BOOK REVIEW: The Wizard of Linn, by A.E. Van Vogt

linn.jpg

Publisher: New English Library

Series: Empire of the Atom (#2)

Genre: Post-Apocalyptic

Pages: 174

Publication Date: 1950

Verdict: 4/5

 

Usually when reviewing book 2 in a series, I include a spoiler warning for the first book. Not today. Not for this. Because even if you have read Empire of the Atom, none of it matters. You’ll be just as confused as I am, if not more so. Because nothing makes any sense. Things happen, characters die, adventures are had. And then, at the end, you just ask yourself: What did I just read?

Seriously. What is this book? To recap, at the end of the previous installment, the mutant Clane created a magic sphere that contained a universe, with which he could kill and/or destroy anything he wanted to. At this point he realised that his world, a far-future Earth, was under threat of alien invasion. The Wizard of Linn deals with his efforts to repel said invasion. At least I think it does. Honestly, I gave up on trying to make out any coherent plot within the first hundred pages.

If Empire of the Atom was the product of an insomniac on cocaine, then Wizard of Linn is where he starts crashing. It’s thrilling and horrifying to watch, and you find yourself utterly perplexed yet unable to look away. I could not give you any reasoning behind anything that happened, save perhaps for a vague ‘why not?’ This is not so much a novel as a jumble of ideas competing for space in a paperback. While some of those ideas are great, the execution is anything but.

Van Vogt, allegedly, wrote in 800 word bursts, often recording his dreams for use in his novels, and I can see that. I really can. Because if this is not the product of a feverish mind, it was certainly created by a maniac. The plot skips around, dancing between genres and tropes at random. The aliens are genuinely alien, but the humans are equally inscrutable. Not once during my read did I feel like I was looking at coherent characters. The whole book has the air of an overheard conversation in a pub, with a variety of increasingly-drunk storytellers.

Is this a good book? Absolutely not. Yet I’ve given it 4 out of 5. Why? Well, because it’s so absurdly bonkers I genuinely had fun reading it. It’s like Fast and Furious in paper form. It doesn’t make sense. It goes on for far too long. It leaves me feeling stupid for having enjoyed it. But I did enjoy it. Even if I hate myself for doing so.

 

This isn’t a book you should rush out and buy. But if you’re on a bus stop bench and you see a copy lying beside you, pick it up. It will give you a laugh if nothing else.

BOOK REVIEW: Aftershocks, by Marko Kloos

kloos.jpg

Publisher: 47North

Series: The Palladium Wars (#1)

Genre: Military SF

Pages: 278

Publication Date: 01/06/2019

Verdict: 4/5

 

The war is over, and Aden Robertson of Gretia fought on the losing side. Released from a PoW camp after 5 long years, he must adapt to the new world he emerges into. But he not the only one finding it hard to let go of the past. . . 

Marko Kloos’ follow-up to the Frontlines series is a similar beast. An all-action military SF drama with an undeniably human touch. But it also marks a fresh start. Unrelated to the previous series, Aftershocks is set over a thousand years in the future, in a solar system with six inhabited worlds, all having fought a brutal war half a decade earlier.

The main character here is Aden Robertson, a man who fought on (fairly objectively) the wrong side. There are clear parallels between the Gretians and the Nazis. Not in the usual lazy, look-how-bad-my-villains-are way however. Kloos has a more balanced view. these are people who did terrible things, yes, but they did them for what the believed to be the best of reasons. Nuance is often lacking in military SF, but here it’s on full display. The losing side is being exploited for its resources, and you can’t help but wonder if the victors aren’t just as bad as their opponents.

For such a short novel, there are a lot of viewpoints. As well as Robertson, we have Idina – a soldier in the occupying Allied forces, Solveig – a young heiress starting a new job at her father’s company, and Dunstan – an Allied captain on patrol against potential acts of piracy. This diverse cast is the only real failure of the novel. While all are interesting and we spend around half the book with the three of them, Aden’s plotline takes up a full half. With so many viewpoints in so little space, the book does feel a bit crowded at times, and I can’t help but wonder if all of them are really necessary. Or if they are, then perhaps the book should have been a little longer.

