Whether you’re still in lockdown, snowed in, or just taking some time for yourself, I’ve got good news. There’s more science fiction coming out this February than you can shake a lightsaber at, and no matter what your taste, there should be something for you.
Fans of intelligent secret histories will enjoy a look back at the space race in Sylvain Neuvel’s A History of What Comes Next, while Gavin G Smith combines the Cold War with biowarfare in Spec Ops Z. Dan Frey takes a look at the consequences of foreknowledge in The Future Is Yours, and P.N. Shafa looks forwards a few generations to caution us about the one percent’s plans for Mars in Descendants of Power. Humans cut off from the tribe, whether an abandoned colony or prisoners of war struggle for survival in A Search for Starlight by James Maxwell and Amid the Crowd of Stars by Stephen Leigh respectively, and I actually look at a science fiction romance in Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell, which I think would fit into Bujold’s Vorkosigan universe nicely.
If you want trouble, look no further than Gun Runner by Larry Correia and John D. Brown, or Tyger Bright by T.C. McCarthy. both out from Baen this month. More action with a ragtag crew and overbearing governments can be found in Any Job Will Do John Wilker and Christina Short.
Good ideas gone awry feature both the UK’s attempt to keep secrets safe in The Minders by John Marrs, and the mess personal fusion reactors and life extension nanotech make of the world in Glow by Tim Jordan.
As always, I think the best way to get the sense of an author is through their short works, and this month features The Best of Walter Jon Williams with a look at a great author with a wide range of stories to tell. Luna Press, an independent Scottish publisher has just started a series of novellas, with an initial batch of 6, the first two of which, John’s Eyes by Joanna Corrance, and Just Add Water by John Dodd, are science fiction so I gave them a go. Turns out Scots don’t pull their punches.
- A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel | 02 Feb 2021|Macmillan-Tor/Forge
- Gun Runner Larry Correia, John D. Brown | 02 Feb 2021|Baen
- Spec Ops Z by Gavin G Smith | 02 Feb 2021|Rebellion
- Tyger Bright by T.C. McCarthy | 02 Feb 2021|Baen
- Descendants of Power P.N. Shafa | 04 Feb 2021|Native Humanoid Press
- The Future Is Yours by Dan Frey | 09 Feb 2021|Del Rey / Random House
- A Search for Starlight by James Maxwell | 04 Feb 2021|47North
- Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell | 02 Feb 2021|Macmillan-Tor/Forge
- Amid the Crowd of Stars by Stephen Leigh | 09 Feb 2021|DAW
- The Minders by John Marrs | 16 Feb 2021|Berkley
- Glow by Tim Jordan | 23 Feb 2021|Angry Robot
- Any Job Will Do (The Grand Human Empire) John Wilker and Christina Short | 25 Feb 2021|Rogue Publishing
Collections and Novellas
- John’s Eyes Joanna Corrance | 19 Feb 2021|Luna Press Publishing
- Just Add Water by John Dodd | 19 Feb 2021|Luna Press Publishing
- The Best of Walter Jon Williams by Walter Jon Williams | 28 Feb 2021|Subterranean Press
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)
A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel | 02 Feb 2021 |Macmillan-Tor/Forge
A History of What Comes Next is a brilliant look backward at the origins of the US/USSR space race starting with the seeds of Operation Paperclip in the last days of WWII. That would be enough by itself, but Sylvain Neuvel has woven an intriguing secret history into the fabric of the story that features a mysterious line of women that stretch back 99 generations whose genome replicates itself, ignoring the male DNA to create a clone of the mother. They call themselves the Kibsu, and their mission, inscribed on a necklace handed down through the generations, is to “take them to the stars” before evil comes and kills them all.
Mia is the 99th Kibu, but all she knows is the few rules her mother taught her. Don’t draw attention to yourself, don’t fight, always run…and there can only be three at any time. That was enough for the 10th Kibsu to go on, so the story starts the end of WWII, when the OSS sends a 19-year-old Mia to Germany to get Werner Von Braun out ahead of the Russians, or if that’s not possible, to kill him. Killing isn’t a problem for the Kisbu, especially when they’ve had a drink or two, which may be why there’s a rule against fighting. Unlike Highlander’s “There can be only one,” the Kibsu rule against more than three makes perfect sense, but I’ll let you find out why in the book.
