Persephone Station

Persephone Station
By Stina Leicht

Persephone Station is a slam-bang action adventure set on a planet that constitutes the wild west of the United Republic of Worlds. Unlike most such tales of space cowboys though, all the main characters, even the artificial ones, are female, and mostly lesbian or bisexual.

Angel (short for Angel of Death) is a tough-as-nails ex-space marine now in the protection and assassination business. Along with her elite team of bad girls she’s drawn into a mysterious and dangerous plot involving criminal syndicates, evil megacorporations, and the government, all of which are interconnected on different levels. Also in the mix are a race of long-lived aliens (or not-aliens, since they’re a species indigenous to Persephone Station) and some powerful and quickly-evolving AIs.

If it’s non-stop action you want, Leicht delivers.

Childhood’s End

Childhood’s End
By Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke was a man of science, but at the time of writing Childhood’s End he’d been much taken with various paranormal investigations. The result is this curious blend of science and speculative mysticism that has humankind achieving its destiny by developing into something strange and new.

You can’t call it evolution since there is no adaptation through natural selection to a changing environment. Instead, the New Man is born of the Last Man like a butterfly bursting forth spontaneously from its cocoon, an event that has apparently been our fate since the dawn of time. And what an ambiguous destiny it is! Gone are all those ingenious, lovely things like creativity, imagination, and emotion, adventure, science, art, and religion. Gone is the individual. All hail group consciousness and absorption into the collective Overmind! If this is the way the world ends, count me as disappointed.

Erich von Däniken must have been taking notes, as the demonic appearance of the Overlords is credited specifically to our species’ memory “not of the past, but of the future” (the original German title of Chariots of the Gods was Erinnerungen an die Zukunft, or Memories of the Future). In a 2000 Foreword Clarke takes responsibility for contributing to the subsequent fin-de-siècle flood of “mind-rotting bilge about UFOs, psychic powers, astrology, pyramid energies, channeling – you name it.” But does that mean he disowned Childhood’s End? Not a bit. It remained one of his favourite books, and was “a work of fiction, for heaven’s sake!”

Science Fiction

Science Fiction
By Sheryl Vint

This is the second pocket overview of science fiction I’ve looked at recently, the other being David Sneed’s Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction. Sheryl Vint’s book is part of the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series (basically the same sort of thing as the Very Short Introductions) and goes in a slightly different direction while covering many of the same basic tropes and themes.

As one would expect, definitions are front and center. For Vint SF is a genre driven by “engagement with how science and technology change the world, and imagining different worlds in response to social and political issues.” From here things get mushier, as she sees SF as “a way of thinking and perceiving, a toolbox of methods for conceptualizing, intervening in, and living through rapid and widespread sociotechnical change.” She’s less concerned with compiling a catalogue of important authors and titles (though there’s some of that) and more with looking at SF as a “tool for thinking about and intervening in the world” and trying to see “what science fiction can do.”

That’s a big ask for any genre, but Vint took me along with many of her arguments. Her focus is on contemporary SF and its relations to various current anxieties over things like genetic modification, AI, economic change, and even post-colonial theory. Less an introduction and history than an appreciation of the state of science fiction today, including the growing amount of critical writing on it, I found this to be a nice complement to Sneed’s book and one that does a good job covering the essentials.

A History of What Comes Next

A History of What Comes Next
By Sylvain Neuvel

With A History of What Comes Next Quebec writer Sylvain Neuvel, author of the acclaimed Themis Files trilogy, launches a new series called Take Them to the Stars.

The genre is alternative or secret history, with lots of well-researched detail tightly woven into the plot. The main players are the Kibsu, whose origins are left murky, even to themselves, for now. The Kibsu descend in a female line of what are essentially clones going back some 3,000 years. They usually pair up in mother-daughter teams (Sara and Mia are the heroes here) since three generations is unlucky. Their mission is to get the human race off this planet and “to the stars,” which requires working behind-the-scenes with rocket scientists like Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev to nudge the space race along.

The Kibsu are driven, intelligent, and killing machines, but they’re opposed by a male line of blockers known as Trackers. There’s also a Cold War going on and global warming to deal with. Getting humanity to the stars won’t be easy.

The Echo Wife

The Echo Wife
By Sarah Gailey

The Echo Wife is a novel about creators and their creations. Most obviously it’s a new take on Frankenstein, with Evelyn Caldwell being a scientist who has developed an effective process for cloning humans.

Evelyn is one of those likeable-for-being-unlikeable characters, ambitious to rise to the top of her field but alienating her husband and pretty much everyone else in the process. So what her ex decides to do is to clone Evelyn into a kind of Stepford wife named Martine who he can program to be the perfect helpmeet.

