Category Archives: science fiction

Darwin’s Elevator by Jason M Hough

Stars: 4 out of 5.

I don’t remember where I heard about Darwin’s Elevator. I think it was in my “alsoboughts” on Amazon after I read Abyss Beyond Dreams by Peter F Hamilton, or maybe someone on Twitter mentioned it. Anyway, I’m very glad I and decided to give it a try. I discovered a very good author that I will definitely follow.

Over 20 years ago, a strange alien ship stopped above the little town of Darwin, Australia and shot a line down to Earth, just like a normal ship would cast an anchor. It became the Darwin Elevator that permanently ties the spaceship to the Earth. Nobody knows what this device was supposed to do, because nobody has ever seen the Builders, the aliens who brought the ship here, and the ship cannibalized itself to build the line, leaving only a hollowed husk.

The brightest minds flocked to Darwin to study both the Elevator and the ship. They built huge orbitals along the elevator line. The city  itself thrived, because all those people on orbit needed food, water and other goods to live. Life was good, economy was thriving… until five years ago an alien virus decimated 99% of the population on Earth. The SUBS virus turns people into mindless animals, ruled by one primal emotion, which is usually rage. The infection period is as small as a couple hours and there is no cure. But the Elevator produces an Aura that keeps the air in a 9 kilometer radius around it SUBS-free. So Darwin transforms from the outpost of scientific discovery and innovation, to the port of last resorts to all that’s left of humanity. That’s where the story of Darwin’s Elevator begins.

I loved the characters in this book. They are different, and live in different circumstances, which makes their points of view very different as well. So through their eyes, we get to see different facets of this complex situation.

Skyler and the ragtag crew of the Melville who explore the slowly crumbling world beyond the Aura and try salvage anything the inhabitants of Darwin and the orbitals might need. They are amongst the few who can still venture outside of the Aura, because they are immune to the SUBS virus. But that doesn’t make their expedition any less perilous, because the areas they explore are infested by subhumans who cannot be reasoned or pleaded with.

Tania Sharma, on the other hand, hadn’t set up foot on Earth in over 15 years. She is a scientist on one of the Orbitals who is determined to discover the reason behind the Elevator and the SUBS virus. She also becomes more and more convinced that the Builders are coming back and that everything is part of a bigger plan.

And there are plenty of interesting secondary characters as well. In fact, I found some of the secondary characters even MORE interesting than the main protagonists. “The Ghost” of Gateway station, anyone? I really hope to see more of them in the next books, and hopefully, they will have a bigger role to play.

The world Mr. Hough created is also very interesting, even though we don’t really get to explore it too much, apart from two expeditions outside of Darwin itself, but it has promise. The first book also doesn’t tell us much about the mysterious Builders and the Elevator, but then again, our protagonists are just as ignorant of this as we are. Hopefully, we will discover more about this in the future books. That was probably my main complaint about Darwin’s Elevator – a lot is hinted on, but not resolved or explained. But once again, it’s normal to have that when setting up an arc that encompasses several books. The plot and conflict of this particular book was successfully resolved by the end of the story with no real cliffhangers, so I’m happy.

My only other complaint and the reason I gave this book only 4 stars is that the antagonist was a bit too much of a caricature. I get the ruthless power-hungry warlord, even though that has been done and overdone before, but why make him a sadistic sexual pervert as well? That’s a trope upon a trope here. It makes him a bit too bad to be believable. I just really hope that if Russell Nightcliff continues to be the antagonist in the next books, the author adds a bit more depth to his character. Or better still, kill him off and introduce and original, not cookie-cut villain.

But those few gripes aside, I really loved Darwin’s Elevator, and I already picked up the next book in the series.

Undercity by Catherine Asaro.

Stars: 1 out of 5

I usually refrain from writing negative reviews, mostly because I feel like by posting a one star review I am doing the author a disservice.  But once in a while I come across books that I can’t simply discard and not explain why I didn’t like them, either because they were really bad, or because they could have been great and failed to live to my expectations.

