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by Peter Heck

Translation State
by Ann Leckie
Orbit, $29.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-3162-8971-9

This novel, set in the universe of Leckie’s Ancillary series, focuses on three characters caught up in the story of a missing alien—one of the Presger, an aggressive race in a precarious truce with humans.

We see the story from all their viewpoints, apparently two human and one alien. Enae Athtur is a middle-aged orphan whose world is uprooted by the death of the Grandmaman with whom sie has spent hir entire life. Reet is a young slacker who learns that he may be the survivor of a lost ruling family. And Qven is a juvenile alien who isn’t sure that they want the life their teachers are preparing them for. The story is told in alternating chapters, following each of the protagonists in turn. Note that each character has their preferred pronouns. (Leckie gets a bit of fun out of a couple of decidedly unsympathetic characters who can’t—or won’t!—keep anyone’s pronouns straight.)

Enae learns that hir Grandmaman, who appeared to be rich, has in fact sold hir house and name to avoid bankruptcy. The buyer, Zemil, has plenty of wealth and influence, but wants the prestige of the Athtur name. Enae is given an allowance, and will be permitted to stay in the house. But when Zemil offers hir a job, involving travel and a considerable increase in hir allowance, sie agrees to take it—it will be hir first real taste of independence. And on the face of it, the job appears to be a near-sinecure: finding out what happened to a Presger Translator who disappeared two hundred years ago.

Reet Hluid is stuck in a dead-end job, fixing pipes in the station’s sewers, when he’s asked to meet with a private consultant. He thinks about blowing off the appointment—he’d rather spend his time eating junk food and watching his favorite video, Pirate Exiles of the Death Moons. To his surprise, the consultant tells him his genetic profile appears to mark him as a descendant of the lost Schan family, the ancient rulers of the Hipiki clan in their rebellion against the tyrannous Phen. He invites Reet to meet a Hipiku descendants group who are keeping alive the clan’s traditions. At first skeptical, Reet decides after some thought to look into it.

Qven is being brought up as one of a group of juveniles, clearly aliens, who live in a stereotypical “law of the jungle” environment—weak members of the group are routinely killed and eaten by the others. Meanwhile they receive lessons on relating to humans in a very stilted, polite way, full of scripted answers to stock questions such as “How have you been?” and rituals such as serving tea. Qven’s story is evidently stretched out over a longer time period than the other two characters, as we see their progress through various stages of growth. Through it all, a key anxiety is the question of mating—which the reader quickly realizes is a much messier and more complicated activity than the human version.

Leckie follows these three characters as their paths converge toward an inevitable climax. Enae finds the answer to hir quest, Reet learns exactly what his genetic profile means, and Qven finds a way to create a career on their own terms. Along the way, the reader gets a look at various strata of a complex future world, with several competing factions of humans and aliens. There’s a good amount of conflict, some quirky humor, and a very satisfactory conclusion. You don’t have to have read Leckie’s earlier works to enjoy this one—though a familiarity with them will give valuable perspective on who some of the characters are and what their motivations could be.

A strong performance by one of today’s important voices.

*   *   *

The Road to Roswell
by Connie Willis
Del Rey, $28.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-593-49985-6

Willis’s latest, as the title telegraphs, is a comic take on alien abduction stories. The protagonist, Francie, is on her way to Roswell, New Mexico, where her friend Serena is about to marry a true believer in alien visitations. Francie has been asked to be maid of honor, but she really hopes to talk her friend out of the latest in a string of ill-advised engagements.

Francie arrives in Roswell to discover that a UFO festival is scheduled for the same weekend, and to top things off, there’s been a reported alien landing not far away from the town. In fact, the groom has gone off to investigate, leaving Francie’s friend to sort out the wedding arrangements—to be held in the local UFO museum, of course. Decked out in her maid-of-honor dress—a hideous shade of green —Francie goes to Serena’s car to get some extra decorations. And that’s when she’s abducted.

