For those of you who haven’t found your way over to my Reviews page, I decided to post the content here now that 2016 is over. Overall it was an average year for me. I estimate that I read about 25 books. Unfortunately, I’ve only had time to write reviews for a small number of those. I will post more reviews throughout 2017.
In keeping with the theme of this site, these reviews will focus on the plot and the accuracy of the science. I graded these books with a POINTS system I invented for this purpose (Plot, Organization, Intelligibility, Novelty, Technology, and Science). Each will be given a grade out of 5 with a highest possible score of 30. This score has little to do with my enjoyment of the novel, but how I rate the individual parameters. I will try not to give too many details or spoilers, but it might be necessary on occasion.
*Cover images taken from listings on Amazon.com.
Here they are:
Columbus Day: Expeditionary Force, Book 1 by Craig Alanson (POINTS= 25/30)
Plus POINTS: This first book in the series follows the POV of a young soldier home from a stint in Nigeria. He is surprised to see an alien ship crash land in a field near his hometown. The aliens immediately start destroying things. He rounds up some people and fights back. This is only the beginning of the story. More aliens arrive, but these are helping them, and eventually drive the hamster-like aliens away. The young soldier is shipped away to an alien planet where he must keep the peace. It is there that he discovers that their friends, the lizard-like aliens, are not so much their saviors as their overlords, and the ones they should be fighting. He teams up with fellow soldiers and an artificial intelligence to take back humanity’s freedom. Science and technology wise, it is hard to say what is and isn’t possible when advanced alien technologies are thrown into the mix. At least they didn’t all speak the same language and instead they were given devices that could interpret everything that’s said. Overall, this is one of the more humorous books I’ve read. There are some slow parts but it is nicely paced and full of action.
Minus POINTS: Alanson didn’t write the most original story, but he definitely put a new twist on the average military scifi. The science is probably the lowest scoring in the POINTS system. The thing that I have the hardest time coming to terms with is the appearance of the aliens. They are described to be very similar looking to hamsters, with another species very similar to lizards. It is very unlikely that an independently evolving species on a separate planet with an entirely different climate would look remotely like anything we have on earth. Even more unlikely, is that they would all breath similar air compositions. I think adding in some breathing apparatus for the aliens or humans on a foreign world wouldn’t have detracted from the story. Also, Alanson states that the insects, animals, and microorganisms on these foreign worlds wouldn’t effect them, which may be true when it comes to ingesting unknowns compounds, proteins, or being exposed to a venom, but it is more likely that an organism would have found the organic molecules that makeup the human body very pleasing, and the human immune system would have no way to fend it off. Artificial wormholes and faster-than-light travel is also mentioned, but with no explanation as to how such things were made or how FTL drives don’t affect causality and mess with… pretty much all of Einstein’s theories. A long-vanished race of aliens left behind the wormholes as well as an artificial intelligence. Providing comic relief is not the only thing the AI can do, it can also bend space-time, hack every encryption code, interface with every technology, and exist in multiple dimensions. Despite all of this, it still uses helium 3 as a fuel source. Overall, I would recommend this book as a great, entertaining read, so long as you aren’t expecting hard-scifi.
The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey (POINTS= 27/30)
Plus POINTS: This isn’t your typical zombie story. I was actually very surprised to find out that it was a zombie story. The story follows Melanie, a very nice and bright little girl, except she is treated like a dangerous monster by the people who take her from her cell and deposit her in class every day. Her diet consists of the occasional grub. Carey has cleverly used a well know fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, that causes zombie-like behavior in ants, as the zombie pathogen of choice. Zombies that have been turned long ago, end up with fungal coatings and even sprout mycelium. One of the doctors doing the research actually goes into detail how they think the fungus is hijacking the brain, and why kids like Melanie are so special. She introduces some actual research tools and techniques as well. In order to prevent Melanie from smelling human’s and feeling the impulse to eat, they have to constantly douse themselves in chemicals. When the facility that’s holding her gets overrun, she and the humans that fear her must band together to get her to another facility where they can continue to perform research on her. Melanie has to overcome many zombie-ish impulses along the way. POINTS across the board.
