March 12, 2018

A bestselling science fiction novel that doesn’t measure up

bestselling science fiction novel: Wired by Douglas E. RichardsWired (Wired #1 of 2) by Douglas E. Richards

@@ (2 out of 5)

Amazon boasts that this book was the #1 bestseller for an entire year in both technothrillers and science fiction. I don’t think this speaks well for the reading taste of Amazon’s customers.

Wired is the first of two novels in Douglas E. Richards’ series about a near-future breakthrough in amplifying human intelligence. The topic is an important one. It’s central to the ongoing discussion about the uses, and dangers, of artificial intelligence. But Richards takes the subject in a strange and implausible new direction. The scientific basis of the technology he describes is difficult to find. I suspect there is no such basis.

Still, if the author had hung a credible story on even this thin thread, he might have succeeded in creating a powerful science fiction novel. Unfortunately, the characters he portrays come across as just as unlikely as the technology. There’s Kira Miller, who is a genius at genetic engineering. She’s responsible for the big breakthrough. David Desh is a retired Special Forces officer whose physical prowess is over the top. And the villains, of whom there are several, are easy to picture tying helpless females to train tracks in the face of ongoing locomotives while twirling their moustaches.

Richards is obviously familiar with the mechanics of writing a thriller. He demonstrates skill in plotting, pacing, building suspense, and finding fresh ways to surprise the reader. But there were just too many surprises to suit me. Beyond a certain point, I found myself rolling my eyes, wondering “Is this guy for real?” However, it’s clear that Richards does know a few things about science. The occasional digressions into neuroscience make that clear. They’re the only reason I kept reading through to the end.

I do not think I’ll read the sequel to Wired.

Douglas E. Richards holds degrees in microbiology and molecular biology from two major Midwestern universities. He has written fourteen novels, five of them for young adults.

For bestselling science fiction novels (and others that didn’t sell so well) that you’re likely to enjoy more, see 18 excellent recent sci-fi novels and My 27 favorite science fiction novels. If your taste in SF runs to the dark side, check out A brief look at 15 notable dystopian scenarios and 24 compelling dystopian novels in series.

March 5, 2018

7,000 people lived in Old New York in this charming historical novel

charming historical novel: Golden Hill by Francis SpuffordGolden Hill: A Novel of Old New York by Francis Spufford

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Megacities abound in today’s world. With approximately 20 million people, the New York City metropolitan area ranks 15th in the world by some accounts. (The nine largest cities are all in Asia.) It’s surprising, then, to think about New York barely more than two-and-a-half centuries ago as a scrappy little Dutch-English town housing just 7,000 people crowded together on the southern tip of the island then called Mannahatta. Francis Spufford’s charming historical novel, Golden Hill, is set at that time, three decades before the American Revolution.

Richard Smith is “a youth of about four-and-twenty dressed in plain green, wearing his own hair in short rust-brown curls, smiling in a fashion that crinkled the freckles across his nose.” He’s a mysterious young man. It’s November 1st, 1746. He has arrived in New York from London bearing a letter of credit for the then astounding sum of one thousand pounds sterling, equivalent to approximately a quarter-million 2018 dollars. Smith refuses to explain why he has come to New York or how he plans to use the money. In response, the merchant who’s obligated to honor Smith’s letter refuses to do so without written confirmation from London. Smith is forced to wait for six weeks until the next ship arrives with the mail.

When his purse is stolen immediately after he has presented the letter, Smith is doubly in trouble: known throughout the town as a wealthy man but suspected of fraud by everyone who matters. Somehow, he must hold out until the mail arrives. Only then will he have the funds he needs to execute some mysterious mission on Christmas Day.

Golden Hill follows Smith’s misadventures during the last two months of 1746. Along the way, he is accused of fraud from all sides, thrown into prison when the proof of his honesty doesn’t arrive on schedule, chased by a drunken mob intent on killing him, drawn into a duel with swords, and tried for murder. Somehow, the young man survives all this and Christmas eventually comes. But only in the final pages of the novel do we learn the nature of his mission. Getting there is a lot of fun. Spufford’s writing style evokes the 18th century, and his ear for dialogue is unexcelled.

