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Thursday, May 17, 2018

What I’m Reading: Three Completely Different [but all very good] Science Fiction Books

As I mentioned here yesterday, I have five reviews in the current issue of Booklist. Today I am posting the 3 Science Fiction ones. Beginning with the one that straddles horror and SF and then moving to the darker SF and then finally the lightest one.

As I looked at this progression, laid out in a single post, I was struck by how they present a snapshot of the wide range of writing styles and tones in SF. I personally liked all three very much but I also recognize that in most cases each has a different audience. But all 100% belong in the public library.

Note: like all my Booklist reviews, the ones published here are the unedited drafts [so they are longer] and I add bonus information.

Black Helicopters.

Kiernan, Caitlín R. (author).
May 2018. 208p. Tor, paperback, $14.99 (9781250191137); e-book, $3.99 (9781250191120)First published May 15, 2018 (Booklist).

Kiernan follows up the success of Agents of Dreamland [2017] and its mysterious hero “the Signalman” by by revisiting and expanding the World Fantasy Award Nominated novella where this secret agent first appeared, albeit only briefly. In this nonlinear, science fiction horror hybrid, populated by strong and brilliant women, Ptolema, an immortal assassin working for a secretive agency is sent to Ireland to find and destroy “The Twins,” while across the ocean a Lovecraftian creature is emerging from the ocean off the coast of Maine, threatening to destroy humanity, and, centuries into the future, the consequences of these two storylines are still playing out. But this novella is less about the intricate plot, although the action itself is intense and compelling, instead this book paints a cautionary, haunting, and menacing picture of a world that is falling apart at its edges, in places the average person cannot see, yet it is clear that this very real danger will eventually reach us all. Kiernan lures readers in with her lyrical language, juxtaposing gorgeous prose with scenes that are horrific, both literally and psychologically. The effect is stunning and uncomfortably satisfying. This is not a book for readers who want to know where the author is taking them, but rather those who are looking for a read that will immerse them in a rich, atmospheric and slightly terrifying world. Suggest to fans of the new spate of weird fiction such as critically acclaimed and popular works by Jeff VanderMeer, Victor LaValle and Carmen Maria Machado.

Further Appeal: This is a rewritten, prequel novella to Agents of Dreamland, and Agents” has been nominated for every speculative fiction novella award over the past year, so there will be interest in Black Helicopters.

This novella is weird, but in a good way. And it wasn’t just the storyline that was askew, but also the way the story is told. Each chapter begins with the date and where you are, but it really jumps around.  It was a bit confusing at first, but once I got in the rhythm and knew the characters [it moves pretty quickly], I was in the groove. This is a story that would not be as interesting if it were told in order, however. The fluidity of the timeline added to the anxiety and dread.

There are also a few frames that add interest: chess and paleontology. You don’t need to like or know about either but if you do, it’s a good draw here.

Kiernan is a genius; that is an accepted fact in the speculative fiction world. Her work with these Tor.com novellas is simply putting that virtuosity on display for a new generation of readers.

On a side note, I got to sit with her and her wife at dinner for the Stoker Awards banquet. Kiernan was a guest of honor and had just given her papers to the Hay at Brown University [where Lovecraft’s paper are]. She is a guarded and quiet person but so very kind and brilliant. I had completely forgotten I had this novella on tap to review until I got home and saw it waiting for me.

Three Words That Describe This Book: fluid timeline, strong women, menacing

Readalikes: The three I give in the review above are linked to times I have written about those authors here on the blog. Those links lead to even more readalike options.

Also, those who are nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award most embody the way Kiernan writes.

It Takes Death to Reach a Star.
Jones, Stu (author) and Gareth Worthington (author).
May 2018. 306p. Vesuvian, paperback, $17.99  (9781944109523); e-book, $7.99 (9781944109530)
REVIEW. First published May 15, 2018 (Booklist).