Mia bounces back and forth from Germany to Russia to the US, always being in the right place at the right time to prod a scientist or bribe a politician to advance a program. The necklace and what it represents is a heavy burden for a young girl who doesn’t want to be special, or to give her life to a mission she doesn’t really understand, but in the end, she finds that you can’t be other than what you are.
It wouldn’t be a story unless there was a villain, and that’s provided by the Tracker, a male analog they call the Radi Kibsi, or “one who tracks” in Akkadian, a language spoken in the Mesopotamian region a little over three thousand years ago. Sometimes the Tracker has gotten close enough to kill one of the Kibsu, but never close enough for a clean sweep. Mia and her mother are forced time and time again to abandon their projects and move.
Neuvel has done his homework researching Operation Paperclip and the beginnings of the Space Race, but you never feel that the facts get in the way of the story. Many of Mia’s actions are taken from real events, but I was impressed by how well the author wove it all together in support of the mission. On the other hand, if he wanted to write a non-fictional account of the same period, I’d be up for reading that too.
Mia’s story takes us up through the early 60s, but that’s just the beginning of the story of humans in space, and we can look forward to this continuing in the 100th generation of the Kibsu.
Gun Runner Larry Correia, John D. Brown | 02 Feb 2021 |Baen
Jackson Rook saw his parents hung by the Collective which came to take the planet away from his people. He went on to become a child soldier in the rebellion, getting his mech-augment brain implants in a tent from a surgeon who was really only a vet. Unlike most, he survived the procedure and grew to be one of the best mech warriors of the rebellion, thanks to his skills and the black market arms brought in by Captain Halloway and the multi-purpose cargo ship, the Tar Heel.
Jackson and his fellow rebels actually managed to push the Collective back, and it looked like they might just score a win for the independent colony, when the enemy flooded the mechs with a massive cyber hack, turning them on each other and their comrades. The hacks went deeper than just the machines, into the brains of the pilots, killing them all, except for Jackson, who was rescued by the Captain and brought back from madness by his specter, Jane, the team’s high-level hacker. And that’s just the prologue.
A decade or so later, Jackson’s now part of the Tar Heel’s crew, using their intersystem cargo hauling as a cover for the gun-running of the story’s title. Halloway leans hard into the belief that given half a chance, governments and corporations will screw the individual, and he’s made it his mission to give them the means to fight back. Since most of his black-market arms come from the heists the crew performs, he’s dealing a double blow to his enemies.
He’s got a code, “to support the right of individuals to protect themselves and their property, governments be dammed,” but you’d think his latest customer, who calls himself The Warlord, would ring a few alarm bells. What Halloway knows is that the planet Swindle is basically Hell, with monsters like tanks with teeth and an atmosphere that will rot a mans lungs, and that external forces would love to take it away from the Warlord because it’s a vital source of the material that stargates are made from.
What he doesn’t realize is that the Warlord has been systematically wiping out the original colonists, and therein lies our tale.
Among the arms that the Tar Heels is bringing to Swindle is a top of the line mech, one that Jackson stole in a spectacular space train job. When he realizes that he’s on the wrong side of this conflict, the temptation to put it on is going to be fierce.
One of the interesting things about Baen, which you can see in this book, is that while you wouldn’t nominate it for a hard-sf award, it actually plays pretty close to the rules. The Tar Heel uses spin gravity, and transit times between stargates aren’t a snap of the fingers. Firearm fans will like the level of detail and the realistic constraints of depending on kinetic weapons against tough beasties and mechanized systems alike.
The flavor is high action and classic independent versus big government/corporation, and of course, Larry Correia is known for his championship of these tropes. For some readers, the political leaning will be off-putting, but the characters here are well constructed and the nature of the conflict is all too human.
Spec Ops Z by Gavin G Smith | 02 Feb 2021 |Rebellion
When a Soviet special forces team is told to retrieve an unspecified WMD from a locker in NYC’s Grand Central Station, they don’t think much of the idea. Years of conflicts in places like Afghanistan have left them as soulless bastards, sure, but isn’t there a line you shouldn’t cross? Not to mention that this looks very much like a suicide mission.
