The Time Machine

The Time Machine
By H. G. Wells

While I think Frankenstein deserves its ranking as the first science fiction novel, I give H. G. Wells pride of place as the father of the genre. Not because Wells was always the first (though he often was), but because he established the great archetypes of so many stories. Every alien invasion harkens back to The War of the Worlds, and in The Time Machine he invented time travel, whose long history James Gleick recently explored so well.

It was always part political allegory, and it’s interesting how much of that has stayed with us. The ambiguous myth of the Morlocks still crops up everywhere in popular culture, which is perhaps not so surprising given rising rates of social and economic inequality in our own time. At the end of the nineteenth century progress was being called into question, and degeneration being posited as just as likely an evolutionary outcome. A similar sense of decline seemed to set in at the end of the twentieth century, and has carried over into our own “automatic civilization.” The Time Traveler brought a warning from a future we’re waking up to.

Dead Astronauts

Dead Astronauts
By Jeff VanderMeer

For years now Jeff VanderMeer has been carving out his own genre niche, as an editor, anthologist, and author. The label most easily attached to it is that of “weird” fiction, identified as writing that is an imaginative, sometimes disorienting blend of SF, fantasy, and horror. VanderMeer co-edited a massive volume of The Weird and most of his own writing fits the same bill.

Dead Astronauts is set in the same weird universe as Borne, though it’s not really a sequel. In fact, given how confused the time scheme is the notion of sequence may not apply. A trio of quasi-human figures are on a mission to the City to destroy the Company. The City is the same (or at least appears the same) as the mutant-ridden warren of ruins and biotech run wild of Borne. It also bears some resemblance to the psychedelic cancer-in-Disneyland of Area X described in the Southern Reach Trilogy. In this realm of infinite plasticity time itself has been perverted, or is merely perverse. We learn that the three have been on this mission a long time. Or no time at all. Either way, it seems that alternate realities are running out.

It is a world bereft of landmarks, and perhaps without meaning. At least that’s what we’re told. One reader will confess his inability to draw much out of this primordial tidal pool of language. Rich in imagination, experimental in form, intellectually incoherent, Dead Astronauts is both alien and alienating. Some readers will find it a trip. Others will get a headache. Many drugs have that same effect.

The Body Library

The Body Library
By Jeff Noon

Somewhere in the tangled state of metafiction there is a city known as Storyville. Detective John Nyquist, hero of Jeff Noon’s previous novel A Man of Shadows, arrives in Storyville on an assignment that has him being paid to trail someone. When that someone ends up dead in one of the towers of Melville Estate (located just across Calvino Road and past Rabelais Plaza), Nyquist finds himself dragged into a police investigation layered in scatterings of Nordic myth (the police being headquartered in Kafka Court, of course).

The atmosphere in The Body Library is that of inky noir, shaped less by golden age detective novels than by such later wild re-imaginings as Alex Proyas’s Dark City and Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Storyville is the dream world we all enter into when we open a book: the act of reading triggering a dissociative event that splits us into fictional and non-fictional identities. Mysterious and creepy, The Body Library contains many mansions in its pages, asking us to consider where it is stories come from and where they go, how they are consumed and how they transform us in turn.

The Rosewater Redemption

The Rosewater Redemption
By Tade Thompson

The Rosewater Redemption marks the triumphant conclusion of Tade Thompson’s wonderful Wormwood Trilogy. Humans are standing off against the alien Homians both on the ground (in the newly-independent city state of Rosewater) and in the magical xenosphere. The winner of this final battle has a world to gain.

There are a lot of characters to deal with and story arcs to be resolved, but Thompson manages while at the same time introducing some interesting new wrinkles. Time travel through the xenosphere is just one example, offering a fresh take on this classic SF trope by having avatar-like characters diving into streams of historical data.

It’s not a book you can read as a stand-alone, so if you missed the start of the series (Rosewater and The Rosewater Insurrection) you’ll have to go back and get up to speed. That will be time well spent though, as this is a fun trilogy from beginning to end.

The Machine Awakes

The Machine Awakes
By Adam Christopher

The Machine Awakes is the second instalment in Adam Christopher’s Spider Wars trilogy, telling a stand-alone story set in the same universe as The Burning Dark.

As things begin it seems that something’s stirring on the moons of Jupiter, and it’s not those pesky Spiders again. Meanwhile, things aren’t going well on Earth either, as the Fleet Admiral has just been assassinated after being overthrown in a coup. But which of the many conspiracies out there is responsible?

It’s up to the Fleet Bureau of Investigation to get to the bottom of all this, and Special Agent Von Kodiak is the man for the job. Expect a really entertaining space opera with all the fixings from a writer who is hitting his stride.

Head On

Head On
By John Scalzi

Head On is a sequel to John Scalzi’s Lock In, with FBI agents Chris Shane and Leslie Vann returning to investigate another high profile murder case.

The premise behind the Lock In universe is that there is a disease that shuts the body down but leaves the mind fully functioning. People in this locked-in state, Chris Shane being one, are able to get around and interact by using mechanical avatars known as “threeps.”

Head On begins with a game of hilketa, a new, ultra-violent team sport played by threeps whose corporate backers are trying to break into the professional big leagues. When one of the hilketa players is killed in action Shane and Vann are drawn into a complex web of intrigue that spans the globe, and some prime real estate in virtual reality as well. You’ll have to pay attention in order to follow all the different threads, but Scalzi is in good form again here with his usual rich blend of smart, rapid-fire dialogue and well-paced bursts of hard-hitting action.

Medusa Uploaded

Medusa Uploaded
By Emily Devenport

It’s often said, correctly, that SF doesn’t predict the future so much as it reflects current anxieties about where we may be heading. If so, there seems to be near universal concern over growing social and economic inequality. In recent SF books and movies one of the most common elements is a vision of the world divided into rigid castes of haves and have nots.

In Medusa Uploaded that social layer cake is back, this time on board a giant “generation space ship” ferrying humanity to a new home. For the most part the population of the ship is strictly divided between Executives and Servants. Oichi Angelis is one of the Servants (also referred to as “worms”), and soon after we meet her she’s being dumped out of an airlock. After she’s rescued by an AI named Medusa with its own agenda Oichi embarks on an angel-of-vengeance tour accompanied by a classical music playlist, leaving a trail of bodies behind her as she works toward uncovering the complex conspiracy behind the ship’s real mission.