British author Francis Spufford has written six nonfiction books, winning several awards in the process. Golden Hill is his first novel. It’s also an award-winner.

You may also enjoy my post, 75 readable and revealing historical novels.

February 27, 2018

A delightful modern space opera that’s all about character development

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky ChambersThe Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Space opera. The term conjures up visions of intergalactic battles, ugly alien monsters, and heroic human commanders besting all against impossible odds. Back in the 1930s, science fiction was dominated by such sophomoric fare, and the genre has appeared periodically ever since. Notable latter-day examples include Lois McMaster Bujold’s long-running Vorkosigan Saga and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. Both series have been bestsellers in recent years, and Bujold has won five Hugo Awards for hers.

In the early days of the genre, the typical space opera was characterized by one-dimensional characters, awkward dialogue, and lengthy scene-setting digressions. But today’s writers do a much better job. Now a young American author, Becky Chambers, has come onto the scene with the first two novels in a new space opera series, with a third on the way later this year. The series debuted with The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, a delightful departure from all the bad habits exhibited in the genre’s infancy. (She was able to finish writing the book only by raising the necessary money from 83 generous souls on Kickstarter.) Chambers’ characters are beautifully complex, the dialogue often sings, and her detailed and fascinating future universe emerges seamlessly from the story.

A 23-year-old woman is fleeing her life on Mars under the assumed name Rosemary Harper. To get as far as possible away from the people there who blame her for something terrible she had nothing to do with, she secures a job as a clerk on a ship that cruises through the galaxy “punching” wormholes into space. The Wayfarer is a second-class ship with a typical multispecies crew. It’s “the ugliest ship she’d ever seen.” Chambers notes, “Building wormholes was not a glamorous profession. The interspatial passageways that ran throughout the Galactic Commons were so ordinary as to be taken for granted.”

Captain Ashby Santoso; the “algaeist” who tends the fuel tanks and hates everybody; and the two techs, Kizzy and Jenks, are all human. The pilot, Sissix, is an Aandrisk. She resembles a lizard (but don’t ever call her that!) Ohan, the navigator, is a Sianat Pair who inhabit a single body but are referred to as “they” and “them.” Dr. Chef is a six-limbed Grum whose handfeet show great skill both in the medical lab and in the kitchen. And then there is Lovelace, known as Lovey, the AI who serves as the ship’s eyes and ears, its memory, and its internal communications. They’re all sapients in the terminology of the time.

With this motley cast of characters, you might expect a lifeless and tedious adventure tale along the lines of a 1960s production of Star Trek. But no. This is a 21st-century version of space opera. Kizzy and Jenks (female and male) are best buddies and inseparable. However, Jenks is in love with Lovey, and the feeling is mutual. (Yes, Lovey is the artificial intelligence embedded in the ship.) We wonder about Rosemary, but not for long. She clearly has eyes for Sissix, the pilot. (They’re both female.) The captain is involved in a long-distance love affair with a silvery sapient named Pei who represents the most beautiful species in the galaxy. They’re male and female, the only traditional coupling in the story. Somehow, Chambers makes all these relationships believable. And, as Ann Leckie said about this book in a cover blurb, it’s “great fun.”

The greatest strength of this novel lies in character development. But the scene Chambers sets and the plot she spins out are both outstanding. I can’t wait to read the two sequels.

This novel is included in 18 excellent recent sci-fi novels. For other great reading in this genre, go to My 27 favorite science fiction novels. And if the dark side of science fiction appeals to you, check out 24 compelling dystopian novels in series.

February 13, 2018

A great science fiction novel set in a future totalitarian China

An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King

An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

China’s one-child policy, introduced in 1979, was in force until 2016, when the government instituted a two-child policy. The result has been a large imbalance between the numbers of male and female children. As of 2007, according to a BBC report citing the country’s National Population and Family Planning Commission, there were expected to be 30 million more men than women by 2020. In An Excess Male, science fiction author Maggie Shen King writes about a time in the near future when there are 40 million more men. Hence the “excess male” at the center of her tale.

