by Don Sakers
Let’s talk about literary categories in general, science fiction and its many varieties in particular.
If you’ll bear with me, I want to sneak up on the subject by first talking about food. In the end, I hope you’ll agree with me that this business of literary categories isn’t so much like chemistry as it’s like cooking.
To begin with, consider sandwiches. We all know what a sandwich is . . . or do we? For years, the definition of “sandwich” has been fodder for argument across the Internet. (Granted, it’s hard to find any subject that isn’t fodder for Internet arguments.)
Is a hamburger on a bun a sandwich? What about a hot dog? A veggie wrap? A burrito? A taco?
An open-faced sandwich is a sandwich, surely. Is a slice of pizza? (What if you fold it in half?) Bagels (with or without cream cheese)? An ice cream sandwich is one, surely . . . but what if the same ice cream is in a cone? Are crepes sandwiches (and does it depend on the filling)? Pop Tarts? What about soup in a bread bowl?
Are cream puffs sandwiches? Stuffed peppers? Stuffed shells? Years ago, one fast food purveyor offered bacon, cheese, and lettuce between two fried chicken patties, calling the unholy result a sandwich. That particular direction takes us into the realm of such sandwich-candidates as chicken cordon bleu, turkey with stuffing, and even chef salad (with croutons, naturally).
I don’t even want to think about structural materials like aluminum alloy panels and precast concrete insulated sandwich walls.
Let’s end this madness before we get to talking about sandwiching passengers into the back seat of a compact car.
If words are to have any meaning at all, I think we can agree that the category “sandwich” is more a continuum than a discrete bucket. Indeed, it’s a continuum along many different dimensions: ingredients, form, and function at least. Objects and concepts have varying degrees of “sandwich-ness” along these different dimensions. And there’s no definitive measure of these degrees: the best we can do is compare and contrast. A BLT is surely more of a sandwich than is a taco; a taco is arguably more of a sandwich than is an Oreo cookie. A chef salad is less of a sandwich than a slice of pizza—but more than bouillabaisse. And all of these are more of a sandwich than is the square root of two.
One final point about sandwiches: the category isn’t exclusive. We don’t have to decide if an ice cream sandwich is a sandwich, a dessert, or a snack: obviously it’s all three.
Food categories are like that: each a non-exclusive, multi-dimensional continuum. And so, I submit, are literary categories—science fiction included. Take, for example, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books. Are they science fiction, fantasy, or romance? Well, they’re more SF than Lord of the Rings but less SF than Ringworld; more fantasy than Brave New World but less than Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series; more romance than Tom Clancy but less than Danielle Steel.
With all this in mind, I’d like to call to your attention a specific type of science fiction that I’m going to call “Is It SF?” These are stories that live in the continuum between SF and contemporary fiction. Science and technology are an indispensable part of these tales . . . but there’s little if any extrapolation. The science and technology is current, off-the-shelf stuff.
Let’s try some examples. The most obvious are stories involving space travel. Think of the movies Apollo 13 and Hidden Figures. Call them historical fiction, workplace dramas, or even (ugh) “docu-dramas”—they’re also somewhere on the SF continuum. Or at least adjacent to it.
At least these two were based on historical events. More problematic are tales that are clearly imaginary, yet anchored in current-day technology. The prime recent examples are the film Gravity and Andy Weir’s The Martian. Yes, both exercised dramatic license regarding rigorous science (nothing new to SF)—but neither required nor invoked any new discoveries or techniques. Either or both could happen next week. Yet both have some degree of SF-ness.
Once you start looking for “Is It SF?” stories, it’s not hard to find examples. One notable early candidate is Martin Caidin’s Marooned (first published 1964, revised and reissued in 1969 in conjunction with the movie). This story of the rescue of astronauts stranded in orbit (one Mercury astronaut in the 1964 version, a three-person Apollo crew in 1969) was marketed as a contemporary thriller but certainly appealed to SF readers as well. (Caidin himself, who died in 1997, authored many undeniable SF books.)
