Take Back the Sky by Greg Bear
Review , Science Fiction / 30/03/2017

Take Back the Sky is the third and final volume in Greg Bear’s military science fiction series which started with War Dogs and continued in Killing Titan. As a result this review cannot help but contain some spoilers for those books, even if they are kept at a minimum. So readers beware. Take Back the Sky opens minutes after the cliffhanger ending of Killing Titan. Trapped beneath the surface of Titan, narrator and grunt Michael Venn and his group of Skyrines (space marines) have changed sides in their ongoing war and are now under attack from their own forces. That war they have learnt, encouraged by the mysterious Gurus against the bird-like Antagonists, is a fraud. They have now been rescued by a group of Antags who have taken control of a bizarre Guru spacecraft with a view to using it to return to their home planet. Take Back the Sky is big idea science fiction dressed up as military scifi. From the Antag culture, to the bizarre interior of the Guru ship which also reveals horrific aspects of design, to the discovery of the real reason why the Gurus came to Earth in the first place. And big idea…

The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred by Greg Egan
Review , Science Fiction / 17/03/2017

Australian novelist Greg Egan has delivered some mind blowing sci fi novels.  The Four Thousand The Eight Hundred does not have the inventive scope of some of these works. Being a novella, Egan doesn’t have the room to develop his universe too deeply.  But by relying on some familiar science fiction settings and universal ideas as a base, Egan still manages to deliver a fair punch in a small space. People are fleeing Vesta. Strapping themselves to giant stone blocks and putting themselves in stasis to drift through space over a three year trip to Ceres, hitching a ride illegally on a trade that swaps the stone for ice. These refugees are fleeing a regime in which they are treated as second class citizens. They are welcomed by Ceres, a move that creates some tension with Vesta where they are considered to be criminals. There are no big or new scifi ideas in this novella, Egan takes shortcuts to create a complete and believable but contained corner of the solar system.  For example, dwarf planet and asteroid belt mining concerns have a long history in science fiction.  But Egan uses these science fiction tropes to explore elements of the human…

The Tourist by Robert Dickinson
Review , Science Fiction / 23/02/2017

It is probably an indicator of the publisher’s lack of faith that Robert Dickinson’s The Tourist sells itself as a thriller rather than a time-travel tale. Because how thrilling can things be when the future is already written? Spens is a rep for a tour company that takes people from the 24th century back in time on quaint early 21st century expeditions to English shopping malls and pubs. The enterprise is not a secret – the 21st century community know that the future tourists are among them and have adapted to serve the market. Meanwhile, back in the future, a prisoner is asked to be guide for an operative who has been sent forward from the recent past to track down some high value people lost in the Badlands. For no apparent reason, the two narrative streams are differentiated by being told in first and second person. The two plots intersect when one of Spens’ tourists goes missing and all hell starts to break loose in 21st century UK. Time travel makes it difficult to generate any tension. People in the book keep talking about not wanting to know the future so as to have some form of agency. And…

NK3 by Michael Tolkin
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 20/02/2017

Another day, another literary Armageddon. While there are already a plethora of genre Post apocalypses (zombies, robots, diseases, environmental cataclysms), it seems that there is a conga line of ‘literary’  authors looking to get in on the act, some more successful than others. Recently, just to name a few, we have had  Margaret Atwood’s third in a Post-apocalyptic trilogy Maddaddam, Good Morning Midnight, a quiet contemplative apocalypse, The Fireman, a horror thriller style apocalypse, and Gold, Fame, Citrus, set in California and its surrounding desert. NK3, by Michael Tolkin, best known for The Player, most resembles the last of these. Set in and around a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles in the wake of a genetically engineered plague released by North Korea dubbed NK3. NK3 is an inventive plague at least. Designed by North Korea to subdue the South by wiping the will of their enemies it has mutated and spread. NK3, now four years gone essentially reset the minds of anyone it came in contact with. They forget everything about themselves and become mindless drones. A method was developed to partially restore people and the process was used first on technicians and tradesmen to ensure things kept running. But those who were…

