BOOK REVIEW: Huron Blackheart: Master of the Maelstrom, by Mike Brooks

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Rating: 3 out of 5.
  • A Standalone Novel
  • Focuses on the Chaos Space Marines
  • Published by Black Library in 2022
  • A Grimdark Space Opera
  • 200 pages

Once a servant of the Imperium, Huron Blackheart now makes his own way as a devotee of the Chaos Gods. But while the Warmaster and the reborn Primarch wage their endless war, Blackheart gathers marauders for his own cause. But when the winds of Chaos blow, no course stays true for long . . .

Of all Black Library’s many novel ranges, their character-focused run provides some of the most interesting stories. These are the tight little hardback exclusives that bear the name of their central figure on the cover, usually with some in-universe label applied to them. For example, Master of the Maelstrom is an epithet attached the Chaos worshipper known to his few friends as Huron Blackheart. These books allow for a more intimate form of storytelling than the usual galaxy-shaping battlefields of the setting as a whole. Yes, they’re basically extended adverts for the miniatures of said characters, but even when you’re interested in neither collecting models nor in character-driven narratives, these books still offer a real chance to get into the psychology of these famous faces. What exactly is it that makes the heroes of the grim, dark future tick?

Huron Blackheart: Master of the Maelstrom doesn’t quite do this. At only two hundred pages in length, it’s rather overstuffed with characters. Blackheart pulls together quite the warband, with both true dedicates of Chaos and disaffected Imperial citizens in their ranks. Notably, his warband contains members of multiple Space Marine chapters, including renegades from both the Blood Angels and the Space Wolves. Early on, it seems like the leading figure will be a tech-priest taken captive by Huron (and had that been the case, I dare say the story would have been stronger, as she is easily the most interesting of the many side characters), but said individual soon fades away into the massed ranks of the supporting cast. For a novel with his name on the cover, there’s precious little Huron Blackheart to go around.

If there’s one thing that Mike Brooks has proven with his forays into Warhammer 40,000, it’s that he never sits still for long. This is his second Chaos-focused novel, after his Alpharius novel for the Horus Heresy. But he’s also tackled gang warfare in Necromunda, the high politics of feuding navigator houses in Rites of Passage, and outright comedy with his standard-setting Orks stories. In Huron Blackheart: Master of the Maelstrom, he gets to go all-in on the visceral horror, with all the splattering of blood you’d expect from the forces of Chaos. But there are hints of the larger state of play too. Whispers of dissension in the ranks, and evidence of the brutal lengths Blackheart and others will go to to ensure they emerge in charge of the pack. I do feel as if this might have worked better as a longer novel, or even a series, with all of the characters given a bit more room to breathe, and the story moving at a less breakneck pace. As it is, it’s a case of not enough good, rather than too much bad.

While it may be one of the weaker character novels from Black Library, Huron Blackheart: Master of the Maelstrom still has a lot to offer, especially for those interested in keeping up with the current state of affairs in the Imperium, and in its archenemy.

If you enjoyed this book, you might also like:
Brutal Kunnin, by Mike Brooks
Ahriman: The Omnibus, by John French
Avenging Son, by Guy Haley

BOOK REVIEW: Moonwar, by Ben Bova

Rating: 5 out of 5.
  • Moonbase (#2)
  • Part of the Grand Tour universe
  • Published by Hodder & Stoughton
  • First published in 1997
  • Hard SF
  • 531 pages

Moonbase. The future of humanity, or a waste of time and resources? An increasingly anti-technology United Nations is determined to see Moonbase brought to heel. But Douglas Stavenger is determined to see his father’s legacy succeed. Even if it means declaring independence . . .

Well, Ben Bova has done it again. Though its pre-2022 publication date renders it invalid for the Boundy Awards, Moonwar is a strong contender for my favourite book of the year. It has all the hallmarks of Bova’s Grand Tour, from a dedication to rigorous science to a diverse group of characters. What it lacks is the usual serene pacing that I’ve come to associate with the Grand Tour. This is not a bad thing, by the way. In fact, it’s the greatest strength. Because while most of this series has been focused on humanity versus environment in tales of exploration in far-flung frontiers, this one is about people versus people. It’s a thriller with both military and political elements. It’s also got some of the best pacing I have ever read.

