Planetfall, by Emma Newman

Again, we have another book that I deem worthy of having me crawl out of the woodwork for!

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Author’s website
Publication date – November 3, 2015

Summary: Renata Ghali believed in Lee Suh-Mi’s vision of a world far beyond Earth, calling to humanity. A planet promising to reveal the truth about our place in the cosmos, untainted by overpopulation, pollution, and war. Ren believed in that vision enough to give up everything to follow Suh-Mi into the unknown.

More than twenty-two years have passed since Ren and the rest of the faithful braved the starry abyss and established a colony at the base of an enigmatic alien structure where Suh-Mi has since resided, alone. All that time, Ren has worked hard as the colony’s 3-D printer engineer, creating the tools necessary for human survival in an alien environment, and harboring a devastating secret.

Ren continues to perpetuate the lie forming the foundation of the colony for the good of her fellow colonists, despite the personal cost. Then a stranger appears, far too young to have been part of the first planetfall, a man who bears a remarkable resemblance to Suh-Mi.

The truth Ren has concealed since planetfall can no longer be hidden. And its revelation might tear the colony apart…

Review: Over time I’ve come to understand that one sign of a great book is its ability to make you stop reading and ponder the implications of what you just read. To speculate and theorize in a way that’s too deep to do while still continuing to read on. Planetfall quickly became that kind of book for me, one where I needed to step back and start pondering the symbolism and implications of half of what was going on. I sank into that perfect brainspace that tells me yes, this book is one that provokes some interesting thoughts, and it’s definitely a keeper.

Planetfall starts out fairly innocuously, with the interesting idea of a smallish community on a non-Earth planet. The story is told in first-person viewpoint with Renata Ghali as the narrator, an engineer who lends her skills to the colony at the base of God’s city, where Lee Suh-Mi is said to be communing with God for the purpose of advancing the colony and doing God’s work The colonists left earth years ago, under Suh-Mi’s guidance, to find God and learn about humanity’s place in the universe. The colony runs fairly smoothly, at least on the surface.

Then a young man arrives, claiming to be Suh-Mi’s grandson, and his very presence threatens to unravel everything that the colonists have built.

On its surface, it seems like a fairly standard exploration of early human colonization of another planet, told from the perspective of a private person who was there when it all began. But it quickly becomes more than that. Newman starts the reader off partway through the story, telling necessary backstory in the form of seamless and brief flashbacks, revealing details piece by piece. I know that many people aren’t that fond of flashback storytelling, and I myself am rather torn on the matter (so often it can come across like a series of memory-infodumps, which gets irritating), but I find that Newman handled it well, making them relatively brief and with actual relevance to what was occurring in the plot. Ren having brief memories prompted by objects or places is perfectly natural, it happens to all of us, and so it wasn’t at all obtrusive, nor did it take me out of the story as a whole.

I love how very broken Ren is, and how slowly it all becomes clear to the reader. Little hints get dropped so subtly that by the time the big reveal hits, you’re left remembering all those small mentions that previous cropped up, putting all the pieces together until your heart just aches for her. Or at least mine did. Quite possibly because I can relate a bit to what she was going through, or at least some of the thought process behind it. Tension ran high once Ren’s secret is out in the open, too, and the colonists decide to force issues in unhealthy ways that leave her feeling trapped and threatened, and I felt my own anxiety surge when reading that particular scene. She was an interesting character even before that, of course, but the way her mental health comes into play added to my ability to relate to her, and I think it was all handled extremely well. Mental illness is a hard card to play in fiction, but Newman did it justice, I think.

One of the things that left me with an utter “Whoa!” moment was the parallel between this story and the Garden of Eden myth. To me this whole book was a twist on a creation myth, a sci-fi origin story. When you look into the flashbacks and realize that the journey from Earth and the discovery of a new planet with God’s city all started with a woman who ate a strange plant and then began to understand things far beyond what she’d understood before, the similarities become clear. However, that isn’t to say that Earth is meant to be Eden; part of the reason the initial colonists left with Suh-Mi was because the planet was devastated by overcrowding and pollution, and where they ended up had none of that. But when you see a story about how someone is influenced by forces they can’t understand, which leads them to gaining unprecedented knowledge and wisdom and leaving their home to search for God? Yeah, it’s pretty easy to draw the comparisons.

And I loved that! I love plays on myths, especially ones that draw from Judeo-Christian myths, because so many people see them as sacrosanct and unchangeable and yet they’re so familiar to Western culture that they’re often instantly recognizable when somebody does take that chance and play around with them. Newman tackled this all brilliantly, adding a wonderful new touch to an old story.

Long story short, Planetfall is definitely worthy of the high praise it has been receiving. It’s a compelling story of what people will do to maintain order, to keep up the status quo. It tackles mental illness, creation myths, and the questions of how much “for your own good” is actually still good. It’s more than just an early colonization story; it’s an exploration of humanity and its relation to the divine, to science, and to itself. It tells you that sometimes there are no explanations even when there are answers, and that there are times to leave well enough alone and time to delve deeper to gain a better understanding. Beautiful prose joins with fascinating subject matter, resulting in a profound book that has made its mark. Highly recommended for fans of social sci-fi, Planetfall does not disappoint.

(Received for review via the publisher.)

