead to extremes of emotion in individuals upon whom entire star systems depend, but I would have preferred it if these emotions were not the dominant thread in the narrative.

I very much enjoyed the first and second books, and was hoping that the third would veer away from introspection and towards Breq’s role in the greater events at work in the universe around her. How does one resist or fight or outwit a schizophrenic, megalomaniacal, near-omniscient multi-bodied ruler who doesn’t know her own mind? I was hoping an answer would be forthcoming. Unfortunately for me, that’s not where this book was going.

Much of what happens here is critically important to the individuals concerned, but in the grand scheme of things, with which we were teased in the first novel, it is a storm in a teacup. Although you’ll soon find out it’s a 3000-year-old teacup that belonged to an extinct dynasty from a conquered world.

Conclusion: Well written, well worth the read, and I did enjoy it, but if the first book set you up with expectations that you were going to see, first hand, the evolution of the Imperial Radch at this turning point in the civilization’s history, reset those expectations before you jump in. Then you’ll be fine.


Addendum: I suppose it would be odd not to comment on the deliberate use of the pronoun “she” to describe every character in the book. This has been commented on to death elsewhere, favourably and unfavourably. It didn’t do much for me, and I would personally have preferred a normal use of pronouns, but it neither makes nor unmakes the book. As you read, you quickly learn to ignore it and it fades into the background apart from occasional moments where it can cause a little gender confusion. It is, however, a relevant brick in the edifice Ann Leckie constructs, and it is relevant to the societal norms and cultural eccentricities that are very much at the heart of the novel, so it has its place here and is more than a gimmick or a political statement.

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October 30th, 2015 by nicklavitz

Aurora

There’s an introspective and meditative quality to Robinson’s novels that comes, I think, from his avoidance of page turner strategies. He avoids chapters that end in suspense, making you want to know what happens next, and we don’t get the multiple interwoven storyline treatment that allows the author to always have one cliffhanger active at any given time.

So what we get is a novel that is more centred on real, physical challenges faced by the population of our interstellar ship. Problems related to closed-loop ecologies, population control, artificial intelligence (and its definition), and the concept of authority and hierarchy on a multi-generational starship. These are all tackled in a fictional context, but with great attention to the inner workings and intricate details of each challenge.

There is a clear sense that Robinson has a stack of research on his desk a mile high.

The story covers the last few years before a starship launched from earth several generations ago arrives at Tau Ceti, its destination. The people on board have never known Earth, and are aware only of their own small microcosm – the Ship. We see events unfold through the life of Freya, the daughter of a well-known member of the community, Devi. Unlike Devi, who is, by virtue of her understanding of the ship’s mechanisms, the default engineer in chief, Freya lacks the mind for the task and is more interested in how people behave.

Our narrator is the ship’s nascent artificial intelligence, which is writing a narrative account of the journey at Devi’s request, and after a number of aborted attempts, focuses on Freya as a protagonist to give the narrative structure. The process of writing the narrative account neatly tracks the Ship’s evolution towards true intelligence, both in the narrative style and in the content and questions asked as the narrative unfolds.

As an investigation of the difficulties of reaching far-distant stars through the use of long-lived starships, the novel is extremely thought-provoking and challenges the often-made assumptions that allow us to do away with considering the real problems such an endeavour would face. For example, Robinson undertakes a detailed examination of the chemical reactions that immobilise vital elements that are in short supply, and the resulting effects on the ability of the ecosystem to continue to function. Through this part of the story, he demonstrates that the problem-solving required in even this single discipline is insufficiently developed at this time for us to even consider a project of this kind. We depend on so many things that our environment on Earth provides without our needing to manage it that we are ill-prepared to take on the challenge of recreating the right conditions for long-term life away from our cradle.

In a way, the novel is slightly defeatist in this regard, and perhaps that’s a shame, because such an in-depth investigation could have led somewhere more rewarding without the need for sugar-coating. Some of the challenges (perhaps the most difficult and insurmountable) faced by the population of the ship are somewhat deus-ex-machina in terms of their formulation, and the premise that any planet worth occupying will already have some form of life inimical to our own is not necessarily something that I feel is properly explained or defended in the book.

Nevertheless, Robinson has taken the premise of a generational starship reaching for the stars further and deeper than anyone before, and while the novel may not leave you with the sense of wonder that drew some of us to the science fiction genre in the first place, it is an enriching narrative, a good story and an extremely valuable addition to the science fiction bookshelf.

