Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Bone Silence - Alastair Reynolds

Bone Silence is the third and final (for now) novel in Alastair Reynold’s Revenger sequence. I really enjoyed the previous two novels, chronicling the adventures of the infamous Ness sisters, their ship, and their motley crew, and was looking forward to seeing what happened next. And I’ll tell you right now, it was worth it. There’s a lot going on in these pages. There’s Reynold’s trademark elaborate, complex worldbuilding, each piece of the wider universe sliding into place as smoothly as a cog in an elaborate clock. There’s the Ness sisters, whose growth from naïve country bumpkins to hardened pirates, with their own code and their own quests has been a delight to watch. And that’s before exploring the complex weave of emotion and action which binds two very different siblings together. There’s mysteries still to be investigated, whose solving promises to shake the foundations of the universe. There’s politics and knives in the dark, moments of despair and abject terror. This is a story which will draw you into its pages with dazzling, high concept science fiction, then throw out an emotional gut punch. This is a story to make you end up in the metaphorical gutter, looking up at the stars. 

Just to be clear, I really enjoyed this one.  

I’ve talked about the world (or worlds) of this series before. But to recap: this is the Congregation. It’s a rich necklace of worlds wrapped in their own orbits around an old sun. Each of the worlds is small, ranging from meters to perhaps hundreds of miles across. And they dodge and weave around each other in a delicately elaborate dance of celestial mechanics, one which nobody entirely understands. There’s a sense of age and loss permeating the text; the Congregation is old, filled with baubles - worldlets containing artifacts of earlier, more scientifically advanced times (as well as lethal traps). There’s a melancholy to it, a sense of decline, as humanity seems to have fallen from greater heights to scrapping in the gutter. If the Congregation is a marvel, those who live in it are all too familiar, all too human. Avaricious. Vengeful. Compassionate. Loving. Traitors and fools, thieves and scholars, all of the best and worst of us on display.  

Between the worlds fly ships of interstellar commerce, in a way which would be familiar to Nelson (or, perhaps more appropriately, Horatio Hornblower). Plying the deeps on solar sails, these ships are delicate, complicated things, and those who take them out into space are odd, driven, complicated people. Also, sometimes, pirates. Because shooting holes in the sails of another interplanetary craft, boarding it and stripping it of cargo is entirely possible. 

This is a universe to stir the blood and call out to the soul, as tiny glistening drops traverse the endless deeps of space. 

That’s before we even get to the aliens. Because humanity isn’t alone in the universe. Out there somewhere are other species. More advanced than humanity. Holding the levers of power – government, finance, policing. Quite what they want and why they want it has been one of the mysteries of the series, and if more light falls on some of those questions here, I shan’t delve into the detail. I’ll say this though: the story is one about fulfilling your curiosity, about the price and reward of doing so. As the end approaches, some of the big questions will be answered, though by the final page you may find yourself with more questions than you started with. 

After focusing on each of the Ness sisters in turn in previous books, here we get to see them side-by-side. Their stories are woven together with interleaving chapters, each having their own viewpoint. It’s a testament to Reynold’s skill that both sisters feel distinct, genuine, and having vivid personalities in their own right. You won’t mistake Fura, boiling with a slowly rising rage, driven to acts of violence and compassion in equal measure, with the more collected, but equally tormented Adrana. Their voices are as different as their stories – but as those personal narratives wrap around each other, they make something greater than they are alone. The Ness sisters are a triumph of characterisation. They’re both damaged, yes. Physically and mentally struggling. Trying to make decisions for the lives in their hands, trying to serve their goals, to uncover answers to the mysteries that plague the congregation and, incidentally, to stay alive. But they’re compassionate, and willing to hold the line and die with (or for) their crew. They’re sometimes ruthless, sometimes riven with doubt, occasionally wise or compassionate, always curious. They’re heroines, shaped by circumstances which might have broken them, but have instead bound them to common purpose, and left them burning more brightly and more fiercely than the Old Sun. Their story, and that of their crew, is an absolute pleasure to read. 

As for that story: as ever, I shall try for no spoilers. But it has a sense of wonder to it. As I said above, there are big questions here, about humanity’s place in the universe. About why that universe is the way it is. About the economy, about sous, about the real agenda of the aliens walking the congregation. There are new marvels unveiled, and old horrors stalking the streets. There’s antagonists so vile you can feel their presence seeping off the page, and flights of grand imagination which left me breathless. Reynolds has pulled out all the stops here, and given the Ness sisters a conclusion which you’ll remember; this is one of those stories that you won’t want to end. I was left torn between needing to know what happened next, and hoping not to turn the final page. 

