Capsule Reviews – February 2019

Rewrite: Loops in the Timescape, by Gregory Benford (Saga, January 2019)

rewriteDisaffected, middle-aged college professor Charlie Moment suffers what should be a fatal car accident in the year 2000, but instead wakes up as his 16-year-old self in 1968, with all his previous memories intact. So he does what anyone would do with a second chance at his adult life: he steals ideas for yet-to-be-made movies and becomes a rich Hollywood mogul. Along the way he meets other (famous) people who have had the same experience—including Philip K. Dick, Robert A. Heinlein, Albert Einstein, Casanova—and becomes enmeshed in a conflict between competing factions who want to shape history to their liking.
Rewrite gives hard SF stalwart Gregory Benford the opportunity to revisit the premise of his most famous novel, Timescape, where scientists use faster-than-light tachyons to send messages about an impending disaster to the past, while trying to tip-toe around the Grandfather Paradox. At one point, Charlie meets with James Benford, the author’s real-life twin brother (who is the author of Timescape in this rewrite of history), seeking an explanation of how his own mind could transfer to his past self. At one point Charlie suggests that he would prefer to adapt Timescape without all the complicated scientific explanations, to which the physicist replies “Then what would be left?” The irony of this is, that in acknowledging its debt to similar “if I knew then what I know now” time travel stories like Peggy Sue Got Married and Ken Grimwood’s Replay, Rewrite posits that these plots work just fine when they hand wave past the science and focus on character and action.
On the downside, while the action and science in Rewrite work, the main character doesn’t. Charlie’s cynicism in his approach to reinventing his life—and the world—is not unexpected for a middle-aged divorcee, but the novel doesn’t bother offering any critical distance from it. Charlie steals ideas from actual creative minds and produces successful facsimiles without consequence as if the idea divested from its author is interchangeable with the original. This callousness infects every aspect of his life. With a satirical approach, Benford may have been able to get away with having such an unlikeable character as his hero. That’s not how it plays out. While Charlie learns and grows by the end and takes steps to correct his mistakes, I had little sympathy for him by then and no desire to absolve him of them.

Arkad’s World, by James L. Cambias (Baen, January 2019)

Arkad's WorldHighly Recommended – Baen Books often touts itself as a purveyor of old-school sci-fi, but James Cambias’ new novel is the first I’ve read in a long time that could actually pass for something written four or five decades ago. Teenager Arkad is the lone human on a diverse world populated by star-faring races from all over the galaxy. Arkad’s expertise in navigating the planet’s physical and cultural terrain comes in handy when four people from Earth show up looking for the ship Arkad arrived on as a child. They think the ship contains artifacts important to Earth’s resistance to an alien occupation force, and though Arkad’s memory of the ship and its location is fuzzy, he believes he can help them find it.
Cambias’ world-building is breathtaking in its depth and detail, right down to the unique psychological makeup of each alien race. With each passing sentence the scope of this universe expands from a planetary adventure to a galactic epic. The plot is episodic, with cliffhanger-style suspense and heroics, though it’s not as straightforward as it first appears: little inconsistencies and contradictions pop-up throughout, leading to a perception-altering twist. With its memorable characters and setting and lightning-fast pacing, Arkad’s World is the first great sci-fi treat of the new year.

Here and Now and Then, by Mike Chen (MIRA, January 2019)

Here and Now and ThenMike Chen’s debut novel Here and Now and Then begins with a man out of time. Kin Stewart is an agent for the TCB (Temporal Corruption Bureau) who gets stuck in the late 1990s when his retrieval beacon gets damaged. It takes two decades for the Bureau to find him, and by then he’s broken their cardinal rule not to mess with the past by marrying his wife Heather and fathering a daughter, Miranda. Corruption to the timeline is negligible, so the TCB allows him to return to his job and agrees to let Miranda live, as she had little effect on history. Kin longs to know how his daughter’s life turned out, and the actions he takes when he finds out puts both their lives—and the world as he knows it—at grave risk.
Here and Now and Then succeeds at all the fundamentals: strong premise, likeable characters, focused plotting, steady pacing. The novel takes few risks though. It ignores intriguing dramatic possibilities in favor of the standard action movie scenario of a father trying to rescue his daughter from certain peril, and there is minimal pulse-raising in terms of suspense and upping the stakes. It’s a pleasant and emotionally satisfying time-passer, if not very distinctive.

Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones, by Micah Dean Hicks (John Joseph Adams, February 2019)

break the bodiesIt’s refreshing to run into a genre novel that carves its own path, and that’s what you get with Micah Dean Hicks’ debut Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones. The novel’s setting is Swine Hill, a town so saturated with ghosts that literally everyone has at least one haunting them. Jane has a good relationship with her ghost, who feeds her the secrets others hide from the world. Her boyfriend Trigger is haunted by the ghost of his own brother, whom he accidently killed. And her brother Henry’s mad scientist of a ghost helps him create, Doctor Moreau-style, a pig person called Walter Hogboss, who ends up running the local slaughterhouse. When the company that owns the slaughterhouse creates more pig people to staff the place, the townspeople turn on their monstrous new residents, leading Jane to believe they must flee before the town overflows with violence.
Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones is a surreal horror story about “economic anxiety”, which has been a buzzy media term the last few years. It doesn’t work as a political allegory but as an exercise in sustained dread, I found much to admire. the story unfolds with a captivating spontaneity, and while it sometimes felt unfocused this mostly works in the novel’s favor. Those looking for an offbeat read may find this rewarding.

Unholy Land, by Lavie Tidhar (Tachyon, October 2018)

UNholy LandMust Read! – Lavie Tidhar’s sci-fantasies swirl around in a nexus of dreams and memories and imagined realities, soaking through pages of pulpy detective potboilers and silver-age sci-fi brain benders. They are also intensely personal, perhaps none more so than his new novel, Unholy Land. The novel’s hero, a writer named Lior Tirosh, bears not only his creator’s initials but seems to have also written all his novels. This is typical of Tidhar’s metaphysics, where the truth of one reality is the daydream of another.

Tirosh travels from Berlin to the Jewish homeland of Palestina in east Africa, where he was born and much of his family still lives. Not long after he arrives, Tirosh finds an old schoolmate murdered in his hotel room. His niece also goes missing while protesting the construction of a wall meant to keep refugees out of the country. Tirosh, confusing himself with the low-rent detectives he often writes about, “takes the case.” His profession isn’t the only thing confusing him: this reality might not even be the only one he occupies.Palestina has real historical precedent: Tidhar’s introduction explains how the Zionist Congress had once surveyed land in British East Africa as a proposed solution to Europe’s “Jewish problem.” They found the land unsuitable, but many years later, one surveyor remarked that if they had established a Jewish Homeland there, the Holocaust may never have happened.

With Unholy Land, Tidhar slips into the role of Leguin’s George Orr, willing one solution to the disaster of history that, hydra-like, sprouts new disasters in its place. All the anxiety, horror, and heartbreak attending the endless cycles of injustice that haunt our world find vivid expression in his works, and Unholy Land may cut the deepest.

 

In the Night Wood by Dale Bailey

Rating: 4.8 (out of 10)

