Science Fiction to Look for April 2021

It’s spring and the world outside is about to explode with color. Or at least I think it is. I’ll have to do an EVA and see if the world is still out there. Meanwhile, while we’re waiting out the immunization of the world with bated breath, let’s read some good books. There are a slew of them coming out this April.

Pretty much everyone should be thrilled that Martha Wells has another Muderbot novel out, Fugitive Telemetry, this one set sometime before the last, which is odd, but works out fine. It’s a murder and our favorite bot has to work with humans to solve the mystery, which is good for everyone. The Last Watch by J. S. Dewes starts off a space opera with a great premise:  the ships left to guard the edge of the universe are abandoned and cut off…then turn out to be the only things that can stop it from collapsing. Spectrum by Julie E. Czerneda features more adventures with Essen, a shapeshifting galactic librarian and her friends,  number 3 in this series, and one in which something is plucking ships out of FTL corridors and destroying them. Something that’s sending messages to Essen and the library.

YA is having a great month with a pair of terrific adventures from Charlie Jane Anders (Victories Greater Than Death) a rollicking space opera where teens are co-opted into a galactic fleet, and Chaos on CatNet by Naomi Kritze, the sequel to Catfishing on CatNet featuring an AI that wants to be helpful and really likes cat pictures. CatNet finds it’s not alone out there and not all AIs are as well-intentioned as it is. Both are billed as YA, but don’t let that slow you down.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers finishes up her Wayfarers series with a group of aliens stuck in a space motel waiting out a satellite storm. It’s about the people, and it may take a few pages for you to get into it, but it’s really very good.  Unity by Elly Bangs starts out in an underwater city (where folks have settled to get away from the ruined surface), then proceeds in a scramble across that surface with a joined-mind human, a pacifist mercenary, and a mural artist without any walls to escape assassins out to finish the work they’d started long ago, eradicating anyone who could create unity. If you’ve been following Jackson Ford’s series about The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind, you’ll enjoy  Eye of the Sh*t Storm in which that girl ducks out on the government agency she works for to save a child with an electrifying talent from winding up stuck like her.

For an anthology, we’ve got a limited edition run from Subterranean, The Best of Harry Turtledove, twenty-four tales of alternate history with everything from dinos, sasquatches, and Homo Erectus to the expected reversals of fortunes for nations.

Two books I didn’t have time to read but really wish I had, are Defekt by Nino Cipri, the second in her delightful Finna series, which skewers big box stores and parallel universes, and
The House of Styx by Derek Künsken, an exciting story of survival and discovery in the clouds of Venus.


Collections and Novellas

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)

Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders | 13 Apr 2021|Tor Teen

Charlie Jane Anders is brilliant, original, cutting, affirming, and frequently funny.  Here she’s written a kick-ass YA novel that takes on virtually every trope in space opera and nails it to the door.

Tina isn’t really a human teen, though she plays one on Earth. She’s actually the clone of one of the greatest starship captains in the galaxy, one who died fighting against the incredibly misnamed Compassion. Not that the Earth has any idea there’s a galaxy of beings out there or a desperate war that’s going to come to their door any minute. Locked in Tina’s brain is the sum of everything that her progenitor knew, waiting for her to mature enough to trigger a beacon to summon the retrieval ship and unlock her true self, but when that happens, she only gets half the bargain; all the facts and none of the person she’s supposed to be.

And things are pretty dire out there in the galaxy. The Compassion is a collection of bilateral symmetry bigots led by Marrant, who was not only once a member of the Royal Fleet of peacekeepers, that Tina is part of, but a close friend of her former self as well. He’s been dosing himself with alien tech, much like the folks toying with proto-molecule augments in The Expanse, and he’s really hard to kill. Worse, he can kill with a single goo-ifying touch, a touch with affects everyone’s memories of the deceased, souring them with hate, no matter how much they may have cared for the victim.

The Compassion has the leg up on tech, having adopted alien tech from the race that had messed with the galaxy before disappearing, and when Tina arrives on the good ship Indominatble, it’s undermanned, weary, and limping along. What it needs is an infusion of new blood, and fortunately, there’s a clause in the galactic charter that says you can recruit the best and brightest from promising planets in the hope that they’ll be able to help ease those worlds into the big picture. Those recruits need to be especially flexible, and able to learn and adapt to weirdness beyond belief…so…teens.

Will Tina and a handful of Terran teens wind up saving the day? Maybe, but it’s going to get messy. Victories Greater Than Death is definitely aimed at a YA audience, but as often happens, it has a lot to offer every fan of space opera. Highly Recommended.

