The Eyelid

The Eyelid
By S. D. Chrostowska

There’s a moment in Don DeLillo’s classic black-comedy novel White Noise when the main character hears one of his children reciting fragments of commercial advertising in their sleep. We realize from this that things have gotten really bad.

The Eyelid spins a rich and rewarding political fantasy out of this same anxiety over the colonization of dreams and the subconscious by corporate power. As it begins, the narrator is introduced to the dreamland of Onirica by an erudite and romantic ambassador named Chevauchet who plays the role of Virgil to the narrator’s Dante, leading him through “the dark wood of nocturnal imaginings” while explaining the meaning and revolutionary role that dreams play in the global economy.

The situation is dire, as the surveillance state and big business have placed dreams, the last bastion of our freedom, creativity, and imagination, under siege, even getting us to drug ourselves into insomnia in the drive for ever greater worker productivity. Hope resides in the unconscious underground, a rebel community of dreamers running from the big sleep.

Repo Virtual

Repo Virtual
By Corey J. White

The hacker first became a staple of science fiction with the advent of cyberpunk and William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer. Since then he’s gone on to become a figure as familiar to the genre as spaceship captains and mad scientists, and in recent years has been enjoying a resurgent popularity.

Julius Dax (JD) is one such damaged anti-hero, a veteran gamer in a world where the line between reality and VR has become more than a little blurred. JD lives in Neo Songdo, a company town run by the tech giant Zero Corporation, and he is a man with a particular set of skills that are in demand when it comes to stealing a package of software from Zero. Though it might not have been wise to trust an off-the-grid cult leader with a name like Kali.

As it turns out, the software in question is the world’s first sentient AI, and both Zero and Kali want to get their hands on it, with JD stuck in the middle. What follows is an action-driven plot that, perhaps not surprisingly, bears some resemblance to William Gibson’s latest novel, Agency. It seems as though cyberpunk is not only back but may have come full circle.

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?
By N. K. Jemisin

With a title like How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? you may be expecting a collection of stories with a political bent, and if so N. K. Jemisin does not disappoint. In her introduction Jemisin, whose byline will likely always be headed by the fact that she won the Hugo Award for best novel three years in a row for the three parts of her Broken Earth series, talks about how much of an outsider she felt as a black woman author entering the field of SF and Fantasy in the early 2000s.

Despite the fact that “things are better these days,” it is obviously an experience that still rankles. One can feel some of its impact in these stories, which revisit more traditional SF and Fantasy motifs and classic authors like Le Guin and Heinlein from a different, at times revolutionary perspective. Also in 2018 Jemisin edited The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, where she directly called for speculative fiction to present readers with ideas that will change the world. In the stories collected here she looks to show the way.

The Razor

The Razor
By J. Barton Mitchell

Planet 11-H37 isn’t a hospitable place at the best of times. Because of its peculiar orbit it is pretty neatly split between a hemisphere that is always burning hot and another side that is frozen solid. In between the two is a narrow green belt called the Razor.

This is just one of the features that make 11-H37 a perfect prison planet, a penal colony for the worst criminals in the universe. It’s a place no one escapes from, and for the latest shuttle of prisoners it looks like the end of the line. Things are, however, about to get remarkably worse for ex-engineer Flynn and ex-Ranger Maddox as they find themselves, literally, on a planet in full meltdown mode, fighting for survival alongside an odd assortment of other inmates against high-speed climate change, murderous gangs, and genetically-engineered killing machines.

J. Barton Mitchell’s first novel is crammed with relentless action, thrills, and mayhem along with plot twists and cliffhangers galore. A full-throttle blast from beginning to end.

Facial Justice

Facial Justice
By. L. P. Hartley

Postwar England was, by most accounts, a grim place. L. P. Hartley, someone who even snobs thought of as a snob, renders it as a bleak land stuck in a “perpetual March” of what may be nuclear winter. The colourless landscape mirrors a social order even more gray, with the keynote being a fetishization of equality that levels every hill and fills up every valley.

The effect of this has been to depoliticize the citizens of the New Nanny State, with the populace (known as delinquents and patients) being like children: mostly asexual and expressing themselves by way of rote alliterative baby-talk.

