THE ECHO WIFE by Sarah Gailey

The Echo Wife
By Sarah Gailey
Tor Books — February 2021
ISBN: 9781250174666
— Hardcover — 256 pp.


If you haven’t read anything yet about the plot to Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife, you might consider starting it without indulging in any summaries, not even what’s on the cover jacket. And long story short, I strongly recommend The Echo Wife. I received the novel and placed it on the ARC shelf with all the others, entering into my notes for potential review. As time passed I saw more word-of-mouth posts praising the novel; mentions included it being featured on several Best… or Most Anticipated… of 2021 lists, both within the SF genre and pop-culture wide. I still didn’t read what the book was actually about, and as for Sarah Gailey, I couldn’t recall ever reading their work before to know if I would like it. Despite the broad hype (which always makes me leery), I decided to start reading The Echo Wife – probably because specific authors and reviewers I’m fond of also hyped it. I cracked the ARC open and began reading, still without even reading the back cover synopsis, only expecting something SF that somehow involved genetics.

Not until approximately page 50 of the novel does the The Echo Wife fully reveal one of its major themes and plot elements. It takes a few more chapters still for an event to occur that sets the rest of the novel into motion. For certain there are hints to these things earlier in the novel, but Gailey gradually reveals details about their protagonist and the speculative world, details that the synopsis just flat-out states, lessening the reveal.

Now this is understandable, potential readers have to be told something about what this book is about, and even knowing these details, there are still a lot of surprises and discoveries for the rest of the novel until its ending. But, if a reader can be convinced to give this book a try without knowing any details, well, it makes it even all the more a satisfying read. Prior to any plot ‘reveals’, here is what Gailey establishes in the earliest pages of the novel:

The novel begins with genetics researcher Dr. Evelyn Caldwell attending an awards reception/banquet in her honor. Brilliant, but feeling out-of-place in this social setting, Evelyn cooperates in the engagement only because of its necessity for securing continued support for her ground-breaking research in growing human tissues in the lab. While tolerating the spectacle of the present by keeping her eyes on her future plans, Evelyn also reflects upon her past struggles to get here. Throughout professional and personal hurdles, including recent separation from her husband Nathan, Evelyn has persevered, sacrificed, and found success.

Following the reception and rest to recover, Evelyn returns to her life: the laboratory. Fired up to keep things moving forward and squashing all uncertainties or self-doubt that still rear their heads in her psyche, Evelyn gives orders to her lab assistant, the only other person that Evelyn trusts as competent and reliable. About to start on the research, Evelyn’s assistant informs her that she has received a phone message from a woman named Martine. This stops Evelyn with a shock: Martine, the new fiancée of Evelyn’s former husband Nathan, a woman whose existence she has even kept secret from her trusted assistant. Hesitant, Evelyn decides to go meet Martine, where she – and the reader – find their first surprise.

If you happen to still know nothing more of this novel, do consider leaving it at that. The Echo Wife is a speculative fiction thriller that predominantly focuses on themes of women in research and the personal life that a woman is expected to have versus that which they may choose to have. The speculative aspect involves genetics, though do not expect it to be fully fleshed out science. Dr. Caldwell’s award-winning research and techniques are vaguely described in terms of epigenetics and development, but not in believable detail that a biologist could imagine this speculative technology as actually existing. The reader is just asked to accept the science (fiction) as a set up for the social issues and character relationships that lie at the heart of the novel. That seems intentional by Gaiely, and that’s perfectly fine to a reader like me. In fact, a lot of the details in the science are things that Evelyn herself doesn’t at first understand completely, things she’ll have to look into further. The unexpected, seemingly ‘impossible’ aspects of the speculative elements in the novel are thus kind of the point, part of the mystery.

And mystery/crime/thriller is a category that The Echo Wife fits into just as comfortably as science fiction. However, it is not about solving a mystery, nor is it filled with taut action. It’s about how characters deal with secrets, mysteries, and uncertainties; how crimes can be covered up, and with resilience, moved past to still find some sort of success. It’s a psychologically driven thriller around the characters of Evelyn and Martine, women with a shared history, yet very unique. The Echo Wife speaks a lot to the experience of women in science – or professional lives in general. It raises a lot of moral questions, but doesn’t seek to provide trite answers. Again and again Evelyn writes: I am not a monster. The reader is left to conclude the truth to that statement. Gailey writes their characters in ways that blur the lines between hero and victim and villain, and they capture them with prose that never becomes oppressively dark, yet always has a foreboding shadow of secretes and deception lying behind it.