Dale Bailey’s new novel In the Night Wood is assertive with its intertextuality. It begins with two epigraphical quotes, one from Mircea Eliade’s The Forbidden Forest and the other from the Brothers’ Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel”. A prelude follows that “quotes” its fictitious novel-within-a-novel called In the Night Wood, attributed to the (also fictitious) obscure Victorian writer Caedmon Hollow. The Forbidden Forest is about a man who, after the death of his wife and child, searches for his estranged mistress in the forest where they had met years before, and the quote refers to “the existential necessity of listening to stories and fairy tales.” Those familiar with “Hansel and Gretel” will understand the context Gretel’s tearful lament “How are we to get out of the forest now?” and recognize its interrelation to the Eliade quote. Then, as though its thematic architecture still lacked sufficient clarity, the passage from the imaginary Caedmon Hollow novel is also about a frightened little girl lost in a forest, informed by an enchanted oak that her “Story is rich in coincidence” and “is not a happy Story” (the capital “S” in “Story” is the author’s). It is unsurprising that Bailey’s novel turns out to be a self-reflexive fairy tale involving the tragic death of a child, marital infidelity, little girls lost in enchanted forests, is full of coincidence, and is not a happy story.
That story, a dark fantasy flavored with historical metafiction, begins when young Charles Hayden steals a copy of the forgotten children’s novel “In the Night Wood” from his grandfather’s library. His pilfered copy disappears not long after he reads it, but Charles grows up obsessed with the book and its author. Years later, literary grad student Charles meets Erin, a direct descendant of Caedmon Hollow. They fall in love, get married, and have a daughter, before the novel jumps another decade into the future. Erin is the next living heir to Hollow House, Caedmon Hollow’s ancestral home, and the couple uproot their American lives to live there when the previous, childless heir passes on. A lot has happened in the intervening years. Their marriage is now in ruins: Charles had been having an affair with a colleague, and their daughter Lissa died in an accident as the affair came to light. A trickle of clues suggests there is a relationship between those two circumstances, the result being that Charles is now on sabbatical from his university position (it is clear he will not be welcome back) and Erin, addicted to prescription drugs, cocoons in her grief.
Charles hopes to write a biography of Caedmon Hollow to resuscitate the author’s reputation and his own. Living in Hollow House, with its proximity to Eorl Wood (the purported inspiration for Hollow’s novel) offers all the inspiration and incentive he needs. He may even find the biographical information he needs in the nearby village of Yarrow, whose unofficial historian, Silva, takes an interest in his project.
Charles discovers there might be more to Hollow’s infamous novel than its reputation as a simple allegorical fairy tale suggests. A local girl, around Lissa’s age at the time of her death, has gone missing. Erin, in her drug-induced haze, is sketching bizarre likenesses of the Horned King, the villain of her ancestor’s novel. Charles keeps seeing vague, human-like figures near the wood that seem to blow away with the wind, and the more he digs into Hollow’s past, the more real-life correlations to its fantastical allegories surface.
This premise has all the makings of a solid, atmospheric dark fantasy. Bailey’s silvery prose, plush with descriptive embellishments and perceptual insights, evinces an appropriate Victorian-ness. These attributes also slow the story down. The narrative’s progress stalls sputters for two thirds of the book, stretching out or repeating the same dramatic beats. Erin grieves and regresses and grieves and regresses. Apparitions of the Horned King and Lissa appear and disappear. Charles’ will-he-or-won’t-he attraction to Silva goes nowhere, except that her daughter Lorna reminds him of Lissa so he wants to spend more time around her. Things pick up when the novel finally opens its box of secrets for the final act, but Bailey lets Erin out of the fridge too late for us to care, then stuffs Silva into it in her place.
Stories always work best when the plot, no matter how meticulously devised by the author, progresses from a believable set of choices made by the characters. In the Night Wood often feels as if the characters make choices pre-ordained by the needs of the plot. The opening epigraphs do more than just set the tone and lay out its themes, they direct its inclinations and formulate its path, striving to manufacture layers that only end up weighing it down.

The Quantum Magician by Derek Künsken

Rating: 8.8 (out of 10)

