content by

Tobias Carroll

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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First Chords of a New Universe: Benjamin Percy’s The Ninth Metal

Here’s the thing about writers: they write. When I was a young reader venturing into the world of superhero comics, it surprised me when I’d see named I recognized from the DC and Marvel universes showing up on the spines of paperbacks; I’m pretty sure I still have copies of Chris Claremont’s First Flight and Jim Starlin and Daina Graziunas’ Among Madmen around here somewhere. But that shouldn’t have been as much of a shock as it was—the generation of British comics writers that followed (think Alan Moore, think Neil Gaiman) worked across formats from the outset, and that’s been the status quo ever since.

Some of the writers who made an impact on superhero comics in the last decade came from a prose background—Scott Snyder, G. Willow Wilson, and Eve L. Ewing among them. Benjamin Percy also falls pretty neatly into this category, with a body of prose work that includes everything from Red Moon, a sprawling werewolf epic, to the unnerving narratives found in the collection Suicide Woods. Percy has also written a host of superhero books for Marvel and DC, including runs on Green Arrow and Wolverine. But unlike many a writer with a foot in both camps, Percy also seems curious about seeing what he can transplant from one to the other; thus, his new project, dubbed The Comet Cycle, of which his novel The Ninth Metal is the first part.

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The Fragmented Horrors of Josh Malerman’s Goblin

Josh Malerman’s novel Goblin is subtitled “A Novel in Six Novellas,” a definition which may well make the overtly literal skew their heads in confusion. Goblin is also the city in which Goblin is set, and the six stories that comprise the book—seven if you count a framing sequence—offer a kind of portrait of a town from myriad perspectives. (Subtitling the book “A Town in Six Novellas” would have been just as accurate.) Earthling Publications first released this book in 2017; now, with Malerman’s profile significantly higher in the wake of the film adaptation of his novel Bird Box, it’s seeing wider release in a new edition.

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Let’s Get Folkloric: Rena Rossner’s The Light of the Midnight Stars

There’s a certain thrill that comes from reading a contemporary novel that draws inspiration from an older story or stories. That this could be used as a description for works ranging from Margo Lanagan’s visceral Tender Morsels to Nalo Hopkinson’s interstellar Midnight Robber gives a sense of what’s possible when alluding to older stories—and when creating works that spark a dialogue with their predecessors.

It’s in this tradition that Rena Rossner wrote The Light of the Midnight Stars. In an author’s note at the back of the novel, Rossner explains the disparate sources that informed her book, including a Romainian fairy tale and the history of the founding of Wallachia. Reading her thoughts on them, it’s easy to see what drew Rossner to these stories: they’re complex, metaphorically rich, and transportive in unexpected ways. But reading Rossner’s explanation of her book’s thematic origins also hints at why elements of this book don’t entirely click—despite a compelling group of characters, an abundance of historical detail, and a structural maneuver that pays off about halfway through the novel.

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Battles Fought With Ideas: Emily B. Martin’s Floodpath

Not long before the pandemic struck last year, I began playing a video game called Greedfall. That the overarching plot involved a country grappling with a pandemic ended up putting a lengthy pause on my own progress through the game, but there was one main feature that attracted me to it: the idea of an open-world fantasy game in which diplomacy was as important as casting the right spell or having a suitably dangerous weapon.

Hence the appeal of Emily B. Martin’s Outlaw Road Duology, a pair of novels set in a fantasy world with a geography that takes its cues from—as Paul Weimer noted in his review of the first book, Sunshield—North America. Both Sunshield and Floodpath are narrated by a distinctive trio of characters. Lark, a Robin Hood-by-way-of-Sergio Leone bandit who targets the wealthy and those invested in human trafficking, is the most archetypal of the three. Veran, a young noble acting as a diplomat, is a less familiar figure; so too is Tamsin, an ashoki—essentially, a kind of court poet and musician whose works can help shape government policy.

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In the Shadows of Space: Sylvain Neuvel’s A History of What Comes Next

What makes for a good shadow history? There’s a fine line between this and an alternate history, after all—in the latter, historical events themselves are altered, while in the former, the events take place as-is but the motivations behind them are different. A History of What Comes Next is Sylvain Neuvel’s own take on the sub-genre; that its subtitle is “A Take Them to the Stars Novel” suggests that more are on their way. Based on this introduction to the premise and setting, Neuvel is off to a good start, with a compelling setup during a fascinating moment in history—and plenty of questions to answer along the way.

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Treat Yourself to Six Recent SFF Works in Translation

There’s plenty of compelling science fiction, fantasy, and genre-defying fiction being written and published in English; of that there is no doubt. But there’s even more work being written in these genres in other languages that isn’t necessarily appearing in English translation; a quick look at the overall numbers on translation bears that out. There are people and institutions pushing back against this—Ken Liu’s work as an editor and translator comes to mind, as does Restless Books’ commitment to releasing an array of Cuban science fiction.

They aren’t the only ones working to increase the amount of translated work out there, however. What follows is a look at six books that recently appeared in translation. Some are distinctly fantastical, science fictional, or horrific; others blend elements of all three genres. They’re all compelling reads in their own right; they’re also a very small fraction of the genre work being written in other languages.

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A Question of Horror: Stephen Graham Jones’ Night of the Mannequins

Two things you should know about Stephen Graham Jones and his work: he is prolific, and his work covers a lot of ground. His debut novel, The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong, was a surreal road novel like no other, and it also gave the best sense of what you could expect in one of Jones’s books: literally anything. Night of the Mannequins is Jones’ second book to be published this year; it follows the excellent The Only Good Indians, a tale of supernatural vengeance that haunts a group of Blackfeet men.

Taken together with Jones’s earlier novella Mapping the Interior, these works suggest that Jones has found an unsettling register for a kind of North American folk horror. How does one follows those up? Well, if you search a little further back in in Jones’s bibliography, you’ll find the memorably-titled The Last Final Girl. Jones is an acutely talented practitioner of horror fiction, but he’s also a student of its tropes, its formations, and its endless variations. And while there are certain things about Night of the Mannequins that are best left unspoiled, the title makes one thing pretty clear: this one’s tapping into a strain of horror direct from the grindhouse.

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The Unexpected Detections of Jeff Noon

The great thing about a high-profile debut novel is its ability to serve as currency going forward. Jeff Noon’s 1993 novel Vurt is the kind of novel that prompts impressed reactions from a host of readers well-versed in the science fiction and fantasy worlds—but it’s also picked up enthusiastic endorsements from friends of mine whose tastes head in more esoteric and psychedelic directions. Over the years, Vurt has prompted comparisons to a host of cyberpunk novels—largely because its plot involves using a kind of techno-organic substance to move between the physical world and a more layered, internal one.

But just as that isn’t quite the cyberspace of William Gibson, neither is Noon precisely a cyberpunk author—the portrait that he paints of England seems to be less of a near future vision and more one of a slightly altered reality, period. It would make for an excellent double bill with Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet—both are books set in a skewed world where all things mythical take on a heightened position, and the delirious manifestations of art resonate on unexpected frequencies. In the case of Vurt, that comes through the dreamlike realm that its characters enter, populated by beings from fiction, mythology, and the collective unconscious.

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Hugo Spotlight: Ted Chiang’s “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” Transforms the Familiar

In the lead-up to the 2020 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s best novella Finalists, and what makes each of them great.

What makes Ted Chiang’s fiction so memorable—and so resonant—is his ability to take two seemingly disparate concepts and turn them into something altogether new. By and large, Chiang’s concepts elude elevator-pitch dryness and head into uncharted territory. In a world of builders and technicians—both entirely solid professions—Chiang is a kind of alchemist, transforming the familiar and the profound.

His novella “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” (collected in Exhalation) offers ample evidence of this. From one perspective, it’s the kind of working-class crime story that the likes of George Pelecanos specialize in: a story of people working dead-end jobs for which they’re underpaid, and the unnerving turns their lives take when they opt to engage in some low-level criminal activity.

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The Future Is Now, But it’s Also Still the Future: Adam Wilson’s Sensation Machines

At first glance, the setting of Adam Wilson’s new novel Sensation Machines is a familiar-looking New York City. Everyone who’s not supremely wealthy feels some sense of economic uncertainty, writers process the pop culture of their youth into sprawling critical works, and finance bros debate the merits of cryptocurrency. But the near-future setting of Wilson’s novel offers some stark differences as well. Bird-shaped drones now populate the skies and have taken most retail and food service jobs. A Cuban lung cancer vaccine has made smoking popular again. The hotly debated political issue of the moment is a Universal Basic Income for the nation, hinging on the vote of a centrist New York Senator. And—perhaps most shockingly—the Knicks have gotten so bad that Spike Lee has abandoned them.

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When Futurism Meets With Disaster: Max Brooks’ Devolution

It would have been easy for Max Brooks’s World War Z to feel gimmicky. An oral history of a worldwide zombie apocalypse? There are many, many places where that could have gone wrong. Instead, what Brooks created succeeded on a host of levels, from the geopolitical to the horrific. It balanced big-picture momentum with a few fantastic setpieces; via its framing device, it also allowed Brooks to present a bold vision of what the world might look like after such an outbreak was contained.

On paper, Brooks’s followup has more than a few things in common with World War Z. Like its predecessor, Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre is presented as a found document. Like its predecessor, it involves humans coming into conflict with something uncanny. And, like its predecessor, its structure offers plenty of foreshadowing of discomfiting events. But Devolution differs from World War Z in a few substantial ways as well, which ultimately make it a more intimate book than its predecessor—and a far stranger one.

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We Are the Panopticon: Tracy O’Neill’s Quotients

Trying to come up with a point of comparison for Tracy O’Neill’s new novel Quotients isn’t easy. Though it—broadly speaking—shares some themes with her debut novel The Hopeful, such as questions of family and identity, the novel takes these in a very different direction. Quotients occupies a similar stylistic place to William Gibson’s Blue Ant trilogy—fiction that skirts the boundaries of science fiction in its handling of technology.

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