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.

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Provenance

Provenance
By Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie had one of the most acclaimed debuts in SF history with Ancillary Justice, the first novel in her Imperial Radch trilogy. Provenance returns us to the same Imperial Radch universe to tell a new story about a rather stressed-out young woman named Ingray who is looking to impress her high-ranking mom with a crazy plan involving the release of a notorious criminal from a prison zone.

The plan starts to go wrong right from the start, with what follows being less space opera than space operetta as Ingray becomes involved in a political comedy of errors that threatens to spiral into a major intergalactic-diplomatic incident.

Provenance is definitely lighter fare than the Radch trilogy, but it introduces us to some interesting new characters, cultures and technologies and makes for another entertaining and imaginative Leckie adventure.

Volk

Volk
By David Nickle

David Nickle’s 2011 debut novel Eutopia, about a eugenicist community in early-twentieth-century Idaho that’s infested by a mind-warping species of parasite known as the Juke, ended on a curious note. A sequel might have gone in many different directions, but I don’t think anyone would have expected a book like Volk.

Volk picks up with the survivors of Eutopia some twenty years later as they are about to become enmeshed in another plot involving the Juke, only this time set among Nazis in Bavaria. That much seems a natural development, but what follows is a political, psychological and philosophical allegory of remarkable depth and ambition: the most intellectually provocative horror novel of the twenty-first century.

This is not a conventional monster story, though it does have a giant tentacle beast that eats people. Instead, Nickle dramatizes themes that have preoccupied him since his first collection of stories, and in particular the dark process of self-seduction that informs everything from codependent relationships to our belief in God. The frailty of the human condition and meaninglessness of the universe draws the mind to find refuge in horrors, drugs, and myths of monstrous purpose. We write our own horror stories in the end. The tapeworm is just along for the ride.

NK3

NK3
By Michael Tolkin

The title NK3 comes from the name given to a virus originating in North Korea that has the effect of erasing people’s memories to varying degrees. In a burnt-over Los Angeles a new social hierarchy has developed in the wake of the plague: the Verified (those retaining some vestigial sense of their past) live inside a giant security Fence, while Drifters and Shamblers wander outside.

Neo-LA is like a giant Comic-Con event, full of weirdly-costumed characters with funny names. The plot matches up well, being complex without any single focus, skipping among dozens of different players who aren’t even sure who they are much less what they are doing. It’s even difficult to pin down a consistent tone, as the story is by turns mystical, comic, philosophical, and political.

The resulting chaos may frustrate readers looking for something more conventional, but for those preferring abrupt, discontinuous, cinematic forms of narrative (Tolkin is best known for his work in film), NK3 will be just the ticket.

A Perfect Machine

A Perfect Machine
By Brett Savory

A Perfect Machine is a speculative novel set in a particular type of alternative universe you may be familiar with: the city as lab experiment. As with The Doomed City by the Strugatsky brothers or Alex Proyas’s film Dark City, the setting is a noir urban landscape that’s set up as a maze for people to run through like rats.

In this particular city a select group of people, known as runners, seek to avoid another group, the hunters, in a game dubbed the Inferne Cutis. Runners are shot and killed by the hunters and then brought back to life, with their memories partially wiped and their bodies filled with lead. Eventually they either die for good or are remarkably transformed.

Such a bizarre premise encourages an allegorical reading. Brett Savory may be addressing our anxiety that technology, which most of us can neither understand nor control, is experimenting with us, and forcing us to adapt and evolve into something new and very different. Meanwhile, the final wedding of human and machine is not a consummation devoutly to be wished, as there’s no telling what we might lose when we take that next step. In the future, will we even remember what we were?

Last Year

Last Year
By Robert Charles Wilson

If the past is a foreign country, it’s also a heck of a tourist destination. That’s what has happened in Robert Charles Wilson’s latest, as a time-travel machine known as the Mirror allows citizens of the twenty-first century to visit yesteryear – specifically an access point in the 1870s built on the plains of Illinois where the deer and the antelope still play and where a freshly-built City of Futurity serves as an inter-temporal transportation hub.

Wilson is less interested in how the Mirror operates (which remains a mystery) than he is in the ways now and then interact. This is dramatized in the relationship between two security officers: one a nineteenth-century native with a checkered past and the other a hard-nosed twenty-first century single mom.

Running beneath the action-filled plot there are some provocative questions raised about progress and continuity. While the present is the product of our history, with the advent of time travel the future is able to infect the past in moral as well as material ways.

Dayfall

Dayfall
By Michael David Ares

At least since the success of the movie Blade Runner, the conventions of noir and SF have seemed a natural fit. In Dayfall, the debut novel from Michael David Ares, the genre connection is made explicit, as our hero, police detective Jon Phillips, is a big fan of the detective stories of Raymond Chandler. Indeed, he’s so keen on being just like Chandler’s fictional gumshoe Philip Marlowe that he hangs out at bars and affects to be a hard drinker even though he doesn’t enjoy the taste of alcohol.

Phillips has gone to New York City to help solve a series of violent crimes that seem connected to an event known as Dayfall. You see, the Big Apple has been under a nuclear-forged cloud of darkness for a decade and the sun is finally going to come out, which is something that threatens to throw the city into chaos.

With a cast including a power-hungry CEO, a sexy bartender, corrupt politicians, and various hired guns, Phillips has his work cut out for him to uncover all the plots, and plots within plots, that lie in the darkness.