Machine Learning

Machine Learning
By Hugh Howey

While self-publishing via Amazon hasn’t led to a total transformation of the book business, at least yet, there have been some amazing success stories. Hugh Howey, author of the bestselling Silo series of novels, is one of the most notable of these.

The Silo novels are the work of an author skilled in long-form narrative, and it’s surprising to turn to the stories collected in Machine Learning and find them just as accomplished. Howey’s highly original take on such standard SF themes as aliens, artificial intelligence and virtual reality are lively and thoughtful, with several of the stories, like “The Walk Up Nameless Ridge” and “The Plagiarist” being real standouts.

Howey has been writing at a fever pace throughout this decade but the quality of his output hasn’t suffered and Machine Learning is a good place to catch him at his best.

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Frankenstein Dreams

Frankenstein Dreams: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Science Fiction
Ed. by Michael Sims

The publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818 is usually regarded as when science fiction began, with the genre then taking another hundred years to arrive at its present form. In this anthology of stories and novel excerpts from the nineteenth century, editor Michael Sims tracks the process of this shaping, collecting some of the earliest explorations of what would become staple themes like time travel, robotics, and space exploration.

Calling this “Victorian” science fiction is slightly misleading, as most of the stories, some of which are quite obscure, are American. It’s mainly the excerpts from longer works that come from familiar European authors like Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, and H. G. Wells.

In any event, the major difference between SF then and now is perhaps not so much our greater knowledge of the universe – we no longer believe in Lunarians living on the moon, for example, or cities on Venus – as it is the evolution in style. It’s the flavour of the writing here, so distinct from our own, that really makes this a collection for the connoisseur.

Electric Dreams

Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams
By Philip K. Dick

With Electric Dreams, a 10-part anthology series airing on Space based on his work, Philip K. Dick continues to solidify his place as one of the most essential and enduringly relevant SF authors. The companion book to the series contains the ten original stories the episodes were based on, with each introduced by the screenwriter who adapted them.

How has Dick managed to last? In large part because he wasn’t as interested in science as he was in our anxious and ambivalent relationship to it, which is something that hasn’t changed. In these less well known and less anthologized pieces he addresses such subjects as virtual reality, consumerism, the surveillance state, and technological determinism, all of which are as important today as they were in the mid-1950s.

Chasing Shadows

Chasing Shadows: Visions of Our Coming Transparent World
Ed. by David Brin and Stephen W. Potts

Surveillance has been an important theme in science fiction at least since the middle of the twentieth century, when Big Brother started watching us through our telescreens. Today, of course, the telescreen is a part of everyday life and privacy is coming to seem like a quaint historical notion.

Chasing Shadows collects a variety of responses by SF writers to living in the digital panopticon, most of them less pessimistic than Orwell but still expressing some misgivings. No matter their particular angle though, all are entertaining and provocative, and piercingly relevant for our own time.

While not trying to predict what’s to come, the general impression given is that we should expect technology to become even more pervasive and intrusive, in part because that’s what we want it to be: valuing convenience and connection over intimacy and the individual.

We should be careful what we wish for.

Dead Americans

Dead Americans
By Ben Peek

The strange stories of Australian author Ben Peek resist categorization, freely sampling from elements of horror, postmodern metafiction, SF, alternative history, surrealism and fantasy. But then hybridization is one of his main themes, with different selves often occupying the same body, or, confusing matters even more, the same self in different bodies. Making things all the more difficult, and interesting, is the fact that in Peek’s world none of these mixed parts get along.

The Time Traveler’s Almanac

The Time Traveler’s Almanac
Ed. by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

Fresh off their impressive monster-anthology of fantastic fiction, The Weird, editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer turn their attention to time travel in this collection dedicated to that most philosophical, paradoxical, and poetic of SF themes.

As with The Weird, the selection is more than generous, clocking in at well over 900 pages. This is a book you’re going to want to spend a lot of time with. Providing a well-curated time capsule of the genre, the VanderMeers take us on a magical tour of time travel’s greatest hits, from the golden age to contemporary bestsellers. Included are stories by names like Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, H. G. Wells, Connie Willis, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Michael Moorcock.

Irregular Verbs

Irregular Verbs and Other Stories
By Matthew Johnson

Debut collections of short stories sometimes hit like a band’s breakout first album, the material gathered from a writer’s early and often most creative years. Such, anyway, is the feeling you get reading Irregular Verbs and Other Stories, Ottawa author Matthew Johnson’s meaty collection of speculative short fiction.

The Johnsonesque fidgets with a reality that has all sorts of bends and gaps in it. Just to stick with the category of time, in “Another Country” a fissure in the time-space continuum sends “prefugees” from falling empires to present day safe havens where they join semi-assimilated communities of Mongols, Goths, or Aztecs, while in stories like “Written by the Winners,” “When We Have Time,” and “Outside Chance,” characters manipulate history or surf alternative chronologies as though they were so many different data streams.

And reality isn’t the only mode in play. Johnson also bends and twists genre conventions, with highly original riffs on everything from superhero to zombie fiction. But no matter how bizarre the setting, his stories always keep focus on how individuals cope with the stress of these disruptions and intrusions into strange new worlds. Luckily his characters are sensitive but adaptable types, and given the plastic nature of Johnson’s universe another jump in time or space, or genre, is often the solution closest to hand.