Moonwar is split into three acts. The first is a countdown to the UN invasion of the Moon, told across chapters labelled with how many hours remain until the hostile troops’ arrival. Despite the length of the journey from Earth to the Moon, this is a fantastically tense section of the book. With a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, we get to see how the varied personnel of Moonbase react to the coming war. There are a lot of characters here, and not all of them have a lot to do. But that’s just the point. Stavenger’s rebellion goes beyond any one man, even the corrupt leader of the UN. The future being fought is not only that of Moonbase, but of humanity as a whole.

The middle act is told across the span of several weeks. Here, the difference in a lunar day and a terrestrial day is important to remember, because the Moon turns far more slowly than the Earth. Over the course of these terrestrial days, we see the slow build-up of forces on each side, even as the Moonbase crew remain steadfast in their non-military resistance. The more drawn-out nature of the middle act also allows for a return to diplomacy, and I dare say that Bova can make boardroom meetings more interesting than any other author I’ve read. Certainly there’s no one else who could so deftly balance the action sequences on the Moon with the dialogue taking place back on Earth.

Bova’s versatility as an author aside, this still bears the mark of what I like to see in science fiction. Particularly in hard SF, I like to see science and intellect triumphing. The regressive nature of certain Earthbound groups is clearly a danger to humanity’s long-term viability. And while Bova will be the first to acknowledge that technology can be put to less than savoury purpose, science in itself is never the enemy. That, to me, is the moral heart of the Grand Tour. We don’t know what’s out there. But the only way we can thrive, is by asking questions, and looking for answers.

A simply phenomenal book, Moonwar cements Ben Bova’s place as one of my favourite authors, and ensures I’ll be reading as many of his books as I can lay my hands on.

If you enjoyed this book, you might also like:
Stark’s Command, by Jack Campbell
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert A. Heinlein
Artemis, by Andy Weir

TBR & BEYOND: July 2022

July could well be a spotty month so far as blogging is concerned. As well as the usual work hassle, I’ve got a LARP weekend for the end of the month, and as a month-long project I’m renovating my bedroom/library. This means reduced reading time, but also unreliable internet access as I relocate to another part of the house. Nevertheless, I’ll always make room for science fiction, and I’ll bring as much of that to you as I can.

TBR

Thanks to last months finds, I’ve got a TBR largely composed of Star Trek and Warhammer 40,000. The issue with the Trek side of things is that the collection is rather incomplete, and I’ve ended up with bits and pieces of various series. Since I have the Prometheus trilogy in its entirety that’s my planned Star Trek reading for the month.

On the Warhammer side of things, I’m going to start by catching up the more recent releases. This means The Vincula Insurgency, The Helwinter Gate, Catachan Devil, and Silent Hunters are all on the schedule. I’m going to hold off on the omnibuses for now, but eventually plan to read one of those a month.

But all of that will come later. Right now, I have a backlog of reviews to write, and I don’t want to make that list any longer. So I’m going to start the month by clearing through some of my non-SF reading. That puts Ogres, Age of Age, and The Emperor’s Exile squarely in my sites for the first week or so of July. Hopefully this reprieve from distant futures will give me the catch-up time I need.

If I get the time, I’m also going to tackle two pieces of vintage SF in the form of The Fuzzy Papers and Foundation’s Friends. Neither of these is likely to take me very long, so I may well use them to break up my reading of tie-in fiction.

