Neal Asher, Dark Intelligence (2015)

Author: Neal Asher

Title: Dark Intelligence

Format: hardcover

Pages: 402

Series: Transformation #1

As weird as that may sound, Asher’s Polity books are my go-to comfort SF. Yes, they are filled to the brim with gore, lethal action, and body horror, and brazenly discussed issues such as free will, determinism, identity, and the origin of emotions, but they are also written (especially the newer ones) in a very accessible, quick and unobtrusive style, non-stop action, incredibly imaginative space battles and a general cinematic feel to the vast vistas of the void. Sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s the real deal.

Plus, let’s be honest here, this series boasts my favourite black AI Penny Royal as its protagonist. I just couldn’t pass this!

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Keith Roberts, Pavane (1966)

Author: Keith Roberts

Title: Pavane

Format: paperback

Pages: 242

Series: –

Pavane has been hailed as a masterpiece by writers as different as Neil Gaiman and G.R.R. Martin. It certainly has all the markings of a writers’ book, for those inspired by Roberts’s work are various and many (and even Pratchett might be among them). While it’s usually classified as alternate history, I rather agree with my library’s categorization – it’s a science fiction book, though the telltale signs are very subtle and few in number, limited mostly to the epilogue, called Coda. In a way, Roberts’s work reminded me strongly of Wolfe, although obviously it’s the other way round: Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun actually seems to have been guided to some extent by Pavane.

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M. John Harrison, Light (2002)

Author: M. John Harrison

Title: Light

Format: paperback

Pages: 320

Series: Empty Space (Kefahuchi Tract) #1

Another review that I find hard to write; but it must be said that it is an unusual book. If I were to characterize it in just a few words, I’d say it’s a prologue 300 pages long. Seriously. It’s built like a card trick: a lengthy setup with a short, delightful payoff. One thing I can attest to, though, is that it has a great ending.

Apart from this, however, Harrison’s Light is an uneven concoction of seemingly disparate elements: effusive technobabble and slick, brutal cyberpunk cant go hand in hand with mysticism worthy of the best – or at least most murky – of the New Age prophets. While ostensibly there is a story, even one in two timelines, it’s more of an allegory, burdened down with heavy symbolism and filled with characters who were created with an ulterior motive. Truth be told, this last sentence is something I could put in my every other review, so there’s that ;). If I sound overly critical, however, I am not. I actually, quite surprisingly, enjoyed this book.  But Harrison doesn’t make it easy for readers to like his novel. Introducing as our guide a genius physicist cum pathetic serial killer on the run from a menacing entity, the author makes it somewhat difficult to get his readers (or at least this reader) invested in the story. And that’s only the beginning of a wild Tarot-inspired journey through the labyrinth of the author’s own psyche. 

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Adrian Tchaikovsky, Shards of Earth (2021)

Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky

Title: Shards of Earth

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 561

Series: The Final Architecture #1

For a long time, Tchaikovsky was my go-to author. I still contend that his Shadows of the Apt series is among the very best of epic and military fantasy out there. It’s a huge commitment, sure, 10 books getting consecutively bigger, as if Tchaikovsky was bent on proving that a book can be a weapon, too 😉 – not unlike Erikson in that regard – but if you do commit, you’ll be rewarded. Children of Time, Tchaikovsky’s first foray into SF, was great, too. Making spiders the protagonists of the book was a wonderful choice, giving the book a unique perspective and gravitas. Afterwards, however, it was more of a hit and miss. He seemed to produce books non-stop, like an upgraded version of Sanderson, and with similar results. I still rather enjoyed his fantasy novella Made Things, as well as his SF novella One Day All This Will Be Yours, but was thoroughly disappointed in his SF novel Bear Head. It seemed that Tchaikovsky had already used all his unique and original ideas, and started treading water, indulging in overused tropes and lazy structures. It was all still reasonably well written, but redundant, or even verging on ad-hoc political commentary. I stopped reading everything he was putting out. But when I saw several fellow bloggers praising his new SF novel, Shards of Earth, I decided to give it a go. So thanks, Jeroen and carol. and Nataliya!

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Kate Wilhelm, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976)

Author: Kate Wilhelm

Title: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

Format: paperback

Pages: 251

Series: –

Let’s start with the accolades: Kate Wilhelm’s short novel won both Hugo and Locus Awards upon publication in 1977. Praised as one of the best books on clones (!), it remains surprisingly relevant despite the murky and outdated science. An ambitious take on individuality, creativity and the need for security disguised as cli-fi (before cli-fi was a thing ;)), Wilhelm’s novel is in essence a meditation on what it is to be human. 

But ad rem. The world in Wilhelm’s novel is at the brink of collapse: the pollution reaches levels that slowly kill off all living organisms, making them infertile, diseases run rampant, economic and security crises loom large. Sounds familiar? Amidst this suffering and gloom the Sumner family prepares for the end of the world. They have been smart, thrifty, and populous, and now it looks like they might just make it: in their own vast lands shielded by old forests and rivers from the worst of urbanisation they build hospitals and mills, laboratories and manufactories – and have the brains and the means to ensure their survival.

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