In the case of Undercity by Catherine Asaro, it’s the later rather than the former. I was so excited when I got an advanced reader copy of this book thanks to NetGalley. I love science fiction, I love strong female characters, and I absolutely love new and interesting takes on societies. So I really wanted to love Undercity.

Unfortunately, while I am willing to suspend my disbelief in most cases (it’s a made-up world after all), I can’t shut off my logical mind as well. I can’t read a book if I have to be brain dead to enjoy it.

I will not go into too many details about the story itself, because my problems with the book are more general than that. So you can read on ahead without fear of spoilers.

So, problem #1 and biggest pet peeve. The author describes a star-faring and technologically advanced civilization that had existed for over seven thousand years and created a galactic empire. In this civilization, for some unexplained reasons, there are only about 2 men for each 10 women born. So, obviously, the society is very matriarchic.  This could work. This could actually be a very interesting topic to explore IF the author had bothered to think logically about the implications of such a disparity.

To me, such a deficit in males means polygamy, if not the rejection of marriage as a viable solution altogether. Communal men, children either raised by their mothers or the larger family including sisters, aunts, cousins, etc. We are also talking about a technologically advanced society, so sperm banks, genetic modification, draconian control over who can procreate with whom because of the reduced genetic pool with the Y chromosome…

What we get in that book instead: men are kept hidden from the outside world, and only their immediate family and future wife to be can interact with them (that’s an interesting reversal of the situation many women endured in the Muslim countries, even if it’s a bit far-fetched). BUT the society is still monogamous. You heard me right. There are 2 men for every 10 women, yet each man is married to one woman… So what do the other 8 do? How do they chose who gets to create a family and have children and who doesn’t? How can that work??? All those questions are left unanswered.

Also, I find it hard to believe that in all seven thousand years, their scientists haven’t found a solution to fix this disparity between sexes. For one, a society with so few men would have interbreeded and died out in seven thousand years, not went on to dominate a galaxy. It could have achieved it only if measures had been taken to spread the genetic pool around and a drastic genealogical control… none of which is even mentioned in the book.

My second problem with the book is the population of the Undercity itself and the inner conflict / motivation for the protagonist.  I think it’s mostly because even the author isn’t quite clear of what the people of Undercity are, so her protagonist isn’t very clear whether she wants to save that population or not, and for what reasons, or whether it even needs saving. This puts the reader in a state of slight bewilderment any time she reads about that elusive society, because it’s not very clear what the stakes are.

How big is the population of Undercity? The author never gives us straight numbers. One page she says around 300, then she mentions about 400-600. Even if it’s 1000, how can a civilization like that have survived for 7000 years by itself? The author mentions a few times that they have zero to very little contact with the people from Cries, the city above them…. So they just breed amongst themselves then? All 300, 600 or 1000 of them for the whole 7000 years? They would all be closely related by now and horribly deformed, especially considering that they have the same problem as the people above them – 2 men for every 10 women…

But even if we put that little problem aside, the author has no clear vision of what that population does. Either they are vagrants that survive on scraps collected form above them (how if they rarely go outside?), who have no sustainable industry or production or anything. Or they are skilled mechanics, hackers and artists who learned their skills “in the streets” and by stealing the online feeds from top above ground schools. Either they are divided into a society of violent gangs, or they have a strict code of helping each other and taking care of their own. According to what the author says, they are all that at the same time with no real explanations on how, why and how that would even begin to work.

This could have been a wonderful book. There were so many possibilities to explore, but I guess the author’s logic was different from my own. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend this book. There are plenty of better science fiction novels out there. But ultimately it’s always up to you, guys.

P.S. This review is for an advanced copy I received from NetGalley.

The Abyss Beyond Dreams by Peter F Hamilton.

Stars: 5 out of 5

The Abyss Beyond Dreams is a rather hard book to describe, because it’s equal part science fiction and fantasy. In a way, it reminded me of Inversions by Iain M Banks – an author I absolutely love.