Minus POINTS: While it is impossible to say how the cordyceps fungus has been manipulated or mutated to create zombies, it is never likely to have such a devastating role on humanity. For one, most fungal infections grow very slowly, and the immune system slow it even more. Also, the fungus would have to somehow penetrate the blood-brain-barrier, which is difficult for even the smallest of pathogens. There is also a scene where a huge wall of fungal mycelium stretches into the sky, sprouted from thousands of zombies. There is nowhere near enough biomass available to support that type of growth, especially when it would have to compete with other microorganisms. It’s difficult to believe that it could withstand the wind or even a single storm. There is also a scene where they arrive a huge mobile-tank of a laboratory. I can’t believe that anybody would have designed or constructed such a laboratory. There is no logical purpose. Overall, the story started strong but became more and more improbable as it went along.
The Mountain Man Omnibus (Books 1-3) by Keith C. Blackmore (POINTS= 23/30)
Plus POINTS: The mountain man is Gus. He lives on a hill outside a small city in Nova Scotia. He is constantly drinking and lonely. You can’t really blame him; zombies have taken over the known world. These books were a great read. It was a story of survival, friendship, and the fragility of the human mind and morality. When you have to fear the living more than the dead, it really paints a grisly picture of mankind. He does make one friend though, Scott, who leaves the picture a little too soon in order to chase down a killer. There is some serious ingenuity and resourcefulness on the the part of Gus and Scott. The story gets many plus POINTS for plot, intelligibility, and organization.
Minus POINTS: As for novelty, technology, and science, I have to deduct some POINTS. I’m tempted to give very little points for science and technology, especially since this is a zombie novel, but on multiple occasions, Blackmore addressed that they didn’t know how the virus worked, but that it slowed decay, and could even jump species. No detail is better than the wrong detail. There was at least one occasion where the author described the ‘smell of cordite’ after guns were fired. This is a common description which is completely inaccurate. Cordite has not been used in ammunition since the end of WWII… and this book is set in the near future.For the most part, every character had a purpose all the way up to the third book. Personally, I saw little point to the Norsemen except as a tool to show how savage humanity can be. Also, Gus spends years scavenging for supplies, but doesn’t ever try to find seeds and grow his own food. This seems very short-sighted.
SpaceMan by Tom Abrahams (POINTS= 26/30)
Plus POINTS: This is a great post-apocalyptic novel that isn’t afraid to throw some science and technology into the mix. An astronaut, Clayton, becomes stranded on the ISS, when a massive Coronal Mass Ejection strikes the earth. He recovers his dead colleagues who were out on a space walk, and then tries to find a way back to earth, to his family. The other POV in the story is Clayton’s family and a family friend. When the CME hits, power goes out, and many devices are shorted. A short time later, planes come crashing to the ground. All-in-all, this story was successful in integrating accurate science and terminology with life or death situations that hook the reader’s interest as well as educate. I see too many books getting the facts of solar flares wrong, but Abrahams accurately demonstrated how fast CMEs move (pretty slow compared to the light from the flare), the radiation they carry (protons), and the devastating effects of the EMP on electronics. It was apparent that the author did his research. Many plus POINTS for Science and Technology, novelty, and intelligibility.
Minus POINTS: The book was short and the author really should have included the sequel as a part of book 1 because very little of the conflict is actually resolved. While Abrahams does a decent job of switching between POVs, I thought the novelty of the book was the astronaut stuck on the ISS, but he seems to spend more time following the people on the ground, making this feel more like an average post-apocalyptic story. In fact, it seems like the space adventure ends too soon. While it is hard to say what people would do in the event of the apocalypse, I think chaos and disorder happened a bit too quickly, with gangs, thugs, and religious cults taking to the streets within a day or two.
Leviathan Wakes (Expanse series #1) by James S. A. Corey (POINTS= 27/30)
Plus POINTS: Despite being categorized as a space opera, I see very little resemblance. This is a book with a lot of political and interpersonal conflicts, but it really gives us a snapshot of what might actually happen when humanity begins to colonize the solar system. With large corporations and governments fighting for resources, and the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter being a source of much of it, tensions are high. The story is a mystery suspense that focuses on the disappearance of a woman and the seemingly pointless destruction of an ice freighter. It follows the perspective of a detective on the Ceres station on the belt, and a small surviving crew of the destroyed ice freighter. They uncover conspiracies that can change the way the humanity views their place in the universe. The pace was great, the writing gripping, and the science as spot on as it could be for such a large leap into a possible future. Corey (pen name for two authors) accurately depicts G forces, types of ‘artificial gravity’ (thrust or rotation), and the health effects and physiological changes of people that aren’t living in a ‘gravity well’. He knows what he is talking about.
