“A nearly impenetrable thicket of geekitude…”

Science Fiction Reading, 2019

This is the third in a series of posts commenting on books I read during 2019. The series is as follows:

As with the fantasy summary, this post covers books the publishers think are “science fiction” as opposed to “fantasy”.

Wayfarers

The Wayfarers books were, hands down, my reading highlight of 2019. They are individually excellent and as a group were awarded the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Series. The three novels are only very loosely linked, and Chambers’ intention is to write more stories in the same universe: Huzzah! to that.

Humans here are just a small and relatively recent addition to an interstellar civilisation which is highly diverse, physically and socially, both between and within species. In The Long Way we are introduced to all of this through the multi-species crew of the Wayfarer, a spaceship chartered to construct a hyperspace tunnel to a planet that doesn’t have one yet, requiring them to take the scenic route to get there with the promise of a shorter return and a stack of cash at the end of their journey.

That long trip sets the tone for all three books: there’s action, but in the small but terrifying doses you’d expect in real workaday life in a dangerous environment rather than continuous peril. There’s time on the trip to visit some old friends, form friendships, figure out what you want to do with your life (if you’re even alive: this universe has sentient AIs).

A Closed and Common Orbit takes place after The Long Way and is as close to a direct sequel as we will see: one member of the crew has undergone what I might call some life changes, and goes to live ground-side with someone we met in passing in the earlier novel. She in turn has a back-story, the resolution of which is woven together with the crew-member’s development in a really satisfying way.

Record of a Spaceborn Few also takes place immediately after The Long Way but the only connection is that there’s a family relationship between one character from each book. The setting is the Exodus Fleet, in which humanity fled its homeworld and in which much of humanity still lives. This story is about the future of more than one or two characters; it’s about the way the relationship between the Exodans and the rest of humanity will evolve, and I found it the most moving of the three novels. It also has a lot to say about the plausible social structures needed to make a fleet of generation ships work, which I found fascinating.

Provenance

Ann Leckie’s debut novels (the Imperial Radch trilogy: Ancillary Justice and its sequels) blew me away. They were pretty serious business: a main character who used to be a warship, now making do with just one very human body; the fate of dozens of worlds and billions of people in the balance; space opera at its best (and the best spin on the “sentient spaceship” idea I have seen for a very long time).

Provenance is set in the same universe but in a different society. Although there are interstellar ructions and the pointing of weapons, this is far less “space opera” and more about politics and a murder mystery and the signature focus of the society on objects which have a documented role in historical events… with provenance, in other words. There’s also a lot more humour: it’s probably not in the nature of an ex-warship to take themselves lightly, but the protagonist here manages and it’s a refreshing change.

Murderbot Diaries

This is the tale of a simple security cyborg who has hacked its own governor module. Although it now refers to itself as “Murderbot” (because of a gory incident in its past) it would rather sit around watching TV in its head than actually get round to any murdering. It’s a lot of fun. The book, I mean, not the Murderbot.

There are a number of sequels which look like they’d be fun as well. Unfortunately, whoever manages pricing for the series has set all of these brief novellas at the level normally reserved for hardback doorstops, so it might be a while before I get round to buying them.

Honorverse

David Weber’s “Honorverse” is a huge, sprawling body of work by himself and other authors. It’s centred on the character of Honor Harrington, an admitted and unashamed “Horatio Hornblower in spaaaace”. Most of that work is “military science fiction” (translation: many spaceships, such jargon, much boom, wow) with Ms. Harrington (later Lady Harrington, Steadholder Harrington, etc., etc.) as Commander (later Captain, Admiral, etc., etc.). It’s not deep stuff (unless, perhaps, you’re a historian of the Napoleonic Wars or the French Revolution, which are both relentlessly mined for plot points and character names) but I love it unconditionally.

One problem with this kind of series (Uncompromising Honor is the 14th book in the main series) is that things tend to escalate in each book. Where do you go after “Commanding Officer, Allied Grand Fleet”? If you’re E. E. “Doc” Smith, you don’t think of reining things in until after your literary puppets are literally throwing planets at each other. Fortunately, Weber is more sensible and closes Harrington’s story arc with Uncompromising Honor and in what I feel is a fairly satisfactory fashion (well short of the planet-throwing threshold). Other characters will now have to take up the unresolved threads (of which there are many, and I suspect there always will be).

The other problem with this kind of series is that if there’s a gap in publication (about six years in this case between A Rising Thunder and Uncompromising Honor), you tend to forget who the dozens of characters are, and what’s happened recently in the storyline. In this case, back-tracking a single book to Uncompromising Honor wasn’t enough for me and I had to resort to A Rising Thunder. In some ways I feel fortunate that I didn’t feel the need to step all the way back to On Basilisk Station… on the other hand, I’d quite like to read that again sometime. In my copious free time once I retire, perhaps.

