Reviews

A PALE LIGHT IN THE BLACK (NeoG #1), by K.B. Wagers (DNF @ 46%)

My first DNF of the year: statistically, it was bound to happen sooner or later, but still the disappointment stings…  The blurb for this book promised a space opera focused on an organization, the NeoG, labeled as the space equivalent of the Coast Guard, and on the crew of one particular ship, Zuma’s Ghost, also adding that “A routine mission to retrieve a missing ship has suddenly turned dangerous, and now their lives are on the line. Someone is targeting members of Zuma’s Ghost, a mysterious opponent willing to kill to safeguard a secret that could shake society to its core . . . a secret that could lead to their deaths and kill thousands more […]”. 

Quite intriguing, indeed, and the start of the novel – despite some slight info-dump concerning the characters – introduced some captivating themes, like the promotion and subsequent transfer of a beloved second in command coinciding with the arrival of a new officer, whose past history and present uncertainties would add some spice to the interpersonal mechanics aboard the ship.  Given these premises I expected a lively, adventurous story peppered with some interesting character evolution, but unfortunately things did not work that way at all.

From the very start the story seems focused solely on the annual Boarding Games that pit the various branches of Earth’s military against each other, with much space given to Zuma’s Ghost’s commander and crew lamenting their defeat in the previous edition of the Games, and their preparations for the upcoming session: up to the point where I stopped reading there were only a couple of instances in which the crew faced emergencies related to their actual job, and they were solved quickly, almost off-handedly, immediately going back to talk of the impending Games. From a quick online search I discovered that the more adventurous section of the story does come into play once the “Space Olympics” are over, but I could not find the strength to go through chapter after chapter of fights and simulated battles to reach what might have been the “meat” of the story.

To be entirely truthful, I have to admit I don’t care for team sports of any kind, so that might very well have colored my reaction to this story, but still I don’t understand the importance of the competition in the economy of the novel (at least as it’s presented in the blurb): a passing reference seems to indicate that the winning faction would get the greater portion of the government’s funds destined to military operations, and since NeoG did not gather any wins they are forced to go into space with sub-standard and/or old equipment. If that’s how things are in this future vision of humanity, it’s a ludicrous way indeed to manage a space-faring civilization…

Which brings me to the background, or rather scarcity of it: there are references to a Collapse that threatened to end civilization, but since it’s now four centuries in the past no more details are given about what it entailed, or how Earth overcame it; technology seems advanced enough – ships achieving light speed, instant communications spanning great distances with no time-lag, rejuvenating treatments keeping people young well beyond human standards, and so on – but it looks like an afterthought rather than an organic part of the whole. Then you are met with weird details like swords as onboard armament because “no one yet had the lock on a reliable handheld laser weapon”. Granted, once my inner Nasty Nitpicker is awakened, it tends to sink its teeth onto these trivial details and to never let go, but to me this speaks of poor planning, or editing, or both.

When all is said and done, A Pale Light in the Black looks like the kind of book I might have read – and probably enjoyed – a few decades ago, when I began reading SF: now that I have a good number of books under my proverbial belt, and that I have hopefully honed my tastes, books like this one feel totally unsatisfying.  This is not the droid… pardon me … the novel I was looking for.

Moving on….

My Rating:

Reviews

TV Review: THE EXPANSE Season 6

With the end of the book series and now of the TV version of this saga, I can certainly consider myself an Expanse orphan: both versions of this story are leaving a big gap in my SF horizon, one that will be hard, if not impossible, to fill…

This final season of The Expanse proved to be even more epic than its predecessors, leaving a great deal of room to well-orchestrated space battles – which might be the reason that the number of episodes was cut to just six, probably in consideration of the high budget that they required. But while the episodes were less than usual, there were no shortfalls in the characters’ evolution or in the political angles that have been the backbone of this saga, in both mediums.

In this season we have, on one side, the family of the Rocinante finally reunited after the harrowing events of the previous season, and if offscreen troubles required the removal of Alex’s character, the inclusion of Clarissa “Peaches” Mao to the ship’s complement leaves room for some welcome bonding scenes; on another side, Avasarala is battling with the practical and political aftermath of Earth’s bombing, still backed by former Martian marine Bobbie whose career switch as Avasarala’s aide has not changed her energetic approach to problems.  And again, Camina Drummer and her crew are still carrying out their rebellion against the darkly charismatic Marco Inaros, whose outer façade of Belter liberator is showing several cracks as his megalomania becomes more and more evident.

Individuals, and their reactions to events, have always been at the core of The Expanse, and they are still front and center here at the end of the journey: Naomi was put through the wringer in the previous season, and I approved of the choice of showing how she’s not over those trials, as dramatically proven through a scene where she freezes as she’s about to begin a spacewalk; Amos seems to have mellowed down a little – although with him one can never know – and his choice of adding Clarissa to the crew represents his unspoken willingness to give her another chance, just as he was when he joined the Roci’s family. Clarissa herself is dealing with her past and the heavy consequences of her actions, so that the first sign of acceptance from Holden looks to her like something of an absolution.  Holden is probably the one who seems to have changed less, but this makes sense because he’s the focus of that family, its moral compass if you want, and he needs to represent a fixed point for the others, which is the main reason for a very difficult choice he makes early on in the season.  As far as Alex is concerned, I appreciated how he’s mentioned in fond remembrance by his crewmates, placing a firm divide between the character and the actor who played him, whose actions forced the storyline to remove Alex from the Rocinante’s complement.