With all of this in mind, my TBR schedule ends up looking something like this:

  • Ogres, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
  • Age of Ash, by Daniel Abraham
  • The Emperor’s Exile, by Simon Scarrow
  • Fire With Fire, by Bernd Perplies (translated by Christian Humberg)
  • The Root of All Rage by Bernd Perplies (translated by Christian Humberg)
  • In the Heart of Chaos, by Bernd Perplies (translated by Christian Humberg)
  • The Helwinter Gate, by Chris Wraight
  • The Vincula Insurgency, by Dan Abnett
  • Silent Hunters, by Edoardo Albert
  • Catachan Devil, by Justin Woolley
  • Foundation’s Friends, edited by Martin H. Greenberg
  • The Fuzzy Papers, by H. Beam Piper

AND BEYOND

July is mercifully thin on the ground when it comes to releases, as I have more than enough to keep me going without adding to the TBR tower. But there’s still a few new books heading your way this month. Let’s take a look at them.

20th – The Lost Fleet: Outlands: Resolute, by Jack Campbell – The delayed release of this military SF has in no way dampened my enthusiasm for it.

26th – Newbury and Hobbes: The Albion Initiative, by George Mann – Another delayed release (though this one has been floating around for far longer), the climactic finale of this steampunk saga is almost upon us. I’m considering a reread of the series for September, but we’ll see how that goes.

Unknown Date – The Rose at War, by Danie Ware – This anthology gathers all of Ware’s Sister Augusta novellas and short stories into one volume, making it perfect for filling in those pesky gaps in my collection.

As always, there’s bound to be something I’ve missed. be sure to let me know in the comments what you’re looking forward to reading this month.

MONTHLY ROUNDUP: June 2022

We’ve made it to the halfway point of the year. Congratulations, and don’t forget to take a break and read some books. Of course, I’ve been reading books all through the year, and June was no exception. It was also a somewhat remarkable month in that I managed to stick to my planned TBR. Let’s dive deeper into this miraculous month.

BOOK HAUL

This month sees a mega book haul from me, which is due in no small part to some kind soul donating a rather sizable Star Trek collection to the charity shop, which I promptly swooped down on.

  • Deep Space Nine: Unity, by S. D. Perry
  • Deep Space Nine: The Long Mirage, by David R. George III
  • Deep Space Nine: Enigma Tales, by Una McCormack
  • Deep Space Nine: Gamma: Original Sin, by David R. George III
  • Terok Nor: Night of the Wolves, bu S. D. Perry & Britta Dennison
  • Terok Nor: Dawn of the Eagles, by S. D. Perry & Britta Dennison
  • Prey: Hell’s Heart, by John Jackson Miller
  • Prometheus: Fire with Fire, by Bernd Perplies (translated by Christian Humberg)
  • Prometheus: The Root of All Rage, by Bernd Perplies (translated by Christian Humberg)
  • Prometheus: In the Heart of Chaos by Bernd Perplies (translated by Christian Humberg)
  • The Next Generation: Hearts and Minds, by Dayton Ward
  • The Next Generation: Headlong Flight, by Dayton Ward

Then we come to my Warhammer 40,000 buying, where thanks to the combined effort of store managers from Carmarthen, Swansea, and Portsmouth, I was able to complete some missing gaps in my collection.

  • Blood Rite, by Rachel Harrison
  • Ciaphas Cain: Defender of the Imperium, by Sandy Mitchell
  • Ciaphas Cain: Saviour of the Imperium, by Sandy Mitchell
  • Ghost Dossier: The Vincula Insurgency, by Dan Abnett
  • The Helwinter Gate, by Chris Wraight
  • Silent Hunters, by Edoardo Albert
  • Deathwatch: The Omnibus, by various authors

Finally, I snagged a copy of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s latest Solaris novella, Ogres, the SFness of which I am yet to determine.

IN TRANSIT

After that onslaught of TBR boosters, it’s nice to not have anything waiting for me in the post.

READING

June was a fairly solid month of reading, albeit with a break in the middle. I knocked out my initial reading plan, with an alteration or two around the edges. I have, however, fallen behind on the reviewing side of things this past week, so consider this a teaser of reviews you can expect at the start of July.

