ANCILLARY MERCY by Ann Leckie

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:

(The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I)

Mercy of Kalr is a small warship.  Ironic name, isn’t it.  In this final volume of the Imperial Radch trilogy, Breq, the only remaining creature, human or ancillary, of the troop carrier Justice of Toran,  is now Fleet Captain in charge of keeping the peace and security on Athoek Station and it’s companion planet.  The station is quite the elaborate entity.  It’s not three rooms and a bath, it is a huge complex, with a garden area at the top, a waterfall, many other levels.  The area under the garden has become something of a slum, unrepaired, untended, medical and security do not go there.  It has hundreds of unofficial residents living there, with no services, no waste disposal, no electricity, no water.

Now a conflict is brewing between the Ychana residents of the Undergarden, and the station’s more privileged residents, led by the head priest.  The conflict is over how the now-damaged Undergarden will be repaired, and who will be allowed to live there once it is. Both the Ychana and the priesthood go on strike in protest, and Breq tries to convince the new head of security, Lusulun, that the less she threatens the Ychana protesters with violence, the less likely it is that mayhem will result.

One person, discovered in the Undergarden and taken prisoner by security, is someone Breq recognizes as not human at all: the ancillary of a ship hiding on the other side of Athoek system’s Ghost Gate, a ship that has not been seen for millennia. What is this ship’s purpose, and how can Breq get its ancillary to share information with her?

A new Presger translator, Zeiat, arrives to investigate what happened to her predecessor, Translator Dlique. Since Dlique was accidentally killed by station security, and the Presger are far more powerful than humans, this is a delicate situation which Breq tries to defuse partly by humoring Zeiat’s strange requests.

Oh, sigh……  I was going to give you more of the plot precis, but really, it is so involved and packed that I am losing my will to live just contemplating how to do this.  Let me just say this,  if this trilolgy intrigues you, read it, and start with Ancillary Justice, right on through Ancillary Sword, ending up with Ancillary Mercy.   You won’t be sorry.

As with any really good sci fi, it is more than just space warfare, and evil aliens.  It is about people, their everyday lives and thoughts, and their decisions, good and bad.  Yes, some of the characters are larger than life, some are smaller.  It’s all good.

What wonderful world building,  what great characters, what an atmosphere!

 

 

 

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ANCILLARY SWORD by Ann Leckie

OH, my goodness, I love this trilogy, and one of the best things is that is was written by a woman!!!!!   Yea, us.  Ancillary Sword  is the second novel in Leckie’s “Imperial Radch” space opera trilogy, which began with Ancillary Justice, which I wrote about here.  

An ancillary is the term for a human who has been turned into an AI, usually unwillingly, with implants, and is used to supplement the work and activities of a ship’s AI.  It took me all three books in the series to have the aHA! moment concerning the titles.  The series features one ancillary from the troop transport ship Justice of Toren, Breq,  so the first book is not so much about justice, as it is about setting up the full storyline which is about Breq’s fight with the head of the Radch who has splintered off into different factions of herself (or possibly himself, we don’t know since the female pronouns are used exclusively throughout the series.)  There is some justice served, but it is not the main plot point.

This second book has Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch – or the part of her personality that opposes further militant expansion of the empire – adopts Breq into her house, appoints her Fleet Captain, puts her in command of the warship Mercy of Kalr, and charges her to protect the remote Athoek system. Breq’s crew includes her old comrade Seivarden and the young Lieutenant Tisarwat, who is revealed to be an ancillary copy of Anaander herself. After Breq recognizes Tisarwat as an ancillary of Anaander, she has her ancillary implants removed, allowing Tisarwat to develop an independent personality.

At Athoek Station, Breq seeks out Basnaaid, the sister of Awn, an officer Breq, as the ship Justice of Toren, once loved and, on Anaander’s orders, killed. She meets Dlique, translator for the alien Presger, who is killed in a scuffle with ancillaries of Sword of Atagaris – the other warship on station, commanded by Captain Hetnys, Breq’s nominal subordinate. To hopefully placate the powerful aliens, Breq and Hetnys enter formal mourning on the estate of Fosyf, a prominent tea planter who holds her workers, transportees from other Radch-conquered worlds, in conditions akin to serfdom.

