Science Fiction To Look For: October 2021

This month has no shortage of titles worth your time, taking you from farthest space to your own back yard

I love October. It’s full of cool days, turning leaves, and hot apple cider…the perfect setting for the host of books I’ve been looking forward to reading. This month has no shortage of titles worth your time, taking you from farthest space to your own back yard (at least for some of us) and offering delights for readers of widely ranging tastes.

To start off, there’s a lot of great space adventure, and I’m really excited about Far from the Light of Heaven by Tade Thompson (Oct 26). It’s an Andrew (The Martian) Weir-level starship story that’s also a whodunnit. Alastair Reynolds’ Inhibitor Phase (Oct 12) is a new novel in his Revelation Space universe that can be read as a standalone, though it has plenty of hooks into the larger saga. Trinity by Dave Bara (Oct 5) is a classic exploration-ship-in-over-its-head tale that moves right along, and if you were looking for some YASO (young adult space opera) look no further than Eighth Grade vs. the Machines by Joshua S. Levy (Oct 5). It’s fun.

Closer to home, things are looking grim in both Glimmer by Marjorie B Kellogg (Oct 19), a tale of a semi-flooded NYC, and Femlandia by Christina Dalcher (Oct 19), where a feminist cult looks like the best refuge after civilization’s meltdown.

Two books that were worth stretching my definition of SF for are Isolate by L. E. Modesitt, Jr. (Oct 19), set in a version of Earth with gaslight tech and empaths, and A Hole In The World by Weston Ochse (Oct 26), which fans of good mil-sf and Charles Stross’ Laundry series should really enjoy. Stretching my mind as well as reality, the long-awaited sequel (novel) to an 80’s cult classic movie arrives in the form of Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League by E.M. Rauch (Oct 26). No matter where you go, there you are, and Buckaroo and the Hong Kong Cavaliers are apt to be there too.

Lastly, it’s still Best of Season, and The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2021 edited by Veronica Roth and John Joseph Adams (Oct 12) is out this month. It’s the seventh volume in the series which teams veteran editor Adams with a guest editor (Veronica Roth) to come up with ten science fiction and ten fantasy novels.

As usual, there were more interesting titles this month than I could get to, so check out the Also of Interest section at the end for books by Stephen Baxter,  Ada Palmer, and more.

Reviewed:

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)

Eighth Grade vs. the Machines by Joshua S. Levy
Oct 5, 2021|Lerner Publishing Group

Only a year ago (their time) in Joshua S. Levy’s first book, Seventh Grade vs. the Galaxy,  Jack, Ari, and Becka were busy trying to escape the clutches of the evil Minister. How evil? Try abducting-all-of-humanity evil. They got away in their school/ship, and along with Principle Lochner and their teachers, they’ve turned PSS 118 into a formidable starship, complete with the light-speed engine that Jack’s science teacher dad cooked up, the one that drew the attention of the bad guys. Now Jack and his friends just have to find out where the humans were stashed and devise a way to rescue them, including his parents. There are just a few things in his way, including a robot uprising, a student uprising, a corrupted AI, and the aforementioned minister putting them on its most-wanted list. If anyone can save humanity though, it’s the Eighth graders from PSS 118. What? You say you weren’t looking for a YA space opera? C’mon. It’ll be fun. Recommended for ages Twelve to Infinity.

Trinity by Dave Bara
Oct 5, 2021|Baen

Once Jared Clement was a captain in the 5 Suns Navy, but that was before he threw his lot in with his Rim homeworld and turned the tables on the government that had all but abandoned those worlds to starve. The rebels were never going to win, and Clement barely survived….if holding up the end of a bar and counting shots of whiskey are surviving. But an old friend, now highly ranked in the 5 Suns fleet, remembers him as seasoned, brilliant, and unconventional, the perfect candidate for command of humanity’s first true FTL drive ship, cobbled together from scraps of a salvaged war hulk and about to head off to investigate a star system that might provide the resources needed to keep the Rim worlds and the 5 Suns empire from failing. But when he arrives at the Trinity system, he discovers that they’re not alone, and the trait that his former friend (and lover) might find most useful in him is that he’s disposable. Now Clement and the crew of the Beauregard, the exploration ship built from salvage and fitted with experimental technology, face the fight of their lives on a ship that was never intended to put up a real fight.