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet, Becky Chamber’s eye-opening debut, brought a bit of humanism into science fiction. Like recent film Arrival, and much of Star Trek, Chambers was interested in using science fiction to explore elements of the human condition through science fiction. You would expect that the sequel would build on Chambers’ rich universe and diverse cast. But Chambers, bravely and successfully, takes a different approach. Focusing on two of peripheral characters from the original book and based mainly in a familiar locale. At the end of Planet, rebooted Artificial Intelligence Lovelace had been illegally installed into a human body-kit and spirited away by fix-it guru Pepper, leaving the crew of the Wayfarer to go on their way. Chambers tells the story of Lovelace, now Sidra, as she adjusts to being in human form and the history of Pepper, who started her life as a throwaway clone and was rescued and raised by a ship’s AI called Owl. Whereas Planet had some semblance of a plot and some secrets among the crewmates to drive the action, Orbit is almost pure character drama. While there is some tension in the fact that Sidra is effectively illegal and…

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Review , Science Fiction / 13/01/2017

There are some speculative fiction books that are so deeply rooted in an author’s unique vision that reading them becomes a sink or swim exercise. Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit is one of these books. The opening chapter reads like military science fiction, but most of the familiar elements of that genre are missing. Instead is a world of mathematical exotic warfare and humanity divided into a number of different factions. Heretics in this universe fight against the order of the hexarchate, tied to a specific calendar and the shared observances associated with it. Ninefox Gambit is a bold and unique vision but not for the fainthearted at any level. The protagonist is Kel Cheris, an army captain promoted to General when she agrees to host the spirit of the long dead and possibly psychotic general Jedao. Jedao has never lost a battle but was interred in the “black cradle” after one famous victory when he turned on and killed all of his own troops. Cheris becomes the “anchor” for the spirit of Jedao, and his personality sits in the back of her head, advising her and to some extent controlling her. Even for this society this is a desperate…

Top 5 Science Fiction July – December 2016
Science Fiction , Top Fives / 15/12/2016

While there were some science-fiction classics in the first half of the year (Top 5 sci-fi for Jan to June 2016) there were plenty of great science fiction reads to round out 2016. Click on links or images for the full review: Kaufman and Kristoff’s second of the Illuminae Files, Gemina is ostensibly YA but is a science fiction treat for young and old. A cross between Aliens, Die Hard and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine with a little bit of romance and plenty of other geek delights thrown in. Becky Chambers follow up to her stunning self-published debut (The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet) is smaller in scale but deeper and more heartfelt. A Closed and Common Orbit once again uses science fiction tropes to explore what it means to be human. Review pending. Two words : Space Pirates. Alistair Reynolds has alot of fun in Revenger set in a new ancient solar system. A young girl joins a (space) pirate ship and and encounters dark secrets, buried treasure and a dreaded pirate foe. Madeline Ashby delivers a post-cyberpunk, timey wimey thrill ride. Set on an oil rig turned city off the coast of Canada, Company Town, stars ass-kicking security guard Go-Jeung Hwa…

Invasive by Chuck Wendig
Review , Science Fiction / 09/12/2016

Chuck Wendig takes a break from the Star Wars universe to delivers an X-Files meets Michael Crichton thriller Invasive. Ostensibly a sequel to 2014’s Zeroes, no familiarity of the previous volume is required. Hannah Stander is futurist who consults to the FBI. Her job is to try and see into the future, one she divides neatly before the action even starts as an apocalypse versus apotheosis or evolution versus ruination scenario. The idea here, not a new one, is that technologies and technological advances are neither good or bad – the issue is what humans make of them. Hannah is called in by her FBI handler Hollis Copper when a body is found seemingly skinned alive by thousands of genetically engineered ants. The ants contain a patented genetic marker of a company run by Einar Geirsson “billionaire contemporary of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs (maybe even Iron Man’s Tony Stark)”. This introduction an early indicator that the reader is pretty much in comic book territory. Hannah ends up on a remote Hawaiian atoll, openly invited by Geirsson to investigate his company on the basis that he has nothing to hide. But pretty soon the killer ants are on the march…