For a series with Wars in the title, there aren’t any big battles in this one. More so than his previous works, Aftershocks certainly feels like a Book One. There’s no real resolution to any of the plot threads, and a lot of mysteries are opened up. But there’s also a real feeling that things are building to a conflict. I have the utmost confidence that Ballistic, next year’s forthcoming sequel, will more than deliver on these promises of bigger things to come.

For all that, Aftershocks is a punchy little novel, quick on the draw and ready with action. While there is nuance, there isn’t page-after-page of philosophy and moral debate. Whether this is a benefit or a deficit is up to the reader of course, but for me, it’s definitely the former. Kloos has a firm grip on action scenes, making even the minor skirmishes have meaning.

 

All told, this is a good introduction to a new series. While not perfect, it’s only real flaw is that it isn’t long enough. And that’s something easily remedied with a nice long series to follow.

BOOK REVIEW: Master & Apprentice, by Claudia Gray

gray.jpg

Publisher: Century

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 330

Publication Date: 18/04/2019

Verdict: 5/5

 

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away: Qui-gon Jinn is unorthodox by the standards of the Jedi, but when he and his padawan Obi-wan Kenobi are sent to work with an eccentric Jedi on a remote world, Qui-gon discovers that he may be closer to the Council than he could have imagined . . .

 

Even in the expansive old EU, Qui-gon Jinn was an enigma. Aside from a few children’s books, he didn’t really make much of an appearance beyond The Phantom Menace, and so Claudia Gray’s new novel is treading new ground. Add to that a long-absent examination of the ancient prophecies making Anakin the ‘chosen one’, and you have all the ingredients of a cracking novel. Although the timeline is still short of actual dates, Master & Apprentice marks the earliest the new canon books have gone, I would think around a few years before Episode 1.

In many ways, Master & Apprentice feels more like the prequel era than any other book I’ve read. Aside from references to Alderaan and Hosnian Prime, everything here is tied to the prequels. People talk about the young queen of Naboo, the Jedi are revered by many, and the Republic is an almost omnipresent force for good. It’s a far cry from the dystopia of the Empire’s tyranny, even if it is demonstarbly far from perfect. More than just references and feel, there’s some plot similarity. Qui-gon and Obi-wan are sent to a remote world to deal with an inexperienced queen and a devious trade group. But this is not the Seperatist movement that will one day blockade Naboo. This is Czerka.

The reappearnce of Czerka Corp. is one of the things that made me fall in love with this book. Ever since Knights of the Old Republic, I’ve been fascinated by this megacorproation that has as much influence as goverments, rivalling even the Republic itself in terms of sprawl. That’s a history and threat that’s alluded to often here. Indeed, Czerka is so powerful it can ’employ’ slaves even within the borders of the Republic.

In terms of plot, it’s a fairly simple affair: a treaty that needs to be signed while a mysterious group oppose it with acts of terrorism and assassination. Though for all its simplicity, it still kept me guessing with its twists. But the plot is largely playing second fiddle to the emotional struggles of Master Jinn. Caught between his desire to do right by the Galaxy, and the needs of the Jedi order, we follow him down the rabbit hole of prophecy and visions. The exact nature of the prophecy he believes has never been delved into before, and there are some great explorations here.

One of the things about tie-in fiction, is that the charcters often have known voices and faces. Gray’s writing is always evocative, but it’s in her characterisation of Qui-gon and his erstwile master Count Dooku (seen in flashbacks) that she really shines. Liam Neeson and Christopher Lee both made the roles their own, and it’s to the credit of both actors and writer that every word written genuinely feels as though it could have come from their mouths.

 

So if you’re looking for more adventures from one of the most interesting Jedi on screen, or if you want a book that delves into the mysteries of the force, this is one you cannot afford to miss.

