Review of Peter F. Hamilton’s Night without Stars

Night without Stars
Peter F. Hamilton
London: Macmillan, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-509-82039-9
XIII + 766 pp.

Peter F. Hamilton is renowned for big books about big ideas and here he does not disappoint with another journey to the distant planet Bienvenido. This is a planet we know well from earlier issues in the Chronicle of the Fallers series of which this is part (and there will evidently be at least one more to come). It is stuck in the Void, which is a mysterious region of space that has been explored previously. On the planet, the citizens have become locked in mortal combat with the Fallers, who are tree-based life forms who fall unexpectedly from the sky and take over the bodies of unsuspecting people, rendering everyone a potential enemy and generally having a negative effect on trust among people and social relations as a whole. Planetsiders have an ambivalent attitude towards the Commonwealth, which is the Earth-based intra-galactic government that appears more oppressive to some than to others. As a result, the few Commonwealth assets on Bienvenido have to act in secret.

However, there are many other actors in play here, ranging from ancient alien artifacts, human geniuses with extensively prolonged life expectancy resulting from becoming welded to a spaceship and ne’er-do-well drug dealers and thieves. A variety of characters pursue their individual storylines within the overall plot with vim and vigour. Hamilton always takes time in his narratives to describe the entirety of a society and a subset of all the kinds of people who are needed to keep it going. He is also acute about the uneven distribution of technology and the equivalent of the digital divide than can provoke, as well as the jealousy and resentment that can give rise to crime. In addition, he has a member of tropes which tend to recur and Hamilton bingo requires spotting whichever of them pop up in any particular book. Here he has the young man who gets to sleep with a woman who is well out of his league, the external observer who can see a bigger picture than any of the characters involved in the action and the corruption that might be found in the heart of the bourgeois household. There is also, of course, a lot of action and a lot of cool new technology people can use either to slice each other into pieces or for more constructive purposes. This being the Commonwealth rather than the new USA, technology is typically designed for the good of society as a whole rather than for privileged individuals and so we have trains and public transport rather than individual flying belts and civil servants who try to play be the rules rather than routinely acting the maverick beyond the reach of a rotten system. At the same time, powerful and charismatic individuals can single-handedly affect the nature of large societies.

I have read, I think, all of Hamilton’s major works and I will be happy to continue to do so as long as he cares to write them. His plots always zip along at a good pace – quickly enough that the reader is not tempted to dwell on possible plot holes – and enough of the characters are sufficiently engaging as to be enjoyable companions. I do recall him being reported as saying during the writing of his first big trilogy, The Night’s Dawn, that he made the story up as he went along and that would explain a certain shapelessness about the books individually and as series. However, this is not a serious flaw for a science fiction writer who has demonstrated the ability to keep in control of his creation. Let’s see how many more episodes he needs to write before wrapping up this chronicle.

Review of Charles Stross’s Empire Games

Empire Games
Charles Stross
London: Pan Macmillan, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-4472-4539-2
331 pp.

I first came across the work of Charles Stross through his Merchant Princes series, which postulated a parallel earth (and, subsequently, a number of different earths) and a small group of people who could travel between them by some sort of magic-like technology. The parallel earth is medieval in technology and society and its leaders want rapid economic development, largely so as to reinforce their own power. Consequently, they organize a large-scale organized trade in illegal drugs, which eventually brings about their downfall in a hail of nuclear bombs. All of this is revealed at the beginning of the current book so do not qualify as spoilers. It is the political and, particularly, the economic elements of the story that drew praise and support from Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman.

After the six episodes of the Merchant Princes, Stross moved on to other ideas. There were some one off space adventures, as I recall, which were OK and then the development of his Laundry series. This series combined Lovecraftian horror with British satire. Although it has been extremely popular, I never really took to it and, indeed, stopped buying the books some years ago. As a result, I hadn’t read any Stross for a number of years. So, it was a bit of a surprise to see Empire Games prominently displayed in Taipei’s Son Min bookshop and representing itself as a return to the Merchant Princes storyline and, also, a delight.

