BOOK REVIEW: Golden Son, by Pierce Brown

-Hold up! This is a sequel. Find my review of Red Rising here-

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Series: Red Rising (#2)

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Genre: Grimdark SF

Pages: 442

Publication Date: 2015

Verdict: 4/5

 

Darrow has infiltrated Gold society, and now rises rapidly through their ranks. But even a Gold is not safe from danger, and conspiracies abound. Conspiracies that Darrow must exploit if he is to bring about revolution . . .

The first hundred pages of Golden Son are an abrupt shift of gears from Red Rising. So much of what was set up in that previous book either has already happened and been glossed over. It reads almost as if Brown changed his mind about what would happen in this sequel. But after this jarring start, Golden Son finds its footing and climbs the corpse-strewn mountain of grimdark science fiction.

My big complaint about Red Rising was the tonal difference between Young Adult presentation and very much adult content. Jumping ahead two years, Golden Son falls squarely on the adult side of things, stripping away almost all of those YA trappings. The romance is still stilted and some of the archetypes have a YA flavour, but overall this is a much more mature book. It is also incredibly brutal. Brown is at his best when mutilating characters and butchering innocents, and if you shy away from violence this is most definitely not the book for you. Personally, I love the blood and gore, and it stays just the right side of the line into pure splatterpunk.

Golden Son paints a marvellously bloody tale of revolution and pain, but my enjoyment of the book comes with one caveat. And it’s a big one. In order to enjoy the story, I had to turn my brain off. Because when my brain was fully functional, too many things pulled me out of the story. These boil down into too main categories. Prose and worldbuilding.

Starting with the prose, I want to first say that Brown’s writing grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. I just wish he was better at naming things. I like immersive wordcraft, and I don’t mind jargon and new terms. Too many things in the Red Rising universe are named simply by smashing words together. The ArchGovernor is a title that makes sense. Personally I think it should be two words, but I can deal with that. But then there are GravBoots, FlakScreen, FleshMask. Just ramming two words into one feels more like a placeholder than a final name, and capitals in the middle of words are always going to throw me out of the narrative.

The other problem is the worldbuilding. In this book we get a closer look at Gold Society, how it all balances on a knife edge and is base don ruthless exploitation of anything and everything. I get that it’s necessary to make them monsters, but I just don’t see how this society has endured for centuries. It’s not as though it’s sliding into chaos. It has clearly been this way since its inception. As a reader who puts a lot of expectation on worldbuilding, Golden Son was always going to disappoint me.

There are a lot of flaws, maybe more than there are things I liked, but if you like bone-crunching violence and crushing defeats, then Golden Son will deliver, and I don’t regret investing in the series.

BOOK REVIEW: Point of Divergence, by Dayton Ward & Kevin Dilmore

click here for a full index of all my Star Trek reviews

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Era: Post-The Original Series

Series: Seekers (#2)

Publisher: Pocket Books

Genre: Social SF

Pages: 351

Publication Date: 2014

Verdict: 3/5

 

The crews of the Sagittarius and the Endeavour face an escalating and deadly crisis as the Tomol people give in to the dreaded Change. But will the notorious Klingon Kang prove to be a complication, or an unlikely ally . . ?

Point of Divergence picks up exactly where Second Nature left off, and wraps up the story of the Tomol people rather neatly. So I stand by my assertion that the Seekers series is more episodic than Vanguard. It just so happens that it kicks off with a two-parter. This is a bold choice, but it’s also one that makes perfect sense. In terms of story, there isn’t really enough to justify a whole series, but Ward & Dilmore (and David Mack) have a lot of characters to introduce, so having a double-header to start the series is a good way to do that.

