By L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (review is of the print)
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: November 2015
Themes: / space opera / military sci-fi / alien artifacts / science fiction /
You can’t militarize space. This one rule has led to decades of peaceful development of space programs worldwide. However, increasing resource scarcity and a changing climate on Earth’s surface is causing some interested parties to militarize, namely India, the North American Union, and the Sinese Federation.
The discovery of a strange artifact by Dr. Alayna Wong precipitates a crisis. What appears to be a hitherto undiscovered comet is soon revealed to be an alien structure on a cometary trajectory toward the sun. Now there is a race between countries to see who can study and control the artifact dubbed the “Solar Express” before it perhaps destroys itself.
Leading the way for the North American Union is Alayna’s friend, Captain Christopher Tavoian, one of the first shuttle pilots to be trained for combat in space. But, as the alien craft gets closer to its destination, it begins to alter the surface of the sun in strange new ways, ways that could lead Alayna to revolutionary discoveries-provided Chris can prevent war from breaking out as he navigates among the escalating tensions between nations.
This is an unusual book to review, since it feels unstuck in time. On the one hand, it reads like a mid-20th-century science fiction adventure, with heroic pilot and astronomer successfully solving space problems. On the other hand, it earnestly points a century ahead, to a world built from concerns very prominent in 2015.
Solar Express is about an object hurtling across the solar system during the year 2114. Two main characters engage with it, and with each other. The astronomer, Alayna Wong-Grant, works in a lunar observatory by herself, and discovers what seems like a comet. The pilot, Chris Tavoian, is tasked with exploring it. Much of the novel’s dramatic power comes from the interaction of these three, who nearly never touch each other.
The setting looms large. The world of 2114 is dominated by an East Asian polity, the Sinese republic (I think), in competition with a rising India and a sidelined North American entity (the US plus Canada, maybe including Mexico). The 21st century saw climate change occur, along with several bad wars, so there’s a touch of post-catastrophe in the staging. 2114 also sees Sinese-Indian competition rise to the brink of war, which should have added more dramatic punch to the novel than it actually did.
I began these notes by mentioning older sf, because my reading was haunted by many ghosts. Arthur C. Clarke’s great Rendezvous with Rama hovered over every page, as a humans try in vain to make sense of a cryptic alien artifact headed towards the sun. The super-competent pilot felt like a time traveler from the 1940s or 50s, as he successfully lands a plumb assignment, conducts geopolitical analysis, pilots expertly, investigates an alien machine, deals with foreign forces, deals with them again, and survives physical extremity.
That competence actually dragged down the middle third of Solar Express for me. It seemed like Tavoian’s explorations occurred at a snail’s pace, with a lot of repetition (performing similar tasks, writing to people in order to describe what we’ve just seen) and very slow progress.
The world-building wasn’t as successful as it could have been, as I noted above. For one we get too many historical observations from main characters discussing the present. People have a fondness for early 21st century history, which doesn’t make a lot of sense in that world – i.e., there’s no sense that people are history obsessives personally (as in many Poul Anderson stories) or culturally (check Harrison’s Centauri Device for an example) (57, 67, 130, 156, 232). Example: “Or [a person] believes that God in on their side. Like the Taliban in Pakistan seventy years ago.” (130) That’s an awkward reach to the reader. Imagine if a novel taking place in the present had characters in daily life – not historians – constantly referencing the War of 1812. Some of the non-narrative documents do a better job, including a kind of news + scandal sheet and selected articles.
Speaking of history, the world’s rush to war was a powerful context for the alien express, again reminding me of Arthur C. Clarke (2010 this time), but it played out oddly. The great powers confrontation is set up nicely about a 100 pages in, then ratchets up too slowly, with too much repetition (India threatens to use killer missiles, the North American president advises calm). We don’t get much insight into the crisis and its logic, perhaps because of our two-character focus.
The romance was gently handled, as each character has a lot on their plate. Besides their major work, each faces a family crisis at a distance. Astronomer and pilot have a geeky correspondence habit of exchanging political quotes with each other, the tenor of which reveal a grumpy, rather conservative outlook, which just lightly interacts with the rest of the plot.
