by Don Sakers
As far as science fiction is concerned, the Solar System is like high school. There are popular kids and outcasts, kids we’d date and those we wouldn’t, bullies and victims.
The Moon was our first love; when she gave us the cold shoulder we tried to forget about her, but you know we still look longingly in her direction. Mars is the star quarterback, lead in the spring musical, and champion of the math club all rolled into one; we spend a lot of time with him, probably more than is good for us. Venus is the head cheerleader, very hot but not very welcoming no matter how we approach her. Jupiter’s the big guy on campus, with plenty of followers and sycophants; we drift occasionally into and out of his orbit. Saturn’s the really attractive one; we’ve dallied but we know we’re not really in that class. And Pluto is the weird “goth” kid who fascinates us.
Those are the kids we pay the most attention to. We’ve spent some time with Uranus and Neptune, but they’re usually beyond our reach; the other goths hang around in the Kuiper Belt and we don’t notice them. Ceres and the other asteroids are the stoners of the system, mostly keeping to themselves but often causing disruption when they move among the rest of us.
Then there’s poor Mercury. You’d think SF would pay more attention to the innermost planet, but by and large we don’t. And I think I know why: Not that long ago, Mercury lied to us, big time, and we still don’t trust it.
Until 1965, science fiction thought that Mercury was fascinating: a tidally locked world with one face in eternal day, the other in everlasting night. In between was a potentially habitable twilight zone.
It was a great place for stories. Ray Cummings gave us a trio of planetary romances set on a two-faced Mercury: Tama of the Light Country (1930), Tama, Princess of Mercury (1931), and Aerita of the Light Country (1941). Clark Ashton Smith told of The Immortals of Mercury (1932). Leigh Brackett set several of her stories on Mercury, and her hero Eric John Stark was born there. Several classic stories set on Mercury were published in these pages, including Clifford D. Simak’s “Masquerade” (Astounding, March 1941) and “Runaround” by Isaac Asimov (Astounding, March 1942). Alan E. Nourse’s classic “Brightside Crossing” (1956) told the tale of a harrowing crossing of the dayside at perihelion, and Larry Niven set “The Coldest Place” (1964) on Mercury’s nightside.
Mercury featured in a number of books for teens. These included Battle on Mercury (Lester del Rey, 1956), Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury (Isaac Asimov, 1956), and Mission to Mercury (Hugh Walters, 1965). Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan (1959) painted a lyrical picture of cave-dwelling Mercury natives called harmoniums, who fed on vibrations in the planet’s rock.
Then the bottom fell out. Scientists spying on Mercury found that it wasn’t the planet we believed: It was tidally-locked all right, but in a spin-orbit resonance of 3:2 instead of 1:1—three Mercury days for every two Mercury years. Goodbye day side, night side, and twilight zone.
Since then, SF has largely stayed away from Mercury. Oh, we use it when we have no choice. For example, Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (1973) planted a colony of ill-tempered miners on Mercury. In Sundiver (1980), David Brin based his solar explorers on the planet. In Stephen Baxter’s Manifold: Space (2000), a retreating humanity makes its last stand against alien invaders on Mercury. Karl Schroeder, in Lockstep (2014), went so far as to break Mercury to pieces, using the mass to create a Dyson cloud.
Of course, a few SF books have treated Mercury with a bit more respect. In “Retrograde Summer” (1975), John Varley had characters (protected by force-field suits) swimming in pools of boiling mercury and having a generally nice time on the planet. Ben Bova dutifully included Mercury (2005) as one of the destinations in his Grand Tour series. Below Mercury (2011) by Mark Anson is a thriller set in an abandoned ice mine at Mercury’s south pole.
Since 1985 (The Memory of Whiteness), Kim Stanley Robinson has been exploring the idea of a Mercurian city called Terminator, a city that rides equatorial rails so as to keep the Sun always on the horizon. Terminator, largely populated by musicians and artists, figures heavily in Robinson’s recent masterpiece 2312. (Oddly enough, Charles Stross used the same concept in Saturn’s Children, 2008.)
Mercury hasn’t fared much better in the realm of movie and TV science fiction. In one episode of Futurama (“Put Your Head on My Shoulder,” 2000), Mercury was home to “Hg’s Fuel: Last Fuel ’Til You Circle the Planet and Return Here”—nevertheless, the characters ran out of fuel.
