Nuketown’s Summer Reading List for 2020 is in full swing. During my summer vacation at Lake Champlain, I finished up Fall (or Dodge in Hell) and knocked out The Last Emperox, The Dreaming Stars, and Auberon (an Expanse novella). I also launched into The Bohr Maker, which I completed when I got back from the lake.
So far, I’ve finished six of the 10 books on my summer reading list. I’ve got two more in-flight:
- The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss, which is a 40+ hour audio book that will take me most of the summer to get through. Right now I’ve got 27 hours and 46 minutes left, which means I need to really kick my morning walks into high gear if I’m going to get through it and have time for The Black Lung Captain (Tales of the Ketty Jay, Book 2) by Chris Wooding
- The Old Ones by David Brin, which is one of my stretch goals. I decided to pull this book to my main reading list because the next book I was planning to read, The Worst of All Possible Worlds (The Salvagers, Book 3) by Alex White, isn’t available until July 28.
I also finished the five graphic novels on my list, but that’s a column for another day.
Fall; or Dodge in Hell
Fall; or Dodge in Hell (Amazon) is the latest (and maybe the last) book in Neal Stephenson’s meandering tale of science and cryptography that began with Cryptonomicon. The series then jumped to the past with The Baroque Cycle before returning to the current day with Reamde.
Reading the prior books isn’t necessary to enjoy Fall, though you’ll probably get more out of it if you do (particularly Reamde, which introduces many of the main characters, including the book’s partial namesake Dodge). The book starts off strong as Dodge contemplates the thread of consciousness – the string of experiences that is cut whenever we sleep … or when we die.
Not long after this, there’s a mishap during elective surgery, and Dodge ends up brain dead. This gives rise to a technological debate surrounding his last will and testament, which calls for his body to be frozen until such time as he can be revived. It’s not a huge spoiler to say that he’s “revived” by having his brain scanned and uploaded into a virtual reality.
You’d expect that the “thread of consciousness” thing would be a recurring theme throughout the book, and to some extent it is: other minds are uploaded into the same virtual environment and each one carries with it some aspect of its real-world self. But that exploration of consciousness never goes anywhere; instead, we get a hodgepodge of myth creation, self-image manipulation, and an epic fantasy quest. There’s also an excellent (if sadly close to real-life) exploration the intersection of hoaxes and reality, which again goes nowhere, but it’s a fun read. Overall, that sums up the book – some interesting ideas, and certainly fun for fans of Stephenson’s style, but ultimately it doesn’t actually go anywhere.
The Last Emperox
The Last Emperox (Amazon), the concluding volume in John Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy, is every bit as quick, engaging, and frequently profane installment as the previous two books. At the center of the book is the impending collapse of the Interdependency, a galaxy-spanning human empire whose guilds and noble houses were forged to force its star systems to rely on one another. They are connected by the Flow, a sort of hyperspace river that allows ships and people to move from system to system. All but one of these systems are comprised of space stations and planetary habitats. The exception is End, the only world in the empire capable of supporting human life and, coincidentally, the last world that will remain accessible when the Flow mysteriously begins collapsing and serving the Interdepenency’s myriad connections.
The Last Emperox focuses on its namesake, the ruler of the Interdependency as she struggles to guide her empire through an unprecedented time of collapse. She needs to figure out how to get as many of her subjects to End as possible without overwhelming the system and its resources, while simultaneously fending off nobles defending their collapsing piece of the pie (usually in the form of assassination attempts against her).
It’s space opera, but with a focus on political intrigue rather than space battles. That’s ok – after reading the first two books, I knew what I was getting and found the last book to be a satisfying conclusion. In a world where series go on forever, it’s nice to see a story actually end (even if it does plant the seeds for a follow-up…)
The Dreaming Stars
The Dreaming Stars (Amazon), Tim Pratt’s follow-up to the excellent The Wrong Stars finds the crew of the spaceship White Raven in a reasonably good place after saving the galaxy. Last time around, the Firefly-esque crew of misfits figured out that there’s an ancient, alien civilization known as the Axiom. These great and terrible creatures are currently slumbering (think H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu) but their various galaxy-wide projects, experiments, and/or torture schemes are still running. Worse, these things hate other intelligent life, which they seek to enslave or destroy.
After foiling an Axiom-adjacent plan in the first book, they’re looking for a few odd jobs to do in the second one (as well as keeping an eye out for other Axiom-related strangeness). Naturally, they find a job that fits both bills, and they’re off to investigate. I won’t give away too much the of the mission, other than to say you’ve seen this episode of Star Trek (and Stargate and, well, pretty much every other science fiction series) before and to note that the Axoim — like most good monsters — work best when you don’t see them.
That said, The Dreaming Stars is a fun read that builds on what comes before, offering a gender diverse (in terms of orientation and identity) crew that shares Firefly’s fast-talking dialogue without becoming tiresome. The third book, The Forbidden Stars, may make it onto this year’s summer reading list if I have enough time.
One of the cool things about The Expanse books is how James S. A. Corey (the shared pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) released novellas set between the novels to help build out the universe. With no new Expanse book this summer, that void in my personal fiction line up was filled by Auberon (Amazon), the latest of these novellas.
The book takes place on Auberon, an Earth-like world with the unique property that it’s biosphere complement’s Earth’s own … and it doesn’t try to kill us. As a garden world, it becomes popular with colonists leaving the Sol system and the profitability of the world gives rise to rampant corruption.
When the Laconian Empire seizes control of the spaceways, Auberon is one of the priority worlds they want to control. They dispatch a new governor and his wife from the Laconian homeworld to cleanup the planet and establish properly rigid discipline.
It’s a depressingly good read, in that it provides an excellent snapshot of life under the totalitarian Laconian regime.
The Bohr Maker
The Bohr Maker was Linda Nagata’s debut novel and the first book in her Nanotech Succession series. It’s a satisfying mashup of cyberpunk and nanotech in which Earth and her satellite settlements have established just enough nanotech to make the world a better place, but not enough to radically transform humanity or risk runaway tech giving rise to a grey goo scenario. We’re quickly introduced to Nikko, an experimental space-adapted human who’s father got a special permit to design him. That permit, and thus Nikko’s life, is about to run out.
Maintaining order on Earth and beyond is the Commonwealth, a world state that maintains strict rules regarding biomodificiation and nanotech … rules that were bent to create Nikko, and rules he must break if he wants to survive. The key to that is the Bohr Maker, a powerful piece of sentient nanotechnology that can improve and augment its human host in ways that far exceed what’s normally possible.
The book follows Nikko’s quest for the Bohr Maker, and the unintended consequences that follow from the wrong person (who may in fact be the right person) getting a hold of it. The book doesn’t have a clear protagonist and none of the characters stand out as being particularly likable or compelling. That said, the overarching story they are caught up in kept me turning pages.
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Cover art from The Last Emperox. Credit: Tor Books