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On Books

by Peter Heck


by Suzanne Palmer
DAW, $26.00
ISBN: 978-0-7564-1510-5

Palmer’s debut novel—after a noteworthy career in short fiction, including a good number of well-received stories in this magazine—features Fergus Ferguson, a sort of interstellar repo man whose latest job is to recover a stolen spaceship. The ship is in a deep space settlement called Cernee, an isolated group of orbiting habitations connected by a network of cable cars. Ferguson’s job seems simple enough—find the ship, override its security systems, and get it back to its owners. All in a day’s work, right?

Of course, there are complications. Gilger, the man who stole the ship, isn’t just any random thief. He’s power-hungry and willing to do whatever works to get his way—as Ferguson learns almost at once, when the cable car he’s riding in is attacked by Gilger’s thugs, who show up loaded for bear. The target, however, turns out to be the only other passenger, a grandmotherly woman on her way to sell her farm produce (a crop of lichen). Ferguson escapes, but his problems are only beginning. He quickly finds himself in the middle of an escalating turf war that’s on the verge of breaking into outright insurrection. By mid-novel, he’s got almost everybody in Cernee mad at him for one reason or another. That includes the few allies he’s managed to make—including the family of the older woman from the cable car and an arms dealer who, like Ferguson, spent an important part of his youth on Mars.

In Cernee, Palmer has created a society with enough distinct subcultures and opposed power groups to provide plenty of conflict and variety. Palmer also gives the reader a vicarious—and frequently witty—tour of the different cultures, with their characteristic foods, styles, slang, and institutions. And she gives Ferguson a backstory interesting enough to flesh out not only the character but also the universe in which the story takes place.

This one’s probably best described as an update on the kind of book Harry Harrison was writing with the “Stainless Steel Rat” series—a bit of a romp, with a shady protagonist who has considerably more of a conscience than he’s willing to admit, and a plentiful supply of crazy ideas that just might work. If you enjoyed those, be sure to give this one a try. And if you like it, word on her website is that Palmer’s working on a sequel.

*   *   *

By Chuck Wendig
Del Rey, $28.99 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-399-18210-5

At a time very similar to the present in an America only slightly different from our own, Nessie Stewart, a young Pennsylvania farm girl, goes missing. After some searching, she turns up on a nearby road, walking—and apparently unconscious. Efforts to turn her around or to wake her are fruitless. With no other idea what to do, her older sister Shana decides to follow Nessie, to make sure she’s safe. But the mystery takes on another dimension as more walkers begin to join her—all headed in the same direction, all unresponsive to any outside stimulus.

At the same time, Benji Ray, a former researcher with the Centers for Disease Control, is offered a job dealing with a probable disease outbreak. As his prospective employer tries to convince him to come aboard, we learn that his CDC career ended under some kind of shadow, and that the outbreak is, at least for now, only a prediction by an advanced AI program called Black Swan. Eventually, Benji and his employer make their way to Pennsylvania, where he meets up with former colleagues from the CDC, who grudgingly accept his presence despite the circumstances of his departure from the agency. And he begins following the walkers, whose number continues to grow, on their journey west.

In the short time since the outbreak began, authorities have learned that the walkers’ skin has somehow hardened, so attempts to administer drugs or take blood samples are useless. Also, an attempt by a policeman to stop one of them ends in disaster, with the walker and the policeman both dead. Whatever the cause of the phenomenon, ending it—or even determining its cause—isn’t going to be easy. And as the group moves west, those—like Shana—who have committed to staying with a loved one face difficult choices, as do the local authorities through whose territory the walkers travel.

At the same time, the rest of the country is taking an interest. We begin to see the story through the eyes of others—a small-town preacher in Indiana, whose sermon identifying the walkers as a sign of the apocalypse catches fire with the right wing; or an aging rock star who ditches his band’s latest attempt at a comeback to follow the walkers; or a disabled police officer who finds she can overhear what the walkers are thinking if she is close to them. Each of these characters—and the others they bring in along with them—adds to the tension and conflict as the group moves inexorably west, overcoming obstacles along the way.

