Book review: Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells

20 06 2018

Martha Wells is an American speculative fiction writer, with a number of fantasy and SF novel series and tie-in novels for Star Wars and Stargate: Atlantis. She has received numerous nominations and awards, including a recent Nebula ‘Best Novella’ award for All Systems Red, the first instalment in the ‘Murderbot Diaries’ series (which, as it happens, I have reviewed here).


Artificial Condition is the second ‘Murderbot’ novella. It sees the newly-liberated security cyborg seeking to make its way back to RaviHyral, a mining installation on a world set aside for minerals exploitation; in its former existence, Murderbot was one of several SecUnits charged with defending the human workers in one of RaviHyral’s corporate mines… until a mishap leads to an all-humans-have-been-killed situation. Murderbot’s involvement in this incident is unknown—its memories of the tragedy, and indeed, of its entire time at the mine, have been wiped—but it has always understood that it simply went rogue, slaughtering the humans because of some hardware or software glitch. Now, Murderbot has decided, it’s time to learn the truth of the incident. But human society is rather skittish on the subject of autonomous SecUnits—you know, the whole killing-machines-running-amok thing, as hyped up by the entertainment and news media—and so it’s important that Murderbot is able to travel incognito and unrecognised, and for that it’s going to require help…

The Murderbot series is not really as bloodthirsty as the name suggests. A large part of this novella is concerned with the cyborg’s exploration of issues such as trust and responsibility, and its attempts to define its own moral core. In the process, it learns (and illuminates) aspects of human behaviour. This perhaps makes the series sound dry and instructional, which it is not: it’s moderately-paced (because Murderbot, though notably paranoid in some respects, is not really prone to panic in any demonstrable fashion), intriguing in several ways, and quietly addictive. It helps, too, that Murderbot has a discrete personality (somewhere near the intersection of Star Trek: TNG‘s Data and Altered Carbon‘s Takeshi Kovacs, if that helps to clarify matters at all). If anything, I think I enjoyed this novella somewhat more than its Nebula-winning predecessor, which I felt was slightly let down by an overly-complicated and awkwardly-choreographed combat sequence. This time around, things are more pared back, and the story flows more assuredly. I’m not sure what comes next, but I’m looking forward to it.

Does it count as hard SF? I’m inclined to assess that it does: while there seems to be some nebulosity on the vexatious subject of interstellar propulsion, the laws of physics are otherwise treated with appropriate seriousness, and the processes of data transfer by which Murderbot communicates with other artificial intelligences and bots (and, on occasion, hacks into security systems) are credibly detailed. It’s thoughtful, it’s fun, and it’s serious: what more could you want?

(This is the fourteenth 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: Runtime, by S B Divya

28 03 2018

S B Divya is an electrical engineer and SF author. She’s also co-editor of the Escape Pod weekly SF podcast. Her debut novella, Runtime, is a Nebula Award finalist.


Mary Margaret Guinto, known as Marmeg to her friends, is a gifted and determined young woman from LA’s marginalised underclass who dreams of a better life for herself and her younger siblings: education, security, opportunity. Marmeg sees the Minerva Sierra Challenge—a tech-augmented footslog across a demanding and dangerous stretch of mountainous, wooded terrain—as her ticket to this better life, with the promise of considerable prize money and sponsorship deals offered to the race’s winners and place-getters. But there’s nothing of the ‘level playing field’ about the Challenge: it’s a race where the quality of your gear can lend an inordinate advantage, and Marmeg’s gear is, to put it politely, broke-ass. Her cobbled-together exoskeleton is rubed from dumpster discards, her biochips are hand-coded and prone to breakdown, her support team (a mandatory requirement for the Challenge) is nonexistent. And the parental permission she requires to participate in the race? No, she doesn’t have that either. What she does have is the adaptability and inventiveness that comes from having rebuilt the gear from the ground up rather than simply buying it off the peg for an exorbitant amount. But will this be enough? There are lots of hazards in them thar hills …

