Invasion of the Body Snatchers
By Jack Finney
The idea that the moral community of decent American folk is actually a façade, with all kinds of evil and corruption bubbling beneath, goes back at least as far as Hawthorne. In the twentieth century it would really take off, however, from Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt down to present day tales of the suburban “serial killer next door.”
Jack Finney’s 1955 novel is certainly part of this tradition, and its parable of the enemy within has stayed with us. In itself it’s a thrilling page-turner — as you might expect given its initial serial publication (in Collier’s Magazine as The Body Snatchers). There are some memorable dramatic scenes (I like the trip to the library best) and effective moments of social commentary. The ending is no good, but much the same could be said of the one they tacked onto Don Siegel’s film version. A blemish in both cases, but they’re still classics.
By Joanna Kavenna
It says something about our anxiety over the way technology is infiltrating, transforming, and controlling our lives that there have been two excellent novels offering up very similar satirical takes on the subject published just recently.
In both Marc-Uwe Kling’s QualityLand and Joanna Kavenna’s Zed a tech megacorporation that operates like a merger of Amazon and Google has basically taken over every aspect of modern life. In Zed the company is named Beetle, and its all-powerful AI and algorithms can predict individual “lifechains” so reliably that there is a real question as to whether free will exists anymore.
At least that’s the way it seems until glitches start happening. Meanwhile, there is an off-the-grid resistance forming, the Zed. These rebels may not bring the system down but their struggle does hold out some hope for escape.
By Stanislaw Lem (translated by Bill Johnston)
The Polish author Stanislaw Lem was one of the true giants of SF, but his works have often been hard to track down in good English-language versions. It was a signal event then when MIT Press recently acquired the English rights to six Lem titles, which they have now brought out in a series with some fresh translations, great cover art, and new introductions. I hope we’ll soon see more!
The Invincible, which is one of the initial six, is characteristic of Lem’s SF, telling the story of a spaceship sent to investigate the disappearance of a previous ship on Regis III. Exploring the planet, they discover an advanced case of “inanimate evolution”: a vast swarm of tiny mechanical “flies” that appears inimical to all forms of life.
But is the hive a form of life itself? Is it intelligent, or only following instinctual programming? One of Lem’s great themes is the impossibility of communicating with creatures that are incomprehensibly other, giving many of his books a profound and abiding sense of mystery that teases us well past the final page.
By Ray Loriga (translated by Carolina De Robertis)
The Alfaguara Novel Prize is the world’s highest-profile Spanish-language literary prize, and in 2017 it went to Ray Loriga’s Rendición, now translated into English as Surrender.
Surrender falls into the category of dystopic fable. In a war-torn country an unnamed man and his wife adopt a mute boy who wanders into their lives. The three of them are then evacuated to a transparent city made of crystal. The city is safe, but that safety comes at a price. There is no privacy, and the citizens have either willingly given in to a hive-like communal life or are drugged into submission. There’s certainly no place in the city for the man, who represents a throwback to rural masculinity that is lost in this unnatural new world. He knows his time has passed.
As with all such fables it’s a story that suggests various interpretations. One would be to see the city as the Internet, a virtual reality controlled by a hidden elite who might as well be gods for all we know of their mysterious ways. Meanwhile, any resistance is futile, as there is no alternative life we can return to outside the crystal dome.
By K. M. Szpara
In the not-too-distant future, economic inequality has continued apace and society has bifurcated into a class of trillionaires at the top and hardscrabble working poor who are millions of dollars in debt at the bottom. One way out of debt bondage is to sell oneself into slavery, which involves taking a drug called Dociline that, as the name suggests, makes you docile.
A young man named Elisha Wilder signs up for the slave program and is purchased by the trillionaire Dr. Alexander Bishop III, scion of the pharmaceutical family that makes Dociline. It’s love at first sight, and what follows is a dystopic version of Fifty Shades of Grey, or “slavefic” porn (yes, it has a name).