And yet I enjoyed myself. I love stories of space adventure, and was fascinated by how this one played out. I wanted to see the alien artifact, to learn how the Sinese were responding, and what the heck was going on with the sun. Again, like a mid-20th-century sf novel, I was engaged.
As a work of hard science fiction, Solar Express is unapologetic. Like The Martian this novel zeroes in on science and technology challenges, from air filtration to spectroscopy to cleaning up lunar dust to the details of orbital mechanics. Check the jaw-dropping opening paragraph, which is a kind of dare or gauntlet hurled at the reader, starting off with a nearly 300-word first line about the physical and administrative (!) details of the moon base. Or read how the title first appears:
But by the time this object nears Mercury, it will be traveling at somewhere in the range of sixty lays per second, accelerating to as high as 250 by the time it reaches perihelion… a real solar express. (142)
Modessit does well pedagogically on this front, giving us detailed information, incremental developments, discussions, and solutions, while not stooping so low as to introduce many concepts.
So…. recommended as a fun read for people interested in hard sf and/or with a love of mid-20th-century space adventure stories. Not recommended for people who don’t read science fiction.
Posted by Bryan A.
Aftermath: Star Wars (Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
By Chuck Wendig; Narrated by Marc Thompson
Publisher: Random House Audio
Release Date: September 04, 2015
[UNABRIDGED] – 12 Hours and 16 Minutes
Themes: / Star Wars / rebels / empire /
The second Death Star has been destroyed, the emperor killed, and Darth Vader struck down. Devastating blows against the Empire and major victories for the Rebel Alliance. But the battle for freedom is far from over.
As the Empire reels from its critical defeats at the Battle of Endor, the Rebel Alliance – now a fledgling New Republic – presses its advantage by hunting down the enemy’s scattered forces before they can regroup and retaliate. But above the remote planet Akiva, an ominous show of the enemy’s strength is unfolding. Out on a lone reconnaissance mission, pilot Wedge Antilles watches Imperial star destroyers gather like birds of prey circling for a kill, but he’s taken captive before he can report back to the New Republic leaders.
Meanwhile, on the planet’s surface, former Rebel fighter Norra Wexley has returned to her native world – war weary, ready to reunite with her estranged son, and eager to build a new life in some distant place. But when Norra intercepts Wedge Antilles’ urgent distress call, she realizes her time as a freedom fighter is not yet over. What she doesn’t know is just how close the enemy is – or how decisive and dangerous her new mission will be.
Determined to preserve the Empire’s power, the surviving imperial elite are converging on Akiva for a top-secret emergency summit – to consolidate their forces and rally for a counterstrike. But they haven’t reckoned on Norra and her newfound allies – her technical genius son, a Zabrak bounty hunter, and a reprobate Imperial defector – who are prepared to do whatever they must to end the Empire’s oppressive reign once and for all.
Star Wars Aftermath is the first book of the newly renovated Star Wars timeline to take place after the original movies and it doesn’t live up to the hype that surrounded it. We were enticed by the potential for details of what happens after Return of the Jedi but details of the main heroes are doled out sparingly while the main part of the story involves mostly new characters. This isn’t quite the journey to the Force Awakens I was hoping for.
The main plot follows those new characters, Wedge gets some screen time in there, and we get small glances of the rest of the universe through small little interlude chapters – which are the most interesting parts of the book. We get to find out some hints of interesting things going on elsewhere in the universe and it’s the unclear nature of those hints that make them so interesting.
So what about the main story? It’s fairly standard pulpy Star Wars action that I honestly can’t really remember a whole lot of because nothing particularly stood out. Some of the remnant of the Empire decide to hold a secret meeting somewhere they don’t have firm control (or also not somewhere in deep space) so that Rebels (or New Republic people) could stumble upon them and we could have some nice “stuck on a planet” moments. I’ve seen some criticism of the writing style but I think the main problem this book has is that the plot doesn’t really seem to matter in the grand scheme of things. Besides, I don’t look for fine writing in a Star Wars book anyway – I look for fun and action.
