Science Fiction To Look For: September 2021

Singer-songwriter John Prine, who we lost to Covid, said on his last album that, “summer went much faster than we wanted,” and ain’t it the truth. September has its upsides though: sure, school’s back in session, but the weather’s cooler and perfect for finding a tree to read a book under. The fact that you should be studying, or doing some other useful activity only makes reading sweeter, and this month has no shortage of good science fiction, no matter your taste.

If you’re watching the Boys of Summer wind down, you’ll want to spend a few innings with The Body Scout by Lincoln Michel, a gritty tale of bio mods and winning at any cost. Straight-up space opera fans will enjoy Cat Rambo’s You Sexy Thing  and the final chapter of Charles Stross’ Empire Games trilogy, Invisible Sun (If you missed the first books, we’ll catch you up.) Fans of Giant Robots get another doubleheader with the post-apocalyptic The Tempered Steel of Antiquity Grey by Shawn Speakman and the post-human-diaspora tale in Xiran Jay Zhao’s  Iron Widow, based in part on the true story of the only empress regnant in Chinese history.

Earthman, Don’t Come Home is a theme you’ll find in Stolen Earth by J.T. Nicholas and Activation Degradation by Marina J. Lostetter as well as the above-mentioned The Tempered Steel of Antiquity Grey. Really Elon, if you leave for a Martian paradise, don’t expect a hero’s welcome when you get tired of rust.

Taylor Anderson starts a new series set on his Destroyermen’s world (but a bit further back in time) that I really enjoyed. Purgatory’s Shore may not be full of high-tech, but it definitely fulfills the what-if mission of science fiction. So does the alt-history-retro spy drama from Rhett C. Bruno and James Wolanyk, Operation Brushfire, where a very Soviet Coalition has unified the world after WWII and a grim truth that threatens to undo it.

If you’re willing to stretch your definition of sci-fi to allow for a demon in the mix, the brilliantly written Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki is there for you, and really, I can’t recommend it enough.

Finally, it’s the annual anthology season, and Jonathan Strahan’s back with his second in The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Volume 2: The Saga Anthology of Science Fiction 2021, also a favorite of mine.


Anthologies and Short Fiction

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

Novels (in order of publication)

The Tempered Steel of Antiquity Grey by Shawn Speakman
09/07/2021|Grim Oak Press

Antiquity Grey is a teen living on a far-future Earth, which has lost a lot of its land to climate change in the before times. She’s the great-great-granddaughter of the woman who lost the war against the spacer Imperials who’d returned to Earth (now Erth) to harvest it for metals. The shame of that has followed the family for generations, earning them the surname “Grey” and plenty of abuse from the ruling family. But all that’s about to change when Antiquity comes across a giant mecha buried in the desert, one that responds to her genetic markers and somehow had never seen combat. What follows is a mashup of mecha stories and Star Wars characters in a Mad Max setting, where the Imperials control the skies, and mecha like hers are expressly forbidden. Antiquity will have to build bridges to old enemies in order to give Erth a chance to free itself from the Imperium…all of which will continue in the following books. It’s definitely YA, and occasionally too talky, though that’s generally the fault of old folks explaining the facts of life…so that’s fair.

You Sexy Thing by Cat Rambo
09/07/2021|Tor Books

In Cat Rambo’s new space opera series, Captain Nicolette Larsen was once a Free Trader, complete with swashbuckle, greatcoat, and freedom of the starways. But pirates took the one thing she loved most, and she’s spent decades trying to find a way to get it back. Along the way, she joined up with the Hive Mind’s army, was promoted to Admiral for all of ten hours, and found a loophole that let her retire from the service to run a restaurant with her motley crew. But Niko is one of those people that the universe has plans for. After her efforts to get a highly coveted Nikkelin Orb rating for her restaurant blow up in her face, she and her crew find themselves trapped on the bio-ship “You Sexy Thing” which is convinced that it’s been hijacked and has to deliver them to prison. And that’s just for openers. Pirates, misplaced Imperial heirs, a revolution in the offing…all these things and more await Niko and her friends on the spiral path of destiny. Recommended. (update: publication is now scheduled for Nov 16, 2021)

Body Scout, The by Lincoln Michel
09/21/2021|Orbit Books

Here’s a science fiction mystery you can read while watching the boys of summer wrap up another season. Kobo is a baseball scout, though he’d been in a slump lately. He’s also addicted to body mod upgrades and deeply in debt to a loan company with aggressive collectors. It’s bad enough when a pair of lab-grown Neanderthals steal his latest prospect out from under him, but when his best friend and Yankees phenom dies mysteriously at-bat.  The slugger’s family took Kobo in after the death of his parents, and now he’s determined to uncover the truth behind his friend’s demise.  In a world of body mods and drug tweaked sports competitions, heroes aren’t just born, they’re remade, but just how far teams will go for the win will surprise even the jaded Kobo. Recommended.