Highly recommended.

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September 25th, 2015 by nicklavitz

Alive: Book One of the Generations Trilogy

I read some strong reviews of Scott Sigler’s latest book, Alive, and was looking for something to get my teeth into as I managed to free up some time for reading again. Unfortunately, there was a gap between my expectations and what the book delivered that made it hard for me to enjoy it.

That obviously doesn’t mean that the book isn’t good, but I’m not good with young adult fiction unless it’s sufficiently complex under the surface or it has a sufficiently powerful underlying premise or message.

In this case, unfortunately, that didn’t work out for me.

This is a book that keeps a secret from you and sets up a big reveal. You feel the secret building as you go, in the unanswered questions and in the gaps between the questions that have been asked, and that gets you to keep reading, playing a game of guessing the outcome before the story gets to the point where all is revealed.

It’s like painting with negative space, where it’s the bits of the canvas you don’t actually fill in that contain the detail of the image, and you can only see the shape of what’s being drawn when either the rest of the canvas is sufficiently filled for a shape to emerge, or when the artist helpfully traces a line around the edges of the object on the page.

As a consequence, there’s very little I can say about the book without revealing the contours or that image and spoiling the story for you.

As an aside, the author has a request to reviewers at the end of the book asking that they not reveal “spoilers”, and obviously I wouldn’t, but isn’t it sad that it’s necessary for an author to actually outright ask people not to spoil the book for others.

The reveal is satisfying (it’s not like Lost, at the end of which I was abruptly furious with the writers), in the sense that everything does hang together. Unfortunately it wasn’t interesting enough for me to feel that it was worth the buildup. Luckily, since the writing style is clear and the story fairly straightforward to follow, I blasted through this book so fast that I didn’t feel I had lost loads of time on it, so I wasn’t upset. It was more like a meal that leaves you strangely unsatisfied at the end of it.

What I can tell you is this – a group of youths awaken in coffins, they have no memory of how they got there, no idea what they are doing there, and no knowledge of their own names except for the engravings on the coffins they woke up in. From there they start to explore and discover their environment, and others like themselves.

The youths are marked with symbols on their foreheads, and these symbols correlate to specific skills and/or character attributes, which are drawn with so little subtlety that you have absolutely no doubt about who is what. It does get a bit tedious having people referred to as circle-stars or whatever, and the author in my opinion tries to mine this somewhat shallow vein for more than it’s worth.

As they explore, they will discover more about what they are doing there, who they are, and what’s going on. The big reveal isn’t wholly original, although there are interesting aspects to it which I thought were great and could have been explored more fully – but I can’t tell you what they are without comprehensively ruining the novel, and for all my reticence to rank it highly, it is probably quite a good read in the young adult category – I’m just a poor judge of that kind of material because it doesn’t push my buttons.  At the same time, there are scenes of brutal violence which don’t really belong in the YA category, so I’m not sure what to make of the book overall – it doesn’t sit well in any of the categories.

It’s the first part of a three-part series. I can see where the story could go, but don’t really feel the need to find out exactly what happens next, and will probably give the rest of the series a miss.

Some reviewers loved this book, so read other reviews before you decide, I seem to be somewhat of an outlier on this one.

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August 11th, 2015 by nicklavitz

Roboteer

So I lied. I said I wasn’t going to read any more books for a while, and then I read the Guardian’s Science Fiction Roundup for Q2 2015. Much of it wasn’t really what I was looking for, and then the last book in the list,  Roboteer, tempted me away from my self-imposed sensory deprivation.

Well, that and the prospect of several hours travel on a budget airline.

The main character of the book is a Roboteer, a genetically altered human being whose purpose in life, insofar as the designers of his genome are concerned, is the programming of robots. True AI is deemed impossible, at least with the science accessible to the colony worlds, so they created large numbers of robots to carry out the numerous and perilous tasks their environmental tinkering requires.  To manage this, they developed genetically-enhanced individuals capable of managing these large fleets of semi-autonomous robots by interfacing directly with the complex software that is their equivalent of a consciousness.

But Will’s career as a Roboteer is not back on his colony world. He is a Roboteer on a starship, deep in combat with a force from Earth, and so the book opens on a space battle unlike any you are likely to have seen before. The originality of it – including the interpretation of “soft attacks” that run in parallel to the more violent aspects of combat, is refreshing and a strong point of the book.

