Welcome to the amazing future of 2020! Go ahead and put your flying car on autopilot and kick back with some thought-provoking science fiction before you have to jet-pack your way to school, work, or whatever adventure you’re heading for. Fans of William Gibson will be delighted with the arrival of Agency, his sequel to Peripheral (2014), space-heads can enjoy a gripping voyage to the edge of the solar system in Patrick Chiles’ new novel, Frozen Orbit, and space opera adventurers get the return of a plucky crew of misfits in Stars Beyond, while C. J. Cherryh’s fans catch up with the 20th Foreigner novel with Resurgence.
Marc-Uwe Kling’s Qualityland is a novel about the future of consumers and big data that reminds me of Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth classic, The Space Merchants (1952), brought up to date, while Laurel Brett delivers a mind-bending period piece from the 60s in The Schrödinger Girl, and Tochi Onyebuchi gives us a stark look at the dystopian future of our inner-cities in Riot Baby. Finally, there’s a great collection of stories in The Best of Elizabeth Bear.
Agency (The Peripheral #2) by William Gibson
1/21/20 (Berkley Publishing Group)
Gibson’s last novel, The Peripheral (2014), was full of great ideas and characters, from a cyber portal that may (or may not) access the future to the plucky entrepreneurs running a 3D print shop in the here and now. That world was a “stub” of the future world, where a new branch is created every time they reach out to make a connection with the past. In his new novel, they’ve gone further back, to our now, only this is a world where the 2016 election went the other way and our new protagonist, Verity, is a gifted “app whisperer” wanted for her ability to identify opportunities for product development. She has just landed a contract testing a one-of-a-kind personal AI assistant, which calls itself Eunice. As soon as Verity takes it out for a spin, though, she discovers that the job isn’t what she thought it was.
What follows is essentially an espionage story, with Eunice as the guy in the van and Verity as the agent in play. Only, Verity has no idea what the game is, and oddly enough, neither does Eunice, because she also has a guy in the van who’s feeding her just-in-time information. That guy, or gal, happens to be in an alternate reality, and the game, which is very much afoot, is to keep Verity’s reality from melting down into constant warfare due to the meddling of a psychopath. Unfortunately, Verity doesn’t do much b(esides being used as a ping-pong ball) while Eunice tries to keep her from getting killed.
The good news is that Agency is full-on Gibson, with lots of extrapolated current tech, multiple timelines, and fast-paced action wrapped around the relationship between a plucky human and an emergent AI. The bad news is that plot-wise Gibson fails utterly, and the main character spends the entire novel totally without agency–ironic ,considering the title. If you like Gibson, you can still enjoy it, but that doesn’t excuse its faults.
Frozen Orbit by Patrick Chiles
If you’re looking for a hard-core space-hardware saga in the vein of Clarke, Baxter, Mary Robinette Kowal (The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky), or the recent Last Astronaut (David Wellington), you’ve come to the right place. In the very near future, NASA is about to launch a probe to the outer planets. Then it discovers that someone beat them to it. Orbiting Pluto is a Soviet space ship launched secretly in the 70s and shrouded in secrecy even now. The question of why the Soviets refused to acknowledge their triumph hangs over the mission now retasked to follow the cosmonaut’s trail on from Jupiter to find what caused them to choose to die in space rather than return home as heroes. There’s enough character drama to pull the story along (with a married couple and two single astronauts aboard) but the real story here is on the science side.
The author covers a lot of ground in this space procedural, and you’ll see a reexamination of the themes in Clarke’s 2001 a Space Odyssey here, but with technology and concepts informed by the five decades that separate the two works. One interesting concept is the Soviet drive system, which tosses nukes behind the ship to push it forward. A real space tech concept, it’s also been featured in both Poul Anderson’s Orion Shall Rise (1983) and the Niven/Pournelle novel Footfall (1985).
Resurgence (Foreigner Book 20) by C. J. Cherryh
C. J. Cherryh continues one of the longest and best-loved series in science fiction with Resurgence, the middle book in its seventh three-book arc. It returns to the adventures of Bren Cameron, diplomat in residence, the human representative of a group of colonists stranded generations ago on the alien atevi world where their starship foundered, leaving a human-inhabited station in orbit. The humans now live on the planet as well, on an island separated from the aliens.
As usual, the story is embroiled in the politics of the fractious aliens as the Atevi dowager, Ilisidi, co-opts Bren on a voyage on the “Red Train…headed for the snowy roof of the world” where she seeks to use a minor lord as a pawn in settling the squabbles on the Atevi southern continent.
Qualityland by Marc-Uwe Kling
1/7/2020 Grand Central Publishing
“THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY meets 1984”
The tag line does a pretty good job of summing up this quirky novel. It is set in a country where every decision is determined by algorithms that use a “universal ranking system” to optimize the world around you and your place in it. Whether that conjures up Amazon or China for you, it’s clear that the premise isn’t much of a reach, but author Marc-Uwe Kling has come up with some interesting consequences of the algorithmic life. For one thing, given enough data about the population, what’s best at any given moment (your ideal spouse, for instance) is a moving target. But don’t worry, there are algorithms that will show you the best way to stay on top of the best. One man’s utopia is another’s dystopia, so when machine scrapper Peter Jobless finds himself unable to destroy the gizmos deemed imperfect, he finds that there more not right to the world than he’d ever imagined, and he might just be the perfect person to set it on its ear.
There’s an interesting echo to classic science fiction here, as the main character in Heinlein’s Door into Summer (1956) finds himself in the future where the only job he can get is crushing cars so they won’t clog up the supply chain, which gave Heinlein a chance to hold forth on economics.
