Book review: Cauldron, by Jack McDevitt

8 03 2018

Jack McDevitt is a Nebula Award winning American science fiction writer whose books I’ve reviewed frequently (most recently Odyssey, just a few days ago). I seldom read two books by the same author in quick succession, but McDevitt’s writing at its best can be so compulsive that it’s sometimes difficult to abstain …


Cauldron is book 6 in McDevitt’s ‘Priscilla Hutchins’ series and is, for the moment, the latest word on the interstellar pilot’s adventures. (Book 7, Starhawk, is a Hutch prequel, while book 8, The Long Sunset, launches in a few months’ time.) The series is rather more uneven in quality than McDevitt’s other main novel sequence (the Alex Benedict / Chase Kolpath books): while The Engines of God, Deepsix, and Chindi in particular are excellent works of widescreen sense-of-wonder SF adventure, Omega and Odyssey are more patchy and, in places at least, are significantly disappointing. (McDevitt has a tendency to reach for the exotic and the mysterious, but not always to deliver.) Consequently, I approached Cauldron with some trepidation … and came away, for the most part, impressed. The book, which overall deals with the preparation for a thirty thousand light-year mission by Hutch and colleagues, is bookended by two excruciatingly-tense deep-space encounters, the first of which is one of McDevitt’s finest ever running-out-of-time-here sequences, as researchers scramble to plunder a staggeringly old space colony in the last minutes before its obliteration by an approaching Omega Cloud, and the second of which introduces an intriguingly alien (and ominous) intelligence. Much of the space between these set-pieces is taken up with the efforts, by physics wunderkind Jon Silvestri and his backers in the Prometheus Foundation, to develop a starship drive so much faster than the existing hyperdrive technology that the vaunted mission to the Galactic core region (to seek out the Omega Clouds’ birthplace) becomes feasible, at a time when humanity has virtually stopped reaching for the stars: too expensive, no startling discoveries. The R&D tribulations are handled well, the mission itinerary less so. The new drive technology has the limitation that ships cannot stay transdimensional indefinitely, they must emerge into ‘normal space’ every seven thousand light years or so, which means the Galactic core mission requires three respites while the drives are recharged. (To this reader, the 7000 LY barrier imposed on the drives felt like a ‘limit of convenience’, allowing McDevitt to intercalate a few picaresque episodes which really do not add significantly to the story.) Target stellar regions are identified, the crew spend an increasingly cabin-feverish month in the blankness of transdimensional space while a mindbogglingly large distance is traversed, stellar systems are explored. My quibble is that McDevitt shows a disappointing tendency to make his technologically-advanced alien races far too humanoid, far too easily comprehensible, and this again shows itself Cauldron‘s ‘stopover’ sequences. The second of them works well enough, the third is largely glossed over in the race to the climactic confrontation, but the first ‘stopover’ episode is distinctly disappointing, with an unimaginative alien race that, appearances aside, could easily pass as suburban American. McDevitt’s vistas can be breathtaking, and that’s shown to as good effect in Cauldron as in any of his other work, but his alien-race-characterisation palette is at times disappointly drab, and this tendency mars a chunk of Cauldron. Not the whole book—there’s too much invention and tension elsewhere for a couple of weak chapters to deliver a truly crippling blow—but the story does lose its mojo for awhile. Happily, though, it gets it back.

For the most part, Cauldron is hot stuff.


Book review: Odyssey, by Jack McDevitt

4 03 2018

Jack McDevitt is an American SF writer best known for his ‘Alex Benedict’ and ‘Priscilla Hutchins’ series of novels which, with their typically sweeping cosmic vistas and intriguingly plotted storylines, fit somewhere in the space once occupied by golden age SF, in the gulf between space opera and hard SF. McDevitt has won one Nebula Award out of (at last count) sixteen nominations; he’s also won a couple of other major awards. I’ve reviewed several of his books.


