Science Fiction to Look for January 2021

A new year, a fresh start, and lots of great books to read. I’ve got high hopes for 2021.

This month we’ve got two books with parallel world themes, Tim Pratt’s fanciful Doors of Sleep, in which a man wakes up in a new world every time he falls asleep. He’s a little bit Dr. Who and a little bit Gulliver.  In the other, Threader Origins, a young man standing too close to his fathers’ quantum energy experiment gets shifted a world over and does not find it an improvement.

Several books involve AIs that wish they had bodies, or have gotten them on the sly, including the Seven Samuraiesque Persephone StationDealbreaker, which follows the events in L. X. Beckett’s Gamechanger from last year though a generation on, and Michael Kaufman’s The Last Exit: A Jen Lu Mystery, a police procedural about a detective with a brain implant that’s too smart for its own good.

Octavia E. Butler: Kindred, Fledgling, Collected Stories is an excellent introduction to her work from Library of America that the Library says is the first title in their “canonization of discomfort.” I know a lot of you might not be looking to be discomforted, and both this book and Nnedi Okorafor’s novelette Remote Control are anything but comfort food, However, I recommend them to you as windows into cultures that science fiction has historically used aliens to represent, but that now demand our unblinking attention.

Although I try to stick to books I’ve actually gotten my hands on, there are two upcoming titles I’m especially looking forward to though haven’t seen yet. Star Trek: Picard: The Dark Veil (2) by James Swallow is set before the series opens and has Riker in command of the Titan, Seeing Riker in the big chair in Picard facing down Roumulans made me want more of that, so hopefully this will deliver. Adrian Tchaikovsky is on my shortlist of authors to keep a close eye on and his second Expert Systems book, Expert System’s Champion, looks interesting. Check out these and more in my Other Recommendations section.

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)

Domesticating Dragons Dan Koboldt | 05 Jan 2021|Baen

As a rule of thumb, dragons are the province of fantasy novels. Notable exceptions are Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, Alan Dean Foster’s Pip & Flinx Series, wherever you want to call Michael Swanwick’s Iron Dragons, and now Dan Kobolt’s Domesticating Dragons. Kobalt takes the science part of sf seriously, as you might expect from the author of Putting the Science in Fiction (2018), and since he’s a genetics researcher himself, it comes as no surprise that the dragons in the title are chimeras, creatures spliced together to create something that flies, chomps, and (if you check the option box) spits flame. That’s all well and good, you say, but how about the story?  Fear not, the story is as much fun as the science.

Noah Parker set out to prove that the muscle-wasting disease his bother Conner suffers is genetic in origin so that he can be a candidate for gene therapy.  The kind of resources it will take to make that case mean leaving academia for the private sector and the best place to implant the genes he needs to grow is at Reptilian Corp., the place they make dragons. Reptilian has a problem too; the dragons they created to control the wild hog population in the Southwest have been too successful, so now they’re looking at creating a pet dragon. If they could only tweak the dragon genome to keep them from killing their owners, they might have something.

Working at Reptilian, which was founded by an eccentric genius Noah admires, should be the thrill of a lifetime, giving him the opportunity to apply his talents as a genetic engineer and a chance to sneak in the sequence that will give Conner a chance. But corporations have a way of taking the fun out of things, as Noah discovers, and he’s going to have his hands full trying to protect the dragons he’s created as well as save his brother.

It’s a fun read, with an engaging cast of characters, not the least of which, unsurprisingly, are the dragons.

Persephone Station Stina Leicht | 05 Jan 2021|Gallery/Saga

When a small band of ethical mercenaries names their dropship Kurosawa, they shouldn’t be surprised if they wind up protecting a village of peaceful folks against evil corporate interests. Right?

Angel and her crew of feisty gals have a contract with Rosie, bar owner and crime boss on the planet of Persephone Station. They’re criminals, but they’re not horrible people. Unfortunately, not all the turf owners can make the same claim, and Rosie sends Angel and company to exact revenge for killing one of the squad. That goes off ok, but suddenly another player shows up and kills a corporate bigshot, and our gals are set up as the guilty parties.

