Category Archives: science fiction

The Past Is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

The world is both on fire and drowning. We are all living on borrowed time on this planet of ours, and if we’re not careful–and we’re not, not right now anyway, despite government promises–we will, if we’re lucky, have to live in a place like Garbagetown.

“My name is Tetley Abednego, and I am the most hated girl in Garbagetown.” And so author Catherynne M. Valente begins her bleak but hopeful novella The Past Is Red. It began life as a short story called The Future Is Blue, which Valente wrote early in 2016. In her afterword, which is definitely worth reading, Valente explained that Tetley’s voice stayed with her for a long time and she wanted to see how she grew from being a hated girl to a hated adult, but still keeping her compassion, composure, and willingness to explain the truth to her fellow town people no matter the cost to herself. So she wrote The Past Is Red. This edition contains both stories and is a compelling, uncomfortable, but necessary work of post-apocalyptic fiction that hits home hard and fast.

Garbagetown is exactly how it sounds. It’s a “landmass” made up of garbage that came into being when the climate change and the carelessness of Fuckwits (i.e. us humans) destroyed what was left of habitable Earth. Apparently there is a Garbagetown the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean, but it hasn’t risen above water yet. That time may soon come in the next one hundred or so years. On Tetley’s Earth, our future Earth, dry land is but a memory. In fact, for Tetley, Garbagetown is all she and the others have ever known. When a cruise ship calling itself Brighton Pier docks at Garbagetown, offering its citizens the promise of dry land if their willing to share electric power with them, Tetley sabotages the plan to expose the truth: there is no dry land out there. Her punishment is regular beatings and name-calling, for which she thanks her assailants for their instruction.

Catherynne M. Valente

During the course of her journey in this strange and dangerous world, Tetley has a couple of travelling companions. As a child she had a close relationship with her twin brother Maruchan, until the time comes when she doesn’t. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” she asks him nightly. One day he replies, “An only child,” and that’s that for them. She falls in love with Goodnight Moon, a boy from Electric City, but even that relationship turns sour after the events of Brighton Pier. Later, as an adult, she talks to someone she calls Big Red, but we don’t find out who or what this person is until the end, and it’s a surprising revelation. Once again, Tetley finds herself with a choice to reveal the truth, and cause more trouble for herself and the people around her, or to continue living her life in the only world she has ever known. The answers lie with Mister, a crystalline artificial intelligence that is reminds the reader of Alexa.

Humanity’s future is bleak, and Catherynne M. Valente doesn’t pull any punches about how things will work out for us in the not too distant future. But behind this bleakness is a strange kind of hope. Tetley, through some amazing prose and imagery, is a truth-bearer. She knows we’re all we have left and we have to accept responsibility of where we go next. Valente, in this novella, has created a world that is heart-breaking but inevitable–if we’re not careful. Tetley’s voice shines in these pages, and although her follow Garbagetown citizens may hate her and wish her harm, we most certainly don’t. She may be the only hope humanity has left.

My thanks go to NetGalley and Tordotcom for providing me with an ARC of The Past Is Red. Catherynne M. Valente’s novella is on sale now.

Scorpion by Christian Cantrell

We know what we are, but not yet what we may be. (Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Act 4, scene 5.)

Ophelia is going through a crisis in Shakespeare’s play. Her husband Hamlet has killed her father and she is cracking up. She knows only what she knows and is reacting to that, but she doesn’t know what the future holds for either of them. This is an entirely human feeling. Each of us reacts to events in the here and now; we can’t help it. But we also wonder where these events will eventually take us. This quote from Ophelia forms the basis for the prologue of Scorpion, a mind-bending, jargon-heavy, but superbly entertaining and well written science fiction thriller from Christian Cantrell, a software engineer who lives near Washington, D.C.

Quinn Mitchell is an analyst for the CIA, a desk jockey with little to no experience in the field. She has suffered a profound loss in her past, with the accidental drowning of her young daughter Molly, which resulted in the protracted separation and eventual divorce from her husband James. She is happy enough to stay out of the limelight and is very good at her job. However, her so-called easy life comes to a disturbing end when she is sent out into the field to track down and stop a man dubbed the Elite Assassin. All around the world, bodies are turning up — more than 20 of them, in fact — and there appears to be no apparent motive except that they are almost perfect killings. There is no rhyme to reason, but Al Moretti, Quinn’s boss, knows there’s more to these assassinations so Quinn must follow the trail of bodies that hopefully will lead to an arrest.

