Science Fiction To Look For: November 2021

November’s books feature conspiracy theories and existential debates about reality, a host of award-winning authors, and the last episode of one of science fiction’s most-loved sagas. Let’s dig in.

Alpha Max by Mark A. Rayner is a wild romp through the many possible universes of a guy named Max, while The Second Shooter by Nick Mamatas is a road trip in just one world by an equally pivotal journalist trying to understand why every mass shooting seems to have a second shooter…until it doesn’t. Climate change figures in both Noor by Nnedi Okorafor, in which a girl with the audacity to do something about her birth defects finds herself on the run, and Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson, where a billionaire decides to stop the change with the world’s biggest gun. What could possibly go wrong?

Dinosaurs get upstaged by a different winged reptile in The Bone Wars by Erin S. Evan; a plucky young protagonist digs up the facts about a cover-up going back centuries.  Alien Hostiles (Solar Warden Book Two) by Ian Douglas uncovers a host of conspiracies from UFOs to escaped Space Nazis in the second book of the series.

If Leviathan Falls by James S.A. Corey isn’t the most anticipated book of the year, I don’t know what is. Leviathan Falls finishes the nine-book Expanse saga at about the same time the Amazon series ends its run (though Amazon goes only up through book six).  The Laconian empire falls but whatever destroyed the ring builders and now threatens humanity is still out there and James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante will surely have to confront it.

Adrian Tchaikovsky takes a look at Clarke’s Third Law in Elder Race, a terrific novella from Tor. We get Charlie Jane Anders’ first short story collection in Even Greater Mistakes from Tor as well, and we can finally close out our 2020 short fiction retrospective with The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume Six by Neil Clarke.

Of Special Note: You Sexy Thing by Cat Rambo was originally set to publish in September, so we looked at it in that column. It comes out this month, and was absolutely worth the wait.


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)

Alpha Max by Mark A. Rayner
Nov 02, 2021|Monkeyjoy Press

 ‘There was a fat man wearing a silver lamé unitard standing in the living room. The interloper had flaming red hair and a beard to match. To Professor Maximilian Tundra’s horror, the intruder looked just like him. Max couldn’t decide what was more astonishing – the fact that he had an identical twin, or how terrible he looked wearing that metallic jumpsuit…’ So begins Rayner’s wild “Existential Romp Through an Absurd Multiverse” in which Max finds that of all the Maxes in all the infinite worlds that the world-hopping aliens have been collecting, he’s the alpha, and it’s up to him to save the universe. This isn’t Rayner’s first outing, nor Max’s first appearance in his books, and he’s sharpened his signature humor and commentary along the way. Not only do the many parallel worlds give the author free rein to examine the follies and foibles of mankind, but the many parallel Maxes all hewn from the same stock, but with very different outcomes, allow the character to explore who he is, and who he will become. Then there’s that saving the universe thing, and Max finds out that the alien’s definition of saving might not be the same as his.

Snarky as Pratchet, insightful as Stephenson, as full of scathing social commentary as Swift or Voltaire, and weirdly reminiscent of LeGuin, Alpha Max is the only multiverse novel you need this month, or maybe ever.

The Bone Wars by Erin S. Evan
Nov 02, 2021|Inkshares

If you’re of a certain age, your idea of a YA dinosaur story may be The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek. Though I fondly remember Evelyn Sibley Lampman’s tale, things have moved on more than a bit, and Erin S.Evan’s The Bone Wars is a full-on paleontological action-adventure novel where Indiana Jones meets The DaVinci Code while on a trip to Jurassic Park.  Molly Wilder is the sixteen-year-old winner of her life’s dream:  the chance to work at a dinosaur dig in Montana under the renowned Dr. Sean Oliphant, a paleo-Neal DeGrasse Tyson. What she couldn’t prepare for was stumbling across a fossil that couldn’t possibly exist, one that’s remarkably similar to depictions of a wyvern…that’s a dragon to some of you folks. Of course, none of the professionals she’s working with are willing to entertain the possibility that here there be dragons, until a Men In Black-type operation swoops in and destroys or removes the evidence, leaving a bewildered camp of fossil hunters determined to recover their find…and get to the bottom of the mystery. What’s great about this story, besides the fast-moving plot and plucky protagonist, is the way the author has woven in the real and secret histories of dinosaur discovery from Mary Anning and Sir Richard Owen in the 1830s to the origins of the fable of St. George and the Dragon. The first of a series, it wraps up a tad abruptly, but it does a good job of setting up more to come, which I’m looking forward to.