The alien looks nothing like the usual stereotypes—so-called Grays or Reptilians—but instead looks like a dried-up tumbleweed with long tentacles it uses to capture Francie. It forces her to drive out of town, indicating the directions by pointing with its tentacles—at this point, it seems to have no other way to communicate, though it seems occasionally to understand what Francie is saying. And so begins a new twist on the great American road trip, as Francie and her captor experience the back roads of the Southwest—with stops at roadside gas stations and eventually in Vegas.

Along the way, the alien picks up additional travelers—Wade, who says his car broke down on the way to Roswell; Lyle, another UFO cultist who’s swallowed every abduction conspiracy theory there is; Eula Mae, a little old lady who plays the casinos; and Joseph, who owns a huge RV filled with western memorabilia and practically every western movie ever made. The movies turn out to be a way to open up a channel of communication with the alien—now nicknamed “Indy” because his whip-like tentacles remind Francie and the others of Indiana Jones. Each of these characters offers Willis a new range of comic material, which she exploits in exuberant fashion.

I won’t give away any more of the plot, which is essentially a ready-made vehicle for Willis’s fertile satiric wit. Suffice it to say that the road to and around Roswell offers a target-rich environment, and she doesn’t miss a single one. Absolutely delicious—the most fun I’ve had reading in a long time.

*   *   *

by Nicholas Binge
Riverhead, $27.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-593-53958-3

Scottish novelist Binge makes his U.S. debut with a tale about an impossibly high mountain that appears in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The story is told mainly in the form of unsent letters from Harold Tunmore, a physicist who’s made a career of studying odd phenomena, to his young niece back in England. Harold’s estranged brother, a retired lawyer, publishes the letters after the physicist’s suicide in a mental hospital, some thirty years later than the events described.

Harold tells of being recruited by a mysterious agency while on a visit to the U.S. He meets a survivor of an earlier expedition to the mountain, an old friend who demonstrates an ability to foresee the future before committing suicide in Harold’s presence. But what convinces Harold to join the program is when he learns that his former wife, Nakao, is at the mountain. He is flown to the site and meets other members of the team—an international group with a heterogeneous mix of backgrounds and skills. In addition to Harold, there’s a geologist, a meteorologist, a chemist, a mountaineer, and Nakao—a medical doctor. A couple of military officers are in charge of the expedition, with several armed men on hand for security—though it’s never quite clear whether a government or some private entity is sponsoring the expedition.

Harold’s letters alternate between recounting his own backstory, in particular his life with Nakao and their adopted son, and the assault on the mountain, which is estimated to be about ten thousand feet higher than Everest. Just as the relationship between Harold’s past and present begins to make sense, the story’s drama explodes with the discovery of several kinds of aliens on the mountain—who may or may not be working together. But clearly they are a threat to the human climbers, despite the abundance of armed security. The mountain is not just a natural phenomenon, and a secret awaits at the summit.

Binge deftly juxtaposes the two plot streams, alternating the narrator’s seemingly mundane backstory with the events that take place on the mountain. Harold’s eventual suicide provides a hook pulling the reader toward a surprising conclusion.

Well-crafted suspense, likely to appeal to the non-genre reader as well as SF fans. Having read this one, I’d be interested in reading the author’s previous novel, Professor Everywhere—not yet published in the U.S.

*   *   *

The Language of Water
by Elizabeth Clark-Stern
Aqueduct Press, $19.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-91676-234-2

Set in a future Middle East when a water shortage has become the dominant global issue, this novel focuses on two women from different backgrounds. Kethuda—also known as Ataturka—is the first woman president of Turkey, the daughter of the previous president. Sara is a young Kurd whose life’s ambition is to become a freedom fighter against Turkish domination—and its control of the waters of the Euphrates River.