Whereas Second Nature was largely about the crew of the Sagittarius, this time around it’s the Endeavour crew who take centre stage. Again, the cast is a mix of original creations and faces first seen in the Vanguard series, and again, the number of PoV characters is well-balanced. Kang provides a bridge between the two novels, and largely plays a supporting role in events. Throwing Klingons into the mix doesn’t add all that much to the story, but it helps place Seekers in the larger Star Trek universe. References to the Shedai also serve to put this book into the context of the Litverse.

It is of course the Tomol who are the focus here. Just as Star Trek has its guest-star/monster/planet/problem of the week format, some of the best Trek novels focus on a single issue. Point of Divergence has broader stroked than that, but it boils down to a singular issue: What do you do with a species genetically destined to become monsters?

Star Trek has a long history with genetic engineering, starting with the classic ‘Space Seed’ and the villainous Khan. The Federation’s absolute prohibition against genetic engineering has been a feature of many episodes, not least in Deep Space Nine, where Bashir uncovers his own edited heritage. I’ve always thought the total ban to be a tad excessive. Yes, it comes from good intentions (stopping eugenics destroying the world) but preventing the Federation from helping victims of genetic predilections? Surely that’s a grey area. In Point of Divergence things are further complicated by the early revelation that the Shedai were involved in the chromosomal tampering of the Tomol, and this conflict provides a great moral quandary that sits at the heart of the book.

Point of Divergence shares many of its predecessor’s problems. There’s not quite enough material to fill every page, and attempts to add complications often lead to over-cluttered thematic arcs. It has that classic Star Trek feel, but it doesn’t push the envelope very far. As a love letter to the period, it’s great. As an individual read, it’s somewhat lacking.

Despite these reservations, I look forward to seeing what the second half of the Seekers series has to offer. Now that the major players have been introduced, I’m hoping for some more intriguing science fiction mysteries.

BOOK REVIEW: Second Nature, by David Mack

click here for a full index of all my Star Trek reviews

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Era: Post-The Original Series

Series: Seekers (#1)

Publisher: Pocket Books

Genre: Social SF

Pages: 301

Publication Date: 2014

Verdict: 3/5

 

With the threat posed by the Shedai at an end, Starfleet can return to its roots: Exploration. The Taurus Reach still holds many secrets, and no one is better equipped to uncover them than the crew of the USS Sagittarius . . .

Picking up a few months after the end of Storming HeavenSecond Nature is a very different sort of story to the preceding eight-part epic. This book isn’t a standalone (it ends on a cliffhanger) but it feels much more episodic than serialised. The scale is narrower, the scope tighter. It’s a short book, brisk and full of action, and doesn’t feel like the start of a new journey so much as the middle instalment of another. In both content and presentation, it’s closer than any other book to the soul of The Original Series. If I liked 60s Star Trek more, that might have worked to its advantage, but as it stands, Second Nature left very little impression on me.

What Mack does well is capture the spirit of the Roddenberry era. Let’s start with the over, which is as charmingly retro as they come. It’s a clear homage to the James Blish novelisations of the past, and firmly anchors Second Nature in that period of heroic exploration. That anchor is present in the storytelling too. Required budget aside, this could easily be an adventure for Kirk and company. The thematic ties are obvious. A seemingly primitive world that harbours a secret, a moral quandary, and a handful of phaser-fights. It’s all classic stuff. Even if it does end on a cliffhanger, this is narratively a perfect match for the episodes of old.

Beyond that thematic and stylistic similarity, there are direct ties to previous works too. Kang, the fearsome Klingon leader from ‘Day of the Dove,’ plays a large role, and is well-used as an antagonist. There is a major connection to one specific TOS episode that I won’t mention for spoiler reasons. And it’s not just television that this book ties too. Many of the characters will be familiar to Vanguard readers, while others are members of species rooted in the 23rd century.

All this is wonderful, but it’s the same familiarity that gets Seekers off to a limping start. For all the classic elements, there’s not much on offer that’s new. Yes, this hearkens back to a golden era of science fiction storytelling, but the boundaries are not being pushed in the same way. This is a perfectly serviceable story, and I enjoyed it, but it won’t go down as one of my favourites. Some of that is the change in pace from the heights of Vanguard, but more than that, this doesn’t feel like it’s boldly going. I appreciate it, I like it, but there are many better Star Trek books out there.

