Cover Image: Bear Head

Bear Head

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Member Reviews

Good follow on to Dogs of War, with more "humanity" from the uplifted animals than from some of the humans.

Similarities between politicians of then and now, with the added frisson of personality over-rides and other technologies that make it difficult to resist demagogues.
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I received an ARC from Netgalley in exchange of a review. All opinions my own. 

CW: physical/psychological abuse, rape, inability to consent, explicit violence. 

Bear Head is going to take us back to the same world as Dogs of War, however it takes place decades after it and it will bring in a new starting point. This is to say you don’t need to necessarily have read Dogs of War if it does not appeal to you but, I would definitely encourage you to do so as I think you would enjoy it much more this way. Obviously, if you have not, it will spoil some parts of the first one that are now the foundation of the second but it can also be read as a stand alone. 

This series leans more towards hard science fiction with a hint of military but that does not make it difficult to read at all. What I enjoyed the most was the vast diversity of topics that the book dealt with because it was very clear that he was strongly criticising the society but at the same time that didn’t overpowered the rest of plots in the book. We have bioforms, politics with highlight of the rising of fascism, abuse, slavery, freedom rights, job insecurity, manipulation of information, sedition… And I am definitely leaving stuff out. All topics very interesting and sometimes complex to deal with so they don’t overpower all the other aspects of the novel but it was done tastefully and without undermining their importance. 

At the same time, all of this critic was so well woven with the plot and characters that it feedback each other giving the book a very dynamic approach. I felt like the plot was advancing constantly and was very well balanced with the characters which helped relieve a dense situation with their dialogues or help you go through revelations without being patronising to the reader. 

The mix and variety of points of view and characters make this book a very effective page turner. We will have characters on Mars and on Earth, far away from each other, but their actions will be closely linked and their viewpoints complementary so we can see what is happening from various points of view. It is quite obvious what are the goals of the characters and some of their traits and actions are even caricatured in a clear satire but also a call for attention. Every single detail of every character is delicately thought and braided into a bigger net where nothing is left at random. 

There is only so much I can try to tell you about a book before I realise that it does not matter how hard I try it, I wont succeed in transmitting my impressions accurately. At the same time, that is what I felt it made the reading so delightful as everything progressed. It has a great duality, you can read it with a very superficial stand, just enjoying the story and the characters or you can give it a thorough discuss, taking your time to digest it and enjoying all the connections, satire and critique. You can become as involved as you would like to be and both ways of reading are equally enjoyable. And the thing that I am relishing the most is that tone of underlying hope. Because I think that is what we need the most in this trying times. 

If you liked Dogs of War you are going to love Bear Head. And if you are a fan of the author, like myself, you will also probably enjoy the book. It deals with so many actual topics that I think it would be very difficult not to get the reader implicated with the plot and the characters are so well built that they their charisma and interactions are other of the strong points of the book
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Bear Head was a worthy successor to the equally brilliant Dogs Of War and yet again shows why Adrian Tchaikovsky is rapidly becoming one of my favourite author and one I go back to time and time again.

Bear Head lets the bear Honey from Dogs Of War take over the ongoing story and shifts to story away from Earth and away to the distance planet of Mars and a new human colony. Honey tells a very different story to previous hero Rex who is never forgotten despite his sad absence, yet it's just as heart wrenching and tragedy follows her tale yet again. This is sci-fi/fantasy creation at it's very best and is handled with expert care and attention to detail. The imagery is fantastic as always and totally immersive and creative, showing why Tchaikovsky is so popular.

Tchaikovsky is a very skilled writer as he proves time and time again with each extremely difference piece of work he produces and I firmly believe his head must be a unique place to live. I'd love to visit.....
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It didnt make clear that this was part of a series which I hadn't read the other books too! I feel this is a big problem within marketing of literature at the moment!
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6/10 stars

My full review can be found on my blog (link attached).

Tchaikovsky became one of my favourite authors of fantasy after I read his amazing, and still not well-known enough (read it if you haven’t yet!) Shadows of the Apt. His Children of Time proved that he can easily deliver interesting, thought-provoking, emotional SF as well, and I’ve read enough of his short stories to know he can be a pro at writing these, too. In short, he’s a very well-rounded, very talented author, with unwavering focus on emotional development and a firm if understated ethical foundation. He has a knack for tackling difficult, often traumatic topics with tact and sensitivity, never going for cheap thrills or gratuitous exploitation. All in all, he’s one of the very few authors I keep constantly on my radar. Granted, there were a few a bit concerning reviews of his couple of books along the way that I haven’t gotten around to read, and I’m not certain I will – the sequel of Children of Time, Children of Ruin, springs to mind. But generally, with Tchaikovsky, I knew what to expect. Now, after reading Bear Head, I’m not so sure anymore. If anything, I’d venture an opinion that he had become the victim of his own success: writing too many books in too short a time, and none of the projects getting enough attention and polish and love to become a truly outstanding work, on par with Shadows of the Apt.

Because Bear Head is the worst of Tchaikovsky’s books I’ve read so far. It’s by no means bad; it’s still very engaging, well-written, fast-paced page-turner tackling ambitious problems in an interesting, thought-provoking way. Yet it also feels underdeveloped, rushed, and – surprisingly for Tchaikovsky – not entirely thought through. It has a more “paint-by-the-numbers” feel than the usual impression of a thoughtful creative work. It’s also, maybe most importantly, more of a political statement than a SF novel. Ah, all SF novels are political statements of one kind or another, I think we’d all agree on this. It’s just that in the case of <i>Bear Head</i> the layer of science is very thin, indeed – and whatever there is of it, it serves as a focus for the very concrete, very clearly defined “now,” in contrast to the previous concerns with more abstract ideas like “human nature” or “future,” which used to be the crux of his Children of Time, for example.