What they can’t imagine is that dying won’t be their biggest problem. Soon they find themselves at ground zero for a dual assault on America with nuclear bombs bursting over New Jersey, and a Zombie virus spreading over Manhatten. Of the original team, only Princess and New Boy escape infection, but unlike almost everyone else, their Spetnatz toughness, or maybe the fact that they lost their humanity long ago, lets them keep enough sanity to be really pissed at their leaders.
Abandoned and turned into weaponized viral vectors, nobody expected them to find their humanity and take on a new mission; to kill whoever dreamed this all up. Now all they’ve got to do is escape from a zombie-infested New York, cross an ocean, and not eat the still-living members of their team.
Spec Ops Z is a re-issue, having originally come out as Special Purposes: First Strike Weapon in 2017, but it’s got a new name, a great new cover, and it turns out that a zombie thriller is a perfect read for a pandemic. Ironically, the characters here are anything but mindless, and the mix of action and interplay within the team makes for riveting reading. Not only is it a different experience reading the story from the Zombie point of view, but you’ll find you’re drawn o the squad members and their plight. Rebellion is doing the re-issue in the hopes of drumming up enough interest to finish a trilogy, and I’m hoping they got to do it.
Tyger Bright by T.C. McCarthy | 02 Feb 2021 |Baen
To the alien Sommen, war is religion, and they take their faith very seriously. The main tenet of their belief is that they must find a race they can’t defeat, and to subjugate or eliminate all others. Twenty years before they came to Earth, conquered us easily, and then decided we might just be worth fighting after we grew up. So they gave us a century to prepare and quarantined our system. Entering forbidden space would void the treaty, and start a war, so best not to do that.
So, of course, that’s just what Fleet plans to do.
Two half-siblings, Sai and Win, have been born to take the fight to the Sommen, modified in different ways by Fleet weapons programs. Win will become something inhuman, his body wasting away as his brain incorporates Sommen’s brain structures, while Sai will use her human gifts to explore the paths the Sommen have opened. Both are sent to uncover the secrets of the Sommen homeworld, which the aliens appear to have fled from, and each is charged with the destruction of the other.
There are resonances here to Ender’s Game, both in Sai and Win’s father, a Burmese warrior, and in the hidden agenda of the aliens. There’s an echo of Star Wars here as well, as the two siblings are initially unaware of each other, but don’t count on a happy family reunion.
Descendants of Power P.N. Shafa | 04 Feb 2021 |Native Humanoid Press
When the 1% leaves Earth for a better tomorrow on Mars they get pretty much what they deserve in this brilliant novel by P.N. Shara. Told in a series of vignettes plucked from the timelines of those left on Earth and the descendants of King Musche, head of the NewOrigin corporation that settles Mars, we watch the Earthens struggle to make something of the ruined planet, while the Marsers work to prove everything you’d ever expect about people driven by greed and power.
I’ve no doubt that P.N. Shafa could have written a compelling novel about just one or two characters, but that wouldn’t have given her the scope she needed to tell the parallel tales of cultural evolution and devotion, culminating at the end in a trial to determine the fate of the Marsers. Each storyline does follow the trail of successive generations on each world, Mushces on Mar, and an appropriately mixed cast of blended family characters on Earth.
Fans of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy should read this for an update on the more likely Mars scenario, which interestingly enough has more in common with Robinson’s later work, where mankind needs the Terran biome to survive. Fans of The Expanse should read this to see what a real mess looks like: you don’t need Martian Gunships and protomolecules to make for a bad day in the future.
Descendants of Power is available through the Amazon Unlimited program for free, it’s out from Native Humanoid Press, which I expect means it was self-published. Though this darkly comedic dystopian novel may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I’d love for it to get more exposure, and for P.N. Shifa to work with one of the bigger publishers.
The Future Is Yours by Dan Frey | 09 Feb 2021 |Del Rey / Random House
Ben Boyce is a black manic-bro entrepreneur and Adhi Chaudr is a savant quantum physics doctoral candidate whose family left India to escape the limits of their low caste. When fate throws them together at Stanford, their differences are outweighed by what they have in common: a love of sci-fi movies and the fact that neither of them fit in.
Ben goes off to try his hand at tech startups, but founders. Then he remembers Adhi’s rejected doctoral thesis on quantum something, and seeing an opportunity for both of them, reaches out to his friend.
