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Tobias Carroll

Everything Versus the Void: Premee Mohamed’s The Void Ascendant

It’s no small achievement to tell a compelling story across the three books of a trilogy. That’s challenge enough, but for a handful of writers, simply doing that isn’t quite enough. I can think of a handful of examples of this, which takes the already-difficult task of following a novel with a sequel done in a new genre and further complicates things. Jeff VanderMeer’s done it twice, with the Southern Reach and Ambergris trilogies.

And having read Premee Mohamed’s The Void Ascendant, I can confirm that she’s pulled it off as well with her Beneath the Rising trilogy.

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Post-Human Connections and Dystopian Dating: Kate Folk’s Out There

Is it bad form to confess to finding a typo where none existed? Let me explain. In the opening story of Kate Folk’s new collection Out There—which is also the title story—the narrator recounts her frustration with online dating in a way that’s likely to resonate with anyone who’s spent time on The Apps. And then, something stood out.

“To further complicate matters,” the narrator states, “it was estimated that men on dating apps in the city were now 50 percent blots.” Blots? I thought. Shouldn’t that be bots? No, actually. That’s the gist of the story: in its near-future settings, a group of uncannily handsome artificial men known as blots have arrived on the scene. Their mission involves sleeping with women, stealing their personal data, and then evaporating into the æther.

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Space Races and Other Pursuits: Sylvain Neuvel’s Until the Last of Me

There are different ways to make a narrative gripping. One way is to give a sense of the bigger picture—to show how a particular character’s choices and actions have an impact on a much larger scale. Another is to zero in on something much more specific and showcase a highly limited perspective—something where the why of it all matters less than the breakneck pace it requires to get there.

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Chosen Ones Are Overrated: Kel Kade’s Destiny of the Dead

Let’s talk about narrative expectations for a second. Earlier this month, I watched director Takashi Miike’s 2015 film Yakuza Apocalypse. The opening 20 minutes are, in some ways, about what you’d expect from a crime drama focusing on a young gangster and his mentor, a beloved crime boss who faces an existential threat. Except that in Miike’s film, the crime boss is also a vampire, and ends up passing that condition off to his young protege.

Suddenly, the familiar narrative beats no longer applied, and the story was free to go off in its own direction. (That direction also involves a villain clad in an absurd frog costume—and even that isn’t the strangest thing about the film.) What this film demonstrates memorably is the value of taking a sharp turn into the unexpected. That, too, is something Kel Kade is exploring in their The Shroud of Prophecy series, of which Destiny of the Dead is the second book—a work that both embraces and upends certain genre tropes. And sometimes, like the aforementioned Miike film, it heads off on its own strange path—which makes for the book’s most memorable sequences.

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Can’t Miss Indie Press Speculative Fiction for March and April 2022

There’s a lot of great science fiction, fantasy, and horror published every month by large presses. But indie presses are also publishing plenty of great work—some of which can go under the radar. With that in mind, here’s a look at some notable books due out in March and April 2022 on independent presses. It’s not everything, but it might point you in some unexpected directions with your spring reading. [Read more]

A Locked Room Mystery Unstuck in Time: Rob Hart’s The Paradox Hotel

Done right, the combination of two archetypal genre stories into something new can work brilliantly — and science fiction has seen its share of this over the years. Admittedly, “done right” is a big qualifier. There are whole literary graveyards full of space Westerns, hard-boiled detectives living in the future, and time-travel romances that didn’t quite get the balance right. Which, then, begs the question: how do you get the balance right? Rob Hart’s The Paradox Hotel offers a memorable case study in how to bridge two genres in a way that satisfies readers of both.

There’s an excellent essay by Lincoln Michel where he writes about using genre as the engine of a story. Michel writes about combining familiar elements “in a way that both satisfies and subverts expectations.” Consider two novels that could both be described as science fictional spins on locked-room mysteries: Hart’s novel and Tade Thompson’s Far From the Light of Heaven. What makes both books succeed, ultimately, is that neither the science fictional elements nor the mystery feels undercooked; instead, neither would work without the other.

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A Transformative Pandemic Novel: Sequoia Nagamatsu’s How High We Go in the Dark

What makes for essential pandemic fiction? This is a question that’s been on my mind for a substantial portion of the last two years. Early in the current pandemic, I shared some thoughts on the subject; since then, the pandemic-lit canon has expanded and deepened. Consider the acclaimed adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven or the new translation of Mario Bellatin’s Beauty Salon published in late 2021. There’s something both compelling and disconcerting about experiencing stories about a pandemic from within a pandemic. That’s a sensation that Sequoia Nagamatsu memorably captures in his new novel How High We Go in the Dark.

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A Philosophical Take on Parallel Universes in Gunnhild Øyehaug’s Present Tense Machine

Gunnhild Øyehaug’s Present Tense Machine, translated by Kari Dickson, is a novel about parallel universes. In that way, it’s like a host of other novels—some long and others short, some intimate in their scope and others focusing on the largest possible canvas. What makes Øyehaug’s novel stand out is the relative modesty of its scale, along with a tone that’s at once playful and philosophical.

Early in the novel, its narrator (who seems to be Øyehaug herself, or at least a similarly omnipotent presence in the narrative) cites one character’s argument around several films that “are based on the idea of parallel universes”—in this case, Interstellar, Arrival, and Doctor Strange. And while those works don’t necessarily have a lot in common, they do end up serving as an early point of contrast to the narrative of Present Tense Machine.

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Genres in Translation: Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Elder Race

There’s something inherently intriguing about a narrative that seems to be one genre and then turns out to be another—especially when it’s a work of fantasy that turns out to be a work of science fiction. There’s Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Hard to Be a God, Samuel R. Delany’s The Einstein Intersection, and Iain M. Banks’s Inversions would all fall into this category as well.

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A Classic Dystopia Gets a New Translation: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We

Nothing good can come of a society which celebrates a holiday called the “Day of Unanimity.” At least, that’s a logical conclusion to draw when you’re on the outside of said society looking in. Unfortunately for D-503, the narrator of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1920 novel We, few people are more on the inside of their society as he is. Unlike his poet friend R-13, D-503 is a mathematician by trade—and when one lives in a society where everything has been quantified, down to something as ineffable as the human soul, that suggests a rude awakening waiting to happen.

Since its publication over a century ago, Zamyatin’s novel has picked up a number of high-profile admirers—Ecco’s edition of this new translation by Bela Shayevich features reprinted writings on We by George Orwell and Ursula K. Le Guin. In a blog post from 2015, Le Guin described the setting of We as “an enclave of maximum control surrounded by a wilderness.” This is the One State, a society ruled by The Benefactor and on the verge of launching a mission into outer space on a ship, the INTEGRAL.

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The Unexpected Lives and Bizarre Revelations of Un-su Kim’s The Cabinet

Upon finishing Un-su Kim’s The Cabinet, one might well think of the old adage about appearances sometimes being deceiving. This is both a theme that some of the scenarios posited within the novel return to again and again and a statement about the novel itself—a book that pivots from a catalog of strange phenomena into a story of bureaucratic intrigue with some shockingly visceral moments. It isn’t a book that ever feels predictable.

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Baseball, Body Modification, and Murder: Lincoln Michel’s The Body Scout

Right about here is where I confess my fondness for the 1991 film The Last Boy Scout. Directed by Tony Scott and starring Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans, it’s tonally somewhere between film noir and action blockbuster, and it’s set against a backdrop of professional football. That’s important, because many a noir narrative involves a working-class detective grappling with the rich and powerful and, as you may have noticed, the professional sports world has plenty of them.

All of which is a somewhat roundabout way of noting that the ingredients that make up Lincoln Michel’s novel The Body Scout make for a less bizarre combination than you might think upon seeing them.

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When History Echoes: Monica Byrne’s The Actual Star

Monica Byrne’s The Actual Star is one of two big novels released this year structured around parallel narratives in three distinct time periods. (The other is Matt Bell’s Appleseed.) Byrne herself is no stranger to parallel plotlines set at different points in history; her previous novel, 2014’s The Girl in the Road, also made use of this device, albeit a little closer together, temporally speaking. The Actual Star, like Appleseed and Alan Garner’s Red Shift, offers plenty of time between its respective strands. These are books about the ways that one day’s urgent events can become ancient history from someone else’s perspective. It’s not hard to see what draws certain writers to this.

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A Crime of the Future: Chris McKinney’s Midnight, Water City

There’s long been an overlap between crime fiction and science fiction. And much as the two genres can themselves contain multitudes, so too can those works that situate themselves in their overlap. The corporate espionage of Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite is worlds apart from Isaac Asimov’s R. Daneel Olivaw novels, and the climate fiction noir of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife takes a very different tone than the surreal dystopia at the heart of Ricardo Piglia’s The Artificial City.

It’s not hard to see why these two genres have converged so neatly, though. Many writers use crime fiction to reveal hidden elements of society or expose the abuses of those in power—both concepts that play a not insubstantial role in plenty of science fiction as well. And that sense of powerful people concealing crucial secrets from the general public is very much on display in Chris McKinney’s Midnight, Water City—a novel which makes the most of its slow-burning narrative of detection.

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