Last Ones Left Alive

Last Ones Left Alive
By Sarah Davis-Goff

The apocalypse has come again in Sarah Davis-Goff’s Last Ones Left Alive. This time we are in Ireland, where a plague has turned most of the population into bloodthirsty zombies called skrake. After the death of her mom, our hero Orpen leaves her island sanctuary and hits the road, pushing her mother’s dying partner Maeve in a wheelbarrow. Readers of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road will see something familiar in this.

Orpen’s goal is to make it to Dublin, where she can hook up with a gang of lethal ladies known as the banshee. The odds might be long, but fortunately Orpen’s parents have provided her with a practical education in the martial arts, turning her into a butt-kicking, knife-throwing force to be reckoned with. Still, the road is thick with danger.

The post-collapse wasteland is, of course, well-traveled ground by now. But Davis-Goff gives it a spark with her lively descriptions of hand-to-hand combat and feminist true grit.

The Last Astronaut

The Last Astronaut
By David Wellington

It says a lot for the richness and durability of classic science fiction tropes that a novel like The Last Astronaut is so thrilling.

In the year 2054 a large object that shows signs of being directed by an alien intelligence enters our solar system. An undermanned NASA has to bring Sally Jansen, whose previous mission to Mars ended in disaster twenty years earlier, out of retirement to lead the first-contact team.

They’ll need Sally’s experience when they get to 2I (the name of the alien structure) and things start to go nightmarishly wrong. As the astronauts go spelunking through the vast, cave-like interior of 2I they have to deal with a rapidly changing and threatening environment, even as the team itself comes undone.

David Wellington presents The Last Astronaut as a novelization of an oral history and it’s an approach that works surprisingly well. First-contact stories always involve elements of mystery and suspense as the heroes try to come to grips with new forms of intelligent life that may put the entire Earth at risk, or be no threat at all. The Last Astronaut will keep you guessing, and turning pages, until the very end.

The Passengers

The Passengers
By John Marrs

In 1997 a Canadian film named Cube launched what would become a popular sub-genre in horror fantasy. The set-up goes like this: a group of strangers awake to find themselves in a futuristic death trap. While being monitored by an outside agency they must find a way to escape or die. As the game progresses secrets are revealed, though these often don’t explain the bigger mystery of why all this is happening.

The Passengers is another take on this formula, which is perhaps best known to movie audiences from the Saw film franchise. In a near-future England a Hacker has taken control of a bunch of self-driving cars, locking their passengers inside and speeding them toward a common doom. He wants to play a game, revealing a bit about each passenger to a live streaming audience that will get to vote on who lives or dies.

As with all such stories it’s a combination morality tale and game show, which makes for compelling reading. John Marrs delivers with all the twists that you’d expect and even a couple you probably won’t in a tale of accelerated unnatural selection.

Wastelands: The New Apocalypse

Wastelands: The New Apocalypse
Ed. by John Joseph Adams

This book is the third Wastelands anthology to be brought out by editor John Joseph Adams, giving some indication of the public demand for this sort of fiction.

Such stories aren’t just dystopic: they present worst-case scenarios where a reset button has been hit on civilization due to plague, environmental collapse, alien invasion, or some other calamity.

That notion of reset or starting over actually makes the wasteland a somewhat optimistic place. Few of the stories collected here (20 reprints and 14 new, by some of the biggest names in the field) bother with explanations of how things went to hell, instead focusing on coping strategies. How will people adapt to survive in the wastelands? What new kinds of community will evolve? Given how close the end times feel, these are subjects we may want to start thinking about.

Last Tango in Cyberspace

Last Tango in Cyberspace
By Steven Kotler

Steven Kotler’s latest book is set in the near future and includes a lot of what is now drawing-board tech. It’s a world advanced enough to seem strange, but fans of William Gibson should feel at home in the surroundings.

Judah “Lion” Zorn is what’s known as an empathy tracker: a next-generation coolhunter with extra-sensory powers that allow him to feel the next big thing coming before it arrives. This makes Lion much in demand among corporate types, and as the novel gets started he’s been called in by a giant pharmaceutical company to make sense of some strange happenings.

