BOOK REVIEW: We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin

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Translated By: Charles E. Gannon

Publisher: Penguin

Genre: Dystopia

Pages: 258

Publication Date: 1924 (This translation 1993)

Verdict: 2/5

OneState has eradicated all want. All envy. All greed. The world is united under OneState, but the mission does not stop there. Now OneState reaches for the stars, to bring perfection to other worlds . . .

I don’t like dystopias. Now that may sound obvious to you. After all, is not the point of a dystopia that it is unpleasant? But I don’t mean that I wouldn’t like to live in one. I mean that I don’t enjoy reading about them. There are two reasons for this. the first is that some don’t actually sound that bad. What’s that, your job is chosen at birth and you work it until death? Sounds a lot like working in agriculture to me, and who doesn’t like a bit of job security? But the bigger problem is that when you make a dystopia, you make everything bad. Jobs are bad. Romance is bad. Life is bad. Bad, bad, bad. That monotony grows boring very quickly, and it has to be something very special to pull me into a book that is open about its dystopian nature.

But this past month I’ve been reading a lot of classics. I love the history of science fiction almost as much as I like science fiction itself. Finding the roots of all these modern branches is fun for me, and so We came to my attention. One of the original dystopias? The source of this genre I dislike so intensely? I has to read it for myself. To see if it was a modern trend that kept me away from the genres, or if it was baked into the DNA of the thing. As it turns out, dystopia has always been fairly boring. But there is always merit in seeing why these things don’t work for me.

The idea behind the book is that OneState has ordered its citizens to create art to promote OneState to potential outsiders (ie. New recruits). The problem with this is that under OneState, creativity is stifled, and there are no artists. So one citizen simply records his thoughts as he goes about his daily life, only to begin questioning whether or not he is truly happy with life in OneState. What we get is half travelogue guide to OneStae, and half meditation on the nature of art.

The latter half of that is the main reason I didn’t enjoy this book. A lot of dystopian settings outlaw creativity for various reasons. Here, it is a clear allegory for the way Soviet Russia censored a lot of fiction, including We itself. Don’t get me wrong. I would not want to live in a world without stories. For one thing, I wouldn’t have this blog. But every time I read a story about the importance of stories, I can’t help but think of the inherent narcissism of the notion. There’s an off-putting sense of self-importance about a lot of writers, and science fiction is a fertile breeding ground for that opinion, that I just don’t care for. The truth is that not all stories are important, or acts of revolution. And nor should they be. Variety is great, and fr every important treatise on the nature of humanity, we need a story that’s just for entertainment.

We does score points for avoiding some aspects that irk me about modern dystopias though. The revolution here is limited to secret societies and individuals. It doesn’t glorify terrorism the way some modern interpretations of the genre do. It does a very good job of showing repetitious worldbuilding without falling into repetitious storytelling;. I love the way it exists as an artefact within its own story, and the meditations on how context changes understanding of language are brilliant. After all: What is a jacket?

 

Ultimately though, this trip back to the genre’s foundations reminds me why I stay away from its modern incarnations. An interesting historical curiosity, but not much more than that.

Star Trek Crew Builder: Operations & Communications

Welcome to the sixth in a series of articles wherein I attempt to build the ideal crew for a ship, using characters from the many variations of Star Trek. To be a candidate, all you need is to be a series regular on one of Star Trek‘s TV incarnations, from The Original Series onwards. Today we’re covering two roles that cover a lot of the same ground, operations and communications

Candidate 1: Nyoto Uhura

A trailblazer in many ways, Uhura is a calm and quiet presence on the bridge, but is more than capable of taking over should the occasion call for it. Though no single incident stands out, this is largely because her general competence has led to few disasters, which is more than could be said for several other candidates on this list.

Candidate 2: Data

Data has it all. Superhuman strength and intelligence. reaction times faster than the human mind can imagine, and a durability that continues to surprise. There are times when you wonder why Starfleet doesn’t have legions of Datas instead of organic crews. A question answered by the existence of Lore. Data also brings a childlike enthusiasm for research and exploration, both of space and the self, though this is often coupled with naivety. It also must be mentioned that an android is prone to being hacked, and if turned against the crew proves a devastating foe.

Candidate 3: Wesley Crusher

What Wesley lacks in experience, he makes up for in enthusiasm. Something of a child prodigy, his appearances on the bridge are perhaps secondary to his skills in the lab. It could be argued that his role in the command structure is the rank of nepotism, but he roves himself deserving time and again. Perhaps not the obvious choice, but with a bit of training, the boy will go far.