Which is all a long-winded way of saying this is a great story, and a cracking conclusion to the series. If you’ve come this far with the Ness sisters, you’ll want to take this voyage too. I promise, it’s  worth it.  

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Antediluvian - Wil McCarthy

Antediluvian is a standalone novel from Wil McCarthy, and I’ll say this: it’s imaginative work, and it tells a good story. You can pick it up and lose yourself in other times, other places, other people; the story is intriguing, and the characters have depth and weight. It reminds me, in a lot of ways, of the sci-fi tales of the seventies, boys-own adventures, which had the capacity to dazzle and amaze, and also to keep you turning pages past your bedtime. Like them, this story has its flaws, its problematic passages and conceptualisations, and doesn't always hit its mark, but also like them, it is ultimately a fun ride.  

The big idea of Antediluvian, which I cannot promise not to misspell as we go through this review, is that genetic memory is real. That with enough budget, enthusiasm, and scientific knowhow, we can reach into that memory, and live the lives of our ancestors. See through their eyes. And here, I won’t lie, the book absolutely shines. The idea is a bit bonkers, of course. But taking it on its own terms lets us delve into other times, other places, to tell the stories of people so utterly unlike the modern reader, but also still wonderfully, recognisably human. 
It's worth noting here that the science, as presented, feels only a few steps ahead of where we are now. That technically it feels plausible, even if the results might be open to question. McCarthy has clearly done the research, and made it into something accessible, something approachable something that helps drive a fascinating story. 

McCarthy expertly melds myth and legend to bring us a set of stories which may not be true, but could be. From bronze-age hunters dealing with what they think of as trolls, to an Atlantean civilization swept away by a flood, from a garden of plenty to things far worse – these are the myths of the western world brought to life. Well, some of them anyway. But to life, nevertheless. I was particularly fond of the not-Atlanteans, a civilisation with complex astronomy, with a religious subtext we only see the edges of, with architecture and dreams of conquest, with currency, with families whom they care for. The art is in the way that these people are given viewpoints different enough from our own that they feel strange, but close enough that they feel almost familiar, second cousins, twice narratively removed. As one of the men whose eyes we look through argues with his mother-in law, with his brother, we can feel the pang of the domestic, even as we gasp at the soaring ziggurats, and shiver in anticipation of the encroaching waters.  

The worlds that McCarthy spins from the tattered edge of myth are beautifully realised ones, within their perspective. Richly detailed, plausible, internally convincing. They’ll draw you in with their sights and sounds and smells, and you’ll care. You’ll see the struggles of the people, the conflicts, the deals, the internal agonies and the white-hot violence, and you’ll care. There’s so much to explore here, so much potential, and to be fair to the story, it gives you all sorts of different adventures in its time travelling tour of its narrator’s ancestry.  I would’ve been delighted to explore further through the times and places, seen other worlds that are ours, through other, older eyes.  

I did think that the focus on male perspectives was a bit of a shame. The story justifies it internally with a bit of sciencey handwaving, but it felt like a missed opportunity. In that regard, the text picks up some of the bad habits of its own ancestors – like not giving the women who are on the page enough to do. The biggest issue though, I found, was our interlocutor, the modern college professor whose Weird-Science-esque experiment drives the tale. His name is Harv, and he’s equal parts science action hero and unreconstructed sex-lizard. The rest of the story centres around its men, but it works, because those men are sympathetic characters, thoughtfully cast so that we can feel for them, empathise and sympathise even where we don’t agree. Harv I struggled with, perhaps because the old-school masculine style he embodies is a bit more problematic these days than when it graced the pages of Astounding and Asimov's 

Still, with that caveat, Antediluvian is a fun story. It’s snappy, and if you let it, it’ll pull you into its universe of time-travelling genetics, and you’ll have a good time. It has issues, yes, feeling like something of a throwback to an earlier time in genre history, and with that in mind, it’s probably not for everyone. Personally, I appreciate its ambition, many of its well-drawn characters, and its lush, vivid worldbuilding and so much of what it's trying to do, but can't help seeing the potential to realise that ambition more thoroughly. But like Marmite, some of you will be willing to look past the flaws, past the aggravating central character and the old-school all-boys-together focus, and will absolutely love it. If that sounds like you, then give this one a whirl.  It has some great ideas, and with them, it reaches for the stars.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Velocity Weapon - Megan E. O'Keefe

Velocity Weapon is the start of a new sci-fi series from Megan E.  O’Keefe, whose fantasy works I’ve talked about enthusiastically before. And I have to say, O’Keefe has hit the bullseye; this is a top-notch piece of science fiction. It has adventure and drama aplenty, and asks big questions, couching them alongside well-crafted character relationships in a pairing which seizes the attention, and keeps hold of it until the last page. 