In Inversions, we have an agent from the Culture, a highly advanced space faring civilization, living as the personal doctor to a king on a medieval planet. The people around her don’t know anything about starships, other planets or even that their world is a round ball orbiting another round ball of burning gas. And the reader experiences the story through the eyes of one of the locals to whom a lot of what the doctor does seems like magic.

We have a bit of a similar situation in this book. There is a large and highly advanced civilization called the Commonwealth that is very reminiscent of Mr. Banks’s Culture. Several Commonwealth colony ships get sucked into the Void, a mysterious area in the center of the universe that nobody has ever returned from. What they discover inside is a world where normal laws of physic don’t always apply and things that seemed impossible become ordinary. Their highly technological ships, robots and nano-enhancements fail. But they discover that they all have acquired telepathic and telekinetic abilities instead.  They crash land on the only inhabitable planet within reach of their rapidly failing starships and call it Bienvenido.

Fast forward about 3000 years and the civilization founded by the colonists has devolved as far down as the high middle ages, with a rigid system of casts ruled by a corrupt nobility and a justice system that favors the rich and powerful. The civilization is stagnating, so buried under the burden of traditions that all notion of progress is killed in the cradle. And into this culture that has forgotten that once upon a time it traveled between stars, lands a man freshly sent by the Commonwealth to find out what happened to the missing ships. And Nigel Sheldon is just the man needed to create a few waves in this stagnating cesspool and maybe start a revolution.

I loved this book. It has this wonderful mix of science fiction and fantasy that is very hard to pull off well, and Peter Hamilton accomplishes it to perfection. We are introduced both to the highly advanced world of Commonwealth, where technological and biological advances have made even death optional. And then we are fully immersed in the rather medieval world of Bienvenido, where technology is reduced to a bare minimum, but everyone can use teekey (telekinetic) powers and talk to each other through ‘path (telepathic) voice.

Then there is the significant detail that Bienvenido is under constant attack from the Fallers – mysterious black eggs that fall from the sky on regular intervals. They sure people to touch them, and absorb them. Once absorbed, the egg hatches and a Faller is born. It’s an exact copy of the person who had been absorbed, but it only has one thought on its mind – destroy the humans of Bienvenido. Nobody knows why those Fallers are so hostile, or how to do more than mitigate the damage they do, because to defeat them, humans have to bring the fight to the sky, and nobody has flown off planet in milenia.

I loved the characters I got to explore the mysterious Void and the planet of Bienvenido with. I loved the highly complex and fleshed-out world the author built. And the story itself is a good mix of adventure, horror, and high politics. It’s especially interesting to see how  a few well-placed “pebbles” can have a ripple effect that brings about a tsunami of civil unrest that washes away the old order and attempts to created something better out of the wreckage. I loved following Slvasta around and seeing him evolve from a naïve young trouper dreaming of glory and axing his first egg to a battle-hardened young man who still managed to preserve his integrity, no matter how much he had to go through.

The Void is a bizarre and fascinating world, and I am really looking forward to exploring it farther in the next books in the series.

So is this book worth buying? Yes, definitely. You are guaranteed to spend several days (this book is over 600 pages long) happily immersed in a very detailed and interesting world.

PS. This review is for and advanced copy I received courtesy of NetGalley.

The London Project by Mark J Maxwell

Stars: 3 out of 5

I liked the story in The London Project. The world is a quite interesting (albeit chilling) vision of a possible future. The total monopoly of Portal over the lives of Londoners reminded me a lot of George Orwell’s 1984. “Big Brother watches you,” indeed…

This story also had all the things I usually like: a futuristic setting, a murder mystery that the protagonist has to solve, influential people determined to thwart her at every turn, and a bigger conspiracy emerging during the investigation. The story had the potential to keep me interested and turning the pages into the late hours of the night, but… it didn’t.

