Polished environmentalist SF whose occasionally New Age-y trappings don’t detract from the thrills and wonder.

THROUGH A FOREST OF STARS

In debut author Jeffrey’s SF series starter, war is brewing as a corporate space explorer makes extraordinary discoveries on a newly discovered, Earth-like planet.

By the year 2217, Earthings have discovered “voidoids,” invisible space structures of unknown nature; entering one voidoid means instant transportation to another, light-years away. As a result, humanity, which is spread between an ecologically ravaged Earth and a colonized Mars, has attained the capability of miraculous interstellar travel. But nobody knows how or why voidoids function, and nobody has found a planet capable of supporting life—until humans discover Silvanus, a pristine, paradiselike world. Aiden Macallan is a planetary geologist for Earth’s ruthless and powerful Terra Corp, even though the same capitalist entity likely murdered his mother, a workers’ rights advocate, and had him temporarily imprisoned. He evaluates worlds in the voidoid system for mineral exploitation and other profitable benefits. He and his team on the survey ship Argo speed towards Silvanus to stake a legal claim; the potential for colonies has set the global government of the United Earth Domain against the rival Allied Republics of Mars, which may result in war. Aiden and his trusty artificial-intelligence companion, Hutton, find Silvanus to be an astounding place—and one that’s under the threat of extinction. Veteran SF readers may hear echoes of Stanislaw Lem’s classic Solaris (1961), filtered through familiar climate change angst as Jeffrey details the ruin of Amazon rainforests and the predatory greed of corporations that still deny the existence of global warming. Some of the themes of Dune author Frank Herbert are also discernable; much of the plot turns on the Gaia hypothesis of planetary biology as a single, vast, living entity, which is the basis of a somewhat cloistered religion. The moralizing seldom slows the story’s brisk, urgent pacing, although the its atypical structure allows it to reach an action-packed climax on the edge of the third act; nearly everything afterward feels like epilogue. The author, who’s also a jazz musician, lovingly insinuates John Coltrane as a surprise key to first-contact communication.

Polished environmentalist SF whose occasionally New Age-y trappings don’t detract from the thrills and wonder.

Pub Date: May 19, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-9986742-0-9

Page Count: 436

Publisher: Silvanus Books

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2020

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Suspenseful, full of incident, and not obviously necessary.

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THE TESTAMENTS

Atwood goes back to Gilead.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), consistently regarded as a masterpiece of 20th-century literature, has gained new attention in recent years with the success of the Hulu series as well as fresh appreciation from readers who feel like this story has new relevance in America’s current political climate. Atwood herself has spoken about how news headlines have made her dystopian fiction seem eerily plausible, and it’s not difficult to imagine her wanting to revisit Gilead as the TV show has sped past where her narrative ended. Like the novel that preceded it, this sequel is presented as found documents—first-person accounts of life inside a misogynistic theocracy from three informants. There is Agnes Jemima, a girl who rejects the marriage her family arranges for her but still has faith in God and Gilead. There’s Daisy, who learns on her 16th birthday that her whole life has been a lie. And there's Aunt Lydia, the woman responsible for turning women into Handmaids. This approach gives readers insight into different aspects of life inside and outside Gilead, but it also leads to a book that sometimes feels overstuffed. The Handmaid’s Tale combined exquisite lyricism with a powerful sense of urgency, as if a thoughtful, perceptive woman was racing against time to give witness to her experience. That narrator hinted at more than she said; Atwood seemed to trust readers to fill in the gaps. This dynamic created an atmosphere of intimacy. However curious we might be about Gilead and the resistance operating outside that country, what we learn here is that what Atwood left unsaid in the first novel generated more horror and outrage than explicit detail can. And the more we get to know Agnes, Daisy, and Aunt Lydia, the less convincing they become. It’s hard, of course, to compete with a beloved classic, so maybe the best way to read this new book is to forget about The Handmaid’s Tale and enjoy it as an artful feminist thriller.

Suspenseful, full of incident, and not obviously necessary.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-54378-1

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Review Posted Online: Sept. 4, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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A daring change of genres, and an entertaining whirlwind at that.

HUMMINGBIRD SALAMANDER

The prolific VanderMeer moves from fantasy into noir territory with this version of an eco-thriller.

The natural world always takes a front-row seat in a VanderMeer yarn—see, for example, Borne (2017) or Dead Astronauts (2019)—even if it’s a natural world that has suffered at human hands and by human tinkering. That’s true of this story as well, which opens with a tantalizing puzzle: A mysterious woman named Silvina has left behind a coded message for a security expert who suggests that we call her “Jane Smith” and who adds that she is “here to show you how the world ends.” That clue involves a taxidermic hummingbird, the last of its kind, and, following a few ellipses in the accompanying note, the word salamander. No, not Salander, though Jane has a number of things in common with Stieg Larsson’s heroine: She can pound most dudes into tapioca, and she’s pretty handy with a gun and a computer, too. The story, as it develops by twists and turns, involves a very, very wealthy South American bad guy who’s been raping the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest and doing a little exotic wildlife smuggling on the side while his daughter has become an eco-warrior who doesn’t mind the detonation of a few bombs in order to save wildlife. Naturally, the bad guy isn’t entirely bad, the good woman isn’t entirely good, and their stories intertwine in nicely tangled ways. It wouldn’t be a VanderMeer story, no matter what the genre, without a post-apocalyptic turn, and after all the assorted villains (one of them in particular very evil indeed) and oversized amphibians and mad-scientist taxidermists and exploding heads, it’s sort of nice to get to a future that no one will survive—one that strongly resembles 2020, for that matter.

A daring change of genres, and an entertaining whirlwind at that.

Pub Date: April 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-3741-7354-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Dec. 25, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2021

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