There’s a lot of James T. Kirk in Gerald Clement, from his full-speed-ahead nature to the way he encourages and inspires his crew. He’s got a plucky first officer who would have gotten command if he’d refused the job, a handful of old companions from his glory days, and a gaggle of midshipmen that were determined to come along, but are about to find out the reality of war. The biggest thorn in his side isn’t that they may all die, but the political officer he’s been saddled with.  It’s a classic tale of an exploratory ship in over its head with a captain that refuses to give up, and fans of straight-up sci-fi adventure should find it rewarding.

Glimmer by Marjorie B Kellogg
Oct 19, 2021 | |Daw

Early in the next century, NYC is increasingly awash with brackish seawater from the now completely defunct glaciers and polar ice. The only people left in the Big Apple in this punky cli-fi mashup where Escape from New York meets Catherynne M. Valente’s brilliant The Past Is Red tale are those that didn’t get evacuated to the mainland, because they were too poor, damaged, or unwanted to be saved. This leaves plenty of folks like Glimmer, a young girl living in a scavenger community in a  Manhatten made unsustainable by the onslaught of superstorms and sea-level rise. Glimmer’s got some significant challenges, like post-traumatic amnesia and the fact that her “Den” is barely hanging on as the scavenging gets harder and harder. Like Valente’s character Tetley, Glimmer isn’t broken by her surroundings, but as her memory returns like the tide washing over the city, her understanding of who she is will challenge her acceptance of what is, and what could be. This is an epic tale set in a future New York overlaid on the one you know by an author who clearly knows the city and its heart.

Inhibitor Phase by Alastair Reynolds
Oct 12, 2021 | Orbit

Reynolds adds another novel to his Revelation Space universe with Inhibitor Phase, full of his carefully woven, hard sf brand of space opera. Miguel de Ruyter is the administrator of a struggling human colony on the inhospitable world of Michaelmas, an airless ball, prone to solar flares and constant meteor impacts. The residents of Sun Hollow are there because it’s the perfect place to hid from the Inhibitors, unstoppable cybernetic machines that have wiped out most of mankind’s colonies and worlds. Keeping themselves secret is so critical that when a human ship enters their system, Miguel volunteers for the mission to destroy it, rather than risk it being tracked to them. Unexpectedly there’s an apparent survivor, a woman named Glass, who came on a mission that will upend Miguel’s life, tearing him away from the refuge he’s dedicated himself to building, and back to the fight against the Inhibitors themselves. Miguel promises Glass that he’ll kill her someday, but that’s going to get complicated, as things often do in Reynolds’ tales.

Reynolds promises in his preface that you can read this as a standalone, and he’s right, though its connections to Revelation Space are actually central to the story. If you’re new to the series, he’s done a good job of setting things up and then tieing them together in an afterward.

Femlandia by Christina Dalcher
Oct 19, 2021|Berkley Publishing Group

There’s a certain amount of Lord of the Flies meets revenge of The Handmaid’s Tale in Christina Dalcher’s feminist dystopia Femlandia, set in the disturbingly near future,  Miranda, the central character, has to abandon her suburban Maryland home with her sixteen-year-old daughter when the economy collapses and her husband Nick took the easy way out, driving his Maserati off a cliff. Not that there’s actually any economy left to buy from, but when the water and power go out, Miranda takes Emma on a slog across Maryland and through DC to halfway across Virginia to the only refuge she knows, and the one place she thought she’d never go, to Femlandia, the fem-only community of that her mother had created.