Minus POINTS: There isn’t much negative to say about this first book in the series. I felt a bit more info could have been provided on the Epstein drive, which is a fusion reactor capable of providing continuous thrust. The crash couches and other seats meant to cushion the crew during high G maneuvers and accelerations are interesting, but the explanation of the ‘juice’ pumped into them to sustain consciousness and mobility during such event doesn’t quite satisfy me. Also unexplained is how a particular entity (protomolecule) can control many EM fields, take over organic matter, and change direction or speed up with seemingly no change in inertia. While it does break a couple of Newton’s laws, Corey does salvage his credibility by bringing up this fact and having the character’s baffled by how it could be done. They are, after-all, face to face with a strange entity that may have technology far beyond our own. It is also a bit improbable that humanity would have developed so far as to begin colonizing some of Jupiter’s moons and build massive ships, but not improved on standard projectile weapons, nukes, etc. Everyone knows that developing weapons is the first technological leap in most societies. Humans love killing each other.
Hell Divers (The Hell Divers Trilogy Book 1) by Nicholas Sansbury Smith (POINTS= 23/30)
Plus POINTS: When the rest of humanity lives on floating airships above a radioactive earth, how can they survive? By sending divers down to the surface to scavenge for any fuel cells and supplies they need, that’s how. This book had a very unique concept and was full of action from start to finish. The overall scientific concepts are sound, though Smith does not talk about the science the much. I can’t even guess if severe electrical storms would be caused by massive amounts of radiation on the surface of the planet, but it makes sense that many, many ions and radicals would form under the radioactive onslaught, leading to severe electrical discharges. Smith also does due diligence in describing the harm such radiation inflicts on the human body, whether it be an acute exposure or a chronic one. Overall, it was a very interesting read and kept me entertained throughout.
Minus POINTS: Given the fairly short length of the novel, I would have preferred one or two fewer points of view. There were some 5 or so in total, and it really prevented me from getting attached to any one character. Alternatively, the book length could have been increased to help flesh out some of the underdeveloped sections. For example, there was one conflict where militant crewmen seize control of a section of the ship and make demands. It almost ends in catastrophe, and was definitely suspenseful, but I felt like nothing much came from it and we never had a lot of closure. Drawing out the suspense and fleshing out the resolution would have made a much more satisfying read. The organization was a bit awkward as well. I felt like he worked the tension up a bit for each dive, but none of them lasted that long. He could have had fewer dives and drawn out the suspense a bit more for each one. Smith compensated for this a little bit by having one POV on the surface most of the time. And unless I missed it, I imagine that solar energy would be a better energy source for an airship, but instead they rely on nuclear power. Perhaps, for whatever reason, they can not rise above the omnipresent cloud cover. Such cloud cover, however, would have caused the earth to cool. While Smith mentions quite a lot of snow on the surface, it isn’t clear if this is due to the location of the city or if it is the general state of the planet. But these are very minor points. The major minus points to the science was the use of super mutant monsters. Yes, perhaps two centuries had passed since the war occurred that irradiated the planet, but that is way too short a time for humanoid creatures with hard skin, barbs, wings, and no eyes to have evolved. Yes radiation can speed mutation, but it is more likely to cause death to the creature that is being irradiated, thus preventing evolution. Also, the radiation would have been much worse centuries ago when the war started, and these creatures would not have had their thick skins to protect them from it. Earth would be sterile. It is also not clear how the monsters are detecting electrical and radioactive energy or feeding off of it.
Sand Omnibus by Hugh Howey (POINTS= 22/30)
Plus POINTS: This was a highly original and engaging novel which really got my imagination going. Like Wool, much if the story takes place underground as it follows a family of sand divers as they explore the remains of forgotten and lost cities that have been buried under the sand for a long time. It is not just a tale of survival under the sands, but above it, as more and more people compete for the loot as well as chase after the most valuable loot of all, something that can make obstacles, and people, vanish in the blink of an eye. This story has a lot of political and survival elements that really amp up the suspense.
Minus POINTS: Vibrations seem like the most likely way to penetrate into sand, however, the notion that vibrations can be controlled so well as to extend from a suit and several feet away into the sand to harden sand or soften it, is a bit ridiculous. Yes, they character’s use little headsets that read their intentions, but the technology feels more like telekinesis than real technology. Soften the sand all you want, it would still exfoliate your face off and tear through any type of fabric or metal with enough time (the same principle as sandpaper), but this seems to have been left out by Howey. The worst part for me was the ending. The hero goes off with a mission, rather than show that hero doing their exciting mission, we are instead give the POV of the concerned family as they sit around a camp, bored as they watch the horizon for proof of the hero’s success. Showing people being bored is a sure way to make the audience bored. The climax of the story, while interesting, wasn’t all that intense either. And with a lack of a satisfactory resolution, the story really suffered in the last half.