Bear Head is a loose sequel to 2018 <i>Dogs of War</i>; but as it’s happening twenty years after Dogs of War, and portrays a vastly changed reality, it can be treated as a stand-alone and read without any previous experience with the prequel – at least according to the publisher. And that’s what I did: having only rudimentary knowledge of Dogs of War premise, I embarked on the journey with Bear Head. A couple of the main characters appear in both books; the secondary cast is largely (almost entirely) different. <i>Bear Head</i> is certainly a sequel in terms of main themes and ideas: from artificial intelligence to neurological experimentation to forced sapienization of animals to neurobiological processes of limiting freedom – but they are explained here in enough detail that the previous knowledge of Dogs of War is indeed not necessary; though still, I’d wager, emotionally rewarding.

The main characters in Bear Head are Jimmy, a heavily modified human adapted to Mars conditions, and Honey, a sapienized bear, who as a result of convoluted and dangerous events happening on Earth, about which we’ll learn in due course, comes to share Jimmy’s head (and, at times, the rest of his body). The unlikely duo: the embittered, barely educated addict and the high-profile academic quickly realize that they need to learn to cooperate in order to survive. For while Mars might not be the best place in the Universe, what with one type of job, no prospects, lack of sun and constant seasonal depression, it’s still much safer – and saner – than Earth. Because Earth, as could have been expected, when faced with existential crisis caused by global warming, instead of working together to alleviate or solve the deadly problems turns toward populist distractions such as decades-old rights of sapienized animals and the issues of human Collaring (i.e. depriving them of free will).

Let’s be clear here: Jimmy and Honey parts of the novel are really pretty good. I really enjoyed their interactions, the slow puzzling out of Honey’s past, the mistakes and amends they make between them, the slow building of trust. This emotional layer sketched lightly in pencil and left to be filled by the reader is what Tchaikovsky does best. I also appreciated the small scale of Martian colonization and its Western feel with its petty drug lords, its lonely sheriff with his posse of dangerous sapienized animals, and the ever-present bureaucracy in the form of Admin.


What ultimately soured me on Bear Head was a two-fold problem. In focusing the book on the analysis of the current populist phenomenon Tchaikovsky made Bear Head dependent on the “now.” And so, in the understandable haste to get the book ready and out before it loses some of its relevance, and because of the laudable effort to create something more than just a parody, he didn’t spend nearly enough time on the plot. The ultimate motivations, the final reveals, and the climax as well the conclusion are simply subpar and unconvincing. In Jimmy’s words, they suck. 
Would Bear Head be a better book with less current politics? I don’t know. I think we need to take a good look at what makes us – and the political systems we live in – so vulnerable to populism and easy answers. Tchaikovsky gives his suggestions, and they are certainly interesting, if flawed. As for <i>Bear Head</i> itself, however, I do know that it could’ve been much better with more focus on the plot and the character motivations.

I have received a copy of this novel from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My sincere thanks.
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WOW! I loved this one just as much as book one. It was in my opinion, less philosophical than the first one but much more fun and character driven. It was great to see more of Honey and her back and forth relationship with Jimmy was very entertaining to watch.
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The best science fiction has parralels in current events and Bear Head has this in spades! A narcissistic politician who lies, cheats, as well as using and abusing underlings and is not above murder to get what he wants and arrayed against him a coalition of individuals whose legal status is dubious at best and then on Mars a strung out guy struggling with addiction while building a city for the mega rich who finds a sentient talking bear sharing his headspace.

Truly a wild ride (and read), uplifted, sentient animals, humanity in the process of becoming a multiplanetary species and the ever- present threat of an ever watchful artificial intelligence who does not like humanity all taht much!

Highly recommended for all lovers of post human science fiction!
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A brilliant sequel to Dogs of War. This story takes the tale to Mars with lots of surprises and great writing. This is only the second novel I’ve read by Adrian Tchaikovsky but I will certainly be reading more of his series..
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the early copy.
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Bear Head is an intriguing story and moves between Jimmy, a augmented human space grunt, on Mars, and Carole Springer, a PA to a toxic politician Warner S Thompson, on Earth.
Initially the tone is light but as it develops deeper questions around morality, slavery and sentience are explored.  Jimmy has been augmented so that he is able to survive without a space suit on Mars surface for a limited period of time.  The shine has worn off his time there and desperate for his next hit of Stringer he sells some headspace to store data.  However there is a catch and the data transferred is the consciousness of a bioformed bear called Honey which can communicate with Jimmy much to his dismay.
Carole wants to do everything to please her boss and from the outset you sense that something is out of kilter with that relationship,  Warner Thompson is a thoroughly unpleasant sociopathic character who is willing to do unspeakable things to make the world a better place for him.
The exploration of what makes an entity sentient, is slavery ever validated and what makes you human was fascinating and made this a compelling read.
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Following on from Dogs of War, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s novel Bear Head is a brilliantly observed, drily funny and deeply grim science fiction story of biotech, artificial intelligence and political greed. Despite living on Mars, life for construction worker Jimmy Marten is pretty dull, but that changes when the digital awareness of Honey the bear takes up residence in his headspace wanting to make contact with her old friend Bees, the Distributed Intelligence who laid the foundations of Hellas Planitia (or Hell City, as the locals call it). These days Bees is something of a digital bogeyman however, and while Honey tries to put her fragmented memories into order, back on Earth the tide of political opinion continues to turn ever more extreme, led by the relentless, loathsome presence of World Senate hopeful Warner S. Thompson.

Set a few decades after the events of Dogs of War, this is recognisably the same version of our world, just developed along a natural – if somewhat grim – line of progression in terms of technology, politics and characters. While Bioforms (biomechanical fusions of humans and animals, from dogs and bears to lizards and mustelids) are integrated into much of society, questions of ethics in technology are being swept aside in favour of commercial gain and extremist political rhetoric. Meanwhile Hellas Planitia is being built on Mars for the benefit of Earth’s richest by poor, biomodded workers who won’t be able to reap the benefits of their labours. All this world building is utterly believable and (despite the sci-fi stylings) entirely plausible, and while there’s no requirement to read Dogs of War first as all the core elements are neatly woven in throughout, it’s worth doing if you can to really get the most out of this.

