As promised, I would be picking up my reading this year. Here are brief reviews of some of the 2022 releases I’ve read so far in January…
The Insecure Mind of Sergei Kraev by Eric Silberstein
The year is 2100. The lack of trust that characterized the early Internet era is long behind us. Mathematical proof ensures neural implants can’t be hacked, and the Board of Reality Overseers blocks false information from spreading.
When undergraduate Sergei Kraev, who dreams of becoming a professor, is accepted into the Technion’s computer science graduate program, he throws himself into his research project: making it possible for neural implants to transmit information directly to the brain. If he succeeds, he’ll earn a full professorship.
But Sergei falls under the influence of Sunny Kim, the beautiful and charismatic leader of a K-pop dance cult. Sergei believes in Sunny’s good intentions and wants to protect her from critics, leading him to perform a feat of engineering that leaves billions of brains vulnerable to attack.
With the clock ticking towards catastrophe, can Sergei see the truth about Sunny and undo what he’s done?
Okay, let’s get one thing straight right off the bat. There is no K-pop dance cult. It’s dance cult based on Korea. There is not even the remotest element of K-pop in this novel and, while most may not care, as someone who had my interest piqued for this very reason, it was a bait and switch. The lack of this potentially kooky/fun (promised) story element aside, this book offers some fascinating world-building as it imagines a future where our lowly internet evolves into a cyberspace that links users via brain implants which offer convenience and comforts…but at what cost? The set-up is great and fascinating aspects of the future tech off-sets the occasional info-dumps in much the same way most of the grounded, sympathetic characters that people this world outweigh the rather two-dimensional villain – Sunny, the dance-happy cult leader – at the heart of the novel. There are also instances where the author seems to be making a political statement about the dangers of misinformation and the need for state censorship which is ironic given that the antagonists of the story hail from the former North Korea. Overall, a solid read whose futuristic ideas are stronger than its narrative whole.
Deep Dive by Ron Walters
Still reeling from the failure of his last project, videogame developer Peter Banuk is working hard to ensure his next game doesn’t meet the same fate. He desperately needs a win, not only to save his struggling company, but to justify the time he’s spent away from his wife and daughters.
So when Peter’s tech-genius partner offers him the chance to beta-test a new state-of-the-art virtual reality headset, he jumps at it. But something goes wrong during the trial, and Peter wakes to find himself trapped in an eerily familiar world where his children no longer exist.
As the lines between the real and virtual worlds begin to blur, Peter is forced to reckon with what truly matters to him. But can he escape his virtual prison before he loses his family forever?
If you’re going to cover the same creative ground well-trodden by Blake Crouch in his exceptional novel Dark Matter, you better bring something new to the table, be it a fresh take on the same premise or, preferably, some sort of twist that subverts the reader’s expectations and turns the conceit on its ears. Unfortunately, Deep Dive does neither. Although the “device” that pompts Peter Banuk’s journey is different from a technological – frankly, more implausible – standpoint, it’s not enough to separate this book as a less interesting version of a very similar story. The set-up is interesting, the tale of a man who finds himself in an alternate reality, losing his daughters in the process, but there’s little emotional depth to our protagonist beyond his obvious despair over the loss of his girls. He’s a hard hero to care for, and “hero” is generous given that the major steps in solving his mysterious predicament come about mostly through the actions of outside forces. He is kidnapped, kidnapped again, and fed sporadic insights until a large chunk of the mystery is revealed when he suddenly, and fortuitously, recovers a chunk of missing memory in the nick of time. Overall, I feel like I’ve read it all before – but better.
Mickey7 by Edward Ashton
Mickey7 is an Expendable: a disposable employee on a human expedition sent to colonize the ice world Niflheim. Whenever there’s a mission that’s too dangerous—even suicidal—the crew turns to Mickey. After one iteration dies, a new body is regenerated with most of his memories intact. After six deaths, Mickey7 understands the terms of his deal…and why it was the only colonial position unfilled when he took it.
On a fairly routine scouting mission, Mickey7 goes missing and is presumed dead. By the time he returns to the colony base, surprisingly helped back by native life, Mickey7’s fate has been sealed. There’s a new clone, Mickey8, reporting for Expendable duties. The idea of duplicate Expendables is universally loathed, and if caught, they will likely be thrown into the recycler for protein.
Mickey7 must keep his double a secret from the rest of the colony. Meanwhile, life on Niflheim is getting worse. The atmosphere is unsuitable for humans, food is in short supply, and terraforming is going poorly. The native species are growing curious about their new neighbors, and that curiosity has Commander Marshall very afraid. Ultimately, the survival of both lifeforms will come down to Mickey7.
Stanley Kubrick once said: “Everything has already been done. Every story has been told. Every scene has been shot. It’s out job to do it one better.” And I would argue not objectively better, but exceptional in its exploration of the familiar subject matter. The premise of Mickey7, for instance, draws immediate parallels to Duncan Jones’ Moon but the novel sets itself apart by proving exceptional in its story-telling. The heart of the novel is Mickey7, the seventh incarnation of an Expendable, a human who can be expected to sacrifice himself for the common good because, after all, he can just return as a clone with most of his memories intact – provided he remembered to back himself up. A beloved friend and fellow crew member to some, an unnatural freak to others, Mickey takes on dangerous missions with a certain acerbic resignation. There’s a humor to the character that makes him not only instantly likable but very grounded and very human, navigating life on the Niflheim ice world colony, a reluctant replaceable cog in an unforgiving machine. There’s some wonderful world-building here and plenty of cool sci-fi concepts and technologies, but it’s the dialogue that truly sets this book apart. It’s smart, sharply comedic at times, and does a great job of realizing the memorable players in Mickey7’s life. Still, I did have a few quibbles. The haphazard plan hatched by the two clones to keep their duplicate existence a secret feels a questionable and highly problematic game plan doomed to failure, while the mystery of the planet’s dangerous denizens (the subterranean-dwelling creepers) isn’t really developed so much as it is touched on now and again before being abruptly resolved, but there’s a terrific twist in the telling and our hero’s clever actions ultimately lead to a dramatically satisfying conclusion. One of the type of books you take note of the author’s name so you can track down their other titles. Recommended.