Unity by Elly Bangs | 13 APr 2021 |Tachyon Publications

Although Elly Bangs has been writing since at least 2009, when her short story “This Must Be The Place” came out in Strange Horizons, Unity is her debut novel. In this post-apocalyptic world, humanity has survived climate change, the threat of asteroid impact, bio-weapon plagues, and more. Not on the land, where the American empire is now in ruins and tent cities, where dust, radiation, and CO2 poisoning are the new normal, but under the sea, there are high tech cities breathing pure air and living in highly regimented societies.

Danae is a tech worker in Bloom City, off what was the California coast, or that’s what she’s been posing as, as she is hiding from a religious cult that knows she is really part of a distributed consciousness, a lone survivor of the larger self that they’d massacred. When terrorists damage the aquacity, she’s forced to escape along with her lover, Naoto, and a mercenary guide, Alexei, each carrying their own brand of guilt and horror with them into the wasteland of the former United States. Danae hopes to find some remnant of the group mind she was part of, though she believes that the things she’s done mean that she can never join them again. Alexei’s hoping to die, because of the things he’s done as a soldier, but each has a connection to life through someone else that’s holding them in the world. They’re both hunted by the ruler of Bloom City; Danae for the nanotech that allows her to unify with others, Alexei for rejecting the Duke’s patronage and choosing to protect his client.

There’s quite a bit going on in here, and I found it harder to connect with Danae and her many lives, than with Alexei, gripped by guilt and despair. She’s saved the world on several occasions, or her linked-minded cohort did, but one terrible act makes her condemn herself. Alexi, a killer, has come to the place where he can no longer kill, and seeks redemption through protecting his client, and hopefully dying in the process.

It’s a good novel, and there’s plenty of action if that’s what you came for, but it’s the character’s inner journeys that take center stage. The jacket copy says that it evokes “the grittiness of Mad Max and the idealism of Sense8,” and I suppose that’s true, but there’s a Station Eleven vibe that I think is closer to the mark.

The Last Watch by J. S. Dewes | 20 Apr 2021|Macmillan-Tor/Forge

It’s been centuries since humanity defeated the Viator, but they still stand watch at the Divide, the black barrier at the edge of the universe. The Sentinels may be the stuff of song and legend, but manning the dreadnought Argus has fallen to the least of the service, those who’ve screwed up so badly they’ve no place else to go. Fortunately, it takes a certain talent to screw up that badly, because when the Divide fails, it’s going to be up to them to stand against the darkness.

Cavalon Mercer was heir to the empire, much as he didn’t want it, or what the empire was becoming. When piling up doctoral degrees stopped letting him escape his responsibility, he went to more drastic measures…and wound up sent to the Legion to protect humanity from the Void. Given the lowest rank and no training, Cavalon has more than a little trouble fitting in. Or getting along with his commanding officer,  Adequin Rake, who was a special operations hero the last time a remnant of the Viator showed up.

If Cavalon is no soldier, Adequin is no ship’s captain, and the Argos, once a formidable dreadnaught, is now little more than a prison station, its FTL engines stripped, and only its maneuvering thrusters left to keep it a steady distance from the matter/dark matter interface that defines the boundary of the universe. Keeping your distance from the void is a really good idea, as strange things happen when you get too close, including temporal echoes from possible future selves that are, at the very least, annoying. Since no ship has ever entered the void and returned, that seems like a prudent thing not to do as well.

Except the Argos seems to be determined to keep drifting towards it, and the maneuvering thrusters may not be up to the job of keeping them back. It’s going to be up to Adequin and Cavalon, who may find that education is handier than he expected, to figure out what’s going on and do something about it before it’s too late.

The author has done some interesting tweaking to signal that this isn’t your father’s universe. Instead of captain, Adequin is Excubitor, and Cavalon is a grunt, an Oculus. The ship names are all from Greek Mythology, and it all gives their universe a Rome-never-fell flavor, but the exact differences between our verse and theirs aren’t made clear. At least, not yet.

You’ll find echoes of Ender’s Game, every Trek series ever, The Game of Thrones, and The Expanse here, and it should come as no surprise that the author is a scriptwriter when she’s not flinging Sentinels against the void.

This is J. S. Dewes’ debut novel and the first in a three-book series. It’s a gripping start, and The Last Watch is a satisfying first act in what will become a game of empire as the action moves forward in the following books. Fans of hard sf will find their willful suspension of disbelief can’t take much more, as Dewes unleashes every piece of sci-fi tech in the book as she propels her characters through crisis after crisis. The good news is that she’s managed a strong mix of high-intensity plot with some real character conflict. Adequin has to resolve her unquestioning loyalty to the Legion, and Cavalon has to do a lot of “shit cutting” if they’re going to save the day. Highly Recommended.

