Gareth L Powell is a British writer I’d not come across before. But the usual rule applies: Stars and Bones was a 99p special, so I bought it.
This struck me as a space opera out of the Scalzi school, which means there’s a universe of FTL travel, a certain amount of fighting and peril, all leavened by snark and wit from down-to-earth characters. Earth was on the brink of nuclear destruction but humanity was saved from itself by a god-like race who can manipulate matter and time. Exiled from Earth, humanity now lives in a vast fleet of ark ships, forbidden from interfering with planetary life ever again.
A scout ship encounters a different kind of alien and things start going badly wrong. It’s left to a second scout ship and its AI and chief navigator to try to rescue the situation.
I found this enjoyable enough. It rocks along, easy to read, not quite at Scalzi levels of entertainment, but all right if you like this sort of thing.
I tried not to dwell too much on pernickety plot details. A Kim Stanley Robinson version of this would go into great detail on the ships’ systems and internal ecologies (as in Aurora); an Adrian Tchaikovsky version would spend hundreds more pages on the alien intelligence. But that would be to detract from the page-turning space adventure this wants to be, with action from the first page to the last. As to why a human civilisation banned from settling on planets would bother with scout ships; or why there would be a security apparatus with authority to threaten dire consequences against a non-cooperative captain is never explained. Some of the characters here are just sketches and some of the viewpoint narrators do a chapter or two and then disappear, which was slightly unsatisfying.
While this tells a story which comes to a conclusion, there is at least one other book in the series (Descendant Machine), though the author’s home page says you can read the books in any order.
There seems to have been a rash of science fiction books featuring octopuses just lately, with at least one nominated for a Nebula (The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler). Not sure I can see the appeal, myself.
I could just about cope with the uplifted spiders in Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky‘s far future space opera about the scattered remnants of humanity and what became of them. But I waited a long time before getting around to the second in the series, Children of Ruin.
And now the uplifted spiders and their Human friends are exploring the galaxy and come across a system where humans tried to settle and failed, leaving a chaotic legacy behind in the form of uplifted octopuses and… something else.
And it’s at this point that I check out of the series and lose interest. It might not have been so bad, but this book is so very, very long (576 print pages) and quite honestly, there just is not 576 pages worth of plot. So it gets very repetitive and becomes a massive drag. It takes a good couple of hundred pages to set everything up, but by this time I was bored with it.
I read it to the end out of sheer stubbornness, since I’d read so far that to turn back would have been as tedious as going on. But by the end I was completely disenchanted with this series, and I’ll skip the last one (Children of Memory), even though it comes in at a mere 496 pages.
I wouldn’t mind the length if it was packed full of plot and I cared about the protagonists, but somehow the vast scale (in both space and time) of this is just off-putting, and neither the spiders nor the octopuses are particularly interesting to me.
Here we are again, then, another monster KSR book, one that was published in October 2020, so perhaps got lost in the middle of the pandemic, or the beginning of the middle of the pandemic, or whatever that month in that year turns out to be. I’ve written before about how I sometimes skip a KSR (especially if there’s a date in the title), because they can be hard going. But when they’re good (like Aurora was good), they’re very good; more than just good: important, essential reading.
But how on earth do you persuade people to read a 564 page speculative fiction novel?
ONE OF BARACK OBAMA’S FAVOURITE BOOKS OF THE YEAR trumpets the cover, which made me think.
There we were, in October 2020, towards the end of the (first?) Trump shitshow, dealing with various levels of success with the pandemic, and here comes the President-from-before, the mostly sane one, the one who represents some version of humanist values and normality—or might have done, if the colour of his skin hadn’t driven half of America insane—here he comes, offering us this book recommendation.
And I’m thinking, did Obama really read this book?All the way through? Because I’m sceptical of his lists, his summer music list, his reading lists. Seem very much to have been pulled together by his staff. In 2020, there they were, the shadow government, suggesting some KSR might be good for us.
So with these doubts ringing in my mind, let’s deal with the usual KSR problems.
