I hope you’re all doing ok out there, staying inside and keeping safe. Fortunately, as science fiction readers, we’re not the ones saying, “Nobody could have seen this coming,” because we’ve seen it coming since H.G. Wells slew a Martian invasion by infecting aliens with Earth germs. So stay safe, and catch up on your reading.
Note: you can always go back to last month’s column for some books that are already out.
If you want to believe that there’s life after Pandemic, at least of a sort, you’ll want to read In Churl Yo’s debut novel, Isonation, which takes place a generation after the Zombie Flu drove everyone indoors to stay. A more medieval post-apocalypse can be found in The Book of Koli by M. R. Carey, when a plucky lad with a hyper-intelligent music player is thrown into the wilds to survive, or not. Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang is a coming-home story about a class trip from Mars to Earth, where a group of students discovers that they’re strangers in their own land. Though it came out in 2006, Blindsight by Peter Watts is getting a reissue by Tor as one of their essentials of SF, and a good choice it is. Repo Virtual by Corey J. White takes a classic setup, boy with an AI on the run, and makes it totally new with a South Korean setting and a great cast. Nancy Kress’ Sea Change novella shows that she’s still the master of biological disruption and human insight, while The Human Son by Adrian J Walker shows how much easier it would be to fix the planet if humans would just die off, of course, that leaves open the question of what to do with it when you’re done.
Michael Swanwick has a fine collection of tales of rogueish doings in The Postutopian Adventures of Darger and Surplus, and Unexpected Stories gives us insight into Octavia E. Butler’s earliest works with a pair of previously unpublished stories.
This month has more interesting books out than I could get read, so you should definitely take a look at my Other Recommendations and the links to what other reviewers came up with in my Usual Suspects section.
Novels and Novellas (in order of publication)
Zoah grew up in a post-pandemic world, where the disease was so virulent that we didn’t just shelter in place; to survive, every house had to become its own isolated environment interacting with the outside world only through drone deliveries and full-body haptic suits because the virus is still out there, and exposure means certain death. But Zoah inherited her parent’s intelligence and curiosity, as well as having a knack for pattern recognition all her own…and she’s not buying it, nor incidentally, the arranged marriage her parents have been talking about.
Instead, she takes up with a group of disruptive hackers called Kiters and slips out the back door into the real world full of dangers she’d never imagined. Between her talents at data analysis, and her once-virtual and now-present IRL boyfriend and hacker Milton, she’s determined to get to the bottom of the biggest hoax ever put over on mankind. But when she finds her answers, she’s going to have to decide what she wants to do with them.
It’s no coincidence that In Churl Yo’s debut novel about the world in the aftermath of a pandemic comes out now. He’d been shopping it around when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and decided to just go ahead and publish it through the same folks who he’d contributed stories to their honor anthologies, and the result is a fast-paced post-pandemic story where nothing turns out to be quite what it seems. Readers with Amazon Kindle Unlimited accounts will be delighted that this is included in their subscription, but for the rest of the world, it’s dirt cheap at $2.99 (Kindle). Granted, it’s more timely than nuanced, but it moves along smartly and it’s a pretty good read.
Koli is a coming-of-age story of a boy living in a post-apocalyptic English village that’s mostly medieval, but with a few touches of tech…tech only a few can activate. Every year, those on the cusp of adulthood try on the remaining artifacts to see if they will wake for them, and so become Ramparts, the ruling family. If they fail, the artifact will stay dull objects, and leave the initiates to more mundane lives as woodcutters, tanners, butchers or any of the needed trades. Koli dreams of ascending from his woodcutter origins and being recognized by one of the tools–hopefully, the one that shoots flame or the one that projects an invisible blade of force, rather than the one that answers questions. When he discovers that the fix is in, and the Ramparts are not chosen by fate, magic, or chance, he decides to steal an untried piece of tech and find out how to unlock it so that he can claim a place as a Rampart, and maybe get back the girl he loves.
The good news for us is that it doesn’t go as Koli planned, good because it sets him on an adventure that will take three books to finish, though M.R. Carey has created a world that’s wide enough to house lots of other adventures. Mankind has fallen after the Unfinished War into small enclaves surrounded by dangerous animals and killer trees, all the products of gene tampering and a bit like something out of a Jeffrey Ford novel. With teeth.
M.R. Carey is one of the crop of talented authors that have done work for Marvel, DC, and other character universes, as well as writing notable fiction of his own, including The Girl With All the Gifts, and a comics adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Highly recommended.
