Reviews

ELDER RACE, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

This Adrian Tchaikovsky novella packs several themes in a successful mix between science fiction and fantasy that I found delightfully entertaining. The story is equally divided between two points of view: Lynesse Fourth Daughter is the wayward scion of the realm of Lannesite, more interested in the lore and legends of her people than in the practical duties of a queen’s daughter, and so she’s always getting into trouble and harshly reprimanded by her mother and elder sisters.  Nyr Illim Tevitch is a lowly anthropologist assigned to study Lynesse’s society, a distant offshoot of human colonization: he’s been left alone to monitor the culture, since his companions returned to Earth some time ago and never came back, prompting Nyr to accept the dire fact they might never do so and that he might end his last days alone.

Rumors of a demon plaguing the nearby lands have reached the court and been dismissed by the queen as nothing more than the peasants’ excessive fantasy, while Lynesse is convinced that the realm might be threatened by a danger similar to that faced by her ancestress Astresse Once Regent, who successfully vanquished it with the help of the sorcerer Nyrgoth Elder.  So, against her mother’s wishes, she takes the long journey toward the wizard’s tower to ask for his help on the strength of the ancient compact signed with her great-grandmother.  The “wizard” is of course the anthropologist who long ago, and against the rule that prohibited the observing scientists to have any contact with the locals, lent his help to Astresse, and is now whiling away the long, empty years in suspended animation.

Lynesse’s resemblance with her ancestress – for whom it’s clear that Nyr harbored some very strong feelings – and her impassioned request for help clash with the scientist’s deeply settled despondency and depression, not to mention the sense of guilt for having already broken the rules once, and his unwillingness about doing so again, even though it’s become clear by now that there will be no retribution from back home,  given the too-long silence from Earth.  Still, the young woman’s determination and some curiosity to inspect the disconcerting phenomenon that Lynesse describes as a “demon”, ultimately convince Nyr to travel with her and her companion Esha Free Mark to the affected lands, in a journey that will prove enlightening for both of them.

The clash of different cultures has long been one of the main themes in science fiction, but here in Elder Race the conflict – and ensuing misunderstandings – come from two different lines of evolution of the same people, just as the two points of view, Lynesse and Nyr, represent the two genres merged in this story.  From the fantasy-inspired outlook of Lynesse, Nyr’s abilities and technological tools are nothing short of magic, and serve only to reinforce her faith in the powers of the aloof wizard, and in his ability to find and vanquish the demon infesting the land.  For his part, Nyr is battling with his own conscience and the contrasting feelings engendered by the bizarre situation, and keeping them at bay with the Dissociative Cognition System, or DCS, an implant that allows him to disconnect himself from his feelings so that he can conduct his observations with emotionless detachment – the only downside of the DCS being that he must turn it off at regular intervals to avoid a dangerous accumulation of repressed emotions, a practice that ends up enhancing the aura of mystery surrounding him from the locals’ perspective.

The theme of the Heroical Quest is played to the hilt in Elder Race, and with no small amount of tongue-in-cheek humor, particularly where the language barrier comes into play, giving way to an amusing “comedy of errors” flavor that reaches its peak as Nyr tries to explain the hard reality to Lynesse, only to see technical details turned into fairytale terms by a translation that shares very little ground with the common language once employed by the original colonists.  There is a chapter where the two versions are given side by side, and the gap between the actual reality and the one perceived by Lynesse shows, in a quite amusing way, the chasm that has opened between the two cultures, so that, for example, the term “scientist” used by Nyr becomes “wizard” in Lynesse’s tongue, taking the reader straight to Arthur Clarke’s famous sentence about advanced technology and magic…

Nyr’s frustration, and Lynesse’s difficulty in connecting with him, are not only the product of the changes in language but also of the changes in the way one looks at the world: where the anthropologist (especially when he engages the DCS) bases his observation on hard science and provable facts, Lynesse is driven by the stories she heard from early childhood, stories of heroic deeds and slain monsters, of weird magic and amazing feats, so that the two of them are kept apart not only by the terms that are lost in translation, but more importantly by a legendarium that for the girl is as close as humanly possible to reality while for the scientists it’s an unexplored land.  If you have seen that superb Star Trek: TNG episode titled Darmok, you will know what it means to be unable to understand someone whose language is so steeped in legends as to be totally incomprehensible.

