My life in outer space


Martin Magnus on Mars – William F Temple (1956)

Martin Magnus on Mars

In the conclusion to Martin Magnus’ adventures Magnus and his young cohort Cliff Page find their helicopter drawn off course by a rogue Venusian homing beacon, set into the rocks at the edge of the Venusian lake where the amoeboid Venusians dwell.
Magnus senses a mystery since the signal was not sent on a wavelength that humans would use and therefore was not intended as a lure.
Magnus has no time to investigate however as his superior, Old Baldy, is sending them to Mars in a prototype ion ship since something has been discovered at the polar ice cap. As the ice has melted, a white patch has been revealed, a perfect white circle, not constructed of ice.
The Martian settlers in that area have taken it upon themselves to investigate and have found a huge circular ‘pill box’ constructed of an impervious white substance. The leader of the Martian base in the area is determined to open the structure before an Earth team arrives. Things are made complicated by the fact that the hot-headed Martian leader is Phil Bruce, Old Baldy’s nephew.
It’s up to Magnus to stop Phil from destroying what could be the only relic of an extinct Martian race.
One has to admit to being very sad that this was the last of the Martin Magnus books. Despite the fact that they were aimed at what we would term today ‘a young adult audience’ one never gets the impression that this was the case. No one gets killed or badly hurt, it has to be said, and there’s a good dose of humour sloshed in here and there, but one does not feel it is dumbed down or patronising, which was a feature of some ‘juvenile’ literature of the day.
I can not conclude this review without pointing out that fans of this series owe Simon Haynes an enormous amount of thanks for going to extreme lengths to ensure that these novels are available for download, rather than languishing in Space Opera oblivion.
His memories of Martin Magnus and how the novels came to be re-released can be found at his blog.

Thank you Simon. I have thoroughly enjoyed becoming reacquainted with Magnus.


The Middle Kingdom (Chung Kuo #03) – David Wingrove (2012)

The Middle Kingdom (Chung Kuo Recast, #3)

The third volume in Wingrove’s revised epic future history is the start of the original series published in 1989. An overview of this can be found in my original review of The Middle Kingdom (1989).
I imagine that the 1989 version has been split into two for this new release. The original series comprised of eight hefty volumes while the new ‘re-cast’ version is twenty smaller issues with two new volumes at either end. I can’t determine how much this has been revised if at all. One wouldn’t have thought the series needed any revision until perhaps the last two volumes of the original release, which had major flaws due to publishers’ interference.
Those new to Chung Kuo who have read the first two ‘recast’ volumes would be advised to persevere. I am dubious as to whether volumes one or two added anything valuable to the series. They had that feeling of having been ‘bolted on’ for no good reason.
Here, however, the story really kicks off and I am taken back to my first addiction to this brilliant series. Wingrove handles the multi-character storyline with aplomb and the pace is generally fast. It’s a master class in world-building if nothing else as one does get immersed in this highly detailed dystopia from the outset. Page-turningly good and highly recommended.

People Minus X – Raymond Z Gallun (1957)


‘Scientific experiments on the moon and an accidental lunar explosion that seared the earth triggers another tale from the imaginative pen of Raymond Z. Gallun.
The secret of life and the restoring to the living of victims of the holocaust initiate a conflict for Ed Dukas, Gallun’s scientific pioneer of the future. Restoring persons through scientific methods, personality records and the memories of near kin, leaves one fatal flaw. They lack one indefinable quality – a divine spark, perhaps a soul.
Gallon depicts a struggle between the restored people and the natural living. Life on the asteroids, thought machines, a journey to Mars and a star ship expedition to Sirius are woven into the plot.

People Minus X is packed with action, science-fiction style. – Detroit Times’

