Book review: The Second Cure, by Margaret Morgan

15 10 2018

Margaret Morgan is an Australian writer and screenwriter with a background in criminal law and training in plant science, genetics, and parasitology. She has furnished scripts for Australian TV shows as Water Rats and GP and her short fiction has appeared in outlets such as Meanjin and Going Down Swinging. The Second Cure is her first novel.


The Second Cure postulates a world in which cats are dying out, by virtue of a new strain of Toxoplasma gondii (the unicellular parasite with a life cycle that takes it alternately through the metabolisms of the cat and the rat) that’s sufficiently distinct, in its genotype and its parasisology, to be considered a new species. Charlotte (‘Charlie’) Zinn, a microbiologist whose expertise in parasitology and symbiosis has suddenly become sexy—or at least topical—with the new species’ emergence, dubs the new parasite T. pestis. It spreads rapidly, through contact with infected cats and by ‘exchange of bodily fluids’, to become endemic in a large and growing proportion of the human population. The parasite at first appears to be harmless, but it soon becomes apparent that its assumed inertness is merely an indication of a significant incubation period. Symptoms of infection are highly varied—the parasite affects brain chemistry, with results that appear to depend at least in part on the preexisting structure of the infected brain—but often include one of several forms of synaesthesia, the ‘blending of senses’ that allows some people to hear colours, etc. Charlie’s partner, musician-artist Richard, is one such; but since this new characteristic succeeds in interweaving his two consuming interests of music and art, he sees it not as an affliction, but as a gift. This attitude takes off, and a growing population of ‘thetes’ revel in their new capabilities.

Not everyone is so enamoured of this change in a fraction of the infected population. Jack Effenberg, newly-elected populist premier of Queensland, and his charismatic televangelistic power-behind-the-throne wife Marion, are determined to stamp out what they see as a sinful shift in human nature: if not globally, then over at least whatever geographical area they can wield control. Richard’s sister Brigid, a reporter, is equally determined to ensure the Effenbergs’ divisive and opportunistic right-wing policies are exposed to significant critical attention, an attitude hardly shared with the rest of the Queensland press pack. And Charlie, her colleague Juliette, and her scientist-entrepreneur husband Shadrack Zinn are all committed, in their various ways, to combatting the insidious new disease with all of the tools at their disposal. Of course, with so many different active agendas, something has to give…

It’s almost impossible to fault this book. Morgan’s biomedicine-inspired extrapolation is enthralling, her characterisation is muscular and moving; she plays dramatic tension like an instrument. And onto a contemporary Australian setting she throws a varicoloured patchwork of social commentary, political commentary, geopolitical speculation and gradual technological advancement that feels tangible, in some ways almost inevitable. Above all, it’s character-driven hard science fiction that’s perfectly accessible, yet doesn’t compromise, anywhere, on the science. I’m deeply impressed.


Book review: The Body Human, by Nancy Kress

17 09 2018

Nancy Kress is an American science fiction writer whose work can often be characterised as hard SF with a detailed biological / medical / societal focus. Kress has won numerous Nebula and Hugo awards for her shorter fiction (she has enjoyed particular success in the novella categories) and has also won the John W Campbell Memorial Award for her novel Probability Space. I’ve reviewed several other works by Kress, including her classic novella Beggars in Spain.


The Body Human (Three Stories of Future Medicine) is a collection of Kress’s novellas and novelettes with a biomedical focus. They’re not connected in any fashion except thematically.

The novelette ‘Evolution’ posits a future where antibiotic-resistant pathogens have become so pervasive that the health system is failing: partly from the rising tide of unkillable diseases and partly from a domestic terror campaign which is directly targeting hospitals and other institutions (eg cattle farms) seen as contributing to the worsening problem of antibiotic resistance. Betty is a rehabilitated ex-con mother-of-two who has witnessed the developing civil war from the sidelines, but finds herself thrust into a high-stakes confrontation when she receives unwelcome news about her sixteen-year-old son Sean…

In ‘Fault Lines’, a novella, retired-NYPD-cop-turned-teacher Gene Shaunessy is contacted by a former friend, Bucky, who works for a large pharmaceutical concern, with the news that an advanced neuroceutical treatment they have been trialling, J-24 (intended for the promotion of strong social connections among the terminally-ill elderly), is associated with suspicious deaths among the entire trial cohort. Gene somewhat unwillingly finds himself investigating Bucky’s reports, which means calling on connections he no longer has among his former police colleagues. Are the deaths murder or suicide? And why have they been occurring?

