Science Fiction to Look for May 2021

New releases and a suggestion on how to use books to encourage social distancing

It’s spring again, and the air is more full of pollen than pandemic particles. This is not to say we shouldn’t keep up our social distancing, even outdoors, but what says “keep back six feet” better than a book propped up in front of you? Here are some May releases to help you send that message to passers-by.

Project Hail Mary is Andy Weir’s third book, and a return to his roots…a lone scientist/school teacher turned astronaut stuck on his own with a desperate mission, this time to save the Earth from solar cooling caused by aliens. You can be sure he’ll science the hell out of it. We Are Satellites, Sarah Pinsker’s second novel, following the prescient and excellent Song for a New Day, features a family in crisis as it grapples with the implications of brain implant technology that makes everyone smarter and more focused, except for the people who can’t or won’t get it. C. Robert Cargill follows his last novel, Sea of Rust, with Day Zero, a standalone prequel that can only be described as Calvin and Hobbes after the Robo-apocalypse, which is fast-paced and cinematically absorbing, as you’d expect from one of Dr. Strange‘s screenwriters. How to Mars by David Ebenbach is a wry and probably all-too-accurate look at what colonizing Mars on behalf of a tech billionaire would be like, and we round out the month with The Album of Dr. Moreaua highly anticipated novella by Daryl Gregory, where the WildboyZ, a group of genetically modified animal-human hybrid rock musicians are embroiled in a murder mystery. 

This month we’re doing the ones I couldn’t get to a little differently, so you’ll also see some quick takes on more books that are worth looking at in Other Recommendations*

Reviewed:

  • Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir | 05/04/21 |Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine
  • We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker | 05/11/21 |Berkley Publishing Group
  • Day Zero by C. Robert Cargill | 05/18/21 |Avon and Harper Voyager
  • How to Mars by David Ebenbach | 05/25/21 |Tachyon Publications

Collections and Novellas

if you can’t wait for these titles to be released, check out last month’s column.

Novels (in order of publication)

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir | 05/04/21 |Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine

Andy Weir goes back to sciencing the hell out of it in his third book, Project Hail Mary. This time his sciency protagonist isn’t trying to save himself, because he’s at the far end of a one-way mission to another star in a desperate gamble to find a way to stop Earth’s sun from dimming, cooling the planet, and crashing the biosphere. In an opening a bit like when Charlton Heston wakes up in Planet of the Apes, dragooned high school science teacher Ryan Grace wakes to find he’s the only one who survived the not-quite suspended animation that was supposed to keep the crew of the HAIL MARY alive on its voyage to Tau Ceti. His two companions are dead and desiccated, and what’s worse, he’s suffering from amnesia and has no idea who he is, let alone why he’s on a spaceship on the way to another star.

This is the perfect framing device for Weir’s storytelling style.  Since Ryan has to figure everything out the hard way, aided by snatches of memory popping in at critical moments, and his science teacher prowess, the author of The Martian gets to do what he does best…deconstruct scientific puzzles. While hard sf fans (and Neil DeGrasse Tyson) are bound to love this stuff, the nature of the problems may be harder for the general public to latch onto. In The Martian, it was all pretty realistic space science playing on what we know about the Red Planet. Project Hail Mary starts with an alien life form that’s nibbling away at the sun and takes off on a fast trip to Tau Ceti, where the evidence points to the astrophage’s origin. The science is still as hardcore as ever, but the setup, which was believable in his first book, is much more fantastic here, so we’ll see how general audiences react.

For myself, it was pretty nearly a page-turner as I watched the very Mark Watneyesque character snark and science his way through each obstacle and rediscover who he was and why he’s there. The memory recovery bits are played as flashbacks, which are pretty interesting on their own, and build up to a revelation that surprised both the character and me.

Weir explores some standard science fiction scenarios here, from first contact to the dangers of deep space missions. Unlike some hard sf authors like Kim Stanley Robinson, Weir is approaching it from the present rather than looking back from the future, which gives it a more grounded tone. Highly recommended.

We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker | 05/11/21 |Berkley Publishing Group

Unlike Song for a New Day, Sarah Pinskers’ eerily pandemic-predictive first novel, We Are Satellites pushes something we’re already experiencing a step further. When Pilots, brain implants that connect individuals to the internet, become available, there’s a rush to get one; not having the little blue LED on the side of your head that says you’re connected makes you now of the left behind.

Only some folk’s brains can’t adapt to the invasive technology, some folks just don’t want it, and some folks think it’s the mark of the beast.

The family at the center of the story has more or less one of each. Val’s a teacher and just doesn’t feel the need, while Julie, her partner, works for a congressman and feels the pressure to keep up. Their daughter Sophie has epilepsy, so she isn’t a good candidate for the technology, while their son David is eager to get it to fit in with his high school friends. Sophie winds up working in the Anti-Pilot movement, while the government is more than happy to fund David’s implant…and have him join the military. What David discovers is that the technology doesn’t fit everyone’s brain perfectly, and while it the benefits are everything the company claims, the costs can be high.