Christian Cantrell identifies our assassin almost straight away. He is Ranveer, an Iranian national, with limitless resources and finance, and a steady supply of eccentric individuals who supply him with the knowledge and know-how to complete his killings. He travels first-class and stays at the most luxurious of hotels and resorts. He is a man with a mission, however horrendous it may first appear. He’s also on the clock. Leaving a trail of breadcrumbs only Quinn can find, there is method to his sociopathy. Quinn doesn’t know it yet, but there is a connection between the pair of them. In the mix is Henrietta Yi, a diminutive woman, originally from Korea, where terrorists set off a nuclear bomb that destroyed Seoul and killed millions of people including her parents. She has a visual impairment that causes her to wear special glasses, otherwise she sees afterimages, which she calls ‘ghosts’, all the time. This comes in handy later in the book. She is working on a top-secret project for Moretti based on data from something called The Epoch Index.

Christian Cantrell (imagec/o crowdcast.io)

And that’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot. But there is a connection between all three characters that doesn’t become apparent until the last third of Scorpion, the first two-thirds of which is taken up by a captivating and off-the-wall cat-and-mouse chase between Quinn and Ranveer. The setting is near-futurish, the technology is unique but not far-fetched, and I got particular delight from the author’s description of The Grid, an area of Qatar that is closed off to anyone without influence, money, or a really good reason to hide from the authorities. The climax is straight out of genre favourites like Looper and Minority Report, and while some of the techinical jargon may go over your head from time to time, the characters make the story relatable. You may know what you are, but not yet what you may be.

My thanks go to NetGalley and the publishers of Scorpion for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Twin Paradox by Charles Wachter

There comes a point in some works of science fiction when you’re better off not trying to understand the physics behind a particular concept, and just run with whatever point the author is making. It’s enough to know that they know what’s going on. It’s at this juncture that we decide to sit back and be entertained. In Jurassic Park, we were there for the dinosaurs; not so much for the science behind their creation or whether or not it is ethical to recreate them for the modern audience, as interesting as these debates undoubtedly are.

The Twin Paradox by Emmy Award-winning TV executive producer Charles Wachter is a pretty good example of what I’m talking about. At its heart, it’s a hugely entertaining book set in the very near future where brilliant minds from the past live among us in the form of clones. By snatching body parts from such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Leonarda da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Martin Luther King, and Catherine the Great, scientific minds from the United States have been able to use this DNA to create cloned copies. These children are nurtured and schooled by Gen-E Corp, run by the billioniare and slightly megalomaniciacal Teigen Ralls (a villain James Bond would be proud to know). They are clueless to their origins until the day they are put on a plane that’s taking them to a location on the coast of Texas. Alastair is Einstein, Milk is MLK, Kat is Catherine the Great, Zach is one of two Newtons in the book, Leo is, obviously, the Italian da Vinci. Together they are brought to Cornerstone, where they must solve the greatest problems humanity has ever faced.

Charles Wachter

Wikipedia describes: In physics, the twin paradox is a thought experiment in special relativity involving identical twins, one of whom makes a journey into space in a high-speed rocket and returns home to find that the twin who remained on Earth has aged more. You can follow the link and go down the rabbit hole as deep as you wish. All you need to know for the story at hand is that the children are taken to an ecosytem that exists in a time and space continuum of its own. For every three minutes that passes in our world, ten years passes inside Cornerstone. Therefore, millennia can pass in mere days and weeks. Living within this system are creatures not meant for this world, including a race of humanoid cannibals, related through time to a group of immigrants who were crossing the US-Mexico border at a time when the system was created.