This is a disturbing book, and while Miranda may have the moral high ground because of her compassion, the excesses of the feminist cult are pretty excessive, and it’s not clear that the pampered suburban housewife really understands the cost of surviving in a world gone Mad Max. In fact, there’s not much about this book that shouldn’t be disturbing, regardless of your feminist credentials or lack thereof. Nobody gets out of this without blood on their hands, and Femlandia is a book that should spark a lot of discussions.

Isolate by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
Oct 19, 2021|Tor Books

Last month, I ran into Puratory’s Shore, by Taylor Anderson, which I found to be an excellent read, even though its 1830s timeline didn’t involve any imagined technology…just the odd trip through a rabbit hole to an alternate world. This month, L.E. Modesitt brings us Isolate, set on what we can safely assume is an alternate Earth, no wormhole transit invoked, and in the gaslamp era of the industrial revolution. The tech is all straightforward, though there’s a mention that they tried to do something with “Magnetite Rotation…to create some form of magnetic flow” but it was about as successful as Cold Fusion is on our Earth. What they do have is psionic readers and influencers, empaths. This brings us to the title and the main character, Steffan Dekkard, who is an isolate, someone who can be neither read nor be influenced by empaths.  Steffan works security for Obreduur, a Councilor (equivalent to a U.S. Senator or a Lord in the Houses of Parliament). The government has both Roman and British elements, and the tweak that Modesitt is playing with is that all voting is done by secret ballot, which radicals have taken to protesting. Steffan’s partner in protecting Obreduur is Ysella, a powerful empath.  The two work extremely well together, which is good because between the skullduggery by the emergent industrial class and its Commerce political party, and the radicals in the streets, it’s  a dangerous time to be a Councilor in the Crafter party,

So, yes, this is a political thriller set in an alternate society, and there’s a lot of discussion about what works in government and what doesn’t. There’s also a fair amount of blowing things up and, on Steffan’s part, knife throwing…and there’s romance, eventually. Steffan, Ysella, and Obeduur are all committed to making a better world for everyone, though they’re more concerned about the workers being pushed out by machines, both physical and political.

The relationship between Obeduur and Steffan is quite a bit like the Heinleinian “Old Man” and his protege, and in Steffan, the author is mining a classic trope:  the thinking man who wound up in police work, but whom others see potential in. Ok, that was awkward, but I hope you get my drift. This is the first of a new series, The Grand Illusion, and weighs in at just over 600 pages, but I couldn’t put it down. It’s not your usual sci-fi adventure, but it’s worthwhile.

Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League by E.M. Rauch
Oct 26, 2021|Dark Horse Books

1984 was a big year for science fiction, and not just because George Orwell made it a year to remember even before it happened. William Gibson rocked the world with the publication of Neuromancer,  Kyle MacLachlan starred as Paul Atreides in the first film adaptation of Dune, and Peter Weller, Ellen Barkin, John Lithgow, Jeff Goldblum, and Christopher Lloyd got together to do a quirky movie called The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Despite the galaxy-class cast, it wasn’t a big hit, but it’s developed a solid cult following (including me) over the years, and references to it are rife in science fiction.  The film has its own sort of Easter Egg, promising the return of Buckaroo in Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League, but the studio had no appetite for it despite the fact that the first film only cost $12M, so fans have had to wait for some thirty-seven years to find out what that would have been like.

Wait no more, because the novel, by E.M. Rauch (the screenwriter and original tie-in novelist) is due out this month.  It’s got Hanoi Xan, the ruthless leader of the World Crime League, as well as the return of Planet 10 ‘s warrior queen, John Emdall, and of course, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, who are all that stand between the forces of evil and global destruction! I haven’t been able to get my hands on it yet, but at 624 pages I’m betting it’s not the fast-paced read I’d hoped for. Not that that is going to stop me from reading it.

“Where are we going?” “A Bookstore!”

“When are we going?” “Real soon!”

