Someday soon again, I imagine, I’ll use this column to focus on a single work or single writer in detail—or even a single theme. But not until I escape the gravitational pull of my present black hole. (Ask me about the cult of Asklepios in Greek antiquity sometime, but only if you think you can handle the screaming.)
Meanwhile, let me tell you about some books I’ve had the privilege of reading lately.
Some of them are set in Lagos. Some of them are set on Mars. The only thing that unites them, in fact, is the extent of their differences—and the fact they’re all permutations of science fiction.
Lagoon, the latest book by the acclaimed Nnedi Okorafor, is an remarkable novel. In some ways, it reminds me a great deal of Ian McDonald’s King of Morning, Queen of Day, although in their structures and narrative concerns the novels are entirely different. But both McDonald and Okorafor bring an intense sense of place, a local specificity to their respective novels: a rarity in a genre whose locales, when not invented wholesale, tend towards iterative versions of American cities, London (and more rarely Edinburgh), or Hollywood facsimiles of real places. The very specificity of place draws in and alienates the reader at the same time. An estrangement of the familiar. Set in Lagos, Lagoon combines the science-fictional, the mythic, and the quotidian to create a story of a city—the world—on the cusp of extraordinary change.
And it has interesting characters and good prose too. You should go read it.
Sophia McDougall’s Mars Evacuees is a very British sort of book, for all that it mostly takes place on Mars. It’s aimed at the audience of nine-to-twelve year olds, but it is so immensely fun I find it hard to believe it won’t appeal to a much broader range of people—I couldn’t put it down, myself.
Earth has been at war with invading aliens for longer than twelve-year-old Alicia Dare’s been alive. As the daughter of one of Earth’s most famous fighter pilots, she’s selected to go with three hundred other young people to a training school on not-quite terraformed Mars, where they’ll be educated (mostly by robots) and trained up to join the military when they’re sixteen. But things go wrong, the adults disappear, and Alicia and a handful of her friends (plus one laser-shooting flying educational robot goldfish) are flung headlong into a crisis bigger than they’d ever imagined. The practical, energetic tone of our narrator (Alicia) reminded me rather a lot of the Blue Peter episodes of my youth. And McDougall is good at writing young adolescents—reminded me rather a lot of being thirteen, actually. A seriously fun book.
Kate Elliott’s been publishing her backlist electronically with Open Road Integrated Media, and once I sat down to read her Jaran series (Jaran, An Earthly Crown, His Conquering Sword and The Law of Becoming) in the wake of The Book Smugglers’ review of the eponymous first book, I pretty much inhaled all four. It is many ways an odd series, if only because the first book is so intensely focused on Tess, her acculturation to the jaran on the planet on which she finds herself, and her relationship with and status among them: successive volumes broaden the focus much, much further. This is Elliott as a much younger and less accomplished writer: the narrative sprawls, and threads and characters are not consistently drawn back in and reworked to further a unified progression of the narrative’s forward drive. (The difference between fiction and real life being, always, that fiction has to make sense.) But it is immensely readable, and you can see in this series similar themes, similar concerns, as underpin all of Elliott’s later work: the role of power, the consequences of war and violence, the tension between conflicting loyalties, the problems and possibilities that occur when very different cultures meet.
S.L. Huang’s first novel, Zero Sum Game, is self-published—in part, I suspect, because it doesn’t quite easily fit within the boundaries of any particular subgenre. It has the breezy badassery of urban fantasy and some of the quirks of the superhero story, while retaining a science-fictional edge for its Grand Conspiracy and mind-reading manipulative enemies. It’s a fast, tense, entertaining read in which many things explode. I really enjoyed it, and I want to read the next one now.
That’s what I’ve been reading. What about you guys?