The Chosen Twelve by James Breakwell
There are 22 candidates. There are 12 seats.
The last interstellar colony ship is down to its final batch of humans after the robots in charge unhelpfully deleted the rest. But rebooting a species and training them for the arduous task of colonisation isn’t easy – especially when the planet below is filled with monsters, the humans are more interested in asking questions than learning, and the robots are all programmed to kill each other.
But the fate of humanity rests on creating a new civilization on the planet below, and there are twelve seats on the lander. Will manipulation or loyalty save the day?
Alas, despite what the cover blurb may tell you, this book lacks the compelling life or death gamesmanship of The Hunger Games, the deliriously off-the-wall humor of The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the thematic depths of Lord of the Flies, and the provocative philosophical underpinnings of Phliip K. Dick’s work. It’s more a fairly straightforward (very) soft sci-fi novel that reads like Y.A. even though the varied players are much older. And yet, despite their age and surface smarts, they’re all surprisingly simplistic in their approach to each other and the challenges they face. For the most part, there’s not much depth to these characters beyond Delta, our protagonist, and even she is ultimately upstaged by a robot named Spenser. The humor ranges from the silly to the absurd and it unfortunately undermines the drama once things finally get going (about halfway through the proceedings). The premise is great, but the execution is uninspired. A quick, unremarkable read.
The Liars Beneath by Heather Powell
After a tragic accident ends her best friend’s life, 17-year-old Becca Thompson succumbs to grief the only way she knows how: by wallowing in it. She’s a fragment of the person she once was-far too broken to enjoy the summer before her senior year. But when Ben McCain, her best friend’s older brother, returns home, Becca must face her new reality head on.
She isn’t interested in Ben’s games, especially since he abandoned his sister during the months leading up to her death. But when he begs for her help in uncovering the truth about what really happened the night of his sister’s death, Becca finds herself agreeing, hoping to clear up rumors swirling in the wake of her best friend’s accident.
An unhinged ex-boyfriend, secret bucket lists, and garage parties in the place Becca calls home soon lead her to the answers she’s so desperate to unveil. But nobody is being honest, not even Ben. And the closer Becca gets to the truth-and to Ben-the more danger seems to surround her.
Clearing her best friend’s name was all she wanted to do, but Becca is quickly realizing that the truth she craves might be uglier than the lies her best friend kept.
The Gallion’s chief engineer Uma Ozakka has always been fascinated with the past, especially the tale of the Fortunate Five, who ended the war with the Felen. When the Gallion rescues a run-down junk freighter, Ozakka is shocked to recognize the Five’s legendary ship—and the Five’s famed leader, Eldric Leesongronski, among the crew.
But nothing else about Leesongronski and his crewmates seems to match up with the historical record. With their ships running out of power in the rift, more than the lives of both crews may be at stake.
When Eve is drugged and another Songbird murdered at a campus party, she suddenly finds herself on the list of suspects. Another picture is posted online of the victim in her final moments, and this time, Eve is sure the hands around the girl’s throat… are hers! Could she have killed the girl while under the influence of whatever someone had slipped in her drink? The police and others at the Eyrie are suspicious; the murders began when she arrived. Her new boyfriend Richard insists that she could not be the killer. But who would want the Songbirds dead? One of the other Songbirds, like Gianna, the snarky sax player who seems to hate everyone? Or Philip, the creepy building caretaker and occasional night watchman? Or could it be Prof. Von Klein himself, who seems very handy with a camera and has a secret locked room behind his office where the light always seems to be on after dark?
Whoever it is, Eve knows she needs to figure it out. Because when a dead canary is left as a bloody message on the keys of her piano, she knows her own life may be in deadly danger.
This casual tone is also reflected in the attitude of the characters who, in the face of a mounting body count, go on about their lives as if the bloody events are nothing more than curious developments rather than anything to be alarmed about. On her first day at the conservatory, Eve is informed that a student was murdered there the night before. But there’s no heavy police presence. The school is not shut down. No one is struggling with the emotional baggage of having to come to terms with the death of someone they knew. Instead, everyone is fairly nonchalant, discussing the murder as if it were the equivalent of a juicy piece of high school gossip. At first, I thought this was a hint that something was very wrong with these students, a red flag signaling some macabre conspiracy, but when Eve didn’t clock this as strange in any way, I began to have my doubts – which were cemented when, in a later scene, Eve and her new friends go to a cafe where they are welcomed by the barista. It’s been a while since he’s seen them. He greets them warmly, is introduced to their new member Eve…but there is no mention of the girl who died the night before. Surely, he would have known her too. And surely he must have heard about her death. Yet she isn’t even mentioned. Apparently, it just wasn’t a big deal.
These characters don’t act like real people. Throughout the book, these young women think nothing of walking through the dark environs of the conservatory, alone in the dead of night, despite the recent murders. And they pay the ultimate price, getting killed in grisly, over-the-top, often silly fashion complete with arch commentary on the part of the killer. Things reach a crescendo of nonsense late in the novel when a trio of characters, trapped in the building with a killer on the loose, elect to split up and search for a missing friend rather than get the hell out and contact the police.
This book would have worked better as a parody. In its present form, it reads like a half-heated tribute to a much more accomplished original.