And yet, despite these seemingly unsurmountable obstacles, the two manage to form an effective team: where words fail them, actions and – above all else – faith in each other’s commitment to the quest end up creating a bond that is a delight to behold and that adds a touch of sweetness to the mix of adventure and humor that are the main ingredients of the story, a story that despite its shortness ended up being even more enjoyable than Adrian Tchaikovsky’s longer and more complex books.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE SINS OF OUR FATHERS (The Expanse 9.5), by James S.A. Corey – #SciFiMonth

A short story from the universe of The Expanse is hardly enough to compensate for my sadness at the end of the best SF series I read so far, but it’s still a very welcome surprise, even more so when it ties off one of the threads left hanging by the main storylines in the saga.

Jannah is one of the newly colonized worlds reached by humanity through the ring gates system, whose collapse has now isolated those worlds from the rest of the galaxy. The colonists on Jannah have so far been dealing – like everyone else in their same situation – with the uncertainty of cut communications, dwindling supplies and lack of replacement parts, when a new problem surfaces: some previously unknown creatures have been attacking the settlement, and their defenses might not hold much longer.  The group of colonists is of two minds about how to cope: stay and keep defending themselves, or relocate the village in a different area, and tempers rise in the confrontation, opening the way for the strong and ruthless to impose their will.

One of the stranded colonists is an old acquaintance: Filip, the son of Naomi Nagata of the murderous leader of the Free Navy Marco Inaros. He’s a few decades older than the last time we saw him, and he’s been living a nomadic life since then, haunted by the guilt for his actions when he was his father’s lieutenant, and trying to keep as low a profile as possible.

His past was like a wound that wouldn’t heal, he’d spent his life dodging justice that might not even have been looking for him except in his head. That had been enough to break him.

Once Filip recognizes in fellow castaway Jandro the signs of the man’s narcissistic thirst for power that were at the roots of his father’s character, he understands that history might repeat itself and the ghosts of the past come knocking at his door once again…

Despite the dreary, almost hopeless atmosphere of this short story, I enjoyed very much the character study at its core: humanity manages again to show its failings and its inability to learn from the mistakes of the past (the sins of the fathers mentioned in the title). We see the bully Jandro understand that the lack of laws and organizations able to implement them have left a door open for a show of force and the possibility of seizing power; we also see how people deprived of self-esteem, or agency, tend to attach themselves to such individuals as Jandro, giving in to their basest instincts to gain the leader’s approval.  It’s a scenery with which Filip is quite familiar, one which has the effect of reopening the emotional scars he’s still carrying after so long.

When we last saw him, Filip was a teenager, confused, lost, oppressed by guilt –  and more important eager to distance himself from the looming figure of his deadly charismatic father: the choice to take on his mother’s surname – Nagata – his way of expressing a willingness to cut the ties with that past. And yet, at the start of the story, Filip is still running from that past, and from himself: until now, when things became unbearable, or too comfortable, he always moved on and left without turning back, in a form of self-inflicted punishment: 

[…] if anything ever went right for him, if he ever seemed in danger of gaining something he might be able to keep, he ran.

Now, with the collapse of the gates system, that possibility is gone forever, and that’s probably the reason he  finally takes a stand – a way to avoid history repeating itself and of atoning for his own sins. It might not be a true redemption (not considering the way things develop) but it’s the beginning – the hope – of one. And it’s enough.

The Sins of Our Fathers might very well be our last chance to visit the Expanse universe, but it’s a quietly moving, very satisfactory one.  Even though I keep hoping that the authors might still have something in store for us in the future…

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher
Reviews

A DRINK BEFORE WE DIE (Low Town #0.5), by Daniel Polansky – #wyrdandwonder

Read the story online

For the last day of Wyrd&Wonder 2022, I’m glad to celebrate it with my latest happy discovery: a short while ago I reviewed a short story by Daniel Polansky, an author I had previously encountered through some other short offerings, and a comment from fellow blogger Sarah led me to learn more about Polansky’s Low Town series, which Sarah mentioned with great fondness. Luckily for me I was able to get my proverbial feet wet with this prequel story which I was able to find online, and which prompted me to acquire the first book in the series immediately afterwards.

