The Promise of the Child, by Tom Toner

I haven’t seen worldbuilding of this breadth and scale since Iain M. Banks’ Culture series, Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, or Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space. That’s not to say that the story is anything like those other series, but the worldbuilding is just as expansive as they are, if not more. It’s just absolutely massive, and well thought through. I think when all is said and done The Amaranthine Spectrum will stand at a similar level as those Culture/New Sun/Revelation Space novels in the canon of great SF works.

This is far future Speculative Fiction with tight roots to its past. A lot of that past is still the future for us, some is closer to our present, and some is our past both recent and ancient. The future of 14,6xx that Toner has assembled is fascinating. Humanity has fractured into a prism of species, spread across the galaxy. There are various wars between them and among them. At the top of the power structure and social hierarchy are the Amaranthine, the descendants of humanity who have unlocked some of the secrets of immortality. But, a new secret has been unlocked by a member of a lower – as far as the Amaranthine are concerned – Prism species, and a new challenger to the Amaranthine’s rule is gaining traction among some of their factions. Things are changing for the first time in a long time.

The story starts in the deep end, and you have to learn to swim in this world to understand what’s going on. I’ve always been a big fan of this approach to storytelling. It’s more challenging, but it makes the story that much more rewarding, the journey that much more exciting as you unpack things in your mind. This learning-to-swim stage lasts for around 200 pages or so, and then you’ve firmly got it and you’re swept away in the novel. There’s a lot of mystery, secretive dealings and espionage in the story, which always adds a fun layer for me. The prose is fluid and beautiful, the characters and their societies well rounded and interesting. The narrative throughout is subtle and requires some focus at times. This isn’t a book that spoon feeds the reader; you have to pay attention, but your attention is rewarded.

This first book in the series feels a little disjointed at times on a first read. Mostly I think it had a lot of heavy lifting to do, introducing the reader to this massive universe, and telling a compelling story at the same time, are difficult tasks to do simultaneously. It mostly succeeds at both, but sometimes I felt a little lost in it. I believe it will age very well when taken in context with the series as a whole. Flipping back and rereading parts after finishing, I think it has huge potential for future rereads. This is one of those books that you get a lot more out of the second time through, when the worldbuilding is already established, and you can just enjoy the story and let it take you on a journey.

I’m excited for the second book in this series for the same reason: a lot of the heavily lifting has already been done. I can’t wait to see where this all goes. It’s new and fascinating territory.

The Art of John Harris: Beyond the Horizon

Beyond The Horizon, John Harris

John Harris is hands down my favorite Science Fiction cover artist. I’m a simple man: I see his artwork on a book, I pick it up. Every single time. There’s just something about his work that is instantly recognizable and always draws me in. His covers have become so highly sought after that their inclusion on a book has become a personal indicator for me that a publisher has faith in that book. It’s a certain mark of quality, or almost a seal of approval. It says: “This book lives up to the John Harris cover”.

If you’ve read any Samuel Delany, Frederik Pohl, John Scalzi, Ann Leckie, Jack McDevitt, Ben Bova, Jack Vance, Orson Scott Card, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Allen Steele, John Barnes, etc, then you’re most likely familiar with his artwork.

John HarrisHis paintings are absolutely dripping with massive scale, temperature, atmospheric motion, “otherness”, a marriage of the alien and the recognizable, and far future antiquity. He provides a real aged quality to everything he paints. Everything feels old and lived in: ancient ships, xeno-archaeological remnants, etc. He provides just enough detail to spark your imagination, but he leaves the edges blurred, ambiguous and almost out of focus, so you have to fill in the mental blanks yourself. It all has a photographic feel to it, although no one would confuse his painting for photographs. How he manages to do this with a paintbrush is beyond me. It’s like he thinks through a lense and paints it with a brush. Just like reading a story, you meet the artwork halfway with your own imagination and fill in the blanks.

I immensely enjoyed this collection because it not only had most of his gorgeous cover artwork, it also had earlier iterations and sketches of them, as well as sections of writing by John Harris describing his process and a little bit of his own history. John mentions playing as a child in the post-war wreckage around rural England. He guesses that this probably had an effect on his artistic output, and I have to agree. You can see it in his art, the giant fuselages, war machines, airplanes, etc. Pieces that would certain look alien in a rural English landscape.