In case you can’t tell, I rather liked this one. 

I’ve just deleted an entire paragraph, because it was perhaps a bit spoilery about the narrative, and that's something you'll want to discover on your own. So, let me say this instead. This is a space opera. It’s filled with human drama, clever tech, and lavish, well-realised word building. But it’s also a wonderfully crafted story. There are moments here that took my breath away. Twists that I didn’t see coming, sure. But then, those twists fold back on themselves escher-like, to reveal new and different truths. It’s bloody clever, and I’d do you a disservice to talk about it except in general terms. But believe me when I tell you that this is a story that is going to baffle and delight, devastate and enthral in equal measure. It’s  one you’ll be reading until four in the morning, and one you’ll be thinking about for longer than that. 

So, if I’m not going to talk about the story, I should talk about the characters. And they are the stars of the show, that’s a fact. 

The one closest to my heart is Sanda. A conflict survivor, she’s wounded both physically and mentally in that survival. But Sanda is a force on the page regardless, in both cases. She has real depth of presence, and speaking on the page, commands respect from the reader as wel as other characters. Sanda’s internal monologue is tightly focused, driven, sometimes beautifully contemplative. All that, and she’s several cans of whup-ass mixed with determination, heroism and a soupcon of compassion. There’s a genuine passion to Sanda’s search for her family in the aftermath of war, and a sharp edge to her grief, a cold pain searing off the page and into the reader with every word. A complex person, is Sanda, and that’s high praise. Not a character, not words, but a person, living, breathing, refusing to be broken, moving forward and living despite the world she finds herself in – with the assistance of a somewhat unreliable ship A.I.  

We also get to spend time with Sanda’s brother Biren, whose own story is subsumed in politics and in looking for his sister. Biren is young when we join him, a whip-smart individual, for sure. But naïve, perhaps dangerously so. Still, he has a clarity of vision and a purpose which make for refreshing reading, and their potential to be occluded by events is one viewed with a mixture of triumph and trepidation. Biren is shaping himself each action putting him into positions which give him what he wants, maybe what he needs, but also help tie him in, bind him to the society which he’s somewhat suspicious of. A nice young man, Biren, someone with potential. Whether he’ll realise or squander it is something the text explores, and it gives him room to maneouvre, to become a person we can sympathise with, empathise with – even while questioning how far he’s willing to go to achieve his goals.  

While Sanda is finding strength in adversity, and Biran is treading gently in the corridors of power, Jules is something else entirely. A small time thief, mostly. A person in over their head? Quite possibly. Jules’ sections are fast paced adventure, as she tries to evade the law, as well as various shadowy forces that appear to want her and the crew she runs with, dead. I really enjoyed Jules’ sections. She’s fierce, passionate, ruthless, and a force to be reckoned with, even if she’s starting from something of a disadvantage. Still, there’s an energy driving Jules that’s infectious. And who doesn’t love a heist, evading the cops, dodging death on every corner, unravelling the threads that are bringing chaos to her life, and tracing them back to source in the finest noir tradition.  

I do each of the protagonists a disservice here with my description; they’re absolute gems, every one. Their grudges, their loves, their defeats...all of their stories will take hold of you and not let go. Each has something to add to the story, and each is more than the story they’re wrapped up in.  

Strangely, the world is part of what makes the story, and its reveals, so compelling. But I’ll say this. O’Keefe can write. There are sprawling civilisations here, diverse worlds that are ore than just caricatures of our own experience. There’s slowly simmering history behind each action, and that simmer is slowly brought to the boil as the story crackles forward. There’s a darkness of space so vastly absolute that it’ll leave you gasping, and starship interiors so wonderfully claustrophobic that you may feel your own walls getting a little closer together. The world, like the people in it, is richly detailed and convincing, its broader strokes filled with the wonder and terror of a wider world. It’s real. 

That’s Velocity Weapon. It’s whip-smart. Its characters are people. Its world is lavish with detail, rich with the grit and grime of human history. Its story is fantastic. 
So yeah, you want to read this one. Get on it.