As for the audio side of things, Marc Thompson and the sound engineers did a great job as per usual. Thompson does a great range of voices and impressions even though he didn’t really get to use many of those impressions in this book. His Wedge sounds a lot more like Luke but Wedge doesn’t really have as much of persona from the movies anyway. The music and sound effects were great as they usually are in Star Wars productions.
Posted by Tom Schreck
Archangel (Book One of the Chronicles of Ubastis)
By Marguerite Reed; Narrated by Dina Pearlman
Audible Studios via Resurrection House
Release date: 17 June 2015
[UNABRIDGED] – 11 hours, 5 minutes
Themes: / military sci-fi / grief / humanity /
The Earth is dying, and our hopes are pinned on Ubastis, an untamed paradise at the edge of colonized space. But such an influx of people threatens the planet’s unstudied ecosystem – a tenuous research colony must complete its analysis, lest humanity abandon one planet only to die on another.
The Ubasti colonists barely get by on their own. To acquire the tools they need, they are relegated to selling whatever they can to outside investors. For xenobiologist Vashti Loren, this means bringing Offworlders on safari to hunt the specimens she and her fellow biologists so desperately need to study.
Haunted by the violent death of her husband, the heroic and celebrated Lasse Undset, Vashti must balance the needs of Ubastis against the swelling crush of settlers. Vashti struggles in her role as one of the few colonists licensed to carry deadly weapons, just as she struggles with her history of using them. And when she discovers a genetically engineered soldier smuggled onto the surface, Vashti must face the nightmare of her husband’s murder all over again. Standing at the threshold of humanity’s greatest hope, she alone understands the darkness of guarding paradise.
I spent a lot of my time while listening to this book confused, which made it all the more surprising when I realized at the end that I’d liked the book, and am fairly intrigued about what will come next. A book spanning multiple topics/thoughts, it was interesting to see how the various topics mostly worked together.
I think this book served in some ways as world-building/scene-setting for future books, which may explain why I was confused at times. This may be seen as a negative, but since I liked the world, it was okay, once I realized that I hadn’t missed anything with the plot (though at times, I was convinced that I had). I also liked the main character, a researcher on the planet of Ubastis but also one of the one people on the planet with a literal license to kill…anything. So while it seemed that the plot may have moved slowly, or that I was sure I was missing things, in the end it worked out okay for me. But others, especially those who listen, might have similar confusion.
It’s hard to describe what the book is “about” since Archangel covers so many topics. The book is set sometime in the future after the Earth has been effectively destroyed/overused by humans. Humans seem to have escaped to space, though it’s not clear that they had to go far to find other places to live. The book mentions a station at L5, which I presume is the L5 Lagrange point that people who’ve studied physics/astrophysics and sci-fi lovers alike will probably recognize. L5 has long been thought of as a place where space colonization might be feasible, so it seems as if it fits and that it’s not some L5 in relation to the world in the book, separate from our own system. Many humans seem to live in space, while a small handful live on Ubastis. Ubastis is a planet that has seen small waves of colonists; the first two waves of colonists were trained primarily as a military would be trained, though the job was to scout areas of the planet and start setup for more colonists in the future, to establish it as its own world. The other aspect of the colonists’ life is to study the planet and understand the resources it has and the balance between the natural ecosystem and those resources–the colonists do not wish to make Ubastis into another Earth, and so immigration to the planet is heavily controlled, only up for discussion once every 10 years. Archangel takes place just prior to one of these votes, and there is a heavy contingent of “off-worlders” lobbying for the strict limits to be lifted, to open immigration to the planet. In the book, human engineering is also not only possibly but heavily used, and most people have some level of genetic modification; most to dull aggression and many for vanity reasons.