Candidate 4: Harry Kim

Seven years in the Delta Quadrant give Kim more experience than anyone else of equal rank. Of all the candidates, he is the most diligent in his duties, and a few incidents of insubordination are overshadowed by his loyalty to captain and crew. Such is his dedication to his job that not even temporal anomalies, imprisonment, and multiple cases of his own death can prevent him turning up at his station the next day. However, his enthusiasm and dedication cannot mask the fact that he has little experience of life outside of the ship, and he is prone to errors that betray his junior rank.

Candidate 5: Hoshi Sato

In a world of universal translators, it’s easy to forget the importance of Hoshi Sato. Here is a woman who can master any language thrown at her in a matter of days. An invaluable skill for the technologically-limited explorer. But while she has all the skills required of a deep space explorer, Sato is perhaps lacking in the temperament. Though the word anxiety should not be thrown around carelessly, Sato is a prime example. Though she proves herself a capable spacer on multiple occasions, and is more than ready to face her fears for the greater good, those fears are ever-present.

 

Final Verdict

This was a failry easy choice. Though my admiration for Hoshi Sato is essentially without limits, i have to give the role of operations officer to Lieutenant Commander Data. He has such a range of skills and abilities I would be a fool to ignore them. Yes, his propensity for being overridden by alien technology is a safety concern. But then. who in Starfleet hasn’t been possessed by an alien? At least Data can be switched off and reactivated without any permanent damage.

 

If you want more Star Trek content, you can find it by clicking this link.

BOOK REVIEW: Absynthe, by Brendan P. Bellecourt

My thanks go to Head of Zeus for a free copy in exchange for this honest review

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Series: Absynthe (#1)

Publisher: Head of Zeus

Genre: Alternate History

Pages: 404

Publication Date: 09/12/2021

Verdict: 4/5

 

Chicago: 1928. But not the one you know. The Great War between the United States and the nations of the St. Lawrence Pact is over, but the scars of war remain. And one former solider, Liam Mulcahey, is about to discover that the scars go deeper than anyone could have imagined . . .

Where to begin with Absynthe? That’s a difficult question, because there is a lot packed into this book’s four-hundred pages. Let’s start with the cover, which is the perfect indication of the sleek, jazz-era story you’ll find inside. As an aside, it also looks very festive. Perfect for a December release. But back to the jazz. Now, I don’t know a whole lot about 1920s American culture, despite Call of Cthulhu’s best efforts. I’m very much a casual reader in this regard, and those with more knowledge of the time might have a different reaction, but from my perspective, Bellecourt nails the tone. His Chicago is a realm of speakeasies, musicians, and corruption. Right out of a gangster film.

But then you have the speculative elements. Right on the first page we have mechanika. In another word: Robots. They’re everywhere, from automated drivers with personalities of their own, to massive constructs used to fight in wars. One war specifically. because in this version of history, the Great War was between the United States on one side, and Germany, France, Britain, and Canada on the other. The reasons for this conflict are detailed later in the book, but I have to say the worldbuilding is neatly twisted. Honestly, I would read a dozen novels following this timeline.

But the war does bring one issue to the book, and it’s a personal bugbear of mine. Liam is suffering from a faulty memory, you see, and has constant flashbacks to the war. In the second half of the book, these flashbacks are neatly separated by chapter breaks. But early on? Early on they break through the middle of other scenes, throwing you from 1928 to a decade earlier. It is supposed to be disorienting, showing us how thrown Liam is by these odd memories, but it also makes chronology hard to keep tabs on. Which is a shame, because what happened in the war is so very interesting, and key to understanding the story. These flashbacks also involve scenes that Liam did not experience personally, and the way Bellecourt handles that is inspired.

One idea this book plays with is how perception and reality are not always the same. Alternative history is perhaps the best genre for this, because the setting is at once familiar and very alien. After all, if the great War took a different path, who are we to judge what is real and what is not? I won’t go into the full details, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that illusions and the twisting of reality had a fairly plausible explanation. Filtered through the lens of the nineteen-twenties, there’s a scientific investigation angle that both horrifies and intrigues. Again, I don’t know exactly what people in 1928 thought about these things, but the way the characters go about looking for answers? That is something I loved about this book. Science and horror, walking hand in hand , just as they so often have throughout history.

Absynthe is a hard to book to get a handle on. It combines genres, ripping up rulebooks along the way. There were points early on that I thought we were headed into urban fantasy territory, but then we swung back into hard SF. The value of originality are often oversold, but by taking so many elements, Absynthe creates something better. Something unique. There is, I believe, a sequel in the works for next year, and I for one can not wait to see where Bellecourt takes his alternative history next.

