It’s December. Holiday lights, chilly nights, hot chocolate, fireplaces, and comfy chairs to snuggle up with a good book. Of course, you’re hoping someone will give you something great that came out earlier in the year, like The Expanse Boxed Set: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate from November, or Sarah Pinkser’s excellent collection of short stories Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea, and I could happily go on, but that’s another column. While you’re waiting to unwrap your presents, you can pick up something fun to read and be pretty sure no one will give it to you because it’s too late in the season to get on anyone’s radar. Nonetheless, there are some good books coming out in the year’s closing hours.
Scornful Stars (Breaker of Empires) by Richard Baker 12/03/19 (Tor Books)
Richard Baker’s Breaker of Empires series certainly has its fair share of well-done space battles, but just calling it mil-sf misses the bigger clash of cultures it portrays and the series deserves consideration as strong space opera. This is the third book in the series (and the first I’d read), but it stands on its own, though I’m now eager to read both the previous two (Valiant Dust and Restless Lightning) and whatever comes next.
Though the viewpoint character jumps around a bit, Sikander Singh North, now Captain of the destroyer Ardent, is the main character. Scornful Stars now finds him in command and on patrol in Zerzurian space, an area rife with piracy and in a political tug of war between the Aquilan Commonwealth and the Empire of Dremark. Kashmir, Sikander’s own world, is part of the Aquilian Commonwealth, and he’s the first officer from his homeworld to serve in the fleet. Coming from outside the mainstream, he’s a bit like the Expanse‘s James Holden: often doing the right thing, chasing down pirates in this case, instead of the safe thing. Fortunately, it seems to be working for him, though it causes his Commodore a certain amount of stress. At some point, I expect we’ll see him take sides on his own world’s secession issues, as we can see his political awareness developing, along with his growing understanding of why his brother is a radical dissident on their homeworld. Adventure, political posturing, and a touch of romance made this a really good read.
Minecraft: The End (Official Minecraft Novels #4) by Catherynne M. Valente 12/03/19 (Del Rey Books)
When is game-fic science fiction? For a series like Halo, it’s obvious, but Minecraft? Actually, Catherynne M. Valente (Space Opera) has done something interesting here by creating an invasion novel where the protagonists are a pair of endermen, characters in the Minecraft world, and the invaders are humans come to slay their dragon, take their loot, and generally do the same sort of things that conquerors and colonizers do with little regard for the folks who live there.
Fin and Mo are seasoned explorers that know their world inside out, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready for it to be turned upside down.
This should be a fun read for science fiction fans, as it’s the first time I’ve seen game characters as AI-enabled-protagonists, but it might be a useful gateway book for young players of Minecraft as well.
Star Trek: Discovery: Dead Endless by Dave Galanter 12/17/19 (Pocket Books/Star Trek)
The first thing I always want to know about tie-in novels is where they fall in with relation to series canon. Dead Endless, clearly takes place during the period that Discovery’s doctor, Huch Culbert, was lost in the Mycelial plane, but is it canon? Yes, and no, and it will be. Confused? Well, that’s what’s in store for reader and characters alike in Dave Galanter’s new Discovery novel.
Though Hugh is at the heart of the mystery of why Paul Stamets gets the sense that there’s someone there every time he goes into the trance that lets him guide Discovery through the spore-based hub drive’s network, it’s his relationship with Tilly that stands out. The author has the character’s tone exactly right. That’s a plus for me, though I’ve never been a fan of the major story arcs or characters on Discovery, but these two are on a much more interesting voyage of inner space, finding out who they are and what they want to become.
Working together, Stamets and Tilly decode a message from within the Mycelial network and find the source of Paul’s awareness of another presence, as well as a meeting with an alien of his former acquaintance. Unfortunately, the Discovery winds up trapped in mid-jump in an environment where it cannot survive. Maybe you think you’ve seen how this turns out, but trust me, you haven’t, you have, and you will.
All in all, it’s a good offering by an author who has numerous Star Trek novels to his credit.
Splintegrate by Deborah Teramis Christian 12/31/19 (Tor Books)
Set in the same universe as her novel Mainline (1996) about a causality-warping assassin, Splintegate is no less dark, centered as it is on a dominatrix who’s forced to use her relationship with a client to take him out of a critical political equation. Kes is kinky, but she’s a professional, so betraying a client, especially one who she’s developed a mutual bond with, doesn’t come easily, but when the house that took her in is threatened by powerful forces, she’s left with no choice.