And one non-SF book, The Blood Crows, by Simon Scarrow

AUDIO

I’ve had a lot of SF in my ears this month, both musical and dramatic. I haven’t had time to review all of it, but I’ll be getting around to it in the next week or so. I have reviewed Psyche Corporation’s brilliant new musical Refugees from the Otherworld, and the audiobook of Justin D Hill’s Terminal Overkill, but coming up I have reviews of:

  • Dinosaur Warfare Pt 2: The Great Ninja War, by Victorius
  • The War Master: Self-Defence
  • Rogue Squadron: Wedge’s Gamble

TV

No reviews from me yet, but Obi-Wan Kenobi is probably my favourite Star Wars TV show to date. I’m also re-watching the first two seasons of The Orville in preparation for the third, and it is just as entertaining the second time around.

ARTICLES

I’ve been working on a couple of lengthier articles, but the only one I actually managed to finish this month was my retrospective on the Voyager novels.

SPSFC

My work for the SPSFC is essentially at an end. All the finalists have been reviewed by either myself or one of my teammates, and our scores are public. I plan a wrap up post in a week or so, but the necessary work is done. Here are the finalists reviewed this month:

Monster in the Dark

Steel Guardian

In the Orbit of Sirens

Iron Truth

Captain Wu

WRITING

After almost a full year of false starts and blank pages, I’m finally back at work on a manuscript. I’m only managing a few hundred words a day at present, but it’s nice to see something starting to come together.

SITE UPDATES

Not much to add this month. Views are good even if my posting has slipped through the cracks here and there. I’m racking up quite a backlog of posts I want to make, but next month will likely be slow as well do to limited PC access. Nevertheless, At Boundary’s Edge is still going strong, and I’m happy with how its faring in the grand scheme of things.

SPSFC FINALIST REVIEW: In the Orbit of Sirens, by T. A. Bruno

The time is finally upon us. The SPSFC has reached the finals, and we have a finalist review here for you today. This one is of T. A. Bruno’s In the Orbit of Sirens. This book has an SPSFC rating of 7.00 out of 10. Here’s my full review.

If anyone ever tells you that self-published books can’t be as good as traditionally published ones, all you need to do is hold aloft a copy of In the Orbit of Sirens as proof of the opposite. Depending on the individual, you may then wish to a) pass the book to them for reading, or b) whack them over the head with it. Your choice. What matters is that In the Orbit of Sirens is just as crisp and polished as anything you’d find coming off the presses at orbit, Tor, or Gollancz. This isn’t a half-baked, garage-based offering. This is a finished product, with all the shine and glamour it deserves. Because presentation can glitz up just about anything, but this book doesn’t need the enhancement, because it’s also a very good piece of science fiction.

We are back in space opera territory once again, which is always a good place to start. But while this is a genre most people associate with an almost epic fantasy level of easy to inhabit environments, In the Orbit of Sirens opens with a planet that is slowly killing all of its human colonists. Not because of any sense of malice, but because other planets are not terribly well-suited to human habitation. Lung-lock may be a fictional condition, but it’s a reminder of just how hostile outer space can be to our kind. In another refreshing nod to plausibility, the opening chapter features an alien who is not immediately fluent in English. Shocking enough, avian mouthparts aren’t great at making mammalian sounds. Who’d have thought it?

Pretty soon though, the full expanse of space opera is opened up. In addition to those desperate colonists looking for a way to survive on a hostile world, we have a doomed Earth and artificial intelligences that are anything but benevolent. All familiar tropes, but all well placed. And of course this leads to the gripping starship chases and space scenes that make the genre what it is. And what it is, is just good entertainment.

The major knock to this book in my estimation, is an issue that’s been cropping up a lot lately. Not only in the SPSFC, but more generally in my reading. This is not a story told in a linear fashion. As soon as the second chapter began with the line ‘Three Hundred Years Ago,’ I knew I was in for a rough ride. There are very few books that can make split timelines work for me, and this sadly is not one. Bruno’s prose is nothing but stellar, but I just wish stories could be told more linearly. But no matter how much this bothers me, I know a lot of people are going to be thrilled at the unravelling mysteries of the different story arcs. Don’t let my personal bugbears put you off if you like the sound of it.

