Capsule Reviews – August 2018

Medusa Uploaded, by Emily Devenport 6.0
Ascendant (Genesis Fleet Book 2), by Jack Campbell 6.7
Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente 4.2
Embers of War, by Gareth L. Powell 7.5

medusaI think the Generation Ship fad may have peaked last year. Sage Walker’s The Man in the Tree, Marina J. Lostetter’s Noumenon, and Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts all offered exceptional and engaging riffs on the age-old SF trope, leaving Emily Devenport’s new novel Medusa Uploaded with a lot to live up to. The twist in Devenport’s take comes in hardware form – the novel’s hero, Oichi, has the help of an artificially intelligent armor-suit called Medusa to aid in her mutiny against the Executives, an oppressive hegemony that rules over the generation starship Olympia. Medusa is a cool piece of tech, and the mythology Devenport builds around it is intricate. It’s not hard to get behind Oichi’s goals – she wants to avenge her parents’ death and free “worms” like herself from the Executives’ shackles – and I was especially impressed by the amount of history and detail Devenport imbued in the novel’s setting. By the end, though, my gripes had compounded: Medusa is near-ubiquitous, a perpetual easy-out for Oichi every time she gets into a scrape, and at no point did I feel that Oichi was in any real danger; “spacing” people out of an airlock is apparently the only method anyone can think up to kill someone in Olympia, and this becomes redundant to the point of tedium; the incessant pop culture references are distracting; there is an inordinate amount of exposition, and it reaches critical mass during the expected “they’ve been lying to us this whole time” finale. Medusa Uploaded is a pretty good effort but can’t quite keep up with the richer examples of its sub-genre.

AscendantAscendant is the second book in Jack Campbell’s Genesis Fleet series, a prequel series to his beloved Lost Fleet books. I enjoyed Vanguard, the first book in the series, even if I found it a little slow-going. So much of its word count was tied up in laying the groundwork for the series that there was less space available for the kind of tight, suspenseful action that Campbell excels at. The scales have tipped back in that direction for Ascendant, and it’s a slightly more satisfying experience because of it.
Campbell’s plots tend to be straightforward and uncomplicated, and Ascendant is no exception. Rob Geary and Mele Darcy, the heroes who helped affirm Glenlyon’s independence from the imperialist ambitions of the Scatha star system in Vanguard, are called back into action when the destroyer Claymore is destroyed in an attempt by Scatha to cut off Glenlyon’s trade routes. Geary takes the warship Saber to the Scatha-occupied system of Jatayu to investigate, and possibly avenge, the attack on Claymore, and in the process discovers that Scatha has sent an invasion force to the Glenlyon-allied system of Kosatka and leads the Saber there to help them defend their home.
The bulk of Ascendant’s page count finds Geary’s “space squids” and Darcy’s Marines hanging on by a thread as they try to outpunch, outshoot, and outstrategize the Scathan attackers, and this is for the best. I love Campbell’s massive space battle sequences, where precision matters most – one slight miscalculation can lead to total disaster, and the loss of one ship can erase any chance of victory. Campbell’s characterizations and plotting are merely adequate to the task, but he really knows how to keep a reader gripped by his action scenes. Ascendant is like a good summer action flick – efficiently entertaining and smart enough to satisfy its target audience, though hardly anything to keep your brain cells churning once it’s over.

space operaIn the setup for Catherynne M. Valente’s new “Eurovision in space” novel Space Opera, has-been, burned-out, Bowie-wannabe rock star Decibel Jones is inexplicably chosen to sing for humanity’s right to exist in an intergalactic competition. Unfortunately, after the amusingly gonzo kickoff, the subsequent two-thirds of the book is the most epic filler of all time – a plotless pile of twisty-worded tangents about everything on Earth the author can think of, packed with in-jokes and puns and double-entendres and tonal shifts from slapstick to droll to burlesque to self-deprecating to farcical and my god it’s way more exhausting than funny and I’m not kidding it goes on FOREVER before anything resembling a story returns and it almost gets good again until it contrives a flimsy solution to the main problem, then cuts off mid-climax and goes straight to the denouement. I normally like Valente’s writing; how she managed to write a novel without a single interesting character and stretch about 5000 words of story into 80,000 words is, admittedly, an impressive feat, and also completely mystifying and frustrating and disappointing.

EmbersGareth Powell’s new space opera Embers of War is the story of the reformed warship Trouble Dog and her crew. After participating in a terrible genocide that brought an end to a brutal, destructive war, Trouble Dog leaves her sister warships behind and joins the House of Reclamation, an interstellar Red Cross-like rescue organization. With new captain Sal Konstanz and a small crew of medics and rescue workers, Trouble Dog is assigned to rescue the survivors of the touring ship Geest van Amsterdam that crashed on the Brain, a kind of celestial art object fashioned thousands of years before by an unknown species. The Brain lies in a disputed region of space, an it soon becomes clear that someone deliberately took out the Amsterdam, someone unconcerned with the laws that protect ships like Trouble Dog from hostile action.
Embers of War has an imaginative and intricately designed setting, and the rotating roster of POV characters add a diverse set of viewpoints to the action. I appreciated the novel’s concern with ethics and the equitable administration of justice, and its focus on heroes who are there to protect rather than destroy. All too often in space opera, the focus on battle heroics obscures, or at least marginalizes, the body count that naturally accumulates. Though I thought the ending got a little hand wavy after writing itself into a corner, Embers of War is an entertaining and thoughtful piece of action sci-fi.

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