Category Archives: Science Fiction

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz 

28209634Set 125 years from now, Annalee Newitz’s debut novel comes at the question of property from two angles: slavery (both robotic and human), and intellectual property.  It does so through the voices of its main characters, Judith, aka Captain “Jack” Chen, a pharmaceutical researcher turned pirate who clones high-priced drugs to distribute them to those who have more need than means, and a freshly-activated bot named Paladin, designed for security work for its owners, work like tracking down pharma-pirates. 

Paladin is sent, along with Eliasz, its human partner/handler, to stop Jack’s piracy, so it comes as no surprise that the two are on a collision course as Paladin and Eliasz roll up Jack’s network with bloody determination.

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Chain of Command by Frank Chadwick

chain of commandFrank Chadwick’s latest novel in his Varoki/Human universe moves away from the seamy underbelly of crime society he showed us in How Dark the World Becomes and Come the Revolution to his first full-on space navy novel as the Varoki decide it’s time to preempt human expansion. Earth’s coalition Navy is out there to protect the colonies, but they haven’t fought a war in generations, so their focus has become looking good for review boards, rather than keeping the pointy edges keen.

With the alien Varoki posturing increasingly aggressively, Earth decides to increase its military presence near K’tok, the only world besides Earth that supports human-compatible life, but which also has a Varoku colony on it. Navy reservist Sam Bitka gets pulled from his ascending career track at a fabricator (read 3D printer plus) to head the tactical department on the USS Puebla, heading for K’tok. As a reservist, he’s not a candidate for any of the operations slots, which are reserved for career Navy and Academy grads, rather than ROTC types like Sam. Because In a peacetime navy it’s important to look like you can fight, but it’s more important to look like you fit in, which Sam just doesn’t. Fortunately for everyone.

When the task force gets hammered by a stealth attack, Sam finds himself first elevated to XO to a captain that majors in the minors and falls apart as the conflict escalates. Taking command isn’t anything Sam wants, but ultimately, it’s thrust on him. The aliens have come up with a bag of dirty tricks that we didn’t see coming, including a way to turn the ftl/jump drives on our bigger ships against us. Fortunately, the destroyers are too small to have jump drives, so when the fleet pulls back, it’s up to a handful of these ships to stand in harm’s way and block the alien aggression. With their backs to the wall, the destroyers must hold the line alone.

Sam has a hands- on technical background and a knack for tactics, but pulling a ship together and overcoming the crew’s peacetime inertia just wasn’t on his bucket list. Nor did he expect the ships upgraded missiles to be unusable due to insufficient testing. The Puebla isn’t without teeth, but it’s not all it should be, which describes both ship and crew. Bit by bit, Sam figures out how to patch up both, and bit by bit the Puebla takes the fight to the enemy. The cost is considerable though, and Sam discovers the weight of command.

He has a penchant for asking questions that others have been trained out of, and he’s especially keen on why we’re at war, and why we fight at all. Trying to understand what the Navy means is as hard for him as uncovering what the aliens really want. His internal struggles come from dealing with his conversion from citizen to soldier, or at least citizen-soldier, and from the loss of a crewmate he’d been close to. Close, but not close enough to cross over into fraternization, which has interesting consequences in his inability to get past her loss.

The future Navy is a mixed bag of pompous politicos and hardworking enlisted types, with a fortunate leavening of capable officers in the mix. Sam builds alliances in the fleet, but in the end, he’ll make decisions and do what needs doing alone.

Chain of Command is very smartly put together, which is probably a testament to the author’s previous career as a role-playing game creator with the Game Designers’ Workshop, which he helped start. The trend of game designers turned SF writers is really working out for us, if authors like Ty Frank (The Expanse) and Frank Chadwick are any indication. Chadwick gets the details right, whether he’s talking about the effects of prolonged weightlessness or the intricacies of geo and interstellar politics and economics, but he doesn’t let the details get in the way of the story. Weill, hardly ever. He does inject a bit of exposition in here and there, but it’s good exposition.

Technologically, Chadwick plays it straight. No anti-gravity, force fields, tractor beams or magically efficient engines that can push you around at high gees for hours on end. The sole exception is the “jump drive,” which is alien tech developed by the Varoki and the backbone of the economic and political empire they’ve been creating. It’s also the source of conflict with the humans, who stubbornly won’t stop trying to crack its secrets and build their own, which the Varoki fear would destabilize the Cottohazz, their  federation of worlds, and let the “aggressive, violent, and impulsive humans” become their rivals and eventual usurpers.

You almost feel sorry for them

The story could easily have been dragged out into a series of books, but it’s satisfyingly complete. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room in this universe for more, and Chadwick’s previous two novels show his willingness to follow a character for more than one book, so we can hope for either a sequel or spin-off from the books events. I’ve only noted the main character here, but there are plenty of interesting folks that would merit exploration, notably the fleet intel chief, Cassandra “Red Duchess” Atwater Jones (Royal Navy) on the human side and her alien opposite number, “Speaker for the Enemy”  Vice-Captain Takaar Nuvaash, who is almost as puzzled about the reason for the war as our hero.

Chain of Command is a solid piece of mil-sf writing that pulls from many historical sources and manages to convey a lot of what the Surface Navy is like. Chadwick isn’t prior military (as far as I can tell) but he’s steeped himself in WWII histories and novels and taken excellent notes. Like the destroyer sailors of the Pacific, he shows that it isn’t the steel hulls that make the navy tough, it’s the sailors that crew them.