In the Orbit of Sirens is probably the most professionally put together book in this entire contest, and one that’s definitely worth a look.

This review marks the end of our reviews for the inaugural SPSFC. I’ll be back very soon with a roundup of thoughts and errata on the competition, but really the only thing left to do is wait for the other teams, and see who comes out on top. Whoever wins the coveted prize, I’m sure they’ll be deserving of it.

SPSFC FINALIST REVIEW: Captain Wu, by Patrice Fitzgerald and Jack Lyster

The time is finally upon us. The SPSFC has reached the finals, and we have a finalist review here for you today. This one is of Patrice Fitzgerald & Jack Lyster’s Captain Wu. This book has an SPSFC rating of 7.25 out of 10. Here’s my full review.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s difficult to go wrong with space opera. Sure there are some I don’t like, but even the needlessly overblown Lensman Saga has some great imagery in it. Because that’s what space opera is. It’s eye-popping visual spectacle and larger-than-life storytelling. It’s opera, but in space. Go figure. When I go to my reading records, it’s space opera that has the biggest share of the genre pie. So far this year I’ve read eighty books, and twenty-nine of them have fallen somewhere under the broad umbrella of space opera. It’s a genre I know pretty well, so when I tell you something is good space opera, please believe me. Captain Wu, for those who want me to get to the point, is good space opera.

The setup is a classic one. A crew of ragtag misfits hop around the galaxy in their starship doing jobs of varying legality in order to eke out a living. It worked for Firefly, it worked for Dark Matter, it worked for Embers of War, and it works for this first book of the Starship Nameless series. The same threads of DNA that spawned those other adventures runs through this one, which pulls of the usual opera trick of centring on great characters who aren’t afraid to have a little fun every now and then. Coming at the more modern end of the genre, Captain Wu also does things that earlier works often didn’t, which is a wordier way of saying that this book has more diverse representation than, for example, Blake’s 7. I haven’t looked into the authors’ bios, so I can’t say how much of this diversity is based on personal experience, but to my mind it’s exactly how diversity in fiction should work. Yes, it’s a feature that you notice, but it’s not the main attraction. Characters might be queer, but that’s not all there is to them. The only element that fell a little flat was Wu’s age. Granted, I don’t have a lot of experience with sexagenarian gunslingers, but Wu never felt like a woman in her sixties to me.

If you want an introduction to space opera as a genre, then this would be a fine place to start. The only drawback of its kitchen sink approach to worldbuilding is that it borrows and steals ideas from so many places, it doesn’t quite have a unique identity of its own. That’s fine, and doesn’t impact the story or the writing, but when you read so much of a genre, you end up looking for new angles to approach it from. Captain Wu gets all the tropes just right, but it doesn’t add anything new to the conversation. At least, not based on my reading. Others will surely disagree. But even if you’re a jaded space opera fanatic like me, this is still a really fun book, and a series to keep your eye on.

BOOK REVIEW: Moonrise, by Ben Bova

Rating: 5 out of 5.
  • Moonbase (#1)
  • Part of the Grand Tour universe
  • Published by New English Library
  • First published in 1996
  • Hard SF
  • 613 pages

The Moon. Since time began, our nearest celestial neighbour has called to us. Now the Masterson Corporation has established Moonbase, a permanent outpost on the lunar surface. But not everyone is happy with the way the site is being managed. And some are even willing to kill for control of its future . . .

Five books in and Ben Bova still hasn’t disappointed me. Whether it’s on Mars, Venus, New Earth, or the Moon, he is quite simply a phenomenal storyteller. My reading of his Grand Tour universe is skipping all over the chronology of the setting, but that hasn’t impacted my experience negatively at all. There are over two dozen novels in the universe, but aside from the odd crossover character or passing reference to the events of another book, each smaller series is a completely standalone tale. The Moonbase duology takes place over a period roughly concurrent with the Mars books, but you can read one without reading the other. And despite the similar premise of establishing a human foothold on an alien world, they offer radically different stories. Mars was all about the isolated team of scientists. Moonrise is much more concerned with the larger picture of humanity. We spend as much time on Earth as we do on the Moon.