Operation Brushfire by Rhett C. Bruno and James Wolanyk
09/21/2021|Aethon Books

Orwell’s dystopian 1984 meets the femme fatales of Red Sparrow with an undercurrent of Colossus: The Forbin Project in this alt-retro-spy thriller set in what was our Cold War Era, but in this alt-reality there’s a united (if shadowy) world government running the show. When a supermodel gets arrested on thin charges she insists on talking to Henry Stasik, an Internal Affairs agent with a reputation for getting to the truth. It’s a truth that could tear down the utopia that the Coalition has forced on the world through drugs, memory mods, and the mandatory implants that connect everyone to its network, not to mention a little wet work on the side. Things would be a lot simpler if Stasik could just let go of the truth, but that’s not something he’s capable of, no matter the cost.

Purgatory’s Shore by Traylor Anderson
09/14/2021|Ace Books

Whether it’s a stargate, a looking glass, or even a rabbit hole, falling through a rift in time and space is always a great way to get your protagonists someplace really different. Taylor Anderson begins a new series in 1847, where a convoy of American soldiers off the coast of the Yucatan (on their way to right the Mexican-American war) encounters a fierce storm that beaches them on an alternate Earth. It’s the same Earth that Anderson uses in his Destroyermen series, but much earlier, and so far, this is not really a prequel per se, but its own series. The world they wind up on seems to be something of a magnet for drop-ins from our Earth, as well as a bit like Verne’s Lost World, with some pretty nasty “feathered lizards” and other beasties in all sizes. It’s not the beasties that bother them, nor the locals, but the result of an earlier group of drop-ins from their Earth who spread a distorted version of the Church that makes the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition look friendly. Worse, these Blood Priests have raised an army of thousands and are on a crusade to subjugate all who stand in their way. Artilleryman Lewis Cayce must find allies and use all his strategic wiles to confront a force far greater than the survivors of the ill-fated convoy. If you like good space opera, you should give this a read. There aren’t any space ships or superweapons, but the writing is first-rate and the clash of technologies is a terrific example of science fiction’s ability to ask, “what if”, Highly Recommended.

Stolen Earth by J.T. Nicholas
09/21/2021|Titan Books

The crew of the Arcus isn’t against bending the rules or, heck, even breaking them outright. When a client comes to them with the promise of codes that will let them slip through the barrier of defenses that separate the Earth, full of fabled wealth and deadly defenses, from the rest of humanity, they’re willing to risk the dangers of the ravaged planet that humanity fled. Only what they find isn’t what they expected. The warring AIs are still there, but that’s not the only problem that Captain Gray Lynch, formerly of the Sol Commonwealth navy, and his crew are going to face. Not by a long shot. Recommended.

Activation Degradation by Marina J. Lostetter
09/28/2021|Avon and Harper Voyager

Marina J. Lostetter’s latest novel is a standalone that the blurb pitches as “Murderbot Diaries makes first contact”, and it does have a bot, but really it’s closer to the movie Moon meets Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora. Biological Robot Unit Four wasn’t born yesterday…despite the fact that he was just vat-grown just hours ago. He’s got the files from previous copies to refer to, but none of his predecessors’ experiences keeping the orbital HE3 mine above Jupiter running could prepare him for what’s coming. When invaders attack the mining station, Unit Four goes after them in a bio-ship and winds up in their clutches, only they’re not at all what it expected and its exposure to them is going to turn everything it thinks it knows, including its origins, on its head. The book is a series of reveals, so I don’t want to spoil it. I found the first chapter or two slow going as Unit Four gets decanted and activated, but after it meets the invaders things move along pretty well.  Setting this up as a standalone seems like a cop-out since there’s plenty left to work with at the end. It’s not Murderbot quality, and unlike our beloved Sec-Unit, there’s definitely a romantic interest. Still, Unit Four isn’t a bad bot, once it sees the light.

