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.

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 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 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.

December 4, 2017

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga continues

Cetaganda by Lois McMaster BujoldCetaganda (Vorkosigan Saga #6) by Lois McMaster Bujold

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Much of classic science fiction consisted of what came to be called “space opera”—and most of it was junk. With some notable exceptions, the format is rarely used today. However, the multiple-award-winner Lois McMaster Bujold has updated the space opera with a long (and ongoing) series of novels, novellas, and short stories about a brilliant military officer who happens to be a dwarf. His name is Miles Vorkosigan. He’s the son of the (now) former regent of the Empire of Barrayar, a backward planet on the fringes of galactic civilization about one thousand years in the future; the emperor is his cousin. The Vorkosigan Saga continues with book #6, Cetaganda.

In Cetaganda, Miles and his (much taller) cousin Ivan are dispatched to represent the Barrayaran Empire at the funeral of the Dowager Empress of their bitterest and longest-standing enemy, the Cetagandan Empire. However, to call both entities “empires” gives the lie to the vast difference between them. Barrayar, a single planet located off the main trade routes of the galaxy, has only recently become integrated into galactic civilization. Barrayarans, even the most noble, are considered barbarians elsewhere. The Cetagandan Empire is vast and wealthy beyond compare. Barrayar managed to survive an invasion by the Cetagandan military only through the brilliant soldiering of Miles’ father, then Admiral Count Aral Vorkosigan. Thus, when Miles and Ivan arrive on Eta Ceta IV, “the heart and homeworld of the sprawling Cetagandan Empire,” they feel like country yokels visiting the big city for the first time.

The author paints a fascinating picture of Cetagandan society. Though an emperor rules, the empress (who is not necessarily his wife) wields what might be considered even greater power. She commands the Star Creche, where bioengineers have been tinkering for centuries with the genome of the ruling caste, the haut. (Think haute cuisine or haute couture.) Though the emperor reigns over the men who serve as governors of the eight satrap planets, their freedom of action is circumscribed by the haut women who are assigned to be their wives. The haut are effectively a super-race and possibly no longer truly human. The governors, by contrast, are members of a decidedly human and subordinate military caste called the ghem. 

Miles, now 22 and a lieutenant in Barrayaran Imperial Security, has been cautioned to avoid drawing attention to himself on his mission to Cetaganda. However, this is a difficult, if not impossible, assignment, since Miles is 4’9″ tall, hunchbacked, and wears braces to prevent the brittle bones in his legs from breaking. In any case, it’s not in his nature to play by the rules. It’s a sure thing that Miles will get into trouble—and drag Ivan along with him.

As is the case with all the previous novels in the Vorkosigan Saga, the action comes thick and fast from the very beginning of Cetaganda. As Miles and Ivan are docking in orbit around Eta Ceta IV, a mysterious local man bursts into their shuttle, apparently intent on assassinating them. They tackle the man and seize his weapon as well as a mysterious tubular object they’d thought was also a weapon. As they puzzle over the object, the Cetagandan escapes. Any discerning reader will be aware that this strange object will play a central role in the tale that follows. (It’s pictured on the cover of the edition I read.) Not long after arriving on the planet’s surface, Miles realizes that he and Ivan will be accused of stealing the object, whatever it is, presumably as a pretext for the Cetagandan Empire to go to war again with Barrayar.

In the complex series of events that follow, Miles becomes embroiled in a desperate search to understand why he and Ivan have been targeted, and who was behind the attack. The two cousins soon find themselves socializing with Cetagandans of the ghem caste. Although barbarians like them aren’t supposed to come into contact with the exalted haut, it doesn’t take long for that to happen, too. The story that unfolds involves a murder investigation and political intrigue of the highest order within the Cetagandan Empire. Bujold writes with a light touch. The dialogue is clever and sometimes very funny. The book is a great deal of fun.

For example, consider this exchange between Miles and Ivan:

Miles: “you have to stay absolutely cool. I may be completely off-base, and panicking prematurely.”

Ivan: “I don’t think so. I think you’re panicking post-maturely. In fact, if you were panicking any later it would be practically posthumously. I’ve been panicking for days.” 

For some reason, when I read dialogue like this, I think of Redford and Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

If you’re a sci-fi fan, you’ll enjoy my post, My 27 favorite science fiction novels. And if you want to access my reviews of the five preceding books in the Vorkosigan Saga, you can find them by searching for that name on this site. 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.

October 30, 2017

Miles Vorkosigan’s perilous rite of passage

Miles Vorkosigan: The Vor Game by Lois McMaster BujoldThe Vor Game (Vorkosigan Saga #5) by Lois McMaster Bujold

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Miles Vorkosigan is just under four feet nine inches tall—a dwarf, by today’s legal definition. Because he was poisoned in his mother’s womb, his growth was stunted, his spine curved, and now his bones are so brittle they may break if squeezed hard enough. Miles is the son of Admiral Count Aral Vorkosigan, Prime Minister of the planet of Barrayar, and Cordelia Naismith, formerly a captain in the armed forces of Beta Colony, an erstwhile enemy. With ancestors including emperors of Barrayar, Miles carries the genes of leadership. He is a military genius whose quick wit and unrivaled instinct for strategy more than compensate for his small stature and physical weakness.