In Shen King’s dystopian future, women typically have two husbands. The law allows them to “go the max” and marry a third, which they are encouraged to do. Matchmakers help excess males compete for the limited marriage opportunities, usually without success. And even though tolerating male homosexuality could reduce the pressure for marriage, the government’s deeply rooted homophobia forces gay men either to marry or to subject themselves to reeducation and branding was Willfully Sterile, essentially as outcasts. This future China has crossed over the line from authoritarianism into totalitarianism. Dissent is simply not tolerated. The penalties for lawbreaking are severe.

An Excess Male revolves around two families. Lee Wei-Guo is 44 and desperate to find a wife. He is a bodybuilder who owns and runs a fitness studio. Wei-Guo has two fathers, both around 80, whom he calls Big Dad and Dad. A matchmaker has arranged a lunch for the three of them with Wei-Guo’s prospective bride, Wu May-Ling, and her two husbands.

May-Ling is 22 but married to two brothers who are approaching the age of 60. Wu Hann, a member of a successful accounting firm, is gay. His brother Wu Xiong-Xin (“XX”), is a high-functioning autistic who has barely avoided being branded as an antisocial Lost Boy. XX is a brilliant programmer who holds a senior position at a private firm that provides online security services for China 100 companies and government agencies.

The plot in An Excess Male revolves around Wei-Guo and May-Ling’s increasingly desperate efforts to marry. Wei-Guo’s fathers disapprove because they fear the rick of involvement with a gay man. And the Party secretary at Hann’s firm refuses him permission to marry again. Meanwhile, in a parallel plot, Wei-Guo’s leisure role as a general in a competitive laser-tag army exposes him to abuse from the PLA major who oversees their operations. Shen King adroitly weaves these two tales together, building suspense throughout.

An Excess Male is Maggie Shen King’s debut novel. (Her short stories have appeared in several magazines, including Asimov’s Science Fiction.) The book was one of The Washington Post’s 5 Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels of 2017. This is a great science fiction novel.

This book is one of 18 excellent recent sci-fi novels.

Some of the best dystopian novels ever written are listed in my post, 24 compelling dystopian novels in series. I’ve also written about My 6 favorite dystopian novels. And in my newest book, Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction, I review 62 dystopian novels and assess how realistic they are. Also, this book is just one of the 42 dystopian novels reviewed on this site.

February 13, 2018

In an SF novel of life after the Fall, population control is the key to survival

population control: Bannerless by Carrie VaughnBannerless (Bannerless Saga #1) by Carrie Vaughn

@@@ (3 out of 5)

What are the roots of the biggest problems confronting humanity today? Amid a long list of possibilities, two stand out: overpopulation and overconsumption. Today, we are beginning to confront the resource limits of our planet, drinkable water and arable land most prominently among them. In some not-too-distant tomorrow, billions may die as a result.

Carrie Vaughn’s novel, Bannerless, depicts a 22nd-century world a century after the chickens came home to roost. “There wasn’t an anniversary of the day when the Fall happened. The process lasted years,” she writes. Monster storms devastated communities all across the surface of the planet. Rising sea levels flooded coastal cities. Pandemic disease killed off billions, and not just one disease but one after another. It all played out gradually, over two decades. Only a tiny remnant survived to harvest what little technology remained functional after the Fall. And now, as the novel opens, the last people with memories of life before the Fall have all died.

In Bannerless, small communities of survivors live in villages and towns strung along California’s Coast Road. The economy is based strictly on barter. Farmers trade crops and animals for goods produced by artisans. Marketplaces reminiscent of medieval Europe offer opportunities for trade and socializing. But few venture out on the roads. A handful of solar cars remain operational, and a small number of horses pull carts carrying goods for sale. Nearly everyone walks, with journeys between settlements often requiring days.

