The Spiral Wars

By Joel Shepherd

My father-in-law is a long-time sci-fi fan, so when he recommended Joel Shepherd’s Spiral Wars series, I listened.

I’m so glad I did! At this point, I’m part-way through book 3 out of 5, and I am loving it. Shepherd is an excellent writer, and this is exactly the kind of sci-fi that really does it for me: it’s technical, but not too technical, the emphasis is on action, but big ideas are involved, and perhaps most importantly, the characters are 3-D and compelling. The series definitely has the same kind of feel as that of The Expanse, which is high praise considering how much I’ve enjoyed those books as well.

The books follow the human warship Phoenix, which at the beginning of book 1 has just finished up its role in a century-long war against an alien species. The Phoenix crew return home to be feted, only to find themselves pulled into a political conflict, which quickly grows in scope and complexity, eventually threatening the human race itself. Like the Expanse, the books are a combination of “hard sci-fi,” along with a healthy mix of adventure and mystery.

Part of the appeal of the books is the portrayal of non-human races, as Shepherd is able to create some fascinating and real-seeming alien races for his characters to interact with. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how things unfold in the latter half of the series (there are 5 books total).  I’ll update this post once I finish them all, but for now, I’m comfortable in declaring The Spiral Wars… mandatory reading.

Rating: 4 – Mandatory Reading

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Expanse, A Fire Upon The Deep.

Altered Carbon

By Richard K. Morgan

I came across the Altered Carbon TV show before realizing it was a book series, so while I typically prefer to read the source material first, in this case I went the other way around. The good news is that the TV show is highly entertaining, even if it departs from the book narrative in some significant ways.

The story follows “envoy” Takeshi Kovacs, which is sort of like a super-spy, with the important twist that much of one’s training involves quickly and seamlessly adapting to a new body. In the distant future, bodies are fungible, and much of the book’s narrative involves exploring the question of how human reality would be affected if our minds and bodies could be mixed and matched at will.

The series’ initial novel (titled Altered Carbon) is set up as a futuristic murder mystery. Kovacs, who had been serving an extended prison sentence for various forms of malfeasance, is woken up in a strange place and given an offer he can’t refuse. You know the drill. As you’d expect in this kind of noir, we follow Kovacs deeper down the rabbit hole, and there are quite a few satisfying twists along the way.

Overall, I really enjoyed the series’ first entry, and will happily be picking up the sequels at some point. The TV show does a good job of nailing some of the sultry, lurid nature of the story (Kovacs spends a lot of time tearing his way through whorehouses), so this is definitely a book for an slightly more mature crowd. The story can also get complex at times, so reader beware if you prefer your mysteries simple. With all that said, I thought it was an excellent read, and recommend it to anyone who likes the darker side of sci-fi.

Rating: 4 – Mandatory Reading

If you liked this, you may enjoy: Snow Crash, Leviathan Wakes

The Books of Babel

By Josiah Bancroft

I picked up Senlin Ascends, the first of the Books of Babel, on a whim, and boy am I glad I did! This book is an absolute delight, as I suspected when I saw that author Mark Lawrence had called it “one of his favorite books of all time.”

Senlin Ascends is technically a fantasy book, though it occupies more of a muddy middle ground between fantasy, sci-fi and even a little magical realism. I’ll give it the “sci fi” tag as well, since there’s definitely some steam punk flavor here too. The story follows Thomas Senlin, a newly married school headmaster, who is finally pursuing his dream of visiting the storied Tower of Babel. The enormous Tower, which exists as sort of a universe within itself, is well-known to be a place of whimsy and delight, or so Senlin’s guidebooks claim. The reality of the Tower, however, turns out to be something quite different, as Senlin and the reader will discover.

This is a difficult book to really pin down. It’s humorous, and a little surreal, but is at its heart a story of adventure and exploration. The Tower is a fascinating setting, the characters seem fully baked, and Bancroft’s prose is quite strong as well. I really have no complaints whatsoever about the book; it accomplishes everything that it sets out to do. I’m very much looking forward to reading the next two books in the series, Arm of the Sphinx and The Hod King.

