“The Martian” by Andy Weir

The_Martian_2014Everyone has been raving about The Martian by Andy Weir, and as a total sucker for any space exploration related story, I had to read it.

The Martian is about Mark Watney, a member of one of the first human Mars exploration teams. When the mission is aborted due to a dust storm, he has an accident and is presumed dead while the rest of the team evacuates. But Mark is not dead, and as the mission’s mechanical engineer, he’s uniquely qualified to survive in a place where his continued life depends on machines working.

When I started this book, I was a bit skeptical about all the praise it had been getting – how could one guy all alone on a planet be that interesting? Weir does an admirable job, though – Mark is determined, optimistic, has a great (and sometimes very immature) sense of humour, and he’s everything you dreamed you’d be when you dreamed of being an astronaut when you were younger (if you didn’t want to be an astronaut, what the hell?) He’s also the quintessential engineer, he doesn’t mope when there are problems unsolved. It’s brilliant to hear all the scientific issues he faces from his voice; his enthusiasm is infectious, and what could have been easily tedious instead becomes thrilling.

Mark isn’t the only character though, we also follow the action back on Earth, and Mark’s mission crew that are back on their way from Mars trying to live with the guilt of leaving a man behind. The point of view jumps around a lot, but I think that’s only fitting in a story about humanity banding together and trying to save one man. There are a couple of scenes on Mars that are told in an omniscient narrative style, and those do stick out a bit, but they’re rare.

So yes, I loved this book as much as everyone else. It seems like everything these days talks about humanity’s flaws, but this book makes me really proud to be a human.

Also… the pacing of the book was very much like that of a movie, and I really wanted it to see a movie version (Gravity and Apollo 13 are both really great movies of this type, although those take place over a few days at most). Apparently Ridley Scott feels the same way, because The Martian is coming out this November! And what a great cast, too – Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels, Donald Glover, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Peña – all people I like. I’m a bit puzzled by Chiwetel Ejiofor playing an Indian person, but he’s a great actor, so I’m not actually complaining.

“Firefight” by Brandon Sanderson

firefightShorter review again. I’m going to be doing lots of these so I can review a higher percentage of the books I read.

Steelheart wasn’t my favourite Sanderson book – not because it wasn’t good, but I don’t find superheroes or YA or endless action that compelling, especially given Sanderson’s skill for elaborate worldbuilding and cool magic systems. But he’s pretty much my favourite author, so I’ll read anything by him and like it. That being said, Firefight was pretty darn awesome.

David has achieved his goal of killing the Epic that murdered his father, but in the process, he’s also realized that Megan, the girl he’s kind of in love with, is actually Firefight, a High Epic with the same innate evil as every other Epic. David is never one to give up on the impossible, though, and armed with his infectious enthusiasm and groan-worthy metaphors, he sets out to rid Babilar (once New York City) of its ruling Epic, Regalia – while also searching for Firefight, who has already murdered one member of his team.

We get (some) answers to what’s going on with the Epics and their powers and weaknesses, and it all makes sense in the way that only Brandon Sanderson can do magic systems. The action is fantastic, and David’s eagerness and self-assurance are irresistible (and slightly horrifying, I was convinced he was going to get himself killed every other chapter). I know I pretty much end every book series review with “I want the next book”, but dammit, I want Calamity now, not Spring 2016!

Edited to add: Here’s a preview of Firefight on audio.

“Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis

DoomsdayBook(1stEd)I’ve heard a lot about Connie Willis, but my first exposure to her was her story in the Rogues anthology, which I absolutely loved. I bought this book, and To Say Nothing of the Dog immediately.

Doomsday Book is one of Willis’ shared universe books about a 2050-era Oxford University that sends historians back in time to study the past. Kivrin, an enthusiastic medieval scholar, is the first person to visit the Middle Ages (a few years before the Black Death), but her extensive research and carefully planned identity falls apart the moment she gets there. Meanwhile, back in 2048 Oxford, Kivrin’s professor is convinced that something is wrong with her time travel drop, but he can’t do much about it since an epidemic is breaking out.

Kivrin’s sections in the Middle Ages are definitely the most interesting part of the book – the people she meets are pretty ordinary, but they’re ordinary for their time, which still makes them a wealth of historical information. The portrayal of everyday life is fascinating, and the characters seem utterly real. The sections in 2048 are slightly less fun – the characters are the best part, but it got a bit repetitive and there were some overdone gags. (Plus, landline phones being common!)

Overall, this was a good book, just much more depressing than I had anticipated. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

“The Just City” by Jo Walton

thejustcityI’ve been wanting to read Jo Walton for a while – her books always get great reviews, and she loves the Vorkosigan Saga as much as I do! Tor sent me an advance copy of The Just City, and I dove right in.

This book has one of the most fascinating premises of any book I’ve read – the Greek goddess Athene gathers up people from all eras of history to recreate Plato’s Republic (with the aid of robots from the far future). Of course, the experiment doesn’t go exactly as planned, especially when Socrates shows up asking questions. And mixed into this is Athene’s brother Apollo, who has chosen to join the city as a mortal to learn more about humanity.

