Capsule Reviews – March 2018

Persepolis Rising (The Expanse Book 7), James S.A. Corey (Orbit, December 2017) 8.6
Elysium Fire (Prefect Dreyfuss Emergency Book 2), Alastair Reynolds (Orbit, January 2018) 6.3
Mission to Methone, Les Johnson (Baen, February 2018) 2.7
Semiosis, Sue Burke (Tor, February 2018) 8.1
Persepolis RisingThirty years after defeating the Free Navy and negotiating and end to the various conflicts between the belters and the inner planets, the crew of the Roci is still doing work for hire for the organization that spawned from the ashes of the OPA. Hovering at retirement age, Jim and Naomi agree to sell the ship to Bobby so they can enjoy their golden years together, just in time for the known universe to go sideways and shit all over their plans. Yes, the one loose end from Babylon’s Ashes comes back through the gate, with thirty years of weaponized protomolecule technology in tow. This is the lead-in novel to what purports to be the final act of the series, which is set to conclude at nine books. If we think of The Expanse as a “trilogy of trilogies”, then Persepolis Rising may be the most finely tuned “first book” in the series, with its balance of tight, focused plotting and illuminating character detail as sharp as the authors Corey have yet mustered. Its depiction of the psychology of fascism stands in interesting correlation to Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series, covering similar ground but with a more traditional literary realist approach.
elysium fire.jpgElysium Fire, Reynolds’ sequel to The Prefect (now called Aurora Rising), picks up not long after the events of that novel. Panoply has taken a big hit to its reputation after the cataclysmic events of the Aurora emergency, and an emerging populist movement has led a few of the habitats of the Glitter Band to abandon their ties with the protective service, with more threatening to follow. It’s no surprise when Dreyfus’ investigation of a new and deadly threat leads him straight to the leader of the anti-Panoply movement, a man who knows more about the inner workings of Panoply (and of Dreyfus himself) than any outsider rightly should. Reynolds’ mash-up of police procedural and space opera sputters a bit in this second go round. Some of the character arcs (especially Thalia’s) are nearly identical to those in the previous novel, and many of the plot turns are easy to see coming long before the novel reveals them, and the final “twist” is not so much predictable as it is irrelevant to how the story shakes out. Additionally, the problematic aspects of Dreyfus as a protagonist are more evident in this sequel; his hunches are always right, and even when he makes questionable decisions there are few lasting consequences and at most he is criticized with qualified praise. The Glitter Band is still a fascinating depiction of a futuristic democratic utopia, and there is plenty of techno-wizardry and intense action in the pages of Elysium Fire. The plotting and characterization are, however, stuck in neutral.
missionI’m always intrigued when a scientist, especially a NASA scientist, puts his or her expertise to work in writing science fiction. The science of Mission to Methone isn’t the problem – Johnson’s hammer-plus-nail approach to storytelling is. It’s clear Johnson is going for a Rendezvous with Rama vibe with his solo debut, as scientists from different nations race to gain advantage from first contact when an alien ship is discovered in the solar system. The novel’s geopolitical presumptions are eye-rollingly adolescent, as are its views on society and culture, both alien and human. The idea that a supposedly advanced and enlightened alien race would observe Earth’s history with such Euro-centric prejudice is this novel’s most telling flaw and speaks to a shortfall of imagination and intellectual rigor. This may have been a passably entertaining pulp novel if the pacing weren’t so herky-jerky and the characters so flat and uninspiring. Skip it.
semiosisSue Burke’s debut novel Semiosis is an episodic novel that combines contemporary social science fiction with pulp-era adventure. A combination of Colony SF and first contact narrative, it tells the story of successive generations of human settlers – fleeing an earth ravaged by disease, disaster and war – on a planet they call Pax, and their attempts to coexist first with the planet’s sentient plant life, as well as an insect-like alien race that had colonized the planet long before. Each section of the novel moves ahead to the next generation of leaders, scientists, explorers, and artisans as they try to better integrate themselves with the natural environment on Pax and develop mutually beneficial relationships with its existing sentient and non-sentient life.
The most alluring aspect of Semiosis is its heady mix of sociology and planetary romance-like adventure. In one episode, an animal husband defends the settlement from predator attacks with the help of a pack of lions; later, a group of explorers are captured and taken to the home of The Glassmakers, a very alien civilization of fellow pilgrims – situations that could easily arise in old cliffhanger serials like Flash Gordon or the “Sword and Planet” romances of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but focused as much on intellectual growth as feats of derring-do. In fact, one of the issues I had with the novel was that it often moved too hastily, when I wanted it to slow down and examine its discoveries or spend more time with characters who exit the narrative abruptly. All in all, Semiosis is a smart and exciting first novel from an author worth keeping an eye on.

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