The main character, Dr/Commander Lauren Vashti, is a “natural,” a non-genetically modified human. She was one of the people in the second group of colonists to come to the planet. Her husband was one of the leaders of that second group, and the pair are seen in many ways as a literal mother and father (and in the case of her husband, even a saint) of the planet and its resources. Vashti’s husband was killed by a highly-engineered “assault human,” a BEAST, one who was specifically genetically modified to be a soldier of sorts. This brings me to the first of the interleaved topics that the book touches on–motherhood and, to some extent, single motherhood. Vashti spends much of the book seemingly at odds with her dual role on the world. She has a literal daughter, a toddler, but often sees that being a literal mother is incompatible with being a leader, a voice for the planet as a whole. Because of her natural gifts as well as the reverence given to her, Vashti is also a literal mother to many Ubastians (and off-worlders?), as her eggs were frozen and used to create other offspring. There were striking scenes in the book where Vashti’s grief/memories of her husband are interrupted by her daughter, perfectly capturing the issues with motherhood. Later in the book, as she realizes that she is in some way a mother to the planet, similar memories are jarringly interrupted by the politics of the planet, things she must stand up for.
Obviously, another topic in the book is that of genetic engineering and the…sense…in doing so. I won’t go into details, but Vashti being a “natural” woman actually has a fairly important aspect in the plot. In particular, it seems that BEASTs can only really be “controlled” by natural humans, those without genetic modifications. This speaks volumes to the topic of genetic modification in general, but the topic is also touched upon by human nature. Because Vashti is a “natural,” she has a “normal” level of aggression/willingness to kill. It seems that many people have that particular knob turned down. Vashti is looked down upon by outsiders because she is in fact willing to kill to study the fauna native to Ubastis and willing to kill in self defense. It seems that most others find killing repugnant in general, something to be psychologically educated-away/re-educated away. The people of Ubastis (and also the off-worlders, I believe) are vegetarian. In fact, many are Muslim, though it was never really clear to me why it was important that so many were Muslim (the rest seemed to be Christian of some sort).
Another topic commonly dealt with in science fiction is that of resource use/protection of a planet/avoiding a runaway situation like we have on Earth/that eventually dooms Earth in many books…this book is no different. In her role as scientist and “mother” on Ubastis, Vashti preaches for conservation and minimization of the human footprint on the planet. The Earth is looked to as a sign of the worst that can happen.
In all, Archangel is a book about revolution. There are many types of revolution in the story, both personal revolution for Vashti, but other aspects of revolution, too. Once I came to terms with being “confused” every now and then, it was actually a fun read. The narrator, Dina Pearlman, is one whose name is familiar but I can’t find any other books that I’ve listened to that she’s narrated. Her narration had an odd cadence that was particularly difficult to follow at first. I found speeding up the audio playback helped that significantly, though her pacing may also have contributed to my confusion at times. Once I got “used” to it (at the faster playback speed), I got more into the book, but it did take awhile.
This book might not be for everybody–and certainly might not be for everybody in audio form–but as for me, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next on Ubastis.
Posted by terpkristin.
Angles of Attack (Frontlines #3)
By Marko Kloos; read by Luke Daniels
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication Date: 21 April 2015
[UNABRIDGED] – 10 hours
Themes: / military sci-fi / weird aliens / combat power armor / humanity uniting /
The alien forces known as the Lankies are gathering on the solar system’s edge, consolidating their conquest of Mars and setting their sights on Earth. The far-off colony of New Svalbard, cut off from the rest of the galaxy by the Lanky blockade, teeters on the verge of starvation and collapse. The forces of the two Earth alliances have won minor skirmishes but are in danger of losing the war. For battle-weary staff sergeant Andrew Grayson and the ragged forces of the North American Commonwealth, the fight for survival is entering a catastrophic new phase.
Forging an uneasy alliance with their Sino-Russian enemies, the NAC launches a hybrid task force on a long shot: a stealth mission to breach the Lanky blockade and reestablish supply lines with Earth. Plunging into combat against a merciless alien species that outguns, outmaneuvers, and outfights them at every turn, Andrew and his fellow troopers could end up cornered on their home turf, with no way out and no hope for reinforcement. And this time, the struggle for humanity’s future can only end in either victory or annihilation.