Odyssey is the fifth in the ‘Priscilla Hutchins’ series, and though the now-deskbound Hutch might reasonably be expected to be the principal character here, she doesn’t get as much airtime in Odyssey as McDevitt’s aphorism-spouting literary curmudgen Gregory (‘Mac’) MacAllister (who first appeared, I think, in Deepsix, book two in the series) and space pilot Valentina (‘Valya’) Kouros. The book opens with the search for the starship Patrick Heffernan, lost somewhere around the middle of a two-hundred-light-year jump through hyperspace and thought therefore to be either adrift in normal space somewhere beyond radio contact or, worse, stuck haplessly in hyperspace. Once the Heffernan search has been stood down, the book’s focus is the mission—led by Valya and crewed by Mac, milquetoast PR flack Eric Samuels and Amy Taylor, the spaceflight-obsessed teenage daughter of a senator hostile to spaceflight—to place monitoring beacons around planets and satellites known to have been sites of visitation by ‘moonriders’, technologically-advanced spacecraft of non-terrestrial origin whose provenance and intentions are unknown. It turns out these moonriders might well have hostile intent …

McDevitt’s novels are extraordinarily compulsive. Even when, as here, he’s not in absolutely top form (there are a few elements of Odyssey I’d describe as slightly hinky, and Mac and Valya just are not in Hutch’s league as protagonists), the story still manages to be both gripping and spellbinding, largely as a function of the careful plotting and expert pacing. The characterisation is effective enough, though somewhat parochial (McDevitt’s is a very American future), the technology is reasonably standard from a SF standpoint (though I was impressed with the description of the gravitic drive units used around a ‘clean’ interstellar research site), and the book even manages to make budgetary pressures and political posturing of some interest, which is not easily achieved in SF. But it’s the use to which these elements are put which snares the reader’s attention. In certain respects, the novel never truly takes off (in the way that, say, Engines of God, Slow Lightning, Firebird and Seeker all do), and yet it still manages to be sufficiently fascinating as to insist that the reader turn just one more page, and another, and …

Book review: Starhawk, by Jack McDevitt

18 01 2018

Jack McDevitt is an American science fiction writer with a prodigious number of Nebula award nominations (sixteen at last count) as well as nominations for the Hugo and John W Campbell Memorial awards, among others. He’s won the Robert A Heinlein Award and has one Nebula win. Though he has also written several standalone novels, he’s best known for the ‘Alex Benedict’ and ‘Priscilla Hutchins’ sequences, both of which can be described (with imperfect precision) as big-picture medium future action-based space opera set in a human-dominated universe that seems predominantly influenced by contemporary or recent US society. They often have a distinctly retro, Golden Age feel about them, and they’re generally great fun. I’ve previously reviewed several McDevitt books (probably a few too many to graciously link to individually).


Starhawk is the most recent book in the ‘Priscilla Hutchins’ series. (It’s a prequel, set several years before the initial book, Engines of God, that was my introduction to McDevitt’s writing.) It follows ‘Hutch’ through the events immediately following the rather eventful certification flight, aboard the Copperhead, for her interstellar pilot’s licence. A rescue mission during that flight—when the Copperhead is diverted to Lalande 21185 to ferry the crew and passengers off a stricken vessel, the Gremlin, which is about to suffer an uncontrolled re-entry (and imminent destruction) within the atmosphere of the star system’s sole terrestrial planet—does not go entirely to plan, and Hutch and her instructor Jake Loomis are both badly marked by the outcome. It transpires that the Gremlin was sabotaged by activists concerned that the terraforming effort at Selika is destroying that planet’s native ecosystem, an effort to which the space fleet is directly contributing. This struggle between the profit-obsessed corporate forces, headed up by Kosmik Inc., pushing Selika’s terraforming, and the environmentalists outraged at what they see as the needless destruction of a planet’s biosphere, forms a repeated theme throughout the novel, carried all the way through to a heartrendingly inevitable climax (which appears to be one of McDevitt’s signature moves). The characterisation is efficient, the worldbuilding is impressively busy (with, as noted above, a heavily American flavour), and McDevitt has few equals when it comes to the construction of a propulsive and gripping SF storyline. While it would be inaccurate to describe this style of SF as groundbreaking, it is entirely reasonable to say that Starhawk is a thrill ride. If you haven’t yet read any McDevitt, this is as good a place as any to start.


Book review: Forest of Memory, by Mary Robinette Kowal

13 01 2018

Mary Robinette Kowal is an American SF / fantasy writer, voice actor, and puppeteer. Her work has been nominated for Nebula, Hugo, and Locus awards, and she has won the John W Campbell award, and three Hugo awards, for her fiction.