Roboteers have difficulty interacting with others. The particular skillset they receive from birth unfortunately pushes them a few notches up the autism spectrum, and they therefore suffer from a certain amount of discrimination. Will is a particularly high-functioning Roboteer, who feels this discrimination keenly. This has a tendency to get him into trouble, and this trouble, combined with his particular gift for his profession, lands him a job on a soft-attack ship, for a mission of critical importance to his colony – one on which their entire survival hinges.

Earth, united under a totalitarian religious leader, has climbed out of its long period of self-harm, and has rallied around a new holy crusade – to recapture the colonies that it once called its own, but who have since spread their wings, embraced self-modification and genetic optimisation, both hideous in the eyes of the new faith, and represent the capitalism that Earth and its religious leaders have identified as the source of all harm. People with adjustments must be “purged”, which is the kind of cleansing one doesn’t come back from. The war will therefore not result in half-measures, and is a live-or-die moment in the history of the human race.

Unfortunately, despite having spent almost a hundred years in civil war and therefore having failed to develop the same level of technological advancement as the colonies, Earth appears to have developed a weapon that may win them the war. Discovering the nature of this weapon is the mission Will and the crew of the ship he joins must undertake before Earth attacks Galatea and all is lost.

I leaped at the book because it represented a new voice in space opera, and a new take on how technology and society might arrange itself in the context of interplanetary civilisation. In this respect, the book is a terrific read, and I can only recommend it wholeheartedly.

The combat scenes are excellently drawn and very immersive, and the science behind the fiction is – for the most part – believable, if not hard SF when looked at closely. Unfortunately, and I never thought I’d hear myself say this, there’s too many of them.

The strength of a fleet is usually the way in which it co-operates. The value of a leader is usually in the strategy with which he directs troops and assets. The battles in Roboteer feel, by the end of the book, almost like first-person computer games, because individuals constantly and consistently shift the tide of entire battles on their own, through their direct actions. Perhaps because I have read too much military history, I found myself straining to maintain my suspension of disbelief, as a single ship or a single person saved the day or overcame impossible odds, yet again.

But don’t listen to me. I always find something to complain about (just read the previous reviews), and what you should really do is go out and buy this book. You should do this both for the obvious reason that it’s really quite good, but also because we really want to encourage new writers entering the field to continue writing and developing their skills. This is a really promising first book and I hope that Alex Lamb has a lot more of this kind of work in him.

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August 4th, 2015 by nicklavitz

Dauntless (The Lost Fleet Book 1)

John Geary is very very cold. The psychological effects of having spent a hundred years in hibernation, frozen in a capsule after a battle in which he was presumed killed. That battle was the opening salvo in a war that has since continued unabated, losses on both sides mounting relentlessly.

John Geary is very famous. His actions and sacrifices during the battle resulted in many lives saved. Posthumously, he has become the poster child for generations of ever younger warriors and ship captains. As war casualties have killed the senior officers, the skills, strategies and tactics necessary to plan and execute a fleet engagement have been lost before they could be handed down. The fleet fights bravely, valiantly, but bluntly, with little in the way of intelligent battle planning.

John Geary is thrust by circumstance into the role of Fleet Admiral shortly after he awakens. For him four weeks have passed. For the fleet a hundred years, and to them, he is either a legend returned from the dead, or an outdated relic from the past. Faced with inexperienced crew, untrained ship captains, a philosophy of war in which bravery outranks tactics and a navy at odds with the values he was taught to respect as an officer, can Captain “Black Jack” Geary take the Alliance Fleet back to the safety of Alliance Space, or will the many challenges facing him overcome the advantage of his ancient, and yet vastly superior knowledge of engagement strategy, battle tactics and fleet management?

The concept of this story is exceptional. Geary is a perfect hero – the one who is thrust into the position of leader not just because he is famous, but also because he can see that everyone around him is completely lacking in the skills necessary to do more than charge at the enemy en masse. He reluctantly recognizes that, even if his seniority is based on an accident of history, he really is the only person in the fleet with the knowledge and skills to run an engagement intelligently. The only one with a chance of getting these sailors home.

Much is made of his legendary status, with ship captains under his command predictably splitting into groups that support or even idolize him, and groups who cannot accept the idea that a controlled engagement and long-term view of the conflict is better than the virtue of direct confrontation and the courage and self-sacrifice this represents. To some, he appears cowardly and at odds with the way history has depicted him.

