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The Reference Library
Don Sakers

In the extended family of current genre fiction, science fiction has a tough and scrappy sibling. This genre is more gregarious and considerably more popular, but also somewhat less intelligent. The two often hang out together and play with each other’s toys, and unsophisticated friends frequently have trouble telling one from another. I’m speaking, of course, of the genre known as the Thriller.
Like SF, thriller fiction is easy to identify but hard to define. For a story to be SF, it must contain some essential element of science or technology; for a thriller, the essential element is suspense. That doesn’t mean that every story with suspense is a thriller; just as the scientific idea is central to an SF story, the suspense is central to a thriller.
Thrillers are big. As I write this, more than half the novels on the New York Times Bestseller List are thrillers; the names of thriller authors such as David Baldacci, Mary Higgins Clark, Robin Cook, Clive Cussler, Dean Koontz, and John Sandford are household names both in publishing and in Hollywood. (And of course one mustn’t forget the mega-superstar behind the James Patterson Book-of-the-Month Club.)
There’s an entire subgenre of thrillers based on scientific (or pseudo-scientific) concepts; the late Michael Crichton was the absolute king of this type of thriller, borrowing SF ideas from alien invasion (The Andromeda Strain) and cyborgs (The Terminal Man) to time travel (Timeline) and nanotechnology (Micro). Lately, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Childs, together or in collaboration, have become very popular with science-based thrillers.
From the perspective of a science fiction reader, these books seem rather weak; if you’re going to read about time travel or nanotech, why not just read some real SF and be done with it? Aren’t there science fiction stories that have enough suspense?
That’s precisely what I want to talk about in this column. When SF borrows the techniques and tropes of the thriller, the result can be very powerful indeed.
Edgar Allan Poe, master of the suspense story, was also arguably an SF writer, and H.G. Wells gave us an inarguable SF thriller in The Invisible Man. The preeminent example, though, was John W. Campbell, Jr.’s classic novella “Who Goes There?” (Astounding, 1938)—filmed as The Thing From Another World in 1951 and The Thing in 1982. (In this column I usually refer to Campbell in his editorial position; it’s well worth remembering that prior to taking the reins at Astounding, he was a popular and influential SF author.)
Lester del Rey’s 1942 novelette “Nerves” (expanded into a 1956 novel of the same title) is a model thriller set in a nuclear power plant. The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein (1951) perfectly blends the thriller and the alien invasion story, while Alfred Bester did the same with teleportation (The Stars My Destination, 1953) and telepathy (The Demolished Man, 1956).
The Cold War period spawned a lot of SF thrillers; among the best of them was a book nearly forgotten today, Who? by Algis Budrys (1958). In this near-future espionage thriller, a scientist returns from behind the Iron Curtain with his face and half his body replaced by cybernetic prostheses—but is this man the original scientist, or a double agent? The book revolves around the question of his identity, and although its politics and history are long outdated, it’s still as thrilling a read as the day it was published.
One can’t discuss SF thrillers without mentioning the late Philip K. Dick, much of whose work involved secrets, deceptions, conspiracies, paranoia, chases, and other tropes of thrillerdom. For a long time Dick was our own little secret, but the mundane world discovered him and has been turning his SF thrillers into blockbuster movies ever since. Don’t let yourself be satisfied by the films: the books and stories are, if anything, even more suspenseful and thrilling.
In the realm of movies and TV, SF thrillers are far from rare. The Cold War gave us the excellent Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and dozens of others, most not so excellent. Alien (1979) was a triple-threat combining the genres of SF, thriller, and horror in one movie. Bladerunner (1982) owes a debt to Dick (it was based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) but is certainly its own distinct work.
Most SF television series have episodes that qualify as thrillers: Doctor Who, Firefly, and Star Trek spring immediately to mind. Two series deserve mention as maintaining major thriller aspects throughout: The Invaders (1967-68) and U.F.O. (1970-71); both were stories of alien invasion. And finally, no discussion of SF thrillers on TV could be complete without bringing up The Outer Limits and Twilight Zone, both of which have had various incarnations through the years.

