Make Room! Make Room!

Make Room! Make Room!
By Harry Harrison

No, soylent isn’t people in this 1966 novel, which was the basis for the 1973 film Soylent Green. In fact, the movie didn’t have much to do with Harry Harrison’s book at all, aside from the general message about overpopulation.

Reading it today, I find that message to be the least pressing part. We’re no longer so hung up on contraception, and the big scary numbers don’t impress. In the novel, on the eve of the millennium the population of the U.S. is 344 million and the global population 7 billion. It took a bit longer, but both numbers have been surpassed. The population of NYC is high at 35 million (it’s only 8.5 million today), but it’s not out of the ballpark for the global champs.

Instead, what still seems most relevant is the vision of a future running out of resources (fresh water, oil, food, living space), and the enormous gap between a very small elite and the miserable masses. Both the material and moral collapse of society are nicely realized in a naturalistic tale of crime and punishment that still has teeth.

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Senlin Ascends

Senlin Ascends
By Josiah Bancroft

This new edition of Senlin Ascends marks the major-press release of a book self-published several years ago that took off through word of mouth. A wider audience now gets to see what all the fuss has been about.

They should be impressed, as this is fantasy storytelling of a high order. The first volume of the Books of Babel, Senlin Ascends introduces readers to the giant structure that gives the series its name. An unworldly provincial schoolteacher named Thomas Senlin has brought his beautiful new wife Marya to the famous Tower of Babel for their honeymoon. Almost immediately, however, Marya goes missing, and Senlin is forced to climb the tower in pursuit.

The basic idea, which builds on various literary archetypes going back all the way to the Bible, is that each level of the tower is an entire city unto itself known as a “ringdom,” with its own unique political system and bizarre cultural practices. This gives the book an episodic flavour, with Senlin facing a series of trials that range from the comic to the terrifying as he rises.

Semiosis

Semiosis
By Sue Burke

It’s been said that the most well adapted form of life on Earth is grass. Covering everything from suburban lawns to wheat fields to savannahs, grass has become dominant both because it’s so hardy and because people invest so much time, money and effort in taking care of it.

Could grass have been planning this global takeover all along? Semiosis, the fascinating debut novel from Sue Burke, makes you wonder.

The story begins with a small group of settlers arriving on a habitable planet they name Pax. The life forms native to Pax are exotic but comparable to life on Earth, with one of the big differences being that plant life is sentient. In particular, a colourful form of bamboo dubbed Stevland is revealed to be highly intelligent.

As the settler community adapts to life on Pax they enter into a cooperative relationship with Stevland, which leads to some interesting observations on the building of complex social systems from the ground up and the dangers of trying to direct the process of evolution.

Bannerless

Bannerless
By Carrie Vaughn

Civilization has fallen apart, again. There were epidemics, an economic crisis, rising oceans and giant storms. It’s been remembered as the Fall. In its aftermath a series of communes are strung out along the Coast Road with only scraps of technology keeping our heads above a new Dark Age. Travel on the Coast Road is by solar car, horse and wagon, or foot. Women are implanted with birth control patches to keep population levels sustainable. A permit given to a household to have a child is called a banner.

This is the world of Carrie Vaughn’s Bannerless, an SF novel crossbred with elements of mystery and Western. New investigator Enid travels to the Coast Road town of Pasadan to look into a suspicious death, playing the role both of police detective and sheriff sent to bring justice to the frontier.

The way the narrative alternates between past and present is a little awkward, but Vaughn shakes the formula elements of her plot up enough to make Bannerless an engaging read right up until the final reveal and journey home.

Machine Learning

Machine Learning
By Hugh Howey

While self-publishing via Amazon hasn’t led to a total transformation of the book business, at least yet, there have been some amazing success stories. Hugh Howey, author of the bestselling Silo series of novels, is one of the most notable of these.

The Silo novels are the work of an author skilled in long-form narrative, and it’s surprising to turn to the stories collected in Machine Learning and find them just as accomplished. Howey’s highly original take on such standard SF themes as aliens, artificial intelligence and virtual reality are lively and thoughtful, with several of the stories, like “The Walk Up Nameless Ridge” and “The Plagiarist” being real standouts.

Howey has been writing at a fever pace throughout this decade but the quality of his output hasn’t suffered and Machine Learning is a good place to catch him at his best.

Frankenstein Dreams

Frankenstein Dreams: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Science Fiction
Ed. by Michael Sims

The publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818 is usually regarded as when science fiction began, with the genre then taking another hundred years to arrive at its present form. In this anthology of stories and novel excerpts from the nineteenth century, editor Michael Sims tracks the process of this shaping, collecting some of the earliest explorations of what would become staple themes like time travel, robotics, and space exploration.

Calling this “Victorian” science fiction is slightly misleading, as most of the stories, some of which are quite obscure, are American. It’s mainly the excerpts from longer works that come from familiar European authors like Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, and H. G. Wells.

In any event, the major difference between SF then and now is perhaps not so much our greater knowledge of the universe – we no longer believe in Lunarians living on the moon, for example, or cities on Venus – as it is the evolution in style. It’s the flavour of the writing here, so distinct from our own, that really makes this a collection for the connoisseur.

Provenance

Provenance
By Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie had one of the most acclaimed debuts in SF history with Ancillary Justice, the first novel in her Imperial Radch trilogy. Provenance returns us to the same Imperial Radch universe to tell a new story about a rather stressed-out young woman named Ingray who is looking to impress her high-ranking mom with a crazy plan involving the release of a notorious criminal from a prison zone.

The plan starts to go wrong right from the start, with what follows being less space opera than space operetta as Ingray becomes involved in a political comedy of errors that threatens to spiral into a major intergalactic-diplomatic incident.

Provenance is definitely lighter fare than the Radch trilogy, but it introduces us to some interesting new characters, cultures and technologies and makes for another entertaining and imaginative Leckie adventure.