How To Find Good Science Fiction To Read

There’s so much stuff getting published these days that it can be a challenge to identify good fiction from bad.

In fact, quite a few years ago when I was reading fantasy and science fiction in my own time, I remember even then, when we weren’t downloading it from Amazon, that the ratio of ‘good’ to ‘bad’ science fiction was woeful.

Partly that was my fault. I assumed that if a book was published, then it had to be good. After all, it costs so much time and money to publish it would be folly to publish something bad. If it’s cover was on display in a bookshop, then it must be among the best because of the real estate it takes up.

Now I know a few things I didn’t back then:

  • Publishers buy manuscripts before they’re written, so they haven’t seen the end result before they’ve committed to paying for it any more than you have.
  • Publishers aren’t that good at choosing great literature anyway. They get it right more often than the Amazon algorithm, but that’s because they’re harder to manipulate, not because they’ve got mystical abilities to choose good writers.
  • The book that has pride of place in the bookshop has often paid to be there. At least online portals are required to indicate that the presence of a book at the top of your page is a paid promotion.

At least that explains some of the truly awful stuff I read when I started into the genre, and almost put me off for good.

Then I ran into a few people who course-corrected for me and sent me in a couple of new directions.

If you’re looking at science fiction and wondering why people read this stuff, then perhaps I can do the same for you. Here is my take on why you ought to give the genre a try, and how to get a good panoramic view of what it has to offer.

None of the rules of writing change in this genre

Good stories have well-rounded characters facing big challenges that they overcome in creative ways. They face challenges that alter the way they see the world and therefore change who they are. They are set in a world that is internally consistent with rules you instinctively, intuitively understand, even if the rules seem strange from the outside.

Just because you’re in the science fiction genre doesn’t mean a good book doesn’t need good characters, internal consistency and a dramatic premise. If you come across a bad science fiction book, remember this: it’s probably bad for the same reason some non-science fiction books are bad. It’s not bad because it’s science fiction.

The search for good books to read exists everywhere.

There are different subgenres, some of which may not be for you

If you read a book that’s narrowly-focused military science fiction, you’ll most likely read a lot about military battles, deployments of fleets and the characters of the marines or officers that are in command of these ships or part of their crew.

You might hate that.

If you hate that, you’ll probably also hate the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brien, because it’s exactly the same thing only set on earth in our not-too-distant past when we relied on sails and conscripted seamen to get large ships around. Nobody in their right mind (at least in my opinion) is going to claim that the Aubrey-Maturin series (all 19 books of it) is bad. That’s because it’s exceptional.

But it might not be for you.

Check what a book is about before you choose to read it. Science fiction is not what a book is about, any more than The Three Musketeers is about French history.

Ask people who know

While you may not know the people who know, it only really takes a couple of links to get to authors you like who will recommend (or whose readers will recommend) other things to read.

Of course, don’t get stuck in an echo chamber of similar stuff.

A good place to start for some recommendations that aren’t from me is the Science Fiction Roundup by the Guardian. Every so often they publish a list of the best new science fiction. I don’t agree with all of their recommendations, but a lot of the authors I enjoy reading today I discovered there.

There are some great authors that you should read at least once to see what’s available

Here’s a suggested list of science fiction authors that you might like to try, and the reason for each.

DISCLAIMER: This is by no means a list of the best, nor is it a comprehensive list of the good. It’s a suggested panorama of undeniably good authors whose work provides a safe and high-quality entry point into the genre. If I were to write this article again tomorrow, half the names and suggestions would change.

Isaac Asimov. Because it’s hard to pretend to have read any science fiction if you haven’t at least read Foundation. He’s the father of the debate around AI and its interaction with its human creators.

Larry Niven. Mainly because of Ringworld, which remains one of the great leaps of the imagination in the genre. Once you’ve visualised the Ringworld in your mind, it’s something you can’t unsee.

