In August across the US and much of Europe, the dog days of summer have arrived with a vengeance, sort of making you feel like you’ve landed on some hostile planet closer to its star than it ought to be. If you’re not wearing your environment suit, or safe in your exploration vehicle, you can still get under a shade tree with some cold ice-tea and a good book and chill out that way.
In Rule of Capture, Chris Brown’s second novel in his Tropic of Kansas universe, he introduces a new character, lawyer Donny Kimoe, working to keep the new American state from sliding all the way to the right while Veteran Star Trek: TOS novelist gives us a shot of retro-Trek with The Antares Maelstrom, taking us back to a simpler Trek-era. Michael Mammay continues the story he started in Planetside with Spaceside, bringing back the now-retired Col. Butler, who always seems to wind up in the middle of somebody’s a really bad idea and is as determined as ever to do the right thing, usually paying the price himself. Steel Frame, South African author Andrew Skinner’s debut, brings us plenty of giant robot action, along with aliens, AI, and convicts pressed into service, while two quirky books, The Gurkha and The Lord of Tuesday and Horse Destroys the Universe, examine utopias and those who would tear them down.
There’s more to read that’s worth a look, and I’ll point out some of what looks good in my Other Recommendations at the end.
First Cosmic Velocity by Zach Powers
8/6//19 (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
Given my Dog days reference at the open, let’s start with absurdist author Zach Powers’ tale of the truth behind the Soviet space program. Forget faking the moon landing, Zach’s come up with a story where the entire early Soviet space program was a sham. The capsules were one-way trips to certain death, and rather than come up with a better spacecraft, they came up with a classically straightforward solution: use twins. One twin goes into space (and never returns) and the other goes on tour after the “successful” flight.
The program has its problems. For one thing, there are a limited number of usable twins, and for another, nobody let Krushchev in on the scam, and now he wants to send his favorite pooch into orbit to be the first dog in space. The story centers around the Leonid twins, the last cosmonaut pair, as the chief designer struggles to make the farce real before the world (or Premier) finds out.
Rule of Capture: A Novel by Christopher Brown
8/13/19 (Harper Voyager)
Set in the same dystopic near-future America as his acclaimed first novel, Tropic of Kansas, where we lost the war (along with Hawaii) to China and the ultra-right-wing government lost the election but forgot to leave power, Rule of Capture introduces Donny Kimoe, formerly a lawyer for the state, now doing his best to keep dissidents from disappearing into the repressive regimes black holes.
Donny shows up late for a hearing and gets assigned an impossible case that he’s got no time to prep for – an activist journalist who creates viral videos of the exploits of the Rovers, eco-activists that have been a thorn in the government’s side, That’s the charge, but what they’re really after is the video of a popular leader being lynched by goons that might have been from the government.
So, Donny’s got some serious windmills to tilt to keep her from disappearing, along with evidence of the crime.
It’s not possible to read this and not think of Better Call Saul, but set in a more Philip K. Dickensian world. One that is distressingly easy to imagine coming to pass. The plot is twisty, and the scenario all too plausible, but Donny is engaging and his cause just. If this was hard SF written by a physicist, you’d expect some quarky exposition, but Chris Brown is a lawyer, so you get that slant instead. It’s an alt-universe, so the law is made up, but the spirit remains intact. Feel free to jump in here rather than read Tropic of Kansas first, as they’re different characters, but you can expect to see more of Donny Kimoe, assuming he can keep himself out of the government’s dungeons.
The Antares Maelstrom (Star Trek: TOS) by Greg Cox
8/13/19 (Pocket Books/Star Trek)
A volatile region with energy resources that a major power steps into to providing energy security sounds oddly familiar, but after watching the current fragmentation of the Trek universe on big and little screens, I’m looking forward to a visit with the TOS crew, led by an author that knows them inside out.
Greg Cox has more Trek Original Series novels and major Sci-Fi movie tie ins than you can shake a dilithium crystal at, and he’s got a classic setup here, a “gold rush” to get to a new energy source is on and it’s creating havoc in the region, so Kirk and Co. are sent to settle things down. To make things more interesting, it’s on the wrong side of a dangerous region of space, the Antares Maelstrom.
The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Hossain
In Saad Hossain’s delightful new novella a powerful Djinn/KIng wakes from an enforced three thousand year slumber in the Himalayas and sets out to find something to rule. The first person he runs into turns out to be a disaffected former soldier whose death sentence was commuted when Karma, the city running AI of Katmandu, came online. God kings may be all-powerful, but that doesn’t mean that mortals can’t use them to further their own agendas.
