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.

Midnight, Water City

Midnight, Water City
By Chris McKinney

SF and future-noir detective fiction go so well together they constitute their own sub-genre. Midnight, Water City walks down these dirty streets again in the year 2142 as a tough detective discovers the body of Akira Kimura, a scientist who saved the Earth from a deadly asteroid decades earlier, chopped into pieces in her revitalization pod.

The whodunit angle may be familiar but Chris McKinney makes it work with his world-building chops and the creation of an authentically fresh protagonist.

In terms of the former there’s the now almost taken-for-granted split of society into two social classes (the Money and the Less Thans), but due to the degradation of the mainland much of humanity has moved offshore and now live in underwater seascrapers and floating ‘burbs. Meanwhile, lifespans have been lengthened so that the narrator, though 80 years old and feeling weathered, not least from four marriages, is a long way from being over the hill.

Though he’s not always the brightest laser-knife in the drawer, our hero has psychic powers to go with his toughness, being able to see the colour of murder. This comes in handy, as soon there are bodies piling up and he’s going to need all the help he can get, even from beyond the grave, if he’s going to survive.

The Food of the Gods

The Food of the Gods
By H. G. Wells

The full title continues with “and How It Came to Earth.” I’m not sure why, since the Food is a man-made lab product and not some alien growth hormone. In any event, the novel has never been as popular as Wells’ early SF classics, for what I think are obvious reasons. After a rollicking start involving giant chickens, wasps, and rats – all that would be kept in place in the disastrous Bert Gordon film adaptation – it turns into a mushy sort of political fantasy (there’s even a captive princess) when “the children of the Food” rise up against the resentful masses of little people.

It’s not revolution so much as evolution when the boomfood generation comes of age, leading to the beginning of a world made new by the Food and its “great dawn of wider meaning.” We may think here of The Midwich Cuckoos and what that novel had to say about the incompatibility of different species. The world isn’t big enough for the little and the big to share even if they wanted to, and they clearly don’t. So there’s blood in the offing.

But there’s something mystical in all of this too as Growth becomes a kind of divine historical principle: “the law of the spirit for evermore. To grow according to the will of God!” It’s Victorian progress as theology. At the time quite radical, but in retrospect the last gasp of such optimism, at least couched in these terms.

Rabbits

Rabbits
By Terry Miles

Gaming culture is big – very big – which has led to a lot of books and movies about the blurring of the line between the game/virtual reality and real life.

Rabbits, which is the outgrowth of a popular podcast by Terry Miles, is the latest offering in this line and it’s likely to appeal to fans of books like Ready Player One as much as it will to readers of Thomas Pynchon. The idea is that there’s a mysterious and dangerous game called Rabbits that involves the reshaping of reality itself. You play by noticing arcane connections and anomalies in everyday things, which before long leads to your getting sucked down a rabbit hole into alternate dimensions.

K and his pal Chloe, both dedicated gamers, are enlisted to play the latest iteration of Rabbits, and to save the world they’ll have to win the game. Given the nature of Rabbits their fast-paced, puzzle-solving adventures are fueled by lots of pop culture references and conspiracy theories, taking paranoia to the next level while the action keeps hopping.

The Stepford Wives

The Stepford Wives
By Ira Levin

I don’t often hear The Stepford Wives discussed as an SF novel, which is strange. The nerds of Stepford have whipped up next-gen sexbots (a.k.a. “toys for needy children”) in their local research park, and while the nuts and bolts of just how these sexy helpmeets work isn’t gone into in any detail, they are clearly products of Silicon Valley and the RAND Corporation as much as Madison Ave.

What I was most struck by in returning to this book today is how well it holds up. As Dave Chappelle puts it in one of his stand-up routines, a woman only has to know four ways to please a man: “suck his dick, play with his balls, make him a sandwich, and don’t talk so much.” To this we might add keeping the house immaculate. Having fulfilled their reproductive duty, the real wives of Stepford are expendable. And the husbands, watching their porno films at the Men’s Association, know exactly what they want in terms of an upgrade/replacement.

A satire? Yes, but one without any laughs because it’s a totally heartless vision of relationships that hits far too close to home. And, in the twenty-first century with all our anxiety over robots and AIs taking our jobs, hitting closer every day.

Drug of Choice

Drug of Choice
By Michael Crichton (writing as John Lange)

In my notes on Philip K. Dick’s A Maze of Death I said that being so far ahead of the curve in his positing of a virtual reality that replaces the real world entirely is part of what gave Dick the status of a prophet, given how much it predates later interest in this theme in movies, not to mention Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum.