The setup is of a Cinderella-style story, where virtue triumphs over adversity, but it’s to Divya’s credit that this isn’t exactly what she delivers. Runtime pulses with moral ambiguity, as Marmeg comes to question how important the act of winning the race can be, and because of this there’s a substantial additional strand of tension and grit which would otherwise be absent. This also gives greater opportunity to set Marmeg within the future society in which she operates, where biophysical augmentation through exoskeletal attachments and implants is becoming the norm. Though Marmeg identifies as female, many of the people with whom she interacts have transformed themselves into ‘moots’, neutered and ostensibly agendered, and a sense is conveyed that only two things have stopped Marmeg from yet going down such a path herself: lack of funds, and maternal disapproval.

The issue of cyborg-style body modification is a thorny one, and Divya provides both proponents (Marmeg herself, her friend T’Shawn, her competitors in the Challenge) and opponents (her mother Amihan, and ‘Mike’) of the concept and the practice. There’s a general sense that cyborgification is the way of the future—understandably, given Runtime‘s storyline and protagonist—but dangers are acknowledged, as are the grit and tarnish (breakdowns, infection etc) of component failure.

Does it qualify as hard SF? Overall, I would say so. The treatment of the various possible augments (exoskeletal armour and rewritable implants for Marmeg, lightweight adaptable smartsuits and retractable appendages for her considerably wealthier competitors) isn’t overly detailed, but it is broadly immersive, and doesn’t flinch at showing the more gruesome aspects: there’s a bit of body horror in the scene where Marmeg has to perform improvised surgery on herself to swap out a malfed implant for a functional one. If the surrounding society remains somewhat sketchy, this can be excused because (a) it’s quite a short book and (b) for large parts of the book, its protagonist is effectively isolated from that society. There would be plenty of scope for further exploration here, if the author chose to revisit this world, whether with Marmeg again or one or other of her contacts. It’s a slender book, though not a slight one.

(This is the thirteenth 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: Cracking the Sky, by Brenda Cooper

9 04 2017

Brenda Cooper is a futurist, the Chief Information Officer of the city of Kirkland, and an established author who has written around several SF novels. Her work has won the Endeavor Award and has been nominated for the Philip K Dick Award, and she has co-authored one novel (Building Harlequin’s Moon) and several short stories with Larry Niven. I co-edited one of Cooper’s stories, ‘Between Lines’, in the Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear anthology.


Cracking the Sky is a collection of Cooper’s short fiction, and contains twenty-one short stories and novelettes. It’s organised into five sections, of which the first, ‘On A Future Earth’, is longest.

‘The Robot’s Girl’ is a wonderfully evocative piece—of novelette length, I suspect—in which a couple of young professionals, Paul and Aliss, become fixated on the circumstances of their neighbour, a twelve-year-old girl who lives in a house tended (and guarded) by a troupe of serious-minded and highly protective robots. Where are her parents? Why do the robots not permit human contact with their charge? This is the sort of story that fulfils the promise of Isaac Asimov’s pioneering ‘Susan Calvin’ stories, adding solid emotional depth to the technological fizz of the central idea.

In ‘Savant Songs’, Adam is a doctoral student, and then a postdoc, for physics savant Elsa, a specialist in theories of the multiverse. Elsa’s communication with her own universe seems consistently perpendicular; is this an advantage, or a disadvantage, in seeking to establish the underpinnings of multiverse theory?

In ‘Riding in Mexico’, Isa is a Northwestern US university student taking a course which involves ‘riding’ a client’s mind: in laboratory sessions, she shares the sensory perceptions of Valeria, a young Mexican woman in difficult and possibly dangerous home circumstances. Isa has no way to help Valeria; all she can do is watch. As with much of Cooper’s writing, this piece is vivid and immediate.