First of all, there’s too much of it. 564 pages! It is a lot, especially as it’s (problem #2) not really a novel, but a kind of Menippean satire. Yes, I know this is something of a hobby horse of mine, but consider: there is no narrative plot. There are a series of chapters, with a variety of narrators, and each narrator presents a little slice of experience, or philosophy, or just a viewpoint, or they just narrate an event happening somewhere, or a series of events, or a long list, sometimes, of organisations or projects. So it’s a Menippean satire, all right, but (problem #3) while there are lots of narrators, there is only one narrative voice, one style, which is the style of Kim Stanley Robinson. He gets under your skin with it. It’s easy to read, it has rhythm, it is distinctive, but there is no sense that, say, the two podcasters, or the scientist in Antarctica or the Syrian refugee are distinctively different.
All of that aside, this is brilliant. This is like Aurora, with the same message: this earth, this home, is all we have. Stop fucking it up.
What if, KSR asks, we conferred citizenship and human rights on generations as yet unborn? What if animals were treated as people, with rights? What if the biosphere itself was given rights? Legal standing, protected and promoted by an institution designed to think further into the future, longer-term, immune from the short termism of politicians, bankers, shareholders, corporations, billionaires?
Ironically, the very same people who scream the loudest about the rights of the unborn child are the ones who would resist to the maximum degree any notion of conferring human rights on children as yet unborn. This, really, is all you need to know about the hateful, evil, irrationality of right wing politics.
And that is what I love the most about this book. It’s not just that KSR delivers a million brilliant ways to save the planet (and ourselves), but he also presents the most robust solution to the problem of greedy billionaires, rentiers, capitalists: just kill them. It’s the only way to be sure. Terrorism directed not against crowds of innocent people, but directed at the guilty, the selfish, the evil. One of my favourite passages concerns the ways in which some billionaires are dealt with by offering them fifty million dollars to walk away. Fifty million to walk away, or live in hiding, in fear, harassed, threatened, possibly killed. TAKE THE DEAL. Nobody needs fifty million dollars. Nobody needs more than that.
So the Ministry for the Future, the UN organisation based in Zurich that is set up at the beginning of the novel, has—maybe—a black ops team, who go around creating the right kind of havoc, putting the right kind of pressure on the kind of people who think they are safe, protected by their money.
One interesting idea in here is that if all money was blockchained, it could all be traced. There would be no way of hiding it; that to hide it would be to invalidate it. So with a blockchained “carbon coin” as the world currency, there would be no more tax havens, no more avoidance, nowhere to hide.
So many ideas in here, it’s like a recipe book for dealing with the crisis. And a critique of some of the more pie in the sky ideas that get bandied about. KSR crunches the numbers to demonstrate the absurdity of some ideas. Important, because one of the ways the narcissistic rentiers maintain their position is by feeding people false hope. So, for example, the idea of pumping excess sea water back on to the landmass of Antarctica, so that it refreezes and reduces the sea level again? KSR crunches the numbers on that: the energy requirements, the costs, what happens at the end of the pipe where the water freezes, and so on. But he also offers something else: something smaller scale, like pumping water from beneath glaciers to slow them down. Or dyeing the sea yellow so it doesn’t absorb heat. Or, and I keep coming back to this, my favourite idea of them all, just killing the bastards. There aren’t that many of them. These billionaires and their bodyguards! What if the bodyguards just melted away and were replaced by… some other people?
The Götterdämmerung Syndrome, as with most violent pathologies, is more often seen in men than women. It is often interpreted as an example of narcissistic rage. Those who feel it are usually privileged and entitled, and they become extremely angry with their privileges and sense of entitlement of being taken away. If then their choice gets reduced to admitting they are in error or destroying the world, a reduction they often feel to be the case, the obvious choice for them is to destroy the world; for they cannot admit they have ever erred.
This book, then, represents an accumulation of sometimes brilliant ideas, but also an acknowledgment that the vested interests will always resist change. A refreshingly robust response here: just kill them. If they won’t change, they need to be killed.
Send a message!