There is an “Is It SF?” book that’s both earlier and better known: Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne (published in 1873). This one dates from before science fiction was even a distinct literary category; it’s contemporary with Verne’s undisputed SF tales such as Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Science and technology (both aviation and chronometry) are integral to the plot; the story’s resolution depends on the fact that one gains a day when circumnavigating the globe eastward. (Sorry for the awkward phrasing; in 1873 the International Date Line didn’t yet exist—but the concept was well known.)
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Crown, 320 pages, $27.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $13.99 (e-book)
Genre: SF Thriller, To the Moon
Of course, all this talk of “Is It SF?” books leads to thoughts of Andy Weir. His first book, The Martian (originally published in 2011, republished in 2014, movie released in 2015), clearly fits anyone’s definition of science fiction, yet involves science and technology that’s purely contemporary, off-the-shelf stuff. Indeed, part of the story’s popularity among non-SF readers and viewers is its plausibility. The Martian hit a sweet spot: enough SF to satisfy our crowd, but not so much SF as to frighten off the mainstream.
Weir’s second novel, Artemis, goes further in the science fiction direction. It’ll be interesting to see if the general public follows him.
From a mainstream perspective, the crucial difference between the books hinges on the scope of the weirdness (SF folks would call this quality “otherness”). The Martian dealt primarily with one familiar character in a weird setting. In Artemis a whole population lives in the pervasive weirdness of a late-21st-century Lunar colony city. Here we’re not just living in a strange environment; we’ve got an entire strange culture to deal with.
Regardless of how the general public receives Artemis, I think it’s fair to say that Analog readers will find much to like here.
Jasmine (Jazz) Bashara is a young woman with hopes and plans. A resident of the Lunar city Artemis, she works as a porter—a job that barely brings in enough to pay rent on her coffin-sized sleeping capsule. One of two thousand similar workers, she struggles to get accepted by one of the all-powerful Guilds, which will give her a chance to earn a better living and even pay off her debts. In the meantime, she subsists on gunk (flavored algae) and dreadful reconstituted beer. To bring in extra money, Jazz isn’t above the occasional smuggling job.
In fact, Jazz fancies herself something of a master criminal. She’s smart enough, devious enough, even (she thinks) ruthless enough. All she needs is the right job.
Then the right job comes along—a chance to commit the perfect crime and reap mammoth rewards. But the perfect crime turns out to be the perfect trap, and Jazz finds herself pursued by nasty criminals and noxious law enforcement. And Jazz, criminal mastermind, is suddenly out of her depth in a conspiracy that threatens the future of Artemis itself.
Jazz is a bright, wisecracking, irreverent rogue. The story’s told in her irascible, just-snarky-enough voice; she brings the city of Artemis, with all its technical trappings, alive and makes the heist plot sparkle. It’s impossible not to identify with Jazz and wish her well.
No matter what the ultimate verdict of the general population, Artemis is a true SF novel readers will enjoy.
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Knopf, 447 pages, $17.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $10.99 (e-book)
Genre: Teen SF
While we’re hanging around in Earth orbit. . . .
Nick Lake is a British writer most known for powerful teen fiction, mostly of the dark fantasy/thriller variety. His books include In Darkness, Hostage Three, There Will Be Lies, Whisper to Me, and the Blood Ninja trilogy. Satellite is his first science fiction book.
In a near future plagued by overpopulation and shortages of food and water, three teens born and raised in space are about to take their first trip to Earth.
Leo, along with his friends Orion and Libra, were born 15 years ago aboard Moon 2, a station in low Earth orbit. The kids have spent their whole lives on the station, raised by teams of astronauts on monthslong missions to the station. The teams rotate, so the kids see the same faces again and again—Leo’s mother, for example, visits for a month at least once a year.
Now, on the brink of turning 16, Leo and his friends are deemed strong enough to risk a journey to Earth, to touch bare soil and breathe unfiltered air for the first time in their lives. For years they’ve been preparing for this mission—training, running endless drills, familiarizing themselves with all the equipment of the shuttle that will take them to a home they know only as a panorama glimpsed from the station’s cupola.