All in all, Second Nature is a fun little diversion, but it can’t quite live up to the pedigree of the series that spawned it.

The SPSFC Begins!

The cat is out of the bag! There is going to be contest to discover the very best self-published science fiction novel(s), and I am going to be leading one of the judging teams. I am in very esteemed company on this one, and consider myself very fortunate to be a part of the inaugural Self Published Science Fiction Contest.

Submissions are open for the next three weeks, and then my work begins. If you’re an author, you can submit your novel using this form: (https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfaVYoCcbM0Z_5hiKAW9OCeFVKG7wm41lPF-xO9DTbtctDLxA/viewform), or you can visit Hugh Howey’s blog for more information.

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There’s going to be a lot of posts coming your way about the SPSFC (and yes, I am going to pronounce every letter of that abbreviation every time I say it), and I hope to bring you some details about how At Boundary’s Edge is going to be handling the challenge very soon. But first, I wanted to talk a little bit about why I decided to apply for a judge position.

It’s no secret that I have a fairly pessimistic view of self publishing. Yes, there are diamonds out there, books just as good as the best traditionally published books. The problem has always been finding them. With the rise of Amazon, self-publishing is as simple as a few clicks. Making a quality product is of course far, far, harder, and I have nothing but respect for those who can make a living as an independent author. But with so many great traditionally published books so much easier to find, I’ve never been tempted to wade into the murky waters of self publication in search of new reading material. That changes now.

When I saw Hugh Howey post the first expression of interest query on Twitter, I said yes straight away. Here was a chance to whittle down the millions of books to a mere three hundred, and then to have reviewers pick some of the best. I didn’t expect to actually end up judging this thing, but a month later, here we are. Punching above my weight as always. I’ve downloaded an e-reader for my phone, and I’m ready to go.

I’m going to approach these books the way I approach everything. With a sense of optimism, but absolutely willing to talk about the things I don’t enjoy. Honesty is my number one policy, regardless of publication status. I want to enjoy the books that are allotted to me, and I am determined to make the best of this unique opportunity.

So I’ll get back to you when I can. Until then, the ball is in the court of self-published authors the world over. I’m sure they’re up to the task.

TBR & BEYOND: July 2021

Welcome to the latest edition of TBR & BEYOND, a new 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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Magnificent, isn’t it? The two stacks on the left are all Star Trek tie-ins, in a readalong that should take me through to the end of the year at the current rate. Last month I finished the Vanguard series, and as I write this I’ve started the sequel series SeekersSeekers is only four books, and their snappy little things. I’m planning to alternate Star Trek books with other reads in an even manner, which puts me on course to read the first few Riker-centric Titan novels, and I might just reach David Mack’s epic Destiny trilogy by the end of the month. That particular trilogy will be a reread, but a solid half of these stacks is new to me, and it’s been several years since I read the rest, so they’ll likely be just as fresh.

Also on the reread front is the ongoing Dune marathon. July’s reads will be Dune Messiah and The Winds of Dune. These are two of the shortest books in the saga, and for me mark the end of the series’ high point. more details in the reviews to come, but Dune Messiah is my favourite Frank Herbert novel, and I’m looking forward to revisiting it.

I had planned to get into Pierce Brown’s Red Rising during June, but only found time for the first book. Finishing that original trilogy is one of my priorities for July, but I’ll probably hold off on the sequel trilogy for a little while. I’m not expecting the final book out this year, but Iron Gold and Dark Age are going on the back-burner for the time being.

