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Space has always been scary. There’s this unsettling blend of known and unknown when it comes to space – we can see a lot, sure, but there’s so much more that we can’t. It’s a vast mystery whose extreme inhospitality and infinite size make a battle out of every new discovery.

It is this place of wonder and fear that so fascinates Andy Weir. The engineer-turned-author returns to those harsh environs with his new book “Project Hail Mary” (Ballantine, $28.99), venturing deeper into space than in his previous offerings (“The Martian” and “Artemis”) while still maintaining the distinctive wonkiness that renders his work so idiosyncratically enjoyable.

This is a story about one man’s fight to survive in the face of overwhelming odds, bringing to bear every bit of cleverness and intuition in an effort to solve a huge problem. It’s a story of isolation, friendship and the looming specter of incomprehensible loss – all refracted through a prism of well-researched and joyful nerdery. And of course, the science is sound (and in more ways than one).

Published in Buzz

There’s a tendency to think of genre fiction as somehow less than, even though we’ve always known that some of our most gifted writers happily appropriated some of the tropes and themes inherent to sci-fi or fantasy or thriller or horror or what have you.

Our foremost practitioners of genre work have shown themselves capable of embracing and elevating the precepts and preconceptions that define their genre of choice, all while also showing themselves capable of both literary and ideological excellence.

Jeff VanderMeer is one such practitioner, an author dubbed “sci-fi” because no other label fits. One of the best-known luminaries of the so-called “Weird Fiction” school, VanderMeer utilizes the tools that genre gives him to create works that are very much their own thing, even if recognizable elements appear within them.

His latest is “Hummingbird Salamander” (MCD, $27), a bleak and dystopian piece of ecologically-charged speculation that marries the seemingly casual world-building at which he excels with a twisting, conspiracy-laden puzzle box of a thriller. He’s so gifted at placing character-driven narrative at the forefront while parceling out details about the world in which the narrative takes place – this is just another example of his tremendous talents at work.

VanderMeer’s affection for the natural world – as well as his concern for its future – plays out regularly in his books; “Hummingbird Salamander” is no exception. Through his vivid imagination and visceral descriptions, he creates people, places and events that lodge themselves in the mind of the reader, sparkling with bright colors that are both beautiful and poisonous.

Published in Buzz

So much of how we engage with the world around us is defined by our senses. It is only through them – sight, sound, taste, touch, smell – that we can identify what’s around us. The absence of one or more is keenly felt, but the others can still contribute to giving us a window on the world.

But what if you couldn’t trust those senses to tell you the truth? What if what you saw, heard, touched – what if those things were other than what your brain was telling you?

“Sensation,” a new science fiction thriller from writer/director Martin Grof, explores that possibility via a mystery that defies you to believe the evidence of your own eyes. It’s a challenge to the very concept of the validity of personal perception. Lofty ideas, to be sure, albeit ones that aren’t always executed quite as cleanly as one might hope.

The premise is solid and the look is appealing – there are moments of impressive visual style. Unfortunately, there’s a sense of unnecessary convolution that mars much of the film, with the filmmakers prioritizing maintaining a sense of mystery above all else … including consistent narrative coherence.

Published in Movies

Few men have had as outsized an impact on recent world history as the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. As the director of the Manhattan Project, he led the massive team of thousands of scientists and others in their single-minded mission to develop the atomic bomb. And in 1945, this incredible, terrible aim was achieved, bringing World War II to an end. By all accounts, the reality of Oppenheimer’s contribution left him riddled with guilt and doubt.

But what if that project led to the discovery of an even greater potential threat – one existential far beyond the actions of even the most power-mad governmental regime? A threat whose cataclysmic impact could only be combatted by the continued collaborative effort of the world’s greatest minds? Who but Oppenheimer could administrate such an effort?

That’s the gist of “The Oppenheimer Alternative,” Robert J. Sawyer’s latest book (and the first new novel in four years from the Canadian author). It’s an alternate look at the scientist’s life, one that hews closely to his early years before veering into an entirely new realm as he’s forced to confront a bleak discovery – one that could, even more than his weaponizing of the atom, result in the end of the world if he and his fellow scientists can’t stop it.

With typical stylistic verve and a remarkable degree of research, Sawyer has crafted a world that is an apt and accurate reflection of our own while also folding in the shifts and changes that create this alternate reality. It is a compelling portrait, both in terms of who the man was … and who he might have been.

Published in Buzz
Wednesday, 22 April 2020 14:32

The space between worlds – ‘Vagabonds’

Speculative fiction has always been the literature of big ideas.

Granted, these ideas have often swathed in genre trappings that render them more palatable to less-suspecting readers. And there’s no denying that for decades, speculative fiction was relegated to the disreputable realm of luridly-covered cheap paperbacks and niche publications. Nowadays, of course, even the more “serious” readers and writers out there acknowledge the possibilities that come with genre exploration, allowing for a more “literary” understanding of the work.

But never forget: the ideas have always been there, right from the beginning.

Those big ideas are plentiful in “Vagabonds” (Gallery, $27.99), the first novel from Hugo Award-winning writer Hao Jingfang to be translated into English, courtesy of acclaimed author and translator Ken Liu. It’s a story of young people trapped between two worlds, sent to spend their formative years amidst another culture, only to discover that their home no longer fits them.

