A History of What Comes Next

A History of What Comes Next
By Sylvain Neuvel

With A History of What Comes Next Quebec writer Sylvain Neuvel, author of the acclaimed Themis Files trilogy, launches a new series called Take Them to the Stars.

The genre is alternative or secret history, with lots of well-researched detail tightly woven into the plot. The main players are the Kibsu, whose origins are left murky, even to themselves, for now. The Kibsu descend in a female line of what are essentially clones going back some 3,000 years. They usually pair up in mother-daughter teams (Sara and Mia are the heroes here) since three generations is unlucky. Their mission is to get the human race off this planet and “to the stars,” which requires working behind-the-scenes with rocket scientists like Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev to nudge the space race along.

The Kibsu are driven, intelligent, and killing machines, but they’re opposed by a male line of blockers known as Trackers. There’s also a Cold War going on and global warming to deal with. Getting humanity to the stars won’t be easy.

The Echo Wife

The Echo Wife
By Sarah Gailey

The Echo Wife is a novel about creators and their creations. Most obviously it’s a new take on Frankenstein, with Evelyn Caldwell being a scientist who has developed an effective process for cloning humans.

Evelyn is one of those likeable-for-being-unlikeable characters, ambitious to rise to the top of her field but alienating her husband and pretty much everyone else in the process. So what her ex decides to do is to clone Evelyn into a kind of Stepford wife named Martine who he can program to be the perfect helpmeet.

Of course this doesn’t end well. In fact it doesn’t even begin well, and it’s not long before we’ve shifted gears into mainstream techno-thriller territory and ethical questions are popping up like clouds of flak. The story never loses its grip, however, and while this is the kind of material that has been attracting a number of big-name authors lately, even set aside books like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me, and Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein, The Echo Wife holds its own.

Anthem

Anthem
By Ayn Rand

I first read Anthem in high school, which is when I think most people initially get exposed to Ayn Rand. I remember picking it off a rack of paperbacks in the library and only reading it because it was short. I don’t think I liked it very much.

Today it strikes me as even less interesting, being only a strident warning about the horrors of a post-collapse collectivist dystopia somewhat akin to Yevgeny’s Zamyatin’s We (though Rand never acknowledged any debt). As in Zamyatin (and Orwell’s 1984) dissident thoughts are triggered by the appearance of an Eve in the worker’s paradise. Rest assured no amount of central planning is going to be able to frustrate evolution, or stop Rand’s new gods, ensconced on their Nietzschean mountaintop, from repopulating the world with their divine seed.

A parable, but one that at least has the virtue of being quick about its business. This time around it made me think of Rand as de Sade. Not for the cruelty in her vision of man as a selfish and intensely anti-social animal, or even for the torture scene with the men naked but for their leather aprons and hoods, but for the way this book holds a place in the author’s oeuvre much like Justine does in de Sade’s. What I mean is that it’s a condensed expression of her philosophy that makes reading later bricks like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged unnecessary. Also like de Sade is Rand’s willingness to push a particular point of view to an extreme. You can tell why, like de Sade, Rand became a cult figure. If you sign on to this kind of angry, no-prisoners libertarianism then she’s your go-to guide and guru. And nearly a hundred years later she still is.

A Maze of Death

A Maze of Death
By Philip K. Dick

Existential/absurdist drama meets And Then There Were None and/or Lord of the Flies. Or were such sources all that different in the first place?

Philip K. Dick seems to have been a pretty horrible person, but I do love his books. They’re provocative and playful at the same time. The philosophical point being entertained here has to do with reality being a shared dream, though at least in this case one that involves some human agency. Technology helps make the dream real, and we’re not far removed from the kind of thing we’d be fed on the big screen a quarter-century later in what I’ve called elsewhere the Year of the Simulacrum (that would be 1998 and The Matrix, Dark City, and The Truman Show). Being ahead of the curve this far is what gets an author a reputation for being a prophet.

That agency I mentioned is of little comfort to the dreamers, who wake from their collective nightmare to a reality even worse than that of being hunted like rats in a maze, a maze from which death is the only escape. Put another way: hell is other people, but what else gives life meaning? Share a nightmare then, or go sadly forth to meet the Truth by oneself in “emptiness, meaninglessness, and solitude”? What a choice to have to make! Better to have never been born.

XX

XX
By Rian Hughes

XX is a textual-space odyssey that takes one of the oldest tropes in SF – initial contact with intelligent alien life, this time in the form of a signal received by radio telescope – and dresses it up in a crazy riot of graphic design.