But Shana and Benji remain at the focus of the story. Gradually, through his interaction with Black Swan, Benji begins to piece together the story behind the walkers—a story the author has dropped hints about at various points earlier in the narrative. It turns out that the story is considerably bigger than anyone initially thought.

A strong narrative drive, believable characters, and a solid underpinning in real science and current affairs make this one of the better near-future stories I’ve read recently. Highly recommended.

*   *   *

by Cixin Liu
Tor, $28.99 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-7653-9407-1

The author of The Three-Body Problem offers a near-future story about a young scientist, Chen, who becomes fascinated with ball lightning after his parents are killed by the rare meteorological phenomenon.

Chen quite understandably becomes a scientist who specializes in the study of ball lightning, which demonstrates bizarre behavior not fully consistent with other types of electrical energy. For example, while his parents are reduced to ashes, Chen himself is barely touched—his undershirt is burned, but the rest of his clothing is intact. Later he comes across a notebook in which alternate pages are burned and unburned.

But as Chen progresses in his education, his teachers discourage him from the subject in which he is most interested. He persists, and produces a doctoral dissertation on the subject—largely theoretical, because he has been unable to observe the phenomenon since the death of his parents. Then he learns that the military is interested in the possibilities of ball lightning as a weapon—under the guidance of a young woman officer, Lin Yun.

The novel follows the research program to convert ball lightning into a practical weapons system, with the help of a brilliant but eccentric scientist, Ding Yi—who also appears as a character in the “Three-Body” trilogy. Along the way, the scientists develop a workable theory of the real nature of the lightning—which turns out to involve a major breakthrough in theoretical physics. And as one would logically expect in a military research program, the practical aspects of the new weapon become significant in a surprising way before the plot is resolved.

The novel, which Cixin describes as a sort of prequel to the “Three-Body” trilogy, is interesting not only for its SFnal theme but as a look inside a possible Chinese society in a not-too-distant future. Translated from the Chinese by Joel Martinsen, Ball Lightning is another fascinating read from an author who is clearly expanding the international horizons of American readers. Kudos to Tor for bringing it—and many other Chinese SF writers—to those of us who read only English.

*   *   *

By Sarah Pinsker
Small Beer Press, $17.00 (tp)
ISBN: 978-161873-155-5

Pinsker’s first short story collection comprises thirteen tales—several of which appeared in this magazine, and one (“The Narwhal”) published for the first time in the book. Six of the stories are Nebula nominees, and one—“Our Lady of the Open Road”—took home the trophy. Not a bad accomplishment for anyone’s collection.

The stories cover a wide range of settings, from the present day to dystopian near-futures to a generation starship in the far future. The characters are, if possible, even more diverse, from a die-hard punk rocker to a Canadian farmboy to a gardening grandmother to an analogue, in some alternate reality, of Pinsker herself—and they represent an especially wide spectrum of races and sexual orientations. That’s one of the earmarks of Pinsker’s work, and it puts her very much in the mainstream of younger writers in the genre.

As the award nominations testify, the stories are standouts. This collection reveals the author’s audacious imagination and distinctive voice—exactly the strengths we look for in the best short fiction. For example, “Wind Will Rove” takes the stock SF situation of a generation ship partway on its voyage to a destination nobody on board will ever see. The oldest generation remembers Earth and wants to preserve as much of its culture and history as possible; the youngest generation sees no value to this knowledge. Rosie, a teacher who is also a fiddle player in a group that wants to preserve old-time music, is on the front line of the conflict. The problem is exacerbated by the loss of much of Earth history in a computer crash a number of years ago—so that much of what remains is reconstructed from the perhaps unreliable memories of the older generation. Pinsker uses Rosie’s viewpoint to highlight both the beauty of the traditions she’s trying to save and the challenge of a generation that wants to deal with only what it needs to survive.

