Military sci-fi is not a sub-genre I’ve been naturally drawn to – or so I’ve thought. Renowned for its emphasis on tech and less on character development than your standard space opera, it’s been something I’ve tended to shy away from. But then again, when I think about it, some of my favourite sci-fi stories have been military-based – and none of them could be accused of half-assing it when it comes to the characters. Case in point: Battlestar Galactica, its reboot being one of the most character-rich sci-fi series out there.
The second book in the Expanse series of space opera goodness by James SA Corey (the pen name for co-authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), Caliban’s War continues the exploits of likely lad, Jim Holden, and his crew of misfits as they wreak merry carnage across the galaxy. Since the first book, things have become even more volatile, with Earth and Mars going to war and Venus quietly breeding a cross between Ridley Scott’s Alien and George Romero’s zombies. Meanwhile, Holden finds himself wham bam in the middle of it all with a trigger-happy Martian marine, potty-mouthed UN official and wiry little botanist who just wants to find his daughter.
I love these books because they don’t feel like books: it feels more like watching a TV series than reading. And, like all the best TV out there, I just wanted to bomb my way through it all in one sitting.
In short, this is some of the best sci-fi I’ve ever read. If you’re not onboard with this series already, remedy that right now.
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Set primarily in the present day, or very near future, THIS IS THE QUICKEST WAY DOWN gives everyday existence a gentle nudge into the realms of the fantastic, the weird, the erotic, the supernatural, the horrific, the arcane and the surreal. These are stories where a casual sexual encounter can embroil a person in dangerous liaisons with ghosts, aliens or even vengeful gods. Yet also where the bizarre can be found lurking just around the corner, across a cup of cooling mocha in a suburban coffee shop, over a glass of chilled rose wine in beachside cafe on the Cote d’Azur or in the next message to arrive on your mobile phone. These stories tread the fine line between the normal and the fantastic, where the unknown lies behind every unopened door and every unread email.
Sci-Fi’s a funny old thing.
There’s the mainstream stuff, such as STAR WARS and DOCTOR WHO, and then there’s the… less mainstream stuff, the books and movies described by some as Hard Sci-Fi, and generally for good reason.
THIS IS THE QUICKEST WAY DOWN is the more digestible end of sci-fi. It’s a varied read, for sure – or reads, should I say, what with the book spanning eleven short stories – but it flows well and feels like a collection as opposed to a load of unconnected stories thrown together. Most of the stories are good, too. My favourites included KASTELORIZON; a somewhat bleak space exploration romp reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s SUNSHINE and indie movie PANDORUM. I also loved pulp action story, A BERETTA FOR ARAZELLA, as well as the title story itself, a sordid little flash number warning of those bad girls your mummy doesn’t want you bringing home, which proved to die for. Literally.
Christian’s style is far from hard, drawing the reader in with an easygoing narrative, plenty of dialogue and buckets of wry humour. EMPIRE STATE OF MIND was the only entry that didn’t work; an overly tech and self-aware thing that proved a little too confusing and cluttered to hold my attention. Horses for courses, as they say: the beauty with a collection of shorts is that no one tale overstays its welcome.
The devil is in the detail, they also say, and this is true of Christian’s writing. He’s a man who likes to theme, certain little quirks and tropes presenting themselves time after time. There’s a lot of Mocha in this book, for one thing. There’s a lot of sex, too: alien sex, demon sex, and, least believable of all, sex with sci-fi fans.
But what I found most was heart.
You’ll smile as you read these stories, not least the first and last entries, a two-parter end of the world tale which sets the tone perfectly for what’s to come, as well as what’s been, leaving the reader surprisingly uplifted at the book’s conclusion.
THIS IS THE QUICKEST WAY DOWN is available now through Proxima Books/ Salt Publishing