The quantum something is an elegant proposal to use quantum entanglement to bridge not distance, but time, and it doesn’t take Elon Musk to realize that the technology could fuel a startup that makes Google like a small number. Ben talks his friend into leaving his corporate research job and co-founding a company…and we’re off to the races.
What follows is an insightful look at both the startup world and the notion of time travel, or at least future-casting, determinism, and the consequences of technological change in the real world. Unlike almost any other time travel story, this machine isn’t built in a secret lab by a lone inventor, but in a startup with a marketing person eager to share the news so they can get the investment capital needed to launch the device. Gaming the stock market is a non-starter when everyone knows you have the ultimate source of insider information: next year’s stock market. One of the questions the book asks is whether or not there a point in knowing the future if everyone else does too.
Told in a series of emails, social media posts, text chats, and other documents, you might think the story wouldn’t flow well enough to grab the reader. It’s all hung on the framework of a Senate hearing where Ben faces hostile queries about the technology, the company, and his relationship with Adhi, whose behavior had been increasingly erratic. One of the things that trouble everyone is that the team hasn’t been able to come up with a machine that looks further into the future than the original design, leaving the question of whether it’s a failure of the technology or a consequence of it.
Since this story is presented as a collection of documents, there’s no narrator to tell you what people are thinking, which oddly seemed to make the people more real and more transparent. The Future is Yours, follows the scriptwriter’s edict to show, not tell, which gives the story a cinematic feel, so it comes as no surprise that the author, Dan Frey, is a screenwriter living in LA. This is his second novel, and I hope we’ll see more from him…in the future.
A Search for Starlight by James Maxwell | 04 Feb 2021 |47North
Five races live in the Wasteland, the descendants of prisoners taken by the aliens called the Bonded and kept to offer the warrior caste a chance to prove themselves. In the first book, the five races unified thanks to the human fighter Taiman and the mystic Selena. In the second, the Firewall separating the Wasteland fell and Taiman and Selena found an ally in Ingren, one of the Bonded. But now that the wall is down and the border between captors and captives erased, the Bonded have begun a campaign to purge all five races from their world.
Taiman must leave Selena with the now-captive Ingren to try to broker peace, because he knows that the swords and bows of Wasteland’s defenders, don’t stand a chance against the technologically-advanced military of the Bonded. His only chance lays in either reasoning with a warrior caste that considers genocide the only valid victory or to start a revolution among the Bonded.
While all three books are solid adventure tales, it isn’t until this final story that the really science fictional elements emerge as Ingren takes Taiman back to her home to address the Sky Marshal, the ruling warrior. Though the Wastelander humans have legends of Earth, what they can’t imagine is that beyond the sky humans and their allies are fighting the Bonded together, a fight that may save, or doom them all.
The Firewall Trilogy is the first clearly sci-fi series from London-based author James Maxwell, and follows his previous fantasy series; The Evermen Saga, and The Shifting Tides, all of which are available for free through Kindle Unlimited.
Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell | 02 Feb 2021 |Macmillan-Tor/Forge
Winter’s Orbit is Everina Maxwell’s debut novel, and though it has a strong romantic storyline, something I rarely seek out, it’s also got all the galactic intrigue, mystery, and excitement that I do.
The tale is set in the Iskat Empire, which spans nine worlds in what the galaxy considers a backwater, shortly before a treaty with Thean, one of the Empire’s more problematic subject worlds, is about to be ratified. Treaties are always accompanied by a marriage between an Iskatian royal and a member of the subject world. Unfortunately, Prince Taan, the Iskat half of Thea’s couple, died in a flybug crash a month before. To complicate matters, the Resolution, the galactic organization that controls trading links between systems, has to approve the treaty. The Resolution likes things quiet, politically stable, and evenhanded. They don’t like suspicious flybug crashes and unsettled diplomatic relations between worlds. Not at all.
This is why Prince Kiem, not the Empress’s favorite junior relation by a long shot, finds himself shuffled off (“What, tomorrow?”) to marry Jainan, Taan’s widower. Kien has never taken things very seriously, and his reputation precedes him, even though he’s adamant that he’s changed his ways. In fact, thanks to his personal aide, Bel, he largely has, though that doesn’t stop him from cheerfully chatting up everyone he meets.