Iain M. Banks. An author whose worldbuilding is beyond compare. Iain M. Banks invented the post-scarcity society ‘The Culture’. If you can have anything you want, then what motivates individuals to act? Then he asked what would threaten such a powerful society and what challenges would it face, internally and externally. In answering that question he wrote some of the most satisfying science fiction out there. If you want to start where I started, read The Player of Games, but if you want to start with the book everyone talks about, read Consider Phlebas.

Alastair Reynolds is one of my favourite authors for hard science fiction. By this I mean science fiction with a strong emphasis towards not bending, breaking or ignoring the rules of physics. I think of his books as ‘crunchy’ and I enjoy them very much. Revelation Space is space opera with enough worldbuilding to keep you busy pondering it for weeks after you’ve finished reading it. Don’t stop there though, Reynolds is prolific and I’ve recently rediscovered him myself.

Alex Lamb is a more recent author. I really enjoyed his debut novel, Roboteer, published in 2015. I’m putting it here because it’s a very different vision than the other suggestions. The setting is conflict between Mars and Earth, and the technologies that make space travel possible. I also reviewed it when I read it, and you can read the review here.

Cixin Liu is a Chinese author, and his work has been widely translated into English. If you ever saw the film The Wandering Earth, then you should know that the story came from him. The work has a distinct flavour to it that comes from its foreign roots, which I consider a great asset. I suspect there is a lot of excellent science fiction being written in China and we in the west are deprived of access to most of it. I would suggest, just to pick something suitably different, The Three Body Problem.

Neal Stephenson is one of my favourite writers, and it’s extremely hard to pick what to suggest from his work because it’s all just so excellent. I’m going to cheat and suggest several novels because I can’t choose between them. The first, Seveneves, is a spectacular story spanning centuries that begins in the present day, with the destruction of the moon. The second, Anathem, tells the adventures of a monastic scholar on a world called Arbre, where knowledge is kept behind walls to protect if from the saecular world. Finally, The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer; yet another fast-paced world-building epic with a strong message about the social ladder and how it works.

Ann Leckie exploded onto the science fiction landscape in 2013 with Ancillary Justice. Original and exciting, sometimes poignant, Ancillary Justice is about a synthetic person that is an extension of a ship AI, and how they must adapt to no longer being part of a collective larger identity while dealing with the larger circumstances of how the ship she was a part of was destroyed.

There is a ton of excellent science fiction

Literally more than you could ever read.

I’ve named mostly big names here, because Asimov, Stephenson and Banks are giants in the genre, but that’s not to say you have to stay in that particular garden. I just think it’s a good set of signposts to start with.

I’ve not named any military science fiction, although there’s plenty of that (for some fun, pulpy military science fiction you could try Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series, starting with Dauntless. In a similar vein, you could try the excellent Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. Also by John Scalzi, if you’re looking for something a bit (very?) different, and you’ve some experience with the Star Trek TV series, you might enjoy Redshirts.

I could literally type all day and not run out of suggestions.

I was about to say I’ll stop there, but then it struck me that I haven’t mentioned Kim Stanley Robinson’s fantastic novel, 2312. So… guilt.

Feel free to add your recommendations below. I’m always keen to discover quality writing, and the genre isn’t as well signposted as people think it is.

Happy reading!

Re-Read: Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

I’m an Alastair Reynolds fan.

Not ashamed to admit it, he writes crunchy science fiction that sits well with my critical mind. You know – the bit that competes with your enjoyment of a novel by whispering, “that’s not very realistic, is it?” in the back of your mind.

I’m not a very good fan though.

I found his books by accident, trawling the shelves of a local bookstore many years a in search of good science fiction, something which can be very hard to come by when you don’t know the genre well.

In the intervening years, I’ve read Reynolds intermittently, chancing upon one novel or another, and getting that spark of author recognition when I saw his name. I’ve enjoyed every single one, to a greater or lesser degree.

I recharged my kindle for the first time in about two years when the coronavirus-related confinement limited my entertainment options, and while flicking through books I’ve read and know well, I chanced upon Revenger. I remembered the title, recognized Alastair Reynolds’ name on the cover, which seemed familiar.

