You’ve probably got cabin fever by this point in the COVID-19 lockdown, but fear not, there are plenty of good reads this month to help you stay in your habitat be it a spaceship, lunar dome, undersea city, or whatever you call biome sweet biome.
The biggest news this month is either that Martha Wells is back with a full-length Murderbot novel, Network Effect,or that Suzanne Collins has a Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, in which we meet a young Cornelius Snow. I’m betting on the bot.
There are also several space opera offerings to recommend. Marko Kloos is back with Ballistic the second in his Palladium Wars saga, Christopher G. Nuttall kicks off a new series for one of his best characters in Debt of Honor, and Nancy Kress joins the fray with The Eleventh Gate. All different takes on societies in conflict, and all interesting reads.
Laura Lam writes a tale in which someone steals a starship in Goldilocks, which sounds like a job for Suzanne Palmer’s galactic repo man, Fergus, but he’s got his hands full in her new novel, Driving the Deep. Colleen Houck’s Terraformer is a YA colony piece where the planet doesn’t want to be terraformed, and you can argue with me about whether Eagle Station by Dale Brown is science fiction. Finally, this very publication is proud to present a new Captain Future, The Guns of Pluto by Allen Steele in what looks to be a continuing series.
There are always more interesting books out than I could get read, so you should take a look at my Other Recommendations and the links to what other reviewers came up with in my Usual Suspects section, and if you can’t wait for these titles to be released, check out last month’s column.
Novels (in order of publication)
Ballistic The Palladium Wars, Book 2 by Marko Kloos 05/26/2020 47North
The second book in Marko Kloos’ Palladium Wars series jumps right into the action, set in a post-colonization solar system a bit like the Firefly universe, long enough after one of the planets started (and lost) a war to gain control of the resources of the system. I’ve been a fan of Kloos since he started his Frontline series, and these books benefit from his growth as a writer, with a broader range of more nuanced characters, while never losing sight of the action that keeps you turning the pages.
This time we spend more time with Idina, a soldier doing police duty during the occupation as she follows the trail of weapons that should have been destroyed during the war. On a larger scale, both Dunstan, the Space Navy captain, and Aden, the former intel officer now serving as a translator and comms specialist on a somewhat dodgy courier deal with similar issues. Aden’s younger sister shows up shouldering the company business Aden left to have a life, and discovers corporate intrigue on her first interstellar assignment. I initially thought these books were too short, but ultimately realized I was just too hooked to slow down.
Driving the Deep by Suzanne Palmer 05/05/2020 Berkley Publishing Group
Fergus Ferguson is a lost boy with a talent for finding things…no matter where in the galaxy they wind up. Granted, he’s not been a boy for quite a while, but his childhood traumas still haunt him — an abusive mother and a father that committed suicide in front of him. He’s made friends and found a home with the Shipmakers, a group of the most talented designers and researchers in the Solar System, located in orbit over Pluto, but they’ve convinced him to go back to face his demons on Earth, return the motorcycle he stole and has been paying storage on for years, and set things right. But when he gets back to Earth, instead of the missing bike, he winds up with a cranky ex-NYC detective on his case who thinks Fergus is an art thief. Before he can sort that out, Fergus gets word that the Shipmakers have been attacked and have disappeared. Now with the cop in tow, he’s headed back to find a way to save them, if they’re even still alive.
Nancy Kress may not be known for space opera, though she dipped her toe into it in the Probability Trilogy (Probability Moon, Probability Sun, Probability Space), but she’s very well known as a teller of complex society-changing tales built on wonderful characters. Here she’s kicking off a saga where a stable 8-planet polity is thrown into disarray by conflicts woven into their planetary names and credos: the progressive capitalists of New California, the libertarians of Galt, and the environmentalists of Polyglot. Just to make things interesting, a previously unknown stargate is discovered that leads to a planet with game-changing resources. The characters are as good as any Kress has come up with, and the societal conflicts make this a good example of what space opera should be.
You can read a sample (if you’re not worried about getting sucked in) here.
Goldilocks by Laura Lam 05/05/2020 Orbit Books
With Earth on the ropes from climate change and political meltdown from a global reversal of women’s rights, Laura Lam’s new novel has a chillingly possible premise. Hope for humanity, if not womankind, is on the stellar horizon in the form of a human-habitable world discovered by probes and now in reach with the prospect of an experimental FTL drive.
