A lighthearted space-opera adventure by Cuban author Yoss (A Planet for Rent, 2015, etc.).
At 7 feet and 11 inches tall, Dr. Jan Amos Sangan Dongo is a very large man. He’s not handicapped by his size, though. In fact, he’s made it his livelihood, using it to become the “Veterinarian to the Giants.” Dr. Sangan treats enormous animals throughout the galaxy, whether he’s operating on 20-meter-wide cave-dwelling crustaceans called Grendels or walking around inside a 3-kilometer-long sea worm known as a Tsunami. So, when an amoeba that’s 200 kilometers wide swallows two ambassadors, he’s the only man who can save them. The ambassadors are the key to preserving a fragile peace in part of the galaxy—and they also both happen to be Dr. Sangan’s love interests. This novel’s madcap tone is very similar to Douglas Adams’—so much so that it’s almost impossible to avoid drawing such comparisons (although Adams didn’t joke about oral sex with aliens, as Yoss does here). As in Adams’ works, the galaxy’s species are terrifically alien, sporting six breasts and no teeth or breathing methane instead of oxygen. There are also lots of fun references and wordplay throughout the book: the giant amoebas, for example, live on planet Brobdingnag, which orbits a star called Swift-3, while Jan Amos Sangan Dongo is a riff on sangandongo, Cuban slang for “really big.” But possibly the most enjoyable aspect of this strange world is that it takes place in a future in which an Ecuadorean Jesuit priest discovers faster-than-light travel, and the first space flight proving his theory is announced by unfurling a banner on Mars that reads “Suck on this, dumb-ass gringos!” Also, the lingua franca of this future is Spanglish, and all the dialogue appealingly follows suit: “el amor—don't we know it bien!—goes beyond lo físico, even lo químico. Far beyond.”
An exceptionally enjoyable comic tale set in a fully realized, firmly science-fictional universe.
In the second of a trilogy (The Fifth Season, 2015) by the science-fiction columnist for the New York Times Book Review, the latest in a series of apocalypses marches on.
The powerful orogene Alabaster has used his powers to tear a blazing rift across the continent, and humanity faces extinction. Finding refuge in the underground comm of Castrima, the now-dying Alabaster struggles to impart vital information and skills to his former student and lover, Essun, which could potentially cease the flow of the tectonically devastating Seasons. All the while, Castrima faces tension from within—those who fear Essun’s rapidly growing magical powers—and without, as an invading army prepares to take the comm’s dwindling supplies for its own. Although Essun’s greatest desire is to recover Nassun, the daughter she loves, the girl always wanted to escape her mother, whom she perceives as cold and who imposed harsh training to discipline and hide her daughter’s orogeny. Nassun willingly left with her adored father even though he murdered her brother and violently loathes all orogenes. This uneasy father/daughter pair travels to a mysterious, distant community rumored to “cure” orogeny, where Nassun discovers a key figure from her mother’s past—but he’s no longer quite what he used to be. The worldbuilding deepens in this installment, with fresh revelations about the distant past and the true and alarming nature of the enigmatic stone eaters. But as in the previous volume, it’s the people who take front and center. Jemisin’s depictions of mob behavior are frighteningly realistic. And she offers a perceptive and painful portrayal of two different kinds of abusive relationships between parent and child. She also generates huge amounts of nuanced sympathy for some (but not all) of the characters driven to do truly dreadful things, often accidentally, to save themselves and the ones they love.
Will science or magic save our world and all the living beings on it? That’s the question posed in this science fantasy love story by the editor-in-chief of online geek mecca io9.com (Choir Boy, 2005).