Or try “The Narwhal,” told from the point of view of Lynette, who has answered an ad for someone to help drive from Baltimore to California—for pay. When her employer shows up in a car that has been modified to resemble a narwhal, the craziness has just begun. Lynette has a dream of visiting all the sites of interest along their route; the Boss, as Lynette calls her, wants to get the ordeal over as quickly as possible. It doesn’t help that the car attracts attention everywhere they go, or that the dashboard is covered with unfamiliar controls that do things no sane driver could predict. And when it turns out that—unknown even to the Boss—their real destination is someplace other than Sacramento, the ending delivers a knockout punch.

Anyone looking for stories that go beyond the predictable and mundane should pick up this collection. Highly recommended.

*   *   *

by Richard K. Morgan
Del Rey, $28.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-345-49312-5

Set on a Mars far enough in the future to have decent-sized cities and a populace that feels it owes nothing to Earth, Thin Air introduces Hakan Veil, a freelance gunman who gets hired to bodyguard Madison Madekwe, a member of an auditing team from Earth. It won’t be an easy job—the Martian powers that be have plenty to hide from the auditors, and Madekwe insists on looking into things they’d just as soon she left alone—specifically the disappearance of a big lottery winner who’d scored a free trip to Earth. That’s enough to put her—and her bodyguard Hakan—in the crosshairs of hostile entities, from corporate power brokers down to local toughs with a bad attitude about off-worlders.

But Hakan has a strong motivation to stick with the job and see it to a successful end: the promise of a ticket back to Earth, his original home, though he’s been on Mars for years. He’s got a suite of military enhancements that give him the edge over most potential adversaries in a one-to-one battle. And he knows the tough streets and backwater settlements of Mars as well as any native—let alone any offworld interloper who sticks his nose into Hakan’s business.

Morgan brings the same gritty action-oriented feel that animates his earlier work like Altered Carbon, with plenty of shady characters and mixed motives to keep the reader guessing as to who’s in a position to benefit from any twist in the plot. He keeps things moving briskly, with a cast of characters drawn from the whole spectrum of Martian society. This one has the most gripping elements of cyberpunk and the new space opera all in one package. If that sounds like your kind of entertainment, give this one a try. It’s a winner.

*   *   *

by Josh Malerman
Del Rey, $27.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-5247-9699-0

From the author of Bird Box, currently a hit Netflix movie, here’s a dystopian tale set in the present day. The story begins in a tower in the wilds of Michigan, essentially a boarding school where a group of young boys, all around age twelve, are being educated without seeing or knowing anything about the opposite sex. In fact, they have been raised from infancy without any contact at all with women. They are the subjects of an experiment designed to create geniuses—based on a theory that the distractions of sex are the major impediment to the full development of human potential.

The primary viewpoint is that of J, one of the boys. (They have been designated by letters instead of names, as part of the experimental protocol.) We first meet him as he is about to undergo the daily ritual of inspection, which is designed to uncover any deviations from the boys’ predestined course of growth and education. The reader gradually learns details of life in the school, including the hierarchy of the staff, the boys’ indoctrination, and the daily routine. We also meet several of the adults in the school, including a psychologist who submits regular reports evaluating the progress of the experiment; Warren Bratt, an author hired to create boys’ books tailored to the school and its principles; and Richard, the founder of the experiment, known to the boys as D.A.D.

As the novel opens, the experiment is reaching one of its critical points—given that the boys are reaching puberty, there is a huge surplus of hormonal energy seething under the surface of things. And Warren, who once had illusions of a cutting-edge literary career, is beginning to feel constrained by the hackwork he is turning out for D.A.D.’s experiment. It is also becoming clear, at least to the reader, that the nature of the experiment is such that nobody who knows about it can ever be allowed to return to the world and tell what they know.

And then J. becomes aware of a boy from somewhere outside the castle. This shakes his reality, because the school’s environment is so rigidly controlled that any outsider is a totally unprecedented phenomenon. Gradually the reader becomes aware of who the outsider is—and what their presence means for the experiment as a whole. And before we know it, the whole carefully built structure is going off the rails.

