Science Fiction to Look For August 2020

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This month we’ve got some excellent debut novels, starting with Micaiah Johnson’s The Space Between Worlds, a parallel worlds novel that deftly turns the notion of the explorer as a person of privilege on its head. There’s also  The Mother Code by Carole Stivers, a pandemic novel where humanity’s next generation is in the hands(?) of robots designed for space exploration, but coded with a mother’s touch. Finally, Architects of Memory is a very strong debut from Karen Osborne in which a plucky crew of salvage tug misfits gets caught up in a corporate struggle for an alien artifact. The premise may sound familiar, but Osborne brings rich characterization and excellent plotting to the tale.

If you’re looking for SF so hard it’s hardly SF, dock at Space Station Down by Ben Bova and Doug Beason, where terrorists take over the ISS with a plan to deorbit it onto NYC, and if the Big Apple doesn’t have enough problems, check out Bystander 27 by Rik Hoskin, a mind-bending take on the superhero reality and what it means.

Mil-SF and Space Opera fans should enjoy Debt of Loyalty by Christopher G. Nuttall, the second in this series, following Debt of Honor last year. A king in exile with half the fleet and a conflict waged by opposing admirals who once served together make a complex and well-told tale.

Mirage by Julie E. Czerneda continues her Web Shifter’s Library series with the return of Evan Gooseberry, an ambassador to alien races with anxiety issues and the shapeshifting alien(s) who manage the All Species’ Library of Linguistics and Culture. It might be subtitled, Fun with Esen and her Friends at the Library, and it wouldn’t be wrong.

City Under the Stars by Gardner Dozois and Michael Swanwick — Since we started out with debut novels, it’s only fitting we end with a last work, or at least a final collaboration. In 2018 science fiction lost one of it’s most treasured editors and authors, Gardner Dozois, who compiled The Year’s Best Science Fiction for 35 years, but along the way he also worked on a collaboration with Michael Swanwick. The two batted ideas back and forth for decades, and though it was originally planned as a longer work, Michael opted to close the story where they’d left off with their characters looking forward to things to come. It’s a terrific piece of work,.

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)

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson |  Aug 4, 2020 | Del Rey

The good news is that there are parallel worlds and travel is possible between them. The bad news is that that the universe objects to anyone being in the same universe twice. It hates duplication so much that when you pop out of the space between, it spits out your mangled body with maybe a few minutes to live to regret your choices. Unless you’re already dead in that world.

Cara is dead in a lot of worlds, which makes her a perfect traverser. Rather than recruit plucky explorers, special ops types, or cautious scientists, the Edridge Institute recruits the unlucky and unwanted, people that the world grinds underfoot; refugees from wars, plagues, and inner cities where the odds of dying are ever in their favor.

Cara comes from Ash City, the downtrodden opposite of Wiley City, where she now lives between missions to collect data about parallel worlds in the hope that they’ll learn something useful about their own. If she can hang in just a few more years she’ll be a full-fledged citizen, and won’t have to worry about being sent back to the gang wars that she escaped. Except she’s not from this world’s Ash City, and she’s faking it till she makes it with a burning secret and an uneasy relationship with her mission controller.  Taunting passes for flirting and true feelings are buried deep.

Something is up at the Institute, with rumors spreading that new technology may be eliminating the need for transversers and if Cara loses her job, she’ll be out of what little luck she’s got.

Then she gets sent to a new world where she’d just died, and things get really complicated when she finds herself caught up in the life that she’d left behind, but with major differences. Getting drawn into a coup in this alternate world is only a foreshadowing of what’s she’s going to go through if she makes it back alive. Of all the possible versions of herself out there, it will come down to her to make a difference.

The Space Between Worlds is a powerful debut and introduces a new voice in the conversation about race, privilege, and the consequences of choices from a writer who can handle ideas as deftly as she handles prose. Hopefully, she’ll find time off from her Ph.D. studies on “Race & Robots in the Long 19th Century” to give us more.

Space Station Down by Ben Bova, Doug Beason | Aug 4, 2020 | Tor Books

In space, when terrorists gain access to the ISS and kill almost everyone aboard and cut all ground communication. no one can hear you scream.