Blurb from the 1958 D-291 Ace Double paperback edition

The plot is straightforward enough. Ed Dukas’ Uncle, Mitch Prell, is a scientist whose creations include Vitaplasm, a synthetic but living flesh which can not only aid with repairing limbs or organs but – once one’s body has been screened – can reproduce a copy if the human original is killed.
These bodies are stronger, faster and can absorb light and radiation as fuel for the body. Prell has also developed android bodies for the same purpose. As Ed’s father is dead, but wasn’t screened, Prell collects as much information as he can with a view to having Ed’s father resurrected.
Not long after however, there is an explosion on the moon related to one of Prell’s experiments and the Moon disintegrates into a ring of asteroids around the Earth, but only after a large number of them have already hit the Earth causing mass fatalities and chaos. Everyone blames Prell for the disaster and for the fact that victims of this holocaust are returning from the dead, something to which a vocal minority fiercely object.
Ed and his mother are forced to leave and live in the asteroids for a while until she receives a message and tells her son that they have to return.
Ed’s father has been resurrected as a Vitaplast human it seems. but is not the same man. Ed decides to accept him though, as do other families whose relatives, killed by some of the moon debris, begin to return to them.
Slowly tensions rise as Human purists begin to campaign against the Vitaplast and android returnees, a campaign which escalates to the point of open warfare.
Prell is believed to be still alive and one day Ed finds the word ‘Nipper’ – Prell’s nickname for his nephew, written in ink on a blank sheet of paper.
From herein on, Ed is on a mission to find his uncle and try and put a stop to the madness that has been unleashed on the Earth. It’s a journey that takes him and his girlfriend to Mars where they are given knowledge and power that could halt the war that is about to erupt.
It’s a marvelous little buried gem, this; a colourful and thrilling story which – serendipitously- echoes the the rhetoric of the current US Christian Right in their hate-filled pogroms against people whom they believe have no right to exist.
The dialogue is a little strange, even for the Nineteen Fifties. Oddly this seems to imbue the book with its own character. The narrative packs a huge amount into a minimal number of pages and – whether consciously or not – the author manages to make a telling point about how the US deals with the problem of xenophobia within its borders. You push all those ‘different people’ onto a ship and send them off on a one-way trip to the planets of Sirius.
But hey, that was the Fifties. Sixty years later we are still seeing people doing the same thing in Syria and in Europe. These ‘different people’ aren’t wanted and are being told to move on or go back.
They’d maybe welcome a giant spaceship to Sirius.

Empire of The Atom – AE van Vogt (1957)

Empire of the Atom

An interesting fix-up here which is loosely or partly based on Robert Graves’ ‘I, Claudius’, and has been assembled from five stories (“A Son Is Born” (May 1946), “Child of the Gods” (Aug 1946), “Hand of the Gods” (Dec 1946), “Home of the Gods” (April 1947) and “The Barbarian” (Dec 1947)), all originally published in Astounding.
On a far future Earth a child, ‘Clane’ is born to Tania, the daughter of the Lord Leader of Earth. The child is malformed as a result of his mother’s exposure to radiation.
Normally children such as this would be out to death but Jonquin, one of the scientist priests who maintain the temples of the God Metals, convinces the family to allow the child to live in order that he can study the development of such an unfortunate.
van Vogt here postulates a far future Earth where the automated production of power from nuclear materials continues in temples of scientist priests, although no one appears to understand the principles behind the science and attributes the power to Gods who control the God Metals. Following a war with an alien race known as The Riss, humanity has fallen into a stagnated society of ignorance. Nuclear powered ships travel from world to world despite the fact that the secrets of their construction have also been lost. It’s a bit of a hard pill to swallow, it has to be said.
The Lord Leader discovers Clane to be highly intelligent despite his nervous tics when in unfamiliar company, and takes his advice on military strategy when the Earth forces are under siege when trying to conquer the human population of Mars. As pointed out, it loosely follows events in at least Graves’ account of the life of Claudius. The Lord Leader’s exiled stepson, Tewes, for instance, is clearly Tiberius and the Lord Leader, the Emperor Augustus.
Clane fits in to the usual van Vogt ‘logical hero’ template and becomes adept at anticipating and deflecting assassination attempts and, when he finally assumes the position of Lord Leader, defeating invading barbarian armies from Jupiter. In retrospect it might have been far more interesting if van Vogt had kept to the Claudius template. Claudius avoided death because the schemers and plotters around him found him a harmless and somewhat ludicrous figure, which was far from the case. van Vogt has Clane control his nervous reactions very early on, and his physical abnormalities are concealed under voluminous clothing, and so may as well not be there.
Rather like the conclusion to ‘The Weapon Makers’ van Vogt throws in some surreal non-sequitors at the finale. Clane has been captured by the Barbarian leader Czinczar who brings in a package containing a deformed possibly alien body packed in ice. Clane proves that he has complete control of a ball of light which hovers within the room by killing the guards who try to harm him and then the Barbarian surrenders his entire forces to Clane. Is this body an alien threat from outside the Solar System, or one of the Riss?

