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.

In the Quick

In the Quick
By Kate Hope Day

Even in the future only overachievers are going to make it to the stars, and June, the heroine of In the Quick, fits the bill. June’s uncle invents a new type of fuel cell allowing for more efficient space travel, but when June is only 12 years old an exploration vessel powered by these cells mysteriously disappears. This sets the precocious girl on her way, and gives In the Quick most of its plot.

June is henceforth on a mission to discover what happened to the missing spaceship, and perhaps to rescue its crew, who she believes are still alive. She is joined by her uncle’s protégé James, another scientist. Both June and James are similar personalities, making them poor relationship material, but they are thrown together in a way that at least holds the promise of their making new discoveries, if not developing an atypical romance.

June, by design, isn’t a lively, human character, and the part of the novel covering her education and training runs a bit slow, but this is still a novel in the great SF tradition of high-stakes problem-solving through personal grit, intelligence, and technology.

Persephone Station

Persephone Station
By Stina Leicht

Persephone Station is a slam-bang action adventure set on a planet that constitutes the wild west of the United Republic of Worlds. Unlike most such tales of space cowboys though, all the main characters, even the artificial ones, are female, and mostly lesbian or bisexual.

Angel (short for Angel of Death) is a tough-as-nails ex-space marine now in the protection and assassination business. Along with her elite team of bad girls she’s drawn into a mysterious and dangerous plot involving criminal syndicates, evil megacorporations, and the government, all of which are interconnected on different levels. Also in the mix are a race of long-lived aliens (or not-aliens, since they’re a species indigenous to Persephone Station) and some powerful and quickly-evolving AIs.

If it’s non-stop action you want, Leicht delivers.

Childhood’s End

Childhood’s End
By Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke was a man of science, but at the time of writing Childhood’s End he’d been much taken with various paranormal investigations. The result is this curious blend of science and speculative mysticism that has humankind achieving its destiny by developing into something strange and new.

You can’t call it evolution since there is no adaptation through natural selection to a changing environment. Instead, the New Man is born of the Last Man like a butterfly bursting forth spontaneously from its cocoon, an event that has apparently been our fate since the dawn of time. And what an ambiguous destiny it is! Gone are all those ingenious, lovely things like creativity, imagination, and emotion, adventure, science, art, and religion. Gone is the individual. All hail group consciousness and absorption into the collective Overmind! If this is the way the world ends, count me as disappointed.

Erich von Däniken must have been taking notes, as the demonic appearance of the Overlords is credited specifically to our species’ memory “not of the past, but of the future” (the original German title of Chariots of the Gods? was Erinnerungen an die Zukunft, or Memories of the Future). In a 2000 Foreword Clarke takes responsibility for contributing to the subsequent fin-de-siècle flood of “mind-rotting bilge about UFOs, psychic powers, astrology, pyramid energies, channeling – you name it.” But does that mean he disowned Childhood’s End? Not a bit. It remained one of his favourite books, and was “a work of fiction, for heaven’s sake!”

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.