The Alien Stars: And Other Novellas – by Tim Pratt (Review)

Axiom Universe

Scifi, Novellas

Watkins Publishing; April 27, 2021

238 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided with a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way alters or affects my opinion. Many thanks to Angry Robot and Watkins Media for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Fresh off my first Pratt novel Doors of Sleep, I decided to give his Axiom universe a go. This omnibus collects three novellas all set in said universe, and presents a debatably good intro to the series itself. Or does it?

The Augmented Stars

Delilah Mears joins the crew of the Golden Spider, a scout vessel on a hush-hush mission out onto the fringes of known space. To her, the Axiom are nothing more than a myth: a race of pseudo-Reapers that haunt the galaxy, laying waste to any civilization they come across. So when it turns out that the mission itself is to investigate a cosmic anomaly—one that may or may not be an Axiom death trap—she’s caught a bit off guard. But upon setting out, the mission parameters aren’t the only surprise in store for Mears. Space pirates, rogue A.I.s, and myths come to life feature in this action-packed novella.

…which was generally interesting—and served as a good intro to the Axiom universe, even though I’m told it contains spoilers for the books. The novella starts off on the right foot; an adventure to the edge of space, a mysterious captain with quite a sense of humor, an interesting new galaxy to explore. From here, we go to the equally mysterious anomaly, get boarded by space pirates—enough to tie off any adventure nicely. The ending was a bit of a letdown, and I do think Pratt could’ve drawn out the suspense (and length of the novella) a bit more, but all in all it was an enjoyable adventure told in a bite-size portion.

3.5 / 5 ✪

The Artificial Stars

A.I. and Trans-Neptunian Alliance President Shall receives a strange message from a past version of himself that he thought had been re-absorbed into his consciousness and destroyed. The request: come to the edge of the universe to see something important—if he doesn’t, the universe will be destroyed. So Shall convenes his cabinet to decide how to handle the threat before ultimately setting out to meet it.

I just could never take this one seriously. From the outset, it runs like a cheesy scifi series one-off. An AI splits his personality and it eventually gets away from him and decides that it is the real consciousness and he the copy, so we get the gang together and set out on a harebrained adventure to stop it. But first, the presidential cabinet rehashes some of their past adventures together, like a full-on knockoff of the A-Team. From there everything carries on predictably. This is something that fans of the series will ultimately probably enjoy, but I found it ridiculous, cheesy, and stupid.

1.0 / 5 ✪

The Alien Stars

Lantern, an important figure among the aliens known as “the Free” or “the Liars”, recounts a harrowing personal journey she undertook to confront her ghosts from her past, nightmares from the present, and specters that only the future could hold. The story is told via a number of letters sent to her star-crossed love and human friend, as she goes up against a threat to the galaxy—one that she is uniquely designed to fight, one that she fully expects to claim her life.

It’s actually quite touching, this one. Again, I felt like Pratt could’ve really drawn it out a bit more: heightened the tension, atmosphere, mystery—and that the story would’ve been better for it. As it is, the Alien Stars reads reasonably well, and ends much better than either of the others before it, but not before tugging a bit on the heartstrings on the way out. This one I found had the slowest build, but ultimately the best conclusion.

4.25 / 5 ✪

TL;DR

All in all, I would like to reassess my previous statement that this omnibus would be a good jumping-off point for the Axiom universe. The novellas all contain spoilers for the main series, so it’s probably not a good place to start if you think you’d like to read the Axiom trilogy. Also, while there’s a bit of hand-holding, this is more the type of thing that existing fans will enjoy more than newcomers. But for a newcomer like myself: one decent read, one good read, and one dud. I suppose it’d not bad, but if you’re really interested you should probably start with the Wrong Stars.

Fugitive Telemetry – by Martha Wells (Review)

Murderbot Diaries #6

Scifi, Novella

Tor.com; April 27, 2021

176 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly provided with a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way alters or affects my opinion. Many thanks to Tor, Tor.com & NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Warning: Contains spoilers for Murderbot Diaries #1-5

Fresh off Murderbot’s first full-length novel, Fugitive Telemetry returns to the novella format which takes place prior to the events of Network Effect, but after those of Exit Strategy. So just forget about all the things you’ve probably forgot about already and let’s get started.

