Embers of War – Gareth L. Powell

Embers-of-War-final-copy

“As a heavy cruiser, I had been an instrument of hard diplomacy and destruction; in the House of Reclamation, with my talents intact but my usefulness as a killing machine at an end, I had become instead a means to save lives.

It was almost enough.”

—Trouble Dog, Carnivore class Heavy cruiser and former member of the Conglomeration fleet.

Source: Review copy

Publisher: Titan Books

Date of Publication: February 20, 2018

***

With a simple order crossing the line from legitimate to war crime, the name Annelida Deal became synonymous with the term genocide throughout the spacefaring societies of the Multiplicity.  Due to the outrage after her decision to raze the sentient jungle of Pelapatarn in a decapitation strike that ended the Archipelago War but produced massive collateral damage, Deal went into hiding.  Meanwhile, the sentient warship Trouble Dog, haunted by her complicity in the genocide, resigned her commission and joined the House of Reclamation, an organization dedicated to life rather than death. While she can never forget her past as an instrument of annihilation, Trouble Dog hopes to find redemption in her new role as a rescue ship, saving those lost and stranded along the space lanes.

Several years later, the space liner Geest Van Amsterdam is shot down by an unknown assailant in a solar system colloquially known as The Gallery. The Gallery is a collection of artificially altered planets, literally sculpted into various unnatural shapes by an anonymous race millennia before mankind looked to the stars. Their purpose unknown, the Gallery has become an astronomical oddity, visited by the occasional scientific mission or site-seeing passenger liner. Famed poet Ona Sudak, one of the Amsterdam’s few survivors, finds herself hunted through the unforgiving environment of the object known as “the Brain” by the mercenaries responsible for the Amsterdam’s destruction.  What she finds within the structure of the Brain will reveal long-lost secrets about its creators, the motivation of her pursuers, and her own past—but only if the Trouble Dog and her eclectic crew get to her first.

***

The concept of artificial intelligence inhabiting a starship has been a staple of science fiction since at least 1968, when Richard Daystrom’s M-5 computer narrowly beat out Dr. Chandra’s HAL-9000 to become the first homicidal ship’s computer portrayed on-screen.  Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker predates both by several years, and further exploration would undoubtedly uncover others.  In recent years it appears the sentient starship trope has undergone a bit of a revival.  Lovelace, aka “Lovey”, the A.I. running  the starship Wayfarer in Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, explores a romantic relationship between a synthetic consciousness and her human minder, while Breq, the protagonist in Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice seeks revenge for the loss of her ship.* It would be negligent to not mention the sentient starships of Iain M. Banks Culture series, however, I have been negligent in NOT HAVING READ ANY OF HIS WORKS**, a situation I hope to remedy at some point.  With Embers of War, Gareth L. Powell uses this trope to good effect, crafting an entertaining tale of a sentient warship that no longer wants to wage war and her crew of emotionally damaged characters

 Embers of War has a cinematic feel, with Powell relying on short chapters and fast pacing to construct his story.  Painting with broad strokes, he allows the reader to fill in the details, conveying a universe with depth beyond the confines of the story and instilling a desire to explore it.  Each chapter represents a character viewpoint, allowing deeper exploration of their motivations and inner struggles than might otherwise be accomplished. While a great device with which to develop the central characters, it does disadvantage the non-viewpoint characters, who tend to come across as one-dimensional.

An example of this is Alva Clay, veteran of the Archipelago War and security chief on-board the Trouble Dog. Supposedly dedicated to Trouble Dog’s captain, Sal Konstanz, for rescuing her after the Pelapatarn massacre, Alva spends much of her time unfairly blaming Sal for the death of their former medical technician. Described as a talented and competent professional soldier, Alva disproves that at every chance, to the point of getting herself wounded while unloading her weapon to check IF IT’S LOADED at the most inopportune moment. She’s the type of soldier that any halfway competent military would weed out during basic training due to her mental instability.  Is this instability due to post traumatic stress or general incompetence? A viewpoint chapter or two would help explore how she came to be such a broken soldier.  Much the same can be said of Preston Menderes, the unqualified med-tech foisted on Sal right before their mission to rescue the survivors of the Geest Van Amsterdam. He’s immature and emotionally stunted, utterly unsuited to the high stress career of a med- tech, and a character that would be more interesting and less annoying if the reader were given more insight into how he came to be so damaged.

Conversely, Powell’s viewpoint characters are more complex, specifically Sally Konstanz, Ona Sudak, and especially Trouble Dog herself.  Sal Konstanz is not only a war veteran and seasoned captain, she’s the great-great grand-daughter of Sofia Nikitas, founder of the House of Reclamation.  Her lineage affords her a legacy, but she’s never been one to ask for special favour, earning her place on Trouble Dog by merit alone. While wholly committed to both her crew and their mission, Sal suffers from a lack of confidence ill befitting her service record. She’s a sympathetic character, tormented by her belief that she hasn’t lived up to her ideals, and riven by guilt after losing a crew member that she realistically never had a chance to save.  Ona Sudak’s chapters show us a multi-dimensional character that I really can’t discuss in detail without revealing major spoilers, so I’ll include her in the end notes.***

And then there’s Trouble Dog, the artificial intelligence bred for war and influenced by the predatory nature of the canine DNA spliced into her computer core, a truly remarkable intelligence displaying the empathy that Annelida Deal never could.  Trouble Dog is very conscious of her feral nature and actively holds it in check, a sign of her growth as a sentient being. Her sisters and brothers are bothered by such thoughts to varying degrees, one going so far as to commit suicide, but Trouble Dog finds a more satisfying outlet for her guilt, seeking redemption by protecting others.