In the imaginary city portrayed in this story, Low Town is one of its seediest areas, under the control of a local crime lord who goes by the name of Warden, and is the first-person narrator as well. In Low Town anything goes: drug trade, liquor trade, every kind of more or less illicit trade one can imagine, and Warden rules it all through a deceptively nonchalant attitude – that is, until a rival consortium starts trying to undermine his rule and not-so-gently remove him from his place, so Warden goes on the offensive – but in a very crafty, very offhand way that belies both his determination and his underlying ruthlessness.

I was quite surprised at how I “clicked” with the character of Warden, given that he’s a hardened criminal who does not balk at bloodily removing any obstacle on his path, and does so in the perfect spirit of the place he rules:

”…the locals are unfriendly, unfriendly by the standards of an unfriendly city in an unfriendly world, and the local guard know better than to waste their time trying to police the place, like a doctor knows better than to bandage a corpse”

And yet, the combination of Warden’s laid-back attitude (which is anything but, in truth) with a peculiar kind of humor, that sometimes becomes of the self-deprecating kind, managed to endear him to me very quickly, and to make me want to learn more about him and the world he lives in. And so Low Town is now comfortably sitting on my e-reader, and I’m very much enjoying this story as well, which I’m reading as I write this review…

With my sincerest thanks to fellow blogger Sarah for the recommendation! 🙂

My Rating:

Image art by chic2view on 123RF.com
Reviews

THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 (Dead Djinn Universe #0.3), by P. Djèlì Clark

My third foray into P. Djèlí Clark’s alternate Egypt, and the return to the workings of Cairo’s Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities,  proved to be even better than my experience with A Dead Djinn in Cairo, particularly once I overcame the slight disappointment provoked by the absence of investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi, the main character of the first novella – although she does make a cameo appearance here, toward the end.

In Haunting the supernatural detectives for the Ministry are two: sedate and formal veteran Hamed al-Nasri and the enthusiastic rookie Agent Onsi – quite different characters that, despite those differences, manage to create an effective team while dealing with the present emergency, the haunting of one of the many aerial tram cars traversing the skies of Egypt’s capital. The Ministry was summoned by Superintendent Bashir, who appears quite distraught by the presence of what looks to be a djinn that took possession of said tram car, terrifying the passengers and forcing Bashir to take it out of the regular runs.  Once the investigation goes underway, however, the two investigators understand that the infestation has nothing to do with djinns and is instead something different and far more malevolent, so they are forced to seek more specialized help, finding it in a very unexpected quarter…

The previous story featuring Fatma merely laid the foundations of this alternate world, one where the border between the mundane and the supernatural had been pierced, allowing otherworldly creatures to enter our reality and coexist with humans; this novella deepens and enriches our knowledge of this changed reality, a background where elements of magic and steampunk details turn our journey into a very intriguing one, and in this specific case add the theme of social change to the mix, offering a chance both for reflection and for some amusing interludes.

Characters are better defined in Haunting, something I felt was slightly missing from my first experience with this series, and I have to admit that I took an instant liking to the Hamed/Onsi duo, which helped me to offset the initial surprise at the shift in perspective from Fatma’s.  Hamed at first comes across as a very matter-of-fact person whose experience in magical matters placed something of a disenchanted attitude on him, so that he observes Onsi’s ebullient joy at being in the field with a touch of amused annoyance.  Onsi, on the other hand, is not only very eager – as newbies are inclined to be – he’s also very much book-oriented, but has little experience of fieldwork. This disparity might have influenced their effectiveness in dealing with this difficult case, but instead the two of them are able to find some common ground – each giving in to the other a little – and turn out to be a great team, not only where their mission is concerned, but also where their work styles are involved.

