Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Galaxy and the Ground Within - Becky Chambers

The Galaxy and the Ground Within is a new novel in the Wayfarers series from Becky Chambers. It’s also the last novel in that sequence, which makes talking about this entry a mixture of heartwarming and heartbreaking. I’ve really enjoyed the Wayfarers books over the years, so came to this one with high hopes. And those are, full disclosure, hopes which it more than met.

This is a story about people. That those people are different species, with different biological and psychological configurations, and different needs, is irrelevant. Well, not irrelevant. But it doesn't detract from the essential personhood at the core of their diversity of experience. And it really is a wonderfully diverse group, from societies as different from each other as they are from the one we’re familiar with. Notably, none of these characters is actually a human! All of the characters are forced together, forced to spend time with each other in a space they didn’t choose for themselves, victims of circumstance. But in their dialogue, in their striving toward understanding, they have a shared context and a shared understanding. 

It’s a warm bath, this book, in some ways. It’s comfortable. It’s seeing so many different perspectives come together. Watching them face adversity, and discover their differences, and similarities, is a joy. It’s finding strength in common ground, and showing a world remarkably free of cynicism, and with a genuine warmth to it. There’s an emotional truth on display here and that has an honesty to it, a sense of looking through the masks of things to the core beneath, which makes every word, every action, seem real, and gets you to feel them. Too. 

Plot-wise, the stakes are fairly personal. A natural disaster leaves a small collective f different individuals bundled together for an unknown period of time. They’re not in enormous peril, but they are out of their comfort zones. And that lets them explore, perhaps, different paths to understanding and happiness than they might have before. They’re ambassadors to each other, struggling past their own histories and preconceptions to see the people they’re talking to, to give them their own agency and sense of being. Incidentally, we do get viewpoints from them all - and each has their own voice, their own perceptions of what’s going on, their own truth, and that each of those is distinct, whilst all being valid, is wonderful. The stakes may not be epically high, in the traditional sense of universes to save or wars to end, but they’re intensely personal. The wealth and depth of character in display made me care about each of these people, about their needs, about their fears, the way they were seen, and the way they saw others. To them, their small, everyday triumphs and tragedies are encompassing the world. The conflicts are similarly personal - and no less intense or truthful for that. People have opinions, and disagreements, and while they have to live in the same space as each other, may not necessarily like each other very much. It’s not exploding space stations or laser swords, but what it is, is searingly emotionally honest, and immediately, personally valid. If you’ve not had these arguments, you’ve probably had ones like thm, and you can feel their truth in your bones, even if they’re being made by a spider in an exo-suit to an egg-laying rhino with an exoskeleton.

In the end, this has everything I loved about the Wayfarers series. Diversity, inclusion, and a universe which is rich in detail and characters which have a depth and truth all their own. It’s a book which is by turns comfortable and incisive, and in both states is doing something special. It’s a pitch perfect swan song to the Wayfarers series, and though I’m sad to see it end, if it must, I’m delighted to say that it’s getting the send off it deserves. You’ll want to read this one. And you should!

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

There Before The Chaos - K.B. Wagers

There Before The Chaos is the start of a sci-fi series from K.B. Wagers, whose Indranan War trilogy I enjoyed immensely. That sequence was full of byzantine politics, brutal, close-order action, and a poetry of war in space. This book, well, this is like that too, only more so. 

In part, that’s because this is the start of a sequel trilogy. You could probably read it without the context from the Indranan War books, but you’ll be missing a lot of subtext. And, possibly, some of the actual text. You can put together who’s who and what they’re doing pretty quickly, given a good headwind, and the characters are given the opportunity to drop some subtle exposition, without ever descending into “As you know, Bob” levels of silliness. Still, three books worth of history and characters and relationships and, well, a war...is a lot to have skipped over. If you go through this and feel like you have enough to go on, great. If you’re enjoying it, but struggling with the context, know that the first trilogy is also a great read, and worth going back to. 

The focus is still on Hailey (Hail) Bristol. Once a gunrunner, with ties to organised crime, and a known and wanted face in quite a lot of civilised space. Now the Empress of a beleaguered empire, and, well, still a wanted face in quite a lot of civilised space. Hail, and her relationships, are at the heart of this book. Fortunately, Hail herself is great fun. She approaches each problem intelligently, but also from a human perspective. She isn’t perfect, and has a propensity to put the boot in before it’s warranted, and act impulsively (or at least, quickly). A woman with a penchant for evading the stultifying rituals and duties of Empire is now running one - but damned if she isn’t rather good at it. Because Hail is compassionate, and loyal, and smart. She values her friends, and takes their advice, and talks smack at them when they’re willing to take it. If she seems more comfortable in the role of Empress now, still, she’s got the iron and blood of a career criminal in there. Hail is a compelling, convincingly flawed heroine, trying to do her best, perhaps against some of her worse inclinations. She’s helped of course by a posse of delightful old friends (and a few new ones). I don’t want to spoil things here, but one of K.B. Wagers strengths is in writing friendships and affections which crackle electrically off the page. They feel like friends you’d want to help and live and die for, and you feel their pain and their sacrifices and their joys and their victories as Hail does - and the warmth and connection that they have makes the narrative more whole, deeper, more  human.