The multifarious, space-faring human civilization Derek Künsken envisions for his debut novel The Quantum Magician relies on a network of wormholes to move from system to system. Powerful patron nations control all the wormholes while subordinate client nations must contract with patrons to use them. The Sub-Saharan Union, a small client nation, longs for independence from the hegemonic Congregate, which controls access to the only wormhole to and from their planetary system. For decades the Union’s Sixth Expeditionary Force, made up of obsolete, second-hand warships, developed advanced weapons and propulsion technology in secret. To launch their attack before the Congregate learns of its existence, the Sixth needs to cross a wormhole axis controlled and defended by the Federation of Puppet Theocracies. The Puppets want half the Union’s souped-up warships as payment for passage across the axis, a price too high for the Union to pay. Trying to force their way across the axis would end with more of their ships destroyed or damaged than they would have lost if they had made the deal.
Enter homo quantus Belisarius Arjona, one of an engineered human sub-species whose brains are essentially quantum computers. Belisarius is an exile from his own people, a free agent who uses his quantum intellect to pull off complex confidence schemes for paying clients. The Union hires Belisarius to do the impossible: move the entire Sixth Expeditionary Force across the Puppet axis without the Puppets knowing it. To do so, Belisarius needs to assemble a team comprising all the various sub-species humans have engineered over the centuries, each bringing a unique skill set to the table. But Belisarius has something more personal at stake in the outcome than he can let on, and the slightest miscalculation could mean sacrificing himself and everyone he cares about.
The future history Künsken conjures is a dizzying miracle, so expansive and packed with detail, yet we still get the feeling the author is only scratching the surface. The structure of the heist story, in which “getting the band together” occupies a significant portion of the narrative, is perfect for sneaking in plot-dependent infodumps: someone always needs something explained to them in such scenes. Meanwhile, Künsken keeps dropping brain-blistering science-fictional concepts on the reader, because why settle for one cool idea when several dozen will do. The Union’s ships are powered by virtual particles that jump in and out of existence and carry an inflationary force akin to the expanding universe. It’s the kind of concept sci-fi authors build entire novels around, but Künsken just tosses it into the bin like he’s got plenty more to spare.
Crime caper stories are reliant on sleight of hand; the plot of The Quantum Magician features the requisite double blinds and bait-and-switches, disseminated with a proficiency and confidence expected of a veteran author (Künsken has been publishing short fiction for over a decade). I must admit that I preferred watching the dominoes line up to watching them fall. Once Belisarius and his crew set the plan in motion, the story hits all its marks, but the execution feels a little perfunctory. What the novel gets right, though, is that its band of gene-engineered ne’er-do-wells, and especially Belisarius, are desperate to find meaning in their lives and willing to risk everything to get it. Pulling that off is the long game The Quantum Magician plays well.

The Dreaming Stars (Axiom Book 2) by Tim Pratt

Rating 8.1 (out of 10)

[Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t read the first book in the series – The Wrong Stars – I give away some key plot points here]

Tim Pratt’s The Wrong Stars was a master class in how an author should stitch their world-building into a novel’s plot and character growth. Having a character—in this case 500-year-old cryo-sleeper Elena Oh—who needs everything explained to them is not a new trick; the fun of the rest of the novel revolves around the explainers learning that everything they thought they knew about their world was wrong.