Into this combustible mix comes the erudite, sophisticated personality of Honey searching for answers, much to the confusion and irritation of Jimmy who just wants his head back (although to be fair it was his own foolishness and desperation that led to this situation in the first place). A more conventional narrator than Rex in Dogs of War, Jimmy’s tone of voice is nevertheless engaging and honest, his constant craving for a fix gradually giving way to a dawning awareness of what Mars really means to him. While Jimmy’s POV covers the action on Mars and Honey pieces together the events of her recent history back on Earth, we also see Warner Thompson through the eyes of his PA, Carole Springer. Thompson proves worryingly relevant as an antagonist, clearly influenced by a certain prominent US figure, and from Stringer’s perspective he’s a truly horrifying (yet somehow pitiful) figure, especially as the wider implications of her role become clear.

Tchaikovsky keeps up a brisk pace by rotating through these viewpoints, each with its own distinct voice and representing unique angles and perspectives on the narrative, between them covering slightly different time periods which converge over the course of the book. Right from the off it’s interesting to see the realities of life on Mars through Jimmy’s (biomodded) eyes – especially if you’re familiar with characters and events from Dogs of War – but as the main thrust of the plot is gradually revealed it becomes evident just how cleverly this world and the developing narrative are tied together. Life is tough for all of the POV characters here, but Stringer in particular has it bad despite the veneer of glamour and power – beware that there are a couple of scenes that amount to sexual assault, which are uncomfortable to read to say the least – and while we mostly only see Thompson through her eyes, he proves to be a genuinely disturbing antagonist.

While this would work perfectly well as a standalone story, anyone who has read Dogs of War will recognise it as a natural, smart extension of the themes and ideas from the novella, expanded upon and developed still further. It’s a more conventional story this time, with a broader remit and less focus on pulse-racing action, but it’s no less powerful for that. In fact, while there’s considerable entertainment to be found as Jimmy and Honey bicker within a shared headspace, this humour is balanced out by a real sense of darkness that goes deeper even than it did in Dogs of War. Far more than just a pacy sci-fi adventure about a digital bear stuck in a man’s head, this is a story tackling big issues – questions of consent, technological ethics, free will and what constitutes ‘human’, along with a horrifying illustration of the abuse of power – without losing sight of an essential core of humanity.
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Bear Head, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, is a sequel to his absolutely fantastic Dogs of War. In a future where genetically engineered bioforms have achieved sentience, where distributed AI is fighting for rights, and where Mars is the subject of ongoing colonisation efforts, Jimmy Martin, part of the Martian terraforming effort, just wants to get paid, settle his debts, and maybe score some drugs. And in order to realise that very small dream, he’s going to make some very, very bad choices.

More on that in a minute. But first things first. Tchaikovsky shows us two worlds here, one surprisingly alien, the other startlingly familiar. Mars is, as you might expect, the former. An installation initially spun up by a distributed intelligence, now maintained by people who have been genetically augmented to survive on the Martian surface, this is a world filled with oddity. There’s the pylons helping to maintain the atmosphere, with sweeping dust storms clogging every surface. There’s the subterranean cubby holes where the workforce lives, one-room claustrophobic pods, cheek by jowl with slowly failing maintenance equipment. There’s the Sheriff, an augmented canine bioform, complete with a tin star and a bad attitude. And there's the black market, smuggling things up the well or building its own contraband to help make things a little more bearable. There’s the empty luxury suites for the eventual colonists, who will live the life of luxury that the workers will never see. And there’s the workers themselves, filtering dust out of their lungs with every breath, walking the surface without suits, but still tired, cranky, overworked - looking for a purpose and finding that they’re making rich people ever so slightly richer. The alien texture of Mars is dovetailed with the banal cruelty of its human institutions. Even as the transhuman workers build a paradise, they’re just building someone else's bank balance, losing their ideals, and hoping to go home. Its this blend that makes the Martian environment feel at once wonderfully alien and wryly familiar. A transhuman dream, with too much paperwork. And somewhere outside this decrepit construction town lurks something alien, something far worse than dust and low level criminality.

Then there’s Earth. A place where sweeping reforms gave bioforms the right to self determination. And where ,like clockwork, those rights are in danger of being taken away. This future earth carries about it familiar notes of the present, as institutions and norms are in danger of being swept away in an atmosphere poisoned by bigotry and populism. You can feel the slow curdling of truth in the air, the way words corrode the atmosphere as they’re spoken, feel the centre beginning to collapse, touch the slightly oily sheen that seems to have infiltrated everything on the page. Earth is not what it was; it was never a shining beacon on the hill, but now, the hard fought progress of the previous era must be struggled with again. Tchaikovsky captures the mood beautifully, and left me by turns delighted in the strangeness of a world where humanity and bioforms and distributed intelligences could exist, and despair that they might not be able to exist together. This is Earth on the brink of a civil rights battle, and if it feels strange, with its talking dogs, its bears that go to conferences, and its people that take it all in stride, it also feels deliriously, awfully familiar, in its facile acceptance of bigotry, of its taking the easy answer, and its efforts to substitute control for compassion. Here there be monsters.

And one of them is monstrous indeed. The avatar of the slow corrosion of humanity into selfishness and spite strides through them, his charisma a cloak for something far darker. A candidate for the world senate stands against the tide of progress, a rock of spite and hate, a tide of selfishness with the ability to mirror and project what people want, what they need him to be. An id given form, and letting others know that they can let their own horrors loose under his banner. I won’t say that there are contemporary similarities, but I suspect many a reader will draw their own conclusions. In any event, that banal, personal, selfish villainy is familiar, but also masterfully creepy. There’s a slow burning horror to this person, this creature, and the way they live in service to themselves, the way they twist others, control them, drive them. And thats leaving aside some of the truly awful things that they do, which I shan’t get into (for the sake of spoilers), but they are chillingly, shiveringly appalling.

