FOR WE ARE MANY by Dennis E. Taylor

This is the second of the Bobiverse space opera trilogy.  I missed the first book, and had a bit of catching up to do in this volume, because they are not true stand alones;  each builds quite a bit on what went before.

The basic idea is this:

Bob Johansson has just sold his software company and is looking forward to a life of leisure. There are places to go, books to read, and movies to watch. So it’s a little unfair when he gets himself killed crossing the street.

Bob wakes up a century later to find that corpsicles have been declared to be without rights, and he is now the property of the state. The world is in a state of apocalypse with a kabillion population, and humanity quickly on its way to total annihilation.   He has been uploaded into computer hardware and is slated to be the controlling AI in an interstellar probe looking for habitable planets. The stakes are high: no less than the first claim to entire worlds. If he declines the honor, he’ll be switched off, and they’ll try again with someone else.

Original Bob clones himself, and eventually there are a whole bunch of Bobs piloting space ships which are locating and terreforming and populating habitable planets with the humans brought from Earth.  Each Bob clone names himself, and the story arc bops back and forth between  what each Bob is doing in his particular area of the universe.  

There are First Contacts with some alien species, some baddie aliens, and lots of fun references to Star Trek.  There are also a lot of holes in the plot, many of which concern the virtual realities each Bob builds in which to appear, since each is really only a computer program.  More holes as to the exact science of getting from one remote section of the universe to another, but really, it is such a fun read.

Heads up, ladies.  This is a guy’s book.  There are only two female characters –  one a human doctor that one of the Bob clones falls in love with, and the other is the female mate of an humanoid species on one of their discovered planets. It’s a man’s world, written by a man, for men.  For nerdy, Star Trekkie men.  Boys club.  No girls admitted.

Fun premise, pretty interesting, actually.  Not sure if I will bother with the third book in the trilogy.

 

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THE HERETIC by Lucas Bale

As I have mentioned before, I download books when they are offered for free, they go into the depths of the Kindle until I get around to reading them, because of course every day there is ANOTHER one offered that I just gotta read first.  Then, as I peruse the ‘stacks’, as it were, those shelves back in the far corners, you know, the ones where they usually don’t have enough lights to see the titles on the spines very well?, yeah there, I choose a book by its title and start reading.  I seldom remember anything about it, and being the laziest person South of the Border and East of the Sierras, I don’t bother looking them up for plot, I just start reading.

I thought this was going to be about the middle ages, you know, when heretics were hunted down and exterminated.  Imagine my astonishment to find that it is a sci fi.  Who knew?

Here is the official plot description:

Centuries have passed since life ended on the blue planet. Humanity’s survivors are now dispersed among distant colonies, thousands of light years from the barren, frozen rock that was once their home.

At a time when power means everything, the ultimate power, the imperium, rests with the Consulate Magistratus. In return for its protection, citizens must concede their rights absolutely. The Magistratus controls interstellar travel, access to technology, even procreation. Every citizen is implanted with a device to monitor their location, health and emotions. Freedom, religion and self-determination are anachronisms. Humanity’s true history survives only in whispers of a secret archive.

On the planet Herse, a nasty hostile kind of place, Shepherd, a freighter-tramp and smuggler, is commissioned to deliver illicit medical supplies to a village some distance from the main city.  It is here he discovers just how monitored the citizens are, and how free will and autonomous thinking and actions are stamped out.

The storyline follows Shepherd and a teenager named Jodi, who is one of the citizens of a village that are being hunted by the Magistratus for heretical beliefs, for following the Preacher, who talks of freedom and choice.

Not exactly a new storyline, but hey, there are only 7 basic stories in the world, and this is a version of one of them.  Exciting, fun, and once again — one of my huge pet peeves — we have interplanetary space travel and no indoor plumbing.

This is the first of a four book series in this space opera.

ALL SYSTEMS RED BY Martha Wells

I absolutely loved this book!

The official plot synopsis:  “In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.

But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.”

Narrated in first person by the Unit, we learn his disdain for his educational packs, “I ran my field camera back a little and saw I had gotten stabbed with a tooth, or maybe a cilla.  Did I mean a cilla or was that something else?  They don’t give murderbots decent education modules on anything except murdering, and then those are the cheap versions.”    When asked by one of the explorer party he is guarding about his internal software, he responds ” ‘I carefully monitor my own systems.’  What else did he think I was going to say?  It didn’t matter;  I’m not refundable.”

