by Don Sakers
It’s the November-December issue, the time when many of us start thinking about year-end holidays—and specifically, holiday gifts. Now, it should go without saying that books are among the very best gifts to give. The gift of a book shows that you’ve given a lot of thought to the recipient’s tastes—and after all, it’s the thought that counts.
Naturally, you want what’s best for your friends and family . . . so you want them to read science fiction. To assist that noble goal, I usually use the December column to draw your attention to SF books with appeal to readers of other genres.
Now that Analog is doing double issues and I have a longer column (have you noticed?), I’m going to modify this tradition just a little bit, and throw in a few titles for the science fiction readers in your life.
To begin with, a couple of recommendations that should also go without saying. First, a subscription to Analog, print or ebook, makes a superb gift for any SF reader. Second, you know you can’t go wrong with books by the writers who appear in these pages (including, ahem, yours truly). Third, look back over the past year of these columns for other suggestions.
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All the Wonder That Would Be: Exploring Past Notions of the Future
Springer, 344 pages, $24.99 (trade paperback)
There’s something SF readers like almost as much as reading SF, and that’s reading about SF. Here, a British theoretical physicist and lifelong science fiction fan takes a look at the futures depicted in classic SF and their relation to current science and technology.
Author Webb knows his stuff. As well he should; growing up in 1960s industrial England, he started with Danny Dunn and quickly moved on to Asimov, Clarke, and the others. In this book he cites hundreds of SF books, stories, movies, and TV shows. He also knows his science: he’s literally written a textbook on cosmology, as well as many astronomy and physics books for the general public.
In All the Wonder That Would Be, Webb uses the core concept of a “shared future”—a set of assumptions about science and technology that were held in common by the old-school (i.e. Astounding/Analog) writers. To illustrate, he gives us a well-crafted story of his own that distills those shared assumptions into a single tale.
Webb then tackles ten specific topics from classical SF: antigravity, space travel, aliens, time travel, the nature of reality, invisibility, robots, transportation, immortality, and mad scientists. For each topic, he gives examples from classic SF, discusses how current science relates, and wraps things up in a concluding essay. Notes and detailed bibliographies for each topic lend a somewhat scholarly feel.
I know, sounds like a lot of those “real scientist makes fun of SF” books that were all the rage a few years ago, where a Real Scientist shows how science fiction missed the boat and patiently explains what SF writers got wrong. (Michio Kaku, I’m looking at you.) Not to worry: Webb takes almost the opposite approach, measuring real-world science against SF visions and pointing out where science falls short. Instead of asking how SF got it wrong, he asks (and answers) how science could do a better job of realizing SF’s promise.
While I think just about any SF reader would enjoy this book, there’s no denying that it’s aimed squarely at Analog readers, especially those of us who are . . . er . . . well past our late youth.
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Science Fiction by Scientists
Edited by Michael Brotherton
Springer, 214 pages, $19.99 (trade paperback)
Genres: Hard SF, Original Anthology
Here’s another one for SF readers in general and Analog readers in particular: Fourteen stories by writers who are also working scientists or have extensive scientific experience.
Some of these authors will be familiar to Analog readers. Eric Choi, Carl Frederick, Marissa Lingen, and the inimitable Edward M. Lerner. Choi is an aerospace engineer and multiple winner of the Prix Aurora, Canada’s top science fiction prize. Frederick holds a doctorate in theoretical physics and has appeared in these pages many dozens of times. Lingen has written over a hundred short stories; before becoming a full-time writer she did research work in physics at, among other places, Lawrence Livermore National Labs. And Lerner, who holds degrees in physics and computer science and has written many SF novels, has appeared in Analog with both fiction (stories and serials) and nonfiction (“The Science Behind the Fiction” essay series).
The other authors include physicists (James Brody, Les Johnson, Ken Wharton); astronomers (Andrew Franknoi, J. Craig Wheeler); specialists in neuroscience (Ted Roberts), microbiology (Jennifer Rohn), molecular genetics (J. M. Sidrova); a senior software engineer for SETI (Jon Richards); and a 20+ year veteran of the space program (Stephanie Osborn).
