Guest Reference Library

by Catherine Shaffer

I’m a science fiction author and I live in science fiction world. I have a watch that tracks my vital signs and can show me news, weather, and messages from friends. Teenagers whiz through my neighborhood on hoverboards. For work, I communicate with colleagues thousands of miles away through a real-time video link, like Captain Kirk did in Star Trek. And I can’t get lost because my car has a built-in navigation system guided by satellites. I’ve also refused to adopt some of the new tech that’s available. For example, I don’t need a device that you can yell at to re-order toilet paper, a doorbell that’s also a surveillance camera, or a button I can push to raise and lower my blinds.

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All of this by itself is just a bit dizzying if you compare it to the world of the ’70s and ’80s that I grew up in. But recently, I’ve survived a pandemic that has claimed over six million lives globally, and nearly a million in the U.S. alone. And, as I write this, the once dormant threat of a first nuclear strike by Russia against a NATO state has become active once more as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This is the point where it becomes difficult to tell anymore what’s science fiction and what’s reality. When the world is slowly transforming into the science fiction futures we used to know (and fear), what is left to imagine?

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The way I see it, there are three main goals of science fiction, and only one of them is to speculate about the future and how technological advancements may change us. The other two are commentary on the world as it is now, and pure escapism. When Trevor invited me to write a guest Reference Library column for Analog, I did something I don’t usually do—I dove into a selection of new releases for 2022. I usually read a mix of books written anywhere from a few years ago to decades ago, which dilutes the effect of social and political trends for any given year. So for a few months, I drank from the 2022 firehose, and saw a world where all of us are walking a technological tightrope, balancing between elation at the ways that technology has made our lives better and easier, and dread over seriously disturbing trends in geopolitics, climate, human rights, and human health. The selections for 2022 are very topical, very aware of the moment we are in right now. Even those offering pure, blessed escape can’t help tipping their hats to the turmoil of the now.

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Braking Day
Adam Oyebanji
DAW, 368 pages, $27 (hardcover)
ISBN 9780756418229
Genre: Hard Science Fiction, Space Travel
Release date: April 5, 2022

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Braking Day takes us for a ride on a generation starship, the Archimedes. It’s one of a fleet of three ships. Five generations into their journey, a big day is approaching. The pilots will soon rotate the ship, which has been coasting at a constant speed in the vacuum of space, and fire the engines to decelerate as they approach their destination, a planet orbiting Tau Ceti. Hence, the title: Braking Day. Life aboard the Archimedes is tough but fair, at least in the perspective of engineer-in-training Ravi MacLeod. He is working hard for a better life, having been born into an ill-reputed family. His father, a petty criminal, was “recycled,” and Ravi is studying hard and staying out of trouble in the hope of a better life as an officer on the ship.

The book, a first novel by Scottish author Adam Oyebanji, begins with an impossible encounter. Ravi, working alone in the ship’s isolated engine rooms, spots a girl floating outside the ship without a spacesuit. Ravi knows he can’t report what he has seen. His future in the officer training program is far too fragile, and there is little tolerance for people who have visions or are otherwise not contributing enough to justify their use of resources on the ship.

Although Ravi and the other significant characters in Braking Day are adults, the plot has a young adult feel reminiscent of a Scooby-style adventure. Ravi and his cousin Boz set out to solve the mystery of Ravi’s weird visions and try to save the ship from disaster while authorities complicate the situation by suppressing crucial information. As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that larger forces are at work. Old conflicts believed to have been left behind on Earth reemerge, threatening to destroy the mission.

Braking Day is a fun-to-read, wholesome page-turner. It deals with the interaction of technology and culture, and how technologies affect our free will and our fundamental human nature. In Ravi’s world, everyone has brain implants that allow them to connect to the “hive” to communicate, access information, and operate everything from complex engineering equipment to a light switch. However, artificial intelligence is strictly forbidden. Back on Earth, AIs had taken control, and, in the view of the First Crew of the Archimedes, had also taken free will away from humanity. Their mission to the stars was an attempt to get out from under the ubiquitous oppressive control of the AIs.

