Review: “A Canticle For Liebowitz” By Walter M. Miller Jr (Novel)

Well, since I was still in the mood for sci-fi, I thought that I’d take a look at a rather interesting dystopian novel from 1959 called “A Canticle For Liebowitz” By Walter M. Miller Jr. I first heard about this novel after watching this fascinating “Extra Sci-fi” video about it (SPOILERS) on Youtube and was intrigued enough to track down a second-hand copy of it a couple of days later.

So, let’s take a look at “A Canticle For Liebowitz”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1984 Black Swan (UK) paperback edition of “A Canticle For Liebowitz” that I read.

“A Canticle For Liebowitz” is a three-part novel, following life in a remote American desert monastery during three different time periods following a devastating nuclear war during the 1960s. The novel begins with a young novice called Francis performing a Lenten vigil in the desert, when he is greeted by a mysterious old pilgrim.

Whilst the two don’t get along very well at first, the old pilgrim finds him a stone for his improvised shelter – which happens to be the capstone of a fallout shelter containing some of the pre-apocalyptic “memorabilia” that the monastery strives to copy, hide and preserve in the violently anti-intellectual climate following the war. Of course, there are questions and doubts about the authenticity of these relics…

The second part of the novel takes place centuries later in a renaissance-like period of history, where America is split into several kingdoms (who are on the brink of war) and it focuses on a brilliant – but arrogant- scholar and scientist called Thon Thaddeo who reluctantly travels to the monastery after they refuse to send their “memorabilia” to him. Whilst there, he discovers that one of the monks has managed to build some primitive electrical technology and also ends up arguing with the abbot about matters of religion and science.

The third part of the novel is set in a more conventional science fiction future, with spaceships, voice-controlled computers etc… The monastery is still standing and now also carries out scientific research too. Yet, political tensions between east and west are gradually building in the background after a series of illegal nuclear tests. Will humanity once again repeat the mistakes of its past?

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a well-written, intelligent and creative sci-fi novel that not only rightly deserves its status as an influential classic of the genre, but is also surprisingly timeless too. However, it is also an even more slow-paced novel than I’d initially expected. So, be sure to set aside some time if you want to read it. It’s worth the time, but don’t expect it to be “easy reading” in any sense of the term.

In terms of the novel’s science fiction elements, they’re really creative πŸ™‚ For the most part, this is a literal science fiction novel – in other words, a novel about science itself. By focusing on humanity gradually rediscovering all of their lost scientific knowledge, this novel is not only able to capture the thrill and awe that this knowledge first evoked (seriously, the scene with the arc lamp is epic!), but also the fear that it evoked too.

One of the novel’s many running themes is that of scientific hubris, often shown in the novel’s many conflicts between scientific progress and religious tradition. Yet, in a brilliantly creative twist, the monks are responsible for preserving and interpreting the knowledge – yet find themselves worried when the secular scholars they have been preserving it for finally reach the level of intelligence needed to understand it.

This is also one of the earliest post-apocalyptic novels and it includes many tropes that would later become mainstays of the genre – such as violent bands of survivors, the ruins of civilisation and widespread genetic mutations. Interestingly, whilst the novel does include a few other dystopian features (eg: the harsh desert, the harshness of the monastery etc…), the most chillingly dystopian element of this novel is probably its main theme of cyclical history – of civilisation destroying and rebuilding itself over and over again. Although this is shown through large-scale events, it is also hinted at through a recurring character in all three segments of the story, similar tragic endings for all three parts and occasional references to characters from previous parts of the story.

It is also one of the few novels – the only other one I can think of is James Herbert’s “Domain” – that really shows the bleakness, horrors and consequences of nuclear war. Given that this novel was written during the early-middle part of the cold war, and just three years before the Cuban missile crisis, I’m guessing that it would have been even more chillingly topical back then. Even so, the novel is still one of the most powerful and harrowing anti-nuclear novels that you’ll read (it isn’t quite as bleak as an old TV show like “Threads“, but it certainly comes close at times).