Wool Omnibus Edition (Wool 1 – 5) (Silo series) (POINTS= 28/30)
Plus POINTS: I thoroughly enjoyed this series and I was surprised it had taken me so long to pick it up. Hugh Howey has crafted a fascinating world for us, an underground world. The residents of a large underground silo have been living for generations below the toxic atmosphere, believing that nothing and nobody was capable of living above the surface. Their only connection to the world outside the silo is a camera that shows them the toxic wasteland above. Occasionally men and woman are sentenced to death (or volunteer in some cases) to clean the surface of the cameras with a bit of wool. They always clean, even when they say they wont, and they all die before they can climb the hill and out of view, their suits deteriorating in the toxic environment. It has become taboo to speak of the outside, and in fact, it is a death sentence to express any interest in leaving. But everyone thinks about it. When the sheriff of the silo expresses an interest to leave, everyone is shocked. The send him out to clean and then go on with their lives, growing plants, recycling everything, mining, in the hopes of keeping the silo running for their life times and their children’s. When a new sheriff is recruited from the lower floors, mechanical, she begins to research why the previous sheriff wanted to go outside, and uncovers some large conspiracies that upend all they know about the world above and the purpose of the silo. The science and technology presented in this book appeared very thought out and well conceived and very realistic. I couldn’t think of many things he could have added to improve on the silos. The plot was full of suspense throughout, and I had a hard time putting it down. The culture and mindset of the silo seem very logical, with religions, taboos, and other things like their concept of distance and open spaces, the scarcity and price of paper, or the mythological view of animals that may have once walked the surface.
Minus POINTS: The only minus points here are due to the ending and a bit of the science. There were several points were I thought the motivation of the characters was a bit lacking or underdeveloped, thus resulting in actions that seemed very unlikely, or that they were overlooking some obvious problems and then became surprised by the consequences. The ending was a bit underwhelming and I never got the sense that I experienced a true climax of the tension. My only issue with the science were a few unlikely events where someone survived what would have been some extreme pressure, and the seeming lack of exhaustion for some people as they climbed a bunch of stairs. Also, there is apparently some room for people to fall or drop things over the edge of the stair well, if that is the case, why didn’t they create a lift or pulley system to help transport supplies or people? Technology wise, everything seemed a little dated and unsophisticated, but you learn that much of this was intentional.
Note: I chose not to review Shift (POINTS=19/30) or Dust (21/30) by Hugh Howey because I felt like I didn’t have a lot of positive things to say about them. Neither ended very satisfactorily, had way too much background, alternate POVs, unrelatable motivations, and info I thought distracted from the story, and were kind of boring. Dust wasn’t too bad, though. I think he could have left out Shift and continued with Dust, and made the whole series much better.
The Martian by Andy Weir (POINTS= 29/30)
Plus POINTS: As far as the POINTS system goes, The Martian is currently the standard by which all books are judged. The story of a man deserted on a barren planet, trying to survive until rescue, is about as hopeless and grim as you can get, but Weir manages to inject humor, action, intrigue, and most importantly, science. From orbital dynamics, to pressure regulation, and oxygen and water reclaiming systems, he is pretty spot on, with in depth descriptions which are intelligibly and cleverly delivered (which the movie does a really poor job of replicating). I thought he started the story in just the right moment, not too early or too late. While it may not be targeting the softer side of the sci-fi readership, for us hard sci-fi fans, it’s just what we’ve been asking for. I confess that I did not read this recently, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten many details… I’ve read the book 5 times now!
Minus POINTS: Its really no one particular thing. If I could take away a third of a point from the intelligibility, science, and plot categories, I would. It is pretty heavy on the science and terminology, so readers need to pay attention to avoid missing anything vital to their understanding. Scientifically, there is a minor point with the inciting incident, where Mark gets impaled by an antennae and the MAV almost tips. With atmospheric pressure so low on the planet, it would have been impossible for the wind to push over much of anything. The only part I found lacking in the Plot was the seeming disappearance of a secondary character, Mindy Park, who was in charge of monitoring Mark on the surface of Mars with orbiting satellites. I would have liked to see her jump in and save the day at the end, perhaps having a satellite diverted to help with a lost communications issue or something. And perhaps have Mark establish some sort of relationship with her in the end. They both seemed pretty lonely. Oh well, can’t have everything.