BOOK REVIEW: The Honor Of The Queen, by David Weber

-This review contains some general spoilers for On Basilisk Station. Proceed with caution.-

honor.jpg

Publisher: Baen

Series: Honor Harrington (#2)

Genre: Space Opera/Military SF

Pages: 422

Publication Date: 1993

Verdict: 4/5

 

The planet Grayson is independent, but its position makes it strategically valuable to both the Star Kingdom of Manticore and the people’s Republic of Haven. As the fleets gather, who will add this tarnished jewel to their crown?

 

The second book in the Honor Harrington series is an expansion of the first in many ways. Only three pages longer, but with a lot more going on. On Basilisk Station  did the heavy lifting of introducing readers to the Honorverse, and now it’s all guns blazing (quite literally). In this volume, Honor is sent to represent Manticore’s navy during negotiations with Grayson. The problem is – she’s a woman.

It turns out that Grayson has a fiercely patriarchal society. And I mean fierce. Women are forbidden from holding any public office or position of authority, on the basis that it is the duty of men to protect them. You see, Grayson was founded nearly a millennium ago by religious fundamentalists, and hasn’t developed its culture much in all those centuries. Though at least they’re not as bad as their neighbours, an even more hardline off-shoot who are inevitably the antagonists of this novel.

Grayson is also fundamentally hostile to human life, with everything either poisonous or inedible. So they’ve got that going for them as well.

Despite their backwards opinion on women, Weber manages to make the Graysonites a sympathetic people. Like all cultures, they are a product of their environment, and while they are slow to do it, they are making some progress when it comes to equality. It’s certainly a lot more nuanced than some takes I’ve seen on similar societies. While Weber does love his moustache-twirling villains, the Graysonites are not them.

For only the second book in the series that bears her name, Honor Harrington herself is conspicuously absent for large parts of the book. Partly this is because she is unwelcome in many places the book goes, but it’s also because even at this early stage Weber is broadening his canvas. As well as Honor’s crew we get viewpoints from Havenites, Graysonites and their hated radical enemies. If this is the number of viewpoints we get now, I can only imagine what it will be like by volume fourteen. Having seen some of the later books, they’re over twice the length of this one.

Weber’s action sequences are as good as ever. The space combat is quite limited in this book, with politics being the first course for the most part. But when the shooting starts, the slow buildup makes it all the more rewarding. Without going in to spoilers, it’s nice to see battles with real consequences. People die in battles, and people are injured. With all the technology available to Weber’s characters, I’m not sure the latter will last, but I hope they do.

My only real complaint with the book is that it all wraps up a bit too neatly. This is a small thing, but after the realism of the preceding pages, its strange to get a ‘happy ending’. Though in a way it’s nice not be stuck in one cliffhanger after another as some series do.

 

If you enjoyed On Basilisk Station, then you’ll definitely enjoy The Honor of the Queen.

BOOK REVIEW: Children of Ruin, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

children.jpg

Publisher: Tor

Series: Children of Time (#2)

Genre: Hard SF/Space Opera

Pages: 565

Publication Date: 16/05/2019

Verdict: 5/5

 

A group of scientists arrive on a remote world, intending to terraform it for human habitation. But the planet is not as empty as they first thought . . .

Centuries later, Portia’s descendants and their human allies follow a signal to that same remote world. The misbegotten children of humanity are heading for a reckoning . . .

 

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time is possibly the best SF novel of the 21st century. A flawless hybrid of evolutionary theory and Battlestar Galactica-esque human bickering, it’s the work that cemented him as one of my favourite authors. That book worked as a standalone, but with an epilogue that suggested further stories in the same world. Four years later, we finally get those stories.

As with the first book, Children of Ruin has two threads. The first deals with the human terraformers working on the planet of Nod. When they are cut off from Earth – by the same apocalypse referenced in Children of Time – we go from a fairly happy group of scientists working for the betterment of humanity, straight into the nightmares of psychological horror. If you thought the crew of the Gilgamesh had it rough, then you are not prepared for what Senkovi and the others will have to face.