Even though the main protagonists here are men, there is an intriguing focus on women, both as individuals – the mysteriously knowledgeable waitress Abla and the sheikha Nadiyaa, performer of magical arts – and as a group, i.e. the members of the movement for suffrage, the Egyptian Feminist Sisterhood. Cairo, and probably the whole of Egypt, is on the verge of huge social changes through the implementation of the right of vote for women and this is reflected in the substantial female presence on the scene and in the narrative thread that sees a particular magic rite – performed only by women – as the key to solving the tram’s infestation. This need for change, not only in politics, but also in the attitude toward women, is subtly addressed while discussing the malevolent spirit inhabiting Car 015, which appears either as a child or a hideous crone:

That spirit was just a formless being minding its own business. Then, it encountered men. And they decided to make it this beautiful woman or this monstrous crone, because that’s the only way many men can even view women

For all his outward adherence to protocol, Hamed is a very versatile individual and he’s soon able to acknowledge that exceptional circumstances require exceptional solutions, and he wastes no time in implementing them, also accepting with grace and humor the very unusual… ahem… camouflage he and Onsi must don to fool the spirit. I ended up liking him very much, and understood that the formal exterior hides an intriguing, multifaceted personality I would not mind seeing explored in depth – maybe teamed up with Fatma, with whom he has an interesting conversation once the dust of the chase has settled.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 offered a more comprehensive look into this parallel reality, and I enjoyed the world-building even more than with the previous story: there is such a richness of detail here that the background comes alive with all its colors and smells and the views of teeming streets that make the city come alive in quite a cinematic way. Returning here through the full-length novel that awaits me down the line will certainly be an equally delightful experience.

My Rating:

Reviews

A DEAD DJINN IN CAIRO, by P. Djeli Clark

I’ve been meaning to read some more works from P. Djèlí Clark after greatly appreciating his Ring Shout, and I finally did thanks to fellow blogger Maryam at the Curious SFF Reader: when she reviewed Clark’s A Master of Djinn, which I found intriguing, she advised me to read the short stories that precede this full novel, and so I started with A Dead Djinn in Cairo, which can be read online on Tor.com

This is a completely different kind of story if compared  with my previous experience with this author: set in an alternate Egypt of 1912, it portrays a city of Cairo in which the supernatural and the mundane coexist side by side, as a consequence of the opening of a portal between our world and one filled with otherworldly creatures. For that reason, the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities must supervise any kind of manifestation through its investigators.

In Dead Djinn we follow Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi as she deals with the sudden death of a djinn (in Eastern lore they are supernatural beings which can be either benign or evil, according to circumstances): in this particular, and extraordinary, case, it looks as if the death can be attributed to suicide, and as Fatma follows the leads she finds herself facing mechanical angels, flesh-eating ghouls and other assorted dangers.

The story is short and somewhat light in characterization, but it’s a fascinating journey through the mysteries of Cairo and – more important – through the details of this weird world that might look like our own but is quite different, not just because it sports a plethora of supernatural beings, but because of its fascinating steampunk flavor, highlighted by the mention of flying trams, dirigibles and human-shaped mechanical constructs.

Fatma is an intriguing character, a person with a difficult job made even more arduous by her disregard for the period’s expectations of a woman’s role and appearance – her manner of dress is, well, quite unusual 😀  – and in the short number of pages of this story she shows great promise that I hope will be fulfilled in the next short stories and full novel.

As it is, A Dead Djinn in Cairo is a intriguing introduction to this world, enough to compel me to learn more as soon as possible.

My Rating:

Reviews

COMFORT ME WITH APPLES, by Catherynne M. Valente

Valente is an author I’ve seen quoted often by my fellow bloggers, and the impression I received from their reviews was that of a writer with a good number of narrative “voices” at her disposal. So far, my experience with her works had been limited to a short story, so that I did not know much about what to expect here: Comfort Me With Apples taught me, once again, that going into a book with no expectations whatsoever can give me much more than I hoped for.