And it is all about how much value and weight we give to the future generations. KSR discusses the “discount rate”, which is how much value we mentally deduct from people in the future. It’s like the old one marshmallow now, two marshmallows later experiment. If we are worth 100 to ourselves now, then what are they worth compared to us? 90? 80? 50? So then, if you adjust the discount rate, and you start acknowledging the true cost of, say, burning oil instead of leaving it in the ground, then you change your way of thinking. We already apply the discount rate: in insurance, in government, in healthcare. A government looks at the cost of a project now, say £10 million, and sees it only pays back £5 million in the future because of the discount on the future. So that project is cancelled. Cycle schemes, looking after waterways, land management etc.
Although there are lots of narrators here, there are two main anchor characters. Mary, the Irish head of the Ministry, who is your classic Menippean protagonist. Her role is to have a series of conversations with people. And then there’s Frank, who opens the novel. He’s an aid worker who gets caught up in a catastrophic Indian heat wave that kills 20 million people. He is the sole survivor of the village where he works, probably because he had better basic physical health than the rest of the village. And he is of course horribly traumatised and spends the rest of his life trying to deal with the consequences. And his basic philosophy is, to Mary, to governments everywhere: whatever you are doing to mitigate the climate disaster, it is not enough.
And that’s the position we should all be in. It’s not enough. Say it to every official, politician, corporation, billionaire, celebrity flying a private jet: whatever you are doing is not nearly enough. Do more.
Frank seems like the other Frank, the one in KSR’s Science in the City trilogy (which starts with Forty Signs of Rain), but it’s not the same Frank. Except when Frank dies it feels like the other Frank has died too. It’s weird. KSR must have chosen the name deliberately, knowing it would have that effect. And Frank is also like Fred, who is the hapless tag-along in Red Moon, just to add to the confusion. What’s the message? Just that the trauma doesn’t go away, that the consequences of bad decisions last a long time, and that there are no easy fixes.
Did Barack Obama read this? I don’t think so. Because I don’t think any politician with half a soul could read this and then not talk about nothing else for the rest of his or her political life.
I kept having to pause in my reading of this sequel to A Memory Called Empire because I found it a bit of a drag. I paused three different times, and read three PD James mystery novels as a kind of palate cleansing sorbet course between the heavy stodge of this tale of galactic empire.
I enjoyed A Memory Called Empire, though disputed its classification as space opera, since it was set on a planet. The sequel is, ironically, more of a space opera, since much of the ‘action’ takes place on the flagship of the empire’s fleet. It’s also a first contact story, or wants to be, as the alien threat identified at the end of the previous novel comes front and centre here.
I used scare quotes around the word ‘action’ above, because one thing this isn’t is action-packed. There are so many scenes of people in rooms talking that this is almost a Menippean satire, but there is a plot, and the story does slowly progress and eventually reach a kind of conclusion.
The title comes from Tacitus, from Agricola, and it’s a quote attributed to the Caledonian (Scottish) chieftan Calgacus: “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire, and where they make a desert, they call it peace“. Or, in the translation by William Peterson clearly favoured by Martine: “To plunder, butcher, steal, these things they misname empire: they make a desolation and they call it peace.” And onwards from Tacitus to Byron:
Mark where his carnage and his conquests cease! He makes a solitude, and calls it — peace.
Bride of Abydos (1813)
You get the picture. In her day job, Martine is an historian of the Byzantine Empire, and like a lot of these science fiction far-future galactic empire stories, you really get a sense that this empire is very much based on that. And here’s where my problems begin. As I said recently, when I was getting into science fiction as a teenager, I very much preferred Arthur C Clarke to Isaac Asimov. I couldn’t get past the first few pages of Foundation, but I avidly consumed everything Clarke wrote, and then moved on to Larry Niven’s Known Space series. And the key difference between something like Known Space and Foundation/Empire is this idea of empire. In Niven, you very much get the idea that alien races compete and collaborate without there being any centralised controlling power. There’s much more of a sense that the future is capitalist, which is the same sense you get from movies like Alien and Blade Runner. It may be dystopian, but it’s far more convincing to me than the idea that the Roman/Byzantine/Chinese/British empirical model might succeed across multiple solar systems.