So Rosie ships them off to the backcountry, where there’s a group of alien shapeshifters that have been keeping their continued existence quiet (probably for fear of being wiped out) to stay under the radar while protecting the aliens (cue the theme from The Magnificent Seven) from an imminent corporate assault.

Add into the mix an AI downloaded into a human body who’s come to answer a distress call that could only have come from another AI, a corporate turf war, and probably most important, the reappearance of Sukyi, an old friend living on borrowed time and keeping a secret that will change Angel’s life. If Angel’s code of honor doesn’t get her killed first.

The blurb calls it a mashup of The Mandalorian and Cowboy Bebop, and I can see how they’d get that, but without Baby Yoda, or the cool jazz playing during the fight sequences, it’s just not the same. Still, it’s a good read, and there’s room for more stories in this universe.

Doors of Sleep: Journals of Zaxony Delatree by Tim Pratt | 12 Jan 2021|Angry Robot

Zaxony Delatree, Zax to his friends, has a sleeping problem. Every time he falls asleep he jumps to a new universe. It all started when he helped calm a strange woman who was trying to kill herself, which got blood all over the place, including on (and presumably in) Zax. As his traveling companion  Minna points out, “There is so much blood in this story.”

Zax isn’t the kind of desperate traveler we’re used to, determined to discover how to control his gift/affliction and get back home. He’s more of an Arthur Dent (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) sort. As long as he’s got his trusty backpack, a supply of sedatives for times when a sudden shift is needed, and his journal, he’s content. Or maybe he’s just given up. Basically, he’s willing to go from world to world, being however helpful he can – it’s his nature – and not looking back.

Zax can have companions, and in fact, Minna is the ninth. If they are asleep and touching him, they’ll go with him when he travels. If they’re awake they’ll go too, but the only time it happened his companion ran off screaming, so he tries to avoid that. He found Minna on an oppressive farming world, and she’s part plant. She’s not a rocket scientist, but she’s no scarecrow either. Zax’s other companion is an AI in a crystal named Vicki, who doesn’t completely understand human emotions.  No…they’re not off to see a wizard. Instead of a wicked witch, Zax’s got “the Lector”, a scholar/scientist that he ran into early on who convinced him to take him along, and now dogs him from world to world using blood he harvested from Zax. Since the Lector isn’t able to produce more, he needs to catch up with our hero(?) and maybe vivisect him to learn more.

Also, the Lector would like to establish a  cross-universe empire, and he’s not especially subtle in his methods. Somebody really ought to stop him. Anybody?

Since you only get a day in each world, it’s not as much a multi-verse novel as the concept implies. The author does get to play with a certain amount of Voltaire’s Candide meets Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels commentary on our world, but it’s the characters that pull you along from one universe to the other.

Though I was put off by the idea of yet another multi-verse novel, I found I enjoyed this book a lot. Zax means well, and he’s fairly likable, but it takes him a while to develop any sort of agency, while the Lector has it in spades. Despite Zax’s general willingness to help others, it’s not until he allows himself to care for his companions that he’s willing to take a stand.

Most likely this is a standalone novel, but there are seeds of a larger tale in it, and we’ll have to see if they sprout.

The Last Exit: A Jen Lu Mystery Michael Kaufman | 12 Jan 2021| Crooked Lane Books

Jen Lu is a DC cop in the not-too-distant future, where overcrowding, poverty, and climate crash have all made things tougher than they are now. She’s got a partner she can’t get out of her mind…because Chandler is an organic computer implanted in her head…one who can read Jen’s thoughts and even take control of her body if the need arises. Fortunately, she can turn him off when she’s not working.

Jen’s more lawful good, and Chandler’s more chaotic, which might be a good thing, except that it’s Jen who has to answer for the excessive use of force complaint on a rich man’s son. Granted, the son is a racist asshole with a prior record, but some things never change, and rich people’s tendency to bend the rules is one of them.

