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The Reference Library

by Rosemary Claire Smith

During the pandemic, I heard reports that readers would naturally crave lighthearted comfort reads as distractions from the added stresses of daily life. Although I do not know how true this was at the time, it strikes me that perhaps now the pendulum in science fiction has swung back in the other direction. There seem to be lots of new SF novels examining the future of warfare in horrifying detail. They generally fall into two camps. The first type extols some version of space marines facing down an authoritarian or totalitarian regime. The other type consists of works siding with feisty rebels determined to do battle against oppressive empires with little more than moxie, steady aim, and a burning desire for freedom. Where in all the mayhem, I wonder, is the Catch-22 for the twenty-first century?

This month, I sought out works with fresh perspectives on the age-old scourge of violence directed against those whose differences are proclaimed to be anathema. M. V. Melcer’s novel Refractions looks at conflicts between global superpowers spilling over to impair operations aboard a starship with an international crew. Seth Dickinson’s Exordia unleashes human/alien warfare in the Mideast. Tobias Buckell’s A Stranger in the Citadel paints a vivid portrait of a revolt against a repressive regime. Premee Mohamed’s The Siege of Burning Grass provides an utterly refreshing rebuttal to the seemingly inevitable brutality. Ray Nayler scrutinizes a long-running campaign of extermination of a different sort in The Tusks of Extinction. As a counterpoint, Naomi Kritzer’s Liberty’s Daughter looks at wage slavery aboard re-purposed cruise ships in the future.

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Refractions

V. Melcer

Storm Publishing

November 16, 2023

ISBN: 978-1-80508-278-1

443 pages

As the composition of crews aboard spaceships become increasingly international with each passing year, we grow more accustomed to seeing astronauts from diverse nations working together as harmonious teams. Let’s hope that cross-border cooperation and personal friendships in space will survive even when the nations launching those astronauts become embroiled in military conflicts on Earth. Sadly, too few of us back home take our cues from the inspirational examples of our astronauts in space. In my last Reference Library column, I looked at Yume Kitasei’s The Deep Sky, which is a fascinating take on how and why our space-suited compatriots might fall prey to the same conflicts and suspicions as those of us remaining on Earth.

Now, M. V. Melcer’s Refractions not only examines this theme but takes matters a step farther by sending several characters into space who are tormented by their pasts. Some have instigated or escalated events that went disastrously wrong. As they flee farther and farther, they inevitably bring their secrets, hatreds, suspicions, guilt, and individual quests for redemption with them.

Like Kitasei, Melcer chose a main character who firmly believes she is utterly unfit to perform the challenging tasks that go with receiving a battlefield-promotion of sorts when she becomes the captain of the ship. Nathalie Hart is a refreshing change from a steady diet of lantern-jawed, swaggering, forty-something ship captains who have seen every trick between here and Alpha Centauri. Instead, Nathalie is a Canadian officer who assumes command of New Horizon when the captain dies in a freak accident. Or is it an act of sabotage? Her task grows trickier because the Chinese engineering crew expresses unhappiness at taking orders from a foreigner. Even so, Nathalie’s Canadian citizenship is more palatable to them than if she were American. In contrast, the Americans, who comprise most of the security personnel, consider their Canadian captain to be close enough. Nor is Nathalie’s lack of confidence in her abilities unfounded. When things get tough, her instinct is to curl up in a ball on the floor of her cabin and weep.

Melcer’s use of first-person present tense lends a refreshing immediacy to the narrative. New Horizons is on an interstellar mission to a once-thriving extra-solar colony filled with thousands of people of all ages. The colony abruptly ceased to communicate with Earth for no discernible reason. The story line intersperses events aboard New Horizons with previous events in a Chinese enclave in Kenya near a space elevator, where Nathalie lived for some time. Despite the drama inherent in the scenes set in Kenya, somehow the setting did not feel entirely convincing to me.

An intriguing complexity concerns the use of brain implants aboard the spaceship. Melcer makes brain implants fresh by doling them out to only the Chinese astronauts, who comprise the engineering crew, thereby enabling them to communicate rapidly and silently with one another. Doing so exacerbates the suspicions of the scientists, medical corps, and security officers, who are largely drawn from other nations, including the United States and Kenya.