By contrast, there’s poor old Jimmy Martin. Not actually a bad person, but definitely someone on a downward spiral to a bad place. Someone who can’t bring themselves to care any more, trying to find the fastest way down and out on Martian soil. It is not, we think, going to end well for Jimmy. But he’sa fantastic narrator. There’s a self aware dryness to his inner monologue, which strips bare his own pretensions, examines his own failings and, although it doesn’t care to fix them, perhaps acknowledges that they exist. At the same time, Jimmy’s head gives us observations on everyone he knows on Mars as we go through it - and he’s both observant and rather funny. I was often left cracking a smile at a particularly pithy character note, then burying my head in my hands as he once again makes the Worst Choice. Jimmy isn’t a hero. He’s just this guy, you know? Someone on the lower rungs of society, and sliding - but a person, whole and entire, trying to do something with his life, and reacting to it not being what he thought it would be. Some people have greatness thrust upon them; Jimmy...Jimmy is trying hard not to have anything thrust upon him, often while running away and creatively insulting it, and that makes him a joy to read. In honesty though, he’;s also a painful portrait of a man on his last nerve, one mistake away from falling down a dark hole; the humour can be a little dark, but it’s got honesty in it to make it so. I despair of Jimmy, and cheer his victories, and will him to succeed. An augmented Martian workman, an everyman who sort of isn’t, he’s the voice I think I enjoyed hearing from most.

The story is...well, it’s something. A fast paced techno thriller, expertly blending high concept transhumanism, old secrets, new lies, and high-velocity gunfire. I’ll say this: I tore through the text, basically couldn’t put it down. This is a book which asks questions, big questions, about what humanity is, what intelligence is, and how we see ourselves and our place in the world. But also it has some fantastic snark, snappy dialogue, and the sort of high-tension chases, and high octane consequences that will leave you turning pages well into the night.

At this point, it’s presumably no surprise to anyone, but I’d recommend this book without hesitation. You can probably even read it as a standalone, though I suspect the context from Dogs of War adds something to the narrative. In any case, it’s another must-read from Tchaikovsky. So get out there and read it.
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For a while now Adrian has been blazing a trail and widening his repertoire since the days of the much-liked Shadows of the Apt fantasy series. Although he has been writing in many forms of the genre, it probably wasn’t until 2015 when his Clarke-awarding science fiction book, Children of Time, was published that he got really noticed. Since then, he has published a number of science fiction books to acclaim such as Children of Ruin (2019), (the sequel to Children of Time) and The Doors of Eden (2020).

Bear Head is set in the same universe as Dogs of War (2017), another of his successful SF books, although it is not a direct sequel. In this series animals have been bio-enhanced in intelligence to become Bioforms, that perform various jobs for humans. In Dogs of War uplifted animals such as bears, dogs and bees were given roles in the military, forming a mercenary attack squad for corporate industry. As unquestioning servants, they were extremely effective, although with sentience they eventually began to question their role and purpose.

Bear Head tells of Jimmy Marten, a bioengineered human, an engineer who has been adapted to cope with the challenges of building a colony on Mars named Hell City. As the name of the city suggests, life on Mars is tough, pleasures are few and Jimmy is addicted to Stringer, the local drug of choice. Desperate for money to pay for his next fix, he agrees to use some of his unused headspace to illegally carry data for Sugar, a local gangster.

However, to his great surprise Jimmy finds that his latest download begins to talk to him. We discover that his latest data claims to be a distinguished academic, author and civil rights activist, a bear named Honey.

Told initially by Jimmy in the first person, the story feels like a new version of Heinlein’s The Moon is A Harsh Mistress, with a setting of a real frontier town (think Outland (1981), for example, or Leigh Brackett’s Shambleau/Northwest Smith stories. I felt that there’s even a touch of Chip Delany’s frontier/outsider sf novels in these tough societies and Theodore Sturgeon’s Man Plus in the background of Jimmy’s journey to Mars.

Of course, unlike most of those, Jimmy is (at least as first) a rogue without many of the positive attributes that genre writers see in such a character. I wouldn’t say that he is particularly likeable, at least at first, going from one scam to the next and barely making a living. He is not as likeable as, for example, Han Solo, though as the novel progresses, we see some redeeming features.

The arrival of Honey (a bear character from Dogs of War) means that we get a glimpse of the bigger picture. Through backstory we discover how and why Honey has got to where she is now. On Earth a noisy activist group has led to the collaring of bio-enhanced animals, at the cost of their individual freedoms and rights. Led by Warner S Thompson, a sleazy yet media-savvy politician on Earth that reminded me of someone recently running the US – I’m sure that that is deliberate – whose core belief is to maintain control of the Bioforms through collaring and even aim to get rid of them, citing them as aberrations and a threat to ‘normal’ human beings. (Sound familiar?) He is linked with Honey in the past.

For those readers wanting to know what happened to the old characters from Dogs of War, we find what has happened to Bees, the World’s first Distributed Intelligence (DistInt). Infected with a virus in order to try and kill them, Bees was labelled a terrorist by The World Senate, the hoped-for peace-talks failed, and so Bees and the computer operating system intelligence known as HumOS had to go underground. All of this has an effect on the situation on Mars, Honey and therefore Jimmy.

When we eventually learn that Honey, through Jimmy, is the key to communicating with another presence on Mars, a tense situation becomes more so – the new entity is a novel intelligence, fragile, elusive, unknowable and potentially lethal. And Honey is here to make contact with it, whether Jimmy likes it or not.

As the book progresses, we see the consequences of this contact. Jimmy, as the articulate body through which Honey’s ideas are communicated, finds himself in a situation he didn’t expect and a bigger problem than he bargained for. Thompson has a much more sinister plan to keep his grip on politics for a long time which involves Honey, Jimmy and the Bioforms, and the last act of the novel is to thwart his plans. Although the main issue is resolved in the end, the finale leaves the reader with some intriguing ideas unanswered as well, which I suspect may be covered in a sequel.