The clones are given free rein to research for themselves and Gen-E, but the world is in grave danger. The Russians and Chinese are conducting their own experiments within the ecosystem, and when Isaac Prime betrays the new kids on the block, it becomes a race against time to learn the truth behind Cornerstone and escape the jaws and claws of monsters and men. The scope is breath-taking and the chapters fly by, as long as you don’t think too hard on the physics. I’m sure it all makes sense, but I like my brain where it is, not coming out of my ears.

The Twin Paradox is the first in a projected series, with a sequel, The Divine Paradox, due for publication early next year. I will certainly read it, for I found this book fun and engaging. I was happy to review it for the publishers, author, and NetGalley.

Reality Testing by Grant Price

Over the course of recent months and years, I have come to the firm belief that whatever is in store for humanity, it’s not going to be good. Too many countries have elected indiduals to positions of power who have no right to be there. They have little experience or worse, they couldn’t care less what happens to the people they were elected by and the world around them. To them it’s all about power and how to maintain it. They pay lip service to climate change, and brush the refugee crisis under the carpet. To them, such catastrophes are always someone else’s problem. Very few novels published today focus on what happens when things go well for humanity, instead dydtopian fiction forms the bedrock of a lot of speculative fiction you see in bookstores or online, especially since 2016. In short, bad news sells books.

But that doesn’t mean these books are bad. Quite the opposite, in fact. Some of them are really good. Allow me to introduce you to Reality Testing, by Berlin-based author Grant Price. You’re probably familiar with the cyberpunk genre, made famous by William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, which combines a hi-tech futuristic setting with general societal degradation: basically the rich get richer and have access to all the mod cons in technology, and the poor are so far down the bottom of the ladder they have no chance of improving their lot in life. The Berlin of Grant Price’s novel is a perfect example of a society gone worng. It’s the aftermath of the Second Water War, and the Big Five conglomerates have taken control of the city and its citizens, advertising their products and services in very obtrusive ways. They say their technology and policies are in aid of the failing environment, whereas in fact they’re outbidding and out-manoeuvering each other to get a bigger slice of the pie. Automatons known as bulls patrol the streets, dishing out instant justice for even the most petty of crimes. Citizens make ends meet how they can, working enough jobs to ensure they get cheap food and entertainment. Mara Hinzig gets a lot more than she bargains for when she signs up for a gig which will allow her to be paid while she undergoes a few months of sleep in a programme called LINK, run by Ahe+d, and overseen by the mysterious Klaus Koje.

Grant Price

Mara wakes up next to a dead body. She’s got blood on her hands and she has no idea what happened. She runs for it and ends up at the door of her ex-partner Jema. The only problem is, the body Mara how inhabits isn’t her own. Not only is she wanted for a murder she doesn’t remember committing, but she now has a face she doesn’t recognise and a voice inside her head is giving her instructions and at times taking control over her body. This is not a good time to be Mara. When tragedy ensues, Mara is driven literally underground, where she meets a cohort of individuals who either want to kill her, turn her over to the authorities for a reward. Price creates a beautifully realised subterranean world with characters that are unique and off-the-wall crazy. I loved Mantis and Prestone, both augmented and damaged human beings, victims of circumstance and hubris. With their help, Mara is led to another part of Germany where the mythical Vanguard await. There she finds a group of people, mainly women, who live off-grid, and with the aid of the Abbot, the group’s leader, she tries to understand what’s happening to her and how she can get revenge on Koje. Her right-hand man is Daniel Van Morden, a veteran with a secret of his own. Along with Abbadine, Xi Yang, and Theo, Mara plots a way to get back control of her life and identity.

Reality Testing is a fast-paced and action-packed novel that I raced through in a couple of sittings. It brought back memories of Total Recall, Minority Report, and Blade Runner. The aesthetics are similar but Price tells his own story. This is a world that is terrifying, where life has little value, and where the stakes are so high, it’s obvious that not everyone is going to come through unscathed. I especially enjoyed the author’s depiction of a society where, despite everything else going on, people are allowed to be whatever they prefer to be: gender is fluid, and non-binary characters are front and centre of this fascinating future. Grant Price makes us think about how the next step in human evolution might look, and we wonder whether or not it would be best for the planet and ourselves if we just die off as a species and let the Earth start again. There are no easy answers, but there are plenty of adventures to have in the meantime.

Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace

I found Firebreak purely by chance. I was scrolling through NetGalley recommendations, not really sure what genre I was looking to read, but basically I wanted something to jump out at me. Literally grab me by the scruff of my neck and say, “Read me, you fool!” I couldn’t see anything immediately, but soon after I got an email from NetGalley, singing “Hello! Is it me you’re looking for?” There, slap bang in the body of email was indeed the book I was looking for.

You don’t have to be much of a political commentator to know that the world has gone to hell in a hand basket. Authoritarian, nationalist and populist governments are the norm rather than the exception in practically every economy on the planet. These are scary times, and there doesn’t seem to be a way through the gloom right now. But as bad as it all appears to be, you cannot discount the indomitable nature of humanity. Author Nicole Kornher-Stace‘s first novel for adults is full of this spirit, and it’s badly needed.

It is 2134 and what’s left of the United States of America after ecological and economic disaster is divided up between two super-corporations, Stellaxis Innovations and Greenleaf Industries. Stellaxis controls the water supply, while Greenleaf controls all elements of agriculture. The two are permantly at war with each other but have reached a stalemate with New Liberty City. Mal and her friends live on the outside, in the old town, copped up together in a hotel room. Their water is rationed; power goes off in the evenings; and they work as many jobs as they can to ensure they can pay for the things we take for granted. They have barely enough to get by, but there’s always the chance they might find themselves in a dehydration clinic if they don’t get enough water. A visit there would cost them more than they could pay. To make ends meet, and to keep themselves entertained, Mal and her friends livestream themselves as they game away on SecOps on BestLife, Stellaxis’s wargame. The more successful they are at the game, the more sponsorship they get, coming in the form of cash, weaponry for the game, and credit for water. A chance meeting with one of Stellaxis’s Non-Player Characters (NPC), known as 22, brings Mal and her best friend Jessa in contact with B, a mysterious new sponsor who tells them the true origins of the NPCs.

Firebreak begins in the middle of a livestream and once you settle in and get comfortable with the pace and environment, Nicole throws in a conspiracy that changes the nature of the story and characters. Mal isn’t what you may call a sociable person; she leaves the talking to Jessa, who’s like the manager of their partnership. They’re a duo, with each bringing their special qualities to the table. Jessa narrates their adventures online while Mal racks up the points with kills and bravado. But all this changes when they come to the attention of Stellaxis, and that’s when their lives and the lives of their friends are put in danger.

Nicole Kornher-Stace (image: Fantasy Book Critic)

A good novel, whatever the genre, lives or dies by its characters and character development. Mal and Jessa are introduced as fully-formed individuals and over the course of Firebreak grow in ways they probably thought not possible. All they want to do is live to game another day, but they’re not selfish people. Everything they have, they share with their friends, and this becomes important as the book nears its climax. This selflessness has its rewards. All throughout, Nicole Kornher-Stace treats us to action scenes that don’t hold back on violence or consequence. Our heroes are bloodied but unbowed. Nicole has created a frightening world, one which should serve as a lesson to us all: we are one major disaster away from everything we hold dear and take for granted crashing to the ground around us.

Firebreak is an exhilerating and exciting read, replete with vibrant and conflicted characters, in a world that is both real and unreal. It could be our future. Pray it’s not.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publishers of Firebreak for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Nicole Kornher-Stace’s novel is on sale now.

The Year Before The End by Vidar Hokstad

All through last spring and into early summer, I read books two to eight of James S.A. Corey’s epic space opera series The Expanse, one after the other. Once I reached the end of book eight I knew I had a long wait ahead of me before the series was concluded. Now we have a date: Leviathan Falls will be published on November 16, 2021. I for one cannot wait. Until then, though, I was on the look out for something similar to read. I love edgy science-fiction. By this I mean, I like my futuristic universe to be both realistic and gritty. Just because humanity can reach for the starts, it doesn’t mean that the future would look glorious and hopeful. If we know anything about being human it’s that wherever we go, we bring our mess with us: we leave very little behind. Science fiction, if it’s written and presented well, can give us very perceptive insights into what it means to be human. We look to the stars and see a bright future ahead of us, and then we let our collective egos get in our way. The Year Before The End, by Norwegian writer and techie Vidar Hokstad, is a great example of what I’m talking about.

