The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem
By Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu)

Cixin Liu is a big name in Chinese SF, and so the English translation of this, the first part of his Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, is an event.

In horror at the Cultural Revolution, a scientist joins an experiment being made to contact alien life. It’s obvious that humanity has made a total hash of things here on Earth, so why not? Alas, what must have seemed a good idea at the time gets complicated when our messages are answered by the Trisolarans, an advanced race whose own planet is dying due to their having three suns in chaotic orbit.

When a videogame is unable to solve this classic dilemma (hey, anything was worth a try!) the Trisolarans decide it’s time to pay a visit to Earth, raising a number of political and philosophical issues about the nature of our response.

The Abyss Beyond Dreams

The Abyss Beyond Dreams
By Peter F. Hamilton

Peter F. Hamilton’s latest space opera is set in his Commonwealth universe in the year 3326 (which, take note, is before the events described in the Void Trilogy).

Nigel Sheldon has entered the Void — a place where the laws of physics are pretty elastic and telepathy is a universal sixth sense — in search of a missing starship. What he discovers is a planet oppressed by a tyrannical government and afflicted by evil critters known as Fallers (think a combination of the beasties from the Alien franchise crossbred with the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers).

When it comes to world building there are few SF writers today equal to Hamilton. The Abyss Beyond Dreams is a great read, combining all of his signature elements. The first of a two-part series on the Fallers, it also sets the table perfectly for a strong finish.

Sci-Fi Chronicles

Sci-Fi Chronicles
Ed. by Guy Haley

Reference books are a tough market in the days of Google and Wikipedia, but Sci-Fi Chronicles is one worth checking out. A combination timeline and encyclopedia of the genre, it’s a terrific compilation of information that’s lavishly illustrated and surprisingly well written. Covering fiction, film, television, and videogames, it’s the kind of guide that invites a browsing frenzy. One can quibble over some of the selections (I would have left out the superheroes), and biases (Asian SF isn’t well represented), but overall the coverage is excellent, ranging from the giant franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars to entries on leading authors of the golden age.

The Midwich Cuckoos

The Midwich Cuckoos
By John Wyndham

The Midwich Cuckoos spends a lot of time locating Midwich in relation to the roads that lead in and out of it and its proximity to neighbouring communities, but I was at first confused as to when it was set. It was first published in 1957 but for some reason I thought it had been written earlier. The town itself is described as existing in a “thousand-year doze,” and it has the same cozy air of 1930s golden age detective fiction that triggered Brian Aldiss’s “cosy catastrophe” critique of The Day of the Triffids. There’s no reference to any war, past or present, or much in the way of technology. In short, it could be taking place at any time, though certainly not anywhere.

You then notice odd things you wouldn’t see in a cozy novel, though they are still only suggested. The minister’s wife has had an abortion. The town has a lesbian couple. And as for the aliens, they’re either sex tourists or practical jokers looking to punk homo sapiens.

It’s an odd mix of what are familiar elements, used again by Wyndham to dramatize his favourite theme of the incompatibility between evolving species. Humanity is something that needs to be surpassed, but only over our dead bodies: a stark message that seems to have become more relevant in our own time.

Goodhouse

Goodhouse
By Peyton Marshall

In a lot of SF the future takes on an archaic tinge, mixing science with retrograde political developments.

That’s certainly the case in Goodhouse, which is set sometime near the end of the twenty-first century. We start with the premise that a genetic test has been developed that reveals the “biometric markers” indicative of a propensity for violence in males (women do not have this mark of Cain). Any boys who carry these bad genes get shipped off to a reform school (dubbed a “Goodhouse”), where they are made to atone for their potential sins through discipline and labour.

And so it’s back to the future in this story of a boy named James who is sent to a Goodhouse modeled after California’s Preston School of Industry. There are advanced monitoring devices and sinister Clockwork Orange-style medical experiments going on, but mostly it’s a Dickensian grind (the Goodhouse has a factory that makes cupcakes but the boys can’t even lick the icing that gets on their fingers!).

As life in this neo-Boys Town gets more dangerous, James starts to think about a prison break. Unfortunately, just outside the walls the fundamentalists are starting to rage.

Irregular Verbs

Irregular Verbs and Other Stories
By Matthew Johnson

Debut collections of short stories sometimes hit like a band’s breakout first album, the material gathered from a writer’s early and often most creative years. Such, anyway, is the feeling you get reading Irregular Verbs and Other Stories, Ottawa author Matthew Johnson’s meaty collection of speculative short fiction.

The Johnsonesque fidgets with a reality that has all sorts of bends and gaps in it. Just to stick with the category of time, in “Another Country” a fissure in the time-space continuum sends “prefugees” from falling empires to present day safe havens where they join semi-assimilated communities of Mongols, Goths, or Aztecs, while in stories like “Written by the Winners,” “When We Have Time,” and “Outside Chance,” characters manipulate history or surf alternative chronologies as though they were so many different data streams.

And reality isn’t the only mode in play. Johnson also bends and twists genre conventions, with highly original riffs on everything from superhero to zombie fiction. But no matter how bizarre the setting, his stories always keep focus on how individuals cope with the stress of these disruptions and intrusions into strange new worlds. Luckily his characters are sensitive but adaptable types, and given the plastic nature of Johnson’s universe another jump in time or space, or genre, is often the solution closest to hand.

Robot Uprisings

Robot Uprisings
Ed. By Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams

As is not the case with a lot of SF topoi – interplanetary travel, time machines, encounters with aliens – we actually know what it’s like to live with robots. Whether it’s a machine that vacuums your pool, a computer that navigates (or even drives) your car, some of the equipment you use at work, or the drone that’s spying on you overhead, robots have become fixtures of twenty-first century life.

Familiarity has given rise to paranoia. Have we become too dependent on our tools and toys? What would happen if this technology were to rise up and rage against its human creators?

Such is the premise behind this terrific anthology of robot fiction. It’s not a new concept – robots have been turning against us ever since the first one rolled off the assembly line – but here it’s imagined in ways that illustrate the latest trends. In particular, nanotechnology (robots the size of particles of dust!) and Artificial Intelligence get a lot of play.

Of course robots come in all shapes and sizes, and have many different agendas. The stories in Robot Uprisings reflect this variety, ranging from techno-horror to domestic comedy. One thing they have in common though is the high quality of the writing, making this one of the year’s best new anthologies.