Review of Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

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This novel is science fiction and #2 in the Skyward series, following the novel Skyward. It was released by Tor in November of 2019 and runs 461 pages. This review contains spoilers.

At the end of Skyward, Spensa Nightshade has found that reality is a long way from what she’s always believed. Humans have been imprisoned on Detritus, guarded by the Krell, and Spensa has found she has cytonic abilities to hear and teleport ships through the Nowhere—the method her ancestors used to get around in space, which can be amplified by an unknown “cytonic hyperdrive.” As the humans have made advances into space, conflict with the Krell has increased. Human techs locate a video on one of the orbiting space platforms and, watching it, Spensa has a terrifying vision of delvers (inhabitants of the Nowhere). She screams cytonically and accidentally contacts an alien pilot, who hyperjumps into Detritus space. The ship is damaged by the automated guns on the platforms. Hoping to capture its hyperdrive, Spensa and her Skyward flight try to rescue the ship, but find there’s no hyperdrive aboard. The pilot is injured in the crash landing, but gives Spensa coordinates for Skysight, the center of alien government. Spensa and her flight leader Jorgen make a quick decision, and Spensa disguises herself as the injured pilot, then uses the coordinates and her cytonic ability to hyperjump there. She is welcomed by Cuna, a representative of the Superiority, and enters a training program to provide fighter pilots for the Superiority, supposedly to defend against the delvers. With the help of her ship’s AI M-bot and Doomslug, her odd pet that has stowed away, Spensa tries to navigate the alien politics and manages to make friends with various representatives of the “inferior” races Cuna has assembled into his fighter units. Spensa builds a spy drone from a cleaning bot and finally learns the secret of the hyperdrives. She gets caught with the drone, but there’s a coup afoot in the Superiority government. Can Spensa save Detritus, rescue M-bot and Doomslug and get away?

This is a really condensed summary, of course. The novel has a great plot, full of twists, turns and revelations. The characters are very well developed, full of alien idiosyncrasies, and the action/suspense starts up right at the beginning, making this a pretty gripping read. Spensa operates by the skin of her teeth, developing into a leader herself within the assembly of misfits that makes up her new flight. The book also features a constant undercurrent of discussion about aggression versus non-aggression and how each one affects a particular society. The Superiority prides itself on non-aggression, for example, but has to draft alien pilots to do the dirty work of defense. Meanwhile, they suppress these “inferior” races, keeping hyperdrives away from them so they can’t develop economically. Humans are painted as the real bad guys in the picture for their highly aggressive and dominant tendencies. Meanwhile, M-bot is finding ways to work around the programming that keeps him confined and enslaved. Will that turn out to be dangerous?

On the not so positive side, Skysight doesn’t seem that alien of a place, and some of this seems a little over-simplistic, especially the way Spensa interacts with the aliens and the way she develops a method to deal with the terrifying delvers. M-bot comes across as immature and sulky, and we all knew Doomslug was going to figure in this somehow, right?

Highly recommended.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

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This is a sort-of science fiction novel and a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It was published by Saga in April 2018 and runs about 304 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Has-been glam rocker Decibel Jones and Oort St. Ultraviolet, the only musician left of the Absolute Zeros, are approached to perform in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, a song contest that’s open to any alien race—with a little catch. Species that come in last at their first contest are pronounced non-sentient “meat” and eradicated from existence. Can Dess and Oort overcome self-doubt and competitor sabotage to rescue humankind from extermination?

This seems to be satirical absurdist humor. It rocks along at a reasonably fast pace with a lead in that gives us the history of the Sentience Wars, with the competition, like the Eurovision Contest, launched as a way to move forward in a more civilized fashion. The satirical part seems to be about racism. Or maybe the music business. Or maybe both? High points: Aliens decide against evaluating Earth’s house cats as a sentient species. Dess’ lost love Mira Wonderful Star asks him to marry her. The immigrant Oort works hard at being normal to escape police interest and eventually rescues humanity with a Christmas carol. Also on the positive side, Valente gets a lot of credit for keeping a narrative like this going for 300 plus pages.