Tweens Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead are desperate misfits who find both solace and confusion in each other. Patricia is a nascent witch, waiting for her magic to blossom and destiny to call. Laurence is a brilliant tech whiz building a supercomputer in his bedroom closet. Their parents, teachers, and peers react with hostility to their refusal to conform, but they're egged on by Theodolphus Rose, an assassin masquerading as a guidance counselor. Rose's manipulations separate the two until they rediscover each other at a party in San Francisco years later. Patricia and her fellow witches are attempting to maintain a quiet, unobtrusive balance in a world tipping toward ecological and political disaster but which they feel is still worth saving. Laurence has joined a covert project to open a wormhole to another planet, believing that humanity’s only hope is to leave Earth behind. A relationship between these two seems impossible, given their incompatible points of view, until unseen forces help their love along. The author introduces technological and magical marvels in a wonderfully matter-of-fact way. But this lyrical pre-apocalyptic work has an edge, too. Laurence’s behavior is often far from noble. His colleagues use violence to defend their inventions, and Patricia’s compatriots employ some fairly creative, nasty solutions to people and things they deem problematic. Anders clearly has an intimate understanding of how hard it is to find friends when you’re perceived as “different” as well as a sweeping sense of how nice it would be to solve large problems with a single solution (and how infrequently that succeeds).
Reminiscent of the best of Jo Walton and Nina Kiriki Hoffman.
A delicately wrought, twinkle-eyed fantasy from the accomplished author of The Bards of Bone Plain (2010, etc.).
It’s disconcerting to realize that most of McKillip’s characters have, at first, no idea what’s going on—and the few that do are saying nothing. In a California-like north coast small town, Pierce Oliver, blissfully unaware of his background, supplies crabs for the restaurant owned by his mother, Heloise, a sorceress. Until, that is, some knights wander in, having become lost on their way back to Severluna…knights who ride in a long black limousine and communicate via cellphone. The knights advise Pierce to seek his fortune at King Arden’s court. Something clicks, and Pierce announces his decision. In a rage, Heloise tells Pierce about his (not-dead) father and about an older brother he never knew he had. As Pierce drives south, Chimera Bay beguiles him with multiple mysteries. At the Kingfisher Inn, he witnesses a fascinating and baffling ritual involving the Friday Night Fish Fry, falls in love with another man’s desperately unhappy wife, and finds it necessary to steal a chef’s knife. Meanwhile, even farther south, in Severluna, King Arden tells his illegitimate youngest son, Prince Daimon, the truth about the boy’s (not-dead) mother. Following which, Arden assembles his knights and announces a quest to locate an ancient and powerful artifact. But why? And why now? McKillip skillfully blends a thoroughly modern passion for technology and seafood with folklore, myth, and magic in a narrative consistently full of surprises. The characters, though, aren’t always fully drawn, and the overlarge back story too often merely tantalizes.
Fantasy lovers looking for a lighter touch amid all those vampires, zombies, werewolves, and industrial-strength malefactors will find this a refreshing change of pace.
What if alien civilizations do exist? In this final installment of a stunning and provocative trilogy (The Dark Forest, 2015, etc.), Liu teases out the grim, unsettling implications.
Previously, astronomer-turned-sociologist Luo Ji forestalled an invasion attempt by advanced aliens from planet Trisolaris. Luo’s “dark forest” deterrence works thus: if intelligent species exist, inevitably some will be hostile; therefore, safety lies in remaining hidden while threatening to reveal your enemy’s location to the predators. Earth knows where Trisolaris is, but the Trisolarans can’t threaten to reveal Earth’s location since they want to occupy it. Here, the story picks up at an earlier juncture. Cheng Xin, an aerospace engineer developing a probe to study the approaching Trisolaran fleet, learns that a friend has been tricked into volunteering to die in order to assist the project. Horrified, she retreats into hibernation. When she revives centuries later, dark forest deterrence holds the Trisolarans at bay. Luo, now old, hands Cheng the key to Earth’s defense. Unfortunately, the sophons—tiny, intelligent, light-speed computers sent by the Trisolarans as spies—know Cheng lacks Luo’s ruthlessness and immediately seize control of Earth; only by luck does Earth manage to trigger its deterrent. Hostile aliens immediately destroy planet Trisolaris, whose invasion fleet turns away because it’s only a matter of time before the same invisible antagonists deduce the existence of Earth and strike the solar system. Once again, Cheng must choose between logical ruthlessness and simple human compassion, with the fate of humanity at stake. This utterly absorbing book shows little interest in linear narrative or conventional character interactions. Instead, the author offers dilemmas moral, philosophical, and political; perspectives—a spectacular glimpse of three dimensions seen from a four-dimensional viewpoint; a dying universe shattered by billions of years of warfare; and persuasive ideas whose dismal repercussions extend beyond hope and despair into, inescapably, real-world significance.
