Review: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I generally don’t care for hard science fiction. By which I mean, sci-fi steeped in scientific accuracy and logic.

Blame a lifetime reading superhero comics. 

Superman has incredible abilities because solar energy from the yellow sun is the source of energy for Kryptonian power. That explanation is enough. You want to explain how his body metabolizes that sunlight? Ugh. Please — don’t.

Same goes for Green Lantern’s power ring: a weapon capable of transforming the wearer’s thoughts into physical constructs through sheer willpower. I don’t need a physics lesson. That’s all I need. 

But somehow, Andy Weir has this ability to make what I’d otherwise consider mind-numbingly tedious explanations on quantum physics, rocket science, chemistry, engineering — basically anything remotely scientific and mathematical — absolutely enthralling, and more often than not, insanely nail-biting. He dumps his heroes in life threatening predicaments, and works with the reader through the solution, which is always constructed around veritable science, and deciphered for the layman. And when things get speculative, you buy into it, because he’s earned it.

“Project Hail Mary” will be one of my favourite novels of the year. 

I know it will be, because as I raced through its pages I was combatting conflicting urges to read faster, and to slow down; to savour it. That’s always special. And honestly, I think the less you know about it the better. If the logline has you intrigued — a sole surviving astronaut, Ryland Grace, is on a mission to save Earth — jump in. Don’t read reviews — too late if you’re here, obviously — and go in as blind as you can. 

This is smart, compulsive, addictive science fiction. It’s destined to be adapted into a blockbuster flick, but with so much of its tension derived from Grace’s inner-monologuing and puzzle-solving, it’s not going to be an easy translation. So jump on the bandwagon now. The hype, I am happy to report, is totally justified.

Published: 4 May 2021
ISBN: 9781529100624
Imprint: Del Rey
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 496
RRP: $32.99

Review: The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s “The Doors of Eden” is a compulsive and extraordinarily entertaining labyrinth of parallel Earths and alternate dimensions threaded together with endearingly human (and non-human) characters. Punctuated with frenetic action scenes and interspersed with fascinating evolutionary histories of the multiverse’s “other” Earths, this is blockbuster science-fiction writing, as smart as it is exhilarating.

The premise is magnificently uncomplicated: interdimensional cracks are forming in the multiverse. Earths are overlapping; “a pick-and-mix of realities slopping together,” which is causing chaos, and signifies the end of all things. Nothing is safe. Everything is unravelling. Unless a conglomeration of the multiverse’s greatest minds can find a solution.

The cast is suitably diverse: you’ve got Lee Pryor and her girlfriend Elsinore “Mal” Mallory; transgender genius theoretical mathematician Kay Amal Khan; MI5 agent Julian Sabreur (more office administrator than 007); ex-army, now private security goon Lucas May, and his villainous boss; and a whole host of others, who snake in and out of story, which shifts seamlessly between their perspectives, building towards an epically intricate finale. Leaving room for a sequel, perhaps? I’d be down for more.

The science of “The Doors of Eden” stayed just the right side of palatable. Hard science fiction scares me a lot of the time. But despite its complexity and immensity, Tchaikovsky never tries to outsmart the reader. He’s got big ideas, but he understands his role as a storyteller. This is a breathless sci-fi masterclass.

ISBN: 9781509865895
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: 25/08/2020
Imprint: Tor UK
Pages: 608
Price: $32.99

Review: Recursion by Blake Crouch

Recursion.pngA wildly ambitious, fast-paced, high-octane science fiction thriller about the apocalyptic consequences of one woman’s quest to build a machine that allows people to relive memories. Buckle up, put the seat back, adjust the headrest — and hang on.

