Insatiable Machine

Insatiable Machine
By Zoë Robertson with Jesse Lifé

Science fiction often takes a monitory bent, and given current global trends you don’t need much of a crystal ball to predict the form that looming dystopias will take. Aside from the effects of climate change perhaps the most popular theme being worked by SF authors today is that of social and economic inequality: imagining a coming world that is divided between a wealthy elite and the rest of teeming humanity.

Insatiable Machine is a remarkably lush depiction of such a near future. The U.S. government is controlled by a handful of global corporations and the economy has evolved to a point where the deplorable masses that huddle in suburban shantytowns no longer serve any function. A final solution awaits. All that stands in the way is a family with a very useful collection of skills.

Zoë Robertson packs a lot of detail into her vision of the future, describing a wide range of domestic and industrial machines that actually work and a broad cast of characters drawn from walks of life high and low. Think Tom Wolfe, but more speculative and tilting to the left. With plenty of action, politics, and high tech, Insatiable Machine is a visionary treat.

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Places in the Darkness

Places in the Darkness
By Chris Brookmyre

The space station Ciudad del Cielo (known as CdC or “Seedee” to the locals) is literally an entire city in the sky, complete with a high-rent luxury district, crime-infested ghettoes, and everything in between. What it doesn’t have is any homicide, at least until bodies mysteriously start piling up when new CdC director Dr. Alice Blake arrives. Is the sudden murder spree a coincidence? Probably not, but Alice will have to team up with tough Seedee cop Nicola Freeman (who has the street name Nikki Fixx) in order to find out what’s going on.

Christopher Brookmyre (shortened to Chris Brookmyre for this novel) is a pro at spinning these tales of futuristic intrigue, which helps a lot here because the plot is incredibly complicated, involving various criminal gangs, a megaproject to colonize deep space, and a “neurosophical” organization doing some questionable experiments into brain tech. It’s enough to make your wetware buzz, with a pace that never flags and pages that keep turning.

This Insubstantial Pageant

This Insubstantial Pageant
By Kate Story

The infinite adaptability of Shakespeare has been proven again and again over the past 400 years, with his plays being set in every different time and place imaginable. Why not The Tempest in space then? Indeed, it had already been done, or at least suggested, as long ago as 1956’s Forbidden Planet.

With This Insubstantial Pageant self-described Shakespeare geek Kate Story sticks much closer to Shakespeare’s Tempest than did Forbidden Planet, while at the same time re-imagining the play in an exotic, funny, and very sexy way. SF fans and Shakespeare buffs should be equally delighted.

The plot and even much of the dialogue will be familiar. A brilliant scientist, Prosperina, is stranded on the planet Lalande-21185b after her biotech corporation is stolen by her brother. However, with the help of some high-tech magic she is able to create a new home for herself and her daughter Milana, along with some lab-grown companions like the “mobile vegetative sentient lifeform” Kaleeban.

When a shipwreck brings her brother and the rest of the cast to Lalande Prosperina’s revenge is set in motion. And everything seems to be following her (and Shakespeare’s) script . . . at least until the natives start getting restless.

Autonomous

Autonomous
By Annalee Newitz

A lot of the action in Autonomous takes place in Canada, which in the year 2144 has gone through some changes. Our home and native land is now part of a vast conglomerate known as the Free Trade Zone, and with the fallout from climate change and other factors the major tech hubs are now located in places like Iqaluit and Saskatoon.

Judith “Jack” Chen is an anti-corporate pharmaceutical pirate, cruising the world in a stealth submarine and creating black market drugs for people who can’t afford them. She gets into trouble though when she hacks a new workplace drug that turns out to be lethally addictive. Being a good social justice warrior she wants to put things right, but she’s already triggered a response from the International Property Coalition, which has put a couple of agents who share an odd post-human bond on her trail.

It’s a catchy plot, and Newitz puts it to good use in exploring the evolving meaning of freedom. In the future slavery has come back in a big way, as corporations have turned us into drugged-up zombies, there is a class system of indentured servitude, and biobot workers are programmed with only limited degrees of autonomy. This loss of freedom also means that the line between humanity and artificial intelligence is becoming blurred, leading to even more complications that will need sorting out.

Electric Dreams

Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams
By Philip K. Dick

With Electric Dreams, a 10-part anthology series airing on Space based on his work, Philip K. Dick continues to solidify his place as one of the most essential and enduringly relevant SF authors. The companion book to the series contains the ten original stories the episodes were based on, with each introduced by the screenwriter who adapted them.

How has Dick managed to last? In large part because he wasn’t as interested in science as he was in our anxious and ambivalent relationship to it, which is something that hasn’t changed. In these less well known and less anthologized pieces he addresses such subjects as virtual reality, consumerism, the surveillance state, and technological determinism, all of which are as important today as they were in the mid-1950s.

Borne

Borne
By Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer, author of the haunting Southern Reach Trilogy, continues his exploration of all things weird and wonderful in Borne: a uniquely VanderMeerian vision of the end of the world (and perhaps its new beginning).

Sometime after the collapse of civilization as we know it, a woman named Rachel arrives in the wreckage of a city riven by sectarian violence and lorded over by a flying bear that is the size of a small apartment building. One day Rachel, who survives by scavenging among the ruins, brings home a strange creature (strange even for her world) that she names Borne.

Borne is as impossible to describe as he is to understand. His default appearance is a colourful hybrid of sea anemone and squid, but he can take different forms at will. As he grows, a personality begins to develop, and questions are raised as to where he came from and what his purpose might be.

VanderMeer has staked out a psychedelic fictional terrain all his own that is a melting-pot of nature, technology, and magic, and Borne is one of the more remarkable fruits his imaginings have brought forth.

New York 2140

New York 2140
By Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson has a fascination for stories about humanity’s attempts to craft a sustainable environment through technology. In New York 2140 he’s back on this familiar ground, even if the ground is now under water.

In the future, global warming has, as predicted, caused ocean levels to rise. This has led to the catastrophic flooding of much of the world’s coastal areas, including the Big Apple.

The surprising thing is that NYC hasn’t been abandoned. Instead it has refashioned itself as a “SuperVenice,” its streets replaced by waterways. In this new urban milieu Robinson tells a complicated story involving sunken treasure and high-finance chicanery, played out by a host of characters drawn from all walks of life and social classes. The result is an epic “city novel” of the next century.