As it turns out, living on Earth presents a lot of challenges for Leo, Orion, and Libra. First, the flight home is much more dangerous than anticipated. Then there’s the gravity, and the air, and the germs and viruses that keep the kids in sterile quarantine. And all the billions of people crowding the place.
Of course, life on Earth has its good points, too. Like the farm where Leo stays under the care of his grandfather. Like the dog that becomes his beloved companion.
And then there are the men in black suits, the ones trying to control Leo and his friends for purposes of their own. . . .
Leo narrates the story with a quirky, singular voice that manages to combine the tones of a regular, typical teenager with a slightly cynical, otherworldly visitor. Fair warning: the text is rendered in a sort of “text-speak” that takes a while to get accustomed to. Sentences aren’t capitalized, and many words are abbreviated (c instead of see, u for you, & for and, etc.) While I had no trouble getting into the swing of the style, it’s something that could easily drive one absolutely spare.
As a coming of age story and an adventure tale, this is a great book for bright teens. Adult readers will probably be more captivated by the exquisite worldbuilding.
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The Braintrust: A Harmony of Enemies
LMBPM Publishing, 370 pages, $9.99 (format)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $3.99 (e-book)
Genre: Near Future
Marc Stiegler’s been away from science fiction for far too long. It’s a distinct pleasure to welcome him back. An award-winning software developer, Stiegler was a driving force in the early advancement of hypertext. He was behind several important innovations in Internet security and computer-assisted decision-making.
Stiegler was active in science fiction during the 1980s, mostly in the pages of Analog. He was a Hugo nominee for his 1984 novella “Valentina” (written with Joseph H. Delaney, expanded into the novel Valentina: Soul in Sapphire). Longtime readers may recall his novelette “The Gentle Seduction” in the April 1989 issue: a tender story that deals with the adoption of new technology in the general public. (This novelette also appeared as the title story in Stiegler’s 1990 collection The Gentle Seduction.) His novel David’s Sling (1988) remains an insightful book on autonomous weapons and the shape of a rational society. Stiegler made two appearances in these pages in the 1990s: “Kath in Winter” (September 1995) and “Variations in Dreampaint” (October 1997). After that, for two decades, nothing.
In near future, the United States is split between three factions: the Reds, the Greens, and the Blues. Under the rule of the President-for-Life, the autocratic Red government began the Deportation—an effort to move immigrants out of the country—by striking at Silicon Valley’s tech firms and their non-citizen engineers. In reaction, the companies moved to the BrainTrust: an offshore archipelago made of interconnected, atomic-powered cruise ships. In the years since, the BrainTrust has lived in an uneasy peace with the mainland, while becoming an international center of technological development.
As the story opens, a young bio-engineer, Dr. Dyah Ambarawati (aka Dash) is on the brink of a startling discovery—nothing less than the first step toward a true fountain of youth.
News of this breakthrough soon spreads, and comes to the attention of the Chief Advisor to the President-for-Life. Now, the President is no spring chicken, and the Chief Advisor worries about how much longer “for Life” will be. So when he hears of Dash’s discovery, he’s determined to get the treatment for his boss. Which means getting Dr. Dash. By any means necessary.
Meanwhile, others have heard of Dash’s research. As it turns out, the American President-for-Life isn’t the only world leader who’s after Dash. The military and espionage machinery of various nations is turned toward the BrainTrust.
After all, it’s just a bunch of smart nerds on a few cruise ships. The Brain Trust has no army, no missiles, no fighter jets . . . they’re defenseless. Right?
Fun characters, an interesting and well-depicted background, an engaging story well told . . . and brilliant ideas virtually oozing from every page. If you’re familiar with Marc Stiegler’s work, you already know you want to visit the BrainTrust. And if you’re not familiar with him, take my word for it: this is what you read Analog for.
