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The Reference Library

by Sean CW Korsgaard

Since my last column, I’ve achieved three lifelong dreams. I have published my first book, sold my first short story, and seen the birth of my first child.

I share these milestones with all of you for two reasons. In the case of the first two, because there is nothing selfish about self-promotion in this industry. In the case of the latter, because even in a genre filled with new and different visions of the future, nothing has a way of changing how you look at everything—especially the future—as holding a member of the next generation swaddled in your arms.

With that in mind, it shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise that when it came to selecting books for this issue’s column, stories about family feature in every sense of the word—the human connection, thoughts on legacy, and a better tomorrow. These themes have been at the heart of many great science fiction stories, and they’re at the center of each of my book selections this month.

We have the story of a disgraced military officer, who will gladly bear more dishonor and face countless horrors in hopes of seeing his wife and children again. A thriller about a colony ship nearly arrived at its destination after generations in the void, only for sectarian strife to threaten the mission just as it nears completion. There is a cautionary tale of not only environmental catastrophe and tyranny, but generational strife, as the new generation seeks answers and vengeance for the world which they’ve been left. A mystery centered on how a group of people are connected across five centuries. Of a scientist who rises above an abusive childhood to journey to the ocean floor and the depths of space and might challenge where we view ourselves as a species.

Each of them stuck with me in unique ways, and I hope they will speak to you as well.

*   *   *

The Crypt: Shakedown
Scott Sigler
Aethon Books, 585 pages, $28.99   (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $4.99
ISBN: 978-1949890846
Series: The Crypt 1
Genre: Military SF, SF Horror, Space Opera, SF Thriller

*   *   *

To what lengths would a person go to redeem themselves? What hells would a person face to see their family again? These are the questions the protagonist of The Crypt: Shakedown must face, in a novel that marries the classic submariner novels of WWII with equal parts science fiction and horror.

Whether Major Trav Ellis is a hero or a traitor is a matter of perspective. To some, his choice to pull out of a hopeless battle saved the lives of the remaining crew of the PUV Schild. To others, his retreat from the line of battle resulted in the destruction of its sister ship Boudica, leading to the death or capture of all personnel on board, and earned him the derisive nickname “Yellowbelly.”

Regardless, for his actions, he has been found guilty of cowardice in the face of the enemy and gross dereliction of duty, and been offered a choice. Ellis can face summary execution or a two-year tour of duty as a lieutenant aboard the Planetary Union Fleet’s most dangerous ship, the PUV James Keeling, and upon completion have his charges and his sentence expunged. Desperate to regain his honor—and even more desperate to see his family again—Ellis accepts the new posting.

No small thing when one considers the rumors and reputation of the Keeling, a black op combat ship with an 80 percent crew mortality rate that has earned it the grim nickname the Crypt. One part prison ship and 100 percent hardship posting, the fleet fills the ranks with the dregs of the service—criminals convicted of a range of crimes, officers with troublesome reputations, and the rare oddball with a death wish, every one of them sent to the Keeling as a last chance or last resort.

One only has to see the highly classified Keeling to understand why; the vessel is a biomechanical warship of unknown alien creation cobbled together with just enough human tech to make it livable. It’s also capable of things that defy known science, most notably traversing space by traveling between dimensions and reemerging back completely undetected. This capability has made the vessel the Union’s greatest weapon in its war against the Purist Nation, a stealth-attack ship unlike any other in known space.

That’s not without a heavy price—travel between dimensions causes hallucinations, violent behavior, and psychotic breaks for those onboard, and even with the radical measures taken aboard to mitigate the risks, there are often casualties even from brief exposure. As the war ramps up and the missions tasked to the Keeling grow, the exposure and the danger will be anything but brief. No matter the cost, they have their mission.

After all, what else is a ship crewed by the damned to do than sail it repeatedly into hell?

Stories of soldiers seeking to redeem themselves for acts of cowardice, real or perceived, are as old as Achilles and Henry Fleming, and Lt. Trav “Yellowbelly” Ellis is a worthy addition to their ranks, and a fascinating choice for the protagonist of a military science fiction series. For all the debate around him, we see from Ellis’ perspective from very early on what motivated his actions—his family.