At the beginning of The Wrong Stars, the crew of the salvage ship White Raven rescues Elena from her derelict ship. Elena spins a tale of barely escaping an encounter with terrifying alien beings who abducted her crew and altered her ship, a seed vessel sent out five centuries ago to find habitable worlds before the discovery of faster than light travel. Callie Machedo, the captain of the White Raven, informs her that humans have already made first contact with alien beings (who they call the Liars, because they literally lie about everything) who are anything but terrifying, and as far as humankind knows, humans and Liars are the only intelligent species in the universe.
A whole lot happens between that and the end of the novel (and if you haven’t read it yet, do so, then come back here), so if we skip to the new status quo established at the end of The Wrong Stars, the crew of the White Raven learns that there is a race of megalomaniacal super-beings called the Axiom who are sleeping while their unknown grand scheme is coming to fruition, and the Liars (most of them unwittingly) serve the Axiom by keeping humans away from the Axiom’s areas of space. The White Raven gains some very advanced Axiom tech and hijacks a pirate base on an asteroid (the pirates totally had it coming) and use it as a base of operations to learn about and thwart the Axiom’s plans.
There was no reason to expect The Dreaming Stars to duplicate the fiendish pace and table-turning plotting of its predecessor; narrative high-jumping can get tiresome as a baseline, and there are only so many times you can alter your readers’ understanding of the world you’re constructing without giving them plot-twist fatigue. The Wrong Stars ended right where it needed to, with our heroes and their companions reaching a firm understanding of the new rules of the game and their role in playing it. Not that there aren’t a few fun twists and surprises abound in The Dreaming Stars—they’re just more the plot-shaking rather than reality-shaking variety.
The Dreaming Stars picks up right where the first book left us, with the crew settling into their new home, dealing with the fallout from running afoul of the Elders, the powerful Liar shadow government that serves the Axiom. Elena and Callie are firmly a couple now and are feeling out the terms of their relationship. Their Liar ally Lantern purges all records of their involvement in the incident that put them at odds with the Elders and confirms that all the Liars who know about the White Raven are dead. Free to emerge from the shadows, Callie crashes her own funeral, and learns from her corporate honcho ex-husband that some of their ships operating near a new deep space colony have gone missing in a region of space Lantern flagged for possible Axiom activity. The prospect of getting paid to investigate the disappearances, while secretly looking into the Axiom, proves too enticing to pass up, so to the Taliesen system the White Raven goes. What they find there is definitely Axiom, and an immediate threat to the nearby planetary system.
If The Wrong Stars served as the equivalent of a “pilot episode”, The Dreaming Stars is the episode that primes the reader’s expectations for how the series will develop from book to book, and in that sense Pratt develops a comfortable pace and tone for the reader. It takes a little longer than expected for the plot’s inciting incident to establish a clear goal for our heroes, a forgivable offense one can chalk up to the new story formulations falling into place. Besides, we already like these characters and the world they inhabit; spending a little extra time with them living their lives is a welcome detour before the action and intensity takes over. The second half of the novel uses one of my favorite narrative devices: the “countdown clock”, in which the heroes face a time crunch on their way to annihilation, and limited resources to deploy. I don’t think the author quite exploits all the potential the countdown structure has to offer, but it does (self-consciously) serve up an enjoyable riff on Iain Banks’ classic The Player of Games.
Pratt delves into some aspects of this world that The Wrong Stars only hinted at—a jaunt to Jupiter’s moons shows us how humans live when they’re not zipping around the galaxy in spaceships, and the second half of the novel offers more detail on ship doctor Stephen’s hallucinogenic drug-centered religion The Church of the Ecstatic Divine. The Axiom’s larger designs also start to unfold, but not so much that we aren’t thirsting for the next installment. The Dreaming Stars may lack the manic buzz that defined its predecessor, but its steadiness inspires confidence that this series is built to last.