BOOK REVIEW: View From the Imperium, by Jody Lynn Nye

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Series: Imperium (#1)

Publisher: Baen

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 566

Publication Date: 2011

Verdict: 3/5

 

Thomas Innes Loche Kinago has everything. Wealth, good looks, education, and noble breeding. Which is why, as a mere ensign, he is given his own command. But can even the might Thomas Kinago stand against a villain who can manipulate worlds with a smile . . ?

View from the Imperium has one of the greatest book covers I have ever seen. I mean, look at it. It’s hard to decide which bit I like the most? Is it the shocked dinosaur looking at the pile of his dead comrades? Is it the Flashman-esque Thomas Kinago with his great big grin? Or is it the karate-handed man at his side, with enough facial tattoos to put Voyager’s Chakotay to shame? As with so many Baen covers, the answer is all of the above. Any one of these elements could have drawn me in alone. Smash them all together and you have a cover that would catch anyone’s eye. But it’s also a cover that raises an inevitable question: Can the contents of the book be as madcap as the cover?

The answer is yes. With Baen’s track record of military SF, I was expecting something in a similar vein. What I was not prepared for was how fun View from the Imperium is. There are some moments that had me chuckling to myself, and it’s consistently amusing throughout. It’s not a pure comedy, but it does take a walk on the wry side. And that is why it works. Humour is very hard to pull of in prose form, and having a proper story to hang the jokes on gives this book a backbone that a lot of others lack. The comedy here comes in two forms. One is the gentle satire of politics, as the action of Kinago’s life is interrupted at regular intervals by cuts to the Castaway Cluster, where debates go on endlessly and nothing is ever achieved. Then we have Kinago himself, who is a self-aggrandising yet oddly likeable man in the same vein as Warhammer Ciaphas Cain. he’s irrepressible, and it’s his ongoing efforts to win over members of his crew that provide most of book’s best moments.

That cutting between plots I mention above is also the book’s biggest weakness. Most, but all, of Kinago’s scenes are narrated in the first person by the man himself, and it’s his internal monologue that keeps the book racing along. Nye nails the voice of an affable narcissist perfectly, capturing the cult of personality that grows around such individuals. Indeed, there’s an interesting thread picking up on that later on in the book, delving into hypothetical relations between genetics and social power. It’s a little bit ridiculous, but then so is the whole book.

But when we’re not focused on Kinago, we fall back into the third person, and it’s the constant changing between perspectives that kept pulling me out of the book. Juggling viewpoints is hard at the best of times, and while the change in perspective does make it clear which thread we’re following, every time we’re in the third person, I just wanted to have Kinago’s narration back. Those sections we spend with the protagonist have such a strong voice that, no matter how interesting the story, the other chapters feel like a distraction from the main story.

This my first Jody Lynn Nye novel. Indeed, I hadn’t even heard of her until I saw it on the shelf in Oxfam. And while I think it has a few structural issues, it was one of the most enjoyable books of the year for me. It doesn’t tax the brain, and that is perfectly fine. It’s light and fun, and proof that taking risks is worth it. Baen is a publisher I’m always happy to gamble on second-hand copies of, and View from the Imperium vindicates that choice. Definitely a series I’ll be keeping an eye out for. And with covers like these, they should be easy to spot.

BOOK REVIEW: Ruin, by Nate Crowley

Click here for all of my Warhammer 40000 reviews

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Publisher: Black Library

Series: The Twice-Dead King (#1)

Genre: Grimdark SF

Pages: 283

Publication Date: 2021

Verdict: 4/5

 

For ages untold the necrons have slumbered in their tombs, waking only to find the Galaxy a changed place. On one remote world, an exiled noble foresees an invasion by the upstart Imperium. But the nascent human race is far from the greatest danger to his rule . . .

If there’s one thing Warhammer 40,000 does well, it’s tragedy. That’s the point, after all. Take the Imperium of Man. Sure, it looks impressive, and is a dominant power in a Galaxy filled with countless horrors and warmongering species. But look deeper. Peel away that golden gleam of the Imperial Creed, and it’s darkness all the way down. This a civilisation that has long since stagnated. Where lives are spent toiling for no purpose, and total collapse is avoided only by the liberal application of propaganda. Blaming the problems of a failing state on outside forces and pushing violence to the frontiers rather than letting it consume the core. The Imperium is a civilisation on the brink of either brilliance or total collapse, depending on who you ask. But impressive though it is, it is not the first to find itself at such a crossroads.

