Review of The Quantum Garden by Derek Künsken

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This novel is hard SF/adventure and was published by Solaris on October 15, 2019. It is #2 in the series, following The Quantum Magician, and runs 300 pages. This review contains major spoilers.

The Scarecrow shares the information he’s gathered on Belarius Arjona and his involvement in the recent Sub-Saharan Union’s rebellion and attack on the Congregate. In response, the Congregate defies the Banks and the Plutocracy and nukes the Garret, asteroid home of 4000 bioengineered Homo quantus. Arjona and Cassie Mejia are doing research on the wormhole system from their new inflation racer The Calculated Risk. The AI St. Matthew interrupts to let them know about the problem, and Arjona and Mejia make a plan to use the stolen time gates in the hold of The Calculated Risk to go back in time and rescue the population from the Garret. They lease and refit freighters, take them back in time and rescue everyone in the Garret that will leave with them. Homo quantus has been considered a failed genetic experiment, but suddenly their military potential is apparent, and the Scarecrow reclassifies them as bioweapons. Arjona and Mejia decide they need to hide the Homo quantus somewhere in their expanded wormhole system where they won’t be found. But their research on it isn’t complete—they need historical data in order to calibrate their model and plot courses. Arjona approaches Lieutenant-General Rudo and Colonel Ayen Iekanjika of the Union with a plan to go back in time and collect data from the planetoid Nyanga, offering the location of unknown wormholes in the Union’s Bachwezi system in trade. Rudo and Iekanjika are angry that Arjona stole their time gates, but Rudo agrees anyway. The Scarecrow is hot on their trail. Can Arjona, St. Matthew and Iekanjika obtain the data they need and successfully return without creating a paradox and changing the timeline of history?

This summary is a massive over-simplification, of course. As in The Quantum Magician, Künsken’s strong suit here is the science, all projected and highly plausible. The author comes up with entertaining applications; for example, where Cassie leads the Scarecrow on a chase through the multiple dimensions of a wormhole, and then doubles back for an inspired and unconventional attack. The entertaining Homo eridanus Stills is back for this installment, cursing in several languages as he brokers Arjona’s deal and then serves as the pilot to Nyanga-in-the-past. Most of the drama in the story falls on Iekanjika, who has to figure out the politics of the Union in its early days and decide what to do about causality in the timeline, while Arjona wanders off, stressing about a quantum intelligence on the planetoid that’s fated for extinction. Nobody is especially happy with each other by the end of this, so I’m expecting the story will continue as they work out their issues.

I had a few complaints about The Quantum Magician, but Künsken has fixed most of those issues here. There’s no real hook for the story, just an argument at the beginning, but the action line goes up sharply when the Congregate ship fires on the Garret, and it remains pretty gripping the rest of the way through. This is strongly plotted, the characters are fairly well-rounded and it’s strongly diverse. Künsken presents the ever-interesting Stills to fill the mid-novel slump some authors experience, and things get pretty intense as Iekanjika realizes the truth about the people she’s dealing with on Nyanga. I also have a fair idea what Bel and Cassie look like at this point, though I still didn’t get a good description. They’re bioengineered from Afro-Columbian stock, so have dark skin, hair and eyes. Arjona isn’t black enough to pass for the Shona stock of the Union, though, and has to darken his skin to pass. Besides that, Stills calls him “fancypants,” from which everyone will have to draw their own conclusions.

Highly recommended, especially for science geeks.

Five stars.

Review of Doyle’s Law by Sam Roberts

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This is a hard science fiction novel, self-published by the author in November of 2018. It runs 486 pages. Roberts is an English writer, and this looks to be his first novel. This review contains spoilers, but I’ll try not to give too much away.

It’s 2142. The Neith is a space station in a high Venus orbit where scientist Jim Ryburn has spent a large part of his career conducting energy research. He’s getting slightly old and slightly alcoholic and his research has never produced anything at all of value. A decommissioning crew headed by Chief O’Connor has arrived and begun removing the station equipment for salvage. This is fairly typical all over the solar system. Without any means of really efficient spaceflight, maintaining the stations is just too expensive; plus, there’s no real way to get to the stars. A last shipment of ore comes in from Mercury on an automated hopper, and things start to go wrong. The hopper collides with the station, shifting its axis. Systems in the station begin to throw off alarms. The crew’s behavior starts to get erratic. Then, one of the airlocks blows out, throwing the station out of its orbit. What’s going on? Sabotage? Theft? Will someone come to rescue them before they fall into the planet? And what are those strange magnetic properties in the ore?

