Sunday 26 July 2020

Planetside, Planetfall, and The Invisible Library

Three contrasting recent novels, all intended to be the start of series.

Planetside, by Michael Mammay

Planetside was recommended to me as a good example of military SF, so I added it to my reading list. The first thing I noticed on flipping through it is that the author is a former army officer, a veteran of Desert Storm, Somalia, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, no surprise that the portrayal of the military in general and soldiers in action in particular are very convincing.  Furthermore, the hero and narrator of the story (Colonel Carl Butler) is of retirement age, bald and married, so obviously designed for me to identify with!

The background to the novel is a far future in which humanity is spreading across many star systems. Newly found planets capable of supporting human life are promptly colonised; if they aren't suitable for that, they are mined of any worthwhile minerals. In none of this are the interests of any native life considered important, although in the one case found of humanoids of similar intelligence to mankind, the inhabitants of the planet Cappa, an agreement has been reached for humans to mine the abundant silver reserves. However, a resistance movement among the Cappans is resulting in a continuing low-level conflict.

The plot concerns a missing army officer, the son of an important politician. He was seen to be badly injured in an engagement with the Cappan resistance, was loaded aboard a medical evacuation shuttle for transport to the orbiting Cappa Base, and never seen again. Butler is given the job – and extraordinary powers – to investigate and resolve the mystery.  What he finds is a series of cover-ups which make it almost impossible for him to complete his mission. As he digs further into the mystery, he finds a high-level conspiracy and realises that the situation is very different from what he had believed, and his mission is changing quite radically.

At one level this is a fast-paced and enjoyable thriller, well-written in a laconic, understated military style. At another level are some fundamental issues about the relationships between humanity and other intelligent forms of life. The Cappans had already achieved a degree of technological sophistication, and could be considered unlucky to have been found by humanity before they were able to develop a comparable civilisation. I am sufficiently interested to send off for the sequel, Spaceside, which is now out, with Colonyside to follow.


Planetfall, by Emma Newman

The setting is a recently-established and very idealistic colony on a new world, with social structures designed to ensure that it does not suffer from overpopulation, pollution and war. The key to the colony's success is the use of 3D printing to produce anything that is needed, followed by recycling anything no longer required. Literally overhanging the settlement is an enormous tree, which it was believed contained alien artifacts.

This is a curious sort of book. Not a lot happens for quite a while, then we find that the narrator is suffering from an uncontrollable OCD described in convincing depth and detail, then there's a spectacular final episode with a rather mystical conclusion. I did get rather tired of the terrible secret known only to the narrator and one other, which was hanging around without being explained for almost all of the book. I doubt that I can be bothered with the sequels (which I gather are not direct sequels, just set in the same universe).


The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman

Another recommended by members of the Classic Science Fiction group, which I perhaps would not have considered without that. If so, I would have missed a gem.

Irene is a professional librarian, but not in any ordinary library. She is an investigator of the Invisible Library, a mysterious and secret organisation with a vast collection of books (constantly added to) which seems to exist somewhere in between a multitude of alternative worlds, with access to all of them. Some of these versions of Earth are strictly technological, some entirely magical, but most have elements of both. We first see the resourceful Irene retrieving a very rare and ancient book from a magically-protected library, which she survives only because of her use of "The Language", a kind of magic peculiar to the librarians.

For her next task she is instructed to take with her Kai, a student librarian. The version of London they arrive in has vampires, werewolves and the Fae coexisting with humanity. Then there is, out there somewhere, the evil Alberich. a renegade librarian. There are also dragons, who can take human form and are basically on the side of law and order, but still best avoided. As is Bradamant, a rival investigator and Irene's sworn enemy. Particularly reassuring to Irene is the discovery of Vale, a private investigator who is an exact incarnation of Sherlock Holmes – Irene's favourite fictional character. Finding the book she is looking for is complicated by the intense interest in it from several important people – and other beings – and Irene is tested to her limits and beyond in her attempt to complete her mission.

This book is well-written, with something of the flavour of Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog. Irene is a very likeable character and the book is immensely enjoyable. I found myself reluctant to put the book down, and read until late into the night to finish it. I see that there are several other books in the series so will be bulk-buying them!

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