Ravi’s world gets turned upside down when he discovers an entirely different perspective in which artificial intelligence is benign, but having a brain implant makes him an inhuman “cyborg.” That conflict mirrors some of our familiar contemporary culture clashes, though stopping short of taking any specific position on a current political debate.

Braking Day offers more than a tight, suspenseful plot, however. It is lushly and lovingly imbued with engineering details. Throughout the course of the novel, we see every part of the Archimedes, from the bowels deep in engineering to the spinning hubs, at times in gorgeous, hallucinatory detail. We even get views of the exterior of the ship as characters leap untethered from hub to hub, and explore ruins left by a long ago disaster. Oyebanji built a mathematically and scientifically rigorous model of an old-school generation starship—no warp speed, no hibernation sleep—just hard core Newtonian physics informed by the classics, aka Heinlein, Arthur C. Clark, Asimov, and E.E. “Doc Smith, according to Oyebanji’s blog. My favorite descriptive detail from the books is one of the most mundane. It’s the chain driven ladders (paternosters) that Ravi and Boz use to move quickly through the habitat levels of the Archimedes. In addition to providing entertainment and light suspense, because losing one’s grip and falling off could be catastrophic, it’s a great narrative opportunity to illustrate the change in gravity moving from the outer parts of the rings, to the zero gravity centers.

The book offers some genuine surprises as the story unfolds, and its ending manages to achieve the perfect balance of satisfying and unexpected for this hard science fiction fan.

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The City Inside
Samit Basu
Macmillan, 256 pages, $25.99
ISBN: 9781250827487
Genre: Science Fiction, Cyberpunk
Release date: June 7, 2022

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The City Inside by Samit Basu draws you in with a deceptively placid domestic scene. Joey is making a weekly visit to her family home in near-future Delhi. As a “reality controller,” a media production expert, Joe creates content for high-powered influencers, or “Flowstars.” Flows are a media mashup similar to current day social media forms—Instagram, Tik Tok, Youtube, Facebook—all broadcast continuously by Flowstars and their teams of producers, writers, makeup artists, sound technicians, and more. Joey works for a Flowstar named Indi, who happens to be her ex-boyfriend.

But on her day off, Joey is trying, and mostly succeeding, at tuning out her work life to spend quality time with her family. The cast of characters includes Laxmi, the housekeeper, who declines Joey’s request to go to a dangerous protest with her; Joey’s sullen teen brother Rono; her mom, Romola; and her dad, Avik. As we are introduced to near future technologies like a tattoo that works like a smartwatch and an overly intrusive futuristic digital assistant, we also learn something terrible has happened in India between the current time and about a decade from now. Joey begs her parents, who have big “Ok Boomer” energy (even though by the timeline they are probably Millennials) not to speak their opinions out loud, even in their own home.

Avik and Romola are stuck in the glory days of their activist youth. But they live in a world of surveillance capitalism. The walls have ears, and people with dissenting opinions can be disappeared or murdered. Romola and Avik haven’t adapted to this new reality, whereas Joey has not only adapted, but is a behind-the-scenes producer of palatable, government approved entertainment, in the form of Flow.

The menace of hidden ears listening inside your own home came through so powerfully that several times while I was reading The City Inside (a US release of Basu’s 2020 novel Chosen Spirits) I hesitated to voice an opinion about current events out loud in my own home, glancing at the walls suspiciously for a moment before I remembered I was it was 2022, Ann Arbor, USA, and the walls aren’t quite that curious . . . yet. (Who among us has not been spooked to see ads pop up on our phones for products we only mentioned out loud, or perhaps only thought about?)