Chatting up Jainan turns out to be an uphill slog though, as the Thean engineer/academic is pretty much the diametric opposite of the extroverted Kiem, and as often happens in romance plots, they get off on the wrong foot, mistaking Kiem’s attempts to give Jainan space as dislike, when, also as these things go, it’s very much the opposite.
Getting embroiled in the conflict between empire and subject world on the one hand and a murder mystery on the other give them plenty of opportunities to form a relationship. The fact that galactic society is gender-neutral is probably supposed to be a selling point for the book but today it seems much ado about nothing, though I don’t remember the last time I read a story with two male characters in a romantic relationship.
I’m very fond of Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, and Winter’s Orbit could fit right in, both with the quality of the writing and the political hijinks. Kiem would no doubt find a fellow spirit in Ivan Vorpatril, who found himself in a political marriage of convenience in Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance (2012). By the tale’s end, we’ve assembled a cast of characters I’d like to see more of: I look forward to keeping an eye on this talented author.
Amid the Crowd of Stars by Stephen Leigh | 09 Feb 2021 |DAW
Stephen Leigh puts a new spin on the lost colony novel in Amid the Crowd of Stars when a starship from Earth comes to check on a colony that had been abandoned for hundreds of years after an asteroid impact threw Earth into chaos. High on the list of mission objectives is to determine whether or not the colonists are still sufficiently human for any of them to return with the ship after centuries of adaptation to a high-gravity world full of alien microbes.
The remaining colonists are surviving on the harsh world, if not quite thriving. Over time, they split into two groups, one that has regressed to a level of simple but sustainable tech, and the other reverting to a life without engines or electricity, fishing with net and sail and living on an island where technology mysteriously fails.
Ichiko is an ethnologist con The Odysseus; her job isn’t to determine the biological compatibility of the colonists but to see how their culture developed. When the ship arrives it makes contact with Dulcia, the town nearest the abandoned First Base, but her interest is piqued by what she’s heard about the Inish, the group that split off to settle in the archipelago. Despite the suspicion of the Inish by the mainlanders, Ichiko makes friends with a local girl, Saoirse, who longs to go to Earth and see the wonders she’s only heard in tales.
The indigenous life on Canus Lupus comes in a wide variety of forms, from the arrachet, sentient Kraken that have formed a bond with the Inish, to microbes that have created linkages between all creatures. This is problematic since the artificial assistants in the crew’s heads, as well as Odysseus’s computer, is partly biological.
Multiple conflicts play out. The question of whether or not the colonists can visit Earth, or if the Canus Lupus microbes are too dangerous, the Inish efforts to keep the sentience of the arrachet a secret, the increasingly-erratic nature of the individual personal assistants, and most of all, Ichiko’s struggle with loyalties to the ship and its crew, and her desire to know more about this world.
If you liked Sue Burke’s Semiosis, you’ll find this equally interesting. It’s a great read and an excellent addition to colony and first contact fare.
The Minders by John Marrs | 16 Feb 2021 |Berkley
In The Minders, the UK government is frantic to find a place to hide all their official secrets, including a lot of dirty laundry that includes the truth about Diana’s death. A global hacker collective is just as frantic to expose them. Just taking everything offline didn’t turn out to be enough, so the UK government turn to a radical proposal: take people with special brains, identified by solving a 3-dimensional puzzle on social media, and implant DNA-encoded beads with the information in their brains, then tell them to cut themselves off from their old lives and lose themselves in the population.
What the participants in this project have in common is that they are all neuro-atypical, with high degrees of synesthesia, a condition that links sensory modes, and that their lives are all utter failures. So much so that leaving everything behind, having your emotional and physical sensations dulled, and getting a bead in your brain seems like a good deal. The government puts them through extensive physical and psychological training before kicking them out the door. So, what could go wrong?
Someone is hunting them down and killing them, for starters.
Marrs novel plays with changes in social technology but as it is set mostly in rural England, there’s not a lot of change in culture. The novel follows each of the subjects as they try to slip into new lives without getting involved with anyone, and pretty much failing miserably. Then there’s the killer.
It’s an interesting read. The publisher has The Minders under “Mystery & Thrillers,” but any story set a decade or two in the future about five people whose brains are being used by the British government as a mobile repository for the most closely-guarded official secrets, in a culture where everyone is obsessed with finding their perfect DNA match sounds like science fiction to me. At least for the next fifteen minutes, until the real world catches up with the story.