Powell delves into the mind of Trouble Dog, both literally and figuratively, creating a virtual environment for her to inhabit, a plot device he’s used to great effect in earlier novels (artificial realities are a huge part of the Ack-Ack Macaque trilogy), and manages to anthropomorphize her into a complex personality both sympathetic and empathetic.  While a compassionate and fearless defender of life, she’s also a wily street fighter, bloodthirsty enough to take on her less empathetic siblings despite being denuded of her weapons systems after her resignation from the military. Trouble Dog is perhaps the most well-rounded character of the novel, making the entire endeavour worthwhile.

If you’re looking for an overriding theme within Embers of War, that theme would be the concept of redemption.  Sal Konstanz wants redemption for her (misplaced) culpability in the death of one of her crew, while Ona Sudak desires, if not redemption, the absolution of obscurity. Trouble Dog’s redemption comes through her desire to save others. It’s a tale of broken people trying to repair their lives, with Trouble Dog acting as both character and setting while they go about it.

Embers of War is the first of three acts, setting up both the universe in which it takes place, and the confrontation that will drive the next novel.  For what Trouble Dog and her crew find within the interior of the object known as the Brain will bring dire consequences to the inhabitants of the Multiplicity. This next novel, Fleet of Knives, is due to be published early in 2019, and I can hardly wait to read more of the Trouble Dog and her eclectic crew.

Gareth L Powell maintains a website and blog at www.garethlpowell.com.

***

*Having read and enjoyed A Long way to a Small Angry Planet, Ancillary Justice remains on my TBR list.

**Feersum Endjinn doesn’t count, as it was neither a Culture novel nor featured an A.I. character inhabiting a Starship.  It remains a wonderful book.

***Spoiler! Spoiler! Spoiler!  It’s not really a huge reveal, but Ona Sudak is also Annelida Deal, the Conglomeration officer who ordered the massacre that ended the Archipelago War. She’s a strong personality who made a controversial decision that is looked upon with derision yet remains confident in her justification. The strike successfully ended the war and saved lives in the long run, but in retrospect was considered a war crime due to the horrific collateral damage.  The historical analogy would be the decision Harry Truman had to make near the end of World War Two, weighing the lives of those citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki versus the millions of civilian and military lives an invasion of the Japanese mainland would have incurred. She’s perfectly suited  to explore ethical issues such as “the greater good” (Utilitarianism).

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Ninefox Gambit-Yoon Ha Lee

NinefoxGambit

“Seven, Subcommand Two said. “Do you have anything better to suggest?”

Cheris didn’t look at the ninefox’s eyes. “Five suggested one weapon,” she said. “I can do better. You can win this with one man.”

She had their attention.

“Specify,” Subcommand Two said. It knew. What other gambit could she have brought to the table?

“General Shuos Jedao.” There. She had said it.

Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Solaris

Date of Publication: June 14, 2016

Kel Cheris is an infantry captain of the Hexarchate, known for her unconventional use of formation tactics in the Hexarchate’s perpetual war against heretical doctrines that periodically arise to threaten their long-established hegemony. A mathematical prodigy, Cheris’ talents are wasted in the infantry, but Kel are soldiers, and as such, her duty is to serve. Yet her capabilities are not long overlooked by her superiors, and when the Fortress of Scattered Needles falls to a faction of heretics believed long eradicated, Kel Cheris is tasked with the mission of retaking the fortress before its loss causes irreparable harm to the Calendar by which all in the Hexarchate live. Her proposed solution to the problem is as unconventional as it is controversial—General Shuos Jedao.

In his time, Shuos Jedao was a strategist of unparalleled skill and his tactics entirely suited to the task at hand. Long deceased, his consciousness was preserved in the Black Cradle, a device that made him immortal, yet incorporeal. Using him is the best chance of retaking the fortress and thus bolstering the defenses of the Hexarchate against a looming invasion by the Hafn. Yet two caveats face Cheris at the prospect of working with Jedao. The first—his motivation, as he has no love for the Hexarchate he once served. The second—he is most certainly insane. For the Black Cradle is not only an immortality device—it’s a prison designed to punish the Hexarchate’s greatest traitor for all eternity.

Paired with Jedao as his corporeal host, Kel Cheris must utilize his brilliance while safeguarding both her mission and her sanity from the brilliant General’s influence. As the fight to retake the fortress progresses, Cheris discovers that while Jedao may be the monster she’s been warned of, he may not be the monster that needs fearing. Defeating the heretics and unravelling the mystery surrounding his past will lead to questions concerning their future path and the true agenda of the Hexarchate.

***

Arthur C. Clarke’s third law states that, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” With Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee has accepted the challenge and crafted a novel of stunning audacity, bursting the conventions of traditional Space Opera/Military Science Fiction. In the process, Lee has crafted a genre-bender of sorts, blending traditional science fiction with elements of the fantastical. Whether it works for the reader depends on their willful suspension of disbelief and the concordant ability to blur the line between Fantasy and Science Fiction.

In Ninefox Gambit, we’re introduced to a society where technology is subject to the quasi-religious belief of its inhabitants, what Lee describes as, “The Calendar”, both figuratively and literally their system of perceiving time and space and the mathematical principles sustaining it. Since the fall of the Fortress of Scattered Needle, a space habitat that defends their border and sustains the calendar over a large portion of their empire, “calendrical rot” has set in, where the weapons and tactics of the Hexarchate have become either weaker or non-existent.

A stable calendar is essential to the functioning of the Hexarchate, as their technology is concordant with belief in a certain set of constants, such as the 24 hour system of gauging time. If a dissident faction creates a system using a different calendar, some technology no longer works, while those “exotic” weapons and devices linked to the new calendrical system will. Formation tactics work in a similar manner, in that the placement of troops or ships in a given situation and rigid adherence to that formation affects the strength of their attack and the effectiveness of their weaponry. Soldiers of the Hexarchate rely on lists of different formations—a standardized playbook—to wage war, and non-standard formations create unexpected effects that are generally discouraged. It’s a rigid system of warfare, combining a blend of Numerology and Feng Shui with a large element of “handwavium” to achieve their goals.