Worse, she’s subjected to the technology that allows clones to be imprinted with another’s mind, then tweaked to the operators’ ends. Though she becomes a weapon for the empire against her will, Kes’s will isn’t something to be underestimated, and the empire may have unleashed a weapon that they can’t control.
The Sky Done Ripped by Joe R. Lansdale, Timothy Truman (Illustrator) 12/31/19 (Subterranean)
Thought this is the third Ned The Seal stories, after Zeppelins West and Flaming London, you won’t have any trouble getting up to speed in this absurd steampunk(ish) romp through an alternate worlds mashup of Wells, Verne, Conan Doyle, and more. H.G. Wells, is, in fact, one of the main characters, traveling in his time machine with the steampunk-cyber-augmented Ned the Seal across time, space, and alternate worlds.
Well’s machine, thanks to some meddling by his nemesis, is now more of a Nautilus/Tardis/Master of the World Airship, and the story opens with the duo dropping in on a planet of the apes that had just been ravaged by an alien invasion. It turns out to be a good place to pick up a pair of companions, two young shipwrecked apes, before jumping to another timeline where we get to travel with a Tarzan analog to the center of the Earth to find a golden fleece. No trope is spared, nor, dear reader, are your sensibilities. If there is a book of literary conventions to be observed in serious writing, breaking every rule must have been the author’s mission. He succeeds, and the result is amusing. Of course, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without the intrepid (also lazy and fish-obsessed) Ned at its heart. It’s sad that the book comes late for holiday giving, and evidently not in eBook fashion.
Collections and Anthologies
The General Zapped an Angel: Stories by Howard Fast 12/03/19 (Ecco)
Howard Fast was an important and prolific American writer whose work spanned from the 1930s until his death in 2003. He wrote novels, short stories, screenplays, and TV shows, and if you’re not familiar with any of his fiction, you’d probably recognize at least one movie adapted from his novels, Spartacus. He wrote the kind of science fiction that holds society up to the light, just as he wrote critical essays about the Constitution. Fast leaned hard-left in a time when that was dangerous in America, but his work never pulled its punches.
From the publisher’s description: In The General Zapped an Angel, featuring nine supremely entertaining fantasy and science fiction tales, a Vietnam general shoots down what appears to be an angel; a man sells his soul to the devil for a copy of the next day’s Wall Street Journal; and a group of alien beings bestow a mouse with human thought and emotion.”
This collection came out in 1970, and includes nine short stories that are just as readable today as they were then. Perhaps even more so as they tell two stories, one about the ’50s and ’60s seen through the lens of speculative fiction, and the other setting the stage for the struggle of today’s progressives. It’s also good reading.
The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture (Routledge Companions) 1st Edition
Anna McFarlane (Editor), Lars Schmeink (Editor), Graham Murphy (Editor) 12/19/19 (Routledge; 1 edition)
If you’re someone who likes to think about the relationship between science fiction and culture, cyberpunk is where the (heavy) metal hits the road, and this extensive volume really digs in. Yes, it’s by, and priced for, academics, but you can at least sample it at Google Books to get some exposure. The table of contents alone reads like a zeitgeist word cloud with 50 essays on everything from Literary Precursors to Indigenous Futurisms. The editorial team is let by Anna McFarlane, a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Glasgow University, whose doctoral work focused on William Gibson, nicely setting her up for this project. Co-editors Lars Schmeink and Graham Murphy bring Canadian and German viewpoints to the team. Not light reading perhaps, but a terrific piece of research and reference.
Arcade, by MF Thomas, 12/03/19 (BookBaby)
Arcade is a post-apocalyptic tale that mixes a Ready Player One story with alien contact and looks pretty interesting. Set in an EMP- blighted Silicon Valley, one company has managed to keep the lights on, and it’s reaching out in both cyber and outer space for a way forward. The main character is retired FBI agent Walter Jackson who was searching for his estranged daughter and got caught in the Bay Area when the lights went out for most of mankind. Now he’s working with the local cops and winds up teaming with tech entrepreneur Sloan Holt, whose company has somehow managed to stay plugged in despite the worldwide short circuit. Both men are looking for someone they lost, but the real question is whether or not they’ll find a way to game this post-apocalyptic landscape and find a way forward for humanity.