Spectrum by Julie E. Czerneda | 20 Apr 2021|DAW

Spectrum rounds out the Web Shifter’s Library series following  Search Image and Mirage featuring Esen, a shapeshifting alien, and her efforts to found a library where all intelligent species can share knowledge and culture to foster peace in the galaxy. Esen first appeared in Beholder’s Eye, Web Shifters #1, when she was sent to explore a world that seemed safe enough, but turned out to be anything but. Still, she got some friends, including her constant collaborator, Paul Ragem,  out of the deal, and two and a half books later, a home at the library.  As promised at the end of the last book, this one features Diplomat Evan Gooseberry, a close friend of Esen’s who’s unaware that she’s exactly the thing that gives him anxiety attacks.

Fortunately for Evan, the shapeshifter’s default form is that of a Lanivarian, an intelligent canine species, and who doesn’t love a smart pup? Unfortunately for Evan, at the end of the previous book, he found he needed to go home to find some answers to questions about his origins, and the answers are going to be the last thing he wants to hear.

Not to make light of the existential crisis central to the series. Something out there has been grabbing ships, tearing their crews apart, and plunking them down along a boundary in space. It’s more than existential for Paul because his mother Veya was in the first crew taken. It’s going to take Esen, Evan, Paul, and all their friends at the All Species’ Library of Linguistics and Culture to confront the force behind the line.

Czerneda’s writing excels at using an ensemble cast to move a carefully-crafted plot forward. The result is a book that makes you want to spend time with the characters to find out who they are as much as what they’re going to do. If you don’t want to start at the beginning of the trilogy, that’s fine. Spectrum is a good read on its own, and if you’ve read the review, you should have a fair grip on the main players. It’s still worth reading the novella that falls between the first series, The Only Thing to Fear (Web Shifters #3.5) which introduces both the library and Evan Gooseberry. Or you can just jump in and enjoy some excellent storytelling.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers | 20 Apr 2021|Avon and Harper Voyager

So ends Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer series, which began with the much acclaimed The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014) and introduced us to the mixed bunch of aliens that crew the aging and patched-up wormhole-tunneling ship Wayfarer. In this fourth book, we don’t see the return of those characters, though one of the alien cast of this book was on the way to spend time with her favorite human, Ashby, the Wayfarer’s captain.

Becky Chambers’s books are all about character, culture, working through your issues, and ultimately, finding family among strangers.  If you’re dead set on a gripping plot, Chambers won’t help you there, but you really shouldn’t let that put you off. Her characters face plenty of crisis, internal, interpersonal, and externally, especially since the setup here is a catastrophic satellite cascade failure that shuts down all travel to and from the remote planet Gora.

Gora’s only interesting feature is that it’s located at the nexus of a number of wormholes to places people actually want to go for one reason or another, and the sudden rain of satellite debris manages turns a quick stopover into a close encounter between travelers, all alien btw, at the Five-Hop One-Stop, which is somewhere between a Motel 6 and a small resort, run by Ouloo and Tupo, her not-yet-gender-declared offspring. Though the latter with heels dragging, apparently a universal constant.

Stranded at the Five-Hop are three very different spacers. Roveg is a Quelin, exiled from his homeworld for creating subversive virtual sims and Speaker, an Akarak, the Holy non-oxygen breather in the collection, who wears an exo-shell whenever she goes out, partly because of the atmosphere, but also because of birth defects. Lastly, there’s Pei, captain of a supply ship that operates in combat zones, currently on shore leave and eager to see Ashby, the Wayfarer’s captain, with whom she’s been having an interspecies affair, something she’s been hiding from her crew.

As usual, everybody has issues. I kept waiting to find out what Roveg was so desperate to get to, because that seemed like it might drive the plot, but what all the conflicts, internal and external, drive is the need for these five people to lean on each other for support in the face of a crisis they have no control over.

Most of the time I’m riveted by wanting to know what happens next. There are a few writers that can create a compelling story about people coming together and the plot, such as it is, is just there to give them something to do while they deal with stuff. Nathan Lowell and his Solar Clipper series are one such, which I enjoy so much I go back to them from time to time. Becky Chambers is another, though I found it frustrating that for the most part, since she changes the cast of each book. This isn’t a book to rush through, but one to kick off your shoes and settle down with. By the end, I was thoroughly engaged and delighted with where the story wound up. Recommended.

