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Guest Reference Library

by Sean CW Korsgaard 

This isn’t quite how I pictured my first byline in Analog, though in a way, it’s entirely fitting.

I’ve been an avid reader of the magazine for just over a decade, and for that entire time, Don Sakers’ recommendations in his Reference Library columns have capped off every issue. I’ve long since lost count of just how many books Don wrote about in this magazine eventually earned spots on my bookshelves over the years.

That decade has seen these pages filled with stories from hundreds of authors, both new and returning, Stanley Schmidt passing the editorial baton to Trevor Quachri, and even a change in issue size and release schedule. Throughout it all, Don’s latest book recommendations were waiting at the end of every issue. With Don’s recent passing in May, it’s humbling to now offer my own suggestions in his place in this guest column.

Here you’ll find four books that stretch the breadth of the science fiction genre. Tales of adventure, terror, and intrigue. Stories from debut novelists, and new works from old favorites. Celebrations of the earliest days of the genre, and reflections upon the world today, and visions of how it could be. Books that stuck with me long after the final page.

I hope a few of these might find as welcome a place on your bookshelves as they did on my own.

*   *   *

Dead Silence
S.A. Barnes
Tor Nightfire, 352 pages, $26.99 (hardcover)
Kindle, Nook, iBooks: $13.99
ISBN: 9781250819994
Genre: SF Horror, Psychological/Sociological SF, Space Travel

*   *   *

Walking the line between science fiction and horror is a difficult balancing act, where too much of one can easily overpower the other. Dead Silence manages to hit that sweet spot and results in a must-read for any SF-horror fans, guaranteed to keep your nerves on edge until the final page.

The novel kicks off with a few familiar notes—a hardscrabble comms array repair crew led by Claire Kovalik, taking one last gig before their corporate bosses back on Earth replace them with robots. Receiving a distress signal from the edge of the Solar System, and with job termination waiting for them, they respond to discover they’ve been pinged by the Aurora, a long-lost starliner with the reputation of an interstellar Titanic.

Faced with the possibility of enough wealth for several lifetimes from the salvage rights, Claire and her crew are quick to board and stake a claim. What they find are scenes of horrific violence, sudden madness, and disturbing clues that only deepen the mystery of what doomed the Aurora. Worse, whatever madness claimed the Aurora now stalks them as well—the crew finds themselves stranded and begin to suffer outbursts, hallucinations, memory loss, and even visons of the dead. Worse still, after one episode too many, Claire finds herself being pulled from an escape pod, unsure how she got there.

Now the sole survivor and detained by her corporate employers for the suspected murder of her crew, Claire must return to Aurora not only to clear her name but to solve the mystery of what doomed the ship and her crew . . . because after years adrift, the ship is heading toward Earth.

While Dead Silence hits some beats that have long been staples of SF-horror for years—not only in movies like Alien or Event Horizon, but in recent novels like The Last Astronaut—one of the things it does best is know just when to zig instead of zag. The novel takes a simple premise—a haunted house mystery set aboard a decaying luxury starship—and executes it in interesting ways and to interesting destinations.

The attention given to the Aurora as a setting is commendable, an opulent floating tomb, and the book strikes a good balance of hitting different kinds of horror without overstaying any, be it gore, claustrophobia, or body horror. From the moment the crew sets foot on the ship, the slow-burning dread keeps building through the climax.

My favorite aspect might be protagonist Claire, a bundle of nerves encompassing social anxiety to survivor’s guilt, even before events on the Aurora reopen old traumas. She is an unreliable narrator who doubts her own sanity, much less her story, and has plenty of her own ghosts even before the Aurora conjures new ones. Barnes (who has written a dozen YA novels as Stacey Kade) deserves high marks for the accuracy of how she portrays a traumatized protagonist both suffering and working through PTSD—and I say that as a military veteran diagnosed with it.

