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Wednesday, 07 September 2022 11:01

Better, faster, stronger – ‘Upgrade’

What would you do if you woke up one day and were … better? Stronger, faster, smarter – every aspect of who you are improved. And what if that improvement wasn’t just a one-time bump, but a continuous evolution? If that one day became a week became a month became a year? And what if the cost was your humanity?

That’s the central event of Blake Crouch’s latest sci-fi thriller “Upgrade” (Ballantine, $28). Set in a world where well-meaning science nearly destroyed the world by trying to save it, it’s precisely the sort of book we’ve come to expect from Crouch – an action-packed thriller built on a thought-provoking science fictional foundation.

Extrapolating the potential ramifications of scientific discovery and then exploring the consequences is one of the blueprints to create exceptional sci-fi. Of course, one has to have the architecturally authorial talents to follow such intricate plans if one is to craft true excellence. Suffice it to say, Crouch has once again understood the assignment.

Published in Buzz
Wednesday, 10 August 2022 14:31

‘Invisible Things’ demands a look

Genre fiction has long been a playground for writers who want to explore complex ideas. Science fiction in particular has proven fertile for authors who seek to dig into societal and ideological norms – it’s a hell of a lot easier to address nuanced concepts when you’re operating from within this kind of fictional framework. Now, that’s not always the case – sometimes a story is basically just a story – but when it works, you can wind up with a tale of the future that offers one hell of a commentary on the present.

That’s what Mat Johnson has given us with his new book “Invisible Things” (One World, $27). Johnson embraces certain sci-fi tropes – future tech, aliens, etc. – and uses them to take a hard look at the fundamentals of human nature, as well as the societal constructs that were built so long ago as to be utterly ingrained – isms that are baked in to the point of disappearing into the firmament while remaining omnipresent.

It's a story about how people, no matter how their circumstances may be altered, will too often default to previous beliefs and behaviors. Even when offered an opportunity of complete reinvention, they cling to what they knew before. All this, by the way, contextualized by a domed city located on one of Jupiter’s moons.

Published in Style

As someone who often finds himself defending the literary merits of speculative fiction, I sometimes forget that, for all the thematic and narrative complexity that genre can evoke, it’s okay for a book’s primary aim to be entertaining the reader.

In short: sometimes you just want a thrilling, compelling yarn, one that is exciting and funny and imaginative. One where the other stuff – the “important” stuff – is still present, but still less vital to the experience than the pure story.

At the risk of damning him with faint praise, John Scalzi is one of the best around at crafting these sorts of high-concept, humorous sci-fi riffs. Best known for works like “Old Man’s War” and “Redshirts,” as well as his bestselling Interdependency trilogy, Scalzi’s latest is “The Kaiju Preservation Society” (Tor, $26.99). It’s a smart and timely and often hilarious work, a quick page-turner that fills the reader with a sense of speculative adventure even as its underlying ethos worms its way into your brain.

Plus, it has giant monsters in it.

Published in Style
Wednesday, 23 February 2022 13:26

I think we’re a clone now – ‘Mickey7’

What is it that makes you you?

It’s a question that often arises in the speculative fiction realm, whether we’re talking about cloning or duplication or digitization of consciousness. What is it that fundamentally marks us as the person we are? And if your consciousness – your thoughts, your memories, your hopes and your fears and whatever else – is meticulously recreated and placed in a body that is genetically identical to your own … is it still you?

Edward Ashton’s new novel “Mickey7” (St. Martin’s Press, $27.99) revolves around that specific question, raising all manner of ethical and logistical concerns about what it even means to be a person. And at what point does a person stop being a person and become something other? If you can’t tell the difference, is there a difference?

Now, while this is definitely some high concept sci-fi, it’s also a taut, fast-paced narrative. You’ve got some action, some mystery, some comedic hijinks, all wrapped together to create a sharply written and smart story.

Published in Style

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
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