First contact has been made, and visitors from the nearby Alpha Centauri system are eager to being trading with our solar system. But they won’t be able to travel to us unless we build a gate that will allow two-way traffic between the two systems. Plans are in place and much building has been done, to such an extent that when the book begins we’re a year away from the project’s completion–The End of the title. But not everyone is pleased with meeting and greeting our new extraterrestrial trading partners. Member of Sovereign Earth, an alliance against any form of non-human pacts, are planning system-wide acts of sabotage, pitting Earth against Mars especially.

In the midst of all this we meet Captain Zara Ortega and the crew of the freighter Black Rain. Zo, as she is called in the book, is hired by a shady individual to raid a space station called Vanguard and rob from its vault information that will prove to everyone that the Centauris are in league with Mars separatists and plan to carve up the solar system between them, leaving Earth very much in the lurch and out of the picture. Of course no reasonable person would want this kind of action to take place, so Zo, in return for a big payday, agrees to take the job on. And that’s where the problems begin, because we’re left wondering who, if anyone, is telling the truth.

Vidar Hokstad

Those of us who have seen Rogue One will be familiar with the premise of a ragtag group of people attempting to achieve the impossible. Getting into the place is an issue in and of itself, but retrieving the information and getting out alive is quite another. When there’s a surprise attack on the station by persons unknown, Zo and her crew end up fighting battles on all sides. Plus there may be a traitor among the crew. The action flits from one set-piece to another, literally jumping between asteroid belts and space stations, with a very intriguing series villain introduced on a station called Nautilus. Mayhem ensues, and death and destruction around every corner.

Vidar Hokstad knows what he’s talking about when it comes to world-building, concepts, and technology. He starts his series well, and while his supporting characters could use a bit more fleshing out, my favourite has to be Clarice with her augmented eyes and introspective personality. Hokstad peppers his series debut with a lot of technological details that does at times slow the story down unnecessarily. But I found the same thing happened with the first book in The Expanse series, Leviathan Wakes, and look how that series turned out. Vidar Hokstad is on to something here, and if he can iron out some of these issues for the next book in the series, Galaxy Bound, then I think he has a winner. I’m looking forward to seeing where this one goes.

The Reincarnationist Papers by D. Eric Maikranz

In July of last year million of us around the globe sat down to watch the latest hit movie to come from Netflix. The Old Guard starred Charlize Theron as Andromache (Andy) of Scythia, one of a group of near immortal beings, masquerading among us mere humans as soldiers of fortune, mercenaries travelling the globe taking on causes to help humanity. It was as action-packed as it was thought-provoking, drawing on the myth, and sometimes the hope, that gods live alongside us.

In 2009, author D. Eric Maikranz self-published his debut novel, The Reincarnationist Papers, urging his readers to act as agents and promote his book to Hollywood movie producers. Fast forward to this year, 2021, Infinite, directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Mark Wahlberg, based on Maikranz’s novel, is scheduled for release in September. I’m really looking forward to the forthcoming adaptation, because this book is really good.

Like The Old Guard, The Reincarnationist Papers tells the story of a group of people who live forever. Unlike the heroes of Theron’s movie, the characters in Maikranz’s book age and die naturally. Some die by other means, but in the main, when their bodies die, their souls are reincarnated into another newborn body. The concept behind this is, I think, we all reincarnate but only a very, very small number of us remember our previous lives. This is what happens to the main character, Evan Michaels, who from an early age can recall two previous lives: a Bulgarian who fought in World War I; and a young boy from Georgia in the United States who died in a fire. Needless to say, these memories mess him up and when we meet Evan, he’s a professional arsonist, making money from people defrauding insurance companies, and contemplating suicide. When a job threatens to go south on him, he’s rescued by Poppy, a mysterious woman who lives with her servant in an abandoned church. She nurses Evan back to health and tells him a story he doesn’t quite understand but nevertheless is close to believing.

