A debut novel that evokes the best of old- fashioned science fiction adventure and adds smart elements of satire, humor, and social commentary. The crew of the Wayfarer, a bore ship that "punches" holes through subspace to connect distant locales in interstellar space via wormhole, is a collection of humans, aliens, alien humans, and an overseeing AI named Lovey. Rosemary, who is fleeing family and hiding a secret, joins them and quickly discovers a new life that is both demanding and accepting in ways she never before imagined. The dialogue alone sets this novel a cut above. The characters are all fully realized, smart, and revealing in ways that bring us into their curious family, matching a wide and crowded universe as distinctly imagined as any in the genre. An unexpected treat, built of equal parts intelligence, sensitivity, and an adult appreciation of the 12-year-old SF fan in all of us.
Martians Abroad is remarkable, salubrious, entertaining, and never takes its audience or its characters for granted. Polly and her brother Charles (twins, after a fashion) find themselves sent to Earth by their ambitious and often autocratic mother to be educated at the Galileo Academy, and the two find themselves the first Martians to ever attend Galileo. It does not go smoothly. The story sets the problem of adapting and assimilating to a culture that insists on viewing you as inferior. Told from Polly's point of view, it details the difficulties and occasional triumphs of being the outsider needing to win respect while learning to survive. I read it with a pleasurable mix of nostalgia and sympathy for the siblings. Recommended.
Set to be re-released in July 2017.
If H.P. Lovecraft and Saul Bellow had ever collaborated on a ghost story, the result might be very much like John Langan's debut novel House of Windows. Not so much in style, but in the way the two writers would temper each other and blend their signature motifs into something simultaneously more sinister and more sophisticated. Patiently, persistently, and with great skill, Langan has constructed a modern ghost story about nightmares and families and fouled hopes and expectations imposed and denied, with a caution at its heart, that no matter how many windows into the soul one has, if the curtains are drawn or we refuse to honestly look, we cannot truly know each other. Or ourselves.
William Least-Heat Moon has taken a story of people making choices incompatible with their own desires and natures and given us a travelogue of the spirit. The trajectories of these three people, each one trying to find their place in a cosmos crowded with distraction and uncertainty, reveal the geography of the self and the gravity of choice. In the end we're offered a map of roads oft-traveled and too little remarked on the journey to hope.
Excellent account of the initial impact of Darwin's "Origin Of Species" in America. According to Fuller, this may be one instance in which we know who the first person in the country was to read a given book. In any event, it went hand-to-hand among a few intellectuals before its general publication (in a pirated edition) and began to make itself felt. It was 1859, the year of John Brown, and Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, Franklin Sanborn, Emerson and others were impacted by Darwin's new hypothesis. Asa Gray, a botanist and eventually chief antagonist of the pre-eminent scientist in America, Louis Agassiz (who never accepted evolution), saw in Darwin a solid, scientific argument against the rationalizations of slavery. Fuller gives us a rich account of these people, their world, and the effects of Darwin's stunning ideas had on America. We can see the lines being drawn in the controversy that has held much of our attention intellectually and theologically since. Highly recommended.
James Gleick is a gifted "explainer." His several books on science tackle abstruse and complex fields and make them intelligible and even fun to the lay reader. His biography of Richard Feynman was superb. Now he turns his attention to something which at first blush may seem trivial---time travel. He begins with the first fully realized incarnation of the idea, in H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, and then proceeds to examine how this relatively recent notion has affected 20th Century physics as well as popular culture. Entertaining, thoughtful, and lucid throughout, this books is a delight. -Mark's Holiday Staff Pick, 2016
One of the pleasures of a book like this is the revelation of "how it all began." Understanding the present, especially a fraught and complicated present, can require such deep inspections of the past. Sometimes the very deep past. Frankopan offers here an overview of world history going back, back, back to the formation of the early civilizations and their development into kingdoms and empires, with a view to explaining the world's history from the perspective of the East---which at one time, not that long ago, was the center of everything. It may be a shock to some to realize how very recently the West displaced the East in terms of global importance. It may shock some even more to realize how tenuous that displacement is and how temporary it may be. All the fractured asymmetries of the last couple of centuries become coherent in this well-researched and clearly written exploration of the world as it has emerged out of the connections, catastrophes, and causes between East and West. Highly recommended. -Mark's July Staff Pick, 2016
Many books come along purporting to be for the non-scientist, easy for the general reader, but they either are not or are so dumbed down as to be pointless. This one, however, is the real deal: a book about physics for the nonspecialist that is not pitched to any lowest-common-denominator level and manages to convey not only the essence of the major questions of physics in the 20th Century but explain how much we do and how much we do not know---and why. This is a gem. Elegantly simple while in no way simplistic, the ideal primer. Much recommended. -Mark's June Staff Pick, 2016
A rich evocation of a future universe in which colonial pressure vies with the mature respect of nature in questions of immigration, resource, and personal legitimacy. Reed's attention to detail and connection to character set this novel far above the usual. Vashti--hunter, conservationist, power broker, mother, widow, moral center--will linger in the imagination long after the close of the book. -Mark's June Staff Pick 2016
For over five decades, Harlan Ellison has been an unpredictable, incisive, rollercoaster ride of fantastic fiction. He has written for television, he written essays, journalism, reviews, scores of introductions, and edited two of the mostr important anthologies in science fiction and fantasy. But the best part of his considerable oeuvre has been the short fiction. He is a multiple award-winner, has had his stories made into television shows, and has been as chameleonic and uncategorizable as it is possible to be.