This is also a novel about history too, with most of the novel’s backstory being deliberately vague, unreliable or ambiguous. Not only does this add a lot to the post-apocalyptic atmosphere, but it also helps to emphasise how far humanity has fallen when the only remnants of the past are things like incomprehensible document fragments, wildly exaggerated mythology, rumours and local folklore. It also shows how history is distorted, forgotten and/or re-interpreted over time too – such as when a drunken character’s glass eye becomes a revered relic several hundred years later or how the story of Francis’ unceremonious meeting with the pilgrim quickly morphs into a novel-sized tome, thanks to embellished re-tellings and speculation.

Another cool thing about this novel is how it manages to be both a large-scale and a small-scale drama at the same time. By focusing on life in the monastery during various time periods, the novel achieves a “close-up” level of intensity and humanity that really makes you care about all of the large-scale stuff that is relayed to the reader in a few short scenes, extracts from letters, dialogue segments etc… This blending of small and large-scale drama works really well and helps to add a lot of realism to the story.

Another main theme of this novel is religion. Although I’m guessing that you’ll probably get more out of this novel if you are a Christian (especially if you are Catholic), the novel uses religion not only to add atmosphere to the story but also to ask questions about humanity, science etc.. and to debate various topics. The novel’s presentation of religion is fairly nuanced with, for example, some of the monks’ questions and thoughts seeming valid and others seeming either dogmatic or cruel (such as Abbot Zerchi’s objections to euthanasia during one especially bleak part of the novel).

Likewise, despite the emphasis on tradition and the frequent use of Latin (not all of which is translated), one of the fascinating things about this novel is how a lot of the novel’s events end up being incorporated into the monks’ religious beliefs over time. With, for example, the patron saint of their abbey being a scientist from before the apocalypse, history being translated into religious stories etc…. This is either a nuanced comment about how people use religion to make sense of the world or perhaps an amusingly irreverent critique of things like religious traditions etc…

And, yes, despite the bleakness, this novel has a surprising amount of subtle and/or quirky humour in it too. Not only does this make the post-apocalpytic elements seem harsher by contrast, but it also adds a level of realism and humanity to the story in a way that you don’t always see in post-apocalyptic stories too.

As for the characters, this novel is really good. Although it covers a large sweep of history and therefore contains a fairly large cast of characters, all of them seem like flawed and realistic people who have a reasonable amount of emotional and psychological depth.

The writing in this novel is excellent, but challenging. As you would expect with a slightly older novel, this novel’s third-person narration is written in a slightly more formal and descriptive way than a modern novel. Whilst this allows for a lot of extra atmosphere, complexity and personality (seriously, this novel has a brilliant narrative voice), it will make the novel feel very slow-paced if you’re used to more streamlined modern fiction.

Another cool thing about this novel is that the early parts of the “futuristic” third segment of the novel are written in a vaguely beat literature/ modernist literature kind of style (vaguely reminiscent of parts of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World“, James Joyce, William Burroughs etc..) – although this is only a short segment, this really helps to add a “retro future” atmosphere to these parts of the story.

However, this novel also assumes that the reader understands Latin – and, although I was still able get the basic meaning of many of these parts of the novel from the context, there are probably some subtle elements of the story I missed out on because I don’t know that much Latin.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good when you get used to it. At 356 pages in length, it may seem relatively short, but the slow pacing will mean that it’ll take you as long to read as a 500-700 page modern novel. Still, the slow pacing is a good fit with the story and it allows for a lot of extra depth and complexity too. Likewise, the novel’s three-part structure is absolutely genius and it really helps to add a sense of grand historical scale to the story.

As for how this sixty-one year old novel has aged, it is pretty much timeless πŸ™‚ Not only are the futuristic post-apocalyptic settings pretty much timeless (evoking both the middle ages and classic sci-fi), but the novel’s characters, atmosphere, themes etc.. are almost all handled in a very timeless way too.

Plus, not only does this novel include a critique of some of the attitudes of the age (eg: with regard to genetics and racism) that seems slightly ahead of it’s time, but the novel has also been influential on several later sci-fi works (eg: a later episode of “Babylon 5”, the ‘all of this has happened before…’ saying in the modern remake of “Battlestar Galactica” etc..) and was also one of the first sci-fi novels to get mainstream recognition/respectability. Pretty much the only clue that this novel was written in 1959 is the slightly more formal writing style (and maybe some slightly dated/stylised dialogue from a vaguely Native American-style warrior character during a brief part of the novel’s second segment).