Battles are won and lost by the use of quasi-magical devices such as the carrion glass bomb, reducing its victims to shards of glass containing their memories, amputation guns firing an arcing beam in which victims limbs literally fall off, and that most devastating of weapons, the threshold winnower, whose effects are terrifying, ghastly, and beyond human comprehension. The use of exotic weapons and formations to wage warfare is as analogous to magic as to make a mockery of the appeals to science and mathematical formulas the characters claim as the basis of their technology. Not surprisingly, it’s the least convincing element of the novel.

Yet this sufficiently advanced magic disguised as technology—and let’s not quibble, this is good old-fashioned magic dressed up as science for Hallowe’en—constitutes a unique take on the norms by which we assume technology should work, and in these days of Wi-Fi and virtual reality environments, kudos must be given the author for thinking so far beyond of the conventional.

The world-building of Ninefox Gambit is both complex and inscrutable. There are six factions of the Hexarchate, seven if you include the long eradicated Liozh, and each performs a specialized function in the proper functioning of their empire:

  • The Kel, to whom Cheris belongs, are the grunts, the military with which the Hexarches keep order. The reader learns early on that the Kel are conditioned to be unquestioningly obedient, up to and beyond the point of sacrificing themselves to accomplish their mission.
  • The Shuos, responsible for strategic planning. They’re the schemers, always taking a long view, attempting to influence the rest of the factions into furthering their goals.
  • The Nirai, who oversee much of the technological evolution of the Hexarchate. They’re the engineers.
  • The Rahal, essentially the government overseers, responsible for the maintenance of the Calendar.
  • The Vidona, specializing in indoctrination and stamping out heresy. They’re the commissars of the Hexarchate, enforcing doctrine at the end of a gun.
  • The Andan, whose purview is both culture and finance. They hold the purse-strings, giving them an outsize influence within the Hexarchate.

And finally we come to the Liozh, the seventh faction, the philosophers and ethicists, perhaps the most interesting of the factions. Eradicated for advocating the heresy of Democracy, their enduring influence continues to frustrate the Hexarches and encourage their foes.

Lee reveals the motivations of the various factions in a piecemeal manner, so it’s best to keep a running track of who’s who and which faction they represent if the reader wants to keep from getting confused. Luckily, most characters use their faction as a surname (see Kel Cheris or Shuos Jedao), which makes it somewhat easier to divine their motivations, although a glossary would have come in handy at times.

As to the characters, Yoon Ha Lee does an exemplary job of fleshing out both Kel Cheris and Shuos Jedao, but is somewhat deficient regarding ancillary characters. Early on the reader meets the captain of Cheris’ Cindermoth(command ship), Kel Nerevor, who seems as though she might have a major role to play in the course of the novel, yet she’s casually tossed aside just as she’s getting interesting.

Cheris and Jedao are both portrayed sympathetically, she a slave to her training as a Kel, but still imaginative enough to embrace borderline heretical doctrine, and he a cold tactician willing to throw away the lives of those around him, but only if the benefits outweigh the cost. Seemingly heartless, we’re given a window into his motivations that belies this notion. He’s a villain with depth of character that will hopefully be fleshed out in the next installment.

Lee also introduces readers to the Servitors, autonomous and sentient A.I. forms that serve menial roles within the Hexarchate. They act as servants within the Hexarchate, but are well aware of their status as virtual slaves, and share a subculture their masters show little appreciation for. However, it becomes apparent that the servitors have their own agenda, one not necessarily in line with that of their masters and worthy of further exploration.

Ninefox Gambit is not a particularly easy read, but with some perseverance, readers will come away with an appreciation of the author’s audacious take on the conventions of the genre. It’s as if the author has written a fantasy novel encased in a sci-fi binding, a daunting task to be sure, yet one that puts an interesting spin on what would otherwise be a commonplace Space Opera. Ninefox Gambit has been nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo Best Novel award this year, and while this reader doesn’t see it reaching quite those heights, the novel does constitute an entirely readable debut, one that the author will hopefully build on with Raven Stratagem, the second of the Machineries of Empire series.

Yoon Ha Lee’s author website can be found at http://www.yoonhalee.com.

The Chrysalids-John Wyndam

the-crysalids

I was abruptly perturbed – and considerably puzzled, too. A blasphemy was, as had been impressed upon me often enough, a frightful thing. Yet there was nothing frightening about Sophie. She was simply an ordinary little girl. – if a great deal more sensible and brave than most. Yet according to the Definition…

Clearly there must be a mistake somewhere. Surely having one very small toe extra – well, two very small toes, because I supposed there would be one to match on the other foot – surely that couldn’t be enough to make her ‘hateful in the sight of God…’?

The ways of the world were very puzzling…

***

Source: Bought copy.

Publisher: Penguin Books

Date of Publication: 1955

David Strorm was a normal little boy, growing up in the normal way, taking the ways of the world around him for granted.  All he knew of the world was his family, their modest holding in the settlement of Waknuk, Labrador, and what his people taught of the Tribulation, a time when God destroyed the Old People and took away their technology to punish the world for its sins. David would spend his days avoiding chores and wandering the fields and forests surrounding their settlement, while his nights consisted of sermons from his theologically legalistic father, himself the son of Waknuk’s founder. Sermons, or more accurately diatribes, on the issue of physical deviation and the need to guard against any aberration, for fear that God might notice any new blasphemy and re-visit the Tribulation on the good citizens of Waknuk.  Foremost among those warnings: “ONLY IN THE IMAGE OF GOD IS MAN”, followed closely by: “WATCH THOU FOR THE MUTANT!” David could never escape these admonitions.  They were carved both in his mind and on the plaques that line the walls of their kitchen.