There are however two characters I have barely mentioned before and who drew my attention more keenly in this final season of The Expanse: one is Camina Drummer, who was fleshed out more on screen than she is in the books, and who thanks to the amazing performance by Cara Gee quickly became one of my favorites. Drummer’s journey through the series has been a long and complicated one, and I simply loved the combination of outward strength and inner, well-masked frailty that turned her into such a fascinating personality. In these last episodes of the show she looks even more determined and daring than ever, openly challenging Inaros in a scene that surpassed even the famous shipboard address from the bridge of the Behemoth we saw a couple of seasons ago. The message she sends to the leader of the Free Navy, whose actions have revealed his self-serving ruthlessness, is short but very powerful, and gives the full measure of this awesome character:

For his part, Inaros is depicted as your typical, irredeemable bad guy, who gathered almost unanimous consent from the Belters by unleashing their pent-up outrage through the vicious attack on Earth: his charisma barely hides a cruel, manipulative disposition that at times seems to come from deep-seated and unacknowledged insecurities. In other words, he’s the villain we all love to hate, and much of his successful portrayal is due to actor Keon Alexander who had the far-from-easy job of bringing him to life. Playing a convincing bad guy, and one who tethers on the edge of madness like Inaros, is far more difficult, in my opinion, because it requires a fine balancing act that not everyone can manage successfully: Keon Alexander did an amazing work on this character, one that left me divided between my loathing for Inaros and my admiration for the actor’s skills.   Which compels me to also mention Jasai Chase Owens as Filip Inaros, equally successful in showing the young man’s torn loyalties and his slow but inevitable drift from the toxic orbit of a father who had been his whole world for a long time.

Even though The Expanse has been given an appropriately wrapped-up finale, it’s impossible for book readers to forget that there are three more unexplored books in the saga, especially when the final TV season hinted at some of the Laconia storylines that make up the core of the final trilogy: those hints, which look disconnected from the rest of the story told in the final season, made me hope that there might be a remote possibility for a continuation, if not immediately maybe some time from now.  Whatever happens, though, I am aware that both the books and the TV series have merged together in my imagination, despite the differences between the mediums: The Expanse remains one of the best (if not THE best) space opera series I have known in my “travels” and one it will always be a joy to revisit in either form.

My Rating for Season 6:

Reviews

LEVIATHAN FALLS (The Expanse #9), by James S.A. Corey

Reaching the end of a beloved series is always a bittersweet experience (and the fact that the TV show inspired by this book series has also reached its final season adds to the feeling of loss, but I digress…), yet it’s also true that when a story comes to an end leaving readers wanting for more it means that the author has done an excellent job, and this is quite true for the highly successful, decade-long run of The Expanse

At the close of the previous installment, the might of the Laconian empire had suffered a hard blow, compounded by the disappearance of its leader, High Consul Duarte, and the crew of the Rocinante had finally reunited, taking with them Duarte’s daughter, Teresa. Elsewhere, scientist Elvi Okoye continued her studies on the protomolecule creators and on the mysterious entities that obliterated them and that still represented a clear and present danger for everyone.

Leviathan Falls opens with the desperate search for Duarte, introducing a new character in the person of Colonel Tanaka, a ruthless, cold-blooded operative who is given carte blanche to recover the Laconian leader and who clearly enjoys the unfettered freedom about collateral damage she’s given: her cat-and-mouse game with the Rocinante’s crew showcases very well her callousness but also her tunnel vision where Holden & Co. are concerned, because their longtime experience with difficult situations (together with a good amount of luck) has gifted them with the kind of flexibility that allows them to thwart Tanaka’s plans time and again. And I for one have to admit that witnessing the Colonel’s angry frustration was quite satisfying, since she’s the kind of character that I just love to hate…

The stakes, in this final book, are of course high: though diminished, the Laconian empire is still a force to be reckoned with; the rebellious systems, coordinated by Naomi Nagata, lack the resources and the organization necessary to deal a significant blow to the enemy; and the ruthlessly dangerous aliens responsible for the destruction of the gates’ builders are ready to do the same to humanity as a whole. And yet, even though the story does not lack for edge-of-your-seat scenes, furious battles and harrowing journeys through weird alien constructs, the overall mood is more sober, more inclined to melancholy – it might have been the projection of my own sadness at the end of the saga, granted, but with hindsight this book is, after all, a long goodbye to a number of characters I have come to know well and love as real people, just as they, in the course of the series, went from total strangers thrown together by circumstances to a tightly knit family.

Even in the midst of a galaxy-wide conflict, it’s the crew of the Rocinante that still earns the spotlight in this final act, and despite all that has happened to them over the years, despite the unavoidable injuries of passing time or life’s emotional wounds, they hold on to each other through learned trust and affection, in a sort of symbiosis which needs no words to make them work as a unit.

Time and use had changed them, but it hadn’t changed what they were. There was joy in that. A promise.

Thinking about the persons they were at the beginning, and seeing how time and experiences changed their outlook, made me aware of the long road they traveled as characters: Naomi kept trying to be as inconspicuous and unassuming as possible, guilt from her past compelling her to keep to the shadows, and yet she ended up being the leader of the resistance against Laconia, putting her mechanical skills at the service of the vast “machine” of the underground; Alex had always skirted his commitments as a husband and a father, preferring the freedom and joy of piloting a ship, but in the end the choice he makes is focused on his son and grandson.  And Holden, who had chosen a nondescript work on an ice hauler to be free from responsibilities, little by little found himself at the center of big and momentous events, so that his ultimate decision is a supremely selfless one, which looks even more poignant when considering that his return from imprisonment on Laconia had left him “scarred and broken” in the wake of the physical and emotional torture he had endured, and that he would have deserved some peace after so much suffering.