Talking about the plot and the world is difficult without spoilers, so only a small thing here. Hail is brought on as a bridge between two quarreling alien parties. The Farians, whom we’ve seen before, are delightfully strange, and certainly don’t get less so as the story advances. They feel like an interesting blend of “like us” and unknowably alien and strange. I’ve been wondering about them since they turned up in the first book, so it’s nice to see them get the texture and depth they deserve, as it spools out of this story. The rest will have to be a surprise! But Wagers has expanded the universe from her original series, given it layers and unexpected complexities, which reward a second and third reading. This is a thriving, vividly alive universe, with a believable backstory unfurling on every page.

The story...well, it’s a blend of political thriller and outright sci-fi adventure in my view. However you want to characterise it, it’ll keep you turning the pages, to see what happens next - be it revelations of the history of the universe, or the relationship between two characters, or to see how a chase or a fight turns out. 

In the end, ike Hail herself, this story is a heck of a lot of fun, and has some hidden depths which will surprise you. Go pick it up!

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

After the War: The Tales of Catt & Fisher: The Art of the Steal

After The War: The Tales of Catt and Fisher: The Art of the Steal is a shared world anthology. It’s set in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s “After the War” universe, which is focused on a world where the great conflict between good and evil is over, but that resolution has left its own issues behind. What, after all, happens to a world once it has defeated its arch villain? What costs have been borne, what trauma created? The reconstruction of a broken world, the collapse or recreation of old power structures, the change - it’s narratively intriguing. There have been several novels set in this world, from several authors - and they were all cracking reads, with interesting things to say. 

That pattern continues here. The focal point of each of these stories are Catt and Fisher, nominally antiquarians, but also veteran meddlers. The pair live together in their battered, comfortable shop. The shop is filled with every magical device and desire one might require. In a world where magic is on the wane, these artifacts of power are immensely desirable - and Catt and Fisher try their best to get their hands on as many as possible. Partly that’s to keep dangerous bits and bobs away from various power hungry madmen and wannabe dictators, and partly it’s just acquisitiveness. The two of them work well together; the relationship feels almost Holmesian, albeit less lopsided. Doctor Catt is gregarious, cheerful, occasionally ruthless, but has a soft-hearted streak running through him. Doctor Fisher is quieter, taciturn, with a presence that quietly fills the rooms he’s in. Gruff but humane, Fisher is an excellent foil to Catt’s mor mercurial nature. Both characters turned up in the novels as minor characters, but you don’t need their history to enjoy their role in this book. Just delight in their banter, the gentle needling and comfortable arguments of two people who have been together for a long time. There’s a warmth and obvious bond between the two, and the strength of that relationship radiates out throughout the text. They’re a pair who tend to solve their problems with quick wits and fast talking rather than swords and boards - though the occasional application of an explosively magical item isn’t out of the question. In any event, they’re a delightfully gentle, bickering pair of semi-geriatric Indiana Jones-types, who only occasionally incinerate things which get in their way. 

The stories, from a set of delightfully talented writers, are pure, unadulterated fun. They’re full of magic and high adventure. There’s smart-arsed chat, and what one might call outright hijinkery. Moments of poignant sorrow that wrenched at the heart, and revelations that pulled the gut raw. And then, bits of pure joy. I spent a lot of the time reading this book smiling, occasionally chuckling wryly, and, more often than I expected, laughing out loud. I don’t want to talk about the tales themselves, to avoid giving things away. But there’s some genuinely imaginative stuff here, scintillating and clever ideas that combine delightfully human moments with the magic and wonder of an intriguing world to make stories which you won’t want to put down. 


 Most of all, these stories are fun. They’re adventures, they’re snappy, they don’t outstay their welcome - but they use their time to say interesting things and also keep you so entertained that you can’t stop turning pages. This is another excellent addition to the After The War canon, and if you’re looking for something to give you a dash of excitement, a laugh, and perhaps shed a tear in the space of a few pages, in between shape changers and fireballs - this is the collection for you. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Bear Head - Adrian Tchaikovsky

Bear Head, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, is a sequel to his absolutely fantastic Dogs of War. In a future where genetically engineered bioforms have achieved sentience, where distributed AI is fighting for rights, and where Mars is the subject of ongoing colonisation efforts, Jimmy Martin, part of the Martian terraforming effort, just wants to get paid, settle his debts, and maybe score some drugs. And in order to realise that very small dream, he’s going to make some very, very bad choices.