From the very opening, this novella inspires a sense of ominous foreboding, listing the very strict regulations enforced by the gated community of Arcadia Gardens, where the main character, Sophia, lives: those regulations (which can be found at the start of each chapter) made me think more or a prison than a safe enclave where families could live their lives in comfort and peace, and once we are made privy to Sophia’s thoughts that sense of foreboding intensifies. Those thoughts are focused on how happy she is, how wonderful the life her perfect husband offers her, how beautiful her house and friendly her neighbors: it was impossible for me not to think about the Stepford Wives as alarm bells started sounding with increasingly loud tones, Sophia’s passivity and unquestioning acceptance of her situation making her look more like a well-programmed automaton than a flesh-and-blood creature.

And yet the perfect picture begins to crack, almost imperceptibly, as Sophia finds a lock of hair – clearly not her own – in a dresser drawer she had never opened before: a minor incident, granted, but one that keeps preying on her mind and starts to shatter her hypnosis-like complacency. The find is only the first of many, each one more sinister than the other, in a growing buildup that together with the husband’s prohibition of visiting the basement and the village dwellers’ seeming obsession with Sophia’s happiness made me think about some dark secret concerning that often absent, literally larger-than-life husband: at this point I was thinking more about Bluebeard than the Stepford Wives as the inspiration for this story, but once again Catherynne Valente was waving another series of red herrings under my nose…

The reveal is quite unexpected – with hindsight it’s easy to see how the author peppered the road with unobtrusive clues, like the names of Sophia’s neighbors for example – but it’s done with such skill that the solution really came out of the blue and if I have to pinpoint any problems with it, they would be in the swiftness with which the resolution comes along: given the measured buildup, I would have expected something less hurried, less… thunderclap-like, if I’m making any sense.

Still, I quite enjoyed this novella and I am in awe of Ms. Valente’s authorial skills, so this will certainly not be the last of her works I will visit.

My Rating:

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THE FIRST OMEGA, by Megan O’Keefe

I received this novella from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

I discovered Megan O’Keefe through the first two novels in her Protectorate space opera series, so once I saw the notice for this post-apocalyptic novella that promised a Mad Max-like setting, I had no doubt that I would sample the author’s change of narrative tone: brief as it was, it turned out to be a very intriguing read, and my hope is that Ms. O’Keefe might decide to expand this small seed into a full-length novel, one of these days.

Climate change, or some other upheaval, transformed the face of the Earth, and what once was habitable land has turned into a deserted waste, crossed only by the automatic trucks that carry goods and supplies over the old Route 66, that still connects the East and West coast of the United States. Pirates, or desperate people (it would be hard to set the difference in this time and place) constantly try to steal from these trucks, so the corporation running them, Pac At, set up a sort of policing system through bounty hunters: Riley is one of them, her territory in the arid west, toward the end of the line.

Riley is not her name, she has forgotten it and uses it only because the cranky Ma Rickets calls her thus, for no reason she can understand. To everyone else, especially the desperate people trying to eke out a meagre living in the desert, she is Burner, because that’s what her touch does to you if – or rather when – she catches you.  On her latest assignment, however, Riley is surprised to find the attackers already dead, their bodies decomposing although a very short time elapsed since the assault, and in the truck only one living person: a young girl with too-bright eyes that look uncannily like Riley’s own eyes. Her name is Omega…

Given the shortness of this novella I would not feel comfortable sharing any more details, for fear of revealing too much. What I can offer is that this is a story focused on identity and growth, of conditioning that goes beyond its intended programming and the meaning of justice when lawlessness is the only rule in no-man’s land.  The few (too few…) pages of this story manage to flesh out Riley’s character in a very interesting way, and to reach moments of poignancy I would not have expected from such a harsh, unforgiving setting and merciless environment.

The narrative style is quite different from what I was used to in O’Keefe’s Protectorate series: like the desert where it’s set, it’s a bleak, stark prose that paints Riley with a sharp and cutting economy of words that leave no room for kindness and yet highlight a character of surprising depth and humanity, one that simply begs to be explored with more detail and more backstory.  Hopefully one of these days the author will come back to this world and give us more…

My Rating:

Reviews

FUGITIVE TELEMETRY (The Murderbot Diaries #6), by Martha Wells

I received this novel from Macmillan/Tor-Forge through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

A new Murderbot novella is something I always look forward to, because I am completely invested in the journey of this cybernetically-enhanced construct and its interaction with the humans that have accepted it into their extended family.

