Science Fiction to Look for November 2020

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The days are growing shorter and shorter, which means it’s time to recall that old adage: spring ahead, fall back into an easy chair with a good book. We can help you with finding one.

 

For space opera fans, I recommend C.S. Friedman’s This Virtual Night, in which an action-junkie explorer takes a side job and winds up partnering with a game designer who’s the only hope of stopping a digital pandemic. For variety, you’ve got Tim Pratt’s The Fractured Void, in which a  small crew on boring patrol duty gets all the excitement it could ask for. It’s the first novelization from the Twilight Imperium board game, and it’s fast and fun.

Closer to Earth, you’ve got Nucleation, Kimberly Unger’s debut, a hardcore space procedural with some very interesting ideas about micro wormholes, nanomachines, and entangled communications, set in a first contact situation and a conspiracy.

Leaving space behind, we’ve got three very different novels. Refraction by Christopher Hinz follows the now-adult subject of a government experiment as he seeks answers and tries to stay alive, while W. Michael Gear’s  The Alpha Enigma is full of action as the inmates at a high-security military psychiatric facility turn out to be our world’s last hope. For something completely different, you can head to the coast of Maine to chill with author Jonathon Lethem’s The Arrest, set in a post-apocalyptic organic farming community…at least until a refugee from Hollywood blows into town in his atomic RV.

Finally, it’s the 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back, and Elizabeth Schaefer has put together a terrific collection of short stories about the film’s minor characters, From a Certain Point of View.

There are always books I can’t get to in time for the column and wind up on the Other Recommendations list, but three deserve special consideration. Ernest Cline continues Wade Watt’s virtual adventures in a Ready Player Two. In Firefly Generations, Tim Lebbon deepens the Firefly backstory when Mal and his gang find one of the original ships that brought humans to the ‘verse, and Christopher G. Nuttall provides a satisfying conclusion to an interstellar civil war in Debt of War.

Reviewed:

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 Alpha Enigma (Team Psi Book1) by W. Michael Gear | 03 Nov 2020 | DAW

How often does a science fiction novel stop to promise you that it’s really based on hard science in a prologue, going on to cite papers about multiple worlds theories? Gear kicks off this high octane story with just such a disclaimer, then goes on to offer up something that’s part Stargate and part One Flew Over The Cuckoos’ Nest, with a promise of some Sliders and Indiana Jones in the mix.

It turns out that time travel is possible, but not if you’re hopping backward in your own universe. To go back in time, you’ve got to slip sideways a universe or two and mess with some other timeline. Which is why there’s a tomb buried in the Egyptian desert with Latin inscriptions, advanced (Mayan) mathematics, and a mummy with a titanium screw in a fractured bone that dates back thousands of years, not to mention the steel door on the outside.

Reid is an archeologist hired by the Scientia group, pointed in the direction of the tomb, and tasked with proving that the tomb is a fake. It’s pretty clear they know it’s not, and are looking for confirmation, though it’s not clear why they would ever want word of their findings, which any science fiction reader could tell you, point clearly to time travel at the least, and multi-universe travel as a pretty good bet.

Meanwhile, Gray, a woman without either a name or a trace in any record is committed to a military mental hospital. She’d suddenly popped up in the middle of a high-security lab in Los Alamos, and nobody knows how she got in, who she is, or why she’s speaking what appears to be some form of Latin. Flummoxed by the improbability of it all, the military decides she’s either a spy faking it or some variant of crazy.

The military has been stashing its problem cases at that psychiatric hospital, people who may or may not be crazy but who are too big a security risk to put in a normal lockup.  The result is a brain trust of military screwups that failed by being so good at their specialties that they naturally ran afoul of authority. Some happen to be actually psychotic or so burdened by PTSD that they do belong there, and some are hiding out from the consequences that would befall them if they didn’t have insanity as an out. All of them, a crack analyst with schizophrenia, the only woman SEAL to ever lead a team, a molecular biologist that realized too late her work was weaponized, a hacker that faked his evaluation to avoid Leavenworth, and the worlds most talented and antisocial pilot, make up just the team that the world needs to stop enemies both foreign, like from other parallel worlds, or domestic, like from within the US government.

It’s a wild ride, some of it on the back of a motorcycle, a Ducati to be exact, owned by the one man able to ride herd on these lunatics, Major (Ret) Dr.(Col.) Timothy Ryan. Ryan had his hands full with this crew before the fate of the world fell into their hands, but now it’s not clear who’s going to need tranquilizers more, him or his patients.

It’s a good setup, full of action, and while it comes to a solid conclusion, the team will be back in the next book, Implacable Gray.

The Fractured Void: A Twilight Imperium Novel by Tim Pratt | 03 Nov 2020 ) Aconyte

Felix Duval is the captain of the  Temerarious, his first command, sent to patrol a backwater system where nothing ever happens. It’s part punishment, a part reward for his brilliant tactics–just not the tactics his captain had had in mind. So now Felix, his occasionally invisible first officer and best friend, and a security specialist that’s part Kzin and part Ferengi, are stuck burning holes in the black where nothing happens. Oh, it’s not like nothing ever happens. There was that time he had to use the ship’s sensor array to find a lost sheep.