As the book begins, we see Sara talking to Rexie, a small wild bird of a species that is adapting to global warming by recovering some of the characteristics of its dinosaur ancestors. While it’s a one-way conversation, the way we talk to dogs or cats, Sara has a definite affinity for birds, a talent that later turns out to be useful. Then, a group of YPJ fighters—the Kurdish women’s militia she hopes to join—arrive for recruitment day. But before she can team up with them, Sara is kidnapped by a group of ISIS women, who plan to sell her to be a part of a rich Arabian’s harem.

Meanwhile, Kethuda is preparing for her inauguration as president. We see her idealism, and the response to her ascension to office from the Turkish people and from other women leaders around the world. We also see that her father is not on board with her intended reforms—although she intends to resist any attempts to deter her plans.

Soon, Sara is rescued by the YPJ fighters she had hoped to join. There she meets her heroine Ruquia, along with Gran, an older woman who is a mentor figure for the freedom fighters and who remembers Sara’s mother. With them, she takes part in a number of operations against the Turkish powers, culminating in the capture of a device that can divert water from the paying clients in other countries to the needy in Kurdish territories.

Kethuda, on the other hand, finds her plans blocked by her father. But in an act of defiance, at a dinner given for her father’s clients and advisors—all wealthy, powerful men—she joins in a dance with an African woman. The next day, she takes the woman as a personal assistant, and her own rebellion begins to take on momentum.

The story of these two women, whose eventual meeting is under circumstances neither would have wished for, is fleshed out with the viewpoints of other characters from whom we learn the larger context in which the two protagonists’ stories take place. In the end, both Sara and Kethuda have found new ways to achieve their original goals—and made real progress toward doing so.

A fascinating take on a problem whose roots are already evident to anyone paying attention to patterns of climate change.

*   *   *

Time Trials
by M.A. Rothman & D.J. Butler
Baen, $25.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-9821-9248-8

Rothman and Butler team up for a time travel adventure that sends an archaeological team from modern-day Egypt to the earliest days of that country’s history—complete with living creatures who resemble the Egyptian gods.

The novel’s central figure is Marty Cohen—a gifted linguist and student of military history who gave up an academic career blocked by departmental rivalries and politics. Now he’s running a custom furniture shop, when an old friend calls with an offer to look at some inscriptions in Egypt. And a consultant fee so juicy he can’t turn the offer down. He hops a flight to Egypt, where he meets Francois Garnier, an eccentric Frenchman who’s running the project on an apparently unlimited budget. The rest of the team represents a wide spectrum of national and ethnic origins—and a good mix of talents, from wilderness tracking to home-brew chemistry.

Marty’s been called in to decipher the inscriptions in an ancient stone structure near Aswan—inscriptions Francois believes to predate the Pharaohs. To his amazement, Marty recognizes one of the inscriptions as a hieroglyphic script that he himself invented years earlier—a message to himself from the deep past. The next surprise is even bigger. Marty and several members of the expedition find themselves transported into the era of the inscriptions—and on the western side of Africa.

Thus begins an adventure where the party encounters both the early human inhabitants of the region and several races of aliens who appear to be the models for the gods of Egypt. They find themselves on a trek across most of northern Africa—then, as now, not the most hospitable of environments for a long journey, especially when you’re dealing with hostile aliens. Fortunately, the aliens’ technology isn’t so advanced that Marty and his companions—especially Francois—can’t cobble together a few little surprises of their own to give them a reasonable chance at surviving.

The book walks a fine balance between fantasy and SF elements—as the authors point out in an entertaining afterword. The historical facts are also reasonably close to what’s actually known—allowing for the strong element of “ancient aliens” conspiracy theory underpinning the main premise. Given that they’re already taking time travel for granted, ancient aliens are hardly a major stumbling point. An enjoyable read with plenty of action.

*   *   *

For Love of Magic
by Simon R. Green
Baen, $25.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-9821-9261-7

Jack Daimon is called to London’s Tate Gallery by the Department for Uncanny Inquiries—a government agency that deals with magical incursions into everyday life. Jack is the “Outsider”—a contractor with special talents and weapons, able to handle the most dangerous intrusions. It looks as if his talents are needed here; several visitors to the gallery appear to have been sucked into one of the paintings in a new exhibition.