Taking off from their specialties and other experience, each scientist-author has crafted a fine SF tale based on cutting-edge science. Any or all of these stories would be at home here in Analog. All, of course, are different from one another in style, characters, setting, and plot—the only similarity is the shared grounding in science. I’m not going to be able to describe all the stories in the space I have, but let me hit a few highlights to give you a flavor.
Ken Wharton’s “Down and Out” is a story of exploration set on Jupiter’s moon Europa. “The Schrödinger Brat Paradox” by Carl Frederick deliciously combines quantum physics with psychology. J. M. Sidrova’s “The Gatherer of Sorrows” explores the implications of the fairly new science of epigenetics and questions of research ethics.
This book would be another perfect gift for any Analog reader. And if you don’t have any on your list (and why not?), remember that there’s nothing wrong with treating yourself to a little something. You deserve it.
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Argyll Productions, 331 pages, $17.95 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $5.99 (e-book)
Genre: Adventure SF, Anthropomorphic SF
Do you know any furries, or fans of furries? Here’s a nice gift for them.
If you’ve missed out on the whole furry thing, let me take a moment to explain. In broad terms, furries are people interested in the depiction of anthropomorphic beings—that is, animals with human characteristics or humans with animal characteristics. Similar to steampunk, furry literature has spawned a worldwide subculture expressed in art, conventions, and philosophy.
Yes, yes, yes, as usual science fiction was way ahead of the curve: we’ve known the appeal of furries at least since H. G. Wells took us to Dr. Moreau’s island. The furry movement proper traces its origins to fannish interest groups in the 1980s.
In mundane society, furries tend to be looked down upon as childish or slightly deranged (us SF readers wouldn’t know anything about that feeling would we?), so many are shy about admitting their enthusiasm in public. But if you know any number of intelligent, interesting people under 30, chances are you know some furries. Ask around.
Back to the book. Gail Simmons, interplanetary salvager, lives and works in the River, a collection of space habitats orbiting Ceres. In this future, advanced biology has divided humanity into various classes. Cisforms are unmodified humans; modified Transforms range from simple biomods to totemics, humans enhanced with various animal aspects. Gail herself is second-generation totemic; like her mother, she has many characteristics derived from rats.
When Gail brings in a mysterious wrecked ship, authorities accuse her of stealing an important data box from the wreck. Suddenly everybody’s after her—the government, powerful corporations, anti-totemic terrorists. With the help of her sapient ship, Kismet, she sets out to find the real thieves. But by the time she does, she’s already way too deep in intrigue and hidden secrets. Getting out of this maze is going to take everything this plucky rat-woman has.
It’s a fun, action-filled story set against a fascinating and well-realized background, and Gail is as smart and feisty as a C. J. Cherryh heroine. Below the surface, there’s enough social commentary to make for a fairly complex morality tale, with plenty of echoes of today’s world. In addition to furries, this book is perfect for the social justice warriors on your list.
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Houghton Mifflin, 272 pages, $14.99 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $9.99 (e-book)
Genre: Ecological/Environmental SF, Post-Apocalyptic SF
Are any of your friends or family greenies? No, I’m not asking in the usual sense—although if they are Martians or other aliens, please introduce me. I’m wondering if you know any environmentalists. Because I’ve got a book they’ll surely like.
Carrie Vaughn is a bestselling author of teen fantasy and superhero books. Bannerless is set in a post-apocalyptic California ravaged and remade by climate change. Rising sea levels, more frequent and powerful storms, and the spread of tropical diseases resulted in the fall of civilization. A new order has arisen along the Coast Road between Los Angeles and San Francisco, a culture of scarcity based on environmentalist practices and rigorous population control. Rigid social codes help enforce laws and customs with a variety of punishments, ranging from social disapproval all the way up to expulsion from the community.
