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…

Obsidio by Kaufman and Kristoff

Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff bring their Illuminae trilogy to an action packed, emotionally charged, edge-of-your-seat conclusion in Obsidio. Of course these are, essentially, all of the ingredients that readers of this series have come to expect. As with the previous books in this series, Obsidio is told through a collection of found documents, graphics and text, and this style continues to work well to create a very visual, cinematic feel. In a nutshell – the survivors of the previous books have no choice but to retrace their steps to Kerenza IV. Meanwhile, on Kerenza, the Beitech invaders have become an occupying force, using the remaining population to mine the resources they need to repair their ships and leave. One of the occupying force is Rhys Lindstrom, ex-boyfriend of invasion survivor and insurgent Asha Grant, cousin of Kady, one of the heroes of Illuminae. Putting yet another, troubled romance at the centre of the action. But all of the surviving characters from previous books also have a part to play in Obsidio. This time, more than before, the young protagonists have to deal with a world where the adults just won’t take them seriously (but have to save the day…

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
Crime , Review , Science Fiction / 01/03/2018

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, the debut novel by Stuart Turton has so many influences it is hard to know where to begin. It is designed to appeal to lovers of speculative fiction and classic crime fiction in equal measure and should succeed in satisfying everyone to some degree. Seven Deaths starts in cliché territory. A man comes to in a forest, he has no memory of who he is or why is there, a name is on his lips. He thinks he sees a murder taking place but before he can find any evidence of it, a mysterious stranger has pressed a compass into his hand and pointed him East. He walks through woodland until he comes to a crumbling English manor house, Blackheath where, it turns out his name is Simon Bell and he is a guest for a ball to be held that evening. The ball itself is being held to commemorate the murder of the Hardcastles’ son Thomas twenty years before. Their two other children, Michael and Evelyn have come for the event as has everyone connected with that fateful day. Before long the narrator learns that he is not Dr Simon Bell after all,…

Persepolis Rising by James SA Corey
Review , Science Fiction / 16/02/2018

Being the seventh book in the series this review will contain SPOILERS but as this is one of the best space operas going at the moment, if you are not on board yet, perhaps it is time. With The Expanse TV series paused somewhere in the middle of Book 2 (Caliban’s War), authors Ty Frank and Daniel Abraham, aka James S A Corey, have taken the book series in a new slightly new direction. Persepolis Rising begins with what can only be described as a bold time jump. This volume takes the story thirty years forward from the end of Babylon’s Ashes. Given the ruin and destruction that reigned at the end of that book this is a sensible call. It finds James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante (and the ship itself) older and more grizzled but throughout this volume the intervening years are only vaguely sketched out. The most you can say is that their little family (XO Naomi, pilot Alex, psycho engineer Amos, ex-marine Bobbie and ex-killer Clarissa) have become even more of a tight family-like unit. The conflict here comes when radical ex-Martian Duarte returns to the solar system with enough alien tech to take…

The Feed by Nick Clark Windo
Review , Science Fiction / 13/02/2018

The Feed is a post-apocalyptic tale with what can only be called a Black Mirror edge. As with that series, Nick Clark Windo is interested in exploring our relationship with technology and, more importantly, what happens when that relationship sours in some way. But The Feed ranges further than this, exploring the broader implications of our reliance on technology. When The Feed opens, Tom and Kate are enjoying a quiet night in a restaurant. Quiet in that they have willingly turned off their Feed. Much like the world in Adam Roberts’s recent book The Real-Town Murders, where most people spend their life in a virtual world, the world of The Feed is quiet, the interactions mainly happening in people’s heads. Kate struggles to interact outside of the Feed; its images, as she describes them: …score the darkness like neon and starlight, an internal global cityscape where everyone lives close by. So beautiful. So inevitable. So comfortable. Through the Feed, people can share emotions, memories, news, information. Kate is addicted to the Feed and spends the meal ‘itching to go on’. They both finally relent when a major event occurs, an assassination that sends their world spinning towards oblivion. Cut to…