Perhaps too much is made of it, in fact, because after several chapters, even though we understand that Geary is conflicted, even though we understand that some of the ship captains are against him, even though we know he is embarrassed by the way people idolize him, we still get long passages during which he walks the ship, agonizes over the way he is perceived, or has long disclosure sessions with the only civilian representative on board, a woman who makes much of the threat he poses as a living god who could seek to rule the Alliance as easily as serve it. She unfortunately seems to lack the finesse to understand that sometimes you deal with what’s in front of you before tacking the very theoretical and unproven problems of many months hence. She gets quite annoying, actually.

If the story’s emphasis lies elsewhere than character development, this is likely because Jack Campbell, a.k.a. John G. Henry, is a retired US Navy officer, and combat is what he knows. This is apparent in the battle scenes which are long, elaborate, and well thought through. The great strengths of this novel and the series as a whole rests in two things – the original idea of a world in which war has waged for so long that the art of war itself has been mostly lost, and both sides are reduced to flailing at each other with little in the way of tactics; and the well drawn military engagements that demonstrate the effectiveness of a military mind at the head of a fleet, especially when faced with an enemy that is not used to an opponent that does more than merely bludgeon.

But a story requires characters to bring it to life, and while Geary is very solidly depicted and rendered, few of the other characters benefit from that degree of complexity, appearing more as foils to bring contrast to Geary’s character than individuals in their own right. Each character has his or her place – The Co-President is Geary’s conscience (although she does more to confuse than to settle him), Captain Desjani is his day-to-day mirror, Duellos is his encouragement, remaining at the end of almost every single captain’s conference to advise and encourage him, Numos represents his opposition within the fleet, blindly hating and resenting anything that he says or does, and who can always be relied upon to disobey orders in the most damaging way. In the end, their behaviour is so predictable that they’re useful more for exposition than as true story elements in their own right. The only character truly in focus is Geary.

But military science fiction can get away with this, because we don’t necessarily read it for the characters – we want the battles. It’s a shame we can’t have both, but a novelist with a strong grasp of character would find it difficult – without major effort on their part – to describe battles in as convincing a manner as Campbell. So it’s a trade-off I’m willing to accept in a novel that is unashamedly military in its ambitions.

This is a good story, I hope that as I make my way through the series the characterisation becomes more complex. I’ve already read the second novel and not to pre-empt my review, it hasn’t really improved all that much in this particular area, but my hopes remain. There are further elements that are only hinted at that could become very interesting as the story develops – nobody seems to understand why these two groups are at war in the first place, for example, and that is something else that someone from the past can have an influence over.

I enjoyed this first look at Geary’s adventures, it’s a bit pulpy in the sense that I raced through it extremely fast, but it was satisfying nonetheless (if a little expensive in a dollars-per-hour-of-reading calculation).

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August 1st, 2015 by nicklavitz

Trading In Danger: Vatta's War: Book One

There are two principal ways in which this book (and those that follow, one would presume), is particularly strong.

The first, and more subtle, is the credibility of descriptions of military behaviour and composure under pressure. I hadn’t entirely understood why certain aspects of the heroine’s behaviour seemed so believably military-cadet-like until I learned that Elizabeth Moon has a military background herself.

The second particular strength is the nature of the world that’s being described as a backdrop to the story. With a far-flung empire and obligatory travel time measured in weeks and months rather than days, a kind of rule-by-consensus evolves. The distance and time involved in travelling from one point to another maintains and enhances the importance of shipping and transport while diluting the ability of any central authority to exercise control or to enforce a particular set of rules. Finally, it gives disproportionate power to anyone capable of bridging those distances with either information or matter, and those who have that sort of power have a strong incentive to hang on to their monopoly of it.

So it is that Kylara Vatta, after being thrown out of a military academy for rather spurious reasons, finds herself earning her way back into her family’s graces (and being conveniently moved away from the epicentre of the scandal she’s created by getting thrown out of the academy) by captaining a ship that’s due for salvaging at a location a few months travel from home.

Her genetic heritage – a desire to make the best of every situation and a constant search for trade and profit – manifests halfway through the journey as she spies an opportunity for some lucrative work if she makes a small detour. From there things slide downhill fast as she finds herself inadvertently embroiled in a complex fight between unknown but very powerful organizations, while still piloting nothing more than her ready-for-the-scrapheap outdated trading vessel.