Unless you’re Kimberly Hasid-Robinson, ISS Commander, resourceful astronaut, and the only member of the crew that managed to stop and think her way through the problem, rather than rushing at a pair of highly trained terrorists. The authors don’t come out and say it, but testosterone claims more victims.

Kimberly’s not screaming in panic, but maybe from frustration and anger. If the terrorists get their way they’ll deorbit the ISS over America (they’d like to hit NYC) and leave a plutonium cloud in its wake. If she can’t find a way to contact the ground and get around their hack, millions will be doomed, and the space program as well. Unless the President decides to just shoot down the station first.

Space Station Down is so well researched that you may not want to call it science fiction.  For a minute I thought they’d blown the game by not including either Dragon or Boeing’s Spaceplane, but they just made it. Besides the action on the station, the story switches back and forth between NASA and the White House, where POTUS is facing mounting pressure to end the threat. Houston Capcom for the ISS is none other than Kim’s former husband, an ex-fighter pilot whose testosterone-fueled attitude killed their relationship.

The story shares a certain amount of DNA with last month’s Relentless Moon, the third Lady Astronaut novel, as well as Battle Luna, a collaboration about what the first lunar conflict might look like. All in all, it’s a good read for the beach, plane, or even those long orbit-matching hours on a Crew Dragon hop to the ISS.

Bystander 27 by Rik Hoskin |  Aug 11, 2020 | Angry Robot

When former seal Jon Hayes sees his wife killed as collateral damage in a fight between superhero and supervillain, he is driven to understand why.  When he looks through every uploaded video and photograph of superhero battles and finds himself and his wife at events they never attended, he knows he has to dig deeper into the superhero scene and uncover the truth behind everything. You should be careful what you wish for.

This is a wonderful romp through the superhero premise as Jon pulls on a thread that threatens to unravel his reality in his search for answers. Is it science fiction? Strictly speaking, probably not. Angry Robot tags it as Superhero Fantasy, and I can see that, but Rik Hoskin has written a novel about real people in an unreal world, and to me that speaks to the essence of science fiction, which asks “What if?” Not to mention the aliens, robots, and gadgets galore.

Fans of the Netflix series, “The Boys” or Amazon’s “The Tick” should find this engaging. There are a number of films that treat similar subjects, though not so many books. It’s not played for laughs, though one of the funniest things is that the main character, when confronted with the inconsistencies in his universe, can’t see them because he’s part of that universe.

Rik has written extensively for comics, novels, and video (both animated and game) so he’s unquestionably the right person to step outside those worlds and shine a light on them. It’s also a great read. Highly Recommended.

Debt of Loyalty by Christopher G. Nuttall | Aug 7, 2020 | 47North

Nuttal follows up his smartly written Debt of Honor with the second book in his Ashes of War trilogy, and it’s every bit as good as the first, if not better.  It’s a blend of space navy Mil-SF and political intrigue with a British flavor, which is only natural for the Scottish-born author.

The King, having refused to cede his war powers following a conflict, fled the Commonwealth’s core world of Tyre rather than face impeachment, and took half the fleet (and one its best strategists) with him. Now it’s a civil war, with the colony planets siding largely with the King…they always felt slighted by the House of Lords on Tyre anyway.

Who has the moral high-ground is left for the reader to decide. The King has done a lot of underhanded things in his efforts to gain power, but he might say that the end justifies the means and that the House of Lords had shown that it was unable to look beyond its corporate profit sheets to face a looming political crisis from outside Commonwealth space. The House of Lords would point out that the King engineered a war that led to millions of deaths in order to gain power, but the proof is hard to get, and the King’s followers are now out of reach plotting their attack on the home system to return the King to power. The colonies, of course, are each out for their own survival, which is pretty fair, considering that nobody else is looking out for them.