‘The War of the Flowers’ details the predicament of single-mother Kelly, whose young daughter Cherry has to live in an interactive hypoallergenic environment so as not to trigger an extreme sensitivity arising from Kelly’s experimentation with tailored drugs before her pregnancy was diagnosed. What makes this story is, again, the clarity and urgency with which the scenario is depicted through Cooper’s prose.

In ‘Trainer of Whales’, kelp-farmer Kitha is outside the Dome when a seaquake hits. With no way of communicating with the denizens of Downbelow Dome, she has no way of knowing whether anyone within the Habitat, including her ten-year-old son Jonathon, is safe, or even alive. While this story is wonderfully imaginative and full of colourful and interesting ideas, it didn’t convince the way the four preceding stories did: its crisis seems more obviously confected, and the detail never transcends convenience to attain coherence.

In ‘Star of Humanity’, teacher trainee Tanya and vet student Susan receive internet invitations to a shadowy recruitment program, the Star of Humanity. Neither young woman is particularly keen on the idea of signing up to a program about which they have no useful information, but jobs are hard to come by. This is a story that asks a bit more than it answers, but it’s possible that it’s part of a larger sequence. (I suspect Cooper’s story in Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear, ‘Between Lines’, may well be another component of such a sequence.)

‘My Father’s Singularity’ is a difficult story to properly characterise. I suspect the best that I can do is to say that it’s a low-key exploration of the pain of technological advancement, and seems to compress a lot within a small frame.

The collection’s second section, ‘Space’, comprises three stories. ‘Trellis’ a story cowritten with Larry Niven, plays out as a rescue mission on an immense umbilical connecting Pluto with its mutually face-locked companion Charon. There’s a wealth of invention in the setting, but it has too much of the ‘cosy catastrophe’ about it and not enough of the slice-of-life futurism that is, I think, Cooper’s forte. (That said, it does seem to be a constructive collaboration. I can see traces of Niven’s worldbuilding in the setting alongside Cooper’s often-urgent characterisation, but it comes across as a blended rather than a chimeric construct.)

In ‘Second Shift’, Kami is an absent companion for Lance, a lone astronaut on a long-term asteroid-retrieval mission. She’s been warned not to get emotionally invested in her communications with Lance, but sometimes the heart doesn’t listen to instructions. This is a short, wistful, wise piece.

In ‘Blood Bonds’, Aline, Lissa’s twin, is clinging to VR-enhanced life support following a terrorist attack. As with the preceding story, this is essentially a tale of heartfelt communication across a seemingly-insurmountable barrier. There were aspects of the worldbuilding that broke suspension of disbelief for me—the handling of the lightspeed delay for communication between planets didn’t convince—but the remainder of the story is solid, if disorienting in places.

There are two stories in the ‘Stories From Fremont’s Children’ section, which apparently relate to Cooper’s series of YA novels starting with The Silver Ship and the Sea. I haven’t read any of the books in this series, and I imagine I’d have a stronger connection with the stories if I had. As it is, the stories, ‘The Hebras and the Demons and the Damned’ and ‘The Street of All Designs’ are readable enough, and possess sufficiently-engaging characters, but for me they lacked the power of Cooper’s best near-future work.

The fourth section, ‘Short And To The Point’, contains seven stories of three pages or less each. Of these seven stories, the most successful to my mind is ‘My Grandfather’s River’, an impressively compact tale of dedication and memory; ‘Alien Graveyards’ is also effective. The others too often seemed incomplete and fragmentary: while they intrigued in places, I felt that they required more flesh to properly resonate with the reader.

There are two stories in the final ‘Military Science Fiction’ section. The first of these, ‘For the Love of Metal Dogs’, depicts a woodland skirmish from the viewpoint of a combined human / canine / robodog combat team. It’s a concise and well-envisaged piece which conveys its freight well enough.

The title story, ‘Cracking the Sky’, details a raid by a human / robodog troop on a clandestine laboratory facility. It’s tense and vivid.

