Alice Payne Arrives

Alice Payne Arrives
By Kate Heartfield

As even casual time travelers know, once you start messing around with the past you turn the timelines of human history into a plate of spaghetti, leading to all sorts of dangerous paradoxes and unintended consequences.

This is the situation faced by the “teleosophers” in Alice Payne Arrives, the first part of Ottawa author Kate Heartfield’s planned two-part series involving the adventures of an 18th-century highway robber with progressive views who gets drafted into a 22nd-century history war. The logistics of the plot are hard to keep straight, but it seems one group of rebels, operating out of a Toronto safe house, has decided that the only way to end the war is to prevent time travel from ever becomng possible.

Once plans go awry, as they always do, everything seems hopelessly confused. But Alice may be resourceful enough to save the day in the sequel.

Red Moon

Red Moon
By Kim Stanley Robinson

Global politics goes off-planet in Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest, which is set partially on the moon.

In the middle of the twenty-first century the moon has various settlements but remains largely “a Chinese place.” When a high-ranking lunar official appears to be assassinated by a visiting quantum engineer a diplomatic chain reaction is set off linking a diverse cast of spies, scientists, radicals, and an elderly celebrity poet who hosts a travel show.

As always with Robinson heady political ideas are mixed in with discussions of imaginative technology that really works. China is a one-party state with many factions, which is a point that drives much of the complex plot here. But also moving things along is the functioning of new types of communication devices, including quantum phones and a neutrino telegraph.

Finding out what’s really going on when truth is so endlessly fragmented poses quite a challenge even to nearly omniscient forms of artificial intelligence. Someone, however, is going to have to come up with answers before the world and the moon go spinning into chaos.

The High Crusade

The High Crusade
By Poul Anderson

There’s a certain kind of time-travel story where the hero goes back in history and kicks ass among our primitive ancestors. Primitive, at least, in the art and technology of kicking ass. It runs from Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to the movie The Final Countdown. The High Crusade is an early comic inversion of this, with medieval warriors from Earth hopping on a spaceship and proceeding to colonize more technically advanced civilizations. This is seen as nothing remarkable by their leader. As he puts it, with terrific irony, “Just because we use a different sort of weapons, we aren’t savages.”

And let’s add another SF trope that Poul Anderson was mining in The High Crusade. This is the very strange, at least to my eye, connection between our future and the Middle Ages. Why is it that so many epic visions of things to come are made to look like our medieval past, complete with kings and dukes in castles, and sword-wielding warriors wearing armour? From Asimov’s Imperial Foundation to the deserts of Herbert’s Dune we see the same trappings and tropes being recycled. There’s even a monastic future imagined in works as far removed as Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.

I’m not sure why this is, but Anderson has a lot of fun with it in a story that stands alongside Twain in its playful presentation of a more serious point about the social development — so much faster than biological evolution — of our species. Can we call it progress?

The Memory Police

The Memory Police
By Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder)

The Memory Police most obviously recalls classic dystopian works like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. In some distant land – distance in time or space not clearly identified – the “memory police” are regularly sent around to erase some part of the world. Roses are made extinct. Then photographs. Then calendars. All instances of the offending items are rounded up and destroyed and it is forbidden to mention them again.

Which isn’t a problem because everyone soon forgets what’s been tossed down the memory hole anyway. Unless you are the kind of person who remembers. Then you may be disappeared as well. For the main character, a novelist in a time when novels are themselves endangered, this raises some obvious problems.

Yoko Ogawa’s book is different from those by Orwell and Bradbury in being more fantastic, along the lines of something by China Miéville. One has the sense of it being an allegory for the deletion of our own material culture, consigned to the great memory hole in the digital cloud – retrievable, in theory, but forever out of mind.

Last Ones Left Alive

Last Ones Left Alive
By Sarah Davis-Goff

The apocalypse has come again in Sarah Davis-Goff’s Last Ones Left Alive. This time we are in Ireland, where a plague has turned most of the population into bloodthirsty zombies called skrake. After the death of her mom, our hero Orpen leaves her island sanctuary and hits the road, pushing her mother’s dying partner Maeve in a wheelbarrow. Readers of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road will see something familiar in this.

Orpen’s goal is to make it to Dublin, where she can hook up with a gang of lethal ladies known as the banshee. The odds might be long, but fortunately Orpen’s parents have provided her with a practical education in the martial arts, turning her into a butt-kicking, knife-throwing force to be reckoned with. Still, the road is thick with danger.

The post-collapse wasteland is, of course, well-traveled ground by now. But Davis-Goff gives it a spark with her lively descriptions of hand-to-hand combat and feminist true grit.

The Last Astronaut

The Last Astronaut
By David Wellington

It says a lot for the richness and durability of classic science fiction tropes that a novel like The Last Astronaut is so thrilling.

In the year 2054 a large object that shows signs of being directed by an alien intelligence enters our solar system. An undermanned NASA has to bring Sally Jansen, whose previous mission to Mars ended in disaster twenty years earlier, out of retirement to lead the first-contact team.

They’ll need Sally’s experience when they get to 2I (the name of the alien structure) and things start to go nightmarishly wrong. As the astronauts go spelunking through the vast, cave-like interior of 2I they have to deal with a rapidly changing and threatening environment, even as the team itself comes undone.

David Wellington presents The Last Astronaut as a novelization of an oral history and it’s an approach that works surprisingly well. First-contact stories always involve elements of mystery and suspense as the heroes try to come to grips with new forms of intelligent life that may put the entire Earth at risk, or be no threat at all. The Last Astronaut will keep you guessing, and turning pages, until the very end.

The Passengers

The Passengers
By John Marrs

In 1997 a Canadian film named Cube launched what would become a popular sub-genre in horror fantasy. The set-up goes like this: a group of strangers awake to find themselves in a futuristic death trap. While being monitored by an outside agency they must find a way to escape or die. As the game progresses secrets are revealed, though these often don’t explain the bigger mystery of why all this is happening.

The Passengers is another take on this formula, which is perhaps best known to movie audiences from the Saw film franchise. In a near-future England a Hacker has taken control of a bunch of self-driving cars, locking their passengers inside and speeding them toward a common doom. He wants to play a game, revealing a bit about each passenger to a live streaming audience that will get to vote on who lives or dies.

As with all such stories it’s a combination morality tale and game show, which makes for compelling reading. John Marrs delivers with all the twists that you’d expect and even a couple you probably won’t in a tale of accelerated unnatural selection.