December 4, 2017

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga continues

Cetaganda by Lois McMaster BujoldCetaganda (Vorkosigan Saga #6) by Lois McMaster Bujold

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Much of classic science fiction consisted of what came to be called “space opera”—and most of it was junk. With some notable exceptions, the format is rarely used today. However, the multiple-award-winner Lois McMaster Bujold has updated the space opera with a long (and ongoing) series of novels, novellas, and short stories about a brilliant military officer who happens to be a dwarf. His name is Miles Vorkosigan. He’s the son of the (now) former regent of the Empire of Barrayar, a backward planet on the fringes of galactic civilization about one thousand years in the future; the emperor is his cousin. The Vorkosigan Saga continues with book #6, Cetaganda.

In Cetaganda, Miles and his (much taller) cousin Ivan are dispatched to represent the Barrayaran Empire at the funeral of the Dowager Empress of their bitterest and longest-standing enemy, the Cetagandan Empire. However, to call both entities “empires” gives the lie to the vast difference between them. Barrayar, a single planet located off the main trade routes of the galaxy, has only recently become integrated into galactic civilization. Barrayarans, even the most noble, are considered barbarians elsewhere. The Cetagandan Empire is vast and wealthy beyond compare. Barrayar managed to survive an invasion by the Cetagandan military only through the brilliant soldiering of Miles’ father, then Admiral Count Aral Vorkosigan. Thus, when Miles and Ivan arrive on Eta Ceta IV, “the heart and homeworld of the sprawling Cetagandan Empire,” they feel like country yokels visiting the big city for the first time.

The author paints a fascinating picture of Cetagandan society. Though an emperor rules, the empress (who is not necessarily his wife) wields what might be considered even greater power. She commands the Star Creche, where bioengineers have been tinkering for centuries with the genome of the ruling caste, the haut. (Think haute cuisine or haute couture.) Though the emperor reigns over the men who serve as governors of the eight satrap planets, their freedom of action is circumscribed by the haut women who are assigned to be their wives. The haut are effectively a super-race and possibly no longer truly human. The governors, by contrast, are members of a decidedly human and subordinate military caste called the ghem. 

Miles, now 22 and a lieutenant in Barrayaran Imperial Security, has been cautioned to avoid drawing attention to himself on his mission to Cetaganda. However, this is a difficult, if not impossible, assignment, since Miles is 4’9″ tall, hunchbacked, and wears braces to prevent the brittle bones in his legs from breaking. In any case, it’s not in his nature to play by the rules. It’s a sure thing that Miles will get into trouble—and drag Ivan along with him.

As is the case with all the previous novels in the Vorkosigan Saga, the action comes thick and fast from the very beginning of Cetaganda. As Miles and Ivan are docking in orbit around Eta Ceta IV, a mysterious local man bursts into their shuttle, apparently intent on assassinating them. They tackle the man and seize his weapon as well as a mysterious tubular object they’d thought was also a weapon. As they puzzle over the object, the Cetagandan escapes. Any discerning reader will be aware that this strange object will play a central role in the tale that follows. (It’s pictured on the cover of the edition I read.) Not long after arriving on the planet’s surface, Miles realizes that he and Ivan will be accused of stealing the object, whatever it is, presumably as a pretext for the Cetagandan Empire to go to war again with Barrayar.

In the complex series of events that follow, Miles becomes embroiled in a desperate search to understand why he and Ivan have been targeted, and who was behind the attack. The two cousins soon find themselves socializing with Cetagandans of the ghem caste. Although barbarians like them aren’t supposed to come into contact with the exalted haut, it doesn’t take long for that to happen, too. The story that unfolds involves a murder investigation and political intrigue of the highest order within the Cetagandan Empire. Bujold writes with a light touch. The dialogue is clever and sometimes very funny. The book is a great deal of fun.

For example, consider this exchange between Miles and Ivan:

Miles: “you have to stay absolutely cool. I may be completely off-base, and panicking prematurely.”

Ivan: “I don’t think so. I think you’re panicking post-maturely. In fact, if you were panicking any later it would be practically posthumously. I’ve been panicking for days.” 

