Science Fiction to Look for June 2021

One of the favorite themes in sf is the elder race that went away: this month, we’ve got two that play that tune….

Whether you’re looking for something new to dive into when the workday is done, or stocking up on books for your summer vacation, June has some titles you’re going to want to see.

One of the favorite themes in sf is the elder race that went away: this month, we’ve got two that play that tune: Alien Day by Rick Wilber, in which we’ve been invaded by a race who has leveraged the old ones tech themselves and added more space opera; and Megan E. O’Keefe’s final Protectorate book,  Catalyst Gate, in which humans are trying to keep from being wiped out by the AI that those-who-wait left to give right-thinking species stargates. We got the gift by cheating and now somebody’s pissed. The Ninth Metal by Benjamin Percy explores another popular theme in which alien stuff falls to earth after a comet/asteroid passed through the system. If you liked the recent NBC series Debris, this is right up your alley.

If you like hardcore sf,  a la The Martian-style mix of current and plausible space hardware, you’ll like Patrick Chiles’ Frontier, complete with geopolitics which spills over into very a well-realized kinetic conflict in space. In Ten Low by Stark Holborn, it’s what comes after the war that drives the tale when two enemies, one a former “medic” and the other a child super-soldier, need each other to survive. 

If you’re looking for something dystopian, you’ll be happy to know that When the Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson is a terrific read in the vein of Dick and Orwell, where the last nation of humans cut themselves off from the world of AIs and clones and things go downhill from there.

Finally, there’s a great collection of international sf that Lavie Tidhar has put together spanning 21 countries and a decade or so of stories. The Best of World SF: Volume 1 deserves a read by everyone interested in the shape and future of the genre, and we owe Tidhar a debt of thanks for putting it together.

Reviewed:

Collections and Novellas

if you can’t wait for these titles to be released, check out last month’s column.

Novels (in order of publication)

Alien Day by Rick Wilber | 06/01/21 |Macmillan-Tor/Forge

Rick Wilber follows up Alien Morning (2016) with a logical progression to Alien Day, set after the invasion/arrival of the Shudon and the changes that their technology brought to Earth.  This book revolves around two alien brothers, each of whom wants to control the planet.

Conquering the Earth was a forgone conclusion, and for the most part, we didn’t seem to mind. The Shudon aren’t here to colonize us so much as to treat us like a  banana republic. The question is who gets to be the governor; Twoclicks, the heir apparent, or his scheming brother Whistle? To make matters more interesting, there are multiple instances of each, one here and one back on planet Shudon, thanks to the vagaries of teleportation.

The story follows Peter Holman and Chloe Cary as they orbit the Shudon as reporter/social media presences. Peter, a washed-up athlete, heads off to the home planet where he is stuck mostly in quarantine and has adventures not getting killed by that version of Whistle, whom he’s trying to get his sister back from.

On Earth, Chloe Cary, a not quite washed-up action hero actress (and–at least publicly–Peter’s girlfriend) gets to run the social circuit in Twoclicks wake, also while not getting killed by Whistle or his agents on Earth…the leader of which happens to be Peter’s brother, Tom. She may have to put some of those sparring lessons to work IRL.

And then there’s the question of who the elder race that all this technology originally came from and what they want/wanted with the Shudon? A lot is going on but it’s all fun and you’ll catch up.

Frontier by Patrick Chiles | 06/01/21 |Baen

Patrick Charles’ second book has a classic sf feel with updated space tech and geopolitics in a near-future story that goes from low earth orbit to Mars. There’s little question that Chiles did his homework, and space buffs should enjoy the mix of existing and possible technologies, along with a plausible plot.

Classically, the story starts with Marshall Hunter’s graduation from the Space Force Academy. Chiles has managed to take the emergence of Elon Musk’s billionaires-in-space initiative, the creation of the U.S. Space Force, interest in asteroid mining, and the U.S. / Chinese struggle for dominance, and put them all together in a story that is both old and new.

