A young man must make radical leaps in perception to save humanity from a powerful artificial intelligence in this debut sci-fi novel.
In 2074, the world is half-drowned and dangerous; a few lucky rich people live in protected domes, but most struggle. Arthur Blackstone, 65, a genius trillionaire who founded Blackstone Labs, is dying—to live again. He has just enough time left to transfer his memories to a clone (2 years old chronologically; 10 biologically) and make a will in his favor. A copy of Arthur’s brain, an AI called SINE, is kept in a cyberprison inside Blackstone Labs, dangerous because it’s “a monstrous creation; a super-intelligence without a shred of empathy.” But a security breach caused by Olivia “Liv” Blackstone, Arthur’s granddaughter by adoption, lets SINE loose, which begins its project to take over the world. Meanwhile, Adam Bionine—as the clone is called—grows up in an orphanage with no memories of his past. But in 2084, Adam catches Liv keeping tabs on him. Following her takes Adam off the grid and to a group of rebels bent on bringing down SINE. Adam’s memories are restored with a plant-based brew that also opens his mind to quantum realities and the nature of his true self, giving him remarkable powers, but Liv’s mother, Penelope, is captured. With a small band of allies, Adam has two days to rescue Penelope, stop SINE, and convince all humans of their underlying unity. A.L.F.I.E. offers an action-packed novel of ideas, drawing on correspondences between ancient philosophies and modern physics/computer science. This blend works surprisingly well; some books with similar themes become wooly-headed or overly abstract, but the author always brings the storytelling mojo. Whether describing a cinematic fight scene with cool weapons (like Liv’s whip with an “atomic injector nozzle”) or an inner journey into psychedelic consciousness, A.L.F.I.E. makes his complicated sequences clear to follow and exciting to read. Despite the nearly nonstop action, the story develops its characters nicely, and there’s even time for a sweet romance between Adam and Liv. Altogether, it’s a rich and satisfying confection.
A thrilling superhero journey that remains smart and thoughtful.
Cray’s sci-fi thriller stars a heroine who battles a hidden race determined to curtail humanity’s growth.
Andra Barger is a diminisher. Utilizing arcane abilities, she stalks pregnant women and surreptitiously places a special gel on their palms. The gel chemically alters the unborn children, “diminishing” them by preventing special powers from developing. Andra performs this chilling work at the behest of the Cinüe, a hidden branch of humanity, who have managed their evolution. The Cinüe have sequestered themselves in a place called Edenshire, but every 50 years, the Sugar Dandruff Council—nine individuals who assign Andra’s targets—vote on whether to maintain or repeal the Jeremiah Maybe Diminishing Act, which according to Cinüe leader Asantha Cooray VIII, is about “keeping everyone equal...and keeping the peace.” While on assignment in Hawaii, Andra runs into Wade, an old flame who acts as a “mailman” for the Cinüe. He delivers a message from Asantha herself: “Sugar Dandruff Council convening in three days for renewal vote. You’ll be my proxy.” Andra’s first instinct is to vote against renewing the Diminishing Act. When she eventually meets Asantha, however, so begins the unraveling of the world’s deepest secrets. In this visionary work, Cray (Friends from 4 A.M., 2012, etc.) marries heady concepts to kaleidoscopic tableaux while keeping both in service to his characters’ humanity. The work continually surprises, as in the line about Wade’s “necrospondence,” a special candle that’s like “peeking inside a Faberge egg, only the ‘egg’ could spy upon another place.” Cray also delights in the most gorgeous settings, from the opening on a Hawaiian beach to Australia’s red sandstone monolith Uluru, which “sparkled whenever the fading twilight hit the coarse quartz and feldspar.” The narrative’s whiplash pacing is perfect with a species at stake, and Cray parlays every plot element—including Jackson, Andra’s terminally ill brother—into a satisfying twist. Ultimately, this adventure is a linguistic feast and a moral challenge that readers should be eager to pass along.
In this sci-fi novel, factions fight for survival and dominance generations after humans lost control of artificial intelligence.