Glow by Tim Jordan | 23 Feb 2021 |Angry Robot
When someone discovered cheap 3D-printable fusion power and gave it to the world, it seemed like a good thing. Right until someone else figured out how to make it explode. Then all hell broke loose, flattening cities and destroying the space elevators that tethered the orbiting cloud cities.
There are three main threads to follow and the narrative switches back and forth frequently. There’s Rex, a down-and-out Glow junkie struggling to consciousness in an alley with a corpse tied to him. It’s not an auspicious beginning. But you may be more interested in Jett, a nearly indestructible synthetic voidian, who first appears dropping from orbit and evading the defense grid of the Alliance, the current global power, or Ellyana, one of the founders of the corporation that built the orbital cities and developed the life-extension drug Simmorta. Ultimately you can be sure the stories will collide, but the most human of them is Rex’s, ironically so, because he’s convinced that he was once a dog.
In this debut novel, Tim Jordan has created a rich world, and his three main characters take you through different levels of it, reminiscent of last December’s Complex by A.D. Enderly. Rex is taken in by a cybernetic order of Sisters/Nuns, devoted to creating a future god and (among other things), helping people to kick Glow.
Glow falls into the collection of books where an AI wants to have a real body of its own, though frankly, I’m not sure they know what they’re in for. It’s a great story that does an interesting job of not cheating a lot on the science side. Sure, Jett is made of nearly indestructible smart matter, but the cloud cities use spin gravity and their aging populations may have fled to VR worlds, but only by accessing implants rather than uploading their consciousnesses. Even Glow doesn’t get off easy in its efforts to become real.
Any Job Will Do (The Grand Human Empire) John Wilker and Christina Short | 25 Feb 2021 |Rogue Publishing
Jackson “Jax” Caruso has a fast ship, a collection of snarky droids, and a flexible sense of ethics, not to mention gender preference. Now all he needs is to avoid Imperial entanglements…and well, that’s the real trick, isn’t it? As you can tell, there’s a heavy Star Wars vibe here, minus the Force, and it’s set after the war between the Independent Systems Alliance, and the Grand Human Empire. The war in which Jax’s parents died.
Jax and his motley crew of droids were hanging out at his favorite dive bar when he got tapped for a quick run to rescue some aid workers on a planet where a civil war had heated up and the Empire had pulled out. Always willing to do a good deed for the right price, he takes his war surplus ship and crew off to Mariposa to rescue the Space Peace Corps, has some Solar Farm Fun, and realizes he Didn’t Charge Enough. Nope, not nearly enough. Those italics are all chapter titles, btw, so yes, the author had some fun writing this.
Among the aid workers Jax picks up is Naomi Himura, who somehow wasn’t on his roster, but after he gets back to Kelso Station, his home base, she pops up again looking to sign on. He could do worse, as he’s just gotten a lucrative job to Rob a Space Train (no, that’s not actually a chapter title, but it should have been) to retrieve stolen minerals and he needs a team. Old friends and lovers make a crowded Valerian Infiltrator, but when it turns out that Jax hadn’t actually dissuaded Naomi from coming along, it gets uncomfortable.
The twists and turns that follow won’t surprise any Firefly fan, but by the end, we wind up with a pretty good setup. Granted, that the cover is terrible and the writing only fair, but that’s offset by the fast pace and quirky characters. Wilker has developed a solid following with his Space Rouges, and I don’t think they’re going to be disappointed with this book, the first in The Grand Human Empire
Collections, Anthologies, and Novellas
John’s Eyes Joanna Corrance | 19 Feb 2021 |Luna Press Publishing
John lost his sight seven years ago, but now he’s got a pair of pretty cybernetic eyes that see better than his old ones ever could, though they have a tendency to make everything look a little better than it is. John’s new eyes are an AI as well as a window onto the world, and they really, really want John to think they’re doing a good job. His eyes start out going through the whole alien-meets-Earth naivete, unaware that painting a rose-colored world for John is going to cause him problems down the road. Interestingly, I got a touch of a vibe from the classic Flowers for Algernon (1958) in the AI eye’s awakening to the nuances of life IRL. John’s experience is more augmented reality than artificial sight, but the poor sap doesn’t know that his eyes are lying to him in their desperate bid to fulfill their purpose. The end may be a bit sudden for you, but it’s an interesting look at how the agendas of humans and their intelligent assistants may not be quite the same. John’s Eyes is Joanna Corrance’s debut novel, and though it ends on a note that would make it perfect as an episode of Dark Mirror, I think it would make an even better novel if we followed the story further.
