October surprised me by not offering up tales of futuristic hauntings and horror, and I’m not complaining. Ghosts in the machine are fine by me, but that’s where I like to keep them. 2020 has been scary enough already.
What we did get was several good space operas, including a return to Elizabeth Bear’s White Space universe; a new book from Kim Stanley Robinson on how to save the planet from mankind and live to tell about it, the last of Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother novels about life in times of future DHS, and a sexy police procedural from Amanda Bridgeman that will make you long for the 80s. It was also a good month for anthologies, and I take a look at Ben Bova’s favorite picks as well as a curated collection of really fine stories from Escape Pod’s fifteen years of podcasting. Finally, there’s a collection of stories from Cixin Liu, most from his earlier work that gives a window into both author and culture.
- Machine: A White Space Novel by Elizabeth Bear
- The Last Campaign by Martin L. Shoemaker
- The Ministry for the Future: A Novel by Kim Stanley Robinson
- Attack Surface: Book 3 of 3: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
- In the Black by Patrick S. Tomlinson
- The Sensation by Amanda Bridgeman
- My Favorites: A Collection of Short Stories by Ben Bova
- Escape Pod: The Science Fiction Anthology by S.B. Divya, Mur Lafferty, et al.
- To Hold Up the Sky by Cixin Liu
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)
Machine: A White Space Novel Book 2 of 2: White Space by Elizabeth Bear | Oct 6, 2020 | Saga Press
Following up on last year’s highly-acclaimed Ancestral Night, Elizabeth Bear is back with a new novel in her White Space universe. This time it’s with a new set of characters, though you do get a walk-on or two from the previous cast. In Machine, the Core General ambulance ship, I Race To Seek the Living, responds to a distress beacon from the Big Rock Candy Mountain, a centuries-old colony ship, which I Race finds drifting with the crew in Cryo, the alien ship that sent the beacon docked, and a not-very-well-connected android looking after things. Helen Alloy wasn’t ever meant to be much more than a joke to the male engineers that created her, but she’s done her best to guard the crew in stasis.
Jen, our protagonist, is a doctor (and former military), so jumping into hazardous rescues is what she does every day. But there’s so much that’s not right about the situation on the colony vessel and alien ship, both fallen silent except for an anxious android and strange floating pieces of metal. There are far too many corpsicles for Jen’s ship to take back to Core General for attempted revival, so they call in the cavalry, which includes the ship/mind from Ancestral Night, and head back to the hospital station with what they can carry. That’s the windup.
The story kicks off when Jen gets back and discovers that the hospital has been the target of multiple acts of sabotage. The administrators want her to investigate, making use of combined doctor-soldier skill set, and she digs in. It’s a great read and I’ve got a full review coming.
Now, if you’re a reader of a certain age, bells should be going off for you because Bear is consciously channeling James White, whose Sector General stories about a space hospital treating aliens of all shapes delighted generations of fans. She’s upfront about it, even borrowing the name of one of her characters from those books, and talking about it in the afterword.
The first White Space book received high praise, some of it mine, but I liked Machine even more. Multiple mysteries, a medical drama, tribute to a favorite author and a great main character make this worth reading. Highly Recommended.
The Ministry for the Future: A Novel by Kim Stanley Robinson | Oct 6, 2020 | Orbit
Kim Stanley Robinson is the gold standard for hard science fiction, established with his Red, Green, and Blue Mars novels about terraforming the red planet. Over time he’s focused more and more on ecological issues and the primacy of the Earth’s biome for humanity’s survival. While other authors still offer the stars as a lifeboat for humans, Robinson has backed away from that notion, going so far in his 2015 generation starship novel, Aurora, to show in detail why it doesn’t work.
In Ministry for the Future, Robinson spins the story of an international organization set up after a Paris Climate Accords to coordinate global efforts to forestall climate collapse. The story starts in the very near future with a heatwave that struck southeast Asia and killed millions. In it, we meet the first main character, Frank Mays, an American volunteer working for an aid organization, who will be the only survivor of the village he’s been working in. The experience radicalized Frank, and he realizes he’s willing to go to any length to have an impact on the emerging climate crisis, first trying to join the radical Children of Kali, stalking and abducting Mary Murphy, the head of the Ministry.