For some reason, when I read dialogue like this, I think of Redford and Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

If you’re a sci-fi fan, you’ll enjoy my post, My 27 favorite science fiction novels. And if you want to access my reviews of the five preceding books in the Vorkosigan Saga, you can find them by searching for that name on this site.

October 30, 2017

Miles Vorkosigan’s perilous rite of passage

Miles Vorkosigan: The Vor Game by Lois McMaster BujoldThe Vor Game (Vorkosigan Saga #5) by Lois McMaster Bujold

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Miles Vorkosigan is just under four feet nine inches tall—a dwarf, by today’s legal definition. Because he was poisoned in his mother’s womb, his growth was stunted, his spine curved, and now his bones are so brittle they may break if squeezed hard enough. Miles is the son of Admiral Count Aral Vorkosigan, Prime Minister of the planet of Barrayar, and Cordelia Naismith, formerly a captain in the armed forces of Beta Colony, an erstwhile enemy. With ancestors including emperors of Barrayar, Miles carries the genes of leadership. He is a military genius whose quick wit and unrivaled instinct for strategy more than compensate for his small stature and physical weakness.

Miles is the central figure in most of the sixteen novels that comprise the Vorkosigan Saga, several books of which have won Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards for Lois McMaster Bujold. Bujold won the Hugo Award four times, matching the record achieved by Robert A. Heinlein—and it’s easy to see why. The space operas that comprise the Vorkosigan Saga are several cuts above the classics in that genre from the 1940s and 50s, the Golden Age of Science Fiction. They sparkle with witty dialogue and humor, characters come across as three-dimensional, they’re action-packed, and the plotting is invariably complex and full of surprises. In short, these books are fun to read.

A word of warning, though: Bujold wrote these novels far out of sequence, with the publication dates of sequels often separated by many years. To avoid getting lost, it’s wise to read them in order of the chronology of the saga, not the order of publication.

The Vor Game is the fifth novel in the Vorkosigan Saga. (I’ve now read all five, having chosen to skip the  two novellas that precede it in the chronology.) As the story begins, Miles has just graduated from officers’ training as an ensign and is assigned to the last place he would ever choose to go: a godforsaken basic training camp on an island in the frozen north of Barrayar. He’s told he will only receive a more desirable posting if he can avoid insubordination for six months. (Yes, Miles’ mouth repeatedly gets him into trouble.) Naturally, circumstances soon conspire to force him to defy the camp’s commanding general. And that’s only the beginning of this twisted tale.

The plot of The Vor Game twists and turns so frequently that some readers may grow dizzy. Summarizing the story without spoiling it would be difficult, because much of the fun is encountering the constant surprises that confront Miles. You’ve got to read it to understand it.

My review of the first novel in the series, Falling Free, is An outstanding sci-fi series. The second, Shards of Honor, is The exciting second book in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. You’ll find the third, Barrayar, here: The Vorkosigan Saga: much more than a space opera. Number four, The Warrior’s Apprentice, is In Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, Miles begins his journey.

October 24, 2017

In 2144, Arctic resorts, autonomous robots, and killer drugs

autonomous robots - Autonmous by Annalee NewitzAutonomous: A Novel by Annalee Newitz

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

You hope the world will never look like this. It’s 2144. Slavery has revived, camouflaged as indentured servitude. Theoretically, indenture is limited to a specified term; in practice, contract owners frequently refuse to honor the commitment. Millions of humans and robots alike are trapped in these unbreakable contracts. Only rarely do indentured servants escape, and autonomous robots are rare.

This is the world imagined by Annalee Newitz in her intriguing new science fiction novel, Autonomous.

Bioengineering is supreme. The pharmaceutical industry, and the lives of most of the world’s citizens, are dominated by a handful of huge pharma corporations. These companies produce patented drugs that lengthen lifespan, enhance productivity, and induce euphoria as well as prevent illness. Unfortunately, officially sanctioned drugs are far too expensive for most of the world’s people. A flourishing pirate economy fills some of the gaps by reverse-engineering the most popular drugs. To combat the pirates and enforce patent law, the paramilitary International Property Coalition (IPC) sends teams of agents around the world to capture or kill the practitioners of “black pharma.”