All in all, this novel deserves its reputation as a classic. Yes, it is very slow-paced and rather gloomy/pessimistic but, if you can get over this, then you’ll be richly rewarded with an atmospheric, complex and intelligent novel that has stood the test of time extremely well and had a major impact on the sci-fi genre as a whole.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four and a half.

Review: “A Closed And Common Orbit” By Becky Chambers (Novel)

Well, a couple of weeks after reading Becky Chambers’ excellent “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet“, I was in the mood for more of this awesome series and decided to splash out on a second-hand copy of the 2016 sequel “A Closed And Common Orbit”.

Although this novel is technically a direct sequel to “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet”, it almost certainly works as a stand-alone novel too because it focuses on a different group of main characters. Still, it is probably worth reading the previous book before this one since it’ll fill you in a bit more about all of the awesome background details of this series’ fictional “universe”.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “A Closed And Common Orbit”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS (including for book one).

This is the 2017 Hodder (UK) paperback edition of “A Closed And Common Orbit” that I read.

The novel begins with a document listing the Galactic Commons’ laws against housing sentient A.I in realistic robotic “body kits”. Then, on board a shuttlecraft travelling away from the interstellar tunnelling ship Wayfarer, the ship’s recently rebooted A.I. core, Lovelace, is still getting used to her new artificial body. She is helped out by a freelance technician called Pepper who is doing a favour for Lovelace’s former partner, Jenks. They are headed for Pepper’s home planet of Port Coriol. But, getting used to living in a single, disconnected human body is difficult enough for Lovelace, let alone blending in as a human. Pepper says that she is willing to help, given that she was raised by an A.I.

Meanwhile, there are flashback scenes – set twenty years earlier- following a cloned girl called Jane 23 who works as a child labourer in a scrap reclamation factory run by cruel robot overseers called “Mothers”. After an accident in one of the sorting rooms blows a hole in the wall, Jane sees the sky for the first time. She decides to escape with the help of her bunk-mate Jane 64 and, although things go well at first, the two are separated and Jane 23 finds herself chased through a giant continent-sized scrapyard by a mutated dog. Suddenly, a voice calls to her and tells her to hide in a nearby doorway. It is a derelict shuttlecraft, the only occupant a lonely A.I. program called Owl.

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that although it is just as well-written, atmospheric and unique as “Angry Planet” is, it was often slightly less of a “feel good” novel than I’d expected. Still, it contains some of the most realistic characterisation and worldbuilding that I’ve seen in a while and the story gradually becomes more and more compelling as it progresses. It’s a powerful and often serious small-scale character-based drama, with a dystopian flavour to some parts of it. Still, it’s one hell of a well-written one!

I should probably start by talking about this novel’s sci-fi elements, which carry over from the previous book. The story is set within a planetary alliance called the Galactic Commons, peopled by several species (Alueons, Harmagians, Aandrisks, Laru, Sianat, Humans etc…) who all come across as very creative and realistic. All of the usual sci-fi stuff (eg: space travel, A.I. etc…) is there too, but with this novel’s unique style. This is one of the best, most immersive and most well-thought out sci-fi universes I’ve seen in a while and it is an absolute joy to revisit it. Although, again, you’ll get more out of the setting if you’ve read “Angry Planet” first.

Interestingly, although this novel still contains some focus on the importance of culture (with, for example, a segment about the important role a holographic TV show played in both galactic relations and on the development of one character) and the story contains some of the most complex, realistic and well-written emotional drama I’ve seen in a while, it is a slightly more tech-based story than “Angry Planet” was.

A lot of the story focuses on Lovelace’s experiences of the world as an embodied A.I. and how she gradually works out how to adapt to life and rewrite herself into something more human. Not only does this give the story an interesting cyberpunk flavour (vaguely reminiscent of something like “Blade Runner 2049”, the TV series “Humans”, a game called “Dreamfall: Chapters” or Annalee Newitz’s “Autonomous), but it also links in to a lot of the novel’s themes too.