In fairness I should extend the same prophetic status to Michael Crichton, whose Drug of Choice came out the same year as A Maze of Death (1970) and which could be seen as another early precursor, not to mention a dry run for better known examples of the augmented-reality resort that would appear in Crichton’s own later work from Westworld to Jurassic Park. Only this time instead of having to build robots or breed dinosaurs all you have to do is take a pill.

Crichton was his generation’s H. G. Wells: a well-read man of art and science with an unerring popular taste directed at questions of the day. “We’re bringing science down to the masses, making it agreeable, understandable. We’re educating people.” So says Dr. Blood as he describes his plans for using designer psychopharmaceuticals to create a can’t-miss pop band. Was his next project going to be making hit movies? Television shows? Someone was getting ideas.

Paris in the Twentieth Century

Paris in the Twentieth Century
By Jules Verne

It’s a commonplace that science fiction shouldn’t be judged on how accurately it predicts the future, which is something it only occasionally attempts anyway. Reading Paris in the Twentieth Century we can gasp at the ubiquitous horseless carriages in the streets and elevated trains running on magnets, the use of “photographic telegraphy” to send faxes worldwide instantly and the execution of criminals by electricity, all of which was prophetic in 1863, but then wince at the way global capitalism has made war obsolete. But this ledger of hits and misses is mostly window dressing.

What lasts is the evocation of the spirit of an age still recognizably our own, beginning with an account of the decline of the Humanities and the more general transformation of education into an industry serving market demands. In 1860 sixteen-year-old Michel Dufrénoy has graduated from the state school system with a proficiency in Latin and a Romantic yearning for the “ultimate limits of ethereal poetry,” all of which makes him totally unsuited for the modern workplace. He wants “to be an artist in an age when art is dead!” Good luck with that.

Verne’s editor hated it, and it’s not hard to see why. There’s not much of a story and the mood is a lot bleaker than that of the Extraordinary Voyages. The manuscript was only discovered in 1989 by Verne’s great-grandson, locked in a safe and all but forgotten. This seems apt. A civilization dedicated to progress is one without a past: its great books abandoned (“everyone was getting rid of them!”) and their authors’ names all but erased from their graves. The nineteenth century had plenty of doubts about where it was going. Our own fears take the form of a more immediate and systemic collapse. Is that progress?

Immunity Index

Immunity Index
By Sue Burke

Being timely can be both a good and a bad thing. Immunity Index, which is about a pandemic, and social breakdown more generally, is the sort of book that will hit close to home now. But a U.S. president who is a right-wing carnival-barker may already feel like yesterday’s news.

Sue Burke’s latest is set in a near-future America that is basically a police state divided between the have-a-lots and the have-nothings. There is, however, a resistance movement that is about to erupt, while at the same time a pandemic is breaking out. Three young women who are “dupes” (or clones) get swept up in the action, and the story is told from their points of view, as well as that of the scientist who created them. Plus there is an adorable woolly mammoth named Irene.

It’s ground that’s been gone over a lot lately, but Burke is a fine writer with strong narrative chops and the early pandemic chapters in particular effectively capture the feelings of confusion and fear we’ve been living with for the past year.

Project Hail Mary

Project Hail Mary
By Andy Weir

Andy Weir had a breakout with his 2011 novel The Martian, an initially self-published hit that went on to become a bestseller and a blockbuster movie. While his next book, Artemis, was well-received it didn’t enjoy the same success with fans, who may have been primed to expect more of what made The Martian so popular.

If that is what they wanted, they get it in double doses with Project Hail Mary.

Once again we have a jocular nerd as hero, stuck on his own in deep space. This time he’s Ryland Grace, a rebel scientist who left the world of academia to teach junior high school but who is pulled from the classroom and sent on a mission to save the Earth from a recently-discovered space algae dubbed the Astrophage that is literally eating our sun.

The fact that Grace is a science teacher, and begins the book having lost his memory, lets Weir feed us the story in a way that’s easy to follow as we learn along with him, solving various problems and overcoming obstacles as though they’re levels on a video game. It’s a bit artificial, as is the cutting back and forth between the events Grace remembers from his life on Earth and what’s happening now on board the spaceship (which he shares with an alien he calls Rocky), but once you get started it’s a hard book to put down. And even educational.