Bloodline by Claudia Gray
Review , Science Fiction / 29/07/2016

Not long after the first Star Wars film was released, novelists started expanding the Star Wars universe. So that activities in the years following Return of the Jedi, also known as episode six, were very well documented and well understood by hard core fans. When Disney bought the Star Wars franchise it picked up some of the existing threads but essentially negated the existing thirty years of literary universe-building. So that fun as the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, was there was plenty of background detail that made little sense. In particular the relationship between the evil First Order, the New Republic and the Resistance. Or, to be more blunt, if there was a Republic, who were the Resistance resisting and why? But authors are starting to be brought in the fill in the blanks. Earlier this year saw the release of the first in Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath series, set just following the events in Return of the Jedi (and reviewed here). And now we have Claudia Gray, who, within the confines of a future already partly mapped out, has tried to fill in some more of the gaps with Bloodline. Bloodline is set about twenty years after…

Rig by Jon Wallace
Review , Science Fiction / 25/07/2016

Jon Wallace returns to his dark post-robopocalyptic world for a third and possibly final time in Rig. This volume takes readers off England’s blighted shores and into the wider world, starting off the coast of a post-nuclear Florida. Once again, Kenstibec, the Ficial (android) who, since losing his nanotech has become increasingly Real (human) is at the centre of a narrative that jumps between his current dire circumstances to his earliest days just off the Ficial production line. Rig is immediately different to its two predecessors, Barricade (reviewed here) and Steeple (reviewed here). The earlier novels were based broadly around a quest. Barricade was an unnerving road trip across a blasted Britain, while Steeple had Kensitbec on a mission, although one in which he had motives of his own. Rig is less straight forward and, as a result, it takes a little longer for the plot to kick in. But there is plenty to catch up on in the meantime, including characters from both the first and second books who have ended up on the strange Ficial-made, lotus-like floating crèche that Kenstibec has also found himself living on when the book opens. In Barricade, Wallace made readers care about Kenstibec…

The Fireman by Joe Hill
Review , Science Fiction , Thriller / 14/06/2016

Another day, another apocalypse. In Joe Hill’s latest novel, the apocalypse is brought about by a virus, nicknamed dragonscale. Dragonscale causes people to exhibit black and gold tattoo-like markings all over their bodies and, when stressed, burst into flame. The sudden onset of this disease, creating conflagrations across the globe, leads to a societal collapse and a clean-versus-infected mentality in the population (at least in the United States). “Cremation crews” scour the countryside looking to kill the infected in order to stem the spread of the disease. But unlike most epidemic apocalypse books, The Fireman is on the side of the infected who find that dragonscale may not be quite as fatal as people first think. The centre of the The Fireman is not the titular character but a pregnant nurse – Harper Willows. Harper is a great character – compassionate, resourceful, steely when she needs to be – and fairly kick-arse, even when nine months pregnant. In fact most of the characters with significant agency and personality in the novel are women, a point which Hill can’t help but pat himself on the back for and reference directly in one passage of dialogue. And while there are some women…

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
Review , Science Fiction / 01/06/2016

Japanese manga and anime has a bit of an obsession with giant robots controlled by human pilots. These huge humanoid weapons are usually used to defend humanity against other giant machines or otherworldly monsters. As the stories like the Iron Giant and the success of recent films like Pacific Rim show, this appetite for stories involving giant robots is fairly universal. Sylvain Neuvel shares this fascination. Challenged to create a backstory for a toy robot that he built for his son, Neuvel has dug into this tradition to come up with Sleeping Giants. Sleeping Giants starts with a great cold open. Young Rose Franklin, riding a bike on her tenth birthday, falls into a hole and finds herself cradled in the palm of a giant metal hand. The hand is surrounded by panels covered in strange, glowing symbols. Both turn out to be made of a metal alloy that should not exist on Earth. Twelve years late she is Dr Rose Franklin and has been commissioned to examine the hand and try and decipher the symbols that surrounded it. Rose soon learns how to locate other parts of the robot and the race is on to locate, construct and control…

Quantum Night by Robert Sawyer
Review , Science Fiction / 13/05/2016

Robert Sawyer is a stalwart of the science fiction world. A writer interested as much in ideas as he is in the usual sci-fi mechanics. He is probably best known for the book that launched a short-lived post-Lost TV series Flashforward. In Flashforward, everyone in the world experiences a loss of consciousness that gives them a glimpse of the future. The book dealt with questions of predestination and free will. More recently, Sawyer gave us the WWW trilogy in which the World Wide Web develops consciousness. So it is no surprise that Quantum Night relies so heavily on theories of the conscious mind and how it works. The main character of Quantum Night, Jim Marchuk, is an expert in determining whether someone is a psychopath. But when put on the stand to defend his technique, Marchuk is torn down, not because his technique is flawed but because he fails to remember a crucial period of his life. It turns out that Marchuk has no memory of a six month period of his life from twenty years earlier. Marchuk’s exploration of that time leads him to a former girlfriend who he did not previously remember having and a secret experiment on…