Like countless members of the military before him, Ellis’ home life is less than ideal—his marriage to his wife Molly is strained, his young daughter Aven barely knows him, and he’s never even seen his unborn daughter Kinley. It was them he was thinking of when he ordered the retreat, the fear of leaving his wife a widow, and thoughts of his children never getting to know their father, as he once did. Was this cowardice or selfishness? It’s up to the reader to decide, and Ellis debates it himself, even as he finds his footing serving about the Keeling. Indeed, they’re a source of strength as he fights to live another day aboard the Crypt.

And then there are the other new crew members of the James Keeling, rounding out a supporting cast who each have their own roles to play. Anne Lafferty, a disgraced intelligence operative with a breathtaking sadistic streak she can barely contain. Doctor Susannah Rossi, sentenced for killing an officer who attempted to sexually assault her, who is both a brilliant researcher, and devoted Purist who remains loyal to the Union. Jim Perry, strong as an ox, none too bright, and whose youthful hunger for glory that has been the make for many great soldiers, and for far many more dead ones. John Bennett, a blooded veteran with decades of experience, and nothing left for him but hopes for a hero’s sendoff. Nitzan Shamdi, once known as Abbas al-Kenja, a Purist deep cover agent tasked with infiltrating the Keeling. Every one of them is memorable and go a long way toward making The Crypt: Shakedown sizzle the way it does.

Of course, another strength of the novel is that the titular ship is as much a character as any member of the crew. The comparisons between spaceships and submarines are nothing new, especially in military science fiction, but The Crypt: Shakedown deserves credit for making the stale air and tight bulkheads come across so vividly. It also helps the military scifi and horror elements gel together, the claustrophobia adding another layer to the unsettling alien nature of the Keeling and extradimensional terror, with the dimensional travel tactically serving in space combat as submarines do in naval battles.

The Crypt: Shakedown is a gripping page turner with a wonderfully fleshed out ensemble cast, whose skillful combination of military science fiction and horror that reads like Run Silent, Run Deep meets Event Horizon. It’s also the first in a series, so I’ll be very excited to see what forays await the Keeling and its crew in the future.

*   *   *

Generation Ship
Michael Mammay
Harper Voyager, 608 pages, $19.99 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $9.99
ISBN: 978-0063252981
Series: Alex Benedict 9
Genre: Space Opera, Hard SF, Political Thriller, Colonization, Alien Beings

*   *   *

When humanity eventually makes its first journey into the void of deep space, countless things could go wrong. Yet the weakest link in any prospective colonization mission may well be the human element—indeed, that is the crisis of Generation Ship, a political action thriller centered on the colonization of an alien world that has begun to be torn apart by strife just as it reaches its destination.

In 2108, the colony ship Voyager departed Earth for the exoplanet of Promissa, twenty-seven light-years away. On board are 18,000 of the world’s best and brightest, whose descendants will be the first settlers on this new world. Now, after 253 years, they’re mere months from arriving in orbit of their hopeful new home.

After a violent incident between ship security and an elderly colonist scheduled to be euthanized, dissatisfaction over many of the draconian measures put in place to survive centuries in the void finally boils over, with protests calling for change with planetfall seemingly imminent. There is further discontent over stagnation within the ships various departments having resulted in placement and leadership being inherited positions in everything but name. And amidst all the chaos, various figures seek to play off tensions to claim greater power for themselves, ranging from soon to be planetary governor Jared Pantel, ambitious security officer Mark Rector, and crime boss Colin Sharakan.

In the middle of this powder keg, science officer Sheila Jackson can’t get people to pay attention to the data pouring in from Promissa—or more concerningly, what data isn’t pouring in, as several probes and landers go dark. What information they get increasingly raises more questions than answers, and the smallest differences in data could be the difference between this new world being a haven or a hellscape, and Jackson can’t get leadership to pay it any mind. Jackson may soon have choices of her own to make as well, with she and her husband granted rare permission to have a child, which would all but remove her from her work.

This battle over competing visions for the future of mankind in this new world could well doom all of them—before a single human has even set foot on Promissa. Not to mention any potential residents who might have their own opinion on the matter of colonization, as might an artificial intelligence growing aboard the Voyager.