The more I read Marko Kloos, the more I am impressed. This is military SF done right. The writing is solid, the story is solid, and the longer his Frontline series continues, the better it gets.
Angles of Attack is the third book in the Frontline series, and it is by far the best written and executed story. Kloos delivers truly strange aliens known as the Lankies that force a divided humanity to unite. The year is 2116, and it appears that Earth is about to fall.
When you begin navigating the military SF genre, you quickly, all too quickly, encounter massive info-dumps politely known as exposition, really super extra bad melodramatic writing, and fossilized tropes that just won’t die. And while Marko Kloos does employ some well-known tropes, he does so in such a way that it feels fresh, and the reader doesn’t mind the slight manipulation because the story is engaging.
Here’s the down and dirty of this book. The first four-fifths is stunning. The final one-fifth is comparable to something sticky stuck to the bottom of your shoe. You wish it wasn’t there, but you’re not sure how best to remove it, so you keep walking and hope that eventually it will simply go away. This is to say, even with the not so great last act of this book, it is a damn good story that is well written and worth your while to read.
Get the audiobook. Luke Daniels hammers this reading out of the park. Seriously, find the audiobook and listen.
For those of you who aren’t entrenched military SF readers, the Frontline series by Marko Kloos is one of the best series to become familiar with the subgenre. I highly recommend this series, and this book.
This is a 3.5 out of 5 that I am rounding up to 4 out of 5 because I feel generous.
Posted by Casey Hampton.
Breach Zone (Shadow Ops #3)
By Myke Cole; Read by Korey Jackson
Publisher: Recorded Books
Publication Date: January 2014
[UNABRIDGED] – 13 hours, 54 minutes
Themes: / military sci-fi / special powers / flying /
In the wake of a bloody battle at Forward Operating Base Frontier and a scandalous presidential impeachment, Lieutenant Colonel Jan Thorsson, call sign ” Harlequin,” becomes a national hero and a pariah to the military that is the only family he’ s ever known. In the fight for Latent equality, Oscar Britton is positioned to lead a rebellion in exile, but a powerful rival beats him to the punch: Scylla, a walking weapon who will stop at nothing to end the human-sanctioned apartheid against her kind.
When Scylla’ s inhuman forces invade New York City, the Supernatural Operations Corps are the only soldiers equipped to prevent a massacre. In order to redeem himself with the military, Harlequin will be forced to face off with this havoc-wreaking woman from his past, warped by her power into something evil.
Breach Zone is the conclusion to the Shadow Ops Trilogy, which begins with Control Point and Fortress Frontier. As much as Control Point is Oscar Britton’s book and Fortress Frontier is Bookbinder’s, Breach Zone was firmly Lt. Col. Jan Thorsson’s, aka “Harlequin.”
This is an interesting perspective. I doubt Harlequin is close to the top of anyone’s list of favorite characters in the series, but after seeing the world from his perspective, the Jaime Lannister effect takes place. Not only do you begin to respect his actions, you begin to see that he’s changed quite a bit through this whole ordeal from his initial stark, rule-following persona.
I can’t deny, I wanted to see more of Oscar Britton and Allan Bookbinder. They’re present, just not in the forefront as they once were, but I really enjoyed their powers and wanted to see more of each at play. At the same time, I, somehow, never really thought of the implications of being an Aeromancer and I can’t say I’d complain if I was suddenly given the power of FLIGHT. Not to mention control over the elements such as wind, lightning, and generally the power of Zeus. Yeah, that’s cool too.
Overall, Breach Zone is an excellent conclusion to the entire trilogy. The action is superb and the setup through the trilogy is just about perfectly satisfied in this final volume.
My only real complaint I have is with the audio narration of this novel. I have to admit that at first I thought the narrator, Korey Jackson, was perfect for the part. He’s great at the different voices, does the military stuff well, and he’s convincing. What could possibly go wrong right? Well, first off, he reads really slowly. A book this size is normally 9 to 10 CD’s, but this one is 12. I thought the book was just longer at first, but I checked it against the printed version and it’s not really a typical 12 disc size novel. Believe me. I know this.