As we are dealing with fairly traditional ideas here, a lot of this book is what I anticipated. There’s nasty politicians and big bad corporations backing them up, as well as the good guys. Generally it is pretty clear whose side we should be on through the book. Nevertheless, the rather expected initially reluctant buddy-buddy relationship between the hyperactive Jimmy and the stoic Honey is well done, with both developing mutual understanding by the end. I especially liked the point that, despite the poor treatment she has been given, Honey throughout is a force of calm who treats both Jimmy and the other Bioforms with respect, even as the worlds around them seem determined not to.

But what worked best for me is that the book takes themes that are very much in the zeitgeist of current genre tropes. What we really have here is a book about a disparate set of outsiders in the new frontier, who are striving for their own survival and the recognition of their own identity against a political force determined to do them harm. Through his characters and a science fiction plot, Tchaikovsky manages to deal with issues of identity and intelligence, freedom and control and even manages to do the tricky thing of making the uplifted animal intelligences more likeable than the human monsters we perhaps should identify with most.

This one draws you in, until by the end things are fast paced and effectively resolved. For all of its initial grimness, the book manages to end with the idea that there is hope for the future. For that reason I enjoyed this one a lot. In fact, dare I say it, Bear Head was a pleasingly bearable read. (Ha!)
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My thanks to Head of Zeus for an eARC via NetGalley of ‘Bear Head’ by Adrian Tchaikovsky in exchange for an honest review. This is a sequel to Tchaikovsky’s ‘Dogs of War’, which I read in late December. However, while set in the same reality as ‘Dogs’, it works fine as a standalone.

Following the events of ‘Dogs of War’ the debate about bioforms continues. There is a growing movement to regulate their behaviour through implanted inhibitors, known as Collars. 

“Collaring Bioforms today is Collaring everyone tomorrow. Today they Collared the dogs and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a dog, John. And tomorrow they Collared me and then I couldn’t speak out, because I had a Collar.” - Honey, ‘Bear Head’.

The narrative moves between various points of view on Mars and Earth. First there is Jimmy Martin, who is part of a workforce building a city in the Hellas Crater on Mars, nicknamed Hell City. Jimmy is human though has had various modifications to allow him to work in the Martian atmosphere. To supplement his income he undertakes a job of smuggling illegal data in his headspace. 

Jimmy is surprised when the data starts communicating with him claiming to be Honey, a distinguished academic and civil rights activist who is also a bear. Honey first appeared in ‘Dogs of War’.  Honey is seeking to make contact with Bees, a Distributed Intelligence that has retreated to Mars to avoid being destroyed on Earth. 

Back on Earth we also follow Carole Springer, who works for a corrupt politician, Warner Thompson. Rather than relying on NDAs, Thompson has Carole Collared, meaning that she has to obey Thompson’s instructions without question, including some very unpleasant ones. Yuk! 

Eventually these various threads come together. 
Whereas ‘Dogs of War’ was military science fiction, ‘Bear Head’ is more of a political thriller. It’s a different pace though still had plenty of tense scenes. There is also humour, primarily in the form of banter between Jimmy and Honey.

Overall, this proved another highly engaging work of science fiction from Tchaikovsky. It is thought-provoking and multilayered and I loved it.

Highly recommended.
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Publishing many people will tell you is slow. The books we see out this week were written often over a year ago or even more. Every now and then though a book can land by the strange way of the universe at a perfect time. Last year Paul Tremblay’s tale of a pandemic plague destroying America landed right in the middle of Covid’s first wave. Sometimes a book captures zeitgeist and helps you explore this moment. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Bear Head is science fiction that does what great SF should - help us explore what is happening in the world in front od us but at the same time gives us some chilling ideas of where AI and the ability to control behaviour could take us.

In the future the concept of intelligent bio-forms – enhanced animals with human-like intelligence, emotional capacity (as well as increased strength) has been accepted for many years following the events of Dogs of War has meant that the world is now used to enhanced animals taking roles in society. But the pendulum of opinion has swung (or been nudged) backwards and people fear of getting their jobs replaced, Collaring (specific AI controls on behaviour) is increasingly talked about and behind all of this using the events for their own ends is the soon to be World Senator Thompson a feared operator not afraid to get his hands dirty while also creating mobs to do what he wants. Off Earth a new Martian colony is in the process of being built and Jimmy an enhanced human able to survive the Martian landscape was hoping more to afford to buy his next recreational drug score but instead finds himself downloaded with an AI that appears to claim it was a Bear called Honey and something is very very wrong.

Of course, I would never usually pun (halo shines) but Bear Head is a very different beast to Dogs of War. If that was a action focused tale which also explored char acters fighting for their rights this tale is much more an SF political thriller but one with a key point to make about our own recent politics and of course how some populists get so powerful. The high point is Tchaikovsky’s take on Thompson - a politician that seems all Id, eternally angry, unpredictable, uses others to do his dirty work and everything serves him including in a horrible scene where he has used AI technology to collar an female employee for compliance including for his sexual urges. Its fair to say Trump and a few others we can think of are being examined and I really liked how this story questions how such people can both flout society and yet be run by it. Tchaikovsky’s raises a fascinating question about human societies get taken over by such characters. It felt this week a very telling peace of analysis but in the novel Thomspon becomes this ever-felt slimy presence even when not in a scene he dominates the discussions and plot making him a truly compelling antagonist not quite our standard world dominating villain but something different and yet probably one of the evilest characters we’ve seen in a while with a master plan both egotistically low key and yet horribly brilliant.

The counterbalance to Thompson’s rise to power is split between Mars and Earth and focuses on Jimmy and his AI download which we find is Honey – who appeared in the first novel, but these days is a elderly but semi respected academic. Often consulted on Bioform rights but rarely allowed on panels to talk about any other subject she is familiar with. The story has a pointed look at tolerance in society and how people can be pushed into some good decisions such as the self sacrifices we saw in Dogs of War but once people feel economically threatened they’ll start putting dividing lines back in place. For those of us who have felt the last decade has swung away from the virtuous path again this will feel a familiar road and a reminder progress isn’t all one way. In powerful scenes we witness how Honey got herself into Jimmy’s head and the way we see Honey as an eloquent, funny, and good-hearted character will make those scenes harder to read. This story has some dark moments, but I felt well-handled and Jimmy and Honey having to work together in one head manages to be funny and yet often also poignant as both need to try to understand each other.