Babylon’s Ashes by James SA Corey
Review , Science Fiction / 07/12/2016

Six books into a projected nine book series and you would expect Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham aka James SA Corey to slow down just a little. And coming off a massive solar system shaking event in last year’s Nemesis Games (reviewed here), this is what they do. Babylon’s Ashes, for all of its action set pieces feels like a consolidation and table setting for the projected final three volumes of this epic space opera series. That does not mean they have throttled back on the action but there is only a little of the weird alien goings on or massive events that have characterised earlier volumes. Rather the focus is on the shifting allegiances, politics, battles and fixes required to manage both a war and a crisis on an unprecedented scale. The book opens on an Earth completely devastated by the Belter Free Navy in Nemesis Games. Millions have died and millions continue to die as pawns in a political struggle between the combined forces of Earth and Mars and the Free Navy, armed by Martian military dissidents. In the middle of it all, as always, are James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante. While Holden, Naomi, Alex…

Gemina by Kaufman and Kristoff

The elevator pitch for Gemina goes something like this: imagine a cross between Aliens, Die Hard, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Romeo and Juliet. Not surprising given this is the sequel to the Aurealis-award winning Illuminae (reviewed here), a book that managed to mash up elements from Battlestar Galactica, 2001, 28 Days Later and possibly something by Nicholas Sparks. Gemina, a geek’s delight, has all of these elements and plenty more (even Firefly gets a shoutout). It advances the corporate conspiracy plot of Illuminae while focussing once again a few incredibly resourceful teens. At the end of Illuminae (spoiler alert) the survivors on the Hypatia are heading towards a wormhole that will jump them to a space station called Heimdall. Gemina opens on Heimdall on the eve on an invasion organised by the Beitech Corporation trying to clean up its mess by destroying the Hypatia. Hanna, the daughter of the station commander, Nik, a member of the House of Knives crime gang, and his cousin Ella end up being the only ones standing between the twenty-four armed to the teeth mercenaries and destruction of the Hypatia. Well, them an a bunch of hungry, slimy, four-headed aliens loose on the…

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
Review , Science Fiction / 09/11/2016

Blake Crouch, author of the Wayward Pines series, goes all Sliding Doors in his latest mind-bending thriller Dark Matter.  Jason Dessen is a science teacher at a local college, he and his artist wife Daniella having given up promising careers to raise a child. Then everything goes a little haywire. Jason is kidnapped and knocked out. When he wakes up he is in a different reality, one in which he is a famous scientist who has been missing for fourteen months and Daniella is a famous artist who hardly remembers him. The question that plagues him is which reality it actually real. There have been plenty of books, TV series and movies that have dealt with the multiple world theory of quantum physics. That is, the idea that every time someone makes a decision two worlds branch off, one in which the decision was made and one in which it was not made. Many of these also involve time travel with the time travel event creating new multiverses. But there is no time travel in Dark Matter, time moves inexorably forward as Crouch’s characters explore various similar, utopian and dystopian versions of present day Chicago.  And about two thirds of…

Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds is probably best known for multi-book space operas including the Revelation Space series and more recently, Poseidon’s Children. While these books can sometimes be a little ponderous, Revenger is anything but – it has a plucky heroine, space battles, cliffhangers, double crosses, buried treasure and an implacable, violent and possibly mythic foe. Revenger is pre-steampunk far-future retro pirate-homage – from the space craft that fly under sail to the antiquarian speech (people are “coves”, eyes are “lamps”) to the clothes. And while the concept of space pirates is not a new one, the setting is the type of deep, fascinating and ancient-feeling piece of universe building that sets Reynolds’ novels apart. In this universe, the human (aka “monkey”) civilization is spread across a myriad of artificial habitats, in a single solar system that has survived numerous rises and falls. This includes previous and continuing interactions with aliens given common names like Ghosties, Crawlers and Clackers. Sisters Adrana and Arafura Ness, seeking to rebuild the family fortune, sign on with Captain Rackamore (shades of Calico Jack Rackham, a real pirate famous, among other things, for inventing the Jolly Roger) who with his crew, hunts for ancient treasures. But when…