In Jen’s future of 2030, immortality is available, but with too many people on a planet that’s able to sustain fewer and fewer, something has to give. That’s where the Last Exit comes in. If you sign up to be euthanized at 65, your kids can have “The Treatment,” granting them about a hundred years of life, and protection from some very nasty diseases running rampant.

What parent wouldn’t want to check out to save their kids? OK, that’s why Jen works the elder beat, dealing with the stress and domestic violence that’s certain to pop up. When she starts hearing rumors of something, or someplace, called “Eden,” that some oldsters are hoping to get or get to avoid having to take the Last Exit, she’s keen to follow it up, but her Captain is keen for her to drop it. And not just her Captain. It seems that people higher up in the government have a stake in keeping the possibility of an alternative under wraps.

This is a solid read, both as a police procedural and near-future science fiction, The title promises more Jen Liu stories to come, and I’m holding Michael Kaufman to it.

Threader Origins (Quantum Empirica #1) Gerald Brandt | 12 Jan 2021|Daw

One minute, Darwin was in a lab with his father and their research team running a test on the QPS, a quantum-based power supply they hoped would revolutionize global energy supply. The next, he was in the same lab…but surrounded by different people, chanting around the QPS and manipulating glowing threads of light.  It takes him a while to realize he’s not in Kansas, or Princeton, New Jersey, anymore.

As any science fiction reader would be quick to realize, and Darwin slowly comes to accept, he’s jumped to a parallel world, one where both he and his father died years before when this world’s QPS was turned on. More than that, the initial surge from the machine gave some humans the ability to see “threads,” lines of probability showing potential future states, and some even the ability to choose a thread and strengthen it, affecting reality.

Unfortunately for that world, the war between the Threaders, and anyone without powers resulted in the collapse of civilization, the rise of the cult of the Qabal, a fanatical group who worship the QPS and are led by Rebecca, a scientist that Darwin knew in his world, but here has taken control of the machine and now wants to use Darwin to find a way to travel between worlds.

Except that he has no idea how he did it.

Now Darwin is on the run from the Qabal, with the cult tracking him and wreaking havoc along the way Never sure who to trust, his one goal is to return home, but as time goes by he becomes more and more entangled with the lives and fates of the people he meets. Ultimately he’ll have to take a stand, but first, he needs to learn how to use his powers. He may be able to save this world, but he has no idea of what it will cost him.

Threader Origins doesn’t leave you hanging, though there are plenty of possibilities to explore in what the title promises is a series. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next.

Heaven’s River Dennis E. Taylor | 24 Jan 2021|Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency

This is the fourth book in Dennis Taylor’s Bobiverse series, and though I’m reluctant to recommend books this far into a series, I have to admit that it’s one of my favorite series. The fact that you can read them in Kindle Unlimited for free doesn’t hurt. The Bobiverse is about an engineer that gets killed in the first few pages of the first book and finds himself uploaded to be the AI for one of Earth’s first starships. Along the way he’s created lots of other ship/mind clones, no two quite the same, and he’s explored a lot of space.

A hundred years before Heaven’s River, one of the Bob clones, Bender (yes, they all have snarky names) took off on its own and hasn’t been heard from since. Now Bob has decided to go looking for Bender to see what became of him, but not all the members of the Bobiverse think that’s a good idea, some with more enthusiasm than others. Family, right?

Ultimately, Bob and company find a lot more than what they were looking for and have to face a crisis unlike any they’ve met before.

Jump in here or go back to Book #1, We Are Legion (We Are Bob). Either way, I highly recommend it.

Dealbreaker (The Bounceback #2) by L. X. Beckett | 25 Jan 2021|Tor Books

There’s a lot going on in this sequel to Becket’s previous novel, Gamechanger. Like the first book, you’re either going to love it or hate it. It’s full of complex worldbuilding, with AIs, humans with stored consciousness and temporary bodies, heavy doses of VR and social media tropes, and, of course, aliens who covet the solar system. They’re held in check by a deal made in the first book, that if we can demonstrate some serious technological chops, we’ll be taken seriously.