We meet Hunter as he’s about to fail his “check ride.” the final step before getting his wings. For some reason (possibly because his father was a famous astronaut) the instructor has it in for him, and he narrowly avoids a trap that would have ended his career before it started. Still, he winds up getting assigned to a desk rather than a spaceship, at least for a start. But a setback like that isn’t going to keep Ensign Hunter on the ground for long, and soon he’s the most junior officer on the U.S.S. BORMAN, the Space Force’s all-purpose rescue and enforcement vessel, operating in cislunar orbit.

Chiles hasn’t given the BORMAN a super drive and force fields but instead has created a very plausible general-purpose craft. So when a pair of billionaires doing a proof of concept/publicity stunt to assay an asteroid goes bad, it takes some real NASA/Space Force effor to refit the BORMAN in time to make a rescue before the equations make certain it’s only to a recovery mission for the bodies. Fortunately, the Chinese are willing to lend a hand…so what could go wrong?

Recommended for all you space tech die-hards out there.

The Ninth Metal by Benjamin Percy | 06/01/21 |Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The Ninth Metal is Benjamin Perry’s fifth novel, alongside with a considerable career which includes writing Green Arrow and Teen Titans series for DC Comics. The story is probably inspired by the 2017 visit of the asteroid/comet Oumuamua to our solar system, as was the ill-fated NBC series Debris. In Debris, it was alien tech that fell to Earth, but here it’s a new unknown noble metal, omnimetal, with strange powers beyond the ken of mortal men.

“Some people call it the greatest energy source it the world. Others call it a defiance of everything scientists have come to understand about physics and biochemistry. And a few call it God.” – The Ninth Metal

Basically, it’s unobtanium, and it affects different people or things in unique ways. Levitation for a bullet train. Invulnerability for a child bathed in the meteoric splash. Visions for the cult that springs up to use it as a drug. The story is set in the small mining town of Northfall, Minnesota, whose days as an iron ore source are waning, but thanks to sudden massive deposits of omnimetal is experiencing a gold rush-style revival.

The conflict is between the Frontier family, who made the town in the iron ore days, and a shady new company, Black Dog Energy, who’d like to swoop in and take it all. When Talia Frontier is set to be married, her brother John comes back for the wedding. Once a troubled teen, he’s now grown and solid, wearing his Army uniform and asking nothing of the family or town. Both of which have other ideas, so he’s in danger of being sucked back into everything he’d left behind.

Of course, a government research program is run by a guy in a three-piece suit and wire-rimmed glasses that would have been perfect as a 1970’s Nazi scientist. As it is, he’s forcing a researcher to see just how much damage Hawkins, the boy affected by the metal, can take.

There’s more going on, including Stacie, the one honest cop (or peacekeeper, as she likes to call herself) as she hands out candies to folks, and the writing and storytelling are excellent. It may lack some emphasis on the science part as science fiction, but it’s a solid read.

Ten Low by Stark Holborn | 06/08/21 |Titan Books

Though Titan Books bills Ten Low, Stark Holborn’s latest novel, as “Firefly meets Dune”,  the vibe I got off it was more Ancillary Justice meets Ender’s Game meets Mad Max. Either way, I enjoyed Holborn’s dark buddy trip across a barren landscape filled with body snatchers, assassins, and general scum and villainy.

Ten Low is the name given to a former prisoner who committed the crime of being on the losing side of the war with The Accord.  It represents the time she spent in a prison ship before being decanted onto Factus, a moon at the edge of the universe that makes Tatooine look homey.

Ten has been wandering around the desert keeping her head down and using her skills as a medic from time to time when she comes on a crash site with two survivors. She can’t save the hulking military type from the winning side but he doesn’t care. All he cares about is that she protects the little girl in the ship and gets her to safety.

The little girl is actually the legendary General Gabriella Ortiz, one of the genetically enhanced super-soldiers that the Accord used to win the war; though she looks like she’d be perfect sitting down for tea with Alice and the Rabbit, she’s more at home in a foxhole. Really, all she needs is a cigar to chomp on.

Although Ten is trying to keep her alive and help her get off-planet, Gabriella is annoying and ungrateful…until she discovers that in peacetime she’s not the Accord’s finest asset after all, and her worldview is shaken. Ten Low might think that her own worldview couldn’t get any more shaken, but she’s wrong about that.