So when David finds a new friend in the form of Sophie, a young girl living in a secluded cabin with her parents on the outskirts of the district, the joy of her friendship turns to confusion when he innocently discovers that Sophie has a subtle imperfection, one that would label her unclean in the eyes of his father and subject to censure by their pious community.  Her crime: an extra toe on each foot, such an inconsequential thing really, but enough to question her humanity if ever discovered.

And discovered she is, forced to flee with her parents, caught and sanctioned with banishment to the Fringes, where life is nasty, vicious, and short, all for want of ten toes. Confused and horrified by these events, David, his cousin Rosalind, and various children of the district vow to keep their own secret, lest they suffer a similar fate.  For David and his friends have their own aberration, less noticeable, yet more substantial.  They can talk to each other using their minds, and surely this would be much worse a transgression than such a little thing as an extra pinkie toe?

As David and his friends grow into young adults, so does their fear of discovery, especially after his sister Petra develops their talent at an extraordinarily young age, too young to know either fear or caution, and exhibits the talent with far greater strength and much less restraint.  Soon their secret becomes impossible to hide, and David and his fellow telepaths must flee in the face of their society’s fanaticism and xenophobia, lest they too be sanctioned as aberrations in the eyes of God.

But there is hope in the form of distant settlement across the sea, one whose inhabitants exhibit the same talent as David’s small band, a place of acceptance, understanding and security – if only they can remain free from their hunters long enough for those distant voices to come collect them.

***

John Wyndham (1903-1969) wrote several science fiction novels of note, perhaps most famously The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos, each of which has been translated to film, The Midwich Cuckoos filmed as Village of the Damned. When Penguin Books re-issued his oeuvre back in the late 1990’s, I jumped on the chance and collected as many as I could. Previously having enjoyed both The Midwich Cuckoos and Day of the Triffids, Wyndam’s tale of hope in the face of fanaticism went on my “to be read” list and was dutifully shelved for future enjoyment.

And there it sat, until late last year, when I read a review copy of S.C. Flynn’s Children of the Different, another post-apocalyptic novel of children with unique abilities that explored similar themes. My thoughts then returned to Wyndam’s classic, and here we are with no regret, for The Chrysalids is a wonder of a novel, with a host of themes to unpack, and a denouement that has some unexplored and chilling implications perhaps not intended by the author or recognized by the casual reader.

It’s a novel ripe with allegory, most notably regarding the unfortunate tendency of the human psyche to fear “the other”; those among us who are different, whether physically or psychologically.  In The Chrysalids, this tendency is exhibited in the perverse form of Christianity the citizens of Waknuk observe. They’ve taken religious legalism to the extreme, painting any one or thing that varies from what is considered “the image of God” as sacrilege, allowing extreme punishment with neither compassion nor compunction.  Any “defect” is dealt with by a series of progressively harsh actions. Crops are burned, animals are examined and if found wanting, euthanized. Infants showing signs of divergence are left to the elements, or if discovered to be defective later, banished from their society. It’s a primitive form of eugenics, but one that’s been a common theme in history, from the NSDAP labelling Jews subhuman, to Margaret Sanger’s call for the forced sterilization of those deemed feeble-minded, or poor, or those her followers saw as “the ignorant”.  David and his friends are the allegorical Jews of this oppressive society, attempting to hide in plain sight while living in a constant state of fear.

Complementing David’s society’s religiously fundamental take on eugenics, a more scientific take on the subject motivates the Sealanders to rescue David’s group, and more importantly, his sister Petra.  As the strongest telepath yet discovered, their motive is not so much altruistic as it is selfish, evidenced in their desire to use her as breeding stock to augment and amplify their own telepathic society.  Believing themselves the next step in human evolution, they are merciless in dealing with their evolutionary inferiors, resulting in the massacre of both David’s people and the “mutants” of the Fringes at the climax of the novel. The emissary of the Sealanders excuses their actions in a chilling monologue on the difference between her people and David’s:

In loyalty to their kind they cannot tolerate our rise; in loyalty to our kind, we cannot tolerate their obstruction.

‘If the process shocks you, it is because you have not been able to stand off and, knowing what you are, see what a difference in kind might mean. Your minds are confused by your ties and your upbringing: you are still half-thinking of them as the same kind as yourselves. That is why you are shocked.’

Just as David and his kin were dehumanized by their society, the Sealanders have divorced themselves from their less evolved counterparts, justifying their actions by dehumanizing their foes.

She then goes on:

‘The static, the enemy of change, is the enemy of life, and therefore our implacable enemy. If you still feel shocked, or doubtful, just consider some of the things that these people, who have taught you to think of them as their fellows, have done. I know little of your lives, but the pattern scarcely varies wherever a pocket of the older species is trying to preserve itself. And consider too, what they intended to do to you, and why…’

Her rationalization of the massacre lays in the idea of progress, much the same as Stalin’s when Communism enslaved a large part of the globe and murdered millions in the twentieth century. Her lack of awareness of the similarity of views (one quasi-religious, one quasi-scientific) puts a chill on what otherwise would be considered a happy ending.  For David and his fellow chrysalids have been saved from one oppressive society, only to discover they’ve traded one form of fanaticism for another, whether they or the reader are aware. Whereas religion can subvert morality in the wrong hands, the pursuit of science can at times ignore morality altogether, justifying it by declaring the subject irrelevant to progress. “Can we do this thing?” becomes the over-riding argument-divorced from the morality based question, “should we do this thing?”