IPC Agent Eliasz Wójcik is partnered with an indentured military robot named Paladin. They work out of a large military base operated by the African Federation. The pair is charged with hunting down a notorious pirate known as Jack, who appears to be somewhere in the Arctic. In fact, as the novel opens, Jack (real name: Judith Chen) is traveling on a submarine along the Arctic coast “beyond the Beaufort Sea.” Jack has learned that a batch of a new, reverse-engineered drug she had unloaded in Calgary is causing sometimes-lethal side effects. She is on a mission of her own—to develop an antidote. Jack knows that the small batch of black-market drugs she distributed is only a minor part of the problem: the official drug, a product of Zaxy, one of the world’s largest pharmacorps, is in use as a productivity-enhancer at large corporations that can afford to pay its high price. Jack sees it as her responsibility to identify Zaxy as the source of the problem, get the word out worldwide, and make an antidote freely available. Eliasz and Paladin are determined to stop her.

Robotics has advanced in tandem with bioengineering. Now, robots may take on an unlimited variety of shapes, sizes, and forms. Biobots closely resemble humans and include both biological and manufactured materials. Other robots, only vaguely humanoid, possess human brains to supplement their cybernetic capabilities. Yet others may be configured as insects, birds, or machines. Paladin, for example, appears roughly humanoid but has automatic weapons concealed in its chest and arms as well as a human brain in its midsection. However, Paladin is much more than a military machine: it communicates both by vocalizing and wirelessly, it is curious and continuously absorbs new information—and it hopes to gain its freedom from indenture and join the ranks of autonomous robots.

Politics in the world of 2144 is as dramatically changed as economics. Climate change and epidemic disease have upended the geopolitical order, leaving the United States a backwater and Europe frozen, in the absence of the Gulf Stream. The world’s dominant powers are the Asian Union, the Brazilian States, and the African Federation, where most of the advanced biotech companies conduct their research. North America is a Free Trade Zone, with its most prosperous cities in the summery Canadian and Alaskan Arctic. It’s there that most of the action in Autonomous takes place.

Known primarily as a blogger and science journalist, Annalee Newitz is the author of five books of nonfiction. Although she has previously published science fiction short stories, Autonomous is her first novel. Newitz holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, in English and American Studies and was on the Cal faculty for a time. She now writes full-time.

I have also reviewed Newitz’s most recent nonfiction book, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: Will the human race survive climate change and a mass extinction? You might also be interested in 24 compelling dystopian novels or my own new book, Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction.

October 17, 2017

From Paolo Bacigalupi, another spellbinding Drowned Cities tale

Drowned Cities saga: Tool of War by Paolo BacigalupiTool of War (Drowned Cities #3) by Paolo Bacigalupi

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Paolo Bacigalupi‘s new novel, Tool of War, is a brilliant successor to Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities, which together form a series the author may not yet have finished. The setting of all three novels is a dystopian world in what may be the twenty-second century. Much of human civilization in the past is now underwater or absent from areas that are now intolerably hot. Fossil fuels have been totally depleted. For most of the planet’s remaining inhabitants, life is a constant struggle for bare survival. Runaway bioengineering has created vicious new predators. Government has failed nearly everywhere; only a few city-states (Shanghai, Lagos, Boston) remain intact and peaceful behind massive seawalls. A handful of mighty corporations dominate world trade.

The two characters at the center of the action are familiar to readers of the other two novels: Mahlia and Tool. The latter, the subject of the title, is a bioengineered “half man.” He was designed for battle, as the book’s title suggests, bioengineered to blend DNA from the planet’s most fearsome animal predators with that of a superb human warrior. His vision, his hearing, his ability to detect smell at enormous distances—all his senses are heightened far beyond human limits. And both his reflexes and his movements are faster than any other living creature’s. Tool is a “nightmare out of humanity’s primeval past, a monster of old, a creature re-emerged from the darkest myths of protohumans, when jungles had never been razed, and when apes still cowered from darkness and struggled to master fire. A monster with its own interests and agenda.”

The story is set primarily on North America’s mid-Atlantic Coast, now known as the Drowned Cities, and in Seascape, a prosperous metropolis located inland from old Boston. The city lies behind enormous seawalls that have held back the ocean. As the novel opens, Tool has mustered a huge army that consists mostly of teenagers that has been fighting and defeating the warlords who have dominated the Drowned Cities in the past. (Anyone who lives beyond the age of thirty is considered ancient in this perilous environment.) Headquartered in the ruins of the White House, near the new shore of the Atlantic Ocean, Tool has finally triumphed. He is now the undisputed overlord of the Drowned Cities.

