Bear Head by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I think this what you could call a small epic. Pure science-fiction which Tchaikovsky spins a tale around his crossovers: technology, mutant zoology and evolution.

The story takes place on Earth, where a sickeningly unpleasant political demagogue (sounds familiar?) seeks to amass power through the use of cybernetic implants that nullifies free will; and Mars, where a population of genetically workers are building habitats for the first inhabitants of a colony. That would be a story on its own, but when you throw in an AI hive mind and genetically engineered animals with human intelligence, then top it off with Martian worker who finds his brain taken over by the disembodied intelligence of an elderly bear … er what?

Amazingly, it all holds together, though it does move in fits and starts. The prose is workmanlike without too much flair, and the dialogue is top notch (though it could do with a bit of dealing back in places). But once the societal explanations are out of the way, the book motors along, shortening the sentences and the chapters to a gripping climax.

But weirdly, the most fascinating character for me was the demagogue. The author has found something of a muse in the President 45 and presents him in a way that, strangely enough, might explain some of his rather bizarre personality traits. So, the book not only works as a science-fiction action piece, but also as a character study.

So can we add psychology to Tchaikovsky’s heavily strung bow? Maybe. Anyway, it’s a very enjoyable book, perhaps a bit longer than it needed to be, but well worth it for the payoff at the end.

We are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker

This one belongs firmly in the category of accessible Science-Fiction: not too much science, but plenty of well-assembled fiction.

Set in the not-t00-distant future, We Are Satellites follows the life of modern family: two professional moms, a son and daughter as they navigate growing up and growing old in a future where people can buy brain implants to boost their ability to focus and multitask. It comes as no surprise that society then finds yet another arbitrary line along which to divide itself: the elite, ambitious, successful people who have the implants – and everyone else.

I say the book is accessible, because it’s not hard-core speculative fiction; the increasing use and dependence on these implants pretty much floats along in the background. We don’t really get a thorough grounding in how the tech (the implants are called Pilots) actually works. Instead, Pinsker focuses on how the technology strains the relationship between Julie (pilot) and Val (non-pilot) and their kids: David (pilot) and Sophie (who has a medical condition which means she can’t be implanted). This is not an action piece by any means, but the tension is there; well-written family dramas can be just as exciting as any battle-laden space opera.
The characters are well-drawn, with plenty of personality quirks to separate them, though I felt that a lot more work went into Sophie as she seems to stand a little taller than the rest.
The prose is light, engaging, floating from character to character, chapter by chapter, with insight and humour. The style works well, but it does mean that the book lacks some of the literary flow you see in other novels, but on the other hand, those novels probably wouldn’t make such a great TV series.

Highly recommended if you like your science-fiction a little more human and a little less science-fictiony.

Not sure about the book cover though …

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Someone asked me the other day why I only seem to give high scores for books. Well, the answer to that is twofold:

  1. I only review books that I finish.
  2. If I’m not enjoying a book, I won’t finish it.

And treading water somewhere in there we have books that I didn’t enjoy so much, but. for some reason, were too compelling to put down.

Which brings me to American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, a book that seems to have taken me the best part of two months to finish.

Okay, so let’s start with the good, the excellent in fact. This is a great story: Lydia and her young son, Luca, are trying to flee Mexico after their entire family is murdered at a family gathering. Their desperate two-thousand mile trek by train and on foot takes them through a serious of heart-stopping encounters with the very best and worst of humanity. The characterisations are suburb, the tension almost unbearable, and if you’re wondering why anyone would put themselves and their children at risk (being robbed is the inevitable; being murdered, raped, kidnapped or sold into slavery are highly likely) to enter a foreign country, then here’s a clue: it isn’t money.

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