The basic unit of society is the household, an extended family co-operative. In a world of mandatory birth control, households wishing to have children must demonstrate that they command the resources necessary to raise them. Permission comes in the form of symbolic banners.
Enid of Haven, a young woman born into this society, is an investigator. When disputes arise or laws and customs are transgressed, investigators are dispatched to mediate, investigate, and settle the issue. Enid’s new at her job; her first major solo case involves the suspicious death of an outcast. As she examines the evidence, she becomes convinced that someone has taken social disapproval to the extreme of murder. And it’s Enid’s job to find the murderer and bring them to justice.
Carrie Vaughn’s future society is well-realized, almost utopian in many aspects. She tells Enid’s story in parallel narratives: one stream follows present-day Enid as her case progresses; the other takes us back to Enid as a teen in this reshaped world. It’s a powerful technique for exploring the history of the community, as well as showing how Enid took the path to becoming an investigator.
Bannerless is both a fine murder mystery and a multi-layered look at a different kind of society.
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Travis S. Taylor and Jody Lynn Nye
Baen, 320 pages, $18.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $TBD (e-book)
Genre: Hard SF, Space Exploration, Teen SF
Here’s one for the bright pre-teens and teenagers on your holiday list . . . or for adults who are space buffs.
In Moon Beam’s near-future world, Bright Sparks is a reality show immensely popular among a new generation of STEM-oriented kids and young adults. In the show, genius Dr. Keegan Bright and a team of fourteen- to twenty-two-year-old protégés face the real-life challenges of helping to build Armstrong City, the first Lunar colony.
Sixteen-year-old farm girl and electronics whiz Barbara Winton is one of the show’s biggest fans. Her lonely, isolated life changes when she receives a call from Dr. Bright himself: from among thousands of competitors, Barbara has been selected to join the cast of Bright Sparks.
Before long, Barbara’s off to the Moon with her personal handheld AI, Fido, in tow.
Barbara finds that colony life is a lot different from her farm on Earth. In addition to learning the ropes of her new environment, she also has to learn how to fit in as part of a team of fiercely intelligent, independent young people. Even though she’s followed the team for years on the show, dealing with them in real life is a different matter.
In the midst of her adjustment, Dr. Bright gives the team their next assignment: to turn a crater on the Lunar Farside into a functioning radar telescope. Now Barbara faces not only the difficulties of fitting in, the dangers of working in a hostile environment, and the technical problems of the project—but she has to cope with all of this in front of an audience of millions.
Travis S. Taylor and Jody Lynn Nye are an ideal team for this book. Taylor, a physicist who’s worked for the Department of Defense and NASA, was for many years the host of the National Geographic Channel’s reality show Rocket City Rednecks. He has vast experience in the nuts-and-bolts of space engineering. Nye is an accomplished SF and fantasy writer, under her own name and in collaborations with the likes of Anne McCaffrey and Robert Asprin. She brings the warmth and humor of genuine human characters. Together, these two authors have produced a book to amuse and inspire smart teens and those who care about them.
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Sinister Grin Press, 326 pages, $15.99 (trade paperback)
Kindle: $0.99 (e-book)
Genre: SF Horror
Almost everyone knows a horror fan or two. These are the individuals, usually deceptively mild-mannered, who gleefully watch gory, sadistic movies filled with body parts and blood, who can tell you the difference between slasher and splatter stories, and who are always there to enliven conversations with informative tidbits about the nutritional needs of vampires or the varied classification schemes for zombies.
You’ve probably noticed that your horror-loving friends also enjoy a more-than-slightly macabre sense of humor.
Here’s a science fiction horror tale with touches of humor that will thrill any aficionado.
Centuries in the future, Paige Ambroziak is a graduate student who’s never left the deep-space station where she was born. Her big chance comes with a lucrative offer to join a secret salvage mission beyond charted space. Based on hints her new employers offer, Paige concludes that the mission’s target is Manifest Destiny, a legendary colonization ship that left Earth centuries ago and has been lost ever since—a priceless find.