At just this point the supremely powerful Mercier Corporation, a militarized commercial enterprise that virtually controls a quarter of the globe, locates Tool after a years-long search. Tool somehow represents a threat to the company’s supremacy. Without hesitation, Mercier’s military commander, General Caroa, orders missiles fired from drones above the coast to eradicate Tool’s headquarters, killing him in the process. Somehow, Tool survives. Though grievously wounded, he makes his way to the shoreline where Mahlia finds him. Tool had saved her life in the past. Without hesitation, she has him carried onto the clipper ship she owns, and they set sail for Seascape to obtain medical care for him. Frustrated that his target has lived, General Caroa pursues him with all the forces at his disposal.

Tool of War is marketed as a young adult novel. But the book is so full of violence and gore that I wonder whether it’s really suitable for teenagers. I suppose many video games that are popular among young people are equally bloody. But still. (Maybe I’m just too old to make this judgment.)

I reviewed Ship Breaker, the first entry in the Drowned Cities saga, at Another exceptionally good sci-fi novel from an emerging master. My review of the second, The Drowned Cities, is at Another great sci-fi novel from Paolo Bacigalupi. You may also be interested in the list of My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

 

 

October 5, 2017

From Sweden, a strange science fiction novel

strange science fiction - amatka-karin-tidbeckAmatka by Karin Tidbeck

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Historically, science fiction has mostly been identified with the United States and Great Britain. That’s not to say, however, that talented authors from many other countries, writing in languages other than English, haven’t made their mark in the genre. Science fiction novels, some of them outstanding, have come from Russia, China, and other countries as far-flung as Brazil, Czechoslovakia, and Iceland. Now Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck, previously known for her well-received collection of short stories, offers her first novel, Amatka.

From the outset, it’s clear that Amatka is a science fiction novel of a very different sort. Anyone who accepts a literal definition of science fiction—stories that are possible given what we know about science—will consider this novel fantasy, not science fiction. At best, it’s very strange science fiction. Its premise clearly rests somewhere outside the bounds of possibility.

On an unnamed world somewhere far away, four small colonies of humans struggle to survive. Their surroundings are inhospitable. Featureless tundra extends in all directions. Ostensibly in order to ensure their communities’ survival, the colonies are governed by rigid bureaucrats who have made rules for virtually every aspect of life. Most of the buildings and almost everything else, from pencils to suitcases to furniture, are constructed out of a viscous, mud-like substance mined from the surface of the planet. And everything made of this mysterious stuff will hold its shape only if those who use it continuously remind each object of its purpose. They paint labels on every item (“door,” “building,” “bed”) and chant the word on its label to assure the object’s stability. If they don’t do so frequently enough, seemingly solid and stable items simply liquefy into goo that spreads across every surface and destroys anything else within its reach. And the bureaucrats have layered over this reality with new requirements of their own. For instance, here’s what Vanja learns in the community’s library: “One couldn’t name a book anything other than BOOK, or start the title with anything other than ‘About . . .’ Naming an object something else, even accidentally, was forbidden.”

Not literally science fiction, is it? Or, as I’ve noted, at the very least strange science fiction.

Amatka is a short novel—a novella, really. In just 170 pages, Tidbeck tells the story of a woman named Brillars’ Vanja Essre Two, known as Vanja. Vanja is sent from her home colony of Essre by train (train???) to Amatka, where she is to investigate the potential for factories at home to produce hygiene products such as soap and shampoo that might be sold in Amatka. Her job is to interview prospective customers and report back to her boss in Essre. But Vanja soon begins to learn that all is not as it appears in Amatka. And she falls in love with the woman who is hosting her. Between the love affair and her increasing understanding of the truth about the colony, Vanja resigns from her job in Essre, committing herself to stay in Amatka. There, she plays a central role in the unfolding events that lead to the novel’s shattering conclusion.

