This posting works through my personal reading list, focusing on fiction, which I read for pleasure. This summer has included quite a few outstanding books, mostly Science Fiction-y, but all certainly imaginative.
For the record, I generally only comment on fiction that I like. (A rare exception can be found here, which was provoked by ludicrously favorable reviews.) Life is too short to work hard complaining about stories I don’t like.
So here are some things I read recently that I liked. You might like them, too. (Alphabet order by author.)
Only Superhuman by Christopher L Bennet (New York, Tom Doherty Associates, 2012).
This is not the deepest book I ever read, but it was interesting enough. Set in a future of space habitats, settlements on asteroids and Mars, as well as technology that enables serious human modification, the story follows the protagonist as she struggles to find a way through life.
In this society—actually, many small, semi-isolated societies—law and order is very much up for grabs, with each habitat barely able to enforce its own laws, let alone defend against larger neighbors, pirates, and gangs. One response is a loose group of superheroes, call the “Troubleshooter Corps”, modeled after comic books, and augmented to superherohood by genetic, molecular, and other technologies, with a mission to help others and fight evil. If that mission seems vague to you, it is certainly an issue in the story.
Young Emerald Blair is a Troubleshooter, know as the Green Blaze. But all is not well with the Troubleshooters, and she soon gets in deep trouble, tangled in comic book caliber supercriminal conspiracies. None of it really makes sense, but I think you were warned.
Anyway, the story works because you like Esmy, and root for her to make good despite her wild past and some poor decisions.
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, (Little Brown and Company, 2013).
This new book by Beukes is a taught thriller with a not-especially-believable supernatural core. A time traveling serial killer who is tracked down in Chicago (in the 1980s I think). I couldn’t really grasp the killer, there didn’t seem to be any logical explanation for either how or why it is happening.
I picked up the book because I loved Beukes’ earlier books Moxyland and Zoo City. These two were set in South Africa (L. B. is from Johannesburg), in near future with strange pharmacological and neurological enhancements. These stories are gritty urban stories of slums and clubs and street people, dealing with the soul-sucking technologies. Some of the stuff is totally crazy wild, but she makes it both believable and human.
I didn’t like Shining Girls nearly as well as the earlier stories, since it wasn’t either believable or really interesting (sorry—serial killing just isn’t an interesting topic). Nevertheless, Ms. Beukes is clearly a top notch writer, and I look forward to more imaginative fiction from her in the future.
Kiln People by David Brin (New York, Tom Doherty Associates, 2002).
This is actually an earlier work, which happened to be rereleased this summer after his newest novel, Existence.
Brin is, of course, a widely recognized master, author of a number of beautiful and influential science fiction novels since the 1980s. His work is usually full of strange technological futures, very carefully worked out, including social, political, and economic ramifications
In this case, the technology is the ability to record “brain states” from humans, and implant them into short lived artificial bodies (made of special “clay” and baked in “kilns”). The forked versions can then merge back, giving the main person all the memories of his or her copies. In this way, one can live hundreds of lives in parallel each day, and take risks and chance experiences that one would never try with only one body. Taking this astonishing idea at face value, he works out what it (or something similar) might mean.
Among other things, biological people become very special, while short lived clones become second and third rate entities. Original humans no longer work, because everyone can clone off dozens of copies to do all the dirty and dangerous work for them. People also mostly don’t interact in person—far too risky for the flesh—most of society is lived out remotely and vial clay copies. But the copies have no human rights, and live short, intense, and possibly nasty lives. And, of course, a handful of people control the coping technology, and wield absurd wealth and power. Much of the book lays out what everyday life might be like under such assumptions.
I can’t say this is his best book, but then again, his best books are absolutely awesome. It’s Brin, so it’s good. Very good.
The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu (Long Island City, Angry Robot, 2013).
A first novel, this is pretty good. (Note: Angry Robot also published Beukes’ first two novels—I’m starting to like this imprint.)
The premise is that an alien race of symbiotes have lived on Earth for thousands of years, inhabiting the minds of selected humans. Everyone famous had a symbiote in his or her head, it seems. Apparently this race is stranded here, unable to live autonomously. They have been driving human society and technology, to eventually gain technology so they can leave the planet.
The plot is thicker, as there seems to be a civil war among the symbiotes, which has resulted in disasters and cultural regression, major wars, epidemics, and so on. Millions of humans have been incidental casualties of these wars.
Into this struggle, young Roen (a chubby, out of shape, IT grunt) is suddenly thrust. His symbiote (Tao) is very old, and must whip him into shape before they both perish. Roen doesn’t have much choice, nor is he given much option to develop his interest in Sonya.
Is this deep meaningful literature? No. But is is pretty decent science fiction. Certainly for “summer reading”.
Wicked Bronze Ambition, by Glenn Cook (New York, Penguin, 2013).
The 14th book featuring Garrett, P.I., this is a fantasy-noir story. Sword & Sorcery plus hard boiled Private Eye. There are a handful of authors who attempt this genre, Cook is actually good at it.
There is little point in recounting the story; it’s complex and tangled up in the fantasy world he has created for this series. He tells the story well, even though aspects are completely fantastic and irrational. The reason it works is you care about the people.