When he finds himself concerned about one of the explorers, he muses to himself, “I don’t know why, because it’s one of those things I’m not contractually obligated to care about.  When I do manage to care, I’m a pessimist.”

He spends his downtime watching the futurist versions of sitcoms, weekly dramas,  soap operas that he has downloaded, probably illegally.  He feels he has learned more about how to do his job from the action dramas he watches than from any of his internal instructions.   He gets annoyed when he has to direct his attention to the job he was contracted for.

Basically, the storyline is about an explorer party of the future equivalent of Green Peacers, on a planet which also has at the same time another explorer group on the opposite side of the planet, all looking for resources.  Things go awry with transmissions, and missing parts of maps, etc., and when they find they cannot contact the other group, they fly to that part of the planet to discover them all murdered by the same security bots who were supposed to be their security team.

But semi-interesting as the action plotline is, the real core of the book is its star, the narrator android.  Sarcastic, introspective, and competent, we like him so much.  Or her?  It does tell us that it has no gender parts, so I guess ‘it’ is the proper pronoun.

Three additional volumes in this series. Yee haw!

 

SIX WAKES by Mur Lafferty

A fun closed-room space ship murder mystery featuring ….. ta-da …. clones!   The six person crew of a generational ship on it’s way to a distant planet, its hold containing 2000 sleeping bodies, and a bunch of mindmaps in a special computer, are abruptly pulled out of their cloning vats to discover they were all murdered.  And to prove it, there were their previous bodies, ripe with evidence and bleeding horrifically.

The ship, a-sail for twenty five years now, has suddenly been hacked, sabotaged,  the AI running the behemoth (about 3 miles long) not working, and the course has been altered, the ship is slowing down and off its original course.

Interesting ideas about cloning.  In this future time, cloning is for basically eternal life, not for multiplying oneself.  You can only have one clone going at a time, and you have to be dead.  You can, however, leave your estate to your cloneself, so you can see how this could be real popular.  It brings up the issues of the value of life, because if you can die and wake up tomorrow as your 20-year-old self, there is no thrill too dangerous, no drug too toxic, etc., etc.

The six crew members were all criminals with prison time awaiting them, or currently serving it, when they were offered the opportunity to crew this ship, with their records expunged at journey’s end and a new life awaiting them.  But in order to find out what has happened, and who dunnit, which none of them have any memory of, they must discover what connects them all, and what secrets each is hiding.

Great mystery.  Kind of light on the sci aspect of the sci fi, and heavy on the cloning ideas, so don’t ask too many questions about how this approximately 100 year journey is being accomplished, and how an AI runs a ship.  No astro physics but lots of philosophizing.  I loved it.

It got a Hugo nomination, but frankly, much as I liked it, didn’t quite seem Hugo-quality, but what do I know?  Anyway, mystery, space, clones.  What’s not to like?

 

 

 

THE SEEKER’S RIDDLE by Andrew Calhoun

A seventeen-year-old kid from Corpus Christi in the Southern Union, an insular and backward-looking area of the country (world? not sure), wants out.  He is obsessed with space, and astrophysics.  It is the 23rd century, and citizens of the SU are not accepted into top universities in other areas because their education is so backward.  Locke Howden and his ten-year-old sister are orphans, living off the charity of their housemates.  He figures if he gets a job mining asteroids on a three-year hitch, then goes to a decent university, he will finally be able to return to Earth and get his sister for a decent life elsewhere.

On the elevator vehicle to the space station transportation center, he meets a young woman pilot and her autistic brother who is continually tapping something.  Bullies enter the room, and do bullying things, Locke intervenes, and the sister is grateful.  He eventually figures out that the young autistic man is tapping out some mathematical equations.   They reach the space station and board their transport to the outer fringes of the galaxy, but help!  The ship is boarded by pirates, and the sister, the brother and Locke are kidnapped and taken to an heretofore undiscovered planet.  Fortunately, this planet is like earth with gravity, biosphere, atmosphere, and all that.  What is also on the planet is a downed HUGE spaceship.  The planet is the headquarters for the pirates, and they want to get into that spaceship but it apparently still has internal power, and the security system won’t allow them in.  In fact, there is a vestibule which has a wall containing a puzzle which must be solved in order to get into the rest of the ship.

Turns out the pirates are ‘hacked androids’ — human brains and consciousness in an android human-like body, and the ship won’t let them even near it.  But the planet also has a community of human farmers, and the ship will allow the humans into the vestibule. But nobody can solve that puzzle.