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 easy to get behind Oichi’s goals—she wants to avenge her parents’ death and free “worms” like herself from the Executives’ shackles—also impressive was 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 decent 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. Vanguard spent so much time laying the groundwork for the series that there was less space available for Campbell’s brand of tight, suspenseful action and crowd-pleasing heroics. The scales have tipped back in that direction for Ascendant, and it’s a slightly more satisfying experience because of it.
Campbell’s plots are 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, find themselves back in action as Scatha redoubles its efforts. Determined to cut off Glenlyon’s trade routes, Scatha attacks the destroyer Claymore, killing everyone on board. 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 out-punch, out-shoot, and out-strategize 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 losing even 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—efficient, 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.

Embers

Gareth Powell’s new space opera Embers of War is the story of the reformed warship Trouble Dog and her crew. After taking part 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 its new captain Sal Konstanz and a small crew of medics and rescue workers, Trouble Dog’s assignment is 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, and 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 fair 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.

Irontown Blues (An Eight Worlds Novel) by John Varley

Rating: 7.2 (out of 10)

In John Varley’s Eight Worlds novels, alien invaders have treated the humans of Earth much like the Europeans treated the First Peoples of North America—after killing off nearly all the planet’s population, they tolerated humankind’s presence on any of the other planets and moons in the solar system, provided they stayed out of the way of Earth’s new masters. The largest of the human settlements is on Luna, where the cradle of humanity remains in sight but depressingly out of reach.
Irontown Blues is the fourth novel Varley has set in the Eight Worlds backdrop, its guiding assessment of humanity’s course—big guy squashes little guy, little guy survives and adapts, bigger guy comes along, repeat and rinse—living at the tortured core of its hero, ex-cop turned private eye Christopher Bach. Like most of human society on Luna, Bach obsesses over the popular culture of pre-invasion Earth, especially the hard-boiled film noir of the 1940s and 1950s. He self-consciously models his speech patterns after classic noir heroes like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, and sometimes other people are amenable enough to play along.
Bach also has a partner: his dog Sherlock, a Cybernetically Enhanced Canine (CEC) who has the intelligence level of a low-IQ human. A CEC’s thoughts translate to human language via computer, but present as incoherent babble until interpreted by a human intermediate, and Bach has neither the cybernetic implants nor the training to do so. Sherlock can only communicate with Bach through typical dog noises, though he understands far more human speech, and human behavior, than a non-enhanced dog can, and is often a greater help to Bach than even Bach is aware. Sherlock is no mere sidekick/foil for his nominal master—in many ways he is the novel’s co-protagonist. The chapters in Irontown Blues alternate between Bach’s perspective and Sherlock’s, with an interpreter named Penelope editing and providing a meta-commentary on his thoughts.
The novel begins the way any classic noir film would, with a woman and a case for Bach to solve. Someone who calls herself Mary Smith breezes into Bach’s office with a tale of woe. She had recently gone on a date with a man who wore genetically engineered leprosy like a fashion accessory. Unfortunately for Mary, he was also part of a sub-subculture of disease carriers who had illegally infected himself with a communicable version of the disease, so he could pass it on to unsuspecting people like her, a shits-and-giggles trend known as “exporting”. Mary nearly died from the attack and, badly crippled and disfigured, needs expensive therapy to repair the damage. She wants to find the sick bastard who did it to her and get the justice she deserves. The one problem is, the guy disappeared into the murky depths of Irontown, a refuge for outsiders and antisocial malcontents who distrust authority and prefer to stay off the radar. People who live in Irontown don’t enjoy being looked for, and the residents there work to keep it that way.
Irontown is to Chris Bach what Chinatown was to Jake Gittes, an allegory Bach explicitly makes for the reader. He was once a member of the police strike force that infiltrated Irontown as part of the nervous government’s crackdown on a group of separatists known as the “Heinleiners”, an invasion that quickly went south. The disaster was compounded by the fact that the circumstances were manipulated by the Central Computer, the once benevolent AI overseer of Luna that fractured and went partly insane, which also sent in its genetically enhanced foot soldiers in the Charonese Mafia. Historically, the incident is referred to as The Big Glitch. During the invasion, Bach is near-fatally wounded saving the life of a 10-year-old girl named Gretel, who in turn rescues him from certain death.
Anyone who has read Varley’s 1992 Hugo-nominated classic Steel Beach recognizes what’s going on here. Irontown Blues functions as something of a standalone sequel to that novel; Hildy Johnson, the reporter hero of Steel Beach, even makes a cameo in Bach’s Big Glitch flashback. It’s unnecessary to have read Steel Beach to understand what is happening in Irontown Blues, though having done so may provide a greater context for appreciating the events that spin out from it. After making the connection to Steel Beach, the narrative’s trajectory alters dramatically. Steel Beach was also something of a mash-up of classic cinema styling and Heinleinian libertarian political transformation (Hildy Johnson is the main character of the news media satire His Girl Friday; the Central Computer recalls “Mike”, the sentient supercomputer of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress), and Irontown Blues packs a lot of common sci-fi tropes (uplifted animals, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, generation ships, military SF, colony narrative, and so on) into its compact word count. It’s no wonder it veers off course as a crime novel halfway through.
The new course it takes offers something of a mixed bag for readers, especially in the last third of the story, when the explanation for the plot’s inciting incident gets a little flimsy. The strongest elements of Irontown Blues come in the long, traumatic flashback to events of The Big Glitch, and in the tender, affecting relationship between Bach and Sherlock. This novel will most likely be as appealing to dog lovers as it is to sci-fi nerds, and a boon to people who are both. Luckily, the heart of Irontown Blues outlasts the sometimes too obvious, but still modestly effective plotting.

Foundryside (Founders Book 1) by Robert Jackson Bennett

Rating: 7.3 (out of 10)