Liu’s trilogy is the first major work of science fiction to come to the West out of China, and it’s a masterpiece.
A debut sci-fi author suggests that the electoral process could be even scarier, more convoluted, and more subject to factual distortions than it currently is.
In the future, the entire world signs on to the “micro-democracy” form of government. Each population of 100,000 people, or “centenal,” votes every 10 years for a government in their area; the one who wins the most centenals gains the Supermajority. Elections and voting are operated and monitored by Information, the organization that also runs the Internet, the phone, and all broadcasting systems. Heritage has held the Supermajority for decades, but the outcome for them seems less certain as the election looms. Both Mishima, an expert troubleshooter for Information, and Ken, an ambitious campaigner for the up-and-coming Policy1st government, hear rumors that the powerful Liberty government might be trying to start a war. Anarchist Domaine, in a loud but essentially ineffectual way, argues for the downfall of the current political system. When an act of sabotage brings down Information on Election Day, who’s to blame, and what is their ultimate goal? The romance between Mishima and Ken feels somewhat undeveloped, but it’s counterbalanced by the larger themes Older is exploring. The author brings a considerable amount of experience and scholarly knowledge to bear here—she has traveled all over the world as an expert in disaster management and is pursuing a graduate degree in the sociology of disaster response. The result is a frighteningly relevant exploration of how the flow of information (small i, both true and false) can manipulate public opinion—in particular, how fear and the desperate desire for safety can become such strong factors in swaying the vote.
Some aspects of the story may risk dating, but on the whole, timely and perhaps timeless.
Another collection of speculative fiction from Swanwick (Chasing the Phoenix, 2015, etc.), one of a handful of writers whose short pieces are as impressive as their novels.
Versatility, craftsmanship, a dollop of weird, and a delightfully askew sense of humor are key to the 17 pieces here, all of which appeared between 2008 and 2014, together with an introduction that illuminates the contents without revealing too much. Certain themes, of course, are authorial favorites, such as time travel, aliens, and artificial intelligence. There's a man who, having suffered a crushing loss, finds solace after accidental contact with a time traveler; a group of time travelers hunkered down at the end of the Cretaceous period—where, oddly, nobody’s interested in the dinosaurs; and a scientist who finds a partner worthy of her genius. We also get a fascinating glimpse (which feels like a novel fragment) of a far future populated by humans and centipedelike aliens, narrated by the intelligent space suit of a woman who’s dead as the story begins; and another future where human lives resemble those in fairy tales while advanced, hidden AIs battle for supremacy. Elsewhere, in a literary-games vein, the characters in a fairy tale discuss whether they prefer to remain in books, and immortal, or enter history; there's a famous Gene Wolfe story stripped down, turned inside out, and rebuilt to perfection; and, in a marvelous conceit, the writer Alexander Pushkin appears as he may have been—in an alternative universe. To round out the collection, we meet a dutiful young woman who, entering hell to challenge the devil to return her father, discovers that things are not as she assumed; Darger and Surplus, those good-hearted rogues with a propensity to shoot themselves in the foot, make an appearance, as does "The House of Dreams," an entry from Swanwick’s splendid Mongolian Wizard e-book series.
Tales that, through their extraordinary clarity of thought and expression, showcase precisely why this multiaward-winning author is held in such high regard.
Humanity teeters toward doom in the concluding Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne (The Providence of Fire, 2015, etc.).
