Friday 18 June 2021

Tim Pratt: The Axiom series


The author is best known for writing fantasies, of which I can’t recall reading any, but the Axiom series is conventional SF. The setting is the Solar System many centuries in the future, in which Mars and various moons of Jupiter and Saturn are settled with substantial populations, and there is political tension between the inner planets and the outer moons of the system. The action is focused on the small crew (led by Callie - Kalea Machedo) of an independent spacecraft who earn their income by providing transport and recovery services. If this all sounds familar then you’ve probably read the Expanse series, which has clearly had an influence (as is acknowledged by the author) but more of this later. 

The Solar System was discovered by aliens a few centuries before the events of this story. The aliens, which bear a certain resemblance to starfish and octopuses, appear friendly and helpful, in that they have provided a method of travelling to a number of distant stars with habitable planets (now being colonised), using “bridges” for which the only access point is close to the outer planets. However, little is known about the aliens who are popularly known as the Liars, since nothing they say about themselves can be trusted. 

Book 1: The Wrong Stars

The story begins with the discovery by Callie and crew of an ancient human spacecraft in the Solar System, which contains one survivor - Elena - in cryosleep (deep freeze). It transpires that the craft was a “Goldilocks ship”; one of many sent out from the Solar System centuries before aimed at promising-looking stars in the hope that they might have habitable planets. These were sub-light-speed ships equipped with everything which might be needed to establish colonies. However, this particular craft had run into a mysterious structure in space and had somehow been sent back to the Solar System - with the addition of a peculiar alien device which terrified the Liars who saw it. One of the Liars, who called herself Lantern, became attached to Callie’s ship and revealed the existence of a much older race of aliens with god-like powers, known as the Axiom. 

Book 2: The Dreaming Stars

The book starts with Callie and crew in hiding on board a commandeered pirate asteroid, pretending to be dead so that the aliens (of either variety) would not be coming after them to kill them and destroy the Axiom equipment they had found. Once Lantern confirmed that they were no longer at risk of this fate, the crew head for the Taliesen system, where spacecraft had been mysteriously vanishing without trace. What they find there alerts them to the presence of a vast Axiom base, one in which it was possible to lose themselves in virtual reality - and they began to discover why the Axiom withdrew from active participation in galactic affairs. 

Book 3: The Forbidden Stars

This time Callie and crew investigate the Vanir system, one of those which humanity settled, but which has been inaccessible for decades. The crew manage to find their way in but have a much harder job in puzzling out exactly what is going on. They are joined by a representative of the Benefactor, an obviously powerful individual who shares their wish to see the Axiom eliminated, and they find out far more than they want to about the Axiom. Needless to say, the resourceful Callie tackles the situation with her usual courage and competence but finds that she has to pay a price.

I mentioned at the start that the setting is reminiscent of The Expanse,  but the mood is very different. The Axiom series is great fun, light entertainment maintained by the amusing banter between the crew members. The Expanse is more serious with far more depth in the story-telling and characters, and is likely to prove a lot more memorable. It is, if you like, the adult version. 

A couple of points I noticed about the Axiom series: the Liars look suitably alien but they think and speak exactly like humans, which I found slightly disconcerting. The other is that the author has a fondness for inserting substantial infodumps, in the form of pages-long conversations while one character brings others up to date. In Book 2 this is particularly incongruous as it is used to provide basic information about the politicial arrangements within the Solar System despite the fact that the audience had been sitting around in hiding doing nothing much for months during which it is hard to imagine they didn’t find out such basic stuff for themselves.

Despite these niggles I enjoyed the story, and I haven’t yet finished with Callie and crew as there is another book of novellas set in the same world, so that will be on my shopping list.