The pair collect a handful of colorful morally ambiguous characters along the way that should make a fine collection going forward, but first, they’d have to survive the attention of both the Accord and the Seekers, a cult with a thing for organ harvest.

Ten Low is fast-paced, gritty, sometimes deep, and full of great characters. Recommended.

Catalyst Gate (The Protectorate Book 3) by Megan E. O’Keefe | 06/22/21 |Orbit

Sandra Greeve, a woman out of her time, came back from the dead in Megan O’Keefe’s debut novel, Velocity Weapon. She was and now is again a warrior lost in a war who survived in stasis. Her brother, on the other hand, is a politician, and the one person who never gave up on her. For his troubles, he wound up as Speaker for the Keepers of the stargates, the rulers of human space. But that was in the first book two years ago; I had to refresh my memory by reading the review I wrote back then (SFRevu, June 2019: Velocity Weapon). It was a terrific debut and if you haven’t read it, you’re probably best off picking it up to start to the beginning.

In the meantime, there was Chaos Vector (2020) which I managed to miss, so getting started with Catalyst Gate was a bit rough. The main characters were back: Tomas the spy who loved her; Jules the smuggler that got ascended by contact with the alien Rainer, an AI who’d in charge of seeding gate tech to worthy species; and Bero the shipboard AI who moved from a human warship to an alien vessel. It seems that the first book introduced the characters, the second bonded them into a crew, including the most powerful ship with a personality in known space, and the third puts it all together to kick alien AI butt. Or die trying.

We learn that the stargate technology was come by underhandedly, and worse, when we implemented it, we caused more damage than you’d think was possible. Rainier, the alien AI, has taken a vendetta against humanity and really wants to wipe us out. It would also like to get the ship that Bero is now inhabiting back. Sandra and her crew wind up heading to Old Earth, through the closed gate there, to pick up clues while her brother Biran heads towards the gate that she’d found in the first book to see what’s so special about it.

Speaking of dying, one of the impacts of alien contact was supposed to be a viral agent that would transform humans into the next phase of evolution (paraphrasing here). Only since we sort of stole it, it’s not quite right, and 97% of the population goes into a coma. Hey, three percent get really strong and have amazing healing powers. So the mission isn’t just to stop the AI but to save all the people infected. To spice things up, Jules, a sort of rouge trader type, infects a world to motivate scientists to find a cure. Pandemic problems, anyone?

Meanwhile, Rainier has been seeding the Prime forces with connected clones.

This is a big trilogy, and I wish it could have come out closer together, since keeping track of so much is daunting, but the action never stops, the characters are first-rate, and it’s worth the price of admission.

When the Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson | 06/29/21|Tor Books

StateSec Agent Nikolai South is a cross between Bladerunner’s Decker and 1984‘s Winston Salem, with more than a touch of Tinker, Tailor in the mix. He’s a low-level state security type in the Caspian Republic, the last best hope for a human-only society in a world of downloaded clones and AIs. Only there’s not a lot of hope left in the Republic, and he spends a lot of his time hunting down illegal contanners, activists that help citizens escape by uploading their consciousness.

Twenty years before the start of When the Sparrow Falls, Nikolai’s wife died. They’d realized their marriage didn’t work anymore, but also that sometimes love doesn’t care about practical details like that. And then she drowned and Nikolai couldn’t save her. Since then, he’s been a man going through the motions, doing the bare minimum to get by in the repressive state. When he decides on a whim to put himself on the promotions list, he becomes visible to the Deputy Director of StateSec, which is a very dangerous place to be.

So he’s chosen for a dangerous assignment. A man no one cares about and one who cares about nothing. A man committed to the human-only ideals of the Republic but with no passions to guide him. He’s going to be the escort for an AI, normally something that wouldn’t even be allowed in the country, but which has been granted temporary human status, ostensibly to show goodwill to the outside world and provide a possible bargaining chip for the relaxation of the embargoes that are starving the country. Or maybe for a deeper reason.

Nikolia doesn’t spend a lot of time asking why because it’s not what he does. Until the cloned body carrying the downloaded wife of a recently-murdered party propagandist, who had improbably been discovered to be an AI/clone himself, steps out of a drone and he discovers that she’s the exact image of his dead wife. Then he starts questioning everything.