The Night of the Long Knives, by Fritz Leiber

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Author’s GoodReads page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – 1960, reprinted July 15, 2015

Summary: I was one hundred miles from Nowhere ― and I mean that literally ― when I spotted this girl out of the corner of my eye. I’d been keeping an extra lookout because I still expected the other undead bugger left over from the murder party at Nowhere to be stalking me.

Welcome to Deathland, a postapocalyptic nuclear desert where kill or be killed is the law of the land. The radiation-damaged survivors of this ravaged region are consumed by the urge to murder each other, making partnership of any sort a lethal risk. But when two drifters forge an uneasy truce, the possibility of a new life beckons.

Written by a multiple Hugo Award–winning author and one of the founders of the sword-and-sorcery genre, this novel-length magazine story first appeared at the height of Cold War paranoia. Fritz Leiber’s thought-provoking tale addresses timeless questions about the influences of community and culture as well as the individual struggle to reform.

Thoughts: Ray is a murderer, wandering the Deathlands alone. If he sees another human being, he must fight down one of two primal urges: to kill or to copulate. That’s just how life is. Sure, there may be people out there who don’t do that, who live in social groups and cling to post-apocalyptic life in any way they can, but that’s not Ray’s way. And it’s a chance meeting with Alice, and then with Pop, that changes how he looks at his life, and the world in which he lives.

Night of the Long Knives is one of those stories that gives me a lot of difficulty when trying to review. It’s good. I can see that it’s good, full of interesting thoughts about religion and death and culture, much of it unsaid but still implied. It’s told from an interesting perspective, a man who’s very much a loner and part of a culture of death. it had a fun twist at the end whereby you think there’s going to be mass deaths, only instead it turns out to be mass salvation from a plague.

I should have loved it. Instead I viewed it as… okay. Objectively good, but really not my cup of tea.

I liked the themes more than the execution, really. Ray and Alice are murderers by culture, life in the Deathlands shaping them into people who kill people just because primal human instinct tells them to. Pop is an ex-murderer, someone who has made a choice not to kill and who struggles with fighting that urge. Like Ray, he played a part in the Last War, the war that brought North America, at least, to its knees and remade it into something desperate and harsh. There’s discussion over why someone would choose to go against their urges, whether remote mass killings in war count as murders or not, treating part of the accepted human condition as merely another thing to be overcome. These are some great theme, fertile ground for discussion and reflection.

But the story just didn’t do it for me.

Perhaps it was because as fascinating as those themes are, I felt such a disconnect from them that it was hard for me to really appreciate that way of life and the struggle to change it. The fact that Leiber is also hailed as such a phenomenal writer made me feel, through the whole thing, that this was just utter allegory for something else entirely, and I just wasn’t smart enough or insightful enough to figure out what. Stories that leave me wishing I was more intelligent are great, because they give me drive to better myself, but they are pretty frustrating during the initial read.

At fewer than 100 pages, The Night of the Long Knives flies by despite the dark concepts it deals with, and so even when it may not be an enjoyable read, per se, it is still objectively good, stylistically worthwhile and set in a fairly common but still unique post-apocalyptic setting. It does hold up and is good reading even over half a century since its initial publication, and you don’t find too many works that you can say that about. Older sci-fi tends to suffer from the limitations of its day, and while there was a little bit of that in here, it was only a touchpoint, and a subtle one, to show the difference of North America after a massive war. A few phrases here and there that sound dated or awkward to modern ears, but nothing that isn’t easily handwaved as just another part of the story and the time it takes place in. So even if, like me, you don’t end up that fond of this novella in the long run, I’d say it’s still worth reading just to see a good example of something that stands the test of time and raises some interesting questions about morality and instinct.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Dark Orbit, by Carolyn Ives Gilman

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Author’s Goodreads page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 14, 2015

Summary: Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate. Thora was once a member of the interplanetary elite, but since her prophetic delusions helped mobilize a revolt on Orem, she’s been banished to the farthest reaches of space, because of the risk that her very presence could revive unrest.

Upon arrival, the team finds an extraordinary crystalline planet, laden with dark matter. Then a crew member is murdered and Thora mysteriously disappears. Thought to be uninhabited, the planet is in fact home to a blind, sentient species whose members navigate their world with a bizarre vocabulary and extrasensory perceptions.

Lost in the deep crevasses of the planet among these people, Thora must battle her demons and learn to comprehend the native inhabitants in order to find her crewmates and warn them of an impending danger. But her most difficult task may lie in persuading the crew that some powers lie beyond the boundaries of science.

Thoughts: First Contact is a tricky situation, no matter the culture. Trickier still when you arrive in a place and don’t expect to actually encounter sentient life at all, so you’re completely unprepared for what awaits you. This is the situation that the crew of the Escher find themselves in when they investigate the newly discovered planet Iris. There are multiple confusing things about the planet: random gravity fluctuations, new species of plants, a pseudo-forest that seems to bend spatial perception. But the real trouble begins when one of the crew disappears, taken by a twist of reality to the underground village of Torobe, where the inhabitants are blind and where the ship’s scanners can’t penetrate to find her and bring her back.

