by Don Sakers
Many science fiction stories have heroes, but superheroes are another kettle of fish entirely. In essence, a superhero is a character with extraordinary or supernatural abilities, who uses those abilities to protect and defend the public. Superhero fiction frequently includes associated tropes such as supervillains, secret identities, hidden headquarters, sidekicks, specific vulnerabilities, and the like.
The superhero tradition goes back to the earliest myths: examples include Gilgamesh, Perseus, Hanuman, Hercules, Achilles, and Samson. Medieval tales of the Saints, or legends of Robin Hood or Eustace the Monk, contained elements of superheroes.
Closer to the present, the penny dreadfuls and dime novels of the 1890s and early 1900s featured superhero characters such as Spring Heeled Jack, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and the Lone Ranger. Radio brought the Green Hornet, the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, and others. The word “superhero,” by the way, dates to this period, having been used at least as early as 1917.
Superheroes came into prominence in the pages of the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s, with the adventures of Doc Savage, Flash Gordon, the Spider, and Zorro. Philip Wylie’s SF novel Gladiator (1930) told the story of Hugo Danner, a biologically enhanced human with superior strength, speed, and even bulletproof skin. Unfortunately, Danner’s abilities led to a sorry end.
Beginning with Superman in Action Comics (1938), the main locus of superhero fiction moved into the medium of comic books—although they remained strong in the pulps and radio.
With the popularity of Superman and the introduction of Batman, Wonder Woman, the Justice Society, and many others, the superhero universe expanded. Other publishers introduced imitations: the Spirit, the Sub-Mariner, Plastic Man, and Captain Marvel. World War II brought superheroes to the national consciousness.
Superhero comics passed through several stages of development. Supporting casts grew larger, superheroes proliferated. Marvel Comics launched a new line of superhero comics that ultimately led to more self-referential and introspective stories, bringing moral complexity and more intricate plots. Characters were reinterpreted again and again, and huge multi-threaded crossover stories added to an ever-richer tapestry of continuities.
After the collapse of the pulps and radio serials, superhero stories continued to appear on television and in films, mostly aimed at children. The stories, for the most part, stayed simple and shallow.
During this period, superhero fiction made occasional appearances in literature. In 1942 Random House published The Adventures of Superman by George Lowther; the Phantom appeared in 1943’s Son of the Phantom, followed by a series of novels by Lee Falk and Ron Goulart in the 1970s. In 1977 Robert Mayer published a satirical novel, Superfolks. Coincident with the 1978 Superman movie, Elliott S! Maggin released two original Superman novels, Last Son of Krypton and Miracle Monday. The 1970s also saw novels based on various Marvel characters.
Beginning in 1987, George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards shared universe told tales of original superheroes not licensed from comics. In fact, for fear of copyright infringement, the superheroes in Wild Cards were called “Aces.”
The early 2000s brought an explosion of superhero fiction literature. Superheroes from the comics regularly appeared in licensed books: some were novelizations of movies or story arcs from the comics, while others were original tales of existing superheroes.
As it became apparent that a market existed for superhero fiction in prose, writers made up their own superheroes and began publishing stories about them. By the 2010s, superhero books of all sorts had become a regular, recognized variety of science fiction/fantasy.
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Matt de la Peña
Random House, 336 pages, $18.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $10.99 (ebook)
Series: DC Icons
Genre: Superhero, Teen SF
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While I haven’t seen any studies verifying it, I’m willing to bet that if you ask random SF readers to name famous superheroes, one name would be on just about every list: Superman.
Since Superman’s debut in 1938, eight decades of writers and artists have reinterpreted and updated his legend for new generations. Nowadays a “generation” lasts about seven years (a periodicity possibly linked to the time an average consumer spends in the lucrative 18–25 age group)—which accounts for a seemingly endless progression of reboots, remakes, and reimaginings.
The DC Icons series represents the latest interpretations of classic DC Comics superheroes for a contemporary teen audience. Previous volumes have covered Batman, Catwoman, and Wonder Woman (reviewed here in the November/December 2017 issue). Now it’s Superman’s turn.
