XX by Angela Chadwick
Uncategorized / 12/12/2018

Angela Chadwick’s debut novel XX starts with a day-after-tomorrow (or possibly even day-after-today) premise: a group of scientists in the UK has found a way to create viable embryos from two female donors. Following successful animal trials, ovum-to-ovum (or ‘o-o’) fertilisation is now going to be offered to humans in a limited trial. Because of the way this technique works, the children of any such process will always have two X genes (one from each parent) and hence can only be female. This sets the scene for a book that is both speculative but also intensely topical, exploring gender, politics, science and the media through what becomes an intensely personal journey. Juliet, the narrator and protagonist, is in a long-term relationship with Rosie. After many years of talking about it she has tamped down her doubts and agreed that they should have a baby. Before they can decide on a sperm donor, the o-o trial is announced and the pair apply, excited to be part of this breakthrough and assuming that the achievement will be celebrated: We’re here to make babies without men. This is Dolly the sheep territory – a whole new frontier – and Rosie and I are…

Static Ruin by Corey J White
Review , Science Fiction / 10/12/2018

The final book of Corey J White’s Voidwitch trilogy (which started with Killing Gravity)  opens in the same vein as the previous two – with an action sequence as protagonist and voidwitch Mariam ‘Mars’ Wu pursues someone through the crowded hallways of a space station. She is trying to find a cure for Pale, the boy who had been turned into a living weapon and who she rescued at the end of the previous book – Void Black Shadow. Once again, before too long her enemies are at the door and she has to dip into her prodigious power set (this is a woman who managed to pull a moon out of the sky in a previous volume) to escape. Static Ruin follows many of the same plot beats as the earlier two books – Mariam searches for something, find bits of the puzzle, then the bad guys arrive and she has to flee, usually leaving behind a large amount of carnage. In this book her quest is to find her father and creator both as a last hope for curing Pale but also to understand her own origins. It allows White to briefly consider issues of family, loyalty and…

Space Opera by Catherynne M Valente
Review , Science Fiction / 21/11/2018

Catherynne M Valente did her own unique take on fantasy in her Fairyland series and produced the wildly original science fictional movie industry homage Radiance a couple of years ago. Now she takes on the Eurovision Song Contest in a Douglas Adams-inspired galactic romp. For Australians, who have embraced Eurovision and its stars, the idea of a bunch of countries getting together in a competition of glitz, glamour and pop music as opposed to, say fighting each other, is probably not all that out there. Americans, whose diplomacy has tended to be a bit more po-faced might find this concept a little harder to swallow. One day every person on Earth is contacted by an alien race. They are told not only that they are not alone in the universe but that in order to join the club of sentient races, humanity has to compete and not come last in Megagalactic Grand Prix. The Grand Prix was instituted as a way of resolving the long running and destructive Sentience Wars. For Australians, now competing at Eurovision but constantly having to put up with the accusation that Australia is not in Europe, this plot line has more than a little resonance….

Thin Air by Richard Morgan
Review , Science Fiction / 05/11/2018

Richard Morgan returns to science fiction after a bit of a break with a sequel of sorts to his last scifi outing Black Man (called Thirteen in the US). That break has seen the Netflix adaptation of his best known scifi work (and debut) Altered Carbon. Those who have read or seen Altered Carbon might find themselves experiencing a strange sense of déjà vu when reading his latest book Thin Air. Hakan Veil is an overrider. Genetically engineered from before birth to be a supersoldier, he is forced to spend four months of every year in hibernation. When he emerges from that state he “runs hot”, prone to anger and violence. When Thin Air opens, Veil has just been woken and is on an assassination mission in the nightclubs of Mars. Veil was decommissioned from the overriders and exiled to Mars where he makes a living working for underworld figures. Mars is a frontier world, riddled with gangs, corruption and vice, a milieu that Veil slots into perfectly. At one level Thin Air is a crime story and political thriller although it takes a long time to get there. Veil is assigned to one of the auditors who has come…

