Doctorow (Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, 2014, etc.) offers a counterintuitive alternate (possible?) future in this gritty yet hopeful sci-fi epic.
Inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell (2009), Doctorow offers meticulous worldbuilding and philosophizing about how the world just around the corner might be. In an age of makers, 3-D printers, mobile fabricators, and endless food sources, the book asks what life would be like—or should be like—in a post-scarcity, post-employment world. The short answer is the rich have gotten insanely richer and everyone else has chucked it—walking away from society to live communally in environmentally gutted rural areas and dead cities. Our entry into this new societal framework is multinamed Hubert, known as Hubert, Etc., his pal Seth, and their new friend Natalie Redwater, the daughter of a member of the 1 percent. In the wilds of Canada, they fall in with a tech-savvy barkeep, Limpopo, who explains the precarious, money-less walkaway culture to the newbies: “In theory, it’s bullshit. This stuff only works in practice.” It’s a world where identity, sexuality, and perception are all fluid, enlivened by fiercely intellectual debates and the eternal human collisions that draw people together. Visually and culturally, it’s also a phantasmagorical scene with beer made from ditch water, tactical drone fleets, and the occasional zeppelin or mech—all technology that exists today. The tense situation escalates when the walkaways discover a way to scan and preserve consciousness online—if the body is gone, does perception remain? What threat might a tribe of immortal iconoclasts present to their capitalist overlords? Much of the novel focuses on Natalie (now “Iceweasel”), who is kidnapped by her father’s mercenaries. Doctorow sticks the landing with a multigenerational saga that extends this tale of the “first days of a better nation” to a thrilling and unexpected finale.
A truly visionary techno-thriller that not only depicts how we might live tomorrow, but asks why we don’t already.
Ten years ago, when he was just 4, Sebastian accidentally killed his infant sister with his father’s unattended handgun. Now a teen, he struggles to cope with the far-reaching effects of this horrific experience.
Though on the surface they’ve moved on with their lives, Sebastian and his family are still lost in their grief. His father moved out many years before, and Sebastian and his mother have eked out a daily routine, but anguish underpins their every move. When his lighthearted, wealthy, white best friend, Evan, leaves for summer camp, Sebastian thinks that the time is almost right to end his own life, as he’s long planned. However, the auspicious arrival of a new neighbor, Aneesa, changes things for him in ways he couldn’t have predicted. Rich characterization anchors this explosive novel, from white Sebastian’s likable, brainy, but at-times acerbic intensity to Aneesa’s upbeat, intelligent kindness. Aneesa is Muslim—her dad is Turkish-American—and she and Sebastian discuss everything from Islamophobia to their families to how to turn his pizza-making hobby into a YouTube Channel. If such details as Sebastian’s love of all types of antiquated pop culture seem odd to some teens, they are rooted in his deep desire to turn time back, and there will be others who appreciate these genuine quirks. Regardless, readers will root for him to find some sort of peace.
Heartbreaking and brutally compelling.
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter is a black girl and an expert at navigating the two worlds she exists in: one at Garden Heights, her black neighborhood, and the other at Williamson Prep, her suburban, mostly white high school.
Walking the line between the two becomes immensely harder when Starr is present at the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil, by a white police officer. Khalil was unarmed. Khalil’s death becomes national news, where he’s called a thug and possible drug dealer and gangbanger. His death becomes justified in the eyes of many, including one of Starr’s best friends at school. The police’s lackadaisical attitude sparks anger and then protests in the community, turning it into a war zone. Questions remain about what happened in the moments leading to Khalil’s death, and the only witness is Starr, who must now decide what to say or do, if anything. Thomas cuts to the heart of the matter for Starr and for so many like her, laying bare the systemic racism that undergirds her world, and she does so honestly and inescapably, balancing heartbreak and humor. With smooth but powerful prose delivered in Starr’s natural, emphatic voice, finely nuanced characters, and intricate and realistic relationship dynamics, this novel will have readers rooting for Starr and opening their hearts to her friends and family.
This story is necessary. This story is important.
The Moth’s 20-year retrospective contains all the hope, sadness, triumphs, and tribulations that have defined the pioneering live reading series since its modest debut in 1997.
Devoted fans of The Moth Radio Hour know that the true stories told live onstage without notes in venues located throughout the world consistently pack an emotional wallop. It’s refreshing to see that those same stories are almost as powerful in print as they are in person. For instance, the story of a child soldier from Sierra Leone casually besting his New York City pals in a teenage game of paintball is almost as hilarious and heartbreaking as if author Ishmael Beah were in the room telling you the tale himself. Christof Koch’s stirring memoir about his time working with famed scientist Francis Crick right before his death is no less impactful on paper. Similarly, Nadia Bolz-Weber’s account of her life-changing experience on the road to Jericho ably conveys the intensity of the panic attack that taught her how to be vulnerable around her fellow travelers (“twenty Super-Nice Lutherans from Wisconsin”). Some stories—e.g., Tig Notaro’s “R2, Where Are You?”—do lose a little something being restricted to the page, but that likely has more to do with editing for space than a missed performance. Other stories, like Tomi Reichental’s absolutely shattering account of how she narrowly escaped death at the infamous Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, actually benefit from the buffer the written word provides. Other contributors include Louis C.K., Adam Mansbach, Jane Green, John Turturro, Jessi Klein, Meg Wolitzer, and Gil Reyes. Overall, the two decades of the Moth remain as entertaining and powerful off-stage as they were onstage.