Fugitive Telemetry is slightly different from its predecessors in that it’s not so much an adventure against evil intergalactic corporations as it’s a murder mystery in which our SecUnit takes on the role of detective, and does so relying mostly on its deductive capacities rather than the impressive technical skills it has shown so far. As far as temporal placing goes, this novella follows after book 4, Exit Strategy, and comes before the longer work Network Effect: Murderbot is very actively on the lookout for GrayCris operatives that might still be threatening Dr. Mensah’s life, so that when the body of a murdered man is found on Preservation Station, the first hypothesis for our SecUnit is that there might be a connection with the previous attempts on its legal guardian.

Since murder is quite an unusual event on Preservation Station, MurderBot offers its services in the investigation: on one side it wants to be sure that the dead man is in no way connected with GrayCris operatives, on the other it knows it might be a good opportunity to show other humans that it’s not a danger to Preservation and that, on the contrary, it can be an asset. Easier said that done, though, because suspicion and mistrust run rampant among the police force, such as it is, on the station, and Murderbot has been requested not to use the full potential of its cybernetic enhancements, which means that it will not be able to hack various data-gathering systems and it will have to rely on its rational powers alone and whatever information the humans are willing to share.

Watching MurderBot play detective is a fun experience on many levels: on one side, having to work without its usual tools, the SecUnit must fall back on the investigative techniques it learned by watching its beloved media, which is a tongue-in-cheek take on the genre; on the other, the barely veiled wariness of the humans it comes into contact with brings on new levels of snark in MB’s inner musings that are nothing short of delightful. Still, it’s clear that it has learned a lot about how to interact with humans, and even though it seems very keen on winning the undeclared challenge with the station’s police operatives, it also shows an unusual self-control in the face of what it considers some very stupid attitudes and questions. There are however a couple of instances in which that control slips, like the discussion on the reasons the body was dumped in such a public place: 

Murderbot: “No, I didn’t kill the dead human. If I had, I wouldn’t dump the body in the station mall”

Lead Investigator: “How would you dispose of a body so it wouldn’t be found?”

Murderbot: If I told you, then you might find all the bodies I’ve already disposed of.”

Which begs the question whether its was a provocative joke or not…

As the investigation progresses, the findings lead in a very unexpected direction and once again the SecUnit finds itself entangled with the rescue of some humans, and the deeper ramifications of the circumstances that brought these people into such a dangerous situation: without entering spoiler territory, I would like to point out that, no matter its antisocial declarations, there is a deep core of altruism in MurderBot that brings it to quite heroic actions, even when he ends up being shot at as a reward, as is the case here.

One of the delightful discoveries of this novella is the deepening connection that MB is forging with its adopted family (those it refers to as “Mensah or any of my other humans”), to the point that it’s learned how to rely on them when need arises, or even to ask  for outright help: their reaction at that request is one of my favorite moments, indeed, but it also shows how they have come to care for their latest member, and how MurderBot is coming to understand the rewards of interacting with flesh-and-blood people, of lowering one’s barriers and letting the world come closer.

On the other hand, the SecUnit’s scorn for the station’s bots remains unaltered: it’s clear it views them as inferior and even pathetic in their willingness to be useful and friendly, or in adopting charming names for themselves: one such example is that of JollyBaby, whose designation goes against its appearance and capacities – the surprise it will reserve for MurderBot toward the end is one that brought a huge smile on my face, and the hope that MB will be able to temper its snobbish attitude in the near future 😉

To sum it all up, Fugitive Telemetry is another captivating installment in the “MurderBot Saga”, one that adds some more facets to the main character while offering a quick, entertaining story and a wider view on the background it’s set on. The only thing that’s missing this time are the references to MB’s beloved media: the course of the investigation is such that there is literally no time to indulge one or more episodes of, say, Sanctuary Moon – and even MurderBot at some point wishes to simply “watch media and not exist”, which is a desire we can all sympathize with, particularly at the end of a hard day… A sign that the SecUnit is far more human than it can conceive of! 