If you have already read other reviews or synopses of The Echo Wife to know more specific details, I’ll go into a few of those things, particularly biology aspects I find interesting as a biologist, here after this Gram negative:

SPOILER OUTER MEMBRANE

SPOILER PEPTIDOGLYCAN (PERIPLASM)

SPOILER CELL MEMBRANE

So, Martine is a clone of Evelyn; after voicing resistance to Nathan’s desires for her, and then being attacked by Nathan, Martine kills Nathan. Evelyn is willing to help, both in physically hiding Nathan’s body in the garden, and supporting Martine, who Nathan has biologically programmed with limitations and kept in ignorance. Bodies in the garden will return in multiple ways before novel’s end.

Gailey handles all of these twists fantastically well, plus others like Evelyn’s betrayal in the lab and Evelyn’s relationship with her parents. All disparate elements filter in for the same theme, the formation of a woman. Who is Evelyn/Martine, and why? How much is her and how much is conditioning and the will of others? Gailey takes this beyond the whole nature/nurture kind of debate when it comes to speculative genetics in a more modern way.

What I mean is: Clones are not a new theme to science fiction. The term ‘clone’ in this context means an organism that is genetically identical. Science fiction has used clones – even furthered to include the copying of memories and experiences. What Gailey does a bit differently here is playing with that term ‘identical’, in ways that more closely match actual biological reality. In that classic SF sense of ‘clone’ Martine isn’t really a clone of Evelyn at all. She is a genetically modified creation built upon an Evelyn template. And really, that is what all human cloning would result in.

After all, all of our cells are clones of each other. They all contain the same DNA (or lose it). Yet one cell can form part of heart tissue, another lung, another a neuron, another a leukocyte, another osteoclast. Very, very different, yet with the same blueprints. And that’s just in one organism through developmental variations in gene expression. Between two that share 100% of the same genetic material there is a complicating factor of epigenetics – changes that occur through DNA modifications, inherited protein structures, inherited microbes, etc.

Somehow, Dr. Evelyn Caldwell has found a way to not just let those processes proceed, that create variability even in a 100% DNA identical genetic clone, but to exert directed changes in them. Moreover, she has somehow found a way to map memories and selectively impart those. Nathan has taken her techniques and purposefully made changes she explicitly set out to not allow in the clones. This creates a lot to ponder regarding bioethics, even if Gailey doesn’t really go that classical direction in their novel.

Instead Gailey takes it to that level of the ethics of Nathan purposefully making an Evelyn replacement adhering to his desires and plans that the actual Evelyn did not make a priority. These physical actions mirror what men (or really spouses or even relationships in general) do to one another in s symbolic sense all the time. Within a relationship, what are the balances between sacrificing versus selfishness? Are professional concerns different from others? And what are the differences between the genders for these decisions/expectations?

With the foundation of speculation around ‘cloning’ Gailey forms all of these questions (and more) through their fascinatingly flawed characters and engaging plot. Whether all, or just some of it, represents a surprise to readers shouldn’t affect one’s overall appreciation of the novel. If you go into this expecting an action-driven SF murder thriller, you might be disappointed, because that’s not what it is. If one lets The Echo Wife speak on its own terms, I believe readers will find it has a lot to say and provide one to consider, and it will entertain. And that is what good speculative fiction and a thriller does.

I’ve now had the chance to also read a short story by Sarah Gailey in the Escape Pod anthology, which I’m reviewing for Skiffy & Fanty. I’ll definitely keep my eyes open for more of their future work, and hopefully have a chance to also read some of that prior.


INTERFERENCE by Sue Burke

Interference
(Semiosis Book 2)
By Sue Burke
Tor Books — October 2019
ISBN: 9781250317841
— Hardcover — 320 pp.


One truth being demonstrated by the current global climate is that societies are always at risk for instability. This represents not just a facet of political, cultural constructs, but an inherent aspect of ecology, of biology. Through life, individuals increase in number, coming together into populations. Growing populations of one species associate with growing populations of other species. Limited space and resources breed competition both within and between the groups. Coexistence toward a common purpose only becomes possible through sacrifices in each group and a sharing of resources in ways that minimize the effects of competition. In biology that common purpose is a self-centered organismal drive to reproduce and pass on one’s own particular genetic makeup. Paradoxically, the greatest chance for attaining that selfish goal amid competing individuals and groups becomes through some measure of balance with others. Of cooperation.

But, that balanced cooperation is a tenuous balance. Whether biologically or socially, the scale may be tipped by resurgences in selfish natures that overcome rational regard for a bigger long-term picture of success. Sue Burke’s phenomenal Semiosis series is a fictionalized version of such concepts on both the level of ‘artificial’ societies of intelligent creatures and of natural biology. The novels recognize that the two levels are, in fact, intertwined.