Twenty students from Mars were sent to Earth as a gesture of goodwill, breaking a long separation after the war that the Martian colonists fought a hundred years before. Vagabonds’ picks up the story on their return trip on the Earth-Mars cycler. The returned students must choose a profession to join so that they can work for the common good, but after spending time on Earth, they’re neither fish nor fowl, unable to accept the mandates that Martian utopia issues or the chaos that the individualistic Earthers live with.
Vagabonds is billed as Hao Jingfang debut’s novel, but it’s actually her two novels, Wandering Maerth (2011) and its sequel, Return to Charon, folded into one book and translated by Ken Liu, because…who else would you want to get? Jingfang won the 2016 Hugo for her novelette, “Folding Beijing” (Uncanny Magazine) and has a number of short stories out, but this is the first time English-speaking readers have gotten a full-length work from her. At 640 pages (hardcover) it’s not quite Neal Stephenson length, but it’s substantial.
Reading Vagabonds, I found myself thinking of lots of other authors and books. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Rainbow Mars for the deep dive into arcology and terraforming that runs through the novel, Le Guin’s The Dispossessed for the contrast between Earth and Mars, which is like an inversion of the contrast between Anarres and Urras the capitalist world and its anarchist moon. Since the novel deals with the tensions between Mars, Earth, and the asteroids, as well as intrigue about advanced Martian drive technology, there’s some Expanse flavor in there as well. If you’re looking for an action novel, there’s one in here, but the focus is on the character’s struggle to reconcile their experiences on Earth with their return to Martian society and the conflicts between societies and generations.
While the story doesn’t leave us hanging, I’m hoping there’s one more book to tell the Earth’s side of the story.
It’s a First Contact novel, set at the edge of the solar system with a crew selected and augmented for the job, led by a genetically reconstructed vampire with superhuman intellect and physical tweaks, but with an aversion to visual right angles. Before he wrote the book, I attended a lecture by Peter on his vampire concept, and even though I knew it was all made up, I left chilled. I had the same reaction reading this. The viewpoint character isn’t the vampire, but a “synthesist” who’s been intentionally made autistic and augmented and whose role is to interpret the crew for the folks back on Earth because they’re all so barely human that you’re going to need an interpreter.
Granted that this isn’t a new release, having come out in 2006, but Tor is putting it out this month as part of their ‘Tor Essentials’ and they’re absolutely right to include it. Before the book came out in, Peter Watt’s was good, but with Blindsight he leveled up to great. It’s not just good hard SF, it’s hard-edged, full of challenging concepts about consciousness and what post-humanity looks like and never, ever pulls its punches. Nominated for a Hugo (it lost to Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge), it got plenty of other awards, including a Locus and Campbell, back when we still had nice things to say about Campbell. In this edition, Tor has given it an academic cover treatment to signal how serious it is, but fortunately, you won’t see that while you’re reading it. It’s brilliant, it’s disconcerting, and it’s absolutely essential reading.
Corey J. White’s novel is set in the very real city of Sogodo, South Korea, where the US is a failed state and the hot action is all about Zero Corporation, which runs the world’s largest namespace, Voidwar, which has an economy they control that has more real-world value than most country’s currency. Julias Dax, a specialist in gameworld repo jobs, is tapped by his brother to repo a bit of code in the real world, only it’s not really repoed if you don’t have a legal claim on it, so there’s that. JD ordinarily wouldn’t do it, especially for his troublemaking brother who’s fallen under the thrall of a cultish visionary, but the money is too good to pass up.
What follows to some degree is a classic boy meets AI and gets chased around by governments and corporations (and cults) trying to get hold of it, but White’s take is so good and so fresh that it’s not formulaic, just fast-paced, clever, and well thought out. My biggest complaint is that it looks to be a stand-alone novel, although that could change.
If this was the book William Gibson had written instead of Agency, we’d be saying he’s back at his best. But, no, it’s a debut novel by Corey J. White, and he’s got his own voice and his own vision. You can see where others have influenced him, including Gibson, Stephenson, Kim Stanley Robinson, and that guy who wrote Ready Player One (Ernest Cline). If I had to list four cyberpunkish books you had to read, I’d probably give you Neuromancer, Snowcrash, Equations of Life (Simon Morden), and now…Repo Virtual by Corey J. White.
Set in the very near future, after a meltdown known at the Catastrophe, Nancy Kress’s novella starts with the main character leaning out a restaurant window watching a house tie up traffic because it appears to be confused. Sure, I could tell how that’s even possible, but don’t you want to find out for yourself? The woman, Renata Black is a member of a mysterious underground that calls itself the Org, and uses splotches of “Tiffany Teal” paint to identify things to its members. Again, I could tell you what the Org does, and the blurb probably already has, but wouldn’t you rather get to the bottom of it on your own?