On the not so positive side, this won’t be everyone’s piece of cake. It has minimal plot and most of it is complete nonsense about non-existent, not-especially-believable alien species doing weird things and making weird music. Because of the absurdist quality, I didn’t connect with the characters well. The ending was clearly foreshadowed, so didn’t surprise me.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Echopraxia by Peter Watts

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This is Book #2 of the Firefall series, sequel to the Hugo finalist Blindsight. It was released by Tor Books in August, 2014, and runs 384 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Daniel Brüks is a biologist and a baseline human, which is a serious anachronism at the end of the 21st century. He’s collecting samples in the Oregon desert, looking for baseline DNA, when he gets caught up in a firefight between the hive-mind Bicameral monks and a squad of zombie soldiers. He wakes onboard a spaceship, along with some Bicamerals, a female vampire Valerie, a couple of her zombie bodyguards, and various transhumans including the pilot Sengupta, looking for the man responsible for her wife’s death, a friendly jargonaut Liana Lutterodt, and an old soldier Jim Moore who lost his son Siri on the Theseus expedition. The Bicamerals seem to have a plan and Brüks is stuck going along. They travel to the Icarus power station, where they find an alien slime infesting the facility. Brüks takes samples and investigates its biology. Too late, he realizes it’s intelligent and trying to capture humans as biological samples of its own. Most of the crew is lost, but Brüks, Moore and Sengupta manage to undock from the station and escape. They find that Valerie has fastened onto the outside of the ship, but expect reentry into Earth’s atmosphere will burn her up. Can they make it back alive? What will humanity do without Icarus station?

This book continues in the same vein as Blindsight. The plot is thin, and most of the pages are taken up with theme and discussion. I didn’t get the feeling of alienness from this book like I did from Blindsight. Instead, this seems to be about God, the nature of transhumanity, the blind success of evolution and how everyone eventually becomes extinct through natural selection. This may all seem fantastical, but Watts has written an addendum at the end that includes references for all the science behind the story. It’s kind of scary that this really is a projection from research and ideas already out there in the human knowledge base.

On the negative side, I didn’t like any of these people. Plus, this novel suffers even more from the high density, disturbing quality and poor readability that went on in Blindsight. The description isn’t really descriptive, as it tends to metaphor, and I ended up without any idea what these people look like and not much better idea of what the ship looks like, even though most of the story takes place within it. Readability is so poor that a quick Google suggests most readers didn’t understand the ending. Huge spoiler alert here: Brüks thinks he dealt with the problem, but he’s infected, and he’s about to be the agent that infects every living thing on Earth. (In my humble opinion, of course.)

Again, this gets a good score for the science and the ideas, but not for the execution.

Four stars.

Review of Blindsight by Peter Watts

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I enjoyed The Freeze Frame Revolution, so I thought I’d try a couple of Watt’s older novels. Blindsight is Book #1 of the Firefall Series. It was released by Tor in October 2006 and runs 294 pages. It is seriously hard SF and was a finalist for the Hugo Award in 2007. This review contains spoilers.

In 2082 a mysterious array circles the Earth and flashes, seemingly taking readings of some kind. Then an old space probe picks up a signal from a distant comet. Earth sends out fresh probes, then mounts an expedition, sending a live crew of transhumans on the ship Theseus to investigate. They include a super-intelligent vampire recreated by paleogenetics, a linguist with multiple personalities, and a combat specialist, a biologist and a synthesist augmented with electronic implants. There are other crew in ship’s storage in case of loss. The ship’s AI bypasses the comet and follows the signal to the Oort Cloud, where the crew wakes from hibernation to find a gas giant too small to ignite into a star, orbited by some massive artifact under construction. They board the artifact and take “samples” of the alien life forms, bring them back to Theseus and try to analyze their biology, intelligence and use of language. Quickly they find themselves under a terrifying counterattack. Can they destroy the alien artifact? Get word of what they’ve found back to Earth?

I’ve been asking for science fiction with more ideas. So, here it is. The plot in this novel mainly serves as a vehicle for theme and discussion, and the main theme seems to be alienness. Our protagonist is Siri Keeton, the synthesist, who lost half his brain to a childhood illness and had it replaced with electronics. He experiences no emotion and has no feel for real social interactions, mimicking behavior patterns instead. The other crew members are also radically different from baseline humans, and the aliens on the artifact are orders of magnitude different. We get some character development as background for the crew, but this serves mainly to point out the pressures and results of transhuman advancement. There is also an ongoing discussion on the nature of intelligence and consciousness.

Negatives: The worst problem here is with readability. The plot is actually very thin for the length of the novel, and Watts fills up the pages mostly with description and discussion. This makes the narration very dense and the story hard to get into. There’s no fun or adventure here; it’s all very cerebral, nihlist and disturbing–I had higher hopes for the future of humanity. Watts tends to belabor the points, too, forcing the characters to come to them in successive stages. As he points out in the acknowledgements, these are hardly warm, fuzzy characters, either, which makes it hard to care about what he’s saying. He gets points for brilliance in the ideas, but loses audience on the execution.

Four stars.

Review of Integration (Ghost Marines Book 1) by Jonathan P. Brazee

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This novel is military SF, released by Semper Fi Press on 25 April 2018. It runs 242 pages and is the first novel of a series. The second novel, Unification (Ghost Marines Book 2), was released in August, 2018, and Fusion is forthcoming. Integration was a 2018 Dragon Award Finalist for Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel. Brazee’s novelette “Weaponized Math,” from The Expanding Universe, Vol. 3, was a 2018 Nebula finalist. This review may contain spoilers.

