Termination Shock

Terminaion Shock
By Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson is one of the most gifted storytellers going, and he really puts those gifts to the test, almost flaunting them, in Termination Shock, a novel which spends a few hundred pages in introductory matter before it even starts to explain what it’s about.

Stephenson can get away with this because he’s a master explainer, his novels often feeling like a series of fascinating TED talks on topics ranging across science, history, and politics. But he’s good with the action too, and whipping the reader along on globe-trotting adventures filled with colourful characters.

In brief, Termination Shock is a CliFi novel, telling the story of an attempt by a Texas billionaire to blast the atmosphere with sulfur in order to mitigate global warming. To this end he has assembled an eclectic group of representatives from some of the cities and states most threatened by rising sea levels. Think the Queen of the Netherlands, Lord Mayor of London, a representative from Singapore, and some Venetian aristos. Meanwhile, the story of a Sikh from Richmond, BC moves on a parallel track, his fate crossing with that of the others in the finale.

There’s plenty going on, including some stuff, like the romance, that doesn’t work. But it’s Stephenson’s best book since Seveneves, and has plenty of thrills as well as lots to make you think.

Far From the Light of Heaven

Far From the Light of Heaven
By Tade Thompson

British author Tade Thompson’s recently completed Wormwood Trilogy was a fantastic debut, and with his new novel he shows no sign of letting up.

Spaceship first mate Michelle Campion wakes from her sleeping pod to a gruesome act of sabotage. It seems some of the immigrants she is taking to a new home planet have been sliced and diced, and the ship’s AI isn’t being very helpful in explaining how it happened.

The plot thickens and Campion is joined by a down-and-out detective, an old family friend, an artificial person, and an alien all trying to figure out who or what is behind the carnage. This they will have to do before the killer takes them out too.

A fast-paced and fresh spin on the classic “locked room” murder mystery, Far From the Light of Heaven shows Thompson isn’t slowing down in establishing himself as one of SF’s brightest new talents.

Herland

Herland
By Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Utopias are thought exercises, their ideal communities or states serving as a critique of how we manage affairs in this, the real world. Herland is a feminist utopia in that its main target is the status of women circa. 1915, but it plugs into the tradition of Utopian writing in other ways as well.

Its neatest trick is inverting the usual presentation of men as being rational and women emotional. The three explorers who discover Herland are introduced as being men of science, but they are treated as little more than children (even schoolgirls!) by the race of alpha females. For all the men’s education, one of them turns into a helpless romantic while another is a lecherous brute only interested in a smorgasbord of “Girls and Girls and Girls.” Confronted by the mature (over-40) women who run the place this would-be player is disgusted at the sight of people who, in his own world, properly remain invisible.

In contrast, the citizens of Herland are, like most Utopians, thoroughly rational – “inconveniently reasonable” even. They don’t have any interest in sex (they reproduce by parthenogenesis) and have elevated the maternal instinct from a “brute passion” to a religion. The sublimation of the passions is usually a first step on the road to dystopia, but here it’s a blessing. Nature itself has been transformed, with the Darwinian struggle for existence elided by the “negative eugenics” of population control and evolution itself being consciously directed.

The cover calls this a “lost” novel but it seems to have just dropped out of print. Originally appearing in serial form in Gilman’s magazine The Forerunner, it was only first published as a book in 1979. Much of it has now dated pretty badly, but for anyone interested in the early days of feminist speculative fiction it’s an essential text.

Malefactor

Malefactor
By Robert Repino

Malefactor is the final volume in Robert Repino’s whimsical War With No Name trilogy, with the titular war being one between humans and animals that have been anthropomorphized by the late Ant Queen.

The cat Mort(e) is again one of the main characters, along with the dogs D’Arc and Falkirk. Together they are trying to defend the holy city of Hosanna, ruled by a joint government of humans and animals, from the posthumous plots of the Ant Queen, now being carried out by a pack of wolves.

This is epic stuff, though it’s presented throughout on a very personal level, with the weird interspecies pairings seeming somehow natural in spite of everything. Odd but effective world building in the grand fantasy manner.

Out of the Silent Planet

Out of the Silent Planet
By C. S. Lewis

There’s a dividing line in the twentieth century between what may be thought of as naïve and modern conceptions of other intelligent life in our solar system. In the earlier, naïve dispensation other planets, like Mars, could be host to all sorts of strange beings – friendly, hostile, and indifferent – essentially functioning as newly discovered continents. And so we have the Old Mars of H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and C. S. Lewis, among others. But when scientists started learning more about Mars in the 1960s and ‘70s, and the best that could be hoped for was finding trace evidence of water or the potential for terraforming, our fantasies had to be pushed further afield.