The only one who remains a constant is Amos: not even the uncanny changes he underwent in the course of the previous book managed to shift him from the steadfast presence I’ve come to appreciate and expect, someone who can come up with startlingly wise advice: 

“You’re overthinking this, Cap’n. You got now and you got the second your lights go out. Meantime is the only time there is.”

Amos’ personality is a weird combination of menacing strength, expressed in nonchalant understatement, and of unexpected gentleness, which we see – time and again – in his penchant for picking up strays: from distraught botanist Prax, looking for his missing daughter, to Clarissa “Peaches” Mao, former enemy he added to the Roci’s crew, to Teresa Duarte (plus her dog), who seems to come as close as an adopted daughter for the apparently unemotional mechanic.  Maybe it’s not so strange when considering Amos’ past and his (albeit unexpressed) desire to protect the helpless, which makes a great deal of sense when we see Amos as the one to get the very last word in this final book, in his role as protector and guardian.

If the final chapter in The Expanse is not as “epic” as might have been expected, it’s however quite rewarding thanks to the quiet but poignant emotions that stand as its backbone: I’m not ashamed to admit that some of these goodbyes affected me deeply because, despite the 9-books run, I was not ready to part company with this crew, and the only comfort to be had was the hopeful outlook on humanity given by the last paragraphs. Granted, in this series humanity did show some of its worst traits, but also the capacity to move beyond them, or at least of being willing to try: the hint that the story does go on behind the closing curtain is indeed a glimmer of hope, and I will stick to that while I wait for these two amazing authors to create something new and equally compelling in the future.

My Rating:

Reviews

YOU SEXY THING, by Cat Rambo

With such an intriguing title and the information that one of the story’s characters is a sentient bio-ship, it was inevitable that You Sexy Thing would end up on my TBR, and that I would have fun with it. It’s a quick read, and maybe a little on the light side as far as background and characterization are concerned, but since many elements in the story seem to indicate this novel might be a series starter, I will take this book as an introduction and keep hoping that some stronger developments will come along in the following installments.

Niko Larsen and her team now manage the Last chance restaurant on the remote Twice Far space station, but they once used to be soldiers enrolled by the Holy Hive Mind, a political/military conglomerate focused on expansion (think of a somewhat milder version of Star Trek’s Borg): to stay out of the HHM’s clutches, Niko and her people must demonstrate that their venture is an artistically successful one, and therefore the promised arrival of famous food critic Lolola drives them to excel in their culinary offerings, so that they might be granted a prized Nikkelin Orb to show their value as a renowned eating establishment.  Even the best-laid plans are subject to unforeseen events, though, and a set of peculiar circumstances sees our heroes trapped aboard the sentient ship You Sexy Thing, bound for a prison planet with no possibility of changing course. What ensues is a series of madcap adventures including a detour toward a pirate enclave and the arrival of a stasis-bound princess whose care has been entrusted to Niko by an unknown sender.

The various narrative threads that form the novel’s structure might seem a little confusing, but fortunately they combine into an engaging plot that remains interesting from start to finish. If the characters are not explored in real depth, their interactions are quite fun and their mutual relationships offer many intriguing angles that, in turn, help to better focus on this variegated universe. Niko Larsen (and later on princess Atlanta) are the only humans in the group, since the rest of the crew is of alien origin: Dabry, once Niko’s XO and now the restaurant’s chef, is a four-armed humanoid; the  twins Thorn and Talon can morph into lion’s form and are possessed of the same unquenchable energy as feline puppies; Gio is an evolved apelike creature who can communicate only through hand gestures; Milly is the pastry chef and looks like an avian; Skidoo (my absolute favorite!) is a squid-like being and – last but not least – Lassite is a reptilian mystic with the ability to perceive the future.  What makes these alien creatures interesting is that they are quite believably alien in mindset and behavior, not only in appearance, and what’s more important is that they have created a family-like bond whose basis might have been born in the mind link that bound them  during their military service, but is now the product of many shared experiences and the affection and care that those experiences consolidated among them. 

Of course once the group is onboard the You Sexy Thing, another character comes to the fore – the ship itself: as a bio-ship, the Thing possess the ability to adapt and change its environment according to the passengers’ requirements, and it’s also able to interact with them, but we soon understand that the previous owners did not take many steps in expanding the Thing’s capabilities.  Thanks to the time spent with Niko’s crew – starting with Dabry and his culinary performances – the Thing understands there is more to its existence than it was able to perceive before, and the ship initiates a process of growth and transformation that is a true joy to behold.

[…] they had interacted with [the Thing] as though it were another person, there in the room with them. All of its owners had treated it simply like a thing, and before the ship had always thought that was the norm. Now it knew there was a different way.

Where the book falters a little, however, is in the presentation of the antagonists: the pirate overlord comes across almost like a caricature, his focus on revenge and torture is presented in such a way as to create a dissonance with the story’s previous tone, while the insistence on the “evilness” of the character seems to deprive it of any realistic connotation.  On this subject I have to admit that the choice of inserting a character’s death as part of the pirate’s “dastardly plot” introduced a jarring note in what had so far been an adventurous/humorous narrative mood: this death brings serious consequences for the group and adds a more dramatic layer to the story, but I’m still struggling to envision it as an organic part of the plot.