Considering the ending of the previous series and bearing in mind the author’s penchant for writing multi-novel storylines (unless it is the preference of the publisher or his agent), it is not surprising that this first novel does quite a lot to set up the series for development over the next few years. The book begins with an explanation of the world as we now know it, which means it would be possible to start the series without having read the previous one, although to do so would be a willful denial of pleasure. There are four main timelines presented. One of these is the nuked Gruinmarkt, which is unlikely to play a large part of the narrative for the foreseeable future. There is our own timeline, which of course has the history of the previous interactions with the Clan of world-walkers. The third timeline is the one discovered by Miriam, the principal protagonist of the first series but less significant so far here. That world sees confrontation between the British and French empires, which dominate the world. This is the place where the remnants of the Clan have taken refuge and from which Miriam is plotting a series of urgent technological great leaps forward to protect themselves from the inevitable discovery by the America of our world. Alas, we still have President Rumsfeld in charge and his USA contains all the dangerous poison of racism and intolerance that is evident under the real-life incumbent. A secret war between the two worlds has, in effect, been declared but the Americans are hampered by lack of world-walking ability. This is where our new principal protagonist, Rita, enters the scene. It is discovered by the Homeland Security spooks that Rita, daughter of a Miriam she has never known, can be made into their own stars and stripes world-walker. Hence, the action unfurls from these initial premises.

This is a great return to form, in my opinion. The character of Rita is engaging enough and the action scenes taut and gripping. The dialogue is as good as might be found in any fantasy or science fiction genre (the book could be placed in either of these sections in bookshops that distinguish books in this way). Above all, there is a sense of inherent doom in the fourth timeline, which is currently gripped by an ice age, where the mysterious forerunners have left behind powerful technologies, perhaps because of some terrible disaster.

Stross writes superior fiction because of his willingness to engage in the political implications of the worlds about which he writes. His revolutions are believable and his portrayal of the masses, who are given sufficient walk-on parts to make sure the reader is aware of their presence. The suspension of disbelief is so much easier to swallow as a result.

This is a very readable and enjoyable book and I look forward to reading the forthcoming episodes.

Review of The Medusa Chronicles by Baxter and Reynolds

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The Medusa Chronicles

Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds

London: Gollancz, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-473-21020-2

327 pp

Two of Britain’s leading science fiction writers have joined together to pay homage to and update the work of one of the greats of the genre, Sir Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke had written a novella published in 1971 entitled ‘A Meeting with Medusa’ that was, characteristically, both revolutionary in terms of scientific understanding and rather conservative in terms of characterization and the portrayal of social and personal relations.

In the original, a single Anglo-Saxon explorer, who has been partly rebuilt as a cyborg as a result of a previous aerial misfortune, pilots a spacecraft into the atmosphere of Jupiter and there encounters a number of strange and mind-expanding alien creatures. He also interacts with his evolved monkey crew and eventually frees them from their enforced servitude on the ship. This is the background to the current book, which envisages the protagonist, Howard Falcon, being progressively upgraded as his mechanical parts reach the ends of their working lives such that his lifespan is enormously extended. As a result, he is able to observe and occasionally participate in the encounters between humanity (both foolish and sensitive) and the machine life whose origin is indicated in the back cover blurb. It becomes a fascinating alternative future history of the type for which Baxter is particularly noted, although the narrative remains somewhat hindered by the deadweight of Falcon himself, who acts as something of an anchor on a book seeking to take flight.

It is tempting, when reading fiction that has been produced by more than one author, to try to guess who has written which section. Tempting but probably ultimately futile because the writing process using contemporary technology can see multiple drafts of different sections being created without difficulty. Even if the authors themselves do not come to create a homogeneous text, then editors exist whose job it is to ensure that a smooth manuscript results. These are, after all, not insignificant figures in the publishing world and it would be expected that a collaboration between them would attract fans of one or both of them and shift, therefore, a lot of units.