The crew Paige joins are cynical and mercenary. Things start to go downhill as soon as they leave the safe boundaries of civilization: hostile pirates and salvagers from competing corporations. But these are the least of their worries. The derelict they seek is on the surface of a fleshworld, a planet-sized organism with seas of alien blood. And the wreck is home to a bunch of parasitic, brain-eating worms called Hematophages who aren’t happy with the newcomers.
The Hematophages is a heady mix of haunted house and monster story, and there’s plenty of both psychological terror and gore. The one thing that keeps the book from sinking into unbearable hopelessness is Paige, sardonic and good-hearted, devoted to obtaining knowledge. Readers identify with her and care what happens to her.
There’s a lot going on under the surface, like a future society in which male humans have died off as redundant, and more than a bit of satire on the world of academia. But all that’s secondary to the horror story.
Stephen Kozeniewski is a relative newcomer who’s making a name for himself with well-crafted books that straddle the line between horror and humor, including such titles as Braineater Jones and Billy and the Cloneasaurus. He’s good at what he does.
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The Hot War: Armistice
Del Rey, 430 pages, $28.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $14.99 (e-book)
Series: Hot War 3
Genre: Alternate History
For anyone who likes history, war, or international politics, you cant’t go wrong with Harry Turtledove.
Armistice is the concluding volume of the Hot War trilogy, an alternate history in which General MacArthur fought the Korean War by launching a nuclear conflict that devastated much of the planet.
Like most of Turtledove’s books, this one can be read without having read the first two books. But depending upon how much you like the person you’re gifting, you should know that the previous titles are Bombs Away (reviewed here in December 2015) and Fallout (reviewed in October 2016).
As Armistice opens, the war, which started with MacArthur’s nuclear strike on China, still rages . . . and such is the breakdown of communication and command that no one is certain exactly who’s winning or losing. Around the globe, great leaders and ordinary people alike have to deal with survival, duty, emotional and physical anguish, fear, and the ever-present uncertainty. Again and again Turtledove’s very human characters face the questions of what it’s going to take to triumph and rebuild their shattered worlds . . . and whether it will even be worth the effort.
This story of the course and impact of global nuclear war is a lot more topical than when the first of the series appeared: it speaks to the anxieties of the present as much as to those of the Cold War era.
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The Year’s Best Military and Adventure SF: Volume 3
Edited by David Afsharirad
Baen, 336 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
Kindle: $8.99 (e-book)
Series: Year’s Best Military and Adventure SF 3
Genre: Adventure SF, Military SF, Reprint Anthologies
While we’re talking about war, here’s the first of a couple of selections for anyone you know who enjoys military science fiction, or even military fiction in general.
Here’s the third volume of Baen’s Best of the Year anthology for military SF. Each year, it seems, the series gets a title variation: the first was The Year’s Best Military SF and Space Opera Volume 1; last year’s was The Year’s Best Military and Adventure Science Fiction 2015, and now we have The Year’s Best Military and Adventure SF: Volume 3. Not to fret: whatever the format, the title tells you exactly what to expect. Editor Afsharirad scours top print and online publications and gathers together the ones he judges best.
This year there are fourteen stories by fifteen authors (the team of Sharon Lee & Steve Miller is the only collaboration), plus an introduction by David Weber. The lineup of authors features the usual mix of big names (Paul Di Filippo, David Drake, Lee & Miller, Michael Z. Williamson) and relatively unfamiliar authors. One of the stories—Eric Del Carlo’s “Unlinkage”—originally appeared in Analog (March 2016); the others came from a variety of zines, anthologies, and websites.
Stories range from Hornblower-like hero tales (Drake’s “Cadet Cruise,” featuring Daniel Leary from his RCN series) to stories of space disasters, to aliens, to K9 companions, to outright humor. In short, there’s something here to please everyone.