One of Our Asteroids is Missing – Robert Silverberg (as Calvin M Knox) (1964)

One of our Asteroids is Missing


John Storm

He had a dream of riches out among the stars, and he knew he had to follow it, even to his own doom.


She felt his call, even across the depths of space.


The Universal Mining Cartel was an entity too immense, too impersonal to be any more good or evil than its individual members.

Miss Vyzinski

She had a manner and a smile as coldly mechanical as the machines she worked with.


A records clerk, who liked to supplement his salary with something better.

Clyde Ellins

He did his job, driven by impersonal greed and unhampered by conscience.

John Storm’s return to Earth was triumphant: he was about to become a millionaire. Now there was only the routine job of validating his claim to the asteroid he’d found. But there was one problem — the computer had no record of Storm’s claim. And stranger yet, the computer had no record of John Storm. He didn’t officially exist!
There seemed only one possible explanation to the nightmare Storm found himself in — someone wanted Storm’s asteroid. There had to be something on that tiny celestial body worth a great deal more than the reactive ores Storm had discovered. And that something was obviously worth the obliteration of anyone or anything getting in the way.’

Blurb from the F-253 Ace Double paperback edition

If one did not know, it would be difficult to identify this gung-ho macho escapism as the work of SF Grand Master Robert Silverberg, writing under the name Calvin M Knox.
Young John Storm has been offered an engineering job with the stereotypical Big Corporation, UMC (The Universal Mining Cartel) but chooses to take two years off from his work and his girlfriend to go asteroid mining, hoping to strike lucky in the asteroid belt and discover a floating rock laced with rare metals.
Strike lucky he does, discovering a large metal-rich asteroid which will make him wealthy beyond his dreams. He returns to Mars to register his claim, and then to Earth, but finds that not only does his claim not exist on the system but that his own identity has been deleted from the records.
Enraged, he decides to return to Mars and track down whoever is behind the theft of his asteroid.
It’s a simple enough tale, and well-written if a little hastily I suspect. There are echoes of Robert Heinlein here and his juvenile wish-fulfilment pieces. John gets to travel around in his own one-man spaceship challenging the might and authority of UMC (who turn out to be, unsurprisingly, the baddies in this adventure) and ultimately discovering a far greater surprise inside the asteroid he claimed.
Clearly, at this point in his career Silverberg, like Heinlein, didn’t really extrapolate to include social change. Storm is a young man of the American Fifties or early Sixties. Women do not go asteroid mining. They stay home and fret about their manfolk out there in that terrible outer space place. The only other woman who appears in the novel is Miss Vyzinski who works in The Hall of Records and has trouble coping with the concept of records being deleted or falsified.
On Mars there is the quaint concept of a Used Spaceship Salesman since it is cheaper to buy a ship to go prospecting in, and sell it back to the dealer at the end of your mining operation, rather than taking it back to Earth.
In summary, it’s the ‘one man against The Company’ scenario where the litte guy ends up winning (with the help of an unexpected ally in this case) and getting the girl.
As I pointed out, it’s hard to see this as the work of the same author as that of ‘The Book of Skulls’, ‘Dying Inside’ or even ‘The Masks of Time’ from around the same period, although most Silverberg devotees will know of the sea change in his writing just before his best work was produced.

Chung Kuo I – The Middle Kingdom – David Wingrove (1989)

The Middle Kingdom (Chung Kuo, #1)

‘How many billions lived in the City that filled the great northern plains of Europe? The two men crab-scuttling across the dome that roofed the city neither knew nor cared. They thought only of the assassination that was their task.

Chung Kuo. For three thousand years the world-encompassing Empire of the Han had endured. War and famine long banished, the Council of Seven ruled with absolute authority. Their boast: that the Great Wheel of Change itself had ceased to turn.

Yet at that moment of supreme strength and confidence, Chung Kuo was suddenly vulnerable. A challenge had arisen from men who dreamed of Change – although Change would mean war and a return to all the old half-forgotten savageries of the past.’

Blurb from the 1990 NEL paperback edition.

