American War by Omar El Akkad
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 29/06/2017

2017 seems to be the year of dystopias. The Handmaid’s Tale is on our screens and 1984 has rocketed back to the top of the bestseller list. But there are still plenty of authors looking for new ways to look at the present by considering a possible darker, grimmer future. Omar El Akkad’s American War follows the main events of the second American Civil War which takes place between 2075 and 2095 and is then followed by something much worse. American War opens in 2075. America has been ravaged by climate change and extreme laws relating to the use of fossil fuels have prompted four southern states – Missouri, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina to secede from the union. South Carolina is devastated by a biological plague and walled off leaving the other three states (the MAG) to fight. Sara T Chestnut, who calls herself Sarat, and her twin sister are six when the war starts. They live outside of the MAG but when their father dies in a terrorist attack, the family ends up in a refugee camp in the MAG. The story follows the progress of the war and in particular Sarat’s radicalisation. The key to the success…

Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald

The first book of Ian McDonald’s Luna series, New Moon, started slowly but ended with a bang, an all-out attack on one of the five families that control the Moon. After this, readers might have expected McDonald to rest a little on his laurels, calm the pace down, and perhaps slowly build to another climax. But Wolf Moon is not that book. Early on is another massive destructive/action scene which blows any supposed status quo out of the water. And from that point things only get more intense with numerous pay-offs, twists and developments. As the reader keeps being reminded – there are a thousand ways to die on the moon – and McDonald seems intent on exploring all of them. McDonald’s Luna continues to be a masterful piece of world building while being respectful of his fictional predecessors there – particularly Robert Heinlein. Luna is a frontier, an “economic colony” where pretty much anything goes so long as the resources keep flowing. McDonald’s developing world sensibility continues to shine through the polyglot influence on Lunar culture of the five families who controlled those resources – Brazilian, Ghanaian, Russian, Chinese and Australian. McDonald explores this milieu through a large cast…

Closing Down by Sally Abbott
Review , Science Fiction / 21/06/2017

Sally Abbott’s Closing Down won the Richell Award, a prize given to emerging writers judged on the first three chapters and outline of an unpublished work. And Closing Down’s first three chapters effectively set the tone of the rest of the piece. The opening image particularly, of a large drunk man riding a small pony to death is a powerful and startling one and serves as a guiding metaphor for the whole (a metaphor with is unfortunately unpacked a few chapters later). Closing Down is set in a near future where climate change and economic breakdown has pushed Australia to start emptying its small rural towns and concentrating people into larger centres. This is part of a global movement to address the impacts of climate change and it is creating a global wave of refugees all being housed in massive new refugee centres. The narrative focusses on Clare, living in one of the Australian inclusion zones but struggling to get by, and Roberto an international journalist and his lover Ella who works in refugee resettlement. The tenuous connection between Roberto and Clare comes through Roberto’s grandmother, Granna Adams, who raised him and who takes Clare in when she is evicted….

The Barrier by Shankari Chandran
Review , Science Fiction , Thriller / 16/06/2017

There have not traditionally been many science fiction novels set in the developing world. This is starting to change with authors like Nnedi Okarofor, Ian McDonald and Paolo Bacigalupi. Joining them now is Australian author Shankari Chandran whose new science fiction novel The Barrier is set mainly in a post world war Sri Lanka. This is Chandran’s second novel, her first was also set in Sri Lanka, a country starting to feature more in Australian fiction such as the Rajith Savandasa’s recent debut Ruins. In 2040, the world is fifteen years on from a global religious war and Ebola pandemic which between them decimated populations and redrew the political map. The world is now divided into two sections – a Western Alliance and an Eastern Alliance. The sides are strictly divided with little travel or information flowing over the border. Both sides maintain strict vaccination protocols that prevent the resurgence of new strains of Ebola, but all of the vaccine comes from the West. It becomes apparent early on that the vaccine being used in the East is slightly different from that in the West, designed to prevent a re-emergence of the “sixth plague” – religion. The Eastern vaccine contains an extra strand…

From Darkest Skies by Sam Peters
Crime , Review , Science Fiction / 04/05/2017

Sam Peters creates an offworld noirish detective story in From Darkest Skies. At first blush Koenig Rause, generally known as Keys, exhibits all the traits of a classic age detective. Thrown out of his job for some serious but unspecified misdemeanour, only in that job after fleeing his real job as an investigator, full of self loathing, crawling back to his old team to try and solve the case that made everything go bad. That case – the death of his wife Alysha in more than suspicious circumstances. So far, so noir. The twist in this tale is that Keys is going back to the planet Magenta with an illegal robotic simulation of his wife in tow. Unable to cope with the grief, he has illegally constructed an artificial intelligence that looks like his dead wife and carries memories constructed from all of the public and private data he could make available. The real Alysha kept things from Keys about her work and as his new version has no access to private information, the AI cannot help him with those details. From Darkest Skies starts on Earth. The early going in this book is tough, with Peters engaging in plenty…