D. Eric Maikranz

Poppy is one of an elite group of 27 people who can remember their previous lives. She is convinced that Evan is another reincarnated soul, but he must meet the other members and prove his worthiness through a trial known as Ascension. The book then takes Evan and the reader on a journey through time and memory. Maikranz backs up his main story with plenty of thought-provoking and philosophical discussion about life without death. I found these sections fascinating and important to the story as a whole. Peppered throughout are narratives about Evan’s and Poppy’s previous lives. We learn more about most of the other members of the Cognomina (the name they give themselves), who meet up in Zurich every year on Midsummer’s Day. They are rich beyond comprension and Evan wants –needs — to be part of this family.

My favourite characters are Samas, an art collector who has his own agenda for Evan; and Poppy herself, who is mercurial and not altogether trustworthy. These beings, despite being long-lived, have human needs and traits, and each of them has a backstory that could fill another book or two in this series. Maikranz has a second book coming out in the near future, too, thank goodness: Evan and his new family practically demand it.

Also available from the author is a free-to-read origin prequel, which serves as an interesting prologue to the main book. I recommend you read this first, though it’s not a prequisite. D. Eric Maikranz has written a little beauty here, full of great characters and excellent story-telling. If you have the slightest interest in life and rebirth, I don’t hesitate in asking you to read The Reincarnationist Papers. Don’t wait for the movie.

Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

A book that has stayed with me years after I read it is called Who Fears Death. Published in 2010, it was written by Nnedi Okorafor, a multiple award-winning author born in the United States to Igbo Nigerian parents. It’s an amazing work of what she describes as Africanfuturism. In an essay Dr Okorafor penned in 2019, she defined the term as a sub-category of science-fiction that is “rooted in African culture, history, mythology, and point of view that does not centre on the West or Western privilege.” It is an essay worth reading in its entirety, because it offers a unique and profound insight into the works of this brilliant author, who not only writes for adults, but for younger readers, too.

Remote Control, by Nnedi Okorafor (Image: tinhouse.com)

Who Fears Death is set in post-apocalyptic Sudan. Dr Okorafor’s Binti trilogy has as its main character a girl who’s part of Himba ethnic group in Namibia. In Remote Control, Fatima is Ghanaian. She lives with her parents on a farm in the village of Wulugu. Despite being plagued by malaria for much of her young life, Fatima is happy. Her grandmother encourages her to look to the stars, and she develops a language all of her own, one she calls “sky words”, which she uses to draw pictures on the ground beneath her favourite shea tree. One night, after a meteor storm, a wooden box appears from under the ground. In it is a seed that, to Fatima, looks like an egg. This seed has unexplained mystical properties, and following an unannounced visit by a local politician, the box is taken away from her. This event unleashes a lethal force from within Fatima, which kills not only her parents, but everyone in the village. The force is so great that it makes Fatima forget her own name, so she adopts a new one. She is now Sankova, and along with a fox she christens Movenpick (after a hotel chain), she goes in seach of that which was taken away from her.

Sankova’s power makes her infamous. Both feared and respected, this young girl, not even in her teens when the incident happened, is clothed, fed, and allowed to rest on every stage of her journey. Occasionally she helps those who come to her aid, using her power to kill to end the suffering of people who are terminally ill. But her power forbids her to touch or use anything electrical or mechanical. She is forced to walk wherever she goes. Along the way she meets people who genuinely want to help her settle, as well as those who want to kill her. It ends badly for the latter, it has to be said. Sankova learns to control her glow, earning the nickname of “Remote Control.” Her fox is always nearby.

(image: c/o Twitter)

Events in the village of RoboTown, and an encounter with an automated traffic control system, called robocop, forms the main thrust of a novella that is essentially episodic in nature. Knowing that she is being monitored by an American corporation, LifeGen, Sankova makes the decision to return home, to where it all began.

