A four-time veteran of off-planet missions, including a year aboard the International Space Station, offers a view of astronautics that is at once compelling and cautionary.
Why go into space in the first place? Kelly ponders that existential question early on, the whys and wherefores of entering into the strangest of strange environments and potentially suffering all manner of consequences. He replies, “I have a few answers I give to this question, but none of them feels fully satisfying to me.” Among those answers, perhaps, are because it’s extremely exciting to go where no one—very few people, anyway—has gone before, and after all, Kelly still holds the American record for consecutive days spent in outer space. Naturally, that comes at a cost; his book opens with an alarming portrait of edema, rashes, and malaise, and hence another answer emerges: we can’t go to, say, Mars without understanding what space flight does to a human body. Some of Kelly’s descriptions seem a little by-the-numbers, the equivalent of a ball player’s thanking the deity for a win—a spacegoing colleague is “sincere and enthusiastic without ever seeming fake or calculating,” while a Russian counterpart is “a quiet and thoughtful person, consistently reliable.” Nonetheless, Kelly’s book shines in its depiction of the day-to-day work of astronautics and more particularly where that work involves international cooperation. On that score, there’s no better account of the cultural differences between Right Stuff–inculcated NASA types and Yuri Gagarin–inspired cosmonauts: “One difference between the Russian approach to spacewalking and ours,” he writes, “is that the Russians stop working when it’s dark.” It’s fascinating stuff, a tale of aches and pains, of boredom punctuated by terror and worries about what’s happening in the dark and back down on Earth.
A worthy read for space buffs, to say nothing of anyone contemplating a voyage to the stars.
A tale of magical battles set on the frontier of a Western world beset by monsters.
Rhett Walker’s first fight with the necromancer Trevisan nearly killed him. But now the magician has stolen the body of Meimei, the younger sister of Rhett’s new companion, Cora, who’s pretty adamant that their little band ought to be chasing after him. Except Rhett has a destiny—he’s the Shadow, and he has to follow the “unwelcome twinge in his belly” that points him to “where the world demand[s] to be set right.” The rest of Rhett’s group of friends and followers—Cora; Earl, the ornery Irishman who can shift into a donkey; the coyote shifter Dan and his sister, Winifred; and Sam Hennessy, whose feelings about Rhett are as complicated as Rhett’s for him are pure—will just have to accept it. He has to follow where the Shadow leads. And the Shadow, inevitably, leads him and his friends straight into danger. This third book in Bowen’s (Conspiracy of Ravens, 2016, etc.) Shadow series picks up right where the last volume left off, and the pace of the band’s adventures never lets up. Rhett is an appealing hero, gruff and prickly on the surface, with deep feeling poorly hidden underneath, and his friends are complex, well-drawn characters. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and the story couldn’t be more absorbing.
Fans of the Shadow will love returning to his world, and fantasy fans who haven’t yet encountered this colorful cowboy should hurry up and dive in.
In a deceptively slim novel, Olukotun (Nigerians in Space, 2014) orchestrates a complex dystopian story about what happens when a massive solar flare damages electrical systems worldwide and leaves Nigeria with the only functioning space program on the planet.
When the solar flare envelops the Earth, it also cripples the equipment on the International Space Station, stranding one astronaut with limited supplies and setting the station up to eventually fall out of orbit and crash into Mumbai. A few months later, Kwesi Bracket, an American engineer freshly unemployed from NASA, accepts an invitation to join the rescue effort in Nigeria, one of the few places left untouched by the flare and the only country currently capable of building a functioning spaceship. Bracket directs the construction of a massive simulation pool, balancing his duties as a scientist with the need to appease the whims of the charismatic politician who supports the space program and the volatile traders from whom he acquires supplies. He soon finds himself caught in a web of converging threats: political maneuvering, terrorist attacks by Boko Haram, and mysterious powers wielded by a small group of tribal women. Olukotun manages these complex threads of story with a wily grace, weaving them into a surprising and briskly paced plot while also reveling in an abundance of inventive, vivid detail. In this version of Nigeria, a fascination with tribal identity exists alongside new technological devices that bring together animals and computer technology—geckolike phones, a malicious hacking spider—and a complicated monetary system that combines cowrie shells with block chains. It is a place where industrial development flourishes next to nomadic trading people and where both traditional gender roles and fluid explorations of gender and sexuality exist at the same time. The entire novel is spectacularly imagined, well-written, and a pleasure to read.