Like any sub-light-speed mission to a planet orbiting a distant sun, much of the crew’s time is spent in cryonic suspension. As the distance between the ship and Earth grows, the astronauts become understandably less certain what may be happening back home. With letters from family members and friends dwindling, the growing psychological toll on people is deftly portrayed. Worse yet, tensions between their nations escalate, which adversely affects relationships on board the ship.

Rest assured, Melcer knows her way around a twisty, suspense-driven plot and has the chops to pull it off.

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Exordia

Seth Dickinson

Tordotcom (Macmillan)

January 23, 2024

ISBN: 978-1-25023-301-1

544 pages

Seth Dickinson’s Exordia opens as aliens are on the verge of invading Earth. It begins with a single one, named Ssrin, whose eight snake-like heads feast on turtles in the lake in New York City’s Central Park. Anna Sinjari is the sole human who can see Ssrin. According to the alien, this is because the two of them are bound together by a form of loyalty, trust, and unbreakable passion beyond all reason, called “serendure.” While we do not find out much about Ssrin’s past, we soon learn that as a child, Anna survived the atrocities of the Anfal genocide against the Iraqi Kurds. Twenty five years later, in 2013, she struggles to cope with PTSD as a more horrific war threatens her homeland.

When the aliens, dubbed the Exordia, arrive in orbit around Earth, they are led by Ssrin’s enemy, Iruvage. The Exordia take a keen interest in a highly-sophisticated and poorly-understood alien spacecraft half buried in a Kurdistan mountain, to which the U.S. military ascribes the code-name “Blackbird.”

A word of warning: despite being a tormented refugee, Anna is a challenging character to root for as the story unfolds. For one thing, she and Ssrin bring out the absolute worst in each other. Besides, readers no sooner settle into Anna’s perspective, than the plot veers in an unexpected direction as Dickinson tosses us into the Machiavellian mindset of an upper-echelon CIA operative and megalomaniac named Clayton. Years before Exordia begins, Clayton put together a highly classified program called Paladin to dispense justice—that is to summarily execute—military contractors who commit atrocities during wartime. Clayton recruited Erik, a high-ranking military officer, to run Paladin. To his credit, Erik quit years ago. Nonetheless, Erik is hardly a sympathetic viewpoint character either, given his own unfinished business with Clayton, and the way he manipulates Anna into investigating Blackbird, perilously close to the scene of her childhood trauma.

In addition to these three principle characters, Dickinson adds two more who are genuinely sympathetic. A half-Filipina, half-Ugandan physicist named Chaya tries her best to keep everyone in the vicinity of Blackbird safe. Given the grotesque ways in which Blackbird can disfigure the human body, Chaya has no easy task. Lastly, there is a mathematician named Li Aixue, who seeks to understand Blackbird in mathematical terms. A multinational host of others hail from at least four continents: scientists, civilians, medical personnel, soldiers, fighter pilots. They all descend upon the hapless Kurdish village where Blackbird, Ssrin, and Iruvage are ensconced nearby.

Despite their disparate training, skills, ethnic backgrounds, and personalities, some characters hold out hope that everybody can unite in a temporary alliance, however uneasy, to save humanity from subjugation by the Exordia. Others dispute that a unified front is possible or desirable. Several whose ancestors suffered under European colonialism take a jaundiced view whenever Westerners vociferously object to being enslaved by brutal alien overlords. Thus, Exordia well illustrates how tricky political alliances can be, especially when based on incomplete understanding of allies and enemies. It reminded me of an oft-repeated assertion that when it comes to international relations, global superpowers—or all nations, really—have no perpetual friends or eternal enemies, only interests. Dickinson builds upon such sentiments as his cast struggles to survive while the Exordia, whose technology affords them practically godlike powers, demonstrate that they have anything but Earth’s best interests at heart. As difficult as it can be to understand the mindset of other human beings, the problem is magnified when it comes to dealing with aliens as incomprehensible as the Exordia.

The invasion grows wilder, deadlier, and gorier as this sprawling novel progresses. Most of it is told from the perspective of military personnel, scientists, civilians, and local residents who struggle to cope—or fail to cope—with one horrific event after another. In places, Dickinson shifts to an omniscient point of view for detailed descriptions of events ranging from local skirmishes in the Kurdish valley to the use of tactical nukes to events having global ramifications.

