The Second Sleep

The Second Sleep
By Robert Harris

The British novelist Robert Harris has covered a lot of ground in his historical fiction – from ancient Rome to World War 2 – but in The Second Sleep he travels even further afield, into the distant future.

It is a future easily mistaken for the past. Civilization has taken a great leap backward after the collapse of 2025, leaving the world in a new dark age that looks very much like the last one. But when a young priest named Christopher Fairfax comes to the village of Addicott the past starts coming to light in some strange and disturbing ways.

The obvious comparison here is to Walter M. Miller Jr.’s classic 1959 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, though the depiction of society slipping back into medieval lifeways, with science replaced by religion, has since become a commonplace for a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction.

Harris is an experienced storyteller and he builds the mystery of what’s buried underneath the Devil’s Chair nicely. There is also an implicit critique of the fragility of our own civilization in the proceedings. The ending is abrupt, but we might chalk that up to expectations of a sequel.

Gamechanger

Gamechanger
By L. X. Beckett

Toronto author L. X. Beckett’s Gamechanger is an impressive debut: a hefty page-turner with a thrilling plot that presents a dense and detailed vision of the future.

The world, as we find frequently in today’s SF, has suffered a Setback, this time in the form of a global pandemic. Setback has been followed, however, by Clawback and then Bounceback. Civilization will have a sequel.

Rubi Whiting is a poster child for the Bouncer generation: environmental activist, human rights lawyer, and celebrity performance-gamer. The world she inhabits is one where the line between reality and virtual reality has nearly been erased, and the concept of privacy all but lost. We are online all the time, and drones hover everywhere. Almost every moment of our lives is public, with a system of strikes and strokes helping shape a more prosocial human environment.

Utopia for some, a nightmare for others. Into this world a threat surfaces by the name of Luciano Pox, who may be a rogue AI or . . . something else. Whiting, with a little help from friends both real and digital, will have to find out.

How To Invent Everything

How To Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler
By Ryan North

Given the popularity of apocalyptic end-of-the-world scenarios in today’s SF and speculative fiction, it’s not too surprising that there has been a corresponding interest in how to survive such catastrophes as environmental collapse, alien invasion, and zombie plagues.

Ryan North’s How To Invent Everything is a work that takes a similar staring point to Sam Sheridan’s The Disaster Diaries, this time imagining the reader as a time traveler whose FC3000 personal time travel device has malfunctioned, stranding them in the past. Since the FC3000 cannot be repaired, this user’s guide suggests ways for the chrononaut to nudge scientific progress along, or even “build a civilization from the ground up.”

What this is then is an entertaining and informative survey of Big History, taking us through the essential highlights of human invention from agriculture and writing to buttons and baby forceps. And as a guidebook it may be worth holding on to even if we never do figure out time travel. There may be another dark age ahead, requiring us to build our civilization from scratch all over again.

The Million

The Million
By Karl Schroeder

The Million is a short novel set in Toronto author Karl Schroeder’s Lockstep universe. The guiding premise of Lockstep is that overpopulation has been dealt with by putting most of the world’s population to sleep, leaving a neo-feudal aristocracy of wealthy families, attended by countless service bots, to take care of things in the long gaps between awakenings.

A series of unfortunate events gets young Gavin Penn-of-Chaffee a new identity and a trip to a Venetian boot camp for population-police recruits (they’re called “auditors”). The academy is a place with a whiff of Hogwarts about it, and Gavin’s adventures among the auditors have the same kind of feel as he and his new friends learn about how their world operates while passing various tests and getting out of some dangerous scrapes. And more is to come, with things bound to get even more complicated as the sleepers awake.

Ready Player One

Ready Player One
By Ernest Cline

An homage to geekdom by a self-styled uber-geek, and a paean to pop culture by an obsessive fan of the same, Ready Player One is entirely representative, and perhaps the fullest expression we have, of the now dominant paradigm in global entertainment.

As a political statement I find it pernicious. The world has gone to hell (collapsed economy, environmental catastrophe) but that’s OK because capitalism has provided a virtual reality that is preferable to the real thing. Society’s losers, like Wade Watts, can now be winners in a world of make-believe built by corporate interests. If you invest enough of your time and labour into playing their game you have a chance to become rich beyond the dreams of avarice. And you’ll get a kiss from one of the cool girls at the end.