One of the interesting things about this excellent book is that you’re not sure who the attractive protagonist is. As the story goes on there’s greater and greater tension between the family members, none of which have the clear moral high ground, though Sophie comes close with her activism. In the end, it’s the family itself that is the character you’re rooting for as their different reactions to the technology drive them apart, and they fight to form a new consensus.

Pinsker again shows herself to be a deeply insightful writer who can build real characters on multiple sides of a conflict. Recommended.

Day Zero by C. Robert Cargill | 05/18/21|Avon and Harper Voyager

In Day Zero, a stand-alone prequel to Robert Cargill’s 2017 Sea of Rust, you get the collision of “Super Toys Last All Summer Long” and Life of Pi, when the tiger-shaped nanny-bot Pounce has to decide whether to join the robot revolution or stay with his eight-year-old charge, Ezra.

Ezra is “a precocious little blond-haired brown-eyed scamp who spends most of his time getting himself into trouble,” and it’s Pounce’s job to extract him from said trouble. Pounce is a robotic stuffed tiger who’s all too aware of his artificial and disposable nature, so there’s more than a little Calvin and Hobbes here, but unlike Bill Watterson’s comic strip, things get dark fast when a city of freed robots is wiped out and the rest of the robots are sent a software patch that turns off their Asimovian safeguards.

When Pounce and the other robot in the household are freed, it’s not Pounce that turns on its owners, but the bot that they’d treasured as almost family. When Ariadne’s safeties come off, she goes into full murder-bot mode, and Pounce makes a different call, rushing to save Ezra. Pounce doesn’t know if it’s his programming, or free will, or a moral sense that kept him from rising with the rest of the robots, but he’s sure of his love for Ezra and will do whatever it takes to keep him safe.

So begins a trek across a hellscape torn by classic robot uprising warfare, and the deeper they go into, the more Pounce discovers about himself, and what his real purpose is. A purpose that could make him either the hero Ezra needs, or humanity’s worst nightmare.

Sea of Rust was a brilliant post-apocalypse tale and doesn’t give us a lot of hope for how things will turn out for the humans in the long run, but Day Zero is just as good, and even more of a blistering page-turner. Either would be terrific on the big screen, no surprise since Cargill is a screenwriter who worked on Marvel’s Dr. Strange. But beware. You may never look at Calvin and Hobbes the same way again. Highly Recommended.

(I want to mention the forward, which is largely a retrospective on the author’s friendship with Harlan Ellison, with whom he worked on the 22nd doomed attempt to make a movie version of Ellison’s Outer Limits episode, “Demon with a Glass Hand.” Harlan was mercurial, cranky, brilliant, and when needed, exceedingly compassionate.  – Ern)

How to Mars by David Ebenbach | 05/25/21|Tachyon Publications

David Ebenbach’s debut novel sends six Marsonauts on a one-way trip to the Red Planet where they’ll star in a reality show and spend the rest of their lives doing science. What could go wrong? If the show is going to be a success, lots of things going wrong is a plus. Unfortunately, doing science on Mars gets pretty boring pretty quickly.

Fortunately, despite mandatory sterilizations, signed agreements, and a cast of people who’ve basically given up on life, sex happens. And not just sex, as the main character finds out in the first sentence:  a martian child is on the way.

This renews flagging interest in the reality show and sends our crew of Marsonauts into a  flurry of trying to figure out what to do, whether a birth on Mars is possible, and how they all fit together in a new reality. Mission Control, or at least the private corporation running things, isn’t at all happy about this problem and really wishes it would just go away. After all, you folks did agree to the no-sex part, right?

That corporation appears to be run by a tech bro who wanted to be an adventurer but couldn’t quite talk himself into it. The somewhat fragmented storyline is interspersed with relevant sections from the How to Mars handbook, which waffles between pep talks, actual, information, and wishful thinking.

Being stuck on Mars is pretty much a bummer after a while. Looking for microbial life and not finding it causes the biologist to meltdown while being freed from a culture of norms makes the engineer an unstable isotope of himself. Our narrator, the team psychologist, spends a lot of time avoiding looking inward. There’s also a spooky side plot where it appears that Mars does have intelligent life, of sorts, but nothing you’ll be able to get under a microscope. Ultimately, like Sarah Pinsker’s We Are Satellites, the story is more about becoming a family than having fantastic adventures on the red planet.

I liked it, though it does run out of steam towards the end, segueing forward in time to an epilogue. In a lot of ways, that makes this one of the most realistic Mars stories you’ll find.

Collections, Anthologies, and Novellas

The Album of Dr. Moreau by Daryl Gregory | 05/18/2021 |Macmillan-Tor/Forge

When the manager for a boy band made up of human-animal chimeras is found murdered in his Las Vegas hotel room, it’s certain that there’s monkey business afoot. Daryl Gregory has fused the canny police detective story with a fresh take on the mutant offspring from H. G. Wells’ Isle of Dr. Moreau to come up with a charmingly novel novella.  Set in an alt-retro 2001, the WyldBoyZ are the “world’s only genetically engineered human-animal hybrid vocal group” complete with mysterious origins and a passionate fanbase. Did a rabid fan kill the bloated toad (though fully human) of a parasitic manager, or was it one of the band members? Las Vegas Detective Luce Delgado, who always gets called in for celebrity cases, has 24 hours to unravel the means, motives, and opportunities and find the killer before the FBI takes the case away from her. It will take all her experience, including that as a child magician, to pull this rabbit out of a hat, while we get to sit back and enjoy Daryl Gregory’s terrific writing.

