Science Fiction to Look For September 2020

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Robots lead the march this September with Set My Heart to Five, is Simon Stephenson’s engaging debut novel about robots, feelings, and screenwriting. More robots facing human dilemmas can be found in An Unnatural Life, a novella by Erin K. Wagner about a robot convicted of murder on Europa. Both stories take on the same territory but attack it from very different directions.

Space opera fans have their work cut out for them choosing between two excellent novels, Fearless by Allen Stroud and To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini.  Both start stories that will continue in their respective universes with the promise of more great stories in the deep black.

Hench, Natalie Zina Walschot’s debut novel, is an outstanding assault on superhero ideology by a sidelined henchperson who shows that the spreadsheet is mightier than random mutant superpowers. The Loop by Jeremy Robert Johnson is a sci-fi/horror tale made for streaming, with zombified teens and plucky outcasts. Despite the name, it’s no relation to the Amazon Prime series Tales from the Loop. (Read our full review here)

It’s the time of year when we look back at what last year gave us, and Jonathan Strahan has put together the first in a new series of anthologies with The Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 1: The Saga Anthology of Science Fiction filling the gap left by Gardner Dozois death in 2018. It’s not the only Best of SF anthology, but will probably be the definitive one going forward. (Read a review here)

There are always more interesting books out than I could get read, so you should take a look at my Other Recommendations. Check out the Usual Suspects for my compilation of other reviewers’ posts, and if you can’t wait for these titles to be released, check out last month’s column.

Novels (in order of publication)

Set My Heart to Five: A Novel by Simon Stephenson | Sep 1, 2020 | Hanover Square Press

Jared is a robotnic, built to be human in every way except when it comes to emotions. Robotnics don’t have any. Also, Jared is a dentist, because someone either forgot to ban robotnics from the profession or decided it was payback to allow robotnics to become dentists on the assumption a total lack of empathy would be an advantage.

So when Jared senses something is off and he confides in the human doctor he’s befriended, it turns out that he’s depressed. In fact, Jared is going to discover the entire range of human emotion, and the good doctor has just the ticket to get him started. Or rather, tickets, because Jared is going to go to the movies, armed with his trusty “feelings wheel” to help him identify his reactions.

Eventually, Jared leaves his small town to head for Hollywood.  He wants to become a screenwriter and to make a movie showing that bots aren’t the murderous creatures shown in all the films, but decent folk like anyone.

Not only is this a fun book to kick back with, it’s also weirdly informative about the art of screenwriting or just plain storytelling. It’s no surprise that Stephenson is a screenwriter living in LA. He’s mined his sordid backstory for the novel, including having been a doctor once upon a time, and his love of classic movies. Set My Heart to Five is his debut novel, and we can hope there’s more where that came from.

Fearless by Allen Stroud | August 8, 2020 | Flame Tree Press;

Ellia Shann tells us right off that she was born with no legs, but really, it’s no big deal. First, because she was born in 2080 when smart prosthetics could connect directly to her nervous system, and except for the ability to jump over tall buildings (one imagines), no one would ever know. More importantly, it doesn’t matter because, in microgravity, no one can see you walk.

Thirty-eight years later, Shann is Captain of the Khdir, a deep-space vessel that’s more Coast Guard cutter than warship, with a crew of 25 and a mission to patrol the trade routes between the human colonies in the solar system. When the Khdir receives an automated distress signal from a freighter they set off to see what they can do, but Shann’s more than a little troubled by the largely-redacted manifest for the ship’s cargo she got from Phobos Station. She should be.

What follows is a solid space opera and the beginning of a saga in which  Shann and her crew find themselves at the center of conspiracies and conflicts that reach deep into the Fleet itself, and could change the future of humanity. As if factions within the Fleet, a hidden colony, and compromised crewmen on board aren’t enough, there are hints of an alien presence, which the author ties to an actual incident on Apollo 10.

Allen Stroud is Chair of the British Science Fiction Association, and the official novelist for the “seminal space trading game Elite: Dangerous.” He’s written a number of fantasy novels, but I think Fearless is his first science fiction novel. Like the Expanse‘s Ty Frank, his background in gaming (and a Doctoral thesis in Worldbuilding)  show in the care he’s taken in making all the pieces fit together, from the mechanics of space operations to the dynamics of dealing with a small crew under extreme stress.  He also brings a Clarkian feel that grounds the story in the best tradition of science fiction. He keeps the action going, and does a fine job of showing the difficulties of conflict in space.  Highly Recommended.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini | Sep 15, 2020| Tor Books

Kira is an exobiologist on a team finishing a pre-colonization survey, enjoying a final party with the team she’s bonded with (and the guy she’d be happy to give up the exploring life for) and maybe even contemplating joining the colonists coming to the Earth-sized moon they’ve been investigating.