The novel’s world building needs some stronger foundations as well: apart from learning about the existence of the Holy Hive Mind, of a large Empire (to which princess Atlanta is one of the designated heirs), of the pirate conglomerate and of the space bound society of the Free Traders, we don’t know much about this universe and I for one would have loved to learn a few more details – that’s where my hope that there will be other books about Niko & Co. makes me look more favorably on this novel.

Still, to close on a positive note, I have to say that I liked very much all mentions of cooking and food: story-wise they are part of the bonding process of the group in their new life, and of the group with the Thing, but on a personal level I enjoyed them because I do love to cook and to experiment with new recipes – one of the reasons I felt a great connection with Dabry and his fascination with ingredients 🙂

In the end, I had fun with You Sexy Thing and that’s what I was looking for when I picked it up, but still I would have liked to find more in this story: should the author decide to write more adventures featuring Niko Larsen, her crew and the adorable Thing, she will certainly find me there glad to follow them.

My Rating:

Reviews

FOUNDATION (Apple TV+) – Season One – #SciFiMonth

Without doubt, this is one of the most anticipated TV series for this year, and at the same time a quite controversial one: while I read Asimov’s saga a few decades ago and therefore forgot most of its details, there are people who are quite conversant with it, and they have been quite vocal in their displeasure about the way this story has been translated to the small screen.  My lack of familiarity with the original material did somehow work in my favor as I watched this first season: once I realized that it was going to be quite different from Asimov’s works, no matter how much of it I remembered, I decided to simply sit back and enjoy it nonetheless – and ultimately I did, although I have to admit it was something of a complicated journey.

The core concept, which Asimov drew from Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is that of a vast galactic empire whose end has been forecast by scientists Hari Seldon through the application of psychohistory, a mathematical predictive model applied to large social groupings and able to foresee the development of future events. Seldon affirms that the fall of the Empire will bring a new Dark Age that might last for millennia, proposing the creation of a huge encyclopedic project – the Foundation – to preserve knowledge and shorten the dark ages before civilization can rise again.  Seldon and his followers are exiled to the planet Terminus, there to collect such knowledge into the Galactic Encyclopedia, and to remove their destabilizing presence from the Emperor’s sight.

Asimov’s original work proposed a series of temporal leaps in which the reader could follow the Foundation’s progress over the centuries and the inevitable collapse of the Empire, and as such it certainly presented a narrative (and character) continuity problem for the televised format, and so the series’ creators choose to keep the author’s basic concept and move from there toward a different path – choice that caused the displeasure of many fans of the author.  Personally I did not dislike this path, particularly where the theme of the Empire’s genetic dynasty is concerned: it is stipulated in the series that each emperor is a clone of the original founder, Cleon, and that he’s present in three different stages of his life – youth (brother Dawn), maturity (brother Day) and old age (brother Dusk) – thus allowing the effective ruler, brother Day, to always wear the same, recognizable face, while at the same time offering an intriguing narrative device through many reflections about the continuity of power and the prices to be paid to maintain it.

Another change comes from the decision to gender-switch a few key figures to create some much-needed character balance which the core material lacked, given that it was a mirror of its times and worldview, particularly where SF was concerned. And so we have the human-looking robot Demerzel, who acts as a combination protector/companion/guide to the various Cleons through the ages, and who quite intriguingly mixes an apparent coldly calculating exterior with some deep feelings and even religious beliefs.  Then there is the young mathematical prodigy Gaal Dornick, who finds herself caught in Seldon’s project and ends up challenging its apparent ineluctability. And again Salvor Hardin, possessed with the heart of a warrior and the drive to keep her people on Terminus safe from any danger.

Visually, the series is nothing short of stunning and you can see that it received a conspicuous budget to carry on its goal: alien landscapes and civilizations, gorgeous costumes and incredible ships, not to mention everything related to Trantor, the imperial planet built of so many levels that only the most fortunate can enjoy the true light of day while others spend their entire lives seeing only the holographic representation of what the outside world could be. And yet, behind this beautiful façade something seems to be missing: for me it was a strong connection with the characters, because the constant changes of scenery and the time jumps did not leave me enough time to explore them as individuals, to understand their motivations or to perceive their feelings.  These characters rarely feel like people, often driven to the discussion of deep, far-reaching issues but seldom coming forward as living, breathing individuals – if I’m making any sense here…

The story’s rhythm also feels off for most of the time, with sections that move at a glacial pace only to be followed by rapid changes of scenery that might appear unconnected to the entirety of the narrative: it’s only with the eight episode of the series that finally all those apparently disconnected threads start to take shape and to show that the ambitious – but slightly unfocused – design at the root of this first season is heading in a particular direction.  With only ten episodes for the season this choice looks like a huge risk, because I can’t help but wonder how many viewers the story lost along the way because of that lack of cohesive focus – I know, because I came close to that point and now that this overlong “prologue” is over I’m glad I soldiered on and can hope that with season two we’ll be able to find a stronger storytelling method that will be able to fulfill the promises laid down by this somewhat shaky opening.

There is some hope that now that the foundations (sorry, no pun intended!) of the story have been set in place, the series will be able to carry on in a more organic and more narratively satisfying way: the last three episodes have strengthened this hope, so I’m looking forward to seeing what the next season has in store for us viewers…

My Rating:

And with this post ends the latest iteration of SciFi Month, one of the two pivotal bookish events I look forward to each year. As usual it was fun to roam through strange worlds and weird backgrounds and for this we have to thank once again our hosts IMYRIL and LISA whose guidance always steered us true and prevented us from falling into a black hole or to be snatched by a temporal anomaly 🙂

Until next year!