There’s quite a bit of variety in this collection, which I would say is a good thing. I had some definite preferences within the stories: to my mind, the first (and longest) section, ‘On A Future Earth’, is generally the strongest. Cooper seems to be most adept at depicting imaginatively detailed near-future scenarios, and my favourite stories in the collection, ‘The Robot’s Girl’, ‘The War of the Flowers’, ‘My Father’s Singularity’, and ‘My Grandfather’s River’ all fall into this category, and each of these combines worldbuilding displaying plausible technological advancements with a powerful and nuanced emotional undercurrent and memorable characterisation. These are crystal-clear vistas of possible futures as well as highly satisfying stories in their own right. While one could convincingly argue that not every story in the collection is hard SF, I would say that a substantial majority are, and those that aren’t (chiefly, as I see it, the two Fremont stories and ‘Alien Graveyards’) still mostly play nice with the laws of physics. My perusal of Cooper’s longer fiction suggests that most of her novels are a touch more fanciful (time travel, cyberpunk, space opera) than the most solidly grounded of these stories; without intending to slight her output in these other styles, which I’m sure she can handle adroitly, I would nonetheless be especially keen to see some longer near-future SF work from her.

(This is the twelfth in my ‘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: Virtual Girl, by Amy Thomson

3 11 2016

Amy Thomson is an award-winning American SF writer, whose The Color of Distance I read and reviewed earlier this year.


Virtual Girl is Thomson’s debut novel, published in 1993. I read it a few years after it came out; I’ve just now re-read it.

Arnold Brompton is a renegade programmer who develops an AI personality named Maggie, which he ports into an artificial humaniform body. He does this partly because he can, partly because his father has repeatedly sought to thwart him in this endeavour, and partly because he craves companionship. It’s a hazardous undertaking: artificial intelligence is a proscribed field of study, and the discovery of Maggie’s identity as an artificial construct would lead to her destruction and Arnold’s incarceration. It’s imperative, therefore, that Maggie learn how to flawlessly present herself as human, rather than machine. But is a sedentary, basement-dwelling computer nerd with a dose of street smarts really the best instructor of human behaviour?

Maggie is programmed for full obedience towards her creator Arnold, and to begin with she must, indeed, depend upon him. But Arnold makes a mistake, and Maggie is forced to choose between subservience to Arnold and her own survival. She chooses the more interesting option.

Thomson excels at characterisation and at giving voice to the thoughts, fears, and motivations of characters who can be very far from human. In Maggie, she has created an entity who, while technically lacking human emotion, does naturally engage our empathy, and Maggie’s deep-outsider perspective offers several intriguing points of analysis on aspects of human behaviour which might, in other contexts, be utterly unremarkable. Maggie’s important human reference points include Arnold, who undergoes a sinister but plausible transformation during the story (typified by his subsequent marginalisation of her identity as merely a ‘bag lady’); four-year-old Claire, whose innate acceptance of Maggie does much to affirm the robot’s sense of being and belonging; Azul, a hooker and aspiring dance-musician, who adopts Maggie and forms a significant bond with her; and Marie, Azul’s landlady, an Anna Madrigal type who, among other things, helps Maggie to understand certain aspects of human interaction which had, up until then, remained almost completely opaque.

I wouldn’t classify Virtual Girl as a high-octane read (by analogy, for example, with Madeline Ashby’s similarly-themed but distinctly more violent vN, which I believe may have been somewhat influenced by Thomson’s novel); though the story certainly shuttles from place to place (driven by Maggie’s need to keep on the move, so as to evade detection by the Bromptons), there’s plenty of opportunity for reflection and a sense of (mostly) peaceful existence as Maggie learns about humans, and about herself. There’s also a (mostly) plausible extrapolation of near-future US society (circa, I believe, the 2040s)—maglevs, solar panels, neural implants—though it’s almost unavoidable that the 1990s-vision computational detail is incorrect in parts. (The tidbit I found hardest to swallow was the now-quaint notion that Maggie’s complete sensorium, a year’s worth of memories, and her astonishingly complex operating system would all fit on eight CDs, around 6GB total capacity by my estimation, as if CDs would even be used for this application in a quarter-century from today.) But provided you don’t insist on complete predictive accuracy (which is always a hazardous undertaking in any work of SF), the book manages admirably to ring true. It’s a very accomplished piece of character-driven hard SF, and it delivers on several levels.