A second novelette, ‘The Mountain To Mohamed’, has good samaritan junior doctor Jesse Randall making unsanctioned house calls to uninsurables: citizens who are permanently excluded from medical insurance (and, in many cases, from employment) purely on the basis of an evaluated genetic predisposition to problematic medical conditions. Jesse can see that it’s untenable and immoral to leave these people totally beyond reach of medical assistance, but can he provide them the healthcare they desperately require while continuing to operate as a cog in a medical machine that very much wishes to keep them excluded?

The previous examples of Kress’s writing I’ve seen have been well-grounded in interesting and imaginatively-extrapolated scientific concepts, peopled by gritty and plausible characters with ongoing lives and a sense of personal history, and that’s true of these stories also. I found ‘Evolution’ the most rewarding of the three, in part because of its particular revealed extrapolation (an intriguing concept which may or may not be plausible in the real world, but which seems to merit exploration) and partly because the settings of the two subsequent stories (near-future New York with heightened social strife) trend heavily into dystopian territory with, at times, a disturbingly oppressive feel about them. (Which is not to diminish their value or validity as stories, but rather to note that they can be difficult reads.)

Book review: The Fated Sky, by Mary Robinette Kowal

27 08 2018

Mary Robinette Kowal is an American puppeteer, voice actor, and speculative fiction writer whose fiction has won several awards, including the best novelette Hugo for her 2014 story ‘The Lady Astronaut of Mars’ that provides the inspiration for her alternate-history ‘Lady Astronaut’ duology published this year. I’ve previously reviewed the duology’s first volume, The Calculating Stars, here.


The Fated Sky is constructed around the first manned mission to Mars, which in the timeline of the ‘Lady Astronaut’ universe launches in 1962, a schedule fuelled by the Earth’s cascade into probable climate hell as a result of a 1952 meteorite strike off the US eastern seaboard. (The backstory to all of this is contained in The Calculating Stars and, while it is certainly possible to read The Fated Sky as a standalone—there’s enough context provided to render everything comprehensible—I’d very much recommend reading the preceding book first, because they knit together so closely.

To cut to the chase: The Fated Sky is very good, and I can heartily recommend it to devotees of spaceflight and of hard SF. It’s clear that the author has researched the subject matter thoroughly: the level of astronautical detail, informed (as Kowal makes apparent) by consultation with numerous astronauts, space scientists, and other specialists, is hugely impressive, but in no way overshadows the depth of characterisation that the book offers. Several of the principal characters are recurrent from The Calculating Stars: protagonist/narrator Dr Elma York (the ‘Lady Astronaut’ herself), Elma’s earthbound husband Nathaniel, her commanding officer and nemesis Stetson Parker and others; other characters are new to this volume, but all have the vitality and depth to render them fully plausible. I have but two grievances with what is, overall, an exceptionally rewarding piece of SF invention: one is that (on p.131) Kowal identifies the ecliptic, rather than the equatorial plane, as the determinant for a geographically repeating orbit; the other is that she presents a white South African astronaut (De Beer) as a somewhat too-obvious villain figure (which is on one level justifiable given that astronaut’s adherence to the historical fact of South Africa’s then-current apartheid era, but which also seems heavy-handed and at odds with the otherwise redemptive and humanistic tone of the two books). On balance, though, this is a stunning second half to an excellent two-book series which deserves to be widely and repeatedly read.

Book review: The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

21 07 2018

Mary Robinette Kowal is an American speculative fiction writer, puppeteer, and voice actor who has won two Hugo awards for her short fiction. I’ve previously reviewed her novella Forest of Memory, here.


The Calculating Stars is the first volume in the ‘Lady Astronaut’ duology, written as a prequel to her 2013 novella The Lady Astronaut of Mars.

Elma York, mathematician and former WASP, is out of town in the Poconos on March 3, 1952 for a romantic weekend with her engineer husband Nathaniel when, in about the most literal sense possible, disaster strikes. An asteroid impacts the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Maryland, obliterating a fair chunk of the eastern seaboard as well as the seat of government (and, it also transpires, Elma’s parents). The Yorks’ Cessna is sheltered in a nearby barn from the impact’s blast front, enabling Elma and Nathaniel to make a beeline for Charleston and the home of Elma’s grandmother, but the meteorite’s ejecta damages the plane and Elma makes an emergency landing at a military airbase in Kansas. The Government has been wiped out (they eventually find an intact cabinet member), hundreds of thousands—if not millions—have been killed in the asteroid strike, but that’s not the worst of it. It becomes apparent that, alongside a considerable quantity of ash and dust (which will lead, for the next few years, to substantial cooling), the oceanside strike has pushed so much water vapour into the atmosphere to presage the uncontrolled warming of a runaway greenhouse effect for the decades that follow. US experimentation with rocketry is in its infancy, but there is suddenly a pressing need for a space program—if the Earth becomes uninhabitable, colonies in orbit or on the Moon may provide some sanctuary for human life. With Elma’s mathematical expertise and flight experience, and Nathaniel’s familiarity with propulsion technologyand other aspects of rocketry, the Yorks soon become an integral part of the International Aerospace Coalition’s Kansas-based plans to make manned spaceflight possible (a decade or more before, in an alternate universe, Apollo 11 would reach the Moon); but Elma wants more. She wants to become an astronaut herself. The Calculating Stars is the story of her struggles towards that end.