Noor by Nnedi Okorafor
Nov 09, 2021|DAW

Noor is an afrofuturist novel from Nnedi Okorafor, winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Nommo Awards for The Binti Trilogy, set in a near-future Nigeria where a girl who has replaced her defective body parts with tech that would make Steve Austin jealous is on the run with a nomadic shepherd boy after each of them are attacked and end up killing in self-defense. That doesn’t matter to anyone because they’re both outsiders; AO because of the bionic limbs she doesn’t try to hide under synthetic flesh, the boy (whose initials are ironically DNA) because his nomadic people have been displaced by farmers, both solar and aggy. All the more so because AO is an independent woman who chooses what she does with her body, which is more than the village men in the town where she’s been working as a mechanic can stand. So, as Bob Dylan wrote, one day the ax just fell.

Evidently, the men who attacked her had never watched reruns of the Six Million Dollar Man, or they might have shown better judgment, but in the end, it was AO who had to flee from a grisly scene.  To escape the drones that she knows will come for her, she heads towards the Red Eye, a permanent dust devil that covers miles of desert and hides all within it. Within the Eye, she’ll find refuge, friendship, lots more danger, and ultimately the lie that the megacorp that rules Nigeria has been hiding. Highly Recommend.

The Second Shooter by Nick Mamatas
Nov 09, 2021|Rebellion

The existentialism theme continues this month in Second Shooter, a road-trippy novel about a journalist going from mass shooting to mass shooting interviewing survivors who claim to have seen a second shooter despite a total lack of objective evidence. At least, there’s no evidence by the next day because videos and images on the web fade away.  Mike Karras is a little bit Nightstalker working for a fringy left-wing publisher, living out of his car, or couch surfing with survivors, and much of the book focuses on mass shootings and survivors…so much so that you may wonder where the science fiction is going to come in. When it does, it does so with a vengeance, tearing at the nature of reality and human consciousness. Existentialism seems hot this month, and here it’s served up with plenty of Men in Black-style conspiracy and gunplay to keep things lively.

Termination Shock Neal Stephenson
Nov 16, 2021|William Morrow

If you liked Kim Stanley Robinson’s climate change novel, The Ministry for the Future, out just over a year ago, or if you thought it was a bit too hopeful, you’ll be happy to know that Neal Stephenson has written a new novel about climate change, geoengineering, and what could possibly go wrong. In classic Stephenson style the hardcover comes in at 896 pages, so evidently, he believes he can solve carbon sequestration by just printing longer books. Like Robinson’s work, while there’s arguably a main character and a plot, it’s really a collection of short stories with diverse characters traveling the globe in efforts to combat climate change. The title refers to the consequences of putting the planet on life support, then suddenly pulling the plug…and making it clear that trying to terraform the only planet you have to live on is risky business at best.

Alien Hostiles (Solar Warden Book Two) by Ian Douglas
Nov 30, 2021|Avon and Harper Voyager

Still more conspiracies abound in Ian Douglas’ second Solar Warden novel. The US government has had a pact with aliens since WWII, but they’ve managed to keep it under wraps, despite having deployed a Space Force for decades under the code name Solar Warden. Douglas has some great wrinkles here, especially that the “aliens” are actually time travelers from different epochs of Earth’s future, including the Saurians, bipedal lizards that got out before the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event and are hoping to re-inherit the Earth. Douglas has mined the rich conspiracy lore for elements here, including of course Majestic 12, the government group that’s been covering up Roswell and like events for the better part of a century, but if time-traveling aliens aren’t enough for you, the main plot follows an expeditionary force from Earth looking into an image brought back from a probe of a metal fragment with a swastica found floating in the unexplored Aldebaran star system. We know that the Third Reich had Saurian advisors during the war, but could they have established a remote colony at the end? Douglas is a first-rate mil-sf author, and his main characters, Navy SEAL Lieutenant Commander Mark Hunter and The JSST—the Joint Space Strike Team, provide plenty of action to keep things hopping. There’s even a very real-world note at the end when the author throws in how the Covid 19 pandemic affects space ops. If you liked Iron Sky, or are just a fan of UFO conspiracy theories and mil-sf, you’ll love this.