The result is a story as much about survivor’s guilt as it is survival, and about overcoming trauma as it is facing horrors lurking in the dark. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

*   *   *

Sword & Planet
Edited by Christopher Ruocchio
Baen, 384 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
Kindle, Nook, iBooks: $8.99
ISBN: 1982125780
Genre: Sword and Planet, Space Opera, Science Fantasy, Theme Anthologies

*   *   *

In the early days of speculative fiction, when the line between SF and fantasy was much more fluid, there was a golden age of what would become known as the sword and planet subgenre. Featuring as much derring-do heroics as they did ray guns and aliens, these stories filled the pages of Amazing Stories, built the careers of authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett, and cast a long shadow ranging from Dune to Star Wars.

Edited by Christopher Ruocchio, Baen’s latest anthology features thirteen original short stories that manage to go in wildly different directions, ranging from fantastic adventure to hardboiled action, and in tone from black as pitch to comedic. What they share are tales of heroes facing down foes—be they alien, robotic, or something else entirely—with a blade in their hands and courage in their hearts.

There are some familiar names among the contributors, Jody Lynn Nye, Tim Akers, T.C. McCarthy, and Susan R. Matthews among them, and Warhammer 40K scribe Peter Fehervari even contributes his first original work, “Bleeding from Cold Sleep.” Despite this, two of my personal highlights from the anthology come from two contributors whose work I’m reading for the first time. In L.J. Hachmeister’s “A Broken Sword Held High,” Luddite colonists from Earth face dragons and invaders beneath an alien sky, as a young girl chafes against their pacifism. Cybernetic knights do battle to save humanity from an invading alien hivemind in R.R. Virdi’s “A Knight Luminary.” If you’re like me, these stories will soon send you looking for what else they’ve written.

In addition to the entirely original works, a few of the authors have penned new stories in their existing universes. Simon R. Green revisits the fan favorite Deathstalker series with “Saving the Emperor,” a short story offering a look into how the Deathstalker clan first rose to power and glory. D.J. Butler follows up his recent sword-and-planet novel In the Palace Of Shadow And Joy with another tale of the mercenaries Indrajit and Kish, as they attempt to solve a murder mystery in “Power and Prestige.” Ruocchio himself contributes a story set in his Sun Eater saga with “Queen Amid Ashes,” with a newly knighted Hadrian Marlowe and his legionaries sent on a rescue mission to a war-torn world.

The wide mix of stories, and the surprising places they go make this anthology a particular joy from start to finish. Sword & Planet offers a glimpse into everything that has made stories like these a popular standby since the pulp era, with enough creativity, variety, and talent showcased to prove that there’s still plenty of life left in the century-old genre. I recommend it heartily—maybe you’ll come away with some new favorites too, and perhaps a new look at a genre that’s enchanted readers since John Carter first set foot on Barsoom.

*   *   *

Assassin’s Orbit
John Appel
Solaris Books, 448 pages, $11.99 (trade paperback)
Kindle, Nook, iBooks: $6.49
ISBN: 9781781089156
Genre: Space Opera, Military SF, SF Mystery, Political Thriller

*   *   *

The debut novel of author John Appel, Assassin’s Orbit, is equal parts mystery and action thriller that, despite taking place in the far future on another world, seems increasingly torn from the headlines.

The novel opens with a grisly murder scene whose victim turns out to have been an assassination of a Commonwealth diplomat, putting the planet Ileri in the crosshairs. So begins a murder mystery and connected political conspiracy that soon pulls in multiple protagonists, planets, and political factions, and whose eventual outcome could alter the balance of power that’s existed since humanity fled Earth.

The three people investigating these events—police commissioner Toiwa, private detective Noo Okereke, and government agent Meiko Ogawa—eventually cross paths as they untangle the threads of murder and conspiracy that threaten to send everything crashing down. Gangs of protesters do battle in the streets and rival starships stare each other down in orbit, all while the results of a vote for Ileri to join the Commonwealth set everyone on edge.

The last thing this tinderbox needs is a spark . . . which means rumors that the nanotech plague that sent humanity fleeing Earth for the stars might have returned couldn’t come at a worse time.

