Reviews, November 2015

Sail Away, Sail Away

Lion’s Blood — Steven Barnes
Bilalistan, book 1

In Steven Barnes’ 2002 novel Lion’s Blood, little Aiden O’Dere is rescued from a dismal life in a hidden Irish village when bold Viking entrepreneurs provide Aiden and those members of his village who survive the negotiation process (including his mother and his sister, but not his father) with free transportation to Bilalistan1, far across the ocean. There, the kindly Muslims provide the Irish with room and board, in exchange for such duties as their new masters deem appropriate.

Aiden proves inexplicably ungrateful, even though his new owner, the Wakil Abu Ali, is notoriously easy-going towards his property. Perhaps it’s the hard work, the beatings, the short lives many slaves face, the way slave women are used as sexual playthings, or simple white intransigence, but something about his new life does not sit entirely well with Aiden. There does not seem to be much that he can do about his situation.

Well, except

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Two from Delany

The Ballad of Beta-2 and Empire Star — Samuel R. Delany

The Ballad of Beta-2 and Empire Star is a 1976 omnibus of Samuel R. Delany’s 1965 novel The Ballad of Beta-2 and his 1966 novel Empire Star . It’s not quite my first pick for a Delany review for my Because My Tears are Delicious to You series (more on that later), but it is as close as I can come with my current library.

These are both very early Delany novels. Expectations based on later works like Dhalgren, Triton, or Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders may well be misleading.

These two books are also very, very short. Almost novellas. Brevity does not mean simplicity.

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Delight and Malice

Night’s Master — Tanith Lee
Tales of the Flat Earth, book 1

1978’s Night’s Master, by Tanith Lee, is volume one of the Tales of the Flat Earth. Set in the days when “the Earth was flat and floated on the ocean of chaos,” this is less a novel than a collection of three two-part novellas connected by a recurring character, the eponymous Night’s Master, the great and powerful demon prince Azhrarn.

Azhrarn loves beauty almost as much as he revels in malice.

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A Rising Tide

Arctic Rising — Tobias Buckell

Tobias Buckell’s 2012 novel Arctic Rising takes us to a global-warming future in which the arctic is increasingly clear of unsightly ice … as well as the animals that used to live there. Open seas mean access to all the resources of the north; ports are springing up all around the Arctic Ocean. Prosperity abounds in Canada and other, less important, nations!

But someone always has to be a spoilsport. Possibly because Canada’s benefit is the bane of most of the rest of the world, which must cope with rising sea levels and increasingly savage storms.

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Authors should not suffer for the poor decisions of the marketing department

Range of Ghosts — Elizabeth Bear
The Eternal Sky, book 1

2012’s Range of Ghosts is the first novel in Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky series, which currently includes three linked novels and five shorter works. Or so I see on consulting the ISFBD, because if the hardcover I read has any hint that this is part of a series, I overlooked it. I will return to this point later.

Life as a relative of the Great Khan isn’t all beer and skittles and sacking the defenseless cities of the great plains. Sometimes it involves massive civil wars. The death of a Khan usually triggers a squabble over the Khanate. Which of the rivals, Qulan or Qori Buqa, will gain power? Or will the war end with the Khaganate in ruins? Choosing which faction to join is a matter of life and death and neutrality is not an option.

Temur chose poorly, which is why when we meet him he is the lone survivor of a slain army. He has been left for dead amidst the heaped bodies of his close relatives.

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From India

It Happened Tomorrow — Bal Phondke

The good news about having read 1993’s It Happened Tomorrow is that I can now put a push-pin into India on a map of nations whose science fiction I have reviewed on James Nicoll Reviews.

On the minus side, it was not a particularly good book.

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A Small Bug in the System

Children of Time — Adrian Tchaikovsky

Anyone who has read Adrian Tchaikovsky’s ten-part Shadows of the Apt series, with its insect-themed kinden (clans) might well think that Tchaikovsky is fond of bugs. Unlike so many of the rest of us. Remember the neighbourhood kids warning you about earwigs? Those horrifying creepy crawlies that might even now be laying their eggs in your ear while you are distracted reading this text?