The Interdependency

Human civilisation is spread across fifty systems connected by fixed, permanent, naturally occurring faster-than-light pathways. Because most worlds are incapable of supporting human life directly, every system in The Interdependency relies on the others for at least some of its needs. Different commodities and products are controlled by different merchant families, whose leading members are effectively nobility.

Turns out the pathways aren’t permanent after all; doom and gloom ensues. This isn’t space opera, though, the action revolves around individual characters and their relationships. This is made more plausible by the families-as-corporations setup, which reduces the number of characters you might expect to see running a galaxy-spanning empire of billions.

The neophyte Emperox (ruler and religious head of humanity, as well as not coincidentally the head of the family with a monopoly on spaceship construction) is spending a lot of her time poking her nose into history to find out how things really happened back at the founding of the Interdependency. This is made slightly easier for her by having access to the digitised personalities and memories of all her predecessors. They have some pretty interesting stories to tell.

My favourite character so far, though, is Kiva Lagos. Her family has the monopoly on something minor like “citrus fruit” but she is used to carry a lot of the action in the story and a lot of the wit in the dialogue. Amoral rather than evil, rude, crude, frighteningly intelligent and horrifyingly focused on getting what she wants, you know something interesting is going to happen every time she turns up. Please let me never encounter someone like this in real life.

I eagerly await the conclusion of the trilogy: The Last Emperox is due to be published in April 2020.

The Dispatcher

A relatively light novella by John Scalzi. I’d characterise it as a concept story: murder doesn’t work any more, but no-one knows why. If you intentionally kill someone, they almost always just pop up alive back home with their mind and body “rewound” by a day. The protagonist is a Dispatcher: a professional killer whose job is to murder the terminally injured so that they don’t actually die.

And yet this is a murder mystery.

I found The Dispatcher intriguing, but I was disappointed by the lack of any rationale or mechanism for the gimmick. I do like some kind of sufficiently advanced technology behind my magic, after all. I understand that a sequel is in the works, so perhaps that will move beyond just playing (however enjoyably) with the bare concept.

Revenger

Amazon lists Revenger in categories such as “Space Opera for Young Adults” and “Science Fiction for Children” but you shouldn’t pay any attention to that. The two sisters at the heart of the story are young, yes, but in a very Arya Stark kind of way and there is plenty of “stick them with the pointy end” action here. Maybe “young adult” is just code for “no sexposition scenes” these days?

The question of the intended age group aside, this has the same feel as many of Reynolds’ other novels; some parts of it in particular reminded me of Revelation Space, his debut novel from 2000. It’s set in the distant future: the solar system is littered with habitats left behind by wave after wave of alien occupations, and some of those old habitats contain technology beyond our understanding but worth salvaging even so. So there are salvagers, and to prey on the salvagers? We obviously need some space pirates. What’s not to like about this setup?

I didn’t think Revenger was Reynolds’ strongest work in isolation, but it’s intended as the first book in a trilogy and I definitely intend to give Shadow Captain my attention once it hits the paperback level of pricing.

Summerland

Given how many books I have read this year that boil down to detective fiction and police procedurals, one of the ways Summerland stood out was that its archetype is instead the cold war mole hunt: a science fictional (or, arguably, fantasy) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

It’s the time of the Spanish Civil War, but in an alternate timeline where the afterlife (known as Summerland) is a place located along a spatial dimension invisible to the living. If prepared, you can reliably transition into Summerland on death, and from there you can telephone your relatives to tell them you forgot to cancel the milk or, if you’re the British Secret Intelligence Service, run a network of assets in Spain.

The Quantum Thief and its sequels were always going to be a pretty hard act to follow, and I don’t think Summerland really measures up to them either in story or in the depth of worldbuilding required. It’s good fun, though, and enough is left unresolved that a sequel is possible.

It also makes me want to read Tinker, Tailor again.

Places in the Darkness

If you’re familiar with Chris Brookmyre from Quite Ugly One Morning (with its — ahem — memorable introductory scene) and the other Jack Parlabane novels, this book might surprise you. For one thing, of course, it’s set not in Scotland but in Earth orbit, aboard a city-sized space station where there is No Crime. Absolutely none. Definitely No Murders.

Needless to say, notwithstanding the above, some people get dead. And that necessitates an investigation, and investigators, and the learning of the truth. This a police procedural, in other words, and I found it a pretty good one. It’s not just “cops in space” though; this is a science fiction novel in more than just the setting, as you find when you start to uncover that truth.

There is plenty of action, but the writing is more controlled than I remember from earlier work. There are plenty of plot twists: I anticipated some of these but a couple of really large ones caught me completely by surprise.

Both of Places in the Darkness’s protagonists are women, which is interesting because Brookmyre has said that he regrets making Jack Parlabane male. Maybe he’s right; it works quite well in this story, anyway.

I don’t think a direct sequel to this book is likely, but it’s good enough that I’m considering dipping my toes into some of Brookmyre’s more recent conventional crime fiction.