Rigid rules are in place to limit population and protect arable land from overfarming. The people live in small “households” of as few as four individuals. From the age of puberty onward, women wear implants in their arms to prevent pregnancy. A household must earn the right to have a baby by meeting production quotas and sticking to the rules. Then it is issued a “banner,” a cloth wallhanging “a foot square on either side, a red-and-green checked pattern for blood and life.” There is constant tension between those who insist on faithful adherence to the rules and those who are willing to forego letting a field go fallow in hopes of creating a surplus. “With a surplus the town could support a couple more mouths, hand out a couple more banners. Folk always wanted more banners.” The centerpiece of this new world is population control.

To enforce the rules, painstakingly trained investigators travel the roads whenever reports surface of possible violations. The brown uniforms they wear strike fear into the hearts of the others, since an investigation might lead to a household being broken up or an entire settlement disbanded. Exceeding quotas, hoarding food, or “bannerless” pregnancies are the gravest infractions. “If you had too many babies, if they couldn’t be fed, if there was another epidemic or famine, they couldn’t take care of everyone, and the Fall would happen all over again.”

I found this picture of Earth after the Fall thought-provoking. It’s a cautionary tale about humanity’s folly, and a timely one. But the plot is is weak, and the characters who play large roles in the story are not fully fleshed out. Carrie Vaughn gets high marks for a fertile imagination, much lower for storytelling.

For a list of SF novels I’ve enjoyed a lot more, go to My 27 favorite science fiction novels. If you fancy looking on the dark side, you might like to check out My 6 favorite dystopian novels and 24 compelling dystopian novels in series. Also, this book is just one of the 42 dystopian novels reviewed on this site. And in my new book, Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction, I review 62 dystopian novels.

January 30, 2018

Robert Harris explains why Neville Chamberlain went to Munich

Robert Harris explains the Munich PactMunich by Robert Harris

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Mention Neville Chamberlain and Munich in the same breath today, and you’re likely to elicit a grimace. The agreement in 1938 between the British Prime Minister and Adolf Hitler to dismember Czechoslovakia is regarded as one of the most shameful and tragic events of the 20th century. But is it fair to condemn Chamberlain without understanding his motivation or the context of the times? The British thriller author Robert Harris has been exploring that question for thirty years. The result is his new novel, Munich. The book is not an alternative history like his popular novel, Fatherland. It’s fact-based historical fiction.

Why did Neville Chamberlain go to Munich?

As Harris paints the picture, Chamberlain’s actions in 1938 were not just understandable but possibly admirable. He was not naive about Hitler’s intentions. His rush to sign the pact with Nazi Germany responded to almost universal desire to avoid war, the difficulty of refuting Hitler’s logic about absorbing the Sudetenland Germans into the Reich, and Chamberlain’s passionate desire to avoid repeating the slaughter of World War I. (He had been too old to serve in the military then.)

Harris based his novel on extensive reading about the Munich conference and the principal characters involved in it, which he details in a long bibliography in his Acknowledgements. Moreover, recent research suggests that if Britain and France had gone to war against Germany in 1938, the result would have been devastating. It’s true that the Nazi invasion of France and the Low Countries in May 1940 and the Battle of Britain that followed were disastrous for the Allies. However, the nearly two-year delay Chamberlain achieved at Munich allowed Britain to equip and staff the Royal Air Force just enough to stave off a German invasion of the island in September 1940. Harris implies that Chamberlain was fully conscious that war would come. He sought only to gain time.

An historical novel wrapped in a thriller

Harris builds his story around two central characters, one English, the other German. Hugh Legat is the most junior of Neville Chamberlain’s three Private Secretaries; he serves essentially as a gofer but is pressed into service at times as an interpreter and, even more rarely, as a wordsmith. Paul von Hartmann holds a similarly junior post in the German Foreign Ministry; he despises the Nazis and has joined a conspiracy to depose Hitler. The two young men had been classmates and friends at Oxford. They’d last seen each other in 1932 on a vacation in Germany.