This is a pretty slow-burning book (it’s about a bunch of philosophers!) but it’s lovely. We follow three people, each with a unique perspective – Apollo, Simmea (one of the children), and Maia (one of the masters) through the founding of the city and all the logistics that happen as the initial batch of children grow up. The protagonists manage to keep their ideal of being their “best self” alive, even struggling through the dilemmas of being real people at odds with Plato’s understanding of humanity.

Highly recommended – I’ve already pre-ordered the follow up, The Philosopher Kings.

“Jumper” by Steven Gould

JUMPER_Steven_GouldThis is going to be a short review, since I’m catching up on reviews (as always).

I was recently sent a copy of Jumper by Tor as part of their promotion for the fourth book in the series, Exo. I’ve seen the movie, and although I thought the premise was interesting, the movie was terrible (although, Hayden Christensen does a much better job than he does as Anakin Skywalker). Luckily, the book is almost nothing like the movie, and was actually very good.

Davy Rice has a pretty horrible life – it’s a good day when his father doesn’t beat him senseless. One day, he discovers that he can teleport, and his life changes drastically. That’s the basic premise of Jumper.

The book mixes a few genres – the section where Davy explores his powers and builds a fancy new life for himself is kind of like the movie Catch Me If You Can (social engineering, heists, etc.) and there’s a lot of action towards the end. The major theme is self-discovery, though – Davy slowly comes to terms with his past, starts to take responsibility for himself, and becomes a well-adjusted person. And it’s all very well-written. All the characters are three-dimensional, and their relationships are believable. Davy is a great protagonist – even though he was pretty sympathetic in the beginning of the book, the person he turned into at the end was immensely satisfying.

I still haven’t read the next book, Reflex, but I’m pretty excited about it.

“Expiration Day” by William Campbell Powell

expdayI’ve started avoiding the entire YA genre because pretty much every book I hear about seems to involve an implausible dystopia built around societies of arbitrarily capitalised Nouns and a female teenager that disrupts it whilst choosing between her “nice” and her “sexy” love interests. When I read about the premise of Expiration Day (a young woman discovers that many of her classmates are androids and her society is not all it seems), I figured it would be more of the same. I was not expecting the thoughtful, character-driven science fiction story that it actually was.

In the near future, most humans are no longer fertile, and human-like androids are used to substitute for children. We follow Tania Deeley, a vicar’s daughter, through her diary entries from age eleven onwards. This book is a coming of age novel; the “Expiration Day” mystery (why do androids need to eventually be returned to the corporation that made them?) is not important except for when it drives Tania’s story forward. We watch Tania grow up and slowly learn more about the world around her and herself, supported by a wonderful and three dimensional cast of secondary characters.

The worldbuilding is pretty interesting too; I was initially sceptical of the premise (android children seemed implausible), but Powell has constructed a world where it makes sense. The only quibble I have was with the ending, which seemed far too neat.

In conclusion, if you’re a YA fan, read this! If you’re getting disillusioned with YA tropes, read this!

“The Quiet War” by Paul McAuley

QuietWarThe Quiet War is set in the 23rd century in a fully colonised solar system. War is brewing between conservative Earth and the solar system colonists called Outers, who push the envelope on what it means to be human constantly. The protagonists of the book are very different, but they are caught in this building momentum – an ambitious geneticist whose star is rising, a genetically-engineered clone soldier, a junior scientist whose curiosity makes her a liability, a pilot who volunteers to test a dangerous new technology, and a power-hungry diplomat.

I expected The Quiet War to be focused on the military, but instead it’s a slow burning political book that portrays the inevitability of conflict, despite almost nobody actually wanting one. It does this rather well, hampered only by the frequent and long passages on the technical details of ecosystem building (which are fascinating, but don’t add much to the story – atmosphere can be overdone).

McAuley’s descriptive abilities are put to good use when he describes the colonised solar system, though – the Outers’ colonies are vividly beautiful and inspire awe. It seems like a doable near-future vision of space colonisation, which is something I would love to see happen in my lifetime.

The protagonists are not terribly sympathetic, but they do a good job of illustrating how people from pretty much every walk of life are drawn into the war. Some of the protagonists’ quirks (Sri’s odd relationship with her son, for example) seemed like attempts to make the character multidimensional, but instead ended up feeling pointlessly uncomfortable. I think one particular viewpoint (Cash) could’ve been totally cut – I didn’t really get what he added to the story, since Dave 8 had had the whole “engineered soldier PoV” covered.

The Quiet War is fairly standalone, but I think it could use a little closure on the war, so I’m looking forward to reading the next installment, Gardens of the Sun.

“Consider Phlebas” by Iain M. Banks

I’ve heard a lot about Iain M. Banks’ Culture universe, but hadn’t read any of his books for a long time. I was inspired by the start of the new year to set up a group read of all of the books over on LibraryThing, and Consider Phlebas was the first book I read in 2014.

