Posts Tagged ‘Hard sci-fi’

Artemis, by Andy Weir front cover(Artemis, by Andy Weir. Crown, 2017, $27.00, 305 pp.)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Three years ago, Andy Weir’s debut sci-fi novel, The Martian, arose out of the morass of self-published books, the vast majority of which never go anywhere. (Over 800,000 self-published books appeared last year alone; typical lifetime sales figures for such books are in the range of 100 to 200 copies.)

The Martian, a near-future novel about a stranded astronaut, was the best hard sci-fi novel to appear in ages. So, like many other readers, I’d been eagerly awaiting Weir’s next book.

Like The Martian, Artemis is a near-future hard sci-fi novel that features a plucky, oftentimes funny protagonist who overcomes difficulty after difficulty, often of a technical nature. (The difficulties in The Martian are almost exclusively of a technical nature.) Also, as in The Martian, Weir gets the science right, weaving it into the story without ever condescending to the reader; and both novels take place in familiar near-space settings: Mars and the moon, respectively. Another similarity is the quality of the writing: it’s concise and it flows, in large part due to Weir’s consistent use of active voice, his avoidance of adjectives and adverbs, and his avoidance of taking off on tangents.

The Martian, by Andy WeirThe differences between the two books lie primarily in their protagonists, the difficulties they face, and their goals. In The Martian, the protagonist is Matt Watley, who uses his ingenuity and scientific knowledge to solve a stream of seemingly intractable technical problems in order to survive; in Artemis, the protagonist is Jasmine (“Jazz”) Bashara, a markedly immature, young lapsed Muslim and petty smuggler who uses her wits and technical knowledge in order to survive and to pursue wealth. On the surface, she seems an unlikely, unlikable protagonist, but Weir manages to make her into a sympathetic character through exploration of her rough background and through her having a consistent moral code.

Shortly after Artemis begins, Jazz finds herself hired by a smuggling client to take part in a major criminal operation, and quickly finds herself in over her head. At that point, the seemingly intractable problems and ingenious solutions begin, and continue nonstop through the rest of the book.

As for weaknesses in Artemis, there are a few. The primary one is that the outcomes at the end of the book are just a little too neat, and that on reflection one of the most important outcomes (involving an ownership transfer) seems possible but far from inevitable. Weir presents it so smoothly, though, that it’s easy to let it slide by; only when you think about it a bit will you realize, “Hey! That doesn’t necessarily follow.”

I’d have enjoyed Artemis more if I hadn’t previously read The Martian — the similarities are just too great: a plucky, wise-cracking protagonist facing and overcoming technical problem after technical problem in a familiar setting. Because of that, Artemis wasn’t as fresh and surprising as The Martian. But it’s still a very good book.


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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel, a Spanish=English translation, a Spanish-English translation, two compilations, and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time. He hopes to complete at least two of those projects over the next year.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover




The Corporation Wars: Dissidence, by Ken Macleod, front cover(The Corporation Wars: Dissidence, by Ken Macleod. Orbit, 2016, $9.99, 349 pp.)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon


In recent years, there’s been much discussion about whether or not reality is reality, whether we live in a real physical world or a computer simulation. Those who advance the to-all-appearances unfalsifiable simulation conjecture do so using the argument that computer power is increasing so rapidly that in the far future it will (supposedly) have reached the point where it will be possible to simulate the entire universe, and that because it will (supposedly) be possible that someone or something will do it, probably repeatedly, and that hence we’re probably living in a simulation (or a simulation of a simulation of a simulation . . .). That’s a whole lotta supposition there, Bubba.

A second common supposition is that true artificial intelligence will arise shortly, and that with it will eventually come AI/machine  consciousness. That brings up the question of whether or not it matters if a sentient being, essentially self-aware software, runs on meat hardware or electronic/mechanical hardware. To put it more colloquially, are self-aware robots people?

These inter-related matters form the background for Ken Macleod’s new novel, Dissidence.