But Dark Orbit is more than just a story of first contact. It forces the characters, and thus the reader, to confront their ideas of normalcy, or perception, of the things that define them. The people living in Torobe are blind; what use do they have for sight when they live in a lightless cave? It isn’t that they have no eyes, or that their eyes don’t function, but rather that their circumstances for forced rewiring of the brain to bypass the need for sight, even when they can respond to visual stimulation. It’s from Thora’s perspective, as someone who is sighted and is trapped in Torobe for over 2 months, that we get a chance to see just what that means, both for the Torobe and their culture, and for someone who doesn’t fit into it.

It’s worth noting that much of how we perceive the world has to do with sight, and Gilman makes mention of this more than once. When light is introduced to Torobe and Thora gets to visually experience the place she’s been living rather than perceive it with her other senses, she marvels that it’s odd how the place seems so different from she’d adjusted to. Like she trusted her eyes to tell her more reliably than any other sense. To enter into a world where we can’t see is, to most of us, rather terrifying, as we lose the sense we rely on most often to tell us things about the world. A surprising amount of at least the English language is devoted to visual terms. We say “you see,” when we may mean “you know,” and we don’t think anything of it. To get someone’s attention, we say, “look,” even when we may actually want them to listen.

And yet on the flip side, there’s much about sight that we take for granted. In attempting to teach Moth how to see, Sara in frustrated by the way Moth can’t comprehend angles, depth perception, that you can see through some solid objects but not others. How do we tell that a mug is still a mug when we can’t see the handle that was there the first time? Gilman does an amazing job of showing both sides of the coin, and she writes an extremely interesting culture around it.

Especially when you bring in the quantum aspects of being unable to see. People from Torobe can, in a sense, teleport from one place to another. So long as there’s somebody there to think about their existence. And provided nobody’s watching them do it. This intentionally mirrors the way some things in the universe are only stable when they’re observed, otherwise existing at multiple points of time and space until somebody observes them and forces them to confine to a narrow viewpoint. People from Torobe, in part because their method of observation is so different from ours, have mastered this on a macroscopic level.

It sounds confusing, and honestly, it’s considerably less so when you read the book. You don’t need to be well versed in theories of perception of quantum physics to enjoy Dark Orbit. It’s expected that the reader has a mind that can grasp certain advanced concepts, but not that the reader is cognizant of them in advance. They’re presented in a wonderfully comprehensible way, layman’s versions of things that can twist your brain in funny ways if you think about them too deeply, and there are enough hints at broader implications to keep astute readers grinning and pondering through the whole story.

In short, it’s one of those novels that occasionally had me staring off into space, trying to figure out how certain concepts could be applied in different ways. Sometimes my e-reader would go into standby mode, I did it for so long.

My biggest complaint about Dark Orbit is that it does take language and biology a bit for granted. Or rather, it leaves some things very vague, and doesn’t answer all the questions I had. People from Torobe speak an archaic version of Universal Standard, but there’s no real explanation of how they learned it in the first place. It could be implied that it was learned by observing other people while wending, but that doesn’t entirely explain why they don’t have a distinct language of their own, or why their dialect is still archaic if they encounter other modern cultures. There can’t be a standard universal language by default; or a least not likely, since even on Earth, languages can be so massively different across the world, let alone factoring in multiple other planets and peoples. Were the Torobes the only inhabitants of Iris? How did they get there? They’re human in appearance, and still have eyes, so it’s unlikely that they evolved there over millions of years in that same environment, or else there’d likely be differences in physiology. There’s a dropped hint about the Torobes having relocated to their current location some generations back, but for unknown reasons, from an unknown origin, and I’m not sure how many generations it would take to set up an unsighted monoculture like that.

I’m not saying that every question I could possibly have should be addressed and answered. It would be nice, but I don’t expect it. But no characters really seem to wonder about these things, so I don’t know whether it’s an issue of suspension of disbelief, or whether the characters don’t wonder because they already know and that particular story just didn’t call for an explanation.

But really, it speaks volumes that the author wrote something that made me so curious, made me ask so many questions, because it shows that Dark Orbit engaged me in the way that few other novels manage. It asks good questions, talks about intelligent theories, and leads the reader on a path of cultural exploration and identity, throwing in a little scientific spiritualism along the way. Very much impressed with Gilman’s work, and I’m very excited to read more in the future!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Time Salvager, by Wesley Chu

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 7, 2015

Summary: Convicted criminal James Griffin-Mars is no one’s hero. In his time, Earth is a toxic, abandoned world and humans have fled into the outer solar system to survive, eking out a fragile, doomed existence among the other planets and their moons. Those responsible for delaying humanity’s demise believe time travel holds the key, and they have identified James, troubled though he is, as one of a select and expendable few ideally suited for the most dangerous job in history.

James is a chronman, undertaking missions into Earth’s past to recover resources and treasure without altering the timeline. The laws governing use of time travel are absolute; break any one of them and, one way or another, your life is over. Most chronmen never reach old age; the stress of each jump through time, compounded by the risk to themselves and to the future, means that many chronmen rapidly reach their breaking point, and James Griffin-Mars is nearing his.

On a final mission that is to secure his retirement, James meets Elise Kim, an intriguing scientist from a previous century, who is fated to die during the destruction of an oceanic rig. Against his training and his common sense, and in violation of the chronmen’s highest law, James brings Elise back to the future with him, saving her life, but turning them both into fugitives. Remaining free means losing themselves in the wild and poisonous wastes of Earth, somehow finding allies, and perhaps discovering what hope may yet remain for humanity’s home world.