When Karma came online it took away all property rights and wealth but granted points to people that contribute to the public welfare as well as extra points to offset its land grab. Everyone is equal, of course, but some folks are more equal than others, and the parallels with communist revolutions are clear. Unlike most human revolutions Katmandu appears to run things perfectly, and its people want for nothing. Which means that a djinn who wants to overthrow utopia has his work cut out for him.
The powers of a djinn confound the city, making its surveillance drone nearsighted and uncontrollable, so Karma send’s a human to investigate, a man it jokingly calls its sheriff until it realizes that sometimes it takes a human to get the job done, and the joke might be on it. Karma may not get the outcome it wanted, but it might get the one it needs.
Can a story about a djinn be science fiction? The author throws us a bone with speculation about quantum states and collapsed universes as power sources, and while that’s hand-wavium, I’m happy to give the benefit of the doubt to a great story like this.
Steel Frame by Andrew Skinner
I don’t see a lot of mecha based science fiction, so I found South African author Andrew Skinner’s debut novel noteworthy for that alone, but it’s also a strongly character-driven story. While there are plenty of giant robot slugfests in the book, it’s more about a damaged mecha pilot becoming whole by bonding with an equally damaged AI leftover from early research, where they didn’t know how dangerous it was to have fully self-aware giant killer robots. Skinner calls the human crewed robots we call mechas “shells” and their pilots “Jockeys” and reading it I found myself visualizing the story in giant-robot-anime, which worked pretty well.
The story is set in a remote region of space where corporations compete to harvest alien artifacts which give the region strange characteristics, including time dilation and gale-force winds. In space. Think the nebula in Wrath of Khan, but much more substantial. The operation is so dangerous that the corporations have taken to using convicts with the right skills rather than risk their best jockeys, which is where Rook, the stories protagonist comes in.
Rook manages to bond with a shell that’s gone a bit rogue, and their high degree of integration makes up for the fact that its an older model than the rest of her team. Treasure hunting turns out to be lethal for more reasons than no-holds-barred competition because something out there is hunting the hunters, and Rook and her newfound friends find themselves players in a bigger game than they could have imagined.
At 700 pages less might have been more, but I liked it, and the ending is a (well played) mecha- punch in the gut.
Horse Destroys the Universe by Cyriak Harris
Cyriak Harris’ first book is a darkly comedic tour de force/farce/horse(?) about emergent intelligence, the digital nature of reality, why people can ‘t get along, and a host of other very good questions. Told as a retrospective by Buttercup (the horse) who has been cyber-augmented by Betty (the researcher) and aided by Tim (the team’s hacker). Buttercup was pretty contented grazing in the field, but soon after Betty implanted a neural-link to more computational power she became aware that there was more to life than grass and carrots.
Watching Buttercup’s emergence into intelligence has a slight Flowers For Algernon feel to it, but we soon get to the heart of the matter: whose experiment it this, anyway? Buttercup may not know much about abstract concepts and logic puzzles, though she’s learning fast, she didn’t need a computer augmented brain to understand social dominance games, something that neither Betty nor Tim, being nerdy science types, understand at all,so it should be no wonder that soon Buttercup has the researchers eating out of her hand(?), though it takes them a while to catch on.
What Buttercup wants is an unlimited supply of computing power, carrots, and the time to enjoy them, and she’ll do whatever it takes to get them. Even if it means civilizing humanity, destroying the universe, or both. Initially, I was bummed that the title of this was Horse Destroy’s the Universe, but the humans are generally so annoying that I stopped feeling bad for them early on. Science Fiction (IMHO) should be about exploring ideas, and from brian-boosting with AI to socio-economics and pocket universes, this quirky book delivers.
Spaceside follows on from Michael’s first book, Planetside, and while it does continue the story arc, you can jump right in.
Not many Mil-SF tales feature older soldiers, and often the trope is that they’re washed up but dig down for that one last victory against all odds. But Planetside gave us Col. Butler, who was ready to retire when his friend the General asked him to look into something fishy in a dirty little war and to do whatever it took to resolve it, because the General knew he’d get the job done, no matter the personal cost. And he did, even though it meant committing what would be pretty clearly a massive war crime, involving nuclear weapons and a civilian population (alien). So you’d expect the next book to be about his trial. Well, the two first sentences settle that.