But I couldn’t remember anything about it.

Brilliant! A second run at a novel I’ve already bought, courtesy of a faulty transfer from short- to long-term memory.

The downside of reading a book you already know is that you read it much faster than the first time around, as your memory starts to fill in ever larger bits of the story for you. The upside is you get to rediscover work you enjoyed enough not to delete, which in my case is a sure measure of quality. I’m not short of memory on my kindle, but I’m still picky about what gets to fester there.

After I finished, I looked up the Wikipedia entry for Revenger and found that it’s referred to as “hard” science fiction. That I have to object to. Although much of Reynolds’ oeuvre is hard science fiction, this isn’t. The “glowy”, the “ghosty” and the “quoins” are anything but, and they’re central to the story. That said, his departure from the strict confines of hard science fiction poses no problem for me.

Fura Ness, as a protagonist, gets most of her character development out of the way in the first third of the book, and spends the rest of it coming to terms with the person she’s developed into. The world-building is, while not on a par with Seveneves, absolutely top notch. Reynolds’ willingness to kill off significant characters keeps you on your toes, but he doesn’t forego the character development of each of his victims for all that, which gives you the shock that a death in a novel ought to.

Finally, the moral complexity the book hints at is refreshing (at least to me), in a context where the real world seems ever more defined in absolutes. Even the protagonist and the anatgonist have, as we finally discover, a side to them that mitigates the obvious judgement their behaviour draws. It’s possible, in fact, that the most evil characters are on the periphery of the story, looking in.

I’d forgotten about Revenger, and I really enjoyed rediscovering it. I also discovered that there are two sequels, which I will now have to read, and other books by Reynolds that had passed unnoticed, and which will find their way onto a list that informs future reading decisions.

Short Fiction : Snow

The Ortholan’s crew barely survive their crash on an icy moon, and they owe their narrow escape to the least popular member of their crew, the Navigator, whom they call Blue. But they will need him again if they are to survive, because he is the only person aboard capable of flying the ship back to civilization. Unfortunately, without access to their medication, Navigators become somewhat unstable, and the crew’s only hope of salvation may well be the one who kills them all.

Available on Amazon by clicking here .

Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie

The Imperial Radch series is funnel-like. It starts with an eye-opening vision of a civilization ruled by an all-powerful distributed leader, and shows us this through the eyes of the final fragment of a destroyed ship, the last ancillary of the Justice of Toren, betrayed by her ruler in a civil war of a monumental and complex nature, dealing with loss and a crisis of identity on a tragic scale. What vistas, what scope!

As we follow Breq and discover her predicament, her self-imposed mission and the universe in which it all takes place, we are given vast horizons to contemplate. Her mission takes her all the way to Anaander Mianaai, ruler of the Radchaai (or at least one part of her), and there we discover the details of the civil war, the split within Mianaai herself.

In the second book, the funnel narrows. We are taken to Athoek Station, where Breq, now wearing the Mianaai surname, takes control of a politically complex situation, but compared to the war raging in the universe at large, we know that what happens here is a storm in a teacup. Athoek is not critical to the ongoing civil war. Important perhaps, a staging point for future conflict, perhaps, but not the turning point. This gives us an opportunity to examine more closely the social and political consequences of the civilization Ann Leckie has invented for us. This is well done in the second book, which explores the social mores, complex emotional states and intricate rules of conduct of the Radchaai in great detail.

I was hoping that the third book would broaden the scope again, giving us the vistas glimpsed in the first tome once more, and showing us the conclusion of the war into which Breq, her ship and her crew have been entrained.

In fact, we are still at Athoek, and the narrative takes a philosophical turn. Leckie has always liked exploring the societal consequences and complex mannerisms engendered by the culture she has imagined, but here we go into full-on obsessive mode with deep analyses of the internal emotional states and moral convictions of various individuals, all witnessed through the all-seeing connected awareness of our main protagonist. This is a universe in which making tea in the wrong china set can cause such offense that it leads to a depression that needs medication from a professional doctor, and I’m barely exaggerating.