The Chrysalids is an excellent criticism of the binary relation between fundamentalist religion and scientific progress without an ethical underpinning. Wyndam was writing from the viewpoint of a citizen of Western society, much as Margaret Atwood when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, so it’s entirely unsurprising that he would choose Christianity as his subject.  In light of recent history, his warnings still hold sway, especially considering the rise of groups like ISIS, whose corrupted interpretation of a major religion give his overall criticism of fundamentalism a very topical feel.  Wyndam explored ideas and ethical considerations that have timeless ramifications for humanity, and in the end, such thought experiments are the goal of good Science Fiction.

 

Osama-Lavie Tidhar

 osama-bookpic

  A man in a robot suit walking down the road, a sign above his head: Half price tickets. ‘There’s no place like home!’ the man shouted.  He stopped by Joe, handed him a leaflet. ‘There’s no place like home, mate. Get a ticket while they’re going.’

  Joe blinked, his vision blurred.  The tin-man walked away.  He’d already forgotten Joe. ‘No place-‘

  ‘Joe?’

  He blinked and opened his eyes.  Madam Seng stood above him.

  ‘You’ve had a bad dream,’ she said.

 

 

Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Solaris

Date of Publication: October 9, 2012

Joe is a detective, average and nondescript.  Living in Vientiane, Laos, he spends his mornings drinking coffee in a local café and afternoons reading in his disheveled office, quietly shared by him, a desk, and a gaggle of geckos.  He sits and he reads and he smokes, whiling the time away.

 And then the girl appears, the girl in need of a detective.  She wants to find a man, an author, coincidently, the author of the pulp thriller sitting on Joe’s desk.  The man, who writes about a fictional terrorist, a terrorist whose exploits titillate the reader with his exceptional violence.  She wants him to find the unlikely named Mike Longshott, author of the Osama Bin Laden—Vigilante series, and money is no object.  Then she disappears as if she were never there.

Joe—doing what a detective does—takes the case, commencing a journey that will take him across the world and back, from the banlieues of Paris to the heart of London and then New York,  finally across Asia to Afghanistan and a Kabul that has always been and never was.   Harassed and impeded at every turn by a mysterious group determined to keep Longshott’s anonymity intact, Joe’s pursuit of the pulp author slowly transforms into something altogether different, a search for a truth that once discovered, will slowly unravel his understanding of both reality and his place in it.

Reading a novel by Lavie Tidhar can be a lot like trying to wrestle with smoke.  Reality is reality, until it’s not, as if it simply blew away in the wind.  And that’s why if forced to describe Osama in a word, that word would be “surreall”.   Tidhar’s novel starts innocently enough, at first appearances a traditional boilerplate mystery.  Mysterious woman hires “down on his luck” detective to find equally mysterious writer.  Woman looks familiar, but detective can’t quite place where he’s seen her before.  Detective is given an expense account, begins his search and almost immediately finds himself the target of a nefarious cabal determined to stop him—all very much Mystery 101.

  Or is it?

It quickly becomes obvious that Osama is not your traditional mystery, and as time goes on, Joe’s journey devolves into a schizophrenic dream —a locked room mystery where the room is Joe’s reality, and the mystery is the truth of his existence.  You see, reality is malleable in this Tidhar novel, dependant more on the reader’s point of view than any natural laws.

For instance, the world Joe inhabits is one where Osama Bin Laden is merely a character in a novel.  Al Qaeda, 9-11, the invasion of Iraq and subsequent global jihad—they never happened.  The World Trade Centre is but an architect’s dream, and the world is relatively peaceful.  Yet many people in Joe’s world have glimpsed another, a world where Longshott’s Bin Laden thrillers aren’t merely figments of a frenzied imagination.  As the case deepens, Joe begins to realize he is one of these select few, drawn to this other world like a moth to flame.  The reader is drawn to Joe in much the same way, as one realizes the mystery of Osama has more to do with Joe and Osama than it does the man Joe is trying to track down.  Osama the fictional character is linked to Joe the real detective—but how?

We’re given clues to their connection as Joe comes into contact with others who share this ephemeral bond, refugees, as they’re called.   Who or what are the refugees? Spectres? Transients from another reality? Figments of Joe’s imagination?  There’s a host of possibilities, left up to the reader to decide.  Perhaps Joe and the other refugees are those whose deaths in our world transported them there by the inhumanity of what happened to them.  Perhaps Joe’s reality is merely a construct of a man on his death-bed, unconsciously trying to make sense of what happened to him.  Perhaps it could even be that Joe’s world is purgatory for those who died so quickly they aren’t even aware of their own passage.  It could also be the story of an alternate universe whose borders on our reality are ill-defined.

Just like the setting, the characters inhabiting the world of Osama are as fleeting as their reality.  Osama is a McGuffin of sorts, merely sliding between the pages—the object of Joe’s fascination while he searches for Mike Longshott, much as the Maltese Falcon drove Sam Spade while he looked for Archer’s murderer.  Mike is the link binding the story of Joe with that of Osama.  He’s the facilitator, unintentionally leading Joe to discover the truth of his own existence, and by extension, that of the girl.  He doesn’t recognize her, but she’s clearly familiar with him, as if there were a time and a place where they once knew each other.

And that’s the thing about Tidhar’s characters.  They’re all as ephemeral as the situations in which they’re placed.  There’s a sense of unrealness, an unfinished quality about them.   Joe is the only character of substance, and even that becomes questionable as the novel progresses and both he and the reader begin to question his reality.

The obvious comparison can be made between the works of Philip K Dick and Lavie Tidhar.   At first I thought that might be unfair, as Tidhar has his own voice and style, but after reading Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, the similarities in their writing come to the fore.  Tidhar plays with much the same themes regarding reality and one’s perspective, and has clearly been influenced by Dick’s writing.  For instance, there’s a scene in Osama where Joe enters an opium den to confront the proprietor, using the delivery of a film case as part of his ruse.  He quickly falls into a fugue state while the film is shown and finds himself in another London, one that looks much the same, but with subtle differences.  The film acts as a catalyst for his transference between worlds, much as the talisman Mr. Tagomi is meditating with in MITHC when he finds himself transported to an alternate Los Angeles where America won the Second World War.  In another scene, Joe is trying to gain entrance to a private club known as “The Castle”, another less than subtle reference.  While each author clearly has their own voice, Tidhar has clearly produced an homage to a master of the alternate history genre using his own distinctive style.