Thoughts: Imagine a future where the ability to manipulate time has not only been discovered, but where doing so is something of an elite profession filled with not-entirely-stable professionals. Imagine a future with dwindling resources, where the only logical course of action is to jump back in time and gather the resources that nobody will miss. James Griffin-Mars is a chronman, someone who does those time-jumps, elite among the elite. He’s seen World War 2. He’s met the woman who made the Time Laws that he lives by. But it’s not until a prime mission, one hat could buy out his contract and allow him to retire, that he starts to break those laws and unravel pieces of a mystery that could very well have created the society in which he lives.

It seems to be an inherent problem of time travel stories, that at some point, the paradox will hit. What if you go back in time and accidentally kill your great-great-grandmother. Your family line is broken, so you will never be born, which means you’ll never go back in time and kill anyone. Cycle ad nauseam. Chu manages to sidestep most of this with a series of strict Time Laws that are designed to avoid making ripples in the timeline. Only take resources that would be destroyed in events soon after your salvage, so anything missing would be assumed destroyed. Never bring anyone from the past back with you. Sometimes ripples can’t be avoided, and what’s done has further-reaching consequences than anticipated, especially when rogue chronmen break a rule or two. Most of the time, the timeline can self-heal, setting things to rights by itself. You accidentally save someone who was supposed to die in World War 2, and they go on to have a family? No matter, a car crash will kill them all, so their descendants don’t exist and so can’t contribute to change. The timeline is something of a fluid thing, subject to change but still capable of setting itself to rights so long as the diversion isn’t major.

All this careful manipulation, though, essentially means that an event near the end comes out of left field. You spend the whole book thinking that the time travel paradox will be avoided,, and then something gets revealed that essentially says: the current timeline was created through the manipulation of the past by someone on the current timeline. BAM, the paradox is back in play. I do hope that the sequel to Time Salvager will involve some multiverse theory, because otherwise cause followed effect. Well, cause still followed effect, but at least some multiverse stuff would help balance that out a bit.

In terms of characters, Chu comes through once again with a cast of diverse and well-developed people to lead the story. It’s always a treat to read his works, because he writes such realistic characters, ones that feel like proper people and not stereotypes or caricatures. James is a misanthropic seen-it-all man who’s riding the edge of death by drink, and the death by lack of medical attention when he goes rogue. He’s not always a great guy, not always right in his action, and is frequently selfish and gruff. Which makes him the kind of person who you don’t really want to associate with in real life, but who is great to read about, because he’s so unlike most SFF protagonists. Elise has an air of innocence and hope to her, which fits well for someone who believes that what she’s doing can change and improve the world, but without the usual naiveté that tends to get portrayed a lot in similar characters. She’s optimistic, but she’s no fool. And don’t even get me started on how interested the Mother of Time is, once you get to see her more!

As sci-fi thrillers go, this is definitely one to pay attention to. It’s more than just a frenetic romp through time and space. There are running themes about corporate transparency and limits on power, and ecological crises in the making and their consequences. While these are definitely hot-button issues today, their inclusion in Time Salvager is appropriate and done well, coming across as part of the plot rather than an attempt to preach to the reader. Which, honestly, I actually find to be the best way to convince others of a cause; you don’t beat them over the head with a message, but you include that message in other works, so that people get exposed to the idea in ways they find enjoyable in the first place. Even if you don’t have much interest in those themes in today’s world, it’s hard to argue with the presentation that Chu gives in Time Salvager.

What it all boils down to is that this is a book well worth checking out. I admit I’m not usually big on either hard sci-fi or thrillers, but when Chu writes something, I will read it. And enjoy it. He works magic with words and makes a tight fast story that I find very hard to put down. Highly recommended, and I can’t wait to see where the story’s future lies.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: volume 9, edited by Jonathan Strahan

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Editor’s website| Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 12, 2015

Summary: DISTANT WORLDS, TIME TRAVEL, EPIC ADVENTURE, UNSEEN WONDERS AND MUCH MORE! The best, most original and brightest science fiction and fantasy stories from around the globe from the past twelve months are brought together in one collection by multiple award winning editor Jonathan Strahan. This highly popular series now reaches volume nine and will include stories from both the biggest names in the field and the most exciting new talents. Previous volumes have included stories from Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Cory Doctorow, Stephen Baxter, Elizabeth Bear, Joe Abercrombie, Paolo Bacigalupi, Holly Black, Garth Nix, Jeffrey Ford, Margo Lanagan, Bruce Sterling, Adam Robets, Ellen Klages, and many many more.

Thoughts: As with any multi-author anthology, there are stories I enjoy more than others, stories where I feel the quality shines above the rest or where it just appeals to me more. I feel both that this should go without saying, and that I should mention it each time I review such a book, so that people don’t feel that I’m rating every single story 4/5 stars. Some are 5s, some are 3s. That’s the nature of the beast.