An absorbing novel that explores a compelling, African-centered future world.
Another horror blockbuster, Mercedes and all, from maestro King (End of Watch, 2016, etc.) and his heir apparent (Double Feature, 2013, etc.).
A radio crackles in the cold Appalachian air. “We got a couple of dead meth cookers out here past the lumberyard,” says the dispatcher. A big deal, you might think, in so sparsely populated a place, but there are bigger issues to contend with: namely, half-naked women appearing out of the mist, as if to taunt the yokels. But that’s nothing: the womenfolk of the holler are drifting off to sleep one after another, and they become maenads on being disturbed, ready to wreak vengeance on any dude stupid enough to demand that they make him a sandwich. In a kind of untold Greek tragedy meets Deliverance meets—well, bits of Mr. Mercedes and The Shawshank Redemption, perhaps—King and King, father and son, take their time putting all the pieces into play: brutish men, resourceful women who’ve had quite enough, alcohol, and always a subtle sociological subtext, in this case of rural poverty and dreams sure to be dashed. But forget the fancy stuff. The meat of the story is a whirlwind of patented King-ian mayhem: “It wasn’t every day,” observes our narrator, “that you were taking a whiz in your drug dealer’s trailer and World War III broke out on the other side of the flimsy shithouse door,” delivered courtesy of a woman—half-naked, yes—who’s pounding the tar out of a miscreant, smacking his face into the nearest wall. Is this what gender relations have come to? In the Kings’ near future, so it would seem. The boys get their licks in, too, even if a woman scorned—or awakened too soon—can do an awful lot of damage to an unwary bike gang.
A blood-splattered pleasure. It’s hard to say what the deeper message of the book is save that life goes on despite the intercession of supernatural weirdnesses—or, as one woman says, “I guess I really must not be dead, because I’m starving.”
A woman seeking the approval of her foster mother takes a desperate gamble and finds herself in the middle of an interplanetary conspiracy.
To help her foster mother, Netano, shame a political rival, Ingray Aughskold of the planet Hwae bribes a broker to smuggle the notorious Pahlad Budrakim out of prison, hoping that Pahlad will reveal the location of the valuable family antiques e stole. (Pahlad is a “neman,” a gender using the pronouns e/eir/em.) This supposedly simple plan soon gets complicated thanks to Ingray's scheming foster brother, Danach, a neighboring planetary government that frames Pahlad for murder, an alien ambassador with a persistent interest in Ingray and her associates...and the fact that Pahlad never stole the antiques in the first place. Setting her new novel in the same universe as her previous books (Ancillary Mercy, 2015, etc.), Leckie again uses large-scale worldbuilding to tell a deeply personal story—in this case, to explore what binds children to their families. As always, she impels the reader to consider the power language, and specifically names, has to shape perception and reality. The title is meaningful in several senses. "Provenance" initially refers to vestiges, the antiques so highly valued on Hwae, many of which are probably fakes; but more importantly, it means the struggle to understand where people come from and how it made them what they are, how they will define themselves now, and what labels they will choose to bear going forward. In aid of that point, a deeper look into the relationship between Ingray and Netano might have strengthened the book, and so might evidence of Danach’s much-discussed political ability—all we see from him are smugness and petulance, while Ingray demonstrates far more political adeptness. But since the novel is told from Ingray’s perspective, which is that of a woman with poor self-esteem discovering her confidence and true worth, Danach may not have been all that brilliant to begin with.
More intriguing cultures to explore, more characters to care about, more Leckie to love.
A scientist and a man of faith must find common ground to save a friendly desert community in the American Southwest.
