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 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.

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 Kaiju Preservation Society

The Kaiju Preservation Society
By John Scalzi

When one of the frothiest SF writers going decides to write a self-described “pop song” of a novel that’s only “meant to be light and catchy” it’s hard not to hum along. The Kaiju Preservation Society is nothing more than an amusement park ride, but if you’re looking for that kind of a diversion then grab your popcorn and climb aboard.

The fairground in this case is Jurassic Park. A dimensional doorway has opened between Earth and a parallel Earth where the apex predators are nuclear-powered kaiju (the Japanese name for giant monsters like Godzilla). By a series of coincidences Jamie Gray, a food delivery driver, gets a job at one of the extra-dimensional bases that have been set up on kaiju Earth (specifically in the steamy jungles of a parallel Labrador). This is where things start to go south in the best CGI-blockbuster style when an evil corporation tries to get into the kaiju business.

You’re not meant to take any of this seriously, or worry about the sketchy science. This is the fiction equivalent of ear candy. It’s hard to imagine a book as driven by dialogue, and the back-and-forth never lets up its relentless stream of snappy pop-culture references and fast-paced wisecracks. The big action scenes actually come as time-outs. But it’s all good fun.

Bad Actors

Bad Actors
By Ira Nayman

Bad Actors is the second part, or “second pi in the face,” of Ira Nayman’s Multiverse Refugees Trilogy, picking up on the misadventures of those inveterate vaudevillians, the blue-skinned crisis immigrants from Earth Prime 4-6-4-0-8-9 dash Omega.

That said, the dash Omegans, with their exquisite three-piece suits and cult of a trickster god known as the Audi Enz, are less central to the proceedings this time around. So you can expect fewer pies to the face  and less pratfalls. Instead the book takes more the form of a series of sketches – a noir murder investigation, a political satire, a James Bond spoof – separated by “educational interludes.”

But while the dash Omegans aren’t always the main character (Rodney from Good Intentions only features prominently in the first story), their impact is felt throughout. The result is a comic spin on matters topical, philosophical, and otherworldly, dressed up in Nayman’s signature madcap style.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said
By Philip K. Dick

A messy, dog’s breakfast of a novel, but one that gives us Philip K. Dick at perhaps his most mind-bendingly Dickish. There’s the skeleton of a decent pulp-thriller plot, with a groovy ‘70s vibe, given a mystical overlay that finally resolves into a techno-apocalypse revealing man to be, once again, the plaything of fate.

Celebrity crooner Jason Taverner wakes up one day to find his fame, and indeed everything else about his life, has been erased. This is something that’s hard to imagine happening in post-Second Civil War America, where Black citizens are sterilized, university students wage a guerilla war from underground campuses, and police surveillance is everywhere in what has become a paranoid “betrayal state.” But it seems someone — not Jason — has been experimenting with the multiple-space-inclusion drug KR-3, which has the effect of bending reality.

The fact that the book is about Jason but it’s not his trip is what I find to be the most intriguing thing going on. Jason and his Javert, Felix Buckman, are the two main characters, but they don’t drive the plot. Instead they are flotsam caught up in the druggy fantasy of Buckman’s sister/wife Alys.

Flow My Tears is a novel of tricky depths that I keep getting pulled back into. Dick thought it was about the return of Christ, or about love, but neither explanation clicks for me. Both Taverner and Buckman remain dislikeable and unredeemed: the former a sleazy member of a genetic overclass and the latter a corrupt, self-absorbed official arrogant with bureaucratic power. They are two characters in search of an author, while God lies dead from an overdose on the bathroom floor.

Battle of the Linguist Mages

Battle of the Linguist Mages
By Scotto Moore

One of the hottest subgenres in SF today is what might be called videogame fiction. These books can be thought of as the children of Ready Player One (though there were earlier standard-bearers) and are addressed to a gamer culture that now drives a big chunk of the entertainment industry.

Battle of the Linguist Mages is videogame fiction taken to a weird extreme. Isobel Bailie is at the top of the leader boards of a popular virtual-reality game called Sparkle Dungeon. There’s more to Sparkle Dungeon than rainbows and glitter though, and as the novel kicks off the company that makes the game gets Isobel involved in a real-world plan to exploit morphemes: words that have magical power based on how they are articulated. Also worth noting: punctuation marks are aliens that have escaped into our brains from another dimension.

All of this has the effect, common to most videogame fiction, of erasing the line between the real and virtual worlds. Unfortunately it also requires a lot of exposition, and for all its flights of whimsy Battle of the Linguist Mages comes in feeling heavier than it should. Videogame fiction is a light genre and you don’t want to spend this much time reading the rule books.