The second thread is the direct continuation of the first book’s epilogue. A united crew of humans and hyper-evolved spiders begin their journey to Nod, unsure of what they will find there. What they find, and I don’t think this is a spoiler since it’s the core focus of the book, is a race of uplifted octopuses who have inherited Nod from the humans.

That’s right. Last time around it was spiders, and now Tchaikovsky has turned his attention towards octopuses. Or octopi. Or octopodes. All three are used. I honestly don’t think there’s any author – alive or dead – who can write the inhuman as well as Tchaikovsky. These octopuses have been uplifted to give them a human-level of intelligent, but they are not just human minds in octopus bodies. Their behaviour is utterly alien, as is their culture. I can easily say that no other alien society comes close to being as weird as Senkovi’s legacy, and I loved every minute of it.

Children of Ruin performs an incredible feat, as it manages to be on the cutting edge of modern SF, while also retaining the feel of a classic. A lot of modern SF tends to be suspicious of new ideas, showing technological leaps leading to dystopias. But that’s not the case here. While there are problems and bumps along the road, Children of Ruin has a positive outlook on science that reminds me of Golden Age stories. The conflict here is not resolved through violence, but through understanding, through scientific progress. It’s stunningly forward-looking, and a fine example of what the genre should strive to be.

As with Children of Time, the story is wrapped up well at the book’s end, but there’s plenty of potential left for more stories in this world. And if we do have to wait another four years, then I cannot wait for 2023.

BOOK REVIEW: Ball Lightning, by Cixin Liu (translated by Joel Martinsen)

liu.jpg

Publisher: Head of Zeus

Series: Standalone (ish)

Genre: Hard SF (ish)

Pages: 479

Publication Date: 09/08/2018 (Chinese Edition 2004)

Verdict: 4/5

When Chen witnesses a natural phenomenon kill his parents on his fourteenth birthday, he knows it will change his life. Little does he realise how much his obsession with ball lightning will change the world . . .

Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem/Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy is undoubtledy one one of the milestone pieces of SF in the twenty-first century. As well as beng multi-award winning, it’s also one of my all-time favourite series. His Wandering Earth anthology is also mind-bogglingly brilliant, and so Ball Lightning has a lot to live up to. While it doesn’t wuite live up to those lofty expectations, it’s still an amazing read.

Ball Lightning is an odd book. Theoretically a standalone, it can also serve as a prequel to The Three-Body Problem, though reading that is by no means necessary. In fact, Ball Lightning was released first, even if it is only now getting an English translation. But that’s not all that make sit unusual. You see, there’s not all that much in the way of plot going on here. Yes, things happen, and events occur. There’s conflict and relationships and all you’d expect from one of China’s most famous SF writers. But the forward momentum is off-kilter, disjointed.

Chen’s sole motivation is: learn about the ball lightning phenomenon. That simple desire is what drives the novel. But while there are a series of remarkable discoveries in that field, there’s not much of an actual story going on. Every discovery is met with excitement, and then the realisation that Chen wishes to know more. His obsession is fascinating, as are the scientific discussions. But even by my infodump-loving standards, the text feels a little dry.

Perhaps this is because of the translation. Martinsen is a great translator (he worked on Liu’s The Dark Forest, my favourite part of the previous trilogy) but I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been to render the philosophical and scientific debates here into readable English. There’s nothing objectively wrong with any of it, it just fells off.

The author’s afterword tells us something many will already have guessed. That real-world science has outpaced the discoveries of the book, and that ball lightning is not remotely as depicted in the narrative. Despite this, I think it’s safe to call this a Hard SF novel. Not because of the rigour or authenticity, but because it is a book about science. About how people relate to it, and how we twist cold facts to suit our own ends. While the novel is set almost entirely in China, it’s easy to see how military experts of all nations would make the same choices if faced with the same criteria.