Adding a new dimension though is Mars and in particular Jimmy’s working-class not at all heroic character. We get to see a new spin on off world colonies and seeing humanity start to enhance themselves for other worlds is fascinating; yet at the same time we also see human’s bad habits continue. Drug dealing, black markets and treachery all lie in wait even on Mars. Despite that Jimmy while we see quite a desperately unhappy character manages even as he constantly complains to us in his chapters to have a more complex outlook on life than we expect. As Thompson’s plans finally reaches him, we see a battle for the best and worst parts of humanity in front of our eyes and adjacent the future of Bioforms who also need to decide who they want to aid.

This was a tremendously powerful read and I really appreciated how different the directions it went in from it’s predecessor which was also a great tale. It feels less than an ongoing story and more a particular SF universe being used to tell different stories (similar to Emma Newman’s Planetfall tales). We may or may not see another chapter in this universe I wouldn’t say no but I think it would again be very different based on some potential clues in the story. But I strongly recommend you read this story to help explore the world we currently live in and for me that’s the key to great science fiction. This one will stay in your mind talking to you long after you close the final pages.
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When I saw a new Adrian Tchaikovsky’s book on Netgalley I knew I wanted to read it and be part of the blog tour.
I was fascinated by the blurb but i got more than i bargained because a got a book that I inhaled and sent my brain in overwork due to the themes and the characters.
If you read the summary you can think you’re going for a hard sci-fi story set on Mars and with some aliens and some reflections on what is living in a different environment.
It’s a book full of humour, it made me laugh, but it’s also a reflection on free will, political and economical power and how the others, in this case bioforms, the genetical engineered and enhanced animals that are at the core of the story.  and women, can be seen like the enemy that must be subjugated and subdue.
Honey the bear is a bio form but she’s also a scholar and someone who fight for the rights of the bioforms and of the people.
We are in a dystopia world where bioforms got their right but there’s a political movement that aims to subdue them taking their free will away.
And there are some cases when the same will to take free will away is being developed for humans.
The book is full of humour and I laughed a lot. The chapters featuring Jimmy the Martian are very hilarious and the lighter parts of the story.
Honey’s chapters tells her story but are also those that makes you think about how this dystopia could become reality and how political and economical power could take our free will away.
Carol is the most disturbing and realistic part. She’s the PA of a political man who’s so similar to the Donal but she’s also a woman whose right to say no was removed. She’s subdued, submissive, she thinks she must make everything in her power to make her boss happy. And her body is the plaything of men that consider their right to abuse and use her.
This is the most disturbing and emotionally charged part or at least it was for me. You cannot help thinking about what’s going on in the world at the time of writing (10th January 2020) and you cannot help feeling for Carol and hoping that she will find a way to rebel.
Thompson, Carol’s boos, is an arch villain, you cannot help design and hating. He’s self involved, violent and totally devoid of any empathy. It’s easy to think about Donald but he’s also the summary of any dictatorial and populist politician who want to get power without any limit.
After this long explanations of what I felt and what I thought while reading this book let’s say it’s a gripping and highly entertaining story.
A thought provoking highly entertaining story and it could be one of my top book for 2021.
Mr Tchaikovsky is a master storyteller and he delivers a story with a fascinating world building and fleshed out characters.
I was hooked since the first pages and couldn’t put it down till the end.
Even if it’s a sort of follow up to Dogs of Wars it can be read as a stand alone as there are references to the previous book but you can thoroughly enjoyed it even if you didn’t read it.
On my side I will surely read Dogs of Wars because I want to get to know Rex and his story.
This one is strongly recommended.
Many thanks to Head of Zeus and Netgalley for this ARC, all opinions are mine
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A worthy sequel to Dogs Of War, moving the world on without compromising how good that book was. Dogs Of War didn't need a sequel, but this takes a number of themes from its world of uplifted bioforms, and extrapolates those into a new realm of space exploration/exploitation. In the process it revisits some of the moral issues in the first one and throws a more cynical, human, viewpoint over it. Here the nominal lead is Honey, the grizzly bear from dogs of war who had become a university professor a number of times over. Honey was always a bit of a difficult creation, the one that plays most into some of the more anthropomorphic trends of (childrens?) literature. And it is true that here when Honey, or Honey's disembodied intelligence, is narrating you would not really consider it non-human. This isn't a huge problem, the story has moved on from the novelty of having non-human protagonists grappling with sentience, but makes it slightly less original.

Honey isn't our only protagonist. We have Jimmy, who is a modified human sent to do grunt work on Mars, whose head Honey eventually ends up in, and there is also Springer, an assistant who in agreeing to work for  the villain of the piece literally becomes collared and slaved to them (to voluntarily submit to the technology Rex the dog protagonist of Dogs Of War was fighting against). Tchaikovsky is playing with some not exactly subtle political and social satire, but while in the first novel he was interested on those who were forced into subjugation, here he is a little bit more interested in those who choose to be subjugated. There is a fair bit of free will arguing going on here, when he isn't playing a bear/human version of All Of Me or Inner Space. Fundamentally its a chewily entertaining bit of sci fi, one of his best because he is comfortable in this world and has a generous sympathy for the animals and a fair bit more cynicism towards humans and those in power. His hate-mongering baddie Thompson is a real grotesque, though not one which seems miles from our current experience. 

In the end Tchaikovsky has created an ideal spiritual sequel to Dogs of War. It still contains plenty of action as that did, the last fifth is a pitched moon battle. Like a good mystery writer, he shows his hand just before the reveal, allowing the reader to be a step ahead briefly and then delight in being proven right. And every now and then he throws in a big idea, something that is a bit game changing for his own universe, or something which is just satisfying.
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Thank you to NetGalley for the early reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

Now, if you, like me, didn’t realise that this was a sequel to Tchaikovsky’s Dogs of War, and haven’t read that book, don’t worry! Bear Head can be easily enjoyed as its own novel, and there is enough contextual background within the narrative for the reader to understand what came before and why it affected what is currently happening.