Some weaknesses in the narrative comes in counterpoint to its strengths. While the military background of those characters that deserve one is impeccable, the character descriptions fall a little flat when we look at the civilian and emotional aspects. Specific character traits are explained, demonstrated, explained again, analysed in excruciating detail through italicized internal monologues, and then analysed and examined some more a few paragraphs later because we may not have gotten the message the first time. Ky’s affinity for combat, her complexes regarding the way she’s perceived by her family (too nice to strays), her dilemma about getting involved or becoming independent of her family – it is all over-explained, it comes back too often, and it moves forward too slowly to merit the many lines of text dedicated to the subject.

In terms of the very interesting concept that law and order become fungible and difficult to enforce over the vast distances of space, the idea is great, but disappointingly under-utilized. We spend more time worrying about whether we can trust the people in the ship, or whether Kylara can get over her first love affair, than examining the concept of how society and those who wish to further it struggle to protect against those who would take advantage of the relative lawlessness of space. We get aspects of this – the existence of militias and mercenaries in particular – and the genesis of the story more or less depends on the premise, but it’s rarely dealt with head-on in the text.

That said, despite being very linear and having some character balance issues (Kylara is the only properly developed character in this first book), the story works both as a by-the-numbers space thriller, executing a simple plot well, and as a coming of age story for a young heroine who discovers her strengths as she exercises them. For a young adult crowd, an excellent demonstration that science fiction can be fertile soil on which to grow adventure stories.

I enjoyed the book very much, even if I don’t think it’ll be winning any literature prizes.

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July 28th, 2015 by nicklavitz

Jupiter Ascending [DVD] [2015]

I’m honestly not sure what science fiction as a genre has done to deserve the awful movies that are released like a biblical plague upon the loyal fans. With source material in the form of hundreds of novels from masters of the genre, and concepts such as ringworlds, Dyson’s spheres, generation ships, advanced AI, the Culture, etc to choose from, the relative paucity of anything remotely watchable is a great tragedy as far as I’m concerned.

Of course we have the original Star Wars, we have Pitch Black, Alien, Blade Runner, Terminator, the Matrix – these were good movies, in the speculative fiction genre. But they’re old, and they’re still pretty thin on the ground. You’d think that as we’re continuously approaching the future we might get better at representing it on screen in the context of a reasonably well-structured narrative.

But for each good movie we get, we seem to earn a terrible sequel (Ok – Terminator and Alien count as exceptions), and for each movie-plus-dreadful-sequel combo we get a bonus side order of a couple of truly abysmal stand-alone science fiction turds that somehow manage to obtain theatrical releases.

Jupiter Ascending is one such piece of utter drivel.

A basic technique that ensures a science fiction book works is that it be character and story driven first, and that the technology actually serve a useful purpose and create a universe with rules and limitations that bound the story in interesting ways. Here, the script is very weak on characterization, and the plot devices are wildly implausible. The characters fill out the blank spaces in the script with ever more improbable lines to read, in the service of a plot so weak it barely pretends to hang together.

Jupiter Ascending’s storyline begins to fray before the overdressed and dramatically over-eared aliens even show up. With ridiculous story artefacts, odd notions of planets “belonging” to alien cultures, an omnipresent and thinly-veiled capitalists-are-evil meme, and an advanced race so utterly backward in their personal interactions that they could all use a session with a shrink. You get the picture: The film quickly becomes annoying.  In addition, the fight scenes are indecipherable, no matter how hard you stare – even if they are quite pretty.

Add to this two other elements: On the one hand some really pointless technology and concepts (flying boots, deployable wings, a really big, really heavy gun that doesn’t actually kill anyone, bees that identify royalty and fly around them in patterns…), and on the other, the use of storytelling laziness and short cuts such as, for example, the mass editing of people’s memories so they don’t remember there are little grey men flying around shooting holes in skyscrapers, or a totally random alignment of genetic code that means our protagonist is the reborn queen of a 91-thousand-year-old galactic empire, or the fact that the entire story is motivated by sibling rivalry, and you have the perfect ingredients for the mother of all cinematic turds.

Of course it’s when I watch bad science fiction that my television goes on the blink and for the entire last quarter of the movie I couldn’t fast-forward because of a software glitch, which means I had to sit through some of the most improbable fight scenes, useless dialogue and a wedding scene that was so overdone I almost threw the remote through the screen.

Not the Wachowski’s finest moment. I think they’re great directors, but they should really leave the screenwriting to someone else.