Matt de la Peña, award-winning author of teen and children’s books, has chosen to focus on one of the most fascinating aspects of the Superman story: the often-fraught relationship between Superman and his secret identity, Clark Kent. The story takes place in a current-day Smallville, where high school junior Clark Kent is struggling with the need to keep his super-powers secret from the world.
The plot, reminiscent of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, involves some evil corporate types come to exploit the town for ill-gotten profits. Clark and his friend Lana Lang uncover the dastardly scheme and foil the miscreants, with help from Clark’s secret abilities. But that’s not the point.
The real focus of the novel is on young Clark and his uneasy, ambivalent attitude toward fame and heroism. A few years ago, Clark had to quit the football team when he tackled a teammate, sending the boy to the hospital with shattered ribs. On reflection, Clark admitted to himself that he loved winning, being the star, and that the safest course was to close down any temptations along those lines. He told everyone that he was quitting in order to concentrate on his schoolwork—but he knew he was lying to them.
Now, as he rescues some townsfolk from a disaster, Clark becomes a public hero again . . . and finds he likes the attention.
The powerful psychological question becomes whether Clark can find a way to satisfy his desire for adulation and fame . . . or whether that desire will be his downfall. Of course, solving this dilemma is essential for his future as the Man of Steel.
This one’s marketed as a teen book, yet adults (even those intimately familiar with every previous aspect of the character) will find it a rewarding exploration of new emotional and psychological ground.
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Dutton, 516 pages, $27.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $12.99 (ebook)
Genre: SF Thriller
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Daniel Suarez is best known as the author of bestselling science thrillers in the mode of Michael Crichton, Douglas Preston, or James Rollins. We last heard of him with SF thriller Change Agent (reviewed here in the September/October 2017 issue).
Delta-V falls into that tradition of near-future thrillers that make readers ponder whether they’re actually science fiction or not. It concerns asteroid mining, a theme that’s been part of SF for most of living memory. Perhaps it’s best to say that Delta-V satisfies John W. Campbell, Jr.’s criterion for an SF story that reads like a contemporary story published in a magazine from the future.
In 2032, cave diver James Tighe is summoned to the private island of billionaire Nathan Joyce. Turns out that Joyce, an Elon Musk-like tech giant, is part one of a group of private investors who aim to jumpstart the space-based economy by sending a mining crew to the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu. And he wants Tighe, with his unique set of skills, to be part of that crew.
From there, it’s a fairly straightforward story: training the diverse international crew, a multi-year voyage to Ryugu, more years spent setting up the automated mining operation, and then a harrowing and suspenseful return home. Along the way are many obstacles, ranging from industrial espionage and competing corporations, to glitches in the expedition’s operating system, to the physical dangers of working in space and on a large asteroid. Tighe and his five teammates—a motley assortment of professional astronauts, mountain climbers, and freelance soldiers—face various risks and hazards with skill and teamwork.
A major subtext of Delta-V is the difference between the NASA-controlled, government-sponsored space missions we’re accustomed to, and the private, commercial missions that will lead to the industrialization of space. This difference shows partly in the way timelines and budgets are more constrained—no monthslong delays for parts not up to spec—but primarily in the absence of constant supervision. This is a team of uniquely qualified experts, their mission uncertain and largely unscripted, with a lightspeed communications lag of several long minutes. Rather than relying on geniuses at Mission Control, they must face their challenges on their own.
At heart, Delta-V is the nuts-and-bolts story of asteroid mining playing out with on-the-shelf technology. Which makes it of special interest to Analog readers. Like Andy Weir’s The Martian, this is a rigorous and realistic adventure of tomorrow’s frontier.
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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 297 pages, $24.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $12.99 (ebook)
Series: Retrograde 2
Genre: Hard SF, Psychological/Sociological SF
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Peter Cawdron is an Australian writer of hard science fiction and occasional zombie fiction. He’s come up through the independent publishing scene, beginning in 2011 with The Road to Hell and Anomaly. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of zines and small press anthologies. His best-known work is Retrograde (2017)—to which this year’s Reentry is a direct sequel.