It’s that love affair with even the more out-there science that Liu does so well. Just as previous books have tackled universal metaphysics and the nature of dimensions, here he takes something as deceptively simple as atomic structure and turns it completely on its head. Even though I know for a fact that the science is wrong, it’s impossible not to be swept along by the narrative. Though at times it can read like an academic text, it’s never any worse for that.

So this is not on quite the same level as The Three-Body Problem, but it is close. All of Liu’s hallmarks are here, and so is a great book. If not a great story.

BOOK REVIEW: The Black Fleet Crisis trilogy, by Michael P. Kube-McDowell

213

Publisher: Bantam

Genre: Space Opera

Books: 3

Published: 1997

Verdict: 4/5

It has been over a decade since the defeat of the Empire. But while Leia Organa-Solo holds together a fractured New Republic and Luke Skywalker trains the next generation of Jedi Knights, a new threat is rising. A threat called the Yavetha…

Between 1991 and 2014, an entire Star Wars Expanded Universe was developed. Stretching across several thousand years and with numerous subseries and standalones, there’s a lot to take in. Over time, the complexity got a little too much for its own good. The Black Fleet Crisis is one of the earlier installments. It’s been a long time since I read anything from the old EU, but a lot of the names were familiar to me. Particularly Borsk Fey’la, the Bothan senator. In a way, it was like returning to old friends.

One important thing: These books were written before the prequel trilogy was released. A such there are continuity errors there, particularly in Luke’s storyline, in which he searches for his mother. There are also passing references to the Empire, suggesting it existed for far longer than the twenty-three years it canonically did. None of this gets in the way of the story, but it does create a slight disconnect when you’re more experienced with Star Wars canon. Frankly though, it’s a miracle that the interweaving storylines work together as well as they do.

The Black Fleet Crisis itself is concerned with a diplomatic rift between the New Republic, and a race known as the Yevetha. This major storyline is where I take issue with the series. A large section of the first book involves Leia negotiating with the Yevetha leader. However, this entire arc involves Leia being unbelievably naive and gullible. Considering how long she has been running the New Republic for at this point, I just find it a little hard to believe that she would be so easily manipulated.

The second storyline is Luke’s, and involves the Jedi master searching for his departed mother. Going into any detail here would be a major spoiler, but suffice it to say that if you like close examinations of the Force, then this storyline will likely be your favourite.

A final storyline is Lando’s. Lando Calrissian became a major player in the EU, and here he is at his finest. Separated from the rest of the cast, he is stuck on an ancient spacecraft for essentially the entire trilogy. Trapped with Lobot, C-3PO and R2 D2, he is largely a prisoner of circumstance.

As you’d expect, these three storylines do link up eventually, though not wholly convincingly. Lando’s in particular never really meets up to the others. Despite that, it remains my favourite of the three arcs. There are other storylines – Han and Chewbacca both have important roles to play – and appearances from old favourites like Admiral Ackbar and Mon Mothma, but they are largely there in a supportive capacity.

While there are a few flaws with the plotting, overall this is a strong series. For one thing, it’s a nice continuation of the Star Wars storyline that focuses on the heroes of the original trilogy. It’s also an interesting look at a universe in development. A lot of the elements that would come to characterise the EU are on show here. it’s not just nostalgia, but there’s something nice about the familiarity of the setting, and the characters.

Whether you’re a Star Wars veteran or a newcomer to the EU, this is a decent place to start. And there’s a full list of other books to keep you going . . .

QUICK REVIEWS: Three Golden Age Anthologies

nine.jpgnine laumer.jpgahead.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the best things about used bookstores, in my not so humble opinion, is finding battered old paperback SF anthologies. That’s really how I got into SF in the first place, and it’s something I keep coming back to. The three anthologies here are all ones i picked up a few weeks ago in Hay-on-Wye (a small Welsh village widely known as the Town of Books, for those not in the know). I don’t really have enough to say about each one for a full review, so here’s the first Quick Reviews.

