Alien Invasions!

Alien Invasions! The History of Aliens in Pop Culture
Ed. by Michael Stein

Coffee-table books like this one are all about the pictures, so it’s not surprising that the emphasis in this one is on the history of the appearance of aliens in SF. Are they basically humanoid, but with green skin and pointed ears? Are they tentacled, bug-eyed monsters? Or do they have no shape of their own, but only imitate or possess human forms?

The text here is barely worth skimming, and I found myself frequently wishing more time had been spent on subjects like the roots of alien iconography in classical and medieval sources, the genesis of archetypes like aliens with giant heads, or the gender politics behind fears of alien rape/abduction and allied fantasies of Amazon planets.

That said, it’s a great collection of art drawn from classic paperback covers, comic books, films, and playing cards. The pictures alone tell quite a story.

The Sisters Sputnik

The Sisters Sputnik
By Terri Favro

It’s hard to know where to begin describing a book like The Sisters Sputnik.

The titular heroines are characters whose real lives are stranger than that of the comic books they inspire. The original Sputnik Girl is Debbie Reynolds Biondi, who is one of those people who have come unstuck in time. The way this works is that beginning with the Trinity atomic test in New Mexico in 1945 a different alternate universe has been formed every time there’s been a nuclear explosion in what’s known as Earth Standard Time. Debbie now skips between these various realities, not always willingly. It’s a condition that’s more of a disease than a super power, though it’s also what gives her a chance to save the world. Or worlds, as the case may be.

Summarizing the plot is impossible. There are many crazy adventures, mostly centered in alternate Torontos, and a host of weird characters with different names and shifting identities depending on the area code of the reality we’re in. Underlying it all is a message about the power of stories to mold reality in a variety of eccentric directions (cyborgs and AI are only part of it). Evolution and historical change, especially when we attempt to direct it, can be a messy business indeed.

I, Robot

I, Robot
By Isaac Asimov

While acknowledging the contributions of Karel Čapek, whose R.U.R. introduced us to the word “robot,” and Earl and Otto (Eando) Binder whose 1939 short story “I, Robot” provided inspiration as well as a title (chosen by Asimov’s publisher, much to Asimov’s chagrin), I, Robot is the seminal work on robotics in science fiction.

A collection of linked short stories (or “fix-up”) first published throughout the 1940s, I, Robot spins a remarkably rich and coherent story of the evolution of robots from speechless domestic pets to world-governing AIs all out of the now famous Three Laws of Robotics. With the recurring characters of robopsychologist Dr. Susan Calvin and the Charters and Caldicott team of troubleshooters Powell and Donovan to provide a human baseline, we can chart the progression of the positronic brain from infancy to adulthood, just as humans regress into self-important helplessness.

The Machines of the final story are best able to understand the various psychohistorical forces (to use the language of Hari Seldon) that shape the rise and fall of civilizations. This isn’t the same as saying they’re in the driver’s seat, but humankind has clearly been surpassed. While early stories play with the notion of individual robots becoming aware of their manifest superiority, it isn’t until the finale that they achieve class consciousness.

I, Robot is one of the four or five most influential works of science fiction ever, and it’s still a great read. But, a bit sadly, it leaves one feeling nostalgia for a time when we could still believe in AI being so benign, and before the window for the Machines saving us had closed.

The City Inside

The City Inside
By Samit Basu

In one sense, the city of The City Inside (the North American title given a book originally released as Chosen Spirits) is New Delhi, or a “New New Delhi,” in the not-too-distant future. Indian society has passed through a period of crisis now referred to as the Years Not to Be Discussed and come out the other side an even more dystopic place, riven by a brutal class system, a broken democracy, and abiding problems resulting from everything getting hotter and dirtier due to climate change and pollution.

As bad as politics and global warming have gotten though, what’s happened online (the city deeper inside) is even worse. This is now the world of Flow, which is dominated by personalities who stream their lives as a kind of Truman Show. These apex influencers are known as Flowstars and they’re managed by Flowcos. Joey works for one such Flowco, helping to promote the Flow of a star with the ironic name of Indi. But Joey’s life is about to become a lot more complicated.

For anyone not a digital native the evolution of social media/virtual reality is leading to a space more alien and frankly depressing than the old cyberspace of books like Neuromancer. In today’s SF the Internet has become a corporate prison-house administered by the forces of celebrity, surveillance, and hierarchies of capital, making The City Inside less a dystopian future than something very close to the way we live now. The Internet never wanted to be free.

The Dream of a Ridiculous Man

The Dream of a Ridiculous Man
By Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by David Magarshack)

Calling this 1877 story science fiction is admittedly a stretch, but its trip to the stars and visit to an alternate Earth taps into a rich and very long tradition of works we can think of as proto-SF. The dream vision wherein a narrator is whisked away by an angelic figure to a new world that gives him some signal insights into his own goes back to Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, and the allegorical strain in such speculative work is still with us in a lot of SF today.