Red Rising by Pierce Brown (POINTS= 22/30)
Plus POINTS: This is an emotionally charged and gripping story about a young Red man in a caste-based society, who must become a Gold in order to “break the chains” they use to enslave his color. It has a more futuristic Hunger Games vibe, but the purpose of this competition is to train Golds how to become ‘peerless,’ to separate the grain from the chaff. I would classify this novel as a dystopian space-opera. Though it is not hard sci-fi, it was evident that Brown did his research and took his time constructing the elaborate and rich story line.
Minus POINTS: The story opens with the main character harvesting helium 3, an essential part of fusion reactions, from beneath the surface of mars, though this process and fusion reactors in general are not discussed. Also unaddressed by the author is how this isotope of helium can build up below the surface of a planet with minimal geological activity. Solar wind is the primary source of this particle in the solar system, so I have a hard time believing it would occur anywhere but the surface. There are elements of genetic manipulation, complex physiological alterations (‘carving’) and power over laws of physics. Cleverly, Brown uses the main character’s ignorance and perhaps lack-of-interest in these processes as a way to avoid explaining them in detail. Grav boots, for example, are a contraption that allow their wearers to zip around wheresoever they please, while ghost cloaks make the wearer become invisible. Many other such technologies exist that can somehow prevent the local vibration of air molecules to suppress sound, and make swords infinitely sharp and capable of cauterizing flesh.
Golden Son by Pierce Brown (POINTS= 23/30)
Plus POINTS: As the second installment of the Red Rising Trilogy, Darrow continues on his ongoing mission to overthrow the Gold overlords of society. To do this, he has become one of them, made a name for himself, and schemed his way into a position of power where he gets the Golds to war amongst themselves. His inner turmoil grows as his mission clashes with his burgeoning love and friendships. Breaking away from the setting of Mars, the setting of this story take place on the moon, in space, and a few other places around the solar system. There were no obvious plot holes that I could see and it was a very enjoyable read, with intriguing characters, exciting space battles, and political drama.
Minus POINTS: My main scientific objection to this story was the creation of Earth-like atmospheres and climates on the moon (and many of Saturn’s and Jupiter’s moons). Not only is the moon able to hold atmosphere, but it still has a low gravity? Unless I missed it, this was never explained. While I find it plausible that ‘artificial gravity’ might be created one day, and could possibly help hold an atmosphere to the moon’s surface, it is obvious that this was not the method Brown used. And how do they protect themselves and prevent the atmosphere from being stripped away from cosmic rays? We will never know. The razors, incredibly sharp whips that can become sturdy swords with a “chemical impulse” also defy reason, but they are an interesting concept, nonetheless. The characters also seem capable of recovering from almost any injury, and can have severed limbs and eyes replaced within the span of a few chapters.
Golden Son by Pierce Brown (POINTS= 22/30)
Plus POINTS: The ruse is over, Darrow can no longer pretend to be a Gold. In this book, he must discover who is ally and who is enemy as he seeks to overthrow the Gold overlords. There are many fronts to this war and Darrow must choose one to fight first as well as amass an army to accomplish the impossible task. This story is packed with interesting characters, fascinating plot twists, and non-stop action.
Minus POINTS: The organization and plot take a bit of a hit here. While it was easy to follow, the author relied a bit too much on the ‘all hope is lost’ mentality for the reader, allowing us to believe that all of the plans have gone horribly wrong. Yet still Darrow and his friends still accomplish the impossible at every turn. It is sometimes difficult to understand his motive during these events. For example, rather than fight the Jackal or Sovereign, he decides to go take on a large fleet outside of Jupiter instead. His plan to gain the moon lords allegiance and take out the huge fleet seems rather flimsy, indeed, it almost ends terribly for him and the cause he fights for, but as always, just when things start going horribly wrong, he succeeds and even accomplished more than he intended to. As is typical with this series, the technology and science bring the score down a bit. While these aspects of the book are interesting, they don’t have much of a connection to reality. Medically, you can’t just stand up and be alright after being ejected into the vacuum of space for several minutes or being locked in a small box for 9 months, even if given an injection of some secret stimulant in the heart. Also stab wounds are probably going to cut vital organs or at least cut through some muscle and bleed a lot, so it’s unlikely that you can just carry on fighting without being slowed much. Wounds also seem to disappear with a couple chapters or so, and amputated limbs are somehow found and reconnected.