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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Fifth Seasonopens 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 Skybrings 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I picked a bad time to read a series of books about a Europe ravaged by the after-effects of a global pandemic, a refugee crisis, terrorism, and the break-up of the EU itself. But here we are. Dave Hitchinson’sFractured Europesequence is the ultimate in literary What If? for our time. Allow me to take you through this quartet, and introduce you to Rudi.
An Estonian, working in a restaurant in Krakow, Rudi’s exceptional talents keep him gainfully employed in an economy that’s pretty much gone to hell. One evening at the restaurant, Rudi is approached by a representative of an underground organisation called the Couriers des Bois. His nationality could be of use to them, and they need someone to move a package across the many borders across the continent. Europe has become so segmented over the years that practically any entity, be it a statelet or national park, can declare independence and have its own border control process.
In Europe in Autumn, Rudi goes from being a cook to a spy. It’s impossible to swat away John le Carre vibes here. Rudi has to learn as he goes, and although he has support from the organisation, he’s very much on his own for much of the novel. His instructor/mentor is MIA, presumed traitorous. And his friends and family become targets of whomever is behind the “Great Conspiracy”. And oh, what a conspiracy it is!
Sometime in the 19th century, a family of English cartographers, map-makers, brought into existence a parallel Europe, and somehow this Europe, populated in the main by English people, and accessible from very few places in our Europe. Yes, it’s a head-scratcher. Dave Hutchinson moves from near-future spy fiction to the realm of fantasy. And it works, because throughout the book, we see everything through Rudi’s eyes. We’re as flummoxed as he is, but there’s a job to do and people to protect, so like James Bond and George Smiley, we want to get to the bottom of this mess.
Europe at Midnight takes us to the Campus, a university nation-state that’s both within and without the Community, the parallel Europe. It’s also the site where the flu virus was manufactured, and there’s also a nucleur weapon. Rudi has very little to do in this instalment, instead we follow Jim, who works for British intelligence. A stabbing on a London bus begins the intrigue, and in a story where the chronology of events has to be worked out by the reader, it’s a captivating puzzle that when worlds finally collide, some questions are answered, but inevitably many more take their place.
Europe in Wintersees the return of Rudi. It opens with the suicide bombing of an important railway tunnel operated by the Line, a network that crosses continental Europe and is a nation state itself. Think Amtrak, but you need a passport and travel documents to board. Awareness of the Community is widespread, and diplomatic relationships are struck up between the different European universes. Characters from previous books make an appearance, and the action includes assassinations, perilous travels between worlds, and a revision of history as we know it. There’s a wonderful sequence of events at the end involving an airport that I will not spoil here. You will have to read it for yourself.
In the last (presumably, but with Dave Hitchinson you never know) of the sequence, Europe at Dawn, there is a resolution of sorts for the disparate storylines, but also gives space to introduce new and important characters. There is murder, mayhem, chases, and escapes. There is a sublime subplot about a bejewelled skull in the possession of a travelling folk group that by the end of the book, it all makes some sort of sense. But not everything gets resolved; there’s no “and they all lived happily ever after”. But I remain very much okay with that.
The above summaries do little justice to the themes and events that run throughout Fractured Europe. I need to point out that at times, the books are very funny. There’s an almost Terry Pratchett feel to them. Dave Hutchinson’s attention to detail and knowledge of world and European history permeates each page and character. The new future world of which he writes is grey and mundane, but the story is rich in atmosphere. If John le Carre were to write speculative fiction as a spy story, he could not do a better job than Dave Hutchinson. He is a writer for and of our times.
I spent much of the early part of this year reading James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, ploughing through books two to eight in a couple of months. Now, like all fans, I eagerly anticipate the final book, Leviathan Falls, which is due out some time in 2021. I’ve been on the lookout for other series to take its place, and I know there are plenty out there, but I felt a need for character-driven space opera rather than out-and-out humans-v-aliens action adventure. Becky Chambers‘ Wayfarers series was always on the cards as a must-read, and now I’m wondering why it took me so long to get there.
Wayfarersis a four book series, beginning with The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet. Published in 2015, originally via a Kickstarter campaign, Becky’s debut found its audience and was nominated for major prizes, such as the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and the British Fantasy Awards. It was also the first self-published novel to be nominated for the Kitschies, which “rewards the year’s most progressive, intelligent, and entertaining fiction that contains elements of the speculative or fantastic.” In short, publishing dynamite. The reasons for this are plentiful.
Ashby Santoso is the captain of the Wayfarer, a ship that creates tunnels through space, wormholes basically, allowing access to distant planets, galaxies, and markets. This function is vital to the stability and economy of the Galactic Commons (GC), a federation in which Humanity is its most recent member. Ashby understands that a ship is only as good as its crew, and in this regard, his crew is the most diverse, talented, unique, and loyal group of people the GC has ever mustered up.