As you can probably tell from the formidable logos, I’ve got a fair few Warhammer 40,000 books in the mix too. Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s novels have impressed me so far, but I’ll not be reading his Night Lords omnibus this month. Instead I’ll be diving into the Imperium side of things. June brought the unexpected release two new Sabbat War books. One and anthology edited by Dan Abnett, the other the start of a new series by Matthew Farrer. Given how the Sabbat Worlds were left at the end of Anarch, I’m eager to see how the involvement of other authors will advance the setting. In addition to that, I’ve picked up the first two Warhammer Crime novels (Guy Haley’s Flesh and Steel and Chris Wraight’s Bloodlines). Dredge Runners was a superb audio drama, and crime SF hybrids are often very good, so Black Library could be onto a real winner with this new mini-setting.

Still on the TBR from June are Fallen DragonThe Best of World SF Volume 1, and The Recollection. It’s unlikely that I’ll have time for these with the month I have planned, but if I do find time, The Recollection is my priority. One book I planned to get into in June but didn’t is Shards of Earth. I ended up trading this one for the novella One Day All This Will Be Yours, a decision I don’t regret one bit, but now I really want to get back into Tchaikovsky’s longer offerings.

The new SF book in that stack is Stark Holborn’s Ten Low. I don’t know much about it, but a book marketed as a cross between Firefly and Dune was always going to get my attention. It looks fairly short, so I’m sure I can find space for it in my schedule.

On a non-SF front, S. has been joined by Stephen Aryan’s The Coward, which I intend to use as a breather between SF series at some point during the month. As an aside, this edition of the book was an exclusive from a new independent UK bookshop called The Broken Binding. If you want to get your hands on great limited editions and extra goodies, I thoroughly recommend them.

 

EDIT: On the last day of June I’ve added 2 books to my TBR. One is a Ben Aaronovitch novella, but the other is Jack Campbell’s new novel Boundless. I’m very excited about this one and will definitely get it read and reviewed in July.

AND BEYOND

Right now I’m in the process of wrapping up a lot of long series. I finished Person of Interest a few weeks ago, and filled the space with the final season of The 100. This is a show that has a real roller-coaster of quality over its seven year run. The final season has been one of the dips unfortunately, with far too much thrown into the mix. That said, I’ve never seen a man carry a show the way JR Bourne is by midway through the season. There’s chance the show can regain its footing in these last few episodes, but I’m not overly optimistic.

I’m also on the final season of Colony, as it makes its way to UK screens 3 years after finishing in the US. Season 3 is good stuff so far, with some real Falling Skies vibes. I believe it ends on an unresolved cliffhanger, but I’m just glad I’m finally able to view the whole series.

My enthusiasm for Loki has waned rather, and I’ll likely wait for the whole series to release before committing. Space: Above and Beyond is still on my watch-list, but aside from those 22 episodes, I’m at something of a loss for what to watch/rewatch next. Recommendations greatly appreciated!

Unless Black Library springs another surprise release, July is looking rather barren in terms of new releases. This sin’t all bad. I still have last month’s books to get hold of, and my TBR could do with shrinking for a change. I’m also part of something that should throw some more books my way in the near future, but I’m saving that announcement for a few more days. Keep your eyes peeled.

EDIT:  Sure enough, Black Library have sprung a surprise. The second Minka Lesk book, Traitor Rock is available to pre-order from the 3rd, and it looks like limited editions of a fair few books are coming sooner rather than later. Hopefully regular editions will be close behind for commoners like me.

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

BOOK REVIEW: Paul of Dune, by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson

-Click here for a full index of my Dune Saga reviews-

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Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Series: Heroes of Dune (#1)

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 648

Publication Date: 2008

Verdict: 5/5

 

Paul Atreides is Emperor of the Known universe, but even he cannot fight the expectations of Muad’Dib. A man of honour and principle, Paul fights to avert the bloodshed he sees in humanity’s future, but destiny has other ideas, and to save the human race, Paul must become the greatest monster in history . . .