The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

It has been over 65 years since Asimov published the first of his Foundation series in which a group of scientists come up with a plan to save a dying galactic federation. While the Foundation trilogy is seminal science fiction, many readers these days find it a bit of a slog. John Scalzi’s Interdepency series takes a similar premise but has given it a modern spin in the vein of contemporaries like James SA Corey, Ann Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee but with his own brand of verve and wit. The Consuming Fire picks up not long after the end of The Collapsing Empire. The flow lanes, which connect the planets of the Interdependency and are necessary for their survival, are shutting down and the route to the one planet that might sustain survivors is blocked. While the first book concerned itself with the discovery of the impending end of everything and for that reason sometimes felt like a lengthy prologue, this book gets down into the consequences of knowing that the Empire is under threat and exploring how people respond to that knowledge. The book opens with the emperox, Grayland II, announcing that she has had visions of the…

Thylacines by Deborah Sheldon
Review , Science Fiction / 26/10/2018

The characters in Deborah Sheldon’s new horror novella Thylacines had clearly never read or seen  Jurassic Park. Scientist Rose Giuliani works in the Resurrection Lab at the usually sleepy Fraser University outside of Melbourne. Rose and her team have brought the extinct thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, a marsupial carnivore extinct since the 1930s, back to life through DNA extraction and cloning. This work has actually been postulated in real life by Professor Mike Archer, formerly of the Australian National Museum. But, as readers (and viewers) of Jurassic Park already know, bringing extinct species back to life is an endeavour fraught with risk. Rose has managed to raise a successful litter of five thylacines. But even she admits that these are not ordinary thylacines. They are more than twice the size of the original animal and super-aggressive.  At the same time as a visit by representatives for the company that funds their research, a group of incompetent animal libbers break in and manage release the animals. The groups collide, the animals escape and it quickly turns out the super-thylacines really enjoy the taste of human blood. The rest is mayhem, cliffhangers and gore. There are more Jurassic Park echoes as the…

Severance by Ling Ma

When Severance opens the apocalypse is underway and people are madly googling survival tips before the internet ‘cave[s] into a sinkhole’ and the electrical grid shuts down. Yes, it is another post-apocalyptic survival tale. But like many recent post-apocalypses, the humanity-ending event is kind of beside the point. Instead, in Severance Ling Ma has written an ode to the Millennial generation and the intensely, insanely capitalist world in which they live, but with zombies … sort of. When the book goes back to the beginning of its tale, Candace is contemplating her future. She is in a fading relationship with Jonathan. Disillusioned with life in New York, he wants to leave the rat race and move to the country. He wants to avoid the future, which he sees as: … more exponentially exploding rents. The future is more condo buildings, more luxury housing bought by shell companies of the globally wealthy. The future is more Whole Foods, aisles of refrigerated cut fruit packaged in plastic containers. The future is more Urban Outfitters, more Sephoras, more Chipotles. The future just wants more consumers. The future is more newly arrived grads and tourists in some fruitless search for authenticity … But their…

Time Was by Ian McDonald
Review , Science Fiction / 19/10/2018

British author Ian McDonald is best known for his futuristic novels set in India (River of Gods) or South America (Brasyl) or Turkey (Dervish House) or his more recent kick-arse Game of Thrones on the Moon series Luna. In Time Was he shifts a gear. This novella is an intimate time travel tale. Emmett, an antiquarian bookseller in London, comes across a letter tucked into an old book of poetry. The letter, written in World War II, sends Emmett on a quest to find out more about its author. Emmett’s research takes him to a woman named Thorn who lives in an old house in the Fen country where he learns the name of the author of the letter (Tom Shadwell) and its recipient (Ben Seligman). But when he takes a photo of the two that Thorn has given him to a contact at the British War Museum and it exactly matches a picture of two young men from the early years of World War I, things start to get weird. Emmett becomes obsessive about solving the mystery of the two men and following their path as it seems to take them in and out of different parts of the…

A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White
Science Fiction / 17/10/2018