Malerman does a good job of building the world of his story—set just beyond the edge of reality as we know it, with the boys effectively aliens to the worldview most of us take for granted. A strong, compulsively readable novel, driven by the presence of several characters with diverging agendas—even when, as with J., they have no real idea of the larger purpose behind the situation as they see it. Well worth looking for.

*   *   *

by Harry Turtledove
Del Rey, $28.99 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-399-18149-8

Turtledove takes a vacation from alternate history to offer a look at the end of the world—as foretold by the prophets. Of course, as anyone who’s followed Turtledove’s work knows, things turn out somewhat differently from how everyone thinks they will.

Of course, the story is set in and around Jerusalem. Eric Katz, an American archaeologist, is working on a dig in the vicinity of the Temple Mount, the site of the Jewish Temple destroyed by the Romans, and one of the holiest sites of Islam. Word comes that his crew is being moved to another, higher-priority dig—which turns out to be directly under the Mount. That creates potential problems with the Muslims who theoretically control the site, despite the Israeli occupation since the 1960s. But the artifact they may be about to unearth is the biggest of Big Deals—the Ark of the Covenant.

Meanwhile, an Israeli farmer visits the U.S. to buy a cow—not just any cow, but one with completely red hair. The ultra-Orthodox sect he belongs to is planning to expel the Muslims from the Mount and reopen the Temple, for which the sacrifice of such a cow is needed. With him is Chaim, his young son, who has been raised in extreme ritual purity to take part in the re-dedication. Upon examination, the cow meets the standards; clearly an omen, since only a handful of completely red cows have been recorded in all of history. The end times must be at hand.

Other characters are added to the mix—an American TV crew, looking for a hot story; Lester Stark, an American preacher with a large TV following and a deep familiarity with scripture; Hadji Ibrahim, head of the waqf, the Muslim foundation in charge of the Temple Mount; and others as the story builds. As is his usual style, Turtledove tells the tale from multiple viewpoints, giving each a scene before shifting to another—a technique that gives the world of the story a great deal of texture and brings in information that no single point-of-view character could reasonably be expected to have.

The plot builds quickly—no sooner are the characters in place in Israel than major problems arise for all of them. Turtledove’s choice of one of the most volatile settings on Earth means that lots of players have large stakes in this game. Not surprisingly, the discovery of the Ark creates the most tension, forcing adherents of several different religions, as well as many of those whose focus is strictly on earthly matters, to decide what it means and what to do about it. And of course those decisions set off their own trains of consequences.

Turtledove orchestrates his various plot strands expertly, with lots of surprises—many of which become inevitable in hindsight. The climax is sufficiently impressive to justify the buildup—and, as Turtledove’s regular readers undoubtedly expect, it sets up a sequel. Given the expectations that arise in the final pages of this one, it will be very interesting to see what he has in store for the next chapter. If you’ve enjoyed the author’s earlier work, this one is likely to be just your cup of tea. It certainly was mine.

*   *   *

by Jin Yong
Translated from the Chinese by Anna Holmwood
St. Martin’s Press, $27.99 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-250-22060-8

Jin Yong (a pen name of journalist Louis Cha, 1924-2018), was a prolific bestseller in his native Chinese. His novels have reportedly sold some 300 million copies worldwide, and his work has been made into numerous popular films and videos for the Chinese market. His work might be compared to that of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but its impact in China is on the level of J.R.R. Tolkien’s. Despite all that, his work has not, until now, been widely available in English.

Looking at this novel—actually the first quarter of Legends of the Condor Heroes, published in China in the late 1950s as a single volume—it’s tempting to categorize it as a martial arts adventure. Certainly, the plot revolves around the kung fu exploits of the major characters, and a friend who has intensively studied martial arts says that those elements of the story are portrayed authentically enough for her to follow the fight scenes in vivid detail. But the story also has significant fantasy elements, and a historical setting of considerable interest in its own right. And it is compelling enough that a reader—such as myself—who has little or no familiarity with kung fu culture can read it with a good deal of enjoyment.

