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: 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: Binti – Home, and Binti – The Night Masquerade, by Nnedi Okorafor

Like the first instalment in the trilogy Home is a fast read. We follow Binti as she in a try to find her identity decides to reconnect with her family, tribe, and culture. She finds way more than she expected, learning that a neighbouring tribe that she grew up to regard as savages in some ways have evolved beyond Binti’s Himba tribe; that she is related to the savages, and that they have plans to bring her into their folds.

Her bringing her alien friend Okwu, a Meduse, with her to see her parents does not make her homecoming easier: the Meduse are at war with the Koush people who shares a planet with Binti’s people, and suspicion is rife.

The last part – The Night Masquerade – is not as easy to read. Where the first book were like a wisp of an idea, a whimsical flower, and the second fleshing it out, giving back story and context, with The Night Masquerade the idea turns into a heavy fruit. As we reconnect with Binti she is on the road back to her home village, returning from the desert. Trying out the powers that she inherited from her mysterious relatives she finds out that perhaps her family has perished.

In a vision she saw how they were under attack from the Koush people, and she is certain that they have all died during a siege, all because the Koush wants to find her; her and Okwu. As a result she decides to try to end the war between the Koush and the Meduse – a war that does not concern the Himba but affects them, as it is fought by space faring creatures down on the planet on which the Himba lives.

Binti is not easy to like. When she is afraid or feel threatened she gets arrogant, dismissing her friends and allies; people who might help her decides to not trust her; promises are broken.

Her native tribe is afraid of her, she has become an alien to them, and I want to sympathise with her for that, but if you behave the way she does in my native Sweden you will soon find yourself out of friends, out of people who will tolerate you.

In the end she does learn a thing or two about why she will not find peace of mind and a centred identity at home, but she still shies away from who she really is.

I do enjoy Okorafor’s voice, but something that I can’t put a finger on stops me from embracing the story. It’s not bad, it’s just that it doesn’t resonate with me.

Still, I do think it is worth reading, if for nothing else for the uniqueness of the perspective that Okorafor brings. And in all honesty – these three slim volumes will not take you a lot of time to read, so why not?

Review: The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

So, at last – Bacigalupi‘s The Windup Girl. A near-future story set in a world where we have run out of oil all the while genetic science has its heyday being used by the corporate world as a way to more or less covertly own and commandeer all of the world and its peoples.

Welcome to Thailand. A nation set on isolationism as a way to avoid ceding its national sovereignty to corporate America. The greenhouse effect has brought a rise in the water table so half of Bangkok is now more or less sunken while the other half is kept dry by way of dikes and pumps. A fight is on with the isolationists on one side and the ones favouring trade with the world outside on the other; when we enter the story we don’t really know who to side with but it is clear that confrontation is impossible to avoid.

As if this wasn’t complex enough Bacigalupi adds a vat-grown human being, debating if this really is a human or not, and we follow her in her ongoing and daily humiliation. Because in isolationist Thailand anything not from within is impure. And anything genetically enhanced is a symbol for the devil enemy from abroad, something that deserves abuse. And abuse she takes, until one day she lashes back…

As the Chinese are said to curse – may you live in interesting times. The people in this book certainly do so.

The story is well written and well imagined but roaming a territory defined by William Gibson, Ian McDonald and, to me, containing much of Jon Courtenay Grimwood.  It very much feels like a first novel, trying to stake out a part of that land for his own. Yet, and perhaps because of his territorial neighbours, whom I love so much, I recommend this book highly.

Fast, fun, imaginative; not without originality; good penmanship, a fluid mind. And with one foot clearly set in the now. Because the world he describes is a result of how we presently treat our planet and our fellow humans. As extrapolations go, not very far-fetched. Which is scary.

Read it.

Review: Cyberabad Days, by Ian McDonald

Good science fiction is the domain of people who have something to say, some questions to pose, regarding what we humans and our societies and our cultures are. In that science fiction is a genre that can be urgent and immediate, facilitating discussion on topics on ethics and identity and cause and consequence on a level way beyond what is possible when you have to deal with the ordinary and everyday life in the here and now. Because to science fiction there is a possibility closed to others – the possibility to extrapolate future, to ask and explore the kind of “what if” that relates to society, politics and economics.