First I’m going to get a pretty big spoiler out of the way. Our initial main character Paul Stavenger is killed off a third of the way through. From there we skip ahead a generation to focus on his son Doug. It’s a bold choice, and one I’ve not seen used much. Especially in a modern world where common practice is to make your audience invested in a character from the start, it really comes as a shock. But, and here is the key thing, Bova makes it work. Aside from ramping up the stakes with the reminder that anyone can die, it gives weight to the legacy Doug aspires to uphold. A lot of Bova’s other work has been calm bordering on serene, so shaking things up with a more action-oriented storyline is a nice surprise that proves there’s more to Bova than just scientific rigour.

Now, a book written in the nineties and set early in the twenty-first century is always going to run into the problem of fiction and reality diverging. Sadly, we do not yet have programmable nanomachines that can build structures in low gravity. Likewise, a permanent lunar presence is still a little way beyond what humanity has actually achieved. But there are smaller moments that make you look twice. When a character looks at someone’s face on their phone, I initially thought nothing of it. Then I remembered the date of publication, and was struck by just how close to reality Bova’s means of communication are. The methods of space travel also hew pretty closely to reality, though I’m not educated enough in aerospace to say how accurate Bova’s depictions are.

Sadly, Bova’s most accurate predictions are the social ones. I try my best to keep real world politics out of this blog, but sometimes fiction echoes reality in ways that are impossible to ignore. Given the events of the past few years (and this past week in particular), the rise of a group like New Morality is more plausible than I’d like. It’s all too easy to see how we might end up in a similar position to the Earth of the Grand Tour.

But don’t let that sour note distract you. For all the dark undertones, Moonrise is a fundamentally optimistic novel. You can move on from trauma. You can build a better world. All you need to do is make a stand. And, ideally, have the backing of a megacorporation.

Did you enjoy this book? If so, you might also like:
Mars, by Ben Bova
The Apollo Murders, by Chris Hadfield
Artemis, by Andy Weir

SPSFC FINALIST REVIEW: Iron Truth, by S.A. Tholin

The time is finally upon us. The SPSFC has reached the finals, and we have a finalist review here for you today. This one is of S.A. Tholin’s Iron Truth. This book has an SPSFC rating of 5.25 out of 10. Here’s my full review.

I am a solo blogger. Always have been, probably always will be. At Boundary’s Edge is just me screaming my opinions about books into the uncaring void. No team, no discussion, just me. It’s only with the SPSFC that I’ve started discussing books with other people before assigning them a rating. The books, that is. Not the people. Part of the judging process of the SPSFC is having everyone on a team read a book so that genre preferences and stylistic choices are balanced out. If one person doesn’t like romance, but the rest of the team do, then this means the negative reaction of the one has less chance of scuppering an SF romance’s chances early on. Of course, this does mean that you end up reading books that aren’t necessarily the sort you’d go out and buy. Simultaneously, books you think you’d like have fallen by the wayside. Early one, we as a team cut at least one military SF. From the looks of things, so a lot more of that particular genre didn’t make it this far. That’s a shame, because it’s probably my favourite genre, even if the fight with space opera is a close one. But while space opera is well-represented in these finals, Iron Truth is the only book that bears the military SF label. At last, I thought. A genre I like is strong in other areas to be enjoyed by the rest of the judging teams. When one of my fellow judges commented on the military SF aspects, I was even more excited. Unfortunately, those expectations soon came crashing down around me.