You don’t know the half of it. But you will, once you read 2015’s Children of Time.

Centuries from now, the never-modest Doctor Kern thinks of the nameless world twenty light-years from Earth as “Kern’s World”; she may not have terraformed the world, but she certainly plans to populate it with a species of her creation; monkeys infected with a nanovirus designed to push the primates towards intelligence.

Everything goes exactly to plan … except that there’s a catastrophic, civilization-levelling war back on Earth. All the monkeys are killed before they can reach Kern’s World. However, the nanovirus reaches the surface. There, it finds alternate hosts on whom to inflict the Exaltation of Beasts.

Spiders …

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Christ, what an imagination I’ve got

Stand on Zanzibar — John Brunner

1968’s Stand on Zanzibar is the first of a thematically connected series of dystopian novels, each wrestling with a different significant issue of the day (the day being the 1960s and 1970s). It is arguably John Brunner’s finest work.

Brunner takes us to a 2010 where Earth is home to so many people—seven billion!—that if we all stood shoulder to shoulder in one location, we would cover the island of Zanzibar. There’s no sign of a Malthusian collapse on the horizon, but the unthinkable overcrowding has had consequences, ranging from draconian eugenic laws to outbreaks of violence. Conventional sexual mores have broken down and society has become saturated with frivolous, pandering, Murdochian mass media.

Two roommates, Donald Hogan and Norman House, are drawn into seemingly unrelated events on the opposite sides of the Earth.

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Trash Talk

Planetes — Makoto Yakimura, Gorō Taniguchi, Ichirō Ōkouchi

I love quasi-plausible SF set in our solar system, especially SF that tries to be at least semi-plausible. For a long time, Anglospheric SF had little interest in that particular literary niche. I was forced to look abroad. Which eventually resulted in my exposure to the 2003–2004 26-episode anime series Planetes, adapted by Sunrise from Makoto Yakimura’s manga of the same name.

Ah, the bright and shiny world of the 2070s! Space travel is, if not routine, at least common; oil has been replaced by lunar helium three 1, thus ensuring the continuation of energy-intensive civilization. Prosperity abounds!

For the people working for Technora’s Half Section , prosperity is unevenly distributed. Space is just where they happen to work. The Half Section, more correctly called the Space Debris Section, are the garbagemen (and women) of SPAAACE!

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for there was still life in it, waiting, stored like seed.

Drinking Sapphire Wine — Tanith Lee
Biting the Sun, book 2

Tanith Lee’s 1977 Drinking Sapphire Wine is a sequel to 1976’s Don’t Bite the Sun1.

Dragged back to utopian four-BEE following the death of her pet and her unborn child, the nameless narrator chafes against a society which, they now realize, is much too limited. Life in four-BEE is pleasant and utterly meaningless; the narrator and other adolescents, the Jangs, are expected to do nothing but enjoy themselves … but even the adults (known only as older persons ) play no really useful roles. Any job worth doing is done by robots and quasi-robots because they can be trusted to do important jobs correctly.

Even rebellion is meaningless in four-BEE. The quasi-robots who keep the city running simply fix any damage with a long suffering sigh. Or so everyone thought. And then … one of the Jangs, Zirk, outraged over a comparatively trivial disagreement, challenges the narrator to a duel. The duel leads to an interesting discovery. There is a crime the quasi-robot-run Committee will not forgive:


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Losing Face

Persona — Genevieve Valentine

2015’s Persona is Genevieve Valentine’s third novel.

Suyana Sapaki is one of the International Assembly’s Faces, youthful delegates whose demanding jobs offer very little in the way of power or job security. Even popular Faces can fall from grace overnight and Suyana is nothing like popular; not only is she herself less than personable, but the United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation itself is something of an international pariah.

