1) "Broken Angels" by Richard K. Morgan
The second in what might be a series on the exploits of Takeshi Kovacs.
In Altered Carbon ( Mar. 2003), Morgan put his antihero’s antihero on a Chandler-esque mission in a futuristic San Francisco, mopping up with ease all the lowlife scum who got in his way. This time out, Kovacs is back to being what he initially trained to be: a soldier. War has been raging on the planet of Sanction IV, where Kovacs’s mercenary unit, Carrera’s Wedge, is helping the Protectorate crush a nonsensical but nevertheless vicious uprising. Recuperating from his wounds in an orbital hospital—his current body, or “sleeve,” is being fixed, while his consciousness, or “stack,” is downloaded into another sleeve—Kovacs meets Jan Schneider, a pilot with an interesting proposition. Schneider was hauling some archaeologists around a dig for Martian artifacts (such artifacts are discovered quite often, on many planets, apparently, but nobody knows what to make of most of them) when she and her crew came across some sort of hyperspatial gateway that led to a point in space far, far away, where was parked an actual Martian spaceship. But the war got in the way. All that’s needed now is to bust the lead archaeologist out of the internment camp she’s being held in, line up some corporate backer for more manpower, equipment, and financing, stake a claim without being killed, and get filthy rich. It’s not quite so easy in actuality, of course, what with all the corporate espionage going on and a senseless war raging, but Kovacs (a killing machine who’s sick to death of death, though he can’t deny his knack for it) will likely manage. Here, Morgan has nicely expanded the scope of his series, giving a detailed look at the chaotic hodge-podge that interstellar discovery has turned a small section of the galaxy into, along with the Milosevic-like bureaucrats and soldiers jockeying for position in it. Occasionally overdosing on world-weariness, but nevertheless a thrilling cyberpunk actioner.
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2) "Ilium" by Dan Simmons
A three-pronged start to another gigantic series from Simmons (the Hyperion Cantos) that will leave most readers waiting breathlessly for the next installment.
Ilium, of course, is another name for ancient Troy, and the tale opens on the blood-soaked plains of that besieged city as the Greek armies carry on their nearly decade-long attack, while Thomas Hockenberry, Ph.D.—“the unwilling Chorus of this tale”—studies the whole affair. Reassembled from scraps of DNA thousands of years in the future, Hockenberry and a host of other scholars were gathered up and sent to the past by a race of creatures with awesome powers and fickle tempers (the Greek gods) to serve as their recorders for what they saw as this grandest of games. Hockenberry is a past master of the Homeric epics, so the job has its rewards, namely comparing Homer’s poetry to the specifics of the battle taking place in front of him. It’s a harrowing affair, since ancient warfare is more horrific than he imagined (the Greek and Trojan “heroes” are often just overmuscled nitwits), and since one of the “gods,” Aphrodite, has just enlisted him to help kill Athena. The two other story arcs (which link up later) take their cues from The Tempest (and more than a touch of The Time Machine) rather than from The Iliad. In one branch of the story, a band of research robots dives into the terraformed atmosphere of Mars, while in the other, a small race of impossibly spoiled people putter about in the genetically altered, gardenlike playground that is Earth far in the future.
Just as unwieldy and pretentious as it sounds, but Simmons (Worlds Enough & Time, 2002, etc.) never lets the story get away from him, using copious amounts of wit to keep the action grounded—and utterly addictive.
3) "Caliban's War" by James S.A. Corey
Part two of the topnotch space opera begun with Leviathan Wakes (2011), from Corey (aka Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck).
Previously, a dangerous alien protomolecule was weaponized by an amoral corporation and field-tested against a habitat in the asteroid belt, bringing Earth, Mars and the Belt to the brink of war. Thanks to whistle-blowing Belter spaceship captain Jim Holden, all-out war was averted and the habitat diverted to Venus. Now, the protomolecule has taken over that planet and appears to be building a gigantic, incomprehensible device, a development viewed with alarm by the great powers. Then, on Ganymede, a creature able to survive unprotected in a vacuum, immune to most weapons and hideously strong, wipes out several platoons of marines. Fighting breaks out and the great powers teeter on the brink of war. Mysteriously, just before the monster's appearance, somebody kidnapped a number of children who all suffered from the same disease of the immune system. Botanist Prax Meng, the father of one of the children, asks for Holden's help in finding his daughter. As Ganymede's fragile ecosystem collapses, Holden flees with Prax. Meanwhile, on Earth, fiery old U.N. bigwig Chrisjen Avasarala realizes she's been outmaneuvered by forces in league with the corporation that thinks to control the protomolecule. The characters, many familiar from before, grow as the story expands; tension mounts, action explodes and pages turn relentlessly.