Aftermath: Life Debt by Chuck Wendig
Review , Science Fiction / 11/10/2016

Life Debt, the second book in Chuck Wendig’s Star Wars sequel/prequel trilogy reintroduces some much loved characters from the Star Wars Universe. The Aftermath series is set not long after the events of Return of the Jedi but Wendig liberally sprinkles it with Easter eggs and foreshadowing of The Force Awakens. Being part of the new official Star Wars canon, Wendig also throws in connections to other official books, comics and TV series. Life Debt, like Aftermath (reviewed here) before it, focusses on Norra Wexley, ex Y-Wing pilot. Norra and her bunch of misfits go round the galaxy capturing former imperial officers so they can stand trial. The team, includes an ex-imperial officer, a bounty hunter, a soldier and Norra’s son Temmin “Snap” Wexley (who, as Star Wars aficionados know, grows up to be Poe Dameron’s wingman in The Force Awakens). The group formed in the previous book but were not particularly memorable and so it takes a while to reacquaint with them. To do this, Wendig throws in an opening action sequence that serves to highlight the strengths of this series. While the characters grow through this book, they still feel like “types” when the final credits roll. The plot itself…

Underground Airlines by Ben Winters

Hot on the heels of Colson Whitehead’s magical realist version on slavery in the antebellum south The Underground Railroad (reviewed here) comes Ben Winter’s alternate history exploring similar issues. Ben Winter’s version of the present is one in which Abe Lincoln was assassinated before the civil war and in the aftermath of that event a compromise was reached in which the Southern states were allowed to maintain slavery. Modern day America still has four slave states (the Hard Four) and has spent the twentieth century as an economic pariah, suffering trade embargoes from Europe but finding alternative markets for its goods in Africa and Asia. The Underground Airlines of the title describes the system in place to help escaped slaves, known in the vernacular as People Under Bond or Peebs, reach the safety of Canada. They are unable to stay even in the free states of the US because of laws which allow Federal Marshalls to recapture and return them. The book opens on Victor, a former slave who managed to escape to the North only to be blackmailed and trained into working for the Marshalls to track down other escaped slaves. But all is not what it seems with…

Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 08/09/2016

In a time in which postapocalyptic fiction constantly trying to outdo itself in disaster, Lily Brooks-Dalton has produced what might be the quietest, gentlest most heartfelt view of the end of the world to date. The apocalypse in Good Morning, Midnight happens offstage, the view of it is from an extreme distance from which nothing is known other than there is no longer any telecommunications and, later, that all of the world’s lights are off. All that the reader knows of the event is that it has left some people stranded – in particular Augustine, an aging astronomer at a remote Arctic observatory, and Sully, a communications specialist, part of a team of explorers returning home from an exploratory trip to Jupiter. Good Morning, Midnight revolves around the lives of these two characters and those around them. They are different tales of survival and loss, Augustine chooses to remain at a remote arctic outpost when it is hurriedly evacuated and has an eight-year-old girl, accidentally left behind, for company. Food and warmth are not an issue but eventually the need to communicate with the outside world is and Gus decides that has to find a way to navigate them across…

The Medusa Chronicles by Baxter and Reynolds
Review , Science Fiction / 31/08/2016

Then last novella written by Arthur C Clarke, one of the greatest writers of the classic science fiction age, ended with almost an open invitation. Its protagonist, Howard Falcon, half man, half machine was to be an ambassador between humanity and a machine culture, which was not the focus of that story, “in the troubled centuries that lay ahead”. Two of the biggest names in the British sci-fi scene have taken up the challenge of chronicling those troubled centuries. Baxter, off the back of his Long Earth series written jointly with the late Sir Terry Pratchett, and Reynolds revisiting some of the themes from his recent space opera trilogy – Poseidon’s Children. The first thing to say about The Medusa Chronicles is that, without being slavish, Baxter and Reynolds have tried to capture the feel of 1960s science fiction. Although it dips heavily into some ideas from modern physics, the book has a ’60s feel. This is both to their credit and, ultimately to the book’s detriment. The whole narrative exists in an altered imagined future in which a joint space effort in the late ’60s to avoid global disaster kickstarted a much more vigorous space exploration program, landing a…

