“Aurora” by Kim Stanley Robinson

auroraI’ve been meaning to get around to reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s work for a while (I’m woefully underread in the sci-fi classics), so I was delighted to get an unexpected copy of Aurora, his latest book. One of Earth’s first generation ships sent to colonize beyond our solar system is almost at its target, Aurora, a moon of the Tau Ceti system. They’re prepared for some difficulties but even then, the reality of colonization turns out to be much more complicated than anyone anticipated.

Generation ships are a pretty common idea in science-fiction, and they always seem so cool – people taking great personal risks and braving the unknown for the sake of exploration. Aurora takes a long, hard look at the reality of this concept and the morality of subjecting your descendants to living in a tin can decades away from anyone who can help them if something goes wrong. The residents of the ship make the best of the hand they’ve been dealt, but they’re fundamentally in a life they would have never have chosen – they’re heading to a place that may not even be habitable, but constantly see news feeds from an Earth that they could have flourished on. They have very few personal liberties (reproduction and choice of work have to be regulated to maintain the ship), but have access to literature and media that shows them exactly how controlled their life is compared to the norm.

The narrative voice of this book is interesting – the story is told to us mostly from the point of view of the ship, who started out as an AI that relied entirely on its programming, but is slowly gaining consciousness with the help of Devi, the ship’s de facto chief engineer. The text is presented as a chronicle that Devi asks the ship to write, except the first and last chapters. The ship mostly chronicles the journey via Devi’s daughter Freya, who grows from being a teenager in the beginning of the book to become a leader of her people. The style evolves subtly as the ship learns and observes more, and there are occasional meditations on the nature of self and consciousness, and the process of narrative itself, which are just as fascinating as the colonists’ story.

Ship was easily my favourite character in the story – we are somewhat detached from pretty much all the other characters, but I don’t mind that in hard science fiction stories like this one. Except for Freya and those close to her, most of the other humans are just seen as representatives of the factions and ideas they represent. Even Freya dulls in comparison to her mother Devi, who helped the ship grow and reason in unprecedented ways. She’s not actually present in a large portion of the book, but her furious drive leaves a lasting influence that is felt through the actions of both the ship and Freya, and she’s the character that we can empathize with the most.

Also, the science in this book was fantastic. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the physics or the biology/ecology, but it seemed as well-researched and accurate as the computer science algorithms and problems that the ship uses in its narrative. It wasn’t as riveting as the science in The Martian, but it was still a lot of fun to read. I’m fascinated by maintaining sustainable ecosystems in a closed environment – The Quiet War did a lot of that too.

I was expecting that this would be a triumphant tale of humanity overcoming adversity and making their mark on the stars, but Aurora is not constrained by that trite idealism. The portrait of humanity that it paints is not pretty – humans want to see themselves as pioneers, but are often petty, confused, violent, and all too happy to deprive others of safety to achieve something abstract. It was more depressing than I had hoped it would be, but there’s comfort in examining the consequences of an idea thoroughly, and it ends on a note of hope – not for humanity’s grand dreams, but the knowledge that humans can always learn and adapt.


Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“The Galaxy Game” by Karen Lord

thegalaxygameI was really excited to get a review copy of The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord; I absolutely loved both of Lord’s prior novels – I reviewed Redemption in Indigo pretty recently, and The Best of All Possible Worlds is one of my favourite books of the last few years (and shares a world and some characters with The Galaxy Game). Unfortunately, I ended up being pretty disappointed with the book.

The main protagonist is Rafi, the nephew of The Best of All Possible Worlds, Grace Delarua, who has been forced to attend an oppressive school for the psionically gifted. He escapes with the help of one of his friends, and is thrown unprepared into a galaxy that is undergoing considerable turmoil. We also follow his two friends, Ntenman and Serendipity as they find their own way.

So, there were a bunch of problems with this book:

  • Rafi: Rafi should have been interesting – he’s scared of his psionic abilities because of the way his father abused his own, and he has a difficult relationship with his mother who’s scared of being manipulated by him. He’s doing exciting things – he’s exploring a new planet, and training for a galaxy-famous sport. Unfortunately, he just comes off as a child who’s mostly passive but occasionally reactionary (he even admits as much in the book) – the only thing he does actively is run away from his school. In the end, when he finds a place in society, it seems to be mainly because everyone else told him what to do.
  • The other viewpoint characters: I’m not really sure why Ntenman and Serendipity were protagonists – sure, we did watch them “grow up” a bit too, but their arcs were as dissatisfying as Rafi’s. This book was only 320 pages, and it didn’t have enough room for us to get to know these characters and invest in them. Ntenman’s voice was pretty charming, and I at least looked forward to his dry humour, but Serendipity seemed completely flat. Also, we get viewpoints from Delarua, Dllenahkh and the headmaster of the Lyceum (there might be more that I’m forgetting), and there’s even a framing story that takes place fifteen or so years later. This makes the book seem pretty fragmented, especially given…
  • The plot, or lack thereof: Okay, there is nominally a plot – the protagonists come of age in a time of great galactic turmoil, which they are marginally involved in. Emphasis on the “marginally”. As I said earlier, a lot of the stuff that happens is just Rafi reacting to what other people tell him to do, and most of the time, he just does it. So yes, a lot of stuff happens, but we’re just left with burning curiosity about what’s actually going on. For example, a planet gets attacked by a rival faction, but we have very little context for it, so it’s not very impactful, except for a generic “war is bad” way. And there are many factions, each with their own agenda, but we know very little. But the plot isn’t even about the galactic conflict, per se, but about developing a new transportation technique… that somehow involves a sport that Rafi is uniquely qualified to play, but it’s actually about Rafi and his friends growing up, but there’s also the plot of the framing story…
  • Characters from the previous books: Okay, I loved Delarua and Dllenahkh and the assorted supporting characters in The Best of All Possible Worlds, but they should not have been in this book this much unless it was at least twice the size. Pretty much everyone shows up, and we learn all about their problems, and how they’re resolved (Freyda and Lanuri’s marriage, Lian’s worry over the missing Queturah), and they add to the mess of plots already in the book.

If I were to describe the flaws of The Galaxy Game in one word, it would be “unfocused”. Both of Lord’s previous books were pretty intimate – they were mostly focused on one or two people and the consequences to their own life, and she’s very good at that type of narrative. She seems to be trying to do that in this book, focusing somewhat on Rafi and his friends’ coming of age, but it doesn’t really work that well because there’s so much going on in the grander scale. There was a lot going on in the grander scale in The Best of All Possible Worlds too, with the destruction of Sadira, but that was much more personal because of Dllenahkh.

I know that it seems like I hated this book, but I didn’t; I just had really high expectations from Lord’s previous work. The Galaxy Game has beautiful prose and fascinating ideas. It would have been great as either a 600 page book or a novella with a lot of the subplots cut out. I’m still anticipating Lord’s next book eagerly, though – I hope it is a return to her previous form.


The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord
Del Rey, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Vicious” by V.E. Schwab

viciousVicious follows Victor and Eli, who were best friends in college until their experiments to gain superpowers went horribly right. With Victor no longer in prison, neither of them will rest until the other has been utterly destroyed.

This is one of those books that’s almost a screenplay – I could see the movie playing in my head. It has short chapters (sometimes only a couple of pages) and is fast-paced, but it still focuses a lot on character by alternating flashbacks with the present-day story. The build-up to the final confrontation is extremely well-done – it almost gets too excruciating to wait any longer, and then everything happens very quickly.

Victor and Eli are fascinating characters, they both have something missing inside them, and that’s what drew them to each other in the first place. They learn to cope with that hole inside them in very different ways, although both are definitely supervillain material. Their sidekicks – Serena, Sydney, and Mitch, are complex in their own right – Serena’s crippling isolation with her power of persuasion is particularly poignant.

There was a lot of talk of gaining superpowers leaving people with a moral/spiritual hole inside themselves.  It reminded me a little of Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart universe, where superpowers also make you entirely selfish, so there are no superheroes – only supervillains. But most of this was perpetuated by Victor, Eli, and Serena, who all seemed to be pretty screwed up people even before they gained powers. Sydney certainly didn’t seem to have anything missing (and Serena even remarks on that at one point), and neither did any of the other superpowered people we met. I guess the ambiguity might make what Eli’s doing a bit more sympathetic, except he’s acting without any evidence, so it doesn’t.

I did like the fact that Victor wasn’t exactly a good person, but I wished that the book had pushed the envelope a bit farther – by the end, we know exactly who we’re rooting for – Victor might be a sociopath, but he’s remarkably well-attuned to society. It’s still a great book, though, in the Watchmen style of “who we think of as superheroes are usually badly-adjusted and obsessive people”. Someone please go make a movie out of it now.


Vicious by V.E. Schwab
Tor Books, 2013 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“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.


The Martian by Andy Weir
Broadway Books, 2014 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“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.


Firefight by Brandon Sanderson (The Reckoners, #2)
Delacorte Press, 2015 | Buy the book


“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.


Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
Bantam Spectra, 1992 | Buy the book


“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.


The Just City by Jo Walton (The Just City, #1)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“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.


Jumper by Steven Gould (Jumper, #1)
Tor Books, 1992 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“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!


Expiration Day by William Campbell Powell
Tor Teen, 2014 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“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.


The Quiet War by Paul McAuley (The Quiet War, #1)
Pyr, 2008 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.