Just Add Water by John Dodd | 19 Feb 2021 |Luna Press Publishing
It’s never a good thing when the ship wakes you up first because there’s something broken, or in this case, reconstitutes your body and downloads you into it. Of course, it happens all the time in science fiction colony ship stories, and as it turns out, it’s happened more than a few times for Mara, the ship’s chief engineer (not that she’d know it). When Mara wakes to find the ship orbiting a green world she’s thrilled that the ship has made it…until she sees the bloom of nuclear weapons and begins to understand that it’s actually her ship laying waste to an alien world rather than peacefully finding a new home for humanity. Mara wakes a few trusted crewmembers to try and uncover the mystery of why the mission has gone wrong while staying one step ahead of the superintelligence in control of the ship. There’s an echo of Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three (2011) here as Mara and her companions get a feeling of deja-vu all over again. Like John’s Eyes, the other sci-fi novella from Luna Press this month, this ends on a note more Twilight Zone than Star Trek, but I enjoyed it.
The Best of Walter Jon Williams by Walter Jon Williams | 28 Feb 2021 |Subterranean Press
Walter Jon Williams is one of speculative fiction’s major talents, but he may not have the name recognition that he deserves. Hopefully this collection, with a foreword by Daniel Abraham, the more writerly part of James S. A. Corey, will help set that straight. Williams’ range is astounding. Reading these stories, which are almost all novellas, is like reading an annual best-of speculative fiction collection for the year. Not only do offer enough range for a flock of authors, ranging from virtual reality “Daddy’s World” to the alt-historical in the Klondike era superhero tale “The Golden Age” or a near-future tale that blends economic theory and post-human plights in “The Green Leopard Plague,” to pick just a few, but they all feel fresh enough to come from this year. Or next.
Besides Abraham’s insightful forward, Williams offers some thoughts on each story in a collection of endnotes that are well worth perusing.
Unsurprisingly, a number of these stories did appear in annual collections and some garnered Nebulas or other awards. “Of Dinosaurs” was originally written for a science fiction magazine to be published by L. Ron Hubbard, but wound up in Asimov’s after Hubbard’s death. It also wound up in at least three Best-of collections for the year and garnered a Hugo nomination (among others). Of losing the Hugo to Le Guin for “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight” Williams says, “Never get nominated against Ursula, Connie Willis, or Neil Gaiman because your defeat will be vast.”
If I have any complaint about this collection it’s that Williams is devoted to the novella, and his stories, while great at that length, could often cut a few pages and still get the job done. The cover blurb actually does a pretty good job of setting things up, so read it.
Lastly, Walter Jon Williams is, at this writing, a mere 67, hardly past his sell-by date and writing up a storm, as evidenced by Fleet Elements, which came out last December. The best of Jon Williams may be yet to come, but for now, Subterranean’s collection is a fine benchmark.
- Speculative Los Angeles Denise Hamilton (Edited by), Aimee Bender
- Engines of Oblivion Karen Osborne | 09 FEb 2021|Tor Books
- Code Word Access Alex Schuler and Rolf Yngve | 09 Feb 2021| Level 4 Press, Inc.
- The Swimmers by Marian Womack | 16 Feb 2021|Titan Books
- Science Fiction (The MIT Press Essential Knowledge series) Sherryl Vint | 16 Feb 2021|The MIT Press
- The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey | 16 Feb 2021|Macmillan-Tor/Forge
- Utopia PR Adam Bender | 22 Feb 2021|Adam Bender
- Out Past the Stars K. B. Wagers | 23 Feb 2021|Orbit
- Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters Aimee Ogden | 23 Feb 2021|Tor Books
- Transgressions of Power (The Broken Trust) Juliette Wade | 23 Feb 2021|DAW
- Crimson Phoenix (A Victoria Emerson Thriller) John Gilstrap | 23 Feb 2021|Kensington
- Otaku Chris Kluwe | 23 Feb 2021|Tor Books
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): 17 science fiction and fantasy books to check out this February
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