By Sylvain Neuvel
The premise for this novella has it that in order to become a British citizen, immigrants have to pass a psychological assessment that takes the form of an advanced virtual-reality scenario. The reader immediately thinks of one of the more sinister experiments devised by Stanley Milgram, and while that isn’t far off the mark what’s telling here is what the technology (an advanced mix of software and drugs) is really doing. The point isn’t to control Idir (the applicant) but to reveal him to the observers. And, as things develop, the story turns out to be just as much about them as it does Idir. The observer effect is amplified by the human factor, changing lives as well as the results of the test. This is the real threat here, more than the political misuse of the assessment being made, and the resonance is all the greater in the age of Big Data because we are, voluntarily or unconsciously, taking these tests every day.
By Claire North
The end game of capitalism is looking grim in this dystopic novel by Claire North.
England in the near future has become a place where everything has a price and nothing is of value, including human life. Theo Miller, who works in the Criminal Audit Office, has this brought home to him when forced to do an appraisal on the murder of an old girlfriend who is also the mother of a daughter he’s never met. The total comes to £84,000.
Theo’s subsequent search for his daughter leads him on a journey across a blighted country, encountering various strange characters along the way and involving him in a resistance movement looking to bring down the corporatist government.
It’s a thrilling plot, but it takes a back seat to North’s vision of the grimy future, with its deserted towns, soulless bureaucracy, vile factory-processed food, and night sky the colour of excrement. There’s a physical texture to this world that helps make 84K a bracingly distinct and compelling read.
Half Way Home
By Hugh Howey
Half Way Home is a 2010 book by Hugh Howey that was, for some reason, re-released in 2019. I don’t think it holds up that well against his more recent work but it does give some early indication of where he was going.
What we have here is basically a retelling of The Lord of the Flies, with a colony of teenagers finding themselves on another planet after their ship’s AI fails to fully abort their mission. Once again the reset button has been pressed on civilization, a frequently recurring theme in today’s SF. But where Golding’s classic novel is pessimistic in its depiction of tribal human nature taking over Howey is more hopeful about our ability to triumph over adversity, in the form of the devil in the machine and a few bad apples.
I found Half Way Home to be readable but light, and not just for being aimed at a YA audience. There is a tendency in our more optimistic SF writers to see human evil as not inherent but something artificial and thus capable of being corrected or overcome. It’s not a point of view I share, and I find the politics of these books can sometimes get preachy, but as an antidote to the more misanthropic turns our dystopian fiction has been taking it’s worth considering.
By Cory Doctorow
As an author and activist Cory Doctorow’s fiction often takes up the same political subject matter as his advocacy and opinion pieces. In recent years the two have been drawing ever closer together, to the point where the four novellas in his latest collection, Radicalized, might almost be thought of as dramatic essays.
The stories are drawn from hot-button issues in today’s headlines and then given an SF spin: cybersurveillance runs amok in smart homes, racism and law enforcement get challenged in an age of superheroes, the rationing of health care gives rise to dark-web terrorism, and social inequality implodes at the end of the world.
Informing all of this is Doctorow’s libertarian but socially progressive optimism, with heroic hackers and freedom fighters looking to create a more just society. And while he can be preachy, he is dealing with timely issues that affect us all.
By Alastair Reynolds
Time travel is a venerable science fiction trope, so much so that various sub-genres of time travel story can be identified. Permafrost may remind us of of 12 Monkeys in its basic premise, which has it that in the year 2080 the world as we know it has gone to hell, the result of a total environmental collapse known as the Scouring. A group of scientists in Russia, however, have come up with a way to inject the consciousness of selected “pilots” into the minds of people living fifty years earlier by way of MRI machines. In this way they hope to avert catastrophe.
To try to explain more would risk getting caught in the “python-coils of paradox” that bedevil all such journeys into the past, and which the pilots themselves are keen to avoid. Suffice it to say that this is a short book that has many such coils, some of them twisting in unanticipated directions. The hero of the piece, for example, is an elderly woman and not an action hero, while the villains remain a mysterious whiteout. Reynolds, however, is one of the top writers in the field today and he’s capable of both going his own way and taking us with him.
The Rosewater Insurrection
By Tade Thompson
The Rosewater Insurrection is the second part of Tade Thompson’s Wormwood Trilogy. The first book in the series, Rosewater, introduced us to a strange structure that had arisen in Nigeria: part of a plan to download alien minds into human hosts. The main character in the series, Kaaro, is a member of a secret police unit with a special medium-like ability to navigate the fantastic alien “xenosphere,” which is one of the ways these mysterious visitors communicate with us.
In this book the story opens up considerably. The mayor or Rosewater declares independence, triggering a Nigerian civil war. Meanwhile, the alien is under attack by a plant-like creature with its own mysterious agenda. Politics make for strange bedfellows and soon the large cast of characters, with Kaaro and his partner Aminat at the center, are having to take sides, sometimes quite reluctantly.
Rosewater was a terrific start to the trilogy and The Rosewater Insurrection only raises the bar, introducing a number of fascinating new elements into an already intriguing storyline.
By Mary Shelley
Frankenstein is, I think by broad consensus, the first science fiction novel. Yes, the science is only glanced at, and in the 1831 edition is actually played down to the point where it’s unclear even in the most general terms how Victor Frankenstein gives life to his creation. But it’s clear that Victor isn’t using black magic to raise the dead, and as a type of the mad scientist he would go on to have a long life within the genre. Such figures aren’t punished by God or the gods (indeed we can’t even be sure if either Victor or his creation has read the Bible) but instead must be judged by the results of their experiments. After all, Victor can’t really help himself when it comes to pursuing his passions. Elizabeth is such a cold figure — more sister than lover — and he’s so lonely. The Creature is his true love, albeit of the type one regrets in the morning.