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wasn’t contrived and the science fictional elements really evoked a lot of classic science fiction while not feeling outdated.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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The Tuesday List: Generation Ships

This is one of my favorite sub-genres of science fiction.  The generation ship, usually huge, designed to house a colony, a society, of people for hundreds of years, often part of a pilgrimage or evacuation.  Here are a few of my faves.

  1. Jacob’s Ladder (3-book series), by Elizabeth Bear

This series is feudalism meets genetic engineering.  The exalted, angels, have been genetically modified to pilot the ship, and over the generations have become the ruling class.  The unmodified are peasants, but not without their own knowledge of the huge ship that contains rivers, forests, and futuristic technology spaces.  Will the two factions reach agreement?  Will they find a new planet, and if they do, will they be able to live peacefully?

2. Revelation Space (3-book series), by Alastair Reynolds

I’ve written about this series before, and as I’ve said it was not only my first real introduction to the generation ship, but also to modern hard science fiction.  This series deals with modified humans, kilometer-long ships with their own AI, and an alien species that once wiped out the universe and threatens to do it again if a few scientists and adventurers can’t figure out the historical clues they keep running into.

3. Noumenon, by Marina J. Lostetter

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A generation ship full of clones whisks through dilated space towards a strange star cluster, there to gather research about it and then return within 300 years.  And by the time they get back to earth, more than 1000 years will have passed, and will there even be anyone there to remember or care about this scientific mission?

4. An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon

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Humans board the great ship Matilda to escape a dying planet, but after a hundred years racial divisions have sprung up and what was once a utopic vision has turned into the enslaved and their nominal masters.  Aster must discover the secrets to the energy drains that continue to threaten lives among the lowerdecks, and in doing so, can she foment a revolution that will bring justice to the enslaved?

5. The Stars Are Legion, by Kameron Hurley

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Generation ships with bonus: generation planets! They’re ships, with both bio and non-biological technology, and they’re the size of planets, and they contain layers and tiers of different cultures, all the way to the center where the giant garbage collectors live, waiting for any waste to come down the chute for recycling.  Zan, cursed with perpetual amnesia, wakes over and over to her lover, a secret plan she can’t remember, and knowledge that she has a mission.  She must get inside another planet, but she doesn’t know how, or why.

Starfang: Rise of the Clan, by Joyce Chng

As space opera goes, Starfang: Rise of the Clan felt like a prologue to something much bigger.  It had all the elements of a compelling space adventure: a mystery, aliens, warring families, future technology, just waiting to be fleshed out into a winding tale of intrigue and interesting characters.  It still might turn out that way, with future installments of the series that Chng has yet to write, but it was wrapped up too quickly to really sink one’s teeth into.

Francesca Ming Yue is captain of the Starfang, one of the warships her clan uses to enforce its supremacy in their area of space and to carry out its various wars against other clans.  Francesca is a werewolf, one of homo sapiens lupus, a species whose origins is shrouded in mystery, and yet not shy about taking what it wants in a universe that has left Earth behind, and yet not forgotten it.  Starfang: Rise of the Clan is also a refreshing twist on the typical werewolf plot one sees in the Anglo publishing world, in that not only is it a tale of werewolves in space, but the origins of these clans are Asian, their customs and foods drawing from Chinese and Southeast Asian culture.

Francesca’s characterization, as the narrator and center of the story, hints at a complex backstory and complicated motivations behind her dutiful assumption of duty when ordered to a sector of space known for black market drugs and shady dealings, but the reader sees so little of her and what people think about her, aside from what she tells, that it’s difficult to get a read on what really makes her tick.  As tantalizing as her story might be for readers of the urban fantasy genre who may come in more invested than the average fantasy reader, without a deeper look into her character, it’s difficult to suspend disbelief and buy into the plot.

So, in the end, Starfang: Rise of the Clan is packed with fascinating tidbits and hints at more to come, but a little flat in its current iteration.

The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen

The Queen of the Tearling,
Erika Johansen’s debut novel in what is set up to be a series, reads as A Song
of Ice and Fire in which not all of your favorite characters die.  Johansen has an intriguing idea for her
world, and manages the slow reveal well enough to keep readers interested
throughout the novel whether or not they identify strongly with any of the main
characters. 

Nineteen-year-old
Kelsey has known her whole life that she will one day be queen of her country,
The Tearling—if she survives long enough to be crowned.  Johansen takes readers on a merry chase
with Kelsey and her Queen’s Guard, sent to collect her from her foster parents
in an out of the way forest cottage, reminiscent of high fantasy coming-of-age
journeys like Rand al’Thor’s in The Eye
of the World
, or Frodo and Sam’s at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring
Suddenly the outside world is not just a concept, and is a lot more
dangerous than Kelsey could have imagined. 

Johansen
works hard to make Kelsey into a believable female protagonist who doesn’t just
drop into the story being perfect at everything, an effort many readers of
fantasy will appreciate.  Kelsey
develops strong relationships with her guards and other men whom she encounters
in her quest for the throne, which is important because despite a woman being
able to become ruler of the country, in general women are left out of positions
of real importance.  Kelsey earns
esteem by saving poor women from slavery and insulting noble women are selfish
and rude to her.  As Kelsey goes
about righting the wrongs that had been done in her name by her uncle the
Regent and others, her story asks the question, when will a woman ever be good
enough, as she is required to prove herself to the men on whom she depends
repeatedly, especially as she is learning to control the magic that is slowly
manifesting within her.  The Red
Queen, of neighboring Mortmesne, is set up as a foil to Kelsey, ruling through
magic and exercising almost absolute power over all, down to keeping slaves for
her own personal gratification. 

Despite
the interesting world building Johansen has done, she shows some first
novel-itis, as The Queen of the Tearling
seems somewhat unsure how to get from point A to point B, plotwise, and then
what to do when it finally gets there. 
For readers tired of waiting on A Song of Ice and Fire and looking for a
new fantasy series, The Queen of the
Tearling
may do, though as a standalone it doesn’t hold up well.  Readers tired of exclusively
male-driven plots will appreciate the effort Johansen has made to create a
young woman protagonist, and even the questions the story asks—though somewhat
clumsily—about authentic female characters and what it takes to create
them.  The Queen of the Tearling occasionally trips over into grimdark
territory, and readers looking for a bit of “grit” to their fantasy may find
this novel enticing.