This is a very interesting and sometimes even exciting story, particularly with respect to the consideration of how machine intelligences would develop over extended periods of time. One of the problems of such a lengthy timeline is that even though some other characters are allowed to linger in different forms, it becomes difficult to have much emotional engagement with other people who may pop up along the way and, further, the possibility of revealing character development through personal relations is also limited. Still, as I have written before, people who come to a science fiction novel expecting complex personal relationships are likely to be disappointed more often than not. Instead, readers are recommended to sit back and enjoy the ride.

The ending of the book makes it possible that there could be a sequel, although I imagine both Baxter and Reynolds, each of whom is quite prolific in publishing, would find it difficult to schedule more time to do so. I find myself somewhat ambivalent about this since, on the one hand, it would be fun to explore a distant future, on the other hand such a book would seem to be too far removed from the point of this first book while at the same time being hampered by having to retain the existing characters and set-up. Perhaps it will be better to let the authors return to their own imagination and bring forth more marvelous things therefrom.

Review of Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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Children of Time

Adrian Tchaikovsky

Off we go to the far future and earth faces another catastrophe – at least the second of these since a previous one brought about the end of the period of human expansion into space and led to a descent into a new dark age that causes contemporary humans to refer to the ‘ancients.’ Some technology from that distant past can be rescued and put into service, even if it is not really understood. So, in response to the new disaster, humanity is going back into space to try to recreate or at least reconnect with the extraterrestrial networks created by the ancients. Alas, time’s arrow has been working apace in the meantime and not everything has been changing in the predicted manner. This is the premise for Adrian Tchaikovsky’s new novel and it is the first of his that I have read. I have seen some of his books around before but it is impossible to read everything or even to buy every book in the shop, no matter how hard I may try. However, I saw some recommendations for this one and I have been in the mood for another long-term evolution in space story after having enjoyed Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora. I am glad that I did because this is a very readable book with some excellent changes of course. I note from the inside cover that the author previously wrote eight novels in one fantasy series and the ending of this book is such that sequels are certainly possible.

There are some minor spoilers in the remaining part of this review.

The new planet, the new old planet that is, has previously been terraformed preparatory to eventual colonization and steps have been taken to ensure that evolution of local lifeforms will enable a smooth transition. Unfortunately for the newly-arriving would-be colonists, the evolution has worked through another lifeform and the planet is crawling with giant, intelligent spiders. Half of the narrative is devoted to the spaceship Gilgamesh and its generally not very sympathetic crew and the other half to the long-term evolution of arachnid society, much of which is determined by the great spiders of the time who are the ones most successfully in receipt of the ‘understandings’ provided by the nanovirus that is the means of fostering rapid societal evolution. The spiders are represented in different generations by the emergence of the dominant intellect of Portia and her various assistants known as Bianca. As spider society develops further, the Portia of the day accepts assistance from the leading male slave Fabian as part of an outrageous undermining of the age-old matriarchy which has supported society throughout known history. This is a good device in enabling the reader to engage with spider mentality and understand the nature of their society. As a fan of science fiction generally, I do not find it necessary to engage with the characters in order to enjoy a book but for some other readers this might result in alienation. Even so, the quality of the prose and the surefootedness of the plot development will be enough to carry most people along well enough.

This is a splendid novel and one I enjoyed reading and would recommend to others. Certainly I would be happy to read a sequel, as and when one should arrive.

Review of Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest

The Dark Forest

Cixin Liu

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Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest is the second instalment of a trilogy that began with The Three Body Problem (spoilers of which immediately follow).