Leefe is Wyntonian, a non-human from Hope Hollow. When he is still a child, his home settlement is attacked by human slavers, and the community is saved by Imperial Marines. Three tri-years later, the new Emperor of the Empire announces a plan to integrate non-humans into the Imperial Marines. The now-adult Leefen, remembering his admiration for the soldiers who rescued him, volunteers to be one of the first group of Wyntonians to apply for induction. This move by the Emperor is clearly a political strategy to unify the Empire, and all the Wyntonians are warned about failing. In order to become a real marine, Leefen will have to pass testing to achieve induction, get through boot camp, and most importantly, overcome the racism of humans who spitefully call Wyntonians “ghosts.” Does he have what it takes?

The story details Leefen experiences of the induction and training process, then carries on into his service deployments, including a mission to rescue hostages and—coming full circle, a final one to rescue the helpless captives of outlaw slavers. The main theme is the importance of the process that integrates the raw recruits into a cohesive unit, and how they try to confront and defeat prejudice by finding common ground and kinship with humans.

This is a smooth read with a minimal action line. There’s a certain amount of violence, of course, but it’s tailored to support the main theme of unity. The characters are well-developed. The politics in the Empire is suggested, but not detailed. Leefen is offered a political post when his enlistment is up, but avoids it for the moment. There are plenty of interesting leads here that I expect will develop in book 2.

Four stars.

Review of Super Extra Grande by Yoss

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If you’re unfamiliar with Yoss, he’s a Cuban writer. This novel is humorous science fiction, translated by David Fry and published by Restless Books. It’s short, running around 160 pages, and it didn’t make the Nebula Recommended Reading List. It’s just for fun.

Dr. Jan Amos Sangan Dongo is a very large man, so it’s only natural that his interest in biology leads him to become Veterinarian to the Giants. This story details a couple of his adventures in finding a missing bracelet in the gut of a giant Tsunami sea worm and rescuing two ambassador-folk from the innards of an even more gigantic laketon (similar to an amoeba). Sangan Dongo is successful in both ventures, happily, and settles down with the two ambassadors, who prove to be interesting (and gratifying) love interests.

This is sort of different. The story rambles along, in no way serious, and presents background on the narrator’s parents, how faster-than-light travel was invented by an Ecuadorean Jesuit and various alien species that humans have met “out there.” It’s also full of jokes, like the narrator’s name, meaning “really big” in Cuban slang (you get the idea), aliens with lots of breasts, and various jabs at gringos. Most interesting feature: The dialog is written in Spanglish. I’ve never encountered this before, but found it entertaining and very readable with only a rudimentary understanding of Spanish.

Highly recommended. Three stars.

Comparing Jemisin’s The Fifth Season to Okorafor’s Binti

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Back before I went on vacation, I got involved in another one of those mystifying discussions on File 770 where I wonder how I’ve wandered into the Twilight Zone. This one was about who’s to blame for the legacy of slavery in the US. As a result, I’d like to compare a couple of the 2016 Hugo finalists. These are N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti. Both these authors have African heritage: Jemisin is African American and Okorafor is first generation Nigerian-American.

In Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, the orogenes are group of highly talented people who can shake the foundations of the world. They are enslaved by the guardians who can nullify their powers. Orogenes are feared by normal people who ostracize and kill any children they can identify. Slavers torture the children they capture to make them submissive. As a result, the orogenes grow up without any hope of improving their existence. They are all victims, bitter and filled with hate, at the mercy of an intolerable system that goes on and on, producing people who would rather kill their own children than let them live within it. On top of that, one of them breaks the world, ensuring almost certain death for everyone.

In Okorafor’s Binti, the protagonist Binti is of the Himba people who live in Angola. She works in her father’s business of producing astrolabes and in doing this has learned to be a harmonizer. She is highly talented in mathematics and is accepted to a school in another part of the galaxy. Her family disapproves, but Binti slips away from home and takes passage on a starship. The ship is captured by aliens whose artifacts have been stolen, and she uses her harmonizing talents to mend relations between humans and the aliens, and to get their property back for them. She then takes her place as a respected member of the school’s society.

Of course, authors interpret things based on their own heritage and their personal experiences, but also from their cultural and political points of view. The differing viewpoints are one of the strong points of diversity, where ideas and insights are often stimulated by bumping into something unfamiliar. I admit to my own personal viewpoints, of course, based on the region of the country where I grew up and on my own education and experience of the world. These things always inform a particular author’s message.

Note: Mike Glyer has asked me to state that discussions in the comments section of File 770 do not represent his personal views.

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