Jack Four

Jack Four
By Neal Asher

While it may be a cliché to call a book like Jack Four “action-packed” it’s hard to think of a better description. We’re plunged straight into the madness on the first page as the titular narrator (so named because he’s one of twenty clones) hops out of a matrix “coffin” and almost immediately has to start battling for survival.

Non-stop carnage follows as Jack the Bioweapon takes on an all-star line-up of monsters and supersoldiers, enduring what should be multiple season-ending injuries but for his special healing abilities. No matter how much damage he takes he can be almost instantly repaired, leaving him ready to fight another (and another, and another) round.

Though this is a standalone volume set in the Neal Asher’s already well-stocked Polity universe you may feel a bit at sea if you’re not familiar with the crablike prador and their long-running war against humanity. But the device of beginning with Jack’s “birth” and having to learn about his world as he goes along helps, even if you don’t get many chances to stop and catch your breath when the games begin.

Midnight, Water City

Midnight, Water City
By Chris McKinney

SF and future-noir detective fiction go so well together they constitute their own sub-genre. Midnight, Water City walks down these dirty streets again in the year 2142 as a tough detective discovers the body of Akira Kimura, a scientist who saved the Earth from a deadly asteroid decades earlier, chopped into pieces in her revitalization pod.

The whodunit angle may be familiar but Chris McKinney makes it work with his world-building chops and the creation of an authentically fresh protagonist.

In terms of the former there’s the now almost taken-for-granted split of society into two social classes (the Money and the Less Thans), but due to the degradation of the mainland much of humanity has moved offshore and now live in underwater seascrapers and floating ‘burbs. Meanwhile, lifespans have been lengthened so that the narrator, though 80 years old and feeling weathered, not least from four marriages, is a long way from being over the hill.

Though he’s not always the brightest laser-knife in the drawer, our hero has psychic powers to go with his toughness, being able to see the colour of murder. This comes in handy, as soon there are bodies piling up and he’s going to need all the help he can get, even from beyond the grave, if he’s going to survive.

The Food of the Gods

The Food of the Gods
By H. G. Wells

The full title continues with “and How It Came to Earth.” I’m not sure why, since the Food is a man-made lab product and not some alien growth hormone. In any event, the novel has never been as popular as Wells’ early SF classics, for what I think are obvious reasons. After a rollicking start involving giant chickens, wasps, and rats – all that would be kept in place in the disastrous Bert Gordon film adaptation – it turns into a mushy sort of political fantasy (there’s even a captive princess) when “the children of the Food” rise up against the resentful masses of little people.

It’s not revolution so much as evolution when the boomfood generation comes of age, leading to the beginning of a world made new by the Food and its “great dawn of wider meaning.” We may think here of The Midwich Cuckoos and what that novel had to say about the incompatibility of different species. The world isn’t big enough for the little and the big to share even if they wanted to, and they clearly don’t. So there’s blood in the offing.

But there’s something mystical in all of this too as Growth becomes a kind of divine historical principle: “the law of the spirit for evermore. To grow according to the will of God!” It’s Victorian progress as theology. At the time quite radical, but in retrospect the last gasp of such optimism, at least couched in these terms.

A Cage for Every Child

A Cage for Every Child
By S. D. Chrostowska

The challenging stories in S. D. Chrostowska’s latest collection aren’t really science fiction, as they take place in a universe largely without science. But then they’re scarcely stories either, taking more the form of essays or parables set in fantastic worlds where giant worms are hunted or flowers sprout from the palm of your hand.

There’s a deliberate difficulty to Chrostowska’s work, from the almost awkward formality of the prose to the evocation of imagination as a supernatural gift constrained by our corrupt human condition. Children being raised in cages, the subject of one story, has an obvious political resonance, but is more allegorical than topical. Perhaps freedom is overrated?

I find something almost medieval in Chrostowska’s antagonism of soul and body, as well as very modern in her exploration of perverse psychology. Kafka may be the presiding spirit, with the failure genius in one story being explicitly likened to Kafka’s hunger artist. He’s truly a master of the pathetic fit for our time: alienated from his world, from others, and from himself but trying to make something of it all the same.

