Seveneves - Neal Stevenson
‘Seveneves’ is a massive brick of a novel. Stephenson begins with a bang, destroying the moon in the opening sentence ‘for no apparent reason’. Hand of God, or cosmic accident it matters little. If you had a bad feeling about that cosmic accident, you were correct, and a Hard Rain is surely gonna fall.
The first third is concerned with ‘the End of the World’ what the human race might do if faced with the certainty of annihilation. The International Space Station is to be a life-raft, and a miniscule fraction of humanity will shelter whilst the remnants of the moon obliterates 7 billion souls.
After 704 seconds of reflection for the passing of the human race, the survivors set about consolidation, turning mere survival into a platform for rebuilding, whilst responding to the inevitable setbacks, infighting and winnowing that the precarious tread of humanity must rest. The political infighting which was for the most part absent from the first third of the story, is a key element in the near catastrophe of the climax to this chapter.
The concluding stanza, set 5000 years in the future, is more speculative, imagining the society and culture which arises as a result of the events which close the 2nd chapter, whilst springing its own surprises.
The book is brimming with hard science fiction ideas, all of which are handily extrapolated from existing technology. The presentation is not without lengthy infodumps, which sometimes interrupt the narrative, though not significantly so until the overlong setup and gaze in awe of the orbital cities built from the ruins of the moon, and the transport systems used to access them in the setup for Part three. It recalls the interminable slow pan technoporn of the Enterprise resting in Space Dock in ‘Star Trek-The Motionless Picture’. The story does lurch back into gear though, but after about 100 pages and cruises to a satisfying conclusion in the vacant but still disputed landscapes of a re-terraformed earth.
This is a story about how events effect people, and as a consequence, the characters are drawn in broad brushes, with minimal exploration. There are few truly 3 dimensional protagonists, the majority of the cast having to be content with being of cardboard, or indeed a single note. They do serve their intended purpose in pushing the plot along. It is that type of story, where the objects and their interactions are the nub of the matter. A worthy and enjoyable read, and worthy of consideration for the prize, though it does not get my vote.
The Fifth Season - N.K Jemisin
The Fifth Season begins with an act of destruction. The continent of the Stillness is anything but still, wracked by seismic instability, but it's great city of Yumenes has always endured. It is protected by the powers of the Orogenes, whose talents can harness the energies of the earth, and shape the land. Until now. But why now? And how was the destruction wrought.
After this prologue, the reader follows three expertly twined narratives, relating the lives of three strong female POV characters in this harsh and brutal world. Each of these women is an orogene, a hated 'rogga' , and each knows why their kind is feared by those without such powers. For with the power comes instability, and the potential to kill.
Essun, flees from her home after her husband murders her son, and steals her daughter. She seeks her daughter in the chaos following the opening cataclysm.
Damaya, is sold by her family after she is revealed as a 'rogga'. A Guardian, one who is tasked with controlling the dangerous and feared orogenes takes to her to Yumenes, where at the academy known as the Fulcrum, she will be trained in her powers, and learn her place in the world.
Syenite, a young orogene, is paired with a more powerful mentor, the better to complete her training, and to breed the next generation of orogenes, who will keep the stillness safe. She is resentful and rebellious when sent with her mentor on a mission which she considers beneath her potential.
These are three protagonists about whose fate and destiny the reader can invest in and worry over. Jemison leavens the mix with tantalizing glimpses of empires past and fallen, of powerful artefacts floating crystalline in the air. There are non-human races and eaters of stone for good measure. None of these elements is gratuitous. Just like the violent or cruel events of the story, they have a purpose and meaning in the narrative.
The Fifth Season is the first in a series (and ends with a stunning last line!), and the most original and potent of this year's finalists. It fits into that borderland that might be fantasy, or might be science fiction. And that it doesn't really matter, because it is just a cracking story.
Ancillary Mercy - Ann Leckie
At the close of 'Ancillary Justice', Our Breq is isolated in the Athoek system, with a furious avatar of Anaander Mianaai (at least one faction of her) bearing down with retribution in mind.
Breq could abandon her newfound community, but chooses not to, instead hatching a risky plan. A representative of a three-thousand year old ship which should not exist, the dietary habits and faux pas of the translator for the Presger, and indeed lots of tea are important elements in this plan.
Ann Leckie brings the Imperial Radch trilogy to a very satisfying conclusion, emphasizing relationships and love as guiding philosophies. Breq's special nature allows her to see that the definition of citizen, and the cohort of those who are entitles to free agency and freedom from coercion and oppression are not just citizens, but must perforce include AIs and ships and their disparate parts. Who knows, maybe somewhere there might even be freedom for Anaander Mianaai from the very particular type of slavery under which she suffers.