Anniversary Day

Anniversary Day
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
WMG Publishing, 465 pages, $17.99
(trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $7.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-0615521794
Series: Retrieval Artist 8
Genre: SF Thriller

Anniversary Day

SF thrillers are alive and well, and today’s leading practitioner is Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
Rusch’s Retrieval Artist series should be familiar to long-time Analog readers; the series began with the Hugo-nominated novella “The Retrieval Artist” in the June 2000 issue. Several other stories in the series have appeared here, most recently “The Impossibles” (December 2011).
In case you’re not familiar with the series (and what’s been keeping you?), it’s set in an interstellar future populated by various alien races and cultures, with humans relatively new kids on the block. The problem is that humans have to fit into a variety of alien justice systems that aren’t necessarily friendly to our sort. Slavery, execution, and physical punishment are common . . . and completely legal.
So what is one to do when the multicultural court denies appeal, and offended aliens are on their way with vivisection in their eyes? Well, human ingenuity is up to the challenge: there are lots of quasi-legal outfits that can make one “disappear”—new home, new identity, skin intact.
Of course, the Disappeared aren’t completely safe. Those aliens are a determined bunch, and there are plenty of bounty hunters around. In addition, there are always those who seek the Disappeared for benign reasons—the Retrieval Artists. The series follows Miles Flint, Retrieval Artist, in many suspenseful cases.
Anniversary Day is something of a departure for the series, but in a good way. The main character is Flint’s erstwhile partner, Noelle DeRicci, Security Chief on the Moon—Flint plays only a minor role. And this time around there are no Disappeared cases: instead, something far more sinister is going on.
The setting is the city of Armstrong on Luna. Four years ago (in the novel Consequences) the city’s protective dome was almost destroyed in a bombing; now the citizens are celebrating the survival on Anniversary Day. Then the mayor is assassinated. . . .
That’s only the beginning, for no sooner has DeRicci started her investigation than another politician is taken down. Soon Noelle and her official partner, Bartholomew Nyquist, are on the track of a conspiracy that threatens the entire Moon.
Rusch is a great storyteller—easily the equal of Patterson or Koontz or any of that crowd. Anniversary Day is an edge-of-the-seat thriller that will keep you turning pages late into the night, and it’s also really good science fiction. What’s not to like?


Fade to Black

Fade to Black
Josh Pryor
Red Hen Press, 248 pages, $18.95
(trade paperback)
Kindle: $9.98 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-59709-125-1
Genre: SF Thriller

Fade to Black

Clare Matthews is an evolutionary biologist whose career is on the rocks. She needs a job, so she jumps at the chance when an offer comes to join an Antarctic expedition investigating an ancient micro-organism recently discovered there.
The organism is S. iroquoisii, and it seems to have played some important part in humanity’s early evolution. A research station studying the organism was destroyed in an accidental explosion, and Clare is recruited as part of a forensic team going in to determine exactly what happened. The team consists of assorted misfits, both military and civilian.
The long, dark Antarctic winter is hardly the best time for such an investigation, but the mission’s urgency soon becomes clear when it emerges that S. iroquoisii may just well have played a part in the catastrophe.
Then it develops that the first station was part of a secret government bio-weapons conspiracy, and soon Clare—already suffering from her own psychological demons—is way over her head in secrets, deceptions, and enemies both human and non. Facing betrayal, madness, and death, it’s up to Clare to keep the survivors alive and get them to safety.
Tons of suspense, big helpings of speculative evolutionary biology, and a protagonist you care about . . . this one has enough to satisfy any SF thriller fan. Make sure you read it in a warm room, preferably during the daytime.

 


The Death Cure

The Death Cure
James Dashner
Delacorte, 336 pages, $17.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $10.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-0-385-73877-4
Series: Maze Runner 8
Genres: SF Thriller, Young Adult SF