Not only is this a novel about being an outsider in an indifferent, uncaring and/or hostile place (which can be seen as a metaphor for a lot of topics), but the novel’s scrapyard scenes also comment about the dark side of capitalism too (and it’s interesting to think that this story was written before “Blade Runner 2049”). The story is also very much one about finding and defining your own idenity, in addition to the usual stuff about the value of friendship and a wonderfully subversive theme of thinking for yourself when confronted with stupid/badly-written/ideological and/or outdated rules. All of these themes are handled a bit more subtly and confidently than in “Angry Planet”, lending the novel a more mature – and less preachy- tone πŸ™‚

And, although the novel focuses more on technology than “Angry Planet” does, this is still very much a “humanities”-focused sci-fi novel – with decent amount of emphasis placed on things like experiences, emotions, social situations, friendships, creativity etc… in a way that you don’t really see that often in the sci-fi genre πŸ™‚ Seriously, this alone is one reason to read this series. This is, of course, backed up by some absolutely stellar characterisation too. Not only do all of the characters feel like real, flawed people with genuine emotions and backstories that shape their lives but the interactions between them are also a lot more realistic and nuanced than you might typically expect in the sci-fi genre. This is a novel where you’ll care so much about the characters that it is nearly impossible not to cry during one later moment.

In addition to the scenes showing the limits of Jane 23’s early education and her quirky mother-daughter relationship with Owl, another absolutely stand-out character moment is how Lovelace experiences the world. Busy social situations overload her senses, leaving her confused and uncertain about what to do. Every piece of body language feels awkward and contrived (especially since her robot body does some of it automatically) and not being connected to the internet or an array of ship’s cameras makes her feel claustrophobic. I cannot overstate how well-written these segments are and, if you’re even vaguely introverted or awkward around people, then she’s probably one of the most refreshingly relatable characters since Rosa from “The Blackwell Legacy“.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s third-person narration is as great as ever πŸ™‚ It is informal enough to add intimacy and realism to the story, whilst also being descriptive enough to make everything feel “real” too. All sorts of things are described expertly and the story also has a fairly distinctive narrative “voice”, which also helps to add more personality to everything. Although this novel’s narration isn’t the most fast-paced you’ll ever read, it is probably some of the most immersive that you’ll see these days.

As for length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At 364 pages in length, it is neither too long nor too short. As you might expect from this series, the story’s pacing is mostly on the slower side of things – with the atmosphere, the writing, the characters and a few moments of suspense keeping everything compelling. As as the story progresses, the tension and pacing ramp up a little more – with a more focused single storyline gradually beginning to emerge. I’m probably not doing the pacing justice here, but if you go into this story expecting a drama rather than a thriller, then you’ll probably appreciate the pacing more.

All in all, this is an excellent sci-fi novel πŸ™‚ Yes, it’s a little different in tone to “Angry Planet”, but it still contains many of the things which made that novel such a great and refreshingly different piece of science fiction. If you want interesting realistic futuristic characters and locations, and the kind of powerful and profound story that doesn’t appear all that often, then this one is well worth reading πŸ™‚ Likewise, if you enjoy the TV show “Humans”, the “Longest Journey” game trilogy and/or possibly “Blade Runner 2049”, then this book won’t be entirely unfamiliar πŸ™‚

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Review: “Doctor Who: The Last Dodo” By Jacqueline Rayner (Novel)

Well, although I’d originally planned to read a crime thriller novel, I was still in the mood for sci-fi. And, during a book-shopping trip to Petersfield a couple of days before preparing this review, I happened to find a couple of slightly older “Doctor Who” spin-off novels in a second-hand bookshop in Petersfield.

Since I quite enjoyed reading a more modern novel in this series a few months earlier, I was eager to read one of them as soon as possible. And, since Jacqueline Rayner’s 2007 novel “Doctor Who: The Last Dodo” involved both a dodo and time travel (the very idea brought back very fond memories of reading one of Jodi Taylor’s “Chronicles Of St.Mary’s” novels), I ended up choosing it.

Interestingly, although this novel is based on an older version of the “Doctor Who” TV series (the version starring David Tennant and Freema Aygeman), it can still be enjoyed if you haven’t seen the show – since the earlier parts of the novel explain/recap all of the important elements of the TV series.

So, let’s take a look at “Doctor Who: The Last Dodo”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2007 BBC Books (UK) hardback edition of “Doctor Who: The Last Dodo” that I read.