Here is his most recent collection of offbeat, challenging, strange tales, including his most recent award winner, How Interesting: A Tiny Man, which gained him another Nebula Award. Ellison has been one of the most trenchant and observant voices of the 20th Century and he continues to surprise and delight. Not to be missed. -Mark's March Staff Pick, 2016
Eco has been a voice of profound common sense since he began publishing. In essays and a series of novels he has shown us repeatedly how false assumptions can lead to catastrophe, especially in the area of conspiracy. Foucault's Pendulum was a complete autopsy of the dangers and absurdities of too close an engagement with presumed occultisms, secret histories, and the pseudo-intellectual obsessives and political adventurers who derive their purpose in life from such things. His last novel, Numero Zero, while briefer than his usual forays, engages completely another facet of the underside of public discourse by way of the creation of a newspaper which is never intended to see print. It is a device for other purposes and the staff of journalists hired to produce it give us a view of what goes on in "editorial meetings." One of them is chasing a theory that Mussolini survived WWII. The twists and turns are alternately funny, frustrating, and horrific. As ever, he cautions us not believe everything we read, but also to never abandon the quest of truths. Common sense was his forte. That and an impish delight in human intellectual foible. -Mark's May Staff Pick, 2016
The entire period both just before, during, and just after the Enlightenment was filled with individuals seemingly larger than life, robustly engaged in challenging any preconception they could find, hunting them down, nailing them to a board, dissecting them, and flinging their conclusions in the face of any convention that presumed to deny them agency. Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, was an eccentric, brilliant woman who challenged a convention further. First woman to be invited to address the infant Royal Society, before men like Boyle and Pepys, she fought against an inborn reticence to make herself more than society insisted she should be. She wrote, she made her own clothes, she presented audaciously, upsetting apple carts and collecting admirers and champions, producing plays and books, including one proto-science fiction novel. She styled herself Margaret the First. The full flavor of the period and her place in it---and against it---is on display in Danielle Dutton's marvelous novel. -Mark's March Staff Pick, 2016
A vast, epic reworking of the fairy tale, Vinge's Hugo winning novel follows the fortunes of Moon and Sparks, cousins friends lovers, rustic inhabitants of Tiamat, a world with a centuries long winter-summer cycle and a culture whipsawed between them, with the Winters ruling during the ice-bound dark times when the world is cut off from the interstellar Hegemony and its trade. Arienrhod, the current Winter Queen, plans to extend her reign by a subversion of tradition, seeding the Summers with her own clone embryos so the next Winter Queen after summer will be her own genetic self. But nothing ever goes as planned and Moon, the clone heir, resists her intended destiny. In so doing, though, she places Sparks in peril at the hands of the Snow Queen.