In 2018, NYPD Detective Barry Sutton fails to stop Ann Voss Peters from leaping to her death from the Poe Building. Ann was suffering from a rare but proliferating condition known as False Memory Syndrome, in which detailed false memories of other lives lived flare to life marriages, children, careers and clash with conscious reality, often resulting in mental degradation, or complete psychotic breakdown. When Barry decides to dig deeper into the condition, he stumbles upon the Hotel Memory, and a life-changing discovery. In 2007, a stupendously wealthy philanthropist named Marcus Slade offers neuroscientist Helena Smith unlimited funding to achieve her life’s goal, inspired by her mother’s Alzheimer’s, of allowing people to relive their memories. But Slade’s objective isn’t quite to benevolent — particularly when they learn the incredible potential of Helena’s machine.

Recursion is a nerve-shredding, genre-bender of the highest calibre. It builds from shock to shock, intensifying with each turn of the page. It’s part love story, part meditation on grief and its long-lasting resonance, and how memories shape us. And it t is never anything less than electrifying. With Recursion, Blake Crouch has produced one of the must-read thrillers of 2019.

ISBN: 9781509866663
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: 11/06/2019
Imprint: Macmillan
Pages: 336
Price: $29.

Review: Head On by John Scalzi

9781509835102This long-awaited second book in John Scalzi’s ‘Lock In’ series is a murder mystery set in a robot fighting league. And yes, it’s worth the wait.

Years back, John Scalzi released the novella Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome, which detailed– in the oral history format contemporaneously brought into fashion by World War Z — the onset of a flu-like virus that swept the globe, eventually known as Haden’s Syndrome, which is a devastating meningitis-like disease that leaves its victims “locked inside” their body, able to interact with others only virtually or via sophisticated robots known as “threeps.” Then in 2014 came the first book in the series, Lock In, which introduced Rookie FBI agent and Haden survivor Chris Vance (whose gender is never specified in the text, thus ingeniously leading the publisher to release two versions of the audiobook), and their new partner, Leslie Van. Now Vance and Van are back in Head On, which works perfectly as a standalone sci-fi detective-thriller, but adds much to the world Scalzi began building almost half a decade ago.

When promising Hilketa player Duane Chapman inexplicably dies during a game intended to recruit new investors for the sport, and a high-level league official commits suicide soon afterwards, Vance and Van are brought into the investigation. Hilketa is a violent sport — and that’s putting it mildly, by the way — played by Haden-piloted threeps. The objective of the game is to rip the head off a designated threep and carry it to the goal. Yeah; it’s brutal.

Scazli is less concerned with the mystery — it’s fairly obvious at the midway point who the killer is — but untangling the means and motivations of the killer. The author doesn’t shy away from commentating on prejudice against minorities, disability rights, and the way in which government funding can be taken advantage of, but it never dulls the hilarious banter, or grinds the bullet-fast plot. It’s delicate balance, and Scazli nails it.

Head On is an engaging mix of real-world politics and near-future policing. Filled with detail and imagination, paced with action and witty dialogue,  Scalzi takes his readers on a white-knuckle ride but never leaves them for dead. This is science fiction at its absolute best.

ISBN: 9781509835102
Format: Paperback (197mm x 130mm x mm)
Pages: 336
Imprint: Tor
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Publish Date: 19-Apr-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Night Market by Jonathan Moore

9781409159780Harry Bosch meets Blade Runner in this brilliant thriller.

Jonathan Moore’s frightening near-future thriller The Night Market is a thought-provoking noirish crime novel set in a gorgeously realised subtly-futuristic, overwhelmingly dystopian version of San Francisco, where copper thieves run rampant, drones buzz above the heads of the city’s citizens, and ostentatious consumer consumption runs riot. Think of a Michael Connelly Harry Bosch novel set in a Blade Runner-esque world.

When a man is found dead — his corpse in a terrifying state of decay  — in one of the city’s luxury homes, SFPD Homicide detective Ross Carver and his partner are called to the scene to lead the investigation. But before they’re able to get beyond a cursory glance at the victim, six FBI agents — or are they? —burst in and forcibly remove them from the premises. The detectives are hastened into a disinfectant chamber, sprayed with a metallic-tasting liquid, then rendered unconscious. When Carver wakes two days later in his apartment, he has no memory of the events that occurred; but his mysterious neighbour, Mia, is strangely determined to help Carver remember.

