Off the Bookshelf: Mid-Summer 2017

I tore through the heart of my summer reading list in July, knocking out six novels in a month. Four of these were read during my family’s annual week-long vacation to Lake Champlain. I probably could have read more if we’d spent another day or two on the lake, but unfortunately reality beckoned us home.

This was our 10th summer going to Lake Champlain, and this is also my 10th summer reading list. I hadn’t really put the two things together until I sat down to write this column. I often thing of my summer reading list as a thing I started doing to burn stress during the summer months. That’s true, but our trips to Lake Champlain enabled that and the two have become nearly inseparable.

Six Wakes

Six Wakes (Amazon) was a treat because it was written by my friend  Mur Lafferty. Lafferty and I got in to podcasting at about the same time, and for several years with both wrote columns for Knights of the Dinner Table Magazine. She’s since gone on to do bigger and better things in the world of fiction, and Six Wakes is one of those things.

The book takes place aboard a sleeper starship en route to colonize an alien world. The passengers are in cryogenic sleep, watched over by a crew of X clones. The clones’ job — overseen by an omnipresent artificial intelligence — is to keep the ship on course and running smoothly until it arrives at its destination. Neither of those things happen.

The book opens with the clones waking up to a bloodbath — most of their prior selves have been murdered, save for the captain’s clone, who is comatose. The AI is offline, the ship is off course, and the cloning gear is broken. The clones need to figure out who killed them, and do so before he or she can kill again.  This is complicated by the fact that each crew member has a secret, criminal history; indeed they are on the ship because crewing it earns them a pardon when they reach their destination. Further complicating matters are their civilization’s cloning laws, which govern when someone can be cloned and what rights they have.

These rules serve a similar function to Asimov’s Three Rules of Robotics, in that they put constraints on the characters that they must work around. For example, one of the laws states that you can not have two clones of the same person active at the same time; if you do, the older one must be eliminated. The ship’s captain finds herself in exactly this situation, with her clone — who might be the only one who knows what happened — in a coma and herself awake. By law, that older clone should be purged … but doing could cost the crew answers, and urging for her termination only makes the captain look guilty.

I enjoyed Six Wakes in the same way I enjoyed Asimov’s Caves of Steel and the Naked Sun — it’s fun to try and puzzle out the murders within the confines of the science fictional rules. The characters are purpose built, with lots of backstory but not a lot of nuance to them, but that’s ok — it fits the structure of the book nicely.

I found the criminals-as-crew setup to be a bit hard to believe; I get that in human history criminals were often colonists, but it seems to me that if you’re sending a multibillion dollar starship out into space you’d want it to be crewed by the most stable people possible, but then again Lafferty has an explanation for that as well. That setup is a bit contrived, but having the best and brightest as a crew would have made for a very different (and likely less enjoyable) novel.

The Collapsing Empire

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi (Amazon) is a tease.

It’s pitched as Scalzi’s new space opera series, and after the Old Man’s War books, who wouldn’t want more of that? It’s true to the pitch – the novel features a human civilization that’s taken to the stars thanks to the Flow, a kind of hyperspace that allows starships to quickly move between systems. The problem? After centuries of stability, the Flow is shifting, cutting off star systems from the rest of the civilization. What’s worse, the ruling government — known as the Interdependency — has preached that all star systems must be dependent on one another to maintain peace and prosperity. This lack of independence — politically, culturally, and economically — coupled with the fact that most humans in these systems live in space stations or closed planetary habitats means that the collapse of the Flow is going to kill millions.

The whole thing is told with Scalzi’s trademark social media snark, with many of the characters trading the sort of fast-paced barbs that we see more in Scalzi’s twitter feed than we do in his books (at least the Old Man’s War novels). In fact the series is much more in keeping with the casual vibe of Redshirts than with the more formal, military-light stance of Old Man’s War. 

It is also, as I said, a huge tease because this book is simply the setup for the series to follow. We’re introduced xxxx, a physicist whose father has been studying the collapse of the Flow and has predicted the destructive course it will follow; yyyy who becomes the Emperox after her father dies and whom xxxx needs to convince of the catastrophe, and the curse-happy zzzz, a noble who gets caught up in the political vortexes that spin out from the impending collapse. It is a fast and fun read, but it’s all very much about setting up the house of cards so that they can be knocked down in subsequent books. Those expecting a self-contained novel will be disappointed.

Babylon’s Ashes (The Expanse, Book 6)

Babylon’s Ashes (The Expanse, Book 6) by James S.A. Corey (Amazon) sees the solar system still reeling from the catastrophic bombardment of Earth that ended Nemesis Games (Book 5). The Free Navy — a loose coalition of Belters flying illicit military spacecraft and the ones responsible for the bombardment — are terrorizing the solar system in the name of Belter independence. They’re looting colony ships headed for the interplanetary gates, seizing Earth and Martian settlements, and generally pursuing an unsustainable strategy of destruction.

James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are once again thrown into the middle of this interplanetary mess. This time around, they’re in a unique position to rally the broken remnants of the Earther and Martian navies — as well as the fragments of the Outer Planets Alliance that oppose the Free Navy.

