Science Fiction Novels to Look For – May 2023

This month we’ve got a handful of picks that start off with an alien invasion by evil bankers, some excellent space operas, a pushy personal assistant AI, and a Mad Max road trip with a messiah at the end. Hold onto your rocket packs…cause here we go…

A Debt to the Stars
by Kevin Hincker

Science fiction regularly abuses science or ignores it altogether. You might think physics is the most ill-used discipline, but you’re wrong. It’s just the easiest to spot. What really takes it on the chin is economics, the dismal science. Wait! Don’t run away…this won’t hurt at all.  In fact, thanks to Kevin Hincker’s new book, A Debt to the Stars, it’s going to be a lot of fun.

Aliens show up in massive spaceships, then just as quickly disappear from the skies. But in their wake, they leave mankind two gifts, obelisks that will produce any item you want, and an end to aging, disease, and injury. Whenever anyone offers me something for free, I always tell them I can’t afford it, because as Heinlein told us long ago, There Aint No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.  What all the happy humans don’t know is that someone mortgaged the planet to the hilt, and the payment is about to come due. Only one woman has the power to do anything about it, and she’s faced with nothing but bad choices. Fortunately for humanity, she’s also Earth’s greatest financial wizard.

I was afraid this book would get overlooked, but Kirkus made it a starred review, Publishers Weekly made it a Booklife Editors Pick, and yours truly makes it Highly Recommended — So go read it and leave reviews everywhere you can.

Lords of Uncreation
(The Final Architecture Book 3)
by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Orbit May/2/2023

The final book in Tchaikovsky’s Final Architecture is what you’d get if Ian Banks had written The Expanse (which I mean as glowing praise, in case that’s not quite clear). Similar to James S.A. Corey’s saga, there’s something rotten about the way humanity is doing FTL travel, and way down below normal space there are entities waiting to wipe us (or all intelligent life) out. Our heroes have to drive their consciousnesses into the weird un-space that ships use for FTL transit to find the agents who keep sending planet-killing creations to wipe out sentient creatures…though to be fair, they do leave very nice sculptures behind. There’s a lot of space war going on up top too, as different forces wrestle for control amid the chaos.  Though it took me a few chapters to sort things out, once I did I was thoroughly hooked. Recommended.

Dual Memory
by Sue Burke
Tor Books May/16/2023

Sue Burke is back with another look at emergent consciousness. It’s not a sentient plant this time (like it was in her breakout debut, Semiosis), but an overclocked personal assistant that’s a lot smarter and more self-aware than it should be. This is a mashup of climate and refugee crises set on a human-built island utopia run by a group that looks very much like the very real Doctors Without Borders. The good news is that the medical care on the island is great, the bad is that every utopia has its dystopia built in, as the main character, who got stranded there when he was wounded in an attack by raiders, finds out. The island is under siege by the raiders, and it’s an open question as to whether the do-gooder founders or the money-grubbing merchants can find the will, or money, to defend the isle. If they don’t, it’s the little people who will pay the bill, as usual.

What’s so interesting about this book is that it must have been started before the whole ChatGPT nonsense heated up, but it’s spot on as a commentary on it. The refugee hero happens to be an artist, and the personal assistant he’s given really wants to collaborate, and the result is great…but whose is it really? It’s not quite the point of the book, but it’s an interesting bit of prescience.  Recommended.

Fractal Noise
by Christopher Paolini
Tor Books May/16/2023

Here’s a standalone story set in Paolini’s Fractalverse where a survey ship finds an alien artifact–well, a really big hole in the ground–in an unexplored system. Not only is the hole big, and 30 kilometers deep, but every 10.7 seconds it blasts out a massive EMP pulse which a) makes it impossible to land near, and b) creates a global wind belt (and noise) that will blow you off your feet and rupture your eardrums. Now, they could go home and wait for a properly-equipped expedition, but this is a corporate survey vessel, and that would mean they wouldn’t get paid…also, fame? So a party sets out to trek a long long way into fierce winds with faulty sleds and a lot of interpersonal drama. Our main character is only doing it because his wife, also an exobiologist, would have done it…and he’s desperate to keep her memory alive after she was torn limb from limb by predators on a colony world. The others have their own compelling reasons, and there’s an unhealthy conflict over religion to heat things up, but all in all it quickly becomes Scott’s slog to the South Pole, but without dogs to keep them company. Paolini is a fine writer, and he’s done a great job of showing conflict within a small team, but the payoff isn’t quite worth the desperate trek.