Chaos on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer | 27 Apr 2021|Macmillan-Tor/Forge

Naomi Kritzer follows up Catfishing on CatNet, her debut YA novel about an AI that likes cat pictures and being helpful,
with Chaos on Catnet, where we get the search for the other AI out there that was promised at the end of the first book and a new broken person to fix, since Steph, the human protagonist of the first book, is mostly ok now. Steph’s new friend Nell, on the other hand, is dealing with the fallout from her upbringing in an ultra-conservative religious community, the disappearance of her mother, and her transition to life with her dad…who’d left the family and gone to a polyamorous lifestyle. There’s plenty of sting for the CheshireCat to untangle there.

The teens sign up for Mischief Elves, an online game that another student tells them that she’s been given a mission to recruit two new players. Soon they’ve been given small, innocuous missions of their own, crossing a street against the light for one, and when Steph actually completes the task, she gets a gold star, but Nell fakes it and doesn’t. It starts to dawn on Steph that the game is actually aware of her real-world moves, just as CheshireCat is.

The personalities of CheshireCatand the other AI remind me of Robert Sawyer’s Webmind in Wake (2009) and the AI network in Bruce Sterling’s Maneki Neko (2011) which you can (and should) read online. Then there’s the Catacombs, the app that Nell’s religious community is connected to, and it’s got missions to offer too. Ironically, the progressive high school both girls are enrolled in sends them out on missions to hone their adulting skills, but at least there doesn’t seem to be an AI in that mix.

It’s not just Nell’s mother that’s gone missing, as she finds out when she tries to reach back to her girlfriend in the community. Nell fears that their relationship has been outed and the friend sent off for conversion therapy, which she confides in Steph, who in turn enlists ChesireCat. Add in elements from the white hat hacker company that Steph’s mom was part of and a powerful hacking tool she’d developed, and you can see that this book is rife with conspiracy and complicated connections. There’s a lot going on here that’s creepy, even terrifying, as the missions continue. As a cautionary tale about sharing, privacy, and the digital realm, there’s a lot of good information here, and not just for YA readers.

My first thought reading this was that it’s basically a teen with conflicts story where the AI plays guidance counselor, but after a few chapters, I realized it’s really a lot more hardcore AI science fiction than that. It does offer a window into teens and their relation to apps and social media, but Kritzer has taken the opportunity to imagine a near-future Minneapolis where lessons were learned from George Floyd’s death, while at the same time it’s still able to be ground zero for the apocalypse. Chaos on CatNet is as fraught with insight as anything from Cori Doctorw or William Gibson. Highly Recommended.

Eye of the Sh*t Storm (The Frost Files, 3) by Jackson Ford | 27 Apr 2021|Orbit

Teagan Frost just can’t catch a break. Sure she can move sh*t with her telekinetic powers, but saving the West Coast from assholes who want to destroy it is a full-time job. In the last book, she had to deal with a kid that could cause quakes, narrowly avoiding the big one for LA, well, most of LA. Now she’s up against a seriously high-voltage vandal, a kid who can electrify anything and call down lighting. Ok, he’s not actually a vandal, just a 5-year-old Asian boy with a power he’s using to protect himself and no real understanding of the consequences. When a city block starts humming with high voltage, Teagan and the covert ops China Shop team are sent to check it out. When Teagan realizes that the source is just a child, she can’t bring herself to turn him over to Tanier, the spook that oversees the China Shop, and Teagen herself.

The China Shop is a covert ops team built around Teagan Frost, the girl who can move sh*t with her mind. It’s kind of Al Mundy, It Takes a Thief deal, where Teagen gets to avoid being poked in a government lab in turn for her services for the Feds. No way is she going to let Leo, the electric kid, wind up in their hands. So she skips out on her team; Annie the tough Latinx; Africa the homeless guy she recruited; Reggie, the former spook now hacker in a wheelchair; and Moria Tannier, herself, ice queen of spookdom.

Between Teagen’s disappearance, Annie’s grief over losing a team member in the last book, Reggie’s having to lie to Tannier that everything’s under control, and Africa’s torn loyalties, LAs power grid isn’t the only thing liable to go down hard. To make things more interesting, it’s not just the Feds who want Leo, and they have to contend with the Zig Zag Man, another powered person in league with the lab that tweaked Leo’s DNA. The Zig Zag man is able to reach into your mind and pull out the thing you want (or fear) most and make it real to you. And what he wants is Leo, and maybe Teagan in the bargain.

LA is a mess following the quakes in the last book, but no more so than what’s going to happen to the China Shop if the team doesn’t stop breaking dishes. Thanks to the gritty streetwise characters, The Frost Files reads like a post-apocalyptic noir novel, and though Teagan isn’t easy to like, she’s hard to forget.