When I started reading Dune in 2017, I made a choice that pretty much no one recommends. I read the original, and then continued in chronological order, which brought me to Paul of Dune. I’m pretty sure that even the most ardent fans of the expanded Dune saga would suggest reading Frank Hebert’s original six novels before delving into the more recent books. And in fairness, they’re probably right. Ninety-nine percent of the time. But the truth is that I wasn’t that impressed with Dune the first time around. But I knew that I enjoyed Kevin J. Anderson’s work, so I gave the series a second chance. And after Paul of Dune, I was hooked on the series as a whole, original and expanded canon. The simple fact of the matter is that I would never have touched another Frank Herbert book if not for this this one. Twenty-odd novels later, I owe Paul of Dune a debt of immense gratitude.

Paul of Dune takes everything that was great about Dune and streamlines it. Sure, the page count is longer than the original, but every last page of this tome flies by at a lightning pace. There’s no padding, only substance. The prose is crisp and crystal-clear. It manages the near-impossible in telling a story split across two timelines without either one feeling like filler. Whether it’s the reign of the tyrant Muad’Dib or the adventures of a twelve year old Paul Atreidies, it’s blistering adventure from start to finish. The numerous PoV characters are balanced neatly, giving a perfect rounded view of history, and the epigrams sprinkled throughout are insightful and profound as anything Frank Herbert put to paper.

Leaving aside the grand space operatic, what Paul of Dune does best is interrogate the idea of Muad’Dib. This isn’t a deconstruction, or a subversion, but an honest look at the man and the myth of Paul Atreides. It’s an expansion of the work Frank Herbert did in Dune  and Dune Messiah, but whereas one of those books was a prelude, and the other a look back, here we see the act itself. The act of how one man became a monster. I love reading about characters who make terrible choices, and boy oh boy does Paul make a lot of those. He is a man hemmed in by the legend that he has created, and seeing him struggle between living up to that legend and fighting against the fanaticism it inspires makes for a gripping read. This is a book of truly phenomenal depth. I’m not usually one for character-focused stories, but a character study of this level is simply magnificent. It builds on everything Frank Hebert wrote about Muad’Dib and runs with it for miles and miles.

And it’s not just the original books that Paul of Dune builds on. This time around I caught all manner of references to Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson’s prequels and preludes. In showing how Paul’s choices are grounded in experiences and events going back ten thousand years, every prequel is elevated by association, and they were strong books in their own right. Paul of Dune truly feels like the centrepiece of a great science fiction tapestry, weaving in threads from a dozen other books effortlessly, and spinning a great original tale into the mix.

Paul of Dune is an outstanding achievement by any means, and is for me the high point of the entire Dune saga.

BOOK REVIEW: Storming Heaven, by David Mack

click here for a full index of all my Star Trek reviews

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Era: The Original Series, Season 3

Series: Vanguard (#8)

Publisher: Pocket Books

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 346

Publication Date: 2012

Verdict: 4/5

 

The end is nigh. Operation Vanguard is on the brink of success in its efforts to stop the Shedai and harness the power of the Taurus Reach. But the Shedai will not go quietly into that good night, and nor will the Tholians continue to allow Starfleet to simply do as it pleases . . .

All goof things must come to an end, and so the Vanguard epic hurtles to an action-packed and devastating finale. After seven novels and an anthology, there is a lot on the table, and even after What Judgments Come there are still numerous arcs to be resolved. So let’s break it down a little.

The ongoing Klingon political drama is one of my least favourite parts of the Star Trek litverse. On Deep Space Nine, the Klingon story-line was brought to life by great characters and greater actors, but in prose form these story-line shave long since become repetitive, and even the best writers struggle to hold my interest. Mack at least limits the amount of Klingon language on the page, so that it’s easier to read. There will be a lot of fans for whom the Klingons are of great interest, but I am not one of them.