Heart of Granite by James Barclay
Review , Science Fiction / 29/08/2016

Military sci-fi goes reptilian in James Barclay’s Heart of Granite. But this is not humans versus reptiles as you might think. This is humans using genetically modified reptiles as weapons and transport in a three–way world war over resources. Once the world building is laid out, Heart of Granite settles down into a military mode complete with chains of command, a protagonist with a healthy disrespect for authority and political machinations. After the discovery of alien DNA, mankind used the new technology to bioengineer new weapons of war. A suite of reptilian creatures controlled by humans plugged straight into their brains. Just to set the scene, the Heart of Granite of the title is a kilometer long, thirty legged walking Behemoth, the land version of an aircraft carrier with room for over 1000 crew and equipment inside its genetically engineered body. On board are squadrons of drake pilots, flyboys who plug straight into their dragon-like rides, and ground forces who pilot ‘vehicles’ like the speedy basilisks and slower but more powerful geckos. The plot centres around one drake wing on a single behemoth on the North African front of what is a global war. Max Halloran, a typical cocky flyboy,…

A Toaster on Mars by Darrell Pitt

As the introduction makes clear, A Toaster on Mars in not, actually, about a toaster or any other kitchen appliances. And the plot only meanders to Mars for its finale. The toaster in question is actually a cyborg character called Nicki Steel, wearing the epithet for robots made popular by the recent Battlestar Galactica reboot. Set in the 26th century, A Toaster on Mars is a science-fiction comedy romp for kids. The paper thin plot involves detective Blake Carter and his new partner Steel going up against the universe’s worst bad guy named, unsurprisingly, Bartholomew Badde. Badde, Carter’s long-time nemesis, has kidnapped Carter’s daughter and blackmails him into steeling some high tech equipment. The rest is a series of capers, battles and chases across Neo City, built on the ruins of the US east coast, with brief pauses for additional comedic interludes. Pitt is clearly a Douglas Adams fan. The opening monologue by editor Zeeb Blatsnart (even the name feels Adams-inspired) and many of Blatsnart’s italicised asides during the plot are essentially Adams-light, and many are reworkings of Adams’ ideas. Similarly, many of the plot devices – a killer-mutant cheese sandwich, a pocket universe full of Elvises, snarky artificially-intelligent appliances…

Company Town by Madeline Ashby
Review , Science Fiction / 17/08/2016

Maybe there is something in the water but the idea of decommissioned oil rigs as places for residence seems to be popping up a bit in science fiction lately (see also Jon Wallace’s Rig, reviewed here). In Madeline Ashby’s Company Town, the rig is off the coast of Canada and is the centre of a sprawling ocean-based town of five towers called New Arcadia. When the book opens, New Arcadia is being taken over by the Lynch Corporation following a disaster which destroyed much of the rig’s production capacity. Go-Jeung Hwa is an outsider. Unlike pretty much everyone else on New Arcadia she has no technological modifications. This makes her both different and very valuable. Hwa acts as a body guard for the local sex workers who engage in a very well managed business. But she catches the eye of Zacharia Lynch, the ageing head of the Lynch Corporation, who wants her to be bodyguard for his teenage son and heir Joel who will be attending the local school. In what is a serious sci-fi twist early on, it turns out that Joel is threatened by time-travelling forces from a Singularity future, that is a future controlled by an Artificial…

Made to Kill by Adam Christopher
Crime , Review , Science Fiction / 02/08/2016

LA, 1965, a beautiful female movie star walks into a seedy detective’s office and makes him an offer he can’t refuse. Only the detective is a robot. One of the greatest exponents of pulp genre noir detective fiction, Raymond Chandler, reputedly turned his nose up at one of the other popular pulp genres of the time – science fiction. The two trod very different paths – one on the seedy side of reality with hard drinking, smoking, wise talking gumshoes and the other full of chrome flying saucers, ray guns and bug eyed aliens. But even at the time there was a little crossover, Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel and its sequels featured a robot detective, although one constrained from violence by Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. Made to Kill, a perfect mash-up of noir detective fiction and raygun gothic scifi, came out of a question to New Zealand author Adam Christopher about a novel he would like to find. Knowing of Chandler’s dislike of science-fiction, he imagined a science fiction book written by Chandler. But not content with imagining this chimera, he went out and wrote it, first as the short story “Brisk Money” (which can be found here) and…