Neil Sharpson’s When the Sparrow Falls is a strong debut novel that readers of Philip K. Dick, George Orwell, and John LeCarre will find right up their dark alley. They’re also likely to find that the alley looks a little too much like home for comfort. Highly Recommended.

Collections, Anthologies, and Novellas

The Best of World SF: Volume 1 by Lavie Tidhar | 06/01/2021|Head of Zeus

The publisher’s blurb misspeaks a bit citing “26 new short stories representing the state of the art in international science fiction” but only in the “new” part. Actually, these stories have been culled from other sources over recent years. ‘Fandom for Robots’ by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, for example, came out in 2017 in Uncanny Magazine and picked up subsequent (and well deserved) Nebula and Hugo nominations. This should not detract from how great this collection is but instead should emphasize the importance of this as a benchmark and a sampler for short-form international science fiction.

As Thidhar points out in the forward, “What people tend to forget is that science fiction as we know it was created by a Jewish immigrant from, of all places, Luxembourg.” Hugo Gernsbacher (later, Gernsback) not to mention Jules Verne, though France is still in the Euro part of the tradition.  He’s been championing the idea of sf “for everyone who’s never been to London or New York…or who only knows America from the television screen.”  While that’s fair enough, it’s only half the story, because this collection is very much for all of us English speakers who’ve been locked in our space bubbles breathing pure anglo-sf while wonderfully weird alien sf has been spreading on the planet below.

You can’t read this and not be changed by it, which always seemed like the point of sf.

Other Recommendations*

The World Gives Way by Marissa Levien | 44348|Redhook

Interestingly, the publisher’s description of Marissa Levien’s debut novel The World Gives Way doesn’t mention that it’s set on a multi-generational colony ship. It features Myrra, who is a “contract worker” (which is a fancy kind of slave as far as I can tell) who gets her freedom when her contract holders, a wealthy couple, wind up dead and Myrra winds up on the run to protect their child. To add to the danger, the ship has been damaged, a secret being kept from its inhabitants.

Rabbits: A Novel by Terry Miles | 44355|Del Rey

Can a game change the world? Follow Terry Miles down this rabbit hole and find out. “Rabbits” is the name of a secret game played in reality that’s been run 10 times since 1959. What do you get when you win? Possibly the keys to the universe. 

As the game is about to start its 11th run, a player named K is approached by the 6th winner, now a billionaire, who, tells him that the game has been broken, and if it’s not fixed the results will affect the whole world, or maybe reality itself.

Based on a podcast in our reality, which you can find at RABBITSPODCAST.com  there’s a lot of mind-bending stuff going on here: Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven meets Ready Player One.

The Ice Lion (The Rewilding Reports) by Kathleen O’Neal Gear | 44362|DAW

Kathleen O’Neal Gear has written a lot of novels about earlier peoples, garnering praise and awards, including one from the U.S. Dept. of the Interior for her work as an archaeologist, Now she turns her gaze forward a thousand years when humanity, facing an ice age, has recreated humans from earlier in our evolutionary path, along with their animal contemporaries, in an attempt to see the world with something that can survive. Written by both a master storyteller and scientist, it’s a chilling tale of a different climate change.

Velocity Blues by Clifford Royal Johns | 44362|Vernacular Books

Zip is a runner for a small-time crime boss, the product of well-intentioned but faulty gene meddling, like all those like him. They were supposed to be faster and smarter, but what the E-people wound up with was more like ADHD on steroids…along with speed and reflexes just this side of superhuman. When Zip gets caught up in a classic delivery gone wrong he’ll need to think as fast as he can run to stay alive. It’s an engaging romp full of parkour and predators in the seamy underbelly of the Windy Cty.

 

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, heard, and am looking forward to. Please note that these are my selections, and do not represent the opinions of the editor or publication.

About Other Recommendations: this is stuff I’ve seen, or heard a lot of buzzes on, but haven’t read yet.

You can find me on Facebook at @Ernest Lilley or on my blog @ beingErnest

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