Robert Jackson Bennett’s new novel Foundryside shows the same investment in world building as his extravagant Divine Cities trilogy. This time he gives us the city of Tevanne, a setting inspired by late-medieval/early Renaissance-era Italy. Four “campos”, houses that control every facet of commerce in the city, rule over Tevanne. Sancia is a young thief from Foundryside, the city’s crumbling ghetto, home to both Tevanne’s common laborers and its criminal element. As the complicated plot unspools, parties unknown hire Sancia to steal a box from a heavily guarded safe at the waterfront. The box turns out to contain a key that can open any lock, and Sancia determines the key is too dangerous item to fall into the wrong hands.
The magic system in Foundryside is unique. An intricate vocabulary of sigils is used to “scriv” an object and convince it to behave in ways contrary to reality. For example, one can drive a carriage without a horse by writing sigils on the wheels that convince them they are rolling downhill even if the ground is perfectly flat. Though she has no formal training (poor people aren’t taught how to scriv), Sancia’s relationship to scriving is unprecedented; she alone can sense nearby scrivings and they whisper their meaning to her. She doesn’t know why she has this ability, nor has she ever encountered anyone else with the same gift. When she first touches the stolen key, it does more than just whisper to her, it holds a full-on conversation. Calling itself Clef, it contains scrivings so complicated it appears to have an entire person inscribed on it. With her mysterious client out to kill her and retrieve their prize, Sancia and Clef join forces with Gregor, a former soldier and campo heir who want to bring a rigid system of law and order to Foundryside, and Orso Ignacio—a hypatus, or scriving scholar—and his assistant Berenice. Together they uncover a plot by one of the Campo heads to use ancient, forgotten magics to transform into a god.
The success of Foundryside rests on much the same formula as the Divine Cities: a world so rich and detailed the reader can almost taste the air; memorable, compelling, and well-defined characters; arcane arts that promise both ecstasy and untold horror. Similar problems also abound—Bennett’s plotting often conflates raising tension with raising the volume. There is an overwhelming tendency toward grand dramatic gestures and flamboyant actions, too many stabs at manufacturing crowd pleasing moments, and some succeed while others fall flat. Nuance suffers a few fatal blows along the way—the budding romance between Sancia and Berenice feels both overcooked and underdeveloped, forcing sentiments it doesn’t quite earn.
Like the other cities that have sprouted from Bennett’s fierce imagination, though, Tevanne is worth visiting, and full of people whose company you will want to keep.

Noumenon Infinity by Marina J. Lostetter

Rating: 9.5 (out of 10)

[Warning: if you have not read Noumenon, which this novel is a sequel to, there will be spoilers here]
At the end of Marina J. Lostetter’s brilliant debut novel Noumenon, Convoy Seven returned to an earth several millennia removed from the society and culture that launched its original mission to investigate the seemingly unnatural behavior of the variable star designated LQ Pyx. To their dismay, the people of Earth have far different priorities and lack interest in exploring the stars. No longer under obligation to the descendants of their forebears, Convoy Seven set back out to discover who started the unfinished structure around LQ Pyx, and if possible, to complete it themselves. Noumenon was a spirited and ambitious work of golden-to-silver age sci-fi redux, re-purposing and combining popular science fictional elements like the Generation Ship (Orphans of the Sky, The Enemy Stars), the psychological effects of time dilation (The Forever War, Tau Zero), and the Big Dumb Object (Rendezvous with Rama, Ringworld). It was also a perfect balance of hard sci-fi’s emphasis on scientific detail and heroic problem solving, and social sci-fi’s speculations about human behavior.
While Noumenon left us in the dark regarding the convoy’s discovery of the mega-structure at LQ Pyx, the promise of convoy seven’s return trip made the prospect of a sequel enticing. Fully aware of the state of anticipation she left us in, Lostetter wisely opts for delayed gratification. Noumenon Infinity doesn’t kick off with convoy seven’s journey back to LQ Pyx, instead taking us back in time to the early years of the Planet United Consortium to follow the story of Convoy Twelve. Convoy Twelve vanished while experimenting with sub-dimensional travel, assumed lost or destroyed. In fact, the experiment jettisoned them to a place and time so far away from the 22nd century Earth they departed it’s a wonder they don’t lose all hope. An alien craft discovers and intercepts them. Faced with the aliens’ superior technology and relentless pursuit, they have no choice but to make first contact. The aliens are terrifying and powerful, but seem well meaning, if also somewhat aloof. And they know something about the convoy they’re not willing to share.
From there the novel’s chapters alternate between the narratives of convoys twelve and seven. While the linear progress of convoy twelve’s plight remains immediate, the trajectory of convoy seven’s narrative follows the pattern established in Noumenon. Convoy Seven’s story takes huge leaps forward in time, each chapter picking up the story generations removed from the previous chapter. Differing interpretations of seven’s mission leads to a schism among the convoy, between those who want to follow the map retrieved from the Nest—which they believe will lead them to the builders of the LQ Pyx mega-structure—and those who believe their sole purpose is to return to LQ Pyx and complete the original goal of their mission. After some conflict and deliberation, the convoy separates into two groups, hoping the splinter group of map followers will one day, many generations down the line, rejoin their sister ships at LQ Pyx.
To reveal much more of what happens in Noumenon Infinity would be a betrayal. Lostetter’s ability to innovate and astonish appears inexhaustible, and I hate ruining surprises. The above plot descriptions, busy as they might seem, are a woefully inadequate representation of what happens in the novel, which outpaces Noumenon in scope and scale by several degrees.
One of the common, and most cynical, tropes of generation ship stories is how the passage of time obscures the origins of its society, often to the point of delusion and ignorance. Taken together, Noumenon and Noumenon Infinity acknowledge how the practical concerns that give birth to social groups can become mythologized over time, but that those societies develop, organize, and evolve according to their necessities, which can change frequently. Myths of origin, however idealistic or arcane they may seem, are just as likely to have material value to an ever-changing culture, to be a unifying and energizing presence and not always reducible to fundamentalist zeal.
Noumenon was my favorite science fiction novel of 2017 and the encore is even more thrilling and satisfying. Noumenon Infinity weaves in and out of the lives of these disparate human civilizations, discovering the shocking but strangely understandable ways in which they emerge from strife and conflict and imperative to adjust to their conditions in ingenious ways; it’s a relentlessly exciting, wondrous, unnerving, and ultimately sublime work of science fiction.

