On Books


by Peter Heck

By John Kessel
Saga Press, $27.99 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-4814-8144-1

This ambitious science fiction novel depicts the fate of a utopian society surrounded by others that are threatened by its founding principles—even when the founders tried to create a society where violence would be all but unthinkable.

The story takes place on the Moon, in the mid-twenty-second century. The Society of Cousins is one of a number of lunar settlements, settled by a utopian group that traced the evils of past history to patriarchal culture. In response, they have created a society controlled by women, but not excluding men. Instead, men hold a position much like that of upper-class women in the Victorian age: pampered, valued for accomplishments in the arts or sports, and given minimum responsibility unless they have earned it.

The action is split between two cities: Persepolis, a nation modeled on the culture of early Persia, and the Fowler Dome, home of the Society of Cousins. In Persepolis, we meet Erno—an exile from Fowler Dome, who is working a dangerous job in a lunar water mine and spending his off hours drinking with a rowdy group of coworkers. We learn fairly early that he was exiled for killing his mother. After an accident that costs him his hand, he appears to have fallen upon even worse times—until he meets the daughter of Cyrus, the richest man on the Moon, who sees in him a way out from under her father’s thumb. And, as it turns out, Cyrus sees possible value in Erno’s skills as an environmental engineer, learned back in Fowler Dome.

Meanwhile, in Fowler Dome, we meet Mira, who is gaining notoriety—under a pseudonym—as a satirical graffiti artist. Also something of a rebel, she feels a degree of resentment at being an outsider in the very clearly defined matriarchy of the Society. And she is involved with Carey, a man half the women in her circle find incredibly attractive—and whom most of them have slept with.

At the same time, Fowler Dome is preparing for an election, in which for the first time a party that supports fuller rights for men is making a serious bid. The outcome of the election will determine the shape of the society for some years to come, in large part because of the perception in other Lunar colonies that Fowler Dome has deprived half its population of fundamental rights. In the worst case, the election could provide a pretext for other colonies to intervene in the Society of Cousins.

Kessel jumps between the immediate action and various commentaries on the two societies, building a complex portrait of his future world much in the manner of some of John Brunner’s work. But the stories of the individual characters are also fully developed, with a complex backstory connecting the characters in ways that only gradually become apparent to the reader. The paradoxes in the Society of Cousins gradually come into the foreground, building to a climax in the larger political plot.

The utopian novel is always a challenge, especially in the creation of characters who are believable both as members of the societies they represent and as real people with personalities that aren’t just illustrations of the points the author is trying to make. Kessel has succeeded admirably in fulfilling both criteria, and his larger plot keeps the reader turning pages. A very strong novel, a good bet to show up on next year’s awards lists.

*   *   *

By Stephen Baxter
Crown, $27.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-5247-6012-0

A sequel to H.G. Wells’ tale of interplanetary invasion, The War of the Worlds, this book takes a clear-eyed look at the implications of Wells’ conclusion, which had the invading Martians defeated by Earth’s microbes, against which they had no immunity.

The events of the novel are told from the viewpoint of Julie Elphinstone, a journalist and the sister of Walter Jenkins, the narrator of Wells’s novel. She is living in New York when she receives a mysterious call from her brother, hinting at “grave news from the sky.” Since he, along with all of Earth’s astronomers, have been watching the face of Mars for any sign that a new invasion may be imminent, Julie fears the worst. She boards the Lusitania for a return to England, where she and a small group of Jenkins’ associates learn that the invasion has in fact been launched—and is expected to arrive shortly.

The British Army has spent the fourteen years since the original invasion preparing its forces to deal with a return of the Martians, and it has carefully developed plans to counter them. At the same time, the British government has taken a turn toward the autocratic, in particular by allying itself with the German Empire, which has supplied military aid in spite of the demands of an ongoing war with Russia—the unfinished campaign of a World War I in which Britain took no part, and which has left France under German occupation.

But when the Martians arrive, they unleash new tactics and weapons, and the defending forces are quickly defeated. Soon the Martian machines are roving over England, destroying any sign of resistance. Still, an underground effort continues, with help from Germany. Julie is recruited to undertake a critical mission that may reverse the tide of battle—a mission that takes her into the heart of Martian-occupied England.