But I think it’s pretty safe for me to say that of all the SFF anthologies that I’ve read, this is the one I’ve enjoyed the most. In part because it seemed this collection really saw which way the winds were blowing and made a fantastic effort to include a huge amount of diversity in its writers and characters. That isn’t to say that there were no straight white males featured here. But there were a large number of stories with either authors or characters who were decidedly nonstraight, nonwhite, or nonmale. And it was wonderful to see, because with such a balance, you really start to get the feeling that fantasy and science fiction can and does encompass the vastness of human potential, and can be applied to and enjoyed by people who aren’t in the dominant social group in the West.

There were just so many amazing stories in here! Paolo Bacigalupi’s Moriabe’s Children is a creepy cautionary tale involving krakens and escaping from danger. I could read Kelly Link’s The Lady and the Fox half a dozen times over and love it every time. Holly Black’s Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (The Successful Kind) was a wonderful exploration of expectations and surprise, and was really entertaining to watch the story unfold. Joe Abercrombie’s Tough Times All Over was fun, though the ending wasn’t that big a surprise once you got into the flow of the narrative. Greg Egan’s Shadow Flock was a technological thriller that I would really love to see expanded, because it was so tight and fast-paced and hinted at a lot going on in the background. Rachel Swirsky’s Grand Jete was a heartbreaking look at whether a transplanted personality is a whole new person or just a continuation of the original person, and at what point those two things differ. Kai Ashante Wilson’s The Devil in America was horrifying in more ways than one, with its take on racism and the price of magic. Michael Swanwick’s Tawny Petticoats was just hilarious, and gave me a few moments where I had to chuckle aloud while reading. And Theodora Goss’s Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology was insightful and full of thought-provoking content about creation and culture, as can be implied from the title.

And K J Parker’s I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There… My introduction to Parker’s work left me wondering what people saw in his writing, which was good but not so good that I figured it was worth the hype I’d seen it get. However, in his short stories, I’ve found some wonderful things, this most definitely being one of them (it was one of the major highlights of he anthology), and I think again that I really ought to give his novels another try, and that maybe I just started with one that really wasn’t as good as the others anyway.

Those are the best ones in the anthology, I think, and that’s well over half of them. The others were definitely good, too, but now and again there was just one that wasn’t to my taste, so my enjoy of them was an issue of personal preference rather than the quality of the content.

There’s straight-up science fiction, there’s urban fantasy, secondary-world fantasy, horror, just about everything a lover of speculative fiction could ask for in a Best Of anthology. It’s one to keep on the shelves, for sure, and one that I’ll likely revisit in the future so that I can dip my toes back into a dozen or more great stories and worlds. Strahan’s name tends to be associated with some of the best SFF anthologies, such as this one, so from the get-go you expect something that’s full of top-notch stories. He doesn’t fail to deliver on that promise. While I didn’t get introduced to as many new-to-me authors as I have in past anthologies, I have no doubt that I experienced some of the best of what genre fiction has to offer.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Apex, by Ramez Naam

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 5, 2015

Summary: Global unrest spreads as mass protests advance throughout the US and China, Nexus-upgraded riot police battle against upgraded protestors, and a once-dead scientist plans to take over the planet’s electronic systems. The world has never experienced turmoil of this type, on this scale.They call them the Apex – humanity’s replacement. They’re smarter, faster, better. And infinitely more dangerous.

Humanity is dying. Long live the Apex.

Thoughts:The US election is approaching, with public opinion swaying to favour a moderate newcomer over re-electing the current President, with his anti-augmentation policies, for a second term. The Posthuman Liberation Front is concentrating on how to spread Nexus to crowds and how to use it to fuel their agenda. An insane aspect of Su-Yong Shu has taken over Ling, trapping the little girl in her own mind while a twisted version of her mother commits acts of long-distance terrorism by forcibly dosing people with Nexus and making them act to her will. Seeking asylum in India, Kade and the Indian government negotiate terms of Kade’s assistance with a Nexus education program, which may lead to India pulling out of a near-global agreement to officially criminalize the use of Nexus and other human augmentations. The world is poised on the brink, with Nexus at its centre, and humanity, one way or the other, will be changed when it’s all over.

Like Nexus and Crux before it, Naam’s skill with storytelling is evident right from the get-go. You read the first few pages, and you fall right back into the story like you never left it, even if it’s been months since you read the previous books in the trilogy. It’s so vividly easy to picture what’s going on, the characters are all fascinating people in fascinating situations, and the subject matter and its controversies are more than enough to provide a high-stakes tension-filled atmosphere for the story to play out in.

This whole series is one that invites speculation and discussion. Indeed, I spent part of an evening talking with my roommate about the potential benefits something like Nexus could bring to people with autism, which is something that has been mentioned more than once through the books. Also education, and international cooperation, and all sorts of things. One in-book debate that I found particularly interesting was the issue of humans versus post-humans. Were augmented Nexus-connected humans still actually humans anymore, if their way of life and relation to each other had so drastically changed? One character likened the situation to Neanderthals versus modern humans, and how Neanderthals didn’t survive because they couldn’t adapt as well. Only now humans are in that position, with the possibility of having no place in the future, and their official response is to try desperately to hold back the tide. I thought that was interesting because in that comparison, people were tacitly admitting that yes, post-humans were better, but that humanity shouldn’t make way for that improvement.

Though that’s often been the case on official policies, I find. People clinging to tradition, with the notion that the tradition is what made them great for so long, forgetting that the tradition was very often born from revolution against an old tradition to begin with. I can’t help but wonder, in Naam’s idea of that post-human world, with so many minds connected like that, what the next big revolution might be, and whether people would react with the same old patterns.