In the near future, Axel Gillian becomes the security director for a rich, powerful corporation that has uncovered an enormous potential threat: open-source, artificial intelligence software that could become powerful enough to compete with and destroy humanity itself. Axel’s mission is to shut it down before this happens. Several generations later, what was once the United States is now divided into two realms, the Spoke lands and the Essentialist territory, lying roughly on either side of the Shenandoah Valley. To the west, Essentialists have more land and a numerical advantage over the Spokes; they view all technology with deep distrust for causing the calamitous Detonation. To the east, the Spokes are squeezed between the Essentialists and the eastern shore, which is overrun with disease and bandits. The Spokes’ comfort with machinery gives them more effective equipment, but both cultures must avoid using pre-Detonation electronics, which attracts retchers—birdlike creatures that vomit device-destroying acid. Expanding population pressures increase the conflict between the two sides, which are each beset by internal political and philosophical struggles. Among the many well-developed characters, key figures include Flora Clearwater, an Essentialist who joins a prisoner-exchange mission to the Spoke lands and has a secret agenda. Among the Spokes, young Owen of Seeville (once known as Charlottesville)joins an expedition to retrieve equipment from one of many “bike towers”: cylindrical warehouses each housing about 20,000 bicycles; this mission, too, has a secret objective. He winds up in Yorktown,which is led by elderly Madison Banks, formerly a Lord of Seeville. She’s among the “New Founders” who value democracy, and when she hears what’s going on in Seeville, she decides it’s time to go back. Meanwhile, an exciting, tense Essentialist-versus-Spoke showdown brews that will eventually pit one artificial intelligence against another and reveal Axel’s long-ago plan to protect the future.
Otto (A Toxic Ambition, 2012) weaves together the many strands of this complicated, thoughtful, and exciting novel with great skill. He makes full use of the book’s sprawling length to present vivid characters and a future world that vibrates with conflicts and ideas. The story builds to bigger, increasingly exciting scenes of tension, battle, and violence, but Otto never forgets his characters’ humanity. The various subcultures get intriguing suggestions of richness, as when the cannibalistic leader of the Allegheny people wears “a lattice of bones cascading down her back, each one laced together by strands of her raggedy hair” and warns captors that she’ll “add your bones to my staircase.” Although many post-apocalyptic novels give readers landmarks that are recognizable from the modern world, Otto also introduces more mysterious elements, such as the aforementioned bike towers and colossal statues whose purposes are unimaginable. But these elements don’t merely baffle—they also provide real payoffs. In addition, Otto’s reflections on hubris and warnings about artificial intelligence have a chilling plausibility.
A highly entertaining and absorbing combination of philosophy and action featuring robustly individualized characters.
Four couples embarking on a one-way starship expedition aim to colonize a distant world—if their own psychoses and betrayals don’t kill them first.
A European project on a future Earth—beset by disasters and in danger of becoming uninhabitable—institutes a one-way, deep-space mission. Filled with automated systems, durable robots (humanoid and nonhumanoid), and hibernation capsules, an array of Repopulation, Expansion, Annexation Program ships is dispatched from the solar system, each headed for potentially habitable, faraway worlds. Aboard REAP crafts are couples of diverse ethnicities, backgrounds, and science expertise, selected to breed and raise descendants in new outposts to preserve the human race. But the dark sides of the voyagers emerge early as REAP No. 23 launches. A high-caste Hindu genius turns out to be a sociopath who bribed his way on to the crew (“He used his broad smile and a transformed happy face frequently, as a tool, as a weapon, as a distraction”). His faithless trophy wife is having an affair with the cheerful Chinese-American captain. Another man, moody and alienated, starts giving in to the worst Islamic fundamentalist traits in his Persian ancestry. As Earth recedes forever, lust and selfish mania threaten the onboard minisociety with doom before a fraction of the journey is even completed. Perry, who wrote Between Love and Money (2007) as Martin Filson, spins a taut, resonant tale based on one of the most familiar tropes in sci-fi. The author tightens the screws of claustrophobia and suspense with aplomb and well-conceived characterizations, which are concerned just as much with matters of emotion (maybe more so) as with circuitry and astrophysics. When the narrative crosscuts to Earth, it turns into another, less urgent story entirely. The chronicle leapfrogs over thousands of tumultuous years—thanks to Einstein’s theory of relativity—while nations rise and decay and humanity loses, regains, and loses again concrete memories of REAP and its meaning. The author provides an afterword detailing the future history inferred in the plotline, and it leaves readers with a sense that much material remains to be mined from the rich universe Perry has persuasively imagined. But readers should come away satisfied with this 18,000-year journey all the same.
Vivid perils and well-realized characters and concepts fuel a space/time voyage.
In the second installment of Westbay’s (Revelations, 2018) fantasy series, an angel defies God and traverses multiple universes to save the mortal woman he loves.