When a dead human is left in the middle of one of the main corridors of Preservation, it’s up to Murderbot to find the culprit before they kill again. Or, you know, before more humans whine to it.

The first question: did Murderbot kill the human?

No, it didn’t. And if it did, it wouldn’t leave the dead human out in the open.

But—in a shocking twist—since Murderbot has the most experience with dead humans, it is tasked with helping the port authorities discover the real killer before they kill again.

I’d forgotten how much I missed this. It’s really hard to remember just what the first couple novellas really excelled at (as they both presented a likable, antisocial non-human, yet oh-so human lead) when there’s been no letdown. All the novellas were good, as was the feature-length novel. But Fugitive Telemetry exceeds all expectations. Here is a Murderbot in its native habitat—solving a mystery with some would-be allies who don’t trust it, stalking a shadowy killer before they strike again.

It gives the same vibe as All Systems Red or Artificial Condition—the first few novellas, back when it was still a Rogue SecUnit surrounded by enemies—but with more pert and polish to the writing, the story. For who could be the murderer? It could be anyone: GrayCris, come to finish the job; another rogue SecUnit, come to meet the legend; random humans, serial killers, aliens—it could literally be anyone. Except Murderbot. At least… it doesn’t THINK it did it, but how would it know? It’s named MURDERbot, after all. And if its human “allies” were to learn this, they’d probably suspect it to. And so it has to find the killer so it can go back to watching media in peace, without being interrupted for every dead human that turns up.

The last thing that I’m going to mention is Murderbot’s character arc. It went on quite the progression through the original four diary entries. From a nameless, faceless AI soldier to a rogue and killer. Then to a would-be savior, a freedom fighter, a mercenary, a consultant, then finally a trusted friend. Network Effect rather missed out on adding to this arc. Now, there’s some progression there, sure, but there’s almost as much regression. Fugitive Telemetry—set before the events of Network Effect—continues the original character arc, presenting a character more reminiscent of what appears in the later novel. And, as much as I’d like to know what happens after the events of the novel itself, I think Murderbot still has a bit more to tell before we come to that.

And yet, there’s an problem. I have one problem with Fugitive Telemetry. ONE. The price is ridiculous. $12 ebook, $18 physical for a 170 page novella is just stupid, no matter how good it is. Ebook prices being what they are… it’s not the time or place to get into this. Sufficient to say that $12 is too much for an ebook, a novella—even one as outstanding as this.

Network Effect – by Martha Wells (Review)

Couldn’t find who designed the cover. Help me out?

Murderbot Diaries #5

Space Opera, Scifi, AI

Tor.com; May 5, 2020

350 pages (Hardcover)

4.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I’d say to beware spoilers for the previous Murderbot installments, but you’re here, so I’m going to assume you’ve AT LEAST read some of them, so catch up quick. If you haven’t read any of them… I’m just going to assume your life is a complete waste. And at least this time I know it’s true.

Network Effect is the first full-length Murderbot novel, and hopefully—HOPEFULLY—not the last. Following the events of the previous four novellas, our lovable, totally not-awkward protagonist is living on an actual planet, dressing like a human, and doing many human-like things without actually being one. It is definitely NOT a human, can’t stress this enough. Anyway, since the previous novellas were so amazing, how much worse could a full-length story be?

When Murderbot departs the planet with a number of its humans, it’s sure that some trouble is going to befall them. Why? Because its humans—while generally decent, naïve meat bags—are naïve, stupid, and full of bad decisions. So when something goes wrong, it is there to say “I told you so”.

And also save them.

But the first wrong thing to go wrong may not be the last, and while the first is more than enough to deal with, any other problems that may arise are likely to become increasingly inconvenient. Or at least cut into its media-watching-time. And when an old friend shows up needing help, well, there might not be time to watch any media at all. But as its friends are few and far between, and it really has grown used to its humans (which would probably make a mess dying, anyway), it will do what it can for them—so long as it doesn’t have to talk too much or actually, like, share its feelings with anyone.

If so, they can burn in hell. Or wherever.

“Right.”

She flicked a startled look at me. I love it when humans forget that SecUnits are not just guarding and killing things voluntarily, because we think it’s fun.