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The Unmoving Stars
CreateSpace, 332 pages, $12.99 (trade paperback)
Kindle: $2.99 (e-book)
Series: Great Human War 3
Genre: Military SF
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Chanda’s Awakening Part 1
Hydra, 151 pages, $14.99 (trade paperback)
Kindle: $3.99 (e-book)
Series: Chanda’s Awakening 1 (Splendor)
Genre: Alien Beings, Other Worlds
You know Dave Creek. He’s a fixture in Analog; his first story (“The Loophole”) appeared in the March 1994 issue, and his most recent (unless Trevor slips in something newer when I’m not looking) was “A Grand Gesture” in May/June 2017. Although most of his work is set in the same consistent universe, Creek is perhaps best known for his stories of interstellar explorer-cum-troubleshooter Mike Christopher, and associated tales of the wonderful planet Splendor. (If you want a superb overview of Creek’s future history, take a look at www.davecreek.com.)
Since retiring from his career as a television news producer, Creek’s been busy—and that’s our good fortune. Here are not one but two book-length stories from his universe. One is the conclusion of a loose three-book narrative, the other the start of a new series.
The first two books of the Great Human War series, A Crowd of Stars and The Fallen Sun (both 2015), dealt with Earth Alliance Captain Jon Hendrik, his struggle to defeat the Star Rebellion, and his peacekeeping mission on the planet Demeter. The Unmoving Stars tells of the interstellar odyssey of an Earth Alliance ship damaged and lost thousands of lightyears from home.
The Shen Kuo was struck by a sneak attack. Half the crew died in the attack, the ship was badly damaged, and they were thrown into uncharted and unfamiliar space. Now it’s up to Captain Kiernan Taylor to keep his remaining crew alive and get them home. A few obstacles stand in his way, though. For one, half the alien Arols, who built and maintain the stardrive, are dead . . . and the rest can’t understand how they got so far away. For another, whispered rumors hint at a possible mutiny brewing among the crew. And worst of all . . . at the ship’s top velocity, it’s going to take millennia to get back to Earth.
Like the other two books, The Unmoving Stars can easily be read as a standalone novel; don’t worry if you haven’t read the earlier titles. It’s easy to identify with Kiernan Taylor and the various members of his crew, both human and alien. Creek displays his usual mastery of unusual and believable aliens. In a fusion of classic SF with modern sensibilities, The Unmoving Stars is an adventure tale worthy of Poul Anderson, Gordon R. Dickson, or Mack Reynolds.
We’ve met Ambassador Chanda Kasmira in earlier stories (see Creek’s collection A Glimpse of Splendor). For years the tough, resourceful Chanda fought to save the two intelligent races of her adopted planet, Splendor, from the world’s upcoming destruction. When her latest effort fails, she decides to go into the suspended animation called the Long Sleep, to awaken decades later, when Splendor is safe.
In Chanda’s Awakening the Long Sleep is over, and Chanda finds that this brave new future is more perilous than the time she left, and her beloved Splendor faces new menaces. Chanda Kasmira is one of Creek’s most appealing protagonists, smart and inventive, and it’s a pleasure to accompany her on new adventures.
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Baen, 263 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
Genre: Adventure SF
The more successful a writer gets, the greater the pressure to repeat the success of previous books. Faced with the need to make a living, a successful writer often finds that their next few projects are firmly planned: another book in series A, followed by another in series B, and then a sequel to that surprise bestseller five books ago, and so on. When the editor says, “I want a follow-up to thus-and-so,” a wise writer takes the hint.
Occasionally, though, a writer has the chance to take on a project for the sheer love of it, without worrying about financial potential. Writers call these “books of the heart,” in contrast to books of the wallet.
Starliner, first published in 1992, was one of David Drake’s books of the heart. It shows; from beginning to end, the book is a whole lot of fun.
The Starliner of the title is The Empress of Earth, a behemoth of a passenger liner that carries thousands of crew and passengers from planet to planet in the 23rd century. We experience the ship’s journey through the eyes of Ran Coville, a young staff officer making his first voyage on the vessel.