After Breq survives an attempt on her life by Raughd, Fosyf’s abusive heir, she suspects that somebody abducts suspended transportees, possibly an ancient warship seeking to replenish its ancillary crew. Hetnys and her ship move against Breq, apparently serving the other half of Anaander Mianaai, but they are subdued after Breq holds Hetnys hostage.

Plot description stolen from Wiki.  So sue me.

I finally, after reading the third in the series, Ancillary Mercy,  realize …. (I’m a slow learner) that the series is named after classes of space ships in this fictional world.  Justices are huge carriers, Swords are warships,  and Mercys are small fighters.  And that each volume addresses the concept suggested by each class of ship.  This second volume is about fighting and potential warfare.

Just LOVE this series.  It is space opera.  Well, for me, not so much space opera but a story of loyalty, betrayal, and just trying to get by with a little help from our friends, all wrapped up in some of the absolutely coolest futuristic space ideas ever.  If hard science sci fi flips your tortillas, then this series is a must read.

TERRADOX by Craig A. Falconer

Falconer wrote Not Alone, which you can read about here, and which I really loved. Now, although I did not mention it in my comments on Not Alone,  the writing wasn’t the best, but good enough, and the story line was so good it carried the book.

I am sad to say that although most of the story of Terradox was good,  the actual writing was not even as good as in Not Alone.  It is hard to explain what I mean by this.  It didn’t have a really polished, professional tone.  Almost juvenile, in a way.  I am not talking about typos or grammar or those kinds of issues;  it was very well edited.  I am talking, I guess, style.

The story is about an earth that has been so badly destroyed that a single governing body has been created.  There is awful pollution and a raging world wide famine.  The space program which had begun with an outpost on ummmm Venus, yeah, Venus.  (I hate it how I tend to forget these little details.)  Holly(wood) was the face of the space program, until the head of the program sent her and some others on what the crew thought was a doomed space landing, only to discover later (after two of their number died on that landing) that it was a fake (think fake moon landing, dudes), to test how people behaved in dire situations.

Now she is escorting some high profile elite passengers on a flight to the station on Venus, but at some point, something goes wrong and the ship crashes on an unknown and unseen planet, a whaddyacallit oh yeah, cloaked planet.

As they explore the planet, they discover some strange things….. strange as in earth artifacts that shouldn’t be there, strange as in weather zones which are exact quadrants, with one weather system terminating exactly on a line where a different system begins.  Gol-darn!  This looks like a created planet.  By whom?  For what?

It all ties into politics and Evil Persons and seems scarily like today’s current political situation.  Without the space program.  I am not mentioning any names, being politically neutral as I am.

Final verdict:  this author has a great imagination and can certainly work out some mighty fine story lines.  But the writing…. the writing.  Sigh.

MAELSTROM by Peter Watts

I love the work of Peter Watts.  He writes science fiction with an emphasis on the science.  OK, I don’t always understand the work, the science often being beyond (or would that be ahead) of me, but the story is always first rate, the creative ideas are mind boggling,  and let me tell you, at my age, my mind doesn’t boggle as easily as it once did.  I have boggle fatigue.

So, here is some of the science involved in this work:

Behemoth — new kind of extremely primitive microbe freshly discovered, something inconceivably small, less than 100 nanometers.   Called ‘nanobes’.

Guilt Trip – a behavior-modification technology affecting frontal lobe behavior.  Based on the idea of the ‘puppet masters’, parasites that hijack the brains of various animals and insects, causing them to do their bidding.  True story.

Anemone/Maelstrom –  power law — surface-area-to-volume relationship that governs living systems from whole food webs right down to the capillaries of shrews, essentially a pattern typical of self-organizing systems, i.e. biological systems.  As it turns out, the World Wide Web itself appears to be evolving in concordance with this law.