Von Hartmann has secured a document that proves Hitler’s intention to expand Germany’s borders through war regardless of any international agreements. With the help of his collaborators in the anti-Nazi conspiracy, he travels from Berlin to Munich in hopes of delivering the document directly to Neville Chamberlain. Through their connections in London, the conspirators have contrived to arrange for Legat to be assigned to attend the conference, too. Von Hartmann expected Legat to help him get to Chamberlain. Harris builds a suspenseful story around the effort to arrange that.

Historical figures in a fictional setting

Legat and von Hartmann are both fictional characters. However, many of the other figures portrayed in Munich are based on real men. Prominent among them are British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, as well as Chamberlain, Hitler, Mussolini, and French Premier Daladier. The author’s portrayal of these historical figures is solidly grounded in his research.

About the author

Robert Harris is one of the most successful writers in the world today. Most of his work is historical fiction about World War II and Ancient Rome. Beginning with Fatherland in 1992, his novels also include The Ghost (adapted to film as The Ghost Writer) and the three novels in the Cicero trilogy.

I have previously reviewed several other novels by Robert Harris:

Harris wrote five earlier novels in addition to the five listed here. I read and enjoyed them all before launching this blog in January 2010.

If you enjoy reading history in fictional form, check out my post 75 readable and revealing historical novels. My post 17 nonfiction books that illuminate the World War II era may also interest you.

January 29, 2018

The post-human future explored in an outstanding SF novel

The post-human future: Nexus by Ramez NaamNexus (Nexus Trilogy #1) by Ramez Naam

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Nearly sixty years ago, a psychologist and computer scientist named J. C. R. Licklider published a landmark paper under the title “Man-Computer Symbiosis.” He is best known today as the Pentagon official who funded the predecessor to the Internet, the ARPANET. But Licklider’s writing has gained him the reputation as a pioneer in artificial intelligence as well. His 1960 paper foresaw a time when machines would surpass the human capacity to reason. However, he did not envision machines replacing human beings. Instead, Licklider’s vision was built around the concept of symbiosis. Unlike some of our contemporaries (most prominently, Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk), he was hopeful that machines would free us from drudgery and open up vast new possibilities for the human race.

Today, more than half a century later, advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience suggest the real possibility that Licklider’s vision may be realized. The most prominent of latter-day visionaries in the field, Ray Kurzweil, famously predicts that computer intelligence will overtake humans’ by 2045. He calls this event the singularity. Hawking, Gates, Musk, and others are alarmed by this possibility—which AI researchers almost universally appear to assume is inevitable. The skeptics fear that advanced artificial intelligences will not just surpass humans but supersede us, eventually leading to the extinction of the human race. By contrast, Kurzweil and his adherents insist that humans will gradually gain powerful new abilities by incorporating machine-based intelligence and enhanced sensory perception, advancing the human race into a bionic, transhuman future.

But will the transformation of humanity by artificial intelligence stop there? Is there a step far beyond into post-human abilities so far superior to those of human beings today that a new species will result? This is the premise of Ramez Naam‘s brilliant science fiction trilogy. In Nexus, the first of the three novels, Naam explores the circumstances in which the conflict between humans and post-humans emerges into the open. Although the book is unquestionably imaginative, it is far from fantasy. Naam is a computer scientist and is intimately familiar with contemporary neurological research into using computer interface technology to enhance human cognitive abilities.

Nexus is skillfully written and a page-turner. It’s undoubtedly a work of fiction. However, as Naam writes in a postscript to the novel, “to the best of my abilities, the science described in the science fiction is fully accurate. While the idea of a technology like Nexus that allows people to communicate mind-to-mind may seem far-fetched, precursors of that technology are here today.”

Naam is the author of an earlier, nonfiction book, More than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement. As Naam notes in his postscript, “That book goes in depth into brain computer interfaces and also into the genetic enhancements that might make humans stronger, faster, smarter, and longer lived than ever. As a bonus, it dives into the politics, economics, and morality of human enhancement—other topics that Nexus touches on.”