Elysium Fire by Alastair Reynolds

It has been ten years since Alastair Reynolds has played in his Revelation Space universe. In that time he delivered the Blue Remembered Earth trilogy about a generation starship, complete with elephants and a few standalone novels including the steampunk-esque Terminal World and the rollicking space pirate adventure Revenger. But with Elysium Fire he is back on familiar turf (for Reynolds fans) – a direct sequel to 2007’s The Prefect, now to be rereleased under a new title Aurora Rising. Elysium Fire is once again set about a hundred years before the events in Revelation Space. The Prefects keep order across the Glitter Band, a loose collection of thousands of habitats orbiting the planet of Yellowstone and its iconic Chasm City. Prefect Tom Dreyfus, the protagonist of The Prefect, and his team are also back in action trying to solve a sequence of mysterious deaths and deal with an agitator keen to encourage habitats in the Glitter Band to seceded from oversight by the Prefects. At the same time, the war between two implacable artificial intelligences (Aurora and The Clockmaker) left running at the end of the previous book still rages in the background. It has been a long time…

The Night Market by Jonathan Moore
Crime , Review , Science Fiction / 01/02/2018

The Night Market is the third in Jonathan Moore’s triptych of dark tales set in San Francisco. The first, The Poison Artist was psychological gothic horror. The second, The Dark Room, was a more down the line police procedural with decidedly creepy undertones. After the more straight forward narrative of The Dark Room it was interesting to consider where Moore would take this series. And he does not disappoint. The Night Market is something else again, a vaguely dystopian science fiction crime thriller, set in a recognisable day after tomorrow San Francisco. Once again there is a police investigation at the centre of the tale. But in this story, nothing is quite what it seems. Homicide investigator Ross Carver and his partner are called to a murder scene in a wealthy area of San Francisco. The dead body is like nothing they have ever seen but before they have a chance to investigate the FBI turns up and they are hustled from the building and roughly disinfected. Carver wakes up three days later with no memory of the events. His neighbour has been caring for him and despite little previous contact, offers to help him find out what happened during those missing hours. To say much more about the plot would spoil some of the twists. But as…

The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts
Crime , Review , Science Fiction / 24/01/2018

Adam Roberts never does the same thing twice. While he has written novels with a crime element it is safe to say that The Real-Town Murders is something completely different again. It is a locked-room mystery but in the nature of all good crime novels, the murder is about something much deeper. But that something is connected to a heightened version of our current connection to technology, the freedoms that we give up to interact with that technology and the influence that that might bring to various players. The Real-Town Murders opens with an impossible murder. A body has been found in the boot of a car that was built by robots. Private detective Alma is brought in by the company that runs the factory to investigate. The process of the car’s construction was fully captured by camera and shows that there is no way for the body to have been placed in the boot before it was discovered. But in the way of all good noir detective novels, Alma is then bought-off and removed from the case by the authorities before she can investigate too deeply. When she finds there are deeper forces at play, she gets drawn back…

Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre

Space is the final frontier. So it is no surprise that fictional towns in space – on the moon, on space stations on generation ships – are portrayed as frontier towns. And usually not in a positive way. Recently Ian McDonald’s Luna series portrayed a fairly lawless lunar colony run by dynastic families and Andy Weir’s protagonist in his recent Artemis, also on the Moon, makes a living running contraband. So when Places in the Darkness begins and new security chief Alice Blake is told that mankind’s first space station is totally crime free, the reader knows there is more to it. That and the fact that the book has opened with parts of a dismembered body floating in zero gravity. Nicky “Fixx” Freeman is part of the local Seguridad but she moonlights as a fixer. Collecting protection money and helping a local alcohol smuggler and enforcer as part of a local gang war. Because mankind’s first space station, Cuidad de Cielo (“City in the Sky” or CdC) is riddled with corruption. A state of affairs to which the four ruling corporations (known as the Quadriga) turns a blind eye. But the locals know that the global government might be…