Osama is not a traditional novel, in that the process is more important than the final product.  There’s no clear resolution to this mystery, and it’s almost as if it’s a very well written thought experiment.  A multitude of solutions are posed, but you’re going to have to settle for whichever one you WANT to be the solution.  In the end, that’s what makes Osama a most satisfying read.

Andromeda’s Fall — William C. Dietz

Andromeda's Fall

“So,” Boad said as he eyed her bandage,” what’s the other guy look like?”

“I left him facedown,” McKee answered truthfully.

Boad looked surprised. “You’re serious?”

“He attacked me.”

“Well, that’s what we’re looking for,” the NCO said. “People who aren’t afraid to fight…What kind of training are you interested in?”

McKee thought of the Empress Ophelia. “I want to learn how to kill people.”

Boad’s eyebrows rose, and he nodded slowly. “Well, young lady…If that’s what you want—we’ll sure as hell teach you. Welcome to the Legion.”

Source: Review Copy from Publisher

Publisher: Titan Books

Publication Date: January 3, 2014

When Princess Ophelia Ordanus decides it’s time for a little “regime change,” she doesn’t do it by half measures, proceeding to drop her brother, Emperor Alfred Ordanus III, from the nearest observation tower of the Imperial Palace and immediately embarking on a massive purge of anyone whose loyalty to the former ruler might deem them suspect.  Her synthetic troops, “synths” for short, are both methodical and ruthless, decimating the foremost families of the Empire, including that of Cyntarch Dor Carletto, whose close relationship with the Emperor seals his fate, and by extension his family’s.  In the ensuing slaughter, Dor’s younger brother Rex manages to elude the death squads and send a warning to his niece, allowing her to avoid a similar fate—if she moves quickly.

Lady Catherine Carletto isn’t your average socialite, spending her days luxuriating in her family fortune.  She’s learned the family trade (cyborg technology, in case you’re wondering); she’s smart, resourceful, and fueled by both her desire to live and to avenge her family.  To achieve either goal Cat must disappear, remaining unnoticed within an empire whose agents have earmarked significant resources to her capture.  Bereft of options, her one chance at survival lies in joining the Legion, a military organization where they don’t ask questions about your past.  Criminals, dissidents, those who want or need to disappear, the Legion takes anyone as long as they’re willing to fight.  With her signature on a contract, Cat Carletto the wealthy socialite dies, and Andromeda McKee the legionnaire, is born.  If she can evade the Empress’ assassins and survive her time in the Legion, Andromeda McKee just might find a way to exact revenge.

William C. Dietz is known for his military science fiction, most notably the Legion of the Damned series, chronicling the exploits of a futuristic military force modeled along the lines the famous French Foreign Legion.  Made up of human soldiers and their cyborg counterparts, the Legion attracts the underbelly of the Empire, molding them into a superior fighting force whose loyalty is not so much to the Empire as to their fellow legionnaires.  Consisting of nine novels, The Legion series wrapped up in 2011 with A Fighting Chance.  Since then, Dietz has embarked on a prequel trilogy:  Andromeda’s Fall, Andromeda’s Choice, and most recently, Andromeda’s War.  Being a latecomer to the series, Andromeda’s Fall seemed a most excellent place to begin.

Andromeda’s Fall is an origin story, introducing the reader to the life of a legionnaire as we watch Andromeda train in the ways of war, fast rising through their ranks.   Andromeda is the prototypical strong female character, blending intelligence and cunning to further her goals, and Dietz portrays her in a realistic manner, at least as realistic as anyone can in a science fictional setting.  She’s not the stereotypical “man with boobs” trope that a lot of authors tend to get wrong when they overemphasize the “strong” part of “strong female character.”  Her strength comes from her intellect rather than her ability to throw a punch, and it makes Andromeda all the more interesting.  Her personality is no-nonsense without being overbearing, none of the trademark “snark” that seems to define a lot of characters these days when they mistake an obnoxious personality for good leadership skills.

A good portion of the novel deals with Andromeda’s training with the Legion, and while it felt somewhat abbreviated for the level of competence she exhibits, it also gives us a good introduction to the Legion, how it operates, and to the cybernetic troopers (organic brains controlling robot bodies) that make up a significant portion of their fighting force.  From there, the newly minted legionnaires whet their newfound skills fighting insurgents on Orlo II, one of the many worlds unhappy with their new Empress and her repressive policies.  Once on planet, the rest of the novel consists of a series of combat situations for Andromeda and her compatriots leading up to an invasion by the alien Hudathans.

The Hudathans are the principal adversaries in the Legion of the Damned series, and this is perhaps why they aren’t fleshed out as a race particularly well in this prequel.  My guess is that their motivations, psychology and society have been discussed in detail within the regular series, yet as someone coming to it fresh, the lack of back-story detracted somewhat from my enjoyment of the novel.  However, the introduction of a series of synthetic assassins hunting down Andromeda/Cat added a nice “cat and mouse” aspect to the novel.

Andromeda’s Fall is not without its faults.  Apparently in the far future, no one can administer DNA testing or facial recognition properly.  I rolled my eyes while reading a scene where one of the hunters couldn’t identify Andromeda as Cat Carletto, not because she’s had massive plastic surgery, but because she had recently broken her nose and received a facial scar not on the official record.  In another, the tension mounts as an FTD (fugitive tracking device) goes through the ranks, stops to sniff McKee, but then simply decides not to take a DNA sample.  It was a little bit of unnecessary deus ex machina that felt contrived.  However, this isn’t so much a complaint as it is a quibble.