Nine Tomorrows marks a personal milestone for me. As far as I am aware, it is the last Asimov anthology I need for my shelves. And while it’s satisfying to have them all, I feel a little hollow at not having any left to hunt down. Asimov is the golden standard by which I judge SF, and while this is not his best collection, it’s still a solid read. ‘The Gentle Vultures’ was the only story new to me, but my favourites remain ‘The Last Question’ and ‘The Feeling of Power’. ‘The Last Question’ in particular is possibly my favourite Asimov short outside of his Foundation works. A simple story, told across billions of years, it’s the sort of long-term story I’d really like to see more of, but which seems to have fallen out of favour in modern SF.

The capstone story of the collection is ‘The Ugly Child’, the emotionally-charged story of a Neanderthal boy pulled into the present and the nurse who cares for him. It’s not a story I’ve ever been particularly enthused by, though it’s far from bad. Overall, I give a solid 4/5 to Nine Tomorrows.

 

Nine By Laumer is only the second work I’ve read by the author, Keith Laumer. (The first being a recent omnibus Three By Laumer). There are some strong stories here, though only ‘The Walls’ and ‘Placement Test’ are up to Asimov’s high standard. The latter, in fact, is eerily similar to Asimov’s ‘Profession’, found in Nine Tomorrows. I suspect both were written for the same editor on request, but it’s interesting to see how two different authors interpret what is almost exactly the same idea. ‘Dinochrome’ also gives a glimpse into Laumer’s Bolo-universe, a world of sentient super-tanks. Like so many of my favourite stories, this series covers hundreds of years.

While there are some strong stories here, there are no real stand-outs. For that reason, I have to give Nine By Laumer a humble 3/5.

 

The final anthology here is Henry Kuttner’s Ahead of Time. Kuttner is an author I’ve only discovered this year, thanks to rereleases of his work. But this collection of nine short stories has convinced me to hunt down the rest of his output. Maybe he can even replace the Asimov-shaped hole in my to-buy list. There’s not a bad story in the batch, even the immortal hill-billy story is somehow gripping! They’re also a lot darker than the generally optimistic work of Asimov, though written at the same time and for many of the same pulp magazines. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that an awful lot of Kuttner’s shorts involve suicide and insanity, and not always in the ways you’d expect. ‘De Profundis’, a tale of an asylum inmate visited by alien beings is one of the most vividly written stories in the batch, while ‘Camouflage’ is a fast-paced tech thriller that still hold up to today’s expectations. As an aside, both of these stories are reportedly co-written with CL Moore, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that her hand is on so much of what I enjoy reading.

It’s been a while since an anthology has so fully captured my imagination, but Kuttner’s Ahead of Time easily earns a 5/5 rating from me.

BOOK REVIEW: Empire of the Atom, by A.E. Van Vogt

vogt.jpg

Publisher: New English Library

Series: Empire of the Atom (#1)

Genre: Post-Apocalyptic

Pages: 155

Publication Date: 1966

Verdict: 5/5

Clane is a mutant, the abomination son of Earth’s Lord Protector. But though his body is twisted, his mind may be the greatest humanity has ever known . . .

This is a difficult book to review. The two key facts here are 1: This is a mess of a novel, and 2: Rarely have I had more fun reading something. So near as I can tell, this is a patched together group of short stories, some of which may have been pulled from the author’s dreams. It is wild, dizzying and utterly manic, veering between family melodrama and space opera pretty much at random, with a fair deal of proto-Atompunk thrown in for good measure. If you’re still here after all that, then I guess you’ll love it as much as I did.

Van Vogt’s future Earth is a wasteland, parts of which are still radioactive from a great war several thousand years previously. The Lord Protector rules unchallenged from his fortress-city of Linn, alongside and atomic priesthood that worships gods such as Uranium, and Ecks. Mutants are rare, and universally despised, and yet Clane is allowed to live as a social experiment. From here the novel tracks his life in the shadows of nobility, as he learns more about the world and his place in it.

But the action doesn’t stop at Earth. No, early on we are told that the war on Venus is going rather well, and later on the reader is swept to the canal-riddled Martian plains for a war fought with spaceships and longbows. there are also barbarian tribes living on the moons of Jupiter who play a small but important role later on.