ARTWORK by Liu Zishan from 123RF.com
Reviews

INHIBITOR PHASE (A Revelation Space novel), by Alastair Reynolds – #SciFiMonth

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

It’s been a long time since I read Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space trilogy and I have to admit that I approached this new installment with some trepidation, because I know my memory of details and characters might be faulty: I saw that the author said Inhibitor Phase can be read as a standalone, and that’s partly true, because any reference to the previous works (and also the previous timeline of events) is offered in such a way as to provide enough information without need for lengthy and distracting explanations. 

Still, there is a number of details that surface now and then that can shed more light on the background if you are familiar with Revelation Space, and I was pleasantly surprised by the discovery that I remembered much more than I thought possible, which added to my enjoyment of the story.  Think of the difference in approach – according to your knowledge of Revelation Space or lack of it – as watching a movie in which the production hid some Easter eggs: old-time fans will recognize them and be delighted, but newcomers will enjoy the story nonetheless.

In the distant future envisioned by Alastair Reynolds, humanity scattered among the stars and made great progress, but encountered two huge dangers in its path: first the Melding Plague, a nanotech virus attacking both machinery and implants with horrifying consequences, particularly for those humans who had chosen to modify their bodies with augmentations. Centuries later, a worse threat manifested itself, that of the Inhibitors, also called “wolves”: hive-mind machines whose only goal was to annihilate any sentient life reaching beyond a certain level of technology. Inhibitor Phase starts a few decades after a devastating war that saw most of humanity succumb.

On the inhospitable world of Michaelmas, Miguel de Ruyter leads a small group of survivors living under the surface, hiding from Inhibitors by leaving as small a tech imprint as possible: when a ship in distress enters the system, Miguel tries to meet and destroy it before the wolves become aware of human activity, but the encounter propels him instead on a dangerous quest across the galaxy in search of a weapon that might one day tilt the balance in favor of humans and remove the Inhibitor threat once and for all. Miguel’s journey starts with something of a leisurely pace, but gains momentum and raises its stakes as it progresses, offering such surprises and revelations that often made me unsure about where the story would take me next – this is the main reason I’m struggling a little with this review because I don’t want to spoil anything: facing this novel with… innocence is indeed the best way to enjoy it.

Story-wise, Inhibitor Phase looks like a cross between a classic quest and a heist: the characters’ final goal is to procure a weapon from the secretive Nestbuilders, a weapon which might prove decisive in the battle against the Inhibitors, but to get there they need other items first, and some of them can only be obtained through dangers and sacrifice, which at times adds a layer of deep pathos to the adventure. There are elements of horror as well, particularly in the section in which the characters need to effect a dangerous exchange among the ruins of Chasm City, which was the background for a previous novel in the series: this encounter with the crime overlord – or rather lady, if you can use such term for this barbarous butcheress and her bloodthirsty Court of Miracles – is one of the most tense, most hair-raising passages in the whole novel.

Still, the adventure, the technological wonders and the obstacles to be overcome take second place in comparison with the personal journey facing the characters: identity is the main theme here, either hidden for personal reasons or convenience, or voluntarily suppressed to forget a dark past – I know I’m being cryptic here, but a few of the characters are not who they look on the surface, or who they think they are… Just as much as the quest for the Nestbuilders’ weapon forces the group to piece together information and parts, so the discovery of who they are, or were, is also a puzzle working slowly but steadily toward showing the reader the complete picture. What ties these different people together – even when they are wary or distrustful of each other – is their willingness to give everything they have to fulfill the goal of ridding the galaxy of the Inhibitor threat, and that spirit of sacrifice shows how much they value the survival of humanity and the potential for hope.

And speaking of humanity, be aware that this term has a far wider meaning here, because the people that once took off from Earth to venture into space have taken many forms in Reynolds’ universe, from the mind-linked Conjoiners to the cyborg-like Ultras. And yet one of the most human characters I encountered in Inhibitor Phase is a hyperpig, the result of past genetic manipulation and part of a race used for menial and dangerous tasks: Pinky (even though that’s not his real name) turned out to be my favorite, not in spite of but because of his gruff attitude that hid the psychological scars of a terrible past, and a great capacity for courage and selflessness. There is a magnificent sentence that defines Pinky perfectly: “You don’t have to be human to be people”, and it’s one that moved me deeply.

While I found that reading Revelation Space was a very immersive experience, sometimes it used to feel too much: too many characters to keep track of, too many narrative threads to follow, too much information – no matter how intriguing – to digest. This new novel in the saga appears almost streamlined when confronted with my recollection of the past, with a tighter pacing and only the barest details: in the end it makes for an enhanced reading experience and a totally engrossing story. I have no idea whether Reynolds intends to move forward with this story – although these premises are just begging to be developed – but if he decides to do so, I will be more than happy to see where he takes me next.

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Liu Zishan from 123RF.com
Reviews

LIGHT CHASER, by Peter Hamilton & Gareth Powell – #SciFiMonth

A work written in cooperation by Peter Hamilton and Gareth Powell was bound to pique my curiosity, so as soon as this novella became available I had to read it: it was a strange experience – in a good way, of course – because it offered many tantalizing glimpses into what might have been a broader, much more layered narrative, while telling a compact, circumscribed story whose arc encompasses only a handful of pages.