In Retrograde, the first international expedition to Mars struggled to deal with the repercussions of a nuclear war on Earth. American geologist Liz Mathieson works with her fellow expedition members to survive in the face of disaster after disaster. The tensions of the war split the mission into factions, endangering everyone. Then a bigger challenge emerges when Liz discovers that they are menaced by the artificial intelligence that engineered and directed the war to begin with. At great sacrifice, they defeat the rogue AI.
Now in Reentry, Liz and two others from the expedition return to Earth, leaving roughly four dozen surviving colonists on Mars. With her, Liz has brought the remains of the AI: a collection of circuits that may contain the recorded personality of her partner Jianyu, who died in the last confrontation. Or is Jianyu’s presence an illusion, a gambit to trick her into reactivating the deadly AI?
Caught up in insurgency and resistance, Liz doesn’t know who she can trust. Yet if there’s a chance to bring Jianyu back, she has to take it.
The thing about Liz is that she’s paranoid and frightened—with good reason—and full of doubts. Not only does he not trust herself and her perceptions, but as readers we’re never sure how much of what Liz experiences and does is true. The result is a deliciously twisted story of the balance between trust and betrayal, fear and love.
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Alpha and Omega
Del Rey, 466 pages, $28.66 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $14.99 (ebook)
Genre: Philosophical/Religious SF, SF Thriller
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A particular mythic phenomenon in publishing is that of the so-called Breakout Book: a title by which a popular genre author “breaks out” of their genre and into the stratospheric sales level of bestselling megastars. It’s how authors like Danielle Steele and Jodi Picoult transcended romance fiction, James Patterson moved on from simple thrillers, or John Grisham surpassed legal thrillers.
Of course, most breakout books don’t succeed in catapulting their author to the highest levels. There’s a huge component of sheer luck in any author’s advancement through the ranks, and often the best way to identify a true breakout book is in retrospect, after the breakout.
One difficulty with breakout books is due to the conventional wisdom that in order to appeal to a general audience, a genre author needs to “tone down” the genre elements. The trouble is that often, an author’s successful use of those genre elements is the very reason the author’s so popular. To put it in more familiar terms, a publisher might encourage a Kim Stanley Robinson to write a book “without so much of that future stuff” or a David Weber to “cut back on the complicated politics.”
Which brings us to Harry Turtledove’s Alpha and Omega. This is fairly clearly being marketed as a potential breakout book, an archaeological thriller with religious overtones in the mold of Dan Brown, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Childs, or James Rollins. Whether it will succeed as a breakout book remains to be seen; but it’s Harry Turtledove, so how bad could it be?
Alpha and Omega is a departure for Turtledove. It’s the present-day story of Eric Katz, a Los Angeles archaeologist on a dig in Israel when a terrorist attack seems to presage the End Times. In tunnels beneath Jerusalem, Eric and his team uncover what seems to be the authentic Ark of the Covenant. In no time at all, he’s enmeshed in the movement to build the Third Temple, the violent reactions of its opponents . . . and a higher power whose wishes aren’t entirely clear.
Alpha and Omega is a big, multi-threaded book. Turtledove does his usual fine job of following many ordinary people caught up in momentous events, showing the impact of those events in terms of individual human beings. If you like Turtledove, you’ll definitely want to read this one.
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Daniel M. Bensen
Flame Tree Press, 240 pages, $14.95 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $6.49 (ebook)
Genre: Biological SF, Exploration & Discovery, SF Mystery, Stargates
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If you’re familiar with Daniel M. Bensen at all, it’s likely through his alternate history (his short story “Treasure Fleet” won the 2016 Sidewise Award) or his work on dinosaurs (including artwork as well as 2016’s Groom of the Tyrannosaur Queen). A Chicago native, he currently lives in Bulgaria, where he teaches English, with his family.
Junction is both a hard SF exploration and survival story, and a fairly tense mystery story.