I was thrilled to discover that for many of his images, he has also written a rough history or story to correspond. He has imagined a whole world that we only glimpse a single moment of. He is able to show us this history and story with just a still image. It’s such perfect art to be paired with novels.

I’d highly recommend picking this up if you’re a fan of SF artwork.

Growth, by A. J. Smith

This novel was really something special, definitely a new favorite and a book that I’ll be coming back to often in the future. It’s undeniably clever, darkly humorous, and highly self-aware. It’s cerebral and incredibly well written. It rewards the reader, and sends them down and through a rabbit hole of literature. I found myself torn between wanting to read it slowly, savoring the prose and unique deconstruction of language, and wanting to quickly arrive at the resolution because the story was so engaging. I ended up reading the first half over three or four days, and slamming the second half all in one sitting.

Growth’s main character Bburke is a relatively uneducated fellow, living a simple life, rooted in the present. His primary pursuits are his artistic passion toward landscaping, and consuming a comically large but sadly plausible quantity of cheap beer. He’s never learned how to properly probe the depths of his lack of self-awareness. Ambrose Bierce’s highly cynical early twentieth century lexical masterpiece, The Devil’s Dictionary, said it best when it defined Education as: “That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.” The question is: To which camp does Bburke belong? Is he wise or foolish?

Sometimes blissful ignorance may be preferable to a better understanding, especially when that better understanding holds the power to make us painfully aware of the sad state of our affairs. Enter S.A. and Dickie T, Bburke’s “well-read” recently higher educated hired helpers at his landscaping company. Bburke is about to receive an education of sorts, whether he’d like to or not.

I loved the unique structure used to frame the story. Different literary forms and styles are stacked and layered, like a cake that at first glance has six layers, but on closer inspection actually contains three sublayers inside each macro one. Hopping from style to style kept things fresh, but throughout all of this was a taut narrative thread, tightly connecting events and creating a barreling momentum. The result was a highly engaging, fun, character based tale that never sacrificed quality prose or form in pursuit of being fun or engaging.

It’s safe to say this is a book written for book lovers. Those familiar with the works of Camus, David Foster Wallace, Mary Shelley, Mark Twain and others will be pleasantly surprised. A lot of the main story revolved around the ways in which steeping oneself in literature can change a person, for better and worse. Reading a book is often said to be like having a conversation with the author, and Growth utilized a fun, postmodern take on that saying to illustrate the method in which Bburke internalizes what he reads. He is a non-traditional learner, and he reads in unconventional ways. Have I mentioned how fun this novel is yet? It’s very fun.

Growth actively comments on itself throughout. This is a living breathing thing. The narrator calls out obvious macguffins in the plot and marks future ones as such, the legitimacy of thin characters is called into question, and Bburke himself occasionally seems right on the cusp of realizing that he might exist only as a character in a novel. I’m a sucker for anything that continues in-line with that terrific Cervantes tradition.

The way that Dickie T and S.A.’s dialogue was handled is so perfect. They read like two halves of the same theoretical person, and their banter felt straight out of a DeLillo or DFW novel. Since they are the two characters who are readers, it seems most likely that S.A and Dickie T are familiar with those writers, wish they existed in their novels, and choose to speak as if they do. So much is revealed about them just through the form of their banter. Basically, they’ve read some books, and they think oh so highly of themselves for it. Writing their dialogue, and only their dialogue in this style shows fantastic restraint on Smith’s part. The form itself served the characters and story.

I’m not particularly well-read when it comes to the classics, but I could see Growth rewarding those who are. I wouldn’t say being well-read is a prerequisite for enjoying it, but I think there’s another layer of entertainment available to those who are. I think this works on many different levels for many different readers. Be forewarned though, it will instill in you a desire to revisit some classics, or maybe even approach them for the first time. There are definitely a few more books on my TBR because of this one.

I don’t want to say any more or comment on any vital story points, because I think this is probably best experienced with unspoiled eyes. Check it out, it’s fantastic.

Bang Crunch: Stories, by Neil Smith

A solid little collection of human stories. Clever themes, tight writing, and very vibrant three dimensional characters. Something to relate to in every story, with only one stinker in the bunch. Neil Smith is Canadian, so there was a little more french in it than I was prepared for. I should probably learn at least some basic French at some point. 3.5 stars averaged, rounded up because there are some killer ones in here.