Kress remains the queen of genetic subversive, and Renetta’s story dips into a lot of different ponds, including the loss of her young son which spurred her involvement with the Quinault Nation, a tribe of Native American’s in the Northwest, lots of different political causes, and a very rocky relationship with an ex that she’s never been quite able to live with…or without.
The science and politics are as well done as anything Kress has written, and Renetta, who lives more than one life at a time, is an engaging if imperfect character. So, it hits all the bases for me, though it does skirt the risk of becoming a screed for the story’s thesis in the wrapup.
As the Earth’s ecosystem was about to totally collapse, a scientist put forth a proposition to save the planet: Hand it over to the Ertas, a crop of genetically-engineered creatures designed to fix the planet, and get out of the way until it’s done. The bad news for mankind was that it meant letting humanity die off before the work could begin, but for the most part that could be done humanely.
500 years later, the Erta have finished the job. There are now two moons, one made of reclaimed plastic and human artifacts, and the sea, sky, and land are all full of species saved from extinction. The only thing missing is humanity. The Erta promised to restore humanity once they were done, but now that the time has come, their normally dispassionate and analytical natures are disrupted by the idea of humans coming back and the inevitable havoc they’ll wreak. So they decide to create just one human and see how that goes. For creatures that are more machine than human, raising a child is a daunting task, but what they can’t imagine is how it will change them, causing their buried humanness. to assert itself, and not always in its nobility.
The story is basically what you’d get if you took the artificial bio-droids from Star Trek: Picard and told them to clean up humanities mess, after letting us die off, and then dropped a male human child on them after it was all working right to see if bringing back humanity was really a good idea. It is interesting, thoughtful, and well worth reading. I hadn’t read any of Adrian J. Walker’s writing before, but it’s definitely on my radar now.
Collections, Anthologies, and Novellas
Darger is a human who’s best trick is that he’s so forgettable he might never have been there. Surplus (Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux) as he likes to be called, is a dog. Well, he’s more like a furry human, thanks to the same sorts of genetic tweaks that allow for a “six-brained Queen of England…(and)…a dragon (that) haunts the high passes of the Germanic states”. What they both are is con-artists, making their way in a post-utopian world laid low by AIs and full of adventure that only Swanwick could have conjured up.
This collection of five novelettes and four ‘vignettes’ includes The Hugo Award-winning “The Dog Says Bow-Wow” which introduced the pair in their first con as well as a new tale, “There Was an Old Woman,” where our lads are separated and up against “a most unique AI”. The vignettes promise the reader insights into our roughish lads and their world, and a good time should be had by all. Recommended.
Thanks go to Subterranean for bringing us a pair of previously unpublished stories from Octavia Butler. The first, ‘Childfinder’, is a very short piece about a world where telepathy is an emergent talent, but drives us apart rather than into some Cumba Ya spirit. From our perspective, that’s what you’d expect, but this was written in a Clarion workshop in 1970, when much of the world thought Star Trek TOS was what the future held in store. The other longer piece, ‘A Necessary Being’, is about an alien world’s class and professional divisions based on skin colors (green, blue, yellow…) would actually have made a pretty good TOS episode, but it never quite made it past the publisher and magazine gatekeepers.
This isn’t The Best of Octavia Butler, oddly a book that doesn’t yet exist, but it is the earliest of her works, and shows where the writer was going from our vantage point a half-century later.
- Of Ants and Dinosaurs by Cixin Liu 4/2/2020 Beijing Qingse Media Co., Ltd.
- Eden by Tim Lebbon 4/7/2020 Titan Books
- Tales From the Loop by Simon Stålenhag 4/7/2020 Skybound Books
- The Last Emperox (The Interdependency Book 3) by John Scalzi 4/14/2020 Macmillan-Tor/Forge
- The Unsettling Stars (Star Trek) by Alan Dean Foster 4/14/2020 Pocket Books/Star Trek
- Critical Point (Cas Russell Book 3) by S. L. Huang 4/28/2020 Macmillan-Tor/Forge
- Jane Doesn’t Save the World by Erin Grey 4/30/2020 Erin Grey
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:
- Amazon.com: Editor’s Picks – Best Books of the Month: Science Fiction & Fantasy
- Barnes & Noble: The Best Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books of the Month
- Den of Geek; Top New Science Fiction Books of April 2020
- Locus Magazine (online): Forthcoming Books
- Nerd Daily: April 2020 Book Releases
- Polygon: 20 new science fiction and fantasy books to check out in April
- Tor.com: All the New Science Fiction Books Arriving in April!
About the Reviewer’s Pics:
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. Please note that these are my selections, and do not represent the opinions of the editor or publication.