Extrasolar planets should take a lesson from Mercury. If you want SF to pay attention to you, don’t lie to us about your astrophysical properties. With more of you being discovered daily, there are plenty of fish in your sea.
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The Caloris Network
Springer, 124 pages, $19.99 (trade paperback)
Kindle, Nook: $9.99 (e-book)
Genre: Hard SF, Nonfiction
Dr. Nick Kanas, Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, is an expert on space psychology and psychiatry. He’s also a lifelong SF reader and author of two previous Springer science fiction novels (The New Martians, 2013, and The Protos Mandate, 2014).
In The Caloris Network it’s 2130, and the planet Mercury has become a hazard to navigation. Strange patterns of electromagnetic radiation emitting from the planet are destroying passing spaceships. The first-ever expedition to Mercury is dispatched to find the source of this radiation.
Samantha Evans is an exobiologist. Raised on a space station orbiting Earth, she’s been from one end of the Solar System to another, researching microbes on Mars and Europa and establishing a name for herself. She’s elated to be included in the crew of the Mercury expedition, although she doubts that she’ll find any life to study.
The expedition lands safely, and at first their explorations go well. Then, of course, problems develop. Some crewmembers seem to have secrets they’re not sharing. As the temperature rises, tensions increase. Meanwhile, political struggles convulse the Solar System: The Mars Secessionist movement is growing stronger, and the military is put on alert.
In the midst of these tensions, the crew discovers the source of Mercury’s strange radiation: a network of silicon-based crystals that grows and repairs itself as if alive. Examining this network, Samantha discovers that it’s not just alive; it’s a conscious entity. And it doesn’t particularly like human invaders.
Protected by their force field, the expedition is confined to their ship . . . and is trapped on the surface. A military response from the Solar System’s government only makes things worse.
It’s up to Samantha to find a way to communicate with the alien intelligence and save them all.
This is a Springer book, so the story is followed by a section called “The Science Behind the Story,” in which Kanas discusses the notion of silicon-based life on Mercury.
Kanas tells a good story, with the mix of strong, believable characters and accurate science that Analog readers enjoy. Samantha’s story is intercut with flashbacks to her family life, in particular her father’s developing illness, which adds a strong human element to the situation on Mercury.
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Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation
edited by Ken Liu
Tor, 384 pages, $24.99 (hardcover)
Kindle, Nook: $11.99 (e-book)
Genre: Original Anthology
The 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel went to Chinese SF writer Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem (translated into English by Ken Liu). Since then, the Western SF world has been fascinated with Chinese science fiction. Ken Liu, himself a two-time Hugo winner, has put together a fine sampler of contemporary Chinese SF. Liu translated all the stories in this volume.
Liu Cixin, a power plant engineer whom the New Yorker called “China’s Arthur C. Clarke,” is the senior author in this crowd, represented by two stories and a short essay. The other six authors are from a younger generation, up-and-coming stars of Chinese SF. They’re as varied as any half-dozen American SF writers. Chen Qiufan (three stories and one essay) leans toward what we’d call magical realism. Xia Jia (three stories, one essay) has a more literary bent that straddles hard and soft SF. Ma Boyong’s one story (“The City of Silence”) is a dystopian tale of censorship gone crazy.
Hao Jingfang has two completely different stories. “Invisible Planets” (from which Liu took the anthology’s title) is a travelogue of imaginary worlds that reminds one of Jorge Luis Borges or Italo Calvino, while “Folding Beijing” is set in a near-future dystopia.
Tang Fei’s “Call Girl,” set in a society in which magical storytellers occupy the same place as prostitutes, explores the relationship between imagination and desire. And Cheng Jingbo’s “Grave of the Fireflies” is a lyrical story of a far-future interstellar migration of the human race that somehow reads like a combination of the best of Olaf Stapledon, Cordwainer Smith, and Roger Zelazny.
Ken Liu’s introduction nicely sets the stage for the stories to come. After the stories, three short essays by Ken Liu, Chen Qiufan, and Xia Jia address different aspects of the question “What is Chinese science fiction?” All come to the same general conclusion: Chinese SF isn’t any one thing, no more than American SF is a single thing.
If there are common themes among Chinese SF writers, they involve the same topics that concern most of the world today: modernity, globalization, the yearning for a secure and sustainable future. But you don’t have to worry about definitions; Invisible Planets is first and foremost a collection of some fine speculative fiction.