The biggest problem with this book, at least for me, is the pacing. For a thriller to work, the author needs build the tension progressively throughout the book, and never ever let it falter. The story has to grip me from the get go and drag me along, making me want to turn the next page to discover what happens.

Unfortunately, the abundance of technical and world-building explanations break the tension and slow down the pacing, sometimes bringing it to a screeching halt. I found myself frustrated when I wanted to know more about the investigation into the dead girl, but had to read through info dump after info dump about Portal and their little monopoly over London and how the technology worked. I know it’s probably relevant to the story and serves to introduce the reader into this world, but for me, it killed the suspense and the drive to continue reading. When I find myself skipping the explanations to get to the plot, I know I won’t stick with the book. And I probably wouldn’t have if it wasn’t an ARC I had agreed to review.

I didn’t need all those detailed explanations into the workings of Portal in the first 10 chapters. I would have been perfectly happy with a few brief mentions of it and a lot more focus on the case itself. But then again, I am the kind of reader who likes being lost in a world, to discover it progressively throughout the book, looking for breadcrumbs of information the author left on the pages and drawing my own conclusions. Info-dumps give me mental indigestions, because by the time I read through the explanation and assimilate it, the suspense is gone. I have to try and immerse myself in the story again… until the next info-dump.

This is sad, I think, because the book would have been a lot more interesting (and faster paced) if the author trusted the reader to understand his world without having everything spelled out. This is the case of when too much backstory does more harm than good.

I know that this is strictly a personal preference, so take my review with a grain of salt. What I find off-putting might not be so for another reader. So my advice is, if you like a well thought-out world and are not afraid of the slow pacing, give The London Project a try.

P.S. This review is for the ARC of the book I got from LibraryThing.

Doctor Who – a superhero who makes us remember our humanity.

Now that I spent much more time creating my own characters and writing stories, I noticed that I tend to have a much more critical approach when I read books or watch TV shows. I pay a lot more attention to the characters in the shows and books I like. I try to analyze how the authors portray those characters, what motivates them to do what they do, what moral compass guides their actions. So I am planning a series of posts about fictional characters that touched me in one way or another. Characters who taught me some invaluable lessons, or helped me get through tough times, or just became a friend when I desperately needed a hand to hold.

Today I want to talk about Doctor Who – the longest running science-fiction show in the world, which had just celebrated its 50th anniversary. In our era when Gods and heroes, wizards and vampires of all shape and color invade our TV screens and bookshelves, the Doctor seems like an unlikely superhero. After all, he doesn’t possess super strength or x-ray vision. He can’t fly or call up storms. He doesn’t wield powers capable of destroying entire armies and he doesn’t run around carrying big cool weapons. In fact, all the Doctor has is a sonic screwdriver, a blue box that can travel through time and space and two hearts. But to me, he is the best superhero in the world.

The Doctor, the TARDIS and a sonic screwdriver.
The Doctor, the TARDIS and a sonic screwdriver.

Let me explain. The Doctor is not human. He is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. He is over 1300 years old by now. He is the eternal traveler, hurling through time and space in his TARDIS, because his planet had been destroyed in a horrible war, and he is the last of his kind. Yet, he is also the most human person I know. He has seen so many things in his travels, yet he still greats everything new with open arms and open hearts. He still gets ecstatic about discovering a new culture, or trying a new ice cream flavor. And he treats everyone he meets like they are the most important person in the world.

I love the Doctor also for the fact that he never professes violence. As a survivor of the last Time War, he had to watch first hand his people and the Daleks annihilating each other, and he still bears psychological scars of this carnage. So whenever he is faced with a conflict, he always tries to find a peaceful resolution. But he is no coward either – he never runs from danger, but to it. After all, he lives by the following motto: “Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up. Never give in.”

the doctor

I think that sums him up perfectly – he is fearless, fiercely loyal and, most of all, extremely compassionate. Even the name he chose for himself – The Doctor – is extremely fitting. He will always try to help those who need him and he will always try to “heal” whatever evil he encounters, even if that means putting himself in harm’s way.