Another author, H. C. H. Ritz, explored a similar theme in Absence of Mind, which I reviewed at In an unusually original sci-fi technothriller, technology meets neuroscience.

This book is one of 18 excellent recent sci-fi novels. You may also be interested in My 27 favorite science fiction novels. If you fancy looking on the dark side, you might like to check out My 6 favorite dystopian novels and 24 compelling dystopian novels in series. And if the science in science fiction excites you, check out my post Science history and science explained in 33 excellent popular books. Also, this book is just one of the 42 dystopian novels reviewed on this site.

January 15, 2018

The strangest tale I’ve read in years

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWittUndermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt

@@@ (3 out of 5)

It’s hard to know what to make of this curious little novel by Patrick DeWitt. Undermajordomo Minor is unquestionably the strangest tale I’ve read in years—and I read a great deal of science fiction, much of which is surpassingly strange. (No, this is not science fiction.)

Here we have a young man named Lucien (“Lucy”) Minor who lives unhappily in a village called Bury. To escape the boredom and ridicule of his contemporaries there, Lucy accepts a position as Undermajordomo at the castle of the Baron Von Aux far across the country. Traveling by train in a third-class cabin he encounters a thief named Memel. He soon discovers that Memel lives in the village below the Baron’s castle—and he has a gorgeous young daughter named Klara. Lucy is smitten. Much of the action that follows after he joins the castle staff involves Lucy’s pursuit of Klara. But so much else is going on that it’s difficult to summarize. For one thing, a seesaw war is underway nearby between two factions for some undetermined and apparently senseless reason. A soldier in one of the two armies considers himself engaged to marry Klara. And Lucy quickly finds himself in a confrontation with the man.

Even days after Lucy’s arrival, the Baron is nowhere to be seen. Lucy asks his boss, Mr. Olderglough, where he is to be found.

“The Baron goes where the Baron wishes. And often as not he wishes to go nowhere at all . . . Six days out of seven he won’t even leave his room. Seven days out of seven.”

“And what does he do in there, sir?”

“I suspect it involves a degree of brooding. But this is not your problem to ponder; it’ll be months before you lay eyes on the man, if you lay eyes on him.”

But Lucy does in fact encounter the Baron rather quickly. He discovers that the man is even stranger than his boss had implied. And what follows Lucy’s discovery moves the tale out of the realm of strangeness and into surrealism.

Undermajordomo Minor is at times very, very funny. In that respect, it’s reminiscent of DeWitt’s earlier novel, The Sisters Brothers, a hilarious tale of criminals at work during the California Gold Rush. I loved that book. This one, not so much.

My (favorable) review of The Sisters Brothers is at Hired killers, the California Gold Rush, and lots of surprisesUndermajordomo Minor is not historical fiction, as you should have guessed. But I’m sure you would find novels in that genre more satisfying. Check out My 15 favorite funny novels and 75 readable and revealing historical novels.

January 1, 2018

Neurology meets high-tech in this gripping science fiction novel

Neurology meets high-tech: Dead on Arrival by Matt RichtelDead on Arrival by Matt Richtel

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Just imagine. You’ve landed at a small regional airport somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. The world has gone silent. There’s nothing but static on every channel on the radio. The body of a man in a jumpsuit lies sprawled on the tarmac, and human figures inside the terminal are motionless. Is this beginning of a dystopian tale? Will people everywhere be victims of a mysterious pandemic? Or is something else happening here?

In Matt Richtel’s debut novel, Dead on Arrival, something else is definitely going on. As will quickly become apparent, what appears to be a pandemic is somehow related to a top-secret project at Google. There, a small team of brilliant engineers is exploring the connection between information overload, memory, and attention. Has the experiment gone awry? We’ll find out.