In 1938 Mars was still open ground imaginatively, allowing C. S. Lewis to indulge a flight of space fantasy. Out of the Silent Planet is the first in a trilogy of books describing a kind of cosmic religious allegory directed at effecting “a change-over from the conception of Space to the conception of Heaven.” Mars is Malacandra, an Edenic Technicolor playhouse inhabited by three rational species (Hrossa, Sorns, and Pfifltriggi) that are in turn ruled over by angelic beings known as Eldila. Earth, meanwhile, is the black sheep (silent planet) of our solar neighbourhood, the domain of a fallen (or “bent”) angel.

Not a book to read for its story, Out of the Silent Planet is more a novel of ideas, which are the main interest of the philologist Ransom anyway. The mockery of the (human) racist Dr. Weston is the highlight, and gives a good indication of where Lewis was most deeply engaged.

The Hard Side of the Moon

The Hard Side of the Moon
By Hugh A. D. Spencer

Sure, a lot of genre fiction can start to sound the same after a while. There are conventions to respect and boxes to check. But SF is probably the biggest tent of them all, and a book like The Hard Side of the Moon by Toronto author Hugh A. D. Spencer stretches the old familiar fabric in so many new and original ways it’s a treat that leaves you not only wondering where it’s going at every turn, but where you’ve been at the end.

Matthew Bishop is a young man slowly going nowhere in 1970s Alberta – making robot mannequins, working as a campus radio DJ, falling in and out of relationships – when destiny comes calling in the shape of his mother’s new boyfriend. It turns out he’s an employee of Progressive Apparatus, a mysterious organization that readers familiar with Spencers’s other work will recognize (most recently in his story collection The Progressive Apparatus). Before long Matthew is working as an “intern” in a slave labour camp on the moon, doing work related to a plan involving aliens harnessing human brain power.

A loving satire not only of SF but its fan culture as well, Spencer has written a novel that’s both lighthearted and, in its final pages, profound.

The Circle

The Circle
By Dave Eggers

Even in 2013 I think Dave Eggers might have been a little late to the party in writing a novel addressing the threat of Big Tech and surveillance capitalism to civil liberties. Didn’t we all feel by then that any company having to admonish itself not to be evil was going to find it hard to do otherwise?

The Circle corporation is a generic tech giant, located in an Edenic campus. The novel’s opening sentence gives us Mae Holland’s first impression on arriving: “My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven.” “Outside the walls of the Circle, all was noise and struggle, failure and filth. But here, all had been perfected.” The walls are even placarded with mission statements — the religious meaning of mission being operative here — suggesting the Circle’s self-appointed role as benevolent Father (“We will become all-seeing, all-knowing”).

The main point here is that the endpoint of the Circle’s cult of transparency and “going clear” is the panopticon, and the cybertopians of the Circle have some decent arguments to make. What’s more, our slavery to convenience and desire is always a choice. We can’t blame Big Tech for everything.

I think Eggers does a great job sending up the language, and indeed the entire belief system of the cybertopians, though my initial thought was that the only reason for The Circle being 500 pages was to sell it to Hollywood (which is in fact what happened). I think it might have been punchier at half the length. Still, the theme of our complicity in evil, indeed our pursuit of it, is of vital importance in understanding the current mess we’re in, and why in 2021, when the sequel The Every came out, there was no more reason to feel optimistic about where we were heading.

Fan Fiction

Fan Fiction
By Brent Spiner

Data has written a book!

Or, to be exact, Brent Spiner, the actor who played the android Data on the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation, has written “a mem-noir inspired by true events.”

This isn’t really science fiction, but it is set in 1991 and a lot of it takes place on the set of Star Trek: TNG, where Spiner finds himself the subject of unwanted letters from an obsessed stalker-fan who is assuming the identity of Data’s child, Lal.

What follows is like a mix of Fatal Attraction and Robert Altman’s Hollywood-noir The Player. And it’s a lot of fun, zipping along with humour, plot twists, and thrills while reintroducing us to the cast of the show in their off hours: Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, and even Jean-Luc Picard himself, Patrick Stewart. It’s hard not to think about how it would make a great TV movie, but who would you get to play these guys?

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.