Breq looks very tough in large part because everyone around her is either visibly falling apart or hiding their emotional fragmentation behind vast reserves of stoicism. Every sentence spoken is a minefield, every politeness is a potential insult to a third party, every act a move on a moral and emotional chessboard of ever-increasing complexity, but often of little real consequence. The absence of a supporting influence is enough to cause characters to fall apart emotionally to the point where they must be sedated. This went a little far for me.

Unfortunately, most of this matters little to the physical reality of Athoek system. Athoek, in turn, matters little in the overall scheme of the civil war. Either the very real, very military strategies at play will work in Breq’s favour, or they will not, and Breq rolls the dice on her military decisions with far more recklessness than (s)he manifests in her/his delicate management of interpersonal relations.

So much of the book is internal dialogue explaining the consequences of this or that on someone’s emotional state that it implies the individuals in the story are more important than the civilization tearing itself apart in the background. The civil war unfortunately only serves as a backdrop to the narrative. Don’t misunderstand me, it is interesting to explore how such convoluted social rules lead to extremes of emotion in individuals upon whom entire star systems depend, but I would have preferred it if these emotions were not the dominant thread in the narrative.

I very much enjoyed the first and second books, and was hoping that the third would veer away from introspection and towards Breq’s role in the greater events at work in the universe around her. How does one resist or fight or outwit a schizophrenic, megalomaniacal, near-omniscient multi-bodied ruler who doesn’t know her own mind? I was hoping an answer would be forthcoming. Unfortunately for me, that’s not where this book was going.

Much of what happens here is critically important to the individuals concerned, but in the grand scheme of things, with which we were teased in the first novel, it is a storm in a teacup. Although you’ll soon find out it’s a 3000-year-old teacup that belonged to an extinct dynasty from a conquered world.

Conclusion: Well written, well worth the read, and I did enjoy it, but if the first book set you up with expectations that you were going to see, first hand, the evolution of the Imperial Radch at this turning point in the civilization’s history, reset those expectations before you jump in. Then you’ll be fine.


Addendum: I suppose it would be odd not to comment on the deliberate use of the pronoun “she” to describe every character in the book. This has been commented on to death elsewhere, favourably and unfavourably. It didn’t do much for me, and I would personally have preferred a normal use of pronouns, but it neither makes nor unmakes the book. As you read, you quickly learn to ignore it and it fades into the background apart from occasional moments where it can cause a little gender confusion. It is, however, a relevant brick in the edifice Ann Leckie constructs, and it is relevant to the societal norms and cultural eccentricities that are very much at the heart of the novel, so it has its place here and is more than a gimmick or a political statement.

Aurora – Kim Stanley Robinson

There’s an introspective and meditative quality to Robinson’s novels that comes, I think, from his avoidance of page turner strategies. He avoids chapters that end in suspense, making you want to know what happens next, and we don’t get the multiple interwoven storyline treatment that allows the author to always have one cliffhanger active at any given time.

So what we get is a novel that is more centred on real, physical challenges faced by the population of our interstellar ship. Problems related to closed-loop ecologies, population control, artificial intelligence (and its definition), and the concept of authority and hierarchy on a multi-generational starship. These are all tackled in a fictional context, but with great attention to the inner workings and intricate details of each challenge.

There is a clear sense that Robinson has a stack of research on his desk a mile high.

The story covers the last few years before a starship launched from earth several generations ago arrives at Tau Ceti, its destination. The people on board have never known Earth, and are aware only of their own small microcosm – the Ship. We see events unfold through the life of Freya, the daughter of a well-known member of the community, Devi. Unlike Devi, who is, by virtue of her understanding of the ship’s mechanisms, the default engineer in chief, Freya lacks the mind for the task and is more interested in how people behave.

Our narrator is the ship’s nascent artificial intelligence, which is writing a narrative account of the journey at Devi’s request, and after a number of aborted attempts, focuses on Freya as a protagonist to give the narrative structure. The process of writing the narrative account neatly tracks the Ship’s evolution towards true intelligence, both in the narrative style and in the content and questions asked as the narrative unfolds.