Earth is under attack from distant aliens who not only have superior technology but the ability to suppress technological development on Earth. That means that any attempt to resist the forthcoming attack will have to use already existing technology, albeit with the most ingenious engineering imaginable. The good news, if there is any, is that it will take the alien fleet several centuries to reach the Earth so there will be some time to prepare. The wise people of the planet decide that four individuals should be selected and provided with all resources required to lead the resistance. Since the aliens have agents on Earth able to communicate with their own home planet, it is necessary to conduct all activities and complete plans in secret. The ability to hibernate for extended periods means that the people involved (the Wall Facers) can order some development to take place and then be woken up perhaps decades later when engineers have been able to work out how technical difficulties might be overcome. Of the four selected, one is Chinese and since this is a book by a Chinese author writing (at least initially) for a Chinese audience, it is not unreasonable to suppose that it is the Chinese guy whose story we will be following the most.

I do teach East Asian literature to a certain extent and one of the questions that arise is not so much the differences it exhibits from western literature but how people from one context can appreciate the literature from the other context. There are some issues to do with personal and family relationships to understand, of course, since these are often more important in East Asia and structure the ways in which people treat and communicate with each other. The subtle usage of a diminutive or pet name, for example, can reveal a torrent of understanding about a relationship which would not necessarily be available for western readers. There are also issues related to historical and cultural allusions and to the meaning of high culture context items such as food. However, perhaps the most important difference (and, I suspect, the reason why East Asian literature is not often recognised for literary prizes) is the general absence of the Freudian exploration of character. In western literature, it is now almost unimaginable to read fiction and not expect to make some analysis of the characters based on our understanding of their psychology. We judge the characters based on their supposed virtues and vices and expect them to behave in a way which is consistent with their personalities. This approach is often absent from Asian literature and Cixin Liu’s work is an example of this. Characters are to be considered and, if necessary, judged according to such criteria as the extent to which they fulfil their roles in society and as part of family networks and how well they embody recognised principles such as Confucian or neo-Confucian propriety. This might prove to be an obstacle for some readers who will want and expect to be given insights into the characters based on psychology which are not made available here. This would be a pity because this is a fascinating book with some genuinely philosophical inquiries into humanity’s place in the universe and the individual’s place in society, not to mention the consideration of how society would cope, if at all, with the approach of what seems likely to be an existential threat to our civilization.

At the end of the novel, there is a difference in the relationship between humanity and the aliens that means the conclusion of the trilogy – Death’s End – will be based on a different kind of problem. I look forward to finding out what it will be. The current book, unobtrusively translated by Joel Martinson, is lucid and well-paced without being frenetic and there is a chance for the reader to take a look around the world. A new language has been developed, in which a large amount of English vocabulary has been incorporated into standard Chinese, which indicates the general dominance of Chinese society in a plurality of different natures and cultures. Globalization of communications and commerce appear to have eroded most political ideologies and a form of global consensus is used to deal with transnational issues on a generally rational basis. This is, again, a typically Chinese approach. Let’s see how well it deals with humanity’s next crisis.

 

Review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora

Aurora

Kim Stanley Robinson

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Although Kim Stanley Robinson has a very high and, indeed, burgeoning reputation, I had rather avoided his books since the first of the Red/Green/Blue Mars trilogy. That first book featured the rebellion of the Mars people against their being controlled by Earth agencies and the partial destruction of some of the painfully and expensively installed infrastructure. It seems unlikely that I will ever live on a world on which a serious attempt to colonise another world will take place (although I retain hope) and, even if I did, my role in that colonization would almost certainly be restricted to paying my taxes and wishing the efforts the best of luck. Consequently, reading about privileged and extremely fortunate people destroying what would have been the results of countless taxpayers denied their opportunities irritated me to the extent that I could not enjoy the book at all and, as mentioned, persuaded me not to buy any more of his books. However, I was in Taipei in a bookshop with a limited number of English language books and I wanted to support the shop so I bought Aurora. I am glad that I did so because this is an enjoyable book with a pleasingly wide theatre of action and one that is sufficiently thought-provoking.