The Tholians, on the other hand, are one of the strongest parts of the book. Even though we only get a handful of chapters from a Tholian perspective, what we do get is brilliant. The Tholians are a wonderfully inhuman species, and while we don’t have many interactions between Tholians and Federation, I love the history of their species that we’ve been given throughout this series. they’ve come a long way from their debut in The Original Series, and in Storming Heaven they feel like a true threat.

There have been a lot of losses since the Vanguard crew were first introduced, and in Storming Heaven we get a fitting send-off for every one of them, be they original member or a face who joined along the way. Every character gets a great moment in the spotlight, and with endings on a sliding scale from triumph to tragedy, it’s hard to think of more fitting ends to most of the character arcs we’ve followed for eight books.

If I have one major gripe with this book, it’s the appearance of the Enterprise at a crucial moment. Tying Vanguard into the broader Star Trek narrative is a good idea, and was put to excellent use in Harbinger, where Kirk and Spock played minor roles. I can also appreciate the symmetry of having the famous crew reappear at the close of this series. And yet, having Kirk and company show up in the manner they do feels like an easy way out. It’s not a deus ex machina, but it’s close. relying on known names instead of having the Vanguard originals make their own way feels like cheating, and does a disservice to the work done by Mack, Ward, and Dayton in previous volumes. This gripe is by no means a deal-breaker, but it did bring down my enjoyment of the book.

Overall, I can see why Vanguard receives the praise it does, and I agree that it’s one of the best series the Trek literary universe has produced. Aside from the odd flat note, Storming Heaven provides a satisfying end to an epic saga.

BOOK REVIEW: What Judgments Come, by Dayton Ward & Kevin Dilmore

click here for a full index of all my Star Trek reviews

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Era: The Original Series, Season 3

Series: Vanguard (#7)

Publisher: Pocket Books

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 332

Publication Date: 2011

Verdict: 4/5

 

The Taurus Reach has one final chance for peace. As Klingons, Federation, and Romulans meet for diplomatic talks, Starbase 47 finds itself at risk of starting a diplomatic incident. But tragic accidents aside, it seems not everyone is as eager for peace as they claim . . .

Back in full novel form, the Vanguard series hurtles towards its conclusion with What Judgments Come, which serves as something of a calm before the inevitable storm that is the eight and final volume in the series. As the penultimate book in the series, What Judgments Come has its work cut out for it. There are a lot of  dangling plot threads to be pulled together before the big finale, and the book spends most of its time wrapping up personal arcs for the Vanguard crew and smaller side-plots. There’s a palpable sense that the end is nigh, and at times this does feel less like a novel in its own right than it does the first half of something larger.

In particular, What Judgments Come concludes the story of the Orion Syndicate’s involvement in the Taurus Reach. I’ve never paid that much attention to the Orions as a part of Star Trek, but that has changed in the past year for two simple reasons. Osyrra and D’Vana Tendi. The new wave of Star Trek shows has kindled a great interest in a species that have been in Trek since the very beginning, but rarely used to any real effect. Here in Vanguard, the Orions have been very much a side player compared to the Klingons and the Tholians, but what glimpses we do get have been very interesting. Diego Reyes’ exile on board an Orion ship provides plenty of drama, and also delivers much of the action in this book. The affairs there raise classic Trek questions of responsibility, morality, and duty. In particular the question of where one’s authority ends. is it with your people, or with political borders? great stuff, and it’s all brought to a satisfying conclusion.

The larger story is, unfortunately, not quite as interesting. The political talks between Romulans, Klingons, and Federation aren’t quite robbed of impact by a reader’s knowledge of Star Trek in general, but what should be tense political dealing instead feel like wheel-spinning while the action happens elsewhere. There aren’t that many chapters dealing with this side of the story, and I’m honestly not sure of that’s a good thing or not. I’ve no interest in reading more of something I don’t enjoy, but perhaps more depth would have raised my levels of excitement with these particular developments. As it is, these fairly major developments feel like a sideshow while the real story waits to be set free.