Winter Halo by Keri Arthur
Fantasy , Review , Science Fiction / 21/04/2017

Keri Arthur created a fairly complex urban fantasy world in City of Light, the opening volume in her Outcast series. That world which features a long running enmity between ‘shifters’ and humans alongside vampires, ghosts and interdimensional rifts that allowed destructive wraiths into the world. So despite some action, the first fifty pages or so of Winter Halo feel like a large, if necessary, recap to get readers back up to speed. Winter Halo once again focuses on Tiger, the last of a race of super soldiers created for long ago war between the shifters and the humans. Tiger is packed with biophysical and magical features – she was bred to gather intelligence by seducing the enemy, has super strength, can change her physical features, can rapidly heal herself and can read people’s minds particularly when she is having sex with them. Tiger is still trying to track down missing children, possibly being used in an experiment to create vampires who can move in daylight. The trail leads her and her companion Jonas, a shifter with whom there is piles of unresolved sexual tension, to the evil Winter Halo corporation. While advancing the story of the missing children, Winter Halo…

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

John Scalzi kicks off his new space opera series with a mutiny, gun running and the potential of space pirates. There is also plenty of exposition about hyperspace lanes known as the Flow but delivered with such verve that it is a joy to read. The mix of high concept science fiction and a slightly tongue in cheek tone should come as no surprise from the author who gave us both the Old Man’s War series and the award winning Redshirts. Scalzi is not backwards in building his universe from some fairly common tropes – there is an empire ruled by an emperox who is also head of the church and the most powerful trading guild, there are noble families, mainly also connected with trading guilds, and arcane trade relationships. The empire itself, known as the Interdependency is a bunch of planets that can only exist by relying on trade with each other facilitated by the mysterious and not well understood Flow lanes. But the Flow is breaking down, potentially isolating and condemning to failure, all of the interdependent outposts of the Empire. So that even before his scenario is fully understood, Scalzi has started to tear it all apart…

The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter
Review , Science Fiction / 19/04/2017

If you are going to call your book The Massacre of Mankind there had better be a massacre or you might find yourself up for false advertising. And while Stephen Baxter’s authorised sequel to The War of the Worlds has a second, bigger invasion and plenty of battles between man and Martian, this is not a book (thankfully, for mankind at least) that really lives up to its title. Massacre is written as a Wellsian, early-twentieth century sequel to the original. While it would not have been characterised as this back then, in modern terms it could be seen as a steampunk alternative history (where the branch is the unsuccessful 1907 invasion of England by Martians). Set in the 1920s, Massacre charts the second Martian invasion interrupting a war between Germany and Russia which Britain, scarred by the first invasion, has stayed out of. The setting comes complete with zeppelins, advanced technology based on stolen Martian knowhow and a supporting cast of luminaries including Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, George Patton and Wells himself (although never named). Besides Martians, Baxter also introduces beings from other planets including water-dwelling Venusians (shades here of last year’s far superior Radiance by Catherine Valente). Unfortunately,…

Empire’s End by Chuck Wendig
Review , Science Fiction / 18/04/2017

Chuck Wendig ends his post Return of the Jedi series with a series of bangs. As one of the vanguard in the creation of the new official (Disney) Star Wars Universe, Wendig has tried to be true to the spirit of the now defunct expanded universe while strongly anchoring his narrative in the new Star Wars continuity. While it has taken a while to be become clear, what he delivers is a much deeper and longer endgame than has previously been apparent and some specific connections particularly to the action in The Force Awakens are revealed. Empire’s End opens following the chaotic assassination attempts that closed out the second book in this series Life Debt. It is not long before hero Norra Wexley and her misfit crew have tracked the evil Rae Sloane and the remnants of the Empire. They find them massing around and dug in on a backwater desert planet called Jakku. Jakku is the home of Sloane’s enemy and now ruler of the remnant Empire Gallius Rax and is, as fans know, the location that opens The Force Awakens. Desperate for revenge, and under heavy fire, Norra flings herself at the planet in an escape pod together with…

The Regional Office is Under Attack by Manuel Gonzales
Review , Science Fiction , Thriller / 12/04/2017

I’m not sure that if I ran a top secret agency that recruited super powered young women and sent them into battle against the forces of evil I would call it The Regional Office. Hidden in the bowels of a building in New York, safe beneath a cover company offering one of a kind travel experiences for the extremely wealthy, The Regional Office has been fighting the good fight for years. If this set up sounds like a mash-up of several books and TV series (Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets The Office meets Agents Of SHIELD meets Minority Report) that is all part of Manuel Gonzales’ plan. Gonzales and his characters are well aware of their fictional antecedents (at one point a character considers going “all John McLane” to fight off a group of invaders while her opposite number is thinking the same thing as she drags herself through a vent system). This referencing of pop culture touchstones allows Gonzales to give a cinematic quality to the narrative. When powered teen Rose swings her hand around her head to indicate to her goons that it is time to roll out, she does it because that is what she has seen…

Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel

Lovers of books about giant, human driven robots rejoice! Sylvain Neuvel has delivered a worthy and engaging sequel to his giant robot building debut Sleeping Giants. Waking Gods takes up the story ten years after the end of the first book – the giant robot Themis has become a promotional tool for the Earth Defence Corp and while individual countries would love to get their hands on it for themselves has stayed under the control of the UN. Mystery still surrounds the (SPOILER!) reappearance of scientist Rose Franklin, who is trying to deal with the fact that another version of herself was the one who got the project off the ground. Neuvel immediately shakes up the status quo with the appearance of another giant robot in the centre of London. This sets the second book up to be very different to the first. These new robots are as powerful as Themis and have a seemingly deadly intent. With Themis outnumbered and outgunned, Waking Gods becomes a race against time as the world tries to discover what these invaders want or destroy them before humanity is wiped out. Waking Gods is told in the same style as the first book –…

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…