This gives Baxter a chance to give the reader a much more detailed look at the Martians and their society than Wells offered. He also delivers a scathing critique of how ordinary English men and women adapt to the occupation—a view based on what occupied countries in World War II and later went through. Neither the collaborators nor the resistance come out of the experience covered in glory—and the power of the Martian occupation remains unshaken, in any case. Not surprisingly, the Martians learned from the fate of the earlier invasion and took steps to overcome it.

Worse is to come—not content with occupying a single island, the Martians soon launch a follow-up invasion to gain them a foothold in other parts of the world. We get reports of their arrival in parts of Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. All appears to be hopeless—but Julie is not yet finished with her secret mission, which, after observing the Martians up close, she knows how to complete successfully.

While there have been several sequels by other hands to Wells’s original, Baxter tops them all—although he pays fond tribute to several of them, including Edison’s Conquest of Mars, by Garret W. Service. He also incorporates the fruits of an extensive survey of Wells scholarship, both within SF circles and more traditional academic disciplines, to enrich the novel’s range of allusion and its resolution of some of the plot problems in the original. And, by setting the novel in the early twenties, he finds a way to update the style without stepping too far out of period.

A very welcome—and highly readable—sequel to one of the central works at the foundation of science fiction as we know it. Anyone with any fondness for the original owes it to themselves to seek this one out—you won’t regret it.

*   *   *

By Charles Stross
Tor, $25.99 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3756-3

Stross picks up his “Merchant Princes” series, featuring characters who can walk between alternate worlds, a couple of decades after the end of Trade of Queens, the last book in the original series.

The United States, having survived an episode of nuclear terrorism some twenty years earlier, is now far more security-conscious than before. In a parallel world, there is a New American Commonwealth, created in a revolution against the English King just over a decade ago. The government of the new nation includes among its leaders several refugees from a world that felt the brunt of an all-out nuclear attack after the U.S. learned how to send its planes between alternate lines.

As a result of that apocalyptic conclusion to the previous book, it is a much harsher society. Both the new republic and the U.S. are justifiably aware of the threats that might come their way from cross-world travelers, and both have created extensive security organizations and espionage operations to guard against them. In the Commonwealth, Miriam Burgeson—the central figure in the Merchant Princes series—is in charge of keeping an eye on the other America. Her main charge is to bring her new nation as much high technology as she can steal by smuggling it back across the world lines. But she knows that, sooner or later, the other America will discover the Commonwealth, and when that happens, she and everyone else in her world are likely to face the kind of preemptive strike that took out her former home in the Grunmarkt.

As it happens, that other America is doing everything it can to protect its national security. Among its projects is recruitment of the children of crossworld travelers from the Grunmarkt, whom it hopes carry the gene that will allow them to infiltrate any other worlds that might pose a threat. And among the recruits is a young woman named Rita—the daughter Miriam gave up for adoption before she discovered her own ability to cross between worlds. In many ways this replicates the pattern of Miriam’s early life—though Stross introduces enough differences so it doesn’t feel as if it’s a recycled plot line.

Rita has a healthy skepticism about the security state, a skepticism nurtured by her adoptive grandfather, a refugee whose memories of his youth in East Germany have made him an enemy of attempts to privilege security over freedom. Armed with his insights and advice, she manages to keep her own perspective through being trained as an agent of that world’s equivalent of Homeland Security.

Stross does a good job of taking the premises of the Merchant Princes books a step farther out. The portrait of American politics in an age where security is the justification for every possible restriction on individual rights is frightening in its own right—and the fact that, in this world, the government’s paranoia is to some degree founded in reality does little to reduce its impact. Likewise, the portrayal of the political perils of the early years of the Commonwealth—in a world where other nations have developed nukes and are ready to use them—is convincingly drawn.

The new characters nicely augment the cast, and several intriguing plot elements planted in the previous volumes are developed farther here. Anyone who enjoyed the earlier series will find this a welcome continuation. If you’re new to the series, you could probably pick it up here—but you’d be well advised to get hold of the earlier volumes, all available from Tor, so as not to miss one of Stross’s most ambitious and provocative fictional creations.