In sum, Exordia is a demanding read on several levels. First, it is crammed with a sizable cast of characters. Dickinson even tosses in the complicated aftermath of a romantic triangle. Then there are the recent four decades of complex geopolitics in the Middle East. Soon enough, fighter jets roar overhead while aliens prove they can unleash godlike powers and a bunch of folks have their fingers on the triggers of high-powered weaponry or nuclear bombs. Did I mention the black holes the size of jeeps and grotesque biological contamination? Like several characters, readers must wrap their minds around sub-atomic physics, abstract mathematical concepts, and moral dilemmas such as the trolley problem on a global scale. So many significant concepts and events are stuffed into Exordia’s five-hundred-plus pages that at times, it feels like reading frenetic techno-babble. Perhaps those possessing advance degrees in physics and mathematics will more easily grasp the details of some events than I did. Don’t let any of this scare you away. The plot is engrossing. In several places, Exordia left me wondering how Dickinson could possibly weave together numerous disparate threads. His breathtakingly ambitious novel does reach an end point. It’s one that leaves a good deal of room for a follow-on.

Be warned: several scenes contain graphic descriptions of body horror.

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A Stranger in the Citadel

Tobias Buckell

Tachyon Press

October 17,2023

ISBN: 978-1-61696-398-9

238 pages

I nearly passed by Tobias Buckell’s latest novel, supposing that what is billed as “adventure fantasy” would not appeal to a substantial number of Analog readers. Rest assured, everyone, A Stranger in the Citadel is solid science fiction. Cue the excitement for the author of “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance,” Buckell’s short story with enough universe-building for a whole Charles Stross novel. I was hooked by the opening line of A Stranger in the Citadel: “The gods say, ‘You shall not suffer a librarian to live.’”

Given that Buckell spent his early years in Grenada and the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, it’s hardly surprising that much of his work is imbued with his trademark Caribbean flavor. A Stranger in the Citadel could scarcely be farther afield, as it is set amid a vast arid expanse that will have readers guessing where it might be located on Earth or if it is set on another planet. The novel tells the story of Lilith, the naive and tenderhearted youngest daughter of the ruling family of the walled city of Ninetha. She chances to be near the gates when a stranger is dragged inside and almost put to death for the crime of possessing a book. Lilith’s act of compassion in saving Ishmael, the stranger, sets in motion events that spin out of control, resulting in a full-fledged uprising against her father’s stratified regime.

I did have some reservations about the plot as it unfolds and the world Buckell creates. After Lilith flees the city, she devotes considerable time to worrying that she is being pursued by Kira, her bodyguard, teacher, and zealot, notwithstanding that Kira has compelling reasons to remain in Ninetha and send well-trained soldiers after Lilith instead. In addition, one aspect of the world-building seemed unlikely. Ninetha is perhaps two weeks by foot from the nearest city. However, no travelers have arrived for a good number of years, despite the fact that the harsh environment does provide sufficient edible plants and animals for travelers to live off the land if they know how to do so. Setting those considerations aside, A Stranger in the Citadel is vividly told with real tension between Lilith and Ishmael, both of whom are engaging characters.

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The Seige of Burning Grass

Premee Mohamed

Solaris Books

March 12, 2024

ISBN: ‎ 978-1-83786-046-3

432 pages

During times of war, we develop a heightened awareness of pacifists, those brave souls dedicated to the belief that violence is rarely, if ever, the answer. Notable pacifists such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Bertrand Russell, Jeannette Rankin, Aldous Huxley, and Martin Luther King, Jr. command respect. Nonetheless, contemporary science fiction writers seldom portray exemplars of pacifism, much less permit them to occupy center stage. This is despite seminal works such as Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Disposessed and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. More is the pity. Consequently, Premee Mohamed’s most-recent novel, The Siege of Burning Grass, is an important work, as well as a fine palate cleanser after immersion in Refractions and Exordia. Mohamed’s novel left me cheering for its main character and his scattered group of pacifists in an ocean of militarization.

The Siege of Burning Grass open with a familiar set up: a prisoner watches from an icy stone cell in horrified fascination as executions are carried out in the prison yard. Alefret is a misshapen giant of a man, consigned to brutal treatment for his refusal to fight in a war against an implacable foe bent on annihilating his fellow countrymen. If the premise seems dubious, consider that during World War II, there was some popular support for treating those who refuse to fight as traitors deserving execution. After losing most of one leg to a bomb falling upon the capitol city, Alefret was identified as a war resister and carted off. In the penitentiary, a sadistic guard tortures him and the prison doctor performs medical experiments upon him. Nonetheless, Alefret resolves to stay true to his principles and not kill, not even in self-defense, because he could never know for sure if an attacker would kill him.

