The dawn of 2016 finds my to-be-read pile one book shorter. A hard sci-fi book review should augur well for the new year.
The hard SF book in question is The Cunning Blood, authored by a publishing industry veteran who's worn pretty much every hat in the business: the esteemed Jeff Duntemann. This book is a testament to the depth of Mr. Duntemann's experience and the breadth of his imagination.
NB: I will do my best to avoid giving away major plot twists and character secrets, but some minor spoilers may slip through. Let the reader be advised.
Peter Novilio is a pilot, ex-government spook, and junior initiate of the Sangruse Society--a secret organization dedicated to advancing nanotechnology. Though the global Canadian hegemony has long since outlawed "small stuff" like the Sangruse Device, the governor of the former United States cuts a clandestine deal with the society's leader that lands Peter--and the sapient nanodevice living in his veins--in Hell.
Since The Cunning Blood is hard SF and not squishy-soft space opera/horror, the Hell to which Peter (and Geyl, the undercover agent he'st ostensibly been sent to guard) is condemned isn't the abode of Lucifer, but a prison planet riddled with electronics-destroying nanotech. The Canadian powers that be drop violators of their zero tolerance anti-violence policy safely out of sight on a world that's stuck in the stone age.
Or so they think.
Science fiction makes for the most challenging world building, since the author's secondary world must not only be entertaining; it also has to work in a technical sense to maintain suspension of disbelief. The Cunning Blood works--on several levels.
In its underlying concepts, this book resembles Escape from New York meets Michael Crichton's Prey. The way that Duntemann handles speculative future technology reminds me of William Gibson, and his depictions of space travel are reminiscent of John C. Wright. The mood and themes adhere to Sarah Hoyt's Human Wave literary movement, extolling human ingenuity and the pioneer spirit while warning that excessive risk avoidance leads to stagnation.
Duntemann has clearly done his homework. The tidbits about history, engineering, and philosophy sprinkled throughout the book help to ground the setting and reinforce the world building.
At its best, science fiction posits Big Ideas and explores the implications that those concepts hold for humanity. The Cunning Blood examines the relationship between mankind and intelligent--even superior--lifeforms of our own making, and unflinchingly follows its internal logic through to the end. For example, this book features one defense against an artificial transhuman being that I've never seen another writer propose.
The characterization is solid. No character is wasted. Everyone has something at stake and employs a well-defined set of skills to pursue it. Whereas hard SF has a (perhaps undeserved) reputation for stodginess, Duntemann invests his characters with unique and background-appropriate senses of humor.
Only one thing obstructed my enjoyment of the book, and then only infrequently. In the last third of the novel especially, the setting and action descriptions were a little hard for me to follow. This issue could very well be due to deficient reading comprehension on my part, and anyway it didn't keep me from understanding the plot.
Speaking of the plot, I found the conclusion quite satisfying, and I hope that Mr. Duntemann offers his readers a ticket back to this rich fictional universe soon.