As much travelogue as it is adventure story, Starliner is really a collection of episodes that take us all over the ship and to various planets it touches. Coville deals with recalcitrant passengers (both human and alien), balky equipment, and the complications of war breaking out between two of the ship’s ports of call. Along the way he witnesses the foibles of the captain and bridge crew, the appalling conditions endured by third-class immigrants, the dangers of seedy starports, and the hellish lives of the Cold Crewmen who work perched precariously on the outer hull during hyperspace transitions.
Next time you’re in the mood for a fun, light read, pick up Starliner.
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Crown, 384 pages, $11.21 (format)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $17.99 (hardcover)
Series: Nyxia 1
Genre: Teen SF
Here’s another teen SF book that adults can enjoy as well.
Scott Reintgen (pronounced “Rankin”) teaches English and creative writing in “diverse urban communities in North Carolina.” Nyxia, his first novel, is aimed at an audience he calls “the front-row sleepers and back-row dreamers of his classrooms.”
Emmet Atwater doesn’t consider himself a hero, and neither does anyone else. The only thing he’s passionate about is playing games. So he considers it strange when he’s approached by Babel Communications and recruited to a secret project—but they offer him enough money that he won’t have any worries. When his stint with Babel is over, he’ll have enough to take care of himself and his family for the rest of his life.
Emmet, along with nine other recruits, boards a Babel lightship bound for the distant planet Eden. Along the way, each of these kids—all with troubled, disadvantaged backgrounds—will have to earn the right to land on Eden and move on to the next step.
That next step involves descending into treacherous tunnels beneath Eden’s surface, in search of a mysterious substance called nyxia. Able to take on many forms and respond to thought itself, nyxia is the rarest and most valuable material known. Huge deposits of nyxia are somewhere in the tunnels . . . and the recruit who survives to find them will win inconceivable fortune and power.
But as Emmet learns more about Babel, he begins to suspect that the price of victory is nothing less than his very humanity. And he has to decide if the reward is worth it. . . .
Emmet, an appealing young black student, narrates the story with a compelling voice. As the stakes grow steadily higher, Emmet rises to the challenge, using his wits and his personality to overcome obstacles. Comparisons to The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner are inevitable; Nyxia can well hold its head up in such company.
Nyxia is the first of a projected trilogy; it’ll be interesting to see where the story goes next.
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The Progress of Mankind
CV-2, 198 pages, $9.99 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $4.99 (e-book)
Series: Stone Chalmers 1
Genre: Adventure SF
An overpopulated and environmentally stressed Earth made it through the 21st century Time of Troubles only through the heroic efforts of the United Nations. In the 22nd century, thousands of UN operatives struggle to keep the planet’s six billion survivors alive and well. One of the agency’s primary methods is identifying malcontents and undesirables and shipping them through artificial wormholes to distant colony planets. Sociopaths, saboteurs, dissidents, defeated rebel armies . . . once they’re gone, the miscreants aren’t Earth’s problem anymore.
The hapless colonists living on these planets are another matter. . . .
Stone Chalmers is a UN operative. Genetically enhanced and bearing technological implants, Chalmers serves at the top levels of UNICA, the United Nations Interagency Coordination Authority—the bureaucrats who, as the power behind the throne, really rule Earth.
Chalmers is dispatched to New Moravia, a newly rediscovered colony world, to investigate the disappearance of another operative. His investigation reveals a rebel cabal intent on eliminating all of UNICA’s leaders, as well as tens of thousands of innocent colonists. The rebels look like they have the means to succeed, and Chalmers is the only one able to stop their plot.
Then it develops that the rebels are being aided by forces within UNICA itself, and Chalmers doesn’t know whom he can trust.
Raymond Eich is the author of numerous SF and fantasy books, most notably the Confederated Worlds military SF series and bio-thriller The Blank Slate.
With that, I’m out of space. See you next time.
Don Sakers is the author of Meat and Machine, Elevenses, the Rule of Five serial at http://donsakers.com/ruleof5/, and A Cosmos of Many Mansions, a collection based on previous columns. For more information, visit www.scatteredworlds.com.
Copyright © 2018 Don Sakers