It’s easy to see the mass appeal of such tales, though their very popularity might be cause for some concern. Despite the seemingly progressive bent to the politics here – the tagline is “There is no consent under capitalism” – the message is complicated by passages of rape and casual racism. The bottom line seems to be that you should enjoy kinky sex but respect the rules, especially when you’re exploiting the poor. Otherwise you might end up in court, even if you’re a trillionaire.
By Cixin Liu (translated by Joel Martinsen)
In Supernova Era a nearby star explodes and the resulting radiation has the effect of fatally poisoning all the adults on Earth. Knowing they are dying, the grown-ups initiate a crash-course program for the children in order to teach them the knowledge and skills necessary for humanity’s survival.
What begins as a typical Cixin Liu story, with the government bringing scientists and the military together to solve some problem threatening the planet, turns into a broader meditation on human nature and social behaviour as the last adults die and the geopolitical games-without-frontiers of the Supernova Era get started.
It’s interesting that this novel came out at the same time as a re-release of Hugh Howey’s Half Way Home, as both books deal with young people having to create new worlds on their own. What with the recent school strikes against climate change in the news it’s a timely message (though Liu wrote the novel in 1989). But it’s also no coincidence that both books invoke The Lord of the Flies as warnings of what can go wrong in such scenarios.
The Second Sleep
By Robert Harris
The British novelist Robert Harris has covered a lot of ground in his historical fiction – from ancient Rome to World War 2 – but in The Second Sleep he travels even further afield, into the distant future.
It is a future easily mistaken for the past. Civilization has taken a great leap backward after the collapse of 2025, leaving the world in a new dark age that looks very much like the last one. But when a young priest named Christopher Fairfax comes to the village of Addicott the past starts coming to light in some strange and disturbing ways.
The obvious comparison here is to Walter M. Miller Jr.’s classic 1959 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, though the depiction of society slipping back into medieval lifeways, with science replaced by religion, has since become a commonplace for a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction.
Harris is an experienced storyteller and he builds the mystery of what’s buried underneath the Devil’s Chair nicely. There is also an implicit critique of the fragility of our own civilization in the proceedings. The ending is abrupt, but we might chalk that up to expectations of a sequel.
By L. X. Beckett
Toronto author L. X. Beckett’s Gamechanger is an impressive debut: a hefty page-turner with a thrilling plot that presents a dense and detailed vision of the future.
The world, as we find frequently in today’s SF, has suffered a Setback, this time in the form of a global pandemic. Setback has been followed, however, by Clawback and then Bounceback. Civilization will have a sequel.
Rubi Whiting is a poster child for the Bouncer generation: environmental activist, human rights lawyer, and celebrity performance-gamer. The world she inhabits is one where the line between reality and virtual reality has nearly been erased, and the concept of privacy all but lost. We are online all the time, and drones hover everywhere. Almost every moment of our lives is public, with a system of strikes and strokes helping shape a more prosocial human environment.
Utopia for some, a nightmare for others. Into this world a threat surfaces by the name of Luciano Pox, who may be a rogue AI or . . . something else. Whiting, with a little help from friends both real and digital, will have to find out.
By Karl Schroeder
The Million is a short novel set in Toronto author Karl Schroeder’s Lockstep universe. The guiding premise of Lockstep is that overpopulation has been dealt with by putting most of the world’s population to sleep, leaving a neo-feudal aristocracy of wealthy families, attended by countless service bots, to take care of things in the long gaps between awakenings.
A series of unfortunate events gets young Gavin Penn-of-Chaffee a new identity and a trip to a Venetian boot camp for population-police recruits (they’re called “auditors”). The academy is a place with a whiff of Hogwarts about it, and Gavin’s adventures among the auditors have the same kind of feel as he and his new friends learn about how their world operates while passing various tests and getting out of some dangerous scrapes. And more is to come, with things bound to get even more complicated as the sleepers awake.