Miles is the central figure in most of the sixteen novels that comprise the Vorkosigan Saga, several books of which have won Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards for Lois McMaster Bujold. Bujold won the Hugo Award four times, matching the record achieved by Robert A. Heinlein—and it’s easy to see why. The space operas that comprise the Vorkosigan Saga are several cuts above the classics in that genre from the 1940s and 50s, the Golden Age of Science Fiction. They sparkle with witty dialogue and humor, characters come across as three-dimensional, they’re action-packed, and the plotting is invariably complex and full of surprises. In short, these books are fun to read.

A word of warning, though: Bujold wrote these novels far out of sequence, with the publication dates of sequels often separated by many years. To avoid getting lost, it’s wise to read them in order of the chronology of the saga, not the order of publication.

The Vor Game is the fifth novel in the Vorkosigan Saga. (I’ve now read all five, having chosen to skip the  two novellas that precede it in the chronology.) As the story begins, Miles has just graduated from officers’ training as an ensign and is assigned to the last place he would ever choose to go: a godforsaken basic training camp on an island in the frozen north of Barrayar. He’s told he will only receive a more desirable posting if he can avoid insubordination for six months. (Yes, Miles’ mouth repeatedly gets him into trouble.) Naturally, circumstances soon conspire to force him to defy the camp’s commanding general. And that’s only the beginning of this twisted tale.

The plot of The Vor Game twists and turns so frequently that some readers may grow dizzy. Summarizing the story without spoiling it would be difficult, because much of the fun is encountering the constant surprises that confront Miles. You’ve got to read it to understand it.

My review of the first novel in the series, Falling Free, is An outstanding sci-fi series. The second, Shards of Honor, is The exciting second book in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. You’ll find the third, Barrayar, here: The Vorkosigan Saga: much more than a space opera. Number four, The Warrior’s Apprentice, is In Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, Miles begins his journey.

If you enjoy reading sci-fi, you might also check out my post, 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.

October 24, 2017

In 2144, Arctic resorts, autonomous robots, and killer drugs

autonomous robots - Autonmous by Annalee NewitzAutonomous by Annalee Newitz

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

You hope the world will never look like this. It’s 2144. Slavery has revived, camouflaged as indentured servitude. Theoretically, indenture is limited to a specified term; in practice, contract owners frequently refuse to honor the commitment. Millions of humans and robots alike are trapped in these unbreakable contracts. Only rarely do indentured servants escape, and autonomous robots are rare.

This is the world imagined by Annalee Newitz in her intriguing new science fiction novel, Autonomous.

Bioengineering is supreme. The pharmaceutical industry, and the lives of most of the world’s citizens, are dominated by a handful of huge pharma corporations. These companies produce patented drugs that lengthen lifespan, enhance productivity, and induce euphoria as well as prevent illness. Unfortunately, officially sanctioned drugs are far too expensive for most of the world’s people. A flourishing pirate economy fills some of the gaps by reverse-engineering the most popular drugs. To combat the pirates and enforce patent law, the paramilitary International Property Coalition (IPC) sends teams of agents around the world to capture or kill the practitioners of “black pharma.”

IPC Agent Eliasz Wójcik is partnered with an indentured military robot named Paladin. They work out of a large military base operated by the African Federation. The pair is charged with hunting down a notorious pirate known as Jack, who appears to be somewhere in the Arctic. In fact, as the novel opens, Jack (real name: Judith Chen) is traveling on a submarine along the Arctic coast “beyond the Beaufort Sea.” Jack has learned that a batch of a new, reverse-engineered drug she had unloaded in Calgary is causing sometimes-lethal side effects. She is on a mission of her own—to develop an antidote. Jack knows that the small batch of black-market drugs she distributed is only a minor part of the problem: the official drug, a product of Zaxy, one of the world’s largest pharmacorps, is in use as a productivity-enhancer at large corporations that can afford to pay its high price. Jack sees it as her responsibility to identify Zaxy as the source of the problem, get the word out worldwide, and make an antidote freely available. Eliasz and Paladin are determined to stop her.

Robotics has advanced in tandem with bioengineering. Now, robots may take on an unlimited variety of shapes, sizes, and forms. Biobots closely resemble humans and include both biological and manufactured materials. Other robots, only vaguely humanoid, possess human brains to supplement their cybernetic capabilities. Yet others may be configured as insects, birds, or machines. Paladin, for example, appears roughly humanoid but has automatic weapons concealed in its chest and arms as well as a human brain in its midsection. However, Paladin is much more than a military machine: it communicates both by vocalizing and wirelessly, it is curious and continuously absorbs new information—and it hopes to gain its freedom from indenture and join the ranks of autonomous robots.

Politics in the world of 2144 is as dramatically changed as economics. Climate change and epidemic disease have upended the geopolitical order, leaving the United States a backwater and Europe frozen, in the absence of the Gulf Stream. The world’s dominant powers are the Asian Union, the Brazilian States, and the African Federation, where most of the advanced biotech companies conduct their research. North America is a Free Trade Zone, with its most prosperous cities in the summery Canadian and Alaskan Arctic. It’s there that most of the action in Autonomous takes place.

Known primarily as a blogger and science journalist, Annalee Newitz is the author of five books of nonfiction. Although she has previously published science fiction short stories, Autonomous is her first novel. Newitz holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, in English and American Studies and was on the Cal faculty for a time. She now writes full-time.

This novel is one of The 15 most memorable novels of the decade and 18 excellent recent sci-fi novels.

I have also reviewed Newitz’s most recent nonfiction book, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: Will the human race survive climate change and a mass extinction? You might also be interested in 24 compelling dystopian novels and My 6 favorite dystopian novels. Take a look, too, at my own new book, Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction. Also, this book is just one of the 42 dystopian novels reviewed on this site.

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