Whether you like the pumpkin spice offerings of literary sf, the fresh apple cider of time travel with some humor thrown in, or the rich October brews of space opera, there’s something for pretty much everyone this month.
In Antediluvian by Wil McCarthy, mind/time travels back to a time before history, only to find that myths have to come from somewhere. Nicky Drayden’s science fiction debut, Escaping Exodus, is a well-realized living space arc story with great characters and a well-thought-out acrology. Doing Time by Jodi Taylor starts a new series for the author of the St. Mary’s/Time War series, in which three rookies join the Time Police just as it’s going through serious culture change. And what would October be without a thriller? Ghoster by Jason Arnopp fills the bill with a story that may make you back slowly away from your smartphone. In Interference, we get the second half of Sue Burke’s Semiosis duology, where the sentient plants and the colonists that have allied with them are facing invasions from within and without. Cixin Liu (The Three-Body Problem) gives us an idea of how a world run by twelve-year-olds would turn out in the Supernova Era, and yes, it goes all Lord of the Flies.
For Anthologies and Novellas, we’ve got Lina Rather’s novella, Sisters of the Vast Black, which is just really good space opera and I hope we see more of these renegade nuns. Slate magazine’s tech-story series has been anthologized in Future Tense Fiction: Stories of Tomorrow with tales by Charlie Jane Anders, Madeline Ashby, and more, and Steve Zisson has put together a nice collection for fans of music and science fiction in A Punk Rock Future. Saving the best for last is a collection of the last three decades of Greg Egan’s work titled, unsurprisingly, The Best of Greg Egan.
Antediluvian by Wil McCarthy
Harv Leonel is a time-traveler, at least in his own mind, but that doesn’t mean he’s crazy. With the help of lots of high tech gear, intense magnetic fields focused on his brain, his research assistant Patel and Tara, his anthropologist-collaborator-girlfriend, Harv is about to throw the switch that will unlock the memories he theorized are stored in the quantum superpositions of the Y-chromosome.
Most people doing past lives regression remember their times as nobles in the Middle Ages, or pioneers on the prairie, or some other period they imagine they know something about. When Harv goes into is TMR-induced trance, he finds himself living a series of lives of what he can only assume are his ancestors in antediluvian times. Time before civilization as we know it existed, but not, it turns out, before trolls, dragons, pointy-eared folks, massive floods, and all sorts of other things we know as fable or myth.
What Harv and his team are shocked to discover is that at every stage of early man’s existence, he was capable of creating complex societies, attaining deep understandings of the physical world, and eager to learn and explore. Harv’s theory about the quantum storage locked in the brain turns out to be right, but it may not go far enough. What if it’s also a gateway, entangling his current life with those of his distant ancestors?
In large part, Harv’s character is there to give the author a stage to write vignettes with a different point of view on pre-historical-humanity, but between wondering if his experiment will kill him before it’s over and trying to fit the lives he experiences into mythology, it’s a pretty interesting read.
Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden
10/8/19 (Harper Voyager)
When humanity left the Earth in generation ships they wanted to find a planet to settle down on, but just as they were running out of time they found something else. Massive star beasts that they could carve out a home in.
Seske is a young woman coming of age in one of the beasts, heir to a highly-stratified matriarchal society. Challenged and undermined by an illegitimate sister in a population- controlled society, Seske’s rebellious nature doesn’t make things easy for her. Neither does her affection for Adella, one of the organ-workers that keeps the beast alive, but who is definitely not from a caste acceptable to Seske’s mothers.
The cost of keeping the humans warm, breathing, and under spin-gravity is high, requiring the culling of a new beast every generation or so, and the herd of beasts is thinning as mankind takes its toll. Seske and Adella are forced apart as they each try to navigate the complex world the author has created. Court intrigue, revolution, romance, and the realization that the life the people have carved out in the belly of the beast isn’t just unsustainable, but also immoral, are all handled deftly in Nicky Drayden’s first foray into science fiction. I’m generally not fond of the living ship concept, but the author has created a fascinating ecology within the creature and challenged her characters to confront the choice between parasite and symbiot. Highly recommended for fans of Emily Devenport’s Medusa Uploaded, or just good storytelling.