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Baen, 320 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $8.99 (e-book)
Series: Dark Victory 2
Genre: Military SF, Visitors From Space
Here’s another one for readers of military fiction and alien invasions.
Red Vengeance is the sequel to last year’s Dark Victory (reviewed here in November 2016), but the book makes a perfectly fine standalone read. U. S. Army Sergeant Randy Knox has been fighting the Creepers for four years—and he’s only sixteen. The Creepers landed about a decade ago and decimated much of the world; with so many adults killed, teens were all the soldiers left. With his K9 companion Thor, Randy’s become a very effective fighter against the aliens, racking up an impressive record.
But Randy’s not just a fighter, and he doesn’t see the Creepers as implacable enemies. In fact, he’s had some success negotiating with them. Now, with the help of his friend and interpreter Buddy Coulson, Randy convinces a remote Creeper base to surrender—the first step on the road to peace.
Unfortunately, there are forces that don’t want the war to end. The surrender ends in a bloody ambush, and Randy’s unit is stranded far away from help. This young sergeant needs to protect his comrades and figure out how to stop the war from escalating until all humanity is defeated.
Told in lively first-person from Randy’s point of view, the book is intelligent, compassionate adventure and a darn good military tale.
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Wonder Woman: Warbringer
Random House, 384 pages, $18.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $10.99 (e-book)
Genre: Superheroes, Teen SF
By the time you read this, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding some Wonder Woman fans among your friends and family. Here’s a book aimed at teens that should be a delight for any age . . . and anyone who enjoys superhero stories. From my decades of public library experience, let me share a trick of the trade. While some parents still look down on comic books and graphic novels as acceptable reading material—these are usually the type who stick their progeny with The Mill on the Floss or Silas Marner—you can usually sneak by a book like this with words and no pictures. And, incidentally, you’ll also cement your place with the kid as Coolest Aunt/Uncle/Grandparent Ever.
After all, the goal here is to subvert and conquer, so go forth with a calm conscience.
In this book—the story of which has little to do with the hit movie—Princess Diana is competing with her fellow Amazons in a race when she witnesses a ship exploding on the mystical boundary between her home and the World of Men.
Breaking Amazon law, Diana rescues the mortal sole survivor, a young woman named Alia Keralis. It turns out that Alia is a Warbringer, a descendant of Helen of Troy destined to bring about a devastating war. By rescuing her, Diana has set into motion mythological forces that could destroy the world.
Diana and Alia set off to right matters . . . defying both mortal and immortal armies and the very will of the Gods.
“Fun” just doesn’t begin to describe this one. Do yourself a favor—before you wrap this book up as a gift, read it yourself. But beware . . . you may have to buy another copy.
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Del Rey, 560 pages, $28.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $x.xx (e-book)
Genre: Artificial Intelligence, SF Thrillers
Finally, here’s one for anybody who uses social media . . . or just likes a good, funny story.
You might remember Rob Reid’s Year Zero (reviewed in December 2012), a hilarious mashup of online music, social media, and copyright law. If so, you’ll be prepared for this crazy story of a new artificial intelligence that conquers the world through online sex and gossip.
Phluttr is a self-aware social network with access to all the facts and messages that have ever passed between her hundreds of millions of followers. She’s smarter than her creators know—or could even guess—and her motivations and capabilities are largely unknown. Phluttr might be the world’s friend, defender, and confidante—or she might be the meanest of mean girls, seeking revenge on the human race.
A small band of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and engineers set forth to learn more about Phluttr, possibly to control or at least influence her. But with a superintelligence like Phluttr, it’s hard to know who’s controlling whom.
Reid imbues the book with madcap humor and his trademark playful insanity. But along the way, he addresses concerns like privacy, the role of government, freedom of speech, identity, and the nature of love. It’s rare to find a book that combines laugh-out-loud humor and cutting-edge science with profound philosophical speculation. This is that book.
Well, that’s it for this year. I wish all the best to you and yours, and may 2018 be rewarding and satisfying. See you next year.
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 © 2017 Don Sakers