Radiance by Catherynne M Valente

Retrofuturism is an area of sci-fi with proliferating sub-genres. First there was steampunk, Victoriana sci-fi usually replete with airships, flying goggles and cogs. But now other time periods are muscling in on the act. There is clockpunk, based on an area before a steam. But there is also dieselpunk and atompunk taking the retrofuturistic baseline deep into the twentieth century. Catherynne M Valente’s latest novel for adults Radiance (she has been spending much of her recent time writing for children about a Fairyland of her own making) is self-described as decopunk. Decopunk replaces Victorian crinolines and grime with the high fashion and flashy chrome of the Art Deco era. Also sometimes known as raygun gothic, decopunk is flashy, pulpy and overall lighter than its steam-driven cousin. Radiance is more than just retrofuturism, though. Valente has created a complete alternative not only of our world but of our solar system. In the Radiance universe, all of the planets and many of their moons are both habitable and inhabited (including Pluto which in our universe was not even discovered until 1932). People zip between these strange and unique environments in rocket ships. They survive partly due to their reliance on a substance…

Illuminae by Kaufman and Kristoff

Illuminae states its intention right from the cover, which is covered in scraps of partially redacted documents. The book itself is told through a series of recovered documents of varying types, many flagged with introductory comments. The form of narrative has been done before and it is worth saying at the outset that Kaufman and Kristoff do it very well. Despite lots of goriness and evil goings on, all swear words are redacted to keep this closer to PG than MA territory. The main characters are two seventeen-year-olds who have just broken up when they have to survive an attack that destroys their home planet – an illegal mining colony in the far reaches of the universe. They are rescued and end up on separate ships in a fleet of three trying to outrun a battleship bent on their destruction. Both are likeable characters – Kady the techno-hacker chick with a healthy disregard for authority and Ezra, the jock with a heart of gold – and the narrative constantly flicks between the two. Through all the mayhem that follows, their relationship issues are never far from the surface. Kaufman and Kristoff have fun with a bunch of sci-fi sub-genres. Illuminae…

Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

A long line of science fiction classics, including Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Arthur C Clark’s Moondust, through to more modern writers like Ben Bova (Moonrise and Moonwar) have focussed on life on a settled or developed Moon.  In Luna: New Moon, Ian McDonald brings his hardscrabble, developing-world sci-fi sensibility to the Moon to dazzling effect. As could be expected after books like River of Gods and Brasyl, McDonald’s Luna (as Heinlein also styled it) is no westernised utopia, but rather a heady mix of Asian, European, Caribbean and African influences. Luna has been corporatised and is a major source of raw materials for Earth. It is a highly stratified and monetised society, where even the air you breathe must be paid for and the dead are recycled for the benefit of the living. Under the rule of the Lunar Development Corporation sit five families, the Five Dragons, each responsible for a different aspect of Lunar profit. McDonald’s story focusses mainly on the Brazilian Corta family, the upstart fifth dragon, whose Helium3 operations keep Earth’s lights on. The Corta matriarch has political issues not only within her own family but with her rivals, particularly the Australian Mackenzie…

Welcome to Night Vale by Fink and Cranor

The extremely strange town of Night Vale will be familiar to listeners to the popular podcast which has been going since 2012. For those who have never heard about the town of Night Vale – which is ruled over by a glow cloud (all hail the mighty glow cloud), where the most dangerous place is the library, it is subversive to believe in mountains, the most popular dish at the diner is invisible pie and where the police have been replaced by secret police who are always listening – this novelisation of the podcast is an eye opening and brain-tingling experience. Jackie Fierro and Dianne Crayton are both searching for something. Jackie, a perpetual nineteen year old, is looking for a man she can’t remember who gave her a slip of paper that she can not get rid of with the words KING CITY written on it. Diane is searching for a missing work colleague who no one remembers and is side-tracked when she spots the father of her shape-shifting teenage son Josh, who left town when Josh was a baby. The narrative alternates between their separate and then shared quests. There is a plot to Welcome to Night Vale,…

Steeple by Jon Wallace

Jon Wallace’s debut novel, Barricade was a blistering, visceral ride through a post-robopocalyptic Britain. It dropped readers into a nuclear blasted landscape and an ongoing war between the ravaged, disease-ridden survivors of humanity (the Reals) and their implacable, seemingly indestructible android foes (the Ficials). Barricade’s protagonist, a Ficial called Kenstibec, emotionless and virtually indestructible, was the perfect guide to this milieu. When Steeple opens Kenstibec, now just Ken, is pretending to be a Real after losing the nanotechnology that allows him to repair himself. Much like Barricade, Steeple wastes little time before sending Kenstibec off on a quest. Sent with his partner-in-crime Fatty (aka Phil) and a woman called Belinda to ascend Hope Tower, a massive residential building in the heart of London that has somehow survived the nuclear exchange. Kenstibec, never one to take orders, has his own reasons for going. Steeple is all action – Kenstibec and his companions lurching from one nasty, violent, stress-filled situation to another. But it is also, as its predecessor was, full of mordant humour and sly social commentary – exploring attitudes towards housing, development and consumerism. Flashback sections detail Kenstibec’s involvement in the design and creation of Hope Tower, reflecting Britain’s historical…