I’ll report back soon!

Rating: 4 – Mandatory Reading

If you liked this, you may enjoy: Kings of the Wyld, Guards, Guards!

 

 

Seeker

By Douglas Richards

I’ve spent most of the last few months on a fantasy binge, and so wanted to make sure to add some sci-fi to the blog before too long. Enter Seeker, by Douglas Richards.

Richards is a former biotech executive, thinker and all-around science guy. He’s by no means a bad writer, but I get the sense that he’s definitely a science guy first, and a novelist second. The characters in Seeker tend to be pretty one-dimensional, and people spend a lot of time standing around and lecturing each other about human evolution, etc. With that said, even if the characters are pretty 2-D, the plot definitely isn’t, which is the book’s saving grace.

Richards begins Seeker with a big of a headfake: our protagonist, scientist Ben Kagan, is captured by the last remnants of ISIS who are intent on forcing him to help weaponize a fleet of driver-less vehicles. Fast forward through some plot, however, and we come to the real story: an alien probe has landed in the middle of the Amazon, and engineered a “Hunger Games”-style competition between nation states to see who can capture the probe first. Throw in some bionic and robotic methods of Enhanced Human Operation (EHO), the possibility of interstellar war, and some fascinating speculation about next-gen technology, and you’ve pretty much got a sense of the novel.

Overall, I definitely enjoyed the book, even if it did have some shortcomings (2-D characters, campy writing at times). The book hits its stride about half-way through, as what up until that point seemed like a rather trite story line gets fleshed out in a much more satisfying way. I also very much enjoyed the coda at the end of the book, where Richards discusses how each technological improvement featured in the book might actually take place (and when).

So to recap: this is a good choice if you’re looking for slightly more “hard” sci-fi, but with an adventure twist! It’s by no means perfect, but it’s a satisfying, if occasionally stilted, sci-fi read.

Rating: 2 – Recommended with Reservations

If you liked this, you may enjoy: All Systems Red, Old Man’s War

Tuf Voyaging

By George R. R. Martin

George R. R. Martin is best known for A Song of Ice and Fire, but he’s no one trick pony. The guy’s been publishing for decades, and working in a variety of genres: science fiction, fantasy, horror, dark humor, romantic vampire fiction, you name it. For die-hard Martin enthusiasts, I recommend checking out Dreamsongs I and II, which offer a fascinating view of his evolution as a writer through the years.

Even for people who are not rabid Martin fans, I still highly recommend Tuf Voyaging. Originally published in 2004, Tuf Voyaging is a collection of short stories about the eponymous Haviland Tuf: a bit of an odd duck of a human who spends his time jetting around the galaxy in his giant ark of a spaceship, looking for ecological crises to solve. The genre here is sci-fi, but it’s definitely a soft, semi-humorous take on the genre. Most of the advanced technology is contained within Tuf’s extremely capable spaceship, which acts much like Dr. Who’s sonic screwdriver (that is to say, it does whatever the author needs it to). If you’re keen on highly technical, rigorous sci-fi, you’ll want to look elsewhere.

For the rest of us, however, there’s still quite a bit here to like. GRRM is a wildly talented storyteller, and Tuf is a compelling, if emotionally distant, protagonist. Each short story zips merrily along, and I was surprised to find that the book was over 400 pages (it felt much shorter). There’s a certain attractive escapism that comes with imagining that an individual with a semi-magical ship could suddenly arrive in our atmosphere and propose to solve our ecological woes. Especially in our current political doldrums, it can be nice to imagine that there’s someone else out there that can save us from ourselves.

So help us out here, Tuf!