In particular, Garrett’s life is filled with quite a few remarkable men and women, despite his “loner” persona. Somehow, being the “last honest man” in the city of TunFaire, has accumulated a network of friends, allies, and mentees.
Most interesting to me are the women in the story. Not necessarily “human”, they are good, bad, broken, healed; but altogether a remarkable array of strong, independent women. For reasons that no one really fathoms, they seen to harbor affection for Mr. Garrett. Perhaps part of the reason is that, despite his “hard man” façade, Garrett seems to respect women, as allies or antagonists, lovers and friends.
Mr. Garrett is aging (as is his author), so we cannot count on too many more episodes. We’ve grown to like these people, and I think we all would like to see some of these people reach some resolution.
In The Lion’s Mouth, by Michael Flynn New York, Tom Doherty Associates, 2011.
This is the third book in a series, and I had to go back and reread the earlier books (The January Dancer and Up Jim River) because the plot and characters are so complex I needed to refresh my memory.
Set in a future universe of faster than light travel via wormhole-like space rivers (in which the local speed of light is faster than the local speed of light in ordinary, “flat” space). In the long past, humans were crippled by an alien race, scattered across hundreds of planets, deliberately mixing and matching cultures. Centuries later, humans are reconnecting, with each local system being a weird cultural hybrid based on the chance collection of people who were dropped there. This universe gives Flynn a giant canvas to create cultures and characters.
Flynn loves language, and has invented the lingua franca ‘Gaelactic’, which is based on Gaelic. I was forced to look up quite a few Gaelic words, trying to follow the details of his marvelous worlds and cultures and histories. There are also several competing governments, conspiracies, mercenaries, pirates, and so on.
In The Lion’s Mouth could have been called, “The Ladies Tea”, as the plot unfolds via a tense conversation among three very, very interesting and dangerous women who we met in the earlier books.
This is absolutely top-notch fiction. But you really have to read the books in order, or you have no chance at all to understand the story. (There certainly will be a fourth book.)
Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest by A. Lee Martinez (New York, Orbit, 2013).
Ah, Martinez. One of our best contemporary authors. In an earlier post, I praised an earlier book.
In one sense, this, his tenth novel, is the same story as always. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl. Boy and girl save the universe/multiverse from ultimate destruction. Can’t go wrong with the classics, right?
Of course, the boys and girls are always a bit “different”, strictly speaking, not technically “human”. But they are all people, and we grow to love and respect them for their deep humanity, and for their struggle to live, love, and help others.
I wouldn’t want to spoil this beautiful story for you, so I’ll just say: you’ll like this teen age love story.
The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxer (New York, Harper Collins, 2013).
And here’s a book by two of our best writers. Sensei Pratchett is possibly the best living author in the English language. And I’ll be happy to step outside with anyone who cares to dispute on that.
This book is a sequel to last year’s The Long Earth, which you really need ot read first to understand the background.
Parallel Earths has always been a favorite science fiction topic, and has the additional virtue that the concept provides a H-U-G-E canvas for the story teller. Baxter and Pratchett take advantage to give use several parallel plots, many interesting characters, and a variety of interesting societies that fork off as humanity expands into this frontier.
I don’t know enough to parse out the contributions of the two authors, or how they interacted. Obviously Lobsang comes out of Pratchett’s world (one would like to believe this is autobiographical). One of the character’s is a cop, another is a very independent lady. These are frequent TP themes. Some of the frontier societies have the granite hard, but velvet soft, humanity of a Pratchett village. One can suspect that the super zeppelins and aliens might be Baxterian. Of course, they could be Pratchett emulating Baxter.
Not that it matters. These are fine pieces of science fiction, however they were crafted.
Neptune’s Brood, by Charles Stross (New York, Ace Books, 2013.)
OK, I painted myself into a corner with my “best author” pronouncements. Stross is really good, and certainly in the, “you must read everything he writes” category. Let’s call him the best living Scottish author, or something like that.
This book is a sequel to the earlier Saturn’s Children and other stories, set in a future post-human universe, where “people” are mostly software running on various designed platforms (robots, radially designed biotech, etc.). A throw away line indicates that the original human species has gone extinct 4 times by now, and has been resurrected to run on these replacements.
This melange of strange beasts have spread to the stars through sub light speed transits, but have formed an interstellar trading network via light speed transmission of information. This information includes entire personalities.
So, to get the next solar system, you scan your brain, and then upload the data, and transmit it to the target. Meanwhile, a body is fabricated, and after you arrive (decades or centuries after sending), the brain is booted into a physical body of some kind.
Can you tell that Mr. Stross has done Internet IT?
The fertile imagination of CS gives us a variety of mind blowing settings, including a star-faring cathedral, a sea world inhabited by mermaids and squid people, a privateer (er, they prefer to be called “auditors”), crewed by bat people, and several extremely dysfunctional extended families (and with star travel and cloned personalities, families can become very, very extended indeed).
Stross is famous for his carefully thought out economic systems, and this is on full exhibit here. If anything, there is far more information than we want about interstellar trade protocols. You’ll find a realistic account of how interstellar transactions might be implemented, using contemporary P2P protocols as models, as well as an explanation of the Spanish Prisoner con at interstellar scales. He also gives a refreshing take on the accounting and auditing professions. In this book we find clear evidence of the long suspected influence of a sinister cabal.
Get it, read it, enjoy it.