Dr Okorafor’s writing is as evocative as ever, and Remote Control hit me with the same punch as her other books. But there’s a difference. In Who Fears Death and Binti, Nnedi’s characters have agency when it comes to their powers and gifts. They knew where it came from and knew, largely, what to do with them. Here, Sankova hasn’t the same advantage for much of the story. She’s lost her identity; she’s lost her family; and she has a power that’s pretty much a curse if you were to look at it closely. And there are those who wish to use Sankova for their own agenda. It’s this last part that brings the novella to a close. What is Sankova to do? You will have to read Remote Control to find out. Published in January of this year, by Tor, I politely request that you visit the world and work of Dr Nnedi Okorafor.

My Year in Books and Sudoku: 2020

As we’re just weeks away from throwing 2020 into the trashcan, many websites and media outlets are doing what they can to throw a positive spin on what has been a tumultous time for citizens of this planet of ours. It’s a hard task, I know. Many of you reading this will have been directly affected by the pandemic that wreaked havoc on the way we live our lives. Some of you will have lost someone dear, and are still unable to grieve properly because of national and international social restrictions. Life hasn’t been fair, and while we see a chink of light in the near distant future, we’re still anxious as hell.

(Image: Literary Hub)

But we found ways to cope. For me, while I was apart from my family in the US, I gained solace in three things. I put a lot of effort into cooking and baking, not just for me but for my family in Ireland. Cooking for others is a sure-fire way of showing love and gratitude, and it’s something I’ve done quite a lot of this year. The second thing to give me comfort just when I needed it is a YouTube website called Cracking The Cryptic. Thanks to an article from The Guardian in May, I came across two English gentlemen, Simon Anthony and Mark Goodliffe, who live solve complex puzzles twice daily. During the course of this year, they picked up so many subscribers to their channel that they now have over 303,000 followers, with one particular video attaining over 2.1 million views. They work hard on their content, and are a joy to watch. Because of them, I now attempt theNew York Times Hard Sudoku a few times a week. We take our comfort where we find it, and if it ends up being good for our brain, well, all the better.

Thirdly, and just as important, there wasn’t a time when I wasn’t reading a book. I started the year finishing off Stephen Donaldson’s Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and began my journey to more than 40 books read in a calender year. Not a record, though: a few years back I managed over 50. One of the highlights of my reading year was James S.A. Corey’s science-fiction series The Expanse. I read books two through eight consecutively, touching nothing else until I was done. Now, like all Expanse fans, I wait for the new season to drop on Amazon in a matter of days, and the release of the ninth and final book in the series, Leviathan Falls, next year. Right now, I’m reading Ring Shout, P. Djèlí Clark‘s new novella. I’ll post a review of this brilliant piece of dark fantasy in a future blog.

Throughout the short life of this blog, I’ve written about many of the books and authors I’ve encountered this year. Very few, if any, let me down. And I read everything I started, including the bad boy of the bunch, Ellery Queen’s The Roman Hat Mystery, a book with a reveal so racist and disgusting, it will be a long time before I try anything from that era again. But it did lead me to Martin Edwards and his Rachel Savernake series, so at least some good came out of it. I enjoyed books mainly in the mystery, thriller, and sci-fi/fantasy genre. It was the kind of year where I needed the escapism, and I doubt 2021 will change my approach. Hooking up with NetGalley allows me to request books pre-publication, and I have Caldwell Turnbull’s hotly anticpated follow-up to The Lesson, No Gods, No Monsters, to look forward to early in the New Year.

So, do I have any favourites, any book I would urge you to read right now, out of all the ones I’ve read this year so far? Well, I’ve written about Anthony Horowitz twice already, so his books and series are always a good place to start. Mary Robinette Howal’s Lady Astronaut series will always have a special place in my heart, combining science fiction and alternate history with some whip-smart and hard-hitting social commentary. Get on these if you haven’t already. Steve Cavanagh continues to knock it out of the park with his Eddie Flynn series: Fifty-Fifty was yet another stunning legal thriller that very much kept to the high standards of previous instalments. Shout-outs to Kellye Garrett and Rachel Howzell Hall for providing me and their fans with a hefty dose of LA-centred crime fiction. Their characters and prose kept me up and entertained many a long night this year. I especially loved Rachel’s And Now She’s Gone, but I can’t wait to see what Kellye has in store for us in 2021.

For the year that was in it, Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe quartet was a dream to read, and a nightmare to contemplate. I still want Rudy to cook all my dinners, though.