Artemis by Andrew Weir

artemis by andy weirAndy Weir’s new novel breaks away from the world of his first book, The Martian, and moves forward a bit in time to the first lunar city, Artemis. It also breaks away from professional astronauts like Mark Watney to tell the story of a young and fiercely independent woman, Jazz Bashara, who has a talent for trouble, a mild disregard for rules, and a past she’s unable to come to terms with. She’s a glorified delivery person in the main, a smuggler on the side, and she’s living in a locker on the poor side of town to save money for her plan. The author doesn’t tell you what that plan is until the end of the book, which is a pity, as I’d have liked her better at the start if we’d had a clue. So, there you are, a clue.

We meet Jazz during a stroll on the lunar surface gone wrong. She’s trying to qualify for entry to the EVA Guild, which would pay well and give her more options for her side business, but a cracked suit valve turns up the excitement and spoils her exam. Following that, she makes a run with some contraband to her favorite customer, Trond, a Norwegian ex-pat tech billionaire, who migrated to the moon to give his crippled daughter a chance at a normal life in the moon’s gravity. Trond has a big deal in the works, but it needs someone to step outside the law to pull off, and Jazz is everyone’s favorite petty criminal, so he taps her for it.

It’s something considerably beyond smuggling, and outside Jazz’s comfort zone. But not so far outside that the offer of a massive payday can’t bend her rules. Now Jazz can add industrial saboteur to her rap sheet, or she could if Artemis has rap sheets, or a real police department. As it is, she just has to deal with Rudy, an ex-RCMP cop who moved to the moon and is the total law enforcement presence. For minor offences, Rudy wings it, but for major offences, it’s a one-way trip back to Earth where your country of origin can deal with you.

Jazz gets deeper and deeper into a dangerous and complicated game as she’s caught between corporate giants vying over the future of Artemis, and a lot of money. Though Jazz likes to operate on her own, there are just too many moving parts, so the story goes from Jazz’s solo adventure to an Ocean’s Eleven sort of caper. I wish it had made the transition sooner. Jazz ultimately comes to understand that she has a role to play in determining the colony’s future and that she stands at a pivotal point in the balance of power.

There are a lot of differences between Jazz Bashara and Mark Watney, but there are some common elements too. They’re both smart people and hard-core survivalists, which is fortunate, because the universe doesn’t care what happens to either of them. What intrigued me most is that they’re both very much alone. Mark has the better part of the human race rooting for him, and Jazz has a few admirers in the wings, but they’re both on their own as far as saving themselves goes, at least until the final round, when they both pull together a team effort. Mark’s alone by accident, but Jazz has cut herself off from her father and everyone around her after making a number of mistakes in relationships, burning her bridges behind her. Jazz sorts it out as the book goes on, but it makes it hard to warm up to her—that, and her hazy disregard for rules.

Jazz thinks she’s smarter than the rules, which is a bad attitude for someone living in a totally artificial environment. The moon is too locked down in rules, cliques, and guilds for Jazz’s taste, so she just ignores the ones she disagrees with, and bends the ones she thinks are too restrictive. She’s OK with bringing in a few restricted flammables like cigarettes and sound-absorbing padding to the moon, but draws the line at things she thinks are really dangerous. She manages this with the help of an Earthside accomplice who she got to know through a pen pal assignment she had in grade school. He wanted to be a rocket scientist, but wound up a cargo master. Once, Jazz would have been happy to be a welder like her father, but things change, and now she’s set her sights on being rich.

Artemis is closer to science fiction than The Martian was. Sure, both are fiction and full of science, and both will appeal to SF readers, but these books are not aimed at that audience. Mark Watney’s log for posterity and Jazz’s snappy interior dialog are full of exposition of the sort that will make regular readers of science fiction roll their eyes. That’s OK, because the real audience for this book seems to be mainstream readers who the author is hoping to lure in by making science accessible. It’s closer to science fiction as a genre than The Martian was because it is both more speculative and brings in bigger themes. In The Martian, the world was the way things are now, with a Mars mission added on. In Artemis, the story is based on a big “what if?” which is characteristic of science fiction. Here, the African nation of Kenya has taken advantage of its equatorial location to be become the center of the space faring world and the power behind the creation of Artemis, which is technically an offshore platform under Kenyan jurisdiction. That premise, and the author’s delving into the economic forces involved, bring Artemis into the fold.

There are plenty of lunar colony novels and short stories to compare Artemis to, some of them even with young female protagonists. Both Robert Heinlein’s “The Menace From Earth” (1957) and Podkayne of Mars (1962-63) both share some of the same elements as Artemis, even if Jazz isn’t exactly a girl scout and Podkayne wasn’t on the moon. Much more recently Ian McDonald’s excellent Luna Novels, Luna: New Moon (2015), and the recently-published sequel Luna: Wolf Moon (2017) give an exquisitely-detailed look at lunar culture and technology. The pivotal matriarch’s story is told in his short story, “The Fifth Dragon,” in which a woman reflects on her early days on the moon and the choices she made. You can read it at Tor’s website ( Lately it’s been mining H3 for fusion reactors in both books like McDonald’s series or movies like Moon. In Artemis, the moon’s most lucrative business seems to be separating rich tourists and immigrants from their cash. The novel’s plot revolves around coming up with a better economic engine, so I won’t spoil it, but it’s surprising that there weren’t more options already.

Artemis falls short of the mark left by The Martian, at least for me, though in some ways it’s a more ambitious work. It’s possible that Weir is targeting young women with this mix of rebellion and science, and that the book will interest them in doing science and reading more stories like this. That would be great, but Artemis is unlikely to get on any established science fiction reader’s best-of-the-year list.