It is set in our world, in a near future in which certain animals have been engineered to hold human intelligence and walk among us on two feet. At the time the story takes place, the battle for the rights of these Bioforms has already been fought and won, but things are beginning to deteriorate again, with the issue of ‘Collaring’, an electric collar that would force these creatures to obey their masters without question, being widely debated, just as the earth is slowly falling apart and Mars is being prepared for colonisation.

This is the place our three main characters orbit around. Jimmy Marten is one of the workers sent ahead to prepare the city on one of the planet’s craters; Honey sends a digital copy of her mind there in the hopes of contacting Bees, the mysterious and dangerous Distributed Intelligence that has retreated to Mars to escape being destroyed on Earth; Carole Springer is assisting Warner S. Thompson, a powerful man with designs at power, in securing a stake in Hell City.

Each of these characters has a very different voice, and I enjoy that aspect of Tchaikovsky’s writing; the book opens with Jimmy narrating, and his was probably the hardest mindset to get into, because he is very brusque and cynical, throwing information around only when he is complaining, but he does bring humour to the story, albeit a dark humour. Carole is a little more immediately interesting, because right from the first few lines you can tell there is conflict within her, the way certain thoughts cut off before reaching their conclusion, and the way she interacts with her boss. She was probably my favourite character.

Honey, being an academic, is the most logical and clear, and she tends to bring together the information found in Jimmy and Carole’s chapters and contextualises them somewhat, because of the knowledge she holds of the past and of both human and Bioform activities. She’s definitely the most loveable character, and though she isn’t physically present much, she was probably the one I could imagine visually as I read her story.

The political and social commentary of this book is also brilliant, and very current. I won’t go into too much more of the plot, as usual, because the joy is in the reading. This was my second Adrian Tchaikovsky book, and I must say I am very much enjoying his style. He’s definitely pulling me slowly into the realm of science-fiction, and honestly I couldn't really find much fault with it except that I struggled for the first few pages with a lot of the lingo used, which is probably down to me not having read the first book, and is something that happens in most science-fiction and fantasy set in a very different world.
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4 of 5 stars
My Five Word TL:DR Review: Futuristic drama with political shenanigans

Bear Head is the second book in the Dogs of War series by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Two small provisos before starting this review.  First, Do I think this can be read as a standalone?  Yes, I’m confident that readers could pick this up without having read the first.  Of course, having thoroughly enjoyed Dogs of War I obviously recommend you read it as it will provide a deeper strength of feeling for the characters who appear here.  Second, if you are intending to read Dogs of War then you should probably avoid this review as it will contain spoilers (I do of course try to avoid spoilers but just seeing certain names appearing in a second instalment can sometimes give away plot points for the first book).  So, you have been warned.

Space: the final frontier.  Bear Head jumps forward by a few years following the conclusion of Dogs of War and we follow a new character named Jimmy.  Jimmy was wowed by the thoughts of getting off earth and having a fresh start and jumped at the chance of a job on Mars. A few genetic modifications and a little space travel later and Jimmy is working on a new project – the building of a city (fondly known as Hell City), set in a crater covered with a silk membrane (that will eventually lead to a more livable atmosphere.  Of course, the grass isn’t always greener and building luxurious accommodations for the elite is not quite as glamorous as living in them.  Jimmy is at the bottom of the food chain.  He’s trapped really, underpaid, overworked and has fallen into a few money pits.  In desperation he turns to a last resort and this is when he ends up with a different personality inside his head, talking to him, nay arguing with him, and in fact exerting some firm control.

I enjoyed Bear Head. It’s a little crazy at times, it can also be a bunch of fun with Jimmy and his ‘head’ passenger exchanging some amusing banter as they wrestle for control.  It’s also quite shocking and a little sad at times but still manages to give off a message of hope.

Following Dogs of War the rights of bio-engineered animals are once again coming under threat.  Some people think they should be collared and controlled whilst others actively speak out against such measures.  Honey (a modified Bear from book No.1) is now something of a celebrity.  She’s intelligent and frequently invited to public events and functions however, she soon realises that her status is little more than a sham.  On the face of it she has a good life but scratch the surface and she’s really little more than a performing bear who is rolled out as the occasion warrants to demonstrate ‘good behaviour’.  She becomes very aware of this the moment she actually speaks her mind and draws some very unwelcome attention.

Now, as the story begins there is a little jumping back and forth between Mars and Earth and also a slight disparity with the timeline but eventually things escalate and the two storylines come together.

Jimmy and Honey are the central characters and then there are various others split between the two locations.  Back on Earth we have a corrupt politician called Thompson who is very interested in mind control and we follow his story which involves his assistant and the doctor he regularly meets with – I’m not going to lie, this particular thread can be decidedly unpleasant, probably made more so because without the very thin veil it wears it’s rather uncomfortably close to the current political climate.  I don’t mention this as a negative, just to alert readers more than anything else.  On Mars the characters are Jimmy, Honey. a self-styled ‘gangster’ called Sugar and her two modified bears, a bunch of people on the periphery and also ‘Bees’.  Now if you’ve read Dogs of War you’ll know exactly who that character is and you’ll also probably be jumping for joy.  I won’t spoil the fun though.  You can discover about Bees for yourself.

I won’t elaborate too much on setting.  We have the earth setting, which very much revolves around the political situation and the way things escalate dramatically and of course the Red Planet.  Thankfully the author writes this as a fairly small, self contained city and it’s tight confines and almost claustrophobic feel are easy to imagine and to work with in terms of the scope of the story.

I wasn’t expecting to read more from this particular world and so it was a lovely surprise to find a second instalment that returned me to a few of the characters I’d already formed attachments to. This is a fairly fast paced story from an author that I always enjoy.  I must say that Tchaikovsky can really pull on the heart strings and he has this talent to describe a situation so well and yet in such an easy manner that the scene just springs to life.  This is also a story that takes the opportunity to look at some deep issues (exploitation, oppression and illegal experimentation to name but a few).  Plenty of food for thought here and a book that definitely left me with much to think about.