It’s a book that I waited six months to read (it came out in December 2016; I read it in July 2017). It was worth the wait. The writing team of James S.A. Corey (a pen name for authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) continue to build on their impressive space opera, providing us with some great space battles coupled with spatial-political scheming. I particularly enjoyed Free Navy’s “revolution”, which starts off with the lofty rhetoric heard in so many “for the people” revolutions and ends up doing exactly what those revolutions do: eating their seed corn and bankrupting future generations.

Genesis Fleet: Vanguard

Jack Campbell returns to his Lost Fleet universe to tell us the tales of how the whole thing got started. Genesis Fleet: Vanguard  (Amazon) takes us back to humanity’s second great push out into the black. Earth is an overcrowded, sedentary world that’s lost its ambition. The initial worlds it colonized are content to focus on their own problems, and could care less about anything outside of their own solar systems. This leaves the scrappy colony on the frontier to fend for themselves against lawless pirates and petty warlords.

Naturally, there’s a Geary around to help.

This time it’s Robert Geary, the great-great-great-grandfather (well, actually, I don’t know *how* many “greats” it should be) of John “Black Jack” Geary, the legendary hero and reluctant savior of the Alliance who will be born centuries in the future.  That’s a different story though; this one focuses on Robert as a colonist and former naval officer who finds his new home of Glenlyon is being threatened by pirates. He manages to scrap together a resistance force to repel the thugs, simultaneously finding allies who just might help form a future planetary alliance against such interlopers.

It’s a decent book, falling somewhere between original Lost Fleet and The Lost Stars novels in terms of quality. Geary isn’t as infallible as  his descendent becomes in the Beyond the Frontier books, and the novel is nicely restrained in scope — our heroes don’t immediately put together a space fleet capable of solving the galaxy’s problems, and end of the book nicely sets up its sequel. If you’ve never read a Lost Fleet novel, this might be a good place to jump in — it doesn’t require any additional knowledge of the series (though there are enough Easter eggs to reward those who have read it).

Maelstrom (Destroyermen, Book 3)

Taylor Anderson’s alternative earth series reaches its third installment with Maelstrom. Set on an Earth that never saw the demise of the dinosaurs and the rise of humanity, the book continues the adventures of the U.S.S. Walker, an antiquated World War I era destroyer lost to this earth in the opening days of World War II. In our world the destroyer was horribly outclassed by more modern Japanese vessels; on the alternate Earth it is a force to be reckoned with.

Earlier in the series the Walker and her crew had befriended the Lemurians, “Cat Monkeys” (or is it Monkey Cats?) that are the most intelligent mammals on the planet. Thousands of years earlier they’d been driven from their homeland of Madagascar by the velociraptor-like Grik and now, in Book 3, they and the Americans are fully at war the reptilian horde. The Grik sail East Indiamen-style ships, which are faster and more maneuverable than their Lemurian prey, but vulnerable to the Walker’s big guns. Unfortunately for the allies, the Grik have big guns of their own – the Japanese cruiser Amagi. 

Maelstrom features a satisfying game of cat and mouse (or dinosaur and monkey) as the Walker attempts assess the Grik threat and gather additional allies to the Lemurian cause. It culminated with a suitably epic battle between the two forces, while Anderson does enough world building to keep things interesting beyond the Grik confrontation.  Fortunately this means a probably end to the “Dame Famine”, which has been a subplot through the first three books. Given that this is a World War II era warship, there are only a few women aboard the Walker and her sistership the Mahan when they crossed over to this world. That causes predictable tension and not a little melodrama among the crew; it’s not a subplot I’ll be sad to see go.

Blue at the Mizzen

The final book (Amazon) in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Mautrin series brought happy tears to my eyes as I listened to the final paragraphs read by long-time series narrator Patrick Tull. I don’t know when i started listening to these books — I was still commuting to Morristown, NJ from Easton, Pa. so it must have been over 15 years ago — but suffice it to say they’ve been part of my reading life for quite some time.

And now it’s done. Technically, there’s one more book in the series — the untitled and unfinished 21 — but O’Brian never meant to see it published and I’d rather end with a complete book than the idea of a book.

Blue at the Mizzen sees longtime friends Captain Jack Aubrey and ship’s surgeon (and British intelligence agent)  Stephen Maturin dispatched to Chile on a hydrological survey mission aboard the frigate Surprise. Their secret mission is to to foster that country’s independence from Spain. The book features yet another description of the passage through Strait of Magellan, but unlike other books, that doesn’t really get old — the Aubrey/Maturin series has always been as much about the journey as the destination, so I’m willing to indulge O’Brian in his descriptors.

Once in Chile there’s some political scheming and one of Aubrey’s signature cutting-out engagements of an enemy ship. There’s also a subplot involving Maturin and his potential future spouse that likely would have played out in future books, but is left unresolved. That’s ok — this is really Jack’s book, and Maturin’s had his moments of spy glory.

The novel offers an satisfying (if premature) end to Aubrey’s adventures; I left the book feeling like I’d reached a logical end point in the series. Would I like to have seen more? Sure. But I’m ok with where things left off, and if I want more I can always go back and re-read the novels.

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