*   *   *

By Ellen Kushner et al
Saga Press, $21.99 (tp)
ISBN: 978-1-4814-8558-6

This shared-world adventure, set in the world of Kushner’s Swordspoint, was originally published on the website Serial Box (serialbox.com).

The plot is made up of a series of self-contained episodes by several different authors, which together, in effect, add up to a novel. In addition to Kushner, who wrote the first episode, the contributors are Alaya Dawn Johnson, Malinda Lo, Joel Derfner, Patty Bryant, Racheline Maltese, and Paul Witcover.

The story, as Kushner notes in an Afterword, is set about fifteen years before Swordspoint, to avoid introducing inconsistencies into her time line. It revolves around several characters living in and around Riverside, the capital city of a nation much like Elizabethan England—except that, in this world, the “European” nations have not learned to navigate the ocean separating them from a New World whose inhabitants, equivalent perhaps to the Mayans, have become successful traders, exporting chocolate and other delicacies, to their great profit.

In the opening chapter, we meet Diane, Duchess Tremontaine, a beautiful and powerful woman with a secret she must protect to avoid disaster. We also meet Ixkaab Balam, daughter of one of the trading houses from the New World, who has been sent to Riverside after a spying mission she undertook ended in near-disaster. Kaab is curious and a bit rebellious, as becomes clear when she spends her first day in Riverside seeking out someone against whom to test her newly acquired skills with a sword.

Also newly arrived in the city is Micah, young daughter of a farming family, who has come with her uncle to sell turnips. As we soon learn, she is a mathematical prodigy, a skill her family values in bargaining with customers. But when she goes into the city, disguised as a boy to keep away unwanted attention from the locals, she meets a group of scholars—and learns that there is far more to math that she suspected. When one of the group, a would-be astronomer named Rafe, realizes that her ability to calculate can help him prove his novel theories about the Earth and Sun, he persuades her to stay—and soon she is working to discover the flaws in the established tables of planetary orbits.

Of course, as the plot evolves, all the characters end up dealing with one another in a variety of ways. Diane, like all aristocrats, is inordinately fond of chocolate—and she also has a problem that can possibly be solved by striking up an alliance with the American traders. Meanwhile, Kaab realizes that Rafe’s astronomical theories could lead to the “Europeans” developing a more accurate method of navigation—which would be a disaster for her family’s business. And Rafe, whose theories, like Galileo’s, fly in the face of received opinion, is desperate to earn his Master’s degree so he can set up his own school. But to do so, he must either knuckle under to the establishment or find some way to pass the qualifying exam in spite of opposition.

The various plot strands come together in a maze of high politics, street brawls, academic intrigue, sexual hijinks, assassinations, and deep-held secrets—all of which are eventually sorted out. Adding to the distinctive flavor, a large number of the characters challenge conventional gender roles. Women in this world have skills and abilities that we associate with men, and nobody blinks an eye at most of it. And none of the authors is making any particular statement about it—it’s just a good rip-roaring adventure. Despite the various contributors, each of whom clearly has a degree of autonomy, the book retains a consistency of style and mood sufficient to provide a coherent whole.

Readers who’ve enjoyed Kushner’s books in the Swordspoint series will find this a great return to that world—and a nice extension of some of its implications. But the book is also a good entry point to the series. If you enjoy a swashbuckling fantasy tale that goes well beyond the usual models—and does so without bringing in magical elements—this one’s likely to be right up your alley.

Best of all, the series will continue—see the Serial Box website for details.

*   *   *

By Elizabeth Moon
Del Rey, $28.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-101-88731-8

Moon returns to the world of her “Vatta’s War” military SF series, with Ky Vatta, now an admiral, returning to her home world for the first time in years. She is greeted as a hero, met by a shuttle to take her to the capital where she needs to settle details of a major restructuring of the family business.

The trouble starts almost immediately. On the way down, the shuttle develops mechanical problems and is forced to crash-land in the ocean. The nearest land is an uninhabited part of the planet that all the guidebooks write off as a terraforming failure. Worse yet, it’s the dead of winter. And there’s excellent evidence that the shuttle was sabotaged. Ky knew she had enemies, but she didn’t expect them to strike her on her homeworld. That really doesn’t matter as much as surviving long enough to do something about it.