For anyone who’s wondering, Doyle’s Law as used in the book is apparently a play on Murphy’s Law, but not quite the same thing. It seems to be something like: “things that have happened, will happen.” This is a tight, entertaining plot with a major twist about midway and another at the end of the story that keeps the reader guessing. After the first twist, you can go along for the ride on most of it, but then the suspense builds up again at the end when you don’t know which way it’s going to go. The characters are engaging, especially Ryburn and Chief O’Connor, who ends up carrying most of the action, while at the same time trying to deal with his own failings as a leader.

On the not so positive side, I’d have preferred slightly more world-building. What’s here is adequate, and it’s a nice touch that everybody seems to work for soulless corporations, but I’d have liked a little more detail about what’s going on back home on Earth, and more on where this is headed in the future. I’m thinking everybody here is a little too trusting about that, but maybe the issue will be addressed in a sequel. It was a little uphill when the complexity started to build up, but that smoothed out about three-quarters of the way through. Also, the ending is the tidy, emotional wrap up that hard SF readers will expect, but I thought it was a little too pat. Things just don’t happen like that in real life.

Regardless of these little niggles, this is an entertaining, uplifting story about humanity’s quest for the stars. Recommended.

Four and a half stars.

Review of This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

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I think this novella is meant to be science fiction. According to the authors, Gladstone wrote Red and El-Mohtar wrote Blue. It was published by Saga in 2019, and runs 209 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Red and Blue are transhuman operatives in a time war, augmented with technology and able to change shape at will. Red works for the Agency, a post-singularity technotopia, and Blue works for the Garden, a consciousness embedded in all organic matter. The two scheme against each other and eventually begin to admire the other’s work. They start to leave messages for one another and eventually fall in love. However, there’s a risk in this, and eventually they become suspect. Can they engineer a scheme where they can be together?

On the positive side, this has evocative scenes and makes good use of poetic metaphor. There’s a symbolism in the opposition: technology versus nature. The time war seems to make use of butterfly-effect actions and weapons that echo down through the time threads and may or may not change the course of history, depending on whether the other side can analyze the effects and counter quickly enough. This was a pretty quick read, as the lack of significant events allowed for skimming. The solution to the problem is fairly clever.

On the not so positive side, this has very little in the way of either plot or world building. It’s an art piece: a series of nebulous, fantastical scenes unmoored in either time or space, interspersed with poetic letters that do little to clarify the situation. This means the characterizations are also poor. The whole thing is so vague that we can’t get a grip on either the two main protagonists or the flow of side characters that have no names and only a transient presence. Plus, I don’t see any reason for these operatives to fall in love. There’s very little content here, and the book comes off as mostly nonsense.

Two stars

Review of Time Was by Ian McDonald

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This is a time travel novella released by Tor.com in April of 2018. Print length is 144 pages. McDonald is an award-winning author, having won the Locus Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. This review contains spoilers.

Emmett Leigh is a sometimes poet and book dealer who specializes in the World War II era. At a bookstore closing, he finds a copy of a poetry book titled Time Was by E.L. Anonymous. Inside is a letter from Tom to his lover Ben. Emmett posts to Facebook, asking for any information on the principals, and is answered by Thorn Hildreth, who recognizes the names. She lives in Lincolnshire, inherited an archive of WWII memorabilia from her grandfather, and also has a photograph. Emmett’s friend, an Imperial War Museum archivist with a photographic memory, locates other photographs for him, but oddly, these are from different time periods. Emmett and Thorn are forced to the conclusion these two men may be immortals, but further research shows they may be time travelers instead, who use the poetry book as a way to leave messages for each other in different eras. Can Emmett unravel the mystery?

The narrative switches between Emmett’s research and the lovers’ encounters. The story comes together gradually as Emmett investigates, and we learn about the wartime research project that created the time stresses, still playing out, that left Ben and Tom lost in time. We also learn about Emmett’s personal associations as he researches. He strikes up a brief relationship with Thorn, which soon fails, and finds out interesting things about Tom’s mentor, the author of the little book of poetry. The big standout in this novella is the imagery, as the text is accompanied by magical, haunting, atmospheric descriptions of the surroundings, including visuals, sounds and scents.