Independently intelligible but best appreciated after volume one—and with a huge surprise twist in the last sentence.
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4) "The Passage" by Justin Cronin
Literary author Cronin (Mary and O’Neil, 2001, etc.) turns in an apocalyptic thriller in the spirit of Stephen King or Michael Crichton.
You know times are weird when swarms of Bolivian bats swoop from the skies and kill humans—or, as one eyewitness reports of an unfortunate GI, off fighting the good fight against the drug lords, “they actually lifted him off his feet before they bored through him like hot knives through butter.” Meanwhile, up north, in the very near future, gasoline prices are soaring and New Orleans has been hit by a second hurricane. Wouldn’t you know it, but the world is broken, and mad science has something to do with it—in this instance, the kind of mad science that involves trying to engineer super-soldiers but that instead has created a devastating epidemic, with zombie flourishes—here called “virals”—and nods to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and pretty much every other creature feature. Bad feds and good guys alike race around, trying to keep the world safe for American democracy. In the end the real protector of civilization turns out to be a “little girl in Iowa,” Amy Harper Bellafonte, who has been warehoused in a nunnery by her down-on-her-luck mother. Mom, a waitress with hidden resources of her own, pitches in, as does a world-weary FBI agent—is there any other kind? Thanks to Amy, smart though shy, the good guys prevail. Or so we think, but you probably don’t want to go opening your door at night to find out.
The young girl as heroine and role model is a nice touch. Otherwise a pretty ordinary production, with little that hasn’t been seen before.
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5) "Accelerando" by Charles Stross
A fix-up novel linking together Stross's innovative “Lobsters” stories.
Stross (The Hidden Family, 2005, etc.) begins his story in the second decade of this century, just on the verge of the Singularity—the emergence of artificial intelligences superior to humankind. Manfred Macx, central figure of the first three stories, is an electronic entrepreneur, reinventing economics on the fly to exploit the potential of amplified human intelligence. His major struggle is staying one step ahead of his ex-wife, Pamela, an accountant who pursues him around the world with a huge bill for back taxes. A brief reunion results in the birth of a daughter, Amber, who uploads herself into a computer program to go on an expedition to a nearby star, where alien intelligence has been detected. The aliens turn out to be small-time (but highly advanced) con artists, preying on naive beings who fall for their crooked economic schemes. But her real discovery is the inevitable byproduct of the Singularity, the emergence of computronium, microscopic artificial intelligences who surround their star and convert all extraneous mass into further copies of themselves. Upon her return to the solar system, Amber encounters her son Sirhan, the offspring of an alternate version of herself and the cleric sent by Pamela to undermine her father's plans to insure her freedom. The last three stories reunite the entire family, including Aineko, Manfred's cyborg cat, now working to escape the solar system while there's still time. Stross spins this generational saga with great wit and energy, throwing in references to a huge range of literary and cultural material, an even more exhilarating mix in novel form than in the separately-published stories. Stross also manages to make economics seem almost as cool as the runaway cybernetic revolution that serves as background to the story.
Cutting-edge science fiction from the brightest star in the new British invasion.
6) "Pattern Recognition" by William Gibson
A return to the present makes this SF scribe more prescient than ever.