More on that in a minute. But first things first. Tchaikovsky shows us two worlds here, one surprisingly alien, the other startlingly familiar. Mars is, as you might expect, the former. An installation initially spun up by a distributed intelligence, now maintained by people who have been genetically augmented to survive on the Martian surface, this is a world filled with oddity. There’s the pylons helping to maintain the atmosphere, with sweeping dust storms clogging every surface. There’s the subterranean cubby holes where the workforce lives, one-room claustrophobic pods, cheek by jowl with slowly failing maintenance equipment. There’s the Sheriff, an augmented canine bioform, complete with a tin star and a bad attitude. And there's the black market, smuggling things up the well or building its own contraband to help make things a little more bearable. There’s the empty luxury suites for the eventual colonists, who will live the life of luxury that the workers will never see. And there’s the workers themselves, filtering dust out of their lungs with every breath, walking the surface without suits, but still tired, cranky, overworked - looking for a purpose and finding that they’re making rich people ever so slightly richer. The alien texture of Mars is dovetailed with the banal cruelty of its human institutions. Even as the transhuman workers build a paradise, they’re just building someone else's bank balance, losing their ideals, and hoping to go home. Its this blend that makes the Martian environment feel at once wonderfully alien and wryly familiar. A transhuman dream, with too much paperwork. And somewhere outside this decrepit construction town lurks something alien, something far worse than dust and low level criminality.

Then there’s Earth. A place where sweeping reforms gave bioforms the right to self determination. And where ,like clockwork, those rights are in danger of being taken away. This future earth carries about it familiar notes of the present, as institutions and norms are in danger of being swept away in an atmosphere poisoned by bigotry and populism. You can feel the slow curdling of truth in the air, the way words corrode the atmosphere as they’re spoken, feel the centre beginning to collapse, touch the slightly oily sheen that seems to have infiltrated everything on the page. Earth is not what it was; it was never a shining beacon on the hill, but now, the hard fought progress of the previous era must be struggled with again. Tchaikovsky captures the mood beautifully, and left me by turns delighted in the strangeness of a world where humanity and bioforms and distributed intelligences could exist, and despair that they might not be able to exist together. This is Earth on the brink of a civil rights battle, and if it feels strange, with its talking dogs, its bears that go to conferences, and its people that take it all in stride, it also feels deliriously, awfully familiar, in its facile acceptance of bigotry, of its taking the easy answer, and its efforts to substitute control for compassion. Here there be monsters.

And one of them is monstrous indeed. The avatar of the slow corrosion of humanity into selfishness and spite strides through them, his charisma a cloak for something far darker. A candidate for the world senate stands against the tide of progress, a rock of spite and hate, a tide of selfishness with the ability to mirror and project what people want, what they need him to be. An id given form, and letting others know that they can let their own horrors loose under his banner. I won’t say that there are contemporary similarities, but I suspect many a reader will draw their own conclusions. In any event, that banal, personal, selfish villainy is familiar, but also masterfully creepy. There’s a slow burning horror to this person, this creature, and the way they live in service to themselves, the way they twist others, control them, drive them. And thats leaving aside some of the truly awful things that they do, which I shan’t get into (for the sake of spoilers), but they are chillingly, shiveringly appalling.

By contrast, there’s poor old Jimmy Martin. Not actually a bad person, but definitely someone on a downward spiral to a bad place. Someone who can’t bring themselves to care any more, trying to find the fastest way down and out on Martian soil. It is not, we think, going to end well for Jimmy. But he’sa fantastic narrator. There’s a self aware dryness to his inner monologue, which strips bare his own pretensions, examines his own failings and, although it doesn’t care to fix them, perhaps acknowledges that they exist. At the same time, Jimmy’s head gives us observations on everyone he knows on Mars as we go through it - and he’s both observant and rather funny. I was often left cracking a smile at a particularly pithy character note, then burying my head in my hands as he once again makes the Worst Choice. Jimmy isn’t a hero. He’s just this guy, you know? Someone on the lower rungs of society, and sliding - but a person, whole and entire, trying to do something with his life, and reacting to it not being what he thought it would be. Some people have greatness thrust upon them; Jimmy...Jimmy is trying hard not to have anything thrust upon him, often while running away and creatively insulting it, and that makes him a joy to read. In honesty though, he’;s also a painful portrait of a man on his last nerve, one mistake away from falling down a dark hole; the humour can be a little dark, but it’s got honesty in it to make it so. I despair of Jimmy, and cheer his victories, and will him to succeed. An augmented Martian workman, an everyman who sort of isn’t, he’s the voice I think I enjoyed hearing from most.

The story is...well, it’s something. A fast paced techno thriller, expertly blending high concept transhumanism, old secrets, new lies, and high-velocity gunfire. I’ll say this: I tore through the text, basically couldn’t put it down. This is a book which asks questions, big questions, about what humanity is, what intelligence is, and how we see ourselves and our place in the world. But also it has some fantastic snark, snappy dialogue, and the sort of high-tension chases, and high octane consequences that will leave you turning pages well into the night.

At this point, it’s presumably no surprise to anyone, but I’d recommend this book without hesitation. You can probably even read it as a standalone, though I suspect the context from Dogs of War adds something to the narrative. In any case, it’s another must-read from Tchaikovsky. So get out there and read it.