As an investigation of the difficulties of reaching far-distant stars through the use of long-lived starships, the novel is extremely thought-provoking and challenges the often-made assumptions that allow us to do away with considering the real problems such an endeavour would face. For example, Robinson undertakes a detailed examination of the chemical reactions that immobilise vital elements that are in short supply, and the resulting effects on the ability of the ecosystem to continue to function. Through this part of the story, he demonstrates that the problem-solving required in even this single discipline is insufficiently developed at this time for us to even consider a project of this kind. We depend on so many things that our environment on Earth provides without our needing to manage it that we are ill-prepared to take on the challenge of recreating the right conditions for long-term life away from our cradle.

In a way, the novel is slightly defeatist in this regard, and perhaps that’s a shame, because such an in-depth investigation could have led somewhere more rewarding without the need for sugar-coating. Some of the challenges (perhaps the most difficult and insurmountable) faced by the population of the ship are somewhat deus-ex-machina in terms of their formulation, and the premise that any planet worth occupying will already have some form of life inimical to our own is not necessarily something that I feel is properly explained or defended in the book.

Nevertheless, Robinson has taken the premise of a generational starship reaching for the stars further and deeper than anyone before, and while the novel may not leave you with the sense of wonder that drew some of us to the science fiction genre in the first place, it is an enriching narrative, a good story and an extremely valuable addition to the science fiction bookshelf.

Highly recommended.

Alive – Scott Sigler

I read some strong reviews of Scott Sigler’s latest book, Alive, and was looking for something to get my teeth into as I managed to free up some time for reading again. Unfortunately, there was a gap between my expectations and what the book delivered that made it hard for me to enjoy it.

That obviously doesn’t mean that the book isn’t good, but I’m not good with young adult fiction unless it’s sufficiently complex under the surface or it has a sufficiently powerful underlying premise or message.

In this case, unfortunately, that didn’t work out for me.

This is a book that keeps a secret from you and sets up a big reveal. You feel the secret building as you go, in the unanswered questions and in the gaps between the questions that have been asked, and that gets you to keep reading, playing a game of guessing the outcome before the story gets to the point where all is revealed.

It’s like painting with negative space, where it’s the bits of the canvas you don’t actually fill in that contain the detail of the image, and you can only see the shape of what’s being drawn when either the rest of the canvas is sufficiently filled for a shape to emerge, or when the artist helpfully traces a line around the edges of the object on the page.

As a consequence, there’s very little I can say about the book without revealing the contours or that image and spoiling the story for you.

As an aside, the author has a request to reviewers at the end of the book asking that they not reveal “spoilers”, and obviously I wouldn’t, but isn’t it sad that it’s necessary for an author to actually outright ask people not to spoil the book for others.

The reveal is satisfying (it’s not like Lost, at the end of which I was abruptly furious with the writers), in the sense that everything does hang together. Unfortunately it wasn’t interesting enough for me to feel that it was worth the buildup. Luckily, since the writing style is clear and the story fairly straightforward to follow, I blasted through this book so fast that I didn’t feel I had lost loads of time on it, so I wasn’t upset. It was more like a meal that leaves you strangely unsatisfied at the end of it.

What I can tell you is this – a group of youths awaken in coffins, they have no memory of how they got there, no idea what they are doing there, and no knowledge of their own names except for the engravings on the coffins they woke up in. From there they start to explore and discover their environment, and others like themselves.

The youths are marked with symbols on their foreheads, and these symbols correlate to specific skills and/or character attributes, which are drawn with so little subtlety that you have absolutely no doubt about who is what. It does get a bit tedious having people referred to as circle-stars or whatever, and the author in my opinion tries to mine this somewhat shallow vein for more than it’s worth.