The invading Urghul army nears the heart of the crumbling Annurian empire, led by Long Fist, the human host of Meshkent, the god of pain. The Annurian general, Ran il Tornja, appears to be defending the empire, but his main goal is to kill both Long Fist and the courtesan Triste, the human host of Ciena, goddess of pleasure. Doing so will exterminate most of humanity while potentially converting the remainder to il Tornja’s own kind, the long-lived, emotionless Csestriim. Kaden, the abdicated emperor, abandons his ineffectual attempts at politics and devotes himself to protecting Meshkent and Ciena’s hosts. His sister, Adare, the self-declared new emperor, rallies Annur’s defenses and tries to defuse the plots of il Tornja, her baby’s father. Her brother Valyn, betrayed by Adare and blinded by il Tornja, searches both for a purpose and the death of Balendin, Long Fist’s deputy, a leach whose magical power feeds on pain and terror. Many classic epic fantasies have concluded with the defeat of the Big Bad, followed by the wiping away of pain and terror and the start of a glorious, happy future for the hero. This novel lays out a much more plausible truth: it’s difficult forging a future on a nation ruined by war and civil unrest; the past’s consequences persist. No one is wholly good or wholly bad, and sometimes, even when protagonists have reached the very limits of their strength to earn their happy endings, there is no happy ending available, no matter how deserving they are of such a thing.
A deeply satisfying but bleak, dark work; its only illumination are flashes of high tragedy and perhaps the glimmers of a realistic but not far-ranging hope.
Hamilton’s latest (a relatively slender 704 pages) brings to a furious boil the two-book saga (The Abyss Beyond Dreams, 2014) describing human colony planet Bienvenido’s unremitting battle against the hostile alien Fallers.
Set in Hamilton’s far-future Commonwealth, fans and newbies alike can jump pretty much right into any book in the series (which come complete with an always-helpful timeline). Bienvenido, hurled into intergalactic space and millions of light-years from contact with the Commonwealth, suffers a constant rain of Faller eggs which absorb people and produce perfect Faller copies, all programmed to commit genocide on humanity. (This existential threat scenario does require the aliens to be utterly single-minded. Imagine all the inhabitants of Connecticut totally intent on invading Massachusetts and nobody wants to stop for ice cream.) As a result, Bienvenido’s government is heavily militarized and fearful of its own minority population, known as Elite, who’ve retained the superior brains and enhancements of their Commonwealth forebears. A few individuals like the Warrior Angel survive independently and possess advanced Commonwealth technology. Then astronaut Ry Evine—his mission is to explode the orbiting “trees” that are the source of Faller eggs—unwittingly frees a trapped Commonwealth vessel that crash-lands on Bienvenido carrying, of all things, a baby. Reclusive Elite forest warden Florian stumbles upon the capsule and the baby and takes responsibility for the child—who feeds and grows at an astonishing rate and soon exhibits highly advanced knowledge and abilities. Security officer Chaing, secretly an Elite, believes the Faller threat to be far greater than the government will admit and wants to contact the Warrior Angel for help; instead, while fearing betrayal at the hands of Jenifa, his fanatical assistant, he’s charged with capturing the child. All this roars relentlessly along in utterly mesmerizing style, with edge-of-the-seat plotting, thrilling action, and knife-edge tension that will leave readers gasping.
An atomic blast of a yarn. Hamilton in peak form and absolutely not to be missed.
The story of a revolution-turned–civil war waged across the solar system—and within one very unusual spaceship.
Constance Harper, known as the Mallt-y-Nos, has started a revolution: she’s destroyed the Earth and ignited a civil war that’s engulfing the whole solar system. She can’t afford to let her feelings sway her from her intended course: taking down the all-powerful System. She can’t afford to show any weakness. Althea can’t afford to show fear, either, but she’s hiding from something more powerful than any army. Her ship, the Ananke, was awoken and made sentient by a computer virus. But the Ananke is far from human, and Althea’s strange “daughter” is fast outgrowing her mother’s lessons. This sequel to Lightless (2015) picks up where the first book left off, digging deeper into the relationships between Constance, Ivan, and Mattie, the revolutionaries who together stole the bombs that razed Earth, and continuing the story of the Ananke’s awakening. As the stories of Constance and Althea hurtle toward inevitable confrontations, and both women discover whom they can and can’t trust, Higgins keeps the tension high while raising questions about what it means to be human, to be a fighter, to be powerful. The pace never flags even as the reader is asked to ponder the just use of power, the limits of our ability to understand one another, and the responsibilities that come with creation—or destruction.
Sci-fi fans will love this tense, action-packed, and thought-provoking adventure.