The concept of the book (and presumably this is the first in a series of volumes) is that of a multi-generational spaceship transporting a crew of 2,000 people to a distant planet identified previously on Earth. Of course, identifying a habitable planet in the remoteness of space is not yet a fully developed skill even in the future when building such ships becomes feasible and, consequently, several options have been prepared against negative contingencies. The ship is able to move at about one tenth of the speed of light and, while fast enough to ensure that acceleration and deceleration are not processes to be entered into lightly, this means that people will have many years to get to know each other and, of course, discover that they did not really like each other. The crewmembers are initially divided into separate communities and that enables them to retain some cultural identifiers. However, isolation has led to some evolutionary missteps and the principal engineer, Devi, must constantly work to keep things going as well as possible despite unintended secondary effects resulting from previous fixes. This part of the story represents the first half of the book and it is perhaps the better part. The second half – and this is not really a spoiler as it is on the book cover – is less satisfactory as it recounts the adventures of that portion of the crew who decide to return to Earth after having faced planetfall that convinces them that life away from Earth is not going to be sustainable. This might well have been a rational decision in the circumstances but it does not really conform to the kind of heroic science fictions readers expect from books in excess of 500 pages. It is, perhaps, that sense of anti-climax that makes the characters seem fundamentally disappointing in nature and contributes to a sense of schadenfreude in their trials and tribulations.

Although the book is quite well-written, it would not be science fiction if at least some of the principal protagonists were more believable as plot devices rather than real life people. It is equally unlikely that any attempt to transfer the action to the screen would be successful without considerable attention being paid to the dialogue. However, these are minor quibbles since the story’s the thing and I will be interested in finding out what happens to the other half of the crew, who take the more heroic alternative and try to find a way to survive in space and who, I am assuming, will have their adventures described in the sequel to Aurora. Even if it turns out that they are unsuccessful and all are killed, this is likely to take place at length and in satisfying detail.

 

Review of Poseidon’s Wake by Alastair Reynolds

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Poseidon’s Wake

Alastair Reynolds

This is the third and apparently final part of the trilogy written by the leading British million pound-advance sci fi author and fan of the mighty Fall Alastair Reynolds, which featured the earlier instalments Blue Remembered Earth and On the Steel Breeze. Representatives of humanity – people, advanced elephants (known as Tantors) and artificial intelligences – form a new kind of post-religious trinity and have travelled through the stars using adopted and adapted alien technology. Great mysteries of the universe are on the verge of being unveiled and centuries’ long feuds may at last be settled. This must all be to the good.

In the earlier books, humanity – whose primary languages are now Swahili and Chinese – began to take its baby steps away from earth and away from its own nature. People became able for the first time to diverge from the limitations of their physicality and explore new forms of life as, for example, merpeople or massive denizens of the deep. The ability of people both to become a massive denizen of the deep and to travel in alien spaceships is, of course, limited for practical reasons but the prudent traveller is able to combine the two activities with some care. Although this is not a post-scarcity society, most of the protagonists seem to have enough money to do more or less what they want. Some characters are members of a well-established corporate dynasty, which explains their freedom, while others are able to become commanders of their fate through skill in arts, diplomacy, ability to attract research grants and so forth. Meanwhile, technology has started to develop to the extent that it has become less rather than more obtrusive and, so, does not really need to be discussed or described or justified. Be that as it may, the scene is set for interactions between the characters and the changing nature of their relationships that takes centre stage. It is a confident author of science fiction who disregards all the toys and paraphernalia of the genre to rely instead on characterization and dialogue. Reynolds is good enough to be able to achieve this. Characters are nicely paired and contrasted with others, while the development in the action as it switches locations may be considered to embody dialectical relationships.

The action progresses in a way that is both optimistic and humanistic. People make mistakes, certainly but one of the virtues of having a greatly extended life expectancy is that more opportunities for redemption will come around eventually. Nevertheless, people must still be ready to take those opportunities. Even so, it is pleasing that the plots move toward progress for the individuals involved and for humanity as a whole – some significant problems are, after all, circumvented.

It would probably be possible to pick up this final part of the trilogy and make sufficient sense of the action but probably only just. A better idea would be to start with the first part and then let the action continue from there. I myself will be looking forward to his next book.