The titular Light Chaser is Amahle, a lone traveler who is almost immortal: genetic modifications and the time-dilation factor of her ship’s near-lightspeed velocity allowed her to live for millennia as she completes her unchanging circuit through a number of planets where her visits are hailed as extraordinary events. Her employers, Ever Life, are the alien creatures called the Exalted and living on Glisten, the final port of call of each circuit: in the course of her stopovers Amahle retrieves her employers’ memory collars from the planets’ dwellers and leaves new ones for the next generations – these are artifacts that record a person’s life experiences for the vicarious enjoyment of the Exalted and are considered a great honor for the individuals so entrusted, who pass them on as precious heirlooms to the family’s various members.

Amahle herself experiences these lives as a form of pastime during the long journeys from one planet to the other, when her only companionship on the Mnemosyne comes from the highly advanced ship’s AI. Someday though, a man addresses the Light Chaser directly in one of those recordings, stating that his real name is Carloman, that they share a common history and – more important – that she should not trust the onboard AI.  I prefer to leave the synopsis at that, because the story is so short that more details would certainly spoil your enjoyment…

Memory is indeed the front and center theme in Light Chaser – and the ship’s name is certainly not a random choice, given that in Greek mythology Mnemosyne was the goddess of memory: the concept of the memory collars is an intriguing one, at first looking like a way of monitoring the evolutionary situation on the many planets in Amahle’s circuit – places that range from medieval societies to more technologically advanced ones – but then taking on a sinister connotation as the Light Chaser is made aware of the reality behind the clever smokescreen.  This change in perspective transforms the story into a puzzle-solving quest first and a history-changing mission later, with Amahle having to literally find herself again thanks to the mysterious Carloman’s clues scattered throughout other people’s memories and encounters she searches for in her collection of collars.

Given the novella’s shortness and its strong reliance on plot, characters are somehow left by the wayside, particularly where Amahle is concerned: I could never fully connect with her even though I was invested in her journey, but I guess this depends on the fact that she is detached from herself as well. In order to fulfill her ages-long mission, and to keep experiencing those vicarious memories, she must purge her own from time to time, in a way discarding the old to make room for the new: this entails losing pieces of herself and of her past, something that she struggles to reconnect with thanks to Carloman’s influence and the clues offered through his various appearances in the stored memories.

In the end, I came to understand that my lack of connection with Amahle was the result of her lack of connection with herself, of her loss of everything that made her the person she originally was: giving up the memories of her own past (and at some point we understand the reason she would choose to take that path, either consciously or not) she let herself drift aimlessly through space and time losing any power of choice – at some point Amahle likens herself to a comet:

 A frozen wanderer sidling in from the darkness to briefly warm myself by the light of the sun, before being flung back out on the next lap of my long, solitary orbit.

It’s only with the appearance of the enigmatic Carloman that she is able to regain that power as she reconnects piece by piece with the memories of who she was and who Carloman was to her. And to finally choose to break out of the unending cycle that kept her prisoner for so long while she believed she was the one in control…

If I have to find any fault in this story it might be in the way many details are left vague and incomplete: we get short peeks at those planetary societies Amahle visits and as soon as we become invested in their peculiar layout we are taken away by the Mnemosyne as it departs for another station of its circuit; or again we are kept wondering how Carloman – once his real identity is revealed – was able to do what he did (apologies for the ambiguity but I want to avoid spoilers here) time and again.  

On hindsight, this novella looks like a trailer for a much longer, much more layered novel that could have taken on the scope of a sweeping space opera – still, for all its shortness, Light Chaser works well offering an intriguing, and often suspenseful, story and some food for thought about identity and memory and the meaning of life.

It will be interesting to see if these two authors team up again and what they might come up with next…

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Liu Zishan from 123RF.com
Reviews

THE WRONG STARS (Axiom #1), by Tim Pratt – #SciFiMonth

The Wrong Stars is the first volume in a space opera series dealing with the far future of humankind and focusing on the ragtag crew of the White Raven, whose salvage & law enforcement operations are conducted under the aegis of the Trans-Neptune Authority, one of the political entities ruling human-controlled space.

During one of their explorations, Captain Callie Machedo and her crew encounter the wreck of an ancient Earth spaceship, part of the Goldilocks fleet – slow vessels equipped with cryosleep units to allow the bridging of vast distances – sent centuries before in search of habitable planets: only one onboard cryopod is still in operation, holding Dr. Elena Oh who, once revived, warns her rescuers about the threat of a dangerous alien life form she and her lost crew-mates encountered.  Callie and her people are mystified, since the only alien race humanity came across so far are the squid-like Liars who are certainly untrustworthy, as the name they came to be known by hints at, but quite far from a deadly menace. 

As the salvage operation turns into the attempted rescue of Elena’s trapped crew-mates, new revelations bring to light the existence of another, far more ancient alien race – the Axiom – which once ruled the galaxy and might still represent a deadly threat for humans and Liars alike, so that Callie and her people find themselves enmeshed into an action-packed race to discover the truth and, if possible, avert the doom that a return of the Axiom could entail.

As with most books, The Wrong Stars stands on the double supports of plot and characterization, with the former being the strongest element. There is hardly a moment’s respite in the breathless sequence of events and plot twists that creates the backbone of the story, enhanced by a series of progressive revelations that do little to ease the burden of impending catastrophe hanging over the characters’ heads, but instead keep raising the stakes for the group of intrepid explorers.  The universe in which the story is set is an intriguing one, and the author manages to give us a good picture of it without need for lengthy exposition, also conveying the notion that humanity has changed a great deal, both socially and physically – as indicated, for example, by the presence of engineer Ashok, who is a cyborg constantly on the lookout for further modifications and enhancements. Moreover, there is a vein of light humor running throughout the story, carried by the constant quips exchanged among the crew, that mitigates the seemingly endless adrenaline rush of the events, and offers a welcome respite during the tenser moments.