Wildlife –  simple systems, in aggregate, display emergent behaviors beyond the capability of their individual parts.   This can be applied to software programs, etc.   A premise of this is that lineages with genetically-determined behavior would be able to pass a Turing test if they evolved fast enough.

Smart gels – neural nets.  Self driving cars.  Point made.  they learn as they go.

Ganzfeld Interrogation – quantum mind, quantum consciousness.  Kind of like  ‘I know what you did last summer’  stuff.

Bonnet´s Syndrome – the brain compensates for loss of visual input by inserting images from visual memory into the gaps.  Tends to occur in elderly patients, frequently associated with bereavement; the hallucinations are more or less seamlessly incorporated into the visual environment.

All of these concepts are part of the story, part of the plot of this sequel to Starfish, which I have not read.  How did that happen?  I usually prefer to read series in their proper order.  Oh, well, there are some references to the earlier work, but it really is a standalone, the big connection is a couple of characters continuing on in this work.

I guess you want to know what the story is about, right?, not just the science, which is already not future but current.  Sci fi writers have a hard time keeping ahead of the game!

Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox.  – Job 40:15.     All flesh is grass. – Isaiah 40:6

It is about a microbe that has been unleashed on the world, presumably from some unimaginable deapths of the ocean, (which I believe occurred in Starfish,) and now the world governments are scrambling to contain it.   They are doing so by constantly creating quarantine areas, effectively locking in the people who may have been infected, and eventually destroying them by fire.  More and more of the USA is chopped up into these plague areas.

But a creature craws out of the sea onto a beach in a contained area on the west coast of the US.  It is a woman, modified to be aquatic,  and has come, we learn, apparently from the area of the initial explosion deep in the sea.  She has an agenda,  and is on a mission to fulfill it, leaving a path of destruction in her wake.

There are a couple of highly tech characters who are tracking her, trying to find her.   Lots of description from a bite (or bit?) of software info perspective as it works at infecting other software.

I admit I had some difficulty following some of this, but nevertheless, she persisted.  hahaha  I read on doggedly and eventually got the gist of what was going on, and finally actually really got into it.  It is a hard read surrounding a really good story, kind of force feeds some tough science into the reader (ok, into me),  and gets you (me) really thinking about AI, quantum stuff, and just how vulnerable our planet is to the infestation by ummm nanobes.   Gee.

The tale is apocalyptic in design, apocryphal in nature,  and prophetical in result.  Whew.  What a book.

Peter Watts is the author of Blindsight, which I talked about here,  and Echopraxia, which I discussed here.    He has won the Hugo, and several Locust awards.  I think he might just possibly be the best sci fi author working today.

 

NIGHT MUSIC by Tobias Cabral

A pretty spiffy sci fi about Mars.   MARS, people, MARS.  I do so love books about Mars.  OK, so it’s not quite as good as Weir’s The Martian,  but darn good in its own right.

Following a rapid expansion of the manned space program due to the discovery of a potentially catastrophic Earth-crossing comet, Zubrin Base has been established on the Red Planet to oversee the capture of the rogue object. During final preparations for a second expedition, however, contact has been lost with the outpost. Pilot Seth Boaz finds himself re-tasked for a rescue mission.

OK, I lifted that from the basic plot blurb.  Sometimes I am lazy.  Other times I am even lazier.

This was a good hard sci fi tale.  Realistic, if you feel that establishing a primitive settlement on Mars is realistic, lots of interesting stuff about biology, and chaos theory, and science-y stuff like that.   While the crew are on their flight to the Mars base, they detect a kind of wave that seems to hit Mars.  I admit to having kind of been distracted by the doorbell while reading this section, because I had it on audio text-to-speech while I was quilting, and forgot to hit pause, so it just droned on while I got the mail from the mailman and I didn’t bother to go back, because, as I said, lazy…..

When this second excusion gets to within viewing distance of Mars, they see that it has dramatically changed.  The canals seem to have come alive with some kind of lights, there are clouds, there also seems to be no more red dust, the whole planet is covered in ….. something.  An even closer inspection reveals a large clear area around the now silent base settlement, and the rest of the planet covered in what looks like water.