On the face of it, this book should be everything I want. Crashed spaceship with a fight for survival? Check. Lost colony that is absolutely hiding a terrible secret? Check. Squad of military personnel outmanned and outgunned? Check. Unfortunately, the premise is not matched by the contents. Well, it is. But not in a way that held my interest. This is easily the longest of the finalists, and has a page count to rival any of the chunky space operas I usually read. That’s not a problem. if you like something, why would you not want more of it? But I became detached from the story quite early on, and so the extra length was something I had to push through, rather than something to be savoured.

Let’s talk about the military aspect for a bit, if for no other reason that it cheers me up. At this point in the competition, I’m deeply appreciative of any military representation that isn’t wholly negative. And nuance is something that Iron Truth does have. There’s no clear-cut good and bad, as even the villains make compelling arguments at times. Now, when I think of military SF, I don’t think of men with guns. I think of administration and the role of the military in society. It’s the latter that comes into play here. The Primaterre’s military is rigidly organised, and absolutely working for a dystopian society. But we soon (in as much as this book is ever in a rush) learn why. And it’s the why that makes the book fall apart in my eyes. Why? Because the answer is demons.

Yes, that’s right. We’ve got demons in our sci-fi. Thankfully, this isn’t a science fantasy setting. These demons come from an alien world and kill people by preying on ‘impure’ thoughts. Somehow, even after all these pages, I’m not entirely sure what constitutes an impure thought. It seems to be any doubt or fear, and that living in the moment keeps you safe. Honestly, I’m just a little confused about it all. As you might imagine, once the demons get involved, we swing from military SF into all out horror. There’s also a bit of romance floating around, but I honestly just ignored it. Yes, this is a long book, but there are just so many competing elements. It’s an ambitious project, sure, and only the first in a series of indeterminate length. But for me, none of these elements hang together in a satisfying manner. There are some interesting pieces to the puzzle, but it doesn’t click together the way it ought to.

BOOK REVIEW: The Last Astronaut, by David Wellington

Rating: 3 out of 5.
  • A Standalone Novel
  • Published by Orbit
  • First published in 2019
  • A Horror-fuelled First Contact
  • 361 pages

Sally Jansen was the last astronaut. When a mission went wrong and astronauts died, it was Jansen who shouldered the blame. But when a mysterious object approaches the Earth, it is Jansen who must lead the mission to make contact . . .

The Last Astronaut is an odd mix of two quite different genres. The first is Hard SF, and the second is Horror. Here at least, these two genres don’t sit together very well. Hard SF is rooted in our present understanding of science, so it’s a genre where we expect hard and fast answers. When something goes wrong, it is picked apart in terms we understand, and the situation is either resolved or abandoned in a logical fashion. Horror is the opposite. Almost all fears are rooted in the fear of the unknown. Horror is a genre that falls apart when we get the answer. being stalked through the darkness by an unknown monster is far scarier than fighting a man with a knife. It’s not necessarily more dangerous, but the fear levels are heightened. When the genres mix, you end up with a war between the need for answers and the knowledge that those answers can’t match our own imaginings. The Last Astronaut handles this disparity in approach by splitting itself pretty evenly down the middle. The first half is pretty solid Hard SF, while the second is firmly in the horror tradition.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the first half is the one I prefer. Wellington has done his research (including consulting two actual astronauts, as referenced in the acknowledgements), and that gives the early Earth-bound sections a healthy dose of realism. The picture Wellington paints is a pessimistic one, with crewed missions a thing of the past, and NASA now relegated to probes and satellites. There’s also a rather unsubtle Space-X stand-in that serves as a cautionary tale about corporate greed. It’s not a particularly nuanced take, but it serves the story well. Now, the thing about NASA is that each mission is very detail-oriented. There might only be a team of three in the capsule, but there is a team of hundreds back on the ground. That vast cast has been streamlined for the purposes of a novel, but it largely holds together as both narrative and realism.

And then we get to the alien object. It looks like an asteroid, is interstellar in origin, and utterly horrifying within. I won’t go into details about the nature of the horror, because it’s best approached blindly. But it does signal an end to the firmer science of the first half. For me, the horror fell short. Not because it’s bad in its own right, but because it’s such a jarring change from the first half. If you’re more into horror, you might well like it, but I came away rather disappointed.

