The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers (Speculative Fiction)

Writing: 3.5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 3/5

A hardware malfunction causes a cascade of crashing comm satellites over the Five-Hop One-Stop space station causing the quarantine of all beings present. In a story long on socio-cultural world building and short on plot, individuals from four different species are forced to spend time together while each desperately needs to get back to the life that was abruptly brought to a halt. A quarantine story for our time…

Chambers excels at building intricate and engaging cultures which makes the relatively absent plot easy to overlook. She manages to include all of the current “hot topics” camouflaged in non-humanoid skins. Roveg is the insectoid Quelin who takes in information through smells and has a completely non-emotive space; Pei the Aeluon cargo captain who loves a human against the interspecies mating taboo of her kind; Speaker is the perpetually space-suited Akarak as the only planet that could support her methane-breathing life was rendered useless in a previous war; and Ouloo and not-yet-gendered offspring Tupo are the furry Laru who host the station. Throughout their enforced stay, the four learn about each other’s cultures, opinions, and preferences in a pretty interesting set of expositions on modes of communication, mating rituals, taboos, etc.

It’s nice to read a speculative fiction story that isn’t fully dystopian. We’re not embedded in Ewoks here — there are plenty of problems and even a history of downright atrocities — but the characters are able move forward in a more positive way after their experience in a model that suggests how this might be done for any of us. A harmless and relatively uplifting book.

While this is #4 in the series, the books just share a common universe. Not necessary to read the prior novels though I confess I found the earlier books a little more interesting.

Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear (SF)

World building: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5 Writing: good but too long for me…

Space opera with an emphasis on how society has evolved across the millenia. A small salvage operation finds aeons old technology and evidence of a terrible crime at the outer edges of the galaxy and have to battle space pirates and corrupt outpost bureaucrats to see justice done. A well-developed, quirky crew: our narrator Haimey — an engineer escaped from the human female isolationist Clade which simultaneously gave one a sense of belonging and an utter inability to disagree; Connla the pilot — born and bred on Spartacus where everyone seems to look and behave like Kirk Douglas; Singer — the endlessly curious ship mind (easily my favorite character); and a couple of cats who … behave just as you’d expect cats acclimated to space to behave!

The best part for me was the many discussions about the interplay between society, government and the individual — freedom vs social controls, right-minding vs brainwashing, human control of AIs vs slave intelligences, etc.  I loved the ability (and sometime reluctance to use) the crew had to tune their own chemistry on the fly and the ensuing discussion about what made a person who they were and how personality was formed.

For me the book was way too long — I liked the world building, the ethics discussions, and the character development, but I got tired of all the science / engineering talk and the action. Which means that if you’re a hard science fiction fan you’ll like this book a lot more than I did. I would say the book breaks down into 25% action, 35% science / engineering / surviving by your wits and tools, 20% discussions about right, wrong, and how to live, and 20% character development. I like her writing style — plenty of insight, good banter, clear descriptions — there was just too much repetition, and I realize that I have simply gotten bored with action! Chase scenes, battles, blah, blah, blah — give me a good discussion on what makes us human any day over that 🙂

Great for fans of The Martian!

Some good quotes:
“The thing picked out in iridescence on my skin looked like renderings of the intergalactic structure of dark gravity.”

“Bureaucracy is the supermassive black hole at the center of the Synarche that makes the whole galaxy revolve.”

“In the face of the unthinkable, there wasn’t much else to do except think about it obsessively.”

“He gazed at me with the sort of interest one reserves for reprieves from the guillotine and similarly refocusing events”

“But where’s the line between right-minding and brainwashing? Or, in the case of an AI, programming for adequate social controls versus creating slave intelligences.”

“If they could, cats would invent full-time full-sensorium VR for all humans everywhere so they could sleep on our immobile bodies eternally. And probably eat our extremities , too.”

“…I got a string of programming jargon that was so far beyond me it might as well have been one of those twelve-tone semi-ultrasonic methane-breather languages that shatter ice crystals and sound like a glass harmonica having a bad dia at work.”

“Maybe I was a nice, safe little puppet of the Synarche, or Justice. Or maybe I was a person who valued community and well-being of the mass of sentient life over the individual right to be selfish.”

“Total freedom for the ones who can enforce it, until somebody comes along and murders them to take their stuff. Slavery for everybody else. Pretty typical warlord behavior in any society, and one of the reasons we have societies in the first place.”

“I was floating near a viewport with my screen and Jane Eyre. It’s kind of horrifying to think of an era when people were so constrained to and by gender, in which the externals you were born with were something you would be stuck with your whole life, could never alter, and it would determine your entire social role and your potential for emotional fulfillment and intellectual achievement.”

Stars Uncharted by S. K. Dunstall

Thank you to Berkeley Publishing Group and NetGalley for an early review copy of Stars Unchartede by S.K. Dunstall, which will publish August 14, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.
World building: 4.5 plot: 3.5 characters: 4.5 Writing: 4

Thoroughly enjoyable, action-packed, sci-fi about a motley crew of spacefarers thrown together by circumstance. In this world, body modification for health, style, or pleasure is easily available if you have the cash, and the “modders” who do those modifications are held in far greater esteem than doctors. Nika Rik Terri is the acknowledged best, but some nasty customers who prefer not to leave witnesses have her on the run; Josune Arriola was sent to spy on Captain Hammond Roystan — clearly not the simple cargo runner he appears — but remains when her own ship shows up with a full complement of dead crew members.

In a galaxy where the big 27 Combines run the legal system, justice can be difficult to procure leading to intrigue and imaginative fight and / or flight scenes. Exploration of the art and science of body modification via genetic engineering is pervasive throughout — details of design, implementation, requirements, source materials, equipment, and the challenges of difficult cases make for interesting reading. Plenty of technical detail on fixing up their (oft attacked) ship as well. In addition to the action, I found a couple of other points interesting: Nika — the top notch modder — thinks about why style and appearance are so important to her and how that may have caused her problems in the past. Also, I found the contrast between current and previous modder training interesting — the newer training taught people to rely on technicians and equipment rather than their own deep expertise; Nika prefers to be able to maintain, extend, and even create her own equipment. A good analogy for traiing in many fields today.

Great for fans of Andy Weir, Becky Chambers, CJ Cherryh, and Lois McMaster Bujold.