The new 35th anniversary edition of this beautifully imagined and artfully realized story is available now, reminding us how good science fiction can be and how deep its roots go in literature. -Mark's January Staff Pick, 2016
Ian McDonald never gives anything "expected" in his work, not in the plots, not in the themes, not in the prose. An Irish-born science fiction writer, he writes more like a poet than someone writing about the future of the moon as source of vital energy supplies for an Earth deep in the throes of deterioration. Five families "rule" this moon, competing like ancient houses built on vendetta, but restrained by their environment into an interdependence none will acknowledge and none can ignore. The intrigue is Shakespearean, as is the pathos and sharp commentary on human nature, its darkness, its irrepressible hope, its persistent striving even on an airless stone tethered to a past quickly becoming impossible to reclaim. This is superior fiction, SF at its best, intense, thoughtful, and compelling. -Mark's Holiday Staff Pick, 2015
Frankfurt is a Princeton philosopher whose previous "little" book---On Bullshit---is one of the most concise as well as entertaining examinations of what may seem like a frivolous subject but is central to our daily interactions with the modern world. Here, there is no frivolity. Frankfurt is presenting a careful critique of a hairtrigger subject with a view to moving the conversation off the hot-button aspects of economic inequality and onto the more solid grounds of respect and identity. His contention that by focusing so much attention on economics alone we are shortchanging the wider, more trenchant question, and ultimately doing ourselves a disservice by ignoring the real bases of the issue. Certainly, this is a book to be argued with, which seems to be his intent---broaden the dialogue, talk about All The Things, and widen our gaze. This is not a book to simply read and accept. It serves as the basis for an ongoing conversation. -Mark's November Staff Pick, 2015
Near-future science fiction that could very well be historical fiction in 10 or 20 years. The American southwest, in particular Arizona and Texas, are falling apart due to the effects of climate change. Water is the new oil and it is controlled by competing states---California and Nevada---which brush up against the ragged edge of rebellion to defend their rights. Angel Velasquez works for Catherine Case, who is the queen of Nevada water rights. He's a Knife whose job it is to go out and secure water rights by almost any means and cut them loose from those who have but tenuous hold on them. Something big, however, sends him to Phoenix where he encounters Lucy Monroe, a journalist who struggles to survive and still find truth in a city ruled more by the dictates of the gun by any kind of legitimate authority. Through her he gets on the trail of a set of nearly mythical rights that seem to be leaving nothing but death in their wake.
A page-turner with a serious message and superb storytelling with characters whose humanity shimmers throughout, though sometimes with a dark light that is all-too recognizable. -Mark's October Staff Pick, 2015
Interstellar colonization is a staple of science fiction and its examples range from high adventure almost swashbuckling to the detailed examination of the "real thing." Robinson's new novel is one of the latter and in its scrutiny of the possibilities and problems of the whole notion it brings us face to face with enormity such an enterprise would be. The novel opens as the ship, which has a personality of its own, painstakingly developed over years by the chief engineer, is approaching the goal of its long voyage. It's a generation ship. People now alive were not when the ship departed Earth and the present population is impatient for landfall. But the daughter of the engineer, who by default inherits her mother's reputation aboard ship, becomes the one who has to cope with a series of crises which call the entire project into question, forcing them all to face the choice of trying another system or turning around and heading home, a voyage that will take 170 years. Robinson's attention to detail and the hard choices his characters must face push Aurora several notches above average. -Mark's September Staff Pick, 2015
Chasing The Scream by Johann Hari. This is an overview, written somewhat novelistically, of the Drug War. If you always thought there was something not quite right about national or international drug policy, this will reveal the reasons for that intuitive unease. We have been "fighting" this war for over a century now and all that has happened is that it has gotten worse---bigger, more expensive, insanely destructive. Hari went on a three-year journey to track down answers and came up with some amazing revelations. We have an insane drug policy.
This isn't all just one-sided, though---Hari has the same fears most people do and he examines those as well. This is not prescriptive other than that we need to stop doing things the way we have been, because all the evidence suggests it does not work. You may find your sensibilities and prejudices thoroughly shaken up by this book. -Mark's July Staff Pick, 2015
Dystopias come in all denominations of grim. What sets the better ones apart is the plausibility of the scenario and the attention to detail, plus the vividness of the characters. In this, Bacigalupi shines, giving us a near future of flooded nations, food shortages, and unremitting corporate greed continuing to turn blind eyes on the condition of the world when a profit can be made. Although it is not wholly a matter of evil people, because these are not "bad" people. Rather, what we find here is very human people trying to do the best they can under circumstances that never clarify.
And then there is Emiko, an engineered being, the "wind up girl" who is made a bit too well and one day starts making her own decisions, quite at odds with how she should have been.
This is first-rate SF with all the virtues of a literary novel. Not to be missed. -Mark's July Staff Pick, 2015
Any book that connects Margaret Sanger, lie detectors, and superheroes is bound to be interesting. Even better when the connections all come together in one man and his circle of intimates. William Moulton Marston was one of the early inventors of the Lie Detector (though his was not the model that came into common use). He was also a fervent feminist in the days when women were still going to jail for speaking out. Eventually he created the comic book character Wonder Woman, which became the third most popular superhero during the Golden Age of comic superheroes, right behind Batman and Superman. How all this came about is the subject of Ms. Lepore's in-depth study, which at times shows real life to be decidedly weirder than what may be found in the annals of DC Comics. To say Marston was a problematic personality would be putting it mildly and the life he led with the women who obviously loved him was, to say the least, unconventional. A fascinating look at a "lost" period of 20th Century culture. -Mark's April Staff Pick, 2015
Chloe Bathhurst, actress, has a problem---her father is in the workhouse due to debt, on the order of 2000 lbs, with no possibility of paying it off. Having just learned of this, she delivers an unfortunate tirade along the lines of Marx's Manifesto during the climax of her current play and for her improvisation she is dismissed. Seeking employment in London in 1848 is hard enough to begin with, but Chloe now has a "reputation" and a burning desire to liberate her father.