The first novel in the series, Semiosis, chronicles the establishment of a human colony on a planet that the colonists name Pax. Fleeing conflicts and devastations on Earth, the humans arrive in the hopes of setting up a society founded on principals of cooperation and care. However, complications during their dangerous interstellar journey actually force them to land on an unintended destination, leaving them with the challenge of establishing Pax in a completely unknown land with limited resources.

Burke reveals the human developments on Pax in Semiosis through a broad sweep of time across generations, structuring her novel into relatively long chapters told from the unique point-of-view of one particular member of the Pax colonists and their descendants (mostly). Each chapter then provides a time jump, with some overlap of characters and societal memory that allow the reader to easily track the development of the human Pax culture. While some have criticized this structure, I found it essential and fascinating for the character-driven story.

The original colonists and their first descendants learn about their new habitat as any intelligent organism would: observation, trial-and-error, and attempts at controlled study. They arrive to a planet covered already with lush life, including plant, animal, and bacterial. (I don’t recall fungus, protists, or archaea specifically named, but I could be wrong, and I assume they too are there?) Though the life on Pax elicits visual familiarity to the colonists compared to Terrestrial species, it also clearly is different in bizarre, unpredictable, and – at times deadly – ways.

Semiosis really should be read prior to its sequel Interference, and I highly recommend you do so if you haven’t yet. However, it isn’t a particular spoiler to summarize some details of the first novel that are present in its promotion or reviews in general. The colonists discover that the species of Pax demonstrate unique characteristics both cellularly and behaviorally compared to those of Earth. The plants particularly demonstrate signs of intelligence beyond those of Terrestrial origin. Gradually, through the generations the colonists discover that one of the plant species, that they name rainbow bamboo, has intelligence and sentience to a degree that permits communication. The plant, in turn, recognizes the potential benefit the new human arrivals could bring to its biological success and makes efforts to ensure their survival. Eventually the plant takes a name, Stevland, in honor of one of the original colonists and becomes an integral part of the new Pax society. Eventually he also gets his own point-of-view chapter(s).

Through those first generations on Pax the colonists and Stevland must learn the process of cooperation for the needs of mutual survivorship and success among the other species of Pax, and also another potential alien threat. After their arrival, the humans discover beautiful architectural remnants of another civilization amid the jungle-like vegetation that surrounds their first settlement. Dubbing the creators of these ruins ‘the Glassmakers’, they wonder where they all went. As they learn communication with Stevland they learn more about these aliens – also colonists to the planet. Eventually, the Pax colony is faced with the return of these Glassmakers and the threat they may bring.

Interference continues the story of Pax’s development in a time after the climax of Semisois. Like the first novel, Interference consists of relatively long chapters from the point-of-view of different central characters. However, it differs in that the time-scale is far less epic. Instead the novel focuses on one particular time period and converging events that threaten the colony’s continued existence as a cooperative between humans, Stevland, Glassmakers, and surrounding native species.

However, before getting to Pax, the first chapter of Interference starts us back on Earth. Amid rapidly changing political situations on Earth and intra-system colonies, a group of individuals is chosen for a mission to seek out the Pax colony and reinitiate contact with any who have survived. Here then arrives the first ‘interference’ of this sequel: a group of Earthlings arriving into the ecosystem of the Pax community. Though humans biologically make up a part of that community, they are certainly no longer of Earth in culture. How will the Earthlings want to interact with their human counterparts? What will they make of Stevland or the Glassmakers. Likewise, how will those non-human parts of the Paxian community take the new human arrivals? Not only do readers get to see these questions unfold from the point-of-view on those on Pax, we also get point-of-view chapters from those coming from Earth, a mixed population themselves of factions and motivations.

Before these Earth representatives arrive, Stevland becomes concerned about another form of ‘interference’ building on Pax itself. Fires seem to be breaking out on the edge of the territory that his roots and associated biological network run. Land-coral attacks from the plains beyond are on the rise. At Stevland’s urging, the ruling council of Pax sends a party out to investigate what the threat may be.

The arrival of the humans from Earth largely puts a pause on this second plot concern, until the final pages as that land coral threat looms more large. In the meantime, members of the Earth and Pax communities wrestle with changes that their introduction brings, and secrets that they withhold from one another before trust can be established. The technology that the Earthlings bring also provides Stevland with new possibilities, including the discovery of other rainbow bamboo life on a separate continent of the planet. Stevland is not alone. Moreover, some of the newly arrived humans intend to return to Earth, giving Stevland the opportunity to spread his genes to another world.

Interference thereby continues themes of Semiosis, broadening first contact situations and raising the question again of who is ‘native’ or ‘invasive’ in biological communities. Who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’. Is it a problem for one species to make use of another for selfish reasons if that also provides some benefit to the other? Is Stevland an alien plant that will slowly take over worlds like in Little Shop of Horrors, or is it a relationship that actually will help humanity build itself up from internal squabbles into a stable (at least temporarily) community?