And I think we need more heroes like the Doctor in our lives to remind us that violence isn’t the answer to everything. That most of the time words have a lot more power than guns. That we are all different, but we all are just as important, no matter the color of our skin, the gods we worship or the people we chose to love.

That’s why I hope that 50 years from now, there will still be new Doctor Who episodes, and the Doctor would still strut out of his TARDIS with his new companion, ready to save the world. Because even 50 years from now, we will still need the Doctor to bring the best out of us.

All of time and space; everywhere and anywhere; every star that ever was. Where do you want to start?
All of time and space; everywhere and anywhere; every star that ever was. Where do you want to start?

Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey

Stars: 5 out of 5

Caliban’s War is the second book in the excellent Expanse series. The action takes place a couple years after the events of the first book, Leviathan Wakes (which I already reviewed).

The Eros station and the protomolecule it was carrying crashed into Venus, and now strange things are happening beneath the planet’s dense atmosphere. But even though humanity is aware (and afraid) of the monster sitting right at their doorstep, they still can’t put aside their petty squabbles. Earth and Mars are still at the verge of armed conflict and the OPA is now a force to reckon with because it holds the only known protomolecule sample that is not on Venus. The beginning of the book takes place on Ganymede station, which is the granary of the Belt and outer planets and a station that neither Earth nor Mars are willing to let go. So both superpowers have a military presence there, but are just content to sit in the trenches and watch each other warily… Until something tears through an Earth outpost, killing the whole garrison and all hell breaks loose, threatening to set the whole solar system on fire, while the protomolecule on Venus stirs at last.

James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are back! And they are in the thick of the action once again, quite inadvertently so this time. I love those characters and the author handles their development well. They are still the likable bunch I got to know and love from the first book, but the events have also changed them. Holden in particular is faced with a sort of identity crisis in this book, and I absolutely loved how he managed to get through it and stay true to himself.

I also loved the new characters introduced in this book, especially Chrisjen Avasarala, the foulmouthed Earth politician. They are all fully fleshed-out and interesting to follow. I think that’s actually part of why I love James S.A. Corey’s books so much – the believability of his characters. They are never cardboard, they are always alive. Whether you like them or not, you still want to follow their adventures.

The story itself is just as tightly woven and engaging as the one in Leviathan Wakes, and the author knows how to keep you up late turning the pages because you absolutely NEED to know what happens next. And oh dear God, please don’t kill my favorite characters!!!

Ahem, anyway, I think by now it’s clear that I absolutely loved this book. So my advice to you is buy it, rent it, steal it from your friends, do anything necessary to get it and read it. Well, start with Leviathan Wakes first though, and then continue straight to Abaddon’s Gate (I know a will).

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Stars: 5 out of 5

I rarely award five stars to a book, but I must admit that Leviathan Wakes swept me off my feet – I couldn’t put it down.

I loved the world Mr. Corey created. I loved the fact that despite this being science fiction, it wasn’t too far fetched. I could see humanity being able to live like that in about 100-150 years if we decide to expand into our solar system. And it is absolutely plausible that we would bring our petty squabbles and our problems up there with us. Humanity is slow to change in that respect.

I also absolutely loved the two main protagonists telling the story. Holden and Miller come from different upbringings, and have had different circumstances shaping their views and attitudes, and they couldn’t be more different. But their POVs are oddly complementary, and they serve to highlight different facets of the treat that awaits humanity when the ice-hauler Canterbury decides to deviate from its course to check on a distress signal and discovers an abandoned ship. I will not talk about the plot of the book any more than that, because I’d rather you pick up this book and discover it for yourselves.

While I liked both Holden and Miller, I must admit that I managed to sympathize with Holden more. He was faced with impossible circumstances: he saw his ship destroyed, he was stranded on a small shuttle with a rag-tag crew of four, they were being chased by every faction in the solar system, but he still managed to keep it together. More than that, he did everything in his power to keep his crew safe, and the moral high even in the most dire circumstances. So I was not surprised when his crew answered him with fierce loyalty.