Summoned to meet with the American Face and his handlers to negotiate the terms under which the two Faces will feign a relationship—an arrangement that Suyana regards as indistinguishable from state-sanctioned prostitution—she gets a hint that someone believes her utility has dropped below zero. That hint comes in the form of several bullet wounds, none fatal.

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Missionary astray

The Accidental Terrorist — William Shunn

I’ve read a lot of SF, but there’s a heck of a lot of it. More than I could read in my lifetime. That’s why this is the first book by William Shunn I’ve ever read, even though he has been publishing for decades and has been nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula1. But … this book is not SF; it is autobiography.

Shunn has done a lot of interesting things. He was part of the team that wrote the venerable word-processing program, Wordperfect, which many of us still feel was better than the Word that replaced it as the business standard. He was also something of a celebrity in Canada in the mid-1980s.

William Shunn was the earnest young Mormon missionary whose bomb threat to Flight 789 made newspaper headlines all across Canada.

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Where Angels Rule

The House of Shattered Wings — Aliette de Bodard
Dominion of the Fallen, book 1

2015’s The House of Shattered Wings is the first novel in Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen setting1. Dominion of the Fallen features a world much like our own, so much like ours as to have its own Paris, City of Lights. This secondary world has been a refuge for Fallen angels for at least the last eight hundred years. Powerful and avaricious, the Fallen easily dominate the humans around them. They have transformed France into a paramount power ruled over by the angel-led Great Houses of Paris.

In 1914, the Great Houses turned on each other, transforming Paris from one of the world’s wonders into one of its great horrors. At the time in which this novel is set, the Great Houses War is long over, but Paris remains a post-apocalyptic desolation. Some Houses still stand, but they are much reduced from their glory days.

Thus far, House Silverspires has been one of the lucky ones. It survived the War. It survived the loss of its founder, Morningstar. It survived the unending jockeying for position between the surviving Houses. Whether House Silverspires can survive what is to come is entirely unclear.

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After War’s End

An Inheritance of Ashes — Leah Bobet

Leah Bobet’s 2015 An Inheritance of Ashes is her second novel. The first was 2012’s1 Above.

The war against the Wicked God is over; the dread lord and its army of Twisted Things were defeated by a single knife thrust from John Balsam’s blade. How exactly Balsam killed a god by stabbing it is unclear. Balsam vanished in the chaos that followed the Wicked God’s death and no one else knows what happened.

Indeed, all too few of the men who marched south from the lakelands to fight the Wicked God have returned. Young Hallie and pregnant Marthe wait for Marthe’s husband Thom to return, while doing their best to keep Roadstead Farm functioning. Shell-shocked veterans trickle north, but none of them are Thom. One wandering veteran, Heron, stays, trading his labour for room and board over the winter. Still, even with his help, the sisters may not be able to keep the farm … for reasons to be explained later.

But the appearance of a Twisted Thing at a window hints that the war might not be as over as people think.

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The Big Picture

The Hugo Winners, Volumes One and Two — Isaac Asimov

This week’s Because My Tears are Delicious to You review will cover 1972’s The Hugo Winners, Volume One and Two . For one trivial reason (the book is shelved just at eye height in my path from office to front door) and one literary reason (award winning fiction has been on my mind of late). Just how good—or bad—were the older Hugo winners?

This volume combined two earlier collections, 1961’s The Hugo Winners (later re-titled The Hugo Winners, Volume One ) and 1971’s The Hugo Winners, Volume Two . The whole volume thus includes the Hugo winning novellas and short stories of the 1950s and 1960s .

Incidentally, my copy is the Science Fiction Book Club edition. Older fen will remember that edition from the insert ads that used to grace SF paperbacks 1. What wonders that insert promised! And what structural damage it inflicted on the book binding!

In addition to enjoying many of the stories, I found the book a fascinating testament to the evolution of science fiction, 1950–1970.

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The One Hundred

Robot Universe: Legendary Automatons and Androids from the Ancient World to the Distant Future — Ana Matronic

Ana Matronic really really really likes robots. Perhaps her name should have been something of a clue.