Seth and his female copilot take a four seater on special mission to investigate, and find …..

Hahaha.  You thought I was going to tell you, didn’t you.  Pfffft.  Not a chance.  Really good story, so if you are a Mars buff, or a sci fi reader, you will have to read this yourself.

Although it is a stand alone, more or less, it leaves a lot of leeway for additions to what is apparently intended as a series.  The second is titled Night Work.   I gotta snag me that next volume, because, let’s face it, Elon Musk is not going to get us to Mars for it to have much impact on my lifetime.

Side note:   I really dislike the way we are scrunging up the language by turning nouns into verbs, especially when there are perfectly good verbs already.  Like the word re-tasked.    Tasked is bad enough, but to compound the sin with re-tasked just makes me want to sob.

THIS CENSUS-TAKER by China Miéville

China Miéville is an award-winning author, writing in the ‘weird’ genres – post-apocalyptic, fantasy, fabulism, specultive fiction, and of course, sci-fi.  But sci-fi covers such a broad spectrum these days that it is impossible to use it effectively as a category.

In this novella-length work, we readers are plopped right down in the middle of a world that is ‘after the wars’,  but just where its location is or the exact date or era is not given.  The locale is geographically located on the side of a mountain and its valley town. It features a young boy of 7 who comes running down the mountain into town, screaming because one of his parents has just killed the other.

Since the authorities in the town cannot take action without evidence, they go up the mountain to see for themselves, where they find the father, who shows them a letter purportedly from the mother saying she is leaving, to go back to her own people.  There is no trace of her, nor of any killing.

The boy is sent back to live with his father, a magical key maker.  But the father is also a mentally deranged man who kills animals and people just for the heck of it.  He then tosses the bodies into what seems like a bottomless pit inside a nearby cave.  The boy is sure his father has killed his mother and thrown her body into the pit.

One day, a stranger arrives in the town, a census taker, counting those scattered around the world of his people.  He comes to the remote house on the mountainside, has the boy wait some distance from the house after showing him the location of the pit, and some hours later, takes the boy with him to assist in the census taking.

In a flash-forward, or backward or something, we learn that the boy is now grown and is writing one of three mysterious books he is permitted (?)  forced (?) to write, having spent his years accompanying a census taker.  Who employs this census taker, what institution or what government, is never revealed.  The man now writing seems to be writing in a room that is guarded…..  and whether the guard is permitting no one in or keeping the man from leaving, is also not clear.

Is the census taker really an assassin, traveling world wide to locate and eliminate all those from the land of the boy’s father?  We never really know.

These are not my favorite kind of books.  I like things a little clearer, and a more linear plotline.  I really liked his Embassytown,  which was a more straightforward story.  Experimental literature is not really my thang.  I figure, after you are done experimenting, come see me.

 

LILITH’S BROOD by Octavia E. Butler

Octavia E. Butler is an award-winning Black female author,  a multiple recipient of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and in 1995 she became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship, nicknamed the “Genius Grant.”   Her work always ends up on Recommended reading lists, usually in the category of Science Fiction, or Female Science Fiction Writers, or Black Writers, or Black Female Must Reads, or Black Female Sci Fi Authors.  So of course, I have several of her works in the queue, because Black, Female, Science Fiction.   Any of those categories would be calling my name.

Butler is known for blending science fiction with African-American spiritualism.  Her works are concerned with issues facing humanity.

In the late 1980s, Butler published her Xenogenesis trilogy—Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989). This series of books explores issues of genetics and race. To insure their mutual survival, humans reproduce with aliens known as the Oankali. Butler received much praise for this trilogy.

Ok so now that we know the series, collected under the title Lilith’s Brood, is all about moralizing, we can get on with describing the aliens, because it is all about aliens.  ALIENS, people!  ALIENS!

The US has experienced a nuclear war between the two great powers, which destroys almost everything on earth, leaving a few non-human live forms and a handful of humans.  The Oankali have been watching the process, tsk-tsking all the while, like someone’s maiden aunt, and after everything is gone, kaput, done and dusted, they swoop in and save what remnants they can of the world, and put the humans into deep sleep, waking them up a few hundred years later, when the earth has healed itself and once again become habitable.