Moon shifts the focus back and forth between the shipwrecked party and those elsewhere on and off the planet who are trying to learn what happened to them. For the survivors of the crash landing, the first priority is getting to dry land. Then the issue becomes how to survive at all with their limited food supplies and almost no local resources to exploit.

To complicate things just that much more, Ky is forced to assume command of a group of military personnel who were on the shuttle with her largely as an honor guard; wilderness survival skills are far from their strong point. A good bit of the plot involves her finding ways to overcome the decidedly unfavorable conditions.

Soon, almost everyone outside the shipwrecked party has already given up hope. The lack of communication and the hostile environment have led the authorities to what seems the obvious conclusion. Those who do hold out hope—Ky’s family, her close associates from her previous campaigns—are left to follow whatever sparse clues they can come up with. Most of those lead them to the same conclusion Ky has come to: that the shipwreck is the work of her enemies, and the first move in a campaign to recapture power.

As Moon’s readers have come to expect, the novel combines a strong female lead with a good insight into military and political affairs. While the book will probably be of most interest to those who’ve followed the “Vatta’s War” series that this novel continues, it stands very well on its own legs. You might very well find yourself wanting to go back and find the others after reading this one. Recommended.

*   *   *

By James Morrow
Tachyon, $14.95 (tp)
ISBN: 978-1-91696-265-4

Morrow’s latest is a satiric World War I alternate history in which the title character—a mad master of psychology—takes advantage of the onset of war to put his sinister theories into action.

The protagonist, a young American painter named Francis Wyndham, has gone to Paris to study with the brilliant masters of the modernist movement that bloomed at the beginning of the twentieth century. But he quickly finds that his talents are too modest to interest the likes of Picasso and Braque. Running out of funds and desperate for some kind of break, he jumps at the chance to teach art in the tiny nation of Weizenstaat, where Dr. Caligari has established an asylum. It is the inmates of the asylum that are to be his students.

Wyndham takes a train to Weizenstaat, a few steps ahead of the troop trains that are beginning to carry out the mobilization France has undertaken in response to a political assassination in Sarajevo. War is on the horizon, and there is every reason to believe it will soon overrun the continent. Upon his arrival, he is told that Caligari allows no deviation from a strict routine; in particular, no one can leave the asylum without explicit permission from the director. Also, he has been warned, the director will not tolerate any favorable comment on the impostor Sigmund Freud. He has his own methods, to be followed without fail.

As a reader might expect, the inmates turn out to be a mixed bunch, each with some fixation that prevents them from living successfully in the outside world. One is obsessed with chess, another with the omnipresence of disease organisms, a third believes himself to be a space traveler, and one inmate, Ilona, believes herself to be the spider queen. But they eagerly take to their painting lessons, although each of their works is a direct product of their delusions.

Meanwhile, in the outside world, war is raging. Wyndham follows the battles through the morning papers Caligari’s servants bring him with breakfast, and finds himself relieved not to be part of the carnage. Then he learns that Caligari is somehow working as a sort of psychological consultant to the armies of all sides, working to increase the fervor and fighting spirit of the troops. This discovery impels him to find a way to counteract his employer’s efforts—a mission in which he ends up enlisting his art students, with predictably chaotic results.

Morrow’s use of history here, as in his recent Galapagos Regained, is inventive, mixing historical figures with figures out of fiction and fantasy plus his own original characters to add additional depth to the novel. As a result, his portrayal of the World War I era will touch many nerves with readers familiar with the history and literary treatments of that conflict. At the same time, he delivers a good story, with plenty of surprises and a satisfactory pay-off. This provocative novella is well worth a look.

*   *   *

By D.J. Butler
Baen, $25.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-4767-8211-9

Butler’s debut fantasy novel is set in an alternate American history where the Revolution failed, and a hodgepodge of small nations has arisen instead of the United States. The time is the early 1800s, and the story begins in a market town along the Cumberland River in Appalachee territory.

