By Ben Bova
Yes, Ben Bova is back, and even introducing a new trilogy in his already crowded Grand Tour series. This time we’re visiting our solar system’s outer planets, and as the title indicates we’re off to Uranus.
Or, to be more precise, a giant space station orbiting Uranus named Haven, so-called because it’s where Earth’s down and out have come seeking a second chance. The main character is Raven, a former prostitute who turns out, naturally, to have a heart of gold. That heart will be tested though on Haven, as the colony is a religious (albeit fluidly non-denominational) community that’s actually being sustained by an interplanetary drug trade.
The resulting political struggles are further complicated by discoveries being made on Uranus. This is the most interesting part of the book, but things are left unresolved. A simple story in the classic tradition, the table is set for more adventures taking us even further afield.
The Doors of Eden
By Adrian Tchaikovsky
There’s a lot going on in The Doors of Eden. The story begins with a pair of paranormal investigators, Lee and Mal, being split up when Mal is sucked into another dimension. Years later, the missing Mal will reappear with some disturbing news. It seems there are lot of different dimensions that are starting to crowd together in a collapsing of the multiverse. There may not be time to save our own timeline from a messy extinction event, even as a villainous CEO sees the resulting chaos as an opportunity.
A lot of the different elements, like the dimensional portal-jumping, are nothing new (Narnia even get referenced several times), but their juggling by Tchaikovsky is marvelous, making The Doors of Eden a real page-turner of an adventure. Just as we jump between different realties up we also switch between characters, including one James Bond-wannabe MI5 agent who is just trying to keep up with what’s going on.
Particularly well handled is the introduction of different evolutionary histories explaining the exotic (and lethal) species and civilizations whose timelines are converging. These other-Earth “aliens” are a fascinating bunch, and they toss a whole suit of wild cards into a plot that’s full of crazy fun.
By Susanna Clarke
Fans of Susanna Clarke’s 2004 megabestseller Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell have had a long wait for a follow-up. With Piranesi they’re getting something even odder, but more digestible.
Piranesi (not the artist, but named after him) is a fellow who lives in a very strange environment that’s both a giant house with labyrinthine halls filled with statues as well as a self-contained world with its own climate systems, animal life, and tides. As Piranesi explores this mythic world of pre-rational thought, reality and fantasy begin to merge. Is the House his home, or is he an exile? Where does he belong? That all depends on who he understands himself to be.
What the House is, and Piranesi’s real identity, remain open, perhaps unresolvable questions. Much of the novel reads like an allegory with no clear key to its meaning. One thinks of authors like China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer today, with Borges and Kafka as predecessors. Good company to keep, but it makes for some odd sailing, even with such an accomplished storyteller as Clarke as skipper.
A New History of the Future in 100 Objects
By Adrian Hon
Coffee-table books looking to present the history of pretty much anything in 100 objects have become so common it seems an obvious next step to project the genre into the future and the stuff of science fiction.
A big reason why we read SF is to imagine the way science and technology might change the world, and change us in the process. Adrian Hon, in the guise of a curator of a collector of these future artefacts writing in the year 2082, understands that while he’s talking about material (and even immaterial) “objects” (apps are included) he’s also telling “the stories of our collective humanity.”
The list proceeds chronologically, from tech that’s very close to what’s available now to the more distantly speculative. Some of the devices are merely fun toys and games while others are sinister and creepy. Some are both. But they all shape our experience of reality, virtual reality, and the shape of reality itself.
Canadian content? The Owen’s Original Cloned Burger developed in Hamilton, Ontario in 2033. No more eating animals after that.
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.