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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

If history were different, how different would it be?

That’s the underlying notion behind most alternative history stories, books and series that look into the past, alter something fundamental … and then see what happens. That forward-moving extrapolation of what changes – large and small – might come about because of that singular shift.

Like any speculative fiction, what we actually get in terms of quality varies wildly. Narrative complexity, world building, historic verisimilitude, strong characterizations of people both fictional and non – it all depends on the talents of the author in charge.

S. M. Stirling’s talents are formidable, which is what makes his latest offering so good.

“Shadows of Annihilation” (Ace, $18) is the newest installment in Stirling’s “Black Chamber” series. It’s a long look at an alternate World War I, one where Teddy Roosevelt has regained the presidency and consolidated his power and hence is at the helm during the war. One of his many weapons utilized against the enemy is the Black Chamber, a sort of proto-CIA involving espionage, assassination and a score of other below-board activities designed to fight America’s foes and advance her interest.

Published in Style
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

Speculative fiction has been used as a vehicle to comment on societal woes for about as long as there has been speculative fiction. In the right hands, the flexibility of genre opens up a tremendous literary toolbox, one that offers a combination of wildly vivid creations and complex cultural commentary.

Hands like Jesse Ball.

Ball’s latest novel is “The Divers' Game” (Ecco, $26.99). It’s a story of a society not so unlike our own, one extrapolated out from our current place into something darker - but not that much darker. Ball’s world is a challenging journey into the depths of man’s capability to other and the fractured functionality of a culture structured around that othering.

What elevates this work above the usual dystopian dive is Ball’s prose. His unique literary sensibility brings a bleak lyricism to the narrative, a fluidity of form. All of it devoted to creating not just the tragic segregation of this new world, but also the complicated characters that inhabit it.

Published in Buzz

Some of the best speculative fiction comes when a writer is able to extrapolate forward in a manner that is both engaging and plausible. And when that speculation leans toward the dystopian? Well – go ahead and sign me up.

That’s what Rob Hart has done with his new novel “The Warehouse” (Crown, $27); it’s an exploration of a near-future that reads like nothing so much as a darkest timeline look at the future of our society as it relates to the corporate monoliths that consume all that lies before them in their quest for ever-increasing growth.

By spinning out the trends toward ubiquity among some of our larger corporations, Hart takes us deep into the shadows cast by the cheerful bright lights of “progress.” His tale of those tangled in that all-encompassing web – those at the top and at the bottom alike – offers a satiric, chilling and bleakly funny perspective on the potential endpoint of our cultural fascination with the biggest of big business.

Published in Style

Speculative fiction tends to shine its brightest when it is given space to grow. World building is a key component to the most successful fantasy or sci-fi offerings – those fully-realized backdrops can grant the reader the immersive experience they often seek from this sort of genre offering.

Alternate history – a personal favorite – benefits no less from such world-building efforts, though a higher degree of delicacy is required, thanks to the real-world foundation upon which the narrative realm is built. If it goes awry, it can rudely yank a reader out of a story. But if it’s done right, well … you’re in for a treat.

And S.M. Stirling does it right.

His new book is “Theater of Spies” (Ace, $16), the sequel to last year’s excellent “Black Chamber” and – one can only hope – just the latest installment in what deserves to be an ongoing series. It’s the continuing tale of an alternate World War I and the espionage agency – also named the Black Chamber – tasked with protecting the United States and her interests both home and abroad during wartime.

Marrying meticulously-researched alternate history with a spy thriller sensibility, “Theater of Spies” is both propulsive and compulsive in its readability. Like the best work within the subgenre, it strikes that oh-so-delicate balance between fact and fiction and creates a world both fascinating and familiar.

Published in Buzz

What would you do if you found yourself in a world that was similar to your own, yet undeniably different? What if you were displaced by tragedy, only to wind up in a place where you were largely unwanted? What if your old life was erased, leaving you with just a few scraps of memory?

Those are the questions at the heart of K. Chess’s excellent “Famous Men Who Never Lived” (Tin House Books, $24.95). It’s a wonderful piece of speculative fiction, following two people who find themselves adrift in a place that is just different enough from their home to be jarring and unsettling. They are surrounded by people who view them as other – as alien – and their connection to the past grows ever more tenuous as they try desperately to remain connected to whatever cultural consciousness to which they can cling.

Published in Style
Wednesday, 03 October 2018 12:50

Love hurts – ‘Heartbreaker’

Considering the wealth of recent works that marry genre conventions with literary fiction, you might think that there’s little left in the way of potential surprises. No matter how rich the vein might be – and it has proven to be rich indeed – you’d imagine that it would be difficult to mine something new and fresh from that lode.

And then you read something like Claudia Dey’s “Heartbreaker” (Random House, $26) and realize that there are creative powerhouses out there continuing to strike literary gold. It’s a novel about coming of age and motherhood and sexual politics wrapped in a sci-fi dressing of alternate history and cult dynamics. It is powerful and thought-provoking and unrelentingly weird – both in the tale and in the telling.

It shines.

Published in Style

If you’re looking to read some YA genre fiction, you’ve got plenty of options. You can’t swing a cat in a bookstore without hitting half-a-dozen sci-fi/fantasy/whatever books aimed at younger readers. If you’re looking to read some GOOD YA genre fiction, well … you’re going to need to put the cat down.

The point is that there’s a glut of content out there, so don’t be afraid to shape your expectations accordingly. Look for something that speaks to you - whether it’s an author or a plot or a theme or an idea - and take a swing.

Will McIntosh’s “The Future Will Be BS Free” (Delacorte Press, $17.99) promises something that feels a little different. It’s the story of a near-future America under the sway of a despotic and corrupt President, one in which the truth has become so malleable and subjective as to be almost meaningless as a concept. Into this America, a group of gifted teens attempts to bring a beacon – an unfailingly accurate and foolproof lie detector. But their initial dreams of societal (not to mention financial) gain soon fall by the wayside as they discover that there are plenty of people out there with little interest in the truth.

Published in Buzz
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