One of the more striking facets of the novel is the unique approach to character and setting. The three viewpoint characters are all women of late middle age, still in the thick of the action, only ever out of their depth because of the scale of the problems. Ileri itself is a world at a crossroads, politically and socially, as the cultures from Earth that settled the world—which range from East African to Vietnamese—have begun blending into something new.

Appel proves a deft hand when it comes to the novel’s many action scenes, which are a particular highlight for both their intensity and variety, ranging from police struggling to control riots, a hand-to-hand fight incorporating different fighting styles and low gravity, to a massive battle between mech suits toward the climax.

Although all the lingering mysteries are nicely wrapped up by the final pages, the trio of characters we’ve been introduced to and the world they live in are intriguing enough to hope we’ve not seen the last of them.

If you haven’t had your fill of plague, protest, and politics after the past few years—not that I blame you by now—Assassin’s Orbit is a unique conspiracy action-thriller worth checking out. You won’t regret it.

*   *   *

Far From the Light of Heaven
Tade Thompson Orbit, 400 pages, $16.99 (trade paperback)
Kindle, Nook, iBooks: $9.99
ISBN: 9780759557895
Genre: SF Mystery, Space Travel, Artificial Intelligence

*   *   *

Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning author Tade Thompson delivers a new standalone novel that is both a significant departure from his recently completed Wormwood trilogy while also retaining the same style and strong characterization that has made him an author to watch.

Michelle “Shell” Campion is a copilot on her first interstellar flight aboard the Ragtime, on what was supposed to be a simple mission: deliver one thousand colonists to the planet Bloodroot, while the AI captain does the heavy lifting as everyone is in stasis. Instead, she wakes up to find her AI pilot has malfunctioned, the ship is barely functional, and that thirty-one of those passengers have been hacked into pieces.

Rasheed Fin is a detective on suspension, expecting a call from his boss informing him he’s being terminated. Instead, his boss calls with an assignment—to investigate what went wrong aboard the Ragtime. Succeed, and he’ll be reinstated—fail, and he’ll share the blame. He heads into orbit with his AI assistant Salvo, expecting an open-and-shut case of a rookie who cracked under pressure, only to find solving what happened to be a far bigger puzzle.

Things begin to rapidly go wrong aboard the Ragtime—key systems fail, the maintenance robots attack them, and there’s even a wolf prowling the corridors of the ship. They’ll have to work together to clear both of their names and to keep the ship functioning long enough to find out the truth behind these killings.

A sinister mystery is playing out aboard the ship, and big decisions will have to be made, putting countless lives in the balance, perhaps chief among them, their own.

A locked-room murder mystery that moves at a brisk pace, Far From the Light of Heaven makes for an interesting whodunnit with the added layer of a failing starship acting as a ticking clock. Taking its time to set things up, and cleverly subverting a few of the more standard solutions along the way—no Hal-style killer ship AI in this story, to name one—what’s left is a suspenseful mystery, helped along by an occasionally wicked sense of humor.

Of course, any good mystery is only as good as the dramatis personae, and Thompson has done a marvelous job fleshing out the characters in the story, each with a distinctive voice, motivations, and identity. This is especially true of Shell and Finn, whose wildly different perspectives and clashing personalities make for a wonderful dynamic. Both are experiencing a crisis of identity—for Shell, her inexperience at the helm, for Finn, his insecurities following his disastrous last job, and they’ll need to tackle both to get to the bottom of what’s going on.

For all the intrigue and mystery, the beating heart of the novel is its characters, and they’ll each find a way of sticking with you long after you’re done with the book.

Despite faltering just slightly toward the end, Far From the Light of Heaven brings more than enough to the table—a noir-esque mystery with a fascinating setup, and superb execution, and a cast of memorable, well-crafted characters—to make the journey worthwhile.

Sean CW Korsgaard is a U.S. Army veteran, award-winning freelance journalist, and an aspiring author of speculative fiction. His work has been a finalist for both the Baen Fantasy Adventure Award and Writers of the Future. He lives in Richmond, Virginia with his wife along with, depending on whether you ask him or her, either far too many or far too few books.