Wellington’s writing is pretty clear cut, no-nonsense and direct. One interesting narrative technique is including crew confessionals as in-universe extracts at various points along the book. These breaks in the narrative allow Wellington to drop out of the broader perspective in order to dive into someone’s head for a while. Think talking heads, but in novel form. The semi-documentary aspect of this and a few other extracts throughout the book add an extra layer to the story. This runs through both halves of the book, and is the only continuous bridge between the divided genres of each half.

The Last Astronaut doesn’t quite manage to balance the two genres it employs, but it’s still a quick and easy read with a strong first half, and some great near-future ideas.


If you enjoyed this book, you might also like:
The Apollo Murders, by Chris Hadfield
Walking to Aldebaran, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir

AUDIO REVIEW: Refugees from the Otherworld, by Psyche Corporation

Rating: 5 out of 5.
  • The 1st full-length album from Psyche Corp
  • Featuring guest vocals from Paul Shapera
  • 48 minutes and 27 seconds
  • As to genre, your guess is as good as mine
  • Released on 09/06/2022

Decades after interdimensional fairy creatures spilled into the human world, two students attend the world famous Phoenix Medical School. But will Diana and Luc become enemies, lovers, or something in between . . ?

So, it turns out I might be a sucker for musicals after all. At least, a certain sort of musical. This sort. Refugees from the Otherworld stretches the mission statement of this blog a little. Yes, I’m a trader exclusively in science fiction. But science fiction is a genre that has awfully fuzzy edges. So when a musical about fairies casually drops in the idea of other dimensions existing between quarks, that’s enough for it to earn a science fiction stamp of approval in my book. Beyond that, Psyche Corporation’s debut musical is every genre under the sun. On a worldbuilding level, it’s got dark academia, fantasy, horror, and a dash of steampunk. Thematically, it’s a properly tragic romance with more than a hint of the gothic. On a musical level, it’s runs the gamut from rap to industrial and from sombre solos to heated duets. It’s a real kitchen sink of ideas, and somehow it manages to come out cohesive on the other end.

Psyche Corporation first came to my attention through the musical offerings of Paul Shapera. Psyche herself is easily my favourite vocalist of the Shaperaverse, stealing every scene she’s in. It was a done deal that I’d get to her solo work sooner or later. All of that vocal strength is on display in Refugees from the Otherworld, from the breathy hip hop of ‘Roadx’ to the belted passion of ‘Outsider.’ It is at this point I confess some ignorance. Psyche Corporation is presented as a collective of dream engineers from the future (just go with it), warning us about terrible things to come. In reality, I believe Psyche to be a solo project. I may be wrong about this, but whatever the case, the musical mixing and scripting are an impressive feat for a small operation.

Past collaborator Paul Shapera is back in the role of Luc, a self-important, power-driven individual who might just be the chameleonic Shapera’s best performance to date. ‘Mr Perfect’ and the follow-up ‘Monster’ are both powerhouse performances. But no matter how good the solo performances are, the stars of the album are the duets. ‘Sleep With The Enemy’ is as funny as it is enlightening, and ‘Your Body’ is surprisingly touching, given what happens on either side of it. Yet the standout duet is ‘Your Side of the Body,’ a tale of medical rivalry that takes place during a dissection. It’s great as a song, but also because of the staging that comes with it. Even though this is only the soundtrack to a musical, it’s easy to imagine how it might play out on a stage. And if it ever does come to a stage near me, I’ll be buying tickets as soon as they become available.

Given the puzzle of genres and the musical background of the performers, Refugees from the Otherworld is a surprisingly streamlined creation. It works on its own terms as a simple tragedy, but also serves as an introduction to a world that doesn’t yet exist. Hopefully this world will soon be realised, because it’s one I am already invested in. Whether you’re a fan of the weird and bizarre, or just want to hear some great music, you should definitely give Psyche Corporation a listen.