Fortunately for the reader, there are main characters you can like. On the King’s side, there’s Kat Falcone, who left her father’s corporate world to join the Navy and is now an Admiral and advisor to the King leading the fight against the House of Lords’ fleet. Her bother Peter stayed, and is now Lord Peter, instrumental in forging war policy for the Lords. Kat’s opposite number, William McElney, was Kat’s XO during the war and is now the highest-ranking Colonial in the fleet. Neither have supreme command, but they’re the ones getting the job done. Friends and comrades before the split, now adversaries.

There’s plenty of Mil-SF fleet action in Debt of Loyalty, but the political intrigue is just as well done. The book does stop a bit abruptly, promising the conclusion in the next volume, but I wouldn’t let that put you off. It’s a really well-conceived and plotted story.

Mirage (Web Shifter’s Library) by Julie E. Czerneda | Aug 11, | DAW

Julie E. Czerneda’s second novel about the All Species’ Library of Linguistics and Culture brings back a cast of characters that readers of her work will enjoy spending time with.  These include Esen, the shapeshifting web being, and Evan Gooseberry, the alien ambassador with anxiety issues around aliens, who has chosen to spend his vacation at the library rather than facing family wondering when he’s going to provide more Gooseberrys. Since Esen, who’s a close friend, can morph into any known alien, it’s a good thing that her talent is kept secret from him and he only knows her in her favored form as a “canid-like” Lanivarian, though he actually knows her in several other forms…just not that they’re all her.

There’s a fair amount going on at the library. Esen is busy keeping a web being she’s resurrected from scattered DNA hidden until she’s herself again, so there are more secrets than usual floating around. A crisis Esen doesn’t actually cause arrises when the library is forced into lockdown as a possible pandemic site after the crew of the ship that Evan arrived on is found dead, and a group of gene-spliced aliens who’ve come to the library to research a place where their race can live sets of a whole new level of galactic intrigue. And much, much, more.

What follows is a fairly long romp with a fullish cast revolving around the central players.  If you’re new to this world, I recommend reading her novella, The Only Thing to Fear, which introduced both Evan and the Library. Then dig in. Or you can just jump in.

This is a good-sized book, but what’s clear is that these are all people that the author loves spending time with, and there are a fair number of segues into backstory to flesh out some character, or history, which I often found as interesting as the main tale. I’d especially like to read the story of the webshifter Skalet, the no-nonsense security type at the library, and her time with the militaristic Kraal, whose form she adopted as her default.

Even if you don’t know Esen, Evan, and the others when you start, you’ll count them as friends by the time you’re done, and look forward to the next book, which promises some interesting revelations for Evan.

Architects of Memory (The Memory War Book 1) by Karen Osborne | 08/25/2020 | Tor Books

Ash was born on a company mining planet, and turned over to the welfare center because her mother couldn’t keep her. The mines are gone now, destroyed by aliens in an event that left her one of the few survivors, and she’s trying to make a life aboard the corporate salvage vessel that plucked her out of the ruins. She’s also an indentured person, which is a normal thing here, hoping to work long enough to gain citizenship in the Aurora Corp, one of the better options in this dog eat dog universe. Oh, and she’s dying of celestium poisoning from her time in the mines, but she really doesn’t want anyone else to know because it would kill her chance at full citizenship.

Unfortunately, the universe doesn’t care what she wants.

The story’s setup is classic misfit crew caught int eh crossfire between big events, but the crew of the corporate salvage ship “Twenty-Five” has way more than you usual number of secrets they’re keeping from each other, some poorly, like Ash’s feelings for the captain, some better, like what a top-notch doctor is doing running their med bay. The setting is a deep space battlefield with a massive dreadnaught hulk the object of their salvage, or at least the alien thing that the crew of the London had taken aboard before being crippled in the last moments of the battle against the Vai.

Now corporations are scrambling for an advantage over leftover Vai war tech and not looking too closely at why the Vai retreated when our ships were clearly no match for them. You may see echos of Card’s Ender’s Game and Haldeman’s Forever War here.