Tension builds in The City Inside as we meet its other hero, Rudra, the black sheep of a powerful Brahmin family involved in human trafficking. Together, Joey and Rudra try to produce a compelling romantic storyline for Indi while dodging the many threats of a society in crisis. Those include Chopra, the mega-wealthy “positive propaganda thinktanker,” Joey’s enigmatic new boss Nikhil, random mob violence throughout Delhi, Laxmi’s surprisingly powerful underground connections, and an always-offstage government that seems prepared to arrest everyone at a moment’s notice.

When Indi’s Flow is rocked by scandal, these threats seem poised to collide, throwing Joey and Rudra into conflict with heretofore shadowy enemies. But by the time I reached this point in the book, I had only a slim handful of pages left to read, and it was clear we weren’t going to see that big confrontation. Rudra sets off on a head-trippy adventure of his own, while Joey’s tale reaches an interior, emotional resolution, perhaps in keeping with the story’s quiet beginnings. Larger threats and questions raised by the book remain. The City Inside is richly textured, evocative, refreshing, and extremely relevant to the times we live in. I hope it’s only the first chapter of a larger story yet to be told.

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Never Panic Early
Fred Haise and Bill Moore
Penguin Random House, 216 pages, $29.95 (hardcover)
ISBN 9781588347138
Genre: Autobiography
Release date: April 5, 2022

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On Thanksgiving weekend, 2019, my husband and I visited a family member at a memory care facility in Battle Creek, Michigan. The activities director was busy putting out holiday decorations and setting up a Christmas tree. We found an older man lying under the tree, going through a tangle of lights that were half on, half off. “This is impossible,” he said, unplugging the string from the wall next to the tree and standing up nimbly. “Just throw the whole string out. It can’t be fixed!” he declared. I couldn’t imagine what this man was doing in a locked memory care unit. He was clearly very lucid and capable of taking care of himself. He went on to explain that he was an engineer and had worked on the NASA Titan rocket program, so he certainly knew what he was talking about when it came to Christmas lights. His name was Joe, and he was not a resident of the facility. He lived in a senior apartment on the property, and came over every morning to spend the day with his wife, who was sitting quietly in a wheelchair nearby. He was 97 years old.

We didn’t see Joe again on our subsequent visits. I thought about him often. As a journalist, I knew he had some amazing memories from his work with the space program, and that almost no one else would still be around who shared them. But in March 2020, all visits were suspended. We didn’t get inside again until June 2021, and by then only five residents remained, none of them Joe’s wife. I have regretted ever since then not reaching out to Joe immediately, and I hope somewhere his memories have been preserved.

That’s why it’s such a great gift to have a memoir from Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise. As much historical document as autobiography, Never Panic Early, authored with Bill Moore, details Fred’s remarkable life from birth through retirement. Apollo 13, which most of us are familiar with from the 1995 movie of the same name, is but one episode among many fascinating experiences from Haise’s life. The book is told in a spare, “just the facts” style, moving efficiently in chronological order through the events of Haise’s life. Some episodes are referenced so briefly that if you’re not reading carefully you could miss them. For example, Haise spent a year on active duty with the Ohio Air National Guard during which he trained to launch a nuclear weapon. That entire tale is just one paragraph.

The title, Never Panic Early, implies that there is a correct time to panic in a crisis. I was looking forward to learning from Haise what time that was, but it turns out there was no full-blown panic at any point. Haise wrote that “never panic early” was advice he picked up during training at Edwards Air Force Base, “as taking action abruptly in an event could cause the loss of a valuable, possibly one-of-a-kind aircraft.” Throughout, Haise explains how he identified failures in each of his “never panic early” moments and was able to avert the crisis or mitigate the damage. Those moments dot the narrative. Haise’s first “never panic early” moment happened while he was assigned to Marine Air Group 24 at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina. On a flight to Miami in the McDonnell Douglas F2H-4 Banshee, Haise got in trouble flying over a thunderstorm at 41,000 feet and ended up in a “graveyard spiral,” a phenomenon that usually results from a disoriented pilot who mistakenly believes the wings are level when the plane is in descent. The result is a downward spiral as the pilot pulls back on the control yoke attempting to climb out. In Haise’s case, the culprit was a faulty instrument indicating that the wings were level. Haise explains how he righted the aircraft:

“Quickly, I referenced the needle-ball instrument to level my wings and calmly began to maneuver. I made a roll-control input to center the needle vertically and engaged the rudder pedals to force the ball in the attitude indicator to the center. It was similar to a carpenter’s level. I knew the wings were level, but I didn’t know if I was right side up or inverted. With the altimeter still unwinding, I moved the control stick after to pull some G, to effect the pull-out from my spiraling dive. Passing 20,000 feet, I started the engines and continued easterly out over the Atlantic Ocean, clear of air traffic.”

Never Panic Early is a diverting journey into an extraordinary life. The matter-of-fact style and methodical organization of the narrative reflect the persistence, calm, and meticulous attention to detail needed for Haise to succeed in his career and to survive the near catastrophe of the Apollo 13 mission.

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How High We Go in the Dark
Sequoia Nagamatsu
HarperCollins, 304 pages, $27.99 (hardcover)
Genre: Apocalyptic Science Fiction, Space Exploration
Release date: January 18, 2022

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I’ll say to begin with that Sequoia Nagamatsu’s How High We Go in the Dark is not for the faint of heart. It contains detailed scenes related to death throughout, including deaths of children, deaths of animals, and suicide. There is also one section that features animal experimentation. The book is a series of linked stories depicting a pandemic and the centuries that follow as humanity survives, adapts, and rebuilds. It is as beautifully written as it is heartbreaking.

The book opens with “30,000 Years Beneath a Eulogy” as archeologist Cliff Miyashiro arrives at a dig near Batagaika crater in Siberia to complete the work of his late daughter Clara, who died in an accident. Back home in California, he has a wife, Miki, and a granddaughter, Yumi. Remember those names, because they will come up later in the book. In the meantime, we find that Clara has unearthed the remains of a Neanderthal child who died of a mysterious illness. As Cliff goes through Clara’s notes and belongings, he reconnects with the daughter who had become largely estranged due to her dedication to saving the planet from climate change. She had even delegated the rearing of her daughter, Yumi, to Cliff and Miki. The personal stories of loss, grief, and disconnection take center stage, while, in the background, the wisdom of thawing and reviving the ancient virus is debated, and, of course, scientific curiosity wins out over prudence and the Arctic plague is unleashed.

The next story takes us to even darker places. The Arctic plague, it turns out, targets children. And for those who become ill, death is a very long and painful process that is only delayed by the experimental treatments that are available. Euthanasia has become an acceptable alternative. The City of Laughter is an amusement park where a child’s last day can be their happiest, filled with rollercoasters, ice cream, entertainment, and fun until they are sedated and put on the final ride, Osiris, which quickly and painlessly ends their lives through high G forces.

While the children are enjoying the best day of their lives, their traumatized parents are trailing behind them, choking back tears. Occasionally, they grab their kids and make a run for it. When that happens, it’s Skip’s job to intercept them and remind them that the health code does not permit infected children to leave the park alive. Skip is a down-on-his-luck comedian who took a job at City of Laughter to make ends meet. He wears a mouse costume and his duties include family-friendly standup, loading sedated children onto Osiris, and unloading bodies at the end of the ride. This is a harrowing job for Skip. He writes down the name of every child he has put on Osiris, with cute details about each one. As difficult as his job is, Skip is tested beyond human endurance when a special family comes into his life.

This story introduces the book’s other main theme: capitalism. Most of the stories depict some kind of intersection of death with a moneymaking scheme, like elaborate hospice concepts and creative disposition of corpses. I resisted the premise of City of Laughter, because mass euthanasia of children is beyond repugnant as a concept. It seems like a step society would never take. But then I remembered what it was like having my dog euthanized. How much he was suffering and how I had to arbitrarily choose a date, and then make him as comfortable and happy as possible, until a very nice lady came to visit him and give him treats and he took a nap, and even though I was doing my very best for him it still felt terrible, and suddenly City of Laughter made sense. Maybe it’s not realistic in our current culture, but there’s an emotional truth to the story that transcends practical reality.