Anyone by Charles Soule, 12/03/19 ( Harper Perennial)
Anyone is Charles’ second novel, though he’s better known as a graphics artist in the Marvel and Star Wars universes. Here he looks at the consequences of a radical new technology, the ability to transfer consciousness, both at its start and 25 years on–when things have gotten truly messed up. Fans of Cyberpunk may remember that in Neuromancer, William Gibson’s breakout novel, Molly had earned her way out of servitude working as a “meat puppet.” Anyone echoes that, but compared to the world in Anyone, Gibson’s world was a utopia. One of the most interesting things about this novel is the way the two timelines converge, one where the technology is being created and adopted, and the other where its creator, Gabrielle White, tries to undo the damage it’s done.
Cypher (The Violet Wars) by Rich Larson, 12/03/19 (Orbit)
Rich Larson is much better known as a short story writer, with more than a hundred stories over the past decade in most of the major magazines; Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, F&SF, Lightspeed, and Tor.com. You can find some excellent examples for free at Tor.com, btw.
Cypher picks up after Annex, his debut novel, in which aliens showed up, isolated a city, turned the adults into VR Zombies wandering the streets and the kids infected with brain parasites and locked up in a warehouse. Violet and Bo freed a gang of kids and fought back, and now, with the aliens largely gone, the outside world intrudes and they’re fighting to keep what they’ve found, including Gloom, an alien who allied with them. Violet’s gang remains a plucky bunch of underage freedom fighters, but the fight keeps shifting on them.
Dead Astronauts: A Novel by Jeff VanderMeer 12/3/19 (MCD)
The astronauts of the title are three explorers — Grayson, Morse and Chen, who travel through the nameless, chaotic, and just plain weird city that VanderMeer introduced in Borne, his novel with a growing genetic something and a giant flying bear. No, VanderMeer’s weird fiction isn’t for everyone, and Dead Astronauts tests the limits of time, space, the reader’s imagination, and the nature of story. The narrative moves through multiple realities and timelines in a non-linear fashion, but damn, can that man write prose. If you like your fiction weird but beautiful, you’re in luck. Kirkus Reviews says he’s “a master of literary science fiction, and this may be his best book yet, ” but Publisher’s Weekly is less sure, saying that “this diffuse novel reads like unused notes from Borne and feels incomplete.”
Zero Percenters: A Novel by Scott T. Grusky 12/8/19 (Furthest Press)
Like Charles Soule’s Anyone, also out this month, Zero Percenters is about the development and consequences of being able to transport your consciousness, but instead of to another body, this is to the more conventional VR-based digital life. The original researcher who developed the process is killed by terrorists, while his daughter winds up being one of the last corporeal humans alive. Grusky’s story goes beyond the usual imagining of virtual society by asking what the uploaded have lost and how conflict will emerge in the virtual.
The Choice by Claire Wade 12/26/19 (Orion)
When the people voted “Mother Mason” into power, they created the ultimate Nanny State. “Eat the best, leave the rest! Remember Mother knows best.” Mandatory healthy lifestyles become the rule, with all “unhealthy” foods and behaviors criminalized and public shaming (or worse) used on offenders. The main character, Olivia Pritchard, becomes radicalized after seeing a woman brutally arrested and joins an underground to restore personal freedom.
Clearly influenced by novels like 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, Wade’s novel is bound to make the health-conscious uneasy with its exploration of free will versus fast food.
Frontier Volume 1 Jonathan Hickman (Author, Artist) 12/31/19 (Image Comics)
I don’t usually include graphic novels or comics in this column, but the description on Frontier Volume 1 grabbed me, as did the cover art. Author/Artist Jonathan Hickman asks what if we went boldly out into the universe only to find that we’re not wanted there? If the final frontier isn’t just there for us to tame? The author has created a rich universe of alien races, factions, and future technologies, and hopefully, we’ll get to see the first volume at the end of the month. As far as I can tell, it was supposed to launch in 2016, but the author wasn’t happy with it and Image Comics optioned it for whenever he was ready.
For the most part, this list sticks to what appeals to me as science fiction, about which I’m willing to be fairly flexible, but if here there be dragons, you can expect to find some tweaked DNA to explain it. I make up this list based on what I’ve read, what I heard and what I’m looking forward to. Quite a few will wind up getting full-length reviews here or around the web, especially at SFRevu.com where I’m editor emeritus.
Since I’m often done with this after the beginning of the month, I do check what I consider to be the usual suspects, but mainly to see if they agree with my picks, which oddly enough, they more or less do. You might check them out at:
- Polygon: 17 new science fiction and fantasy books to check out this December
- Barnes & Noble: The Best Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books of the Month
- IO9: Read Your Way Into 2020 With December’s Sci-Fi and Fantasy Book Releases
- Locus Magazine (online): Forthcoming Books