A long, long time ago, the necrons found themselves in a similar position. Wars against the gods and internecine squabbling posed a great threat to a civilisation that dominated the Galaxy. But this oldest of civilisations did something remarkable. They embraced stagnation. Eschewing the ways of flesh, they became mechanical beings. immortal, unending, unchanging. After tens of thousands of years, the necrons are still around, much diminished, but with delusions of grandeur. And those long centuries have taken their toll on even the greatest of dynasties.

It is with all of this as background that Nate Crowley brings his unique penmanship to the sinister xenos species for the second time, having previously written the novella Severed.  In spite of that weight of history pressing down on the characters, Ruin is a short and accessible novel. Maybe too short if I’m being honest, but happily there is a sequel on the way. What we get in this slender volume is the story of Oltyx, a noble exiled from his dynasty, and left to defend his holdings as first orks, and then humans arrive in force to take it from him. Admittedly, the Imprium is a threat from a distance for this first book, but we do see some ork-on-necron action. This is a battle we’ve seen a bit of in The Infinite and the Divine, but here we get a deeper look at the two species. On the face of it, they seem like they shouldn’t exist in the same setting. here are the necrons, with their gothic tragedy, and over there are the orks, building brightly coloured machines and blowing themselves up. But that juxtaposition hides a greater depth. Here are the two extremes of the grim, dark future. One civilisation that had the universe in their grip, only to see it fall through their metal fingers, and a second that has never created anything of merit, and exists only to tear down the works of others in as destructive a manner as possible.

This contrast in worldbuilding plays to Crowley’s strengths as a writer. The tragedy of the necrons looms large over their every interaction, and Crowley does superlative work bringing home the effects on the mind of an unending life. Necron lore is deep indeed, and there are some bits that I’m still not wholly sure I understand, but Crowley’s prose shines in spite of all the terminology and jargon he has to introduce to properly depict this staggeringly ancient civilisation. As we tour the ruins of the Galaxy’s first empire, there is a lot of sorrow on display. But the pathos is alleviated by some very funny lines. The bickering of Oltyx’s subminds, or the ineffectual council who serves him. It’s often gallows humour, but that’s just what the grim, dark future calls for. It’s just the right level of humour to stop things becoming too depressing, neatly breaking up the darker segments.

 

I haven’t read many xenos novels yet, but Ruin sets the bar high. It’s an insight into a little-explored corner of the grim, dark future, and puts Crowley on my list of authors to keep an eye on.

BOOK REVIEW: Grim Repast, by Marc Collins

Click here for all of my Warhammer 40000 reviews

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Publisher: Black Library

Genre: SF Crime

Pages: 330

Publication Date: 2021

Verdict: 4/5

 

There are no xenos in Varangantua. No daemons prowl the streets at night. But that does not mean there are no monsters. The city is rife with killers, from crimes of passion to sadistic murders. Because sometimes the worst monsters in the world, are people . . .

The third Warhammer Crime novel pushes things further than previous offerings, giving us one of the bleakest, most chilling Black Library books to date. Chilling in more ways than one. Grim Repast takes us to the Polaris region of Varangantua, a decidedly frosty part of the city, and one brilliantly illustrated on the front cover. The cold climate enhances the noir feeling that all of these books have, and it’s all too easy to picture Grim Repast in a full-screen, black and white experience.

Today’s probator is Quillon Drask, an individual last seen in the short story ‘Cold Cases.’ You don’t need to have read that short to enjoy this, but I would strongly recommend it. The important details are sketched out in this book, but ‘Cold Cases’ lays a lot of the groundwork for Drask’s characterisation in this novel. And that characterisation is the strongest thing this book has going for it. Previous protagonists have been diligent workers, trying to do their best in a hopeless world. Drask, in contrast, is a broken man, both physically and psychologically. He is a human testament to the toll life in Varangantua takes on the soul. It’s fair to say that we get more of an insight into Drask’s mind than we did Zidarov or Noctis. Sometimes this feels more like a protracted character study rather than a crime thriller, but that works in the book’s favour.

It’s not just Drask who is a broken man. This book is all about the broken nature of Imperial society. How the wealthy exploit the poor, how the lawkeepers are just as corrupt as the gangs they alternate between hunting and treating with. Life in Varangantua is depressing, and you can only assume it’s a similar tale told countless times across the Imperium of Man. This is a book in which not even the illusion of hope exists, because when the most powerful people in the city can get away with anything, what role is there for the law other than the enforcement of a broken system? This isn’t a book that delves deeply into the politics of the question, but the question is asked nonetheless.

