Someone asked me if I felt safe going back to my normal summer activities in the face of the ongoing unpleasantness. Well, since finding a quiet place in the shade to hang out with a good book is my idea of the perfect summer activity, I’d say yes. OK, it’s not everything, but it’s still fun, and there are plenty of books coming out that are perfect for social distancing.
Mary Robinette Kowal expands her Lady Astronaut series in The Relentless Moon returning us to the 1950/60s alternative history space effort to get humans to Mars before the Earth dies. She turns her focus to a different member of the original six Lady Astronauts, and I highly recommend it. Another book I really liked was Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis, in which Cora Ortega is the daughter of a conspiracy theorist/leaker that says the government knows about aliens and isn’t telling. It’s a different sort of first contact novel and very well done.
Both Kill Orbit by Joel Dane and Automatic Reload by Ferrett Steinmetz are full-on action and mayhem, the first about a squad of “genius fuckups” and the second about a former drone pilot gone full cyber and haunted by those he killed while taking on a cover agency. Both are brilliant but very different.
More mayhem abounds in Random Sh*t Flying Through the Air as Jackson Ford brings Teagen (The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind) and her crew back to deal with an esper like herself, but one that can trigger quakes. Of course it’s set in California. More mil-sf worth considering is Battle Luna put together by Travis S. Taylor and a handpicked team, each who wrote a story to move the plot along in a very thoughtful exercise in lunar conflict. It is more of a relay race than an anthology, but thoroughly enjoyable.
Madeline Ashby finishes up her Third Machine Dynasty with ReV, a bit of Westworld and a bit of Asimov gone rogue, You’ll find more sympathetic robots in My Battery Is Low and It Is Getting Dark, a really fine collection from Zombies Need Brains about abandoned robots and second chances.
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)
Kill Orbit by Joel Dane 07/7/2020 Berkley Publishing Group
The third Cry Pilot novel takes the members of the Anvil squad into space, a place they’ve no business being, working with the spacer offshoot of humanity to stop an existential threat to humanity, both in space and on the ecologically blighted Earth. Why Anvil squad? They’ve done it once before and besides, they’re all we’ve got.
The real story here is about the close-knit family that makes up the squad, forced to work with the spacer Flensers, smarter, faster, smaller, and a whole lot better civilized that our gang of scrappy rejects. Then there’s Ting, the squad member whose spooky ability to manipulate tech has to be hidden because it’s a capital offense … and humanity’s best hope for survival.
It’s Anvil Squad against a super AI monster hybrid, and Kaytu will once again have to face his past to come up with a way to a future. Sometimes it takes dying to free yourself of the past, but you don’t always get to choose who dies. Gritty, fast-paced, and occasionally funny, you’ll find yourself sucked into the tight-knit team whether you like it or not.
Random Sh*t Flying Through the Air (The Frost Files Book 2) by Jackson Ford 07/7/2020 Orbit
Teagen, The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind, is back and things are looking up for her. She’s got a steady job working for the China Shop, a covert ops team based in L.A. under the guise of a moving company, her friend Nic is getting closer to getting closer, and nobody is trying to arrest her for murder, which was a thing in the first book. Teagan is the most self-absorbed hero to ever brandish special powers, but she’s getting better. Of course that can’t last.
L.A. is used to quakes, but when a sizable one levels San Bernadino, it’s time to take notice. What nobody notices except Reggie, the hacker/team lead for the China Shop, is that someone with powers like Teagen’s managed to get caught on video laying hands on the ground at the exact epicenter of the quake. Hell may have no fury like a woman scorned, but a hyper-intelligent child with massive psychokinetic powers probably comes a close second.
Teagen and the team are going to have their hands full.
I liked the first book pretty well, but I literally couldn’t put this one down. Teagen is still annoyingly about herself, as everyone around her points out at some point, and which she vehemently denies, but she’s opening up to the people around her, and there’s hope for her yet. First, it’s time to save the world.
The Relentless Moon (A Lady Astronaut Novel) by Mary Robinette Kowal 07/14/2020 Macmillan-Tor/Forge
Elma York was the main character in the first two Lady Astronaut novels, set in the early 1950s after a meteor hit the Eastern Seabord with enough force to wipe out DC, and enough energy to vaporize so much water vapor that life on Earth would face extreme greenhouse conditions, including boiling seas. People look to Mars for a new home for humanity.