As they explore, they will discover more about what they are doing there, who they are, and what’s going on. The big reveal isn’t wholly original, although there are interesting aspects to it which I thought were great and could have been explored more fully – but I can’t tell you what they are without comprehensively ruining the novel, and for all my reticence to rank it highly, it is probably quite a good read in the young adult category – I’m just a poor judge of that kind of material because it doesn’t push my buttons.  At the same time, there are scenes of brutal violence which don’t really belong in the YA category, so I’m not sure what to make of the book overall – it doesn’t sit well in any of the categories.

It’s the first part of a three-part series. I can see where the story could go, but don’t really feel the need to find out exactly what happens next, and will probably give the rest of the series a miss.

Some reviewers loved this book, so read other reviews before you decide, I seem to be somewhat of an outlier on this one.

Roboteer – Alex Lamb

So I lied. I said I wasn’t going to read any more books for a while, and then I read the Guardian’s Science Fiction Roundup for Q2 2015. Much of it wasn’t really what I was looking for, and then the last book in the list,  Roboteer, tempted me away from my self-imposed sensory deprivation.

Well, that and the prospect of several hours travel on a budget airline.

The main character of the book is a Roboteer, a genetically altered human being whose purpose in life, insofar as the designers of his genome are concerned, is the programming of robots. True AI is deemed impossible, at least with the science accessible to the colony worlds, so they created large numbers of robots to carry out the numerous and perilous tasks their environmental tinkering requires.  To manage this, they developed genetically-enhanced individuals capable of managing these large fleets of semi-autonomous robots by interfacing directly with the complex software that is their equivalent of a consciousness.

But Will’s career as a Roboteer is not back on his colony world. He is a Roboteer on a starship, deep in combat with a force from Earth, and so the book opens on a space battle unlike any you are likely to have seen before. The originality of it – including the interpretation of “soft attacks” that run in parallel to the more violent aspects of combat, is refreshing and a strong point of the book.

Roboteers have difficulty interacting with others. The particular skillset they receive from birth unfortunately pushes them a few notches up the autism spectrum, and they therefore suffer from a certain amount of discrimination. Will is a particularly high-functioning Roboteer, who feels this discrimination keenly. This has a tendency to get him into trouble, and this trouble, combined with his particular gift for his profession, lands him a job on a soft-attack ship, for a mission of critical importance to his colony – one on which their entire survival hinges.

Earth, united under a totalitarian religious leader, has climbed out of its long period of self-harm, and has rallied around a new holy crusade – to recapture the colonies that it once called its own, but who have since spread their wings, embraced self-modification and genetic optimisation, both hideous in the eyes of the new faith, and represent the capitalism that Earth and its religious leaders have identified as the source of all harm. People with adjustments must be “purged”, which is the kind of cleansing one doesn’t come back from. The war will therefore not result in half-measures, and is a live-or-die moment in the history of the human race.

Unfortunately, despite having spent almost a hundred years in civil war and therefore having failed to develop the same level of technological advancement as the colonies, Earth appears to have developed a weapon that may win them the war. Discovering the nature of this weapon is the mission Will and the crew of the ship he joins must undertake before Earth attacks Galatea and all is lost.

I leaped at the book because it represented a new voice in space opera, and a new take on how technology and society might arrange itself in the context of interplanetary civilisation. In this respect, the book is a terrific read, and I can only recommend it wholeheartedly.

The combat scenes are excellently drawn and very immersive, and the science behind the fiction is – for the most part – believable, if not hard SF when looked at closely. Unfortunately, and I never thought I’d hear myself say this, there’s too many of them.

The strength of a fleet is usually the way in which it co-operates. The value of a leader is usually in the strategy with which he directs troops and assets. The battles in Roboteer feel, by the end of the book, almost like first-person computer games, because individuals constantly and consistently shift the tide of entire battles on their own, through their direct actions. Perhaps because I have read too much military history, I found myself straining to maintain my suspension of disbelief, as a single ship or a single person saved the day or overcame impossible odds, yet again.