All that misery can grow stale, however, and for much of the first act Grim Repast feels like a retread of what we have seen before. That’s the problem when a series has such a consistent tone. It’s hard to break out with something new. I love the crime range, but there are only so many stories of probators investigating conspiracies that I can take before I want a change. That change comes in the latter half of Grim Repast. I won’t go into spoilers, because the shock is part of the appeal. But Collins goes into some dark, dark territory. The Custom of the Void is appealingly ghoulish, and the killer’s lair leads to one of the best, most tense encounters of the entire crime range. If you liked Haley’s servitor-factory, then Collins has something that you’ll like even more. I know I did. It’s gruesome, it’s haunting, and in the context of Varangantua, it’s all too plausible.

 

Overall, Grim Repast continues the Warhammer Crime range’s run of strong novels, and hopefully heralds more to come, both from the setting as a whole, and from Collins in particular.

TBR & BEYOND: December 2021

Welcome to the latest edition of TBR & BEYOND, a regular feature where I take a look at my TBR, run through my reading plans for the month ahead, and talk about science-fiction related things I’m excited about for the coming month. A fair bit of this is similar to the previous month, but I’ll do my best to keep repetition to a minimum. Without further ado, let’s get into that TBR.

TBR

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Aside from Simon Scarrow’s Eagles of the Empire (a series for which I am missing several key books), my plan is to finish everything in the photo above before I start anything I may be gifted for Christmas. Some of these books have been for for several months now, and it’s always a good idea to do a bit of cleaning around the TBR tower.

The other exception to this plan is the Star Trek: Coda series. I was hoping to read this whole trilogy back-to-back, but the third book has been pushed back (see below) I’m going to hold off on reading the first two for a while, but if Oblivions Gate doesn’t appear until next year, I might end up reading this two on their own. I really want to know how the Litverse canon concludes, and can only restrain myself for so long.

Having spent the last month mopping up standalones, December will be the month where I get into some new authors. Well, new to me. Top of this list is the trio of second-hand purchases I made way back in September. View From the Imperium by Jody Lynn Nye and The Praxis by Walter Jon Williams are both the first books in their respective series, but look tonally very different. Nye’s has one of the best covers Baen have ever put on a book, and I’m hopeful that the story itself is every bit as madcap. Williams’ offering looks more like the military space opera I enjoy so much. The third of these books is Jack McDevitt’s Chindi. This is a middle book in his larger Academy series, but I’m led to believe these hard SF books are functionally standalone. The most appealing part of these books to me is that each author has a lengthy back-catalogue, so hopefully I’ll be reading more of them in the future.

I do have two ongoing series to keep up with and the first is DuneThe Lady of Caldan came out two months ago, but I was knee-deep in a later stage of my reread at the time, and decided to take a mall break before backtracking along the timeline to slot it in. That break has now been had, and I’m looking forward to reading my first Dune book since tracing the new film, and seeing if (and how) it affects my reading. The second series is Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward, which also sees its penultimate release this year in the form of Cytonic.

Though I read a lot of Warhammer 40,000 novels, most of those relate to the Imperium, so Phil Kelly’s Farsight novels, which focus on the T’au, will be a change of pace for me. I don’t think this series is complete yet, but I’ll likely read these two back-to-back. Reading series in a solid block is something I want to do more of in 2022, so this will be good practise.

This month’s TBR also includes two non-SF books that will probably take up a considerable amount of time. Both Ken Liu’s The Veiled Throne, and the perennial favourite S. are rather dense books, so if my reviewing is a bit light this month, it’ll be because I’m reading one of them. These fantasy releases are the only books likely to get in the way of me demolishing my TBR before December 31st.

AND BEYOND

The 2nd of December sees the last big release of the year in the form of Leviathan Falls, the ninth (and final) book in James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series. I’ve been waiting on this one for a long while now, and I don’t think my expectations could be any higher. The TV adaptation of the series also reaches an end this year, with the sixth and final season hitting Amazon Prime on the 10th, though with siz episodes it will run into January.

On the 9th, Brendan P. Bellecourt’s alternate history Absynthe will be released. I won’t be buying this, because for the first time in my life, I have a review copy! I’ll hopefully be getting my thoughts on that one to you before the official release date.

Though the date has shifted from November to January and everywhere in between, there’s a chance David Mack’s Oblivion’s Gate will be released this month. This will be an end to a canon of Star Trek that has been going for twenty years, and I’m very excited to read it.

Black Library has managed to squeeze a few extra releases in before Christmas. The pre-order of Andy Clark’s Astra Militarum novel Steel Tread is up now, but the book will be released on the 4th. Later in the month we have the new Sabbat Worlds novel Volpone Glory by Nick Kyme, and the omnibus edition of Crimson Fists, collecting stories by Steve Parker and Mike Lee. Volpone Glory looks very exciting, and while I’ve sort of sworn myself off new Space Marine content, Crimson Fists does look mighty tempting.