Can we have another story soon, Ms. Wells, please?

My Rating:

Reviews

FIREWALKERS, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Even though I have read only a small percentage of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s works, I can see from this limited sample that his imagination can take very different roads from one book to the next, and Firewalkers is a prime example of this.

In a not-so-distant future in which climatic changes have wrought havoc on Earth, the planet is divided between areas where floods from the melting icecaps are submerging most of the land, and areas – like the equatorial belt – where desertification and rising temperatures have transformed once lush jungles into arid wastelands. The equator is still a sought-after location, though, because it’s the place where the anchor points for space elevators have been built, bringing people to the safety and comfort of the huge ships in construction. That is, those who can afford it, which is only a privileged few. The others try to eke a meager existence by servicing the crumbling infrastructure that supports the anchor and elevator and the arrays of solar panels feeding energy to them.

In one such settlements live the three main characters of the story, young people whose job is to cross the scorching, dusty desert to service and repair the solar panels located in distant areas that were once inhabited and have now been abandoned to the encroaching sands. These Firewalkers, so called because their young bodies are better suited to withstand the broiling heat of the desert, regularly endure the extreme environmental conditions to earn the relatively higher pay such jobs can bring in, risking their lives each time to provide for themselves and their families.

Nguyēn Sun Mao is the descendant of Vietnamese refugees escaped from the floods that obliterated their country and he’s the point man of the group; Lupé is of African descent and represents the engineering genius in the team, as she is able to repair or jerry-rig practically anything; then there is Hotep, so called because she protects her fair complexion under mummy-like bandages, and she is the technical expert. The three of them have been working together for some time and forged a successful unit, so that they are often given the more difficult assignments – and the most dangerous of course.

This latest assignment brings them toward a rarely – if ever – explored area, one where what remains of the palatial mansions of the rich crumbles under heat and neglect, and where unknown dangers, and even monstrous creatures are rumored to dwell. The three Firewalkers’ journey soon evolves into the search for clues to unveil a mystery, and in the discovery that something does indeed lurk in the deep desert, but it’s nothing they would have ever imagined.  The story takes on a sort of quest-like flavor, with our heroes facing known and unknown perils as we get to know their personalities and quirks, while being shown how the world we know has been changed by the damage humanity inflicted on it.

The ground crunched lifeless beneath his feet […] the sun the head of a white hot rivet driven in by some celestial smith.

The story’s main focus is on Mao, a boy in his late teens possessed with the maturity of a far older man, because the kind of life he and his crewmates lead tends to burn people away at an accelerated rate: there is little room for hope in this world, and yet we see him try to do his best in the worst of circumstances, trying to take some pride in what he does and exhibiting a natural, if laid back, quality of leadership that brings his two companions to trust him and abide by his decisions no matter how uncertain and dangerous the path. Maybe because

[…] it was Mao who had most experience walking on the surface of an alien world, even if it was Earth.

Lupé, as befitting an engineer – even one as self-taught as she is – is both efficient and business-like, never allowing dangers, either real or imagined, to get between her and the machinery she is repairing or adjusting. As the one in her family with the best-paying job, her young shoulders are burdened by the weight of keeping them as comfortable as possible, and she translates this responsibility to her traveling mates as well: there is one scene in which she keeps servicing their transport’s life support even as some problem approaches, and we see her keeping up the work with the steadiness of a much more seasoned veteran, something that is both admirable and heartbreaking.

And last, but not least, Hotep: she is the wild card of the group in that she was born in space as one of the privileged, but was sent down to Earth – literally discarded – by parents who could not bear her psychological problems and quirky, non-conformed behavior. Her prickly character, like the bandages she wears, is a way of masking the deep pain of abandonment, the resentment at the sheer, heartless injustice and betrayal she was subjected to.  It’s through Hotep’s situation that we can perceive the cruel divide in Earth’s people, because if her parents hardly flinched at condemning their own daughter to a short life of hardships and suffering without a qualm, what about the few privileged that could escape from the dying planet and are living in comfort and luxury while the rest of the population slowly dies of heat, thirst and diminishing food?