Author Michael Mammay has been one of the rising stars of modern military science fiction for the past few years, with his Planetside series and standalone The Misfit Soldier earning praise for their grounded characters and breakneck action. Here he has made a pivot toward hard science fiction, complete with a Tom Clancy-esque thriller twist, and it’s genuinely exciting to see him blaze off in a new direction.

It helps that the conflicts at the center of Generation Ship are engaging ones, those of a sleeper ship whose passengers have finally begun to chafe under the measures imposed upon them to make the journey possible. It helps that many of those measures, be it euthanizing colonists who reach age 75 or carefully regulating who gets to have children and when, while unspeakably cruel and tyrannical, are requirements to prevent mission failure. When every breath of oxygen has to be accounted for, order and control seep into every aspect of life that terrestrial tyrants could only dream of.

Of course, along with the debatably necessary measures, there’s plenty of unnecessary ones as well. After two and a half centuries, occupation mobility has stagnated, and what passes for a political system even more so, and a ton of people seeking to challenge both. One of the things that Generation Ship does so well is set up each of the eventual players of the coming conflict, their motives, their ambitions, what got them involved in the growing furor about the Voyager, and then we watch them snap, attack and ally with one another once things come to blows. The characters are well-realized, their motivations realistic, and their flaws all too human.

Toss in some unforeseen twists and turns along the way, and you have an absolute page-turner of a thriller where 18,000 lives and the future of a new colony hangs in the balance. Generation Ship is compelling, cleverly written, with a well-characterized cast—this is the kind of book to both keep you on the edge of your seat and keep you guessing.

*   *   *

Generation Nemesis
Sean McMullen
Wizard’s Tower Press, 352 pages, $27.50 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $5.99
ISBN: 978-1913892449
Genre: Ecological/Environmental SF, Climate Change SF, Dystopian SF, Psychological/Sociological SF

*   *   *

The idea of the sins of the father being visited upon the son are as old as the biblical Moses, but there does seem to be a current of rising intergenerational anger throughout pop culture and contemporary politics. Few have taken them to more chilling conclusions than Generation Nemesis.

Australian science fiction author Sean McMullen has been a fixture of the genre scene for over three decades, with over a dozen stories published in Analog, including the Hugo-nominated “Eight Miles,” and most recently with his short story “Saving Galileo” appearing in the May/June 2023 issue. With his new novel, McMullin delivers an ecological science fiction story that is equal parts Christopher Buckley’s Boomsday, Inherit the Wind, and Soylent Green.

The year is 2045, and a combination of dramatic climate change, resource shortages and a limited nuclear exchange has left the Earth on the brink. After suffering a series of breakdowns, famines and other catastrophes, society has reshaped itself around repairing the damage down—most dramatically by taking revenge on the people who took humanity to this point.

There is now a division between people born before and after the year 2000, with those born after now firmly in charge and seeking to hold accountable the older generations born before, dubbed “Tippers.” In Australia, the Tippers have begun to be placed into concentration camps, where they will stand trial before kangaroo courts for a range of crimes committed against the climate and future generations, with charges ranging from overconsumption to neglect. Nearly all are sentenced to die by a series of increasingly gruesome means of execution, and at best, they linger with a suspended sentence as so-called borderline cases where they can work hard labor in the camps until they die of natural causes.

Which is why it causes such a stir when Jason Hall, an octogenarian climatologist, not only volunteers to be sent to Audit Camp 71, but requests to face trial. He spent decades, often in vain, attempting to convince his contemporaries to change their lifestyles and better protect the environment. Now he hopes to argue in defense of the Tippers and make a case that culling humanity such as this is as harmful to the future as a fleet of private jets.

Of course, there is the small issue that no Tipper put on trial has ever earned a pardon—and the much larger issue that the merciless Auditor General leading the charge against Jason is his own granddaughter Renny, who has already had her own parents and three brothers put to death, alongside thousands of others.

Even by the standards of the Australian dystopian sci-fi tradition that delivered us works from Mad Max to Dead End Drive-In, the one presented by Generation Nemesis is a ghastly one, the Cultural Revolution with Greta Thunberg sitting in for Chairman Mao. The glib, almost cheerful way that the members of self-described “Generation Victim” carry out open genocide, with the righteous self-assurance they’re helping the planet is immediately unsettling, and there are moments throughout Generation Nemesis that will make your skin crawl. The novel pulls no punches in its portrayal of despotism and dystopia, for which it should be commended.