Relic by Alan Dean Foster

Rating: 6.2 (out of 10)

In Alan Dean Foster’s new novel, Relic, there is only one known human left in the universe. The Myssari find Ruslan, the last known human, wandering the crumbling wasteland of his home planet Seraboth after a super virus called the Aura Malignance wiped out all other human life from every human occupied system in the galaxy. The worst part is, humans engineered the virus as a kind of doomsday weapon, which, it would appear, lived up to its billing. Now, the various alien species who populate the rest of the galaxy are moving in to claim the territories the extinct human civilization left behind, and the discovery of any remaining humans becomes a political football between two of the expanding groups: the aforementioned Myssari and the more aggressive Vrizan. Both want to reseed humanity, and while the Myssari appear to have benevolent intentions, the Vrizan’s motives are more uncertain. The problem is, Ruslan isn’t sure humans deserve to exist anymore, and he has no desire to be the new progenitor of his race. He soon strikes an uneasy bargain with the Myssari: He will let them use their cloning technology to restore humankind, if they agree to help him find the human home world of Earth, long since lost to history.
Foster writes with an easy confidence one would expect from someone who has produced more than a hundred novels and novelizations in a career than will soon span half a century. The plot builds with effortless efficiency. Foster gets down to business right away, laying out the history that led humanity to its demise and leading right into the major dramatic question Ruslan faces. He sets a clear goal for the story and charges ahead until all questions are answered and all obstacles overcome. The storytelling sometimes feels too clean, but it’s comforting being in the hands of a seasoned pro.
Despite my general enjoyment of the book, little issues nagged at me from the corners, and compounded as the novel progressed. Though Ruslan spends most of his time in the company of the Myssari and even counts many of them as friends, I never felt that enough effort went into distinguishing them as individuals beyond a few prescribed personality traits. Their society appears homogenized in terms of culture, motivation, and their intentions toward Ruslan and humanity. Much needed tension arises in the form of obstacles placed in their path by the Vrizan, but most of these conflicts find easy resolution, and more than once the Vrizan back down at the first sign of push back from the Myssari, even though Foster describes the Myssari as less militant and with inferior technology. The most significant issue I had, though, was that the novel becomes too enamored with its search for the possibility of other living humans. While this provides a more hopeful tone rover a cynical and depressing one, it sidelines one of the main thematic threads that hooked me from the start: one lone human contemplating and coping with the tragedy of his solitude.
Relic is a well-written, well-structured and satisfying novel that doesn’t quite elevate itself above the fray.