The novel begins in Mauritius in 1681, with a scene showing a dodo fleeing from hungry sailors who have recently found the island. When the dodo realises that she is the only dodo left on the island, two people in green shirts suddenly appear and rescue her.

Then we flash forwards to 2007, Martha is standing around inside the TARDIS and trying to make a decision. The Doctor has told her that the TARDIS can take her anywhere in time and space and this has left Martha frozen with indecision. Eventually, she suggests visiting the zoo – which prompts something of a self-righteous lecture from the Doctor about why he doesn’t like zoos. So, after happening to notice that the Doctor is using a dodo feather as a bookmark, Martha suggests going back in time to see the dodos before they became extinct.

Using the feather as a locator, the TARDIS travels through time and space. But, when the doors open, Martha and The Doctor find themselves inside a giant museum. In front of them, the last dodo floats in a box frozen in stasis. But, before Martha or The Doctor can really make sense of it, alarms go off and they are seized by armed guards. The museum’s director, Eve, explains that they are in the Museum Of The Last Ones – a planet-sized collection of the last members of all extinct species. And several specimens have recently been stolen from the “Earth” segment…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it isn’t perfect, it certainly has some good moments. It is reasonably compelling and is also generally in keeping with the tone and style of the TV series (which is both a good and a bad thing). So, yes, I have fairly mixed views about this novel.

In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, this novel contains all of the stuff that you’d expect from “Doctor Who” (eg: time travel, other planets etc…) in addition to some classic sci-fi stuff like teleportation etc.. But the most interesting thing about this novel is how well it both does and doesn’t predict the future.

In at least one part, this novel is startlingly ahead of it’s time – since a running plot point in this novel involves Martha playing a vaguely “Pokemon Go”-style animal-spotting game on a tablet computer/electronic book that looks “a bit like a large iPod”. For reference, this novel was published in 2007 (and probably written a year or two earlier). On the other hand, this novel predicts that a near-future Britain will use the Euro as a currency and also predicts/implies that the Kakapo would become extinct in 2017. So, it’s a rather interesting glimpse into the near-past’s visions of the future.

The novel’s main plot is a rather interesting mixture of a detective and thriller story – with the earlier parts of the novel involving Martha and The Doctor trying to track down who has been stealing animals from the museum and the mid-late parts of the novel being a more traditional-style adventure/ thriller/ caper story.

Both of these parts work reasonably well and are fairly compelling, but are a little on the amusingly cheesy side of things (occasionally veering into “so bad that it’s good” territory). The detective segments have more of a focus on clue-finding and interviewing people and the thriller segments are a mixture of hilariously awesome/silly set pieces (sometimes involving dinosaurs) and classic-style cackling villainy, dramatic plot twists, clever plans, general chaos etc… These later parts are most close in tone to the TV series and, if you stick around for them, then you’ll be rewarded with something like a larger-budget mid-2000s episode of the TV show πŸ™‚

Thematically, this is a novel about environmentalism and conservation. However, like some of the worst episodes of the TV show, this novel can sometimes take a fairly heavy-handed, patronising and/or lecturing approach to these topics. Not only that, whilst The Doctor does have quite a few comedic and eccentric moments, he can often be somewhat self-righteous during several parts of this novel.

Still, leaving this aside, some of the characters in this novel are reasonably well-written. The best characters are probably Martha and a dodo called Dorothea, although many of the background characters feel like fairly realistic characters (even if they don’t get that much characterisation). Likewise, there are at least a couple of surprisingly emotional parts later in the novel (which are in keeping with the best character-based moments in the TV show).

However, although the novel’s main villains do get well-written motivations and backstories, they are very much from the cackling, moustache-twirling “elaborate and almost nonsensical evil schemes” school of villainy. Needless to say, this results in some wonderfully silly moments and other “so bad that it’s good” kind of stuff.

In terms of the writing, this novel is very much a mixed bag. On the plus side, the writing in this novel is informal and fast-paced enough to both make the novel very readable and to give it personality, whilst also being descriptive enough to add atmosphere to the story.