Likewise, Generation Nemesis manages to avoid some of the more egregious issues that plague much of modern “cli-fi.” Too often they strike the same sour notes that so much of the science fiction of the late sixties and early seventies fixated on overpopulation as a doomsday scenario, often offering solutions far more horrifying than the problem. It hasn’t escaped my notice that the camp guards often talk like the “heroes” of some cli-fi novels.

Which brings us to the protagonist McMullin has created in Jason Hall, a cantankerous, classical genre hero if there ever was one, well used to using wit and reason to try and convince unreasonable people to see the error of their ways, and just as used to them not listening. This is a bleak world, made bleaker that the groups running it now are so consumed by assigning blame and seeking vengeance for the past they’ve all but given up on actually seeking a better future. Seeing Hall make a case not just for the lives of the Tippers, but for that very future, makes for a gripping, if unusual legal battle.

The result is a novel that that has a bleak world and a terrifying dystopia, and an old man standing trial in defiance of both for the hope of a better tomorrow.

*   *   *

Sea of Tranquility
Emily St. John Mandel
Knopf, 272 pages, $28.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $11.99
ISBN: 978-1668004296
Genre: SF Mystery, Time Travel, To The Moon, Psychological/Sociological SF

*   *   *

I might be a late-comer to the latest novel from Arthur C. Clarke Award-winner Emily St. John Mandel, with everyone from Goodreads to former President Barrack Obama covering Sea of Tranquility in high praise. Now that it’s available in paperback, I finally picked up a copy for myself, and discovered a beautifully written story about the human connections that transcend time and space.

In 1912, a young English nobleman named Edwin St. John St. Andrew journeys across Canada, before a strange encounter with a man named Roberts, and haunting visions of a vast terminal and the sounds of a violin, leaves him deeply shaken and questioning his sanity.

In 2020, a woman named Mirella Kessler watches a video that conjures up similar visions of a terminal and a playing violin. A man named Gaspery-Jacques Roberts attempts to question her about it, only for her to recognize him from a murder scene she witnessed as a child, having not aged a day, and she flees.

In 2203, lunar resident and novelist Olive Llewellyn is on Earth doing a book tour for her new novel, Marienbad. She tours, does book signings, and delivers lectures as a virus outbreak spreads, in a strange parallel to her novel, which is about a fictional influenza outbreak. In another strange coincidence, a journalist who shares the same name as a character in her novel, Gaspery-Jacques, asks her about a passage about a man in a spaceport who is transported after hearing a violin play.

At last, in 2401, Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, who was named after the character in Marienbad, works as a hotel detective on the moon. His sister Zoey, a physicist, comes to him with an interesting problem—she works for a clandestine government agency that oversees spacetime and time travel, and they’ve noticed the anomaly connecting him, Edwin, Mirella and Olive across the centuries. After some warnings about what will happen if he breaks protocol and the risks of time travel, Roberts agrees to help solve the mystery behind what connects these people across the twentieth, twenty-first, twenty-third and twenty-fifth centuries.

Sea of Tranquility moves at a brisk pace until we finally join Gaspery-Jacques in the twenty-fifth century, and we finally start to dig into the overarching plot of the novel. Very much in the tradition of books like Slaughterhouse-Five or Cloud Atlas, the time skips and time travel are a vehicle to explore the human experience more than explore time and space. Common threads and motifs play out in each time period and with each character, ranging from the common thread of isolation and dissatisfaction facing each character, to even pandemics with the Spanish Flu, Covid-19, a future influenza epidemic and potential corruption of the timestream serving as another connection between the centuries and the characters.

The book isn’t without its issues. The chapters following Olive Llewellyn on a book tour feel self-indulgent, if not bordering on outright self-insert at times, especially some parts that feel like potshots taken at critics. Though Sea of Tranquility is a science fiction novel that tackles time travel and space travel, it does play fast and loose with science at times, and often fact can and will take a backseat to character development.