Burke’s choice to stick with the structure of Semiosis, but compressing the timescale of the novel, produces one giant chapter that dominates the bulk of the text. The flow of Interference comparably suffers, and so does the character development. Burke now tries to follow many characters and viewpoints within one time period, rather than focusing on one per temporal episode. We’re with a given character in Interference longer, but know them no better than the one who just had one chapter in Semiosis.

The separate, but intersecting, potential threats to Pax in Interference could have been better developed across the novel (especially the coral threat and its investigation) by making the book slightly longer. The ending felt a little rushed, especially with it also ushering more questions/possibilities for a future in the final chapter and epilogue.

When I first read Interference, all material I could find on it indicated that it was intended as a duology, and readers commented how this seemed odd given some thing were left unresolved, and that Interference ‘felt’ very much like a middle novel of a trilogy. I agreed somewhat, though felt uts resolution was fine, as the future of any community is always precarious and may go for the good or for the bad in terms of a particular species. Stories never end, after all, and the next chapter doesn’t HAVE to be told. Star Wars should have certainly taught us that by now. But, I now see that another book is planned by Burke for the future, and the series is now indicated as a trilogy on Goodreads. Whether this is a response to reader/authorial/editorial interest in another novel or not, I have no idea. But I do welcome it.

Even though I find more fault in Interference than I did in Semiosis in terms of its structure, it remains a strong example of biological speculation and first contact science fiction. One of the delights of this second volume is the chance to get to know the Glassmakers more before expanding the scope of Pax and Stevland’s reach even more. There may be faults in the biology at times in the Semiosis series, and writing for humans from a hypothetical alien intelligence point of view will always be fraught with some degree of anthropomorphism. But, it still provides a solidly imaginative narrative that entertains while also educating about broad ecological principles and addressing themes of life, politics, and society.

More on the Semiosis series can be found at Burke’s website. The third novel, Usurpation, is not planned for until 2024. Until then, Tor Books is releasing an unrelated novel by Burke this year, Immunity Index. Given that I’m a microbiologist I’m very excited to read this one, though I fear I might be harsher in reactions than I was to transgressions of botany in the Semiosis series! Regardless, I hope to have a review of Immunity Index out to coincide with its release in May.


Skiffy & Fanty BookTube Roundup

If you didn’t already know, I contribute reviews to the Hugo-nominated Skiffy & Fanty Show, and sometimes they even allow me to take part in their podcasts. The gang has recently started adding features to our YouTube channel, including BookTube recordings. If you like SciFi and Fantasy (yes, that is where the name comes from) and don’t already subscribe to the podcast and/or YouTube, what are you waiting for?

So far, I’ve only contributed two BookTube reviews, and I have one more to record. I tried to pick shorter books received, so two of these are novellas I had been sent from the Tor.com press. I hope more will eventually come, but in the mean-time I thought it would be worthwhile to also post short written reviews here on the three books I covered:


Vigilance
By Robert Jackson Bennett
Tor.com Publishing — January 2019
ISBN: 9781250209436
208 Pages — Paperback

I’ve wanted to start The Divine Cities trilogy from him (hearing nothing but great things about it), but bookstores always seem to have all but the first book. So, I was happy to see this in the mail and have a chance to read something else by him. On the other hand, I immediately was put off by the cover and title. Like Batman and MacGyver, I loathe guns, and didn’t feel particularly eager to delve into a story about gun violence, even if satirical and critical. However, once started I couldn’t put it down, drawn into this near-future America where reality TV, terrorist threats, and cultural/moral apathy merge into a frightening, violent landscape. Bennett’s writing is brutal and unsubtle in both action and politics, the setup at first seems so over-the-top to appear unbelievably absurd as any type of realistic extrapolation for the future. But as you continue through the story and consider where we are, and how that trajectory could continue into the future if unchecked, it begins to seem horrifyingly more plausible were people to continue to lose hope and fall into despair. Even with all of its darkness, the satire and absurdity of it also makes for some humor, albeit dark humor. Short, powerful, and well worth reading.


©1998 EyeWire, Inc.