The Schrödinger Girl by Laurel Brett
1/7/2020 (Kaylie Jones Books)
The debut novel from Laurel Brett opens with Garrett Adams, a disaffected behavioral psychologist in the 1960s, at a branching point in his life, though he doesn’t know it yet. Burned out on research into procrastinating rats, and depressed by another dismal season of the Yankees, a touchstone in his life, he seeks refuge in a bookstore where he finds a new book on quantum physics, his other passion. On a whim, he decides that if anyone else picks up a copy while he’s in the store, he’ll buy them lunch, and thus begin his fascination with the girl in the yellow raincoat, Daphne, the Schrödinger Girl.
She’s a precocious teen, eager to grow up and leave her mundane parents on Long Island, and the friendship they strike up leads Garrett to open himself up to a world he’s been shut off from since the stillborn death of his daughter, who would be Daphne’s age. But more than his view of popular culture is shaken when he discovers that multiple iterations of Daphne exist, all branching from different points in her life. As a scientist, he struggles to reconcile what he’s found, and the obsession haunts him as he deals with his changing view of the world.
In many ways, the Schrödinger gambit is there to provide the author with a canvas to explore the different paths one person can follow, but there’s a lot of real thought about multiple universes and quantum mechanics, especially as seen in the mid-60s. It’s also a tour of NYC and the Hudson Valley during that period and the impact of the cultural revolution of the Woodstock generation on the intellectuals who came of age a decade earlier. Not traditional science fiction, perhaps, but good writing and a thoughtful exploration of the period, characters, and ideas. Recommended.
Stars Beyond by S. K. Dunstall
1/20/20 Berkley Publishing Group
If you’re looking for your monthly fix of a scrappy band of adventurers led by a big damn hero, the second book in S. K. Dunstall’s Another Road series fills the bill. More Firefly than Expanse, the crew of the Another Road heads for a planet inside a dangerous region of space known as the Vortex to help a group of stranded miners and aliens fight off a plague. Not that that’s what they set out to do.
This is a new ship, following the destruction of their last one, and it’s bigger and meaner than the ill-fated original Road. It is crewed by a legendary captain who had his memory scrubbed and wants to know why, an engineer with a real passion for shooting things, and a genetic hacker who’s taken on an apprentice she has to do right by while keeping the captain’s body from self-destructing as the result of age and genetic mods.
If they don’t wind up dead, they might just all wind up rich, but that’s a big if considering they’re on the run from a corrupt Justice Department and an even more corrupt corporation. Nothing comes easy for the crew of Another Road, but what would be the fun in that?
Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi
We’re used to the idea of someone discovering they have some special power, but you’ve never met anyone like Ella and Kev, brother and sister born with special powers. Ella develops the full spectrum of esper talents; precognition, telekinesis, telepathy and more, but you’ll never see those terms here because they belong to the lexicon of white science, not the world of the black inner-city that they are born into.
Usually, protagonists like Ella and Kev are middle-class kids who set out to change the world, but here Tochi Onyebuchi uses their powers to explore the black inner-city experience in all its brutality and hopelessness. For the most part, Ella’s only role is to bear witness, visiting her brother in prison after a failed robbery which doomed him to life in the system instead of the Harvard-bound path he’d started on; she moves invisibly through white culture and black memories. Set in the near past, present, and future, Riot Baby tells the story of where the black experience was formed and where it looks to be going, pointing out that controlling a population is the opposite of freeing one.
As a look inside the reality of structural racism, this book is a welcome part in the conversation about blacks and science fiction, and a contrast to the trend of Afrofuturism, but in the end, it fails to offer any resolution beyond the recognition that the system uses its victims to perpetuate itself and only its destruction will offer them freedom. The author’s need to provide resolution undercuts the main thrust of the book, which robs it of some of its power.
Collections, Anthologies, and Novellas
The Best of Elizabeth Bear by Elizabeth Bear
1/31/20 (Subterranean)Here are 27 wide-ranging stories from one of today’s most gifted authors, full of strong protagonists, often outsiders in whatever setting they’re in, and almost always about to transform into something else. Becoming free from station, or programming, or circumstance, is a theme that runs throughout this excellent collection. As Professor Harding, a black researcher investigating the Lovecraftian Shoggoths frees them from their constraints when given the choice to command them, he says; “I want you o learn to be free…and I want you to tell your brothers”.
Bear’s characters are strong but never unfeeling. Determined, but compassionate, they come in all shapes, sizes, genders, and genomes, from vampire to AI to space beast and plenty of humans, genetically tweaked and normal. I interviewed her for SFRevu.com last March with the release of her latest book, Ancestral Night, and it was clear to me that she’s not in any danger of running out of things to say. While fans of the author, or science fiction in general, should find this collection rewarding, it should also appeal to fans of great writing and short fiction outside the genre.
- Gunpowder & Embers (Last Judgment’s Fire Book 1) by John Ringo, Kacey Ezell, et al. 1/7/2020 (Baen)
- The Heap: A Novel by Sean Adams
1/7/2020 William Morrow
- Murder on the Intergalactic Railway by Kate MacLeod
1/14/20 (Ratatoskr Press)
- Pandora: Resistance by Eric L. Harry
1/7/2020 (Kensington Books Rebel Base Books)
- The Broken Heavens (The Worldbreaker Saga Book 3) by Kameron Hurley
1/14/20 (Angry Robot)
- The Vanished Birds: A Novel by Simon Jimenez
1/14/20 Random House LLC
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: 15 new science fiction and fantasy books to check out in January
- IO9: All These New Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books Will Help Jump-Start Your New Year’s Resolution to Read More
- Barnes & Noble: The Best Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books of the Month
- Locus Magazine (online): Forthcoming Books
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.