Things brighten up for Felix when a distress call from one of the colonies comes in reporting that soldiers in power armor came and snatched a member of the colony. They must have a strong civic sense because Thales, the abductee, is cranky, reclusive, and generally unlikable. He just happens to be extremely valuable because he’s on the verge of solving the problem of creating stable wormholes on demand.

Not only do Felix and the crew get to chase the kidnapper’s ship, lead a boarding action, and rescue the scientist, they get the questionable glory of hosting him and helping him finish his work. Which involves procuring whatever he needs…within reason. Thale’s needs are as unreasonable as the man himself, involving prison breaks, stealing from top-secret labs, and feeding off the best operatives that Sol Federation has to try and get him back.

Tim Pratt has a written a slew of enjoyable books, including one of my favorites, The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl. The Fractured Void is the first book written in the board game universe of the Twilight Imperium, now in its 4th edition, and it’s a fast, fun read. From the looks of things, Felix and his crew, now seconded to their military’s special ops group, won’t have to worry about being bored anymore.

Refraction by Christopher Hinz | 10 Nov 2020 | Angry Robot

What starts out like a Dean Koontz thriller ends up like a Carl Sagan movie with a nod to The Umbrella Academy. Aiden is a twenty-something with a weird psychic ability. Sometimes ihe materializes brown blobs of organic material, which calls “chunkies”, in his sleep. He has no idea why until someone uncovers a safe with a letter in it left by his father, revealing not only that he was adopted, but that he was one of seven children experimented on at a secret government lab called Tau 19.

Unlike the kids in The Umbrella Academy, these kids were normal until scientists exposed them to the presence of a 70 thousand-year-old artifact they call the quiver. For some reason, it only affects infants, boosting the intelligence of the ones they tried it on, so six children were acquired, along with a seventh that was arrived later, ostensibly as a control. Rather than give them names or numbers, each child got a color, red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, and gold, the first three for boys and the last for the girls. The added child, a boy, got white, which makes sense, but conceals a deeper secret. The study ended when the children were 18 months old: with no changes notable, they were put into foster homes, and the whole experiment covered up.

Now fully grown, Aiden’s world is suddenly upended he goes looking for answers and finds himself in the middle of a fight for power, vengeance, or survival, depending on which side you’re on. Deke, a former special forces operator who has his own reasons for tracking down someone who killed one of the “quiver” kids and appears to be hunting down the rest, takes Aiden under his wing.

What follows is part road-trip, part family reunion, and it ends in a climactic firefight where Deke, Aiden, and some friends they pick up along the way try to stop the head of a massive tech company from stealing the quiver artifact. The bad guy has plenty of evil mercenaries, but we’ve got Deke’s former team of special ops buddies and Jessie, another of the quiver kids, one who’s actually mastered her gifts.

Refraction is a fast read, and its main draw is non-stop action with a side of conspiracy theory. which you’ll either bounce off or not be able to put down.  It falls somewhere between superhero and science fiction, but never quite makes up its mind as to which it wants to be.

The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem | 06 Nov 2020 | Atlantic Books

You’d think that the end of civilization would be a big deal, but the folks in the coastal town of Tinderwick, Maine, didn’t really mind when the planes, trains, automobiles, guns, and smartphones went away. OK, maybe there was some sadness about the smartphones, but this rural community was already into organic farming and alternative lifestyles, so they were better prepared than most to make the switch to a post-civilization world. Also, they’re off the beaten track, so they didn’t have to face down hordes of starving urbanites.

All in all, the end of the world was going pretty well for them.

Until Peter Toddbaum, a Hollywood mover and shaker, rumbles his way into town in a cobbled-together sci-fi prop of an RV made from a tunnel borer with visions of Damnation Alley and a nuclear reactor at its heart. Peter has come to find his old friend Sandy, better known in these parts as Journeyman, and Sandy’s sister Maddy, who helped found the community.

Before the slow apocalypse, Sandy and Peter had stormed Hollywood together, one rising to the heights of a media-mega-master and the other the depths of script doctor, the middleman between real writers and the finished film.  Along the way, Sandy’s sister had come to visit and fell briefly under Peter’s manic aura before fleeing from the pull of his personal singularity.

Sandy wasn’t quite as lucky and got trapped in Peter’s Schwarzschild radius until the shutdown of everything stranded him in Maine on a visit to Maddy. Now fallen into a life of quiet simplicity, he’s managed to let go a lot of the things that he needed to let go of…until Peter’s steel behemoth rolls up to him.

It’s not clear what Peter is looking for, but Maddy isn’t having any of it, and despite its having the only working expresso maker onboard, she considers his machine a white whale at best, a magnet for trouble at worst.

Lethem always marches to the beat of his own drum, and he’s doing it again.

Nucleation by Kimberly Unger | 13 Nov 2020 |Tachyon Publications

Helen Vectorovich is a remote operator running a robotic assembler through a micro wormhole, which would normally be how you build up a jumpgate. This time though, when Helen and her NAV log into the waldo from the Far Reaches lab on Earth, she finds the construct full of clouds of destroyed nanomachines, and instead of them building it up, it’s getting…eaten. I’m not saying it’s aliens, but it’s aliens.