Doing Time by Jodi Taylor
Jodi Taylor’s writing is what you’d get if you stuffed Conni Willis and Jasper Forder into a Tardis with John Cleese as the Doctor. She’s been writing about St. Mary’s and the Time War for a long time, and huzzah! The war is over. Everyone agrees that time travel technology is too dangerous to use and everyone – governments, corporations, and individuals – agree not to meddle in the past. Well, almost everyone. That’s where the Time Police come in.
Jane, Luke, and Matthew are the newest, and oddest, recruits in the Time Police. Jane is a timid girl running from life serving an abusive grandmother. Matthew is rebelling against his academic historian parents, and Luke…well, Luke is there in a last-ditch effort to get the self-absorbed scion of one of the richest men in the world to grow up. Not your usual steroid-fueled shoot on sight preserve the timeline sort the TP get, but maybe the sort they need. Not to mention the sort that need each other. This is fun stuff.
Ghoster by Jason Arnopp
Kate Collins, EMT, is a social media addict in recovery. But before she went cold turkey she swiped right on a guy named Scott who didn’t list anything about himself…but somehow forged a deep connection. After they long-distance dated for a while, linked by text messages–the only tech Kate still used– Scott asked Kate to move into his city, his apartment, and his life.
Only when she got there, the flat was cleaned out, Scott wasn’t answering his text messages, and Kate’s best friend Izzy was pretty well convinced that he’d done the dishonorable thing and run off rather than face the rigors of relationship. Not that Kate doesn’t think Izzy is right, but as someone with an obsessive leaning, there’s no way she can let it go without knowing what really happened. Then she finds his phone on the balcony outside the apartment and winds up going down a long dark path into a horror she couldn’t imagine.
Told in alternating flashbacks, present-day bits, and text conversations, the truth gradually emerges from the shadows in the glow of the abandoned smartphone. It’s more thriller than science fiction, but it’s a thriller with social media at its beating heart, so…happy October.
Interference (Semiosis Duology #2) Sue Burke
Sue Burke completes her Pax duology in this continuation of the story of a planet with sentient plants and the human colonists who have made a home there. The Pax colonists have developed a working relationship with the sentient plant Stevland at the heart of the city built by the original colonists, the alien glassmakers, as well as forging an alliance with the glassmakers themselves, who had left the city for a nomadic and mostly feral, existence.
Now the colony faces challenges from climate change, the lands on their borders drying, and fire, a plant’s greatest fear, spreading, as well as a threat from space in the form of the second human expedition, which brings with it the problems that the colonists had fled earth to leave.
Interference is told in a more linear format than the first book, Semiosis, though the author does work through a sequence of viewpoint characters as the story moves forward. A deeper look at plant sentience runs the risk of midichlorian-izing the concept, but Burke’s scientific approach and strong characters stand her in good stead.
Supernova Era by Cixin Liu
When a nearby supernova’s wave of radiation and high energy particles hits Earth, everyone over twelve receives fatal doses of radiation, but younger bodies are able to shrug off the genetic damage. With only months left to live, the adults try desperately to teach the children enough to keep the lights on and the supply of rice sufficient for survival. The adults hope that the new world of children will be one without the old worlds politics and strife, but they evidently hadn’t read Lord of the Flies. Whatever happens, it won’t be the old world, but something only children could imagine.
You’d think that this was written as a referendum on today’s political climate, where the rulers of major world powers act like children. Though it has just been translated, the original work was published in China in the late 1980s. In the story, China’s new leaders, a gang of four, seek to keep the country fed and out of chaos, while the American president asks the world if it wants to play a game? After all, the grownups left all these neat war-toys for us to play with.
Perhaps not as finely crafted as the author’s breakout work, The Three-Body Problem, it’s still an ambitious thought experiment and an intriguing look at the great game as played by children.
Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather
10/29/19 (Tor.com )
Sisters of the Vast Black is set in an Expanse-like-setting after the war in which Earth tries to dominate the colonies. A living ship with a crew of nuns deals with some interesting crises. For one, the ship wants to mate with another ship, and they have some issues there to resolve. For another, the Catholic church back on Earth is showing signs that it wants to go back to the hands-on control of all its flock, rather than the loose-knit community of Sisters doing whatever they could to help the folks trying to rebuild after a horrific war.
Vatican before vaccines, Sisters.
Just to make sure the church gets its way, the Sisters are getting a Priest to guide them, rather than the whim of a loose cannon of a Mother Superior, especially one with a very dark secret. You might not think you’re ready for a space opera about nuns in space, but this is so good we can only hope Lina Rather returns to this universe with more (and longer) stories.
Future Tense Fiction: Stories of Tomorrow by Charlie Jane Anders, Madeline Ashby, et al (10/2/19 The Unnamed Press) – Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that looks at technology and society through short stories, which they publish in Slate’s Technology Posts. Now they’ve put together a collection of stories by just the authors you’d hope for, including Charlie Jane Anders (All the Birds in the Sky), Paolo Bacigalupi (The Water Knife, The Windup Girl), Emily St. John Mandel (Station Eleven), Annalee Newitz (Autonomous), and nine others forming a broad spectrum of prescient tales of technology. Not all the authors are mainstream science fiction authors, which is all the better, but all the stories are what good science fiction strives to be: a window into what the future could hold. Recommended.
A Punk Rock Future by Steve Zisson (Editor) 10/8/19 (Zsenon Publishing) – If you liked Sarah Pinkser’s debut novel, A Song for a New Day, last month, you should take a look at this anthology put together by Steve Zisson, who crosses the streams between serious biotech journalism and writing science fiction. The twenty-six stories he’s collected here, including “A Song Transmuted” from Sarah Pinkser which foreshadows the body-mods in her novel. The stories are like any open-mic night: you’ll love some and you’ll hate some, but you’ll recognize the spirit that spreads throughout. Punk isn’t about to take the future lying down, and this collection is the soundtrack of revolution.
The Best of Greg Egan by Greg Egan 10/31/19 Subterranean Press In the all-too-brief afterword to his self-selected collection of best works from the last three decades of writing, Greg Egan says he never intended to be a futurist, painting a roadmap for things to come. Reading this collection confirms this, but not because his vision of the future is poorer than, say, Gibson or Sterling’s, but because he uses the future as a device to challenge his characters. Egan is a humanist using science fiction settings to explore what it means to be human. In the bargain, he just happens to have 2020 foresight.
These 20 stores are arranged in chronological order, starting with “Learning to be Me” about an identity-crisis where the question of who’s real, you or the image in the mirror, takes on new life, to the last about a host of virtual intelligences looking to find a way to survive the end of the game that spawned them (“Instantiation”). The theme that goes through the collection has to be the survival of identity, of what it’s like “when minds can be copied, morality is edited, and digital beings fight to be emancipated.” Egan engages the reader with rich characters and challenges that are resonant, and despite spanning three decades, the oldest stories would be welcome in any of today’s magazines or collections. I thought it might be interesting to see how many of these stories were featured in Gardner Dozois, Johnathan Stratham, or Neil Clarke’s Best SF of the Year anthologies, but I quickly ran out of fingers and gave up. In many ways, they define the sort of story that such collections yearn for, thought-provoking, engaging, and with a bit of dark humor in the mix.
It’s a pity that this collection is only being offered in hardcover. I read it in a Kindle format Advanced Readers Copy, so I know it’s ready for other formats. But maybe it’s not a pity, because seeing a copy of The Best of Greg Eagen on your bookshelf will certainly remind you of what the best of science fiction can be.
Aurora Blazing: A Novel (The Consortium Rebellion) by Jessie Mihalik 10/1/19 (Harper/Voyager) – A highborn woman freed from a loveless marriage by the sudden death of her husband, Bianca von Hasenberg sets out to use her position and influence to help others trapped in the web of nobility. When her brother, heir to the house, disappears Bianca throws over her obligations to find and rescue him –against the direct orders of her father, the head of the house. She may be stubborn, but it’s something she came by honestly. If she won’t come back on her own, her father will have to send Ian Bishop, the head of house security, to bring her back.
