Drunk on All Your Strange New Words

Drunk on All Your Strange New Words
By Eddie Robson

The title needs some explaining. When the alien Logi arrive on Earth they require human translators to express their thought-language into words, a process that makes translators feel and act drunk.

Lydia Southwell is one such specially trained translator, assigned to the Logi ambassador Fitz. But when Fitz ends up murdered Lydia finds herself in the middle of an intergalactic murder mystery in which she’ll need some assistance from the dead ambassador, whose voice is still kicking around in her head.

There’s a lot going on in Drunk on All Your Strange New Words, and most of it is really good. The locked-room mystery is well handled while social media in the forms of up-to-the-minute tweets and news feeds (ranked for their truthiness) are deftly interwoven with a classic conspiracy-thriller plot. The result offers something fresh and engaging for fans of several genres.

The Clockwork Man

The Clockwork Man
By E. V. Odle

This is an odd, sometimes awkward book, with most of that attributable to it being ahead of its time.

It’s being republished now as part of MIT Press’s Radium Age series, which covers a period that general editor Joshua Glenn sees as being a proto-SF stage of experimentation and flux. So perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that parts of it don’t come into focus. The Clockwork Man himself, for example, is usually touted as the first cyborg in literature (oddly enough, Karl Čapek’s R.U.R. came out the same year, inventing the robot). But while I think the cyborg label fits, it’s really not clear how the clock mechanism functions, or who the “makers” are and what their purpose was in creating them. Are clockwork people being punished? Has the Clockwork Man escaped, consciously or not, from the multiform world of many dimensions where he is free from the constraints of time and space but is otherwise a slave? Or is his sudden appearance just an accident? These are points I don’t think Odle was much concerned with, but they seem important.

Of course, the book is really about life in England in 1923, and the Clockwork Man is only window-dressing. After opening on the cricket pitch (a game more confusing to me than the Man himself when he appears) we settle into life in Great Wymering, which isn’t quite as cozy as it sounds. Doctor Allingham is all used up at the age of 40, settling into life as a bitter grouch. But then, as the cricket captain Gregg explains, the human organism is showing signs of breaking down everywhere “under the strain of an increasingly complex civilization.” Directed and expedited evolution – that is, having a clock installed – is one way of coping. Unfortunately, even with upgrades we still break down.

Venomous Lumpsucker

Venomous Lumpsucker
By Ned Beauman

It’s the little things that often set the best SF novels apart from the rest of the field. A big part of world-building, the term used for the creation of believable futuristic or alien worlds, is filling in the details. This is something Ned Beauman does a great job of in Venomous Lumpsucker, a near-future novel that takes its title from an endangered, and possibly extinct, species of fish.

The plot has an awkward pair investigating the suspected demise of the lumpsucker. Karin is a concerned environmental avenger and Mark a sell-out to a big mining corporation that’s dredging the lumpsucker’s native habitat. Together they embark on a darkly comic adventure that brilliantly sketches an all-too plausible extinction economy, one which has some unexpected winners and losers.

Beauman is a lively writer with a knack for sharp descriptive language: nervous bowels beginning to simmer or someone with a voice that’s like a hug going on too long. But it’s the passing observations on what may be coming down the pipe that futurists will really enjoy, like drugs to kill one’s pleasure in food, or facial recognition software for tracking the spread of a cattle plague. There’s a good story here, with a couple of likeable if damaged main characters, but it’s these little things that make Venomous Lumpsucker a special pleasure.

The Martian Chronicles

The Martian Chronicles
By Ray Bradbury

The Martian Chronicles was published in 1950, the same year as that other great “fix-up” of short stories “pretending to be a novel,” Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. I don’t think it’s as coherent as Asimov’s book, but that may have just as much to do with how odd a talent Bradbury was.

Is it even science fiction? Bradbury thought the label a “misfit,” but I would say yes, if only for the picturesque “old Mars” setting (inspired by Burroughs) and the presence of rocket ships. But it has many other genre influences, in particular horror (one story has a Martian colonist a little too taken with the works of Poe) and the Western. With regard to the latter, the populating of Mars is an accelerated version of the mythic settling of the West, as the stories describe the displacement of the indigenous Martians by freedom-loving capitalists (one wants to set up a hotdog stand, and all are passionately against government red-tape). Finally, the last immigrants/refugees from an exploded Earth take on the role of the next generation of American Adams, ready to (re)build a classic mid-Western small-town on a hill.

It’s a book still much beloved of young people today, despite having dated quite badly. But even in 1950 I think it was more nostalgic than speculative. One wonders how much of the myth is left. Of course we haven’t been able to believe in this vision of Mars since Mariner 4 took the first close-up pictures of the red planet in 1964. But perhaps more to the point, can we still believe in this vision of America?

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.