On the downside, the perspective is quite literally all over the place. Expect random jumps from first to third person perspective (or vice versa) to happen in the middle of chapters, with very little consistency (eg: some Martha-based scenes are first-person, some are third-person etc…) and with only the barest minimum of signposting to tell you what is happening. Yes, you’ll get used to this after reading the book for a while, but there never seems to be any real reason or logic for the perspective changes and the novel would have been much better if it had stuck with either first or third-person narration.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good πŸ™‚ At a very efficient 248 pages in length (less if you don’t count the encyclopaedia/game score segments), this is the kind of refreshingly short novel that can easily be enjoyed in a couple of hours or so πŸ™‚ Plus, the pacing is reasonably good too – with a good mixture of suspense, mystery, drama, fast-paced set pieces and location changes that remain compelling throughout the novel. Not to mention that the later parts of the novel almost feel like watching a “lost episode” of the TV show too.

All in all, if you can put up with random perspective changes and a bit of self-righteousness, and if you don’t mind a little “so bad that it’s good” silliness, then there is actually a fairly good story buried in here. When it is at it’s best, this novel is like a really good older episode of the TV show (but with a slightly larger budget) and, when it is at it’s worst, it’s like one of the more annoying episodes of the TV show.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and three-quarters.

Review: “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet” By Becky Chambers (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for a sci-fi novel. So, I thought that I’d take a look at a rather interesting second-hand book I found online a week or two before preparing this review. I am, of course, talking about Becky Chambers’ 2014 novel “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet”. I can’t remember how I first chose this book (probably a mixture of the site’s recommendation algorithms and the fact that the author shared a name with a “Resident Evil” character), but I’m genuinely surprised that I didn’t find, notice or read this book earlier than I did.

So, let’s take a look at “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2015 Hodder & Stoughton paperback edition of “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet” that I read.

The novel begins with a mysterious woman in a stasis pod travelling through space. The pod is cheap and occasionally malfunctions. When it does, she briefly wakes up and thinks about the officials she had to bribe in order to get the forged identity documents for her journey. Then she falls asleep again.

On the wormhole-building tunnelling ship Wayfarer, Captain Ashby is arguing with his algae technician, Artis Corbin, about the fact that he has hired an inexperienced new clerk for the ship. Following another argument about the ship’s pilot, Ashby order Corbin to give the arriving clerk – Rosemary – a tour of the ship. Reluctantly, Corbin agrees and, after meeting the rest of the crew, Rosemary begins to settle in to life on board the ship.

Some time later, Ashby gets a message from the Galactic Commons. One of the warring factions of a species called the Toremi have recently joined the Commons and they need someone to create a wormhole between Commons space and the faction’s capital planet, Hedra Ka. The job will pay 36 million credits, but the journey will take an entire standard year to complete…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is wow πŸ™‚ The best way to describe this novel is that it’s kind of like a mixture between Jodi Taylor’s “Chronicles Of St. Mary’s” novels, S. K. Dunstall’s “Linesman“, Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality” webcomic, an Alice Hoffman novel, some of Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics and the computer game “Dreamfall Chapters“. In other words, it is the kind of unique, powerful, “feel good”, innovative and profound story that will linger in your imagination long after you have finished reading it.

So, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s sci-fi elements. These are brilliant, but I should point out that this not a novel for traditional sci-fi purists. Although this novel contains all of the technical background details (eg: A.I, spaceships etc..) you’d expect from a sci-fi novel, it sets itself apart from most traditional sci-fi novels by focusing more on things like characters, cultures and world-building than technology. And, wow, does it do this well πŸ™‚ Put it this way, this is one of those novels that makes ordinary, everyday life aboard a small civilian spaceship absolutely fascinating to read about.

One of the most innovative, and brilliantly subversive, things about this novel is how it’s a sci-fi novel that is more about the value of “the humanities” (culture, languages, art, friendship etc..) than about the “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and maths) stuff that is usually valued more in both the sci-fi genre and everyday life. This rebellious change in emphasis gives the story’s futuristic world a level of richness, depth and refreshing uniqueness that you don’t see in sci-fi that often.

Seriously, this novel contains some of the best worldbuilding and most well-written characters I’ve seen in a while πŸ™‚ This novel just feels “realistic” in a way that really caught me by surprise. Although the novel does have a very well-written backstory, some really interesting planets (which I really enjoyed visiting) and some large-scale galactic politics, the worldbuilding works so well because it is done in a really detailed and small-scale way. This is a story about a group of people from different planets, cultures and/or species living together on the same ship and this allows for lots of brilliant world-building moments. If you want to learn how to do worldbuilding well, read this book.