In its strangeness, Amatka fits snugly into a new sub-genre that has emerged in science fiction in recent years. I’ve previously reviewed three such books by China Mieville (The City and the City), Jeff Vandermeer (Authority), and Ann Leckie (Ancillary Justice). I enjoyed none of them.  

If you’d like to know which sci-fi works I enjoyed a lot more, see My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

September 25, 2017

In Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, Miles begins his journey

The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster BujoldThe Warrior’s Apprentice (Vorkosigan Saga #4), by Lois McMaster Bujold

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you’re looking for escapist entertainment, and if science fiction strikes your fancy, you’ll enjoy the long series of novels in the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold. The Warrior’s Apprentice, the fourth book in the series’ chronology, is a case in point.

In the preceding entries in the series, we learned the backstory of its central figure, Miles Vorkosigan. He is the son of one of the most senior military and political leaders on the planet of Barrayar, Aral Vorkosigan, and Cordelia Naismith, a scientist and unwilling soldier who is a former enemy from the far more technologically advanced Beta Colony. In a failed assassination attempt on his father, Miles is crippled in his mother’s womb by poison gas. His life has been saved only by Betan technology and a courageous local physician. But he was born a virtual dwarf, less than five feet tall, and with bones so brittle they break when he falls or one of his limbs is squeezed too strongly. Miles compensates for these disabilities with a brilliant mind, a copious memory, and a genius for military strategy that allows him to gain the allegiance of the toughest professional soldiers.

Miles is surely one of the most off-beat and intriguing protagonists in all of science fiction. No doubt, the strange attraction we all feel to Miles explains how the author has been able to produce (to date) a total of at least sixteen novels in the series, plus a large number of novellas and short stories. And she has won numerous awards for her work.

In The Warrior’s Apprentice, seventeen-year-old Miles washes out of officer training for the Barrayaran military when he breaks both legs in leaping off a wall in an obstacle course. Freed from the strictures of the military, Miles sets out on a visit to his grandmother on distant Beta Colony. His bodyguard, Sergeant Konstantine Bothari, and the sergeant’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Elena, accompany him on the journey. No sooner do they arrive than Miles manages to embroil himself in rescuing an old starship pilot. Brashly, he buys the pilot’s ship to save it from salvage—with money he doesn’t have. This foolish act triggers a series of misadventures that begin Miles’ long trek to galactic fame.

I’ve reviewed all three of the preceding novels in the Vorkosigan Saga: Falling Free (An outstanding sci-fi series), Shards of Honor (The exciting second book in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga), and Barrayar (The Vorkosigan Saga: much more than a space opera). I enjoyed them all, and you will, too, so long as you don’t expect to gain any deeper meaning from the experience.

September 19, 2017

A clever new take on an alien invasion in a humorous young adult novel

alien invasion - Landscape with Invisible HandLandscape with Invisible Hand by M. T. Anderson

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Science fiction is full of clichés about alien invasions of Earth, some evil, some benign. The murderous rampaging monsters that lay waste to the planet. The enigmatic species so different from the human race and so far advanced that communication with them is virtually impossible. The humanoid invaders who blend into contemporary society, either by morphing into human shape or because they themselves resemble human beings since we share common roots. You might think that every possible take on an alien invasion has been done before. Not so. In his new novella, Landscape with Invisible Hand, M. T. Anderson proves the point.

“We were all surprised when the vuvv landed the first time,” Anderson writes. “They’d been watching us since the 1940s, and we’d seen them occasionally, but we had all imagined them differently. They weren’t slender and delicate, and they weren’t humanoid at all. They looked more like granite coffee tables: squat, wide, and rocky. We were just glad they weren’t invading. We couldn’t believe our luck when they offered us their tech and invited us to be part of their Interspecies Co-Prosperity Alliance. They announced that they could end all work forever and cure all disease, so of course, the leaders of the world all rushed to sign up.”

Big surprise! This was not a good idea. The story of the sad (and sometimes hilarious) consequences of this peculiar alien invasion is told through the voice of Adam Costello, a seventeen-year-old art student. Adam lives in a decaying middle-class home with his out-of-work parents and his younger sister. Because the vuvv give nothing away free of charge, and jobs are extremely scarce, everyone on Earth has essentially gone broke, with the exception of a small number of super-wealthy people who live in palatial homes that float above the land. The dollar and every other human currency is virtually worthless in exchange for the vuvv currency, the ch’ch. (“The lowliest vuvv grunt made more in a week than most humans made in two years.”) Adam, his family, and practically everyone he knows are on the verge of starvation. He takes it upon himself to earn money so the family can eat, first with one crazy scheme, then another.