In the 22nd Century, China has control of the Earth and has turned its continents into seven enclosed cities, each ruled by a Tang, one of The Seven; the rulers of Chung Kuo, the Middle Kingdom.
Each city consists of many levels, socially and physically distinct and each citizen’s behaviour determines whether they rise or fall from their level.
The Seven control everything and impose Edicts against technological progress, seeking to keep the peace by maintaining a social status quo by halting the great wheel of change.
In this generation, however, there appear several individuals whose effect on society, for good or ill, will herald change.
Chinese are known as Han, and compose the majority of the ruling classes. Europeans or ‘Hung mao’, have been assimilated into Chinese culture to a large degree but there is a faction of Dispersionists who wish to build starships to colonise other stars, creating a society outside of the Tang’s control.
Major DeVore, originally a high-placed officer in the Tang’s forces, is part of the Dispersionists’ terrorist wing and organises the assassination of a Minister, which sets in motion a chain of political events; events which DeVore strategically controls and exploits for his own ends like a round of his favourite game, Wei-Chi.
This is the first volume of a very under-rated (although possibly ultimately flawed) epic. From Nineteen Eighty-Nine, it was ‘The Wire’ of its age, with its multi-character viewpoint covering all sectors of society from the wretched cannibal society of The Clay (the lightless bottom level) to the Tang himself.
Over the preceding century the Han have rewritten Earth history to suggest that Chung Kuo has always been the dominant civilisation and a ministry exists to ensure that any other historical alternative theory or account is treated as treason.
In this volume we follow several key characters; DeVore, Li Shai Tung, the Tang of City Europe; Li Yuan, the Tang’s son; Kim Ward, a scientific prodigy refugee from The Clay; Ben Shepherd; a cloned advisor to the Tang administration; Karr and Chen, trained fighters from the lower levels who now work for the Tang’s security forces.
It is certainly far more than an SF blockbuster thriller. The complex political manoeuvring and the interweaving individual storylines are handled very well, and the writing occasionally approaches the profound.
On its first publication there were complaints in the journal of the British Science Fiction Association about its sexual elements and one section in particular of extreme sexual violence, although one has to say that the section needs to be looked at in context. Is this merely an apt demonstration of DeVore’s methods of controlling people and the depths of his depravity?

The original series which ran to eight large volumes was marred by the publisher’s insistence on ending the series with volume eight, when the original plan was nine books. The original ending was therefore, somewhat unsatisfactory. Wingrove has recently revised and expanded the entire series which is being released in twenty shorter volumes, the first volume of which is ‘Son of Heaven’ (2011).

Tales of Outer Space – Donald A Wollheim (Ed) (1954)


Tales of Outer Space

‘The most thrilling things to come will be the daring exploration and conquest of distant worlds. Here, in this brand-new science-fiction anthology, are five unforgettable novelettes which contain all the different types of excitement and peril that will follow the opening up of the universe to the rocket men.

Ralph Williams tells the strange story of the first break-away from Earth. Fox B. Holden introduces us to Mars and the incredible inheritance that waits there. Clifford D. Simak presents a mystery of one world’s inhuman inhabitants. Poul Anderson spins a cosmic web of the coming galactic empire. And L. Ron Hubbard tears through the veil of space itself to pose a turning point in humanity’s interplanetary epic.

Tales of Outer Space is an original collection of top science-fiction by top writers.

“Doorway in the Sky”

They thought their ship was the first to break into outer space until they spotted that derelict!

“Here Lie We”

The Martians had power, science, and experience — yet they were helpless before a fate that left Earthmen fearless!

“Operation Mercury”

No one knew whether the weird mimic of the Sunward Side was harmless — or crazy like a fox!

“Lord of a Thousand Suns”

He was just a man without a world until a certain space soldier blundered!

“Behind the Black Nebula”

With all the resources of super-science behind them, they still fought a losing war against that leaderless horde!’

Blurb from the 1954 D-73 Ace Double paperback edition

This volume, paired with ‘Adventures in The Far Future’ , are both edited by Wollheim. They are to a certain extent themed, since in ‘Tales of Outer Space’ we begin within the Solar System and when we reach Poul Anderson we head out to the stars.

“Doorway in the Sky” – Ralph Williams (Astounding Science Fiction , 1953, as “Bertha”)

Predating Clarke’s ‘2001’ we have the concept of an artefact left in Earth orbit to trap (for whatever reason) the first humans to visit. Although the author has encompassed the idea of weightlessness he has failed to envision that vomiting into a bucket in zero gravity would not be a good idea.

“Here Lie We” – Fox B. Holden (Startling Stories , 1953)

A Bradbury-esque and romantic tale of our first meeting with the Martian race. They are keen to teach humanity everything they know, because their species is doomed.