Ian McDonald is one of these great “what if”-people. In Cyberabad Days he explores the “what ifs” of artificial intelligence, man and machine and the self-interested middle class and its hunt for ever more personal glory against a background of  “what if” India got balkanized. The means is a series of short stories, some would call it a short story collection. But this is to belittle the book because each of the stories, together with River of Gods, build to something that is far more than a series of disconnected tales – it is a suite of different perspectives on the suicidal trip India’s upper middle classes enters upon as they try to outdo each other in wealth and glory; the stories showcases the effects on society as a whole, without never ever leaving the little person behind.

My favourite stories are The Dust Assassin, An Eligible Boy, The Little Goddess, and The Djinn’s Wife (which made me think of Iain M Banks‘ Culture books in general and Surface Detail in particular), but all are very good. And most of all – without the rest of them the last story, the one that actually relate to River of Gods in a more substantial way, would lose some of it’s impact.

Anyone who have read and enjoyed River of Gods should read Cyberabad Days. Anyone who have not read River of Gods yet should do so first to be able to wholly appreciate Cyberabad Days but it IS readble on it’s own, too.

And any which way Ian McDonald is one of the most important of our current authors, SF genre or not. Not only because he has something to say but because he says it well, respecting his readership and our brains, to think for ourselves.

Go support a living author. Go get one of his books. And start thinking.

Review: The Fallen Blade, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

What do you do when a favourite author suddenly challenges you by writing in the exact genre you detest? When I belatedly found out Jon Courtenay Grimwood had The Fallen Blade, an alternate history vampire story, out my choice was easy – to read first and judge later. My aversion to certain genres or sub-genres rests largely on empiric evidence, after all, and every thesis need to be challenged every now and then ;-)

First perhaps some words on why the “belatedly” in above paragraph. The book was published in January last year. Normally I am holding an eye to the “upcoming” list at my local dealer (SF Bokhandeln) but this list is partitioned into SF, Fantasy and Horror. Of these I only ever check the SF one on something approaching regular basis but by chance I glanced over the Fantasy list recently and found JCG was to publish a new novel in early 2012. I followed the link and realised the 2012 release was a “part 2 of 3”. I was aghast at having missed a release from a fave author and hurried to the physical bookshop the very next day, to get part 1, which is The Fallen Blade.

To me the book was a pleasant surprise. We follow the nameless boy who doesn’t really know who he is or where he’s from. His voyage takes him through Venice’s upper and lower levels – some of which is closer to each other than one would think…

While still relying on classic JCG archetypes – the outcast who doesn’t understand who or what he is, a real place but an alternate history, upper crust politicking, and a dedication to describing texture, look and smell that makes most scenes an inner eye visual explosion – the writing feels more mature, as he is in his natural element, for once. And then I’d never call his other books immature. It’s just that he seems to have, step by step, distanced himself from his cyberpunk and very Gibsonian background far enough to finally do something that is more wholly his own. And this despite this latest book being in a genre that I would not hesitate to call over-exploited and tired.

A definite recommendation for anyone who enjoys the voice of Jon Courtenay Grimwood. It would seem the trilogy format suits him so much better than the standalone novel. Definitely looking forward to the next instalment.

Review: Voyager in Night, by C.J. Cherryh

Though a slim volume – by modern standards – Cherryh‘s Voyager in Night took some time to get through. The reason is this is no light and easy read. Despite it’s outer trappings – a group of young people trying to establish themselves stumbles on a first contact situation with a very alien alien – and a truly cheesy cover this is a book about how we face the other and about individual identity and about what makes us Human.

Siblings Rafe and Jillan, with Jillan’s husband Paul, have invested all their savings (mainly Paul’s inheritance, as the Rafe and Jillan is more or less destitute) in a run-down insystemer ship. They’ve just started off their new lives, in a new part of space, when an alien megaship comes crashing in. Their small ship gets swept up by the alien, entangling them in an esoteric and strange struggle for power.

The multiple character story can be very confusing, as it’s hard to keep track of who’s who – normally I don’t have that kind of problem but in this case very little distinguishes the individuals, if indeed they are individuals. But if you persist in your reading you will, in the case of Voyager in Night, reap a considerable reward. So, despite the cons I’d definitely recommend this book. At least if you’re an SF reader.