Collections, Anthologies, and Novellas

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells | 27 Apr 2021|Macmillan-Tor/Forge

Fugitive Telemetry is a set shortly after our Murderbot has found freedom, friendship, and a sort of family on Paradise Station while guarding its mentor, Dr. Mensah. It’s not a prequel to Network Effect, which comes later, in that there’s no plot carryover to speak of. My first reaction was dismay that this didn’t follow the last book but went back in time when all I really wanted was to see what happens next, but it only took a few pages for me to get over that.

Who am I kidding? It had me at the first paragraph.

“The dead human was lying on the deck, on their side, half curled around.  A broken feed interface was scattered under the right hand. I’ve seen a lot of dead humans (I mean a lot) so I did a scan and compared it to archived data…” — Fugitive Telemetry

Murderbot gets called in to help with a homicide on Paradise Station because as a SecUnit it’s got more experience than the station’s security, which is more safety patrol than SVU and it’s all too likely that the evil corporation that had been trying to get rid of our favorite bot and his friends was behind it anyway. If you’re at all familiar with the series, you know how eager Murderbot is to work closely with the human investigators, who are every bit as reluctant to be working with a “rogue SecUnit” with a murdery past. Even if it was before the memory wipe and not its fault anyway.

But Murderbot is better equipped to investigate, even if it’s often shut out of the case. Of course, in true PI fashion, that just means that it can go it alone, at least until it’s got something worth going after with official help. The story evolves as a whodunnit on a station with plenty of plot twists and is over far too soon. Though this case closes without any loose ends to tie up, Fugitive Telemetry carves out space for Murderbot to keep on doing what it’s been doing, watching episodes of Sanctuary Moon, protecting Dr. Mensah and its friends, and solving mysteries for the enjoyment of readers. Highly Recommended.

The Alien Stars: And Other Novellas by Tim Pratt | 27 Apr 2021|Angry Robot

The Alien Stars is Angry Robot’s first novella collection, featuring three stories that return us to Tim Pratt’s Axiom universe. If you funded the Kickstarter campaign for the collection you’d be reading this already, instead of waiting for the end of the month. As he says in that campaign, although the story of the crew of the White Raven and the “malevolent, ancient, genocidal aliens known as the Axiom” is finished, he didn’t “destroy the whole galaxy, or even murder the entire crew, there are still stories to be told within that world.”

Each story focuses on a different character from the original three books, where none of them actually got to play a lead character. That being said, you’ll certainly get more out of the books if you’ve read the novels, but if you haven’t there should be enough there to keep you going.

Since these were secondary characters in the novels, reading this first could be interesting, giving you a different perspective on the crew when you read the novels, which once you get to know Ashok, Shall, and Lantern, you’ll likely have to do.

The Best of Harry Turtledove by Harry Turtledove | 30 Apr 2021|Subterranean Press

Harry Turtledove likes to mess with history. Sometimes it’s through the actions of Time Agents, like in Agent of Byzantium (1987) or The Guns of the South (1992) and sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw as in Ruled Britannia (2002) where the Spaniards conquered Briton, at least for a while. Sometimes he changes a whole planet (A World of Difference [1990]} and sometimes it’s just a matter of who got there first as in A Different Flesh (1988) where Homo Erectus migrated to the Americas (rather than the ancestors of the Native Americans).

No matter what, Turtledove loves to turn things on their head to see what they look like. Here you’ll find that sasquatches can be pretty reasonable folks in  “Peace is Better”,  but that they’re not immune to flexing a little political muscle in “Typecast”. In “Bonehunters,” Junior & Me, and The Quest for the Great Gray Mossy, we get to peer into a world where dinosaurs didn’t die off, quite the contrary. No alternate history universe is complete without considerations of the Holocaust, which we get in “The Eighth Grade History Class Visits the Hebrew Home for the Aging,” a world in which Anne Frank survived. Nor is persecution by the church safe from Turtledove’s scrutiny in his confrontation between Galileo and the Holy Inquisition in “But It Does Move.” All told there are twenty-four stories here, culled from Turutledove’s various worlds. 

Half the fun in these stories is the scenery and watching how the author has messed with a timeline (or universe) to let him model different outcomes than the world we know. The other half is his characters, which are warm and richly created, and which tell you a lot about the prolific author behind the curtain. My only real critique to this collection is that the stories run one after another without pause for a few words from the author to provide context

Subterranean’s site has samples from a number of the stories on the books page for you to check out. The edition is limited to 1000 signed editions, but not, alas, as an eBook so far as I can tell.

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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