By this time, I’m very much lost in the weeds of why an Empire, what’s the metaphor? And I’ve completely lost interest in the detail of the novel and its characters. I’ve stopped caring, and instead I’m comparing. Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch, Asimov’s Empire, Simmons’ Hyperion (maybe?), whatever crap is happening in Dune, Le Guin’s Ekumen… And that terrible Disney franchise I won’t dignify with a name.
So what is the metaphor? Are we interested in how Empires fall? Is this the itch that keeps being scratched? That the centre cannot hold? Or that the factions within the empire (between the military and administration, for example, as in Byzantium/Martine) cause it to fall apart from within? Or, rather, is the metaphor about cultural hegemony and its threat to diversity? In Martine’s case, it seems she might be arguing that the empire itself might be saved by those non-conformists who manage to survive within it, notwithstanding its oppressive attitude to difference. Only diversity can save us? But why do we want an empire to be saved in the first place?
In the end, I just grew tired of the whole thing; hence the breaks for PD James sorbets. All the things that charmed me in the first novel were disenchanting in the second. It turns out, there’s still a 14 year old inside me who finds stories of galactic empires boring.
I was lukewarm on For All Mankind (TV+) a couple of years ago when I first dipped in. Since then, I ought to have said by now, it has quietly won me over. The soapy aspects of it, the interpersonal relationships, the slightly ridiculous accumulation of situations, don’t work well at all, but the plot-driven part of the show does. We’re in an alternate time-line, one in which Russia got a man on the moon first, and because of this the Apollo programme doesn’t get cancelled early, and personed space exploration continues into the 80s, 90s, and beyond.
By Season 3 (which has reached episode 8 at the time of writing), we have reached Mars, and there are three competing missions: the Russians (still a communist régime, cast as not as good as the Americans, but willing to spy, blackmail and steal); NASA; and a third party, private organisation that boldly repurposes a failed orbital space station/hotel into a ship.
The show skips over much of the research and development, so we don’t see the years of experiments and iteration, just the end results (and the end results of the Russians’ spying). That’s fine, and it keeps the budget within its limits. And the money spent on the show is clear in the excellent special effects: it’s all there on the screen. Where you can see they didn’t spend money is also there on the screen: in the badly aged faces of the cast, who by Season 3 are supposedly 20+ years into their careers as astronauts and ground crew. Also, for some reason, terrible hair: like the hair you might see in a 70s TV movie.
It’s a really odd mixture. On the one hand, really quite awful Rich Man, Poor Man style soap opera storytelling about the people and their travails, complete with hair and makeup from the Rich Man, Poor Man era. On the other hand, gripping space opera with plot beats that manage to leave every episode on a proper cliffhanger.
In terms of the soap opera, in case you don’t believe me, here are some plot points:
An astronaut goes blind!
An estranged married couple of astronauts save everyone by making spacesuits out of masking tape and die in each others’ arms!
An astronaut’s wife sleeps with another astronaut’s son!
The President is a former astronaut!
And a woman!
And a lesbian!
In the closet!
Married to a gay man!
Also in the closet!
Who has an affair with an aide!
It’s kinda ridiculous. But as I was watching the eight episode a penny dropped for me and I realised why I still like it, notwithstanding the ridiculousness.
When I was growing up, there were (to my mind) two giants of science fiction. One of them wrote far future, galaxy-spanning stories of galactic empires and FTL travel; the other wrote near-future, realistic, hard-science stories set in our solar system. One of them was Isaac Asimov; the other was Arthur C Clarke.
Now. We’ve recently seen Asimov’s Foundation made for TV, and it was okay. I couldn’t read the books, which were terrible, so I finally got to see what it was all about. And if you read much science fiction, you know that these kind of far future galaxy spanning epics are very fashionable, thanks, probably, to the many various Stars, Trek and Wars. They run alongside the supremely fashionable fantasy genre, and are really closer to it than to the more realistic hard science stuff. But the latter is still out there. I suppose The Expanse owes more to Arthur C Clarke than Isaac Asimov, and the success of Andy Weir’s material shows that it’s still the basis of popular fiction.