By chance she gains employment on the estate of Charles Darwin and begins to learn about his radical theories. At the same time she learns of a contest given by the Shelley Society to either prove or disprove the existence of God, the prize being 10,000 lbs. So she sets out to adapt Darwin's still unfinished ideas to winning the prize and freeing her father, a course that sees her travel the world and learn firsthand about the diversity of life and the wonders of science.
James Morrow is a marvelous satirist and this is a fine piece of historical fiction, set during the heady days when Darwin's ideas first percolate through society and trigger the storm of controversy which has still not ended. Chloe Bathhurst is a wonderful character---sharp, shrewd, and determined---through which to see this world Morrow evokes with visceral clarity. An antidote, perhaps, to the usual holiday treacle. -Mark's January Staff Pick, 2015
Paul Park is known for writing quietly intense speculative fiction about people (and aliens) in the midst of transformations. In this, his newest novel, he gives us an alternate history that revolves around family secrets and unexpected interventions, a time eerily familiar yet running along a skewed trajectory in which the Civil War is ended by women and World War II holds stranger secrets about a past that has rearranged our future. In the tradition of David Mitchell, the interlocking narratives span more than a century and a half and conspire to give a story much larger than the sum of its parts. -Mark's Holiday Staff Pick, 2014
Flynne Fisher is just trying to get by in a horribly depressed rural economy sometime in a near-at-hand 21st Century America. She's smart, savvy, and has a brother with friends who have all been damaged by their military service as highly trained special ops. Her mother is dying of cancer and she doesn't want to have anything to do with the major cash industry, illegal drugs. So she takes what she can get. She substitutes for her brother one night in a virtual reality game he claims he's beta-testing. Flynne is good at these but hates most of them because of the violence. This is just a security gig, though, running off paparazzi from a high-class party in a London that doesn't look much like London. On the second night she witnesses a particularly brutal murder in the game and suddenly people are trying to kill her and her family. Then she learns that it was never a game but actual security being run 70 years in the future via a time-travel link that is now changing her world.
Gibson has always written smartly about the most unexpected aspects of human encounters with technology and science. This is the first time he has tackled time travel and he does so in the most logical yet unexpected way to produce a thrilling, intense story about the consequences of meddling, both in the past and in the future. Possibly one of the best-conceived and executed time travel stories ever written, one in which the only thing really traveling is information, but in the end showing us how information is, really, everything. -Mark's December Staff Pick, 2015
Pynchon is known for manic, high-voltage prose that spills and overflows like a storm surge, metafictional forays into psycho-philosophical culturescapes that ooze and wreak of paranoia and conspiracy. Reading one of his tomes can feel like a compulsive run to Marathon, exhausting and exuberant at once. Imagine, then, what such an imagination might convey under some restraint, in a novel that reads more or less like a "normal" thriller, and deals with what may be an actual conspiracy. The Bleeding Edge may be Pynchon's most accessible novel in that case. Set in the months before 9/11 it follows Maxine Loeffler as she hunts down what may be simple fraud or may be international money laundering or may be a global threat, all in the geek-ridden, nerd-besotted world of dotcommers and venture capitalists. In typical Pynchon fashion, kitchen sinks abound. Uncharacteristically, one moves through the story with considerable ease, though with increasing anxiety. -Mark's November Staff Pick, 2015
In Paris, during the early days of the Nazi occupation, a young American schooled in the occult symbolist morphologies of Crowley and company infiltrates the enclave of French Surrealists holed up in city center. He finds them ensconced in a kind of internal exile, playing at resistance by ignoring the Nazis and pretending they are the gatekeepers and caretakers of the essential Paris. Breton, Varo, Lamba, others. The American has brought a device–Americans have always been good at devices—which, in one frenetic evening, manages to capture the surrealist essence of these imagineers and store. The “battery” is conceivably a tremendous weapon with which to fight the Nazis, but it is stolen, and then in at the end of a series of tragic inevitabilities, explodes, unleashing the transformative power it contains on the very fabric of Paris. The novel is riddled with Surrealist quotes, riffs, nods, and inspirations. This is an alternate history built on the notion that imagination and art can be as brutally decisive in war as any martial technology—but that the deployment of such visions must be done with care. Absolutely (!) superb, a striking triumph. -Mark's November Staff Pick, 2016