If Bianca can’t elude Ian, maybe she can enlist him in her cause, though she’ll have do decide whether his help is worth the price.
Half Way Home by Hugh Howey 10/1/19 (Broad Reach Publishing) Hugh Howey (Wool and the Molly Fyde saga) begins a new story about a colonization effort using vat-grown colonists and an AI to guide them. Only instead of the 500 fully-trained thirty-year-olds the plan called for, an accident in space leaves only sixty half-trained teens to brave the new world.
“Soon they find that their worst enemy isn’t the hostile environment, the A.I., or the blast that nearly killed them. Their greatest danger is each other. – publisher”
Like Cixin Liu’s the Supernova Era also out this month, it’s a world run by the young, hopefully with a wise AI to guide them. Interestingly, this premise was done once by James P. Hogan in Voyage from Yesteryear (1982), but unlike either of these books, the kids came out alright.
Collateral Damage (Star Trek: The Next Generation) by David Mack 10/8/19 Pocket Books/Star Trek – Here’s a TNG novel that shows it’s not always easy to tell who the good guys are. Picard’s past comes back to drag him to Earth and deal with the fallout from actions that might be considered treason, while Worf sits in the big chair on a mission to retrieve stolen tech from a Federation colony. Does it fit in with the upcoming series? Not exactly, but David Mack has Picard’s tone down perfectly, and it’s a great read.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (40th Anniversary Edition) by Gene Roddenberry 10/1/19 Pocket Books/Star Trek – This is a reissue of the original novelization from 1979, which is worth commemorating. The original edition listed Alan Dean Foster*, Gene Roddenberry, and Harold Livingston on the cover, rather than just Roddenberry. Instead of just giving this a new cover, I’d like to have seen someone, like Foster (who is generally credited for the actual writing) add a forward and give some perspective on the book, but they weren’t that bold. Is it better than the movie? Many think so, but the movie’s strength wasn’t the plot, but the visuals, especially of the Enterprise in spacedock. However, this does add internal dialog to the characters, and that may make all the difference for you.
*Editor’s note: Author Foster wrote in to inform us that he does not, nor has he ever, had any involvement with this book. He has tried to correct the record but it apparently persists. We’ll use this opportunity to help him spread the word.
The Forbidden Stars: Book III of the Axiom by Tim Pratt 10/8/19 (Angry Robot ) – The third book in Tim Pratt’s Axiom sequence finds the crew of the White Raven dealing with the threat posed by the slumbering alien Axiom. The alien race known as the Liars gave us access to 29 wormhole stargates, and one of them has gone silent. Well, colonies do like to go their own way, humanity supposes, but Captain Callie and her crew, who’ve been on the hunt for the Axiom, find out that something more sinister is likely and they use the White Raven’s unique drive to check it out.
The Axiom series is a bit like a cross between the Expanse and the now-defunct SyFy series Dark Matter, which had a ragtag crew and a “blink” drive. Here its a “bridge generator” but to much the same effect, allowing them to bypass the known wormholes and cause trouble where they want. I missed book two, but you can check my review of the first book, The Wrong Stars here.
Synapse Steven James 10/8/19 (Thomas Nelson) – Set in the middle of this century, Synapse shares some of the whodunnit of Asimov’s classic Caves of Steel and some introspection into the nature of artificial life that Greg Egan probes in his Best of Greg Egan collection.
Kestrel Hathaway witnesses a terrorist attack, and both her and Jordan, her artificial, get tangled up in stopping a second attack they’ve discovered is on the way. Working with federal counterterrorism agent Nick Vernon, they’re short on time, and uncovering the terrorist’s motives may be as important as stopping their attack. Kestrel is a Christian minister, and the conflict between points of view for the three main characters gives the author plenty of room to play with ideas about morality, consciousness, and identity.
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 September 2019
- IO9: TDive Into October’s Harvest of New Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books by Cheryl Eddy
- Locus Magazine (online): Forthcoming Books
- Polygon: 17 new science fiction and fantasy books to check out this October by Andrew Liptak