Read: Luna: New Moon, by Ian McDonald

Starting veeery slow the story took not off, for me at least, until the last third of the book. That is a bit beyond my normal patience, but I usually end up liking McDonald’s stories. And so I persevered.

In a not too distant future human society on Earth has partly caved in as robotization has thrown the middle classes into poverty. Those who dare or those who are desperate enough seek their luck on the new frontier – the Moon, and its promise of wealth, or at least a fast death if bad luck strikes. Up there corporations the like of robber barons with dynastic pretentions rule absolutely, and everything has a price on it, and McDonald writes it like a mash between the fall of the Soviet Union and the grimmest of medieval times: the only currency is money, and without it you’ll have no air to breath. Your oxygen quota is directly linked to your bank account.

In this environment we follow one of the big Dragons, ie one of the big corporations that dominates lunar life, down a path of feuding and serial revenge that goes beyond family interests and into economic dominance and hunt for monopoly.

As already stated getting into the story took some, and it wasn’t until the very last 50 or so pages that I decided that I’m not only going to finish this book – I am also going to get the next one in the series a try.

This might not look like a flying endorsement, and it isn’t. To get into the book one needs to learn about a lot about the different families that rule the Moon; take in lots of borrowed and adapted language that includes loans from Ghana, Korea, China, and Brasil; understand power structures and social customs; and a few more things. This is hard work, initially. I do think that it pays off, eventually, though. But I understand if this is not everyone’s cup of tea, and I would not recommend Luna: New Moon as a first taste of science fiction, or even as a first taste of Ian McDonald – to me, River of Gods is still the best book of his that I’ve read.

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Read: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

Beautiful, brutal, haunting, and hopeful, Station Eleven is the story of several people whose lives briefly touched or affected each other, before or after the apocalyptic fall of modern civilization due to a violently aggressive flu strain that wiped out an unknown but huge portion of humanity.

The part of the tale that serves as back story follows the famous Hollywood actor Arthur on his road to fame; in the post-epidemic part we meet Kirsten, with the present-day story playing out 20 years after the apocalyptic events. Their lives touched briefly during the last weeks of electricity, international travel, air condition, and internet as he, an aging actor, performed the role of King Lear in a stage production in which she, at eight years old, had a non-speaking part.

Arthur never lived to see life after the flu changed the way humans live their lives, but never the less his he is present decades later, as the mythological person who gave Kirsten the lonely child actor the graphic novel Station Eleven, given to him by its creator, his first wife. By the time we meet Kirsten again, twenty years into the new world,  she has joined the Travelling Symphony – half orchestra, half theatre company – carrying her cherished and thumbed copies of Station Eleven close to her heart.

The two stories are silently interwoven, in fragments, flowing into and out of each other’s way, together telling av tale of regret, nostalgia, a fight to not only survive but to live gracefully, and, finally, hope.

I recommend it highly.

Read: Exit Strategy, by Martha Wells

Exit Strategy is the final segment of the very enjoyable four-part story that together is labelled the Murderbot Diaries. Would Dr Mensah welcome Murderbot back, despite the way its quest for truth had complicated the situation for the Preservation Aux scientists? Would Murderbot conquer the final assault launched against it, the at the same time both most up-front and most devious attack this far? How far is GrayCris corporation willing to go to keep the investigation into its very shady business, and will the way the Corporate Rim work protect the powerful corporation against the law?

Truthfully, these are not the real questions. This far the story has been, despite the blood, murder and atrocities going on, at heart very easy-going. To not end well would be to break character.

The real question might instead be – how on Earth an space does Martha Wells manage to present this feel-good and thus ultimately predictable story in such a way that the reader experience it as something engaging and exhilarating.

Part about it is probably due to the break-neck no-nonsense speed of the story. But at the very centre is our protagonist and guide – the inimitable, down to earth, honest and very humane vulnerability of Murderbot itself. It struggles with whom it might be, or not be, and what can be expected of it. It both like humans and want to help them, and dislike them; doesn’t want to interact, doesn’t want to engage… and still do.

I think a lot of us can identify with that balance act, but without having the excuse of not actually being human – only feeling like we’re not.

As could be expected all ends well, but on a note were we feel like we’ve been party to a prelude, a start: that while we now  leave Murderbot to its’ own devices for itself life is just beginning.

Highly recommended reading, despite the fact that the story is split in four short and rather expensive volumes.

Read: Rogue Protocol, by Martha Wells

Rogue Protocol starts as a Murderbot book can be expected: with Murderbot in transit to yet one more point in space, having to wrangle yet more humans who it both dislike, pity, and gets attached to; all told with the special mix of self-effacement, introspection and ease that signifies this series.