But don’t listen to me. I always find something to complain about (just read the previous reviews), and what you should really do is go out and buy this book. You should do this both for the obvious reason that it’s really quite good, but also because we really want to encourage new writers entering the field to continue writing and developing their skills. This is a really promising first book and I hope that Alex Lamb has a lot more of this kind of work in him.

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless – Jack Campbell

John Geary is very very cold. The psychological effects of having spent a hundred years in hibernation, frozen in a capsule after a battle in which he was presumed killed. That battle was the opening salvo in a war that has since continued unabated, losses on both sides mounting relentlessly.

John Geary is very famous. His actions and sacrifices during the battle resulted in many lives saved. Posthumously, he has become the poster child for generations of ever younger warriors and ship captains. As war casualties have killed the senior officers, the skills, strategies and tactics necessary to plan and execute a fleet engagement have been lost before they could be handed down. The fleet fights bravely, valiantly, but bluntly, with little in the way of intelligent battle planning.

John Geary is thrust by circumstance into the role of Fleet Admiral shortly after he awakens. For him four weeks have passed. For the fleet a hundred years, and to them, he is either a legend returned from the dead, or an outdated relic from the past. Faced with inexperienced crew, untrained ship captains, a philosophy of war in which bravery outranks tactics and a navy at odds with the values he was taught to respect as an officer, can Captain “Black Jack” Geary take the Alliance Fleet back to the safety of Alliance Space, or will the many challenges facing him overcome the advantage of his ancient, and yet vastly superior knowledge of engagement strategy, battle tactics and fleet management?

The concept of this story is exceptional. Geary is a perfect hero – the one who is thrust into the position of leader not just because he is famous, but also because he can see that everyone around him is completely lacking in the skills necessary to do more than charge at the enemy en masse. He reluctantly recognizes that, even if his seniority is based on an accident of history, he really is the only person in the fleet with the knowledge and skills to run an engagement intelligently. The only one with a chance of getting these sailors home.

Much is made of his legendary status, with ship captains under his command predictably splitting into groups that support or even idolize him, and groups who cannot accept the idea that a controlled engagement and long-term view of the conflict is better than the virtue of direct confrontation and the courage and self-sacrifice this represents. To some, he appears cowardly and at odds with the way history has depicted him.

Perhaps too much is made of it, in fact, because after several chapters, even though we understand that Geary is conflicted, even though we understand that some of the ship captains are against him, even though we know he is embarrassed by the way people idolize him, we still get long passages during which he walks the ship, agonizes over the way he is perceived, or has long disclosure sessions with the only civilian representative on board, a woman who makes much of the threat he poses as a living god who could seek to rule the Alliance as easily as serve it. She unfortunately seems to lack the finesse to understand that sometimes you deal with what’s in front of you before tacking the very theoretical and unproven problems of many months hence. She gets quite annoying, actually.

If the story’s emphasis lies elsewhere than character development, this is likely because Jack Campbell, a.k.a. John G. Henry, is a retired US Navy officer, and combat is what he knows. This is apparent in the battle scenes which are long, elaborate, and well thought through. The great strengths of this novel and the series as a whole rests in two things – the original idea of a world in which war has waged for so long that the art of war itself has been mostly lost, and both sides are reduced to flailing at each other with little in the way of tactics; and the well drawn military engagements that demonstrate the effectiveness of a military mind at the head of a fleet, especially when faced with an enemy that is not used to an opponent that does more than merely bludgeon.

But a story requires characters to bring it to life, and while Geary is very solidly depicted and rendered, few of the other characters benefit from that degree of complexity, appearing more as foils to bring contrast to Geary’s character than individuals in their own right. Each character has his or her place – The Co-President is Geary’s conscience (although she does more to confuse than to settle him), Captain Desjani is his day-to-day mirror, Duellos is his encouragement, remaining at the end of almost every single captain’s conference to advise and encourage him, Numos represents his opposition within the fleet, blindly hating and resenting anything that he says or does, and who can always be relied upon to disobey orders in the most damaging way. In the end, their behaviour is so predictable that they’re useful more for exposition than as true story elements in their own right. The only character truly in focus is Geary.