Daisuke Matsumori, host of a Japanese nature show, is unhappy. His marriage has ended in divorce, and he dislikes his job. There must be more to life, he thinks, than doing stunts to entertain a jaded audience.
Then the government sends him to the Papua New Guinea highlands. There, a space warp has opened on an alien world called Junction. He joins a multinational group being sent to explore the new planet. The team includes prickly biologist Anne Houlihan, who becomes Daisuke’s companion, as well as a mixed batch of military and civilian specialists.
The group soon learns that Junction is a mosaic of different alien ecosystems, each with its own distinct biology: plants with alcohol for sap, creatures with acid for blood, and dozens of other more or less hostile ecosystems all in competition.
When a crash strands the party in the wilderness, Daisuke and Anne take charge of leading the survivors back home. As they move across one dangerous environment after another, bickering starts between military and civilians, soon building to outright hostility between people of different cultures. Death follows death, and Daisuke begins to suspect that it’s not the alien biology that’s killing people.
They might have a murderer in their party. And if Daisuke wants to get the rest home safely, he’s going to have to figure out who it is.
If you like mysteries, this is a good one. And even if you don’t, the planet Junction is a fascinating enough background that you can ignore the mystery and enjoy the company’s forced march through alien biomes.
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Noir Fatale: The Dark Side of Science Fiction and Fantasy
Edited by Larry Correia & Kacey Ezell
Baen, 336 pages, $25.00 (format)
Genre: Noir SF, Original Anthologies
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A couple issues ago (March/April 2019, to be precise), I wrote about noir SF, a type of science fiction that involves cynical, wisecracking characters, intricate and somber plots, and bleak, often-sleazy settings.
Noir Fatale is an anthology of stories based around a particular noir archetype, that of the femme fatale (“fatal woman” in French): an enigmatic, charming woman who seduces men into perilous or deadly situations. The archetype long predates noir, stretching back as far as the Sirens of Greek myth, the Biblical Delilah, or the Visha Kanyas (“poison girls”) of Sanskrit literature.
Editors Larry Correia and Kacey Ezell have assembled a baker’s dozen stories by fourteen writers, all written for this anthology. The authors are mostly drawn from the Baen stable: Griffin Barber, Robert Buettner, Sarah A. Hoyt, Mike Massa, and David Weber . . . as well as Correia himself. One unexpected big name is Laurell K. Hamilton, bestselling author of fantasy romances such as the Merry Gentry and Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series.
Hamilton’s story, “Sweet Seduction,” involves her supernatural investigator Anita Blake in a classic situation, a rich and privileged family afraid that a grandson is being taken in by a goldigging seductress . . . but with a twist.
The other stories run the gamut from hardboiled detective to urban fantasy to World War II historical fantasy to military SF. Besides the Hamilton story, standouts include Mike Massa’s “Three Kates,” a World War II tale dripping with delicious irony, Alistair Kimble’s cyberthriller “A String of Pearls,” and Robert Buettner’s “The Frost Queen,” a noir adventure set in the sleazy streets of a Lunar colony.
To be clear, the stories here generally adopt the femme fatale archetype without much in the way of examination or deconstruction. This isn’t an in-depth analysis of the archetype so much as a celebration of it. As long as you know that’s what you’re getting, it’s a fun read.
(Of course, if someone wants to put together an in-depth, deconstructive book on the femme fatale, that would be welcome, too.)
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Hoka! Hoka! Hoka!
Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson
Baen, 240 pages, $16.00 (format)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $6.99 (ebook)
Series: Hoka Omnibus 1
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Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson
Baen, 215 pages, $16.00 (format)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $6.99 (ebook)
Series: Hoka Omnibus 2
Genre: Alien Beings, Humorous SF
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Since they first appeared in 1951, the Hokas have been among science fiction’s most beloved alien beings.
What’s a Hoka? Oh, my friend, if you need to ask, you’ll be so glad you did.