At the gallery, Jack meets the Depart-ment head, George Roberts, with whom he’s worked on numerous previous investigations. He also meets the head’s chosen successor, a driven young woman named Miriam Patterson. A second young woman, Amanda Fielding, is introduced as the one who discovered the misbehaving painting, a portrayal of a battle between dark and light Elves.

Jack notices that there’s a “gap” in the composition of the painting, a spot where something should be happening but isn’t—and deduces that it’s been altered from inside. Sure enough, he manages to enter the painting, find the missing museum-goers, and rescue them. But the “bad thing” inside the canvas then tries to pull him—plus George and Miriam—back in, and it’s only when Amanda cuts the painting out of its frame and rolls it up that they manage to escape. On George’s advice, Jack takes Amanda out for a drink—and that begins a relationship that finds the two of them traveling through fantasy realms covering the whole range of British history.

Green does a fine job of integrating the historical periods and their associated mythologies into his plot, developing enough twists and surprises that readers will be kept guessing what’s coming next. A fun adventure.

*   *   *

Black Empire
by George S. Schuyler
Penguin Classics, $18.00 (tp)
ISBN: 978-0-14-313707-8

This book brings together two connected short novels by a pioneering Black journalist, originally serialized in the Pittsburgh Courier in the late 1930s. Schuyler (1895-1977) was part of the Harlem Renaissance that flourished in the 1920s and ’30s. The Courier also carried Schuyler’s editorials and investigative journalism, in addition to fiction in several genres—both under his own byline and various pen names. Published at a time when SF was finding a large and growing audience, this novel could be seen as a precursor of today’s Afro-futurism.

Black Empire is the story of Dr. Henry Belsidus, a Black scientific genius who starts a movement to found an independent African empire in defiance of the established powers of Europe and America. The story is narrated by Carl Slater, a reporter for the fictitious Harlem Blade. By chance, Slater sees Belsidus kill a young woman who has failed in some mission. Slater confronts Belsidus—only to be taken captive himself and drugged. Upon awakening, he learns that Belsidus knows he’s a reporter, and has plans for him—to become his personal secretary in the creation of the Black Internationale, which is an organization preparing a revolution to free all people of color from white domination. Belsidus makes it clear that Slater has no choice but to accept—and so it is through Slater that we see the rise of the Internationale.

Belsidus has amassed considerable resources to further his project. Technologically, he has fostered the development of state-of-the-art airplanes, a network of hydroponic farms, and advanced communications devices, including two-way TV. In addition to marketing high-quality produce from his farms—undercutting the white-owned farms at the consumer end—he runs an underground criminal organization that helps finance his operations. And he has agents and allies in place throughout the world, especially in countries with a significant population of people of color.

Beginning in the U.S., the action slowly and inevitably spreads to the international stage—Africa is the obvious center for the new Black empire. But there are operations to be carried out elsewhere. Slater is sent to England to take part in sabotaging that country’s ability to fight back against the loss of its colonies. Eventually, Belsidus finds himself taking on all the nations of Europe—plus the U.S.—in what to modern readers seems a prescient foretelling of World War II.

Schuyler provides a romantic interest for Slater in Pat Givens, a woman pilot who is evidently modeled on several Black aviators of the era. Highly talented and strongly committed to the Internationale, she helps win Slater over to the cause.

While modern readers will need to make some allowance for Schuyler’s pulp-era style, the story has appeal beyond its historical importance. Editor Brooks Hefner does a fine job of providing notes to supply the cultural context in which the book was initially published. It’ll be a rare reader who doesn’t emerge from this story with expanded knowledge of and insight into a period when Black Nationalism was the last thing the science fiction readership would have expected to find in a novel. Highly recommended—both for the story itself and for the significance of a Black SF hero in the early days of the genre.