The Revenant Express
(Newbury and Hobbes Investigations #5)
By George Mann
Tor Books — February 2019
ISBN: 9780765334091
256 Pages — Hardback

Making the mistake of just glancing at its size and cover, I opened this book expecting it to be a young adult novel. Scant pages in with the grisly description of a murder victim, I realized the error. A lack of – or misplaced – expectations did nothing to dim my enjoyment for this exciting adventure, even without reading any of the previous books in the series. It took me a little while to understand the timeline of events that start this book, and their placement relative to those from the prior book in the Newbury & Hobbes Investigations series. A fair amount of character quirks and development also became lost to me because I began this mid-story, and this book 5 of the series is in fact the conclusion to a book 4 cliff-hanger. Thus, even though I enjoyed the steampunk/horror/mystery/spy adventure mashup of this, if you aren’t a reader of this series, it probably would be best to start at its beginning. I liked the mashed-up elements, despite not being a huge fan of steampunk, and in large part the enjoyment came from the story’s engaging female characters. If I come upon the earlier books of this series I’d pick them up without hesitation to read more.


The Test
By Sylvain Neuvel
Tor.com Publishing — March 2019
ISBN: 9781250312839
112 Pages — Paperback

Another dystopic vision from Tor.com, Neuvel’s explores speculative technological advancements to probe human psychology and the themes of immigration, community, and family. While answering examination questions for British Citizenship, Idir’s nervous anticipation and hopefulness are blasted away when a team of terrorists enter the immigration office, take hostages, and begin executing people. What this story says about psychology, morals, fear, and power is a brilliant commentary on immigration, nationalism. At the same time the story serves as a cautionary one on the dangerous ways that technology could be turned. Reading The Test, you might think you can see where Neuvel is taking things, and how he will go about it, but you begin to suspect what in the story might be really happening or not, forcing you into the same position of uncertainty as the characters find themselves. A reviewer I follow on Goodreads, Emily May, calls this a Black Mirror episode in novella format, and having now finally seen the show, I’d 100% agree. In fact, this should just be adapted into an episode, it would pack one hell of a punch. But for now, go read this touching and disturbing masterpiece.

THE AMBERLOUGH DOSSIER, by Lara Elena Donnelly


Amberlough, Armistice, & Amnesty
By Lara Elena Donnelly
Tor Books — 2017 – 2019
ISBN 9780765383822  — 416 Pages — Paperback
ISBN 9781250173560 — 400 Pages — Paperback
ISBN 9781250173621 — 384 Pages — Paperback
Source: Publisher