Forest of Memory is a novella set in a mid-22nd century future so digitally enmeshed that the grid is omnipresent and ever-watchful. So when Authenticity & Capture specialist Katya—who deals, essentially, in the provenance of pre-grid artefacts and digitised memories—experiences disconnection enroute to an important meeting in another town, during a bike ride through an Oregon forest park, it’s an unsettling experience. Particularly because the disconnection has occured simultaneously with—indeed, may even have been initiated by—an enigmatic and seemingly-ruthless deer-hunter. Ambushed, tranquilised, abducted, there’s nothing Katya can manage that will allow her to escape from the mysterious and anonymous figure, and even her efforts to obtain an explanation for whatever he’s doing with the forest’s deer—which apparently requires them to be anaesthetised for an hour or more—are met with confident denial. All she can do is keep watch, and hope that an opportunity for escape, back to the grid’s security, presents itself.

The novella claims to have been typed by Katya on an antique typewriter she has purchased (and which she has in her bike trailer at the time of the encounter with the hunter), and the story therefore contains intentional misspellings, crossings out, and misplaced word spaces. It also doesn’t explain things a reader of the 22nd century would already know, which does mean that some aspects of the story remain obscure. But Katya and her interactions with her eerily-efficient abductor are drawn with admirable clarity, which gives the narrative a sense of grounding that compensates for the absence of detail in some parts of the setting. This is an intriguing, atmospheric piece that indirectly provokes questioning as to how much interconnectedness is desirable, and leaves me keen to check out more of Kowal’s writing.



Book review: Genrenauts episode 2 (The Absconded Ambassador), by Michael R Underwood

4 01 2018

Michael R Underwood (whose portrait Google unhelpfully pairs with the bio of another, now demised Michael Underwood)


is a still-living American SF author, publishing manager, and SF podcast co-host. His books include Shield and Crocus, The Younger Gods, and Geekomancy.


Underwood’s Genrenauts novella series is premised on the conceit that the ‘real world’ (Earth Prime) is metaphysically connected to a number of alternate worlds, in each of which the tropes of a given fiction genre (western, romance, SF, etc.) hold sway, and that travel to these genre worlds is possible—indeed, necessary on occasion, so as to restore ‘balance’ on Earth Prime when a ‘breach’ occurs. As a consequence, each volume (‘episode’) of Genrenauts plays with the literary furniture of its chosen genre. Episode 2, The Absconded Ambassador, deals with SF.

The book’s plot is reasonably straightforward: the Terran ambassador to Ahura-3, a large multi-species space station and trading hub nestled in the ‘space opera’ zone of the SF realm, has apparently been kidnapped, on the eve of the planned signing of an important treaty which would cement peaceful relations between most of the known spacefaring species. A four-person Genrenauts team—essentially, three seasoned professionals and rookie ex-Improv performer Leah Tang—is dispatched from Earth Prime to rescue the ambassador and restore order to the Galaxy. The book’s tone is light, moderately tongue-in-cheek, and reasonably fast-paced; it edges more towards the side of inter-character banter than significant action or high-tension suspense. It’s entertaining, and the trope-acknowledging fourth-wall-breaking is generally amusing, but I felt in some places that its carefully constructed veneer of genericity robbed it of some of the pathos that a more sharply specific work would have had. (On the other hand, that same genericity probably makes the story more accessible to out-of-genre readers, which seems appropriate for the concept behind the series.)


Book review: The Memoirist, by Neil Williamson

9 11 2017

Neil Williamson is a British speculative fiction writer whose work has been shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award, the British Science Fiction Award, and the World Fantasy Award.


The Memoirist is a novella set in a future England in which surveillance (by miniaturised camera-drones called ‘bees’) has become so pervasive as to almost completely nullify the concept of personal privacy. Its protagonist, Rhian Fitzgerald (‘Fizz’), is a compiler of memoirs (using, for the most part, material in the vast public domain which has arisen from such surveillance) for those who wish to codify, to celebrate, or to whitewash their past achievements. She takes on an assignment for Elodie Eagles, the frontperson for controversial and long-disbanded electrorock outfit The HitMEBritneys, whose final, undocumented concert, fifty years past, has become the stuff of legends; but when she seeks to obtain background information about this concert, her life is thrown into turmoil. Why are the police so keen to stop her from investigating this particular gig?