That said, one gets away with that when the character moments are as good as they are throughout Sea of Tranquility—and a lot of those moments are absolutely superb. Mandel’s prose at times sings off the page, lyrical in its descriptions of everything from the view of Earth from space, the darkness of a domed lunar colony whose artificial lighting has failed, to humdrum high society. Toss in seeing the mystery of just what connected these particular people across five centuries, and it makes for a deeply satisfying journey.

Though very loosely connected to her previous novel, The Glass Hotel, that connection is limited to a few character names and locations and does not require a prior read.

Equally ambitious as it is intimate, Sea of Tranquility proves an enjoyable character study, written with as much care and attention to detail as the signature violin whose tune played across the centuries.

*   *   *

In Ascension
Martin MacInnes
Atlantic Books, 352 pages, $17.99  (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $8.99
ISBN: 978-1668004296
Genre: Hard SF, Alien Beings, Climate Change SF, Underwater/On the Sea SF, Exploration & Discovery

*   *   *

Lastly, from Scottish author Martin MacInnes, we have a novel that takes us from the deepest unexplored depths of the Atlantic to the farthest reaches of the Solar System and manages to touch on nearly as many themes along the journey.

Leigh Hasenbosch grew up in Rotterdam with a tumultuous childhood, an abusive father and neglectful mother, looking to the ocean for an escape from an early age. She finds one studying marine ecology and microbiology at the university in Rotterdam and Bremen, before embarking on a career that would eventually take her to the Azores, Cape Verde and Ascension Island, studying ocean floor vents, algae, and previously undiscovered deep ocean trenches.

While working in Cape Verde, NASA has a breakthrough in propulsion technology that allows spacecraft to travel 10,000 times faster than previously possible and putting the entire Solar System in range for manned exploration. Despite treating the discovery as almost background noise when it happened, Leigh is surprised to be approached by a former colleague with an offer to work for ICORS, the Institute for Coordinated Research in Space. Her new job is to develop a form of self-sustaining algae that could help feed astronauts—one that is given new urgency when an anomaly at the edge of the Solar System bumps up the mission timetable and earns Leigh a spot among the crew.

And so, Leigh finds herself having gone from exploring ocean trenches to a crewmember aboard the Nereus, headed into space . . . as to the ultimate destination, I dare not spoil it. One of the strongest points of In Ascension is how often just when Leigh—and the reader—think they have a grasp on just what’s going on, MacInnes often knows just the right twist or new details to drip to keep you on your toes. That subtle, slow burn reveal is no small feat, given the book’s 500 pages, and no reliance on any sort of action to raise the stakes throughout.

In Ascension plays with a range of genres, from thriller to mystery, as well as a range of scientific fields from ocean ecology to discussions about alien life and the Fermi Parodox, but at its heart it remains an examination of interconnectedness, of things as small as Leigh’s own family, or as grand as Earth’s place within the solar ecosystem and just where mankind fits within it all. The novel draws connections between the microbial life around deep-sea smokers, not far removed from the first life on Earth, to our own hopes for contact with alien intelligence. There is a continuous sense of wonder at mankind’s place in the universe, be that as grand as taking our first steps out of the Solar System or walking along the Rotterdam waterfront.

I also really enjoyed how much care and attention was given to every aspect of ocean exploration and the sciences connected to it, and how naturally it weaves them into the story. One example early in the novel is the implication that Leigh’s father, Geert, has become the unstable and violent man he is in part because of the slow decline of the Dutch aquatic ecosystem he helps to maintain. The Dutch polder system has begun losing its ability to not only keep the rising tides at bay, but as temperatures rise, the canals and reservoirs have begun to turn into swamps. Even later in the novel, Leigh will often draw comparisons to the sights of deep space to parts of the aquatic ecosystems she has studied her whole life.

MacInnes has created something remarkable with In Ascension, with layers upon layers of complexity, grand in scope yet completely grounded, and throughout it all, never losing sight of the very human center of the novel and its journey.


Sean CW Korsgaard is a U.S. Army veteran, award-winning freelance journalist, an author of speculative fiction, and member of the editorial staff at Baen Books. His first anthology, Worlds Long Lost, was released in December 2022, as was his debut short story, “Black Box.” He lives in Richmond, Virginia with his wife and child, along with, depending on who you ask, either far too many or far too few books.

Copyright © 2023 Sean CW Korsgaard

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