By C. A. Higgins

Lightless, the debut novel from C. A. Higgins, hits the ground running with the black hole-powered spaceship Ananke being infiltrated by a pair of break-and-enter men who infect its computer with a virus. The rest of the novel will be spent trying to figure out who these guys really are and what they’re up to.

After the jolting opening chapter things slow down a bit, and Higgins starts to pace herself for a longer game. She also effectively manages a restricted, almost claustrophobic setting, talky plot, and small cast of characters.

Chief among these is Althea Bastet, the computer engineer aboard the Ananke. As the story develops Althea is drawn into a techno-mystery that pits the forces of order, known simply as the System, against anti-authoritarian elements who are either freedom-loving rebels or terrorists (you’ll guess which soon enough). Meanwhile, Ananke appears to be fatefully evolving into an artificial intelligence with plans of its own.

Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits

Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits
By David Wong

It seems fair to say that most young people, on learning that a father who had long abandoned them had just died and left them a fortune beyond imagining, would be in the mood for celebration. For Zoe Ashe, however, this ticket out of the trailer park only leads to trouble.

David Wong delivers a vision of the future as a hysterical, fully wired, 24/7 stream of violent spectacle. A satire on all things now, including the media, technology, corporate power, celebrity, and obscene wealth, Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits is a roller-coaster ride of a novel filled with bizarre characters and stamped with extreme punctuation that gets dialed all the way up to “!?!” and even “?!?!”. It’s not a book to be read slowly, but enjoyed in a rush.

Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper

Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper
By David Barnett

Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper is the third of David Barnett’s marvelous steampunk novels chronicling the real-life, penny-dreadful adventures of Gideon Smith, Hero of the Empire.

It’s best to read the earlier books first, if only for an introduction to Smith’s entourage (Maria the Mechanical Girl, Belle of the Airways Rowena Fanshawe, and gutter journalist Aloysius Bent), but prior familiarity with these characters isn’t necessary as this one also works as a stand-alone story.

Fans of steampunk will recognize all the usual trappings of the genre, including lots of gimcrack Victorian inventions from an alternative history of science and a rococo plot involving, in this instance, Jack the Ripper, a hungry young tyrannosaur, a mysterious artificial brain, and a motley cast of villains from walks high and low. It all makes for a busy book, but one that’s as much fun as a ride on the brass dragon.

Dark Matter

Dark Matter
By Blake Crouch

Time machines have become an obsolete technology in a lot of recent SF, having been replaced by devices allowing for the navigation of the “many worlds” posited by quantum physics. In Dark Matter Jason Dessen is a college physics professor who, in another “worldline,” has invented just such a doohickey, allowing him to visit alternative realities . . . and alternative Jason Dessens.

Blake Crouch, author or the Wayward Pines trilogy that was made into a Fox series, turns the many-worlds concept into a breathless ride through the multiverse in this fast-paced and action-packed novel. Along the way some interesting questions are raised not just about different worlds but the different kinds of people we become in those worlds, and the responsibility we may owe to them.

Company Town

Company Town
By Madeline Ashby

Company Town, the debut novel from Ottawa writer Madeline Ashby, is a delightful hybrid, mixing noir and SF along with a strong feminist line and lots of regional flavour.

The titular town is a city-sized oil platform off the Newfoundland coast (“b’y”) being run by a super-wealthy family corporation. Go Jung-hwa (or Hwa for short) is a young woman living on the platform who works as protection for the local sex workers. Though unenhanced by bio-upgrades (which leads to certain self-esteem issues) Hwa has become a master of the martial arts and her skills come to the notice of the Lynch family, who hire her to be the bodyguard for one of the young heirs to the family fortune.

As with a lot of noir, the plot gets quite tangled. Something dangerous is going on and Hwa finds herself right in the middle of it, unsure who to trust, puzzled by programmable viruses, and pursued by killers in invisibility suits. It all makes for a thrilling story set in a fully-realized and memorable new world.

The Doomed City

The Doomed City
By Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield)

doomed-cityScience fiction in the Soviet Union had a special status, being a mainstream genre used both as propaganda and subversive allegory. The Strugatsky brothers – probably best known in these parts for their novel Roadside Picnic, which was the source for Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker – were the biggest names in Soviet SF in the 1970s, but The Doomed City, which was completed in 1972, wasn’t published until sixteen years later and is only getting its first English translation now.

The doomed, or damned, city exists in a parallel universe and is part of some unspecified experiment that alien “mentors” are undertaking using immigrants from our world as lab rats. It’s a work that recalls classic Hollywood dystopias like Proyas’s Dark City and Gilliam’s Brazil, but is distinctly of its own time and place as well.

As Boris Strugatsky writes in an Afterword, it was perfectly obvious that such a book had no prospects. It’s a Kafkaesque political and philosophical parable, but unlike with The Castle the rot isn’t the product of an overgrown and sclerotic bureaucracy but instead grows out of an ideology that’s become rigid to the point of absurdity. What’s truly remarkable (and disturbing) is that such a message has as much to say to us today as it did to people living in the Soviet Union in the 1970s. It’s a vital, exciting, and essential book.

Sleeping Giants

Sleeping Giants
By Sylvain Neuvel

sleeping-giantsThe idea that Earth was visited in ancient days by aliens who somehow seeded or laid the groundwork for human civilization is, literally, dug up again in Sleeping Giants as bits and pieces of a colossal, three-thousand-year-old mechanical figure are discovered buried all over the world.

After gathering and reassembling the limbs of this titan it’s still not clear what its origin or purpose is, though an extra-governmental team, including a resourceful French-Canadian linguist, is soon hard at work trying to unlock its secrets.

Sylvain Neuvel – who is, perhaps not coincidentally, also a French-Canadian linguist – kicks this new series off with a bang, adopting an oral-history style of presentation that gives the action directness and immediacy as the giant awakes.