I do find it interesting that Dietz decided to set his far future narrative in a universe where the dominant form of government is the Monarchy, a ruling system that seems quite anachronistic in this day and age.  But, there is plenty of precedent.  Frank Herbert did it in Dune with the reign of Emperor Shaddam IV, Asimov did the same with his Foundation series and Flash Gordon (okay, I might be stretching the analogy here) had Ming the Merciless, ruler of the planet Mongo.  It’s an interesting throwback to the past thrust into a futuristic setting much as the fleet actions of many a sci-fi novel hearken back to the naval traditions embodied in Horatio Hornblower.

Andromeda’s Fall is an excellent starting point for those fans of military science fiction looking to explore the world of the Legion of the Damned.

The Martian–Andy Weir

TheMartian2“Commander,” Beck radioed.  “You need to get to the ship now.”

“Agreed,” Martinez radioed.  “He’s gone, ma’am.  Watney’s gone.”

The four crewmates awaited their commander’s response.

“Copy,” she finally replied. “On my way.”

Source: Netgalley (Review Copy)

Publisher: Crown Publishing

Publication Date: February 11, 2014

When a sandstorm compels NASA to abort the Ares 3 expedition on Mars six days into their month long stay, the team is forced to leave behind a fully functioning habitat, two martian land rovers, millions of dollars of pre-positioned equipment, fifty days of freeze dried food for a crew of six (including fresh potatoes for their Thanksgiving dinner) and one dead astronaut.  Last anyone saw of Mark Watney, flight engineer and team botanist, both he and his EVA suit were compromised, impaled by a communications antenna, tumbling off into the storm with his biometric sensors flat-lined.  Forced by their grave situation to abandon the search for his body, the team leader makes the call and the Martian Ascent Vehicle (MAV) launches, leaving Watney to his fate. 

Fate, living up to its reputation for being fickle, has other plans for Mark Watney.  Against the odds, he survives the suit puncture and impalement and manages to retreat to the expedition’s habitat, which weathered the storm intact.  He’s alive and relatively uninjured.  He has oxygen, water, and food for the next 300 days.  Too bad Ares 4 won’t arrive for another four years, and then around 3200 kilometers from Watney’s refuge. It’s up to him to make his own fate and live to be there when Ares 4 lands.  Watney’s got three things going for him: his ingenuity, his sense of humour in the face of death, and those six potatoes. Thus begins an extraordinary tale of resourcefulness and survival in the tradition of Robinson Crusoe, albeit in a place where everything can kill you.

I first read of Andy Weir’s The Martian early last year while browsing an on-line review.  At the time he was an independent author, and I downloaded a sample with every intention of buying a copy if it proved any good.  Months later, I came across another article mentioning that Weir’s book had been picked up by a mainstream publisher and would be published in February of 2014.  In the meantime, the e-book had become “unavailable” for purchase, a situation which left me somewhat miffed.  However, the publisher was looking for reviewers on Netgalley, so I managed to snag a copy and dug in.

Written from several points of view, the majority being epistolary journal entries by our stranded engineer/botanist, The Martian introduces us to Mark Watney, a thoroughly likeable and extremely resilient character for whom the reader cannot help but root.  He’s no shrinking violet, bemoaning his fate and waiting for the inevitable, but rather your typical “can do” NASA type, working the problem methodically until he achieves one of two results: life; or death.  Throughout the journal, Watney faces many life threatening situations (and some are doozies) and deals with them from an engineering perspective, true to form as…well…an engineer. With this emphasis on problem solving, The Martian is definitely a novel for lovers of hard science fiction, but Weir also develops a character for whom we feel a great deal of empathy, ensuring that the techno-babble doesn’t detract from the story.  The addition of quite a bit of, “you have to laugh or you’ll end up crying,” levity on the part of Watney  helps guarantee the novel not become too dreary. 

One worry I had while reading The Martian was that a novel with a single point of view can limit the author’s ability to build a picture of what’s going on in the greater world (or solar system, in this case).  I wanted to know what the crew were thinking when they presumed Watney dead—and how they dealt with the guilt of leaving a crewmember not just behind, but behind on another planet.  What was going on back at mission control?  How was his family dealing with the loss of their son?   These are all questions that would be impossible to answer had Weir stuck with the epistolary format, so it was satisfying to see him branch out from Watney’s tale and explore those very things.  Transitioning back and forth from Watney’s journal to scenes of his crewmates and people back home gave greater depth to the story than showcasing his tale alone. 

I find generally these days while reading or viewing a movie that it’s hard to get invested in the welfare of the character because you just know that the writer (unless it’s G.R.R. Martin) is not going to do anything too drastic, like kill off the main character.  Knowing that the author won’t take that risk tends to detract from the reader feeling any real investment in a story, but Weir deftly manages to avoid this pitfall.  Every situation Mark Watney faces is written in a way that feels “life or death” in an Apollo 13 sort of way, and until the last few pages of the novel I was unsure as to how things would pan out.  The ingenuity with which Watney, his former crewmates, and the people back on Earth tackle his predicament lends an air of optimism to a novel that could very well have lost itself in the malaise of a man bereft of hope.  Lucky for us, this is not that type of novel.

The Martian is one of those books that you’ll want to read in one or two sittings, maybe even burning a little midnight oil as you follow a lone Martian’s quest to become an Earthling once again.

The Martian will be released by Crown Publishing on February 11, 2014.

B

Hive Monkey-Gareth L. Powell

hive-monkey-gareth-l-powellIf joining the Gestalt meant an end to loneliness, he could see how they might find doing so attractive; but it wouldn’t work for him.  He’d still be the only monkey in a sea of apes; still just as alone, however many humans he had crawling through his head, chattering away about their human feelings, and human problems.