Though angelic Alex Prescott knows that human Gwen Adams is not his destined soul mate, he has finally stopped denying his love for her. Unfortunately, it may be too late; someone has infected Gwen with a poison that’s slowly killing her. He believes her salvation is the Tree of Life, which can turn her immortal. But on the journey to the tree, Alex is unknowingly getting help from his and Gwen’s mutual friend, Jasper Mills, who initially hides from Alex that he’s a fellow angel. He partially heals Gwen, but he can’t completely cure her sickness. What Jasper truly wants is revenge against Alex, whom he blames for a transgression that happened long ago. Meanwhile, getting to the tree necessitates traveling through portals to other universes. Alex will need to find three gatekeepers, each with a key that can be obtained by fulfilling a quest or demand. Gwen, who knows Alex is an angel, isn’t certain that she can trust him. He had hurt her when he suddenly ignored Gwen after learning she was someone else’s soul mate. But the multiverse excursion is filled with surprises: Other angels enlighten Gwen about the histories of both Alex and Jasper, namely Alex’s former angelic love, Eva. While Alex is envious of Gwen and Jasper’s closeness (Jasper’s healing requires skin-to-skin contact), Gwen has reason to believe that Alex’s love for Eva continues to smolder after millennia.
Westbay’s novel hums with sexual tension. Gwen, for one, is clearly attracted to Alex and Jasper, and Jasper exacerbates her conflict by openly flirting with her (primarily to upset Alex). These scenes showcase the author’s ability to illustrate sexual tension without forgoing subtlety: “Something inside me, something greedy and lustful, had clawed its way to the surface….It wanted the heat that sizzled off of him, and it wanted it now.” The three main characters are complex individuals; though the narrative calls back events from the preceding book, it also continues to develop the cast with convincing backstories. Nevertheless, Jasper is a standout. He’s done something villainous (from the earlier installment, though it’s not the poisoning), but as the story progresses, he develops new feelings: guilt over his deed and genuine compassion for Gwen. At the same time, Gwen and Alex occasionally appear fickle, each of them endlessly going back and forth on whether they want to be together. There is, however, a later twist that, at least in part, explains their emotional discord. The final act entails a few other twists as well, all of which hold water, even if they’re sometimes predictable. There’s also copious suspense (Gwen’s in perpetual jeopardy), including encounters with creatures in other universes and one particularly dangerous quest. This book, like the first installment, ends with a sensational cliffhanger that may prompt readers to add Volume 3 to their reading lists.
Characters continually evolve and astonish in this exceptional supernatural tale.
An alien transmission grants a maverick tycoon the knowledge to create wormhole technology that could revitalize a dysfunctional Earth.
After a disastrous global financial collapse, visionary entrepreneur August Bridges (of a company called Mirtopik) partially revived the world economy with a cryptocurrency called the “eco,” based on offsetting greenhouse gases and global warming. But his other pet project—which isn’t embraced by his treacherous Russian partners—is to elevate mankind by establishing radiotelescope contact with advanced aliens and asking for the secret to faster-than-light travel. His dream seemingly comes true when a faraway aquatic civilization transmits blueprints of instantaneous travel via space-time wormholes. But soon afterward, those same aliens are engulfed by a black hole when their method fails. They manage to transmit a final, dire warning to Earth, but that message is suppressed by shadowy forces on Earth. Winburn’s plot follows the vainglorious Bridges and several other key players—a Tibetan monk orbiting Neptune, a driven exobiologist on Mars trying to save the only native ecosystem, a young womanrising in the ranks in Mirtopik security—who are all conflicted about or acting as pawns in the deployment of Bridges’ hazardous scheme. Another key player is a jazz-loving clone whose barely legal status as a human entity seems to drive him to play an extreme game of manipulation and deceit. Debut author Winburn consistently impresses with a thoughtful 22nd-century saga that draws on such common sci-fi tropes as interplanetary corporate skulduggery, first contact with aliens, and the unintended effects of groundbreaking tech—all done before by others but here quilted together into a transfixing narrative. Some may find the sequel-hook open ending to be a letdown after such an inspired launch; others may wonder if it fulfills the occasional Buddhist precepts in the story’s multicultural mosaic, which deny neat, simple wrap-ups. In an introduction, the author explains how his own Buddhism flavored the novel; the resulting book isn’t a heavy religious tract, but the density of its ideas and themes could fill many a meditation.
High-quality, multifaceted sci-fi blending ecological and religious themes in an engaging manner.
In this sci-fi novel, a government bureaucrat learns the strange truth of his parents’ deaths.