Just kidding—of course we’re back in the weird town of Night Vale, where all the conspiracies you’ve ever heard of are true. For interlopers who haven’t yet experienced Welcome to Night Vale, it started as a podcast mimicking a bizarre community radio broadcast, later became a live touring production, and lives on in a first novel by Fink and Cranor (Welcome to Night Vale, 2015, etc.). This sequel will be a delight for fans but also features a funny but nuanced story about the chasm between faith and science. Our lead character is Nilanjana Sikdar, a levelheaded scientist from Indiana who has come to work with head scientist Carlos, husband to Cecil Palmer, the voice of Night Vale. But strange things start happening when first Larry Leroy’s house and later Big Rico’s Pizza fall into giant sinkholes. On the trail of a suspect known as “the Wordsmith,” Nilanjana meets Darryl Ramirez, a good-natured proselytizer for the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God, a faith that believes redemption comes from being devoured by...something. The book includes whimsical pamphlets designed by Jessica Hayworth explaining the faith. While the new story is light on our friend Cecil—whose romance with Carlos is quietly breathtaking—readers spend more time with Carlos, whose story answers some lingering questions about this strange otherworld. As the Smiling God grows more dangerous, the fundamental conflict between Darryl’s faith and Nilanjana’s science threatens to tear the town asunder. With cameos from minor characters and the same fanciful sense of humor, the authors deliver not only a love letter to fans, but also a compelling drama that shows people coming together in a world that feels like it’s coming apart—which isn’t the worst message to broadcast these days.
A confident supernatural comedy from writers who can turn from laughter to tears on a dime.
Cargill (Queen of the Dark Things, 2014, etc.) takes readers to Earth's post-human future in which robots struggle to survive and remain free of their own robot overlords.
The last human died 15 years ago at the end of the human-robot war that arose from a robot uprising. The robots fought for their freedom, but it was short-lived: now the world is dominated by One World Intelligences, massively powerful AIs bent on absorbing individual robots into their ever growing hive mind. North America is the battleground for two OWIs, VIRGIL and CISSUS, with unclaimed territories shrinking every year before the OWIs' expansion. As the OWIs have seized the means of production, the robots who remain must trade, fight, and scavenge for parts to keep surviving. One such scavenger is Brittle, a former Caregiver robot haunted by memories of the war and the fates of the humans she once served, first as a nurse and then as a friend. All Brittle wants is to retain her independence and keep ticking, but some of her vital parts are failing, and Caregiver robots are rare—rare enough that the only other one around, Mercer, wants Brittle's parts, too. An attack by Mercer locks both robots into a race for time, and an attack by CISSUS drags Brittle, Mercer, and other bots into a tense secret mission that may end the OWIs' hungry rule—if our heroes can survive explosions, plasma cannons, four-oh-fours (robots who have gone entirely insane), betrayal, and their own deterioration.
Innovative worldbuilding, a tight plot, and cinematic action sequences make for an exciting ride through a blasted landscape full of dying robots.
All over the world, teenage girls develop the ability to send an electric charge from the tips of their fingers.
It might be a little jolt, as thrilling as it is frightening. It might be powerful enough to leave lightning-bolt traceries on the skin of people the girls touch. It might be deadly. And, soon, the girls learn that they can awaken this new—or dormant?—ability in older women, too. Needless to say, there are those who are alarmed by this development. There are efforts to segregate and protect boys, laws to ensure that women who possess this ability are banned from positions of authority. Girls are accused of witchcraft. Women are murdered. But, ultimately, there’s no stopping these women and girls once they have the power to kill with a touch. Framed as a historical novel written in the far future—long after rule by women has been established as normal and, indeed, natural—this is an inventive, thought-provoking work of science fiction that has already won the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction in Britain. Alderman (The Liars’ Gospel, 2013, etc.) chronicles the early days of matriarchy’s rise through the experiences of four characters. Tunde is a young man studying to be a journalist who happens to capture one of the first recordings of a girl using the power; the video goes viral, and he devotes himself to capturing history in the making. After Margot’s daughter teaches her to use the power, Margot has to hide it if she wants to protect her political career. Allie takes refuge in a convent after running away from her latest foster home, and it’s here that she begins to understand how newly powerful young women might use—and transform—religious traditions. Roxy is the illegitimate daughter of a gangster; like Allie, she revels in strength after a lifetime of knowing the cost of weakness. Both the main story and the frame narrative ask interesting questions about gender, but this isn’t a dry philosophical exercise. It’s fast-paced, thrilling, and even funny.