Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Review: Obelisk

Title: Obelisk
Author: Stephen Baxter
Pages: 309
ISBN: 9781473212763
Publisher: Gollancz
Published: August 2016
Genre: Science fiction / Short stories
Source: Review copy from publisher

Buy it from:
The Book Depository

A remarkable collection of short stories and novellas from one of our greatest SF authors.

This collection contains stories set in the worlds of the bestselling duology Ultima and Proxima, which expand on the characters and worlds of that series, including two brand new short stories. There are also a selection of alternate histories and possible futures, building on Baxter's work with Terry Pratchett on the Long Earth series.

Stephen Baxter is one of those authors I turn to when I want to explore fascinating ideas with just the right touch of hard science fiction mixed in.  Obelisk,  his latest collection of short stories contains 17 stories two of which are previously unpublished works. The collection is divided into four sections, each section deals with a different theme tying the stories together.

The first section PROXIMA-ULTIMA contains four stories set in the universe of the Proxima and Ultima duology and expands on the characters and events of the novels.  Two stories stood out here:
On Chryse Plain: Two worlds collide. After an accident Earthers and Martians are forced to band together in order to survive in an unforgiving environment. ★★★
Obelisk: A disgraced pilot returns to Mars after a tragic accident claims the lives of his passenger; he finds a new purpose to build a legacy, but it comes at a cost. A huge emotional gut-punch at the end, with a beautiful description of the journey to Mars:
"... he passively allowed Mars to swim out of the darkness before him. In the light of the distant sun, it struck him from afar as a malformed, lopsided, murky world, oddly unfinished, like a piece of pottery made by an inadequate student." ★★★★

OTHER YESTERDAYS deals with a selection of alternate-history stories. While I enjoyed most of them it's only the last three stories in the section that really captivated me.
Darwin Anathema: Darwin is put on trail posthumously for his heretical work on the Origin of Species in a world governed by an anti-intellectual church system. Deals brilliantly with the conflict between religion and science. ★★★★
Mars Abides: A haunting tale about the first human expedition to Mars which takes an unexpected melancholy turn. This is perhaps my favourite story in the collection with an excellent plot and interesting characters.  ★★★★★
Eagle Song: An alien beacon observed throughout the ages sets humanity on a desperate course. I loved how this story plays with the progression of time and progress in knowledge while the previous generation's beliefs became part of the mythology connected to the beacon. The sad, thought-provoking ending hits hard. ★★★★

OTHER TODAYS covers stories set in the present day.
The Pevatron Rats: A strange but interesting concept lies at the core of this remarkable tale about time-traveling rats and the dire consequences it holds for the world. ★★★★
The Invasion of Venus: Humanity has to reevaluate its position in the universe when alien forces clash. ★★★

The last section, OTHER TOMORROWS, deals with visions of the future and it is here where Baxter truly shines. I enjoyed all the stories in this section.
Turing's Apples: A signal form an alien civilization changes the lives of two brothers irrevocably. I particularly enjoyed the juxtaposition in personality between the two brothers and how the story, while dealing with vast timescales manages to highlight the importance of living in the moment. ★★★★
Artefacts: This is a strange and complex tale dealing with the nature of reality and sentience. It forces you to contemplate the big questions. Why are we here? What is it all for? Why is the universe like it is? I'm not sure I've quite managed to understand it completely yet. ★★★
Vacuum Lad: A superhero story of sorts. Fun, with an interesting reveal towards the end. ★★★
Rock day: A haunting cautionary tale about human folly. This one is bound to stir up your emotions. ★★★★
Star Call: Another story that deals with long timescales. A boy gets an unusual gift from his father - the opportunity to communicate with a ship AI as it travels to Alpha Centauri. The progression of time is used to excellent effect. The story takes a sad turn, but at least the ending is hopeful (as hopeful as most of the stories in the collection gets). The AI crawls into your heart and you can't help but empathise with her plight. ★★★★★

The Verdict:
Stephen Baxter's Obelisk is a solid collection of some stellar short fiction. The stories collected here are compelling, often bleak and extremely thought-provoking fare. They highlight possible futures where humanity has to deal with the consequences of climate change, changing political landscapes and severe shifts in belief systems. These stories will linger long after being read; the ideas at their core demand deeper contemplation and introspection - a sure sign of good science fiction at work. While not all the stories appealed to me there are some true gems in this collection. Definitely well worth a read!

The Rating: 7.5/10 (Very good)

Thanks to Charlene from Jonathan Ball Publishers for the review copy.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Cover Conundrum 2017

Who says procrastination is a bad thing? In an attempt to avoid struggling to write a review for the annual Sci Fi Month festivities I've devised a devious little challenge instead. (Yes, I dusted of the 2016 challenge. Twice totally makes it a tradition right?).

Can you identify these science fiction novels based on their covers? Well, tiny parts of them at least...

If you can feel free to leave your guesses in the comments, or share them on Twitter. Good luck, this year I opted for some easy ones!








The answers are:
1. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
2. Dune by Frank Herbert
3. Hyperion by Dan Simmons
4. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
5. Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Reviewed here)
6. The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley (Reviewed here)