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Niall Alexander

The Red Planet Runs Red: One Way by S. J. Morden

The principle of the criminal justice system is simplicity itself: if you break the law, you’ll be punished, and if the law you’ve broken is big enough and bad enough, the punishment, in all probability, will be imprisonment. In practice, alas, implementing the penal code has proven… problematic. Corruption is commonplace, wrongful convictions are rife, and the sheer number of people incarcerated each year is distressing at best. In the US alone, there are more than two million individuals under lock and key as we speak, and that number may even have increased by 2048, when the bulk of One Way takes place.

Compounding this particular problem is the irrefutable fact that every prisoner has rights. Not necessarily to liberty, but to life, in that they can still count on meals and a place to sleep at least. That’s neither offensive nor expensive in itself, but multiplied however many million-fold, the prospect of three hots and a cot can start to cost an awful lot. To square that essential outlay away, standard procedure today is to put prisoners to work, and it’s to that practice real-life rocket scientist S. J. Morden appends his text’s premise. What if, he wonders in One Way, we sent some of them—the lifers and the like that have nothing left to lose—to Mars, to make a base?

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Reaching Out: Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

On the back of the outstanding surprise that was Senlin Ascends, The Books of Babel only get better as Arm of the Sphinx expands its every aspect massively, like a balloon blown by a breathless baboon. The scope of the story, the extent of the setting and the small matter of the last narrative’s serviceable secondary characters—all are brilliantly embiggened in this superlative successor.

When schoolteacher Thomas Senlin lost track of his dear Marya at the foot of the Tower of Babel, to which otherworldly wonder they’d come to spend their hard-earned honeymoon, he imagined it would be a simple enough thing to find her before forging on with the rest of their R&R. How wrong he was. Instead, he was led on a merry chase to and through a few of the distinctive ringdoms that make up the aforementioned monolith, only to find himself drawn into the disputes of desperate men again and again. Unfortunately, for all the pains he’s taken, Senlin is no closer now to reuniting with his wife that he was on that first frightful night.

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She Sang Out Her Song: The Strange Bird by Jeff VanderMeer

In her dreams she’s a woman: a human woman with willpower and wonder and the wealth that comes from having a companion who cares deeply about her—and, crucially, about her future.

But when she wakes, she’s avian in nature, albeit “overlaid with Homo sapiens” and a miscellany of other chromosomal material: an “unstable melange” of life-forms nipped and tucked so very cleverly together by the evil genetic-engineering empire known only as the Company that made Mord (a giant flying bear) and Borne (an amorphous multi-coloured mass) before her. She’s the Strange Bird: the long-suffering subject of the exceptional novella that bears the designation she takes as her name.

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One More Time: Spare and Found Parts by Sarah Maria Griffin

Though it would be wise to question this quote, it was Sir Arthur C. Clarke who supposedly wrote that whether we are alone in the universe, or we are not, either possibility is equally terrifying. That’s as may be for many, but not so much for Penelope Crane, the young woman at the heart of Spare and Found Parts. I suspect she would be happier to see aliens invade than spend another second feeling like the loneliest girl in the world.

To be clear, Penelope—Nell to her nearest and dearest—has people. She has a friend, a father, and a fancy-man. But Ruby Underwood is increasingly nervous around Nell; Julian Crane is too busy making amazing machines in his basement to take the slightest interest in his disconsolate daughter; and Nell has never felt anything other than resentment for Oliver Kelly, who’s so popular he makes her appear a pariah by comparison.

Nell’s unpopularity among her peers is not the only thing that sets her apart, sadly. Among the population of the Pale, “it was commonplace to sport an arm, a leg, a set of ears, two fingers, or even the bottom half of a jaw crafted from exquisite, intuitive prosthetic. Absent limbs were part of the price the people of Black Water City paid for surviving the cruel touch of the epidemic. Nell, however, was the only person with all her metal inside. She was the only person who ticked.”

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Up, Up and Away: Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

Self-published several years ago to next to no notice, Senlin Ascends has a second chance to enrapture readers by way of its wide release this week—and enrapture them it surely shall. If you liked The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, consider this your ticket to some equally fine times.

Incredibly creative in its conception and no less confident in its crafting, Josiah Bancroft’s dazzling debut concerns a couple on a honeymoon that goes to hell in a handcart when their destination of choice disappoints. This pair, though, haven’t popped off to romantic Paris or plotted some vibrant adventure in Venice: rather, they’ve travelled to the Tower of Babel, a monolithic column in the middle of Ur said to be a “great refuge of learning, the very seat of civilisation” and the source of any number of wonders.

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Conceptual Mass: Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

It’s been nearly ten years since Nick Harkaway kung fu kicked his way into fiction with The Gone-Away World, a Douglas Adams-esque epic that announced the arrival of an author with an imagination to die for—and a sublimely sardonic sense of humour, too. There were of course those critics quick to dismiss him when he flexed some of the same muscles a second time in the underrated Angelmaker, but his next novel, 2014’s terrific yet tragic Tigerman, showed that Harkway had more to offer than madcap shenanigans punctuated by fits of wit.

Make that much more, if Gnomon is anything to go on: it’s easily his most ambitious book, and arguably his best yet. It’s certainly his biggest. Constructed like Cloud Atlas—and at least as long—its vast canvas takes in tales of inexplicable ancient history, our appallingly prescient present and, fittingly, the far flung future, all of which orbit Gnomon’s central Orwellian thread like spy satellites on an imminent collision course.

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The Way the Wheel Turns: Persepolis Rising by James S. A. Corey

Over the six novels of The Expanse saga so far, Captain James Holden and his incredible crew have been through the wringer repeatedly. They’ve weathered wars and tangled with extraterrestrial tech; they’ve been hunted and they’ve been haunted; they’ve played their parts in power struggles aplenty and dealt with disaster after disaster, not least an uprising, a rebellion and, of late, an apocalypse of sorts.

The times, to be sure, have been tumultuous. And inasmuch as they’ve affected the series’ setting—what started in the Sol system is now an interstellar affair thanks to the arrival of the ring gates—they’ve also had a dramatic impact on the ongoing narrative’s characters. Holden, Naomi, Amos, and Alex—along with relatively recent recruits like Bobbie and Clarissa—are not the idealistic whippersnappers we met in Leviathan Wakes. In the canny hands of Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, collaborating here as James S. A. Corey, they’ve grown, be it for better or for worse, both as individuals and as a team. They’ve grown… and guys? They’ve gotten old.

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Smuggler’s Run: Artemis by Andy Weir

It’s been six years since Andy Weir became a self-publishing success story on the back of The Martian. A scientifically fastidious yet satisfying work of fiction that spoke of a stranded astronaut’s struggle to survive on the ruthless red planet, it—and Ridley Scott’s subsequent adaptation of said—made sci-fi fun for some; specifically for folks who had previously sneered at the genre for its seeming self-seriousness.

Those readers will be over the moon to hear that Artemis is, in its attention to technical detail and its prioritisation of play as the order of the day, The Martian’s perfect partner, though more demanding fans of the form are likely to find it slight: derivative, dreadfully slow to start, and rather lacking in the heart department. But for better or for worse, Weir’s new novel is in many ways more of the same problem-solving stuff that made him a household name.

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Let It Go: Strange Weather by Joe Hill

“After writing a couple seven-hundred-page novels back-to-back,” Joe Hill has it in the afterword to his electric new collection, “it felt particularly important to get lean and mean,” and Strange Weather is exactly that: it’s not long, and damn it, it’s nasty.

A striking selection of novellas ranging from the playfully apocalyptic to the wickedly political, Strange Weather starts with an actual flash in “Snapshot,” the unsettling story of a boy who crosses paths with a man in possession of a magical camera. This old Polaroid captures more than just those Kodak moments, of course: it captures the very memories of those moments, in sum leaving its subjects with holes in their souls.

Michael Figlione is just a kid when “Snapshot” begins, so when he sees his old babysitter Shelly Beukes walking around the street they share, barefoot and swearing, he assumes she’s simply senile. As a decent human being he does the decent thing and takes her home to her husband, who gives Michael ten bucks for his trouble. It’s only when he goes to the local truck stop to spend his earnings and sees a creepy guy pointing a camera like a pistol that Shelly’s seemingly insane story—about a man who’s been stealing her essential self, picture by painful picture—starts to make sense.

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Enemies of Man: The Power by Naomi Alderman

In the periphery of The Power, a series of seemingly meaningless scenes shine an ultra-bright light on the core concerns of Naomi Alderman’s astonishing new novel. These blink-and-you-might-miss-’em moments lay bare the working relationship between a pair of daytime television presenters whose respective roles reflect the devastating developments depicted in greater detail in the rest of the text.

Tom and Kristen are ineffably familiar figures, at first—as is their dynamic as a duo. The former is a moderately handsome middle-aged man who wears expensive suits and steers the show’s serious segments; the latter is an improbably beautiful young woman dressed not to impress so much as to suggest whose most significant responsibility is to introduce the weather on the ones. In short, Tom is the host with the most, and Kristen is his sexy sidekick. But when man’s dominion over the wider world wanes, the parts our presenters have played to date are recast.

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Their Place: Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King & Owen King

On the back of the broadly brilliant Bill Hodges books, a succinct and suspenseful series of straight stories that only started to flag when their fantastical aspects filibustered the fiction, Sleeping Beauties sees Stephen King up to his old tricks again. It’s a long, long novel that places a vast cast of characters at the mercy of a speculative premise: a sleeping sickness that knocks all the women of the world out for the count, leaving the men to fend for themselves.

Of course, the world is not now, nor has it ever been, King’s business. Standing in for it in this particular story, as a microcosm of all that’s right and wrong or spineless and strong, is a small town “splat in the middle of nowhere,” namely Dooling in West Virginia. There, tempers flare—explosively so, soon enough—when it dawns on a dizzying array of dudes that their wives and daughters and whatnot may be gone for good. It’s Under the Dome part deux, in other words, except that this time, the Constant Writer has roped one of his sons in on the fun.

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Witness Statement: Release by Patrick Ness

Happy as I hope we all are, on the whole, I expect each and every one of us has lived through a few bad days too.

Now I don’t mean those days when we have to deal with death or ill health or anything actively awful. I’m talking about those days that just suck a bunch; those days when nothing seems to go your way. Maybe it starts with a letter from the taxman and spirals up, up and away from there. Maybe the milk is spoiled so you can’t have your morning coffee. Maybe traffic makes you late for work even though you left early. Whatever the particulars, these are the days when everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and damn your plans.

These days don’t destroy us, because we’re reasonably well adjusted human beings. Tomorrow’s another day, we tell ourselves. It’s not like the world is ending or anything. But it is in Patrick Ness’ ninth novel. Like The Rest of Us Just Live Here and More Than This before it, Release is a smart and sensitive standalone story that mixes the mundane with the magical in order to underscore the extraordinary qualities of the ordinary. It’s a brief book about a bad day as bold and as beautiful as any finely-honed tome about the rise of Rome.

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A Game of And: The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente

Having brought The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making all the way home with the fabulous final volume of said series last year, Catherynne M. Valente is back with another magical middle-grade fantasy primed to delight younger and older readers alike.

The Glass Town Game takes its name from what is initially a bit of whimsy: a make-believe battle between twelve toy soldiers and whatever creeping evil its creative wee heroes conceive. Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne are all itty bitty Brontës, but together, if you please, you can call them the Bees. And when the Bees wish to escape the weight of the world—a world in which they’ve already lost their beloved mother and two of their sisters who got sick at School—they take to the room at the top of the stairs of their upstanding father’s parsonage:

It was hardly more than a drafty white closet, nestled like a secret between Papa’s room and Aunt Elizabeth’s. But the four children ruled over it as their sovereign kingdom. They decreed, once and for all, that no person taller than a hat-stand could disturb their territory, on penalty of not being spoken to for a week.

At play, the Bees are at least at peace, but when The Glass Town Game begins, the Beastliest Day—the day when Charlotte and Emily are to be sent away—is almost upon them.

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No Thinking Thing: Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill

C. Robert Cargill’s first novel since the darkly delightful Dreams and Shadows duology is an intimate epic that plays outs like War for the Planet of the Apes with machines instead of monkeys. A soulful and stunningly accomplished work of science fiction set in a wasted world ruled by robots, Sea of Rust is a searching yet searing story of survival.

Sadly for our species at least, survival isn’t in the cards. Sea of Rust takes place some time after the massacre of mankind, and as such, it has “a writhing mass of pseudo flesh and metal” as its cast of characters. That includes our protagonist, Brittle: a Caregiver model manufactured to keep a widow company during the last days of the human race who has no one but herself to care for now. But such is life in this devastated landscape:

The Sea of Rust [is] a two-hundred-mile stretch of desert located in what was once the Michigan and Ohio portion of the Rust Belt, now nothing more than a graveyard where machines go to die. It’s a terrifying place for most, littered with rusting monoliths, shattered cities, and crumbling palaces of industry; where the first strike happened, where millions fried, burned from the inside out, their circuitry melted, useless, their drives wiped in the span of a breath. Here asphalt cracks in the sun; paint blisters off metal; sparse weeds sprout from the ruin. But nothing thrives. It’s all just a wasteland now.

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Hot Potato: Acadie by Dave Hutchinson

What do you do when you’ve burned every bridge, dithered over every significant decision and looked askance at every last chance? Why, if you’re Duke, an unusually moral lawyer who blew the whistle on the Bureau of Colonisation for bad practice, you eat and drink your way through your savings until a stunningly beautiful woman called Conjugación Lang turns up at your table with a solution to your otherwise unsolvable problem:

“What if I were to offer you a way off this howling nightmare of a planet? Right now.”

“You have some kind of magic spaceship that takes off through seven-hundred-kilometre-an-hour blizzards?”

She wrinkled her nose and grinned coquettishly. “Oh, I have something better than that.”

And she does. Something Better Than That turns out to be the name of a tattered old towboat sitting in Probity City’s spaceport. “The words […] were sprayed on the side of the tug in Comic Sans, which really was the least of the little vehicle’s problems. It looked as if it could barely get off the ground on a calm midsummer’s afternoon, let alone reach orbit in the middle of an ice storm.” But looks, as Dave Hutchinson’s twisty new novella Acadie takes pains to teach its readers repeatedly, can be deeply deceiving.

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