It’s a sharp and incisive commentary on how cultural differences can skew worldviews and hinder communication. It’s also an exciting, engaging narrative, driven by detailed plotting, strong characters and some first-rate world-building. As with all great speculative fiction, the quality of the ideas and the execution are well-matched.

Published in Style
Sunday, 29 March 2020 15:41

Boom or bust - ‘Anthropocene Rag’

Speculative fiction often offers a glimpse at new beginnings that spring forth from cataclysmic endings. The entire subgenre of dystopian fiction is built largely on the premise. We’re fascinated by the idea of what might rise anew in the aftermath of the collapsing old.

The popularity of that fundamental concept, however, means that the resulting literary work is often wildly variant in terms of quality. Yes, it’s easy to write about the end and what comes after, but it’s exceedingly difficult to do well.

With his new book “Anthropocene Rag” (Tor, $14.99), Alex Irvine does it well.

It’s a sprawling portrait of a future United States where a natural disaster contributed directly to a technological one, the effects of both compounding exponentially in a manner that completely alters civilization as we know it. A small group of people, struggling to carve out a place in this harsh, unforgiving and mercurial world, is offered a unique opportunity. Each is left to wonder not only why they were chosen, but who ultimately has done the choosing?

Told in a deliberately haphazard fashion, leaping from perspective to perspective, “Anthropocene Rag” follows these unlikely pilgrims on their quest across a broken American landscape, one defined in ways overt and subtle by its past even as it has been subsumed by the wave of the future. There’s a new frontier – one that is ever-shifting and unpredictable.

Published in Buzz
Wednesday, 22 January 2020 14:13

Tech-22 – ‘Zed’

Speculative fiction is at its best when it has something to say. From the very beginning, sci-fi has used its trappings to examine and explore the (sometimes harsh) realities of the real world. It reflects and refracts, commenting on where we are and where we might be going.

We live in a world where technology is ubiquitous and a handful of people sit in control of the vast majority of the resources behind that technology. Those people, perhaps more than any elected official, are the ones who hold our societal destiny in their hands. But as we grow ever more reliant on the various forms of tech to live our daily lives, as it infiltrates every aspect of our everyday existence, we must ask ourselves – what happens if those people lose control? What happens if this omnipresent technology stops working the way it is supposed to?

That’s where Joanna Kavenna’s “Zed” (Doubleday, $27.95) takes us. This darkly comic dystopian novel imagines a world not too different from our own, a near-future in which a single company has risen to the top of the food chain and extended its influence into every aspect of society. This company provides the technology on which seemingly the entire world runs. And something’s wrong…

With a biting wit and a discomfiting plausibility, “Zed” offers up a portrait of what might happen if everything – and I do mean EVERYTHING – was dictated by algorithmic whims … and what happens if those algorithms should start to crumble, leaving those at the top to make panicked choices aimed more at protecting themselves than the world around them.

Published in Tekk

There will always be a place for straightforward narrative fiction. There will always be stories that need to be told, tales that move from Point A to Point B and so on, following a linear path from beginning to end. Tales filled with heartbreak and humor, driven by plot and character.

But sometimes? Sometimes, you just want to get weird. And for those times, well … Jeff VanderMeer can help you out.

VanderMeer – one of our leading purveyors of the literary subgenre dubbed “weird fiction” – has a strange and exquisitely opaque new novel. “Dead Astronauts” (MCD, $27) is a prequel of sorts to his equally bizarre 2017 novel “Borne,” its title a reference to a line in that previous book. It brings us back to the ravaged future VanderMeer created for “Borne,” only slightly earlier in the timeline of that technocorporate dystopia.

It is a challenging experiment of a novel, marked by the vivid weirdness and repetitive complexity that features prominently in VanderMeer’s work. There’s a narrative fluidity to it all, marked by an odd combination of optimism about and suspicion toward technology and the way it impacts the world around us in ways both miniscule and massive.

Published in Style

Memory is a powerful thing. Certain memories are so vibrant, so potent, that recalling them almost feels as though we’ve been transported back to the moment in which they took place.

But just how real could that sense of transport truly become?

That’s one of the central notions in “Recursion” (Crown, $27), the new novel from author Blake Crouch. It’s an exploration of what might happen if mankind was allowed to use our most vivid memories as a gateway to what came before. It’s a compelling thriller built on big ideas – typical of Crouch’s thought-provoking sci-fi sensibility.

Published in Buzz

If history has taught us anything, it’s that when people are confronted with an invasion, they inevitably fall into one of two categories: collaborator or resistor. It has been that way in every war that has ever been fought; when enemy forces take over, some will fall in line and others will fight back.

There’s no reason to think that that would somehow change if said forces came not from another country, but from another world.

That’s the basic gist of “Captive State,” an alien occupation thriller directed by Rupert Wyatt from a script he co-wrote with Erica Beeney. It’s a story of what it means to live under the rule of an enemy that seems too powerful to overcome – and what it means to stand up to that enemy anyway.

It’s not a particularly subtle movie; it wears its ideas on its sleeve and is more about blunt force than surgical precision. The story is a bit overlong as well and meanders through its middle third. However, the low-fi aesthetic is interesting and there are some good performances. Add it all up and you get an acceptable (and forgettable) sci-fi outing.

Published in Movies
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