This is a richly imagined book, carefully detailed, artfully paced. Any comparison is going to be misleading, in some measure, but with its blend of scientific detail, political detail, social analysis and character drama it reads like one of Jack McDevitt’s contemporary SF novels (Ancient Shores, The Hercules Text) infused, perhaps, with the optimism of David Brin’s SF and the expertise in characterisation of Amy Thomson’s. But this makes it sound like a patchwork or chimaera, and it is most definitely its own thing. It’s a remarkably warm and generous example of character-driven hard SF—Elma’s thwarted ambitions become a lodestone for the challenges, not just of the sexism that would (in the eyes of the IAC hierarchy) see her grounded, but also of the racism that sees eminently-capable black candidates (of any gender) deliberately excluded through carefully-designed rules—and Kowal has taken considerable pains (as detailed in a five-page ‘Historical Note’ appended after the story) to get the details right. Furthermore, the novel’s dozens of recognisable characters are all treated as individuals with depth and with various strengths and weaknesses: if Nathaniel at times seems like an impossibly idealised supportive husband, the incredibly accomplished mathematician/pilot Elma is riven by an anxiety disorder so debilitating in times of stress (mostly, of unwanted public attention, a problem exacerbated by her growing visibility as a space-program figurehead) that the medication prescribed for this stress could well see her ejected from the program even if her gender doesn’t. And plenty of the other characters, most notably the veteran pilot Stetson Parker who seems for the most part to cultivate a personal enmity towards Elma, serve as both opponents and sounding boards, with redemptive features present in even the most infuriating characters. There’s plenty of character conflict, but it’s ultimately a story without any absolute villain except circumstance, and it’s a refreshing read because of that. I might complain that, in parts, it seems idealised—I’m not convinced that the advances in civil liberties presented here would occur with so little bloodshed, even in an alternate version of 1950s America; and that, in other parts, it appears to take shortcuts—there’s comparatively little narrative attention focussed on the changing climate, given the centrality of this as a modus operandi for the race to orbit and beyond, though this is a possibly-unavoidable consequence of how much of the novel is played out within the closed (and, one presumes, climate-controlled) confines of the IAC offices and control rooms; but overall, it’s a highly-impressive piece of hard SF, and I am looking forward to the imminent release of its successor, The Fated Sky.

(This is the fifteenth in my occasional ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)

Book review: Revenger, by Alastair Reynolds

29 08 2017

Alastair Reynolds is a British SF author best known for his ‘Revelation Space’ novel sequence, although by now he has many other strings to his bow. His work is known for its generally faithful adherence to hard-SF principles while often managing, also, to incorporate elements of space opera.


One of the reasonably widely accepted positions on the tropes of SF is that space piracy, as a concept, makes no sense, either logistically, physically, or economically. Revenger is a hard-SF novel, with strong YA undertones, about space pirates.

Arafura (‘Fura’) Ness is persuaded by her older sister Adrana to sign up for a six-month stint as ‘bone reader’ (in essence, a scryer of information gleaned from the technologically-augmented skulls of long-dead aliens; a task that can only be performed by those with the right combination of neural plasticity and cognition—which means, in practice, teenagers) on board Captain Rackamore’s sunjammer Monetta’s Mourn. Rackamore is a pirate, of sorts, but his primary interest is in plunder, not violence; and with fifty million formerly-occupied habitats, most of them sealed and left derelict, in orbit around the Old Sun, there’s opportunity aplenty for treasure-seekers trying to find tech relics of the Solar System’s many vanished civilisations. But Rackamore also has unfinished business with the infamous Bosa Sennen, whose Nightjammer is a watchword for terror, out in the Big Empty; and when Monetta’s Mourn comes off second best in an encounter with Sennen’s ship, Fura finds that she, too, has unfinished business with Bosa Sennen …

Revenger takes on the style of the pirate yarn whole-heartedly, from the stereotypically motley crews of misfits and ne’er-do-wells to the instantly-recognisable speech patterns and superstitions, and bolts these attributes onto a hard-SF framework that treats issues of intrasystem ballistics and momentum conservation with deadly seriousness. It’s a combination that could well seem ludicrous, and yet it works well, helped considerably by a tense and taut storyline that never really lets up and by characterisation that imbues Fura and those around her with complexity and pathos. If it’s not Reynolds’ most memorable achievement, it is, nonetheless, undeniably, a lot of fun.