Valarie Black (think Elon Musk, with more elan) heads the company that builds Earth’s first starship, but even though she’s determined to lead the mission, and though her adopted daughter Naomi has worked her entire life for an opportunity like this, the new-morality says that space is too dangerous for women. So Valarie steals the ship and crews it with a team of highly qualified women. Despite Valerie’s contention that the all-male crew would self-destruct, plenty of conflicts and malfunctions shows up as the ship makes its way to Mars, where the warp ring is set up. Back on Earth, a pandemic has broken out, probably not quite serious enough to wipe out humankind, but not far off.
Lam isn’t normally a science-heavy writer, but she’s worked here to make the science real and accessible, from the Alcubierre drive to the mechanics of spacecraft life support, then used it as a backdrop for enough human drama to make a compelling read. It does lean into a feminist narrative, but not without a fair amount of self-awareness.
Network Effect: A Murderbot Novel by Martha Wells 05/05/2020 Macmillan-Tor/Forge
Martha Well’s series of addictive novellas about a rogue SecUnit on a journey of self-discovery who just wants to watch Sanctuary Moon in peace won Hugo and Locus awards and created a devoted fan base. Her new Murderbot novel, Network Effect, is her first full-length work, and it’s going to make fans very happy. Some old characters who up, including ART, the ship-running AI that helped Murderbot in the novellas, kidnaps Murderbot to save its crew from raiders.
Along the way, it will have to do the one thing it hates more than anything else–deal with feelings for others. Not that it cares about its friends, but Murderbot totally cares about its friends. In a lot of ways, Muderderbot resembles a noir PI, tough on the outside, but even tougher when it comes to protecting people it cares about. Hopefully, this isn’t the last we’ll see of our favorite bot, but there are other strings here that the author could pull, including the robot revolution that Murderbot is consciously (or unconsciously) setting up.
Terraformer by Colleen Houck 05/12/2020 Trident Media Group
When Astra Meador wakes up on the colony ship heading to a new world to terraform, she discovers that she’s woken before the rest of the crew. She also discovers that her father didn’t just die during the transit: his body was ejected and his records scrubbed. When the rest of the colonists wake, she’ll find that she’s at the center of more than one conflict, including one between the young assistant leader of the expedition and a bright but unconventional engineer. Attracting too much attention is dangerous because both she and her brother were genetically modified by their researcher parents in ways that would both preclude them from being candidates and which will make them indispensable in dealing with the planet which doesn’t want to be terraformed.
Terraformer is a YA title, and while the romantic aspect is fairly prominent, there are echoes of Le Guin’s The Word for World in its take on colonialism and Sue Burkes’ Semiosis, in the intelligent life that awaits them.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (The Hunger Games #0) by Suzanne Collins 05/19/2020 Scholastic Press
Suzanne Collins takes us back before the Hunger Games trilogy to explore the rise of Cornelius Snow, who we will ultimately know as the villain of the piece. In this book, he’s eighteen and a mentor in the games to a female tribute from good old District 12 in the 10th annual game. Since Katniss competes in the 74th games, that gives Snow some time to become despicable.
Here, even though he’s still from aristocratic stock and separated from tributes, he manages some genuine concern for his tribute. Checking the Hunger Games Factbook, we don’t know who won the 10th game, though it should be remembered that District 12 had two winners before Katniss and Peeta, of only one, Haymitch, is still alive.
As of June 2019, Lionsgate Studios was “working closely with Suzanne Collins with regards to an adaptation.”
Debt of Honor (The Embers of War Book 1) by Christopher G. Nuttall 05/19/2020 47North
Christopher Nuttall kicks off a new Kat Falcone series taking place after the war with the Theocracy was won by Kat’s side, the Commonwealth. Kat’s an admiral with a fleet to protect the region that the Theocracy had taken over, and the unenviable job of trying to restore some sort of democratic government to the worlds that had been forced into their mold. That alone would be hard enough, but no one told the ragged remnant of the Theocracy’s fleet that they should just limp off and die. Their inability to maintain even a small fleet without bases and supplies would have made them a non-issue soon enough, but someone has a vested interest in keeping the region from settling down and offers the Theocratic fleet parts and maintenance facilities if they harass the Conglomerate.
The religious leader with the fleet is full of god-is-on-our-side-and-we-will-prevail-Kool-Aid, but the fleet admiral knows it’s not about winning, but about making the victor suffer. The cost of stopping the Theocracy’s harassment is enough to unsettle the Congomorate’s already-shaky economy, and the government is at odds with the King (yes, they have a king) over whether or not to service his debt of honor.
