Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora (2015)

 Author: Kim Stanley Robinson

Title: Aurora

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 466

Series: –

I know, I know, two KSR reviews in a row – but this one was a promise! 😀

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, while it had not received any awards and is not as well-known as his other books, notably 2312 and Martian trilogy, in my opinion remains one of the most important SF novels of our early 21st century. Engaging in a scientifically sound mind experiment and imagining a workable model of a generational starship, Aurora radically – and emphatically – dispels any illusions we could have harboured regarding the fate of humanity in the known universe. Contrary to the most books in KSR’s oeuvre, Aurora is not an optimistic novel; it shows, very clearly, that while humanity’s dream of interstellar travel might be possible, and indeed we’re getting close to reaching Mars, that other dream – of finding an Earth analog which would be instantly or near-instantly habitable and at the same time devoid of life – must be ultimately seen for what it is: a pipe dream, a fantasy, an illusion that in our current man-made predicament causes more harm than good, turning our heads up to the stars instead down, to the planet we are actually responsible for; the only home we have. Allow me to present the crux of the problem in Robinson’s own words:

“Maybe that’s why we’ve never heard a peep from anywhere. It’s not just that the universe is too big. Which it is. That’s the main reason. But then also, life is a planetary thing. It begins on a planet and is part of that planet. It’s something that water planets do, maybe. But it develops to live where it is. So it can only live there, because it evolved to live there. That’s its home. So, you know, Fermi’s paradox has its answer, which is this: by the time life gets smart enough to leave its planet, it’s too smart to want to go. Because it knows it won’t work. So it stays home. It enjoys its home. As why wouldn’t you? It doesn’t even bother to try to contact anyone else. Why would you? You’ll never hear back. So that’s my answer to the paradox. You can call it Euan’s Answer.” (p. 179)

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Kate Elliott, Unconquerable Sun (2020)

Author: Kate Elliott

Title: Unconquerable Sun

Format: E-book

Pages: 528

Series: The Sun Chronicles #1

First of all, whoever came up with that snappy if misleading one-liner “Gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space,” was rather off the mark.

Yes, Unconquerable Sun does take place in a political environment reminiscent of the dynamic between ancient Macedonia, Greece and Persia. Yes, there are some details pointing to Elliot’s Alexandrian inspirations, such as snakes on Sun’s extravagant father’s clothing, a clear bow toward Alexander’s mother Olympias, or the explosive relationship between Sun and her mother Eirene, resembling that between Alexander and his father Phillip II. There are some hidden clues, such as a deficient sibling of the heir hidden away, or a host of concubines and wives, each with their own claim to the throne and a healthy dose of mistrust and rivalry toward each other. Will Elliott take the resemblances as far as the real story’s sad end? Considering the first installment, fizzling with YA vibes and a sense of youthful invincibility, I somehow rather doubt it. And anyway, Unconquerable Sun mostly tells the tale of Elliott’s fascination with Asian cultures: from very strong Chinese and Japanese influences to slightly more hidden Hinduist and even Mesopotamian elements.

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Neal Asher, Polity Agent (2006)

Author: Neal Asher

Title: Polity Agent

Format: Paperback

Pages: 562

Series: Agent Cormac #4

Wow. I can’t believe I hadn’t written this review before. In fact, I was so certain that I had, that in the end I checked my blog and Goodreads… twice 😉. And indeed, I hadn’t. Well, better late than never, so here it is.

With book 4, Asher is faced with the ultimate threat to any self-respecting series – getting lost within the intricacies of his own plot and the ever-growing cast. And in Polity Agent he must indeed juggle many pieces and characters, all working independently or semi-independently from one another, all moving in separate directions, all motivated by different things. We have agent Cormac, undergoing changes he doesn’t understand and is not comfortable with; he is becoming (or fears becoming) more machine than a man, and while all the changes are apparently necessary as elements of the life-saving procedure in the aftermath of the Skellor’s attack that almost killed Cormac in Brass Man, he still resents being stripped of choice. We have our magnificent bastard, Mister Crane; what he’s up to is anyone’s guess, but it’s always a wonder to watch him reassemble himself through unending iterations. We have Mika, still deeply engaged in her Dragon research, but also increasingly engaged in a relationship with Cormac; and of course, we have the Dragon. As enigmatic as Mister Crane, the Dragon spheres and their aims remain a mystery.