She is perhaps best known as the female lead singer of the Scissor Sisters. Matronic is also the author of 2015’s Robot Universe: Legendary Automatons and Androids from the Ancient World to the Distant Future. Which is (I am sure this will astound you) a book about robots.

This 225 page hardcover is a coffee table book, a glossy paged, heavily illustrated guide to the hundred most epic robots and automatons of fiction and history.

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Light and Dark

Volkhavaar — Tanith Lee

1977’s Volkhavaar is probably counted as one of Tanith Lee’s minor works, but I suspect it’s one that a lot readers found endearing back in the Disco Era.

Life for Shaina the slave girl, kidnapped when she was very young, is a series of humiliations and beatings at the hands of her owners. Two events will change her dismal lot forever: a seemingly chance meeting with Barbayat, the Grey Lady from Cold Crag, and the appearance of Kernik, the Clever Showman and his troupe, in particular the exceedingly handsome Dasyel. Smitten with Dasyel, the young slave agrees to Barbayat’s terms: she will allow the ancient witch to feed on her blood in exchange for wisdom. Wisdom and power that can unite Shaina and Dasyel.

What Shaina does not know is that Kernik the Showman is merely the latest name of the grand villain Volkhavaar, servant of a dark and forgotten god. Dasyel, like all the players, is Volkhavaar’s thrall. What Volkhavaar has he does not willingly surrender.

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I am baffled

Lightless — C.A. Higgins

I picked up C. A. Higgins’ 2015 debut novel, Lightless, because 1) it got a glowing review from io9’s Andrew Liptak and 2) it got a starred review from Kirkus. Having read it, I am left wondering what Liptak and Kirkus saw in this book that I did not.

In the grim boot-stamping-on-a-human-face-forever world of tomorrow, the Solar System is ruled over by the merciless System, an authoritarian regime slightly less lovable than the Qin Dynasty Legalists. Deviation, rebelliousness, and criminality are ruthlessly punished. The entire Solar System is one big panopticon state.

Or that’s the theory. In practice, recording everything everyone does not mean that the System has the means to sift through all the information they are collecting. Dependence on computer surveillance systems means that those systems are vulnerable to people who know how to manipulate them. The System has abundant blind spots; both criminals and terrorists thrive.

Including people like Leontios Ivanov and Matthew Gale, the two space pirates who have just covertly boarded the experimental space craft Anake.

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A forgotten Canadian classic

The Garden — Jasper MacDonald King

Canadian author Jasper MacDonald King was, in his day, a bestselling author of children’s fantasy. In recent years, certain “politically correct” critics have chosen to ignore his delightful fiction and focus on aspects of his life that were admittedly regrettable—the letter to his distant cousin the Prime Minister urging that the St Louis be turned away, his participation in the Orange Order’s annual “flogging Catholics through the streets” celebration (the use of an actual Catholic was discontinued in 1978, I might point out) and his status as the last person to be hanged in Canada (following the discoveries in his garden and a sensational 1952 trial )—but surely these are mere distractions from the undeniable truth that he wrote some jolly good books. Whatever his life and opinions may have been, surely his fiction can be enjoyed for what it is.

Of all King’s books, none is more beloved than 1938’s The Garden.

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A Remembrance Day Review

The Buried Giant — Kazuo Ishiguro

Ah, Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2015 novel The Buried Giant: true literature or merely fantasy? The author seems worried that readers might be misled by the setting (medieval kingdom, bandits, ogres, dragons, and magic) and mistakenly believe that this is a fantasy novel. Such are the travails of a literary author.

Post-Roman Britain: the Empire has receded and a seemingly endless wave of Saxons has poured in, pushing the Britons back across the island. These tumultuous events hold little relevance for elderly couple Axl and Beatrice, who are a lot more concerned by the fact that their community no longer trusts them with candles, lest the pair burn their home down.

Vexed, Axl and Beatrice set out to find their son, who they are pretty sure lives in a village near by, on the other side of a mist-filled landscape populated by bandits, ogres, and oh yes, the dragon.