Outside the prison lies a startling war-torn landscape filled with “made animals” such as bio-mechanical beetles that explode like grenades, tanks that curl up like giant pillbugs to protect their operators, and great winged pteranodons that can carry three people. The enemy’s seemingly unreachable and impregnable floating capitol city hovers in the sky above the battle zone. The richness of Mohamed’s world-building, coupled with a paucity of explanations for these phenomena, are reminiscent of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun.

The plot kicks up several notches when Alefret and the brutal guard are sent together to infiltrate the enemy’s floating city. Once there, Alefret is expected to work with its resistance, although the details are disconcertingly sparse. Alefret’s loss of his leg means he must rely on crutches. Mohamed unleashes a deftly realistic depiction of his physical exertions, his fortitude, and his self doubts. The guard, who refuses to divulge key details about their mission, seizes the chance to unleash more beatings and psychological warfare. Alefret’s greater physical strength would enable him to overpower the guard, which deepens his internal struggle. He recognizes that everybody claims to oppose “violence until violence seemed able to solve a problem that was close enough to throttle.”

In sum, The Siege of Burning Grass presents a compelling antidote to innumerable tales of military might as the go-to solution for conflicts between nations or peoples. Mohamed leaves readers contemplating the human inclination to fight, a propensity we share with chimpanzees. Her clear-eyed portrayal of the challenges of pacifism neatly avoids lapsing into preachiness or naivety.

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The Tusks of Extinction

Ray Nayler

Tordotcom (Macmillan)

January 6, 2024

ISBN: 978-1-25085-552-7

105 pages

After making appearances in Analog, Asimov’s, and elsewhere with a body of impressive short fiction, Ray Nayler made a big splash with his debut novel, The Mountain in the Sea, which was nominated for major SF awards. Now he returns with The Tusks of Extinction. It’s a slim volume tackling a type of warfare that receives shorter shrift than battles against galactic tyrants, extraterrestrial invaders, and suchlike. His concern is the wars humans wage against other animal species living with us here on Earth. Nayler begins with the ways in which people change great swaths of the physical landscape to suit our needs, with casual disregard for the other species we wipe out. He recognizes the real possibility we will drive elephants into extinction. Indeed, well into historical times there were more than the three species we have today: Asian/Indian elephants, African forest elephants, and Africa bush or savannah elephants. Herds of Syrian/Western Asiatic elephants as well as North African elephants roamed freely, with the latter impressed into service by Hannibal’s forces during the Punic Wars.

The Tusks of Extinction is Nayler’s searing indictment of our wars against other Earthly creatures. As he says, “Power was the ability to destroy without needing to. To do it not out of necessity, but as an act of pure excess. To do something to someone else simply because you could. And this was perhaps the greatest power of all: to kill something that no one else could kill.”

The Tusks of Extinction addresses not only elephants, but also woolly mammoths. The public’s imagination has latched onto the notion of de-extincting prehistoric mammoths and returning them to the Siberian tundra and taiga where they once roamed. Nayler takes what seems like an encouraging premise—that we will one day succeed in “de-extincting” animals reasonably resembling mammoths and asks, what then? He posits that despite living in protected reserves, the marvelous new beasts do not have an easy time of it. First, they must rely upon someone to teach them how to be mammoths. What’s more, they soon become targets for ultra-wealthy poachers because of course they would be targets. Rest assured that those men do not get off easily. Neither does Damira, the Russian-born central character who previously dedicated her life to protecting elephants in Kenya from extinction at the hands of poachers. It’s a calling that fills her to overflowing with rage—justifiable rage—at what humanity has done to elephants for the sake of ivory trinkets. Much the same fate threatens the de-extincted mammoths.