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July 13th, 2015 by nicklavitz

Seveneves

In Seveneves, Neal Stephenson goes one-up on all the other apocalyptic disaster stories out there with a narrative that begins with the explosion of the moon, and follows this up with the natural consequence of such a catastrophe – an extinction-level event that almost puts an end to the human race some two years after the opening scene.

On his website, Stephenson attributes the inspiration of this narrative to a discussion he was having about the space debris problem, whereby a collision in orbit could lead to a chain reaction that results in a cloud of obstacles basically shutting off access to space. This is known as the Kessler Syndrome after a NASA scientist who first put forward the theory in 1978.

The human race quickly comes to understand that the continuous collision of moon fragments will create a white sky, as the entire atmosphere becomes saturated with moon fragments, and that this will quickly by followed by the hard rain, a several-thousand-year long ongoing rain of moon fragments that superheat the atmosphere as they fall to earth and comprehensively reshape the surface, destroying everything and killing everyone.

The first half of the book follows the adventures of the rapidly growing crew of the international space station, as well as the efforts of a proactive and determined entrepreneur, who all struggle to prepare in time for the beginning of a long exodus from Earth. The chosen few representatives of the human race are going to have to survive away from the surface for several thousand years if the human race is to survive at all.

Stephenson explains it all through the eyes of the professionals in orbit, explaining in great detail the constraints, challenges and obstacles the astronauts face, and the difficulty of creating solutions in an environment where resources are scarce and every mistake has disproportionate consequences. Eventually, politics and human conflict inevitably get involved, further complicating survival in an environment where the slightest error inevitably leads to loss of life. This results in the human race eventually reduced to seven women – the titular Seven Eves, parents of the future human race.

The second half of the book starts five thousand years later, as the planet is finally being reseeded in advance of recolonisation. We find a society deeply influenced by its starting point – seven distinct peoples more or less cohabiting in orbit, three billion people overall, the custodians of the largest engineering project ever imagined – the re-terraforming of old earth to bring it back to life.

Here the narrative continues with carefully wrought descriptions of incredible technologies, most of which are designed to orbit or de-orbit objects reliably and in as short an amount of time as possible. Much of what we discover is influenced and inspired by the ad-hoc solutions found by the original Eves and their compatriots in the space station, five thousand years ago. A history that is now known as the Epic, a hugely influential origin story which is replayed on screens everywhere as the video footage has survived the intervening centuries.

We enter now into the world of emergent politics and jockeying for the best position during the next stage of civilisation – the return to the surface of the Earth, but we see it from a distance as our main actors are no longer the movers and shakers but rather a small group of people caught in the political crosswinds.

Stephenson points out the many ways in which politics troubles the waters during the latest phase of what is – if you take a step back from it all – a triumphant story of survival and regenesis. The focus on the difficulties of the present moment, even though the chosen moment is clearly critical in the future of the human race, draws attention away from the overall success story – a civilisation capable through ingenuity, planning and patience, of bringing life back to its ancient world after a calamity of cosmic proportions.

This second part to the book lacks the immediacy of what precedes it. In some ways, it matters little who wins a war of politics when the race has survived thanks to the heroics of a small clutch of individuals five thousand years ago, and the trials and travails of these new characters matter only insofar as we are placed in their position and live the events through their eyes.

Perhaps Stephenson felt (rightly) that he couldn’t finish the story at the inflection point when the seven find themselves finally safe from space debris and cosmic rays, and can start rebuilding rather than merely surviving. Unfortunately, the initial two acts were so powerful that it is difficult to imagine what could have followed it as a final act that would have been abvle to measure up. Furthermore, the long and detailed descriptions of the technology reach saturation point a fair distance from the end of the book, and this seems to throw the balance between narrative and description slightly out of whack, to the point where I was sorely tempted to skip a few paragraphs – never a good sign.

Regardless of this imbalance in the last third of the novel, Seveneves is near-earth, hard science quasi-space opera on a tremendous scale, without a doubt an impressive flexing of the muscles by a master of the genre, and a book I would not have wanted to miss for all its 880 pages!

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July 2nd, 2015 by nicklavitz

Halting State

A multi-viewpoint novel that manages to weave several  threads at once to make a story, Halting State takes us into a future where information, interaction and games have to a large extent blended with the real world through the near ubiquitous use of augmented reality overlays.

I had a very hard time deciding if I liked this book or not.