Copyright © 2021 Sean CW Korsgaard 

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GUEST REFERENCE LIBRARY   

by Shinjini Dey

 

Creature or Character

This column is a celebration. SFF has taken in the pulpy mass—bring on the novella, the novelette, the comic book and the B-film, usher in the utopias of erased traditions, garland the metatextual and radical beasts. Modern genre stories reveal the claws of capital and colonialism, bare their fangs, bring ancestors to the fight; the tricksters no longer stand apart from the clones, queerness is no longer allegorized as “alien.”

I’ve put together some recommendations; each book here contains familiar and unfamiliar monsters, beings of wonder and horror. These monsters represent the disruptive, subversive, and impossible—none of which we can do without. There’s the alienness of metal and the superhero born of cruel disasters. There are beasts of no nation, birthed by generations of violence. There’s the transformative immortality of clones in a post-singularity universe. There are anthropomorphized aliens and saints of invention, and even uncanny plants. . . .

*   *   *

The Ninth Metal
Benjamin Percy
Mariner Books, 304 pages
Genre: near-future SF, western,
 environmental change, military SF

*   *   *

Benjamin Percy’s The Ninth Metal is a novel written with a skilled scalpel, squarely slicing the generic layers of the first contact story to expose all its ragged nerves and assumptions.

With one incision, it reveals an old Western and the revival of the American dream; with another, it cuts to the heart of the dream and reveals that the heart of the coming-of-age story is actually a superhero narrative. And steadily, stitched through fast-paced action and ruthless dialogue, it demands that we realize how tangled the best of these dreams actually are.

The novel is set in the mining town of Northfall, Minnesota where a meteor shower reinvigorates a deserted hinterland into a booming market. Omnimetal is an alien deposit from a comet, but all the same, it revitalizes extractive industries like mining, housing, or the military. As such events go, the town does not resemble itself; contact with the metal produces a moment so decisive, everything changes and crystallizes into a new social order. Big corporate goons settle into diners, environmental activists cannot keep up with the devastation of the desert, and here and there are whispers of a new religion devoted to the metal. On the edge of town, the national military conducts cruel experiments, hoping to discover a superweapon. As one of the characters says, “Uncle Sam’s got deep pockets.” Percy narrates all these changes with penetrative insight and tenderness, each short chapter a ruinous but gilded frame.

But the pivot around which it all turns is the American frontier; the Frontier is both a corporation and a family name—the old Wild West of heterogenous ideologies coalescing into a familial unit. The Frontier family is rich, tightly knit, and dysfunctional, and they hold all the contracts for omnimetal business. Perspectives shift between the five family members—a ruthless businessman and his equally ruthless daughter, a prodigal son, an artistic brother, and an adopted Indigenous American son—taking readers into a rush through familiar socioeconomic terrain of inherited profit margins and wanton dispossession. The family, and not the individual, is the locus of this narrative, and the domestic drama—all its ruthlessness and sentimentality—keeps the pages turning. The Ninth Metal is the first book of a planned series, but it reads like a standalone novel.

The novel is framed by familiar violence, which does not turn sensational or titillating, although it delivers well-paced action. Instead, the causal links and moral dilemmas are fleshed out to the pointed ends of an uncertain justice. We may not agree with the means or the ends, but we have to admit that this near-future world is of our own making.

We only have to follow the trails Percy lays for us, now and through the rest of the soon-to-be-released trilogy.

*   *   *

Flowers for the Sea
Zin E. Rocklyn
Tor/Forge, 112 pages
Release: 19th October 2021
Genre: ecological fiction, motherhood, climate change fiction

*   *   *

For the world we know, wracked as it is by the slow violence of devastation, the end is merely a catalogue of losses and failures. Rocklyn’s debut novella, Flowers for the Sea, crystallizes this self-awareness into the sharpness of wrath to narrate a story about knowledge, isolation, and tumultuous births.