Reynolds could go fuck himself.

Source: Netgalley (review copy)

Publisher: Solaris Books

Publication Date: December 31, 2013

It’s been a year since the events of Ack-Ack Macaque and our simian anti-hero is finding life outside the game to be a bit of a reality check.  Back in the VR universe he was alpha primate, a virtually indestructible ball of wise cracking fur with itchy trigger fingers.  Never defeated, nigh indestructible, he took on all comers with ease and fought the good fight for King and Country with nary a thought of the future.  Released from his virtual prison, Ack-Ack managed to save the real world from the nefarious plans of Queen Alyssa Célestine and her cult of the Undying.  But that was a year ago, and now Ack-Ack finds himself lacking a purpose.  Without the constant excitement of eternal combat that his time in the game provided, he’s been reduced to piloting Victoria Valois’ airship Tereshkova from place to place and spending his spare time reminiscing the glory days while flying around in an antique Spitfire.  For a macaque of action, the doldrums of this new reality are taking a toll, as is the realization that he’s an anomaly.  As the only sentient monkey on earth, he feels very much alone.  Alone—and horny.

When approached by a spokesman of the Gestalt, a cyber-cult whose members have wirelessly connected their gelware to create a collective “hive mind”, he’s torn between two thoughts.  The first—to accept their offer in the hope union with the Gestalt might alleviate his loneliness.  The second—to tell them to go fuck themselves while flinging some poo.  Finding the balance, Ack-Ack rejects their overture with a sucker punch and assumes that’s all she wrote.  Cultists being cultists however, they refuse his refusal, pursuing his membership with a most cult-like determination.

Meanwhile, a down and out Science Fiction writer by the name of William Cole is struggling to cope with the loss of his wife Marie and failing horribly.  He’s in a downward spiral, fueling his grief with drugs and alcohol.  But when someone takes a shot at him outside his apartment, his instinctive impulse is still self-preservation, all flight—no fight.  Hours later he’s in Victoria Valois’ cabin aboard the Tereshkova, begging asylum so he can flee to the relative safety of the sky.  That relative safety proves very short lived.  After a confrontation with a dying stowaway to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance, Cole finds himself embroiled in a cold war that literally crosses universes, unlikely ally of both Ack-Ack and Victoria as they attempt to stop the Gestalt from hatching a plot, which if successful, will have consequences for the collective individuality of humanity—including the daughter he never had.

With Hive Monkey, Gareth L. Powell has once again written a novel that is not what it seems at first glance.  There’s hidden depth to his story of a hard drinking, hard fighting monkey, and it manifests itself in several themes that are there for the reader to see if they take the time to look.  If I were to sum it up in one sentence, Hive Monkey is an exploration of the individual’s perception of reality. It’s also an exploration of the idea of reality itself, whether it is Ack-Ack, whose consciousness began in the virtual and was then transported to the real, or Paul, Victoria’s ex-husband, whose essence, his “soul” as it were, was transported to the virtual when his body died.  In the first novel, the cult of the Undying wanted to evolve beyond their physical bodies, attaining immortality by creating a virtual society that would interact with reality by means of artificial bodies.  This time around, the Gestalt wants to do away with individual consciousness and live in a shared reality.  This underlying them of alternate/parallel realities is woven throughout the architecture of these first two books of Powell’s triptych. 

Now the idea of a Hive mind is not new to science fiction, the obvious comparison being the Borg Collective of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, or the alien parasites of Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. However, Powell has managed to put his personal stamp on the idea, right down to the creepy Mr. Roarke outfits the Gestalt wear. Their technological superiority is explained by their ability to act as a bunch of parallel processing computers, their adaptability to most situations by their common awareness, and their interest in Ack-Ack the result of—well, you’ll find out.  Then there’s the name, “Gestalt” whose definition, “an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts,” explains their desire to collectivize the universe.

While reviewing Ack-Ack Macaque, I mentioned the care Powell took regarding world building.  He created an alternate future that bore much similarity to the one we inhabit, while introducing features that suggest the road less travelled.  From dirigibles becoming the dominant form of air travel to the unification of France and Britain into a greater commonwealth, Powell gives his future a unique brand of authenticity.  With Hive Monkey, he’s graduated from world building to universe building, exploring the idea of multiverse theory, a set of infinite possibilities resulting from our everyday decisions  Ack-Ack’s universe parallels our own with significant differences, just as that of Bill Cole’s (William’s doppelganger) is both parallel to yet significantly different from both.

As for the mild (and only) complaint that the previous novel’s villain didn’t have enough stage time to be fully fleshed out, I’m glad to see that it’s been addressed more than adequately this time around.  After all, we’ve met this villain before without realizing it and his motivation is all the more understandable for it.  It also helps that just as you think you’ve got a hold on what’s going on, Powell throws in a delightful twist that shakes up both Ack-Ack and the reader.

Now I’m not sure if I’m perhaps reading too much subtext into this novel, but I will say this: If you’re simply looking for a fun adventure with some bizarre yet compelling characters, then this book is for you.  If however, you’re looking for something with a little more depth to it, a sci-fi novel that’s more than what it seems, then this is also the book for you.  Whether it be an exploration of our perceptions or simply a fun shoot-em-up, Powell has managed to find the balance between thoughtful existentialism and pulp adventure.

Hive Monkey is the second of a trilogy beginning with Ack-Ack Macaque and ending in the forthcoming Macaque Attack. It will be released in the United Kingdom December 14th and in Canada on December 31st.  Gareth L. Powell maintains a blog at garethlpowell.com and both he and Ack-Ack Macaque can be found pontificating on Twitter.

B+