The novel takes place during the Song dynasty (shortly after 1200 a.d.), when the Chinese empire was under pressure from Mongols from the north and facing considerable internal turmoil. It begins with the story of two Chinese patriots self-taught in the martial arts, who die when their village comes under attack. Their pregnant wives flee the onslaught, but end up separated; one remains in China while the other goes to Mongolia. But their sons, Guo Jing and Yang Kang, are sworn brothers, whose destiny will eventually bring them together. We follow Jing, who becomes a protégé of Genghis Khan and a gifted practitioner of kung fu. Jing’s early days show him to be brave, resourceful, and loyal—able to overcome humble origins and to win through the complex internal politics of the Mongol court. But his destiny leads him back to China, where he meets his (unknown to either of them) sworn brother Kang—and a mysterious young woman, Lotus Huang, who is herself highly gifted in kung fu.

In the course of the story, Jin Yong introduces a large and varied cast of characters, both historic and fictional, representing a wide range of Chinese society of the era. There are heroes and villains and many shady characters whose motivations and loyalties are unclear. And the plot is sprinkled liberally with combat scenes in which characters display a wide, often fantastic range of abilities. While there is not a great deal of what we would normally classify as magic or supernatural content, both the historical setting and the larger-than-life characters give the story the feeling of an epic—one that many SF/fantasy readers are likely to enjoy.

There are three more volumes of “Condor Heroes” to come, so if this one’s to your taste, there’s plenty more in the pipeline. I look forward to the sequels.

*   *   *

TRAPPED IN THE R.A.W.—A Journal of My Experiences during the Great Invasion
By Kate Boyes
Aqueduct Press, $20.00 (tp)
ISBN: 978-1-61976-9

Boyes is an Oregon-based travel writer who has also written a biography of Paul McCartney. She presents her debut novel as the journal of a young woman, Kaylee Bearovna, who is working inside a rare books library when the aliens arrive—and start killing people. Luckily for her, the library is already closed for the day, and its substantial locks and strong walls initially keep them out. And there are plenty of others for the aliens to kill, so they leave her alone.

Kaylee soon realizes that leaving the library would expose her to almost certain death—the aliens, who wear uniforms that cover their features, kill anyone they find in the open. So she hunkers down, with a minimum of foodstuffs and other supplies, to try to survive in place. After a few days, she begins a journal—written, ironically, on pages torn out of the books in the collection. She describes the aliens and their activities—while they make sporadic attempts to break into the library, they mostly leave her alone. However, one alien, whom she calls “Tall Man” because of his height, keeps looking in the windows, clearly watching her, though he takes no hostile action. Meanwhile, most of the drama revolves around Kaylee’s efforts to keep herself fed and to deal with the shortage of basic living facilities in the library—there is a mini-kitchen and a bathroom, but little else—and no guarantee that power and water will continue to be available.

The novel traces Kaylee through the end of her journal, about two months after the invasion. And at that point, a series of appendices traces a research team’s efforts to learn what happened to her after the journal ends. Not surprisingly, the reader learns a good deal more about Kaylee, the aliens, and the history of the invasion—as well as the post-invasion world—from these documents, which aren’t limited to a single, isolated person’s viewpoint. The effect of this approach—sort of an expanded epistolary novel, with documents from various hands adding to the story—is similar to that of Simon Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants, or several of John Brunner’s novels from the sixties.

A very promising debut, with both realistic and fantastic elements deployed to build a convincing future world and characters whose fate it’s easy to care about. I will definitely be on the lookout for future work by Boyes.

*   *   *

by Rob Hart
Crown, $27.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-9848-2379-3

This near-future dystopian novel looks at the future of work in America, represented by a mega-store known as Cloud. Cloud, the creation of Gibson Wells, is in some ways a combination of Wal-Mart and Amazon—an all-pervasive retail chain that has practically eliminated its competitors. Not only does Cloud dominate the market for almost every conceivable commodity, it has transformed the model of employment. Cloud employees live in the stores’ distribution centers, where all their needs are provided for: food, shelter, entertainment, healthcare, the works. It’s evocative of the old company towns, or the New England mill town dormitories—updated to reflect all the new ways the company can control and exploit its employees.