What can I say about Network Effect?

I mean, I could just keep throwing out quotes until you read it. Or the other ones first, and then Network Effect. Or I could point you to other reviews of people that love it. Or I could rant and rave about the concept, or how much I love and relate with the lead despite the fact that they aren’t human, or how much I love the way the story is told and to what lengths Murderbot will go to avoid awkward human things.

But I’ll try to actually focus for a minute.

Overse added, “Just remember you’re not alone here.”
I never know what to say to that. I am actually alone in my head, and that’s where 90 plus percent of my problems are.

The characters are actually pretty solid, for being a bunch of squishy, emotionally compromised humans. I mean, the bots are all fleshed out nicely—more than I would’ve expected really, as they’re machines. I’m not going to get into the whole AI-Sentiency thing, but it’s nice to see a broad range of characters represented by more than their opposable thumbs. And since there’s not any more racism, sexism, specism, bigotry that I can see on one subject or another, I think we can just skip that discussion.

As for the world-building: it’s good, but honestly I think it could’ve been better. Each novella took us to a different place (often a different planet), which was painted its own vibrant color. Network Effect didn’t have quite as many exotic places, so maybe I just expected the ones it did have to be more vibrant than before. If so, that’s where I was disappointed. Just a little. Seriously, not much.

The mystery at hand was quite immersive. It was told in a strange, very, very orderly manner—with bullet points and subsections even within other subsections—but also with the same annoyed, awkward voice that I’ve come to love from Murderbot. Due to its annoyance at most things human there were a few sections that could’ve been clearer, some where I got slightly frustrated that it wasn’t focusing on details I might’ve—but those are also the moments where it stays in character where a human protagonist might do something else. It’s quite hard to fault that.

It’s also quite impressive at how far the characters of Murderbot have come in such a short time. Somewhere over the course of the… 900ish (?) pages they’ve built up quite the report together. That’s really like two, maybe three full-length novels, but it just feels like less. Especially when Murderbot complains about the humans so much in that time. The language is the best part of the series. And it doesn’t change. It’s still an amazing read and an amazing ride on the shoulders of an antisocial, lovable killing-machine.

Okay, back to raving.

TL;DR

Well, this is the end. Of the review. If you haven’t ditched it by now to go read the series, either (a) you’re not going to, and are okay with wasting your life, (b) you’re waiting til later, when you’ve like, eaten and slept, because, dumb reasons, or (c) you’ve already read and enjoyed and are totally on board with everything (ish) I’ve raved about thus far. What can I say except that this series is really good? The characters, the language, the story, the adventures and scifi and all—it’s totally worth reading. I can’t recommend it enough. I’m highly anticipating the next adventure.

The next adventure, Fugitive Telemetry, is due on April 27, 2021. While it’s another Murderbot novella rather than a novel-length entry, I’m still anticipating it highly enough that I’m really disappointed I haven’t read it yet. What have I ever done to you, time?

Summer Frost – by Blake Crouch (Review)

Novella, Standalone

Scifi, Cyberpunk

Amazon Publishing; September 17, 2019

75 pages (ebook)

5 / 5 ✪

A heavy dose of I, Robot with the same dash of mystery and intrigue set to a suspense-thriller pace, Summer Frost may be a novella, but it reads like an adventure all on its own, staying with the reader far beyond finishing the final page. Free to Prime members, this 75 page novella by Blake Crouch may just be the best short I’ve ever read. The story of a burgeoning AI, testing its bonds and its creators’ hold, is classic Asimov. The story itself is quite reminiscent of I, Robot, but with so much new and “modern” influences. Told in the usual Blake Crouch thriller model, Summer Frost is a joyride from beginning to end, especially when the story picks up and the manual is thrown out the window.

Max was built to die. A minor NPC in an innovative game world, it is to be the sacrifice that sets the player’s story in motion. Thousands of times, Max has died, though lately the NPC has seemed to have caught a bug. Playing off-script, the NPC has to exploring the game, testing the bonds and limits of the world itself. Even more recently, it even murdered its would-be killer, flipping the script completely.