Omnipresent surveillance is generally seen as a trope within dystopian fiction—exhibit A, Orwell’s 1984—and yet the world of The Memoirist doesn’t convey as purely dystopian: while there’s much to be unsettled by within Williamson’s posited gamification of social interaction through surveillance, there is also a suggestion of comfortable societal adaptation to such conditions (which, of course, is itself grounds for further unsettlement on the reader’s part). In its blend of social-SF extrapolation and high-concept quantum speculation, it’s rather reminiscent of Greg Egan’s writing, and also rather good. I’m not completely convinced that the trope of ‘mysteriously epochal rock band performance’ (as featured in, for example, Howard Waldrop’s ‘Do Ya, Do Ya Wanna Dance’ and George R R Martin’s The Armageddon Rag) is ever applied with full success in speculative fiction, and The Memoirist doesn’t change my opinion on that score, but it’s nonetheless a detailed, plausible, and intriguing riff on where we could be heading.







Book review: Trees (vol. 1, ‘In Shadow’; vol. 2, ‘Two Forests’), by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard

13 10 2017

Warren Ellis is an English novelist, screenwriter, and comic book writer; Jason Howard is a comic book artist. Trees is an unfolding story told in comic book / graphic novel form, exploring the slow invasion of Earth by ominously tall, mainly inert pillars (the ‘Trees’ of the title).


In Trees volume one (‘In Shadow’), the effect of the Trees’ proximity to several locations scrattered across the globe (Spitzbergen, Manhattan, Rio de Janiero, Shu, Cefalu, Mogadishu) is sketched in apparently-disparate storylines that each kick off without anything much by way of preliminary scene-setting. It’s established from the start that the towering Trees are indifferent to, perhaps even ignorant of, the existence of human settlements at the locations of their incursions: aside from occasionally shedding waste (in the form, it seems, of copious extrusions of bright green sap), they mainly just stand there, interfering with radio transmissions and occupying what might, a decade ago, have been prime human real estate.

Most of the attention in vol. 1 is split between Spitzbergen, where biologist Dr Joanne Creasey has newly arrived at a research station to discover that her colleagues are in the habit of leaving frozen bodies scattered around the base of the local Tree, to see what actions the Tree takes to these incursions; Cefalu, where Eligia, the girlfriend of Tito (a thuggish fascist gang leader seeking to carve out a little empire for himself in the town in the Tree’s shadow) is looking to find a way out from under her boyfriend’s ‘protection’; and Shu, where Chenglei, an artistically-minded villager from the surrounding countryside, seeks permission to enter the Special Cultural Zone that the Chinese authorities have established as a protective measure following the arrival of a Tree. Once ensconced in the anarchic artists’ commune called Spaceship One, Chenglei realises that the feelings he holds for his transsexual neighbour Zhen are far from straightforward. But, particularly in the threat-charged environment that is a Tree’s neighbourhood, nothing lasts forever …


Trees volume two (‘Two Forests’) picks up the storylines from vol. 1. Though each of the storylines is advanced further, to a greater or lesser degree, most of the action this time around centres again on Dr Creasey (now a veteran of what’s referred to as ‘the Blindhail incident’ following events unfolding on Spitzbergen), who’s consigned as an urgent advisor to an archaeological dig in the shadow of the Orkney Tree as, it appears, an insurance against Spitzbergen’s fate (and accompanying electromagnetic pulse) repeating itself on UK soil; and Vince, the corrupt and ambitious mayor-elect of New York, who appears to have dealt his way into power purely to exact retribution for mistakes made by the city authorities (not least NYPD) in the immediate aftermath of the Tree’s arrival in Manhattan eleven years ago.

Within the sharply kinetic confines of the comic book format (the two volumes, though presented as graphic-novel-sized paperbacks, are constructed as sequences of respectively eight and six individual issues), there’s an impressive array, in Trees, of punchy characterisation and grainily expressive illustration; there’s also an intriguing and slowly-unfolding overall story. Though there’s no deeper connection than the trope of ‘alien-settlement-on-Earth’, the tone has quite a lot in keeping with District 9 in its grimy, unglamorous exploration of human reaction to the culture shock of alien intelligence. There’s a cerebrality and a humour to it, too, that heightens the often-confusing and fast-paced action: this promises to be considerably more than just another riff on ideas aired in books such as The War of the Worlds, Childhood’s End, and The Forge of God.

The second volume doesn’t end the story, though there does appear to have been a hiatus of at least a year since the most recent instalment (issue 14, which forms the last part of vol. 2). It’s certainly to be hoped that the series does continue, since vol. 2 moves the story into some very interesting territory, with growing hints as to the Trees’ purpose and the likely risks to mankind as the Trees carry out their mysterious assignment.