In 2017 Lara Elena Donnelly published her debut novel, Amberlough, set in the imaginary region of Gedda and written with the point-of-view of three protagonists living in Amberlough City. Cyril DePaul works at home and abroad as an intelligence agent for the Amberlough nation-state. But Cyril’s professional responsibilities conflict with his personal life: he has passionately fallen for Aristide Makricosta, a stripper/performer at the Busy Bee nightclub who also happens to be a criminal running a small-time smuggling operation. Cordelia Lehane is another stripper/performer at the Busy Bee who sometimes does smuggling runs for Aristide, but who mostly occupies herself with illicit drug sales and sleeping alternatively with the club’s owner or its resident comedian.
While on a sensitive mission in a neighboring nation-state, Cyril’s cover is blown amid the rise of a fascist political party called the One State Party. Cyril learns that members of the party, known as Ospies, also have plans for gaining control of Amberlough. With few options available to him, Cyril strikes a deal to save himself, and Aristide, from the rise of a regime opposed to homosexuality. As the conservative Ospies gain power in Amberlough, those at the central countercultural hub of the Busy Bee must also figure out how to survive the ramifications of Cyril’s decision and Ospie control.
The plot and setting of Amberlough take unmistakable historical inspiration from Germany’s Weimer Republic and the rise of the Nazi party. The wonderful art deco design for the covers of the novel and its sequels reinforce this period; the spirits of the characters do likewise. With such close parallels to reality, it’s at first baffling to understand why Donnelly chose to place her story in an invented universe. There is little to the novel that could otherwise define it as speculative fiction: no magic of fantasy, no steampunkesque tech of SF. Donnelly wouldn’t have even had to make Amberlough an alternate history, it could easily exist as straight-up mainstream historical literature. 
Divergence from history and the need for an invented world become clearer with the sequels. In 2018 and 2019 Tor Books released Armistice and Amnesty, respectively, to complete the trilogy. Despite ending in a bit of a cliffhanger, Amberlough does work thematically on its own. But deeper appreciation for what Donnelly has created comes from reading the trilogy as three parts of one singular work. In fact, the concept of three-in-one serves as a structural framework on multiple levels of the Amberlough Dossier trilogy. Donnelly divides each of the novels into three distinct parts that essentially 1) set the characters onto stage, 2) introduce/develop the challenge they face, and 3) usher in a denouement and conclusion. Each novel also features three point-of-view characters that together create a whole perspective of the plot.
As the series progresses following the Nazi-like rise of the Ospies in Amberlough, the plot and action don’t develop as one might expect, diverging from parallels to German history and the onset of a world war. The starts of Armistice and Amnesty are also marked by time jumps where significant developments in the characters and their socio-political situation have happened off-stage. This generates a thematic impression where Donnelly is not directly showing us how her characters are changing the world. Instead, they do a great deal off-stage and then she shows us how they respond to and survive the new situations they find themselves in as a result. For example, by the close of Amberlough the three protagonists (Cyril, Aristide, and Cordelia) are forced to flee the Ospie rise or stay to face its oppression with imprisonment or worse. By the start of Armistice, Cordelia now leads in exile an armed opposition to the Ospies. Aristide has found safe haven abroad as an actor, but as much as he’d like, he cannot forget or completely walk away from what he has fled. Due to events in the first book, Cyril is absent from Armistice, but replaced by the point-of-view of his diplomat sister, Lilian, who is merely mentioned in the first book. Cordelia sits out from the trio of point-of-view characters in Amnesty, making Aristide the one constant throughout the trilogy.
Aristide represents a fitting character to serve as the series constant, not merely due to the alliteration of his name with the novels’ titles. Quite simply, he is the most fun. The Han Solo of the trilogy, he is the devilish rogue who secretly has a heart. The guy who feigns indifferent independence, but who has actually fallen in love and is willing to make sacrifices for those he cares about. Aristide is a performer through-and-through, a man who hides his true name and past, who puts on affectation off the stage, speaking with an intentional stutter and dressing with a fashion to appear far more frivolous than reality. As a reader you can’t but help being equally enthralled by Aristide as Cyril. Though all the characters grow between the three novels, Aristide is the one character whose growth mostly occurs on the pages, rather than primarily during the time that passes between the novels. 
With its time jumps and off-stage action, the plot of the Amberlough Dossier series is not the source of its strength or success. I honestly found this a bit of a disappointment, and while plowing through them I couldn’t quite figure out why I still found them to be enthralling page-turners. After thinking a bit, I realized that it was the characters that had captured my attention, it really was like a character-driven ‘literary’ novel that just happened to be in a made-up world. Each of the characters is gloriously imperfect and quirky in their own endearing ways. Despite their faults, they pull through and survive changing political landscapes and crises, or sacrifice themselves to allowing the others to survive. Donnelly achieves her idiosyncratic characters with her richly descriptive language, but also a knack at giving them their unique voices. Aside from the fictitious geo-political names, Donnelly also develops an endearingly distinctive slang that Cordelia, in particular, uses.
By the end of the series the only significant criticism that I still had remaining pertains to an absent sense of place in the novels. Donnelly invents this universe and Gedda and beyond, but the reader is largely left uncertain of where exactly events are taking place, how locations relate to one another, or how political changes that happen off-stage actually came to pass. This makes it difficult to really appreciate any of the world-building aspects of a series that otherwise has little in the realms of the speculative genre. Each novel also comes with an identical map of Gedda that has to be the most useless map I have ever seen in a SFF novel, particularly when events of Armistice largely take place elsewhere.
Nonetheless, like its characters the Amberlough Dossier series charms despite its imperfections. It says a lot about what common people can accomplish in a harsh world of setbacks despite being outsiders, counterculture to a system of power. It shows that those accomplishments become born of the small decisions that individuals make because of their relationship with and love for others, whether familial or romantic. And it shows that the consequences of those decisions can be both joyous and devastating, but in either way can be met with courage and compassion.

THE LAND ACROSS, by Gene Wolfe

the-land-across-by-gene-wolfe

My review of Gene Wolfe’s The Land Across is now up at Skiffy & Fanty:

“…Recently released in trade paperback format by Tor Books, Wolfe’s 2013 novel, The Land Across, is typical Wolfe: a young, possibly unreliable narrator, evocative descriptions, shifting plots that play with expectations, sophisticated incorporation of the political and religious, and beneath it all a perpetual sense of foreboding…”

Read the rest of the review here.

Echopraxia, by Peter Watts

Echopraxia, by Peter Watts
Publisher: Tor Books
ISBN: 076532802X
384 pages, hardcover
Published: 26th August 2014
Source: NetGalley

An anticipated sequel to his 2006 hard science fiction novel Blindsight, Echopraxia exists in the same ‘universe’ but can easily be read on its own as the two novels do not directly share any characters and the plots of each are self-contained. While largely disconnected by story or character, these sister novels do share style and theme, so that those who have read Blindsight can reasonably expect to find a similar work here.
 
Each novel is staggeringly intelligent, dense with science, technology, philosophy, and speculation. The major theme of Blindsight is speculation on the evolution of consciousness and intelligence. In Echopraxia these themes are revisited, but they are expanded upon into new arenas, not merely rehashed. I personally found the first novel both infuriating and wondrous. Much of how I responded to it held true for my reaction to Watt’s latest.
 