They are self-described traders, something for something.  They want something in exchange from the humans, knowledge and a different way of  seeing things.  But there is only one way of seeing the aliens…. as truly uggs.  Like Ugg Boots, only uglier.  They are bodies with a whole lot of tentacles, and it takes the humans a while to adjust to them.  I guess so.  If I came face to face with a creature like this:

I would be a little freaked, too.

The story opens in Dawn, with the title character Lilith (a black human female) awakening centuries later from stasis on an Oankali ship. She meets her saviors/captors and is repulsed by their alienness. The Oankali don’t have eyes, or ears, or noses, but sensory tentacles over their entire bodies with which they can perceive the world much better than a human can. Stranger still, the Oankali have three sexes: male, female, and Ooloi. All Oankali have the ability to perceive biochemistry down to a genetic level, but the Ooloi have the ability to directly manipulate genetic material. Ooloi can mutate and “evolve” any living thing they touch and build offspring gene by gene using the genetic material from their male and female mates. Despite their differences the Ooloi Oankali are strangely alluring, sexually arousing even while being visually repulsive. The Oankali have made earth habitable and want Lilith’s help in training humans to survive on earth without human technology. In exchange the Oankali want to interbreed with the humans to create a new human-Oankali hybrid race. They are particularly enthusiastic about the human “talent” for cancer, which they find beautiful. This book focuses on the conflict between Lilith’s desire to stay human and her loyalty to her species and her desire to survive at any cost.

She is given a group of awakened humans to train to live as primitives on a primitive earth.  They are just what you would expect.  A bunch of ingrates and paranoids, still with all their cruelty and egocentric personalities in tact.  The trade that must be accepted to live on earth is that the humans must interbreed with the Aliens, because human babies will not survive, and the human species will go extinct.  But the addition or exchange of the Alien genetic material will keep them functional.  They will look like humans until puberty when they will undergo a change becoming more like their Alien progenitors.  Eeeuuu.  Imagine …. teenagers with tentacles.  Now THERE’S a visual for you.

So the second book,  Adulthood Rites,  takes place years after the end of Dawn. Humans and Oankali live together on earth though everything is not peaceful. Some humans have accepted the bargain and live with the Oankali and give birth to hybrid children called ‘constructs.’ Others, however, have refused the bargain and live in separate, all human, Resister villages. The Ooloi have made all humans infertile so the only children born are the ones made with Ooloi intervention. This creates a great deal of tension and strain as the humans see their lives as meaningless without children, as well as seeing themselves being outbred by the Oankali-human constructs. Desperate humans often steal human looking construct children to raise as their own. The main character of the second book, Akin, is the first male construct born to a human mother (Lilith). Akin has more human in him than any construct before him. This book focuses on Akin’s struggle with his human and his Oankali natures.  Eventually,  Humans will be given Mars, modified sufficiently to (barely) support human existence, despite the Oankali certainty that the Mars colony will destroy itself eventually. Akin returns to tell the resisters and begin gathering them up to have their fertility restored before transport to their new world.

The final book of the trilogy, Imago, is the shortest. Imago shows the reader what has been hinted at for the last two books, the full potential of the new human-Oankali hybrid species. The story is told from the prospective of Jodahs, the first Ooloi construct. Through its unique heritage it has unlocked latent genetic potential of humans and Oankali. This book brings a sense of completeness to the story by allowing the reader to understand the Oankali better by understanding Jodahs.

Bottom line, humans still need a god of some kind, and it looks like the Oankali serve as that in the meta view.  The series is all about genetic engineering, race, species, the innate drive of survival.  It is very readable, but for me, the issues of who is better and more worthy that thread their way through it all got to be a smidge irritating.  OK, a LOT irritating.  I think it is my age;  I already did all that hand-wringing over the moral issues.  Now I just want to eat pizza, and have some chocolate and read a story that is not preaching at me too much.