So many new books from so many fine authors! Some brief reviews of recent science fiction novels, ranging from star-spanning space opera to haunting urban fantasy, to mind-blowing short story collections.
Corsair, by James Cambias (author of the excellent A Darkling Sea) offers a sci fi thriller – a near-future tale of space pirates, computer hackers and terrorists. Nuclear fusion has, at last, become a reality on Earth – powered by helium extracted by robots from the lunar regolith. (Controversial if this will ever be economically feasible… but I’m willing to go along for the ride.) The tricky part is returning the shipments to Earth – the helium payloads an attractive target for pirates. The amoral genius cyberhacker, David Schwartz (aka Captain Black), seeks to redirect the payload to international waters where real pirates can claim it. The U.S. Orbital Command backs away from battle, but Air Force officer Elizabeth Santiago (with whom Schwartz had a brief affair back at MIT) goes rogue, determined to foil his efforts. The plot twists as Schwartz is double-crossed after he teams up with hard-core terrorists.
Time Salvager, by Wesley Chu is a dystopian far future action tale. Humanity has largely abandoned a toxic Earth and established colonies in the outer solar system. But society has fallen through a Great Decay; brutal wars and plague have left civilization teetering on the edge. Their only hope lies with time traveling Chronmen — who undertake dangerous raids into the past to recover precious artifacts and power sources. To avoid timeline anomalies, they arrive just before known disaster strikes. Hard drinking Chronman James Griffin-Mars sets off on a final mission, and breaks the Time Laws, bringing back a female scientist from Earth’s past. They become fugitives, escaping the reach of the law and powerful megacorporations. A fun read, Time Salvager, the first of a trilogy been optioned by Paramount, with Michael Bay to direct.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by newcomer Becky Chambers has received a lot of press. Humans have abandoned their inhospitable homeworld, and joined the Galactic Commons — but they find themselves at the bottom of the totem pole in this fragile alliance among sentient aliens. Seeking to escape her family’s shame, Rosemary Harper joins the interspecies crew of the Wayfarer, a tunneling starship on a mission to punch wormholes through hyperspace to establish contact with a distant planet. On this long space-road trip, the story focuses on the backstories and relationships of the crew, their solidarity tested by the stress of a long voyage through galactic zones on the verge of war.
Dark Orbit, by Carolyn Ives Gilman In this universe, interstellar travel is possible, not through FTL, but by lightbeam; individuals are disassembled and reassembled upon arrival. Those who are willing to leave friends and family behind to leap across time and space are called Wasters; in contrast, the Planters stay rooted in their own timeframe. Exoethologist Sara Callicot is recruited to travel by questship to a newly discovered habitable planet, Iris, with its unusual gravity fluctuations rooted in elevated concentrations of dark matter. The crew makes a mess of First Contact with the crystalline planet’s strange, blind sentient beings. A mix of hard science, philosophy and mysticism, Dark Orbit delves into human consciousness and human nature.
The Big Sheep, by Robert Kroese, is a noir/science fiction/mystery/humorous offering, drawing upon flavors of Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep) and Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). The novel is set in 2039 in a divided, post-Collapse Los Angeles, with a Disincorporated Zone left to the rule of gangs and warlords. But there are aircars! When a genetically altered, oversized sheep goes missing, PI “Phenomenological Inquisitor” Erasmus Keane and his Watson-like assistant Blake Fowler set out to investigate. Things get complicated when they take on a second case, helping celebrity-actress Priya Mistry unravel just who is threatening to kill her. But the next time they meet her, she has doesn’t recognize them. A fun, witty read.
Infomocracy, by Malka Older This political thriller envisions a near future where nations are dead, borders are open, and war is a thing of the past. A new world order in the form of micro-democracy has taken hold. Global elections focus around “centenals,” groupings of 100,000 people — who select governments led by corporate giants (PhilipMorris, Sony-Mitsubishi) or ideological parties (Policy1st, Heritage, Liberty). The coveted prize for the regime winning the most centenals worldwide — the Supermajority. Information rules — for every aspect of life (and the elections) is moderated by the all-powerful search engine known as “The Information.” A major election is underway, when sabotage shuts down Information and global communication. Mistrust grows as our main characters gather intel on propaganda, misinformation and fraud in a system that fails to live up to its idealistic promise. See an extensive review by Annalee Newitz.
Lock In, a fast-paced, near-future crime thriller story from John Scalzi. A global pandemic has left millions of people (known as Hadens) paralyzed, in a perpetual state of “lock in.” While their body remains bedridden, neural network implants in their brains enable them to maneuver through the outside world using personal robotic units (Threeps) — or by temporarily inhabiting the bodies of other rare humans known as Integrators. The story begins, of course, with a dead body… found in the presence of an Integrator, whose professional code of ethics forbids him from revealing if his body was at work for a Haden client when the murder occurred. Our main character is a Haden, a novice FBI agent operating through his Threep, determined to unravel layers of conspiracy and intrigue, even as he becomes a target.
== Short Story Collections ==
Central Station, by Lavie Tidhar, is set amid the rundown neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, aswarm with masses of poor refugees, cyborgs, robotniks begging for spare parts… as well as data vampires, robot priests and digital entities known as ‘Others’. Rising above the center of the teeming city is the towering Central Station spaceport, a link to the interplanetary colonies where much of humanity has gone. Brain nodes connect nearly everyone to the incessant chatter of man, machine and AI in the vast memory stream — the ‘Conversation’. And certain genetically-modified children possess near magical powers to read minds and tap into the torrent of data streams. Tidhar presents a richly constructed future in this beautifully crafted world.
Ted Chiang has released his latest short story collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, speculations about the nature of man, machine and alien. In “Tower of Babylon”, one of my favorites and winner of the 1990 Nebula Award, Sumerian workers labor to reach for the skies and shatter through the vault of the heavens… only to find the unexpected. His novella, “Story of Your Life” won the 1999 Nebula for novella; it explores initial attempts to communicate with alien minds who perceive reality and the flow of time very differently than humans. “Understand” offers a dark take on a “Flowers for Algernon” – style intelligence boost, as two hyper-enhanced minds work toward contrary purposes.
My own latest collection, Insistence of Vision, offers tales of possible tomorrows: “If you like your SF hopeful, with a side order of forward-thinking ‘what-ifery,’ this is the collection for you.” — Tangent Online.
== Fantasy and more ==
Uprooted, by Naomi Novik won this year’s Nebula Award and Locus Award for best novel. Every ten years the local sorcerer (named Dragon) selects a young woman to be his assistant; afterward she is returned, unharmed, but they girls never again fit into the life of their valley village at the edge of a dark and sinister Wood. Novik offers an updated take on this familiar fairy tale premise when the plain and clumsy, but forceful Agnieszka is chosen. For she turns out to have powers even greater than the wizard in fighting back the dark powers that have long threatened her homeland.
Shadowshaper, by Daniel José Older, is a coming of age offering, nominated for the Kirkus Prize for Young Readers’ Literature, a tale of magical realism set in the ethnic neighborhoods of modern Brooklyn. When summer begins, teenaged Sierra Santiago is painting an oversized image of a dragon on an abandoned junklot building. Mysteriously, neighboring murals begin to fade and their shapes shift – while several of the neighborhood old timers disappear. Sierra begins to discover her own power, as she sense layers of shadowshaping magic operating below the surface. She uncovers secrets haunting her family’s past that refuse to stay hidden.
And finally…. Back to the Future! Omni Reboot offers a listing of time travel books for you, with entries by Connie Willis, Stephen King, Joe Haldeman, Alfred Bester, Iain Banks and Kurt Vonnegut.