The history of this alternate America, where magic is commonplace, is complex. Not only did the Revolution fail; the British monarchy failed to survive the Commonwealth period. The mound-builder culture of the Mississippi Valley has survived to the present day. And the descendants of William Penn are rulers of an American empire bent on expanding its power.

As the story opens, two agents of Penn’s empire—the Right Reverend Ezekiel Angleton and his factotum Dogsbody—have come to Appalachia, on a mission not immediately clear to the reader. There they encounter a group of young people who’ve come into town for market day—one of whom, Sarah, a young woman with a “witchy eye,” clearly has some supernatural powers.

And, as it happens, Sarah is very much a person of interest to them. The adopted child of Andrew Calhoun, she is in fact the legitimate heir of Penn’s holdings—an incipient empire stretching from the Atlantic coast almost to the Mississippi. As Calhoun tells her, it is imperative that she avoid capture by Angleton. For her protection, he sends her—with a small group including her adoptive brother Cal and a monk named Thalanes—south to New Orleans, where he has reason to believe there is an important key to her heritage.

Meanwhile, in New Orleans, a barroom character who goes by the name of Bad Bill has fallen afoul of the authorities by killing Someone Important in a duel. As it turns out, Bad Bill has a somewhat more illustrious history than his current career as a hired gun would indicate. And it isn’t long after Sarah and her crew arrive in New Orleans—with pursuit close on their heels—that he finds himself joining forces with her.

Butler brings an enormous range of historical and mythical lore to bear in his world-building. One is reminded in places of Orson Scott Card’s “Alvin Maker” series, but that would give only a partial hint of the scope of material that comes into play here. The cast of characters is remarkably varied, drawn from several different cultures that are both historically plausible and freshly imagined. Better yet, the characters keep revealing unexpected depths, which makes for a number of pleasant plot surprises.

An especially interesting first novel—it will be very interesting to see what Butler has up his sleeves for the next in the series.

*   *   *

By Alan Smale
Del Rey, $30.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-804-17727-6

Smale’s trilogy, in which Marcellinus, the surviving commander of a Roman legion, who allied himself with the Native American civilization that defeated him, takes on a new twist in this third volume.

The book begins with Marcellinus trying to balance his commitment to Rome—which he has never renounced—and his new homeland. The Emperor Hadrianus has come to America at the head of his legions, and in the manner of most Romans, he has little understanding or sympathy for other cultures. To the Emperor, indigenous peoples fall into one of two categories: subjects or enemies, and Marcellinus will have to walk a fine line to keep from betraying the Cahokian people who have been his friends and family ever since he arrived in the new world. At the same time, he has ample evidence that the Romans distrust him as a legionnaire who has gone native.

Marcellinus’s Native American allies sense his ambivalent position, and some of them are keeping their distance from him. He knows—as they do not, yet—that the Roman Emperor and his legions have come to America because they have learned that one of their most powerful enemies is also interested in the potential of the western continent. Genghis Khan and his Mongol horde have come to the West Coast, and it is only a matter of time before the forces of the Emperor and the Khan meet on a new field of battle.

Eventually, Marcellinus persuades both the emperor and his Cahokian allies to send him on a scouting expedition to the Southwest, where he hopes to find allies in the coming clash with the Mongols. Taking along some of his closest friends plus a squadron of legionnaires, they head up the Missouri River into the wilderness. The trip brings in interesting echoes of the one that Lewis and Clark took in our history. It also gives the author a chance to explore a broader swath of the continent than he has done so far, looking at the cultures and habitats of the indigenous Plains tribes as they might have been in his alternate world.

Not surprisingly, Marcellinus discovers that the Mongols have been moving rapidly since coming ashore in the Pacific Northwest. The inevitable meeting of Rome and the Mongols now looms even closer—but the key question neither of the two foreign powers is considering is the fate of Cahokia and the other indigenous people after the dust of battle settles. Marcellinus himself is not quite sure how to map that series of events, though he has hopes of being able to save his adopted people’s way of life.