“Despite what I did, I never spent a day in prison. That’s pretty fucked up.” – Spaceside, by Michael Mammay
Yeah, it is, but Butler is a pretty square shooter who found himself in a place where there were bad choices and worse choices, and he took responsibility for making his. Now we find him forcibly retired, understandably divorced, and working for a big mil-corp, nominally in security, but really as window dressing. When the CEO calls him in for a special assignment, investigating a data breach in a competitor, he has no idea that the ghosts of his past are about to spring back to life or that he’s going to have to make more hard choices, but you can count on him make the best ones he can. A lot of the book is more noir thriller than mil-sf, but we do get some well-realized boots on the ground action towards the end. Mammay’s take on soldiering comes hard-won as a veteran of Desert Storm, and tours in Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. You don’t often get a voice this seasoned and authentic, and I highly recommend him.
Cry Pilot by Joel Dane 8/6/19 (Ace) – “A devastated Earth. Rogue bio-weapons. And a recruit with secrets.” Maseo Kaytu wants to join the military, but his background rules that out, unless he signs up for Cry Pilot missions, which are suicidal. He survives anyway, so they give him riskier duty as a reward. The real secret is who author “Joel Dane” is, we know from his bio that he’s a military brat, has written ” across several genres and has written for film and TV” and is getting good reviews, so he’s worth checking out.
Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh 8/13/19 (Saga Press) – Four seasoned astronauts from last century’s space race and six specially trained teens head off to check out a habitable world on a 23 year trip to the stars. It comes as no surprise to the reader when things go very wrong on the way and it’s Enders Game meets Lord of the Flies in space.
Meet Me in the Future: Stories by Kameron Hurley 8/20/19 – (Tachyon Publications) – With a broader range than her 2017 collection, Apocalypse Nyx, starring a bounty hunter in her God’s War trilogy universe, this collection messes with the future with stories that are as weird as the cover art promises. The collection includes a story about time-traveling soldiers, which inspired her upcoming novel, The Light Brigade, originally published in Lightspeed Magazine’s Nov. 2015 issue
Our War by Craig DiLouie 8/20/19 (Orbit) – A brother and sister wind up on opposite sides of a civil war in fractured America, which seems to be popular, as Chris Brown’s Tropic of Kansas had much the same setup. Here it’s even darker, as both are children, and that warring sides are using child-soldiers in what used to be the US is disturbing. I only wish it wasn’t so easy to imagine. Still, this is almost a gentler, kinder story from the author’s usual plague/zombie apocalypse.
Radio Dark by Shane Hinton 8/20/19 (Burrow Press) – In Shane Hinton’s latest novel, Radio Dark, people everywhere are falling into a catatonic state, and a small community in Florida establishes itself as a refuge, pulling people in through a radio tower they’ve managed to get working. As more and more succumb to the condition, a preacher takes it as a sign that communication is the real blight and the tower becomes the focus of his obsession. If you liked last month’s The Wanderers, you might give this a try, but be forewarned, it’s as dark at the title promises.
The Cruel Stars: A Novel by John Birmingham 8/20/19 (Del Rey) – This big action space opera has a lot of familiar elements in it, not that that’s a bad thing. The Strum, an offshoot of humanity that believes in violent conquest and racial purity has come back from the brink after being nearly wiped out and has humanity on the ropes. Manning the last ship of the fleet is a misfit crew complete with a heroic captain, an ex-soldier recently on death row but freed by a Strum attack, a royal on the run, a cybernetic crook, and the hero of the battle that almost wiped out the enemy a century before. Outnumbered and outgunned, they may just have to fight dirty. Sounds like fun.
Best of British Science Fiction 2018 by Donna Scott (Editor) 8/21/19 )NewCon Press) – Every country’s SF has its own character, and this collection of twenty-six stories from editor and BSFA Chair Donna Scott gives you an excellent window into the British SF gestalt. Collections are perfect vacation reading and this is a great way to catch up on names that you may not be familiar with, depending on which side of the pond you’re on.
Black Spire (Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, #2) by Delilah S. Dawson 8/27/19 (Del Rey) – Wrapping up the month, you can get your Star Wars fix right here, even if you can’t make it to Disney’s newly opened Galaxy’s Edge attraction. From the publisher’s description: After devastating losses at the hands of the First Order, General Leia Organa has dispatched her agents across the galaxy in search of allies, sanctuary, and firepower—and her top spy, Vi Moradi, may have just found all three, on a secluded world at the galaxy’s edge.
About my process and The Usual Suspects
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:
- Barnes & Noble: The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Books of August 2019
- IO9: Summer Is Fading, But There Are Tons of New Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books Coming to Brighten Up August
- Locus Magazine (online): Forthcoming Books
- Tor.com: All the New Genre-Bending Books Coming Out in August!
- The Verge: 10 new science fiction and fantasy novels to check out this August