It’s an odd vision of dystopia, headed by the mysterious figure of the Dear Dictator, a sort of reluctant, even depressed Big Brother. This is less a police state than an adult day care, and one with all sorts of paradoxes that don’t sort out, like the sexism of the signature plastic surgery to alter women’s faces.

A real oddity, more a personal grouse than any kind of coherent vision of either the ’50s or the future. Still, that’s why I think it lasts.

Alice Payne Arrives

Alice Payne Arrives
By Kate Heartfield

As even casual time travelers know, once you start messing around with the past you turn the timelines of human history into a plate of spaghetti, leading to all sorts of dangerous paradoxes and unintended consequences.

This is the situation faced by the “teleosophers” in Alice Payne Arrives, the first part of Ottawa author Kate Heartfield’s planned two-part series involving the adventures of an 18th-century highway robber with progressive views who gets drafted into a 22nd-century history war. The logistics of the plot are hard to keep straight, but it seems one group of rebels, operating out of a Toronto safe house, has decided that the only way to end the war is to prevent time travel from ever becomng possible.

Once plans go awry, as they always do, everything seems hopelessly confused. But Alice may be resourceful enough to save the day in the sequel.

Red Moon

Red Moon
By Kim Stanley Robinson

Global politics goes off-planet in Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest, which is set partially on the moon.

In the middle of the twenty-first century the moon has various settlements but remains largely “a Chinese place.” When a high-ranking lunar official appears to be assassinated by a visiting quantum engineer a diplomatic chain reaction is set off linking a diverse cast of spies, scientists, radicals, and an elderly celebrity poet who hosts a travel show.

As always with Robinson heady political ideas are mixed in with discussions of imaginative technology that really works. China is a one-party state with many factions, which is a point that drives much of the complex plot here. But also moving things along is the functioning of new types of communication devices, including quantum phones and a neutrino telegraph.

Finding out what’s really going on when truth is so endlessly fragmented poses quite a challenge even to nearly omniscient forms of artificial intelligence. Someone, however, is going to have to come up with answers before the world and the moon go spinning into chaos.

The High Crusade

The High Crusade
By Poul Anderson

There’s a certain kind of time-travel story where the hero goes back in history and kicks ass among our primitive ancestors. Primitive, at least, in the art and technology of kicking ass. It runs from Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to the movie The Final Countdown. The High Crusade is an early comic inversion of this, with medieval warriors from Earth hopping on a spaceship and proceeding to colonize more technically advanced civilizations. This is seen as nothing remarkable by their leader. As he puts it, with terrific irony, “Just because we use a different sort of weapons, we aren’t savages.”

And let’s add another SF trope that Poul Anderson was mining in The High Crusade. This is the very strange, at least to my eye, connection between our future and the Middle Ages. Why is it that so many epic visions of things to come are made to look like our medieval past, complete with kings and dukes in castles, and sword-wielding warriors wearing armour? From Asimov’s Imperial Foundation to the deserts of Herbert’s Dune we see the same trappings and tropes being recycled. There’s even a monastic future imagined in works as far removed as Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.

I’m not sure why this is, but Anderson has a lot of fun with it in a story that stands alongside Twain in its playful presentation of a more serious point about the social development — so much faster than biological evolution — of our species. Can we call it progress?

The Memory Police

The Memory Police
By Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder)

The Memory Police most obviously recalls classic dystopian works like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. In some distant land – distance in time or space not clearly identified – the “memory police” are regularly sent around to erase some part of the world. Roses are made extinct. Then photographs. Then calendars. All instances of the offending items are rounded up and destroyed and it is forbidden to mention them again.

Which isn’t a problem because everyone soon forgets what’s been tossed down the memory hole anyway. Unless you are the kind of person who remembers. Then you may be disappeared as well. For the main character, a novelist in a time when novels are themselves endangered, this raises some obvious problems.

Yoko Ogawa’s book is different from those by Orwell and Bradbury in being more fantastic, along the lines of something by China Miéville. One has the sense of it being an allegory for the deletion of our own material culture, consigned to the great memory hole in the digital cloud – retrievable, in theory, but forever out of mind.