Science Fiction To Look For – April 2023

April kicks off with an apocalyptic climate change story set in the far north with Camp Zero,  Michelle Min Sterling’s powerful debut.  hen, as though the intersection of global warming, tech bros, and the rape of the north wasn’t scary enough, it moves on to horror in deep space with Paradise-1, the first of David Wellington’s Red Space trilogy, in which a trio of astronauts sent to investigate why Earth’s first colony went dark find they’ve really could have used a briefing before they showed up and got clobbered. Mid-month delivers a pair of truly excellent space operas.  The first, Gareth L. Powell’s Descendant Machine, gives us a team working to stop the activation of a Big Dumb Object…and opening Pandora’s box. The second, totally different and just as good, is Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh, where a Ramboesque gal desperately wants to make her mark (and get some payback for Earth’s destruction), only to find that nothing is that simple.  Finally we have the second book from Kate Elliot in her brilliant reimaging of the life of Alexander the Great as a space opera in Furious Heaven. So, here we go…

Camp Zero: A Novel
by Michelle Min Sterling
Atria Books (Apr/4/2023)

Michelle Min Sterling’s debut novel, Camp Zero, is a climate change novel set in a future where the wealthy seek refuge in floating cities and virtual worlds as rising temperatures and sea levels ravage the earth. Set in the far north, Meyer, a tech bro architect, envisions a far north city of geodesic domes called Camp Zero and has brought together a team of locals to build it. Grant, a newly-minted English teacher eager to leave his wealthy family behind, finds a poorly organized group of men living in abandoned buildings, but the real story is about the community of women brought to service the men as prostitutes. Rose, one of the women, is on a mission to spy for the tech bro who created the embedded VR device that everyone depends on.

Another group of women stationed at a radar installation called White Alice forms a parallel story with a cohesive group much like the prostitutes of Camp Zero, but without men. Unlike the previous all-male team at White Alice, the women flourish and, realizing that their lives will never be as good when they return to the lower 48, plot their escape. The two groups will collide, addressing issues involving climate change, class, colonialism, and gender identity. Sterling’s writing is brilliant, and the worn-out world she shows us is all too realistic and disheartening. All in all it reads like a mashup of The Thing and The Handmaid’s Tale. If you’re looking for character-driven climate fiction with a feminist slant, Camp Zero is the book for you.

Paradise-1 (Red Space, 1)
by David Wellington
Orbit (Apr/4/2023)

David Wellington moves on from writing about Zombies and Werewolves in Paradise-1, a deep space horror novel with the familiar premise of sending a trio of expendables to do a job that will probably kill them. Alexandra Petrova, Zhang Lei, and Sam Parker are each failure in their respective fields, and their assignment to take a brand new starship to Earth’s only deep space colony, Paradise-1, is not a reward, though it may be a second chance. The ship is brutally attacked, and their troubles only escalate as they encounter a full range of crazed ship minds and humans. The crew must confront their pasts and unravel the mysteries of Paradise-1, all while fighting for their survival. Each of the characters will have to dig into their personal vault of horrors to survive, including the fourth member of the crew, the cranky robot Rapscallion…who may be the most human of them all.

Though horror is not my thing, this hard sci-fi-horror-action-drama is well-crafted, with each element in abundance. Good horror needs a strong connection to the characters, and while he felt only moderately connected to this crew, the standout is the ship’s cranky robot. With a doorstopper length of 6-700 pages, perhaps the most terrifying aspect is the ending’s three words: “To be continued…”

Recommended for fans of the Expanse or Martha We’lls Murderbot who want something darker,  or those of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy who want something in deep space will probably find this a good pick.

Descendant Machine by Gareth L. Powell
Titan Books (Apr/11/2023)

I don’t usually give five-star ratings, but when I do…it’s probably because I just finished the book and am buzzed by it. Well, I just finished Descendent Machine, the second of Gareth L. Powell’s Continuance novels, and I’m very buzzed.

It has rotating character chapters, so it’s not until the fourth chapter, after we’d met all the main players, that the book really takes off.

There’s Nicola Mafalda, the plucky-irreverent substrate navigator; Kosh, the the furry-four-armed-Jzat-alien she’s got a thing for; Orlando Walden, the brilliant-precocious-twenty-ear-old-substrate physicist…and of course, the VSS Frontier Chic, a scoutship with a fierce devotion to its mind-linked-for-life navigator, Nicola.