I received a copy through Netgalley, courtesy of the publisher, for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.
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It took me a while to get into this one, as I didn’t immediately bond with Jimmy, the grunt labourer who is working on Mars. I also loathed Thompson, who has to be one of the most satisfyingly nasty antagonists I’ve encountered so far this year and found his poor put-upon assistant rather difficult company.

I was hoping that dear old Rex, who featured so movingly in Dogs of War, would put in an appearance. However, I don’t think I’m introducing anything of a Spoiler when I disclose that at the start of this story, Rex has long gone. Indeed, while it was enjoyable to know where some of the politics started, I think this is one a reader could pick up without having read Dogs of War and happily enjoy it without struggling overmuch as Honey and Bees are fully explained and have undergone major changes since the first story.

Once I got about a third into the story and settled down with the characters and the action and pace began to pick up, I was fully invested in the story and once more enjoying Tchaikovsky’s world. Mars was interestingly portrayed and I really liked the exploration of the scenario whereby someone’s personality can be uploaded elsewhere. Because immediately the question has to be – where? After all, who wants to spend their lives sitting in a jar, or machine? Inevitably, if you’ve gone to the trouble and expense of uploading your consciousness – you’ll want it in a body, won’t you? So whose body gets to act as passenger?

The other interesting issue Tchaikovsky explores in this book is how a narcissistic personality like Thompson manages to become such a powerful leader. In the wake of Trump’s presidency, I think this is a question that is being examined quite a lot… And Thompson definitely has some Trump-like attributes. I loved the sudden twist, whereby the action on Mars becomes gripping and very dangerous. Poor old Jimmy finds himself right at the heart of the action and I found myself reading this and thinking that it would make a cracking good mini-series on TV. Highly recommended for fans of colony adventures. While I obtained an arc of Bear Head from the publishers via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.
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The fragmentary ghost of a bear, stuck in the head of a resentful worker drone, stuck in a hole on a desolate planet – this certainly has the relatable protagonist box ticked. Tchaikovsky's sequel to Dogs Of War picks up a generation on, with the pendulum swinging back against the rights for genetically engineered animals for which the first book's protagonists fought. And the contested legacy of that, the divisions among a new generation of Bioforms, were for me one of the most compelling details of its further step into the future. Elsewhere, though, it felt hampered by the impedimenta of an earlier age of science fiction. So it makes perfect sense to have indentured and genetically modified labourers building a Mars colony in the Hellas crater – or, as the workforce know it, Hell City. Like too many immigrant workers here and now, the labourers are trapped and paid in company scrip, building a grand project whose benefits they'll never see, and as far as the bosses are concerned, the fact that Mars exists beyond the writ of Earth law is very much a feature rather than a bug. But set against that, there's apparently a World Senate, the sort of body which was commonplace in the more optimistic SF of the 20th century, but now feels further away than ever – and which despite occasional mutterings about corporate capture, would seem to sit at odds with a continuation of the current liberties of big corporations, which to a large extent rely on being able to play nations against each other.

Still, given all that corruption and revanchism, it's no surprise if the book's villain is a very thinly disguised version of the frontman for such tendencies in our own time. On the one hand, you have to respect Tchaikovsky for somehow finding new and insightful things to say about the prick's psychology after five years when that malign satsuma was, much to his own piggy delight, the most discussed person on Earth. On the other, you can't help but wonder about the timing, with this book released during the brief window when some people fondly believe that soon we might never have to devote headspace to the tiny-handed turd ever again. And even here, his presence seems to act as a constraint on Tchaikovsky's normally unbounded imagination. Usually, even to the genre-savvy reader, a Tchaikovsky novel will end up somewhere far, far away from where you thought it was going – certainly Dogs Of War, which would have been perfectly satisfactory even had it stuck to its We3-style elevator pitch, soon revealed itself as a far stranger and more ambitious project. But for Bear Head, the conclusion is at most a sidestep away from the obvious direction. Worse, despite occasionally paying lip service to the recent discovery that some people are functionally immune to having their misdeeds exposed, in places the plot still hinges on the idea that if a big secret about a powerful man can be exposed, that will topple him. Which...well, it's still fine for historical fiction, I suppose, or fairytales, but in a near-future story aiming for grit and any kind of relationship to our present, it feels a little less likely than having the bear Biomorphs suddenly reveal themselves as the Care Bears and save the day with their tummy-beams and the power of friendship.

Still, after the effect of recent years, it's hardly a surprise if even Tchaikovsky is finding his mental horizons a little limited by how small and hateful the world has become, that sense that we're all being shut into ever-smaller boxes. In other respects, his future is both a plausible, interesting continuation and expansion of Dogs Of War, and a horribly plausible (a phrase now verging on tautology) mirror/progression of the present. The implanted Hierarchy of the first book, in which anyone so modified literally can't refuse orders, was not vanquished as decisively as it seemed, because of course it wasn't – something that useful to the people with the power and the money never would be, not when their lawyers can find clever arguments for why it's really only fair. It's called the Collar now, though, and the new name makes some of the metaphorical intent clearer – as does the way Honey, the bear academic, finds that despite her many doctorates and wide interests, at conferences she only ever gets invited to panels about Bioforms. See also the way any pushback against equal rights is always the thin end of a wedge, and the way some people will still always manage to overlook that (I felt a little sad that the book never quite found a way to show leopard Bioforms eating faces, as per the popular online update of Niemöller). By the end, having had what felt like Martha Wells nods earlier on (all that data storage in people's heads being used for soap operas), it starts to feel a lot more like Peter Watts, before backing down into something much more humane. And above all, it does have some very good bears, caught well. Not least in the line "nothing sags quite like a bear, where their skin and its contents always have this shifting relationship, big-tall-strong one minute, pooling puddle of fat the next", which pretty much sums up my 2020s.

(Netgalley ARC)
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