(This is the eleventh in my ‘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. Note that I’ve bent my own rules on this occasion: I’d originally intended this hard-SF review project to encompass only novels I hadn’t previously read, but there are some books that would, I think, be unfairly excluded by that restriction, and Virtual Girl is one of those. I may well re-bend this rule in future, as well.)

Book review: Heaven Chronicles, by Joan D Vinge

12 09 2016

Joan D Vinge is an American SF author who has won the Hugo for her novel The Snow Queen; she has also written the novelisations for several movies, including Mad Max: Beyond ThunderdomeLost in Space and Cowboys and Aliens.


Vinge’s asteroid-colony book Heaven Chronicles is novel-length, but it’s not a single novel: instead it combines the works Legacy (which I judge to be on the awkward cusp, in length, between a novella and a short novel) and the short(ish) novel The Outcasts of Heaven Belt. To complicate matters slightly, Legacy is itself a combination of two short novellas Media Man and Fool’s Gold. Two of the three component stories (Media Man and Outcasts) first appeared in Analog magazine, respectively in 1976 and 1978; Fool’s Gold was first published in Galileo magazine in 1980. Media Man, Legacy, and The Outcasts of Heaven Belt have also all been published separately as paperbacks. Additionally, Vinge has apparently revised all of this material, in a book entitled Heaven Belt which, to the best of my knowledge, has not yet seen release. The edition of Heaven Chronicles I read dates from 1991.

The tales within Heaven Chronicles all concern the unfolding, and downward-spiralling, history of the colonised asteroid belt orbiting the star Heaven, in a system rich in planetoidal resources but lacking any habitable planets. The two stories comprising Legacy explore the adventures of prospector-turned-media-reporter Chaim Dartagnan and pilot Mythili Fukinuki, who meet as participants in an ill-fated mission to rescue the wealthy occupant of a spacecraft marooned on the frozen, inhospitable Planet Two. Outcasts deals with the events that unfold following the arrival in Heaven system of Ranger, a well-resourced and technologically advanced starship piloted by Betha Torgussen who, after the ship comes under attack from an overzealous colony defence force, is one of only two survivors from an original complement of seven.

There’s a decidedly old-fashioned and pulpy feel to Heaven Chronicles. (I offer this as an attempt at classification rather than any implied criticism.) There’s a lot of argument, a lot of tension, some well-telegraphed action and a kind of rough simplicity to the characterisation, moreso in the space-operatic Outcasts than in Legacy. The most obvious overarching characteristics of the stories are, however, an evidently thoroughgoing respect for the laws of physics and an interest in the exploration of gender politics. It’s probably relevant also to note the book’s thoroughgoing use of ‘metric time’—i.e. seconds, kiloseconds, megaseconds, gigaseconds—rather than the ‘imperial time’ (hours / days / years etc.) to which readers are presumably accustomed. The use of unconventional time units is initially disruptive—the conversion to familiar units has to be thought through, the first few times—but does, I think, encourage a degree of immersion in the story that might otherwise be absent.

I found Legacy to be the more rewarding of the assembled components: while neither Dartagnan nor Fukinuki is a particularly compelling viewpoint character, the interaction between them is fascinating, and I appreciated the story’s ultimate (rather elliptical) denouement. Outcasts suffered slightly by comparison: the story seemed overlong and meandering in places. Overall, while I found the book enjoyable, I suspect its ‘bitsy-ness’ might irk some readers, since, despite the presence of common characters, the three stories don’t really mesh together to form a complete whole. On the other hand, it would probably hold a strong appeal to devotees of 1950s and 1960s space-based SF.