I also found it painfully ironic that so many people’s opinions on Nexus changed after experiencing it. Especially Stockton. Though his experience with it was forced rather than voluntary, and could so easily have ended up as a sore spot that he fought even harder to stop the spread of, in the end his experiences led him to reverse a lot of his anti-Nexus policy. It wasn’t said explicitly whether that was done because he felt it was right or because he realised that any continued policy of, say, prosecuting those with Nexus in their brains would mean that he would now suffer. Possibly it was a bit of both. And while I applaud that kind of attitude shift, I thought it reflected well the tendency that people have to only become interested in a thing when it affects them personally. It’s not enough to legalize other people having a choice in a matter. It’s only an issue when you yourself, the policymaker, would benefit or suffer.

(Political bitterness toward a fictional character. You know a book has affected you when…)

And if the intelligent and thought-provoking material wasn’t enough, you can’t get away from tension action scenes in this book for longer than a chapter. Maybe 2. It comes hard and fast, between scenes with crowds in full riot to parachuting into an area that’s practically a mini war zone, it’s an incredible page-turner, and with cinematic clarity and pacing. It’s truly impressive to see the range that Naam has with storytelling, since he can do action just as well as political dialogue, or hell, even describing aspects of meditation. I’d be hard-pressed to find another book with such fantastic pacing.

There’s so much I want to say about Apex, but most of that would involve heavy spoilers, and this is a book that really deserves not to be spoiled. So much happens, both in the scope of individual character development and on a global scale, that talking in detail about any one thing would lead me to talking about how something else affects it, and it would just snowball until half the plot is ruined for anyone who hasn’t read it yet.

The best books are often the hardest to review, because it’s at those times that I just want to throw my usual attempts at objectivity out the window and reduce my review to, “Holy crap, you guys, you all need to be reading this series right now!” That’s Nexus, Crux, and Apex in a nutshell. It’s wonderfully intelligent, it speculates on amazing advances in technology that we’re already seeing the early stages of in the real world, and it’s all written by a master of the craft. If you’re a fan of science fiction that explores both technology and the social aspects of it, then this is, without a doubt, the series for you. It’s a phenomenal exploration of humanity, one that could pave the way for a new future in sci-fi.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Binary, by Stephanie Saulter

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 5, 2015

Summary: When confiscated genestock is stolen out of secure government quarantine, DI Sharon Varsi finds herself on the biggest case of her career… chasing down a clever thief, a mysterious hacker, and the threat of new, black market gemtech.

Zavcka Klist, ruthless industrial enforcer, has reinvented herself. Now the head of Bel’Natur, she wants gem celebrity Aryel Morningstar’s blessing for the company’s revival of infotech – the science that spawned the Syndrome, nearly destroyed mankind, and led to the creation of the gems. With illness in her own family that only a gemtech can cure, Aryel’s in no position to refuse.

As the infotech programme inches towards a breakthrough, Sharon’s investigations lead ever closer to the dark heart of Bel’Natur, the secrets of Aryel Morningstar’s past… and what Zavcka Klist is really after.

Thoughts: I adored Gemsigns. Adored it so very much. And there was no way I’d turn down the chance to read the sequel, not after being so thoroughly impressed by the first book in the series. Binary was an incredibly strong follow-up to its predecessor, complete with the amazing characters I knew and loved from before.

As before, there are a few converging plotlines here. Genestock has been discovered missing and the theft carefully covered up, attention only drawn to it thanks to an anonymous whistleblower. The implications are both staggering and confusing; it’s old stock, nothing proprietary, but why would someone steal it and go to such great lengths to hide it unless they were doing something quite illegal with the information? Herran, a gem with incredible skills at understanding binary code on the level of a primary language but with serious social and other linguistic impairments, is now part of a project at Bel’Natur, a new direction for the company in which they want to develop more infotech since they can no longer experiment with gemtech. Rhys has found comfort and support with Callan, but a mysterious illness is slowly killing him, and he’s not sure just how much time he has left. Zavcka Klist appears to be reformed and contrite about her previous role in gemtech, but multiple people suspect that it’s all just an act. And through all of that, Aryel Morningstar is there, helping, supporting, and keeping her own history a closely guarded secret.

Saulter’s fiction is so very amazing because she tackles social issues in a brilliant and subtle way that lets you know exactly what’s going on without feeling beaten over the head with certain moral viewpoints. And sometimes there are no clearcut right or wrong answers to a dilemma; sometimes you just have to go with one option because all the others are worse. I like the way that’s all presented here. It’s easy to write something where there’s an absolute right and an absolute wrong and precious little grey area in between, or perhaps a small quandary presents itself but the right decision is still fairly obvious because the benefits clearly outweigh the detriments. But in reality, that isn’t always the case, and I think Saulter does a fantastic job of showing how people can grapple with those situations.

