Three new scifi novels to mark the new year

It’s been a good week. I’ve been on a reading spree. Since November, I had been working my way through a couple of non-fiction books which are informative and interesting, but not particularly fast moving – Neal Peart’s motorbike travelogue Ghost Rider and John Man’s well-researched exploration of The Great Wall of China. I decided to give myself a New Year present and go for some ‘pulp’ science fiction, with the proviso that for every piece of pulp I read, I would have to finish 30-40 pages of the pending non-fiction books. So far, the arrangement is working well and I think I will finish Ghost Rider and The Great Wall in a couple of weeks, while also finishing off half a dozen page-turners in the bargain!

So, let me quickly talk about 3 enjoyable ‘pulp scifi’ novels which marked the switch from 2013 to 2014.

George Mann’s The Osiris Ritual – I fell in love with steampunk after I read Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s classic graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. 1 in 2004. Earlier, in 2001, I had read perhaps the best steampunk novel of all – Perdido Street Station by China Mieville – but considering that it wasn’t even set on Earth, I didn’t think of it as strictly steampunk at the time. The sub-genre has really picked up steam (yes, I had to say it!) over the past few years leading to a plethora of standalone titles and book series. In 2012, I read George Mann’s The Affinity Bridge which was the first in a series of detective novels styled as ‘The Newbury & Hobbes Investigations’. It featured Sir Maurice Newbury – a special agent who works for the Crown – and his plucky female assistant Miss Veronica Hobbes. It was immensely entertaining and I recently decided to read the sequel titled The Osiris Ritual. These books feature all the usual steampunk tropes – airships, motorcars and automatons all powered by steam – and a few unexpected elements – cyborgs, precognition and references to a plague that brings back people from the dead (no use of the ‘z-word’ though). It’s impossible to write a novel like this without paying homage to Sherlock Holmes. In this case, Sir Maurice’s addiction to opium is both his Achilles’ heel and the source of his deductive leaps. But other than that, this is a very original and satisfying story. With 4 books already in print and 2 more to come, plus several short stories available as free downloads, I am really looking forward to immersing myself in this world. Mr. Mann has also written a couple of spin-off novels set in the America in the 1920’s.

Eric Brown’s The Serene Invasion – I came across Eric Brown’s name many years ago, when our library in Chennai (Eloor) bought a copy of his second novel Engineman. At that time, I was not particularly keen to risk trying out an author I had not heard about, so I gave it a miss. Very recently though, I read a brief preview of an upcoming steampunk novel set in India during the British Raj, written by…yes, Eric Brown. The novel is called Jani and the Greater Game and will come out in autumn of 2014. It looked promising and I realized that Eric Brown has become quite an acclaimed scifi author in the past decade. Looking for something of his that I could read right away, I picked up The Serene Invasion. We’ve all read or watched countless iterations of the alien invasion story – War of the Worlds, Independence Day or V and Falling Skies on TV. These stories are quite predictable – evil alien force invades earth with vastly superior weapons; humans are initially overwhelmed but armed with creativity and never-say-die spirit, we strike back and reclaim our planet. Well, The Serene Invasion is completely different. The aliens take over the planet using non-violence…imposing it on us through some sort of tampering with quantum physics which makes it impossible for humans to complete a violent act. There purpose is not subjugation, but uplift…much to the joy and relief of most humans who are sick and tired of terrorism and urban crime, but obviously leaving terrorists and various other power brokers very unhappy. The story follows a group of people from different nations whose lives are interconnected by the invasion. Over a period of 30 years the protagonists work with their new ‘masters’ to uplift the human species, using new technologies and expanding across the solar system. Of course, there has to be some dramatic tension and this is brought about through some forces who are working to disrupt the plans of the Serene and their human allies. I thought it was brave of Mr. Brown not to actually show the aliens at any point throughout the course of the story. All the interactions with humans take place through their representatives – artificial but sentient humanoid entities. The first 30-40 pages of the book really hooked me and are perhaps the best written part of the novel.

R.M. Meluch’s The Myriad: Tour of the Merrimack #1 – This novel falls under the sub-genre of military scifi, which I had never been particularly interested in. The Myriad (the first book in the Tour of the Merrimack series) tells the story of the space battleship USS Merrimack (a namesake of the famous ironclad warship from the US Civil War) captained by Admiral David Farragut. There is nothing very original about the novel and its characters. Many reviewers have compared the tone to that of the original Star Trek series. Of course Admiral Farragut is more Jean-Luc Picard than Capt. Kirk, but certainly the Intelligence Officer Augustus is very reminiscent of Mr. Spock. The Marines on board talk and act very much like the ones in James Cameron’s Aliens…all bluster and bravado, but endearing all the same. And that’s where Ms. Meluch really hits the bull’s eye. Derivative the setting may be, but she writes her characters well, warts and all…and gets the reader rooting for each one of them. It’s like watching a soap opera – there are all the standard stereotypes – the passionate and noble, yet fallible leaders, the dumb and uncultured, yet brave soldiers, the medic with the heart of gold. The technology in the story is an interesting mix of ‘unexplainably advanced’ and ‘19th century basic’: ships can travel at 200-250 times light speed and people can teleport, but on the other hand the battleship has manually loading projectile cannon (in addition to particle beam weapons) and the military officers carry swords! As the story begins, the Merrimack is hunting for a vicious semi-sentient alien race called The Hive which has attacked and eaten human settlements across the galaxy. In the course of this search, it comes across an undiscovered alien civilization leading to a complicated ‘first contact’ situation. The action comes thick and fast and there are interesting twists and turns in the plot. I read somewhere that the other 4 books in the series struggle to maintain the same level of quality and freshness…I am not surprised, this is a pretty high standard to keep up.

I’m now left with a happy predicament. Follow-up reads: more steampunk with Hobbes and Nebury, or more military scifi with the Merrimack, or more Eric Brown with the Helix novels or try out a new author Gary Gibson, who’s got 4 novels published in a series called The Shoal Sequence.

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