*   *   *

The Scavenger Door
by Suzanne Palmer
DAW $27.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-7564-1515-0

I didn’t catch up with this 2021 novel until recently—but I’m glad I did. It’s a great read.

Third in Palmer’s “Finder Chronicles,” the novel stars Fergus Ferguson, whose superpower, as it were, is finding things. When the story begins, Fergus is back home in Scotland, the first time since shortly after his father’s untimely drowning. To his surprise, he has a younger sister, Ilsa, born after he left for distant worlds. The two of them are sharing a flat above their cousin Gavin’s pub, where Ilsa is finishing up her college exams before heading back home for semester break.

As a favor for one of Gavin’s old friends, Fergus goes to find a strayed flock of sheep up in the hill country. He finds the sheep quickly enough—but he also finds a strange metallic fragment that shouldn’t be where it is. And when he learns what it is, he realizes he’s in for one of the most complex—and dangerous—scavenger hunts of his career. To complicate things even more, Ilsa insists on coming along with him.

Fergus learns from his off-planet friends that the metallic fragment is part of an ancient alien artifact. Its location on Earth indicates that it only recently arrived here. The danger is that if anyone finds the rest of the pieces and reassembles them, a gate will open to an alien invasion fleet against which Earth would be powerless.

Fergus, Ilsa, and several of their allies start on the search for the remaining pieces, which of course are scattered all over the planet. And they’re in a race against others who hope to find and assemble the missing pieces—and who are willing to do whatever’s necessary to win. The search also takes them to various locations off-planet, with the mission including members of various alien species—some quite amusing, as is Fergus himself. Naturally, it all ends up with Earth safe and sound, and all the major characters in place for further adventures—which I certainly hope to see. If you’re looking for a good old SF adventure story, this one might be just what you’re after.

*   *   *

Lone Women
by Victor LaValle
One World, $27.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-8-525-51288-8

Set in Montana in 1915, this dark fantasy follows Adelaide Henry, a Black woman who has fled California after the family farmhouse burns down, leaving her parents’ mangled bodies inside. She takes with her a heavy steamer trunk—which she is vigilant about keeping locked and in close sight. With the trunk and a little cash, she makes her way to the isolated claim she has filed for, located several miles outside a small town called Big Sandy. Fortunately, there’s a cabin abandoned by the previous owner that she can live in.

Before long, she meets several of her neighbors—and learns that there will be more to surviving in the back country than just raising food and keeping her cabin warm. For one thing, it appears that a group of young white boys, who, along with their mother, came to town on the same train she arrived on, have been preying on the other settlers—stealing whatever they like, and killing anyone who resists too much. Also, the secret hidden in her trunk is becoming harder and harder to conceal—especially since some of the visitors to her cabin are becoming curious about it.

With the help of her neighbors, especially several other women living by themselves, Adelaide begins to take control of her situation. Unfortunately—and unsurprisingly—there are men in the territory who aren’t enthusiastic about women having a say in how things go, and there are a number of women who agree with the men. The young thieves—also unsurprisingly—end up working for one of the more powerful men in town.

LaValle moves between Adelaide’s career on the frontier and her earlier days in California, as we gradually learn why she had to leave her parents’ home—and what the secret in her trunk is all about. The plot initially develops along the lines of a dark feminist western, but then adds a fantastic element that takes the story in an unexpected direction. A very original work—LaValle definitely goes on my list of writers to keep an eye on.

*   *   *

Critical Mass
by Daniel Suarez
Dutton, $28.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-593-18363-2

This near-future novel has a strong focus on the nuts and bolts of space exploration, with a plot revolving around a rescue mission to an asteroid-mining operation. To accomplish the mission, the protagonists—an international trio of experienced astronauts working with a rogue billionaire entrepreneur—must build a ship capable of returning to the asteroid, working from a space station orbiting the Moon. Opposed to their efforts are the major space-going powers, plus a variety of lesser baddies including African crime lords and rival corporations.