There’s also something to be said about the realistic way that the social model of disability is presented here, too. A person may have a medical disability but the medical issues are not the only challenge. A person who can’t walk, for instance, may have absolutely no problem finding a job if workplaces had accessible ramps. It’s remarkable how a few accommodations can turn a debilitating situation into a manageable one, and that gets tackled more than once in both Gemsigns and Binary. Herran, for instance, has a much easier time communicating through online interactions than face to face, and with the infotech he was helping to develop with Bel’Natur, that ease may have even grown in the future with greater access available to him. Saulter does something very praise-worthy with all this; she puts it as a thread running through the whole story but only sometimes does it become blatant and unmistakable. You get the idea into your head in such a subtle way that you don’t even realise that your understanding is slowly shifting in a new direction. Love it!

Also wonderful was finding out more about Aryel’s past. She’s been mysterious right from the get-go, intentionally so, but here we get to see so much of her and how she came to be who she is, how those wings came to be, and what events propelled her onward. It was painful to see in many ways: the dismissive comments from scientists, the way she had to pretend to be less than herself in order to escape notice, and the knowledge that her escape meant disaster for so many others. She takes so much upon herself, is a natural leader, and all of that was born from such a troubled beginning. It wasn’t that she was an unsympathetic character in the first book, far from it, but the insight we gain into her background here brings her from a figure on a pedestal to someone closer to home, someone real, with her own traumas and coping mechanisms and more damage than anyone should reasonably have to deal with.

Of course, you could say that about any gem and you’d be on the mark…

I’m not going to lie: Rhys and Callan might well be my new favourite couple. I think I got more emotionally invested in their relationship than I’ve gotten in any other literary couple, at least in a very long time. I couldn’t help but love them, and I spent the last half of the book on the edge of my seat, half afraid that Saulter would go route of having Rhys die from his condition so that heart-strings could be tugged and tears could be jerked.

I also love an unspoken declaration that clearly homosexuality was not “bred out”, or rather tweaked out by manipulation of genetics. Why would it, for one thing, when gems were viewed for so long not as people but living single-purpose workers with no rights of humanity of their own? I doubt any of them would have given enough of a crap to design a specific sexuality into gems when romance was hardly something their designers were concerned with, even if it was possible. To them, it would have been like designing a sexual preference for computers; pointless and a waste of time. But while none of that was said outright, having heteronormative behaviours be the default for everyone would have been an easy trap to fall into, and easily explained if anyone asks. “They were designed that way.” Only they weren’t, and Saulter gets much love from me for that little subtlety.

The only part that was a little bit odd to me was Zavcka’s secret, and that’s difficult to talk about without going into spoilers, but I’ll do my best. It seemed a little bit cheesy. When it was first hinted that the women in her family all looked alike, I thought that perhaps they were clones, and that would have been very credible in context, but then you get into stuff about the extreme longevity and I raised an eyebrow a little. It seemed a touch over the top, like a bigoted villain who did everything she did wasn’t enough, but now she has to be behind almost everything since the company’s inception, too.

Though admittedly, reading between the lines, it does make a lot of sense, especially with the gemtech that evolved thanks to her genes. It was less longevity and more a high degree of cellular repair and adaptation to counter the typical effects of aging. Which sounds like it may amount to the same thing, and in her case it does, but to look at it as adaptation and repair makes more sense as to how people like Aryel were created in the first place. And all the other gems, who don’t have that wonderful longevity built into them (that we know of, anyway; I suppose we don’t exactly encounter very many gems who could have lived beyond a typical human lifespan), but it’s easy to see how that kind of mutation would have been invaluable for tweaking genetic structures and still having things work out in the end. It wasn’t said outright like that, so I’m reading between the lines on that way, but it makes the most sense to me to think of it that way, so that’s what I’m going with.

I could go on at length and praise this novel over and over again, I really could. Sometimes the hardest reviews to write are the ones where you loved the book so completely that it’s hard to be objective and talk about why it was good when the truth is that it’s a novel that defies description. The story is captivating, the writing beautiful, the characters perfect. If you enjoyed Gemsigns, you’ll enjoy Binary. If you enjoy amazing stories that break molds and stand out from the crowd, you’ll enjoy the whole series. I said it before and I’ll say it again: social sci-fi just doesn’t get any better than this!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

GIVEAWAY: Inside a Silver Box, by Walter Mosley

Today, I’m pleased to announce a new giveaway for Walter Mosley’s new sci-fi novel, Inside a Silver Box.

Walter Mosley’s talent knows no bounds. Inside a Silver Box continues to explore the cosmic questions entertainingly discussed in his Crosstown to Oblivion. From life’s meaning to the nature of good and evil, Mosley takes readers on a speculative journey beyond reality.

In Inside a Silver Box, two people brought together by a horrific act are united in a common cause by the powers of the Silver Box. The two join to protect humanity from destruction by an alien race, the Laz, hell-bent on regaining control over the Silver Box, the most destructive and powerful tool in the universe. The Silver Box will stop at nothing to prevent its former master from returning to being, even if it means finishing the earth itself.

 

 

Interested? Well, you have a chance to win 1 of 2 copies of the book, generously offered by Tor Books! Can’t get much better than that!

Rules
~ US addresses only; no PO boxes
~ Contest closes at 11:59 PM, PST, on Sunday March 15th
~ The winner will be drawn on Monday
~ Address will be forwarded to the publisher for shipping purposes and not kept by me.
~ Click on this Rafflecopter link to enter

Sorry I can’t put the Rafflecopter widget right on this page, but WordPress doesn’t like to play nice with Rafflecopter, so a clicky-link it is!