Throughout the book, Frank and Mary orbit each other as they both try to save the world from humanity in their own ways. Throughout their lives, we get to see the Ministry go from something countries use as a public relations ploy to deflect criticism, to ultimately fulfill its mandate and provide direction as the world struggles to step back from the brink.
As such, this is more a catalog of interesting ideas about geo-engineering and weaning the world from the petro-economy than an actual novel. The chapters skip from place to place, here examing an effort to stall Antarctic glacier collapse, there the creation of carbon capture cryptocurrency. The conflict is between mankind and climate, and while the author puts a human face on it whenever he can, it’s about the planet, not the people. The same could be said of the Mars books, but they had the benefit of being exotic. The future, as we have all come to realize, is a county whose exploration is more likely to be disappointing that exhilarating.
Ministry for the Future is as much an attempt to show that the fate of the planet has not yet been decided, and while there are no silver bullets, science and emergent social conscience could still save the day.
The Last Campaign by Martin L. Shoemaker | Oct 6, 2020 | 47North
If you liked Shoemaker’s last novel, The Last Dance, about an Earth-Mars cycler and its perfectionist captain, who managed to annoy enough people that he winds up counting getting kicked out of the service as a win, you’ll be happy to know that Nick Aimes has landed on his feed on the red soil of Mars. Now, a few years on, he’s married to the admiral that saved his bacon in the last book and is still annoying people as a private investigator (mostly insurance cases) which are right up his OCD-focused alley. But now he’s got a death to decode, and while it looks plausibly like bad luck, a pattern of murder and fraud emerges.
Really, though, this isn’t Nick’s book. Rosalia Morais is that Admiral, and she’s now also out of the service and working as Nick’s partner in the investigation, at least until the Mayor of Maxwell City, Mars’ fastest-growing outpost, decides that the growing crime rate means that he needs a formal police department. A department needs a chief (you’ll see it as “Sherriff” in book descriptions, but late in the game someone pointed out that Sherriffs are elected, and since this is an appointed position, it is “Chief”). Rosalia wasn’t the first choice, but considering how well Nick plays with others, she should have been.
Conflicts emerge both between Nick and Rosa as the inevitable private investigator versus cop drama plays out. Rosa has her hands full creating a department and police culture, dealing with political agendas during a hotly-contested election between an independent Mars and one still a colony. Oh, and she also has to get to the bottom of the wave of murders and mysterious disappearances.
Colonies breaking free from Earth have long been standard fare in science fiction, but Shoemaker shows that it’s not always just plucky colonists versus a decadent Earth. Even the colonies will have pro and con factions, and that the question isn’t so much whether Mars should be its own planet, as when.
Attack Surface Book 3 of 3: Little Brother | by Cory Doctorow | Oct 13, 2020 | Tor Books
Masha was a teenager when they blew up her bridge, the one between her hometown of Oakland and San Francisco, and she decided to do something about it. So she hacked the phone system, developed social network diagrams, and figured out who was who. Which began a career in cyber-security that led her to be one of the best in the business.
When we meet her, she’s playing both ends against each other in a police state somewhere, installing surveillance technology for private firms on the one hand, and hanging out with the local resistance in bars and giving them counter surveillance tutorials on the other. When her boss catches her out and dumps her on the street, she heads back to where it all started to nurse her wounds and try to figure out who she is.
Like most of Cory’s work, this is more hacker-punk than science fiction, and the twin tales of Maha’s seduction by the world of big data and her reemergence into her own skin have a global espionage air to them. Unlike William Gibson’s Agency in which the main character is shuttled around LA without any volition of her own, the story here is actually about someone who makes choices about what she’s going to do and accepts the costs of her choices.
In the Black by Patrick S. Tomlinson | Oct 13, 2020 | Tor Books
Captain Susan Kamala and the CCDF Ansari are three months into their tour monitoring 82G Endani, along the established border with the pesky Xre, when they lose contact with a second recon buoy. One they could write off to a micrometeoroid strike, but two is more than coincidence, and between the data they gleaned from its last transmission the observations of its siblings, it’s clear that somebody is taking shots at their drones. Somebody–or something–that’s not coming up on their sensor arrays.