But, aside from 2001 and its sequels, not much has been done with the Arthur C Clarke catalogue. Partly, that’s because he wasn’t very good at people, so his characters tend to be a bit one- or two-dimensional. Which brings us to For All Mankind, which is so much like classic Clarke that it can’t be a coincidence. For example, one of his early novels, A Fall of Moondust, is about a small transport that gets buried in a landslip (on the Moon, natch), and an against-the-clock rescue mission is required. Check: episode 8 of For All Mankind features a small transport buried in a landslip (but on Mars, okay) and an against-the-clock rescue mission is required.
The Episode is called, The Sands of Ares. Huh. Because another Clarke classic is called The Sands of Mars, and it features a spaceship called… Ares.
So, more than a nod to Clarke, then, which is not to mention the ring-shaped space station, which is straight out of his playbook. And look no further than Arthur C Clarke for the terrible soap opera character arcs. A protagonist befriends a younger man and tells him the story of his long lost love. The younger man turns out to be… his long lost son! And so on.
Anyway, it’s good, and it’s bad, but it’s good, so that’s okay.
The first in a trilogy: now, there’s a phrase to make the heart sink.
On the one hand, this is a straightforward piece of hard science fiction about the development of FTL travel, set in an intriguing future in which England and Scotland are in an (even more) uneasy relationship, as part of separate polities. One of them is clearly based on the European Union; the other a kind of bastard coalition of the US and client countries. There’s a third polity, something to do with Russia, don’t mention the war.
As the first in a trilogy, this is not a book in a hurry to unfold its secrets, so the reader is confronted with a narrative split into several different strands. One strand follows a mathematician-scientist who gets a letter from her future self; another follows a ship building cooperative in Scotland; another seems to be on a lightyears-distant planet where scientists and colonist-squatters have an uneasy relationship with the local rocks; and then there’s an orbiting science station exploring Venus.
Needless to say, these threads will pull together, as the reader trusts when setting out. It’s not a bad read: quite entertaining, though it does take the reader a while to follow the various threads because there are so many of them. I like Ken MacLeod’s style, though I’ve not read much of his stuff. To be honest, there’s a whole confusion of Scottish-named science fiction writers and it’s not easy to keep track. This seems to be becoming a theme. Ian McDonald, Ian R MacLeod, Ken MacLeod: I’m not joking. It’s really hard to keep track of who writes what. Anyway, I’ve read some of Ken MacLeod’s short fiction, I think, and I’ve read Learning the World, and possibly Cosmonaut Keep, though don’t quote me.
Quite entertaining, but you know what I’m about to say: it doesn’t have a proper ending. And the question is, if this wasn’t 99p would I have tried it? And if the sequel comes along and it’s £8.99 or more, would I be desperate to read it? And the answer, I think, to both of those questions, is no.
I read the inside flap only after I’d read the whole book and I was frankly nonplussed by the amount of plot the blurb gave away. I mean, it’s under 260 pages, so to give away anything is too much. I read it from a position of almost complete ignorance. So if you too know nothing about this book, just read it first. I promise you’ll enjoy it more that way.
All I knew about this was the following: John Scalzi is a good writer, who has a light, breezy style that can be very funny and is hard to replicate. Scalzi takes a hard thing and makes it look easy. I didn’t even know what a kaiju was, and my only clue was the dinosaur-like silhouette on the cover*.
258 pages, and yet the cover price for the hardback is £17. We’ve been here before, with the alarmingly slim Silverview by John Le Carré. £17 is a lot of money for something this slim. I did not pay this amount: in fact, someone loaned me their copy. I would not pay this amount, even though this is very entertaining.
The friend who loaned me this copy recommended I read the Author’s Note at the end, first, which I did. Scalzi is very entertaining on how this book came to be and how the book he was supposed to be writing didn’t.
Jaimie Gray works in marketing for a food delivery company. He goes in for his six month performance review, full of ideas about how to make more money for the company and is promptly fired. This is the realistic frame story to this book: there’s a pandemic, and precarious work is about to get even more precarious. Pointless office jobs are going to be revealed as truly superfluous to society’s needs. For Jaimie, the gig economy beckons.
I don’t want to say more because it truly was a joy to read this knowing nothing about it. There’s a lot to be said for the complete media blackout. This is a quick read, a fun read, and you can’t help thinking that it would also make great telly. It’s full of cultural references (films, games, other books) that went right over my head, but I didn’t care.