You know better than to get attached to any of them, even if  Christopher Paolini isn’t George R. R. Martin, right? When a story starts out with everything going right for the main character, you know something terrible is about to happen.

So when Kira draws the short straw to check out the crash of one of the survey drones before they all go home, it’s no surprise that what she finds is an ancient alien artifact and a cloud of black alien goo that swarms her.  After she’s rescued, most of her team will wind up suddenly dead. But that’s not all.

A military ship has been sent to check out the artifact and since Kira now qualifies as the artifact, or at least its host, means she gets to be prodded by increasingly-aggressive probes whether she likes it or not, because the black goo is now a skin-fitting exoskeleton and it’s very, very, tough. Also, at least a little sentient and connected to Kira’s nervous system.  Then some really hostile aliens show up and take the warship apart with Kira escaping in one of the ship’s shuttles.

And we’re just getting started. This is a novel of Stephensonian length, but none of it is dull.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars deserves a wide audience among fans of Space Opera. Paolini spent the better part of a decade getting not just the plot but the technology right, and it shows. Sometimes it shows a bit too much, but when you’ve invested so much time building a universe and paying attention to details, it’s hard not to obsess a tad. At the core, as it must be, is Kira’s evolution from wounded scientist to whatever her will and destiny determine. Along the way, she’s given the advice that she must “Eat the path,” which sounds like something you’d find in one of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary novels. Though it takes Kira some work to claim her agency, she doesn’t let us down. Highly Recommended.

Hench: A Novel by Natalie Zina Walschots | Sep 22, 2020 | William Morrow

Like many other temps, Anna works for a soulless company with little regard for the people it uses. The only difference is that she’s temps in the underworld of supervillains, which answers the question of where do all those henchpeople come from, and why do they do the villain’s dirty work? Because it’s a job.

Of course, it’s a pretty dangerous job, but Anna stays out of the line of fire by specializing in spreadsheets for supervillains and working from a safe distance. Until she makes the mistake of getting bored and coming to her current boss’s attention by leaving her safe cubby to do fieldwork. If you’ve ever seen a hero v villain dustup, you know how that works out for her.

Sacked from her job and stuck at a friend’s place while she heals, Anna starts thinking about the economics of the superhero business and realizes that in terms of injury and man-hours lost, heroes are a tremendous drain on society, which she points out in her blog, Damage Report.  Soon she comes to the attention of the legendary Leviathan, the supervillain’s supervillain, who hires her to work on his Google-like campus coming up with ways to undermine superheroes in general and their mutual nemesis, Supercollider, in specific.

This is Natalie Zina Walschots’ debut novel, and in it, she mines all her passions (journalism, game design, social media analytics, and an unhealthy attraction to supervillains) to hit gold. This is a standalone novel, and though Walschots says she’d be happy to return to this universe, by the end, Anna has come into her own brand of villainy and the conclusion is very satisfying. (Read our full review here)

The Loop by Jeremy Robert Johnson | Sep 29, 2020 08/29/2020 Gallery / Saga

If you thought 2020 was going badly for you, take heart. You could be in Turner Falls, Oregon, where a cybernetic/symbiotic implant experiment goes really wrong, turning the uber-privileged high school students into killer zombies. The only hope for mankind is Lucy, an adopted South American refugee; a Pakistani kid whose name everyone mispronounces as Bucket; a white trash stoner named Brewer; and a conspiracy-theory journalist with visions of Hunter S. Thompson.

First off, it’s not that Loop, you know the one Amazon did a miniseries on? It does involve a secret lab in a small town, but its closer to Stranger Things, with a healthy dose of Night of the Living Dead and a bit of Cloverfield on top.  So, obviously it’s sci-fi/horror, and it’s pretty well done.

