Early Riser by Jasper Fforde
Review , Science Fiction / 29/08/2018

Jasper Fforde has had a bit of a break from writing, but his first book for a few years shows that he has lost none of his quintessential weirdness. Early Riser is set in an alternative version of the world where the vast majority humans hibernate for eight weeks in the depths of winter with only a few staying awake to keep the peace. But attempts to manage this process have consequences. A new drug that helps people survive the hibernation is having the effect of turning some essentially into zombies. When the book opens, newly minted Winter Consul Charlie Worthing is transporting one of these zombies through Wales to a facility where she can be cared for. This mission spins completely out of control and leaves him exploring a much deeper mystery involving shared dreams and a new version of the hibernation drug. Long time readers of Fforde should not be surprised by the whacky but well thought out premise of Early Riser. Fforde, after all, is responsible for the Thursday Next series in which his hero can jump in and out of the “book world”, the Nursery Crimes series which mixes children’s stories and noir detective style and…

The Empire of Ashes by Anthony Ryan
Fantasy , Review , Science Fiction / 17/08/2018

The Empire of Ashes is the final book in Anthony Ryan’s Draconis Memoria trilogy so there may be mild spoilers ahead. The Empire of Ashes delivers more of what series fans would have enjoyed in the previous two volumes – a heady mix of steampunk, quest, and politics in a well realised world threatened by an implacable dragon army. The plot supercharged by the powers given to a select few who can drink the blood of dragons. And most importantly for page turning purposes, Ryan manages to deliver a series of continually cascading cliffhangers. After a very brief introduction which will only make sense to series regulars, Ryan catches back up with his four main characters, all of whom had been left in some form of peril or distress. Adventurer Clay, fresh from a bizarre subterranean adventure but with new information and an ally who could turn the war; kick-arse intelligence agent Lizanne leading a ragtag group of refugees; mutinous captain Hilemore who has put the safety of his world above his commission; and Silas, one of the “spoiled” – humans magically converted to follow and unquestioningly obey the vengeful White Dragon that is gathering an army to take over the…

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

In Becky Chambers’ previous Wayfarer books she has taken some standard science fiction tropes – space truckers, galactic confederacies, aliens, artificial intelligence – and given them a thoughtful and humanist spin. In Record of a Spaceborn Few she does the same again, this time tackling another scifi standard – the generation ship. While it is set in the same universe as the previous Wayfarer books and there are some tangential connections, Record can easily be read as a standalone. Many generations ago, humanity packed up its collective belongings and fled a crumbling Earth in a fleet of thirty-two generation ships headed to parts of the galaxy unknown. Following contact with advanced alien species, the Exodan Fleet parked itself around a star and humanity slowly spread out again. While no longer travelling, the Fleet remained, as did much of its population, continuing to live the way their ancestors did (with a little alien technological assistance). Record follows a group of characters aboard one of the remaining Fleet ships. They are of all ages and from all walks of life. Chambers uses these characters to dig deeply into Exodan society and in particular the constant tension between development and tradition. They go…

Hive by AJ Betts

Australian YA author AJ Betts is best known for her TV-adapted book Zac and Mia. In Hive she dives into the world of speculative fiction but her focus is still very much on teens and their experience. Hayley’s whole world is a series of interconnected, hexagonal rooms and the rules her society lives by are the only rules she has ever known. Hayley is a Gardener, her specific job is to look after the bees and their hives. Bees are important for pollinating the plants that keep her enclosed society alive and for their honey. They also provide a handy metaphor for Hayley’s structured world and her place in it. Odd events make Hayley start to question this world. But questioning is seen as a form of madness so she has to hide or try and repress her curiosity, finding allies where she can. Hayley is an engaging and relatable protagonist and the trials she faces will be familiar ones to a YA readership. Challenges of growing up in a world where rules don’t quite make sense, dealing with the pressure to conform and longstanding friendships put to the test by life changes. Hive feels a bit like a rerun…

Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio

Christopher Ruocchio’s debut novel and first of a new series owes a debt to the space opera classics. The opening of Empire of Silence feels cribbed from the opening of Frank Herbert’s all time classic Dune. A galaxy-wide human empire ruled by aristocratic houses, a young man chafing against his place and struggling to find his destiny, a powerful and sinister religious order, computer technology outlawed and replaced by human “computers”. But it also has echoes of other space operas from that age and earlier in which humanity has spread to the stars but in doing so has retained its classical roots.  The society Ruocchio presents is a pastiche of high tech, Roman and medieval.  Empire of Silence picks up the pace a little when narrator Hadrian Marlowe goes on the run from the privilege of his family but is dumped on a backwater planet where he has to live by his wits. This middle section of the book morphs into a retelling of Gladiator as Hadrian gets work as cannon-fodder in the local colosseum and manages to train a rag tag group to survive. The book then switches again to become an exploration of ancient mysteries and finally attains some forward momentum when Hadrian encounters humanity’s enemy – the Ceiclin who ravage through human space.  Empire of Silence is the first volume of a memoir. Hadrian narrates from an old age in which he has done some horrific things that are only…

84K by Claire North
Fantasy , Review , Science Fiction / 25/07/2018

Claire North used the travels of the main character in her last book The End of the Day to highlight global inequities and social issues. Despite its fantastical premise (that character we the harbinger of Death), that book focussed on the present. In 84K, North takes this social commentary into frighteningly plausible dystopian vision of the future.  There is nothing particularly original about the starting point for 84K – concentration of corporate power, collusion between a monolithic Company and the Government, the wealthy coming out on top and a population sleepwalking into servitude in the pursuit of the good life. But North takes this premise further – into a monetised society, where everything, including human life, literally has a value.  Theo Miller works at the Criminal Audit Office, assigning indemnity value to different crimes, If you can pay you get on with your life but if you can’t, you go into government mandated menial work – essentially slave labour or worse. Miller, is much like Charlie from The End of the Day, a grey English bureaucratic exterior hiding a revolutionary soul. And that soul slowly emerges  and he is forced to take action when a face from the past emerges and he is forced to reevaluate his life.  The book jumps between three time periods – Miller’s backstory, his…

Lifelike by Jay Kristoff

Hot off the success of the Illuminae trilogy, Jay Kristoff launches a new science fiction series that also mines deeply from and mashes elements of the science fiction pantheon. Just in case readers might be in any doubt, the cover described Lifel1k3 as “Romeo and Juliet meets Mad Max meets X-Men with a little bit of Blade Runner cheering from the sidelines”. The Romeo and Juliet reference refers to the romantic tropes that seem to drive every YA book that has been released this century. And there is more than a little bit of Blade Runner here given this is a post-apocalyptic tale focussing humanoid robots. But Lifel1k3 has deeper and older antecedents – Isaac Asimov’s robot books, particularly his famous three laws of robotics, and Pinocchio. Eve drives a robot fighter in a post-apocalyptic California. When a fight goes bad and she exhibits a mental power that fries electrical circuits she becomes a target of local religious nutters, street gangs, corporations and a group of murderous, super strong, self-healing humanoid robots called Lifelikes. She goes on the run with her best friend Lemon Fresh, a small snarky robot called Cricket, a robot dog and a Lifelike who claims he…

Connect by Julian Gough
Review , Science Fiction , Thriller / 28/06/2018

In 2010, Irish author Julian Gough created a stir when he called out the Irish writing establishment for not writing about anything contemporary. In 2018 he apologised to the likes of Colm Tóibín and John Banville. As he said in a recent interview with the Irish Times:  ‘… like a big eejit I projected that on to other people and said, why aren’t they writing the novel I want to see. Of course, I have to write the book I want to see.’ And now he has. Connect is a big-ideas technothriller with a strong central relationship, but also with roots in cyberpunk, biopunk and Terminator-style crazy artificial-intelligence science fiction. Connect opens in the not too distant future. Naomi Chiang and her 18-year-old son, Colt, live on the fringes of Las Vegas. Nancy is a bioresearcher with some startling ideas about cellular regrowth. Although never directly stated, Colt is somewhere on the autism/Asperger’s spectrum and spends most of his life in a virtual reality that he and other gamers have collaboratively built. This is not a dystopia but a slightly more connected future with intelligent appliances, self-driving cars and more immersive virtual technology. A believable and achievable day after tomorrow:…