As Neil Gaiman writes in his foreword, “the Moth teaches us not to judge by appearances. It teaches us to listen. It reminds us to empathize.” Here’s to at least 20 more years.
Blend Bradbury and Lem with Saint-Exupéry and perhaps a little Kafka, and you get this talky, pleasing first novel by Czech immigrant writer Kalfar.
Jakub Procházka—his name, he insists, is “common” and “simple”—is a man of numerous fears, including caterpillars and the possibility of an afterlife, “as in the possibility that life could not be escaped.” An astrophysicist with a beautiful if increasingly estranged wife and a father with a fraught past, Jakub is now pushing the moral equivalent of a giant space broom, collecting cosmic dust for analysis up in the skies on a path to Venus, where the first astronaut from the Czech Republic can stake a claim to space for a nation that the world confuses with Chechnya or, in the words of a powerful technocrat, “reduces us to our great affinity for beer and pornography.” The new world in the sky yields many mysteries, among them an arachnoid spider with whom Jakub, whom the creature calls “skinny human,” has extensive conversations about all manner of things even as events on Earth unfold in ever stranger ways; his wife, Lenka, now has a police tail, and Jakub’s wish to reconcile and produce offspring seems increasingly unlikely. And why does he wish to reproduce? So that, he answers when the creature asks, he reduces the odds of being a nobody, one of many nicely Kafkaesque nods in a book built on sly, decidedly contrarian humor. Whether the Nutella-loving creature is really there or some sort of imagined projection (“A hallucination could not be full of thoughts that had never occurred to me, could it?”) remains something of a mystery, but Jakub’s torments and mostly good-natured if baffled responses to them are the real meat of the story. Blending subtle asides on Czech history, the Cold War, and today’s wobbly democracy, Kalfar’s confection is an inventive, well-paced exercise in speculative fiction.
An entertaining, provocative addition to the spate of literary near-future novels that have lately hit the shelves.
In the year 2045, Singapore-based Interpol agent Kenneth Durand's campaign against black-market gene editing is set back when he's injected with a synthetic "change agent" that transforms him into the spitting image of his evil nemesis.
That would be Marcus Demang Wyckes, ruthless head of the human-trafficking Huli jing cartel. What makes Durand's transformation shocking and spectacular is that the only known altering of DNA segments has been performed on embryos, to meet parents' desires for healthier, smarter, or more attractive offspring. Jabbed with a needle by one of Wyckes' men, Durand has his entire genomic code rewritten, a procedure that takes months to complete and leaves him in a coma from which he was not meant to recover. The plan was to have him die looking like Wyckes so people would think the cartel head was dead and Durand's successors wouldn't keep pursuing him. Durand escapes but finds himself chased by both bad guys who want to kill him and law enforcement agents who think he's Wyckes while he heads to Malaysia to have a black-market geneticist restore his original DNA via a risky reverse edit. Along the way, we are introduced to ultrasophisticated police drones, tiny Shrimp cars, and drug printers that produce synthetic opioids from mundane ingredients. While the action scenes are plenty lively, the best thing about the book is its depiction of a troublesome future in which people can change physical identities the way they change clothes. The tattoos that appear on Durand's arm when he's angry and recede when he isn't are only one of the novel's cool details.
A natural at making future shocks seem perfectly believable, Suarez (Influx, 2014, etc.) delivers his most entertaining high-tech thriller yet.
Two sisters attempt to sort out their relationship, which is badly strained by years of living with their troubled and neglectful parents.
Seventeen-year-old Gem struggles to get enough to eat each day, eventually resorting to bumming spare change off other students at her Seattle high school. Meanwhile, her 14-year-old sister, Dixie, for whom Gem served as protector when they were younger, is able to charm and flirt her way into free sandwiches, cellphones, and more. Despite their drastic outward differences, neither has any sense of safety or well-being in their tenuous living situation with their mom, who, like their absent dad, battles a substance-use disorder. When their dad suddenly returns, their lives are upended yet again, and a situation arises in which both sisters face many hard decisions. Tough, earnest, angry Gem narrates in a matter-of-fact, confessional tone, filling in the heartbreaking back story of her poor, white family in a pair of brief essays she writes at the behest of her school’s kind, supportive psychologist. Gem’s prickly, agonizingly real internal monologues quickly bring readers into her corner, and her messy, layered interactions with Dixie are heart-wrenching. As the unpredictable turns of events progress, Gem’s quietly growing convictions about her own future are hard-won and nuanced.
A poignant and smart family drama with broad appeal.
(Fiction. 14 & up)