The autistic brother is actually a savant, with some extraordinary knowledge, and the pirates kidnap him hoping he will be able to solve that puzzle and get them inside the ship.

All very space opera-y and fun, and filled with some interesting ideas.  But there were some things that kind of took it out of the A+ category for me.  First of all, not sure why the protagonist was a 17 year old boy.  It didn’t quite work for me, seems like it should have been a young twenties person.  Second of all, and most annoying, even though the time is the 23rd century, the book is filled with current, and not only current to 2018, but current to mid-20th century’s slang and phrases and references.  Like when a character who is in a hurry quotes Frost:  “I’m afraid I’ve got promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”  Really?  Folks would still be quoting a somewhat minor American poet of the twentieth century in the twenty-third century?  naaaaaah.  And lots of tired old cliches, which are tired old cliches even now, like “avoid like the plague”.  Stuff like that.  It put me off.

This is billed as a First Contact novel, so I am not letting the alien out of the bag if I tell you that, yeah, there were aliens, the main spokesalien of which seemed a pretty jazzy hipster, which also struck an odd note.  I can go with the alien speaking English using one of the character’ brains and body, but it seems just a little far-fetched that it would be so culturally attuned in his attitude and speech. Well, culturally attuned, that is, to the twenty-first century American culture.

But anyway, as I said, it was fun, and hey, aliens! Right?  Nifty weapons.  A boots-on-the-ground battle. The good guys win, the bad guys go to android heaven, and the rest who have a righteous mission to save the rest of their android brethern and sisteren from slavery, go and do just that.

(Yes, I know that sisteren is not a word. I was just being cute.)

SNOWFALL ON MARS by Branden Frankel

“Although the terrain is a rusted red-orange, it is gashed at random internals with outcroppings of faded grey rock.  In the distance are snow-topped hills.  There are no plants.  There are no animals.  Just soil and rock and the train track, exploding out from beneath the train and into the hazy distance as though the track was as desperate to return to civilization as the outcasts transported upon it.

Out of the steel grey and cloudless sky, snowflakes drift gently to the ground…The snow I’m watching fall now is the result of a failed project undertaken by a failed people.  The first colonists came to Mars sixty years ago.  Forty years later, they tried dto terraform the planet by pumping chemicals into the air.  The intent was to create a breathable atmosphere.  All they created was acidic rain and toxic snow that served to break their impressive machines down into the same rust red dust that is the beginning, middle, and end of this place.”

Yep, Gentle Readers, it is that time again.  Time for another Mars book, because I AM the most Mars obsessed person you know. And let me say right from Jump Street that I loved this book.  It doesn’t have the detailed and imaginative science or the painfully serious politics of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, the fun goofiness of Kage Baker, the woo-woo factor of finding ruins on Mars of Dylan James Quarles, or the ultra reality of Mars in Andy Weir’s The Martian.  This book about Mars, my darlings, has SNOW!  Hot damn!

From the hundreds of thousands of colonists who came to Mars and procreated there, spread over a number of settlements, the population is down to about 500, huddled together in one section of New Houston, and they are barely keeping body and soul together, because you need high tech folks to keep things running, food growing and processing, etc.  They are down to only a handful who seem to be using my basic toolbox – hammer, screwdriver and duct tape.  Twenty years ago, Earth blew itself up —  mid-sentence during a broadcast.  This triggered nuclear winter on Earth, and whelp,  there goes your fallback position if you didn’t like life on Mars, and there goes your grocery delivery.  This event on Earth triggered on Mars mass suicides, and days of unspeakable violence and killings.  Those who were left were left to make do with damaged infrastructure and facilities.  The terreforming project after being seen to be a total failure, was shut down.  Life became constricted and bleak.

As we live through the days with our first person narrator, I am reminded of scenes of Soviet-era Russia, grim, bleak, sad.  One day after another, one foot after another, until one day he is awakened by a friend to tell him that the head engineer has been murdered in his lab over night.  The game is on to find the killer, and the reason for the murder.  In that process, we find there is an even larger problem.  A self-proclaimed cult leader has plans to blow up what remains of the planet’s population because of his own overheated sense of guilt and doom, and it is up to our narrator and friends to track him down and foil the dastardly plot.

Fun fact:  the food for the planet is manufactured in an underground facility.  At one time, this ‘substance’ was known as “sustainability rations”.  It was to hold colonists over in the event that a shipment from Earth was delayed.  It was never mean to be eaten as breakfast, lunch and dinner for a lifetime.  These rations are created by distilling the byproduct of a genetically engineered fungus brought from Earth years ago.  The fungus metabolizes Martian soil and creates a substance that can support human life.  In other words, they feed dirt to fungus and eat its shit.