But military science fiction can get away with this, because we don’t necessarily read it for the characters – we want the battles. It’s a shame we can’t have both, but a novelist with a strong grasp of character would find it difficult – without major effort on their part – to describe battles in as convincing a manner as Campbell. So it’s a trade-off I’m willing to accept in a novel that is unashamedly military in its ambitions.

This is a good story, I hope that as I make my way through the series the characterisation becomes more complex. I’ve already read the second novel and not to pre-empt my review, it hasn’t really improved all that much in this particular area, but my hopes remain. There are further elements that are only hinted at that could become very interesting as the story develops – nobody seems to understand why these two groups are at war in the first place, for example, and that is something else that someone from the past can have an influence over.

I enjoyed this first look at Geary’s adventures, it’s a bit pulpy in the sense that I raced through it extremely fast, but it was satisfying nonetheless (if a little expensive in a dollars-per-hour-of-reading calculation).

Trading in Danger – Elizabeth Moon

There are two principal ways in which this book (and those that follow, one would presume), is particularly strong.

The first, and more subtle, is the credibility of descriptions of military behaviour and composure under pressure. I hadn’t entirely understood why certain aspects of the heroine’s behaviour seemed so believably military-cadet-like until I learned that Elizabeth Moon has a military background herself.

The second particular strength is the nature of the world that’s being described as a backdrop to the story. With a far-flung empire and obligatory travel time measured in weeks and months rather than days, a kind of rule-by-consensus evolves. The distance and time involved in travelling from one point to another maintains and enhances the importance of shipping and transport while diluting the ability of any central authority to exercise control or to enforce a particular set of rules. Finally, it gives disproportionate power to anyone capable of bridging those distances with either information or matter, and those who have that sort of power have a strong incentive to hang on to their monopoly of it.

So it is that Kylara Vatta, after being thrown out of a military academy for rather spurious reasons, finds herself earning her way back into her family’s graces (and being conveniently moved away from the epicentre of the scandal she’s created by getting thrown out of the academy) by captaining a ship that’s due for salvaging at a location a few months travel from home.

Her genetic heritage – a desire to make the best of every situation and a constant search for trade and profit – manifests halfway through the journey as she spies an opportunity for some lucrative work if she makes a small detour. From there things slide downhill fast as she finds herself inadvertently embroiled in a complex fight between unknown but very powerful organizations, while still piloting nothing more than her ready-for-the-scrapheap outdated trading vessel.

Some weaknesses in the narrative comes in counterpoint to its strengths. While the military background of those characters that deserve one is impeccable, the character descriptions fall a little flat when we look at the civilian and emotional aspects. Specific character traits are explained, demonstrated, explained again, analysed in excruciating detail through italicized internal monologues, and then analysed and examined some more a few paragraphs later because we may not have gotten the message the first time. Ky’s affinity for combat, her complexes regarding the way she’s perceived by her family (too nice to strays), her dilemma about getting involved or becoming independent of her family – it is all over-explained, it comes back too often, and it moves forward too slowly to merit the many lines of text dedicated to the subject.

In terms of the very interesting concept that law and order become fungible and difficult to enforce over the vast distances of space, the idea is great, but disappointingly under-utilized. We spend more time worrying about whether we can trust the people in the ship, or whether Kylara can get over her first love affair, than examining the concept of how society and those who wish to further it struggle to protect against those who would take advantage of the relative lawlessness of space. We get aspects of this – the existence of militias and mercenaries in particular – and the genesis of the story more or less depends on the premise, but it’s rarely dealt with head-on in the text.

That said, despite being very linear and having some character balance issues (Kylara is the only properly developed character in this first book), the story works both as a by-the-numbers space thriller, executing a simple plot well, and as a coming of age story for a young heroine who discovers her strengths as she exercises them. For a young adult crowd, an excellent demonstration that science fiction can be fertile soil on which to grow adventure stories.

I enjoyed the book very much, even if I don’t think it’ll be winning any literature prizes.