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A Belated Halloween Offering

The Haunting of Hill House — Shirley Jackson

I don’t know what’s more embarrassing: that it took me until 2015 to read Shirley Jackson’s 1959 classic The Haunting of Hill House or that it took me until 2015 for me to read my first Shirley Jackson story 1. Or that I actually saw the movie adaptation of this novel before I read the book. At least it was the 1963 movie—the good one—and not the trainwreck from a few years ago.

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

But now Hill House is going to have guests.

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A Weird Western

Vermilion; the Adventures of Lou Merriweather, Psychopomp — Molly Tanzer

2015’s Vermilion; the Adventures of Lou Merriweather, Psychopomp is Molly Tanzer’s debut novel. It’s an example of something I call Weird Westerns , a cousin to works like Findley’s Tex Arcana and Sumner’s Devil’s Tower books.

Daughter of a white psychopomp and a Chinese apothecary, Elouise “Lou” Merriweather has taken up her father’s calling, sending the restless dead to the next world. It’s a dangerous calling, but as a person of mixed race (not to mention a woman who prefers men’s clothing) in the exuberantly bigoted world that is 19 th century America, it’s not as if Lou has a lot of career options open to her.

Now Lou is adding a new occupation to her career portfolio: consulting detective. Chinatown’s young men have been heading into the interior of Colorado, enticed by a dubious job offer. None have returned. The authorities could not care less what happens to Chinese-Americans, so it falls to Lou to accept a commission from her estranged mother and investigate the case of the disappearing men.

What she finds is

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Like a lighthouse keeper’s beam

Hope — John Woloschuk, Dee Long, Terry Draper

I have no idea how I stumbled across progressive rock band Klaatu—nor did I have any idea that aforesaid stumbling might have been the result of the grim jackboot of socialism stamping on the ears of Canadian radio listeners!

Although certain wild-eyed fans speculated that the band was actually the Beatles, returned under a new name, in fact they were a trio of Canadians: John Woloschuk, Dee Long, and Terry Draper.

Unsurprisingly, given that their band name comes from the name of Michael Rennie’s alien ambassador in the film The Day the Earth Stood Still (which in turn was based on Harry Bates’ short story “Farewell to the Master”), science fiction themes are prominently featured in their oeuvre . Take, for example, their Juno-Award-winning concept album Hope.

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It’s So Fluffy!

Earthrise — M. C. A. Hogarth
Her Instruments, book 1

2013’s Earthrise is the first novel in the Her Instruments series, by the prolific M.C.A. Hogarth. It’s also the first Hogarth novel I have ever read. I picked it up for two reasons: it was free and I had heard others talk about it in a way that made me think the book might scratch my Traveller itch. Traveller, the old-time Dumarest meets the Solar Queen rpg that featured rag-tag crews making a slender living moving goods from system to system in beat-up starships.

As it turned out, there are indeed some Traveller-like elements in the book, but I was even more strongly reminded of an entirely different, considerably less well-known rpg. More on that later.

Reese Edding and the rest of her rag-tag crew—twins Sasha and Irvine, Bryer, Kis’eh’t, and Allacazam— do make a slender living moving good from system to system in the beat-up starship TMS Earthrise. The ship had a brush with insolvency before but was saved by a large gift from a mysterious benefactor. Well, not to much gift as a payment for a service to be named later.

Now that marker has come due.

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This is James’ Sad Face

The Storm Lord — Tanith Lee
Wars of Vis, book 1

1976’s The Storm Lord is the first volume in Tanith Lee’s The Wars of Vis trilogy. It establishes the setting: oppressed Lowlanders who face endless racial persecution at the hands of the violent and sexually voracious Vis majority.

Dragged away from her people to sate King Rehdon’s lusts, priestess Ashne’e leaves her mark on history in two ways; first, her deadly Lowland sex magic leaves Rhedon a corpse the first time he rapes her. Second, that single night is enough to leave Ashne’e pregnant with Rhedon’s youngest son, a boy who by the laws of the great city of Dorthar is entitled to its throne!

