Category Archives: science fiction

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)

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

Space 1999, a great (and sometimes not-so-great) British TV show from the 1970’s, created an extraordinary concept in which, due to a nuclear explosion on the Moon’s surface, our lunar neighbour was wrenched out of orbit and flung into the outer regions of our solar system and beyond. This was devastating for the Commander Koenig and the crew of Moonbase Alpha. Over the course of two seasons (the first being the most superior), the Moon encounters black holes and space warps (the science is cagey, but let’s run with it), and all manners of aliens and danger. It was fun while it lasted. The full pilot is available on YouTube and is definitely worth watching. But little is made of the effect of the Moon’s disappearance from Earth’s orbit, and the likely geological impact it would have had on our planet. The Broken Earth trilogy, written by N.K. Jemisin, imagines, to much acclaim, the cataclysmic events that would befall our planet where something to happen to the Moon.

N.K. Jemisin (Image: The Verge)

I’m jumping the gun somewhat here. We don’t learn about the Moon until much later in the trilogy, which consists of The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stolen Sky. On what may or may not be our Earth in the very far future, there is the Stillness: a supercontinent that endures eons long events known as Seasons. These can be volcanic eruptions, massive earthquakes, the kind of natural disasters that have caused extended periods of drought and famine. It’s climate change taken to its extreme, and very much a warning to us in the here and now. Citizens of the Stillness hide out in Comms, only to rebuilt that which was destroyed. Orogenes protect the Stillness: these are humans who possess an uncanny ability to control the ground beneath them, and as we learn later the sky above. Orogenes can literally move mountains, but they are feared and hated despite what they do to help save humanity. They are trained at the Fulcrum, a school that both educates and brutalises orogenes-in-waiting. Not all survive the process, as their teachers, Guardians, run a harsh regime.

(Image: arstechnica.com)

The Fifth Season opens with a woman named Essun who discovers that her husband has murdered their baby son and has now disappeared with their daughter. Using different points of view (third person, first person, and even second person), N.K. beautifully creates a web of narrative intricacy. We read about Damaya, an orogene-in-training, arriving at the Fulcrum; and Syenite who, along with her more experienced handler, Alabaster, is embarking on her first mission. As we find ourselves drawn into these separate narratives, N.K. drops a little twist: they are all the same woman at different points in her life. We work out where each story takes place, and we also have a front row seat to the abuse and oppression orogenes endure. It’s not supposed to be comfortable.

The Obelisk Gate looks upwards. All around the world, hanging in the skies of the Stillness, are huge crystals called Obelisks. Following from the climactic events of the first book, when Syenite draws from power from one such obelisk in order to protect herself and her child, the story shares perspective with Nassun, Essun’s daughter, who believes that she and her people have suffered enough injustice and enslavement and humanity is to blame. It and the Stillness deserve to be torn apart for good. She intends to use her considerable power to bring about the end of all things. Her mother means to find and stop her. Both sides of this apocalytic battle are aided and abetted by the Stone Eaters, beings that can travel through rock itself, and can trace their origin far back to a more advanced society: one that in pursuit of power created the obelisks and knocked the Moon from its orbit.

The Stone Sky brings the trilogy to a close, but in a startling and literally earth-shattering way. The past, present, and future collide when we learn of how and why the obelisks were created, and how the race of slaves created to power the crystals both saved and damned the Earth. In its defence, Mother Earth herself had enough of what humanity was doing to her. We had made Gaia our slave and She rebelled against us. It was what we deserved. Nassun and Essen are on a collision course and the Earth is on the side of the younger woman, who wants to bring the Moon back and crash it onto the surface of the planet. The stakes couldn’t be any higher.

(image: theverge.com)

The Broken Earth Trilogy is science fiction and fantasy seated at the top end of both tables. N.K. creates characters and landscapes that are recognisable and fantastical. Rooted in all three books is the notion of power and what we will do to attain and keep it. In order to have our way, we find it necessary to subjugate and dominate individuals and races. But when the planet we live on decides that it’s time for change and wholesale annihilation, we live on borrowed time. It takes bravery and sacrifice to prevail against such insurmountable odds. N.K. Jemisin is the first Black author to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel with The Fifth Season. She then proceeded to follow up that win with a further two awards in the category with the remaining novels in the trilogy. That in itself should tell you something. If you haven’t read them yet, there is really no excuse not to. The best fiction tells us something about ourselves as a person and as a human being. N.K.’s trilogy not only tells us what would happen if we cared any less about how we live, but gives us a way to heal the world around us. We don’t need superpowers; we just need to care. And act now.

N.K. Jemisin has embarked on a new trilogy, The Great Cities, beginning with the publication this year of The City We Became. Instead of Earth being alive, its cities that are sentient. I look forward to reading this. Also I would advise people to check out her short story collection, How Long ’til Black Future Month. It’s superb.

Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

In a year where I did little else but watch Netflix, bake goodies, and read until I my eyes refused to cooperate with me, I have to say that I’ve had it better than some. I enjoy reading, and part of what makes the experience more pleasurable is picking up gems like Lindsay Ellis’ debut novel, Axiom’s End.