The real villains, however, are not poachers, those impoverished, drunken, swaggering men at the bottom of the food chain, who obtain things for others. “They did the work, and were thrown away. Things like the tusks weren’t just for rich people to have, or buy—the rich already owned them. They just needed to be handed over to their rightful owners.” No, even more reprehensible are the elite “trophy hunters” who tap vast wealth to engage in slaughter. Nayler pulls no punches as he excoriates the capitalist system for permitting these despicable acts. One park ranger from Kenya speaks of what it is like to grow up in “an extraction zone” where “the taking begins.” He goes on to say, “But an elephant knows what it is like to be an extraction zone. . . . The elephant is enormous, but not as gigantic as the history of human exploitation.” The Tusks of Extinction stands as a powerful indictment of the system that transforms elephant tusks from essential parts of their bodies into commodities, one that is not easily set aside.

This slender volume of barely a hundred pages punches well above its weight. At times, science fiction fosters the readers’ empathy with those who are very different than themselves. Nayler succeeds in pulling off an utterly convincing portrayal of what it might be like to live as an elephant or mammoth reliant upon one’s acute senses of smell, touch, and taste, especially when these senses trigger memories of loved ones and family members who fell to the wanton depredations of humans. The Tusks of Extinction is as unflinching as it is heartbreaking. It made me want to shout that everybody needs to read this book. As I write this review in February 2024, I already know it will be near the top of my list of best books for the year. Yes, it is this good.

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Liberty’s Daughter

Naomi Kritzer

Fairwood Press

November 21, 2023

ISBN: 978-1-95888-016-6

264 pages

What becomes of old cruise ships, aircraft carriers, tankers, and other behemoths of the seas once they have outlived their original purposes? Naomi Kritzer’s Liberty’s Daughter summons up an intriguing answer: They are anchored together and connected by bridges so they can function as independent enclaves for Libertarians seeking to live beyond the laws and restrictions of the United States and other nations. There will be people who possess the wherewithal to buy a stake—i.e. a cabin of whatever dimensions they can afford—and bring their families to live permanently anchored at sea roughly twelve hours by ship from California. Not surprisingly, the absence of laws attracts a variety of unsavory types, such as tax cheats, embezzlers, and others fleeing the authorities. The various enclaves tolerate ambassadors from other nations, but refuse to sign extradition treaties.

Needless to say, this is not the ideal place to raise a smart, inquisitive teenager. Enter Beck, a sixteen-year-old girl who lives with her father on board one of these ships. To earn spending money and obtain a sense of independence, she locates items other inhabitants desire and arranges trades. The tale opens when her customer, Debbie, desires not a physical object, but rather information as to the whereabouts of her sister, Lynn. Beck’s search brings her into conflict with several disreputable characters. Their warnings to mind her own business only deepen Beck’s determination. She uncovers more than she bargained for as she discovers the seamy underside of the cruise-ship community in which she has lived since age four. Plenty of people are “bonded” to wealthy stakeholders. The system is a form of wage slavery whereby downtrodden individuals are forced to work off their debt to their employers by performing arduous, menial labor that cannot be done by robots. Appalled, Beck would like nothing better than to free Lynn. Naturally, this is easier said than done. For it turns out that workers’ compensation for on-the-job accidents and illnesses does not exist here, much less free or reduced-cost health care. The inevitable consequence is that many people who fall into desperate financial straits have no recourse but to agree to let rich bond-holders pay for their shockingly expensive and oftentimes inadequate medical procedures in exchange for years or decades of menial labor. If these hapless workers incur another serious accident or illness, their attempts to pay off their debt become hopeless.

Beck and her teenage cohorts serve as heroes we can root for as they come together to seek improved living conditions for those at the bottom of the economic strata. That said, I found it hard to accept that Beck never wavered from her self-assured belief in her own abilities to dramatically improve her world, especially when faced with the predictable and deadly-serious push back from the powers that control the offshore enclaves. Nor is it a surprise when a significantly more serious problem suddenly besets the assembled ships and Beck resolves to tackle that one too.

Rosemary Claire Smith has worked as a field archaeologist, union leader, and election lawyer. Over the years, Analog has published her alternate histories, time-travel tales, and other science fiction stories, as well as several guest editorials and book review columns. Rosemary has also written fantasy, horror and an interactive adventure game, T-Rex Time Machine. Her stories and essays also appear in Amazing Stories, Fantastic Stories, and other periodicals and anthologies. Follow her online: https://rcwordsmith.com; Rosemary Claire Smith on Facebook; and across social media @RCWordsmith to find out what else she is up to.

Copyright © 2024 Rosemary Claire Smith

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