Unfortunately, the characters suffer from such a tight focus on the plot, and they looked to me rather like… signposts (for want of a better word) of what actual characters should be, with not enough depth for me to truly connect with any of them.  As I read I kept thinking that the potential for each character was not fully explored, particularly where the already mentioned Ashok is concerned, or the weirdly inseparable duo of Janice and Drake, or again the alien Liar named Lantern who at some point joins the team: they all looked to me more paint-by-the-numbers aspects of diversity than anything else, which proved disappointing in light of the hints at trans-humanity and post-humanity inhabiting this future universe, not to mention the potentially intriguing race of the Liars.

Another source of frustration comes from the excessively carefree attitude with which the crew launches into unknown dangers – and into a situation that could lead to the total annihilation of humankind: their lives are constantly at stake, but I never perceived their acknowledgment of this fact, and was in turn surprised and annoyed at the way they faced mortal dangers as if they were embarking in one of their routine missions. This kind of portrayal failed to make me worry about their survival – both as individuals and as a group – because the way the story is told clearly implicates that they will survive anything: the fact that they always manage to overcome any danger, no matter how dire, and beat the worst odds, robs any of their endeavors of the suspense necessary to make such actions believable.

And on top of it all, there is an equally unbelievable insta-love between Captain Callie and Dr. Elena: first of all, I was somewhat creeped out by the fact that Callie feels the pangs of physical attraction for Elena when first observing her frozen body in the cryo-pod – my suspension of disbelief did not pass this stress test, which later colored my consideration of the told-but-not-shown mutual attraction between the two of them.  Add the unnatural ease with which Elena accepts the fact that she’s been frozen for a few centuries and that the world she knew is no more, an ease that never takes into account the element of “future shock” one should expect in such a situation, and you will understand my problems with the characterization of this novel.

Still, the core concept of an ancient alien race poised to return and wreak havoc in the galaxy is an intriguing one, and it might be the encouragement I need to try the second book in the series – if nothing else to see if some of the problems I encountered here have been straightened out.

My Rating:

Reviews

PLANETSIDE (Planetside#1), by Michael Mammay

More than once I’ve mentioned how Military SF can be problematic for me, since the focus on battles, strategy and technology in many novels tends to go the the detriment of characterization and story: this was not the case with Planetside, although after a promising start this book turned out to be a different kind of letdown.

Colonel Carl Butler, once a well-known war hero, is living in semi-retirement filling a teaching position, when his old friend General Serata calls him to investigate an issue which might have huge political repercussions: the son of a High Councilor, wounded in battle on a disputed planet, has disappeared after being evacuated on the medical ship, and Butler is dispatched to learn what happened.  Cappa is a planet where spacefaring humans found a local intelligent population: needing to mine the planet’s resources, humans have built a sort of uneasy truce with the Cappans, but there are insurrectionary fringes that still fight the occupying forces.  On his arrival at the space station orbiting Cappa, Butler finds himself mired in a web of conflicting information, blind alleys and red herrings, and the first inklings of a deeper trouble that might compromise the mining operations and the Earthers’ occupying force, so that his efforts at finding the truth – not to mention the whereabouts of the lost Lieutenant Mallot – are constantly met with lack of cooperation and a few attempts on his life.

The start of the novel is an intriguing one because it looks more like a mystery than a SF-Mil story and Butler’s voice is quite captivating: he comes across as brazen and uncaring of the toes he steps on in the course of his investigation – as a matter of fact he seems to enjoy ruffling everyone’s feathers, aware as he is that in his position he has nothing to lose.  Moreover, he’s a heavy drinker, and that brings him closer to the typical figure of the investigator in noir detective stories, which confers an appealing, old-fashioned patina to the otherwise futuristic narrative.  I liked how Butler’s personality comes to the fore through dialogues and his interactions with other characters, and his dry, not always appreciated, brand of humor tempers the military bearing turning him into a quite intriguing figure. The investigation itself is fascinating because we see Butler and his team-mates gathering different kinds of information, which allows the reader to get a clear picture of the background in which the story is set, without needing to fall into the trap of long, boring infodumps.

The first alarming cracks in the story appear with the description of humans’ cavalier attitude when landing on a new world: we learn that they take steps to “preserve” autochthonous species by relocating them, but that the needs of humans are always the deciding factor – which to me has quite an ominous sound. Worse still, Butler conveys the information that 

“If a planet unsuitable for humans had indigenous life that affected mining, we could simply destroy it from space with XB25s. Planet busters. As long as it didn’t hurt the commercial value, nobody cared.”

Apart from the narrative foreshadowing that this sentence implies, what truly shocked me here is the nonchalant acceptance of what amounts to genocide, not to mention the destruction of an existing ecosystem, that is carried out with such careless ease. Maybe I have watched too much Star Trek and become used to its utopian mindset, but there must be an intermediate way between the opposing philosophies of the Prime Directive on one side and the “humans first” attitude of this future vision.  