In the twenty-fifth century, the Earth-based Interbeing League made contact with the planet Toka. On Toka there were two competing intelligent species. The reptilian Slissii were cold and cruel. The mammalian Hoka, meter-tall teddy bears, were friendly and more than a little silly. In best 1950s SF fashion, the League stepped in on the side of the Hokas, sending advisors and lots of educational material and other cultural artifacts.
The Hokas, as it developed, had a gift for imitation . . . and an inability to distinguish fact from fiction. Inspired by the most exciting tales, the different Hoka nations developed in different directions: the Wild West, the opera Don Giovanni, Sherlock Holmes, Napoleonic France . . .
Central to most of the stories is Earther Alex Jones of the Terrestrial Interstellar Survey Service, the sort of bumbling bureaucrat whose major talent is the ability to accidentally blunder into success despite his best efforts.
The Hoka series consists of eleven stories and one short novel written between 1951 and 1983 (plus a few interstitial bits written for a 1998 collection). Hokas, Hokas, Hokas, the first of two collections that encompasses the whole series, was originally published in 1998. The second, Hokas Pokas!, came out in 2000 and includes the short novel Star Prince Charlie, previously unavailable in a Hokas collection.
Baen books has reissued both Hokas volumes in attractive new editions. Let me count the reasons you want these books. 1: You’ve never before encountered the Hokas. 2: You want the complete set of Hoka stories on two volumes. 3: Your other copies of Hoka books have fallen apart from frequent rereading. 4: You loaned your copies to some ingrate who absconded with them. 5: You want a gift for a treasured friend. 6: You want ebook versions.
I can only think of two reasons you wouldn’t want these: You picked them up last time around and they’re still in good condition, or you’re a grumpy person with no sense of humor or whimsy.
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Consciousness and Science Fiction
Springer, 196 pages, $27.99 (trade paperback)
Kindle: $13.30 (ebook)
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Science fiction is often called a literature of ideas. Considered that way, the history of the field can be seen as a vast conversation between many different participants and spread across more then a century. Individual SF writers present their own takes on various ideas, responding to previous writers as well as to changes in science, technology, or society. As an example, think of how SF writers through the years have treated the themes of war and militarization.
In Consciousness and Science Fiction, Damien Broderick has picked out one strand of this vast conversation—consciousness—and followed its treatment through decades of science fiction. The result is a fascinating book about consciousness that will not only leave you better informed, but with a bunch of new titles on your to-read list.
Australian-born Broderick is a perfect choice for this job. He’s an SF writer, but also a futurist as well as a historian and critic of science fiction. Much of his work—SF and nonfiction—has dealt with topics of mind and the brain.
Here, Broderick covers the treatment of consciousness in more than forty SF works, ranging from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) to The Genius Plague by David Walton (2017), from Brian Aldiss to James White, and everything in between. After a few introductory chapters to set the stage, he presents the works in chronological order, devoting three to four pages to each.
While Consciousness and Science Fiction could serve as the textbook for a rather nifty college-level course, it’s not a turgid academic treatise: it’s a book by an SF reader written for other readers. Broderick organizes his treatments of individual works by intriguing, very specific questions: What’s It Like to Be a Patchwork Monster (Frankenstein)? What’s It Like to Be an Enhanced Dog (Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius)? What’s It Like to Be a Laminated Mouse Brain (“Think Blue, Count Two” by Cordwainer Smith)? What’s It Like to Be Brain-Modded (Greg Egan’s Quarantine)? What’s It Like to Be Bifurcated (My Real Children by Jo Walton)?
While you can certainly use the book as a reference volume, looking up individual authors and works (there’s a comprehensive index and five pages of bibliography), it’s also designed to be read straight through. Together, the forty-plus treatments make a continuous narrative, a picture of what SF has said about consciousness across the decades.
For Analog readers, who are perhaps more sensitive to SF’s idea content than others, this is a fun and rewarding book.
And now, I do believe I’m out of space. See you next time.
Don Sakers is the author of Five Planes and A Cosmos of Many Mansions, a collection based on previous columns. For more information, visit http://donsakers.com/drupal6/.
Copyright © 2019 Don Sakers