The novel follows two new Cloud employees, beginning with their arrival in a deserted small town where they are taking a test designed to identify those who will do well with the company. Paxton, a former prison guard, is looking for a job after an invention for which he had great hopes was effectively killed by a Cloud knockoff. Because of this background, he is assigned to Security—not what he would have chosen, but Cloud doesn’t give its employees the luxury of choice.

Zinnia, on the other hand, is assigned to be a picker—her job is to pull orders from the warehouse shelves and place them on a conveyer belt to be routed to the customers. Ironically, she was hoping for an assignment in Security or technical support. We soon learn why—she is an industrial spy who has taken the assignment of finding out how Cloud’s system actually works.

We also get a third point of view: Gibson Wells himself, who is now a terminal cancer patient looking back on what made Cloud a success—and Wells the richest man in the world. At first, Wells comes across as an amiable self-made man, who owes everything to hard work. Only as the story progresses do we begin to see the truth behind the folksy façade: Wells has systematically pulled every possible string, getting laws passed to favor him and overturning other laws that would impede his business.

The real nature of Cloud becomes clear as we watch Paxton and Zinnia at work. Behind the surface of the “ideal” all-in-one live/work environment, there is a tightly regimented social order. And like all complex societies, it has its dissidents, misfits, and predators—including drug dealers, abusive managers, and others who don’t fit Wells’s rosy image. Meanwhile, Paxton and Zinnia are working at cross-purposes, the one working to enforce the rules and the other to discover the secrets behind Cloud’s success. Naturally, given their opposing missions, their friendship—formed during their orientation and continued after they’re on the job—will inevitably arrive at a crisis.

Of course, Zinnia eventually learns what she’s been sent to ferret out. And Paxton finds himself confronting a major security issue in Cloud’s operations—one that none of his superiors has anticipated. Naturally, the major crisis arrives just as Wells is paying one of his infrequent visits to the plant. Hart expertly orchestrates the plot events, giving us a look at what may be the future of American business—Cloud is not all that much of a leap from current conditions in many Chinese factories, according to online accounts I’ve read.

The publisher reports that Warehouse has been optioned for a major motion picture, so you can expect to see plenty of buzz on this one in the months to come. If you want to get ahead of the game, the novel’s well worth a read.

*   *   *


Edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams
One World, $17.00 (tp)
ISBN: 978-0-525-50880-9

This anthology takes its title from a nonfiction book by Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, in which the story of the nation is told from the viewpoint not of the rich and powerful, but from that of ordinary people. LaValle says in an introduction that the invitation to the anthology asked for stories that “explore new forms of freedom, love, and justice.” Stories came in from many of the most adventurous writers on the current SF scene—a few of them, like N.K. Jemisin and Charlie Jane Anders, already household names among genre readers.

The stories cover a wide range of styles and settings, though a hefty percentage take a dystopian view of what the future has up its sleeve—undoubtedly in response to the tendencies of the current administration and its supporters. So we get visions of a fragmented America, as in Anders’ “The Bookstore at the End of America,” or of a future where the country has vanished entirely, as in Lizz Huerta’s “The Wall.” We see things from the viewpoint of characters from outside the whitebread “mainstream” culture of today, as in Omar El Addad’s “Riverbed,” or Jemisin’s “Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death.” And a good number of the stories are satiric, notably Charles Yu’s “Good News Bad News.”

The range of the stories is in fact one of the best things about this anthology, though it makes it tricky to give a simple overview. But if you’re in the mood for the kinds of stories that Pohl/Kornbluth or Sheckley or Ellison would be writing today if they were young, brown, gay, Muslim, or otherwise alienated from the worldview of the powers that be in current society, there’s a great selection of them here. Not only is this a look at where SF is likely to be going in the next couple of decades; it could well be where America is going.


Copyright © 2020 Peter Heck

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