*I really didn’t! I’ve never seen any of those films, never even been remotely interested. None of which matters at all.
This was an enjoyable and quick read, although I’d struggle to make a case for it being anything other than that. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen before in terms of science fiction tropes. It’s the Three Cs: a clone, a colony, a first contact. I’ve read better and more elegiac first contact stories; I’ve read better landfall and settlement stories; and there are clones galore in the science fiction canon. Most recently, this reminded me of Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes, in which a crew of clones wake up on a space ship and have to work out who killed them.
In this case, Mickey is the seventh iteration of a clone whose function is to be the Expendable (in Star Trek terms, a red shirt), who gets to do all the dangerous mission-saving jobs, and is then rebirthed minus the memories he has made since his last backup. The novel begins with Mickey7 in a deep hole and in deep trouble on an icy planet that barely supports human life. All the colonists are on short rations, and their ability to make clones and backups is limited to just the one. Every time he dies, a new Mickey is decanted: he’s already died six different times.
That’s the set-up, and it is, as I said, an enjoyable read. It’s the kind of old-fashioned science fiction that doesn’t make you do too much work, for which I was grateful. It doesn’t start with pages of italics, and the tropes are so familiar that the novel doesn’t waste time on exposition. There is a bit of non-linearity as Mickey7 goes back over his memories, such as they are, gradually filling in the picture of both the stakes and the reason why he’s not popular. The neat trick Ashton pulls is making the first person narrator a bit irritating; and you get the strong feeling that Mickey7 finds himself irritating too.
A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré
I dropped into Mickey7 after struggling with this early (1968) Le Carré for several weeks. His fifth novel, this one is the first not to feature Smiley. Set in Bonn, which was West Germany’s cold war capital, this is a story of apparent defection and betrayal, investigated by a fairly unsympathetic FO official called Alan Turner. A “temporary” diplomat, an anglicised German, has disappeared with a lot of files. Turner needs to establish whether he was a communist, how much damaging material he has removed — and try not to frighten the horses. Which he immediately does, of course.
In the background are the 1968 student and anti-Vietnam protests, and the feeling that certain German politicians were sliding the country back to fascism — for exactly the same reason as the first time: the national humiliation of a defeat and occupation.
I’m old enough to remember 70s Germany and the Red Army Faction which had its origin in the tumult of 1968, but most of that is in the future of this novel, which is very much focused on a Bonn which never quite comes to life on the page. There are protests and riots, getting closer, but you never really gain a strong sense of the atmosphere of the town or the time. The hunt for the defector is well handled, with each interviewee revealing more and more damaging information until the picture slots into place, like one of those moving tiles puzzles.
But this is not Le Carré at his best; it’s a kind of lacklustre version of a Harry Palmer novel. For the completists only.
This is the first in a new space opera series by the prolific and reliable Adrian Tchaikovsky. It had a day at 99p, so here we are. It manages to both reach back into the past of the sub genre and acknowledge more recent developments. On the one hand, we have the technological sublime, galactic empires, and truly alien aliens; on the other, we have a plucky crew of misfits from different species whose main loyalty is to themselves.
The Architects are the main mystery here, the villain of the piece (or are they), an alien force which turns inhabited planets inside out for no apparent reason; an inexorable force that doesn’t even seem to notice the puny humans (and others) who try to stop them. Until they are stopped, it seems, by modified humans known as Intermediaries, who somehow penetrate the consciousness of the moon-sized vessels and turn them aside.
Faster-than-light travel is possible through (*waves hands*) “un-space” routes created by an ancient and vanished civilisation, but trained Intermediaries are also able to navigate unspace in the wild, using a kind of extra sense. Intermediaries are all damaged by the process of creating them, all in different ways, and the member of this ship’s particular crew has neither aged nor slept since turning an Architect away at the end of the recent war. Through a legal loophole, he is a free agent, and does his best not to draw attention to himself: a vain hope.