Isolettes: 4/5
Sad, but very poetic and knowing. Love this guy’s writing.

Green Fluorescent Protein: 3/5
Coming of age, dealing with the hand you’re dealt. Being comfortable with yourself.

B9ers: 3/5
Clever and cute story about pushovers and correlation. One race based plot point fell flat for me near the end.

Bang Crunch: 5/5
Really reminded me of Ted Chiang’s writing. Good stuff.

Scrapbook: 3/5
Could’ve been terrific, but ultimately left me wanting something more from it. I’m not sure what, so that may just be my fault.

The Butterfly Box: 5/5
Damn, this was beautiful and real.

Funny Ha Ha or Funny Weird: 4/5
Alcoholism and dealing with loss. Excellent follow-up on a specific secondary character from Green Fluorescent Protein.

Extremities: 1/5
Just not a good story at all. It felt more like a creative writing exercise on weird POVs.

Jaybird: 5/5
Thespian life has always seemed for the crazies. I went back and forth between loving and hating this one as I read it, ultimately I settled on loving it. Revenge against a crazy industry, and life working better when you accept who you are and work with it instead of against it.

House of Suns, by Alastair Reynolds

This is my first Alastair Reynolds standalone novel. Having previously absorbed everything remotely related to his Revelation Space series over the last few years, I wanted to dip my toes into some of his one-off writing before digging into his newer series work. For some reason this book has been out of print in the US for a few years, making a physical copy a little tedious to come by, but I did eventually find one. Come on ACE, it’s time for a reprint!

Coming from the RS camp, I was surprised with the linearity of this story. The whole thing is written in first person, with two main point of view characters in alternating chapters. Every 6-7 chapters brings a flashback interjection that slowly reveals details and moves everything forward. I suppose adding unnecessary linear complexity to a story that already has so many strange new concepts in it, might’ve been overkill on the reader. As a result, the story flows nicely and was easier to follow than Revelation Space. I’d say this would be a terrific jumping in point if you were interested in checking out Reynolds’ work.

House of Suns is epic in every way the word can be defined. The scale of some of the conceptual elements was so broad that I initially had some difficulty finding a handhold to comprehend them. I felt like it stretched my mind a little bit just reaching for a way to relate. The best Science Fiction always does this for me in some way. It exists in that sweet spot directly between what you currently understand, and what you are capable of understanding. The best stories can be a linchpin, connecting you to your future, slightly more experienced self. I suppose this is true of all fiction, but I find it particularly so with the genres of Speculative Fiction, which are after all, more interested in investigating the “other” than fiction firmly rooted in the realm of realism often is.

The amount of mind-bending concepts Reynolds managed to pack into this novel while maintaining a coherent story is impressive: Star dams, ring worlds, causality, time dilation, artificial intelligence, solar system relocation, ancient technology, the nature of memory, longevity, cloning, wormholes, civilizational “turnover”, etc. It’s simply exploding with these huge ideas, but the story is never sacrificed in favor of them. It churns along, always moving forward.

Reynolds occasionally gets some slack for his character development or lack thereof, each character’s voice tending to just be the author’s voice, etc. So, when I realized that most of the characters in House of Suns were literal clones of the same character, I rolled my eyes a little and thought “Well, I guess that’s one way to get around the criticism.” But, it actually worked very well here.

These clone characters are “shatterlings” with indefinitely long lifespans that have drifted from their source individual, and each other, for 6 million years (epic scale!) and are essentially unique individuals as a result of their differing life experiences. Because they are clones, instead of noticing their similarities, you’re drawn toward their differences. The ways in which they are similar just reinforce the fact that they started from a near identical point. It’s a brilliant way to reframe the reader’s perception regarding character work without actually changing the writer’s approach to characterization. It feels very self-aware, and it’s clever as hell. It’s almost like he’s acknowledging his critics, but saying “See, it’s not necessarily bad, it’s just how you look at it”. Personally, the character work in Reynolds’ books has never bothered me, but if it bothered you, I think you’ll find this one has a refreshingly different take.

The story concludes satisfactorily, but leaves some things open for more. I would absolutely love another novel set in this universe, and the point at which this novel arrives could be seen as a great widening of that universe’s potential scope. It’s ripe for more tales, and I hope we get them. Reynolds has said: “I would like to return to this universe but I have no fixed plans for when that will happen.” Fingers crossed that those plans will materialize soon!