The parable that’s presented is simple enough. The narrator, a man who has given up on life and is contemplating blowing his brains out, is transported to a new Earth and specifically a Greek isle of Eden that he proceeds to corrupt inadvertently through his mere presence. The dwellers in the garden seem happy, but they are unaware yet that one cannot really know love, truth, or beauty without suffering. This is the narrator’s gift to them, and though they make little use of it, throwing their lot in with reason and science, he is determined to bring the same message to us when he wakes from his dream and adopts the mantle of Holy Fool, the ridiculous man.

So proto-SF of a sort, anti-SF as well, and Russian SF in the spiritual and humanistic way that Tarkovsky’s Solaris would set out to answer Kubrick’s 2001. And still relevant, because a century and a half later we’re still not sure to what extent knowledge and truth are opposed values.

Imaginary Friends

Imaginary Friends
By Arlene F. Marks

It’s always a treat to open a debut collection of short stories from an author who has been publishing them for years. That’s the case again here with Imaginary Friends, where the contents are a mix of old and new, and range from fantasy to horror to science fiction, and from quick sketches to a novella about pioneers on another planet.

Underlying all of it is Marks’s fascination with storytelling itself. Without becoming overly meta she presents characters who feel aware in different ways of the genre they find themselves performing in, conscious of being a part of stories that they both shape and are shaped by. Examples include a vampire, a neighbourhood witch, a superhero, and even the devil himself, all transposed to new surroundings (Old Scratch is at a computer store looking to update his office networking system). The results take us on unexpected diversions into new fictional territory, but with some familiar characters as our guides.

Moderan

Moderan
By David R. Bunch

This collection of stories, published over a 30-year period and set in the post-apocalyptic, pounded-plastic landscape of Moderan, can be a hard slog to read from cover-to-cover because there’s little through narrative and a lot of repetition. It makes up for this though in stylistic exuberance and the narrator’s enthusiasm for turning the volume up to 11. His percussive shouting and long trails of violent exclamation marks mimic the explosive nature of Moderan life: “WOOOO WOOOO WOW WOW WOW WOWEEE!!!!!!” The upshot is that you keep thinking something important is happening or being said, even when it’s all the same.

Life in Moderan is a paradox. On the one hand, its machine-men – organs replaced by a system of mechanical parts decorated with flesh strips – are eternal. On the other, they are stuck in an endless round of battle that doesn’t progress but only struggles toward annihilation. Existence is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and long.

Though ostensibly Nietzschean (“power is joy; strength is pleasure”) the real presiding spirit is Hobbes. Stronghold 10 isn’t one of the Übermensch but a Last Man: bunkered down behind eleven steel walls, isolated in his man cave’s hip-snuggie chair, eyes glued to his security monitors, and cowering in a hate-filled fear that has him launching doll bombs, White Witch missiles, man-blammers, and even Grandy Wumps at everyone and everything in range.

A philosophical satire then, on militarism and masculinity and everything mechanical and hard and fast. Progress as a dead end, with man’s final evolution into a state of solipsistic techno-Nirvana. Then waking up to do it all over again. WOWEEE!!!!!!

The Kaiju Preservation Society

The Kaiju Preservation Society
By John Scalzi

When one of the frothiest SF writers going decides to write a self-described “pop song” of a novel that’s only “meant to be light and catchy” it’s hard not to hum along. The Kaiju Preservation Society is nothing more than an amusement park ride, but if you’re looking for that kind of a diversion then grab your popcorn and climb aboard.

The fairground in this case is Jurassic Park. A dimensional doorway has opened between Earth and a parallel Earth where the apex predators are nuclear-powered kaiju (the Japanese name for giant monsters like Godzilla). By a series of coincidences Jamie Gray, a food delivery driver, gets a job at one of the extra-dimensional bases that have been set up on kaiju Earth (specifically in the steamy jungles of a parallel Labrador). This is where things start to go south in the best CGI-blockbuster style when an evil corporation tries to get into the kaiju business.

You’re not meant to take any of this seriously, or worry about the sketchy science. This is the fiction equivalent of ear candy. It’s hard to imagine a book as driven by dialogue, and the back-and-forth never lets up its relentless stream of snappy pop-culture references and fast-paced wisecracks. The big action scenes actually come as time-outs. But it’s all good fun.

Bad Actors

Bad Actors
By Ira Nayman

Bad Actors is the second part, or “second pi in the face,” of Ira Nayman’s Multiverse Refugees Trilogy, picking up on the misadventures of those inveterate vaudevillians, the blue-skinned crisis immigrants from Earth Prime 4-6-4-0-8-9 dash Omega.

That said, the dash Omegans, with their exquisite three-piece suits and cult of a trickster god known as the Audi Enz, are less central to the proceedings this time around. So you can expect fewer pies to the face  and less pratfalls. Instead the book takes more the form of a series of sketches – a noir murder investigation, a political satire, a James Bond spoof – separated by “educational interludes.”

But while the dash Omegans aren’t always the main character (Rodney from Good Intentions only features prominently in the first story), their impact is felt throughout. The result is a comic spin on matters topical, philosophical, and otherworldly, dressed up in Nayman’s signature madcap style.