Leviathan Falls (The Expanse Book 9)
by James S. A. Corey | Nov 30, 2021|Orbit

James S.A. Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck ) wrap up the Expanse‘s nine-book arc with what must be the most anticipated book of the year. When we left our heroes and villains at the end of Tiamat’s Wrath, the Laconian Empire (built on the stealth fleet that caused so much trouble in the first three-book arc) was in charge of the solar system, emperor Duarte was injecting himself with ever more proto-molecule, and James Holden was escaping from the Laconian homeworld with the Laconian heir. I’m assuming that this book picks up a bit later since the publisher’s summary starts with, “The Laconian Empire has fallen, setting the thirteen hundred solar systems free from the rule of Winston Duarte. But the ancient enemy that killed the gate builders is awake…” So we know that this will focus on the real enemy,  the one that destroyed the ring builder’s civilization, though the search for the missing heir (and Emperor himself) are part of the action as well. The Rocinante and her crew have had a good run, but facing down the force that killed the ring builders is both the sort of challenge that Holden can’t refuse, whatever the cost. I’ll have a full review of Leviathan’s Fall soon, so stay tuned.

Anthologies and Short Fiction

Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Nov 16, 2021|Macmillan-Tor/Forge

Adrian Tchaikovsky brings us a terrific story of conflicting viewpoints in his new novella. Nyr Illim Tevitch is an anthropologist from Earth’s Explorer Corps, deployed towards the end of humanity’s second foray into the deep black. He stayed behind to monitor the development of a colony settled during the first expansion while others went home to fetch more stuff…but that was hundreds of years ago. Though he spends most of his time in cryo, he’s gotten the feeling they’re not coming back any time soon. Because he’s an anthropologist, he’s not supposed to interfere with the colony’s progress, but a hundred years or so before the story opens, he’d fallen in love with a princess, battled a warlord at her side, and become the stuff of legend. So when Lynesse, troublesome Fourth Daughter of the Queen and the spitting image of her great grandmother, comes to the wizard’s tower to call upon the ancient bond between her family and the mage…you know he’ll answer the call. Alternating chapters between the characters switch the story between worldviews. As a scientist, Nyr keeps trying to tell Lynesse that there’s no magic, but all she can hear in his explanations is the unfathomable power and wisdom of a powerful wizard.

Unfortunately, something new has come into the world, a blight that is turning plants, animals, and humans into something out of a Jeffrey Ford novel, and neither magic nor science seems able to help them. This is, of course, an intentional exposition of Clarke’s Third Law:  any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  No matter whether you lean toward science fiction or fantasy, this is a great read. At 176 pages (paperback) it’s long enough to enjoy without endlessly beating the dragon to death. Highly Recommend.

Even Greater Mistakes by Charlie Jane Anders
Nov 16, 2021|Macmillan-Tor/Forge

Charlie Jane Anders didn’t mean to write a novel, as she points out in the introduction to Even Greater Mistakes, her first short story collection, though she turned out to be pretty good at it, as we noted in her recent Victories Greater than Death in April (see review). Instead, her real love has always been short stories, and she’s gathered nineteen of her favorites that range from snarky space opera (“A Temporary Embarrassment in Spacetime”) to a serious tribute to the power of slapstick comedy (“Rock Manning Goes for Broke”) and lots and lots of mind-bending, gender-twisting stories about being any variety of other you can think of. Anders’ stories consistently set you up with one premise, like the woman who finds herself the last human on Earth after a fungal plague wipes everything out, and then yank the rug out from under you when the focus changes–in this case to a genie in a bottle that’s getting tired of resetting reality after yet another apocalypse.

Not all the stories are sf or fantasy, but all take on the absurdity of the universe we live in and the lengths we will go to to make connections with others. Each story is prefaced with notes on its origins, a touch I’m all for, because short story collections are about getting inside an author’s head, to which end you should read the excellent forward where she talks about her journey as a writer and what short fiction means to her. While these stories are all about fresh challenges, they also echo the classic short stories of earlier authors from Asimov to Bisson, and Anders’ love of science fiction comes clearly through. In the immortal words of the Mama’s and the Papas, she’s shown that love by taking the genre “Somewhere where she’s never been before.” Highly Recommended.

The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume Six
by Neil Clarke | Nov 23, 2021|Night Shade

Neil Clark’s Best Science Fiction of the Year makes its sixth outing this month, but not having gotten hold of a copy yet, I can only point you to the table of contents Neil posted on his site (Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume 6 Contents and Cover Reveal). We’ve already covered the annual collections from Jonathan Strahan and John Joseph Adams but readers of Clarke’s World know that Neil’s picks will show his knowledge of the breadth of the genre available as well as his eye for what makes a story compelling. Recommended.

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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