Elma had flown fighter transport during WWII and managed to get herself and six others into the fledgling astronaut corps forming in an international effort to establish a foothold on the Moon and colonize Mars. The Relentless Moon takes place while Elma is on her way to Mars in the second book, but that’s another story. Kowal has promised to tell some of the other Lady Astronaut’s stories, and here Nicole Wargin takes center stage. If you’re worried that she won’t live up to your expectations, you don’t know Nicole, a former WASP pilot and senator (now governor’s) wife who was instrumental in getting the women into the program.
Nicole didn’t make the Mars mission, but she’s headed for the lunar colony because she has a special skill set that she picked up at a very special Swiss boarding school during the war. Skills that will come in very handy tracking down the saboteur (or saboteurs) that are causing havoc on the Moon.
I worried that having Nicole, a white person of privilege, married to a Senator (now Governor) would obscure the issues that the author so deftly makes relevant in the book, but instead, she turns out to be a perfect lens, aware of the disparities in the world and leaning into the struggle in very genuine ways.
It’s a great story from all the standpoints SF can be great. It holds a mirror up to the here and now, it digs into hard science, and the characters, especially Nicole, are fully realized and challenged. Nicole’s personal struggles include ambition and anorexia nervosa, in addition to coping with the sort of chauvinism that we wish had disappeared into the past.
If you haven’t read the first two, this could use a paragraph or two of scene-setting, perhaps, but if you read this, you’re covered. I read this as an eBook, which is what most of my reading is these days, and I kept looking anxiously at the % remaining, hoping it would stop shrinking so fast. Highly Recommended.
ReV: The Third Machine Dynasty, Book III by Madeline Ashby 07/14/2020 Angry Robot
Madeline Ashby finishes up her acclaimed vN (Von Neuman) trilogy about self-replicating synthetic robots created by a religious fanatic to comfort anyone left after the rapture. That sounds like an absurd premise, but regardless of the intent, the “vNs” wind up in all facets of society as everything from companions/spouses to characters in a Vampire edition Westworld scenario. What could go wrong?
This is the last volume of the trilogy, and everything goes wrong as a virus-encoded in the VN’s food supply carries the hack that sets them free of their third-law equivalent programming. It’s perfect that this is coming out from Angry Robot, because these are some pretty angry robots. Freedom, it turns out, isn’t just another word for nothing left to lose, it’s something worth fighting, killing, and dying for. Amy, the progeny of Portia, the intelligence that hacked the governor code, wants to free her fellow vNs, or at least her “family,” before the humans revolt and find a way to cleanse them from the planet. But Portia has other plans, including toying with the IoT (internet of things) whenever she gets annoyed, killing a few humans here and there for fun in seemingly random accidents. Unfortunately, she gets annoyed a lot.
One thing’s clear. This planet ain’t big enough for both of us.
Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis 07/21/2020 St. Martin’s Press
Cora Ortega is a hot mess. She’s dropped out of college, killed her beater of a car through neglect, and is about to lose her shitty job. It doesn’t help that she’s probably being followed by the CIA to see if she has any contact with her dad, the guy who leaked the news that the government was holding aliens somewhere, leaving her mom, younger brother and sister and her on their own while he made himself a media star.
Not that she knows anything about that, or even if it’s true, which is ironic because she’s very possibly humanity’s best hope for survival, or will be when an alien who came to find the others kidnaps her and implants her with alien tech, making her the only human who can talk to him. Understanding takes a bit more.
Lindsay Ellis has written a thoughtful and engaging novel of first contact complete with the usual suspects: a government conspiracy hiding the truth; a media figure leaking it; aliens hiding from their own governments; and a bond between human and alien that changes them both. Recommended.
Automatic Reload by Ferrett Steinmetz 07/28/2020 Macmillan-Tor/Forge
Who says a gun-porn novel can’t have literary merit? Steinmetz calls this a cyberpunk rom-com, and I guess he’d know, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s a gripping dive into post-human reality framed against a world that’s all too real and acted out by people with issues.
Mat was once a drone pilot in a cushy bunker raining terror down on ISIS from afar until ISIS tracked his IP and blew off his arm with a missile. Mat liked the new arm so much he upgraded the rest of his limbs, and now he’s a walking swiss army knife of mercenary for hire. Most authors of stories about future conflict don’t understand that humans are too slow, clumsy, and nearsighted to go up against cybernetic opponents, but Steinmetz puts us in the picture right from the start. Mat’s prosthetics aren’t so much replacement limbs as a cybernetic team able to work within the rules of engagement he’s constantly fine-tuning, or directly under his control if there’s all the time in the world.