“Operation Mercury” – Clifford D. Simak (Astounding Science Fiction , 1941, as “Masquerade”)

A very interesting early work from Simak here, set on a Mercury power plant, where the manager is about to solve the mystery of the local natives; the energy beings known as ‘Roman Candles’.

It’s possibly only Clifford Simak who could make an installation on the Planet Mercury seem like a cosy US mid-west homestead.

“Lord of a Thousand Suns” – Poul Anderson (Planet Stories , 1951)

Vintage Space Opera in which a military commander on a planet besieged by rebels discovers a cache of Elder Race doomsday weapons and a strange helmet. The helmet transfers the digitised consciousness of Daryesh, Lord of a Thousand Suns, into his head, and it’s a bit of a tight squeeze.

“Behind the Black Nebula” – L. Ron Hubbard (Astounding Science Fiction , 1941 as “The Invaders”)

Despite his somewhat tarnished reputation Hubbard was a fairly decent writer in his day. For its time this is a very imaginative story about a mine situated ‘Behind the Black Nebula’ which is a rich source of Hubbard’s particular brand of unobtainum. The mine is besieged by monstrous creatures and is up to a new technician to discover what they are and how to neutralise them. The answer is clever and unexpected, although the basic premise of the nebula and the mine needs to be taken with a very large pinch of salt.

Synthetic Men of Mars (Mars #09) – Edgar Rice Burroughs (1939)

Synthetic Men of Mars (Barsoom, #9)

John Carter, Mighty Warlord of Mars, rides to new and terrifying adventures.

Captured by deadly warriors mounted on huge birds he is taken to the ill-omened city of Morbus.
There he meets Ras Thavas, evil genius and master surgeon. A man who has succeeded in his nightmare wish of creating life in his own beings – creatures that ultimately rebel and threaten the lives of Ras Thavas, of John Carter and of all Mars.

Blurb to the 1973 NEL paperback edition.

Using more or less the same plot as ‘A Princess of Mars’ Burroughs takes us back to the dying planet of Barsoom where the ‘incomparable’ Dejah Thoris has been crippled in a flying accident. No other man can save her but the thousand year old evil genius and scientist-surgeon, Ras Thavas, Master Mind of Mars.
Setting out to find Ras Thavas, John Carter takes along young Vor Daj to the great Toonolian Marshes where, before long, the two have been captured.
The hero and narrator of this the ninth in Burroughs’ Martian series, is Vor Daj who perhaps predictably, falls in love with a captured beauty, Janai, who is also coveted by an evil Jeddak (much as John Carter when he was captured by the green man of Mars fell in love with a captured Dejah Thoris, who was also coveted by an evil green Martian Jeddak).
Our heroes end up in the laboratory of Ras Thavas who has been performing cloning experiments and has, as my mother might have pointed out to him, made a rod for his own back. The malformed clones have taken over and are forcing Ras Thavas to create a vat-grown army with which to take over all of Mars.
Vor Daj persuades Ras to transfer his brain into one of the monsters so that he can infiltrate the Jeddak’s guard and rescue his love. This he does, while wooing her in a kind of Cyrano De Bergerac/Beauty and The Beast fashion while all the time hoping that his body hasn’t been used for spare parts or been eaten by the mass of living flesh which escapes from vat No. 4.
Burroughs adds nothing new to the series here, but it’s interesting to see the concept of cloning appearing (although it is not described as such) and to compare this work with Richard E Chadwick’s ‘The Flesh Guard’ which posited a similar premise in which vat-grown creatures were employed as soldiers by a Nazi Regime.

The Quantum Thief – Hannu Rajaniemi (2010)

The Quantum Thief (Jean le Flambeur, #1)

