Lock In

Lock In
By John Scalzi

John Scalzi, who won the Hugo Award for his novel Redshirts, may be the most entertaining writer in SF today. His books are cover-to-cover fun, and Lock In shows him once again at the top of his game.

In the near future a virus dubbed Haden’s Syndrome has shut down the bodies of millions of people while leaving their minds unaffected. Luckily, technology has advanced to the point where “Hadens” can either occupy robot chassis (dubbed “threeps,” after C-3PO) or enter the consciousness of human hosts known as “Integrators.”

What happens when Chris Shane, a new FBI agent with Haden’s Syndrome, partners with Leslie Vann, a former Integrator, to investigate a murder in Washington’s Watergate building? Well, things get complicated. Luckily Agent Shane comes from big money, and so can afford to replace all of the threeps he’s going to have shot out from under him.

Lock In can be read as a plea for political tolerance (the Hadens as disabled), or a satire of people who have their heads stuck too far up the web (the Hadens as super-nerds), but mainly it’s an exciting police thriller built around the traditional odd-couple buddy plot, albeit this time kitted out with lots of interesting upgrades.

However you want to approach it though, it’s one of the best SF novels of the year, and one with substantial crossover appeal for non-genre fans as well.

Arkwright

Arkwright
By Allen Steele

The last few years have seen an uptick in SF “ark” fiction: stories where a catastrophe on Earth, like the rising waters brought about by global climate change or the impact of an asteroid, has made it necessary to establish a new home for the human race elsewhere in the cosmos. See, for example, Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves or Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora.

In Arkwright, the aptly named Nathan Arkwright, one of the giants of twentieth-century SF, sets up a foundation just before he dies tasked with the mission of casting our seed into space. The nuts and bolts of how this is accomplished are carefully rendered by Allen Steele in a multigenerational account of the settling of the final frontier and the creation of a new heaven and earth.

Last Futures

Last Futures: Nature, Technology and the End of Architecture
By Douglas Murphy

It may seem odd to include a book on architecture in the second half of the twentieth century as part of a science fiction column, but how we imagined the future in the past, and how we thought we might live in different ways on Earth (as well as in space and on other planets), is very much part of the same speculative enterprise.

Douglas Murphy discusses many of the essential elements and iconic buildings from the age of modularity, glass envelopes, and the mega-structure, but it’s his interpretation of the meaning of it all that make this such a fascinating book. The cover photograph of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome from Montreal’s Expo ’67 engulfed in flames sets the tone: a blazing Gotterdammerung marking the end not just of architecture but of optimism and history.

From space exploration our dreams of a final frontier of freedom retreated to cyberspace, and from an attempt to enclose the natural world inside giant glass structures came a rejection of nature entirely, as something alien to human reality. Instead, the future, the world we now live in, would be a more conservative place, one made in the image of capitalism triumphant. Technology wouldn’t liberate us but divide and keep watch over us, and homes would become an asset class.

Just look around.

The Orion Plan

The Orion Plan
By Mark Alpert

Those who can’t remember classic SF films from the 1950s are doomed to relive them.

Anyone familiar with The War of the Worlds or The Blob would know better than to mess around with a freshly-fallen meteorite, especially one that takes the form of a sinister black sphere.

Alas, in 2016 few people remember the script, and soon the Emissary from another planet is spreading like an outbreak of nano-kudzu all over, and under, New York City.

If the Emissary is to be stopped a rag-tag group of characters including a homeless man, a teenage Latino gang leader, and (of course) a NASA astronomer, will have to first figure out what it’s doing here. Only then will they be able to find its weak spot and prevent Earth from being overrun.

Quantum Night

Quantum Night
By Robert Sawyer

Quantum Night is stuffed with thought. To be more specific, it is stuffed with the stuff of thought.

In the year 2020 Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi is about to become Canada’s prime minister (as head of the NDP!) and Jim Marchuk is a psychology professor at the University of Manitoba whose researches into psychopathy are going to lead him to discover dark secrets that were erased from his memory twenty years earlier by way of some unethical experiments.

As Marchuk digs into his missing past he teams up with other scientists unlocking the mysteries of human consciousness, finding them to be grounded in a vast, entangled caste system of quantum mental states. As it turns out, the zombie apocalypse may be closer than we think.

It’s all heady stuff, and the story has to work hard to fit in a lot of technical exposition (there are also eight pages of further reading attached as an appendix). But Sawyer is experienced in making complex ideas accessible and the story here moves briskly through a series of unexpected twists while challenging us to think about the deeper nature of who we really are.

The Just City

The Just City
By Jo Walton

The first utopia, or imaginary ideal community, was Plato’s Republic. Plato didn’t mean it as a realistic policy proposal but rather as a thought experiment, and in Jo Walton’s latest novel it’s taken up in much the same spirit.

Or rather it’s taken up by the goddess Athene. The grey-eyed daughter of Zeus is so taken by Plato’s story that she decides to put it into practice, bringing together a who’s who of the greatest minds in the Western intellectual tradition (past, present, and future), and setting them the task of building the “just city” on a slated-for-destruction Aegean island full of children she had picked up on local slave markets.

Plato didn’t think his program for utopia was realistic, and few involved in Athene’s version think it’s going to work either. Explaining why things fall apart and what it is of Plato’s vision that is worth saving, or still aspiring to, is the burden of Walton’s tale. The results are a bit unsurprising – freedom and equality are affirmed as the core values of any just society – but Walton brings together an interesting cast, headlined by Socrates himself, for some political and philosophical debates as relevant as ever in our own time.

The Whispering Swarm

The Whispering Swarm
By Michael Moorcock

Many SF authors are prolific, but Michael Moorcock is a one-man publishing industry, and is giving no indication of letting up any time soon. The Whispering Swarm is the first part of The Sanctuary of the White Friars trilogy, which is part autobiography and part . . . something else.

The hero is Michael Moorcock, a character who is, not surprisingly, very much like the author. This Michael Moorcock, however, is introduced to a secret place in London known as Alsacia that is part sanctuary, part dimensional gateway, and part surreal dream world. It also protects a powerful secret whose fate is soon entwined with Michael’s own.