As a culture artefact it is of its time. The film rights were sold a year before publication and it was duly turned into a Steven Spielberg blockbuster. The texture of its world is the plastic, CGI, virtual reality that is now so ubiquitous both on page and screen. What is real? Nothing worth caring about. Wade is an orphan, for example, living in a slum of stacked trailers. Even death has no sting, as he has an extra life.

A blurb on the paperback edition calls it “Harry Potter for grown-ups.” Strange. I’d thought Harry Potter was Harry Potter for grown-ups. Or for grown-ups who don’t want to grow up. This is kidult, which we might as well call the new YA, publishing’s latest sweet spot.

The writing seems directed at this same mental and emotional demographic. Meaning it is very easy to read. It is, in all respects, an emblematic work of today’s pop culture: entertaining, superficial, formulaic, and childish. All served up with a large dollop of nostalgia. When did growing up become such a terrible thing?

The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man
By H. G. Wells

Because he’s a popular author and one who worked in the field of genre fiction it’s easy to overlook just how good a writer H. G. Wells was.

The premise of an invisible man wasn’t new to Wells, or the destabilizing effect such a power would have on one’s psychology. That goes back to Plato’s telling of the myth of the Ring of Gyges. But the story is told vigorously here, in tight journalistic style (sticking to eyewitness reports, for example), and is given a perfect structure, from beginning mysteriously in the middle of things and expanding from the tavern at Iping until all of England is in a state of national alert: “Griffin contra mundum — with a vengeance!” Wells was an author of ideas, but it’s his narrative chops that make The Invisible Man a classic.

Salvation

Salvation
By Peter F. Hamilton

The discovery of an alien artifact in a distant galaxy in the year 2204 leads to a high-powered assessment team of specialists being sent to investigate, and launches us into a thrilling new series – the Salvation Sequence – from Peter Hamilton.

Hamilton is one of those writers with narrative gifts so polished and an imagination so fertile that one scarcely notices that almost all of the action in Salvation occurs during flashbacks introducing each of the most important members of the assessment team while at the same time filling in the back story to this fascinating new world.

The defining technology is instant travel from any two points in the universe connected with a special quantum portal device that has made planes, trains, automobiles, and rocket ships obsolete. In annihilating time and space, however, humankind has caused some ripples in the fabric of the cosmos. It also seems as though one of the team’s members is not what he, she, or sie seems.

Worlds Seen In Passing

Worlds Seen in Passing: 10 Years of Tor.com Short Fiction
Ed. by Irene Gallo

Perhaps the world’s leading publisher of science fiction, Tor is also one of the few companies to have gotten online publishing right. Their Tor.com webpage regularly updates with great new fiction and has become an essential site for fans of the genre.

Now, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the website’s launch, we have this anthology of some of the best stories they have published online.

While online content still bears some stigma as being second rate, the stories here, which range from hard SF to fantasy, put the lie to that. Because Tor is able to draw on such a wide and deep pool of writers, not to mention what editor Irene Gallo rightly describes as “a dream team of editorial talent,” this is a collection of some of the best writing from the past decade, including a number of award winners and nominees. High quality and rich variety make this a book for every collector, and continue to make the website a prime destination.

Summerland

Summerland
By Hannu Rajaniemi

In the alternate history presented in Summerland the undiscovered country has been not only discovered but colonized by spooks.

The year is 1938 and death is no longer the end. Instead, lucky stiffs have their “Tickets” punched to an afterlife in the ethereal dimension next door. From there they can still communicate with the land of the living by way of ectophones and other pseudospiritual technologies.

It’s a complicated premise and Hannu Rajaniemi layers an even more complex spy story on top of it, with agents from the Winter Court (Britain’s secret service in this world) liaising with the Summer Court (its counterpart in the ghost world). Together the living and the dead have to unravel a plot involving lots of double agents and international (not to mention interdimensional) intrigue.

In addition to being a fantasy spy thriller, there’s an analogy here to our current imagining of a “cloud” that consciousness can be uploaded to, wherein we enjoy a digital afterlife. Summerland suggests that this might not be such a great thing, or will at least involve us in complications we need to consider more deeply.