And this brings me on to the characters, who are also extremely well-written. Not only do they all have character arcs and distinctive backstories, but they all feel real too. Seriously, this novel has a level of empathy and emotional realism which players of Ragnar TΓΈrnquist’s “The Longest Journey” trilogy and readers of Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality” webcomic, Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” Comics, some of Alice Hoffman’s novels etc… will probably be familiar with. And, if you haven’t read or played any of those things, then I’ll sum it up by saying that this is a story that has a real warmth and humanity to it.

I could devote an entire article to each individual character, but they’re characters that I really enjoyed hanging out with (especially a mechanic called Kizzy, who really deserves her own spin-off book). Given that this is much more of a character-based novel than a plot-based novel, this excellent characterisation is what makes this novel so compelling to read. Not only that, the relationships, friendships and/or arguments between the crew members are also a major source of drama and profound emotional moments. I’m really not doing all of this justice here, so I’ll give one example.

For about two-thirds of the novel, I mistakenly thought that Corbin was a rare example of a badly-written character. After all, he barely appeared during quite a few moments of the story and, when he did, he was either a figure of ridicule and/or someone for the other crew members to argue with, ignore, sneer at or lecture at. He almost seemed more like a cheap political caricature, especially given the lack of author empathy he gets in the early-middle parts of the story. Then, just when you’re about to write him off as the one badly-written character, the novel hits you with a story event out of nowhere and, suddenly, he becomes a much more complex, interesting, tragic and understandable character that it’s impossible not to empathise with. And all of the earlier stuff makes a lot more sense too. It’s difficult to describe how powerful, clever and well-timed this moment is – and you should really read it for yourself – but, wow πŸ™‚

This, of course, brings me on to the novel’s themes. In short, this is a novel about friendship and culture. In particular, it is not only about how the characters are shaped by their cultures but also how different cultures interact with, and adapt, to each other (and, yes, the novel can get a bit preachy at times. But, overall, the topic is handled in a fairly nuanced way). Likewise, I mentioned earlier that this is an innovative sci-fi novel that values “humanities” skills more than STEM stuff and also has a major impact on how parts of the story play out.

For example, whilst most traditional sci-fi novels would resolve an encounter with space pirates via a dramatic laser battle, some cool-looking evasive manoeuvres or a dazzling piece of technological trickery, this novel resolves this situation in a much more understated, suspenseful, realistic and humanities-based way. Because one character can speak a second language, is able to empathise with the pirates’ situation and remembers a bit of history, she is able to convince the pirates to steal much less than they’d planned. Seriously, it is so refreshing (and surprising) to see a space-based sci-fi story that doesn’t primarily focus on science.

In terms of the writing, this novel is brilliant. The story’s third-person narration is informal enough to have a sense of personality, whilst also being descriptive enough to do the story’s settings justice too. Likewise, the story’s worldbuilding is also part of the narration too (eg: the word “tenday” is used instead of “week”, various gender-neutral pronouns etc…). Seriously, I cannot praise the writing in this novel enough. In addition to the characters, the atmospheric descriptions and the narrative voice are two things that make a story where not that much actually happens a lot more compelling to read than you might expect.

In terms of length and pacing, they are both a perfect fit for the story. Although this novel is 402 pages long and fairly moderately-paced (with a few well-placed faster moments and/or scenes of drama) most of the time, this isn’t actually a bad thing.

In short, thanks to the sheer quality of the writing, characters, worldbuilding, profound emotional moments, locations etc… this is the kind of novel that you’ll probably want to savour πŸ™‚ It is the kind of novel where more pages and a slightly slower pace just means that you get to spend more time hanging out in cool places with interesting characters πŸ™‚

All in all, this review really hasn’t done the experience of reading this novel justice. It is something that you have to experience for yourself. Yes, it probably won’t appeal to traditional sci-fi purists or those who want a fast-paced thriller but, if you give this novel a chance, then you’ll be rewarded with an amazingly atmospheric, beautifully profound, wonderfully compelling and just fascinating story πŸ™‚ Likewise, even if you aren’t a fan of sci-fi and just want a “feel good” novel to relax with, then this one is well worth reading.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a very solid five.