The run aborts when a strange signal comes back up the link, overloading Helen’s NAV’s nervous system and nearly causing her to blackout. After she is yanked from the run, nobody will tell Helen what happened to her NAV or what happened at the far end. Her flight status is revoked pending medical evaluation and she’s put on the analysis team to figure out what went wrong, because nobody’s thinking aliens, except Helen, who was there, but she knows that sharing that theory will get her banned permanently from Ops duty.

Helen has to get back out there, partly because it’s what she lives for, but mostly because she needs to find out what happened that killed her friend and colleague, the one with the quick quips who provided a buffer between her and the whole messy human side of things.

Nobody is making that easy though, not the team doctor, not her superiors, and especially not the Operator who wanted her slot on the project. And that comment about something eating the construct didn’t make it easier for anyone to trust her judgment.

Kimberly Unger’s debut novel has some interesting things going on. Far Reach Corporation uses micro-wormholes to send entangled particles to distant stars where they use nanomachines to build jumpgates. The entangled particles enable operators on Earth to plug into bots, waldos, on the other end to assist with the project. The away teams consist of an Operator who runs the remote, and a NAV, a flight controller with their own quantum channel to keep an eye on the mission.

It’s all very NASA, with checklists for pretty much everything, and it’s a great mix of hard science-driven tech, a scientific mystery, and enough corporate skullduggery to make things interesting. I liked Helen, a cranky loner who depended on her friend and colleague to navigate the human side of things while her mind was billions of miles away.

This Virtual Night by C.S. Friedman | 13 Nov 2020 | Daw

Ru is an outrider, an explorer, and intel collector that seeks out lost Terran colonies that need reintegration. That could be a great story in itself, but This Virtual Night catches Ru off balance, back in known space after twenty years in cryo, with her ship badly damaged and her partner dead, the legacy of their botched contact. So she takes a local gig, finding out what went wrong on a research station and reporting back to Outrider intel.

Micah is a VR game designer, one of the best…and best known. His Dragonrider game is legendary. Unfortunately, it just got infamous because two players just blew up a station’s environmental controls (and themselves) while under the delusion they were unlocking a treasure in the game. Now Micah is on the run because while he knows someone tampered with his code, he also knows that a corporation is looking for a scapegoat to sacrifice.

Forced off his flightpath, his only choice for refuge is an abandoned research station…

Together, Ru and Micah wind up fighting off the crazed remnants of the station staff and try to keep a digital pandemic from wiping out humankind. First, they have to fight their way off the station, then there’s the scavenger horde to deal with, and then it’s a matter of getting anyone to believe them.

This Virtual Night returns us to the universe Friedman created in Alien Shore (1998) but with a new cast. It’s an interesting place, where mankind had developed an FTL drive and populated lots of worlds, but at a cost. Using the drive altered the colonist’s DNA, creating separated worlds with human variants. After “decades of isolation” a new form of FTL was found, but only one human variant, the Guerans, could use it.   Gene Roddenberry would have loved it.

Collections, Anthologies, and Novellas

From a Certain Point of View (Star Wars) Book 1 of 2 Edited by Elizabeth Schaefer,| 10 Nov 2020 | Del Rey

Elizabeth Schaefer has put together an amazing collection of authors for this retrospective collection of ancillary tales celebrating the 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back, and it’s nearly as diverse as the universe in the film. Wil Wheaton, Nnedi Okorafor, Ken Liu  and a galaxy of others contributed stories, not about the main characters, but about all those people (and creatures) who showed up for a minute, or a second, or were just around somewhere while things were falling apart.

Freed from moving the main plot, these characters get to have stories about who they are and what they’re willing to sacrifice for what they believe in. That goes for rebels, Imperial Admirals, assorted creatures, and everyone out there whether they’ve signed on for the fight or are just getting run over in the process. You’ll never look at a tauntaun the same way again after reading  She Will Keep Them Warm by Delilah S. Dawson, and while you may not change your mind completely about Admiral Ozzel, who made the mistake of jumping the fleet in too close to Hoth, you’ll come to understand him a better as Vader force chokes him in Charles Yu’s Kendal. In fact, you probably won’t look at anyone the same, including the main characters, but unlike some of the choices made by studios in later episodes, that’s a good thing.

As Amy Ratcliffe’s pr/journalist character Corwi points out in Heroes of the Rebellion, considering how she’d come to Hoth to find inspiring stories about Luke, Leia, and Han (though she suspects Chewie would be a better interview), she reflects after she’s helped to escape by a random soldier…

“She thought about how she’d chased the heroes of the Rebellion around Echo Base. But it wasn’t only about them. Not at all. The pilot of this carrier, the defensive fighters waiting to escort and protect them, L’cayo who led her to this seat of safety— heroes. Every one of them. Maybe their names weren’t uttered in cantinas around the galaxy. Maybe the galaxy didn’t know about their heroic deeds. It didn’t make the efforts of the dozens of beings around her any less significant. Everyone was a hero.” — From a Certain Point of View (Star Wars)

…and everyone has a story worth telling.

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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