As you may have guessed by now, nothing about the worldbuilding in Empire of the Atom makes any sense. It is hilariously, gloriously, and unapologetically insane. The plotting is just as wild, skipping back and forth between plotlines, with major moments covered in small sentences and whole paragraphs dedicated to the seemingly meaningless. Characters flit between moralities on a whim, and nothing about any of it really makes any sense whatsoever.

But that doesn’t matter. Because this book is just FUN. There’s not a slow moment to be found, although standard writing advice suggests there should be. It’s like a rollercoaster, and one that could crash and burn at any moment at that. Van Vogt’s writing is spars, even compared to some of his contemporary’s, but he has an undeniable gift for keeping you interested. Because if your attention wavers, you’ll have missed enough story for most authors to take a hundred pages to tell.

If this promise of an insane joyride – the literary equivalent of overdosing on sugar and then rolling in some hallucinogenic mushrooms – doesn’t tempt you in, then this book certainly isn’t for you. But if you want to turn your brain off and just see what a madman can do with a pen and paper, then there are far worse ways you could spend the day.

And best of all? There’s a sequel!

BOOK REVIEW: Atlas Alone, by Emma Newman

atlas.jpg

Publisher: Gollancz

Series: Planetfall (#4)

Genre: Post-Apocalyptic

Pages: 306

Publication Date: 18/04/19

Verdict: 5/5

Earth is gone, destroyed in a nuclear apocalypse. But on the ship carrying the last survivors of humanity, not all grudges died with the past . . .

Emma Newman’s Planetfall quartet (though I strongly suspect there are more books to come. there’s certainly enough dangling plot threads for them) falls some way outside my usual reading. There’s no space battles, very few explosions and no interstellar empires. What it does have, is some of the most well-realised characters in SF.  While I’m generally drawn more to plot than to characters, there can be little doubt that Newman has a phenomenal grip on the emotional and mental state of her characters.

While all of the Planetfall novels work as standalones, Atlas Alone is a fairly direct sequel to After Atlas, the second book. One of the secondary character from that, Dee, is our protagonist this time around. Dee is an interesting character. Almost emotionless, she has very little in the way of social skills or indeed emotional connections. As someone who rarely empathises with people myself, perhaps this is why I find her so interesting. I believe Dee is also asexual and possibly aromantic, though I won’t claim to understand all of the terms involved there. I personally am not that concerned with diversity in SF, but Newman knocks it out of the park with her representations of minorities. There are characters of all ethnicities, gender alignments and sexual preferences. Most impressively of all, the diversity never feels forced, only natural.

Dee occupies her time on what is likely to be a multi-decade journey to humanity’s new home by playing video games. Mersives, in Planetfall jargon. Hyper-realistic simulations that can let you live any life you want. So when a mysterious stranger offers her free access to cutting-edge technology, and Dee receives an offer of being a beta-tester, the story really gets going. Especially when actions Dee makes in the game appear to have a direct impact on the real world of the ship. The technology on display is always plausible, if never explained in any great detail. But detail isn’t really needed here, because that’s not the focus here.

Atlas Alone concerns itself with a simple question, with only complicated answers. If you found out who was responsible for the deaths of billions, what would you do with that information? Would you let the past lie, or would you seek justice? It’s this moral quandary that Dee finds herself in, soon uncovering a conspiracy that could threaten the remainder of the human race.

At its heart, Atlas Alone is an angry novel. The characters are angry at watching their world die, and being powerless to do anything about it. Newman herself seems angry about  a world that makes her bleak future look increasingly plausible. This is a book firmly rooted in present-day politics and concerns. At times too much so, with one scene being a flashback to only a few years in our future, and the problems being the same as those faced almost a century from now. But this concern with modern life never gets in the way of telling a good story.

This is the best Planetfall novel yet, and though no more have been confirmed, I hope the series can continue its current upward trajectory.