The maguffin here is a set of ancient relics which might be important in dealing with the Architects if they ever come back. The complications come in the form of clashing political factions, another alien empire, and a set of gangsters with symbiotic thugs who are more or less impossible to kill. If you were so inclined, you might see the distracting nativist politics in the face of an existential threat as a kind of snarky metaphor for… something.
This is a rollicking, pacy entertainment, with lots of space battles and close-up action, and a central crew who are not quite as touchy-feely as those in other recent popular space operas. I found it enjoyable, though there were perhaps one or two too many fight scenes. A second in the trilogy, Eyes of the Void, is on its way in April 2022.
I’ve mentioned Murderbot in passing before, but hadn’t got around to reviewing them. I think because I have mixed feelings. The books themselves are fine, really engaging and fun to read, but there’s a bit of a bad taste left by the price you have to pay. I recently complained in similar terms about the (final) Le Carré “novel”, Silverview, which the publishers wanted £20 for in hardback, but which was very, very short.
All Systems Red, the first in the series, is priced at a very reasonable £1.99, which is more or less what you’d expect to pay for something that comes in at 156 print pages. Anything up to a fiver, maybe: fine.
Artificial Condition, the second episode, runs to about 149 print pages, but for this the (Kindle) price is £6.50, to which the only reasonable response is ouch. So, if we’re keeping tabs, we’ve paid £8.49 for a novel of around 300 pages. Still reasonable, if you look at it that way.
I just finished the third episode, Rogue Protocol; another £6.50 for another 150 print pages; so now I’ve paid £14.99 for 450 pages. If I were paying this for a hardback book, then okay. But this is for the e-book, which carries minimal distribution/production costs. If you had gone for print editions, by the way, you’d be looking at the best part of thirty quid for a an average length novel with three parts.
It all seems a bit much. And I know it’s wrong to price things by the metre, as it were (never mind the width, feel the quality etc.), but I can’t help feeling ripped off. I mean, I’m paying £8 a month for Disney+ and I just watched nearly eight hours worth of Beatles, which was pure joy. These slim volumes are such an easy read, you get through them in a couple of hours.
All of which is me reviewing the price and not the actual contents. The point being, and I’m sorry to Martha Wells and everything, but if the publishers don’t want people to review the price, don’t rip them off.
The entertaining premise of these stories is that Murderbot is a part-organic security cyborg who has somehow overridden its governor module, so it is free to act independently and doesn’t have to obey humans. It calls itself murderbot because it always seems to end up in situations where it kills a lot of humans. Its physical capabilities are such that it is hard to stop; and being as much software as hardware, it can out-think most humans too. The kicker is that what it really wants to do is download soap operas. The personality (in the form of the first-person narrator) comes across as a somewhat neurodivergent human, an extreme introvert perhaps, who wants to avoid human interaction as much as possible and blend into the background.
Murderbot is able to hack into most computers, so it can interact with other artificial intelligences in order to make its way around between star systems. The beauty of the world building is that the reader slowly learns about this particular fictional universe without ever feeling like exposition has been dumped wholesale. While the murderbot wants to watch its stories, it inevitably finds itself drawn into situations as it investigates the company it thinks is responsible for several deadly incidents, and also reluctantly takes on allies and even clients.
There are six “books” in total. I called them episodes above because they feel more like episodes of a television series, much like those the murderbot loves to watch. And much like the murderbot, I would rather read these than get on with my work. Each instalment feels just like that: there’s no resolution to the overall narrative arc, so you need to read the next one to see how it continues.
But: Exit Strategy (£6.50, 153 pages); Network Effect (£6.50, 348 pages); Fugitive Telemetry (£7.01, 172 pages). Another £20 for admittedly a more generous 673 pages. Call it two further parts of a trilogy for £10 each, fine. Again, if I was buying a physical book with a physical cover that would sit on a physical shelf, £10 is all right. But this is what they want for the Kindle editions, so it’s taking the piss. Also, it would be misleading to consider it a series of six. The first four volumes (a 600-page novel, basically) reach a conclusion. Network Effect is a standalone novel; and Fugitive Telemetry fits somewhere in between.
I’ll inevitably cave and buy them, but I can hear the publisher laughing in the distance. “It’s almost pure profit!”