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.

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.

Uranus

Uranus
By Ben Bova

Yes, Ben Bova is back, and even introducing a new trilogy in his already crowded Grand Tour series. This time we’re visiting our solar system’s outer planets, and as the title indicates we’re off to Uranus.

Or, to be more precise, a giant space station orbiting Uranus named Haven, so-called because it’s where Earth’s down and out have come seeking a second chance. The main character is Raven, a former prostitute who turns out, naturally, to have a heart of gold. That heart will be tested though on Haven, as the colony is a religious (albeit fluidly non-denominational) community that’s actually being sustained by an interplanetary drug trade.

The resulting political struggles are further complicated by discoveries being made on Uranus. This is the most interesting part of the book, but things are left unresolved. A simple story in the classic tradition, the table is set for more adventures taking us even further afield.

The Doors of Eden

The Doors of Eden
By Adrian Tchaikovsky

There’s a lot going on in The Doors of Eden. The story begins with a pair of paranormal investigators, Lee and Mal, being split up when Mal is sucked into another dimension. Years later, the missing Mal will reappear with some disturbing news. It seems there are lot of different dimensions that are starting to crowd together in a collapsing of the multiverse. There may not be time to save our own timeline from a messy extinction event, even as a villainous CEO sees the resulting chaos as an opportunity.

A lot of the different elements, like the dimensional portal-jumping, are nothing new (Narnia even get referenced several times), but their juggling by Tchaikovsky is marvelous, making The Doors of Eden a real page-turner of an adventure. Just as we jump between different realties up we also switch between characters, including one James Bond-wannabe MI5 agent who is just trying to keep up with what’s going on.

Particularly well handled is the introduction of different evolutionary histories explaining the exotic (and lethal) species and civilizations whose timelines are converging. These other-Earth “aliens” are a fascinating bunch, and they toss a whole suit of wild cards into a plot that’s full of crazy fun.