On the small screen, December will see the climax of Doctor Who: Flux (about which I have many, many thoughts) with a slim possibility of a Christmas special to follow, though I expect a New Year special is more likely. We also have the continuation of Star Trek: Discovery, which is available for free in the UK on Pluto TV. Finally, Star Wars returns to Disney+ on the 29th in the shape of The Book of Boba Fett.

I’m on the verge of wrapping up a few TV series (Defiance, Fear the Walking Dead, Walking Dead: World Beyond) so I’m hoping to watch Foundation this month, but that space could well be taken by Wheel of Time instead. We’ll have to see.

 

What about you? What SF are you looking forward to reading in December? Let me know in the comments.

MONTHLY ROUNDUP: November 2021

November has been a fairly quiet month for me. Aside from work I’ve had no real commitments to stick to, which has resulted in more reading and blogging than anticipated. I hope you don’t hold that against me, and that you enjoy this breakdown of the month just gone.

Book Haul

As the Christmas season draws closer, so my own book buying slows down. But while my wishlist has been handed off to the family, there are still some newer releases I’m taking care of myself.

Grim Repast is Marc Collins’ debut Black Library novel, and the latest full-length novel in the Warhammer Crime range. I love this little corner of the grim, dark future, and each book raises my hopes for the next. I’ve read some of Collins’ short fiction, so I know I’m in good hands with this one.

The Lady of Caladan, is the second volume of Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson’s Caladan trilogy, set in the year leading up the events of the original Dune. It’s also the first WordFire Press hardback I’ve purchased, and the quality is significantly higher than their paperbacks, which are frustratingly floppy.

The Veiled Throne marks the penultimate book in Ken Liu’s genre-shifting Dandelion Dynasty. Epic fantasy with a technological revolution at its heart, this is a mammoth book that I’m not quite confident of finishing before the end of the year, even if I start it fairly soon.

The Ashes of Tomorrow is James Swallow’s middle act of the multi author Star Trek: Coda trilogy. I’m glad this one turned up as the release dates keep getting shifted around for a number of reasons. I’ve also pre-ordered David Mack’s conclusion to the series, Oblivion’s Gate, which could arrive any time in the next two months.

Reading Progress

It may have been slow for book buying, but November was a great month for book reading. Free of my epic readalong responsibilities, I cleaned up my TBR tower considerably. However, not every book I read was as good as I’d hoped. As promised, I started the month by getting up my reviews of the last two books I finished in October, Pierce Brown’s Dark Age and David Mack’s Titan: Fortune of War. After that, it was all hands on deck for new books.

A lot of my focus this month was on classics. Both H.G. Wells’ The War in the Air and Larry Niven’s Ringworld were stuffed with good ideas, but the writing was a sticking point for both books. Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles has held up a lot better, however, while Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep was truly mind-boggling, though not necessarily in an enjoyable way.

I also spent a lot of time reading anthologies, which was a change of pace for me. Lavie Tidhar’s The Best of World SF: Volume 1, held a few gems, but most of the stories weren’t well suited to my tastes. Far more consistent were the trio of Warhammer Crime anthologies. No Good Men, Broken City, and Sanction & Sin all had a lot to offer, and are a great entry point for anyone looking to get into Black Library.

I stayed away from longer series this month, and read a bunch of standalone novels. John Appel’s Assassin’s Orbit didn’t work for me, but Rogue Elements (John Jackson Miller’s Star Trek: Picard novel) was a lot stronger, and a lot of fun. Then there was Cixin Liu’s Of Ants and Dinosaurs and Chris Hadfield’s The Apollo Murders, both of which are up there with the best books I’ve read this year.

I wrapped up the month with a return to the grim, dark future with Nate Crowley’s The Twice Dead King: Ruin, and quickly followed that with Marc Collins’ Grim Repast. I hope to get reviews up of both books in the next week, but my thoughts are largely positive.

On the non-SF front, I started two new fantasy series with Steven Erikson’s The God is Not Willing, and Peter V. Brett’s The Desert Prince. Both of them continue existing universes, and I’ll be continuing both series.

Audio Frequencies

My audiobook listening has essentially dropped to zero this month. Partly due to a lack of time, but also because what time I do have is dedicated to catching up on Lore, the podcast of folklore and chilling true stories. I’m only a hundred episodes behind, so maybe there’ll be more audiobooks next month.

On a musical note, I have discovered that Katzenjammer actually had a third album that I did not know about before. Between that and Little Violet’s debut album ‘Code Red,’ my metal-heavy listening has been suitably jazzed up with some lighter fare.

