Infinity Beach

In the far future, humanity has spread to several planets but not yet encountered any aliens. Our protagonist, Kim, is one of those involved in actively searching for alien life. So was her sister, Emily, until her mysterious disappearance a few years ago. A clue starts Kim looking into her sister’s death, where she finds more than she bargained for.

The worldbuilding is well done and the plot is superb. It has an excellent balance of twists and foreshadowing, so while it is obvious that aliens will make an appearance in the book, the details of how that will happen remain a surprise.

My main objection to this book was the Mary Sueishness of the protagonist, especially in the last third of the book. She singlehandedly outwits the entire government, which has not bothered to have her followed even after the initial clash. McDevitt includes an acknowledgement that Kim has taken it upon herself to make decisions for the entire human race which she has no authority to do, but he doesn’t mention how unlikely it is that she is so successful at this.

Machinehood

This book is set a hundred years in the future in a world very like ours. The major differences are the many bots doing various jobs in society and the common use by humans of performance enhancing drugs. The world building concept is interesting, but the details do not quite mesh, it is not clear to me how the economy of this future works.

The main character is a private security guard. Her job usually consists of ‘made-for-camera’ conflicts with protestors in which both sides try to gain public sympathy through cinematic moves. So it is a surprise when there is a serious assassination attempt on her client.

The plot is exciting, with various surprises. The characters are compelling, I was easily drawn into their lives. The ending was unsatisfying though, nothing really seemed to be resolved.

The Galaxy and the Ground Within

This is space opera set in the far future in the multi-species Galactic Commons. This book is listed as fourth in a series but can be read independently. Gord is an uninhabitable planet located at the juncture of several travel lanes, where several facilities catering to travelers have sprung up. This book is set in a small inn. Three sentients are stuck there for five days with the innkeeper and her child when an accident prevents travel.

This is a slow book, focused on the characters and their relationships. There are no humans in the books, just four different aliens. We get to know the aliens on several levels – we see how their basic physiology affects the things they can do, how their cultural background affects how they think and interact with others, and how their own individual personalities matter. It a beautiful, loving book.

Wherever Seeds May Fall

In the near future, an alien spaceship appears near Saturn. We follow an astronomer and a military commander as they try to learn about it and prepare for its arrival on Earth.

The first contact scenario is extremely interesting. The long time lag before the alien gets to Earth allows for the humans to work through various problems, this is primarily a novel about people not aliens. There is a surprise reveal at the end that ties everything together and points out that the flaw in assuming that aliens can be predicted on the basis of human behavior.

The characters are well drawn and the dialogue is well done. A lot of information is conveyed without feeling info-dumpy. The one strange thing is how the commander’s wife disappears from the story once he moves to Washington, it seemed that she was only introduced to establish that there would be no romantic relationship between our leads.

The politics in the book are sometimes absurd. The Russians are the first to realize its aliens, but they decide not to tell anyone for some unknown reason. Later, when the Chinese detect a change in trajectory, they send a note to the astronomer in a fortune cookie. Because they can’t hold press conferences and don’t have phones?

This book was written recently and the author clearly has strong feelings on recently circulating conspiracy theories. He takes a couple of pages in the book to explain why 5G does not cause COVID and ends with a speech on how conspiracy thinking will destroy human civilization. I’m not sure what I think about this. Its totally irrelevant to the plot, but it helps make the world more real and gets us out of the White House environs.

The Grumpy Hero

This is a lighthearted fantasy. The evil god Jebisk seeks to control the world by destroying all music. Undergraduate TJ is left with the only remaining music collection and must transport it to the only remaining music copying machine in the monastery on a distant mountain. He is accompanied by his roommate and a government agent.

They pass though various strange lands and ridiculous situations on their way to their goal. Nothing is too over the top, I found the weird-o-meter to be set at just the right level. It is a fun read.

The Station

When a war engulfs Earth, the astronauts on the space station are left to fend for themselves. Eighteen years later, the space program begins again and makes contact with a survivor on the station.

This book reminded me of the Martian, especially the portions about being alone and then being able to talk with others. A lot of the initial emotions described here are obviously the same. Later this book diverges, adding a romantic element to the story.

Like the Martian, this book has lengthy descriptions of the science of space travel, but is not as math intensive. It tends to explain the problems conceptually, eg. air drag slows down the station. We get to know a lot of the problems that need to be solved to keep the station operational.