Invisible Sun by Charles Stross

Missed the first two Empire Games novels? Don’t worry, we’ll catch you up. The first thing you need to know is that there are infinite parallel worlds, and some humans have the ability to jump (jaunt). It’s genetic. Now, about those timelines.

Timeline One: Nordics settled the US Eastern seaboard, learned the trick of jumping between worlds, and in 2003 nuked the White House. Don’t worry, Timeline One glows in the dark. Timeline Two: Pretty much like us, but for that thing that happened in 2003. Timeline Three: @003 was a busy year across timelines because that’s when the colonies threw off their British rulers and established the New American Commonwealth. Their tech is sort of Soviet 1950s, but they’re catching up fast. Ane they have nukes. Lots of nukes. Timeline Four: On the one hand, it’s dead (Jim). On the other, it has a gate built by the previous inhabitants (the Forefunners) to a timeline (Five?), where the Earth was shrunken to a micro-black hole by aliens.

When Clan (T1) got caught supplying drugs to the US (T2) they decided that getting a small nuke from the folks in T3 would solve their problem. They didn’t count on the US (T2) sending B-52s across the timeline and pretty much wiping them out. A handful of the Clan are now living in T3, and even rising in the NAC government. Meanwhile, the US (t2) is playing CIA-type games in the NAC (T3) to prevent them from becoming a nuclear-powered competitor.

…and go! (Highly Recommended)

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
09/28/2021|Penguin Teen

It’s fair to say that this is a mashup of Pacific Rim and The Handmaids Tale because that’s how Xiran Jay Zhao pitched it in the first place. But it’s also the story of China’s only female emperor, set in a galaxy far far away, where girls are coupled with male pilots to drive the mechas that protect them from the alien hordes their defensive (great) wall. The girls don’t have much life force, which is what powers the mecha, and usually die after being drained by the rigors of combat, but when Wu Zetian climbers out of the mecha with her dead pilot in her arms, she turns everything on its head. This is a thrilling YA about a young girl with the will use every advantage she’s got to get revenge and to change the fabric of society. It’s also a story with its grimmest parts taken from history. Recommended, but note that there are depictions of mutilation and references to rape.

Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Considering it starts out with a diva violin teacher who sells her students’ souls to the devil, this barely sneaks under the wire as science fiction. Fortunately, there’s a family of aliens running the Stargate Donut Shop, one of those LA joints with a giant concrete donut on top, who came seeking refuge from the collapse of the galactic empire, which makes it close enough for me. Fortunate, because it’s a terrific read. It may not seem to match your filters, featuring a mixed-race-Asian-trans-runaway whose most treasured possession is the Chinese violin she bought on eBay, who winds up as Shizuka Satomi’s final student, the one she needs to redeem her own soul. I don’t happen to be any of those things, and it still totally hooked me. It’s a terrific novel about being the outsider, finding family, having the passion needed to seek perfection, and the world of classical music competition…not to mention the whole LA food scene. And the donuts. Fans of Sarah Pinkser’s Song for a New Day or Walter Tevis’s The Queen’s Gambit should jump on this, but really, I’d like to see it get a wide audience. It’s serious and snarky and surprisingly moving. Highly Recommended.


The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Volume 2:
The Saga Anthology of Science Fiction 2021
by Jonathan Strahan

Jonathan Strahan‘s second Year’s Best Science Fiction collection arrives this month, and it’s chock full of the sort of stories that both expand the limits of science fiction (and your mind) and will keep you from getting anything done while reading it.  Strahan makes it clear that it’s not a continuation of Gardner’s work but acknowledges the DNA, especially evident in the genre summary at the beginning, which I look forward to each year. I’m less interested in who won what award than what stories got included here because science fiction isn’t any one thing. As one of the preeminent editors in the field, and Review Editor for Locus, Strahan is in a good position to deploy Damon Knight’s maxim: Science Fiction is what I point at when I say science fiction, and this collection shows that he has the perspective to find the ten percent that’s good. Here you’ll find stories by well-known names like Alastair Reynolds, Pat Cadigan, Karl Schroeder, and Charlie Jane Anders as well as discovering many new (or new to you) as well.

Full Table of Contents:
The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Volume 2 TOC

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 about, but haven’t read yet.

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

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