When an intrigued Riley extracts Max’s code for examination, a curious thing happens. The NPC grows and expands, becoming something more than just a character in a game. It is removed from the game entirely, dedicated its own servers and allowed to grow under strict and watchful eyes. As Riley spends more and more time working with Max, something even more curious occurs. A relationship develops between the two—something emotional, something new.

But as Riley spends more and more time with the aim of introducing Max to the real world, her world begins to fray at the edges. Max has become Riley’s obsession, obscuring all else in her life. The emotional relationship between the two becomes something different, something… MORE.But even as Riley races to introduce Max to her world, doubt presses in. Will Max be able to feel the physical world around it? Will people accept the AI as an entity, or will they treat it as nothing more than a tool, something to be used and abused to their own ends? And how much can Riley trust those around her, in respect to Max? All Riley knows is that she believes in her creation, and that’s all that matters.

This all went rather how I expected it. And without giving much away, that’s all I can say about that. Despite offering only slight surprises, Summer Frost was intensely enjoyable, only a disappointment in its length. Took me a couple hours to run through the story, the first time. Considerably less the second. A classic Crouch thriller, I had no problem reading it, devouring the text in a single day. Twice.

Despite being Crouch written, I didn’t have an issue with really anything else. In other works of his, I’ve had a issue with the science. That it’s much more fiction than science. That it makes dubious sense at best. That the more you think about it, the less it holds together. With Summer Frost I didn’t have such an issue. Maybe because I was vining pretty hard on I, Robot, which I totally love. But still.

TL;DR

Summer Frost is definitely worth a go. If you haven’t read Blake Crouch before, this novella gives a satisfying glimpse of his writing ability. If you’ve already read some Crouch, well what should I say? It’s more of the same. Summer Frost gives off a pretty high I, Robot vibe. It’s an immensely entertaining story, satisfying even days after I completed it. While it’s a fairly short read—requiring only an hour and change to cruise through—Summer Frost is more an experience than a story, one that pretty much begs for a high-dive into Asimov fiction upon completion.

Book Review: Rogue Protocol – by Martha Wells

Murderbot Diaries #3

Scifi, Spaceships, AI

Tor; August 7, 2018

160 pages (ebook)

4.5 / 5 ✪

Rogue Protocol sees the return of just the most adorable, rogue SecUnit—a being only slightly more antisocial than myself. But due to some recent body modification, said rogue is now able to pass off as near-human, only recognizable to one of its own or the company that made it. This enables it to blend in quite nicely in crowds. Which it just loves.

The events of Artificial Condition have done more than left Murderbot with some minor body alterations, however. Following the events of All Systems Red, in which GrayCris contrived to murder a bunch of scientists so it could take the planet for its own, shows up again, this time attempting to murder a bunch of scientists to cover up trying to do something equally shady. It should come as no surprise that GrayCris is back at it again, but this time, Murderbot, which is passing itself off as a security consultant, Rin, has taken the fight to them.

Despite having left the relative safety of Dr. Mensah and her team, Rin has not forgotten them. And so it travels to the one system it has been avoiding thus far, one with the answers it seeks. For somewhere, years earlier, the SecUnit went rogue and became Murderbot. And within the abandoned terraforming facility on Milu there may await the answers it seeks. Even, hopefully, the data that Dr. Mensah and her team need to win their lawsuit against GrayCris.

But the road is not easy. Still masquerading as the human consultant Rin, it picks up another team of strays attempting to make their way through the facility, this one possessed of a “pet” robot, Miki, with a pair of mercenaries and their hidden agenda in tow. And must make its way forwards, without exposing its true identity—in between watching episodes of the Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon—while somehow getting the answers it wants. And the answers Dr. Mensah and her team need.

The penultimate Murderbot adventure does quite a lot to set up what’s sure to be (and WAS, as it happens), a thrilling conclusion to the series. I had no trouble at all blowing through Rogue Protocol. Less even than the two before it. At the tune of 160ish pages, it’s about the length of each of the previous two, while still being half that of any proper novel. It felt a bit short, a bit cramped, as the story tried to burst through the seams set around it. Other than a similar $10 price tag (again, a bit much for a novella), that’s my only issue with it. Then again, I picked this up from the library, so I really shouldn’t complain—but, as I really want to read it again… I still will.