The Death Cure

Meanwhile, over in the young adult arena, James Dashner has been writing an SF thriller trilogy that is just as suited to adults as to teens. If you like suspense and thrills, you’ll totally enjoy reading these books—and you can impress your teenaged relatives and friends with your knowledge of them.
It’s a century or three in the future, and solar flares have scorched most of the Earth’s surface. The remaining population is ravaged by a virus called “the Flare,” which leaves its victims as violent cannibals preying on the healthy.
Yeah, yeah, post-apocalyptic future with roving zombies. Yawn. What else ya got for us, Dashner?
In the first book, The Maze Runner, a young man named Thomas awakes without his memory in “the Glade,” a huge enclosed bucolic paradise. Other boys, also amnesiac, have made a working society (some have been there as long as two years, although a new boy arrives roughly every month). The Glade is surrounded by an enormous labyrinth teeming with hostiles.
Then a telepathic girl arrives, and she and Thomas team up to lead the others out of the maze at last.
In the second volume, The Scorch Trials, Thomas and his friends discover that the surviving governments of the world have formed an organization they call WICKED, and WICKED is in control. The escaped Gladers are told that they are the key to the world’s survival, and the maze was the first of several trials they must undergo before they meet their destiny. The second trial requires them to survive a trek across a hundred miles of scorched wilderness beset by cannibal zombies . . . all while they’re infected with the Flare. At the end, it is promised, they will be cured.
Now, in The Death Cure, all the trials are over. It’s time for Thomas and his friends to receive their memories back, to find out what WICKED is up to, and complete a final cure for the Flare.
All three books are page-turners, brimming with suspense. There’s a fair amount of violence, especially with the zombies—although it serves the plot, so I can’t really call it excessive. If this were a movie, it would be R-rated. Fair warning: The Death Cure is supposed to be the last book of the series, but there are enough loose ends left over that I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of this world.

 


Aurora in Four Voices

Aurora in Four Voices
Catherine Asaro
ISFiC Press, 274 pages, $30.00 (hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0-9759156-9-1
Series: Skolian Empire (some stories)
Genre: Short Fiction Collection

Aurora in Four Voices

Last issue, you may recall, I talked about Catherine Asaro’s long-running space opera series, the Skolian Empire series. As long-time Analog readers know, Asaro also writes some mean short fiction, some of it set in the same universe. Aurora in Four Voices collects six of her finest pieces in a handsome volume that any Asaro fan will want.
There are four Skolian Empire tales, all of them different. The title story (first published in Analog December 1998) deliciously blends music and mathematics. “Light and Shadow” (Analog, April 1994) is a story of men and machines pushed to their limits. “Ave de Paso,” published elsewhere in 2001, is strictly fantasy rather than SF, and it’s interesting to see the connection to the Skolian Empire. And “City of Cries” (also published elsewhere, in 2005) is an SF noir detective story.
“The Spacetime Pool” (Analog, March 2008) won the Nebula Award and is another math story, not at all connected with the Skolian Empire.
After all this math, Asaro includes a nonfiction article on Riemann surfaces, titled “A Poetry of Angles and Dreams.” In it she manages to convey to the reader some of the sublime beauty that pure mathematics can engender. (All right, I admit it, I majored in math in college. But any intelligent SF reader will have no trouble with the concepts here.)
Asaro introduces each of the stories, and an afterword by Aly Parsons completes the package.

 


Sex and Violence in Zero-G

Sex and Violence in Zero-G
(Expanded Edition)
Allen M. Steele
Fantastic Books, 513 pages, $19.99
(trade paperback)
ISBN: 978-1-61720-358-9
Series: Near Space
Genres: Short Fiction Collection

Sex and Violence in Zero-G

While we’re on the subject of short fiction collections by favorite Analog writers. . . .
Allen Steele has been called an heir of Robert A. Heinlein—and it’s the Near Space series that got him that reputation. From Orbital Decay to A King of Infinite Space, the series presents a realistic and action-packed modern vision of the industrialization of space and those who make it happen. If the collective governments of the world had any sense, they’d be using these books as texts for ushering in a future worth having.
An earlier edition of Sex and Violence in Zero-G appeared in 1999, but Steele hasn’t stood still since then. In between tales of the planet Coyote and its universe, he’s written a few more Near Space stories—so it’s good to see an updated edition of Sex and Violence.
They’re all here. Hugo-winning novella “The Death of Captain Future” and its sequel “The Exile of Evening Star.” Hugo-winning novelette “The Emperor of Mars.” “The Great Galactic Ghoul” (Analog, October 2010) and “The Zoo Team” (Analog, November 2010), along with fifteen others, two Introductions, an updated Near Space timeline, and four pages of spaceship design sketches.
Never read Allen Steele? Here’s a great place to start. If you like Analog, you’ll like Steele. Already an Allen Steel fan? Then what are you doing still reading? Go get the book already!

That’s it, I’m out of space. I hope it’s been as thrilling for you as it has for me. And I won’t keep you in suspense . . . see you next time.

 


Don Sakers is the author of The Leaves of October and A Voice in Every Wind. For more information, visit www.scatteredworlds.com.

"The Reference Library" Copyright © 2012, Don Sakers