In all a satisfying and commendable ending to the series, pulled off with verve and humour.
Uprooted - Naomi Novik
Novik takes a Polish fairy tale of a wizard in a tower, and an evil wood, and weaves an engaging story about actions and their consequences, and the nature of evil.
In a village, in an out of the way valley, stands a tower. At the other end of the valley is an evil wood. In the tower is a wizard, who protects the valley from the depredations of the wood. In return for this service, every 10 years, the Dragon, the wizard of the tower takes a 17 year old village girl as his 'protege'. These girls are not harmed, but afterward are never the same and never stay in the valley after their decade of service. This year, everyone expects the beautiful Kasia to be selected. Unexpectedly, her friend Agniezka is chosen. There might just be the scent of magic on her....
So it begins, but there is much more including how magic works in the world, intrigues and prejudices of the monarchy's court and indeed the futility of bravery in battle. In the end, a deep delve into the evil wood is necessary to understand just how such malevolence was wrought.
The Aeronaut's Windlass - Jim Butcher
The opening volume of Jim Butcher’s new series is set on a world where the population is restricted to ‘habbles’, the many levels of tall ‘spires’, separated by a mist shrouded surface, infested with deadly beasties and worse. Trade and communication is possible only by means of great airships, held aloft by etheric currents harnessed by special magical crystals. Such trade brings forth privateers, and to need for the scattered spires to have naval fleets to defend their traders from such depredations.
One such privateer is Captain Grimm, drummed out of the Albion Fleet for a cowardly act which no one can bring themselves to mention. But he now captains the ‘merchant’ ship Predator, with his government’s permission to indulge in a bit of predation of his own. It does not go so well, and he limps back to Albion with a crippled ship, and debts he cannot pay.
In Albion Spire, Gwen Lancaster, daughter of a noble house, has so singularly failed to research family history, that she is unaware that she has been manipulated into joining the Spirearch Guard by her ever so aristocratic mother. And her warriorborn cousin Benedict can watch over her, to see she comes to no harm.
Bridget Tagwynn’s house has fallen on hard times, but this does not excuse her of the obligation to serve the in Spirearch’s Guard for a year. She is not well pleased to be forced to consort with the arrogant scions of the High Houses. Fortunately, her father has agreed that Rowl, of the Nine Paws Clan, will also offer service for a year. Surely nothing can go wrong.
Two weeks later, with the well-meaning ‘help’ of Lady Gwen, Bridget has ‘offended’ inbred chinless wonder Reggie Astor, and must duel with him. If she defeats him, her house will be at the mercy of the powerful Astor clan, and if she loses, she is well, dead. As the duel is about to commence though, invaders from Spire Aurora stage a daring sneak attack….
There is a lot going on here, and it is a rather tedious build for the first 200 pages or so as the scene is set. Our merry band find themselves on a secret mission for the Spirearch, who has generously laid on the funds to have the Predator repaired, provided Grimm serves him on this one mission. Said mission is to take two etherialists (aka wizards) to Habble Landing, there to seek out the ‘Enemy’, believed to be located there. Gwen, Bridget, Benedict and Rowl get dragooned along, being as they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The steampunk elements of the worldbuilding are all a bit cookie-cutter, with vaguely Edwardian duelling and Aristocratic Great Houses in the mix, along with airships (but magically floated ones no less), and elaborate quasi naval battles. The roles of the cat tribes are a pleasing point of difference, which sometimes slips over the edge of a bit too cutesy, but is overall a positive element. Etherialists have very great powers (looks can kill), but which come at a cost. All of them are odd, or mad, and suffer from very Laundry File-like holes in the brain the longer they manipulate the ethereal forces!
Elements of the world are revealed through the POV characters experiences, rather than lengthy dumps of information, so that at the end of the book there are still many unknowns (and of course with a sequel or twenty in the wings this is not such a bad thing). Not much is revealed of the motives for the Auroran attack, other than some vague mutterings about high taxes and a corrupt government which must perforce raid other spires periodically to collect loot, and winnow the population. Of course, our brave Albion aeronauts likewise indulge in piracy, so the reasons for outrage over such actions are curious.
Butcher’s battle scenes are initially exiting, but ultimately overlong and brutal, though the casualties are principally amongst the rank and file soldiery, or amongst civilians. Combatants of both sides have enough of a moral compass to reflect on their actions, and their ability to live with their experiences. Generally, the combatants have altogether too many damage points, and so conspire to overextend the battle sequences unnecessarily.
The novel has been nominated for the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novel. I think it is the weakest of the five nominees, but is still a pleasing enough read.
- The Fifth Season
- Ancillary Mercy
- The Aeronaut's Windlass