On the one hand, the vision of the future is extremely well-pitched, with augmented reality providing different layers of information overlaid onto the real world through the use of glasses that are more or less ubiquitous. The police see the Copspace overlay, army see Milspace, and the technology has allowed gaming to step out of the realm of 100% simulation and into the real world. At the same time, massively multiplayer online gaming has reached a stage where so much value is at stake that specialised financial companies are contracted to manage the in-game economies by taking control of the central bank. The games run on compatible platforms, which results in borders and passages from one game to another, and games compete for players through the aggressive management of “fun”.

These technologies, valuable though they are, provide numerous new ways to compromise national security and corporate secrecy, and this is not lost on the various secret services and terrorist groups, who have all been creative in their use of the virtual and semi-virtual environments.

What we then have is a detective story that begins with the robbery of the central bank of a major online game. This is the thread that our main characters pull on, which begins to unravel a much larger series of interlocking conspiracies that rapidly spill over into the real world.

Despite the very promising melange, somewhat reminiscent of Neal Stephenson (the master of this particular art), we have a narrative that doesn’t quite know what it wants to do, and therefore tries to do too much.

A short way into the book I began wondering why I was being beaten over the head with a narrative written in the second person. That is a very strange point of view to adopt, and a very unusual literary device. Had there been a specific point to adopting it I might have found it interesting, but instead it was just jarring, and combined with the rapid jumps between three different main characters – each with their own point of view – made the book heavy going. I had such a hard time getting used to the narrative style that I put the book down, re-read Snow Crash to remember how this kind of world can be properly portrayed, and then came back to it.

The narrative also doesn’t entirely decide whether it wants to be a bit funny or more serious. The technology and its implications are very interesting and have the potential for much storytelling and analysis, but while we’re reading about the very real theft of tens of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise in a virtual environment, we get descriptions of orcs and dragons that appear to serve no purpose, all narrated by a confused Scottish police officer which means we’re in for lots of “Aye, Reet” and “Ye dinna have tae take ma wurd fer it, I’ll text you a photie“, in order to get the point across that her accent is unintelligible.

I’ve lived in Scotland, briefly, so it doesn’t bother me too much, it’s even charming in small doses, but I can’t imagine it going down easily for a US audience, for example.

I feel like there’s a lot of potential here, but I keep thinking of Stephenson and the way he gets so much more into the story than just a detective story – the interesting world-building is just that, it doesn’t go further, making any points about how this world affects people, how it might affect the balance of power between government and people, rich and poor, first world and third world, or whatever. It doesn’t go into much depth about the relative importance to people of the online world versus the offline world, and how people’s habits might change, and what felt like a world quickly becomes window-dressing for a detective story.

Given the potential of the vision, I’ve already bought the next book in the series and it’s on my virtual “to-read” shelf, and I’m hoping Charles Stross is more ambitious next time. I think this could lead to something great.

In short, I enjoyed the book, but was left with the feeling that I’d been sold a full meal and realised at the end of it that I’d been put on a diet without getting told first.

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July 1st, 2015 by nicklavitz

Mammoth Books presents Sleepover

Originally published in 2010 as part of the  Apocalyptic SF Anthology from Mammoth Books, Alastair Reynolds’  Sleepover flew somewhat under the radar for me, in large part because I wasn’t much of a short story reader back then.

When asked to perform feats of imagination for post-apocalypse science fiction, writers have every reason to go looking for stories that lean slightly away from the traditional nuclear winter by-way-of global warming story lines that I for one find slightly over-worn, and in this Reynolds doesn’t disappoint.

The origin of the world-ending cataclysm is left a mystery for much of the story – something I didn’t find very plausible, but which works well given the well-measured parcelling out of meagre hints and misdirections. It’s not a ploy that would have worked well in a longer novel, but it’s sufficient to maintain the dramatic tension here.

I can’t fault the writing, and I can’t fault the imagination that went into the story design. Unfortunately, I can’t bring myself to love the story either. Probably because the nature of the catastrophe and the consequent relative powerlessness of both the main character and everyone else makes it difficult for me to engage.

I was curious to find out what happened next – the story leaves you more or less in the lurch and feels like an experiment in world building – but I found that my frustration at being left hanging didn’t last long and I was soon looking for a different story to read, so I wasn’t as hooked as I would have liked to be.

At under one euro, it’s good value and certainly a brief distracting read, so it still gets my recommendation, even if I’m glad it’s only on my Kindle and not taking up shelf space.

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