(Image: Chicago Review of Books)

Lindsay is a film critic and video essayist. Her YouTube channel is extremely popular, and her recent couple of videos about fan fiction, the Omegaverse, and her back-and-forths with the lawyer of a successful author in the romance literature genre are informative, entertaining, and come with a warning: Be prepared to back up everything you claim in a court. (This is something that’s become quite relevant in recent weeks.) But I have to admit, until I got word of a new science fiction novel doing the rounds and picking up rave reviews, I never heard of her. I have since rememedied this.

The year is 2007, but it’s not from our history. Axiom’s End is set in an alternate United States where First Contact with an alien species has already occured, but because the US government has attempted to cover it up, very few people are aware it happened. All they know is that within a short space of time, there have been two meteor strikes on American soil. Whistleblower Nils Ortega, via his website, posts redacted documents which, he says, exposes the truth and implicates President George W. Bush as having direct knowledge of the cover-up. Nils is in hiding, and his family are unaware of his whereabouts. His daughter, Cora Sabino, in particular, struggles with life. Living with her Mom and siblings, her car is almost beyond repair, and she just about quits the job her Mom got for her when the second meteor strikes.

Almost straightaway Cora’s family are threatened. Government agents turn up on their doorstep and are taken into custody, with Cora going on the run. She encounters an alien she calls Ampersand, and through a series of events, not all of them comfortable, Cora agrees to become Ampersand’s translator. It’s an alliance fraught with peril, because not only does Cora want her family back safe and sound, she’s not altogether trustful nor understanding of her alien companion’s true motives.

Lindsay Ellis (Image: knowyourmemes.com)

That’s the bare bones of Axiom’s End. But there’s a lot more to it than this. The reader has to play catch-up from page one, but Lindsay’s world-building and playful examination of events nearly a decade and a half ago is masterfully handled. And when the characters are allowed to breathe and take stock, the reader does, too. The relationship between Cora and Ampersand is allowed to evolve at its own pace, despite the breakneck chain of events that pepper each chapter of this engrossing, fun, and thought-provoking novel.

Lindsay says in her recent video essay that she drew from her own experience of fan fiction, particularly Transformers, when putting the plot of Axiom’s End together. I can totally see this, but I would be giving too much of the plot away if I commented any further. It was a pleasure to read, and although my review might seem slight, I genuinely fear for giving too much away. One very minor spoiler I will reveal, however: George W. Bush’s letter of resignation is literary wish-fulfillment. Axiom’s End is book one of a series that Lindsay has called “Nuomena”. I don’t know what this means, except to say I very much look forward to book two.

The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

Given how much of 2020 has progressed so far, I could forgive myself for reading “comfortable” books; the kind that would help me deal with and take me away from this constant feeling of existential dread and anxiety. But if you scroll down my Goodreads list, you will see I’ve read very few books you could describe as “comfortable” (with the greatest respect to authors who cater for that market: it’s much needed). At the end of the day, all the books I’ve read this year so far have captured the essence of humanity: it’s hopes and dreams, its triumphs and failures, its birth and its death. One such book has stood out this year, and is a perfect example of what it takes to be human and to survive against hopeless odds, is The Luminous Dead, the debut novel from American author Caitlin Starling.

Set on another planet, in a far-flung dystopian future, The Luminous Dead is a book about Gyre Price, a potholer who was raised on a mining colony. She lies about her experience and credentials and basically bluffs her way into a high-stakes job offering the kind of money to help her get off-planet and find her mother, who abandoned her years earlier. Gyre has issues, but then again so does her handler, Em, who literally pulls Gyre’s strings from above-ground. Gyre and Em need to trust each other, but it’s plain from the off that they don’t. And this mistrust could get Gyre killed. Or worse: she could become a ghost, destined to haunt the caves until the next expedition comes around.

This isn’t Em’s first attempt to find the rich mineral deposits in these caves. Without giving too much away, Gyre’s handler has other deeply personal reasons in urging her charge downwards and into danger. Constant gear malfunctions, missing supplies, and the supremely creepy presense of Tunnellers, subterranean creatures who dwell in the shadows and can literally pop up anywhere, add to the notion that Gyre might not make it out in one piece, if at all.

The Luminous Dead sticks with Gyre’s POV throughout, without making it a first person narrative. This is a difficult form of storytelling to pull off, the challenge being that the author needs to keep the reader engaged with both the action around the main character and her innermost thoughts. And this won’t be for everyone. Readers expecting a balls-to-the-wall action adventure along the lines of Alien and Neil Marshall’s 2005 horror movie set in a cave, The Descent, will come away feeling short-changed. So it’s important to note that while there are plenty of death-defying sequences within the book, this is equally a two-hander piece of speculative fiction that keeps the story moving forward because we are so invested in Gyre and Em. These are young women, at times working with and against one another, but with a similar endgame in mind. It’s a human thing in times of crises to fall into distrust and disbelief, but when it comes to the crunch, inevitably we have to trust someone, even if that someone is ourself.

Caitlin Starling: The Luminous Dead

The Luminous Dead is rich in atmosphere, and is in equal parts a science fiction thriller, a horror story, a psychological drama, and — yes — a delightfully queer love story. As debuts go, Caitlin Starling has put herself on the map, with her novel nominated for a Locus Award, a Bram Stoker Award, and winner of the Ladies of Horror Fiction Award for Best Debut Novel. She recently released Yellow Jessamine, a dark fantasy novella that I will no doubt read and review in the very near future.