In the end, What Judgments Come does what it needs to. The stage is set, all the players are in place, and now we just wait for the show to begin its final act.

BOOK REVIEW: Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir

some potential spoilers

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Publisher: Del Rey

Genre: Hard SF

Pages: 476

Publication Date: 04/05/2021

Verdict: 5/5

Ryland Grace is a man with many problems. Where is his spaceship? Why are the rest of his crew dead? And most importantly of all, what is he doing here . . ?

This is a very difficult book to talk about without giving anything away, but I’m going to give it a go anyway. The reason for this difficult is the central concept for the book. At the start of the book, the main character has amnesia. The fact that he’s called Ryland Grace is given away in the cover flap, and that won’t ruin anybody’s enjoyment. But so much of this book stems from Grace trying to piece together the fragments of his memory to understand what he is supposed to be doing and why. I won’t go into details, but the story here is a big one, and gripping in its scale.

As anyone who has read The Martian or Artemis will attest, Weir has a singular talent for making the most mundane science interesting. Grace’s investigations uncover reams of information, and even though Weir bombards you with facts and figures, you’ll be hanging on his every word. The prose is as sharp as it is moreish, and Grace makes for a fun narrator. Grace enjoys his work as much as Weir clearly enjoys his writing, and it’s an enthusiasm that is contagious. There’s a delightful simplicity in reading about a man unpicking puzzles and using brains over brawn to resolve issues. It’s almost therapeutic. I know some have complained about the humour in Weir’s books being childish, but for me it’s the child’s mind that brings the appeal. In tough time, it’s an immature humour that gets people through. Any sane adult would act the same when faced with the horror of Ryland grace’s situation. The humour is a shelter, and makes perfect sense both in and out of the narrative.

It’s the narrative structure that threw me off originally. Again avoiding spoilers, the action alternates between Grace in the present trying to solve his many dilemmas, and flashbacks to the past as he retrieves bits of memory. I’ve said before that I don’t like split timelines, but the framing nature of amnesia makes this one far more palatable. I dare say it’s among the best use of both split narratives and memory that I’ve come across in a long while. Amnesia is a trope I’m sure used to be a lot more common than it is these days, and Weir pulls it off brilliantly.

Project Hail Mary starts off hitting a lot of the same beats as The Martian, and those elements are used very well. The man stranded alone in space, the humour as a coping mechanism, the sheer adoration of science. But when the narrative shifts around the one-quarter mark (and I won’t spoil how) the book becomes something even better, and very different to Weir’s debut. The writing remains intimate, but the scope becomes larger. There are ideas played around with tick pretty much every box I’m looking for in science fiction, and that makes me a very happy reader indeed.

Project Hail Mary is proof that Weir isn’t a one-trick pony, and is a surefire hit for anyone who enjoyed his other works.

WRITING UPDATE: Themes I Keep Coming Back To

As I start planning out my next project, I’m starting to think in terms of themes and ideas. I have characters, I have settings, what I need is a big idea. A concept to tie it all together. Then I can hash out the plot properly. There’s an old saying that ideas are the easy part, and there’s definitely some truth in that. As soon as I have one idea, another one pops along to knock at the door. Defining ideas is the hard part. Narrowing them down into workable concepts and finding the story that they serve best. But no matter how many ideas I have, there are some that keep coming back. With over half a million words of prose written, and thousands of hours of storytelling in other forms, there are some ideas that I just can’t let go of. Some are plot elements, some are themes, and some are just big concepts I want to include. So let’s take a look at them.