The narrator, Iraxi, a pregnant woman, is the last of her community to survive. She wakes and sleeps on a four-decked ark with a few hundred others from different populaces, all eking out a life floating on the floods of ecological devastation, disease, and scarcity. There is a pattern to all movement within the ark, and outside, there are monsters we cannot name. Within the ark, scientific marvels abound, like the Green Room that grows ­crops and desalination machines, food for mere survival. But all knowledge, all the epistemes begotten of civilization, are rotting, mere semblances; Iraxi’s doctor knows little more than Iraxi does about child-birthing. Within a hundred pages, the novella chronicles this birth, from its sore beginnings to its wide-eyed cries, all narrated by a furious and obliquely unreliable narrator.

“I eat in seclusion as to not anger the bellies of others,” she says. It is impossible to not be drawn to Iraxi, even though her every thought is tinged with scathing disdain, her actions desperate and blackened by pathos. Iraxi does not want to atone, she does not want to be a mother, she does not know how to die. Iraxi is like the many too-young adults in contemporary science fiction and fantasy: Rin from the R.F. Kuang’s Poppy Wars trilogy or Sankofa from Nnedi Okorafor’s Remote Control. She suffers through an Earth she did not create, but neither can she save it. She simply rages and lashes out. Her moods are righteous with the stink of a desire for freedom. Rocklyn’s voice, as in her earlier novella, Night Sun, captures the modulations between power and hunger brilliantly.

Despite its short length, the prose is gut-wrenching in every lilt, the style encompassing unpleasant moralities. It contains enough tragedy for memoir, but is content to tell the story of a single birth, producing the micro-historical telling of a dark phenomenon. Readers who enjoy stories about complicated mothers will find much to chew on in this powerful tale, as will readers of grimdark who derive their joy from watching the growth and blurring of genre to shine the light on emotion. Flowers for the Sea holds secrets that will require interpretation to behold, and will demand that readers return with hope and a cautious eye.

*   *   *

The All-Consuming World
Cassandra Khaw
Erewhon Books, 288 pages
Release: 7th September, 2021
Genre: space opera, cyberpunk, post-singularity fiction

*   *   *

This is where space opera goes to die, hurtling (with many reservations) beyond the post-singularity to the hope of new horizons. Cassandra Khaw’s new novel has numerous beasts—religious supercomputers, virtual mafia, the holographic representation of all out mass cultural phenomena cut and spliced to resemble a reliable face. There’s nothing sacred in this novel, except maybe the cyberpunk it wears like a heart on its sleeve.

The novel follows three perspectives: Pimento, a self-actualized computing “Mind,” who walks and talks like a low-level bureaucrat with ambitious dreams; the Dirty Dozen, a crew of badass con artists composed of cyborg clones, all manipulated by an abusive “evil scientist” called Rita; and finally, we have the deux ex machina, Elise, once a part of the infamous Dirty Dozen but now a dead girl and a glitch in the system. Despite this mind-boggling ensemble, the plot is relatively straightforward. The Dirty Dozen have come together for one last heist, their last stab at revenge, redemption, and maybe, total transformation. Khaw returns to her usual poetic and dense prose, delivering ambitious ideas within neologisms and paradigm shifts with emotion.

The diverse characters are our anchors to this space faring, their ships and nerves raw and exposed. The cybernetic components are as vulnerable and visceral as their (barely) human counterparts. At its heart, the novel is centered around kinships and community. Forty years have passed since the Dirty Dozen finished their last con job, losing some of their comrades, and the members are tied to each other as only a crew can be—despite their brutal differences. Communities are messy, complicated; eking out survival in a rosy-tinted post-scarcity world only reveals the atrocities necessary for survival. The characters—Maya, Rita, Verdigris, Rochelle, Ayane, Elise—have caused enough suffering for each other, over and over in their many reincarnations. They’ve kept at it and stayed with each other to avoid, for the most part, a lifetime of becoming a clone on the assembly line. In such a world, unconditional love can only be a trap, keeping you looped within a structure of accelerated capitalism.