The biotech company putting modified squids into people’s heads probably didn’t mean for them to turn killer zombie, but given the rapidity with which the town gets sealed off, maybe they’re not that unhappy about it. There’s a group mind aspect, but the unexpected twist (besides the whole killing spree thing), is that it’s the in kids are still excluding outsiders from their clique, and if they were obnoxious as entitled teens, they’re way more annoying as killer squid-ridden zombies. Maybe that’s not so unexpected.

Jeremy Robert Johnson comes for a small town in Oregon that “might bear some resemblance to Turner Falls,” so I hope writing this helped work out any issues he might have. Large portions of the novel were evidently written with Jeremy locked inside a “camp trailer” only coming out to hiss at anything moving. He’s written a critically-acclaimed collection (Entropy in Bloom) and a novel, Skullcrack City. His list of works is a long strange trip, but we get that he really likes horror. As I said earlier, it’s well done, and a pretty good read if you’re ok with the body count.

Collections, Anthologies, and Novellas

The Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 1: The Saga Anthology of Science Fiction 2020 by Jonathan Strahan | Sep 8, 2020 | Gallery / Saga

That Jonathan Strahan should pick up the torch after Gardner Dozois’ death in 2018 after 35 years of publishing the definitive annual collection of The Year’s Best Science Fiction was almost a foregone conclusion. Strahan is today’s foremost anthologist, got his start at Locus in the 90s, has edited numerous books, and was both a friend and collaborator of Gardner’s.

Strahan’s collection moves the series from St. Martins to Gallery/Saga and rolls the counter back to Vo. 1, but there’s little question that his intent is to pick up where Gardner left off. Well, 2018 fell into a crevice between the two editors and we’ll have to trust Neil Clarke’s and other collections for that year. That we now have more best of’s is a good thing, too. As Jonathan points out in his intro, Locus has estimated the number of science fiction short stories published each year at over 3000, and he thinks that’s low.

There are two reasons why we read Gardner’s collection, and they hold true for Strahan’s. Most will read it for the pleasure of discovering stories they missed over the course of the year, but many will read it for its insights into the state of science fiction. Reading this collection is like attending a well-constructed convention, full of the best authors, with panels and readings from each.

But after you’re past the introduction, in which Jonathan does a fine job of recreating Gardner’s industry analysis (though without any mention of media) and past the welcome author notes for the first story, The Bookstore at the End of America, by Charle Jane Anders, you’ll realize that the reason you came is that at its best science fiction is entertaining, mind-boggling, challenging, and stimulating all at once, and that’s why you came.

And why you’ll be happy to stay for the rest of the 28 stories collected here.
(Click here for a slightly longer review with the list of stories)

An Unnatural Life by Erin K. Wagner | Sep 15, 2020 08/15/2020 Macmillan

“Murderbot meets To Kill a Mockingbird in Erin K. Wagner’s An Unnatural Life, an interplanetary tale of identity and responsibility.” – Tor.com

I hate to quote the publisher’s copy, but they nailed it. Worker bot 812-3 is in prison, convicted of murdering a human with a mining drill. Very messy. Despite artist Will Staehle’s very nice cover, this story, like Set My Heart to Five, features bots indistinguishable from humans, opening the door for all the complications that entails.

Aiya is a lawyer who left the comfort of Earth for the frontier to find a challenge. A posting on Europa seemed to fit the bill. Assigned to a new program to work with incarcerated bots to see if they could be rehabilitated, her first assignment is bot 812-3, who has no interest in being rehabilitated, but instead asks if she can appeal its sentence.  It’s not in her job description: Europa has no appeals court, and she’s got no reason to believe it is innocent. But it’s clear that no one cared about justice for a bot, and of course, she takes on the case.

It’s not like we think 812-3 didn’t commit the murder with a core drill at the research site, but whether it could get a fair trial, though it morphs a bit into whether it was responsible for its actions. Obviously this is a race allegory, but sometimes a story about AI’s is also about AIs. The day when we’ll face actual questions about the responsibility of machine intelligence is already at hand, with corporations paying off those who get in the way of driverless cars and industrial robots. While this was engaging and the ending suitably dark, I found myself thinking back to Asimov’s Caves of Steel, first serialized in Galaxy in 1953. Ironically, Asimov’s book is more science-fictional, dealing with wider-ranging societal issues than discussed here, where the setting is taken for granted, and the action devolves to a small town’s desire to maintain the status quo.  An Unnatural Life is worth reading, both for its timely commentary and well-managed character conflicts, but if you haven’t read Asimov, you’ll be surprised how well it holds up

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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