Architects of Memory is book 1 of The Memory War, but so much of the setup was don’t before the book starts that it felt much more like book 2, with a wrapup promised in the next book. I’m sure nobody will listen to me, but I’d like the author to write book 2 and finish the story, then go back and write book 0 to start it. Unlike many stories that refer to previous events (“You fought in the Clone Wars?”) it’s clear that Karen Osborne has given a lot of thought to the previous events, which she reveals in bits as the book goes on. Regardless, this is a terrific debut with equal parts action and character and we can look forward to whatever comes next.

202008-The-Mother-Code-199x300.jpg The Mother Code by Carole Stivers | Aug 25, 2020 | Berkley

Rick Blevins has one job: to decide which bio-weapons are too dangerous to develop and which ones aren’t. It would have been nice if somebody had listened to him. Now a non-viral DNA-changing virus is making its way across the globe and the fate of humanity is in the hands of the team of scientists Rick is leading in a top-secret Los Alamos lab.

The virus can’t be stopped by a vaccine, but there’s a chance that a counter hack could make future generations immune, but it’s a future that’s  “…not the kind of place to raise your, kids….and there’s no one there to raise them if you did.”

So they take a bunch of nuclear-powered bots intended for exploring other worlds and turn them into incubators, caregivers, and guardians for the handful of tweaked fetuses. As the global crisis peaks, the robots and their onboard incubators are released into the southwest desert, with orders to evade hostile forces and nurture the infants. Of course, the programming and development weren’t quite complete. So things don’t go as planned.

The story is told in two parts, one as the scientists struggle to deal with the coming extinction-level-event, and the other from the viewpoint of a six-year-old child, Kai, raised and nurtured by his Mother-bot, Rho-Z. Kai and Rho-Z search for other Gen-5 children, unaware of the desperate efforts of the few remaining scientists to find them and get them to a safe haven. As both children and bots evolve, The Mother Code asks if the machines can transcend their origins and give the survivors the connection that they need to thrive.

This is Carole Stivers’s debut novel, and though there’s a pandemic story at its heart, that’s just Karma.  It was optioned for a movie over a year ago and is in development with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment (Variety: Mar 8, 2019) with a screenplay being written by Amy Louise Johnson (Nghtflyers).

Collections, Anthologies, and Novellas

City Under the Stars by Gardner Dozois and Michael Swanwick | Aug 25, 2020 | Tor Books

I can’t say enough about Gardner and Michael Swanwick’s collaboration on what will now be Gardner’s last published work. The prose that opens is amazing, and it turns out that it was the seed that lay fallow for years until Gardner asked Michael to work with him on it. A fine irony as it was Gardner who showed Michael how to get a story finished years before. My only complaint, and a bitter one, is that it’s a “short novel.” Or maybe a mid-sized novella, I’m not sure. The afterword by Michael answers all your questions about who did what and why and when and illuminates the life of one of the most luminary people in SF.

The story opens with Hanson, the ultimate blue-collar worker, shoveling coal mined by one of the last “utopia machines” and losing a race, with a younger man put on his shift to dislodge him by a supervisor with a grudge. Soon Hanson is on the run, hopping a train across the Hudson into the wilds and near the unapproachable City of the Gods, a vast structure surrounded by an impenetrable wall where humans separated themselves from the outside world long ago, leaving it to its own devices, and ultimate decay. There’s a 1930s feel to this story, from the hobo camp Hanson stumbles into to the tantalizing glimpses of gleaming machines of the future and the class struggle between honest working men and corrupt bosses, along with stark knowledge that the two are interchangeable depending on circumstance.

The novel was supposed to have three parts:  Hanson’s flight to the city; his exile from it;  and the reconnection between city and outside, but Gardner died before the third section could be written, so we’re left with a tantalizing glimpse of things to come. That actually works out pretty well, allowing the book to end on a promising note, though by no means an unrealistic one. There actually is a Deus ex Machina…but sometimes that’s the point of the thing.

There are a number of parallels between this and Arthur C. Clarke’s classic, The City and the Stars (1958), so the riff on that title probably isn’t a coincidence. In the afterword, Swanwick tells how he saw it on the manuscript in a dream, so it may not be intentionally intentional, but it’s intentional.

Other Recommendations

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

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

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