Artificial Intelligence

This is a big one, and I can pin down exactly where it started. Robots and androids have always fascinated me, but I don’t think there’s a story out there that handles AI as well as the TV series Person of Interest. In that show, an artificial intelligence monitors the world, and is programmed to provide the US government with information on terrorists. But a machine that sees all starts to learn from humanity, and not necessarily to our benefit. A lot of fiction shows AI trying to become human, or otherwise anthropomorphise them. Person of Interest generally stayed clear of that trope. The Machine is exactly that: A computer. It thinks and behaves differently. This idea has stuck with me ever since, and is the single biggest influence on how I portray supercomputers in my storytelling. I haven’t used it much in my prose, because it’s a difficult perspective to write, but it’s one I’ve explored in multiple RPGs. I don’t think I’m a skilled enough writer to pull it off the way I want to, but Artificial Intellects often crop up in my worldbuilding.

Civilisation

If there is one common thread running through everything I do, it’s the nature of civilisation. How do you build an interstellar empire? And how do you prevent it from collapsing? Reading Foundation in my youth left a big impression, and this more than anything else is the idea I want to explore. It’s what I wrote my dissertation on, and I am nowhere near done with the idea. Some of my ideas are purely academic, others have the seeds of story in them. The problem I keep running into is the fact that civilisations take decades, even centuries, to form and fall. In a world increasingly emphasising characters, it’s hard to write a story of that scope. Not to say it can’t be done, but I haven’t found a way to do that just yet. But I am working on it. The best idea I have so far is a future history. Multiple books in a single setting. Sadly, I think I need to write and edit one book before I set my goals further up.

Crew Dynamics

From Dark Matter to Star Trek, a lot of my favourite shows feature a spaceship with a crew. This is rarer on the page, but The Expanse, Drew Williams, and Gareth L. Powell all show it can be pulled off.  This is a dynamic that speaks to my RPG background. Diverse casts and a chance to write some fun dialogue make this one of my focuses. Having multiple PoVs also lets me flex my stylistic muscles, which is always nice. I’ve toyed around with Military SF but I don’t think I have the grip on that right now. At the same time, I don’t want to write about scrappy smuggler underdogs. It would be nice to have heroes on the right side of the law for a change. The ability to hit back at the found family trope in favour of something better is also a big draw for me with this one.

Hard Science

I have no scientific background whatsoever, which makes Hard SF an all-but-impossible genre to write. Quite frankly, most of it goes over my head. But I love playing around with physics. A lot of the time, you don’t have to invent space magic. Real life is strange enough already. What I take from Hard SF is not so much the details, but the ethos. I want to write stories where intelligence is rewarded. Not just cunning, but actual knowledge. Stories where science is respected, and can save the day. Maybe that is Star Trek speaking to me, but it’s talking a lot of sense. I don’t always understand it, but there’s a purity in the pursuit of knowledge that is missing in a lot of fiction. All too often violence resolves everything, and I’d like to be part of a shift away from that philosophy.

People Who Fail

If there’s one thing that RPGs have taught me, it’s that failure is often more interesting than success. I want to write about characters to fail. Who get things wrong. Sometimes this is the big picture. I love a tragic ending, and if everyone dies then it’s all the (bitter)sweeter. But I’m thinking of smaller moments too. When a plan needs to be made, what if the first plan fails? What if the scientists don’t get things right straight off the bat? Things fall apart, that is a fact of life. In interactions between characters this is doubly so. Show me the people who say the wrong thing at the wrong time. The relationships that fall apart. The friendships that are irrevocably broken.

Subverting Subversion

Subverting expectations is old hat. It’s boring. there, I said it. Too much of modern storytelling is reliant on plot twists and subversion, and I do not care for it at all. By all means, go against expectation, but don’t make that the point. Tricking your audience is neither big nor clever. They should be in on the joke, or it’s not funny. I don’t want to write books where things are flipped on their head and the direction changed. I want to tell stories where I peel back the layers, and the two directions are onwards and deeper. This one is more a philosophy than a concept, but it’s one I’ve learned the hard way. Tell the audience everything they need to know, and don’t lie to them.

There are more ideas, of course. Character arcs and setting bouncing around inside my head. But these above are the big ones. The ones I really, really want to get right. if I can do that, I’ll be one step closer to where I want to be.