Between Halloween Season’s Readings and a bunch of non-fiction, I’ve been slacking a little on my SF reading. I’ve definitely not kept up writing about it, but that’s what we’re here for now. Let’s get to it…
Network Effect by Martha Wells – The Muderbot Diaries series of novellas are great, and author Martha Wells has now made the leap to novel-sized tales. Murderbot is just minding her own business, catching up on her favorite television shows, when her human associates are attacked and some captured. It turns out that a sorta friend from her past is also in trouble, so Murderbot has to abandon her TV shows and save everyone.
This is par for the Murderbot course, which is to say, it’s very good. The transition to novel-length has not dulled the characters or the story much, and I still quite enjoy seeing the interactions between the characters and moody AIs. For fans of the series, ART (named so by Muderbot, an acronym for Asshole Research Transport – they’re kinda friends) shows up and requires Murderbot’s assistance, and while Wells is always able to generate conflict between the characters, it always feels more like a good natured thing. Everyone likes each other, but they can get on each other’s nerves at times.
Lots of well plotted and executed action sequences keep the pace moving briskly. Murderbot is also quite clever at times, even (especially?) when she’s got limited resources. The ultimate villains aren’t particularly notable, just the standard Corporate hacks, though some particularly deadly technology is deployed at times. All well and good for the first novel, but I’m hoping for more substantial villainy in future installments. If I get around to nominating for the Hugos next year, this will definitely be on my list. It’s probably a shoe-in for at least a nomination as well. (If you’re at all interested in the SF fandom’s culture wars, this series in general is something that could appeal to all, I think.) While this is the first novel and you could probably read it as a standalone, I’d still start with the preceding novellas, which add background and depth (and they’re really good too!)
Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer – An alien spacecraft lands near a museum and a spider-like, 8 limbed alien pops out, enters the building and politely requests, speaking in perfect English, that the security guard take him to a paleontologist. After some discussion, it turns out that the aliens have discovered that three different races on three different planets have all experienced the same five cataclysmic events at about the same time. This includes things like the meteor strike that wiped out the dinosaurs, making it unlikely to be a coincidence. When a threatening supernova is observed, aliens and humans alike wonder if another cataclysm is on its way…
Sawyer is trying to flip the debate on creationism here by positing scientific evidence of an “intelligent designer.” The visiting aliens all believe in God, while the human paleontologist represents atheists in the debate. Now, when I say that the aliens believe in God, let’s be clear that it’s not the Christian God or really anything represented by organized religion. To underline that fact, Sawyer introduces a couple of bumbling fundamentalist Christian terrorists, one of whom is literally named Cooter. Anyway, it’s all interesting as a thought experiment, though I don’t think that Sawyer’s aliens demonstrate the proof they say they have for God’s existence. Still, there are some speculations that do tip things towards an intelligent creator guiding creation (and the ending leans even further).
The book primarily consists of conversations. Sure, they’re between a spider-like alien and a human, and they are discussing genuinely interesting concepts, but as storytelling… it’s the sort of thing only a Science Fiction fan would love. Fortunately… I’m a science fiction fan. Sawyer’s bald style is unlikely to win converts from the literary crowd, but science fiction fans would enjoy the interplay of ideas here. I enjoyed it, but I totally get why some would be turned off by it
Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy (Book I: Chaos Rising) by Timothy Zahn – Alright, let’s get this straight. Timothy Zahn kicked off the modern Star Wars era in the early 1990s with Heir to the Empire (first in a trilogy of novels taking place after Jedi). It was a great continuation of the series (better than all of the subsequent films, that’s for sure) and Zahn introduced a great villain: Grand Admiral Thrawn. A military genius, he collected the shattered pieces of the Empire and organized them into an effective threat. A clever idea, and Thrawn represented a different but still memorable and interesting villain.
Since then, Zahn has periodically returned to the character of Thrawn. Especially recently. There was a trilogy covering Thrawn’s joining the empire and rise through the ranks… and now, we go further down the prequel path to cover Thrawn’s rise through the Chiss Ascendancy. As per usual, Zahn is a workhorse who puts out reliably entertaining stories, and the story here is as effective as any of the recent books… But I can’t help but think that we’re really just treading water here.
Thrawn is a great character, but his genius makes it difficult to tell the story without surrounding him with other characters who have to react to him. Zahn is good at this and manages to tell fun stories, but Thrawn is less and less of a villain in these stories, and thus it feels like we’re losing something. I still hold out hope that we’ll see Thrawn in cinematic form some day (and yes, I’m aware, that’s almost certainly happening soon, but I’ll avoid spoilers here). Anyway, this book is fine, but it’s sorta disposable entertainment rather than vital.
Axiomatic by Greg Egan – A collection of short stories ranging from Egan’s trademark diamond-hard-SF mode to more humane explorations of technology to some fantastical premises that seem uncharacteristic. As with most collections, there are some stories that work better than others, but as a whole, it explores a lot of fascinating, sometimes scary ideas. Take “A Kidnapping”, which I’ll try not to spoil here… and thus, can’t really talk about. But once it becomes clear what’s happening, it’s devastating. A lot of the concepts here show up in Egan’s other work, like the idea of “neural mods”, which crops up in a couple of stories.
Uploaded human minds play a big role in Egan’s work and there are a few stories here that explore that territory well. The notion of a neural implant called a “Jewel” is an interesting take on this idea. It’s a small computer inserted in the brain at birth. It monitors and simulates brain activity such that, by the time someone reaches adulthood, it has learned to mimic brain behavior perfectly. At this point, the brain can be switched out in favor of the Jewel, which will operate in basically the same fashion (and which, effectively, confers a form of immortality and even a kind of continuity of consciousness).
Lots of good stuff here, weighty and sometimes scary, it nevertheless entertains. I still think Quarantine is Egan’s best, though stuff like Permutation City and Diaspora are more ambitious and challenging. I need to keep exploring Egan’s work, is what I’m saying.
Yendi by Steven Brust – The second novel in the Vlad Taltos series, this one concerns a sorta gang war. Take traditional high fantasy tropes and layer Goodfellas style gangster wars on top of it, and you’ve got Yendi. It’s very entertaining, and Brust has done a good amount of worldbuilding, so the fantasy folks will enjoy that side of things well enough. I found myself more intrigued by the nuts-and-bolts of the warring criminal enterprises here though, and Brust does a great job fleshing out some of the more procedural aspects of that. Again, pretty good mixture of that procedural stuff and magic and dragons and stuff. It’s been a while since I read this, and I took quite a break between the first and second books in the series, but I suspect it’s a series I’ll dip into again sometime.