Head On by John Scalzi

John Scalzi’s 2014 science fiction/crime mash up Lock-In posited a world in which survivors of a worldwide flu epidemic were struck with what is called Haden’s syndrome, in which they have fully functioning brains in bodies that do not otherwise function. To counter this disability, neural interfaces have been developed that allow Haden sufferers to interact with each other in a virtual space called the Agora and to get around using either android bodies, known colloquially as ‘threeps’ (think C3-PO), or through specially wired humans known as Intefacers.  In Head On, the protagonist of Lock-In, famous Haden and FBI agent Chris Shane and his partner Agent Vann are back. This time they are investigating the first death during a game of the Haden-centric sport of Hilketa. In Hilketa specially designed threeps compete on field to rip off and score with the head of a randomly selected member of the opposing team. Shane and Vann’s investigation into the death of player Duane Chapman blows out from the original crime to take in corruption, money laundering, murky corporate shenanigans and Haden rights. As with the previous book, much of the plot is driven by the US Government’s previous disability support for Hadens and its decision to stop that support.  Lock-In is worth catching up with in its own right, but despite the obvious connections Head On works fine as a standalone. Scalzi manages to bring his usual verve and humour to the plot, the characters and their interactions and has a deep understanding…

Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

Yoon Ha Lee wraps up his stunning Machineries of Empire trilogy with all of the style of the first two volumes. Both the eye-opening Ninefox Gambit and its satisfying sequel Raven Stratagem were shortlisted for the Hugo Award (Lee’s debut was shortlisted for pretty much every award going). And it will be no surprise if Revenant Gun joins them. The third book of the trilogy takes the universe and characters that Lee created in these earlier books and once again twists them into new shapes. Being a mathematician, Lee seems to be constantly finding new answers to the same equation. At the end of Raven Stratagem the status quo of Lee’s universe has been seriously upended. The calendar-based system which powered the universe has been overthrown, many of its architects (the hexarchs) are dead and chaos is threatening to flow in their wake. Revenant Gun jumps forward nine years from that point – the former empire is split in two, and an ancient enemy is rising, keen to see the status quo re-established and for the universe go back to the way it was. Saying too much more about the plot would invite more spoilers. Suffice to say that Lee…

Void Black Shadow by Corey J White
Review , Science Fiction / 01/06/2018

Australian author Corey J White exploded onto the science fiction scene with his first Void Witch novella – Killing Gravity. That all-action story focused on void witch Mariam ‘Mars’ Xi, who has extreme telekenetic powers and is taken in by a group of scrap traders when pursued by the authorities.   Void Black Shadow opens not long after Killing Gravity ends. The challenge for White is what to do with a character who (spoiler alert) has just used her mental powers to literally destroy a whole armada of space ships.  He does what many writers in this situation do – he starts by creating a more powerful enemy (in this case Borg-like hive-mind cybernetic soldiers called The Legion) and then finds a way to take away Mars’ powers. Mars loses her powers as for a while as she gives herself up to get into a moon-sized prison to try and rescue Mookie, one of her comrades from the first book.  Mars once again is the centre of this story. And while she has a few moments of introspection she is really defined by her actions. And she is constantly in action. Even when she has her powers stripped from her she manages to cause plenty of trouble…

The Memory Chamber by Holly Cave
Review , Science Fiction / 10/05/2018

The success of Black Mirror seems to have opened up a new wave of fiction on the edge of speculative. Holly Cave’s The Memory Chamber treads ground explored in Black Mirror episodes like San Junipero, USS Callister and Hang the DJ – all of which involve some form of neural upload and an existence in a computer-generated reality. And this is clearly fertile science fiction ground with plenty of room to explore which Cave manages to put her own twists on. Isobel is a Heaven Architect. Her job is to design a personal heaven for those dying and rich enough to afford it. The heaven that she creates contains memories of people and events from the client’s life. The memories are mapped from the client’s brain and a personal heaven is created. When they die, a bunch of their neurons are taken from their brain and uploaded and their consciousness gets to live on in their heaven for ever. This set-up raises a bunch of moral and ethical issues, many of which Cave lays out early on. Why is it only the rich who have access to this technology? What does it achieve? Why are their two levels of consent (one…

The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh
Crime , Review , Science Fiction , Thriller / 08/05/2018

Crime novelists have always found fertile ground in closed communities. Small towns or complexes where everybody knows everybody else, much of the tension coming from crimes (usually murder) that causes those relationships to fray. Adam Sternbergh takes this idea and plays with it, throwing in a further, science fictional premise, to up the stakes just a little further.  The town of Ceasura, known by its residents as “The Blinds” is a completely closed community. It is a fenced-in, self-contained compound built in the middle of Texas, at least one hundred miles from the nearest town. The Blinds is an experiment in what might be termed restorative justice. The residents of the town either committed unspeakable crimes or have given evidence and are on the run from some bad people. As part of the experiment they have agreed to have relevant memories wiped so they have no idea what crimes they committed or whether, indeed, they are a criminal or an innocent. The sheriff of the town, Calvin Cooper, has been hired to keep watch but even this is more of an honorary position, his star is a fake and he too is hiding from his life. Calvin is supported by two deputies, both of whom are also employed to work in The Blinds.  Murder comes into this…

Steal the Stars by Cassidy and Rogers
Review , Science Fiction / 27/04/2018

Back in the age before television, one of the most popular forms of entertainment was the radio serial. People would sit around their radios listening to dramas being acted out with sound effects. And now it seems, the art has come full circle. Podcast drama, essentially the modern day version of the 1930s radio serial, is the perfect medium for speculative fiction where the big budget special effects all happen in the head of the listener. There are plenty of great science fiction and fantasy podcasts out there – a few that make best-of lists include Welcome to Night Vale, Limetown, The Bright Sessions and Alice Isn’t Dead. Some of these have become so successful that they are branching our into other media. For example, there are now two books set in the Night Vale universe and a mooted Bright Sessions tv series in the works. Steal the Stars was the first dramatic podcast developed for Tor Labs. Created by writer Mac Rodgers it told a story that included a secret alien spaceship being studied by a powerful military contractor, forbidden love between security personnel and an almost impossible heist carried out at huge personal cost. Steal the Stars the…

One Way by SJ Morden
Review , Science Fiction / 24/04/2018

Frank Kittredge is a lifer. Sentenced to jail for killing his son’s dealer, he is offered a chance: join a mission to Mars crewed by convicts to construct a settlement in anticipation of a crew of NASA astronauts or stay in prison and rot (Botany Bay, anyone?). He takes the deal, and not only that, is later offered a trip home and a pardon if he keeps an eye on his six fellow crew members for Brack, their unnecessarily sadistic and overbearing supervisor.   After way too long describing the team’s training, including how they learn to drive Mars buggies and build habs, the crew head to Mars. Almost immediately things start going wrong and crew members start to die. This finally kicks a thriller element into gear as an Agatha Christie-style And Then There Were None situation starts to develop and Frank has to investigate the mounting death toll without becoming a victim himself.   Andy Weir’s The Martian managed to hit a certain sweet spot between technobabble, scientific accuracy, character and plot. SJ Morden goes down a similar road in One Way but with less success. He spends in inordinate amount of time on the science and engineering challenges of training for and building a settlement on Mars. The idea to use convicts as a disposable labour force is original but given their easily avoided one man oversight, not worth thinking about too hard. The slowly creeping dread as one by one the crew…

Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel
Review , Science Fiction / 19/04/2018

Sylvain Neuvel returns to his world of giant robots in the third and final of the Themis Files series Only Human. Like the second book in the series, Waking Gods, this volume jumps forward ten years from the cliffhanger ending at the end of the previous entry. That cliffhanger saw the giant robot Themis and the four people inside whisked away to the planet of the robot builders. This volume starts with their return to a very changed Earth but also, in flashbacks charts their ten year stay on an alien planet. Following the massive destruction of Waking Gods, the Earth is a changed place. America has managed to restore the last remaining giant robot and uses it as a tool of aggressive expansion. During the events of Waking Gods, the world learned that many people were genetic descendants of aliens who arrived thousands of years ago. Those with high levels of genetic traces of alien DNA are being persecuted and put in camps. Many of those persecuted are Muslim, although the connection between the alien DNA and Muslims feels like a stretch by Neuvel put in to bring his allegory home to readers who do not do allegory well….

America City by Chris Beckett

Multi-award winning UK science fiction author Chris Beckett turns his eyes to the  issue of climate change in his latest stand alone America City. The book casts forward one hundred years to an America affected by drought in the Southwest and superstorms along its eastern seaboard. This has created a movement of people – otherwise known as “barreduras” – an internal refugee problem within the United States that is threatening to tear the country apart.   Holly Peacock is an expat-British PR guru, comfortably living with her academic husband in Seattle when she is given the chance to work for conservative senator Stephen Slaymaker. Slaymaker has a plan to build America by resettling the internal refugees in the northern states, a plan that makes him unpopular not only with his base constituency but with his party. But he rides a wave to the presidency when, with the help of Holly, he manages to turn the eyes of the country further north, towards the largely unsettled Canadian provinces.   Much like Omar el Akkad’s recent American War, Beckett is interested in how America might behave when problems it has been ignoring in other parts of the world become internalised. In this case how America might deal with climate refugees when they are coming from inside the country itself. In doing so, Beckett focuses on politics…

Dyschronia by Jennifer Mills
Review , Science Fiction / 16/04/2018

Climate fiction has been sneaking into the Australian mainstream. Recent books like Clade by James Bradley and last year’s Closing Down by Sally Abbott looked at a world riven by climate change. Jennifer Mills’ new novel Dyschronia is not as in-your-face. While there is a defining, almost apocalyptic event (the sea permanently retreating from the shoreline) Mills’ is not an apocalypse so much as a gradual descent into a new normal. Much in the way of other recent clifi books, this is less an exploration of how things might be and more a warning about what we might be losing.  The title and plot of Dyschronia do not invoke climate fiction but another branch of science fiction, referring as it does to a condition with a temporal element. Sam, the main character of the book has been able to see glimpses of the future since she was a young girl. A possibly invented malady connected to “pain and the perception of time” and one which causes Sam to experience nausea and have severe migraines but also to have visions. The townsfolk of the Australian coastal town of Clapstone start to act on her predictions. But it is hard to know throughout the story, which flicks from Sam’s childhood to a first person plural narrated present day, whether she is actually seeing the future…

Taste of Marrow by Sarah Gailey
Review , Science Fiction / 09/04/2018

Sarah Gailey burst onto the speculative fiction scene with her spectacularly original debut novella River of Teeth. In alternative late 19th Century America that Gailey built, hippos that had been imported to the country in the 1850s have become a source of food and a means of transport in the swampy American South. That book was a heist caper involving a group of outlaws and miscreants up against a bigger bad guy and ended, literally with a bang. Gailey takes up the narrative with protagonists scattered and thinking each other dead. Being the second book in the series, she does not need to bother with much of the world building which allows Taste of Marrow, still a novella and not much longer than River of Teeth, to be a slightly richer experience that can  deepen the story that began in the earlier volume. Taste of Marrow is, like its predecessor, a lot of fun. There is not a lot that is deep and meaningful here and it still not long enough to really dig into the characters. But at novella length, it is a quick, tasty morsel of a book. A Wild West adventure full of killers and ne’er do…

Autonomous by Analee Newitz
Review , Science Fiction / 26/03/2018

Before the release of her debut novel, Annalee Newitz was better known as one of the founders of io9 and wrote about new technologies. So she is well placed to craft a futuristic scifi novel that even set one hundred and twenty odd years from now, still feels like a natural extrapolation of where we are today. Judith “Jack” Chen is a biological pirate. She takes drugs manufactured by the big pharma companies, reverse engineers them and produces cheaper copies for those in need. She operates from a submarine that moves her between manufacturing centres in Northern Africa and her home base of northern Canada. But Jack has a problem. Her latest batch of reengineered drugs designed to improve focus on work is killing people by making them overly addicted to those tasks. It turns out, though that this is not due to any mistake of hers but because the drug’s big pharma manufacturer had been lying about its potential side effects. Even so, she sets out to make amends. Meanwhile the corporation has hired some muscle to clean up the mess. Artificially intelligent battle robot Paladin is paired with a human Eliasz and they are sent to hunt Jack…