(This is the tenth in my ‘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: Spin State, by Chris Moriarty

3 08 2016

Chris Moriarty is an American SF writer who has worked as a horse trainer, tourism industry employee, and environmental lawyer. Spin State, her debut novel, was published in 2003, and has been followed by two sequels as well as two YA fantasy novels.


Spin State opens with a UN-sponsored covert ops raid, led by the genetically and cybernetically enhanced Major Catherine Li, on a clandestine geneware lab at Metz. But Li has not been fully briefed on the purpose of the raid, nor has anyone else physically participating in the action; the only one among them, it seems, who has access to all of the necessary intel is Cohen, the AI riding on a virtual shunt through an implant worn by Li’s comrade-in-arms Kolodny. The raid goes awry, Kolodny is killed, and Li, censured for her mishandling of a mission for which she felt she had never been given sufficient background information, is dispatched to the mines of Compson’s World to investigate the death of Hannah Sharifi, a worlds-renowned physicist, in a catastrophic mine explosion during an unsanctioned experiment. It’s soon revealed that Sharifi’s death was not accidental, but who is responsible? And, while Li antagonises everyone from Haas, the mine director, to General Helen Nguyen, her own superior officer, what other forces are at play in the dangerous game for which Compson’s World seems to have become a crucial gamepiece?

The hard SF background on which Spin State is constructed is that the phenomenon of quantum entanglement permits a technology enabling the effectively-instantaneous translocation of a privileged few (among whose number, by virtue of her hardware and wetware enhancements, is Li herself) across interstellar distances. This technology relies on continued access to crystalline Bose-Einstein condensate, a material found to be naturally occurring only in the subsurface of the heavily-mined Compson’s World. From this background, Moriarty has engineered an intricate, intriguing, and well-realised story that owes almost as much to cyberpunk and sociological SF as it does to hard SF. Everyone here—Haas, Nguyen, Sharifi, the mine witch Bella, the dealer in antiquities Korchow, the religionist Cartwright, and especially the fey brain-the-size-of-a-planet AI Cohen—has an agenda of their own, none of these agendas coalign precisely, and it becomes clear that Li will need an agenda of her own, which may or may not be to follow the orders to which, as a soldier, it has always been her duty to submit.

Spin State reads like a hybrid of Greg Egan’s weird-physics masterwork Schild’s Ladder and Richard Morgan’s neo-cyberpunk shooter Altered Carbon, told with the attention to worldbuilding detail of Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite. Which is another way of saying that it conveys its deep otherworldliness with sublime exactitude, while propelling the reader from one high-stakes confrontation to the next. It’s an excellent example of recent hard SF.

(This is the ninth in my ‘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: Arkfall / The Ice Owl, by Carolyn Ives Gilman

9 07 2016

Carolyn Ives Gilman is a historian / SF writer with multiple Nebula award nominations; she’s also been shortlisted for the Hugo, Locus, and Tiptree awards. Arkfall and The Ice Owl are a pair of novellas first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and subsequently separately published under Arc Manor’s ‘Phoenix Pick’ imprint. Since each novella is reasonably short, and since the books share a universe (though they have no settings, characters, or overlying story arc in common), it seems expedient to review them in tandem.