8935689Consider Phlebas follows Bora Horza Gobuchul, a spy and assassin for the Idirans, who are at war with the Culture. He is sent on a mission to retrieve a lost Mind, an Culture AI, who has landed on one of the forbidden Planets of the Dead. Along the way, he has incredible adventures and narrowly avoids capture by the Culture. Despite all the action-adventure, I would not call this a fun book, but it was a very, very good book.

Unlike most of the books I read, I had a fair amount of preconceptions going into this one, since I’d heard about the Culture for so long (Wikipedia calls it “a post-scarcity semi-anarchist utopia consisting of various humanoid races and managed by very advanced artificial intelligences”). I was expecting a dense hard SF novel with unfathomably alien characters and plot primarily driven by worldbuilding ideas. I was not expecting the poignant character development or the incisive look at the sidelines of war, and those are what made this book great.

Two minor criticisms – one of the chapters has a fair amount of visceral body-horror, which I did not enjoy at all; I wish that Banks had chosen to display the craziness of his universe some other way. I also wish that there was more insight into the Culture, and how it works from the inside, but there are plenty more books in the universe for me to get that.

“Burning Paradise” by Robert Charles Wilson

16059400Burning Paradise follows Cassie Klyne and various members of her family, who are members of a secret organisation that knows the truth about humanity’s history. They are in hiding; since Cassie’s parents and many more Society members have been killed for this knowledge, and it seems like a new round of killings is about to begin.

This book takes an interesting premise – a spacefaring alien hivemind has been subtly influencing human affairs, resulting in an alternate history where World War I never happened – and transforms it into an incredibly dull book. The characters are flat, and what personality they do display is unlikeable or some flavour of paranoid. The central conflict makes no sense; the human characters seem superfluous to the plot. The ending seems to have been intended to pack an emotional punch, but it just came across as nonsensical to me.

The aliens are supposedly intelligent but lack self consciousness (despite its ability to interfere with human communication with specific agendas and its ability to control human avatars that are indistinguishable from natural humans) – this is taken for granted and constantly touted by the scientist protagonist. Since this distinction is emphasised so much, and I figured a scientist wouldn’t be so certain about the nature of sentience so easily, I expected something to come of it, but all it seems to do is be a plot device to dehumanise the aliens to justify the characters’ hatred.

The other significant thing I disliked about this book was its portrayal of humanity as chomping at the bit to go to war, stopped only by missing telegrams and edited messages. I found it implausible and incredibly pessimistic. This view of humanity seems to carry to the individuals in this book too – like I mentioned, they were bland/boring at best and paranoid and unlikable at worst. Burning Paradise wasn’t a pleasant book to read, and it didn’t have anything else to redeem it, either.

“Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_TPI’ve been hearing rave reviews of Ancillary Justice everywhere, so when I finally got my copy, I pounced on it and finished it that very night. Despite the sky-high expectations, I was not disappointed – it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.

The protagonist of Ancillary Justice is Breq, the sole remnant of the sentient starship Justice of Toren of the Radch Empire.  She (it?) has been seeking vengeance after the rest of her was destroyed, and on a remote, icy planet, she’s getting close to the end of her quest. I don’t want to say any more about the premise because anything I say would focus on only a small part of what this book encompasses, and I think that would be doing it a disservice.

Breq’s viewpoint is fascinating – she is someone who is accustomed to perceiving and processing millions of things in many different locations and ways – sometimes through pieces of mechanical equipment, sometimes through human bodies (called ancillaries). She looks human but has never been human, so the things she pays attention to and the thoughts she has are very different. The story alternates between Breq’s present quest, and the events that led to it (when Breq had her full capabilities as Justice of Toren), so we see her character evolve (devolve?).

Ancillary Justice examines humanity in an incredibly compelling way – by omission. Breq pays absolutely no attention to the fact that her ancillaries were once fully human, or to other characters’ dismay over that fact. There is one disturbing scene where a new ancillary is connected to the ship, and the only thing the ship comments on as it squelches the human’s memories is that it is irritated that the host doesn’t know any new songs that it could learn. The way supporting characters feel is also clear through Breq’s narration – some are in love, some are scared, but much of the time, Breq has no awareness of what their actions mean, or even of her own feelings.

Many of the other concepts in this novel are also explored via omission – individuality and gender are two examples. Justice of Toren‘s individuality is murky – each ancillary unit has its own personality (or maybe just Breq’s origin – One Esk?), but they’re part of the ship. The Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, further adds to this murkiness – supposedly she is a single entity with thousands of genetically identical bodies – but is she? Gender is similar – The Radch Empire is a post-gender society, and Breq has a really hard time identifying people’s gender in other societies. I tried really hard to keep track of people’s “real” genders for the first few chapters, but then came to realise it didn’t matter at all.

Despite all the hard science-fictional concepts, Ancillary Justice never gets lost in its own ideas – it is well-paced and extremely readable all the way through. I could go on and on about pretty much everything in this book – the worldbuilding, its exploration of another half a dozen concepts, the characters, and much more, but instead I’ll just tell you that this is one of the most original and ambitious books I’ve read, and exhort you to read it as soon as possible!