Joining the team is Rosemary Harper, and she serves as our introduction to both Becky Chambers’ universe and its inhabitants. Rosemary enlists as a file clerk under false pretenses. She’s on the run from her past, but at the same time wants to see what else is out there. Luckily enough she is good at her job, even if her presence riles Artis Corbin, the ship’s algaeist. He has the important job of growing the ship’s fuel and nothing or no one else is really important to him. Also on board is Sissix, an Aandrisk, who along with Ohan, a Sianat Pair, pilot and navigate the Wayfarer. Jenks and Kizzy are the ship’s technicians, with Jenks enjoying a very special and beautiful relationship with the ship’s AI, Lovelace, AKA Lovey. Rounding off the crew is Dr Chef, a Grum, who also serves as a kind of therapist for his shipmates.
The main thrust of Small Angry Planet is the crew’s mission to tunnel a wormhole through to a new system that has been granted provisional membership of the GC. It’s a journey that will take some time, a ‘standard’, which I believe is more than a year. The passing of time is denoted differently to ours: where we would say week, the citizens of the GC say tendays, which I think is self-explanatory. The trek is not without its perils. The Wayfarer encounters space pirates, heretics, and saboteurs. But action doesn’t drive the plot; it’s characters do.
Along the way we get to know the crew through beautiful and surprising revelations. The story is told in multiple POVs, but never once does Becky Chambers lose clarity in voice or thought. While not an action-orientated adventure, the set-pieces when they come are dramatic, and often reveal depths to each of the characters in the novel. Their individual stories are the bedrock upon which the author sets her stall, and they are in turn inspiring, poignant, heart-breaking, and despite the presence of alien beings, so very human.
This is a story about family, and not just the one we’re born into: it’s about the family we chose for ourselves as we travel through life and the stars. Rosemary’s secret, when it does come to light, doesn’t affect how the crew sees her as a person, but it becomes a way for her to grow more into herself, and her relationship with Sissix especially is more powerful as a result.
The events at the end of Small Angry Planet allows Becky take us down another path. Book two in the series, A Closed And Common Orbit, is effectively a stand-alone sequel, with the focus on Lovelace, the AI, who takes human form, an action that is illegal in the GC. Lovelace’s new body, or “kit”, has its advantages and disadvatages, and through the course of Common Orbit, we see her and her friend Pepper, a friend of Jenks who comes to the ship’s rescue in the previous novel, negotiate the new normal. Two stories run concurrently. Lovelace’s search for the meaning of existence as she seeks to understand the importance of intimate relationships, as well as having a program that forbids her to lie, is the inital focus. Learning to bend the truth a little bit is vital for her survival. Pepper’s story is equally relevant, and we discover how she came to be. When Owl is introduced, I read her voice as one of my very dearest friends, and she gave me great comfort. I’m not ashamed to say that I found Pepper’s story very emotional and how the two strands in the novel work out hit me in my core. Pepper’s best friend, Blue, is magnificent. And Tak, Lovelace’s friend and tattoo artist, completes this fantastic four.
Book three has a different approach altogether. Record Of A Spaceborn Few choses as its focus five characters who live on board a generation ship that’s part of the Exodan Fleet, among them Tessa, the sister of Captain Ashby Santoso from Small Angry Planet. The Fleet represents what’s left of Humanity after it left Earth when it became uninhabitable. Granted GC citizenship and given a star of its own to orbit, the Exodan’s journey has come to an end. But what happens now? Spaceborn Few follows five main characters as they deal with the aftermath of a major catastrophe that occurs in the novel’s prologue. Apart from Tessa, we inhabit the lives and innermost thoughts of Isabel, the Fleet’s archivist, who is playing host to a visiting Harmaegeon, a GC elite who wishes to learn about the Fleet and Humanity; Eyas, a “caretaker’, who respectfully and ritualistically deals with the bodies of those who have died (basically turning them into compost); Kip, a teenage boy who wants nothing more than to leave the Fleet as soon as he’s able to; and finally Sawyer, a man who comes from the “bad side of town” and joins the Fleet looking for a new life.
Like the preceding books in the series, Spaceborn Few has a theme. Small Angry Planet is about family. Common Orbit is, I think, about identity: who we are, how others perceive us, and how we preceive ourselves. Spaceborn Few is about home. Wherever it is, can we be happy there? Can we find our truth and our heart, or do we need to look further ahead? Will we ever find acceptance among people who are not us? Sometimes its not enough to just have a place to live; we need a place to be and to connect. Becky Chambers’ forte is getting inside her character’s heads. In learning so much about them, we find out similar things about ourselves and our humanity. It’s a beautiful thing, but it’s not always comfortable to read home truths.
Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series is a beautifully written and deeply personal work of literary and speculative fiction. It probably won’t appeal to readers who like an explosion or gun battle every second chapter, although there are some great examples of both throughout all three books. It does, however, speak to the individual on what it means to be alive during times of crises and uncertainty. Each book found a place in my heart, and with a fourth and possibly final novel, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, due out in 2021, it looks like I’ll have to find more room. Winner of the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Series,Wayfarers is majestic, epic in scope, but initmate in focus. It speaks to the human in each of us.