The year is 2041, and Jack Tone works for the Federal Security Agency in Manhattan. He’s an exemplary employee, writing detailed assessments on citizens, legal residents, and noncitizens of the United States. He’s miserable, however; one day after work, he nearly walks in front of a delivery truck. When Peter Andronicus, an accountant, saves him, they agree to have some drinks. Jack lies about his sensitive job, telling his new friend that he’s a U.S. Customs inspector. In turn, he suspects that Andronicus is also lying about his profession. Two weeks later, Jack runs into him at Penn Station, and they head to The Cock and Bull for more libations. This time, Andronicus lays some strange cards on the table—including his knowledge that Jack wanted to be an archaeologist in high school. He then reveals Jack’s true position within the “Corporate-Government alliance” and asserts that “America must be re-founded anew, this time on the pure ideals of liberty and life.” He invites Jack to a meeting, in Pennsylvania, of the Friendly Neighborhood Political Discussion Group, aka Faction 9. The bureaucrat is reluctant to attend, but Andronicus says, “I have information about the circumstances of your parents’ deaths.” Jack eventually learns that 17 years ago, his geologist parents discovered a secret so unsettling that its revelation would have reshaped the fabric of human society. Ultimately, Jack must decide if he’s willing to use his FSA position to help these revolutionaries.
For his debut, author Firelocke marries modern politics and the outré to hypnotic effect. In the novel’s opening salvo, he parodies America’s current obsession with surveillance and data collection—and the notion that it can only intensify. Among Andronicus’ Faction 9 colleagues is the chilly, ruthless Karin Polyvox. After she saves Jack from a genetically bastardized human called a Plutocroid, the narrative starts careening across bracingly weird landscapes. Fans of classic authors like Wells and Lovecraft will revel in Firelocke’s tight fusion of strange ideas, including divergent races of humanoid earthlings and giant insects frozen in time. Though his core subject matter is that of a citizenry perpetually distracted by pharmaceuticals and entertainment, Firelocke maintains a tongue-in-cheek atmosphere, like when two recent presidents are referred to as “the Idiot Ape of Texas” and “the Tower Ape.” He saves his darkest critiques for today’s incarceration industry. Prisoners of the Freedom Fortress have an arm amputated upon entrance to reinforce cooperation and eat a nonfood called Ploop. Events remain tense and fascinating as Faction 9’s violent goal—revolving around the megarich Gregory Randolph Reid—crashes against some unexpected emotional subversion. The author also wedges Jack between Polyvox’s fantastic origin and Andronicus’ grounded focus on the mission, which makes for a dreamy kind of madness that sweeps audiences along. There’s plenty of room for pop-culture references, too, including nods to the film Blade Runner.
In the first installment of Hammond (KOP Killer, 2016, etc.) and Viola’s (Blackstar, 2015, etc.) new sci-fi series, a detective on Mars searches for her grandfather, who she thought died 20 years ago.
Human Denver Moon, 31, is a first-generation Martian—born on the Mars colony that her late grandfather Tatsuo co-founded. Her current investigation involves an outbreak of red fever, a mysterious sickness that often turns the infected into raving, homicidal lunatics. In just the last two days, “the feve” has inexplicably targeted 11 of Mars’ original settlers. She works the case with her always-accommodating artificial-intelligence system, Smith, which Denver long ago gave Tatsuo’s memories. Smith discovers an encrypted message from her grandfather, declaring that Mars is in danger and urging his granddaughter to find him. His former partner, Cole Hennessey, the Founder and Peerless Leader of the Church of Mars, insists that he witnessed Tatsuo’s death personally. A skeptical Denver investigates, beginning by having Smith hack into Jericho, the local terraforming project, to scan the red planet for places where her grandfather may have hidden himself for two decades. She’s clearly making someone nervous, though, as she later narrowly avoids a murder attempt. As Denver digs deeper, she gradually exposes a conspiracy that could affect all of Mars’ inhabitants. This short novel boasts prime sci-fi tech ingredients; for example, Denver mentally converses with Smith, which she’s installed in her gun, and she also gets assistance from Nigel, a botsie (robot). The mystery is packed with sometimes-dubious characters. Denver is the most colorful, even if she is totally colorblind—a hereditary trait that makes her immune to red fever. Smith, however, is also engaging, particularly in its hints of human qualities, such as a preference for leather holsters. Sparkling prose animates the inanimate throughout: “One of the freezer chest’s hinges tore free, bolts shooting off like bullets.” The book ends with a prequel short story, “Denver Moon: Metamorphosis,” in which Denver works a case of “robocide” that ultimately ties into the novel’s main plot.
A searing mystery with a superlative gun-toting protagonist.