Xenogenesis

Aliens arrive just as humans are destroying themselves in a nuclear war. They save some humans, but will people be able to adapt to living in this new world? Lilith is the first human to be awoken, she gradually learns about the aliens and teaches other humans.

The aliens are not totally benevolent, they have their own reasons for saving humanity. But cooperating with them will lead to a win-win situation. So is cooperation the right choice, or should humans try to fight a hopeless war with the aliens as they do in most other books?

This is a disturbing book, pointing out that sometimes you just need to admit defeat and accept a future you would not have chosen. Freedom isn’t everything, you can choose riches and material comfort instead.

Halfway Human

This is a haunting story about power and discrimination. Tedla is an asexual person on a planet where such people are considered to be less intelligent and properly treated as slaves. Val finds Tedla on a planet far from home, and learns her life story.

This is a powerful, heartrending book. It examines how people can justify brutal treatment of others, how the powerful never feel constrained by their own rules, how education and culture can be designed to reinforce inhumanity.

Startide Rising

Startide Rising is book two of the uplift series, the link above is to book one. The Uplift books are in the future, where humans have genetically engineered dolphins and monkeys to make them intelligent – to ‘uplift’ them. When they encounter galactic civilization, they find species all over the five galaxies are doing the same, uplifting others. Not all the aliens are satisfied that humans are themselves intelligent enough to be considered independent, some would like to see them assigned to another species for further uplift, some would like to see dolphins and monkeys reassigned to a more responsible species.

The first book sets the stage for this universe, the second has humans dealing with a political attack. Later books continue the story with new settlements and discoveries. The second book has the characters I found most sympathetic, which makes it my favorite.

This book addresses a lot of moral questions about the aims of uplift. For example, what amount of aggression in a species is an appropriate goal for the end of uplift? And who gets to decide, how much should say should the species being uplifted have? The same questions can be asked when we talk about cultural change in humans and it is fascinating.

Hellspark

This is a far future first contact story in the Star Trek tradition. A multispecies survey team is studying Lassti, whose native life may or may not be intelligent. After one of the survey team members is murdered, an outside investigator arrives.

The aliens of Lassti are satisfactorily alien, establishing communication with them takes a lot of creativity and outside the box thinking. The survey team interactions are well done, the author points out the limitations on interaction due to physical differences, as well as the cultural misunderstandings that could arise despite their having worked together for some time.

The characters all nice, generally doing their best to treat each other respectfully and assess the planet honestly. It is heartwarming.

The Steerswoman

On a low-tech planet far away, there is a group called the Steers(wo)men. They believe any phenomena can be logically understood given enough effort, and devote their lives to doing so and sharing that knowledge with anyone who asks. They have no idea how the magicians on the world do the things they do, but are convinced they can find out. Trying to understand magic leads steerswoman Rowan into danger, and she must flee.

What is the essence of science? It is the scientific method, investigate, theorize, test, repeat. Refuse to accept that there is anything inherently beyond human understanding, only things we have not understood yet. This book is a love letter to the scientific method.

The reader can tell that much of what is described as magic is in fact technology. It is not always clear what it is though, is the object moving irregularly through the sky at that start a meteor or a space station? This keeps us interested in following the clues as Rowan gathers them so we can figure it out while she is trying to also.

Epic Failure

A funny military space opera. Caught smuggling, Rogers is drafted into the army as an alternative to prison. Since there hasn’t been a war in two hundred years, Rogers does not expect his military service to consist of anything beyond partying. But as things keep going absurdly wrong on his ship, he finds himself having to take on more responsibility. And discovers a conspiracy or two threating society.

The humor in these books is slapdash, at one point there is a milk bomb. There are serious underlying issues though, there is a real problem. There is some fighting, but the solution tends to come more from negotiation than war.

Bellwether

This hilarious book satirizes the human tendency to follow others. A bellwether is a sheep whose actions are copied by other sheep. People think they don’t act like that, but if that was strictly true, we wouldn’t have influencers and trendsetters.

Sandra studies fads and group behavior. Bennett studies chaos theory. Starting with a misdelivered package, a series of events cause setbacks to their research projects. You will laugh out loud through the book and wonder how many inexplicable things in history come down to group think.

City of Truth

In the City, citizens are trained from birth not to lie until they become unable to do so. There is no fiction, no “the haircut looks nice”, only plain unvarnished truth. Jack is happy with his life in the city, until his son becomes terminally ill. Then he discovers the need for comforting lies and connects with an underground of liars.

This moving, short book makes you think about when lies are appropriate and when undesirable truths must be faced. It makes you re-evaluate the amount of candor in your own life.

Ender’s Game

This story is set in the near future after an alien attack on Earth. The first attack was defeated through luck, the world is now pouring resources into getting ready for the second attack, including choosing promising nine year olds and starting them on military training. Ender is one such child, the book follows him through the challenges at military academy to the shocking conclusion to the war.

The premise of this book doesn’t make much sense if you think about it, would any current military leader really give significant responsibility to a teenager, no matter how brilliant? If you ignore this, however, it is a heart wrenching look at how we use and abuse soldiers. The brutality of the training, the commanders keeping secrets from the fighters, the competition, the difficulty of keeping a moral compass, the distance from those at home you are fighting for.

There is also a second storyline following Ender’s siblings as they gain importance in civilian politics on Earth. Now that we are living in a world where people can actually gain real political power through blog posts, I find this section quite prescient.

Republic of Thieves

This is the third book in the Locke Lamora stories. It is influenced by events in previous books, but can be read on its own. In this story, Locke is hired to be a campaign manager for an election. All sorts of dirty tricks, bribery and blackmail are allowable. The campaign manager for the other side turns out to be Sabetha, Locke’s lost love, and we get flashbacks of their previous relationship.

The backstory with Sabetha and Locke is really well done and interesting. It adds emotional weight to their competition in the present. I continue to be unsure if I like or dislike Locke, but reading about him remains fascinating.

The election shenanigans are fun, they provide the humor in this book. Underneath this story, there is a darker story going on which we get only glimpses of until the end. The ending shocked and left me feeling punched in the stomach. It set up the series to move from Locke’s smaller scale adventures to saving the world mode.