The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers
Hodder & Stoughton, 2015
It’s a big universe, but when you don’t want to be found, it can feel very small. Rosemary has given up a lot for her new start aboard the Wayfarer, a ship in the business of building hyperspace tunnels. The eccentric crew, from the chaotic techs to the affectionate AI who keeps everything running, seem only too happy to welcome her aboard. When the Wayfarer is offered an extraordinary opportunity to build a tunnel longer than any they’ve ever built before, to a planet only recently accepted into the Galactic Commons, how could they possibly say no? But a long journey means a long time for secrets to come out, and that’s without really knowing what is waiting for them at the end…
This is Becky Chambers’ first novel and it is a delight. The worldbuilding is fascinating, detailed and original, with an interesting take on the role humans play in a wider galaxy. This is really an ensemble story, alternating between the perspectives of the whole Wayfarer crew, who are a charming motley of personalities and cultures. The plot is a little disjointed, with the chapters feeling more episodic than sequential, and there was one aspect of the ending that I found very frustrating, as the solution felt disrespectful to the characters involved, but this is the first book in a series and therefore I suppose it hasn’t really ended yet. The story continues in A Close and Common Orbit, which I shall definitely be reading.
Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch No.3) – Ann Leckie
Breq once planned to destroy her empress, Anaander Mianaai, but now that the many facets of Mianaai are busy destroying each other, it falls to Breq to keep what peace she can. She has made friends and allies on Athoek Station, and on the planet below – if she can protect them from the violent turmoil exploding elsewhere in the empire, she will do whatever it takes. In this, she has a tentative alliance with the space station’s AI, but as the last fragment of an AI herself, Breq’s motives are called into question on all sides. When it comes right down to it, what exactly is she?
This conclusion to Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, which began with Ancillary Justice, cannot be read independently and I suspect I would have got more out of it if the other two books had been fresher in my mind – as it was some aspects of the plot, such as Seivarden and Ekalu’s everything, were of no interest to me. Having the entire trilogy narrated from Breq’s semi-omnipotent perspective allows for interesting insights, but it does the human secondary characters no favours, drawing them in such broad strokes that their interactions with each other lack vitality and almost infantilising them at times. This contrasts sharply against the non-human characters, who stand on much stronger ground and have many fantastic moments together. I loved Leckie’s exploration of articial intelligences, and towards the end the book pulled together very satisfyingly, though there are plenty of loose ends for her to come back to if she wants to write another series in this universe. I, for one, vote for more Presger.
Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch No.2) – Ann Leckie
The Radch empire has splintered. Anaander Mianaai, made near immortal through generations of clones, has reigned for millennia but a schism in her consciousness has led to an extraordinary civil war. Breq used to be the emperor’s weapon; now she serves in name only, doing what she can to protect those under her care. That alone will be no easy task. With the military splitting into confused factions and every citizen of the Radch forced into making impossible choices, Breq will be lucky to stay alive.
Ancillary Justice was a remarkable series opener. Leckie made a point of showing how heavily entwined language and perception are – for instance, with a whole culture that uses only female pronouns, she created an almost genderless novel, which was both fascinating and disconcerting to read. Ancillary Sword is very much a middle book, extrapolating on the events of the previous installment while setting up the scene for a third. That means there’s not as much action, but it does allow a greater exploration of the cultures within the empire and the messy clash against Radch expectations. It’s solid, thoroughly enjoyable science fiction. Book three, Ancillary Mercy, will be released in October of this year.
Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch No.1) – Ann Leckie
Originally published in 2013
Deep in the outreaches of human civilisation, far from the heartland of the Radch where her life began, Breq is searching for a secret that could topple an empire. She is all that remains of the vast military starship Justice of Toren – an artificial intelligence that once commanded thousands of human ancillaries. It was lost twenty years ago, and now Breq is alone. But she knows who betrayed her. And she knows how to avenge herself.
Ancillary Justice is a remarkable novel, skilfully constructed around a fascinating concept. Breq is one of the most unusual characters I’ve ever encountered and it took me some time to settle into the structure of the book, but its quiet emotional depth and excellent world-building hooked me in. I especially love how Leckie plays with different languages within her universe to reveal cultural norms and ingrained biases. There were a couple of characters whose behaviour changed too quickly for my liking, without quite enough explanation, but overall the support cast of Ancillary Justice were strong. The Imperial Radch series continues with Ancillary Sword.
On the Steel Breeze – Alastair Reynolds (Poseidon’s Children No.2)
Through space the holoships are drifting, vast asteroids transformed into temporary worlds, each home to a population of millions and all set on the same course: to Crucible, the promised planet where an ancient monument to alien artifice beckons them on like a siren call to human curiosity. Dramatic advances in both spacecraft technology and life prolongation have put such a journey within the reach of a single human life, but Chiku Akinya has an advantage over her fellow passengers. She has three lives; three selves, the sisters of a groundbreaking experiment in cloning. It is through their united efforts that the truth is unearthed – Crucible is not what they have been led to believe. And it’s already too late to turn back…
This second novel of the Akinya dynasty picks up more than two centuries after the end of Blue Remembered Earth, following the variations of Chiku Akinya through a time of revolutionary social, political and personal change. This is a book with extraordinary scope and imagination, combining huge concepts with recognisably human protagonists, and all the flaws, quirks and emotions that entails. It’s really wonderful to see a version of the future that is not predominantly straight, white and male; also, a version of Earth that is neither impossibly utopian or apocalyptically disastrous. This is the second book in the Poseidon’s Children series and I’m very much hoping for more.
2312 – Kim Stanley Robinson
The year is 2312. Humanity has spread out across the solar system, a frontier of rapid evolution that has left the damaged, divided Earth far behind. Swan Er Hong, the epitomy of the wandering spacer, has followed the lure of the technological horizon further than most, but a sequence of events are about to take place that will force her to ask the question: at what price?
2312 drew me in with a bold and intriguing blurb that does not, in fact, match up very well to the actual book. The world-building is amazing, backed up by intricate detail, but that comes at the detriment of the story itself – too much time is invested in making the story scientifically plausible and not enough in making it work as a narrative. The result is a laboriously slow plot overpowered by huge concepts.
The Courier’s New Bicycle – Kim Westwood
HarperCollinsPublishers Australia Pty. Ltd., 2011
Melbourne is a city in denial. With post-pandemic Australia facing an infertility crisis and the religious zealots of ruling party Nation First rejecting all treatment except prayer, Salisbury Forth is a courier in the booming trade of contraband hormones. Cycling through the inner-city alleyways where government-sanctioned vigilantes hunt for so-called ‘transgressives’, Salisbury’s is a dangerous world, but when a new player starts trading tainted hormones on the boss’s patch, things are only just beginning to go downhill…
With all the dystopian Americas out there, it’s immensely refreshing to read science fiction set in near-future Australia, and also very scary. There is something very plausible about the scenario Westwood brings to life in her award-winning second novel, a confronting extrapolation of today’s hardline conservative policies, but what I found fantastic about this book was the small, potent ways in which people fought back. Salisbury is a strong voice throughout and all the characters are thoroughly fleshed-out, including the cat. (I loved the cat). This is the book to triumphantly flourish under the nose of anyone who thinks Australians don’t write killer science fiction.