On the not so positive side, there’s not much in the way of plot here. Emmett’s research unfolds, first revealing the mystery and then following it through. There’s not really much of a hook or action line, either, and I wasn’t really surprised by the revelations at the end. However, this is a great little love story, and definitely worth reading because of the lyrical quality of the prose. I was also glad to see some equal time for a gay male love story here, as SFF output seems to be trending lately to lesbian relationships.

Four stars.

Review of Permafrost by Alistair Reynolds

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This is a novella published by Tor.com. It is hard science fiction and runs 176 pages. This review contains spoilers.

In 2080 an event called the Scouring started with the death of a few insect species, leading to a cascade of extinctions that eventually destroyed human food production. Seed banks have failed; most animal species have died out, and now humans are also facing extinction. A group of scientists establishes a base on the edge of the Arctic Circle in Russia, hoping to retrieve self-pollinating seeds from a research project in the past. They mean to implant half of a Luda pair in the brains of people in 2028 through MRI machines, and then install pilots from 2080 who can drive their bodies to successfully obtain and hide the seeds for retrieval in the future. One of the pilots drafted for the project is Valentina Lidova, whose mother was the mathematician who laid the groundwork for Luda pairs. Valentina successfully implants into the brain of a young woman named Tatiana, but very quickly the project starts to go wrong. Can the pilots and their subjects save humanity? What if they change history for the worse instead?

So, this is creative, character-driven, and also rates pretty high on the Ideation Scale. Plus, it’s also that rara avis, real, hard science fiction. I’ve reviewed a couple of Reynold’s books now, and I’m starting to think he’s going to be reliable for good, solid, character-driven SF stories. The idea of using particle pairs for time travel is real science. Einstein’s relativity and quantum states actually allows for this. Then Reynolds has created a crisis with particle pairs as the solution, plus sympathetic characters willing to stake their lives on carrying it out. These aren’t the usual story elements, either: the characters are Russian and Chinese and the protagonist Valentina is 70 years old and apparently in poor health. The action line starts with ugly events, clearly makes the point that this is a desperate situation, and the setting also contributes to the feel and atmosphere of the story, the Arctic base, the military presence and austerity recalling the Soviet Russia of the Cold War.

On the not so positive side, I didn’t connect very deeply with the characters. There were events here with a lot of heart that left me touched and impressed, but I didn’t get a good enough feel for the characters to carry the story into their future, for example. It could have been a little bit longer to allow for more of Valentina’s inner thoughts, desires and feelings, and something of what motivated the project director Cho. There are self-aware AIs here, too, that could have raised the stakes on sacrifice. I would have loved to have heard more from them.

Recommended. Four and a half stars.

Review of Avengers: Endgame

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This Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movie was produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. It follows The Avengers (2012), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), and Avengers: Infinity War (2018). It was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and features a large cast of superheroes, including Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Chris Evans as Captain America, Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Don Cheadle as War Machine, Paul Rudd as Antman, Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, Bradley Cooper as Rocket, Karen Gillian as Nebula and Josh Brolin as Thanos, etc., etc., etc., while Stan Lee makes his final cameo. This review contains spoilers.

After Thanos uses the Infinity Gauntlet to disintegrate half of all living things in the universe, Tony Stark and Nebula are rescued from space by Captain Marvel. The Avengers who are left organize and go after Thanos. Thor kills him, but this does nothing to reverse what Thanos has done. Back on Earth, everyone tries to get on with life, but they have to deal with the huge losses. Existence is hard and bitter, but they try to make new lives. Meanwhile, Scott Lang (a.k.a. Antman) has been stuck in the quantum realm since the catastrophe. Five years later he manages to find his way out. He takes stock of the situation and approaches Captain America and Black Widow with a plan to go back in time to reverse Thanos’ actions. Can the Avengers pull off a complex plan to capture the Infinity Stones before Thanos can get them? Can they create a new Infinity Gauntlet to defeat Thanos and bring back everything that was lost?

Good points: This movie has a little of everything: humor, pathos, love. It’s an ambitious script, and a lot of it goes by really fast. This is one possible explanation for the way it’s blown past USD$2B box office take in just a couple of weeks—people are going back to see it more than once because they missed a lot the first time around. It takes the main characters back in time for a brief visit with people they’ve lost, and in some cases, provides a do-over. For example, Gamora, who was sacrificed in Infinity War, gets a second chance. However, some other people apparently don’t and seem to be permanently dead. This may reflect the retirements of some of the bigger stars, including Robert Downey Jr. (RDJ), Chris Evans and Scarlett Johannson. Rocket the Raccoon is, as usual, a huge star in this film. The script didn’t tie up everything, though, which suggests a direction for future films: Loki got away with the Tesseract at the end of Infinity War, which sequence is reviewed in this film, and Carol Danvers’ not-a-cat puked it up at the end of Captain Marvel. Does this mean more time travels lie in our heroes’ futures?