The characters are well drawn, the girl on the station is very sympathetic. I have a little trouble accepting that the background that she was able to do everything needed on the station for years by herself, but once the story begins, her skill level seems realistic.

The plot begins slowly, with a good amount of space given to explaining the background. It picks up later in the book, as obstacle after obstacle crops up to her descent to Earth. It ends with a clear setup for the next book in the series, which will deal with the political complications of the situation.

Chaos Vector

This book follows Velocity Weapon, which you should read before reading this. In the far future, humanity has spread through space with the help of gates that allow instantaneous travel between star systems. The company that developed the gate technology has before the effective interstellar government, and they go to great lengths to safeguard their monopoly, keeping their technology secret and preventing any FTL research.

In the first book, we followed an attempt by the planet Icarus to break away from the monopoly. On the sides, we saw a petty criminal stumble onto what appears to be a huge secret. In this book, these strands are brought together. The background of gate development, as well as recent events is explained. The different characters meet and develop a common plan. The parts of the plot that frustrated me in the first book, since I didn’t understand them, are made clear. The characters become more compelling and relatable as their backgrounds are revealed. This is the rare second book that actually makes the first book better.

A Desolation Called Peace

This is the second book in this far future opera series. It can be read without having read the first book. While the two main characters continue from the first book, the other characters are new, the setting and the main issue the characters need to deal with are different. The book ends with things wrapped up, I don’t know if there are further books planned in the series.

The characters in the book, both old and new are fantastic. The relationship between the two main characters deepens in a compelling way, when they fight, it is not due to a lack of communication but deep cultural differences. This book continues to do a good job illustrating how the powerful Empire and tiny Lsel Station relate to each other.

However, I found the first contact scenario with the aliens to be less well drawn. When we can imagine that a group of aliens might be a hive mind, why would the Empire not include that as a possibility from the first and vice versa? Why doesn’t the fleet include a team of xenobiologists and linguists from the start, even if all you want to do is fight, it is useful to be able to understand the enemy language so you can spy on them. And what kind of bureaucratic system lets a mid level employ assign a task to herself without a supervisors approval?

Ministry for the Future

Set in the near future, this book is not a novel, more like a series of futurist articles. The theme is climate change, following a heat wave in India that kills twenty million people, The Ministry for the Future is established to fight climate change. They make slow progress.

Twenty million is a ridiculous number, especially as the temperature given is not that high – India had close to those temperatures last year with a few hundred deaths. The deadliest heat wave, per Wikipedia, was a few years ago in Russia where fifty eight thousand died at much lower temperatures. Since the death toll depends not only on the weather but what the system and infrastructure is built to accommodate. I mention this because KSR specifically talks in the book about the European tendency to assume hear waves are a somewhere else problem. Yet he seems to have done the same.

There are many ideas presented about how to help the world. Some like carbon credits have been extensively talked about already and the EU has already started using them. Others like stabilizing the glaciers seems to be novel. The main thing that the author overlooks is that while some business may be resistant to these changes, there are many others who are interested in combatting climate change and see potential profit in doing so.

The most unrealistic thing is the sci fi trope of the perfect terrorist organization that reaches all its targets, no matter how well protected, and never gets caught. No one ever defects and they are never infiltrated by the police. It is ridiculous and morally dubious. I would prefer to see some of these people fined or jailed, though I understand KSR considers this to be even more unlikely.

Vlad Taltos series

This is a high fantasy series set in a feudalistic world. Vlad Taltos is a member of a minority group who ends up joining the mob, due to the usual social forces. He rises in the mob organization, at the same time he meets some of the powerful nobility of the Empire, and has adventures with them which involve finding the lost heir, discovering a powerful missing sword, and saving the world from demons. In later books, he questions his life decisions regarding crime.

Each book can be read independently. The author enjoys playing with structure, so books will have mixed timelines, horror tropes, clues in the chapter titles etc. Some books will work better than others due to this for different readers, I personally hated the Dumas-style section in Tiassa.

The books contain plenty of sarcastic dialogue and asides. They are a lot of fun to read.

At some point in the series, Vlad gets married and then divorced. I found the description of the divorce, so rare in genre fiction, to be very well handled.