Dead on Arrival is loosely based on contemporary neurological research that is turning up disturbing findings. The information overload to which so many of us are subject through our mobile devices and social media is a problem on many levels. First, the information glut that keeps us glued to our screens can impair working (short-term) memory. Second, information overload is causing many of us to suffer from decision fatigue. Third, as The Economist has noted, “information overload can make people feel anxious and powerless: scientists have discovered that multitaskers produce more stress hormones.” Lastly, our marriage with social media may be driving us apart, causing us to drift ever closer to political extremes (although some studies question this assertion). Matt Richtel has built his novel around these questions, speculating that the potential exists for electronic media to impact us in far worse ways.

Matt Richtel won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles at the New York Times about distracted driving. He later wrote a bestselling nonfiction book on the topic, A Deadly Wandering. Before writing Dead on Arrival, Richtel studied the impact on the human brain of living with “a deluge of data” from digital devices. He shared the thought that children’s brains are developing differently from those of their parents and others of older generations. Richtel, a graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, holds a Master’s degree from the Columbia School of Journalism.

This book is one of 18 excellent recent sci-fi novels. You might also be interested in My 27 favorite science fiction novels. And if you fancy looking on the dark side, you might like to check out My 6 favorite dystopian novels and 24 compelling dystopian novels in series.

December 26, 2017

Accelerated evolution is the theme in a superior science fiction novel

accelerated evolution: Children of Time by Adrian TchaikovskyChildren of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Tens of thousands of years after Earth has self-destructed in a horrific civil war, humanity has once again reached for the stars. In the Old Empire, which spanned Earth and several of the solar system’s gas giant moons, near-lightspeed interstellar ships had begun to spread through the galaxy, terraforming the most likely planets where Homo sapiens might find new homes. Now, the technology of the Empire has been lost to time, mere hints of it accessible only to the classicists who labor to translate the old, dead languages of the meager records that survived the Empire’s destruction. But the toxic wastes the war left behind have gradually rendered Earth lifeless. Now humankind cannot rebuild where it has lived for millions of years. The remnants of the human race have set out to relocate elsewhere in starships, each of which houses a half-million people in stasis. In Adrian Tchaikovsky’s outstanding science fiction epic, Children of Time, one of those immense lifeboats is approaching the nearest terraformed planet after a journey of nearly 2,000 years. What they will encounter there is a nightmare: the unintended consequences of a biological experiment carried out by a lone survivor of the Old Empire: Doctor Avrana Kern.

In fact, it was Kern’s vision that was the proximate cause of the civil war that destroyed the empire. She had set out for the newly green planet with thousands of monkeys, intending to release them on the surface to build a new, untainted civilization made possible by a nanovirus that will speed up their evolution into thinking beings. Through accelerated evolution, Kern is convinced they will achieve what had eluded the human race: civilization without war. Aided by “the virus that would accelerate the monkeys along their way—they would stride, in a mere century or two, across physical and mental distances that had taken humanity millions of long and hostile years.” Kern is, of course, quite mad. Her plan had triggered massive opposition and ultimately civil war within the Empire. And the scheme goes awry no sooner has her ship arrived in orbit around the green planet. Accelerated evolution will take root on the surface, because the nanovirus has been released, but not among the monkeys. The monkeys are all dead. The beneficiaries are the invertebrates introduced through terraforming and already living in large numbers on the planet: spiders, ants, shrimp, beetles.

Tchaikovsky skillfully advances the threads of his tale through short, alternating chapters set on the planet’s surface among the evolving spider population and on board the lifeboat bearing the remnants of humanity. A clash is inevitable. What remains to be seen is which species will dominate the others, and with what consequences.

Adrian Tchaikovsky (or Czajkowski) is a Polish-British fantasy writer best known for the 10-book Shadows of the Apt series. Children of Time is his sole science fiction work in novel form.

This book is one of 18 excellent recent sci-fi novels. You might also enjoy one or more of the books on the list of My 27 favorite science fiction novels. If I were compiling that list today, I would include Children of Time. I enjoyed the book from beginning to end.

And if you fancy looking on the dark side, you might like to check out My 6 favorite dystopian novels and 24 compelling dystopian novels in series.

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