If you expect How High We Go in the Dark to offer any type of catharsis after “City of Laughter,” you’ll be disappointed. It would be more accurate to expect to see more exploration of the human spirit enduring (graphic) loss and searching for meaning through it. A thread of plot is carried through the stories, leading to futures where humanity finds hope and healing, including colonization of a planet thousands of years in the future. Ultimately, there is a reason for everything that happened. I enjoyed seeing the story come full circle, and understanding the significance of each recurring character to the overall narrative.

This book is not for everyone. It is written with great compassion for the dark place we go when we have lost someone extremely important, when we can no longer look away from the reality of that loss, either the spiritual or the base physical aspects of it, when it’s not possible to turn away and think of something more pleasant. In that dark place, all we really have is each other. That’s why the book is aptly named for the story “How High We Go in the Dark,” a story of a group of strangers clinging to each other with courage and vulnerability in a very dark place. For those who have been in that place, or are there right now, this book might make you feel seen.

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Sea of Tranquility
Emily St. John Mandel
Penguin Random House, 272 pages, $25 (hardcover)
ISBN 9780593321447
Genre: Literary Science Fiction
Release date: April 5, 2022

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Sea of Tranquility is Emily St. John Mandel’s sixth novel. She’s best known as the author of Station Eleven, which won the Arthur C. Clarke award (among others) and was adapted into a ten-episode TV series released on HBOMax in 2021. Her next novel after that, The Glass Hotel, was recommended by former President Barack Obama. In Sea of Tranquility, Mandel returns to the pandemic theme that launched Station Eleven to stardom. The difference, though, is that Station Eleven preceded the COVID-19 pandemic, while Sea of Tranquility is firmly anchored within and informed by it. So much so, that at points in the story, you can almost hear the author telling you what it was like to work on the novel during lockdown in 2020. At times, the fictional pandemic hits a bit close to home for this COVID-19 survivor.

In full disclosure, I’ll say that I originally had three pandemic-themed books in my review stack, and after reading the two included here, I simply had no stomach for a third trip into a pandemic future. It’s just a bit “too soon” for me to fully appreciate pandemic fiction. But if my sampling of 2022 science fiction releases is representative, authors and readers are not waiting for my memory of 2020 to turn hazy and nostalgic to launch a new pandemic fiction trend.

Sea of Tranquility begins in 1912 and ends in 2401. We get early hints that time travel is involved, from the strange experiences the various characters have of momentarily stepping into a vast, echoing space where they hear violin music mixed with inexplicable roaring sounds. The oddly specific nature of the experience, recorded in diaries, home video, and other records, eventually draws the attention of scientists.

The story opens with aristocratic third son “Edwin St. John St. Andrew, hauling the weight of his double-sainted name across the Atlantic by steamship.” Later, we meet characters from 2020, right before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and from 2203, as a new SARS pandemic is sweeping the Earth and its lunar colonies, and from 2402, the central time point of the story.

The main character of the book doesn’t appear until nearly the midpoint. Gaspery-Jacques Roberts is a time traveler investigating the series of odd events. The Time Institute, headquartered on the moon, believes those incidents may be clues revealing something important about the nature of the universe.

The book’s strength lies in its architecture. The different storylines and moments in history are deftly layered to build the plot arc, touching each other and converging to finally complete the loop. Mandel’s language is smooth, simple, and hypnotically readable—a nice balance for its complex plot. One need not puzzle out sentence structure while simultaneously visualizing time paradoxes.

