Radicalized

Radicalized
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.

Permafrost

Permafrost
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

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.

Frankenstein

Frankenstein
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.

The Very Best of the Best: 35 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction

The Very Best of the Best: 35 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction
Ed. by Gardner Dozois

For 35 years super-editor Gardner Dozois, who died last year, helmed the prestigious Year’s Best Science Fiction anthologies. The Very Best of the Best offers up some highlights from his tenure, but the subtitle is flat-out wrong as the book only includes stories that go back to 2002. There were two previous Best of the Best volumes that included stories published from 1983 to 2002, making this book the third such selection.

With that important caveat out of the way one can recommend The Very Best of the Best wholeheartedly. As you would expect, the line-up of names is like a who’s who of contemporary SF, and as always with Dozois the selection is expertly assembled, offering up a wide range of traditional tropes and themes being spun in all kinds of imaginative new ways. Not all of it will be to everyone’s liking, but for everyone there is a lot to like. You really can’t go wrong adding such a volume to your collection.

The Last Iota

The Last Iota
By Robert Kroese

The Last Iota is the action-packed sequel to Robert Kroese’s hit neo-noir mystery The Big Sheep, returning us to a mid-twenty-first-century, post-Collapse Los Angeles and the team of brainy private investigator Erasmus Keane and his brawny partner Blake Fowler.

The iota of the title is a type of virtual currency, much like today’s bitcoins. When the iota was launched there were a handful of physical iota coins produced and now for some reason they are in high demand, with people literally dying to get their hands on them. Finding the last iota, and figuring out why it’s so important, will force Keane and Fowler to navigate an urban war zone while trying to untangle a complex web of high-level financial chicanery and blackmail.

High-Rise

High-Rise
By J. G. Ballard

Is it science fiction? Well, it’s prophetic. It describes itself, paradoxically, as a vision of “a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted.” Shouldn’t that mean that its particular dystopic vision is now passé?

Not quite. This is a novel that juxtaposes the shallow surface of modern life with its lower depths, inviting all kinds of obvious Freudian and Marxist interpretations. The abyss, however, abides, which is why we continue to see so much of ourselves in the residents of the high-rise. Their need for comfort and security, for example, and their selfishness and narcissism are drives no less important than their unleashed libidos. Wilder’s camera would be a cellphone now, but otherwise it seems very familiar.

As a vision of the end of the world High-Rise is as resonant now as ever. This may well be the way the world ends: locked inside our dirty apartments, drowning in our own filth, and each of us (even, or especially, those of us with families) entirely alone. If not happy, at least content.