The story is presented as a novelization of events as concocted by the Frontier Chic in the hope that it “will result in a wider public understanding of the chain of events Mafalda referred to at the time as simply “this sorry clusterfuck”.”  You don’t have to read the first book to enjoy this one, but Chapter Two takes a break from the action to bring you up to speed (now that a nuclear explosion and a life-saving decapitation have set the pace).

The story revolves around a big dumb object, known as the Grand Mechanism, which is a construct that displaced a small star in the Jzat system a few thousand years ago.  The Openers, a faction of the Jzat, want to start it up.  Vanguard, the polity of the colony ships and civilized space, think that’s a very bad idea and send Nicola and crew to stop it. Things blow up, people get double-crossed, friends and lovers turn out to be enemies and spies and back again, and Nicola winds up putting herself on the line to save two universes. It’s a great read. Highly recommended for fans of Ian Banks, Ann Leckie, and high-octane space opera.

Some Desperate Glory
by Emily Tesh
Macmillan-Tor/Forge (Apr/11/2023)

Emily Tesh’s debut novel, Some Desperate Glory, is terrific. How good is it? So good that I may have to go back and read Silver in the Wood, the fantasy novella for which she won the 2020 World Fantasy Award for Best Novella. And I never (well, hardly ever) read fantasy.

You know the setup. Aliens destroyed the Earth before the story begins and the last of humanity is holed up in Gaea station,  a hollowed-out asteroid where they’re honing their warcraft and their bodies to get revenge on the galaxy. Kyr, Valkyre, is the best of the best, if only on the girl’s team, because she doesn’t mass as much as her brother Magnus, who’s the only person ever to beat the aliens in a training simulation and save the Earth before an antimatter bomb killed its billions. Sure, the culture of Gaea is right-wing repressive…so much so that there’s a warning on the book that a variety of folks may find the content offensive, but hey…14 billion humans snuffed out in an instant. Doesn’t that justify going a little space nazi? Kyr sure thinks so.

She’s got no sympathy for anyone who would turn traitor (including her older sister) and join the galactic civilization. She’s in what amounts to a fundamentalist cult, so it’s not like she’s ever seen what that world is like. What she wants is to be assigned to a combat wing so she can kick some Majo (alien) butt. But that’s not what she gets, and she’s crushed. Kyr may be devastated, but that doesn’t stop her.  In fact, pretty much nothing stops her as she sets out to prove herself by following her brother on a mission. What she doesn’t know is that while she’s set to change the universe, the universe has a way of returning the favor.

The book kept surprising me with the directions it took, and I was delighted to be surprised at every turn. I do take exception to the blurb, which describes it as a queer space opera, and was annoyed by the warning about homophobic and other types of content.  Like Kyr herself says when she talks about who’s queer, “You know that sort of thing doesn’t matter. It’s just sex stuff.”

The more interesting questions here have to do with revenge and survival. Why did the Majo destroy the Earth? Why didn’t they wipe out all humankind while they were at it? And hardest to wrap your head around, is revenge the right thing to seek? This is a smart novel with plenty of action to keep things moving while Kyr (and you) confront assumptions. Highly Recommended for fans of smart space opera, queer or not, as well as Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven, Card’s Ender’s Game, and heck…Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars.

Furious Heaven (The Sun Chronicles Book 2)
by Kate Elliott
Tor Books (Apr/18/2023)

Kate Elliott’s sequel to Unconquerable Sun continues the retelling of the life of Alexander the Great on a galactic stage and with an LGBTQ cast of characters.  If you haven’t read the first one, you may find it slow going, but when you get to the space battles you’ll be fine.  This book is filled with enough “non-stop action, space battles” to keep an action junkie going through the intrigue and political maneuvering that comes with empire-on-empire conflict.

Furious Heaven expands on the worldbuilding and characters from the first book, adding new faces from the rival Phene Empire to the mix, but the central cast is Sun, heir apparent to the Republic of Chaonia, and her collection of companions, especially Persephone, who rallied the students at the military academy she was attending to protect the princess in the last book. Persephone gets the best chapter titles, starting with “1: Never Say the Wily Persephone Can’t Take the Triceratops by the Horns in a Crisis.”

Though the action switches between derring-do on alien worlds and in space battles, the real dangers lie in the confrontations between Sun and the “queen marshal” Eirene, who’s never quite sure Sun is up to the job of replacing her.

There’s an oriental vibe that makes this perfect for fans of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series and other complex, character-driven space opera, but fans of Bujold’s Vokosigan saga should give this a try for the mix of family dynamics, power struggles, and, action.

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