Landscape with Invisible Hand, reflects the same inventiveness and sarcastic humor that so enlivens his popular dystopian young adult novel, Feed. The heading of each short chapter (“A Food Cart in Front of a Strip Mall,” “My Parents’ Bedroom, with the Covers Askew”) represents the title of one of Adam’s paintings. The book is full of surprises.

M. T. Anderson (Matthew Tobin Anderson) wrote fourteen previous novels as well as a number of short stories and picture books. He writes primarily for young adults and children. Anderson won the National Book Award for one of his novels, among other awards.

For my review of Anderson’s Feed, go to A terrifying vision of the future in an award-winning young adult novel. For a review of another book that features an off-beat alien invasion (in which the humans are the invaders), see Alien encounters of the strange kind in a captivating sci-fi novel. You might also be interested in My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

September 13, 2017

A 22nd century police procedural in a fascinating future Earth

future Earth - After Atlas by Emma NewmanAfter Atlas (Planetfall, A) by Emma Newman

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In Planetfall, published in 2015, British science fiction author Emma Newman introduced us to the Earth-like planet where a massive starship had delivered 1,000 people many years earlier. The ship was called Atlas. The following year, Newman brought out a sequel, After Atlas, which portrayed life on Earth for the billions who remained behind. It’s a grim picture of society in what appears to be sometime in the 22nd century.

This is a world you or I wouldn’t want to live in. Only the wealthiest can afford to eat real food. Everyone else must eat what comes from printers (successors to our contemporary 3-D printers). Every nation is governed by a “gov-corp” that operates under the influence of a tiny elite of billionaires. Virtually everyone is “chipped” with implants in their brains that connect them to the world around them—and make them vulnerable to their bosses or public authorities. Many of the most talented people are enslaved in decades-long contracts resembling what was once called indentured servitude. One of those people is Carlos Moreno.

Carlos Moreno is a brilliant, top-level homicide investigator contracted to the Ministry of Justice of Norope (northern Europe) for fifty years; he has thirty years to go. But the contract is extended every time he overspends his allowance, because Carlos has a powerful hankering for real food. And every time he does something to displease his boss. As he reflects, “A black mark puts another year on my contract. Three black marks and they’ll send me in for ‘calibration.’ I shudder at the thought of it. Like all expensive property, I’m kept in good working order.”

Carlos, known as Carl to friends, is assigned by the ministry to investigate the death of one of the world’s most famous people, a man named Alejandro Casales, who heads a large and wealthy religious cult based in Texas. Alejandro has died in a hotel room in England, an apparent suicide. But the case is complicated by more than Alejandro’s celebrity status: his body was hacked to pieces with an axe following his death by hanging.

Further complicating the case is Carlos’ history with The Circle, the cult Alejandro led. Abandoned by his mother as a baby and neglected by his father, who suffered a nervous breakdown when his wife deserted the family to leave Earth on Atlas, Carlos spent eight years with the cult in Texas. He grew to hate Alejandro and his father as well.

Using the massive information resources available to him through his Artificial Personal Assistant, the avatar who personifies his chip, Carlos doggedly pursues his investigation at a pace that would astonish any 21st-century cop. Newman tells the tale with a wealth of intriguing detail—and she creates suspense like the best of them. The book also works well as a police procedural. After Atlas is an excellent piece of work.

I felt differently about Newman’s previous novel, Planetfall, which I reviewed at A promising but disappointing new science fiction novel. For links to my reviews of other books in this genre that I’ve loved, see My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

August 23, 2017

In an unusually original sci-fi technothriller, technology meets neuroscience

sci-fi technothrillerAbsence of Mind, by H.C.H. Ritz

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

It’s the near future. Phoebe Bernhart is a psychiatric nurse at Atlanta’s largest hospital, struggling to keep her job. Plagued by headaches and a quick temper, she is prone to mouthing off to doctors and is one report away from being fired. One evening she meets Mila Bremer when their two cars collide and Mila gives her a ride to the hospital while her car is towed to the shop. Mila is a beautiful young woman who manifests the signs of the Asperger’s spectrum, and Phoebe is alternately intrigued and insulted by her lack of affect.