What even is this ‘hard science fiction’, anyway?

6 08 2016

This is a question I’ve been pondering over recently, in connection with my efforts to identify and review books by women writers of the stuff.

It seems as though it should be straightforward to define ‘hard SF’, but it is, in truth, a rather slippery concept. The borders of genre are always nebulous, those of subgenre even more so, and to confound matters, there’s the oxymoronic aspect of the label itself: ‘hard science’ implies logical rigour and, one would hope, veracity, while ‘fiction’ denotes that deviation from truth that makes a story a story. So hard SF is a subgenre in which, almost by definition, the intent is at war with the content. A consequence of this internal contradiction is that any two readers’ (or creators’) Venn diagrams of what is, versus what isn’t, hard SF are very likely to differ.

If decoherence did not exist, hard SF would find it necessary to invent it.

With the above provisos, I still think it’s useful to try to answer the question: what is hard SF? (Well, I believe it’s useful. Your mileage may vary.) The simplest answer is probably to say that hard SF is SF that pays close attention to established scientific principles. Which is fine, insofar as the ‘hard science’ part of the label goes. (Let’s ignore, for the moment, the quibble that ‘established scientific principles’ sometimes turn out to be unreliable.) But the ‘fiction’ term in the equation means that the author has, one hopes, somewhere along the line, made some stuff up. There’s a word for this kind of thing in the scientific community: falsification of data. (Yes, I know that’s three words. Don’t harsh my vibe, okay?) So what stops the made-up stuff from invalidating the established-scientific-principles effort?

The answer is: it depends. This is often something that needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis, plus it’s something that might well turn out to be different for different readers of the same text. The internalised definition that I try to work with runs something along the lines of: Just as SF diverges from fantasy in describing the (in principle) possible versus the avowedly unrealistic, so does hard SF occupy that sector of SF space in which the events portrayed, though clearly fictional, are framed in such a manner that the reader can imagine such events unfolding, as written, somewhere in our exact Universe. Thus hard SF is that subset of SF which most cleanly allows our credulity to overpower our scientifically-informed skepticism.

I probably haven’t expressed that very well. And I’ve also failed to distinguish between ‘hard SF’ and ‘mundane SF’, which is something, I think, that needs to be done. I suppose the difference is that ‘hard SF’ is something that we’re pretty sure hasn’t happened yet, but which might happen, sometime, some place, most probably in the future, ‘mundane SF’ is something that just might actually already have happened, when we weren’t looking. So Howard Waldrop’s ‘The Ugly Chickens’, which breaks no known laws of science and which posits no new scientific, technological, or social developments of any significance, would probably qualify as mundane SF; Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Sentinel’, which postulates manned spaceflight to the Moon, and was written at a time before such spaceflight had been achieved, is pretty clearly hard SF. (Note that ‘The Sentinel’ is still hard SF, even though manned moon missions have been and gone: stories aren’t, in my opinion, superseded by subsequent historical events. The primary consideration is that the author has made diligent efforts to be faithful to then-current scientific understanding, and has only cautiously veered into the realm of make-believe insofar as is necessary to make of the narrative a satisfying story rather than a dry report. (Of course, based on this consideration, one could wilfully argue that many classical myths and legends, as well as the foundation documents for several long-established religions, would also need to be classified as ‘hard SF’—something that quite clearly isn’t so—but that’s always the problem with seeking to set guidelines: interpretation is in the eye of the beholder. I suppose the distinction would be that SF’s primary aspiration is generally to entertain, rather than to explain or persuade …) It’s worth noting, too, that (to my mind, at least) a hard SF story doesn’t necessarily lose that classification through being subsequently proven incorrect. A good example here would be the Larry Niven story ‘The Coldest Place’, which made recourse to accepted scientific knowledge that, between the time of its writing and the time of its publication, was shown to be erroneous (with the result that Niven asked the story’s editor, Fred Pohl, if the story—Niven’s first sale—needed to be pulled, and his paycheck cancelled). The story still works as hard SF, even if the embodied science is faulty, because the fault was not knowable to anyone at the time of writing.