The Night Market steadily ramps up its revelations, and it gradually becomes clear there are larger forces at play. Moore resists the temptation to have Carver follow breadcrumbs into the darkest corners of his incredibly-imagined world, keeping the narrative tight and focused. Moore’s latest novel — the first of his I’ve read, but surely not the last — is a tense, gritty thriller, and near-perfect in its overall execution, with an ending that lingers well past the final page. Seriously, this is a book that nails its finale; it’s pitch-perfect and haunting. It’s one of my favourite thrillers of the year so far.Stars

ISBN: 9781409159766
Format: Paperback
Pages: 304
Imprint: Orion (an Imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd )
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 11-Jan-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom



Review: Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

9780008286637Back in 2014, when The Southern Reach trilogy was published, two of my colleagues at the bookshop I worked at would debate the series with varying intensity. Annihilation, if memory serves correctly, was agreed upon as the best instalment, in which four female scientists — a biologist, a surveyor, an anthropologist and a psychologist — journey into the unknown as part of the twelfth expedition into a cordoned landscape named Area X. The question being debated behind the counter at the bookshop was whether its two sequels augmented or diluted the brilliance of Annihilation. Four years later, I’m too late to join that debate, but have embarked upon my own journey of discovery, compelled by the impending release of the film adaptation starring Natalie Portman.

I am not a connoisseur of speculative fiction. I read, maybe, half a dozen science fiction novels a year, and rarely touch the fantasy genre. There’s a joke around the bookshop: “if it has dragons, Simon won’t read it.” But Annihilation doesn’t feature dragons, and it’s bite-sized, a couple hundred pages, which are two things immediately in its favour. Things aren’t explained in Annihilation; they’re experienced, which is a fine distinction. The narrative is framed as the biologist’s journal, and it possesses an uncanny eeriness that lingers long after the book has ended. There’s a level of ambiguity other writers might not get away with, fuelled by a desire to detail the amazing world they’ve constructed; Vandermeer is happy to paint his portrait languorously and leave certain elements inconclusive.

The prose is perfunctory rather than lavish, intentionally so. Again, this is a story told from the perspective of a scientist, who details her observations with clear-cut crispness. At first, its relative dryness bothered me; I found the protagonist difficult to relate to, as we’re barely provided glimmers of her personality. As the novel continued, I understood its intention; once I accepted its style, I enjoyed it all the more.

As the start of a trilogy, Annihilation does precisely what it needs to: leave an impossible number of questions unanswered, but at the same time, confident in the author’s ability to explain everything. I’m incredibly fascinated to see how Alex Garland adapts the source material.

ISBN: 9780008139100
Format: Paperback (198mm x 129mm x 16mm)
Pages: 208
Imprint: Fourth Estate Ltd
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publish Date: 20-Jul-2015
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Artemis by Andy Weir

9780091956950Artemis, the sophomore effort by the author of The Martian, is a genuine page-turner, validating Andy Weir as a dependable entertainer capable of instilling his hard-science thrillers with humour and heart. But whereas those ingredients formed a delicious blend in The Martian, this time the result is blander, lacking the spice — the ambition, maybe? — and the unforgettable protagonist that made Weir’s debut unmissable. The Martian was unforgettable. Artemis settles for being merely enjoyable. Hardly a crime, and perhaps a consequence of vastly elevated expectations.

Set on a lunar colony several decades in the future, Weir is at his best when detailing the functionalities and technologies of Artemis, the multi-domed city on Earth’s moon. Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara is a 20-something porter, with aspirations of becoming a member of the elite Extravehicular Activity Guild, which would allow her to give up her illegal (but thriving) side business as a smuggler. One day she is hired by Trond Landvik, a wealthy businessman, to sabotage some of Sanchez Aluminum’s automated lunar-mining equipment. Jazz agrees, but things don’t go as planned, and she soon finds herself in the middle of a conspiracy  involving a Brazilian crime syndicate and a revolutionary technology.