Battery Life
by Brennan Gilpatrick and Gregory  Lang
Blackstone Publishing May/30/2023

No month would be complete without a post-apocalyptic road trip through the desert, so it’s a good thing that Gilpatrick and Lang teamed up to drag a motley crew of scavengers across a Mad Maxian landscape fueled by “battery,” a drug they need to survive the toxified atmosphere.

It all starts when the space habitat Cradle falls out of orbit, and Diane, a plucky girl who survives because she’s got an excellent bs detector, winds up stuck in an escape pod on the desert floor, the sole survivor of the last refuge for pure humans. She’s found by Virgil, the craftiest of the junkies, who happens to be dragging around an old US military surplus powered armor/enviro suit/life support unit, which is just what Diane needs to avoid being contaminated by the toxic environment. The only thing is, once you put it on, it stays on, at least until someone with mad skills pries you out of it.

Virgil soon gets roped into a mission to recover a mad scientist who just happens to have those skills, so soon he and Diane are thunder-doming their way across the landscape, picking up a few more desperadoes, and off to find a scientist whose been captured by someone setting up to take over the whole region. So it’s a rescue road trip to face down a messiah’s army. What could go wrong?

It’s zany fun, and I’m recommending it.

But wait…there’s more!

I try to limit myself to five books, to make sure I’ve got time to read them, but there were a few more titles that I didn’t get to that I think deserve a look. Here you go.

Deadly Memory
by David Walton

I enjoyed David Walton’s Living Memory, where a team of paleontologists uncover a dinosaur burial site in Thailand, with clear signs of sentience in the layout. More startlingly, there are traces of a weird green liquid whose odor conveys memory fragments from the dead dinos. It was incredible stuff, well handled both on the science and international political sides.  Now he’s back with a continuance which includes a living creature “from the depths of the ocean, a killer organism surfaces that hasn’t been seen in two hundred and fifty million years.”  Walton is good at near-future hard sf so this should be fun.

The Blighted Stars (The Devoured Worlds #1)
by Megan E. O’Keefe
Orbit May/2/2023

I’ve previously reviewed a few things from Megan E.O’Keefe’s Protectorate trilogy, starting with Velocity Weapon, a solid space opera piece that got her a Philp K. Dick Best Novel nomination.  I’ll admit she’s not on my must-read list, but the setup for her new trilogy, with a spy  “stranded on a dead planet with her mortal enemy…(who)… must survive and uncover a conspiracy” sounds interesting enough to be worth a look.

Bang Bang Bodhisattva
by Aubrey Wood
Solaris May/9/2023

Solaris is billing this as “an edgy, queer cyberpunk detective mystery by an exciting new trans voice from New Zealand.” I read enough of it to decide that it felt more like something from the 80s than next-wave cyberpunk, gender stuff notwithstanding. But maybe that works for it. I think the most attractive bit here was her sidekick, “Angel Herrera, a Luddite P.I. who thinks this is The Big Sleep” because, hey, Chandler.

Not Alone
by Sarah K. Jackson
Doubleday May/9/2023

Another Road Trip here, in the tradition of Brin’s The Postman and Station Eleven, where a mother and her son give up the reclusive life they’ve been leading on the outskirts of London since the end of the world as we know it and head out to find her fiance, who didn’t make it back the day the music died.  Harry, the boy, was born after the “Storm” so this should be eye-opening for the lad.

Titanium Noir
by Nick Harkaway
Knopf, Pantheon, Vintage, and Anchor May/16/2023

I saw the words, “A virtuosic mashup of Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler by way of Marvel” and was sure I’d stumbled on a robot-noir-PI tale, but no…the titanium in the title refers to “genetically altered elites” who are both more or less immortal and very very tall. Except for the dead one whose murder detective Cal Sounder is investigating.  There are powerful families, complicated relationships, and the little guy always gets it in the neck. Yeah, that’s pretty Chandleresque. I haven’t had a chance to read it, but people keep saying good things about Nick Harkaway’s writing and I definitely think it’s worth picking up.

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