Insistence of Vision

Insistence of Vision
By David Brin

The fiction of David Brin is informed by a recurring theme, which can be boiled down to the operation of various kinds of evolution: organic and synthetic, directed and undirected, fast and slow. This interest in dynamic change feeds into his vision of SF as an essentially optimistic form: not because he believes in “progress” but because he believes in the ability of humankind to adapt to different conditions and improve its condition.

This isn’t to say that change is always for the best. Sometimes progress comes at a price, sometimes two steps forward are followed by one step back, and sometimes the best laid plans go terribly awry (the story “Mars Opposition” providing examples of each of these outcomes).

Despite the odd dystopic detour, however, Brin remains hopeful, while providing us with thought experiments that help us to imagine, and prepare for, what may be ahead.

The Paper Menagerie

The Paper Menagerie
By Ken Liu

Ken Liu’s speculative fiction has a dominant concern in the preservation of family and culture at a time when both are being put under strain.

This is obvious in the title story of this collection – the first story to win the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards within the same year – which deals with a Chinese-American man remembering a bit of magic origami from his childhood. But the same interest in a conflict between different ways of seeing, thinking, and being invests almost all of the other stories as well, including those dealing with exotic forms of alien life and technology.

It’s a great collection, strongly reminiscent of the work of China Miéville, and the only disappointing part comes in Liu’s introduction, where he says that he no longer writes as many short stories, having chosen to focus his efforts on novels. That’s a pity.

Why I Hunt Flying Saucers

Why I Hunt Flying Saucers
By Hugh A. D. Spencer

Why I Hunt Flying Saucers is a great debut collection of stories that offers up a retrospective of highlights from twenty-five years of published work. It also includes editorial notes by the author on the stories themselves – a nice little bonus feature that is becoming increasingly common.

The Toronto-based Spencer is an author who should be better known. His writing is lively and topical, and ranges across a number of different forms, even including radio plays (instead of stories, this book is more broadly described as a collection of “fantasticals”). In particular, his genre satire is spot on, with an exasperated update on Asimov’s three laws of robotics being just one brilliant example. Perhaps it’s the Canadian setting, or the emphasis on the world of people at work, but the stories feel more grounded than your typical SF fare, with real issues being handled in fun and provocative ways.

Meet Me In the Middle of the Air

Meet Me In the Middle of the Air
By Eric Schaller

Eric Schaller’s debut collection of weird dark fiction is like one of those great first albums put out by a band that’s been writing songs and practising them in clubs for years. Drawing on two decades of material, these are bold, original stories that startle the reader at nearly every turn of the page.

Schaller is an experimental writer, but the risks he takes work because he has the narrative chops to back them up. Even such horror-genre stand-bys as zombies and witches are made refreshingly new in these pages, while the best stories, like “The Assistant to Dr. Jacob” and “Going Back for What Got Left Behind” have an air of Robert Aickman about them only with a more contemporary and transgressive psychological flavour.

A book that’s been a long time coming, Meet Me In the Middle of the Air leaves us eager for what’s next, but not wanting the author to feel in any rush.

R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)

R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)
By Karel Čapek

It’s ironic that what R. U. R. is best known for today is its introduction of the word “robot” into the English language, when the meaning of that word has changed so completely in the years since. Čapek’s robots aren’t machines but vat-brewed organic constructions. Politically, they are Marx’s proles, Wells’s Morlocks, or plantation zombies: human facsimiles who function as a servile underclass so that a new global aristocracy can be liberated from labour.

Of course things don’t work out. R. U. R. is a comedy of unintended consequences: as humans are freed from labour they find themselves redundant, to the point where they even (voluntarily!) give up breeding. Evolution has been directed to a dead end, and humankind, which Nietzsche thought something to be surpassed, has finally suffered that fate, having engineered itself into a position of superfluity. Meanwhile, our inheritors are left with nothing to do but to continue mass-producing crap for which there is no longer any market. The new Adam and Eve have inherited a sterile wasteland. This is the real singularity we are working toward, and, in retrospect, the best our civilization could do.

Thunderbird

Thunderbird
By Jack McDevitt

Thunderbird is a sequel to Jack McDevitt’s Ancient Shores, and it returns us to a Sioux reservation in North Dakota where a functioning star gate (dubbed the Roundhouse) has been discovered. Nobody’s quite sure what the point of the Roundhouse is, but it serves as a portal to other far-flung locations in space and time that can be accessed, quite helpfully, by a simple menu of icons.

Complications arise, however, when politicians get involved and a ghostly presence exits the Roundhouse and begins floating about North Dakota, its purposes unknown.

In effect, the Roundhouse operates a bit like the Internet, with branching paths opening up like new web pages in a browser, accessed through links from different portals. This gives the novel the flavour of a Choose Your Own Adventure book, being somewhat unfocused but pressing the reader forward, always wondering what’s behind the next door.

The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle
By Philip K. Dick

First published in 1962, Philip K. Dick’s Hugo-winning alternate-history novel (a relatively new genre at the time) has been re-released to coincide with the miniseries being produced under the same name.

The series, however, only borrows the novel’s basic premise: that the Axis powers won WW2 and now the U.S. is occupied by the Nazis in the East and the Imperial Japanese in the West, with a neutral zone in-between. The plot of the novel is a loose, hard to summarize affair, following the adventures of a number of tangentially connected characters as they struggle to adapt and survive in this threatening new political environment.

Uncanny and unsettling, The Man in the High Castle is also one of Dick’s most accessible books, moving beyond politics into the sort of speculations he is famous for about the nature of reality and who the ultimate author of the script of our lives might be.