However, I began Echopraxia actually relieved and hopeful, for in addition to its heady, hard SF mastery, it appeared to not be avoiding actual action. The novel opens with Daniel Bruks, a field-biologist who has fled into exile into a remote wilderness. Bruks has fled from a humanity that is becoming decreasingly biological in favor of technology and computation, and he has fled a horrific violence for which he unwittingly served as pawn.
 
A sudden attack on an isolated desert monastery near Bruks pulls him into their conflict with other factions of Earth’s growing post-human society and leads Bruks, along with some other visitors to the monastery, on the monk’s journey to discover a truth of the divine at the center of the solar system.
 
The opening action of the novel sets the stage for the actual bulk of the book, which similar to Blindsight, skips action for the play of ‘big ideas’ between characters, the relatively familiar/normal Bruks and the more foreign post-humans (which include zombies and the vampires already familiar to readers of Blindsight that Watts has so fabulously rendered plausible in a hard SF setting.)
 
As Blindsight contained the very basic SF trope of first contact as a basis for its deep investigation into those themes of consciousness/intelligence, Echopraxia‘s plot at its simplest level bears familiarity to the much maligned Star Trek V to delve more seriously into the concept of the divine and of faith and science in understanding/predicting the universe. I personally find myself drawn to these themes, and for that reason (in addition to some more moments of entertaining action) I ended up appreciating this novel to its predecessor.
 
The heavy nature of the ideas in Echopraxia make it a novel that really requires rereading to sufficiently grasp, and it is the type of novel that makes you want to talk to other people about, at least in terms of those themes/ideas. Thus, as with Blindsight and much of hard SF, the ideas here trump the actual fiction. Over some drinks you’ll want to talk about the science and the speculation on matters religious and biological and physical. You won’t want to talk about the characters much or what happened in the story because those details are all relatively throwaway.
 
As fascinating and as intellectually stimulating as Echopraxia is, its entertainment never goes beyond academic. So filled with post-human characters and events the very human reader finds very little to emotionally connect with, leaving the novel feel rather hollow outside of the ‘hard SF/technology’ department. This novel is going to be loved by people who appreciate a secular and actual scientific take on the concept of divinity and who aren’t uncomfortable with emphasis on speculative, sometimes disturbing, scientific content above more traditional aspects of story. While not my favorite kind of SF, this is well done.
 
Four Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from Tor Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Lockstep, by Karl Schroeder


Lockstep, by Karl Schroeder
Publisher: Tor Books
Serialized in Analog Science Fiction & Fact (Dec. 2013 – Apr. 2014)
ISBN: 0765337266
352 pages, hardcover
Published: 25th March 2014

Though marketed as a young adult book in its complete form, I read Karl Schroeder’s new novel Lockstep during its serialization in Analog Magazine over the span of four issues. My reaction to it is colored to begin with through the format. I dislike the practice of serialization of novels (or of excerpts) when they are taking up the space that could go to complete shorter stories. Even for authors I consistently enjoy, a serialization will bother me, an except will just be ignored.

In the case of Schroeder, I’ve found his world-building – his imagination – to be outstanding, thought-provoking, and well structured.  But, how well that stellar idea and exquisitely fashioned framework is translated into a full compelling tale varies. I recall somewhat enjoying Sun of Suns, and being captivated by Queen of Candesce during their runs (both also serialized).

With Lockstep, Schroeder addresses the difficulties in having a ‘hard science’ fictional universe featuring an interstellar civilization. With speed of light limits to travel (NASA plans notwithstanding) Schroeder came up with his ingenious “lockstep system” relying on synchronized prolonged hibernations. The novel opens when Toby, a teenager whose family has fled Earth to stake claims on frontier territory, becomes stranded in orbit of a lifeless planet. Using his family’s technology for cold sleep, he enters into a slumber that he expects will be his last.

Instead, Toby awakens amid a thriving intergalactic empire run on the hibernation technology, far-flung worlds tied together on a schedule of brief active periods separated by long stretches of hibernation allowing travel between distant worlds. The coordination of this political and social endeavor, Toby soon learns, is overseen by the rule of his family. Though he has been in sleep for thousands of years, so too has his family spent most of those years in hibernation. Toby learns his younger brother, now older but quite alive, rules this lockstep system with the firm dictatorial grip of technology monopoly. And for reasons not fully clear to Toby, his reawakening ‘from the dead’ threatens his brother’s position and this empire, and Toby’s brother wants Toby dead.