The themes developed in this story are of course climate and environmental changes, and the social upheavals following them, but there are other elements that are equally intriguing, like the construction of the massive ships in Earth orbit – probably more arcologies than mere vessels – and the space elevators connecting them to the surface. What I found truly fascinating are the remains of the previous civilization – our actual civilization, I believe – and the way the protagonists observe them as though they were relics from a more distant past, and that they are unable to connect with for lack of common references. There are several instances in which Mao & Co. talk about tv shows from the past – still being aired – and how the people depicted in there, their way of life, look more alien than extraterrestrial creatures: this, more than anything else shows us readers how our world has changed from the present conditions.

Firewalkers is a dense book indeed, in the sense that it holds many concepts in a relatively small number of pages, and that’s its only flaw from my point of view: this kind of story should have deserved more space to “breathe” and fulfill its amazing potential. For this same reason, the ending felt to me somewhat abrupt and less satisfying than I would have expected from the initial buildup, but still it was an engrossing read, and a further incentive to explore Adrian Tchaikovsky’s other works.

My Rating:

Reviews

MEMENTO (The Illuminae Files #0.5), by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

The Illuminae Files is one of my favorites SF series and apart from offering a compelling story and characterization it established a record with me, because it portrayed an array of YA characters who felt well-crafted and believable, without all the annoying traits afflicting teenagers in the genre.  So, when I heard of the publication of this novella that acts as a prequel to the main trilogy I was nothing short of thrilled.

The story is set just a short time before the attack on the Kerenza IV colony, the incident starting the whole bloody mess. The protagonist here is Olivia Klein, a young and starry-eyed tech recently enrolled on the Alexander, the ship where an advanced A.I. has been installed: AIDAN (the acronym for Artificial Intelligence Defense Analytics Network) is still being fine-tuned and Olivia has been assigned to the team responsible for the improvement of AIDAN’s integration with the system and  its responses.  While the techs study AIDAN’s behavior, so AIDAN does study the humans calibrating its performance, and does so with childlike but still disturbing, innocence: the very embarrassing questions it asks of Olivia about her budding romance with her superior Ethan Wolfe are a good example of such curiosity and, together with some queries about ethics and morality, also offer the first hints that something might be… well, not exactly wrong, but weird in AIDAN’s functioning parameters.

Alexander’s intervention at Kerenza, and the crippling attack it’s subjected to, turn out to have dire consequences on AIDAN’s logic processes, and the AI starts exhibiting the first signs of the deadly behavior that is one of the pivotal themes in the trilogy: the fact that it now refers to itself as “I” instead of using the third person is probably the first sign of the “madness” that has come to possess it…

Memento, for all its brevity, works like a punch in the stomach – of course, having read the trilogy, I knew how the story develops and was aware of the tragic consequences of the Kerenza attack, but in this case being forewarned did not forearm me against the emotional impact delivered by the novella.  I felt particularly sorry for Olivia, because I knew that all her youthful enthusiasm would meet a catastrophic end, but at some point a certain discovery about her past made her character arc all the more poignant and tragic.

But of course AIDAN is at the center of it all here, and again I experienced the mixed feelings that accompanied me all through the narrative arc of the Illuminae Files: the AI is a construct undergoing a process in which it questions its own identity, goals and reasons of existence and it does so based on the input set by human beings, who are by nature imperfect and fallible – which on hindsight makes those fatal consequences almost inevitable, and turns AIDAN into a character that is in equal measure fascinating and appalling.

Like the three full-length books previously published, Memento is told through transcripts,  memos and personal messages that manage to tap the characters’ emotional depths and to make you feel invested in their journey, even despite the small number of pages of this story – which is indeed the only complaint I have about this shorter work: I would not have minded a longer book indeed…

My Rating: