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!

Escape Velocity, by Jason M. Hough

Escape Velocity, by Jason M. HoughThis is the second half of and conclusion to the Dire Earth duology that began with Injection Burn. This duology itself is also a follow up to the Dire Earth cycle, a trilogy of novels published a few years back. I haven’t read the Dire Earth cycle novels, but these books do a wonderful job of filling in any gaps that may be present for readers new to the series. I never felt like I was missing anything, but undoubtedly there are little character details that are probably improved by a more complete understanding from having read the trilogy.

If Injection Burn was basically “get there”, Escape Velocity is very much “get it done and get home in one piece”. It hits the ground running at the same breakneck pace established in Injection Burn, and never really hits pause. At the end of Injection Burn our characters have been forcefully separated, thrown in different directions by their AI ship in a last ditch effort to accomplish their collective goal. We have three main group POVs to follow, each fighting for survival on a hostile alien world, trying to find each other, trying to gather their bearings and figure out how to do what they need to with nearly everything (even the air) trying to kill them.

It’s a great conclusion to this story, but leaves the universe open enough for more. I’m particularly interested in what may come after this. There’s a lot of potential for some really interesting far future Earth society stuff, as well as more information about some of the alien societies present here.

Jason M. HoughI was introduced to Jason M. Hough through his fantastic sci-fi spy thriller Zero World a couple years back, which I absorbed (and need more of! Don’t be shortsighted Del Rey, make it happen). It was the most original science fiction novel I’ve read in a long while. He writes really straightforward prose that gets out of the way and lets the fun flow straight to the brain. You often forget you’re reading a book, instead you’re just experiencing the story. It reads so effortlessly.

I’d recommend these books for fans of the The Expanse novels for sure. They’re very much written in a similar style: huge, narratively driven ideas, delivered in a fun, highly-readable package. Like classic era science fiction for a new generation. Blockbuster page-turners with great characters, adventure and thrills. These are great summer reads.


Off Rock, by Kieran Shea

Off Rock, by Kieran Shea

I read this novel almost entirely from a hammock in my backyard, and I’d recommend taking that approach. It’s good and pulpy, a light summer Science Fiction read. A blue collar crime caper set during the closing days of a mobile mining station on an asteroid. Seedy characters, none particularly too bright, almost all involved in some sort of side action, fumbling their way through life with the limited choices left to them. Blackmail, vices, bribes, and lost causes are all welcome here.

Shea writes in a straightforward, no-nonsense style that reads fast and easy. Think a pulpy crime mag from the 40s, but make that 2740, and transplant that magazine onto a virtual rack residing on an illicit local intranet, accessed from portable “CPUs”. There are no lessons learned, no moral philosophies tying everything together. No overall takeaway. Sometimes a gold heist is just a gold heist. I think it works very well here.

The worldbuilding is sparse, but it has a vague feel of existing just on the outside edges of Cyberpunk. There are mega-corporations that demand complete loyalty, drones that watch your every move, and offenses against mega-corporations carry the harshest punishments: medical experimentation, and if you survive, maybe life in prison afterward. It’s a rough life for an asteroid miner, but if a highly illegal once-in-ten-lifetimes capital one corporate offense comes up, you say fuck the odds, grab hold and see how far it might take you. Maybe it’ll be just the right ticket to get out of that life, but you still have to get your loot off rock to have it do you any good. That’s where things might get difficult. Who do you trust? How much should you trust them? Give ‘em just enough rope for them to hang themselves if they fuck you over? Fuck them over first just in case? All pertinent questions if you’re a low life with limited options trying to better your situation.

This is some great sci-fi escapism, read it on a lazy Sunday, or take a copy on vacation, grab a chair by the pool, or chill in a hammock with a highly alcoholic cold drink. Turn off your head and enjoy. It was just what I needed to read between some heavier non-fiction that I’ve been slowly working on over the last month or so. I plan on picking up copies of the Koko books by the same author this summer as well. I’m hoping it’s more of this, but in a more detailed cyberpunk setting. I’ve heard good things.

 

 

Injection Burn, by Jason M. Hough

Injection Burn, by Jason M. Hough

A high concept Space Opera full of huge ideas; instantly readable, and a hell of a lot of fun. I have been reading a bunch of really heavy non-fiction lately and this was just the right fun SF to break out of that over the last few days. It’s been such a ride reading this.

I am extremely impressed with the pacing of this novel. It builds and builds and builds, and just never lets up. A real page turner like James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series, but exploring loftier themes similar to some of those covered in Iain M. Banks’ The Culture novels. I’m a big fan of both, so this resonated with me on nearly every level.

Jason M. HoughThe cover is extremely action/military Scifi looking, and there is a lot of that toward the end, but I’m extremely happy that it’s not just an action story. There is a lot of classic, high concept, creative idea science fiction going on here as well. If you’ve read last year’s fantastic Zero World, you know this is something that Jason M. Hough is particularly fantastic at. At the risk of diverging a little here, I’m just going to say that Zero World needs a lot of sequels. It’s absolutely crying out for them.

This book is technically both the fourth Dire Earth novel, and the first in a new duology. I had previously read about the first hundred pages of The Darwin Elevator, the first Dire Earth novel, and couldn’t really get into it. So, I was only slightly familiar with the concept of the series going in, but never felt like I missed anything. I’m happy to report that this could absolutely be read without having to read any of the other Dire Earth books first; I have a feeling there are some small moments of payoff for longtime fans of the series sprinkled throughout though. I’m always really impressed with books that are both standalone, and a part of a larger series like this. That takes some serious writing chops to pull off, which Jason M. Hough obviously appears to have.

It is definitely half of a much bigger story, and ends on a cliffhanger of sorts. Thank god that Del Rey is publishing them less than a month apart. I think I would lose my mind if I had to wait much longer than that to finish this narrative. Del Rey, if you’re reading this, please send me a copy of Escape Velocity ASAP. I kind of need it.

Injection Burn is out now, and the follow up Escape Velocity will be out June 27th.

 

Skyler Luiken and his ragtag crew of scavengers, scientists, and brawlers have a new mission: a long journey to a distant planet where a race of benevolent aliens are held captive behind a cloud of destructive ships known as the Swarm Blockade. No human ships have ever made it past this impenetrable wall, and Skyler knows not what to anticipate when they reach their destination.
Safe to say that the last thing he expects to find there is a second human ship led by the tough-as-nails Captain Gloria Tsandi. These two crews and their respective captains initially clash, but they will have to learn to work together when their mutual foe closes in around them and begins the outright destruction of their vessels along with any hope of a return to Earth.


Babylon’s Ashes (The Expanse, book 6), by James S.A. Corey

Babylon's Ashes, by James S.A. Corey

Let me start by saying, if you’re 6 books into an ongoing series like this, than I’m going to assume you’re in it for the long haul, and I think you’ll enjoy the hell out of this one too.

James S.A. Corey (Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham) refer to their Expanse series as 3 duologies and a trilogy (forthcoming books 7,8 & 9) to cap it all off. Leviathan Wakes/Caliban’s War tell a fairly contained story about the protomolecule in the style of noir and political thriller respectively. Abaddon’s Gate/Cibola Burn deal with the expansion out into deeper space as a ghost story/western, but Nemesis Games/Babylon’s Ashes really read like two halves of the same larger novel. They are much more deeply intertwined than any of the other sets in the series. If each novel is a different genre married into the science fiction backdrop, then I’d call Nemesis Games a survival tale, and Babylon’s Ashes a great russian tragedy a la Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy.

Gone is the simple narrative structure of the first five books, each — excluding Leviathan Wakes — with four alternating POV characters. Instead we’ve got nineteen unique points of view. But if you’ve made it this far, you’re ready for that kind of complexity, you’re already intimately familiar with most of these characters. Holden, Pa, and Filip are the main ones, but we get lots of tertiary views on the action and plot. I really love this change to the structure, and can’t help but think that The Expanse television series influenced it in some way. It does feel more like the way that a TV show handles narrative. We get a perspective from nearly every main and secondary character still living, and some new ones as well. This opens up the world even more, something that this series has done so well along the way.

James S. A. Corey

The main story involves the aftermath of the events of Nemesis Games, and how those events affect everyone, both inside and outside of the Sol system from here on. The Free Navy is causing havoc all over the place and has essentially taken over several large belter settlements. Holden and crew are caught in the middle, working with Avasarala and Fred, trying to do what they can to clean things up and bring Marcos down. Meanwhile, a splintered remnant of the MCRN is working in the shadows, silently preparing for what’s to come. And don’t forget the even larger threat looming on the periphery: whatever killed the protomolecule makers.

It’s a sad story, ultimately a tragedy, but there are several threads woven throughout that are paving a path to redemption for some, and death and destruction or others. It all makes for a terrific story, and moves at a breakneck pace toward a very tight conclusion. One that comes together so smoothly in fact, that a lot of people have been confused, thinking this was the end of the entire series. Of course, that isn’t the case, but I think you could approach this as the penultimate end to some of the earlier narratives begun all the way back in the first novel. Call it a semicolon; the conclusion of the series to follow.