The Martian was a smart thriller, littered with math-and-science problem-solving, made nail-bitingly exciting thanks to its simple premise — survival — and Mark Watney’s sarcastic, likeable personality, and his ability to simplify technical concepts for layman readers such as myself Artemis just isn’t as clever, even though its premise is grander in scale. Those “science thrills” that made The Martian memorable aren’t here, besides a couple of moments, like when Jazz figures out how to ignite an acetylene torch during a moonwalk. Andy Weir should be applauded for trying something different — how many eyes would’ve rolled if he’d presented another space-survival tale — but the caper narrative that propels Artemis just isn’t particularly compelling, and indeed, is a tad predictable. Highly readable, sure; just not riveting in the stay-up-all-night way The Martian was.

The humour here falls mostly flat; forced, overly crass, never realy rising above snicker-worthy. Is Jazz’s constant reassurance to the reader that she doesn’t sleep around supposed to be funny? A throwaway line when she’s about to blow up two harvesters impacts like a slap in the face because, ha-ha, we can interchange ‘blow up’with blow jobs. Really? That feeling again, when Jazz tells the reader she giggled like a little girl, but “Hey, I’m a girl, so I’m allowed.” Ouch. Watney’s humour could be overbearing in The Martian, but it never made me groan out loud, and there were more hits than misses. Artemis would probably be a better book — and Jazz would certainly be more likeable — if the jokes were cut, or at least toned down.

The Martian was a book that you wanted to hand to a friend, insist they read it, pester them until they’d done so, then talk about it. Artemis isn’t that. It’s a fun, fast-paced  sci-fi potboiler; unspectacular, but enjoyable.

ISBN: 9780091956950
Format: Paperback
Pages: 384
Imprint: Del Rey
Publisher: Ebury Publishing
Publish Date: 14-Nov-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Normal by Warren Ellis

9780374534974“He was a futurist. They were all futurists. Everyone here gazed into the abyss for a living. Do it long enough, and the abyss would gaze back into you.” So writes Warren Ellis in his novella  — originally published as a digital short — Normal, a concise but immensely satisfying psychological thriller.

When futurist Adam Dearden suffers a nervous breakdown, he is taken to a secret hospital — the “Normal Head Research Station” — which is a recovery station for those whose minds have come apart as a consequence of their occupation. When you spend your life contemplating the direction of mankind — are we circling the drain or reaching for the stars? — you’re bound to unravel, and that’s precisely what’s happened to the patients at Normal. The futurists are themselves divided into distinct types, and their differences essentially boil down to those who’re optimists and those who’re pessimists; is the glass half full or half empty? Are we headed for catastrophe or greatness? Ellis’s text doesn’t provide an answer, but will certainly make you wonder…

After one a fellow patients disappears in impossible circumstances, the patients at Normal are advised that government officials are launching an investigation — which is something nobody wants. So Adam forms a necessary alliance with a section of his inmates in order to get to the bottom of this mystery: and the answer might just break him once and for all.

It’s rare for me to wish a book was longer — I’m always so quick to advise cuts and merges rather than more pages — but Ellis’s premise deserves more room to truly shine. Normal is a novella that’ll make you quiver, but really, it could’ve been something shook you to your core. It’s a blast while it lasts, and I suppose it’s always best to leave an audience wanting more rather than having them glancing at their watches, but with some expansion, Normal could’ve rivalled Ellis’s fantastic novel Gun Machine. Instead it’s a solid detour, and a fun sampling of the writer’s work. Bring on his next novel.

ISBN: 9780374534974
Format: Paperback (191mm x 127mm x 12mm)
Pages: 200
Imprint: Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc
Publish Date: 11-May-2015
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

9781447297574.jpgBrace yourself, dear reader. You’re about to be assailed with praise and hyperbole for Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter, which, at this moment, is on track to be my favourite thriller of the year. Right now, I can’t imagine anything toppling Dark Matter from its throne.

