Science Fiction to Look For: January 2023

Welcome to the amazing future world of 2023! Flying cars, energy-positive fusion, and trips to the moon are all on the menu (finally), but probably not in your driveway, basement, or vacation planner. Fortunately, the year promises plenty of great science fiction to launch your dreams of things to come, and I’ll be scouting ahead to report back every month.

I took last year off from reviewing to let my brain cool down, and I may do a column about what I missed in 2022, but right now let’s take a look at some picks for this month. I won’t be trying to cover as many books each month, picking five (or so) that show some range. This may get a little weird, but stick with me.

The Terraformers
by Annalee Newitz
Tor Books (Jan/31/2023)

Annalee Newitz, former I09 editor, science journalist, and half of a terrific podcast about science fiction (Our Opinions Are Correct) releases her third sf novel this month, and it’s excellent.  Destry is an Environmental Rescue Team (ERT) ranger sent to foster the developing ecosphere of Sask-E. The planet’s terraforming has taken 10,000 years and is almost ready for real estate developers to swarm in. Destry doesn’t work for the corporation that owns the planet, and her efforts to keep ecological balance often put her at odds with it, but when she goes with a team of rangers to check out activity at a supposedly dormant volcano and discovers a hidden city built by a previous generation of rangers, the ones designed to live in the early pre-high-oxy atmosphere, her nuisance level goes up by leaps and bounds as she fights to protect them, and the planet.

Full of great ideas, and equally great characters — you’ll love Whistle, Destry’s uplifted moose/partner — and a plot that moves along briskly, The Terraformers is great storytelling, hard sf, and a refutation that nature and technology have to be at odds—highly Recommended.

Critical Mass: A Novel
(A Delta-v Novel Book 2)
by Daniel Suarez
Dutton (Jan/31/2023)

This month’s pulse-pounding excitement is brought to you by Daniel Suarez in the second book in the Delta-V series. Set in the middle of this century, it follows the return from a not-politically-sanctioned asteroid mining expedition that left stranded astronauts in deep space. 

The crew members that did make it back aren’t about to abandon their friends and since the governments of Earth can’t agree on anything, let alone a rescue mission, they set out to do it themselves. In the process, they’re going to have to create a lot of orbital and lunar infrastructure, including that perennial favorite, the spin-grav space station.

Suarez has managed to combine both hard sf for his space science, biotech, and even climatology while keeping the action fast-paced and the characters from being two-dimensional. It’s possible that the author’s penchant for getting the tech right will mean there’s more exposition than you want, but it’s well done and may even draw you in…which is what good science fiction is all about. Fans of James S.A. Corey (The Expanse), Ben Bova (The Grand Tour), and Andy Weir (The Martian) should find this in their orbit.

Mr. Breakfast
by Jonathan Carroll
Melville House (Jan/17/2023)

Jonathan Carroll’s latest book features a comedian who’s come to the realization that he’s not actually funny and decides to take his brother up on a mundane life selling fruits and vegetables in California. But first, he’s going to take a road trip across the country in a new convertible with a Nikon camera. When his car breaks down he finds himself wandering around town and looking in the window of a tattoo shop with amazing ink. Getting a tattoo isn’t on his bucket list, but that list wasn’t working out anyway, so he soon finds himself with some very special ink. Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man was covered with tattoos that showed different stories, but Graham Patterson’s tattoo shows him three possible lives, and three choices to make.

Sure, I’m stretching what’s science fiction here, and Carroll is generally considered a magical realist, but this novel speaks to me for two reasons. One, because it’s about divergent universes and quantum states, and the other because it’s entertaining and thought-provoking. The fact that the writing is superb, and that there’s a road trip, an abandoned diner, and a Nikon camera are all just bonuses. You can read this with your science fiction glasses on, then recommend it to anyone who likes good writing but stays away from SF.

I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself
by Marisa Crane
Catapult (Jan/17/2023)

Marisa Crane’s debut novel offers up a near-future dystopia where the prisons have all been shut down and wrongdoers are marked with an additional shadow (yes, the dark thing that falls on the ground). It’s a pretty repressive society with a right-wing president who the author admits is at least partly based on Trump, and you don’t have to transgress much to earn a dark companion and the title, “shadester.”  Shadesters are marked for the “safety” of others, have reduced rights, and can only shop on certain days.

Kris, the narrator in this largely stream-of-consciousness novel, was a school social worker but managed to get herself shadowed, and now lives at home marketing self-help “mindcasts”, watching reality television, drinking, and raising her daughter, Bear.  Bear was born with this society’s idea of original sin:  her mother died in childbirth, making the infant a murderer.  Kris survives her own grief and the challenge of raising a child branded by stigma by building a caring community around her, and by leaning into a wry sense of humor. Fans of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014) should find this resonant, as well as those of Kurt Vonnegut and Margaret Atwood.

One last thing. There are no powered exoskeletons in the book. It’s just that the main character, Kris, has a thing about making lists of creatures with exoskeletons. Let it go, OK? This is still a thoughtful piece of dystopian lit.

A Dangerous Trade
(Star Trek: Prodigy)
by Cassandra Rose Clarke
Simon Spotlight (Jan/17/2023)

A Dangerous Trade is a RYA (really young adult) novel, the first media tie-in to Star Trek Prodigy. We’re seeing a resurgence of excellent Star Trek led by Strange New Worlds, which reframes classic Trek for contemporary audiences. Prodigy, on the other hand, does an excellent job of introducing the next generation to Trek, mining everything that’s come before for tie-ins. And speaking of tie-ins, Simon Spotlight tapped Cassandra Rose Clarke, a solid speculative fiction author, for the first standalone Prodigy novel, which reads very much like an episode, only lacking the overarching storyline that drives the series.

A Dangerous Trade is written for very young readers, and I’m putting it in here in the hopes that it will be a gateway drug to Trek novels and the rest of SF.  The story takes place as the ProtoStar skips around the Delta Quadrant in need of repairs and the crew makes a questionable trade for a faulty transporter component. There’s probably a teachable moment in there about plugging things into your system, but I’m happy it’s just a fun read.

Source: Auto Draft

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