A quote or two, to whet your appetite:

About a scammer,

You are aware that you can’t trust Wang, right?  You are aware that Wang has no scruples?  That he’d sell his own mother into slavery?  Assuming, of course, that he was born rather than spontaneously generated out of ambient spite.

About his dream for a life where there might be real food:

It doesn’t have to be the Land of Milk and Honey.  The Land of Beer and Cheeseburgers would suit me just fine.

So we have a mystery and a thriller all rolled up together, but the most interesting thing about this was the way we are forced to examine the ideas of identity, place, and I suppose grit and intrepidness.  Our narrator, who was brought to the planet by his parents at age 6, and thus has memories of Earth,and plans for returning there, views his future much differently than those young people who were born on Mars, for whom Earth is just a word, and for whom its destruction is essentially meaningless.  Our narrator views the future as ‘less than’, while the young people, having nothing to compare it to, simply view it as ‘future’.

Snow on Mars.  It just doesn’t get any better than this.

Sci Fi with an emphasis on the fi, with a lot of the sci  glossed over.  That’s fine by me.  I  don’t really need a course in astrophysics or quantum physics to enjoy a story about the final frontier.

The first third of the book concerns young Cornell, whose mother, we learn, was abducted by aliens when he was four and the family was out in the woods on a picnic.  I mean, think about it.  How many people do you personally know …. or have even heard about …. whose parent was abducted by aliens and never returned?   I thought so …. zero.  So right off the bat we know that weirdness will probably be the norm.

We meet Cornell and his father, and their neighbor and bff Pete as they are traveling to a site where a strange slick of glass had appeared overnight.  Cornell’s dad is a UFO buff.  He is obsessed with them, and some family money has enabled him to make it his life’s work, and the three travel around interviewing people and taking samples of the glass, and so forth, as one does if one is a UFO nut fixated person.  These glass ‘puddles’ have appeared all over the world, much like crop circles, and no one knows where they come from, or what they mean.  They are not some special material … they are just glass.

And so life goes for, as I said, the first third of the book, as we learn more about Cornell and his dad and then one night ……. BAM!!  the sky becomes inverted.  Like a mirror.  You look up at the sky and instead of seeing stars, you see a mirror image of say, Antarctica.  Well, talk about panic and terror in the streets!  For a while.  But nothing happened from then on.  Nothing.  No aliens arriving, no doomsday, no apocalypse.  Nothing but life as usual.

And if you thought that was weird, the remainder of the book was even weirder.  Cornell becomes estranged from his whack-o father, and eventually is recruited by a secretive company to …    you are so going to love this ……  go through a ‘portal’ or what they call an ‘intrusion’ which dumps them into other worlds.  Turns out there are a bunch of these anomalies all over, each one going to a different world, some very dangerous, some where the explorers never returned, and some similar enough to earth that the explorers can spend some time there trying to find advanced species so they can make first contact.

Cornell goes through an intrusion to a place where he becomes a sort of kind of humanoid insect-y thing which has a huge head housing the brain (the mind), and six bodies.  Think of having six hands to do your brain’s bidding.  The mind uses these bodies out in the world while it remains somewhere nearby in safety.  And, yeah, he does actually meet an alien …. I love it when there is an alien in the book.  This one is huge, powerful, and frankly, not all that bright.

I am not going to tell you any more about this plot in case you are a sci fi fan and want to read this.   But I will give you a spoiler hint about his mother……  oh, phooey, no I am not.   Read the book.

This whole premise of ‘intrusions’ calls to mind the idea of the trash chute in apartment buildings.  If these intrusions become well known, at least by governments or powerful groups, what’s to prevent them from tossing all the unwanted human riffraff into the intrusions where nobody returns?   Could be a nifty method for population control.   Egad.  Unintended consequences, and all that.  Here we naive readers are approaching it like a fun ride at the amusement park, what with us popping through  to look around at the weirdees, but hey, unwanted visitors could be using them to show up on earth and take a peek at us, too, not to mention that using it like an airlock thing.

I love sci fi, even bad sci fi, for the creative and unusual ideas that people have.  I really admire imaginations that go beyond aliens that all look like humans, humanoids or bacteria.   Really, think about it.  Think of all the strange and unusual creatures in our own oceans.  What makes us think that every life form is human?