As Murderbot learns more and more about itself, the lesser the degree of self-doubt, though, more and more gaining  it’s own agency. With more agency comes less introspection and self-doubt, less search for identity and more self-appointed fact-finding mission to save the face of the first human that showed Murderbot compassion.

But also a suggestion of more and more “human” qualities, more vulnerable, perhaps, to it’s own whims and judgements?

When the book ends Murderbot is on its way back to Dr Mensah. Will it reach her? How much action and how many explosions will occur along the way? Will the final rendez-vous meet up to Murderbot’s expectation, or has it’s quest been in vain? Will it even take place?

I need to get my hands on the next instalment!

Read: Artificial condition, by Martha Wells

Former SecUnit and self-named Murderbot is on the run, but also on a quest: a quest of knowledge, and ultimately self-awareness.

After having hacked it’s governor unit, the part of it’s system designed to guarantee human control over the construct, and having won partial freedom, it is now on it’s way to the planet or star system were it committed the atrocity that led it calling itself Murderbot.

On the way it encounters a curious Research Transport, a group of humanoids in need of a security consultant, a cartoon-like villain, and a CompanionUnit, aka a sexbot. It also learns something about itself, through these encounters and through it’s own quest for finding the truth about it’s past.

Murderbot is in many ways endearingly human in its insecurities, it’s self-doubt, it’s standoffishness when feeling those things, but also in it’s kindness and care for others.

Artificial condition is an action-packed space operetta, but also a warm and down to earth (or space, really) story about an individual trying to find meaning in life.

The story probably makes no sense without first having read All systems red, but both are short books, novellas, really, and well worth the time it takes to read them.

A must read if hard science fiction is your genre. And else, too.

Read: All Systems Red, by Martha Wells

All Systems Red lets us, the readers, listen in on the thoughts of a construct – a mechanical being with biological parts – as it struggles with its identity, self-determination, and relationship to humans.

The construct is nameless and genderless, explicitly so, but based on a previous incident it calls itself Murderbot; we’re listening in on the diary of Murderbot, SecUnit for hire.

As we first meet SecUnit it is attached to a small survey mission on a faraway planet, somewhere in the universe. SecUnit doesn’t particularly care, and carries out its tasks with bland indifference. It just wants to be left alone, so it can watch the latest episode of some soap opera. Then things happen, as they do in a story, kicking Murderbot off on a journey of self-discovery.

Murderbot has a very distinct voice – dry, funny, and so very human. I found it easy to relate to its struggle to fit in, and its constant feeling of being inept at the tasks set before it. It just want to live it’s life in peace, away from everything that complicates existence, but try to wrangle each situation as it is presented before it to its best ability. Much like any sentient being, really.

The story as such is not revolutionary. Science fiction is full of characters battling with what it means to be human, or what it means to have self-determination, not to mention an unique identity in an alien world. But it is told with such wit, such humour, and with such a spring in it’s step that you get sucked in into the story.

Highly recommended.

Read: Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee

Cards on the table: Yoon Ha Lee is, together with Anne Leckie, my new personal favourite authors. There are others, but these two are the latest additions to the list. I am slightly in love with Lee’s imagination and writing style; the flamboyant megalomania of a brand new universe, unlike anything else that I have encountered. The political caste-like system, the semi-magical science (semi-magical, because it seems like both scientific and magical), Lee’s writing style. Reading Ninefox Gambit I was thrown back to when I discovered William Gibson, Neil Stephenson and Jon Courtenay Grimwood, back in the mid-90’s, or later on, in the 00’s, belatedly finding Iain M Bank’s Culture novels.

No one should be surprised then that Revenant Gun, the third volume of the Machineries of Empire suite, felt a bit like a let-down. Still fantastic/al, but with a need for conclusion the story perhaps had to be reined in, and with that it stopped being sprawling and unpredictable, while at the same time being a bit too… implausible might not be the best word here, but I found it hard to find peace with how Lee handled his story ending.

In the larger picture this is such a minor objection: the book is still brilliant, still balancing a system that might be magical only because we can’t grasp the physics behind it, still written with an engaging and unique voice, still making use of the unseen “people” to tip the balance in a way no autocrat could foresee or expect.

I did like how Jedao/Keris balanced the different aspects of his/her combined personalities and experiences, being both broken and whole at the same time, and I appreciate both how he/she/they against all odds sets out to end a system that depends on terror and information control to survive, and the way they do it: by engaging the silent slaves.

Yoon Ha Lee is without doubt a valuable addition to the ranks of science fiction.

Go read his books, and buy them, so he can go on writing stories for us to read!

For those who lean that way there is a lore to dig into, provided by the master himself on his author blog (at https://www.yoonhalee.com/), and some short stories for those of us who can’t get enough of the hexarchate universe.