Rian Hughes, a British artist and illustrator, has tricked his book out with a full bag of visual stunts and gimmicks. Text is arranged every which way on the page while different fonts and eccentric glyphs come and go. There are pictures, email exchanges, sheets of computer code, cut-and-paste Wikipedia pages, and pretty much everything else you can think of.

The circus-like atmosphere, which has drawn comparison to Mark Z. Danielewski’s cult hit House of Leaves, effectively underlines the theme of sorting signal from noise, but at nearly 1,000 pages it can also be overwhelming. If you hang on though you can expect an interesting exploration of the possibility of ideas having a physical reality, and of memes made flesh.

Projections

Projections
Ed. by Rebecca Romney

In her introduction to this neat anthology of classic SF tales Rebecca Romney informs us that “it isn’t a science-fiction writer’s job to predict the future.” What they’re more inclined toward is projecting contemporary anxieties. If some present trends were to continue, what would the world look like? And what does that tell us about the way we live now?

That said, if we were giving out prize crystal balls the winners here would probably be Murray Leinster’s 1946 story about what happens when an AI loses its guardrails and James Blish’s early take on global warming. But stories less about technology and more into exploring the changing ways we relate to one another, like Doris Pitkin Buck’s “Birth of a Gardener” and J. G. Ballard’s “The Intensive Care Unit” also hit us with a shock of recognition.

The neatest thing about Projections, though, is its design, by the Albertan publishing team of Hingston & Olsen. The twelve stories, plus Romney’s introduction, are in separate booklets attractively packed into a custom-made box that make it a terrific keepsake and gift idea as well as full of lots of great reading.

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2020

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2020
Ed. by Diana Gabaldon; Series Editor John Joseph Adams

Anthologies necessarily take on the character of their editors, and live or die at their hands. This latest edition of The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy series, one of the best in recent years, is in the especially capable hands of Outlander author Diana Gabaldon, whose selections are complex, varied, and thoroughly accessible and enjoyable, even to non-genre fans.

They are also less overtly political than the previous two volumes in the series (especially 2018, but see my thoughts on the 2019 collection here). For Gabaldon it’s OK to have explicit political and social commentary – indeed, this is the bread and butter of most speculative fiction – but it should be “used as the springboard of the story, not the ultimate point. The stories are about real people, not animate megaphones.” This is advice that is followed in the best of the stories collected here, which although speculative still dramatically address issues, from race to crime to the writing of history, that are all in the news today.

The Puppet Masters

The Puppet Masters
By Robert A. Heinlein

A rollicking anti-communist screed from the height of the Red Scare has the titular slugs or “titans” infiltrating America from one of Saturn’s moons, or more directly and proximately from “behind the Curtain.” It’s a wild, nude roller-coaster ride of a novel, and perhaps the first to feature aliens as body-snatchers. With or without the politics that enemy within would become a major theme in ’50s SF.

A right-winger of the libertarian school, Heinlein was an exact contemporary and political soulmate of Ayn Rand. Meaning he wasn’t just against commies, but against weak, ineffective, “bureaucratic” government at home as well. The price of freedom isn’t just eternal vigilance but eternal violence, ferocity, and hate in the biological war of all against all. Sam and Mary won’t just beat the slugs on the battlefield but in the bedroom as well because they are breeders. Long live the race!

Lending support to the maxim that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, even in regions where the slugs have taken over the economy still functions the same way, with the same division of labour and even bankers (as “silly” as it seems) staying on to provide the essential function of maintaining liquidity in the financial system. Suggesting that the slugs, if they aren’t stopped, may be on their way to the same ironic fate as our mechanical inheritors in Čapek’s R.U.R. They’re about to get really bored, to the point where they can only despair at the pointlessness of it all.

The Dark Library

The Dark Library
By Cyrille Martinez (translated by Joseph Patrick Stancil)

As books become an increasingly endangered species in our modern culture they are also transforming into the stuff of fantasy. In such recent novels as Gene Wolfe’s A Borrowed Man and Jeff Noon’s The Body Library books even become characters with individual personalities, truly taking on lives of their own.

The Dark Library offers up another such alternative reality, with the Great Library and its various denizens under threat by digitization. Obsolescence beckons both employees, like the Red Librarian, and the books themselves. One of these, the Angry Young Book, has a particular axe to grind, one with a compelling generational edge. In the “fight for the cause of books” we can no longer rely on the golden oldies. Their time has passed.

Readers have changed too, first turning into users, and then becoming mere “sojourners” in the stacks. In the process, their memories have been wiped clean, leaving them feeling empty and alone. That’s sad, but there’s hope as well in this literary romance that places the future of the book in our hands.