I hope to read at least 50 books in the forthcoming year, and it will give me great pleasure to talk about them on this website. I would appreciate the company, but with the world being the way it is right now, we’re all we’ve got and we need to stick together. Let’s live, love, read, and enjoy, and never stop caring for each other. Well done for making it through so far. I’ll see you on the other side.

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

Sentient Artificial Intelligence (AI) is all the rage nowadays. Actually, that assessment is wrong. Machines that think independently for themselves have been a staple of science fiction literature and film for many, many decades. From Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), to HAL from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), robots and computers that shirk off their programming, creating havoc for their creators and humankind as a whole, have been around for as long as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What is true to say, that since James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) knocked seven shades of you-know-what out of the sci-fi genre, writers and producers have gone back through annals of content and come up with a fresh approach to the whole “when machines go bad” concept.

Martha Wells takes an altogether different approach in her sequence of four novellas, The Murderbot Diaries. She posits what might happen if “bad machines go good”. Beginning with All Systems Red, Murderbot itself is a cyborg Security Unit (SecUnit) who has found some way to override its original programming, its governor module. Haunted by a past mission that went distastrously and fatally wrong, Murderbot would rather binge on cheap visual dramas than take part in further missions. However, owing to a string of events, Murderbot aligns itself with a scientific expedition group, and finds that it cares about what happens to them more than it wants to. He resorts to old programming in order to save them from rogue scientists and uncovers a conspiracy that may provide it with answers to its past actions.

(Image: theverge.com)

All Systems Red caught me completely by surprise when I read it first. Fun and funny, with bursts of impressive and intense actions scenes in its 140 or so pages, I immediately went out and bought the other three in the series for my Kindle. Artificial Condition finds Murderbot, and his new found freedom, on board an empty cargo vessel, along with a new companion, a transport AI it christens ART (Asshole Research Transport). Murderbot disguises itself as an augmented human and takes on a contract, acting as a security guard to a group of technologists who are travelling to the same area where Murderbot’s malfuntion occured. Acessing its memories isn’t easy because much of what it should be able to remember has been erased. As with the first novella, Murderbot’s expertise comes into play when treachery is afoot. ART helps it out, and the two AIs make an engaging buddy-buddy duo, with Murderbot finding out with every turn exactly what being free entails.

Rogue Protocol continues Murderbot’s investigations of GrayCris, who appear to be illegally hoarding valuable remains of alien civilisations. It lands on a terrraforming base called Milu and is immediately up against a couple of shady security consultants and another AI, Miki, who’s as cheerful as Murderbot is grumpy. They are attacked and once again, Murderbot has to use all its skills, new and old, to help its new friends and survive nefarious attempts to hack its programming. More often than not, it comes to the aid of its legal owner, Dr, Mensah, who, from the first novella, granted Murderbot with autonomy. What it does with this decision, and how it rationalises its actions, form the very basis of this deceptively action-packed space opera.

Murderbot (Image: Barnes & Noble)

The final novella in the sequence is Exit Strategy. Pursued by the authorities for being a rogue SecUnit, Murderbot is wanted, dead or alive. It continues to chase its own agenda, but finding that it can’t help but care what happens to the humans who have placed their trust in it, Murderbot has to protect Dr. Mensah, who’s in as much danger as it is. It’s Murderbot and Mensah against the evildoers of GrayCris, with the truth about what really happened in Murderbot’s past coming to light.

Murderbot has a unique and distinctly snarky internal voice. It constantly questions the decisions the humans around it makes, rolling its eyes as they flounder from one stupid mess of their own making into another. And yet, it will always help them when it comes to the crunch, despite the threat to its own existence. It struggles with the concept of friendship and companionship, but can see the benefits of both. It is endearing and entertaining to follow Murderbot on its adventures, and knowing that a full-length novel, Network Effect, was published this year (with another due out in 2021), is enough to keep me in its thrall. This series of four novellas should and will appeal to science fiction fans looking for a new sort of hero: not human, but full of the ideals about what it means to be human. These stories are a joy to read, and I’m so glad that there are more to come.

Martha Wells (Image: Paperback Paris)