The setup and explanation of all this in the first chapter is brilliant. A recent review of the novel on io9.com by Michael Ann Dobbs even states the worldbuilding will make a reader giddy. It didn’t quite do that for me, but I’m not a particular champion of ‘hard’ sci-fi. But the general point I can agree with. The trouble comes in going beyond the setup and this worldbuilding. The entire middle of the book seems particularly drawn out – and admittedly a serialization made this worse for me. By the time the concluding sections arrive everything seems to fall together a bit too easily, leaving the majority of the novel after this brilliant idea and introduction of the Lockstep to simply feel underwhelming, and in well, juvenile.

And I use that word intentionally of course, and not to be disparaging. Though I felt it a rather straight-forward and predictable sort of space adventure in terms of story for the pages of Analog, considering it anew in the light of “young adult” marketing, that makes a lot of sense. Dobbs’ comparisons of Lockstep‘s tone to some of the young adult works of Heinlein are apt. There isn’t much deep here, but for a young adult with a nerdy science or technological leaning, this novel could be perfect. Despite good qualities, it made a belabored serial and just wasn’t a novel for me.

Three Stars out of Five

The Waking Engine, by David Edison

The Waking Engine, by David Edison
Publisher: Tor Books
ISBN: 0765334860
400 pages, hardcover
Published February 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Any fan of the fantasy/sci fi genre should take note of this highly inventive debut novel, and any fiction reader should pay attention to Edison’s future output. While there are some basic problems with the novel, its numerous strengths outweigh them, most particularly the obvious talent Edison has for the writing craft. With greater experience and perhaps a bit less ambition than displayed in this novel, Edison could be a powerhouse.

“The Waking Engine” probably falls closest within the category of ‘urban fantasy’, but it is truly a mix of multiple genres. This blending of disparate elements becomes the defining aspect of the work, from its influences, its structure, its writing, its plot, etc. Remarkably, most of these pieces end up working when put together.

The strongest accomplishment (as appears universally acknowledged by both those that liked the book or not) is the world building. I am not convinced that the universe of “The Waking Engine” is wholly original in its ingredients – they are mined from a host of archetypic stories – but Edison certainly molds these into something his own. Decent fantasy world building is not particularly unique, but what Edison does excel at is the revelation of this world to the reader. The reveal is gradual, full of mystery, and thereby very captivating. It almost invites the reader to shout out questions as they try to gain footing in the uncertainty, bizarreness, and confusion. Tying the protagonists discoveries to the revelation for the reader helps make him relatable and helps drive the plot forward. For me the experience of reading “Waking Engine”, particularly the beginning, reminded me of playing the game “Planescape: Torment”, where the character you play in the game awakens from death in a strange world with no memory of how he got there or who he was. Though the protagonist in this novel does have memories, the experiences of waking to something unfathomable and strange is alike. You the reader/player discover this world as he ventures out into it.

The second accomplishment of Edison in this novel is his prose. It is rich and poetic, utilizing a very precise vocabulary to render visualization to the strange environment of the city and its abnormal denizens. The language he uses is wonderful at rendering mood, and in this way certain parts of the novel have an almost gothic feel to them, particularly in those moments most dark. There is also a literary depth to the writing. Beyond starting each chapter with false quotes from famous (now deceased) people, “The Waking Engine” is full of references literary, historic, and philosophic. There is meat on the bones of this novel, and Edison gets his ideas across really well. Finally, Edison successful writes in the exposition necessary for revealing this strange world to the reader and protagonist. Information flows naturally and rarely feels forced.

Despite these huge strengths there are some issues that arise from the sheer ambition of this novel. For one that characterization is not as developed as one might hope. Secondary characters are actually quite rich, inventive, and in several cases (particularly the villains) simply wondrous. This actually ends up making the protagonist feel rather hollow. An everyday Joe, yet seemingly unique in this universe, he never stands out as someone you are fully invested in, or really know. Little is brought up regarding his past, and the majority of the present is mainly about him trying to figure out what the hell is going on for him to worry beyond that question. If it weren’t for the link to him in the form of world building revelations, this would have been a major problem.

The second problem comes from the sheer wildness of the plot and its plethora of characters. The pacing of the plot and the handling of its many threads becomes messy, and the extreme invention of the novel’s set up makes the ultimate climax pale strongly in comparison. In addition to the protagonist, other secondary characters begin to rise in prominence and import and thus in focus, which ends up compounding the lack of depth in the protagonist.

By the end of “The Waking Engine” I had the sense that I had gone through a crazy and thought-provoking ride with plenty of memorable moments, but felt underwhelmed by the actual story at its heart and relatively pedestrian ending. Being a debut novel with such high aspirations and a tone of confident freshness it isn’t surprising that some elements just fail to come together, and thankfully those don’t ruin the novel as a whole for me or negate the obvious talents that Edison has to develop.

Four Stars out of Five