If I had the ability to speed it up, I would have used it. As a reviewer, however, I tend to avoid speeding up audiobooks because I want to be able to hear a book in its natural state. But what the slow-reading narrator does is kill a good amount of the tension. It’s hard to believe that events are ramping up when the narrator doesn’t seem to care.
At the same time, he sounded detached. This could have been a result of the slow reading or very closely tied, but he just seemed to be going through the motions and I didn’t hear the passion like I hear in the really good narrators.
Luckily, the strength of the narrative shines through and for the parts that didn’t require a high degree of tension Jackson was great. Honestly, his voices were spot on and I can tell why he was chosen.
Shadow Ops is one of my favorite series of recent years. I dearly hope Myke Cole heads back into this world some more because it’s filled with awesome. The superpowers are deftly done, and the politics are highly believable. This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill meathead novel. There’s great action and it keeps you thinking as well. I’ll be reading anything and everything Myke Cole puts out.
4 out of 5 Stars (highly recommended)
Posted by Bryce L.
Seal Team 13
By Evan Currie, Read by Todd Haberkorn
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication date: 15 November 2013
[UNABRIDGED] – 9 hours
Themes: / military sci-fi / Navy SEAL / supernatural / horror /
It’s been ten years since a mysterious, horrific incident in the South China Sea annihilated a US Navy destroyer and its Navy SEAL team. Only one man survived. Now, the US Navy is determined to put a stop to the new, frightening incidents taking place with alarming frequency. Enter SEAL Team 13, an elite group of soldiers led by sole survivor Harold “Hawk” Masters. Everyone on the team has survived contact with supernatural forces from “the other side.” Will their camaraderie and duty to country be enough to defeat the malevolent undead forces threatening the country? From world-building author Evan Currie, SEAL Team 13 is a dark, riveting, and action-packed tale of military intrigue and supernatural horror.
I hadn’t heard much about this one, but the description convinced me to give it a go. A military group is assembled to take on supernatural occurrences and with my experience with Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops series, which is really only similar in the fact that the military is involved, I thought I couldn’t miss.
Sadly, what started out as a fun romp with the military and monsters turned out to be a cliched and underwhelming frustration.
I don’t outright hate cliches. I think they can be used well and it’s an easy way to get people into the story or characters without having to waste time (i.e. pages) explaining things. The problem I had here was that once you make reference to “it’s like I’m in a movie” one too many times, it starts to pull you out of the immediate story. It’s no longer its own story, it’s someone else’s. And it just plain started to bug me since just about every character had to make mention of being in a bad horror movie.
And I was even impressed that the cliches weren’t so much in the monsters themselves. Obviously there were some monster cliches, but I liked the idea behind the vampires/zombies. Sadly it wasn’t enough.
Why I Was Underwhelmed
One of the big promises I felt that were made early on was that this team was collected to take on the supernatural occurrences in the world. Occurrences is plural right? So, I figured we would get more than one.
Okay, technically there are more than one because of the backstory of the characters, but the team itself only ever takes on one ridiculously long occurrence of the supernatural and that’s the end of this rather short book. Just a couple more would have made this so much better. Let’s see what else they can do. Are they really here for just the one event? It makes the whole idea behind supernatural threats seem much less … erm … threatening.
Longest Drawn Out Fight Scene Ever
This was the kicker. The last bit of the story has these guys throwing just about everything at the “boss” bad guy monster thing. They chase her through the building, then down the road, and it’s always just in the nick of time that she gets away/protagonist gets saved. And then it happens again … and again. I was so done with this scene. There’s tension and then there’s a time when you’ve built up the tension so much it breaks. When nothing has actually occurred in terms of resolution, I just can’t care anymore.
The narrator, Todd Haberkorn, did a good job. He definitely matched the cliches well and did solid work. I can’t say he was my favorite ever, but that may have been the lines he was given to work with as well. It’s hard to say.
Posted by Bryce L.