It’s been a long time since Gibson wowed us with Neuromancer (1984) and the rest of the Sprawl trilogy that changed the then-moribund field of science fiction forever. Unfortunately, it’s been a hard act to live up to. His latest might not satisfy his readers’ high level of expectation, either, but it’s doubtless his best work since Count Zero (1986). Even though it’s his first novel set entirely in present time, there’s a sense that he’s getting back to his roots. The heroine, Cayce, is a nod to the hacker in Neuromancer who became the prototypical cyberpunk antihero. She’s a cool, slinky, yet insecure piece of mystery who has a near-oracular ability to predict the Next Big Thing. After being called in to consult on whether a new logo will work, Cayce says only one word, “No,” and her fee is earned. She’s then hired for a bigger project by über-cool marketing firm Blue Ant to investigate the origins of a strange series of film clips—over a 130 now—that have been showing up on the Internet and attracting a wide cult of fans, including Cayce, who try to figure their origin and purpose. Soon Cayce is jetting off to Tokyo, back to London, then off to Russia, following the wispiest threads of evidence, rumor, and blind conjecture. Someone’s tracking her, and a sinister fog of suspicion fills Cayce’s jet-setting, wireless world. Gibson’s narrative is more relaxed than it has been in years, trusting in Cayce’s strangely addictive personality and in his own laser-perfect cultural radar—Malcolm Gladwell meets Marshall McLuhan in a chat room—to carry the story along. Some elements could have easily been jettisoned (Cayce’s literal allergy to brands and logos is ridiculous), but for every misstep there’s a dash of pure, beautiful insight: “We have no future because our present is too volatile . . . We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition.”
A slick but surprisingly humane piece of work from the father of cyberpunk.
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7) "The Quantum Thief" by Hannu Rajaniemi
A sort of paranoid-conspiracy, hard sci-fi whodunit: the Scotland resident, Finnish author's jaw-dropping debut.
Notorious thief Jean le Flambeur serves an indeterminate sentence in the surreal Dilemma Prison governed by artificial intelligences, or Archons, at the behest of Earth's ruling "upload collective" called the Sobornost. The Archons' notion of rehabilitation is to compel the prisoners, incarcerated in infinitely repeating transparent cells, to play murderous mind games with infinite copies of themselves. Soon enough, though, along comes spacer Mieli in her alluring sentient spaceship to rescue le Flambeur—providing that he's willing to work for her. The thief has little choice, it's either accept or stay and be shot through the head over and over. And so they're off to Mars, where the multi-legged city of Oubliette wanders the landscape, terraforming as it goes. Here, time itself is currency; memory, and hence reality, is held collectively, privacy is a fetish preserved by unbreakable encryption and enforced by powerful "tzaddiks," but everybody's strings are being pulled—even the string-pullers'—by hidden higher authorities. Mieli's employer, known only as the pellegrini, wants le Flambeur to perform a particular if unmentioned service, while the thief has his own ulterior motives for cooperating: years ago he hid large chunks of his memories here, and now he needs to recover them to attain his own vengeful goals. Meanwhile, brilliant young detective Isidore Beautrelet, having just solved the murder of a prominent chocolatier, accepts another assignment—involving an arch villain named…le Flambeur. All this barely hints at the complex inventions and extrapolations, richly textured backdrop and well-developed characters seamlessly woven into a narrative stuffed with scientific, literary and cultural references.
Spectacularly and convincingly inventive, assured and wholly spellbinding: one of the most impressive debuts in years.
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8) "House of Suns" by Alastair Reynolds
Far-future, galaxy-spanning space opera involving clones, robots, mass murder and hundreds of post-human cultures, some alive, most extinct, set in a universe different than Reynolds' Revelation Space yarns (Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days, 2005, etc.).
Six million years ago, from a civilization known as the Golden Hour, the House of Flowers—comprising the thousand male and female immortal clones, or “shatterlings,” of Abigail Gentian—set off to explore the galaxy. Every 200,000 years they meet up to celebrate and share memories. Since they travel at sublight speeds, most of this time is spent in stasis, so they do not so much live history as tunnel through it, as one of the characters observes. It's often a weakness, since readers are afforded glimpses of dozens of cultures without being offered involvement in any. Our alternating narrators—a third narrative strand features Abigail becoming addicted to a simulated-reality role-playing game, for reasons that only become clear much later—impetuous, courageous Campion and smarter, more empathic Purslane, are an item, against House rules. They're running late for the next reunion and need ship repairs. A piratical post-human named Ateshga attempts to trick Campion, but Purslane outwits him and rescues memory-impaired Hesperus. The three reach the reunion site 50 years late, only to learn that the Flowers have been ambushed and all but wiped out. Campion and Hesperus rescue a handful of Gentians—50 out of a surviving 900-odd. But why the slaughter, and who did it? Believe it or not, the Andromeda Galaxy is a major plot issue.
Absorbing, but lacking the edgy brilliance and almost desperate urgency of the Revelation novels.