After 70 years, the Xre are probing the human border. Soon Kamala is engaged in a cat and mouse game with the newest Xre warship on its maiden voyage. The author makes no bones about the Red October in space, vibe, even showing a book on US/Soviet submarine warfare on one of the character’s shelves, but this is no clone. In The Black is Tomlinson’s best work yet, but though the naval engagements in space are as well done as any you’ll find in sf, there’s much more going on than either captain realizes.
Humanity is shown here as ruled, or managed, by a council of corporations covering the worlds of human space, and the book’s second track follows Tyson Abington, the young CEO of Ageless, one of the major players, and one who happens to have a special project in the 82G Endani system. When a freighter from the system arrives with news of a virulent bacterial outbreak on a mining world, it goes into quarantine, and Tyson goes on the hot seat. He puts together a team of researchers and medical specialists to combat the outbreak and sends them off to the colony. Fortunately for him, one of the best and brightest candidates broke a leg rock climbing and had to stay behind–fortunate because that doesn’t stop her from sequencing the bug and telling Tyson when she finds evidence of genetic engineering.
Something’s rotten in the 82G Endani system, with corporate stability and the peace between the CCDF and the XRE at risk. The surprising part is that events are going to make allies of enemies and reveal a deadly agenda against them.
I had no trouble liking Kamala, captain of the Ansari, or even Thuk, the XRE commander she faces off against. Tyson and his blend of corporate/royal arrogance took a bit to warm up to, but being put on the defensive by a string of attacks and seeing himself through the eyes of Dr. Elsa Spaulding, the researcher who got left behind, manages to bring take him down enough to be someone you can root for, if only so that he can rejoin the human race.
This kicks off a series, but it does a satisfying job of establishing the players while setting up the larger conflict.
The Sensation by Amanda Bridgeman | Oct 13, 2020 | Angry Robot
Salvi Brentt is a cop in San Francisco’s Hub-9 Homicide division, and this is her second book, set in the not so distant future. In her first outing, she investigated matters at the Solme Complex, where criminals are fitted with neural stimulators and reprogrammed to be mostly harmless. Now she’s digging into disturbing goings-on in the Sensation, a district where the one percent can get their kicks with no questions asked.
Of course, when a society photographer turns up bludgeoned to death and his girlfriend is zoned out in the next room with mysterious red marks on her temples and no idea what happened, some questions may have to be asked. Salvi is just the person to pose them.
It turns out that there’s a new drug in the exclusive clubs that makes ecstasy look like boredom and to make matters worse, there’s a street variant that fuels extreme rage and strength. Bodies are turning up on the street, pretty girls are going missing, and the trail leads to a club where every level up takes you one more level closer to Dante’s idea of a good time until you reach the pinnacle, and the world turns upside down.
One cop has already been tortured and grotesquely murdered trying to find out what’s going on, and the case is personal to the division for more than one reason. Of course Salvi’s going to have to go undercover and glam her way to the bottom of things. What she doesn’t know is that there are worse fates than death and she’s heading straight for them.
If you yearn for the coke and club scene of the 80s, with a side order of crack cocaine and a bit of post futurism, you’ll love The Sensation.
Collections, Anthologies, and Novellas
My Favorites: A Collection of Short Stories by Ben Bova | Oct 13, 2020 | Blackstone Publishing
Bova starts his introduction by asking if another anthology of his work is needed, a fair point considering that he has already published thirteen or so including Vol 1-2 of The Best of Ben Bova. Clearly, he thinks so and having read this collection of his fourteen “favorite” stores, I’m happy to agree, not only because the collection is a good read, but because they offer a window into who the author is, and has been over his nearly 50 years in the field. Granted, some have been included in other anthologies, but Bova is keenly aware of the ephemeral nature of publishing, and hopes this collection will expose these stories to new readers.
