Science Fiction

A Fresh Take On Dystopia In 'Chimpanzee'

Sep 14, 2014

The recent wave of dystopian novels — okay, let's call it a glut — has focused attention on all kinds of Earth-threatening ills, from climate change to genetically modified food. The plight of student-loan debtors and struggling academics, however, hasn't usually topped that list. Which is partly what makes Darin Bradley's latest novel, Chimpanzee, so fascinating, flaws and all.

It's a bright cool day in September and the books now number 13. Kim Harrison has concluded her long-running Hollows series, the 10-year-anniversary of which I marked back in April, and I am bereft. In The Witch With No Name, Rachel Morgan, Ivy Tamwood and Jenks the pixy have their last string of adventures together in a modern-day Cincinnati riddled with elves, witches, vampires living and undead, werewolves, fairies and demons, in a rollercoaster ride of interlocking shenanigans that left me a little breathless.

Accepting The Strange Brilliance Of 'Acceptance'

Sep 2, 2014

We have to backtrack a little here, right at the start.

Acceptance, book three in Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy, is hitting the shelves soon, and I want very badly to talk about it. But before I can do that, I have to talk about the first two books. To set the scene, as it were. To make any of this make any kind of sense, because Southern Reach is not the kind of series where you can just drop in at book two or three and have any idea what's happening. VanderMeer doesn't coddle dilettantes. He rewards the dedicated.

"There are three rules for writing a novel," Somerset Maugham supposedly once said. But then he went on to add, "Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."

When I'm reading for fun and not sitting up in my ivory tower reviewing books for NPR, I generally gravitate toward two kinds of stories: science fiction and procedurals. In both cases, I like my books grimy and lived-in. I have no love for utopias, shiny spaceships where nothing is ever broken, or Teflon detectives who don't come with baggage. If there isn't a bullet hole in someone or something before the story starts, there'd better be one put there within the first couple of pages.

'Seeders' Imagines A Pulpy Planet Of The Plants

Aug 7, 2014

In A.J. Colucci's 2012 debut, the sci-fi thriller The Colony, she describes a world where ants rise up to challenge the tyranny of pesticide-wielding humans. Instead of Planet of the Apes, it's Planet of the Ants — and with her second novel, Seeders, she's written a veritable Planet of the Plants. Unfortunately, the result isn't nearly as thrilling as it ought to be.

'Beautiful Blood' Slays Cliches, Not Dragons

Aug 4, 2014

Lucius Shepard — winner of a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award, a World Fantasy Award, a Shirley Jackson Award and many others during his decades-long career — died this year at the age of 70. And despite the decorations and respect he won within the world of science fiction and fantasy, he never broke through to a wider audience.

Can I Get A Do-Over? Shadow Selves And Second Chances

Jul 24, 2014

Two remarkable graphic novels being released this week are themed around shadow-selves, legacies and second chances: Bryan Lee O'Malley's Seconds is about a woman given the opportunity to magically undo past mistakes, while Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew's The Shadow Hero revises a mysterious golden-age superhero called the Green Turtle by fleshing out his Asian-American origins.

'Rocket Girl' Is A Jetpack-Powered 21st Century Angel

Jul 23, 2014

One word: jetpack. You perked up, right? When most of us dream of the future, jetpacks are one of the first things we dream about. And yet, even now that the future is indisputably here, we continue to be denied the ultimate sci-fi accessory. With all the 21st-century tech we've got these days — maps that talk, hand-held videophones — why aren't we all flying through the air with the greatest of renewable-energy-fueled ease? Maybe jetpacks need a special kind of power, an explosive force the average adult just can't muster. Maybe they need a teenager instead — say, a teen girl.

When fantasy has gotten so grim and dark that the term "grimdark" has been coined to describe certain authors, things may have gone slightly overboard. With Traitor's Blade, the first installment of a new fantasy series called the Greatcoat Quartet, author Sebastien de Castell seems to be taking a stand against the grimdark wave. Unlike the bleak, bloody work of George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie, Traitor's Blade is a swashbuckling romp packed with charisma, camaraderie, quick wit and even quicker swordplay.

An 'Unexpected' Treat For Octavia E. Butler Fans

Jul 10, 2014

When a writer passes before her time, readers and fans often mourn not only the loss of her presence in the world, but the loss of the words she may yet have written. Such was the case when, in 2006, speculative fiction writer Octavia E. Butler died unexpectedly at her home in Seattle. Butler is one of the most celebrated authors in the genre, her novels and short stories regularly graced with Hugo and Nebula awards. She was the first speculative fiction writer to receive the MacArthur "genius grant," a prize whose name perfectly summarizes Butler's work: She was a genius.

Balancing Signal And Noise In 'Landline'

Jul 8, 2014

I'm deeply conflicted about how to review this book. On the one hand, I literally laughed and cried from one page to the next and devoured the whole in a brief sitting.

On the other hand, I've also read Rainbow Rowell's other books, and this one pales in comparison.

So I could review it straightforwardly and say that it's funny, clever, charming, endearing, and all that would be true — but I could also review it and say that in some ways it's the least of the books of hers I've read so far, and that would also be true.

Edan Lepucki's debut, California, sold thousands of copies even before the official publication date when talk-show host Stephen Colbert urged readers to pre-order it from a national independent chain as a protest against the "books-and-everything else" giant, Amazon.

Better (?) Living Through Chemistry In 'Afterparty'

Apr 23, 2014

The question you have to ask yourself is, how juicy do you like your science fiction?

And I mean that in terms of a spectrum. To me, classic space operas are saltines — dusty and dry and fit only as a calmative after a long binge of weirder, more foreign flavors. William Gibson? He's ... moist. Rudy Rucker is a juicy peach. Paul Di Filippo is that same peach, a week gone and with a tooth stuck in it.

We Read The Year's Best New Sci-Fi — So You Don't Have To

Mar 31, 2014

The World Science Fiction Convention is a gathering of fans ranging from sci-fi movie buffs to gamers to comics aficionados — but at its heart, WorldCon is for lovers of literature, and it hosts the Hugo Awards, the Oscars of sci-fi and fantasy.

During the ceremony, one award is given that's not a Hugo: the John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer. The Campbell celebrates potential: Nominees are often young, just starting out in the field (though not always), and it serves as a kind of signpost for fans, pointing the way to the next great read.

After a varied career as a computer repairman and yacht captain, Hugh Howey turned his hand to writing. He'd self-published several novels and stories when the sci-fi dystopia WOOL, originally just a novella, found sudden runaway success in 2011. Howey found himself writing sequel after sequel to keep up with reader demand — the latest volume, Dust, was released in August.

Stephen Burt latest book is the poetry collection, Belmont.

We can go to science fiction for its sense of wonder, its power to take us to far-off places and future times. We can go to political fiction to understand injustice in our own time, to see what should change. We may go to poetry — epic or lyric, old or new — for what cannot change, for a sense of human limits, as well as for the music in its words.

Near the beginning of the Road Warrior there is a scene in which Mel Gibson's character eats dog food.

It is a perfect moment, a beautiful moment, a completely defining moment — a pause in the post-apocalyptic action where the writers gave us everything we needed to know about Gibson's Max Rockatansky in one, long, wordless scene. And it was a moment that — watching the movie at likely far too young an age on some long-gone Saturday night at the drive-in — messed me up for life.