The plot moves from the space ship returning the astronauts to Earth from the asteroid belt to various locations around the planet. There are scenes in government offices, urban slums, space training facilities, lunar orbit, and finally a new Moon base—all portrayed with convincing detail. Suarez has obviously done his homework on the space program, and one gets the sense that he has some experience in several of the other locations portrayed.

Oddly, the novel is in a way very old-fashioned—almost the kind of thing Hugo Gernsback would have published, with heavy exposition on a variety of scientific and technical subjects. The plot occasionally goes on vacation while someone—to put it bluntly—lectures the other characters (and the reader). There are a lot of lists, charts, and diagrams to illustrate various technical points. At the end, Suarez provides a list of references for readers who want to dig deeper into some of the novel’s background.

You’d think this all would make the book too dry to appeal to a broad audience, which the publisher appears to be aiming for. A lot of the scientific material has been in general use among hard SF writers since the 1970s, at least. And yet it works. While some may become impatient with the lists and lectures, others will enjoy the learning experience. And, of course, this will be new to readers without a deep background in SF or space science. More importantly, the characters and their struggles against long odds give the narrative more than enough momentum to keep readers’ attention. It’ll be interesting to see how this does with the larger audience that Dutton normally aims for. I for one found it very enjoyable.

*   *   *

Briefly noted:

*   *   *

If You Shoot the Breeze, Are You Murdering the Weather?
100 Musings on Art and Science
by Alan Dean Foster
Fantastic Books, $14.99 (tp)
ISBN: 978-1-5154-4785-6

Written for Senses Magazine, a regional publication based in Foster’s Arizona hometown, these compact essays cover a range few writers would dare to undertake. Self-driving vehicles, neglected symphonic composers, Uncle $crooge comics, ice cream, the Louvre, TV weather reports, coywolves—and that barely scratches the surface. Foster’s interests—nay, passions—are as diverse as his fictional output, and this collection shows them in all their variety, including community issues such as potholes.

While each of the essays is short, Foster manages to pack a good amount of interesting information into them. He also makes no bones about presenting his opinions—for example, on the question of value in art, an issue raised in several essays looking at everything from familiar masterpieces to the work of contemporary artists to comics and illustration. (He likes comics, and objects to “serious” artists who appropriate their images and claim them as their own.) These short articles are ideal for subway, bathroom, and waiting-for-family-members-to-get-ready reading.

As the collection’s title indicates, the author’s sense of play is fully engaged here—and the fun is contagious. While it’s not strictly SF or fantasy, it gives an intriguing insight into how one of SF’s most prolific writers looks at our daily world.

*   *   *

“She Saved Us From World War Three”—Gardner Dozois
Remembers James Tiptree Jr.— An Interview by Michael Swanwick
Temporary Culture, $20.00 (tp)
ISBN: 978-0-9961359-6-2

This limited-edition chapbook presents a 2015 interview with Dozois, the former editor of Asimov’s, on his relationship with the reclusive author James Tiptree, Jr.

Dozois was one of the very few members of the SF community actually to meet Alice Sheldon—the woman behind the Tiptree pen name—and he had a fairly long correspondence with her, a couple of samples of which are reproduced in facsimile in this attractive booklet from a house specializing in SF scholarship and criticism, among other subjects. The reader gets a good sense of both the writers, especially Dozois, who, despite his reputation as a comic raconteur, could be unusually perceptive and serious when discussing a writer’s work. Also included is a note by publisher Henry Wessels on Dozois’ papers, now archived at the University of California, Riverside.

Published in an edition of 225 copies, this will probably be a hard item to find—but anyone interested in the history of the field, or in one of the most fascinating figures to emerge from the ebullient 1960s, would do well to keep an eye out for it.

To request a copy of the publisher’s catalog, write to Temporary Culture, P.O. Box 43072, Upper Montclair, NJ 07043. You might discover quite a few things of interest.

Copyright © 2023 Peter Heck

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