On the not so positive side, this was a three hour movie that hurried through everything, suggesting they might have broken it up into two or three films and made better use of their stars. One big issue with putting all these highly charismatic people together is in suppressing the charisma to make clear leads. In all the Avenger films, it’s clear that Iron Man and Captain America are expected to be the leads, with Black Widow as a strong second. This probably reflects their seniority, contracts and the amounts they’re being paid. However, there are clearly obstacles to this plan. The first is Chris Hemsworth (a.k.a. Thor). In some of the other films, he’s had very few lines, and in this one, the script makes him into a cartoon figure. Surprise, surprise—Hemsworth is good for it. He does comedy well, too. Maybe this is supposed to demonstrate the dangers of alcoholism, but regardless, the role he’s given is offensive and smacks of body shaming. Ruffalo, also a strong personality, is disguised with CGI. Other obstacles include Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Chris Pratt as Star Lord, both of whom could steal the movie in a heartbeat. The directors were apparently expecting trouble here, though, so both are given very minimal appearances. In a three movie sequence, characters like these could have been given better roles and more screen time to develop subplots and make the film less jam-packed and hurried. Given the loose Tesseract and the fact that Thor went off with the Guardians at the end of this, we might expect they’ll get to follow up in future films, or maybe TV shows on Disney’s streaming service. Last, if RDJ, Evans and Johannson are all retiring, this will be a huge hit to the MCU films. Disney’s choices for replacement so far, like Brie Larson as Captain Marvel and Don Cheadle as War Machine, don’t really have the charisma and presence to carry the roles.

Highly recommended. Four and a half stars.

Review of Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson

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This novella is science fiction and a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It was published by Tor.com and runs 227 pages. Full disclosure: Kelly Robson is on the Board of Directors of the SFWA, the organization that runs the Nebula Award. This review contains spoilers.

Minh is a plague baby, one of the generation that moved out of the underground hells in 2205 and made an effort to reclaim the Earth’s surface. She works for ESSA, along with Kiki, a young fatbaby admin, but there haven’t been any new projects for decades. Now, the Mesopotamian Development Bank is planning an initiative to remediate the Mesopotamian Trench. The bank has put out a request for proposal (RFP) for a team to travel to the Mesopotamian Trench in 2024 BCE in association with the organization TERN (which operates time travel) to do a past state assessment. ESSA decides to compete, and Minh manages to win the bid. A team consisting of Minh, Kiki and biologist Hamid meets with TERN historian Fabian in Bangladesh hell, where he explains that the trip will also transport tourists, and that there is absolutely no risk because the particular time line they create will collapse once they’re all returned. Once in the past, they establish a base and begin their assessment. Surprisingly, there are a lot of people making their homes around the rivers, and these people seem disturbed by the weird monsters wandering around. Can the team really make it back safely?

On the positive side, this brings attention to the problem of environmental degradation. Besides the team’s narrative, a paragraph or two at the beginning of each chapter gives us an entertaining viewpoint from the ancient Mesopotamians, where King Shulgi and High Priestess Susa get word of the strange goings on and try to interpret and use these for their own political ends. We also get a lot of background on how environmental grants work. Also, the surprise ending is fun.

On the not so great side, this feels mostly dry and technical, and there’s hardly anything of a rising action line at all. Lots of text goes into establishing the situation, the setting and the characters. There’s also a lot of emphasis on personal issues and on dealing with the RFP and the various banks and organizations, then the sampling, etc., all of which might be totally boring without the promise of the Mesopotamian narrative. Near the end of the book, the two story lines suddenly converge and we realize there’s going to be trouble. In my opinion, this should have happened about chapter 2 or 3—the adventure is just getting started when it ends. Is there going to be a sequel, maybe? I checked, but don’t see any signs of one yet. Also on the negative side, I can’t see any reason for the “monster” part of this. Minh needs prostheses because she’s lost her legs and chooses octopus tentacles. Kiki has her legs cut off to reduce her size and weight and then chooses ungulate legs. Why are they doing this? Shulgi even notices how clumsy it is. Are they total idiots?

Interesting but flawed. Three and a half stars.

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