On Screen

The big story this month was the international release of Star Trek: Discovery’s fourth season, which was assumed to be coming to Netflix, was pulled with very little warning, and has now been sent to Pluto TV (at least in the UK) following a fan outrage. Though it’s too early to see where this season is going, the signs are good that it will continue its year-on-year improvement.

Fear the Walking Dead continues to be an unbalanced mix of great scenes and terrible pacing, while Walking Dead: World Beyond is proving to be the sleeper hit of the franchise. It’s solidly entertaining, more consistent than its siblings, and is actually going somewhere with its plot. A slight shame that this second season is the final one, but I reckon that being a limited series has done wonders for this show.

Back in catch-up territory, I’m three seasons into 24 and already tuning out. It’s a classic example of how constantly ramping up the tension leads to audience fatigue, and some of the subplots are simply unbelievable. Still, it gives me time to read while the family are watching. I’m slightly more engaged with my rewatch of Defiance, although the Irzu plotline doesn’t grip me anywhere near as much as the Tarr familial squabbling.

This month I also posted my reviews of the brilliant Space: Above & Beyond, and the second season of Star Trek: Lower Decks.

Articles

As planned, I put out a fair bit of Star Trek content this month, all of it relating to my Crew Builder project. I’ve taken a look at crew morale, engineers, and security officers. I’ve still got a few more to go, and hope to get them done by the end of the year. These posts aren’t very popular with readers, it would seem, but they are fun to write.

SPSFC

At the start of the month, I posted the team’s fifth and final batch of cuts, and then the big announcement of our quarterfinalists. these are the eleven books we’ll be reading and reviewing before the end of January. It’s been a bit quieter since then, as we’re all busy reading, but December should see the next eliminations posted. I’m only a few books in myself, but so far they’ve been strong, though nothing has made me stop and say ‘wow’ yet.

Writing

November has been another infuriating month as far as writing is concerned. I hopped aboard the NaNoWriMo wagon in the hopes of getting some short fiction written, but after only two shorts and around 8000 words by the halfway point, I was already well behind schedule. I’m still trying to work out where to go with my next long project, and really hope to be back on some sort of schedule before the new year.

Wrap-Up

November was a really good month for At Boundary’s Edge. I passed 2000 views in a single month for the first time, and received my 1000th like since I started three years ago. Some of my Black Library reviews also got shared by the authors, which is always a nice surprise. As we reach the end of the year, I’m starting to think of plans for 2022, and I’ll let you know what I decide to do.

BOOK REVIEW: A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge

vinge.jpg

Publisher: Gollancz

Genre: Hard SF

Pages: 579

Publication Date: 1991

Verdict: 2/5

 

The Milky Way is a realm of vast potential. Not only in breadth, but in depth. For there is a force that suppresses intelligence, and as we travel further into space, we may reach our true potential. But when species and civilisations of incompatible intellect come into contact, can the result be anything other than violence . . ?

My science fiction reading covers two large periods. The Golden Age of the 40s and 50s, and the modern era of 2010 onward. That period in-between is one I’ve picked at a few times, but I have real gaps around the 80s and 90s. A Fire Upon the Deep is perhaps one of the most famous works from that period, and rightly earns a place in the SF Masterworks range. With such an evocative title, it’s no wonder this book gets talked about so much, and most of what I’ve seen about in online is positive. With all that as background, how could I resist? The answer, of course, is that I couldn’t. Though perhaps I should have.

Like a lot of classics, A Fire Upon the Deep is bursting at the seams with ideas. You could argue that it was easier to come up with new ideas back then, as there were fewer people to have beaten you to the punch, but even so Vinge’s imagination is impressive. First of all there is an acknowledgement of the sheer scope of space travel, with suspension chambers for ‘coldsleeping,’ and the human exploration of space is an aspect I would have liked to see more of. Ultimately, however, this is not a story about humans, it’s a story about the aliens.

The best of these aliens are the Tines. I don’t see hive minds enough in science fiction, and these are a good example of them. Sort of wolf-like in appearance and travelling in packs, each Tine is essentially a shared mind between the members of the pack. What makes the Tines really interesting is how the survive in the long term. To them, losing a member of the pack is like suffering a brain injury, as in the case of a pack that loses several members, with the survivors unable to communicate properly. But a pack can also heal by adopting new individuals into the pack. As an exploration of hive minds and the alien,  A Fire Upon the Deep is truly fascinating, but it’s less successful as a story.