In mil-sf/space opera, it’s often easy to see the governments’ whining about the cost of ships as spineless shortsightedness, but Nuttall manages to make the politics of the situation both nuanced and interesting, no small feat. The story isn’t just about Kat, an Honor Harrington sort of gal, but extends to a handful of other characters worth getting to know.
Eagle Station by Dale Brown 05/26/2020 William Morrow
As the real-world Space Force becomes a reality, science fiction readers are going to have to ask themselves whether authors like Dale Brown write science fiction. Granted Brown’s long-standing mil-aero-tech series of stories about advanced aircraft have always been more techno than sciffy, but when those stories move out of the Earth’s atmosphere into space, in this case, to stop the Russian-Chinese alliance from building a moon base that can keep other nations from mining the Moon’s helium 3 reserves, it sure sounds like science fiction.
If only there were aliens, it would be an easy call, but I’m betting you’re on the edge here. What I can promise is that Brown tells a riveting story and that he may have moved on from the Air Force to the Space Force, but that the political viewpoint is still all Flying Fortress America. Welcome to living in the future.
Collections, Anthologies, and Novellas
Captain Future: The Guns of Pluto by Allen Steele 05/02/2020 Experimenter Publishing Co.
Captain Future was a space-going scientist-adventure-hero written by Edmond Hamilton back in the 1940s. With a wisecracking crew of brilliant misfits, he was a YA version of Doc Savage and his crew set in space. A few years back Allen Steele got the notion to bring Captain Future back, and Tor’s Senior Editor, David Hartwell, gave him his launch clearance. The result was Avengers of the Moon (2017) with hopes of more stories to come. Sadly, Hartwell died before the book saw print, then Tor decided not to continue the series, leaving Captain Future adrift in publishing space!
Amazing Stories (the magazine) was in its mid-teens when the original Captain Future came out, so it’s only appropriate that when the new Captain Future needed rescuing, it was the new Amazing Stories that stepped up and gave us Captain Future in Love (2019). Now he’s back in the next installment, Captain Future: The Guns of Pluto, where Curt Newton and his Futuremen are called to the edge of the Solar System to deal with a jailbreak from humanity’s’ most secure lockup on the surface of Pluto. With an old flame (gone bad) and his new flame (also his Interplanetary Police Force liaison) along, what could go wrong?
Steele has tried to maintain the sense of the original series while injecting as much actual science as he can. The line between homage and reboot is tough to walk. The original was intended for a YA audience, and Steele’s update retains a lot of its flavor. The publisher has made it easy to compare the two since an original Captain Future story, “The Harpers of Titan” (1950) is included with the new story. It looks like this is planned as a regular feature, as the current episode ends with a cliffhanger…
- Faith Machine, The by Tone Milazzo 1/05/2020 Running Wild Press
- RAYGUN RETRO: A Science Fiction Anthology by Adam Bennett and Sam M. Phillips 1/05/2020 Zombie Pirate Publishing
- Human, The: Rise of the Jain, Book Three by Neal Asher 5/05/2020 Night Shade Books
- Firewalkers by Adrian Tchaikovsky 12/05/2020 Solaris
- T.I.M.E Stories: The Heiden File by Christophe Lambert 12/05/2020 Angry Robot
- The Aleph Extraction: The Galactic Cold War, Book II by Dan Moren 12/05/2020 Angry Robot
- Unreconciled by W. Michael Gear 12/05/2020 DAW
- Dragons N’ Antibodies by Linh Nguyen-Ng 24/05/2020 Prose & Concepts LLC
- Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution by P. W. Singer and August Cole 26/05/2020 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
- Out of Body by Jeffrey Ford 26/05/2020 Tor.com
- Alien Secrets (Solar Warden Book 1) by Ian Douglas 30/05/2020 Harper Voyager
- Uranus (The Grand Tour #24) By Ben Bova 19/05/2020 Tor Books
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
- Gizmodo: Plan Your Escape to Another Dimension With May’s New Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books
- Kobo: New & Hot in Science Fiction & Fantasy
- Locus Magazine (online): Forthcoming Books
- Polygon: 20 new science fiction and fantasy books to check out in May
- Tor.com: All the New Science Fiction Books Arriving in May!
About the Reviewer’s Picks:
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.