Rabbits

Rabbits
By Terry Miles

Gaming culture is big – very big – which has led to a lot of books and movies about the blurring of the line between the game/virtual reality and real life.

Rabbits, which is the outgrowth of a popular podcast by Terry Miles, is the latest offering in this line and it’s likely to appeal to fans of books like Ready Player One as much as it will to readers of Thomas Pynchon. The idea is that there’s a mysterious and dangerous game called Rabbits that involves the reshaping of reality itself. You play by noticing arcane connections and anomalies in everyday things, which before long leads to your getting sucked down a rabbit hole into alternate dimensions.

K and his pal Chloe, both dedicated gamers, are enlisted to play the latest iteration of Rabbits, and to save the world they’ll have to win the game. Given the nature of Rabbits their fast-paced, puzzle-solving adventures are fueled by lots of pop culture references and conspiracy theories, taking paranoia to the next level while the action keeps hopping.

The Stepford Wives

The Stepford Wives
By Ira Levin

I don’t often hear The Stepford Wives discussed as an SF novel, which is strange. The nerds of Stepford have whipped up next-gen sexbots (a.k.a. “toys for needy children”) in their local research park, and while the nuts and bolts of just how these sexy helpmeets work isn’t gone into in any detail, they are clearly products of Silicon Valley and the RAND Corporation as much as Madison Ave.

What I was most struck by in returning to this book today is how well it holds up. As Dave Chappelle puts it in one of his stand-up routines, a woman only has to know four ways to please a man: “suck his dick, play with his balls, make him a sandwich, and don’t talk so much.” To this we might add keeping the house immaculate. Having fulfilled their reproductive duty, the real wives of Stepford are expendable. And the husbands, watching their porno films at the Men’s Association, know exactly what they want in terms of an upgrade/replacement.

A satire? Yes, but one without any laughs because it’s a totally heartless vision of relationships that hits far too close to home. And, in the twenty-first century with all our anxiety over robots and AIs taking our jobs, hitting closer every day.

Lost Transmissions

Lost Transmissions: The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy
By Desirina Boskovich

The mission statement for this colourful casebook is to provide a “secret history” of science fiction and fantasy by cataloguing some lost, overlooked, or uncompleted works. That second adjective, however, is made to do a lot of work. What counts as overlooked? What makes a book or film obscure or underappreciated? I think it’s great to want to “uncover the work of artists who, for whatever reason, did not receive their due.” But what is any creator due? How much recognition or reward? It’s hard to quantify these things, but I wouldn’t have thought Angela Carter or Mervyn Peake overlooked.

What we have here then is more in the way of a grab-bag, with brief articles mixed in with introductions, interviews, and essays on subjects ranging from books and films to architecture, fashion, and video games. It doesn’t add up to a coherent account of anything in particular – lost, secret or otherwise – but there are some interesting stops along the way and even fans will likely be alerted to some items in the great SF&F tradition that they’ve missed.

Drug of Choice

Drug of Choice
By Michael Crichton (writing as John Lange)

In my notes on Philip K. Dick’s A Maze of Death I said that being so far ahead of the curve in his positing of a virtual reality that replaces the real world entirely is part of what gave Dick the status of a prophet, given how much it predates later interest in this theme in movies, not to mention Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum.

In fairness I should extend the same prophetic status to Michael Crichton, whose Drug of Choice came out the same year as A Maze of Death (1970) and which could be seen as another early precursor, not to mention a dry run for better known examples of the augmented-reality resort that would appear in Crichton’s own later work from Westworld to Jurassic Park. Only this time instead of having to build robots or breed dinosaurs all you have to do is take a pill.

Crichton was his generation’s H. G. Wells: a well-read man of art and science with an unerring popular taste directed at questions of the day. “We’re bringing science down to the masses, making it agreeable, understandable. We’re educating people.” So says Dr. Blood as he describes his plans for using designer psychopharmaceuticals to create a can’t-miss pop band. Was his next project going to be making hit movies? Television shows? Someone was getting ideas.