The overall plot here is that two children are adopted by aliens, while an ancient and deadly entity seeks the annihilation of sentient life. Sounds exciting, right? Well, it wasn’t for me. Because there are so many ideas at play here, the story drowns in them. The shifting civilisation of the Tines is interesting, and so are a lot of the other ideas. But they’re all in competition with each other, rather than being complimentary. Any one of these ideas would be sufficient to drive a novel, and a good one at that, but when they’re all crammed into the same book, nothing has room to breathe.

Vinge’s prose doesn’t help with this. It’s dense, and there are shifts in style that can be hard to get your head around. Perhaps it’s testament to how well-drawn his alien characters are, that it’s difficult to understand what’s going on. There’s very little to latch onto. While this book may be mind-boggling, that is not always a good thing. Amazing and head-scratching are two sides of a coin, and this one is spinning non-stop.

 

A Fir Upon the Deep deserves its place in the science fiction canon, but if you’re coming for an entertaining story, you may be disappointed.

Star Trek Crew Builder: Security

Welcome to the fifth in a series of articles wherein I attempt to build the ideal crew for a ship, using characters from the many variations of Star Trek. To be a candidate, all you need is to be a series regular on one of Star Trek‘s TV incarnations, from The Original Series onwards. We’ve already assembled a sizeable crew, and now we need someone to keep them safe. With that in mind, let’s choose our head of security. This choice will also cover tactical duties, as the two roles often cross over.

Candidate 1: Tasha Yar

Though we don’t see much of her, what we do know of Tasha Yar paints a good image. She’s quick to find her feet, more than capable of handling herself in a fight, and adapts quickly to new situations.  Her dedication to duty is without question, but this does on occasion work against her, and she is alarmingly ready to lay down her life if the situation calls for it.

Candidate 2: Worf, son of Mogh

Worf comes with a lot of emotional baggage. While it impressive to be the first Klingon in Starfleet, Worf clings to his heritage even when it is not in his own best interests, or the interests of those he serves. Worf’s obsession with honourable ideals often brings him into conflict with the orders given by his superiors, and while he may try to balance them, it is ultimately detrimental to a good working relationship between Worf and his commanding officer. That being said, Worf has more experience than anyone else on this list. With multiple years of experience on both starships and space stations, he’s seen pretty much all there is to see, and has come out of it relatively unscathed.

Candidate 3: Odo

This shapeshifter is physically the best choice for a security officer, as his unique abilities give him innumerable advantages. He also has years of experience in matters both civilian and military, and a background that could come in handy in any encounter with the Dominion. While he may not be the most affable of individuals, Odo is able to work with just about anyone on a cordial basis. Unfortunately, this includes criminals themselves, and he has been known to look the other way when certain Ferengi are clearly involved in criminal activities. Even more concerning is his past employment by a fascist regime responsible for countless lost innocent lives.

Candidate 4: Tuvok

Tuvok has arguable the cleanest division between personal and professional life of any candidate. Married with children, this in no way stops him from going about his job. In addition, Tuvok’s skills range from manning a tactical station, to undercover work with terrorist cells, to the role of detective in high-stakes investigations. Like all Vulcans, he may be overly reliant on logic at times, but Tuvok has mastered the art of applying it.

Candidate 5: Malcolm Reed

With a Navy background of several generations, Malcolm Reed knows what duty requires of him. If you have a job that needs doing, however distasteful it may be, Reed can be relied upon to complete it. His apparent glee when it comes to aggressive tactics is likely the satisfaction of a job well done rather than any psychopathic intent. However, his dedication to the line of duty has a serious impact on interpersonal relations, and any interaction with Reed will be bound by the strictures of rank. Furthermore, Reed’s ties to Section 31 should not be underestimated.

Candidate 6: Nahn

Nahn earns special points for surviving more than one year on the decidedly deadly USS Discovery. She’s skilled, adaptable, and easy to get along with. However, crew loyalty is not her strong point, and she will leave a ship behind if she determines that another mission is in greater need of her skillset.

Candidate 7: Shaxs

It’s hard to tell how good a job Shaxs is doing on the Cerritos, as the ship is constantly in peril, yet always makes it out on the other side. It’s clear that Shaxs is delaying with a traumatic past during the Cardassian occupation of Bajor, and this shows in his volatility in the work place. It has to be said though, any man who dies and still turns up for work the next day is a force to be reckoned with

Final Verdict

Choosing security personnel is difficult, as most seem to have more issues than other departments with drawing a line between duty and personal matters. The troubled history of several candidates also eliminates them from the running. On that basis the final two candidates would be Tasha Yar and Tuvok. Based on length of service, and the depth of his experience, I would take Tuvok as my chief of security.

 

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