Dark Matter is an unabashed science fiction thriller. If the thought of multi-dimension travel – of our protagonist traversing alternate worlds – is too much of a leap from the grounded reality in which you prefer your fiction, okay, fair enough, perhaps this one’s not for you. But for everybody else, willing and able to suspend their disbelief, and accept the parameters of Crouch’s fiction, Dark Matter is a relentless and thrilling ride. What glues it together – what makes this novel work – is its heart. Dark Matter is a love story – punctuated with action and science fiction elements, certainly – but its romantic core, one man’s desire to reunite with his wife and son, is what makes the novel tick along.

Dark Matter is about the roads not taken. It’s about the choices we make – those large, momentous decisions we identify as important, and the smaller ones we barely recognise. Jason Dessen chose his family over his career as a physicist; so too his wife Daniela, who gave up her dream of being an artist. It’s not a decision they regret – they’re a content family unit, blessed with a teenage son – but inevitably there are moments when they wonder what might have been. And thanks to the Jason Dessen from an alternate reality – a world in which he focused on his career in science rather than his family, and created a multidimensional travel device – our Jason is about to discover what might’ve been.

Crouch sends Dessen to a range of close-but-not quite realities as he attempts to find his journey home, to his wife, to his son. In putting Dessen through such an emotional rollercoaster we bear witness to some truly gut-wrenching and poignant scenes. And just when you think the novel’s demonstrated all it’s got to offer – that Crouch is leading readers down a thrilling, but somewhat routine path as Dessen attempts to return to his world – he throws a curveball; an unforeseen plot twist that raises the states even higher, and propels the narrative through to its fitting climax.

Plenty of fiction has explored the idea of multidimensional travel, but rather than focus on the science, Dark Matter keeps the reader riveted because of its heart. How far is one man willing to go to reunite with his family? How much can he witness before he loses himself? You’ll tear through Dark Matter in one sitting to find out. Truly, it’s one of the best thrillers I’ve read in years.

ISBN: 9781447297574
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x 25mm)
Pages: 352
Imprint: Macmillan
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Publish Date: 28-Jul-2016
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Copperhead – Volume 1 by Jay Faerber and Scott Godlewski

Copperhead Volume 1Imagine Justified set in a Star Wars-esque galaxy: that’s Copperhead in a nutshell. But if derivative comparisons aren’t your thing, let me save you some time: Jay Faerber and Scott Godlewski’s new science fiction series is brilliant. It’s brimming with imagination, has a colourful cast of characters, features plenty of action, but essentially, packs plenty of heart. At a time when Image Comics is constantly redefining comics’ Gold-Standard, Copperhead is up there with the very best the medium has to offer.

Single mother Clara Bronson is the new sheriff of a rundown mining town – Copperhead – on the edge of a backwater planet. Before she’s had a chance to settle in and placate her resentful deputy, she’s thrown into her first case: the massacre of an entire family, and the theft of their most prized possession. And as an increasing number of suspects enter the fray, her son, Zeke, finds himself in the crosshairs of a potential killer…

The imagery in Copperhead is stunning. Scott Godlewski and Ron Riley team up to perfectly render the world’s desolate landscape, and clearly had fun creating the assortment of alien creatures and technology displayed on these pages. They employ fantastic use of negative space, and the action is dynamically and brutally captured. Faerber has maintained his uncanny knack of locating talented artists just waiting for the right ‘breakout’ project. Copperhead is certainly Godlewski’s.

Copperhead: Volume 1 hints at a wider universe and its history without delving into too many specifics. This is serial fiction, after all; information will be teased out gradually as Copperhead continues. Like its characters, there’s depth to this world; we don’t know the extent of it, but it feels like a living, breathing galaxy, with a backstory we’re not yet privy to. And speaking of backstory, Clara’s is shrouded in mystery, too; what events from her past have landed her this deadbeat assignment? Where’s her ex-husband? And why is she so protective of Zeke, to the extent he’s not allowed outside their home without her? These are all mysteries waiting to be revealed.

And when they are revealed, I’ll be there, guaranteed. Copperhead: Volume 1 has hooked me in for the long haul.