While Sea of Tranquility draws its setting and plot structure from science fiction, it’s told with a literary sensibility, dwelling on the smaller stories of individual characters and their connections. The antagonists pulling all the strings at the Time Institute remain off stage and never face a confrontation for the harm they’ve done. Likewise, Roberts’ moment of decision and outcome read more as a centerpiece around which to arrange the stories of other characters than as a series of events inevitably driven by the character’s growth.

Instead, readers are likely to find Olive Lewellyn, of 2203, most compelling. Lewellyn is an author on a book tour who encounters Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, but also, in a way, seems to have created him. All of the events of the story end up revolving around her, even as her life plays out as a metaphor for impermanence.

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The Memory Librarian and Other Stories of Dirty Computer
Janelle Monáe
Harper Voyager, 336 pages, $28.99 (hardcover)
ISBN: 9780063070875
Genre: Afrofuturism, Cyberpunk, LGBTQ+
Release date: April 19, 2022

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The Memory Librarian is a collection of five stories set in a dark future world in which an oppressive totalitarian government called New Dawn controls every aspect of life, not sparing even dreams and memories from its intrusion. In dystopian science fiction, the characters with the least power are usually the focus, as they benefit the least from the system and suffer the most. But in the title story, “The Memory Librarian,” authored by Monáe and Alaya Dawn Johnson, the viewpoint character Seshet is a part of the power structure. She monitors, catalogs, and polices the memories she collects from New Dawn’s population. It is through her privileged viewpoint that we’re introduced to the system of mind control used by the government on the population. As such, one would hardly call her a sympathetic character. Things begin to change for her when she falls in love with the enigmatic Alethia, a woman with a shady past who has been wiped clean and reformatted as a model citizen. Gripped by the turbulent emotions of new love, Seshet reaches for the power of her position when threatened with abandonment, disappointing even her personal AI assistant. Seshet eventually realizes that the system she uses to control others is controlling her, too.

Monáe is best known as a singer-songwriter and actress. She has been nominated for multiple Grammy awards for her music. As an actress, she appeared in the 2016 films Hidden Figures and Moonlight. A short film based on her dystopian-themed 2018 album Dirty Computer garnered a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form. The stories in The Memory Librarian expand on the science fictional themes from Dirty Computer.

The book includes four other stories, co-authored with Danny Lore, Eve L. Ewing, Yohanca Delgado, and Sheree Renée Thomas that take us to different places and times in the New Dawn world, without specifying exactly where. In “Timebox,” by Monáe and Ewing, the world looks almost exactly like our own. Partners Raven and Akilah are moving into a new apartment. Their relationship is tested when they discover a room off the kitchen where time slows to a crawl and they realize the possibilities are endless. They immediately clash over how to use the room. Raven wants to use it to catch up on the many impossible demands on her time, whereas Akilah argues that the room is a resource they’re obligated to share with their community. There’s just one fleeting mention of New Dawn to remind us of the book’s overall setting and theme.

In “Save Changes,” by Monáe and Delgado, we see New Dawn at the peak of its power, and the terrible costs incurred by dissenters. Amber lives with her sister and mother in a subjugated future New York City. Amber’s mother is under permanent house arrest. Her memories were wiped as a punishment for rebellion, but something went wrong in the process, and she returned to her family damaged, seemingly not quite aware of her surroundings or identity. Time manipulation again is the central science fictional element in the story, as Amber discovers a pendant her father gave her will let her rewind time, but only once. She must choose to use it or save it when New Dawn threatens her family again.

In spite of its dark themes, each story in The Memory Librarian strikes a note of hope. At the end, we are left with a vision of a better future brought forth through the resilience of the human spirit. It’s a message tailored to African-American and LGBTQ+ audiences who have not always enjoyed the same right to privacy of thought and freedom of expression as the mainstream. The kidnapping of New Dawn citizens for re-education mirrors some of the problems people of marginalized identities have faced in our society, such as mass incarceration and forced conversion therapy. In spite of intensifying culture clashes in recent years, The Memory Librarian urges its readers to hold on to hope.

 

Copyright © 2022 Catherine Shaffer