Most science fiction books have short, punchy names. Think Dune or Foundation or, more recently, The Martian. But when Becky Chambers came out in 2014 with a book titled The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet it appears she might have started a trend in long, easy to grasp science fiction book titles. Now we have Alex White’s A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe, a book which, with its high-octane, action-oriented approach is pretty much a polar opposite of Chambers’ more thoughtful, emotional and humanist work. Nilah Brio is a driver in the intergalactic version of Formula One. When a fellow driver is killed in the middle of a race, she barely escapes and is implicated in the murder. At the same time Elizabeth ‘Boots’ Elsworth, an expert in salvage and mysteries, is running from both a mysterious attacker who has destroyed her office and the crew of her old ship, the Capricious, who she sent on a wild goose chase to find non-existent relics. Nilah and Boots end up joining the Capricious’ ragtag crew, both on the run from their attackers and on the hunt for a legendary warship. From this point in the story,…

Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Rosewater is a first contact story, an alien encounter story, but it takes a while to get there, a story about humans with mutant-style powers, at times a zombie story. Tade Thompson takes his time, delivering a multi-dimensional mosaic that reveals as much as it hides. But he makes the journey worthwhile and the pay-off sticks hard. Kaaro lives in the town of Rosewater, a donut shaped metropolis, only a few years from being a shanty town, that has grown up surrounding a giant alien dome.  Rosewater sits in the middle of Nigeria, a few hours drive from the capital Lagos. The dome was not the first arrival of aliens, but appears to be the most permanent. The first contact occurred back in 2012 in London and brought with it a seeding of the atmosphere with a fungus that has led to a range of powers in certain individuals. Since that time America has “gone dark” – nothing and nobody comes in or out and no one knows is this is because aliens have taken over or whether America has quarantined itself against invasion or infection. No one goes in or out of the dome but once a year the…

The Quantum Magician by Derek Kunsken
Review , Science Fiction / 28/09/2018

Derek Künsken makes clear right from the outset that The Quantum Magician is a heist story. Belasarius is a self-confessed conman who is contracted to do the impossible – get a fleet of warships carrying game changing technology through a protected wormhole without being captured or destroyed. In order to do carry out his plan he puts together a team of misfits. Künsken leans heavily into heist tropes as Belasarius recruits an old flame, an crazy AI, an old mentor, a slightly unhinged demolitions expert, a geneticist and representatives of each of humanity’s new genetic branches. The Quantum Magician then follows Belasarius and his crew through the heist with its requisite double and triple crosses and unexpected turns. Künsken uses the heist as a scaffold on which to do a prodigious amount of universe building. He introduces four new human species – homo quantus (of which Belasarius is one) who have the capacity to go into a fugue state and see quantum-based probabilities, Puppets (who are genetically programmed to serve and worship another human subspecies called Numen) and Mongrels, descendants of ancient settlers genetically altered to be able to live in the extreme depths of icy interplanetary oceans. The key…

Suicide Club by Rachel Heng
Review , Science Fiction / 26/09/2018

A man commits suicide on film by drinking a flammable liquid and setting his insides alight. This is the stunning, disturbing setup for Rachel Heng’s Black Mirror-style debut Suicide Club. What if technology progressed so that people could live for considerably longer, potentially forever? Given the number of people now living longer due to pacemakers, hip and knee replacements this is not an impossible idea. In Suicide Club, this potential for immortality is known as Phase 3 and is the deepest wish of those in Phase 2 whose lifespans have already been extended well into their second century. Lea has just celebrated her hundredth birthday. Lea is a Phase 2, living an ascetic life to try and ensure that she is chosen for Phase 3. But her life is thrown into disarray when she spots her criminal father, missing since she was a child, and due to an accident is placed under surveillance and into counselling where events from her childhood come back to haunt her. At the same time she meets Anja, who is deeply involved in the Suicide Club, a group dedicated to challenging the orthodoxy of the long lived. However, it is never clear which side Lea…

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…

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…