A special mention must be made about the secondary characters. All of them are “alive” and tridimentional and read like real people. You might like them, you might hate them, but you will not dismiss them as a part of the scenery.

This book also raises an important point about the precariousness of human’s hold on our solar system, and the fact that our technological advances can put is in great danger if our mentality doesn’t change along with them. There are three factions in this world – Earth, Mars and the ragtag alliance of asteroids called the Belt. And each one of them has enough military power to destroy the other two. Even populations living on a planet isn’t safe anymore when the other faction can drop enough rocks down the gravity well to render its surface inhabitable. All factions know that, yet they keep bickering and fighting for dominance, like kid playing with the atomic bomb switch…

Leviathan Wakes is a trilling and intelligent read, and I am looking forward to reading the next book in the series called Caliban’s War. So start your new year with a good read, pick up this book!

Book review – Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks

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I absolutely love all of Iain M. Banks’s books in the Culture series and I eagerly await each new installment. But Look to Windward is my absolute favorite – it has a particular place in my heart. I think that’s because this story touches some subjects that I can relate to.

The story is set on Masaq’ Orbital, one of the Culture’s ring-shaped artificial worlds ran by an AI. It’s been 800 years since the Twin Novae battle which ended with the explosion of two suns, the destruction of countless planets and artificial habitats and loss of billions of lives. But the light of this explosion has reached Masaq’ Orbital only now, eight centuries later. So did an unlikely ambassador from another war-torn world, Major Quilan. Quilan’s official mission is to bring a renegade composer back to his home world of Chel. His true mission, kept secret even from him and implanted deep in the recesses of his brain, is to kill the Orbital’s AI. Why kill an AI would you ask? For revenge. Oh, not on this particular AI, but on the Culture in general. See, the Culture tried to intervene in the affairs of the Chelgrian society and, even though they meant well, the result was a civil war that cost their lives to five billion people. And now Chel is sending Quilan with the mission to assassinate Masaq’s AI who is also caring for five billion people placed in suspended animation. To the Chelgrians their death would balance the books. And all this happens when the light of a battle fought so long ago finally reaches the Orbital. In that battle too Culture played a role that, some say, precipitated the disaster.

This is the intrigue (or part of it, because, as in all Banks’s books, there are layers upon layers of intrigue). But what made me love this book so much is the story behind the story, the hidden meanings and hidden feelings of all the characters. Quilan, Zeller and even Masaq’, the AI in charge of the Orbital, are surprisingly human, with their own baggage and skeletons in their closets, with their own nightmares and dreams and feelings of guilt and helplessness. And that makes them particularly endearing to the reader.

In this book, Ian M Banks wanted to explore the consequences of our actions on us and other people and to see how different human beings cope with feelings such as rage, guilt, grief, etc. I think it rings very close to home right now with all that has been going on in Iraq and Afghanistan – both those conflicts scared a lot of people, be it the local population of the soldiers that have fought there. How do you continue living when you know that you are partly responsible for billions of deaths? Is anything you do good enough to counterbalance that? How far would you go for revenge?

Masaq’ Orbital AI is a perfect example of that – 800 years ago he was the AI of one of the warships that participated in the battle and he witnessed firsthand the explosion of the two suns. The guilt had been haunting him ever since, and now, when the echoes of this battle finally reached the Orbital, he wants to make amends. How? By asking composer Zeller to create a beautiful symphony that would honor the souls lost in that battle, but also by not stopping Quilan from fulfilling his secret mission… And these are all the spoilers I am going to give.

I love the world of Culture – it is incredibly complex and so well-detailed that it feels real. Every book in the series just adds a new piece to the puzzle, slowly building a beautiful picture of a star-dwelling civilization. Buy it, read it, enjoy it, pass it on.