“Just because she doesn’t have her smartphone implanted in her head,” Phoebe thinks, “doesn’t mean she lives on a different planet.” (What this means will become clear.) Their chance meeting soon proves consequential—to Phoebe and to the world—when she encounters a baffling neurological pandemic that is flooding the city’s hospitals with “aggressive and paranoid people.” Together, Phoebe and Mila have a rare opportunity to investigate the source of the mysterious epidemic.

Phoebe and the younger brother she adores have left behind their parents in an ultraconservative Mennonite community in Ohio. Like nearly everyone else in this future society, both of them have had Navis installed in their brains to access instant messaging and news non-stop, hold subvocalized conversations, and command smartcars and smart appliances with their thoughts. “Normally, conversations are private, because they’re Navi-to-Navi,” but Phoebe is forced to speak out loud to communicate with Mila.

This is the set-up in the outstanding sci-fi technothriller Absence of Mind by H.C.H. (Hilary) Ritz, published in 2015. The Houston-based author has written two other novels, The Lightbringers (2012) and The Robin Hood Thief (2016). Ritz demonstrates great skill and originality in plotting, she builds suspense like the best of them, and her characters are fascinating. It seems likely that she will one day gain wide recognition in the science fiction field.

For other sci-fi novels I’ve loved, go to My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

August 17, 2017

Secrets and lies in a young adult thriller, and it’s not science fiction

young adult thrillerThe Doubt Factory, by Paolo Bacigalupi

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Let’s start with a confession. I’ve been a fan of Paolo Bacigalupi’s science fiction ever since reading The Windup Girl, which I regard as one of the best sci-fi novels I’ve ever read. The future scenario the author portrays is compelling and strikingly imaginative, and I’ve found much the same evidence of creativity in his other science fiction novels. So I turned to another of Bacigalupi’s books, The Doubt Factory, expecting more of the same. It’s not. This one, set in the United States today, is a contemporary young adult thriller, pure and simple. Combining the author’s clever plotting and fluid prose with deft development of characters who are unique and believable, The Doubt Factory is an accomplished example of his craft. I liked it a lot even though it isn’t science fiction!

Alix Banks is a 17-year-old senior at an exclusive Connecticut prep school, daughter of the founder and chief executive of a public relations firm, Banks Strategy Partners. She lives with her parents and hyperactive younger brother, Jonah, in a luxurious suburban home near other wealthy executives and professionals. Alix is a top student and track star at Seitz Academy, but she has to work to get the top grades she and her parents expect. By contrast, her friend Cynthia effortlessly earns all As. Cynthia spends evenings and weekends “partying,” and routinely invites Alix to duck her parents and come along.

Meanwhile, a young man named Moses Cruz is somehow monitoring Alix’s every move at home and at school through surveillance devices that are obviously well hidden. Then Moses shows up in the quad at Seitz Academy in the midst of a massive prank that draws all eyes to him. Someone, somehow, has caused an enormous red tag (“2.0”) to show up on the side of the chemistry lab and released a prodigious number of white rats inside. As the rats scurry away over the quad, the headmaster attempts without success to detain Moses. A tall black man dressed in fatigues, he’s obviously out of place at Seitz, where students wear uniforms. Alix is fascinated and runs after him as he makes his escape from campus security and the police who’ve been called to the scene.

Moses calls his team 2.0. Like him, the other three are all brilliant teenage renegades: a Goth coder, a young gay man, and a 12- or 13-year old mechanical genius. They’re obviously up to something, but we won’t learn what until much later in the story. Whatever it is, it has something to do with the “Doubt Factory” of the title, but that name doesn’t show up until nearly halfway through the novel.

The Doubt Factory is an action-packed young adult thriller and the story of an unlikely romance as well. It’s all based on a monumental secret and the lies that are told to protect it.

FYI, my review of The Windup Girl is here: One of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read. Another novel set in the same imagined world is here: Another exceptionally good sci-fi novel from an emerging master. For my reviews of dozens of other thrillers, go to 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

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