Of course this doesn’t end well. In fact it doesn’t even begin well, and it’s not long before we’ve shifted gears into mainstream techno-thriller territory and ethical questions are popping up like clouds of flak. The story never loses its grip, however, and while this is the kind of material that has been attracting a number of big-name authors lately, even set aside books like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me, and Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein, The Echo Wife holds its own.

Anthem

Anthem
By Ayn Rand

I first read Anthem in high school, which is when I think most people initially get exposed to Ayn Rand. I remember picking it off a rack of paperbacks in the library and only reading it because it was short. I don’t think I liked it very much.

Today it strikes me as even less interesting, being only a strident warning about the horrors of a post-collapse collectivist dystopia somewhat akin to Yevgeny’s Zamyatin’s We (though Rand never acknowledged any debt). As in Zamyatin (and Orwell’s 1984) dissident thoughts are triggered by the appearance of an Eve in the worker’s paradise. Rest assured no amount of central planning is going to be able to frustrate evolution, or stop Rand’s new gods, ensconced on their Nietzschean mountaintop, from repopulating the world with their divine seed.

A parable, but one that at least has the virtue of being quick about its business. This time around it made me think of Rand as de Sade. Not for the cruelty in her vision of man as a selfish and intensely anti-social animal, or even for the torture scene with the men naked but for their leather aprons and hoods, but for the way this book holds a place in the author’s oeuvre much like Justine does in de Sade’s. What I mean is that it’s a condensed expression of her philosophy that makes reading later bricks like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged unnecessary. Also like de Sade is Rand’s willingness to push a particular point of view to an extreme. You can tell why, like de Sade, Rand became a cult figure. If you sign on to this kind of angry, no-prisoners libertarianism then she’s your go-to guide and guru. And nearly a hundred years later she still is.

A Maze of Death

A Maze of Death
By Philip K. Dick

Existential/absurdist drama meets And Then There Were None and/or Lord of the Flies. Or were such sources all that different in the first place?

Philip K. Dick seems to have been a pretty horrible person, but I do love his books. They’re provocative and playful at the same time. The philosophical point being entertained here has to do with reality being a shared dream, though at least in this case one that involves some human agency. Technology helps make the dream real, and we’re not far removed from the kind of thing we’d be fed on the big screen a quarter-century later in what I’ve called elsewhere the Year of the Simulacrum (that would be 1998 and The Matrix, Dark City, and The Truman Show). Being ahead of the curve this far is what gets an author a reputation for being a prophet.

That agency I mentioned is of little comfort to the dreamers, who wake from their collective nightmare to a reality even worse than that of being hunted like rats in a maze, a maze from which death is the only escape. Put another way: hell is other people, but what else gives life meaning? Share a nightmare then, or go sadly forth to meet the Truth by oneself in “emptiness, meaninglessness, and solitude”? What a choice to have to make! Better to have never been born.

XX

XX
By Rian Hughes

XX is a textual-space odyssey that takes one of the oldest tropes in SF – initial contact with intelligent alien life, this time in the form of a signal received by radio telescope – and dresses it up in a crazy riot of graphic design.

Rian Hughes, a British artist and illustrator, has tricked his book out with a full bag of visual stunts and gimmicks. Text is arranged every which way on the page while different fonts and eccentric glyphs come and go. There are pictures, email exchanges, sheets of computer code, cut-and-paste Wikipedia pages, and pretty much everything else you can think of.

The circus-like atmosphere, which has drawn comparison to Mark Z. Danielewski’s cult hit House of Leaves, effectively underlines the theme of sorting signal from noise, but at nearly 1,000 pages it can also be overwhelming. If you hang on though you can expect an interesting exploration of the possibility of ideas having a physical reality, and of memes made flesh.

Projections

Projections
Ed. by Rebecca Romney

In her introduction to this neat anthology of classic SF tales Rebecca Romney informs us that “it isn’t a science-fiction writer’s job to predict the future.” What they’re more inclined toward is projecting contemporary anxieties. If some present trends were to continue, what would the world look like? And what does that tell us about the way we live now?

That said, if we were giving out prize crystal balls the winners here would probably be Murray Leinster’s 1946 story about what happens when an AI loses its guardrails and James Blish’s early take on global warming. But stories less about technology and more into exploring the changing ways we relate to one another, like Doris Pitkin Buck’s “Birth of a Gardener” and J. G. Ballard’s “The Intensive Care Unit” also hit us with a shock of recognition.

The neatest thing about Projections, though, is its design, by the Albertan publishing team of Hingston & Olsen. The twelve stories, plus Romney’s introduction, are in separate booklets attractively packed into a custom-made box that make it a terrific keepsake and gift idea as well as full of lots of great reading.