Far from the Light of Heaven by Tade Thompson
Oct 26, 2021|Orbit

First Mate Michelle “Shell” Campion always wanted to be a starship captain, but when she wakes up from cold sleep lightyears from home, she gets far more than she bargained for. Blaring alarms, a sentient ship in idiot mode, and more than thirty of the several thousand passengers not just missing from their pods, but diced up in a hold. Shell overtrained for her job, even though she was largely on board to make insurance companies happy, and she will need every bit of that knowledge and training to deal with the crisis on the Ragtime. Her distress calls are answered by the colony planet the ship is orbiting, Bloodroot, which sends up an investigator to find out what happened and whether it’s even safe to mount a rescue mission. Finn is the classically brilliant but defective detective, who’d gotten overconfident on his last case and fouled up miserably. If he can solve the mystery of the Ragtime, he’ll be back on the force…if not, especially the way things are going on the ship, he’ll probably be dead.

Tade Thompson manages the trick of writing compelling cutting-edge science fiction with all the accuracy of Stephen Baxter or Andy Weir. The Ragtime is a starship, and it uses stargates to jump between systems, but the mechanics and how they affect the story are all straight out of NASA’s handbook. He allows himself some Afro-Spiritualism along the way, but it doesn’t detract from the hardness of his SF. In the end, Shell gets to be captain in the direst circumstances, fighting to save her ship and a crew that’s thrown together by chance, but fortunately for them, she’s a Campion, like her astronaut father, and she’s got the right stuff.

A Hole In The World by Weston Ochse
Oct 26, 2021|Rebellion

Weston Ochse combines mil-speculative fiction, horror, fantasy, psy-ops, and religion, all of which he seems to know more than a bit about. He’s won a Bram Stoker award, written for numerous media franchises (Alien, Predator), served in Afghanistan and worked in military intelligence, and published so many titles that I lost count. For starters. With A Hole in the World, he starts a new series that should delight fans of mil-sf and Charles Stross’ Laundry series. Well, sort of a new series, since it follows on from his Burning Sky series with the sole survivor of Special Unit 77, an elite American special ops team that’s been dealing with demons and other spooky incursions. The survivor, Laurie May, better known to her teammates as Preacher’s Daughter, has an MA in Religious Studies and a love of direct action, preferably with a high-powered ordinance.  Things kick off with two towns go missing simultaneously, one in the American southwest, the other in England, and by missing I mean that even though they’re physically still there, nobody can seem to remember that they exist, or why they were trying to reach them anyway. Preacher’s Daughter draws the short straw to join the British special ops group looking into their mystery to see if they can find a connection between the disappearances. On foreign soil and still smarting from the loss of her former team, she realizes the demons she has to face aren’t all supernatural. What follows is both action-filled and thoughtfully plotted, with comic relief provided by a pair of pixies that are major Miami Vice fans.

If this leans more towards fantasy than science fiction, consider it my acknowledgment of Halloween, which occurs just five days after its release. Also, while there are demons dryads, pixies, and more, Ochse treats them more as aliens than supernatural beasts. The bottom line is that it provided a much-needed antidote to too much dystopian lit and I enjoyed the hell out of it. Recommended as your Halloween treat.

Anthologies

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2021
by Veronica Roth (Editor), John Joseph Adams (Editor)
Oct 12, 2021|Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

John Joseph Adams has been editing The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy series since its inception in 2015.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s started the series with The Best American Short Stories exactly a hundred years ago, and now they’re covering more genres than you can fit on the head of a black hole. On the one hand, a combined SF and F anthology is great for keeping up with the collective genre, but Adam’s collection has two special quirks. First, as it says in the title, it’s American stories, restricted to North American authors and publications. You didn’t have to be born in North America, but you’ve got to at make your home here. The second is that every year there’s a guest editor.  This year, it’s Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent Series, who gets to pick and choose from a list of 80 stories that Adams comes up with and finds a mere twenty that work for them, evenly split between Science Fiction and Fantasy. All Best of collections reflect the editor’s leanings, but as a result, this one is all the more The Best from a certain point of view.

As a result, you’ll get overlap with other Best of anthologies, but not as much as you might expect. Fortunately, the full list of 2021 Notable Stories, as well as other interesting stuff, is available on the series website. Highly recommend.

Also of Interest

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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