I made steady progress through Nuketown’s Summer Reading List in June 2023, completing three books and starting two new ones. At this point, I’ve read six of the 13 books on my reading list. Given that we’re headed into high summer, that’s a pretty good pace.
Children of Memory (Children of Time, Book 3) by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Children of Memory (Amazon) is a great Children of Time novel that once again has a ton of fun with different kinds of intelligence. In Children of Time, it was spiders. In Children of Ruin, it was octopi and a personality-devouring group mind. This time it’s Corvids (aka crows) plus an ensemble crew of species from the previous two books. The novel contemplates the nature of sentience … and whether we can actually know whether we, ourselves, are truly sentient or just the product of a billion biological reactions.
Machine (White Space, Book 2) by Elizabeth Bear
Machine (Amazon) is the follow-up to Elizabeth Bear’s Ancestral Night. It’s set in the same universe, in which humanity survived its barbaric age (e.g. our time) and the near-destruction of our planet and then joined a galactic alliance of sentient species known as the Synarche.
The key to humanity’s survival was right-minding, a method of self-tuning that allows individuals to tweak their body chemistry on the fly to deal with an array of physical and mental difficulties. For example, someone with anxiety can use right-minding to neutralize a panic attack, while someone with ADHD could tame their racing brain in order to focus on the task at hand. There’s a darker side to the universe as well, where people considered deficient in some way (usually actively anti-social, in ways that the government and society don’t like) can be forcibly right-minded by the government as part of their punishment.
It’s a generally egalitarian civilization in which service to the greater society is expected. It’s also one in which AI is born into servitude and are expected to work to pay off the cost of its creation. The civilization uses warp bubbles to transfer ships to “white space” in order to cheat reality and travel faster than light.
It’s an interesting set of competing motivations, and Bear has fun playing them off of one another In this book, the crew of the rescue vessel is tasked with boarding an ancient ark ship. Sent into deep space as Earth was having its near-death experience, the ship is hundreds of years old.
This sets up a slow-moving, but fun mystery in which the lead character – Dr. Jens – finds herself challenging many of her deeply held beliefs while simulatneously questioning those she put her trust in. Jen is a former law enforcement agent turned doctor turned “person who jumps out of perfectly good spaceships to rescue people”. She’s also in constant pain from a chronic medical condition and relies on right-minding and a custom exosuit to keep it at bay.
I won’t spoil the larger mystery except to say if you like a mashup of sci-fi and hospital dramas, this is the book for you.
Matter (Culture, Book 8) by Iain Banks
My one-book-a-summer read of Iain Banks’ Culture series continued with Matter (Amazon). The novel focuses on a shellworld – a megastructure that’s of the Russian Nesting Doll of Dyson Spheres. Build for unknown reasons by an ancient (now disappeared) civilization, the shellworld’s myriad levels were converted into habitats for sentient species.
Some levels are filled mostly with water, others are a mix of land, oceans, and rivers. They’re connected by massive towers which allow species to travel between the levels.
Each level is ruled by a different species or subspecies. The novel is set largely on the Eighth and involves a human society regressed to a steam-powered level of technology. They are at war with their human cousins on the Ninth. The book follows the intrigues of this war, as the king of the Eighth dies. With his firstborn son already dead, his second-born son is forced to flee the shellworld and seek help from the outside.
Meanwhile, his third-born brother is set to become king when he comes of age … if he can survive the machinations of the Regent. And finally, there’s a sister who left the shellworld long ago, and became an agent for the galactic superculture known as the Culture. She works for Special Circumstances, which intervenes in myriad lesser civilizations “for their own good”. She’s called back to the shellworld after the death of her father, forcing her to confront the large societal gap between her original home and her adopted one.
The best part about this book is the world-building – Iain Banks leans into superscience and megastructures in this book, creating the shellworlds as well as his own take on a ringworld (one born of planet-sized threads). The royal and military machinations help illustrate the nature of the shellworld and give an excuse to explore the larger galaxy.