If he can stay alive long enough to claim his rightful place.

Warning: by the standards of the 1970s, which were kind of rapey, this is super-duper rapey.

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The Case of the Libelous Corpse

The Silkworm — Robert Galbraith
Cormoran Strike, book 2

2014’s The Silkworm , the second mystery in Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series, proved to me that sometimes having a legendarily lousy memory can be an asset. Ditto for not looking at author bios immediately.

Catapulted from poverty to fame and fortune by the events of the first book, The Cuckoo’s Calling , Strike discovers that well-to-do clients can often be entitled prats. Annoyed with his latest jerk client, Strike fires the man to take a considerably less remunerative case: locating errant author Owen Quine for Quine’s wife, Leonora Quinn

The question very quickly evolves from “where has Owen got off to this time?” to “Why would anyone want Owen back?” Owen appears to be a collection of character flaws wrapped around more character flaws. A man-child utterly focused on his own needs and desires, an author of little talent and enormous spite, Owen revels in being offensive and grating. He’s certainly not faithful to his wife. To know Owen is to hate him.

When Owen turns up in a derelict building, disemboweled and very, very dead, the problem is not, therefore, working out who wanted him dead, but narrowing the vast crowd of suspects down to only one.

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Runaway Robot

vN — Madeline Ashby
Machine Dynasty, book 1

I missed Madeline Ashby’s 2012 debut novel, vN, when it was first released. Back then, other people picked what I read and I didn’t have enough slack in my schedule to fit in books just because I wanted to read them. Now I that I have the luxury of time again, I intend to use it.

Amy Peterson is a perfect little girl, even better than the organic variety. Raised by her doting organic father and his artificial wife, Amy’s physical parameters are constrained by diet. As for her software—von Neumann robots like Amy are programmed to comply with human demands. She will even auto-destruct if a human suffers harm in her vicinity.

Well, she should. Amy has a tiny flaw in her programming.

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“Some races are disciplined. Is fact.” Tekla said. “Japanese are more disciplined than …Italians.”

Seveneves — Neal Stephenson

My former editor Andrew Wheeler used to delight in sending me books he knew would cause me great pain. He would have, I suspect, been smiling very cheerfully had he had the opportunity to send me Neal Stephenson’s sprawling Seveneves, because it combines Stephenson’s traditional weaknesses—intrusive infodumps, shaky plotting, resolutions that feel less like endings than the moment the author got bored typing—with a host of new ones, like an almost Jack McDevittesque grasp of deep time.

One day, the Moon explodes into seven large fragments and a host of tiny ones. Maybe it was aliens. Maybe it was a passing primordial black hole. Maybe it was an author who couldn’t be bothered to come up with a plausible scenario. The important thing is that scientists soon realized that a process analogous to Kessler Syndrome would turn a handful of large fragments into a vast cloud of smaller pieces. Enough of these fragments would impact the Earth to scour the planet clean of all life.

The good news is that this will not happen immediately (or this would have been a very short novel instead of the behemoth that it is). The bad news is that it will happen all too soon, in two years or so. Everyone on Earth is doomed.

Everyone on Earth. Everyone off Earth, on the other hand …

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As if Larry Niven had been mugged by Olaf Stapledon and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

The Palace of Eternity — Bob Shaw

Bob Shaw’s 1969 novel The Palace of Eternity is almost a mirror image of this week’s Tanith Lee: it starts off looking like the hardest of hard SF, then heads off into territory more often associated with fantasy.

Sickened by his experiences in the great war between humanity and the alien Pythsyccans, retired soldier Mack Travener settles on the planet Mnemosyne. Conventional interstellar craft cannot approach the planet, which is surrounded by a shell of fragments left by two shattered moons. Mnemosyne seems doomed to remain an eternal backwater. Inexplicably, despite its rustic nature, the planet is a hotbed of creativity, particularly artistic creativity.

Mack’s attempt to reinvent himself as a civilian mechanic on a planet of peaceful artists is short-lived.

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