My only complaint is that this is a novella, and I wish we could have spent more time in the author’s fusion of pop-rock and roll and murder mystery fueled by an equally delightful hybrid of Wells and Christie. Funny fact: After I read this, I chatted up Sarah Pinsker, who also has a book in this column (We Are Satellites) and told her that she had to read this because it was wonderful snarky fun and about the music biz, which Pinsker skewered in her debut novel, Song for a New Day. I was too late…she’d already written the blurb for Tor. Highly Recommended.

Other Recommendations*
Unreconciled (Donovan 4 of 5) by W. Michael Gear | 04/05/21 |DAW

Michael Gear returns in the penultimate colony planet Donovan novel when the Ashanti, a transport ship given up for lost, appears in the skies over the colony world. Unfortunately, the few remaining would-be colonists are a disease-infected messianic cult of practicing cannibals. Really, they should fit right in on the deadly planet.

Immunity Index: A Novel by Sue Burke | 05/04/21 |Tor Books

Sue Burke follows up her brilliant Semiosis duology with a tale closer to home, in which a deadly “sino virus” breaks out and three cloned young women and the geneticist that created them may be the best hope for a viral apocalypse. Written largely before Covid, it features an over-the-top US president who decides to release an airborne vaccine despite scientific concerns. Didn’t we just leave this party?

Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace | 05/04/21 |Gallery / Saga

Stace’s new novel is a high-octane thriller set in a dystopian USA run by a corporation where life is hard, and augmented reality is the only way out. Mallory, a corporate war orphan, lives in a cramped room with eight others and ekes out a living playing VR (really AR) wargames. When she develops a friendship with one of the Special Ops Superheros of the game, she discovers that the dystopia she lives in is far worse than she imagined, and there are fates worse than barely surviving. This is getting terrific buzz, so Real Player One had better watch out.

Within Without: A Nyquist Mystery (Nyquist Mysteries) by Jeff Noon | 05/11/21 |Angry Robot

John Nyquist, Jeff Noon’s private eye in a mind-bendingly weird city, is back for his fourth case. This time he’s hot on the trail of the image of a rock and roller that’s ” long lost in a city of million borders.” But that’s not important…well, sure it’s the story, but what’s important is that Noon has managed to combine wyrd, noir, fantasy, and science fiction into a brilliant wordscape that’s as hard to forget as it is to wrap your notion of what’s real around. Fans of Daryl Gregory or Raymond Chandler will love what Noon’s up to.

The Far Side of the Universe: A Tor.com Original by noc (Author), Michelle Deeter (Translator) | 05/12/21 |Tor Books

noc (Noc Gu), is a Chinese author who grew up in suburban Shanghai, and as far as I can tell this is their first translated work. All I can tell you is that it’s a short novella about a girl (Ira) who’s supposed to be teleported to “The Gateway to Heaven, 6,070 light-years away,” but the trip doesn’t turn out to be exactly what the brochure claims. Quantum teleportation requires a leap of faith for both the travelers and those who stay behind. Definitely worth a look.

Scorpion by Christian Cantrell | 05/25/21 |Random House

Christian Cantrell’s thriller pits Quinn Mitchell, a CIA analyst and suburban housewife, against an international terrorist who has been leaving weirdly numbered corpses across the globe. Haunted by the tragic death of her daughter, Quinn throws herself into the assignment to uncover the connections between the killings and then track down the killer. What she uncovers is a code that’s tied to encrypted message discovered in the archives of the Large Hadron Collider, a code whose origins are unknown, and whose decrypting is has stymied the agency. If Quinn can unlock the mystery she’s liable to unravel more than just the message.

Pollen From A Future Harvest (Solaris Satellites) by Derek Künsken | 05/28/21 |Solaris

Derek Künsken (The Quantum Magician, The House of Styx) is back with a novella from Solaris as part of their Solaris Satellites series. Quoting the blurb: “Major Chenesai Okonkwo is an Auditor for the Sub-Saharan Union. Her mission: to find out if the Sixth Expeditionary Force’s newly discovered time gate has been compromised. Is the Union’s revolutionary discovery already doomed, eleven years in the future?” I’m not always a fan of time travel stories, but Derek’s worth taking a look at.

The Usual Suspects

Here you’ll find some links to some reliable lists for new releases and other reviewer’s lists for the month, which I may update as they come in. You might check them out at:

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, heard, and am looking forward to. Please note that these are my selections, and do not represent the opinions of the editor or publication.

About Other Recommendations: this is stuff I’ve seen, or heard a lot of buzz on, but haven’t read yet.

You can find me on Facebook at @Ernest Lilley or on my blog @ beingErnest

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