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Tor, 364 pages, $26.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $12.99 (e-book)
Genre: Alternate History
Nisi Shawl’s short stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, The Infinite Matrix, and many other venues. She’s won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award and been nominated for a World Fantasy Award. Well known in afrofuturist and feminist circles, Shawl has edited several SF/fantasy anthologies, including tribute anthologies for Samuel R. Delany (Stories for Chip, 2015) and Octavia Butler (Strange Matings, 2015). She’s the co-author of the seminal 2005 book Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction.
Everfair is Shawl’s first novel, and it’s a doozy: an epic alternate history that combines a steampunk sensibility with a response to one of the least-known and harshest tyrannies in history.
From 1885 to 1908, King Leopold II of Belgium ruled the Belgian Congo as his own personal colonial estate. Through merciless exploitation of the native population, he amassed an enormous fortune in ivory and the rubber industry. Forced labor, beatings, mutilation, and killings led to a death toll that’s been estimated at ten million.
In Everfair, steam power comes to Africa early. In the 1890s, an international coalition of English socialists and African-American missionaries purchase Congo Basin land from Leopold and establish upon it a community called Everfair. Over the next few decades, Everfair becomes a safe haven for natives as well as for escaped African slaves from around the world. Everfair also becomes a nucleus of the industrial revolution and a multicultural near-utopia that attracts outcasts and refugees from everywhere.
The book, which covers the period 1889-1919, is a vast, sprawling saga told through the eyes of a large cast of characters, including English Fabians, African ex-royalty, American inventors, spies, missionaries, and pilots of air canoes. Shawl does a magnificent job of making her characters real and relatable, intertwining the threads of their various stories into a tapestry that feels like authentic history. There’s adventure, intrigue, philosophy, romance, technology, and a sense of common humanity that flows smoothly through the entire narrative.
If Octavia Butler, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Harry Turtledove were to have written a book together, it might have come out something like Everfair. This is definitely not one to miss.
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Women of Futures Past
edited by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Baen, 267 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $8.99 (e-book)
Genre: Original Anthology
You wouldn’t know it from the Table of Contents in any modern issue of Analog (or, for that matter, the contents of this column), but apparently there’s a perception out there that women don’t write science fiction. So argues Kristine Kathryn Rusch, herself a woman who writes SF and the editor of this new anthology.
Actually, I’ve seen and heard it, and I’ll bet many of you have too. I’ve had many women writers tell me that they don’t submit stories to Analog because they “know” the magazine only publishes stories by men. Women have told me they don’t read the magazine because it’s exclusively aimed at men. (Would all the women currently reading this raise your hands? Uh-huh, I thought so. Lots of hands raised.)
It particularly bothered Rusch when she noticed that many classic stories by women—award-winning stories—were no longer anthologized. That the current generation of readers and writers no longer recognized named like Leigh Brackett, Zenna Henderson, Anne McCaffrey, or C. L. Moore. That even still-productive women like Lois McMaster Bujold, Pat Cadigan, and Connie Willis went unrecognized.
So Rusch put together this anthology, and it’s a gift to all SF readers.
Here are an even dozen stories by as many authors, each and every one of them a bona fide classic of science fiction. In addition to the authors named above, you also get C. J. Cherryh, Nancy Kress, Ursula K. LeGuin, Andre Norton, James Tiptree, Jr. The earliest (Moore’s “Shambleau”) was first published in 1933; the latest (“Angel” by Pat Cadigan) in 1987. None, I’m sorry to say, were published in Astounding/Analog.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s 25-page introduction is a marvelous extended argument for why she felt this book was necessary; she states the case much more completely and competently than I can in just a few hundred words. In the course of it, she points the way to lots of other good science fiction classics by women (especially an Octavia Butler story that she desperately wanted to include but couldn’t clear the rights for).
If you disagree with Rusch’s premise, or have some philosophical objection, don’t think of this as a collection of classic SF stories by women. Consider it a collection of classic SF stories that aren’t easily available elsewhere. Either way, read it.