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommend

If you liked this, you may enjoy: A Fire Upon The Deep, We Are Legion (We Are Bob)

 

 

Old Man’s War

By John Scalzi

Old Man’s War was my introduction to John Scalzi’s writing, and while it may not be my favorite book of his (that would be Red Shirts), I have very fond memories of it.

The premise is a great one: at a point in the distant future, mankind is dispersing through the galaxy, and human colonists are in need of protection from various hostile alien species. Enter our protagonist John Perry, a 75 year-old Earther who celebrates his birthday by enlisting in the Colonial Defense Force (CDF). The idea here is that the CDF wants old people with experience but little to lose, who are then given new (young, strong) bodies in return for their commitment of service.

Here’s where things get a little weird (which is a Scalzi-special). You know how from time to time you may come across people saying things like “you have no idea how much hanky panky goes on in nursing homes?” And then you immediately steel yourself against that knowledge, and desperately try to forget you ever heard it in the first place? Well, permit yourself to be open to that information for just an instant, and then imagine what would happen if a bunch of those nursing home residents were given new, strong, virile bodies. Spoiler: they get freaky pretty quickly.

Anyway, this section of the book is all in good fun, and it’s sort of cathartic to read about Perry (whose wife had passed away years ago) relieving his younger days. From there, the book transitions into more of a straightforward tale of militant space exploration, with all the alien and spaceship conflict that typically entails (there are definitely hints of Heinlein here). There’s definitely more to the story (and at least one pretty incredible coincidence to help drive the plot along), but I won’t spoil the story.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. At 332 pages, it’s a relatively quick read, and Scalzi keeps the plot moving along in a way that demands your attention. The book also spun off five sequels (though I think I petered out around book five), so if you enjoy this one, there’s plenty more Scalzi to go around. If you’re looking for a military-themed sci fi novel, you could do much worse than Old Man’s War!

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Forever War, Red Shirts

 

For We Are Many (Bobiverse, Book 2)

By Dennis Taylor

Last week I reviewed the first book in the “Bobiverse” series, We Are Legion (We Are Bob), which I found to be a surprisingly engaging “hard sci-fi” novel. Book two, For We Are Many, picks up right where book one left off, with former human (now AI replicant) Bob and his many clones attempting to re-settle Earth’s population, while simultaneously exploring the universe and encountering new friends and foes.

Make no mistake, this series is definitely on the “hard” end of the sci fi spectrum (it’s pretty readable, but a lot of the plot and action sequences depend on engineering, space physics, etc.). Being a soft sciences kind of guy, I readily admit that Taylor’s science could be total BS, and I wouldn’t know it, but I get the impression that he’s done his research. In that sense, and in terms of the books’ comedic bent, I think The Martian is probably the closest comp I can come up with.

During the course of the books, the eponymous Bob continues to create clones of himself, both to perform specific tasks (like monitoring an alien civilization), as well as to expand his (and humanity’s) ability to explore and eventually colonize distant planets. I did find it occasionally difficult to follow the proliferation of the various Bobs, which number in the dozens (hundreds?) by the end of the second novel. It’s a bit of a strange situation, as each of the Bobs retains a certain core identity, but continue to evolve and diverge from the original Bob’s perspective as they exist separately from him. Because they’re all basically the same person, it can be a struggle to keep track of who is who, though Taylor does a good job of making sure that doing so is not necessarily essential to following the plot.

I did find myself drifting a bit towards the middle of the book, which primarily focuses on re-homing humanity and terraforming planets, but the action picks back up with the emergence of a threatening alien civilization (who receive the tongue-in-cheek moniker of “the Borg,” as all true Bobs are trekkies). By the novel’s end, I was happily back in the saddle, and am eager to see what book three holds.

To recap: this series is fun and provocative, if a little bit more on the “techie” side of things than I typically go for (the author is a computer programmer, which won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read any of these books). You should absolutely start with book one if you’re considering picking up the series, and if you like that, you should absolutely give book two a try!

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you enjoyed this, you may like: The Martian, A Fire Upon the Deep