The book’s back cover copy does a nice job of describing its contents:

Carlos is dead. A soldier who died for his ideals a thousand years ago, he’s been reincarnated and conscripted to fight an AI revolution in deep space. And he’s not sure he’s fighting for the right side.

Seba is alive. By a fluke of nature, a contractual overlap, and a loop in its subroutines, this lunar mining robot has gained sentience. Gathering with other “freebots,” Seba is taking a stand against the corporations that want it and its kind gone.

Against a backdrop of warring companies and interstellar drone combat, Carlos and Seba must either find a way to rise above the games their masters are playing, or die. And even dying will not be the end of it.

Beyond that, and without giving anything away, one of the book’s primary areas of interest is in whether Carlos is living in a simulation on the world he inhabits, whether the drone combat in outer space, and its setting, is real or a simulation, or whether both are real, both are simulations, or one is real and the other a simulation. And if so, which is which?

Macleod provides enough clues along the way that the eventual revelation toward the end of the book is welcome, but the reader will probably already suspect it by the time of the “big reveal.”

The political background of Dissidence is a bit sketchy, one suspects deliberately so. Carlos, the primary character, was a member of the Acceleration (the “Axle”), a vaguely described progressive insurgency battling vaguely described reactionary forces (the “Rax”) later this century, with the governments and the corporations that control them playing both against each other.

Since Dissidence is the first book in The Corporation Wars series, one suspects that Macleod will go into considerably more political detail in the just-released second book in the series, Insurgence, and the third book, Emergence, scheduled for 2017.

At least I hope he will. He’s written a number of wonderful political sci-fi novels (notably The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division, The Night Sessions, and Intrusion), so it’s reasonable to expect that he’ll go into more political and social detail in the second and third Corporation Wars books.

For now, Dissidence is an entertaining series opener. It’s page-turner, hard sci-fi that makes you think.

Highly recommended.

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(Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on the sequel.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover

The Martian, by Andy Weir(The Martian, by Andy Weir. Crown, 2014, 369 pp., $24.00)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Andy Weir’s first novel is a smash hit, and is now being filmed–deservedly so. It has the simplest plot imaginable: the struggle for survival in a uniquely hostile environment, while repeatedly putting the central character through sheer hell in pursuit of that goal. But the plot works well, given that the novel’s interest lies in the central character and in the means he uses to survive.

The Martian has three major strengths. One is the narrative voice of the primary character, Matt Watley, a mechanical engineer/botanist astronaut stranded alone on the surface of Mars. Watley comes across as humorous, non-self-pitying, and resourceful–a likable character it’s easy to root for. A second strength is the description and explanation of the many ingenious technical means Watley uses to survive. To say that Weir did his homework here would be understatement. A third strength is Weir’s writing. It’s lively and concise, and that’s due, at least in part, to Weir’s use of active voice throughout, and his avoidance of flowery prose. He didn’t write a single sentence in passive voice (at least that I noticed), he uses adjectives very sparingly, and he might not have used a single adverb in the entire book–again, I didn’t notice any. And the alternation of first-person narrative by Watley and third-person narrative in the sections concerning the NASA hierarchy and the spacecraft (Hermes) crew that inadvertently abandoned him provides welcome contrast.

The weaknesses in the book are minor: several of the recurring NASA characters are little more than names attached to functions, and it’s not always clear what those functions are. Early in the book, Watley mentions those characters’ jobs when he introduces them, but it’s all too easy to forget what their jobs are. (In contrast, the characters populating the Hermes are well sketched out.) Only two NASA characters are easy to recall. One plays against type, Annie Montrose, NASA’s incredibly foul mouthed (in private) spokeswoman. Another more minor character, Richard Purnell, plays to type as a brilliant nerd who’s painfully socially awkward. Some of the sections featuring these two characters are quite funny, as are many of the sections narrated by Watley.

In sum, The Martian is the best hard sci-fi novel in ages. I can’t wait to see what Weir will do for an encore. Highly recommended.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel.

Free Radicals front cover