If not, we’ll be somebody’s property, but just for our own good.

Dealbreaker takes place twenty years after Gamechanger, and the action moves from Earth to space as we try to set up a string of portals to connect us to the greater galactic community. Frankie Barnes, who was a child in the first book, is now the lead test pilot for the program, and she’s just added Maud, a new character (though their paths crossed while we weren’t looking in the first book) to her group marriage, which includes several AIs. The action, and there’s plenty of it in the 512 pages, is about sabotage efforts by the aliens to keep Earth from meeting the standard, and the machinations of a group of wealthy kidnappers that hid out from the post climate change restructuring of the planet. Frankie played a big part in bringing them down in the first book, and Maud has some history there too, but we didn’t believe for a minute that they were gone.

Frankie and Maud have to deal with secrets and hidden agendas, not to mention Frankie’s addiction to risky adventures. The recurring characters are primarily AI’s, but thanks to the amount of time everyone spends in VR, they present as people, well, Toons, anyway owing to regulations about AIs not being quite people.

You don’t have to read Gamechanger to enjoy Dealbreaker, but it’s well worth going back to for its own sake. Whether or not you do, this is definitely a book to look forward to, and L.X. Beckett an author to watch.

Note: L.X. Beckett is a pen name for Alyx­andra Margaret Dellamonica, who also writes as A.M. Dellamonica and Alyx Dellamonica (source: https://locusmag.com/2019/11/l-x-beckett-hopetopia/)

Collections, Anthologies, and Novellas

Octavia E. Butler: Kindred, Fledgling, Collected Stories Octavia Butler, Gerry Canavan, et al. | 19 Jan 2021|Library of America

Either you’ve read Octavia Butler, or you never quite got around to it. Either way, this is a collection worth sitting down with. No, Butler doesn’t lean heavily into the science side of things, but if science fiction is literature about confronting change, then her work is one hundred percent on target.  Her writing is direct and very readable. And it’s important.

There’s an ongoing discussion about whether or not science fiction has a canon, a collection of books or authors that you need to read in order to understand the genre. The answer seems increasing to be both no, and yes…there isn’t one canon, but an entire field of them each pointing in their own entirely valid directions.  Maybe you cut your teeth on Heinlein and wonder what today’s stories of outsiders have to do with science fiction.  If so, the odds are you haven’t read Octavia Bulter, ground zero for today’s literature of dissent, and you’ve missed something powerful, terrible, and wonderful at the same time.

This collection, including both her first and last novels, one about a black woman who cycles back and forth in time to confront her slave-owning ancestors and the other about a community of vampires and their kept humans, forces the reader to confront hard truths about survival in a way that few other writers have ever managed.

There are also a number of short works here, and if you know me, my soapbox says you need to read short science fiction to get the best of it. That’s all the more true here.

Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor | 19 Jan 2021|Tor.com

Fatima was a young African girl whose family farmed shea trees for their rich butter. Like her grandfather, she loved looking up at the stars, but unlike anyone else, she saw something in them that spoke to her, and she made drawings in the dirt beneath the shea tree she loved to climb. Then one day, the stars fell to Earth. Green sparks fell among the trees, but only Fatima reached out to touch them–and for her, nothing would ever be the same.

Remote Control is a beautifully written novella about a girl chosen and changed without explanation. Misunderstood by the people she meets, who only know that she can bring death in an instant, that a strange fox travels with her, and that the tools of modernity (phones, cars, and computers) are ruined by her presence.

When her ability breaks out in full, she unwittingly kills everyone around her.  Fleeing what had been her village, she takes only what she can carry with her and a new name, Sankofa­­. Wandering the countryside in search of a box containing an alien seed that her father had sold, she’s known as the adopted daughter of the Angel of Death, revered and feared by her people, and sought after by an international pharma corporation.

Don’t come to Remote Control expecting easy answers about anything. Come to meet Fatima/Sankofa and to look at the world through her eyes, and wonder who the invaders are, and with whom power ultimately rests.

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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