Gemsigns, by Stephanie Saulter

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 6, 2014

Summary: Humanity stands on the brink. Again.

Surviving the Syndrome meant genetically modifying almost every person on the planet. But norms and gems are different. Gems may have the superpowers that once made them valuable commodities, but they also have more than their share of the disabled, the violent and the psychotic.

After a century of servitude, freedom has come at last for the gems, and not everyone’s happy about it. The gemtechs want to turn them back into property. The godgangs want them dead. The norm majority is scared and suspicious, and doesn’t know what it wants.

Eli Walker is the scientist charged with deciding whether gems are truly human, and as extremists on both sides raise the stakes, the conflict descends into violence. He’s running out of time, and with advanced prototypes on the loose, not everyone is who or what they seem. Torn between the intrigues of ruthless executive Zavcka Klist and brilliant, badly deformed gem leader Aryel Morningstar, Eli finds himself searching for a truth that might stop a war.

Thoughts: I first heard about this book thanks to Bookworm Blues, and the high praise Sarah gave it surprised me. Sure, it sounded like an interesting enough novel, but Sarah has exacting standards and isn’t easily impressed. Could Gemsigns really be as great as she said it was?

The answer is yes. Yes it could. And then some!

Gemsigns is a novel akin to Daryl Gregory’s Afterpary or Ramez Naam’s Nexus. Utterly fantastic, sucking you in from the get-go and not letting you go even once the story’s over and there’s no more of the book to read. The world is so beautifully constructed, so fantastically real, that you swear you yourself could be living in it right now because all the little details are right there to make it all come to life in such vivid and evocative ways.

In the future, humanity has made a comeback from a crippling neurological condition caused by overexposure to so much of the technology that we take for granted today. Medical science finally found a treatment for this, using gene therapy to alter humanity just enough so that we became immune to the Syndrome. Those already affected by it stood no chance, but the next generation could live on, and the one after that, and so on. But we didn’t stop there. Once better able to alter our genetics before birth, why not eliminate chances of birth defects and genetic disease, making a stronger, better human race? And while we’re on the subject, why not create a whole new race of people, genetically modified to do whatever we want, be they people who regenerate organs so they can constantly be cut into and used for transplants, or people with enhanced strength for heavy lifting, or people with gills so they can work underwater for extended periods of time? And why bother giving them rights; after all, they’re just fleshy machines, really, created with a work purpose and will never really interact with normal human society.

This is the premise behind Gemsigns. Genetically modified humans, commonly called gems, have been freed from essential slavery at the hands of the corporations that created them, and now they have the daunting task of trying to make a life for themselves in a world that doesn’t really accept them. Even if it wasn’t for social prejudice, though, the gemtechs want their property back, want to allow gems freedom only at a cost that benefits the company. Godgangs, groups of religious zealots who believe that gems are an abomination and an affront to God and mankind, want to kill them all. And much of the outcome hinges on the results of an upcoming conference put together to settle the issue for good: can even gems be considered human?

There’s so much in the way of social and political commentary in this book that it’s hard to know where to start. Take any typical argument you might hear about racism, disability, or class prejudice and you’re going to find it in Gemsigns. Whether or not certain people are deserving of rights, whether it’s better to pass as “normal” or to be unabashedly yourself, equality versus equanimity, you name it. It’s all here, and it’s all presented in a way that doesn’t negate any of the complexities of the issues involved, but neither is it so complex as to be hard to understand for those who may not be well-versed in social issues. It’s all wonderfully accessible!

And also demonstrates that humanity can nearly be crushed under its own weight and come out the other side with even greater technological advances and yet still we’ll be arguing the same arguments, just about different people. But for all that’s a very sad notion, Gemsigns gives us hope that even though the future will still hold idiots bent on not learning anything, there are also countless people willing to learn and grow and help those in need and to strive for a better and more level playing field for all. It may seem trite, but that’s a powerful message, and one I sometimes think we all need to see more of.

Saulter’s flawless writing makes a great story into a brilliant one, and even the moments where infodumping happens, it happens in a way that’s still fascinating and doesn’t detract from the reading experience. The worldbuilding is exquisite, the characters are real and flawed and you can’t help but be interested in them, even when you may not necessarily like them. From Eli Walker’s determination to stay honest to Zavcka Klist’s ruthless pursuit of her company’s assets to Aryel Morningstar’s mysterious nature and her charismatic approach to people… It’s a beautiful cast of characters that drive the story onward. The whole thing is character-driven, rather than letting swift action fill the pages. Tension comes from wondering what the outcome of the conference will be, who will the Godgangs kill? Any sense of more physical action comes right at the end, with a series of amazing plot revelations that just floored me, which is especially impressive considering how blown away I was by the book in general.

What it comes down to is this: if you want complex social sci-fi that deals with powerful issues in a way that both entertains and educates, then read Gemsigns. If you want a superbly written future, read Gemsigns. If you want to be deeply impressed by somebody’s debut novel, to the point where you’d swear that this sort of polished refined prose couldn’t possibly be someone’s debut, then read Gemsigns. It’s more of an experience than just a mere story, a new world rather than a mere novel. It’s very possibly one of the best things I’m going to read this year. Social sci-fi just doesn’t get any better than this!