Smale does a good job of orchestrating the conflict between the two great military powers, and he sheds light on the many cultures Marcellinus encounters in his sojourn in the non-Columbian America he has created for his novel. Those who’ve read the previous books in the trilogy will be eager to see how the ultimate conflicts work out. If by some chance you haven’t caught up with this series, you should probably seek out the first volume, Clash of Eagles—it is one of the most effective alternate histories in recent memory, drawing on a wealth of material that almost everyone else has ignored. This third volume brings it to a most satisfactory conclusion.

*   *   *

By Sylvain Neuvel
Del Rey, $28.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-101-88673-1

Neuvel’s sequel to last year’s Sleeping Giants begins a few years after the conclusion of that novel. A team of scientists led by Rose Franklin has reassembled and learned how to operate a giant mechanical woman left on Earth by an extraterrestrial civilization back in the dawn of human civilization. The construct—which has been named Themis—is clearly an advanced weapon, able to withstand and defeat everything the armies of Earth can throw at it.

The plot begins a few years after the close of the first volume. Rose is in the odd position of trying to figure out why she has been brought back from the dead—as readers of the first novel saw in its final scenes. Perhaps surprisingly, she finds herself frustrated and depressed by her revival. But events conspire to bring her sharply back into focus. Not surprisingly, Themis is not one of a kind—and her awakening has served to call her counterparts to join her. And, like Themis, they are powerful weapons—as they soon demonstrate.

The only defense available is Themis herself—but to bring her into action, Rose must reunite the team that discovered the robot’s potential and learned to operate the controls, including Kara, a helicopter pilot, and Vincent, a linguist. To do so, she needs to get them past the heavy emotional barriers their former experience with the robot have created. And the task is urgent—the threat of the new robots is provoking increasingly dangerous responses from threatened human nations.

A strong follow-up to the author’s first novel, which has been optioned by a film production company.

*   *   *

The Complete Short Fiction of Susan Casper
Edited by Gardner Dozois
Fantastic Books, $34.99 (hc), $19.99 (tp)
ISBN: 978-1-5154-1027-0 (hc)
978-1-5154-1028-7 (tp)

The late Susan Casper was not a prolific writer of fiction, but what she did produce was highly personal and often quite intense.

This volume, edited by her husband Gardner Dozois, brings together all Casper’s published fiction plus a selection of travel reports she wrote on various online outlets. Michael Swanwick and Andy Duncan add perceptive appreciations. When reading the anthology, don’t skip these as they offer a deeper insight into both her personality and her art.

The stories here bring in a wide range of the author’s interests, as those who knew her will recognize. There are vampires (in “Under Her Skin,” for one), Oz (the title story), Sherlock Holmes (“Holmes ex Machina”), and much more. She was fascinated by Jack the Ripper, who figures in “Spring-Fingered Jack”—and about whom she and Dozois edited an anthology.

More importantly, the stories deliver a powerful kick; Casper had the ability to bring the stuff of dreams and nightmares vividly into contact with everyday life—as in “The Cleaning Lady” and “Mama,” two stories that will resonate even with readers who rarely enjoy fantasy. Other stories are more explicitly genre—often horror, but there is a fair amount of light-hearted fantasy, as well.

She was particularly adept at setting up a plot that convinces readers they know what’s coming next—and then pulls out a surprise. That’s especially true of “The Cleaning Lady,” which Swanwick in his introduction tells us is Samuel R. Delany’s favorite among Casper’s stories.

A special bonus is “The Blessed Damosel,” the previously unpublished opening chapter of a novel Casper was working on when she suddenly, without any elaborate explanation, gave up writing fiction. The story concerns one of the minor figures of the Pre-Raphaelite group of artists and writers of the early Victorian era—another of the author’s interests. The story is strong in its own right, and it leaves you with an intriguing hint of what might have been.

Although Susan put aside fiction, her travel reports—of which a generous sample is offered at the end of this collection—show her sharp wit and careful observation of people, culture, and landscape. The sites include California, the Grand Canyon, Europe, and Barbados—often trips taken after conventions. She and Gardner traveled extensively, and these reports capture her enjoyment and make it come alive for the reader.

Up the Rainbow can be ordered from your local bookseller, or directly from sales@fantasticbooks.biz. If you’re a lover of short fiction, this is one that belongs on your must-read list.

Copyright © 2018 Peter Heck