And herein the novel veers away from the techno-utopias of most post-singularity narratives that include raptures of the Ray Kurzweil-brand, freedom circumscribed by the delights of the free market. Khaw imagines a world beyond this horizon, however painful that existence may be. This is not to say that there is no margin for self-determination and freedom, and Khaw is well attuned to the glitches and disruptions, and even the gifts we still share. In this, the novel sits somewhere between the works of Catherine Valente and Peter Watts, but it is a creation entirely of its own.

Nothing really dies in the all-consuming world; everything is reborn in pale shades—if you can afford it. Whether it predicts malediction or blessing—that is for us to figure out.

*   *   *

Speculative Fiction for Dreamers: A Latinx Anthology
Edited by Matthew David Goodwin, Alex Hernandex and Sara Rafael Garcia
Mad Creek Books, 400 pages
Genre: anthology, short stories, SFF, speculative fiction

*   *   *

Somewhere—tightly looped between the horizons of utopia and the abstract fight of hopepunk, between imagining the death of capitalism and imagining the end of cynical fiction—resides narratives that can delicately navigate these fluctuations. Speculative Fiction for Dreamers is such an anthology of poems, short stories, graphic narratives, and plays, and its many ideas migrate within this wild spectrum.

Broadly, the narratives explore themes of identity, migration, belonging, ecological change, and histories of oppression and racism. However, each of the authors approach this complicated mesh differently, giving us a formal and stylistic variety of methods, but also a vividly differing range of motives and concerns. For example, both Sara Rivera’s, “The Music Box,” and Reyes Ramirez’s, “The Adventures of Xuxa, La Ultima,” consider the dynamics of assimilation into post-apocalyptic societies; the former is narrated by a shape-shifting goddess decisively remaking the world, while the other is the story of a traumatized “superhero” coming to terms with her path of nihilistic destruction. These variations shore up relevant but different questions about threats, history, transformation, healing, and memory.

In curating this anthology, the editors wanted to bring into existence a book they wished for their younger selves; as such, the navigation of self and identity through a (culturally, economically, technologically) dangerous landscape is a vivid thread. The anthology is divided into five sections, each of these exploring a complicated facet of this theme, with variations and overlaps.

But the potency of the theme and the brilliance of each of the writers is also what allows this collection to become a cultural commentary of individual growth and change. What does it mean to grow out of being a child? the novel asks, and Karlo Yeager Rodriguez’s “How Juan Bobo Got to los Nueba Yores” displays its many moralities; Lisa M. Bradley: “Tia Abuela’s Face, 10 Ways” asks us to consider how we remember those we love when the world continually erases them, and what the memory may challenge us to do. There’s more; Alex Temblador’s “Curanderas in the Ceiling” evocatively calls upon us to see the intricate coexistence of science and magic in our own conception of selves. This expertly curated anthology is a challenging confrontation with our truths and beliefs, but rendered with the gentleness of a conversation with loving family.

The stories also display a dazzling range and are both poetic and subversively unconventional. Particularly memorable is the measured tone of Pedro Cabiya’s “The Clarification Oral History Project,” narrated in the style of an academic report about a DNA-altering event, and the haunting language of Stephanie Adams-Santos’s “Night Flowers,” a short and dizzying narrative about dealing with grief.

And lest we think that there are no monsters, I lay these beasts here: here are stories of terrible men, eugenicist collectives, the wealth of accumulated bores, aliens, chupacabras, gods and dieties, mecha-rocketships, regenerative technology, and superimposed virtual realities. In here we can find a plethora of ideas.

This anthology is a delicate dance between science and magic, utopian demands and hopepunk kindnesses, the Earth and cultures. This may fly under the radar, but once discovered, I promise that it will soon occupy a precious corner of our (real and virtual) bookshelves.

Until we select a permanent columnist, Analog will be running a series of Guest Reference Libraries. Look for new recommendations next month!

 

Copyright © 2021 Shinjini Dey

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