Arkfall is set within the ice-roofed oceans of a Europa-like planet, Ben, where pressure-adapted humans have colonised the Salton Sea. The colonists are divided into ‘barnacles’—those who make their living in one or other of the multiply-domed seafloor habitats—and ‘floaters’—those who roam from habitat to habitat in large, cyborg-like submarines called ‘arks’. Osaji is an unrepentant floater, but she’s not happy with her lot: as the youngest grandchild of, and reluctantly-dutiful carer for, the fading Mota, it seems to her that she is not allowed to make any choices for herself. Her ambition to emigrate to another world thwarted by Ben’s frustratingly-indirect bureaucracy (on Ben, almost all dialogue is held in passive-voice and using the pronoun ‘one’ in place of ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘he’ or ‘she’, so as not to cause undue offence), she signs up for yet another tour on a new ark. An accident places her on this ark alone with grandmother Mota and with Scrappin’ Jack, an inappropriately-upfront offworld mercenary with whom, surely, she cannot find any common ground. And yet, doomed to months of drifting in this ark, some kind of rapprochement is clearly necessary if they are to survive the hazards of this lightless submarine environment.


In The Ice Owl, century-old teenager Thorn lives with her mother Maya, an unlicensed reproductive-services provider, and Maya’s current boyfriend, the bounty hunter Hunter, in the tenements of a domed habitat on a tidally-locked airless planet where the overarching culture is one of piety and repression. When a gang of overzealous vandals—’Incorruptibles’—firebombs Thorn’s school, on the basis of inferred iniquity, she must find a tutor so as to continue her education. She chooses an old man she has seen in their neighbourhood park, one Soren Pregaldin, who she rapidly learns has lived on several worlds (she herself is on her ninth world, which accounts for her time-lagged age) and has amassed an impressive collection of offworld—and here illegal—artworks, books, and curios. Magister Pregaldin encourages Thorn’s developing initiative and independence of thought, but he presumably doesn’t intend for his young charge to use this newfound direction to explore his own past, which seems to grow shadier the more she learns of it. Nonetheless, a friendship develops between them, and he presents her with a small refrigerator containing the titular bird, a uniquely hibernating species which must be kept frozen until it is ready to revive. But the upheavals in Thorn’s neighbourhood have not ceased with the school’s sacking …

Though the societies in these books never truly came to life for me—I didn’t feel that there was sufficient depth, sufficient subtlety to the worldbuilding—Gilman nonetheless gives us plausibly complex and interesting characters, and trenchant problems for them to solve. They’re written in a clear and uncomplicated style which reveals several moments of genuine pathos in the lives of their respective protagonists. Forced to play favourites, I’d probably choose The Ice Owl over Arkfall, though Arkfall, with its biotechnological vehicles and ice-world setting, arguably adheres more faithfully to the requirements of hard SF than does The Ice Owl, which to my mind fudges it on the vexatious problem of interstellar travel. In Owl, humans are able to be transmitted between distant worlds as beams of light—essentially the same mechanism as the Star Trek transporter beams—while instantaneous communication between worlds is possible using a device called a ‘pepci’, which sounds similar to Le Guin’s ‘ansible’. I wasn’t really able to get my head around the notion that, while information could be instantaneously transferred across a multi-light-year gulf, a human encoded as a lightbeam signal—which must surely represent what is, at base, only a very large packet of information—is restricted to the slow crawl of lightspeed. (The same criticism would presumably apply also to Arkfall, which is set in the same universe as Owl, except that in Arkfall the issue of interstellar travel is never sufficiently backgrounded to reveal this particular sticking point; instead, the SF componentry centres on the intriguing Dawn-like application of biologically-inspired solutions to technological problems.) Nonetheless, The Ice Owl found favour for Pregaldin’s mysterious butterfly-wing portrait and for the busy interplay between the book’s several characters: though in each book the broad sense of the impending denouement is reasonably clearly foreshadowed, there’s more complication to Owl‘s unravelling than there is to Arkfall‘s.

In summation, I’d give Arkfall a qualified pass as hard SF, though I’d have to hold The Ice Owl back on that score. If equation-solving SF is what you’re after as reading matter, these probably aren’t for you. But they’re intriguing enough stories, in and of themselves: if you like Le Guin’s writing, you’ll probably enjoy these.

(This is the eighth in my ‘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.)