It is the year 2251 and humans have barely survived the New Black Death [NBD] that swept the globe after WWIII. Civilization is now only in Etyom, a dark, freezing city in what was Siberia. There are two races of people living two very different lives. In the dark, frigid, walled cities on the ground live the Robusts, descendants of the poor who were immune to the NBD and live hand to mouth, surviving however they can, while up in the skies, on a series of “lily pads” lives the Graciles, genetically engineered descendants of the super rich, living in comfort. Readers enter this complex world effortlessly as they fall into step with Mila, a plucky, strong, and resourceful Robust and Demitri, a brilliant, scientist Gracile with heart who is hiding a dark secret. Their strong and engaging first person narrations alternate, telling the story from their diametrically opposed yet neighboring worlds, while the action and twisting plot, blending political intrigue and caper, keeps the story moving at a fun and brisk pace from the very first page. But there is also much to ponder here in this well researched tale; serious issues like the place where science and faith collide, human interference in evolution, and race and class biases. Cinematic, thought provoking, and immersive, this is a great option for fans of darker, grittier, and more science focused dystopias in the style of the Blade Runner movies or the novels of Philip K. Dick.

Further Appeal: This was a unique dystopia in that it had a very strong spiritual frame without being overtly religious and without making a judgment pro or con about that spirituality. It was refreshing in this time when things that bring up religion and spirituality usually have an agenda. I did not feel this book did.

The world building was also excellent without sacrificing the plot or the character development.

And the cast was very diverse in the Robust's world and not so much with the Gracile's [this is because they are genetically engineered to be so similar]. Like the very best SF of any era, this novel uses science to bring us to a world not possible yet, but uses that setting to make us ponder our current situations, issues, and problems. 

Three Words That Describe This Book: cinematic, thought provoking, immersive

Readalikes: Any darker, hard science dystopias like those I mention in the review would work well. I also thought of Seveneves by Stephenson while reading this novel.

Gate Crashers.

Tomlinson, Patrick S. (author).
June 2018. 416p. Tor, paperback, $15.99 (9780765398642); e-book (9780765398659)
First published May 15, 2018 (Booklist).

The year is 2345 and the American-European Union Starship Magellan, travelling at half light speed, its crew on a 60+ year mission, comes upon proof of the existence of sentient aliens in the form of a space “buoy”. Captain Allison Ridgeway and her crew work with a secret government team back on earth to figure out the technology of this alien craft and learn more about who made it. Of course, the secret isn’t kept back on earth or for that matter, in space, for long as politicians, bureaucrats, the military, and even some alien beings start to get involved. What follows is a political space opera, where humor and hard science play off each other with a colloquial ease as the reader gets to know a motley group of characters whose actions are the main engine driving this story. With a constantly shifting narration, that not only provides a 360 degree view of the issues, situation, and perspectives but also drives the compelling pace and the strong world building, holding us in place as the characters move through the universe, develop new technologies, explore new planets, and encounter new species, all the while forcing all, human, alien, and the reader, to think about our place in the universe, what we would actually do if we made contact with aliens, and how those aliens might in turn deal with us? It may sound like old tropes, but there are many new ideas here, ones to draw in genre fans both casual and serious. This is thought provoking, character-centered, science fiction with a sense of humor in the vein of Scalzi’s Collapsing Empire or Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series.

Further Appeal: I cannot stress how much fun this book was to read, but the humor was NEVER at the expense of the seriousness of the story. It did both very well. It is thought provoking and fun in equal measures which is rare.

The science was also good. It was plausible and interesting. Plus, the discussion of technology and how different beings figured out different things and when and how they use it-- all of those space set SF science details that make the story better were top notch.

I loved the characters. From the scientists back on earth to the aliens we meet to the earthlings on the ship, they were all great. The interplay between everyone was enjoyable too. And the entire conceit of the story-- how and why the aliens have left us alone-- was fantastic. It made so much sense.

I can’t stress enough how much this can be enjoyed by hard core space opera fans and newbies alike.

Three Words That Describe This Book: fun, thought provoking, character driven

Readalikes: I gave two choices above. Scalzi in particular is the king of this type of story and any readalikes for him would also work.

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