The whirlwind plot takes the frequently doped-up Lion all over the world, encountering various exotic characters and groups connected to a scheme involving arguments over animal rights and empathy’s role in evolution. At times things can get hard to follow, especially given Kotler’s fractured, high-speed prose and the penchant his characters have for indulging in lots of semi-obscure cultural references. Hold on to the thread though and the novel goes to some interesting places.

FKA USA

FKA USA
By Reed King

The current partisan drift in American politics has given rise to a number of books set in a future Disunited States.

Most often the break-up takes the form of a simple red state-blue state split, as in Omar El Akkad’s American War and Neal Stephenson’s Fall. In FKA USA, however, the fragmentation is more advanced.

The aftermath of a mid-twenty-first century extinction event known as the Great Die-Off has led to political breakdown. Truckee Wallace must journey across the resulting patchwork-quilt of statelets of what was Formerly-Known-As the U.S.A. on a comic-book adventure involving a talking goat named Barnaby, an android who wants to be human, and a lobotomized former convict.

Reed King (a pseudonym) has put a lot of effort into building the scaffolding for this zany world, including extensive footnotes and appendixes outlining the history of the calamitous future. What makes the story work though is its more traditional journey narrative. FKA USA is a satirical Wizard of Oz road trip through a post-apocalyptic fairground, and well worth the ride.

His Master’s Voice

His Master’s Voice
By Stanislaw Lem (translated by Michael Kandel)

It’s a testament to the infectious enthusiasm of his philosophical inquiries that Stanislaw Lem’s His Master’s Voice, a book with little plot or even story, wherein nothing much happens but intellectual speculation abounds, is so fascinating even fifty years after its original publication. Indeed one could argue that the ideas it engages with are even more relevant and provocative today.

As an example, near the end of the book there’s a mini-conference where speakers debate the future directed evolution of our species and human society. It doesn’t really connect to much else in the book, and yet it’s the kind of discussion that makes us want to put the book down and think. Not to mention the way that these questions are headline news in the twenty-first century.

The rest of the book is a further exploration of Lem’s favourite theme, that of the fundamental incommunicability, whether through language or any other medium, of individual experience. I think this is his greatest, though not the most dramatic, development of that theme, and one of the most essential works in the history of science fiction.

Exhalation

Exhalation
By Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang is not a prolific author – Exhalation is only his second story collection – but he has a big reputation, recently bolstered by having written the story that the Denis Villeneuve movie Arrival was based on.

Chiang’s stories operate a bit like speculative essays, though they’re a lot more fun than that sounds. Few authors working today are as good at exploring our intimate connection to technology. In “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” he gives us what may be the best look yet at what it means to fall in love with an artificial intelligence, with all of the feelings of responsibility and dependency that love entails. In “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” two watershed moments are juxtaposed in order to show how the tools we use for recording daily experience change us. This is how technology works: we shape it and then it shapes us in turn. We get inside each other.

It’s a short step in a Chiang story from the everyday to the bizarre: a time-travel portal or a fidget-like toy may equally teach us profound truths about ourselves. Truths we may conclude we’re better off not knowing.

QualityLand

QualityLand
By Marc-Uwe Kling

QualityLand is a very funny book that hits close to home because it understands that the best satire only needs to tweak its subject a little bit to work.

We can relate to Peter’s struggles after a drone delivers him a pink dolphin vibrator from online retailer TheShop. This must be a mistake, but the system can’t be wrong. Hence what gets dubbed Peter’s Problem: when reality is fully customizable, a bad profile can lead to your being booted into the wrong world.

Peter, accompanied by a hacker girlfriend and a family of discarded robots, then leads a crusade against such faulty profiling under the Howard Beale-ish slogan “The system says I want this, but I don’t.”

But how can one’s profile be wrong? “Machines don’t make mistakes,” is the motto of QualityLand, and the entire economy depends on that supposition. We are our data, that vast collection of digital DNA shaped by our browsing histories, purchases, and all the other threads of our online lives. In QualityLand clicks have turned into kisses, and every one seals our fate a little more firmly, making sure that each of us becomes what the system believes us and wants us to be.

You may think you’re smarter than that system, or think you’re something more than your profile, but the data says you’re not. When we look into our screens our screens are looking far more deeply into us. We are, in every sense of the word, products of the algorithms.