Why are the boundaries of hard SF so subjective? It’s useful to trot out the Rumsfeld knowledge matrix that performed so well (statement may contain traces of sarcasm) in predicating the case for Iraq War 2. If a SF story employs only known knowns (the fact of the historical existence of the dodo, for example), then it can be fairly reliably classified as mundane SF. If it ventures into the territory of unknown knowns (say, the detailed surface conditions on the pre-Apollo-era Moon, or on Mercury), then it’s hard SF. Once it ventures into the territory of unknown unknowns (Is faster-than-light (FTL) spaceflight possible? Is time travel a thing, and how does the Universe handle paradoxes? Can we bring back the thylacine or the trilobite? Is a meaningful and indefinite extension to a human life achievable?), then it’s a judgment call, dependent as much on the reader’s extrapolated understanding of the nature of the Universe as on the writer’s. I, for example, am exceedingly skeptical about the even hypothetical achievability of time travel, and I’m sufficiently ishy on the subject of FTL that I usually seek to bravely duck the issue in my own hard SF stories. (If I set a story on Titan, I don’t need to invoke magical engineering to permit the plot line. Well, not for the transportation aspect, at any rate.) But a case can be made for FTL, even in its multitudinously handwavingly-explained-away forms (warp drive / wormholes / write your own ‘new physics’ paradigm), in a hard SF story if this prop serves to usefully place the action in an interesting and scientifically credible scenario from which some facet of the human condition can be satisfactorily explored.

There’s another layer of subjectivity, as well. How broad is the window of ‘acceptable underpinning science’? We’ve moved past, I hope, the idea that it has to be the physical sciences—physics and astrophysics, chemistry—and / or computational science, engineering or mathematics to which any true hard SF story has its ultimate recourse, though these are certainly important possible components. Biology should also, in my opinion, form an acceptable basis for some forms of hard SF, so too should anthropology, psychology, and sociology. So long as the story has some basis in existing or plausibly projected research, and shows in its internal logic a respect for the scientific method, it should be assessable as hard SF. But this position won’t meet with universal favour—the variable Venn diagram thing—and readers’ markers for which disciplines are inside the hard SF habitat, and which are outside, will almost unavoidably differ. It’s not my place to press the case too strongly. I will suggest, though, that one’s perspectives on this can be shifted by the right story. For example, before I’d read Claire Corbett’s When We Have Wings, I would have considered winged, flight-capable modified humans to be inappropriate fare for a hard SF novel, but Corbett pretty much nails it, through a well-researched and carefully-constructed exposition on the subject. Likewise the biological engineering that underpins Octavia Butler’s Dawn (and, from a different direction, C J Cherryh’s Cyteen). Hard SF, which is as much as anything a mindset paying homage, in fictional form, to the scientific method, is a richer literature if it is seen to be inclusive of diverse approaches to its subject matter than if it is too narrowly prescriptive.

It is also a richer literature if it does indeed seek to address the human condition rather than just to present variations on a theme of fictionalised problem-solving. We might well read hard SF for the gosh-wow factor it can deliver like almost no other genre, but the stories are only likely to resonate if they tell us something about us. We’re a notoriously narcissistic species, after all. I’ve enjoyed several of Greg Egan’s hard SF masterpieces (and it’s difficult to think of any other popular living SF writer whose work is more deeply informed by current physics and mathematics), but what gives his stories their ultimate kick is his skill with character portrayal. The weird physics of Schild’s Ladder could have made for a very dry novel in the hands of someone who could not give us characters to care about.

Does it, ultimately, matter whether a story is hard SF? To some people it does, and everyone’s obviously entitled to their own brainspace. I generally have a preference for hard SF, because as a reader I’m looking for something that can impress upon me its plausibility, and stories that wilfully flout scientific principles generally don’t do that for me. But a skilled writer can impart plausibility through other approaches: while I would have liked to be able to categorise Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite as hard SF, its lapses in rigour don’t damage the novel at all in my eyes, and it stands as one of the best examples of planetary SF worldbuilding that I’ve yet encountered. Analogously, I don’t care that the work of Jack McDevitt and Lois McMaster Bujold, for example, doesn’t generally make the hard-SF grade, because they are such excellent SF storytellers.

Finally, is hard SF still the male bastion it’s sometimes made out to be? My ‘XX Hard SF’ review series would argue that it’s not, but it’s undeniable that the ‘known names’ are still very predominantly male. On a recent trawl through a less-than-a-year-old reddit thread on the subject of hard SF, I encountered the names of 45 authors whose works were categorised (sometimes erroneously, in my humble opinion) as examples of hard SF. I suspect I don’t really need to tell you the gender of 44 of those authors.

Make of this what you will.