This was nominated for the Locus Award, and was runner-up for the Campbell Memorial award, and rightly so. ‘The Quantum Thief’ exists on the same level as the work of John C Wright in a future where definitions of the words ‘alive’, ‘real’ and ‘identity’ become very fluid indeed.
Jean le Flambeur, a famous thief, is incarcerated in a Dilemma prison of glass cubes where the inmates while away the day shooting and killing their immediate neighbours, only they don’t die permanently.
Jean is very soon busted out by Mieli, a young lady with a sentient ship. She has been sent on this mission – whose ultimate purpose is somewhat vague – by a powerful female entity. Jean is meant to do something in the Oubliette, a city which peglegs its way across Mars like some vast Wellsian war machine. The problem is doubly difficult since Jean has very little memory of his own past and must reclaim his memories from where they are concealed in the Oubliette before the mission can be accomplished.
Meanwhile, Isidore, a somewhat retro detective and architectural student, who relies on his own powers of deduction, is called in to help the Tzaddikim (the mirror-masked police of the Oubliette) to help solve the murder of a chocolatier.
It’s a colourful, complex and joyful piece of work, despite not being an easy read.
While not going entirely to the lengths of Burgess or Russell Hoban by writing in a contemporary dialect, Ramajieni nevertheless throws in a gallimaufray of invented terms and expressions that the reader needs to learn by a process of osmosis. Tzaddikim, zoku, phobois and exomemory are the more common examples. All becomes (fairly) clear eventually, but it does necessitate some concentration.
This is not of course a bad thing. Definitions arise from context, and Ramajieni is quite clever at doing this.
The structure is also quite ingenious as the narrative, which broadly follows Jean in first person, is interspersed with the lives and actions of other – sometimes quite baroque – figures, all of whose lives intersect in some way.
At first one could be forgiven for comparisons with John C Wright’s ‘The Golden Age’ as they both feature an amnesiac hero who appears to be on a mission possibly orchestrated by others.
This novel is one of a number of books (almost a subgenre in itself) attempting to address the question of whether the individual is merely the sum of his or her memories. There is also the very Dickian concept of an entire City/community having had its collective memory i.e. its history, changed, and the question is asked in the book as to whether the inhabitants should be told.
There is much in this book that stays with you. Odd philosophical niggles about the rights of copies of oneself that have accumulated new sets of memories and don’t have access to their older experiences. Which can claim to be the original, for instance?
It’s fascinating, colourful and, if not original, very compelling.

Broken Angels – Richard Morgan (2003)

Broken Angels (Takeshi Kovacs, #2)

‘Sleeved in a damaged combat body, Takeshi Kovacs is serving as a mercenary in a brutal little Protectorate-sponsored war to put down the revolution on Sanction IV.

Taking the chance to join a covert team trying to secure an archaeological prize, Takeshi is dropped into a maelstrom of betrayal that makes the front-line a happy memory. For this is a prize whose value is limitless and whose dangers are endless. It’s a prize that the corporations will kill for.
A prize which will take mankind to the brink.

BROKEN ANGELS rips apart the 26th century to lay bare the violence, the follies and the naked greed that leave man so ill-prepared for the legacy he has been given: the stars.

Blurb from the 2003 Gollancz paperback edition

Morgan returns us to the life of his sardonic Noir Nouveau mercenary, Takeshi Kovacs, at a point where he is engaged as sergeant of a wedge platoon in a messy uprising on Sanction IV.
Whilst recovering in Virtual Reality awaiting re-sleeving (which involves inserting ‘the stack’ containing his digitised consciousness into a newly-cloned body) Kovacs is offered a side-assignment; to investigate the alleged discovery of a Martian farcaster portal, leading to an intact Martian ship.
We discover in this novel that the race known as The Martians (they left ruins on Mars but it was not their original home) left stellar maps by which humanity was able to discover Earth-type worlds, most with Martian ruins, but deserted.
After a bit of a ponderous start to the novel, which involves Kovacs having to bring on board Mr Hand of the Mandrake Corporation to provide investment for a mission, the novel picks up. Having had to work in the affected area of a nuclear strike and dealing with some nasty nanotechnology Kovacs and his depleted team (Kovacs friends, colleagues and lovers often die) then manage to unlock the Martian stargate and reach the abandoned ship.
There are of course traitors amongst them and Kovacs has to battle against the odds – with his current body being raddled with radiation poisoning – to claim the prize.
Morgan’s style is Raymond Chandler meets 2000 AD. The action is intense, exciting, colourful and gripping, set against a dystopian background of corruption and Corporate greed.
There are some nice ‘wee thinky bits’ such as the military nanovirus which evolves to deal with every weapon sent against it, and the Martian songspires (which we encountered briefly in ‘Altered Carbon’); strange, coral-like growths which create seemingly random music.
The Martians themselves only appear as ancient mummified bodies, but were tall bat-like creatures who communicated via a luminous throat-gland.
Although a polished sequel to ‘Altered Carbon’ it doesn’t quite match the creative flavour of its predecessor and is the latest in a long line of novels in which a vanished Elder Race has left mysterious artefacts behind for humans to try and make sense of.