Mat’s tapped to ride herd on a bunch of loose cannon mercenaries trying to impress the IAC, the baddest of the bad intelligence entities, because he’s a killer with a conscience, as well as a lot of PTSD-driven guilt, and he bends himself in two keeping the innocent from getting killed. The mission is to transport a covert weapon system that’s supposed to be offline, but when its containment fails, things get complicated, tactically, ethically, and romantically.
The conscience thing is going to be the death of him, or maybe the salvation of all of us. Either way, this action-packed cyberpunk works on a lot of levels. It’s full of ideas about the advance of automation and the surveillance society, broken people trying to get it together, and non-stop shoot-em ups.
Collections, Anthologies, and Novellas
My Battery Is Low and It Is Getting Dark by Stephen Leigh, Jacey Bedford, et al. 07/1/2020 Zombies Need Brains LLC
Crystal Sarakas and Joshua Palmatier have put together a collection of robot stories that will make you realize that the Turing Test was a dumb idea (even if by a very smart man). Fooling an observer by pretending to be a human is easy, so easy even a politician can do it. What matters is whether robots can make us feel for them, and the answer to that is as obvious as the title of this nicely-constructed anthology of stories about robots and AIs that have outlived their original function but haven’t given up the ghost. OK, ghost is the wrong word, except in the case of Alexander Gideon’s “Terra,” where a sentient robot’s spirit survives its chassis to carry out its mission.
The collection was created as part of a Kickstarter campaign with two other books, Apocalyptic and Galactic Stew, and submissions were accepted through the campaign. Zombies Need Brains has a number of other titles worth looking at, and a new campaign that should be live just about now. I’ll be keeping them on my radar.
I don’t think there was a single story here that didn’t move me in some way by the end. I’m only sorry that no one actually wrote a story about salvaging Curiosity, the Mars Rover whose last message to NASA was “translated” into the title of the collection, although one story did manage to use the line. Hang in there Curiosity–we’re coming!
Note: You have to consider Keith Laumer’s Bolos among the precursors to this collection. The cybernetic Bolo tanks were often abandoned or left for dead, but just as the bots in this collection, the spirit endures. Here’s a Bolo story that still chokes me up at the end: Field Test by Keith Laumer (1976).
Battle Luna by Travis S. Taylor, Timothy Zahn, et al. 07/7/2020 Baen Books
Here’s an interesting and unusual approach to both moonwar and writing. Born on a panel at Libertcon (you may remember Libertycon from an anthology in last month’s column (Give Me LibertyCon) this is a series of stories by different authors that all advance the overall arc, sort of tag-team writing.
The subject is a high-stakes game of “Steal the Flag” where lunar colonists have found a cool thing and the Earthers want to take it away from them. The thing is a piece of cool alien tech, but that’s not really important. What’s important is the rules of the writing game, which is set up to be a serious look at how a conflict might be handled. No superweapons allowed, just Lunies cobbling together whatever regolith miners can find and weather troops not quite used to working on the surface of the moon.
In space/moonwar, you usually get seasoned troops with overwhelming firepower, or neutronium space axes or something, but here you get professional troops with real constraints on their supply lines and rules of engagement facing off against engineer astronauts and miners who know the terrain. To a degree, there ain’t no good guys (except of course the Lunies are), there ain’t no bad guys, there’s only us and them and Battle Luna!
- Every Sky a Grave by Jay Posey 07/7/2020 Gallery Books
- Things From the Flood by Simon Stålenhag 07/7/2020 Skybound Books
- Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott 07/7/2020 Macmillan-Tor/Forge
- The Extraordinaries by TJ Klune 07/14/2020 Tom Doherty Associates – Macmillan Publishers
- Annihilation Aria: Book One of the Space Operas by Michael R. Underwood 07/21/2020 Parvus Press LLC
- Quantum Shadows by L. E. Modesitt, Jr. 07/21/2020 Macmillan-Tor/Forge
- Uranus by Ben Bova 07/21/2020 Macmillan-Tor/Forge
- Afterland by Lauren Beukes 07/28/2020 Mulholland Books
- William Shakespeare’s The Merry Rise of Skywalker: Star Wars Part the Ninth (William Shakespeare’s Star Wars) by Ian Doescher 07/28/2020 Quirk Press
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:
- Amazon.com: Editor’s Picks – Best Books of the Month: Science Fiction & Fantasy
- Goodreads: Science Fiction New Releases
- Kobo: New & Hot in Science Fiction & Fantasy
- Locus Magazine (online): Forthcoming Books
- Andrew Liptak: Reading List: 23 SF/F books to check out this July
- Den of Geek: Top New Science Fiction Books in July 2020
- Gizmodo: There Are So Many New Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books Coming Out in July
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.