The stories are lead by short descriptions by the author on why they’re on this list, though he doesn’t offer what I feel is critical information, such as when and where they were first published. That the opening story, Monster Slayer, appeared in Absolute Magnitude & Aboriginal Science Fiction in 2003 adds some useful context to a story about a native American’s journey from reservation to space habitat. That it leads this collection is either very woke or deeply tone-deaf, reminding us of White male authors who tried to tell the stories of others, without the top cover of making them aliens first.
Escape Pod: The Science Fiction Anthology by S.B. Divya, Mur Lafferty, et al. | October 20, 2020 |Titan Books
Escape Pod has been a podcast of short science fiction stories since early 2005. Checking their website, escapepod.org, shows that they’ve got 751 episodes on the shelf. So it’s no surprise that every one of the stories in their first anthology is first-rate fiction. Since they were originally chosen for a podcast, they’re all a perfect length too: long enough to engage, short enough to stay entertaining. The collection is set up with an introduction by Serah Eley, who talks about her former self, Steve, his journey with the podcast, and turning it over to Mur Lafferty and S. B. Divya in 2010.
The authors they’ve chosen for the collection are many of the best writers in sf today, and the short form works well for them. John Scalzi (ALiend Animal Encounters), Ken Liu (An Advanced Reader’s Picture Book of Comparative Cognition), Tim Pratt’s (A Princess of Nigh-Space). Cory Doctorow (Clockwork Fagin), and others showcase familiar names knocking it out of the park. A few expanded my horizons with excellent fiction by folks I hadn’t read before; Sara Gailey (Tiger’s Lawyer) and Greg van Ekhout (Spaceship October) among them. The collection has a strong finish with N. K. Jemisin’s “Give me Cornbread or Give Me Death”, about gene-spliced dragons that “OFFICIALS DENY DRAGONS BRED TO PREFER ‘DARK MEAT'”, though, in Jemisin’s tale, it turns out that taste is a weapon that knows no allegiance.
Make no doubt about it, this collection is as subversive as it is excellent.
To Hold Up the Skyby Cixin Liu | October 20, 2020 | Tor Books
Liu’s breakout novel, The Three Body Problem received critical praise and a Hugo award, but it created a barrier to entry for his writing for anyone not willing to dig into a work of its scope. This collection, on the other hand, gives readers a chance to see not only the breadth of Liu’s writing, finding both a voice whose cadence is distinctly other, while resonant with writers they’re familiar with in a western context.
The stories are mostly from Liu’s earlier work, and the science isn’t especially fresh, but the stories are made new by the alienness of the culture that they come from. In the first story, a dying teacher struggles to leave a legacy in his students that turns out to be pivotal in first contact, and the tone strikes notes of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice universe. Of course, I’m probably getting it backward, and Leckie’s tone influenced by non-western writers, but my point is that there’s a connection across cultures. In the next, a whole population makes a desperate bid on the future through cryosuspension, in an arc that H.G. Wells or Arthur Clarke would have found familiar. After that, there’s a tale in which alternate nations emerge in the cyber community that challenges the corporeal boundaries of nations, just the kind of thing that Cory Doctorow might consider.
My point isn’t that Liu’s work is derivative, but that his focus is wide and the stories speak to more than just the culture they come out of. In the introduction, he writes that “when you read or make science fiction, your sympathy automatically moves away from ideas of ethnicity and nation and toward a higher idea of humanity as a whole.” That’s true, to a point, but while the universality of theme and humanity comes through, the stories are very much about a China in transition, about the conflicts between traditional culture, state authority, and emergent technology.
It’s all just alien enough to be fascinating.
- Elsewhere by Dean Koontz | Thomas & Mercer
- The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume Five by Neil Clarke | Night Shade
- The Valkyrie Protocol (2) (Gordian Division) by David Weber and Jacob Holo | Baen
- To Lose the Earth (Star Trek: Voyager) by Kirsten Beyer | Pocket Books/Star Trek
- How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge by K. Eason | Daw
- Tracker220 by Jamie Krakover | Snowy Wings Publishing
- Dead Lies Dreaming by Charles Stross | Macmillan-Tor/Forge
- London Centric: Tales of Future London by M. R. Carey, Neal Asher, et al. | NewCon 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
- Reading List (Andrew Liptak): Reading List
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.