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Alliance of Equals
Sharon Lee & Steve Miller
Baen, 355 pages, $26.00 (hardcover)
Kindle: $7.99, iBooks, Nook: $9.99 (e-book)
Series: Liaden Universe
Genre: Romantic SF, Space Opera
Some historian of the field needs to write more about the many married couples who have contributed to science fiction: C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner; Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett; Kate Wilhelm and Damon Knight; Lester and Judy-Lynn Del Rey; Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith, just to name a few . . . and, of course, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller.
Lee & Miller’s Liaden Universe series of space opera with romance overtones is one of the most popular and best-loved ongoing series in science fiction. The series, set far in the future, involves the interstellar politics of three related races: Terrans (normal humans), Ystrang (brutish thugs), and the Liaden (cultured and philosophical). The main thread revolves around the Liaden Clan Korval, a wealthy, aristocratic family of traders.
Lately the fortunes of Clan Korval have been in decline. Forced off their homeworld by the Department of the Interior (DOI), they’ve had to relocate to the planet Surebleak—which is every bit as hospitable as its name suggests. With funds depleted and the Clan’s far-flung trading network disrupted, Master Trader Shan yos’Galan and the crew of the flagship Dutiful Passage set out on a mission to find new customers and rebuild Korval’s shattered reputation.
But the DOI isn’t finished with Clan Korval. Instead of the welcome reception he’s used to at trade ports across the galaxy, Shan finds his ship barred from landing and his Clan blacklisted. On other ports, Korval’s trade missions are attacked by armed DOI agents and harassed by local security forces.
One of Dutiful Passage’s crew is Shan’s heir, apprentice Trader Padi yos’Galan. Padi’s young and ambitious, and she’s eager to do her part in bringing back Clan Korval’s vanished prestige. But Padi also carries a secret that could destabilize the interstellar order . . . and quite possibly lead she and her crew to their deaths.
It’s a fun story filled with action, adventure, intrigue, and romance. Don’t worry if you haven’t read any other Liaden books; this one stands on its own and is a great introduction to the whole delightful universe.
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A Crack in the Sky Above Titan
Andrew D. Thaler
Kindle: $2.99 (e-book)
Genre: Hard SF, Nanotechnology
Centuries in the future, the Salvager is an augmented human sailing the methane seas of Titan.
The Salvager was once a sea captain on Earth, with a long-forgotten name and a body that’s been rebuilt and replaced so many times that no trace of the original remains. Now the Salvager is master of the small ship Calliope and its crew of fragile, delicate robots, making a living as an independent salvager, retrieving crashed spacecraft and abandoned equipment from the methane sea called Kraken Mare.
Trade Winds, the largest colony on Titan, heavily taxes all salvage operations in its territory. The Salvager avoids the territory of the Trade Winds economic zone.
And now the Salvager is on the trail of the prize of a lifetime. The Mars Long Haul trade ship Tranquility, loaded with valuable cargo bound for the Kuiper Belt colonies, recently crashed in Kraken Mare outside the Trade Winds zone. It’s fair game to whatever salvagers can reach it first, and Calliope is in an excellent position to do so.
Of course, others are on their way too: other independent salvagers, who would probably be open to deals; the Trade Winds navy, armed and determined to keep the spoils for themselves; even the Martians are sending a salvage crew from a base among the asteroids. Getting to Tranquility will only be the first challenge . . . keeping hold of the ship will be harder. Tranquility itself may carry a few surprises of its own.
. . . And then, of course, there are the Titan native lifeforms.
A Crack in the Sky Above Titan is the sort of story you’d expect to be the two-part serial starting in Analog’s next issue. Andrew D. Thaler, who earned a Ph.D. in marine science and conservation from Duke University, is a visiting scientist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. He works with underwater robots and runs a website devoted to marine science and conservation. In short, this guy knows his stuff. He’s married practical marine science and technology with state-of-the-art speculation about conditions on the seas of Titan.
With echoes of Charles Stross and Rudy Rucker, Thaler’s got a winning story here. It’s e-book only, but the price is right. Don’t miss it.
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Finally, in the first-published-in-Analog department, Edward M. Lerner’s serial Dark Secret (April–July/August 2013) is now out in book form from PhoenixPick.
With that, I’m afraid I’ve run out of space. See you next issue.
Don Sakers is the author of Meat and Machine, Elevenses, and the Rule of Five serial at rule-of-5.com. For more information, visit www.scatteredworlds.com.
Copyright © 2016 Don Sakers