We also have plenty of AIs, from the nearly omniscient Jerusalem to the rebellious King of Hearts to Jack Ketch who renamed himself to “Not Entirely Jack,” and to the bloodthirsty, adventurous war drone Arach; there’s more, and they all seem increasingly divided and not entirely benevolent. Just take a look at the Legate, an emissary of the Jain technology: imagine Lang’s Metropolis upgraded to Terminator 2 and hell-bent on the destruction of Polity.

We have also Orlandine, a haiman (a meld of human and AI) tempted by the poisoned fruit of Jain knowledge. And last but not least, there is Horace Blegg and his particularly dangerous secret; let’s not forget Sparkind Thorn and Scar, the dracoman. Shall I go on? I believe that by now you get the gist: Polity Agent boasts of a plethora of characters and places and motivations, and is definitely not a good place to start one’s adventure with Asher’s universe. Start with Gridlinked, and slowly make your way through Line of Polity and Brass Man before you attempt either Polity Agent or the fifth and final installment, The Line War.

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Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (2016)

The Paper Menagerie

Author: Ken Liu

Title: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 453

Series: –

Ken Liu has been known as the translator to Cixin Liu’s critically acclaimed Hugo award winner, The Three-Body Problem. He is also known as the author of a “silkpunk” epic fantasy book, The Grace of Kings. But the readers of short stories know him predominantly as a talented SFF author with his own unique voice and unerring focus on humanity’s past and future, cultural diversity and a peculiar vision of transhumanism. His works won multiple awards, Nebula, Hugo, Locus and World Fantasy Award among them, and I must say that, at least with regards to the collection The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, he deserves quite a lot of the praise 😉.

This review will vary slightly from my usual posts; as each story or novelette forms a separate whole, I will review each in turn and give score to each separately in short paragraphs.

The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species 5,5/10

Not a great start to the collection; a showcase of interesting ideas, but nothing really stands out in this fanciful enumeration of how various species in the universe might create/perceive books. It’s a fun exercise, and an invitation to the readers to think about the idea of a book, but nothing more.

State Change 10/10

One of two best stories in the compilation, based on an outlandish and very compelling idea that every person is born with their soul manifested as a concrete, tangible item – and that the form of that item directly affects their personality. A really sweet, light, yet thought-provoking story on how we create our own limits and then learn to transcend them.

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Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples, Saga (2012-present)

AN EPIC SPACE OPERA ABOUT WARS, STARS, AND PARENTHOOD. LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, SAGA.

Piotrek: Brian K. Vaughan came to my attention years ago, with his Y: The Last Man series, an very original and altogether excellent comic book series from the early 2000s.

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It tells a story of the last human male on an alternative Earth, where all the mammals with Y chromosome died suddenly in 2002. The mechanics of this event were, to me, a bit disappointing, but the series was exciting, full of action, romance, and politics. I’ve heard great thinks about Runaways, but haven’t read that. When I’ve read about his new series, Saga, I was pretty sure it’s going to be great. I’ve read the first volume, and it confirmed my suspicions. It was great! But, I didn’t want to wait anxiously for each volume. I bought the first deluxe hardcover, and the second, and the third, and never read beyond volume one.

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There’s quite a lot of violence, and sex, but probably the most controversial thing is that they dared to put a boob on the cover!

I have to say the series shines not only in the script department, but is also beautifully illustrated. Fiona Staples definitely is a co-author of this experience, and I mention her after my paragraph about Vaughan mostly because it was my first encounter with her work. Exactly how splendid that work is, will tell you in the review itself.

Recently, I learned the series is on hiatus, and we will have to wait a good while to see its second half. Saga also popped up, now and then, on many of the blogs I follow. I decided to finally read it, and I wolfed down all three 500-hundred-page volumes within a week. It was so good!

Ola: And I read it all once Piotrek had his shiny hardcovers 😀 Oh, the joys of borrowing books ;). I’m not a big fan of Runaways, and Y somehow never got to the top of my TBR, but I can fully confirm Piotrek’s opinion on Saga – it really is a very good, stunningly illustrated story. Hats off to Fiona Staples, because without her art the story wouldn’t be half as good, or half as crazy. And while the main characters hold the majority of readers’ attention, it’s the side characters that add that elusive secret ingredient that makes Saga such a memorable read. By now The Lying Cat has probably more fans than Marko or Alana 😉

Saga Lying Cat

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