Which leads me to the big issue that brought down my rating for this book: at some point Butler is made aware of the possibility that the Cappans might have come into possession of higher technology that could help them in fighting the humans’ occupation – which, let me add, would have been their right – and that the planet’s dwellers have been used in genetic experiments of hybridization, a circumstance that would certainly not help in mutual understanding.  So, to avoid further trouble, the colonel resorts to a devastating solution that will remove the “Cappan menace” while maintaining the humans’ ability to exploit the planet’s resources. And he does so with what looks like such untroubled determination, such a blatant absence of moral quandaries, that any sympathy I might have harbored for his character at the beginning vanished immediately. Butler’s actions are not so dissimilar from other, real-life choices of actual military commanders in the recent past, granted, but what I find deeply disturbing is the matter-of-factness of the decision, and the total absence of inner turmoil that such a path should have engendered.  Not to mention the fact that he’s able to board a ship headed for home without anyone batting so much as an eyelash.

The abrupt ending of the book did not help me in metabolizing my feelings of horror and anger, and while I’m aware that there are two more books in this series and that the next one might portray Butler facing judgement for his actions or seeing the repercussions for such wanton destruction, I am so appalled right now that I can’t contemplate moving forward with the story.

My Rating:

Reviews

CATALYST GATE (The Protectorate #3), by Megan O’Keefe

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

I imagine that the beginning of any story must be a difficult time, with ideas crowding on the writer’s mind and clamoring for release, but I also believe that bringing it to a close must be equally trying, if one wants to tie up all the narrative threads in a satisfactory way for creator and readers alike: Megan O’Keefe managed to do so very well, and in a breath-stopping, compelling way. 

What started as a more personal journey in the first book of the trilogy, Velocity Weapon, which focused on the main character Sanda Greeve and her discoveries aboard the AI-driven ship Light of Berossus, then turned into a system-wide menace in the second installment, Chaos Vector, to be ultimately expanded into the threat of galactic annihilation in this conclusive volume of the trilogy, one that I once again hope will be optioned for a TV series by some enlightened network executives, if such creatures exist, because this story deserves to be enjoyed in both mediums, and it possesses every quality to turn into a visually stunning, story-intense show.  

In the final book of the saga we find all of the people we got to know along the way, and can enjoy their expanded characterization and the huge twists and revelations that keep coming at them, and at the readers, with a relentless pace that still manages to offer a cohesive, engaging story never missing its focus despite the complex interweaving of its many narrative threads.  While Megan O’Keefe keeps faithful to the structure of the three main POVs employed until now – Sanda, her brother Biran and Jules Valentine – she still finds a way to flesh out the secondary characters with depth and facets that add layers to the story and make you care for them quite deeply, and it hardly matters whether these characters are actual people or not, because Bero – the A.I. entity who is Sanda’s major ally – comes across as a delightful personality, capable of both great determination as well as subtle humor.

What was hinted at before and becomes dramatically clear in Catalyst Gate is that humanity, despite its amazing progress, has not evolved beyond its own self-centeredness and petty squabbles, that reaching for the stars and expanding its civilization there has not cured them of the need to conquer without thinking about possible consequences: once the danger threatening mankind is revealed as the repercussion of an act of extreme hubris, I kept thinking about a sentence in Tolkien’s LOTR about the Dwarves “delving too greedily and too deep” and therefore releasing their own nemesis. The scourge that humans unleashed is the main element driving the story here, and it does so through a series of interconnected threads that impart an almost impossible acceleration to it: more than once I felt the need to stop and come up for air, trying to distance myself a little from the constant adrenaline surge of the action, but I could not stop for long because the story kept attracting me like a powerful magnet. 

It’s amazing to understand, in the end, how the past and the present are closely tied, how the glimpses of humanity’s road to the stars connect with the events in the current timeline, and there are some quite harrowing, edge-of-your-seat moments as the various characters try to piece together those revelations from that past with the dangers of the present, all the while dealing with their own problems – and secrets.  Yes, because there are still many truths still to be revealed in Catalyst Gate: if you thought that all the jaw-dropping surprises had been used up in the previous books, well, think again, because there are quite a few still in store for you. And some will prove to be more than unexpected…

Characters are still shining as brightly as in the previous installments, from Biran who finds himself having to step into his position with the kind of strength and hard resolve that seemed far from his personality; to former spy Tomas, who is still trying to understand his place in the world and the direction his newfound emancipation must take, but knows for certain where his loyalty must lie; to Bero, once the captive A.I. on the ship Light of Berossus and now a powerful player in the galactic milieu, yet one possessed with a delightfully childish glee about its skills (“I continue to be the most effective weapon in the known universe”).  Nor are the secondary players forgotten here, particularly where Sanda’s motley crew is concerned: Megan O’Keefe took these disparate individuals and turned them into one of the most engaging, most enjoyable fictional found families I ever encountered, one whose banter – even in the face of possible destruction – offers welcome rays of light in a very dark, very troublesome background.

And of course Sanda: I connected with this character from day one, admiring her resilience and her no-nonsense approach to problems, even physical ones, like the loss of one leg which has been affecting her from the very start and served to showcase her attitude and personality quite effectively. Sanda is indeed the perfect modern heroine, one who can both kick ass and be affectionate and caring toward her families – the one she started with and the one she built around her. The perfect balance between human frailties and courage, the way she can face even the most desperate situation with tenacity and determination have been the best features in Sanda Greeve, and those that made this series quite special besides its enthralling core story.

As I said at the start of this review, bringing a saga of such magnitude as The Protectorate to its close might hold its own pitfalls, but Megan O’Keefe proved to be a very skillful weaver here, always keeping a tight control on her creature and delivering an end that is both satisfactory and emotionally appealing.  If you are looking for a compelling space opera series with depth and substance, you need look no further.

My Rating: