2017 Faves: Sci-Fi Novels

As my Scottish Hogmanay vacation comes to an end, it seems like a good time to make another list of my favorite reads of 2017.  This time it’s science fiction novels.  Remember, these are books I actually read in 2017, not necessarily published in that year, but I’ll try to include publication information for each.

  1. Planetfall, by Emma Newman (Nov 2015)

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Though this came out in late 2015, it took me till December of 2016 to pick it up, and was one of my first reads of 2017.  It took my by surprise, really, as I knew little about it except the title and that I’d been hearing about it for a while.  The level of Newman’s writing is equaled by few in this milieu; the suspense wasn’t contrived and the science fictional elements really evoked a lot of classic science fiction while not feeling outdated. It was, in fact, a very sensitively written book, and the motivations of the main character in particular were a visceral gut-punch as they unfolded throughout the story.  It’s a very forward-looking novel with both hope and despair, and that’s the kind of science fiction I like.

2. The Raven Strategem, by Yoon Ha Lee (June 2017)

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I love science fiction that challenges me, and Lee’s work always does.  This is the second in The machineries of Empire and it had just as many twists and turns, just as many hints and secrets as the first.  I’ve always felt that much of good world building is in deciding what not to explain, and this series really satisfies in that way.  I want to wonder, I want to use my imagination–as in horror, sometimes what gets left unsaid is the best catalyst for creativity–and The Raven Strategem really pushed me to engage with the world and the story it was telling.

3. The Wanderers, by Meg Howrey (March 2017)

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This novel sort of came out of nowhere for me.  It requested it through NetGalley, probably forgot about it for a while, then picked it up one day when I was looking for something to read.  It really reads as more of a thought experiment, or series of short story sketches all woven together into a big I Wonder.  As much as it is interested in the science of space travel, it really probes the psychology of space travel and how we engage with something so completely alien to us–namely the vacuum itself.

4. An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon (October 2017)

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I’m always fascinated by fiction that explores what it’s like to live on a ship traveling through space, rather than just telling an adventure story that happens to happen in space, so this novel really grabbed me right from the first page.  It took me two or three tries before I checked it out of the library, but I’m glad I did.  It’s in many ways an own-voices story of the people often forgotten in mainstream science fiction–those who are not white, hetero, cis, male–and proof, if it were ever needed, that all stories can be compelling, complete, and contain multitudes with which to identify.  Again, in addition to being beautifully written it challenges with all that’s left untold.

5. Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie (October 2014)

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A person that’s a ship, a ship that’s a person.  A person who’s a mind graft of a thousand-times cloned person hundreds of years old.  An old menace, a new threat, connections made and broken.  Sometimes it seems that Ann Leckie’s fiction was made just for me.  I’ll never tire of a universe in which male isn’t the default, in which the definition of human is more than just meat and emotion.  This time it’s not a story of revenge, but one of putting things back together, looking for a way to move on, and it’s just as compelling as Ancillary Justice.

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Birthday Books!

So my in-laws gave me a Barnes & Noble gift card for my birthday.  Not bad.  I prefer to buy indie, but I’m not going to complain about free books.  So here’s what I bought.

The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, edited by Navah Wolfe and Dominik Parisien


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Between Two Thorns (Split Worlds 1), by Emma Newman

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City of Brass, by S.A. Chakraborty

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The Tuesday List: Across the Universe

This week’s Tuesday list features books in which characters travel across the stars, whether to seek revenge, to see what’s out there, or to recall the past.  They’re a wide-ranging lot, but that’s the best part about the Tuesday List!

  1. Radiance, Cat Valente

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Radiance is one of those books that dazzles with style, imagination, and pure guts, and makes you wonder just how the author was able to keep it all together long enough to finish.  It’s an alt-universe, surreal take on a world in which space travel became possible around the turn of the 20th century, when the moon was colonized before talking pictures were a thing, and the story of a man seeking to tell the final story of his daughter, a film-maker like him, and yet nothing like him.  It’s beatiful, melancholy, and more than a bit noir, a brilliant homage to groundbreaking science fiction and filmmaking a la A Trip to the Moon, the 1902 french silent film.

2. Planetfall, Emma Newman

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Stumbling forth from a near-future that is only too familiar, the characters in Emma Newman’s Planetfall have made the perilous journey across the universe to a new planet, guided by what can only be an alien intelligence.  But it’s as much a pscyhological thriller as it is science fiction, and what Renata, a brilliant engineer in the field of 3D printing technology that can meet any conceivable need, knows is at the heart of it.

3. Noumenon, Marina J. Lostetter

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Taking a nod from popular hard science fiction predecessors, Noumenon is a startling speculative work while at the same time being an introspective look at humanity and our search for meaning in the wider  universe.  Told in vignettes that skip forward through the generations, it packs thousands of years of history into one epic journey to a distant, unique star.

4. Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie

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Revenge is a dish best served with tea.  The Raadch have colonized planet after planet, making use not only of superior military power, but the advanced technologies of cloning and artificial intelligence.  Breq used to be an entire ship, but now she is just one humanoid, determined to make the Raadch pay for a wrong committed long in the past, but one she can never forgive or forget.

5. The Stars Change, Mary Anne Mohanraj

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One’s view of the stars may change, but human life continues on.  For a university professor and others on a planet dedicated to learning and research, conflict can tear some apart, but it can also bring them together.  Humans and non-humans alike experience joy, pain, and love in a story that really puts the spec into spec fiction.

After Atlas, by Emma Newman

Salvation has come and gone for most of Earth’s population, barely holding on as the environment is eroded along with their aspirations of ever living in free societies again.  Unless they’re incredibly wealthy, of course. Carlos Moreno, however, is nothing of the sort, a wage slave owned by the English Ministry of Justice, just trying to get through the next murder case and hang on to the dream of one day being owned by no one but himself, and doing his best to avoid all mention of Atlas, the Pathfinder, and those who left to seek God.

When someone close to him is murdered, though, and Carlos is asked—told—to investigate the murder, he finds himself being drowned all over again in the details of his childhood and former life after Atlas left, confronted with a past he would just as well forget.  After Atlas is an excellent example of an imaginative and accomplished writer’s ability to take the same basic premise and create two entirely different stories out of it.  It is also a stark view of the future we all face, without the prospect of a convenient ship to take anyone away to a better existence.

Newman’s use of first-person present narration, juxtaposed with the conflicts between technology users and non-users in the development of the murder case lends the novel a private eye noir feel, even as Carlos watches people have dinner conversations with interlocutors who are only there via technology and does all his research via a networked personal assistant implant.  It isn’t a complicated plot, but it is a satisfyingly logical one, with twists and turns that increase the claustrophobic feeling of Carlos’ story and the hopelessly devolving situation on an increasingly distracted and intellectually depressed Earth population.

Readers who enjoy near future science fiction narratives will get pulled into Newman’s dystopic vision of Earth, whether or not they’ve read Planetfall first, however an understanding of the events of the first in this series will certainly help. Those who look for mystery elements blended into science fiction or fantasy stories will like the pace and logical twists of this character driven story.  There are more layers to this novel than at first meet the eye, giving the reader plenty to chew on while contemplating the eventual demise of modern society.

Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare’s World, edited by Jonathan Oliver & David Moore

Shakespeare’s
world is a tempting place to fall into, but for an author, it can be perilous
indeed.  Writing a story set in
Shakespeare’s world or time requires more than just a good imagination, or a
love of his work.  But it is
possible, as the authors in the new collection Monstrous Little Voices have proven.  In it, five different stories based on five of Shakespeare’s
best-known plays come together in a tangible world spun from the very fiber of
his words.  Each story proceeds
naturally from the one before it, gaining momentum until the very end—somehow
fittingly, from Twelfth Night.

Foz
Meadows’ “Coral Bones” manages flashback and world-hopping with finesse to give
us another side of Miranda, daughter of Prospero, and her relationship with
Ariel.  “The Course of True Love,”
by Kate Heartfield, while taking place in the kingdom of Orsino and Viola,
spins the tale of an old witch and friend of Sycorax, the mother of Caliban,
who meets a strange fairy in a garden where no garden ought to be.  In Emma Newman’s “The Unkindest Cut,”
Prospero has returned to Milan after the death of his daughter Miranda, and is
confronted in his tower by a young woman following the urgings of her mother
and another seer who have foretold her marriage to a young man, a marriage that
will unite the warring Medici family. 

From
Milan we move back to the coast of Illyria and, along with the Aragonese
princes, Rosalind, Parolles, and the philosopher Jacques, come face to face
with the revenant of the dreaded Scottish warrior Macbeth, in Adrian
Tchaikovsky’s “Even in the Cannon’s Mouth.”  Finally, Jonathan Barnes’ “On the Twelfth Night” imagines a
world without Shakespeare, imagines worlds upon worlds in which every decision
led to a different life, a different Will Shakespeare, and tells that tale from
the position of Anne Shakespeare. 

The
treatment of characters in all of these stories is poetic and sensitive to
their histories, imagining what might have been or who they would have become
in the aftermath of the dramas that first brought them into our lives as
readers and audiences.  As the John
Lavagnino writes in the afterword, Shakepeare didn’t write all of these plays
as if they were one world, but his use of source material, the way he combines
his influence and imagination, leaves room for worlds of creativity and
connection.  This is a collection that
any lover of Shakespeare, Elizabethan drama, or alternate-history fantasy must
check out.